It’s your pre-Father’s Day Blu-Ray/DVD Round-Up

The DVDs and Blu-Rays have been piling up. So, it’s time to go through a bunch of them, with a bit of extra attention paid to movies that might appeal to dads, though I suppose moms might like some of these as well.

* Playwright George Kaufmann famously defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night” and these days you might as well define political thrillers as “what doesn’t get greenlit unless a bunch of big stars really want to do it, and then bombs.”  “The Manchurian Candidate” is both political thriller and a satire and it didn’t fail at the box office, though it was kept out of circulation for nearly twenty years after its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to this day.

I’m hardly alone in feeling this is probably the best political thriller ever made and possibly the second best political satire after “Dr. Strangelove.” Long after the end of the Cold War which spawned it, it’s continues to resonate with our political culture and it’s title still gives peoples the willies. Just ask John McCain.

Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by the mordantly comic suspense novelist Richard Condon of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Winter Kills,”, you might know that it’s the story of what happens when a Soviet/Red Chinese brainwashing unit gets its hands on a group of captured soldiers, including Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, who makes aloof bitterness very cool), the highly estranged step-son of a Joe McCarthy-like senator. Frank Sinatra does maybe his best acting work as a traumatized fellow soldier who realizes something might be up because of some very strange and very bad dreams he’s having — and the fact that he keeps calling the unpleasant Shaw “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

It’s a brave blend of politics, off-the-wall black comedy (what was called “sick humor” back then), suspense, and borderline Jacobean classical tragedy. Frankenheimer had a knack for making political material work dramatically, and also for drawing out strong performances. Janet Leigh (“Psycho“) was perfect as the female love interest, who was written so oddly by Richard Condon and screenwriter/playwright George Axelrod that many have theorized she’s actually an operative of some sort — an idea capitalized on in Jonathan Demmes’ disappointingly morose 2004 remake. The greatest casting coup here, however, is Angela Lansbury’s absolutely chilling turn as Raymond Shaw’s hated extremist Washington-hostess mother. She wasn’t the only less-than-pleasant character Lansbury ever played, but there’s something about what happens when actors who make a career largely playing nice people play extremely not-nice people that can be electrifying.

I also can’t resist mentioning the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva as a North Korean spy, which Frankenheimer was often proud to mention was the first use of martial arts fighting styles in an American film. Seeing it again, it’s not only more brutally effective than I remembered as Sinatra and Silva all but destroy Laurence Harvey’s Washington apartment, but — especially in the initial moments when Sinatra instinctively begins fighting the Silva character without even knowing who he is — it’s pretty obvious to me now that it had to be one of the main inspirations for the terrific first fight scene in “Kill Bill, Volume I,” in which Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox lay waste to a Pasadena living room.

The Blu-Ray is, by the way, not a deluxe restoration, but it includes all of the excellent features that earlier DVDs have included and the print has been kept in excellent enough shape that a new restoration isn’t really necessary. It looks great. Super highly recommended, though pricey.

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A roundtable chat with producers Irwin and David Winkler of “The Mechanic”

Irwin and David WinklerHealthy father and son relationships are certainly more the exception than the rule at the movies. Even so, the murderous biological and surrogate father and son pairings in the original film “The Mechanic” and its action-packed update with Jason Statham and Ben Foster, are unusually problematic. It’s a tale, after all, about a junior hit-man learning from an older paid killer who has, in turn, killed the younger killer’s dad.

That, of course has pretty much nothing to do with two of the new version’s real-life father and son producers, Irwin and David Winkler. For the remake of the 1971 actioner, the pair have teamed up with another parent-and-offspring team, Irwin Winkler’s long-time producing partner, Bill Chartoff and his son, Robert. (For the record, there are a total of ten producers and five executive producers credited on the film.) Both individually and with Bill Chartoff, the elder Winkler has been involved with a remarkable number of good movies and a few genuine classics, starting with Sydney Pollack’s pitch-black Oscar winner, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and also including two of Martin Scorsese‘s signature works, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” Winkler and Chartoff also, of course, produced “The Mechanic,” the first time around when it was as much of a chilling look at sociopathy as it was an action flick.

Like any great producer, Irwin Winkler has had his share of interesting financial failures.  There was the ultra-culty early John Boorman film, “Leo the Last” and Martin Scorsese’s big budget 1977 disappointment “New York, New York.” Fortunately, there was also the occasional modest but high quality success like Bertrand Tavernier’s great 1986 love letter to jazz and jazz fandom, “‘Round Midnight.” He and Bill Chartoff were also key players in one of the most enduring franchises in film history, the one that started with a low-budget boxing drama called “Rocky.” Since 1991’s “Guilty by Suspicion,” Winkler has also occasionally directed. His most recent films include the musical Cole Porter biopic, “De-Lovely,” and the Iraq war drama “Home of the Brave,” which received a speedy burial.

For his part, son David Winkler has worked on a number of television movies as well as with his father on 2006’s “Rocky Balboa.” He also directed the 1998 drama, “Finding Graceland” starring Harvey Keitel.

I was personally anxious to talk to Winklers during a recent L.A. press junket for “The Mechanic” because of an oddball “only in L.A.” family anecdote. I was nevertheless beaten to the punch by an Italian reporter with a rather distinctive interviewing style who tended to dominate the discussion.

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What, you haven’t seen “The Avengers” movie already?

It came out 58 years ago. Come on, get with it already.

Amazing, considering the comic book (and the birth of Joss Whedon) was about eleven years off. I love “pre-makes.” Okay, what movies/TV shows did you spot in there? Nice seeing mid-sixties Emma Peel from that other “The Avengers” recast as Black Widow. Diana Rigg would have perfect for the part, and would have no trouble doing a Russian accent, for that matter. Nice touch with the “Timely-Atlas.” Real comics geeks will recognize that as name of the comic book forerunner to Marvel where such characters as Captain America and the (non Fantastic Four) Human Torch were first published.

Also, neat trick turning eyepatch-wearing “Thunderball” villain Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) into Nick Fury via the voice of Lee Marvin from “The Dirty Dozen.” I rarely use this word, but Lee Marvin would have been an awesome head of SHIELD (and a natural as Sgt. Fury, of course). Celi, not so much.

H/t Harry Knowles. A first here for me, I think, linkwise.

  

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The Pacific war in the movies, pt. 3

There’s absolutely no denying the reality of racism in the war between Japan and the United States. While the Japanese military dictatorship was in many respects almost as virulently race obsessed as their Nazi allies, it’s easier for an American viewer to see the fact that the U.S. was guilty of  race hatred of its own, starting with the imprisonment of thousands of innocent American citizens on the west coast who happened to be of Japanese ancestry,  many of them parents and grandparents of friends of mine. Meanwhile, Italian-Americans and German-Americans were accepted as the loyal citizens of this nation that nearly all of them were.

And so it took decades for Western filmmakers to begin to treat the Japanese side of the war with any complexity.  As we continue with a series of film clips inspired by HBO’s “The Pacific,” which premieres Sunday night, we have a brief but haunting and beautifully composed scene from John Boorman’s 1968 two character war film, “Hell in the Pacific.” The film stars Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two stranded soldiers who, in a plot that may remind science fiction buffs of the story and 1985 film “Enemy Mine,” are forced to work together in order to survive despite their enemy status.

Also, of course, no Western filmmaker that I know of explored the Japanese side of World War II with more depth or compassion than Clint Eastwood did in his bold, masterful “Letters from Iwo Jima” from 2006. Apparently, it took an icon of American toughness to illustrate the pain of some of the deadliest, most implacable, and bravest enemies this country ever faced.

  

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Inglourious Movie Moments #1

A series of clips inspired by guess which movie, starting with my favorite sixties war flick, Robert Aldrich’s brilliant, deeply cynical “The Dirty Dozen.” Here, mega-man-among-men Lee Marvin gets his first look at his new charges and shows John Cassavettes a little tough love.

  

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