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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Friday night trailer: “Ceremony”

Any thoughts of doing a Friday night movie news dump have been scotched, primarily by the fact that I have no freaking time this evening. Instead, courtesy of The Playlist, enjoy this trailer for “Ceremony.” It’s an amusing looking romantic comedy of the indie variety from newcomer Max Winkler featuring Uma Thurman and a bunch of guys I don’t know offhand who all seem pretty talented.

As a vertically challenged American, I consider running this trailer a blow for shrimpy guy solidarity.

  

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Miramax movie moment #1

As I wrote Friday, things are looking bad for the studio founded by the Weinstein brothers, which is now officially being sold Disney. So, consider this the start of an online mini-wake for the greatest of the mini-majors.

  

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“Inglourious Basterds” DVD launch: A less deadly Operation Kino kicks some Nazi ass

So, while I was procrastinating conducting in-depth research for this post, covering a promotional screening for the rather glorious “Inglourious Basterds,” I found myself going over numerous reviews and think pieces. One piece for a very respectable and staid looking website started out normally enough but, while praising “Pulp Fiction” and other older films in the Quentin Tarantino catalogue, it quickly became unusually vicious. Tarantino is a filmmaker who has a special gift for generating a certain degree of critical anger, the cinephile hubbub kicked up by critic and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum over the film’s non-portrayal of the Holocaust being one prominent example, but this was different.

As I noted the attention this particular review seemed to be paying to the ancestry of the cast, crew, and characters, I realized that the hate was not over anything so conventional as concerns that “Basterds” might be trivializing the Holocaust or World War II. I was reading a “white nationalist” web site. Yes, even more than some overly sensitive liberals, Nazis hate “Inglourious Basterds.” Considering it’s a movie in which a bunch of Jews, a part Cherokee good ol’ boy lieutenant, an African-French projectionist, a traitorous movie star, and a few odd others defeat the Third Reich in a painful and fiery manner, displeasing Nazis is kind of the whole idea.

IB Cast LR

Certainly, no one was feeling conciliatory towards facists or racists of any stripe as a good portion of the “Basterds” cast and crew turned up at the last of L.A.’s revival houses, the legendary New Beverly Cinema, to celebrate the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the the award-winning, genre-blending war flick. Indeed, as neighbors from the heavily Hasidic West Hollywood-adjacent neighborhood ignored the commotion, a few of us less observant entertainment scribes got the chance to talk to a select group of not-quite superstar basterds, including players in two of the more acclaimed sitcoms of all time, a personable musician and Tarantino-buddy turned actor, and a passionate producer who is not about to let any conservative climate deniers take away his Oscar…but that’s all ahead.

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Gore v. chills at the box office

I keep reading that the studios are reducing their outputs and that we’ll be seeing fewer new movies, but there’s sure no sign of it lately as we have another complicated week where, at least in theory, anything can happen. Still, the prognosticators agree that the latest entry in the first and longest running franchise in the sub-genre of torture-heavy horror, “Saw VI,” will likely win the week for Lionsgate.

On the other hand, there is also a consensus that the low-violence yet entirely potent chills of “Paranormal Activity” will be cutting into the Saw-bucks some also. Obviously, there is some audience crossover but, just as obviously, the most jaded gore hounds may find it beyond tame. I’ve already noted online the start of an inevitable backlash. I doubt this reaction will have the same angry potency that afflicted “The Blair Witch Project” so many moons ago. In that case, Lionsgate’s attempt to persuade less-savvy audiences that it might actually be real probably backfired later on, as did the over-hype of some of the early write-ups.

This time, Paramount has been more cleverly circumspect than the “Blair Witch” marketers, simply making the case that the modest video-movie can really scare the bejesus out of an audience. I’m here to tell you it can, even though I feel sure that not a single person I saw it with was under any delusion that what we were watching was not staged. Still, you see the violence-loving fanboys complaining at certain sites. I mean, how can a movie be scary if it lets you imagine the worst of it? How is that ever going to work?

It’s probably pretty obvious by now, especially from my post just before this one, that I prefer the “Paranormal” approach and will be rooting for it but, despite the still growing excitement around the movie, it’s the definite underdog as “Saw VI” will be opening in 3,036 theaters, while it’s competitor will be expanding to a mere 1,900. However, the outstanding per-screen averages that the film has been nailing could compensate if some horror audiences find the prospect of yet another ultra-brutality fest less than ultra-appealing.

Though it’s yet another family-friendly CGI animated film, this one based on a property at least some of us remember from our childhoods, hopes are not all that astronomically high for the next film. Summit’s “Astro Boy” is based on the best known creation of Japan’s “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, who basically invented both manga and anime as we now know them and who created some of the best comic books for adults that I’ve ever read. Of course, you’d never know from the horrendously lame gag at the end of the trailer or the often ugly CGI animation that ruins the beautiful 2-D (black and white, too!) of the early Tezuka cartoons as scene in the trailer. This appears to be another case of a studio adapting a property and missing what made the original work.

astro_boy_movie_image

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