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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Wild Rovers

This nearly forgotten 1971 western drama from the late Blake Edwards was reportedly butchered by MGM, but eventually restored to road-show length by the director and is now available via the Warner Archives. “Wild Rovers” stars craggy William Holden and fresh-faced Ryan O’Neal as a pair of cross-generational buddies who have come to recognize why mommas shouldn’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Their not-smart solution: become wealthy bank robbers. The likelihood of tragedy grows even greater when their rancher boss (Karl Malden) sends out his loutish sons (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker) in hot pursuit of the men who looted his payroll.

Edwards was a master of sorts, but on his first western as a director he tries much too hard to both pay homage to and outdo the competition. We have Howard Hawks-like dialogue scenes that go on forever, epic vistas shot in John Ford’s Monument Valley, and a few lifts from Sam Peckinpah. Blood squibs go off and characters writhe in slow motion a la “The Wild Bunch”; a lyrical montage about breaking a wild horse goes on and on like an outtake from “Major Dundee” or “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Considering the presence of “Wild Bunch” star William Holden and Edwards’ tendency to gentle wit, it’s impossible not to make the doubtless often repeated quip describing “Rovers” as “The Mild Bunch.” The problem, however, is not too much copying or excess affability, but Edwards’ undisciplined screenplay. It leaves an outstanding cast, and one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, twisting in the wind like a horse thief on the end of a rope.

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Wise words on the occasion of “Sunset Boulevard” turning 60

It’s the 60th anniversary of the release day of the most admired film ever made about Hollywood and the movie business and very possibly the best, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.” If you haven’t seen it, today wouldn’t be a bad day to do so. If you don’t have time, A.O. Scott has a pretty good quick rundown for you.

One observation about how our attitude towards aging has changed since 1950 due to culture and medical science: Norma Desmond was only 50. Meryl Streep is 61 and Helen Mirren is 65. I’m not saying we no longer have a problem with aging, just that it seems possible for some people to do it extremely well and women may at last starting to be catching up to men in being able to play the “ageless” game. Not that Desmondism was rampant in 1950 more than today, though I can’t think of any female stars of the era who were still playing leads in their sixties. Norma’s career problem wasn’t so much physical aging or even being seriously delusional, but that she had been too much associated with a moribund genre and a specific by-gone era. Sort of like David Crosby.

If you have seen the whole movie, then you should check out Edward Copeland’s enjoyable and thoughtful appreciation of one of his favorite films. Also, I thought it would be nice to hear just a couple of notes for directors by the movie’s director and cowriter, Billy Wilder, himself from back in 1976. First on the one thing a director must know how to do.

After the flip, Mr. Wilder addresses a subject highly relevant to his more atmospheric pictures like “Sunset Boulevard” and, almost as much, “Double Indemnity.”

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“You’re fired!” Another televisionary movie moment

A little cynicism for a Sunday night in line with Will Harris’s ongoing coverage of the TCA confab and pow-wow. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Network” is one of the movies that really started me thinking seriously about movies and other media when I first saw as a person who was maybe a little young to be seeing it. I may show you one of the better known scenes from this now-classic film a bit later (“I’m mad as hell…”…”You are meddling with the primal forces of nature”…, etc.), but right now I’m going with this equally crucial scene because it gets to the heart of the real-life media trend Chayefsky was attacking.

As the MPAA likes to say, this scene includes “language,” so it’s NSFW for anywhere F-munitions are unappreciated. On the other hand, if you work at a television network, it probably won’t be noticed.

  

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