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Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 13

‘The House is Black’

The new Offscreen focuses on Iranian film, from avant-garde beginnings to compromised present. Roxanne Varzi salutes the poetic ethnography of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 documentary The House Is Black. (“[A]s we look at it years later it is no longer a documentary of the Leper colony but a poetic, interior, native documentary about a woman artist in Tehran grappling with issues of science, society and faith at a time when these issues were at stake politically and socially.”) While Ramin S. Khanjani considers two recent films by ‘70s icon Masoud Kimiai that find the director employing old, once groundbreaking habits in ways tough to pin down as either worn-out or even more radical than before. (“For all the claims about the director’s lack of touch with his own time, Trial on the Street effectively conveys the spirit of the city and of its era, one infested with lies and suspicions that beggars an easy judgment….”) Elsewhere Najmeh Khalili Mahani offers an introduction and selective filmography for the great Dariush Mehrjui, and Donato Totaro suggests some of the influences behind Certified Copy’s “huit clos of rhyming emotions which mirror each other into cinematic infinity.”

“Having slowly journeyed upriver, the camera now, in three successive traveling shots that are the film’s most emphatic visual maneuver, briskly backs away downriver as the rain falls and the Sunday outing comes to an abrupt end. Not just the pace and direction of movement but the very sense of time at one stroke shifts. Without hurry, savoring the immediate appearances of sunny nature, keeping to the time scale of the moment, the film wends its way toward the consummation on the river island; and then, suddenly, the swiftness of the camera’s rainy retreat evokes the rush of years ceaselessly passing, the time scale of a lifetime.” Critic and scholar Gilberto Perez died last month; the loss can be acutely felt by reading his paean to Renoir’s A Day in the Country, which is marvelously, lovingly astute about the film’s duels between nature and society; between varied scales of time; its multiple frames and false freedoms. A lot to pack into 2100 words, but Perez does so effortlessly.

Inspired by a BAM retrospective of John Carpenter John Lehtonen finds that once you look past the acknowledged masterpieces you find several worthy films that belie Carpenter’s reputation for nihilism.

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Videophiled: ‘Kinoshita and World War II’

KinoshitaJapanese director Keisuke Kinoshita made 50 films in a 50-year career, including Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and the original The Ballad of Narayama (1958), both of which Criterion has released on disc. Kinoshita and World War II (Eclipse, DVD) presents his first five films and offers a rare glimpse into the propaganda films made in Japan during World War II.

After a long apprenticeship at Shochiku (and a brief stint in the army), Kinoshita made his directorial debut in 1943, well into World War II, when the filmmaking industry was enlisted in the war effort to produce patriotic movies. Where directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to skirt the excesses of nationalistic propaganda (the respected veteran Ozu through films about family values and responsibility, the newcomer Kurosawa through period pieces), Kinoshita applied with humanistic sensibility to rousing calls for patriotic action.

In any other era the deft little Port of Flowers (1943), a light-fingered comedy about two con-men who try to bilk money from the inhabitants of a small island with shares of a phony shipyard, could have come off as a Capra-esque comedy of a guileless small town community winning over the corrupt big city crooks with their idealism and generosity (and a little help from a twist of fate). Here, that twist is the declaration of war, which ignites the patriotic responsibility of the shysters and shames them into supporting the war effort. Apart from the propaganda, it is a light, amiable little film with a warm sense of community and purpose, but the message becomes more insistent in The Living Magoroku (1943), which takes on the need for agricultural production, and Jubilation Street (1944), which follows the inhabitants of a Tokyo street forced to relocate for the war effort.

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Parallax View’s Best of 2014

Welcome 2015 with one last look back at the best releases of 2014, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.

Sean Axmaker

My list this year is light on foreign movies, largely because I didn’t get out to as many festival screenings as I have in past years, and because many of the foreign language films placing highly on other lists have not opened in this corner of the world.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linkater, US)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, US)
3. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
4. Gone Girl (David Fincher, US)
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, US)
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
8. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, Iran/US)
And because this film turns it up to 11. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, US / South Korea / France / Czech Republic) – high concept science fiction thrillers are always best when serving as metaphors for sociopolitical commentary. Amiright?

More honorable mentions (in alphabetical order: Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden), The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, US), The Immigrant (James Gray, US), John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, US), Locke (Steven Knight, UK), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, US), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, US), Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany), We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodyson, Sweden), What Now? Remind Me (Joaquin Pinto, Portugal)

Other published Top Ten Lists: Village Voice Film Poll, Keyframe
Also: Best of 2014 on Blu-ray and DVD

Sheila Benson

(as published in Village Voice)

1. Birdman
2. Foxcatcher
3. Mr. Turner
4. The Immigrant
5. Two Days, One Night
6. Leviathan
7. Nightcrawler
8. Force Majeure
9. Get on Up
10. Winter Sleep

Jim Emerson

(as presented at Frye Art Museum Critics Wrap)
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
2. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
3. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
4. Calvary (John Michael McDonaugh)
5. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)
6. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
7. Happy Valley (Amir Bar-Lev)
8. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
9. The Immigrant (James Gray)
In a realm of its own, circling above the calendar year considerations: A Summer’s Tale (Eric Rohmer, 1995; first US release, 2014)

Robert Horton

(as published in Seattle Weekly)
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
2. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
4. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
6. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier) and The Rover (David Michôd) (tie)
8. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
9. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)
10. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

Other published Top Ten Lists: Frye Art Museum Critics Wrap

Richard T. Jameson

1. Under the Skin
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. The Homesman
5. Two Days, One Night
6. American Sniper
7. Birdman
8. Mr. Turner
9. Ida
10. The Better Angels

Jay Kuehner

(as published on Fandor)
1. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
2. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Russell and Ben Rivers)
3. Jealousy (Philippe Garrel)
4. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
6. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
8. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
9. Story of My Death (Albert Serra)
10. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
11. Like Father, Like Son (Kore-Eda Hirokazu)

Moira Macdonald

(as published in The Seattle Times)
(in alphabetical order)
Birdman
Boyhood
Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Life Itself
Like Father, Like Son
Love Is Strange
Mood Indigo
Selma

Brian Miller

(as published in Seattle Weekly)
1. Birdman
2. Boyhood
3. Ida
4. Whiplash
5. Frank
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. Force Majeure / Gone Girl (tie)
8. National Gallery
9. Snowpiercer
10. The Homesman

Kathleen Murphy

1. Under the Skin
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. The Homesman
5. Ida
6. Mr. Turner
7. American Sniper
8. Two Days, One Night
9. A Most Violent Year
10. Force Majeure

Other published Top Ten Lists: Frye Art Museum Critics Wrap

Andrew Wright

1. Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)
2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
3. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
6. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
8. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
9. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
10. Cold in July (Jim Mickle)

Lists of lists:

Village Voice (poll and lists)
Roger Ebert.com
Keyframe Best Feature Films of 2014
Keyframe Daily Lists and Award 2014 Index

Polls
Film Comment
Indiewire Poll
Keyframe
Roger Ebert.com
Sight and Sound
Time Out London

Other lists
2014 additions to the National Film Registry
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Ten Best Films of … 1924
New York Times Year in Culture

Videophiled Best of 2014 on Blu-ray and DVD

The death of Blu-ray and DVD has apparently been prematurely called. Streaming and cable VOD still dominates home viewing but Redbox and other kiosk-based disc vendors have kept disc rentals alive (if not quite robust) and Blu-ray remains the format of choice for movie collectors and home theater enthusiasts, keeping sales robust enough to bring new players into the business. Kino Lorber expanded its release schedule with a Kino Classics collection of titles from the MGM/UA catalog and distribution deals with Cohen, Raro, Redemption, and Scorpion. Shout Factory has ventured into restorations and special editions as well as new partners (like Werner Herzog). Warner Archive has increased their flow of Blu-rays with some substantial titles presented in high-quality editions. Twilight Time has made its own limited edition business plan work and started adding more supplements to their releases, including original commentary tracks from the company’s film history brain trust.

This is my highly subjective take on the best disc releases of 2014 (of those I had the opportunity to watch and explore), with extra points for heroic efforts and creative archival additions. Note that this is strictly domestic releases—I do have import discs but I don’t have many and I barely have the time to keep up with American disc releases—and are as much about the importance of the release as the quality of the disc.

1. The Complete Jacques Tati (Criterion, Blu-ray and DVD) collects all six features he directed (including alternate versions of three films) and seven shorts he wrote and/or directed, plus a wealth of other supplements. Of the six features on this set, all but Playtime make their respective American Blu-ray debuts and two appear on disc for the first time in the U.S. From his debut feature Jour de Fête (1949) to the birth of both M. Hulot and the distinctive Tati directorial approach in his brilliant and loving Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) through the sublime Playtime (1967) to his post-script feature Parade (1974), this set presents the development of an artist who took comedy seriously and sculpted his films like works of kinetic art driven by eccentric engines of personality. The amiable oddball Monsieur Hulot was his most beloved creation, a bemused outsider navigating the craziness of the modern world, but unlike the films of Chaplin, Tati’s screen alter ego is just a member of an ensemble. A gifted soloist to be sure and the face of the films, but a player who weaves his work into the larger piece. Tati made comedy like music and this collection celebrates his cinematic symphonies. Playtime reviewed here.

2. The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) offers the definitive American disc releases of six of the defining films of Jacques Demy, the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic, from his 1961 debut Lola to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut here. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings. The films include his two most famous musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as well as four early shorts—Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)—plus two documentaries on Demy made by his widow Agnes Varda, a small library of archival TV programs on the films, and the hour-long visual essay “Jacques Demy, A to Z” by James Quandt. Full review here.

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Videophiled Collection: ‘Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection’

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection (Warner, Blu-ray) – There are no remastered editions or new-to-Blu-ray discs in this box set of eight Kubrick classics, from the 1962 Lolita to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but this ten-disc set does include the previously-released supplements on each film plus it features two new-to-disc documentaries and one new-to-Blu-ray featurette, along with a lovely 78-page book of stills, storyboards, production art, script pages, and other production paraphernalia from the featured films. Which makes it, if not exactly essential (if you’ve already invested in past Kubrick box sets), at least a terrific cinephile gift set. Here’s the skinny on the films and the extras, which is currently available as an Amazon Exclusive.

Kubrickboximg

You have to admire the audacity of Kubrick to adapt Lolita (1962), Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young teenage girl in the age of pre-ratings censorship. (The ad campaign turned that into a selling point, with the tag line: “Can you believe they made a movie of Lolita?”) Kubrick and Nabokov (who adapted is own novel) raised the age of the grade school “temptress” and left most of the seduction to suggestion, and still made a more provocative and sensitive film than the 1997 remake. James Mason is almost pathetic as the repressed author Humbert Humbert who continues to justify his infatuation with teenage Lolita, yet he’s never less than human. Sue Lyon is Lolita, Shelley Winters her blowsy mother and Peter Sellers (soon to be cast by Kubrick in multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove) is the creepy Clare Quilty.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Silents Please!: ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘Verdun’ restored

CabinetCaligariThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, streaming) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. Directed by Robert Weine, it features Werner Kraus as the tyrannical Dr. Caligari, a sideshow barker in cape and top hat who commands the sleeping Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the carnival’s star attraction, to rise at night and do his bidding, a literal sleepwalker who is both monster and victim. With its painterly sets of jutting beams, leaning walls and heavy black lines painted on flats and arranged to suggest both a skewed sense of depth and a forced perspective that flaunts its artificiality, the film dropped audiences into an aggressively unreal world and celebrated its theatrical artifice as a vision of madness and horror. It set the style for a movement, influenced a generation of filmmaker from Fritz Lang and Universal horror movies, and created images so vivid they are still referenced today. This is a movie that has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations (the Image DVD from Film Preservation Associates and the previous Kino DVD from an earlier Murnau Foundation edition) have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material.

The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which previously spearheaded the astounding restoration of the definitive Metropolis) undertook the comprehensive digital restoration of this landmark using for the first time ever the original camera negative as the primary source (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail.

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Interview: Jonathan Romney on ‘L’assenza’

Jonathan Romney is a film critic for The Independent and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Screen International and other publications. He’s also a filmmaker and most recently he wrote and directed L’assenza, a twenty-minute short about an everyday guy named Martin (Stephen Mangan) who watches an obscure Italian film (called, of course, L’assenza—“The Absence”) and spots an extra who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. He laughs it off with a joke but curiosity becomes obsession and as he watches the film again and again, the ill-at-ease extra seems to become aware of Martin’s observations.

L’assenza applies a very low-key wit to the cinema of doubles and doppelgängers and drops it into the world of cinephilia, which adds a new angle on the themes of voyeurism and obsession. And Romney’s fake Italian movie, shot in creamy black and white and set to a jazz score plucked right out of the culture of pretentious elegance, is such a spot-on recreation of the cinema of sophisticated people and empty lives you’d swear it’s the real thing. “It sounds like it should be the Antonioni movie that got away,” remarked Romney in our long-distance conversation.

‘L’assenza’ – the film within a film

L’assenza made its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival, played in festivals around the world, and was a nominee in the Short Film category for the 2013 British Independent Film Awards. I spoke with Jonathan Romney by phone (late night for him, early afternoon for me, thanks to the time difference between England and America’s West Coast) and communicated with producer Carey Born via email conversations.

Sean Axmaker: Filmmakers usually make short films when they can’t get a feature going or to show their talent, like a resume of sorts. What inspired you to make a short film?

Jonathan Romney: Everyone starts by making short films before they make features. And if you have an idea that is the right idea and self-contained and has its own logic, you may as well make it. I’m working on a feature at the moment but I’ve been saying to people, ‘There’s also this other short that I want to make.’ People are saying, ‘Do you really need to make a short at the moment? Shouldn’t you be working on a feature?’ But this other short had been nagging at me. Short ideas do have a way of coming to your consciousness fully formed and they demand to get out. I’d wanted to do this particular story for some time.

Continue reading at Keyframe

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of November 14

Warren Oates

“Grizzled, furrow-browed, full-lipped, toothy, sensual, goofy; laser-eyed and softly observing. Empathetic, angry, insane, proud, humble, stupid, intelligent; sexy, uniquely handsome and sometimes ugly, but ugly in a way that made him more beautiful. A face with history and innocence; future and failure. A face with dreams but a face that knows dreams are often just that—ridiculous bullshit. A face that’s honest at once, mysterious the next.” That’s Kim Morgan (obviously) describing the visage of Warren Oates (but of course), saluting the actor as only she can. Her text comes from a video she prepared for Criterion’s set of Monte Hellman westerns, which also comes with a fine appreciation from Michael Atkinson. (“The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could hardly be more mythic in their gritty, elliptical unmythness. That is to say, as with all myth materials that matter, the films’ mysterious sense of doomed ritual and palpable anxiety about landscape are as physically real and familiar to us as the wind of an approaching storm.”)

Speaking of surprising Westerns, Philippe Garnier finds more to love in The Wonderful Country than director Robert Parrish or source novelist Tom Lea ever did.

And let’s end our mini-fest of the genre with Tommy Lee Jones talking to Roslyn Sulcas about The Homesman, and picking for her five essays in the genre that have “personal significance,” including entries from Will Rogers, Ben Johnson, and Kurosawa.

The two latest posts at Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog offer a charming, perhaps unintentional contrast in scale. Bordwell shows how much information can be conveyed or suggested by filmmakers’ smallest gestures (“They train us to notice niceties”), using an elegant one-shot by Endfield and some smart decisions about filming phone calls from Fleischer and Negulesco. While Thompson reveals how empty even the biggest campaigns can be shredding the ever-expanding coverage of Oscar buzz, a hollow endeavor that’s gone past merely wasting critics’ time (“It’s presumably a lot cheaper to run such stories than to have a reporter spending a lot of time tracking down information for a hard-news item about business trends in the industry”) to drawing film festivals into the sound and fury.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Videophiled Binge Watch: ‘Penny Dreadful’ and more horror TV

PennyDreadfulS1Let’s catch up on a month of TV releases. And as Halloween is coming, let’s begin with some shows from the dark side.

Penny Dreadful: Season One (CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) takes a premise similar to the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: the characters and supernatural beings of 19th century horror literature all exist in the real world.

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan created this series, which revolves around a trio of original characters who take on the supernatural underworld of London, and scripts all eight episodes of the debut season. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been taken by a vampire (as in the novel Dracula), with the help of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a troubled past and a possible curse upon her. Josh Hartnett is the American Ethan Chandler, who comes to London as part of a Wild West show and hires himself out as a gunman to the team. Assisting the team is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose first experiment (Rory Kinnear) has returned to demand a mate, and weaving through their stories is the decadent Dorian Gray, who woos Vanessa. One episode reworks The Exorcist and the season finale suggests that Bride of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be part of the story next season.

The title captures the tone of the series and horror director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) sets the ominous, shadowy mood as he helms the first two episodes. It features impressive production values, strong writing, excellent actors, and a Gothic atmosphere that favors mood over spectacle, and Logan intelligently and creatively weaves the classic stories into this original drama. Dr. Frankenstein after all abandoned his first born, essentially setting the moral yardstick for his offspring, and the show offers a compromised human Frankenstein and an angry, outraged creature with both the sensitivity and the emotional instability of a child that can rip the heart out of another person. And while the vampire of this tale is never referred to as Dracula, the show offers an interesting take on the story. But it’s the original characters that are the most compelling, notably the rocky relationship between bereft father Malcolm and tormented Vanessa, a kind of foster daughter in the shadow of his absent daughter, both needed and rejected by Malcolm. If blood defines family in the first episodes of the show, loyalty and sacrifice defines it by end of the season, and it is the American cowboy who brings that lesson home. I have a fondness for dramas built around makeshift families and offbeat teams who earn the loyalty of one another, and through the course of the season, Penny Dreadful turns into that kind of series.

It’s one Showtime’s most popular and most acclaimed shows to date, and outside of a Showtime subscription or a la carte digital purchases of individual episodes, disc is the only way to see the show. If you’re a horror fan, it’s definitely worth it. Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with numerous featurettes and bonus episodes of other Showtime original shows.

More TV on disc and streaming at Cinephiled

Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

‘The General’

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Review: ‘French Connection II’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

The main strength of William Friedkin’s The French Connection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a French Connection of quite a different cut.

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Review: ‘Bug’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Because it tries to become a new film every 15 or 20 minutes, Bug seems about three times as long as its hour-and-a-half. The effect is, I am sure, the unintended result of both cast’s and crew’s having no idea at all what they wanted to do with the film. It begins as an effort to fuse the horror picture with the disaster epic: in the first reel we have a heat wave, an earthquake, several horrible conflagrations, and the emergence into human affairs of a plague of subterranean beetles capable of starting fires by rubbing together their flinty appendages. The beasties subsist on carbon, which they lap from inside the exhaust systems of automobiles. Bradford Dillman plays Jim Parmiter, a neo–St. Francis of a biology teacher who bemoans humanity’s loss of the primordial power of communication with the animals. He finds his hobbyhorse in the firebugs and in a reversal of the usual invaders-from-beyond formula tries to find a way of keeping the bugs alive when they begin to die from reduced pressure on the earth’s surface. He preserves one female firebug in a diving helmet and mates her with a common cockroach, naming the hybrid species for himself and for the Greek god of fire: Parmitera hephaestus. First the bugs destroy their parent, the last of the firebugs; then they reveal themselves to be carnivores, eating only raw meat, and only as a group; then they show themselves capable of communication with Parmiter by arranging their bodies on the wall so as to spell out words; then they are once again no different in appearance or behavior from their mother, eating carbon and making fire; and finally they prove capable of tactical organization, flight, and divination, luring Parmiter to his Promethean doom in the fault through which their forebugs entered the world. Both they and the good doctor sink into the earth, and the fault seals up again.

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Videophiled Classic: Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Noon Wine’

The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.

What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.

The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.

Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.