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Blu-ray: ‘Fritz Lang: The Silent Films’

Kino Classics

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)

Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of MetropolisFritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.

Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.

Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.

No supplements with these films.

The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.

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Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!) Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.

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Review: On the Beach at Night Alone

One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.

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Blu-ray: ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ – Olive Signature Edition

Olive Films

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

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Review: Wonder Wheel

There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.

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Blu-ray: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection’

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.

Universal Home Video

They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.

Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”

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Review: Steelyard Blues

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on The Green Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if Steelyard Blues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.

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Review: Thelma

There’s a fine line between paying homage to classic horror-movie conventions and outright theft. Let’s take a checklist to Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a kind of Carrie re-imagined through a Scandinavian lens. Bird flying fatally into a window? Check. Dream about a snake slithering through the grass? Check. Spooky old photographs of weird people? You bet. These devices can work like crazy (I’m a sucker for the creepy-old-photo routine), but the chilly efficiency with which Trier deploys them in Thelma feels a little by-the-numbers. This movie—Norway’s official submission in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes—is expertly made, but only intermittently moving.

The title character is a teenager (played by Eilie Harboe), off to college in Oslo and away from home for the first time. A lonely soul, she experiences seizures that can’t be medically explained. Also, strange things happen around her.

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Review: Jane

If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.

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Review: Sounder

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Nice. Safe. Inoffensive. These words adequately characterize Sounder and confirm the precise, if surely unintentional, irony of its pitch: “If you are the sort of person who sees only one movie each year, Sounder is the movie you should see this year.” Sounder has little to do with movies except in relation to those patronizing, sociologically oriented terms dear to the hearts of the Judith Crists and Richard Meyers of the world. There are strength, dignity, and a wealth of cinematic possibility in this carefully respectful and humane story about a black man who goes to jail in 1933 Louisiana for stealing food with which to feed his family, about the family that stays behind on their sharecropper spread and lives on and loves him, and about the eldest son (around 14) who becomes the focus of all their hopes, the one who may manage to do better than to survive by the received terms of life’s contract for their kind of folks in that time and place. Unfortunately, Martin Ritt’s realization of those possibilities is inadequate save in the painlessly assimilable mode of Playhouse 90 on the big screen.

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Review: The Breadwinner

When The Secret of Kells opened in 2010 it garnered respectful-to-gushing reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination in the animated feature category—a neat trick for a film from a small Irish production company, Cartoon Saloon. I liked the film too, and applauded its ambitious visual design. Still, one thing nagged a little: the suspicion, present in every minute of the movie, that it was supposed to be good for you. When Cartoon Saloon brought forth Song of the Sea in 2014, another Oscar nomination followed, and once again I couldn’t shake the feeling that with all the glittering imagery on display, the point of it was to lecture us, not least on the subject of the sacred art of storytelling. The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.

Cartoon Saloon has a new one, The Breadwinner, which is about a little girl in Afghanistan who must shirk the misogyny of the Taliban and bravely find her way through a war-torn world.

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Silents Please: the original 1925 ‘The Lost World’ and Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ on Blu-ray

Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.

The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray)
The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.

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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Great movie dialogue is at its funniest when you can quote a line that brings down the house but won’t mean a thing out of context. For instance, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Peter Dinklage utters these words in the middle of a dinner conversation: “Penelope said ‘begets’?” Not funny out of context, but in the movie it is preceded by certain other lines, and delivered with a certain throwaway intonation, and seen from a certain camera angle, and followed by certain reactions. It is glorious. This is because writer-director Martin McDonagh is a craftsman who places each word with wicked precision, a talent he has previously displayed in his career as a playwright, and in two films: the great In Bruges, and the rather sour Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh is so besotted with language that a large portion of the dialogue actually concerns itself with how people use words, or misuse them.

Three Billboards finds the Irish filmmaker conjuring up a fictional American town in the Midwest.

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Blu-ray: Into the Night

Into the Night (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

Shout! Factory

After the 1970s recast film noir in shades of nostalgia (Chinatown, 1974, The Late Show, 1977) and private eye revisionism and cynicism (The Long Goodbye, 1973, Night Moves, 1975), the eighties gave it a burst of color and energy with Neon Noir. John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) doesn’t have the self-consciously chiaroscuro lighting we associate with noir (Landis uses light for clarity, not atmosphere) but otherwise he takes a classic noir story—the middle-class innocent jolted out of his protected but dull existence and plunged into a nightmarish odyssey into the urban underworld—and treats it right. It was a commercial disappointment in its day and tends to be forgotten in the annals of post-noir crime cinema but if anything it looks better today than it did in eighties.

Jeff Goldblum is our married suburban everyman Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer whose dreams of space have been grounded in cubicle land, sleepwalking through his days and unable to sleep at night. “My life is a dead-end,” he tells his carpool coworker (Dan Aykroyd), “I feel like I’m from another planet,” and things don’t improve when he finds his wife having an affair (but slinks away rather than confront her). This isn’t a man bored by his compromises to conformity, but a man unsure why he is so unfulfilled after doing everything right.

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Review: The Square

I once interviewed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on stage in front of an audience that included one person who occasionally made canine barking sounds that resounded through the hall. This was only mildly distracting, and if it were a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or something, I’m glad he came and took in the event. It did make me wonder, sitting there on stage, what I should do if things got actually disruptive.

Things get disruptive under similar circumstances in The Square, and—typically for this wicked film—nobody’s reactions help anything.

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