Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

[originally published December 28, 2010]

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’

Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema (1989), his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.

Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Released by Olive Video. Available on DVD from Amazon.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber

The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Film Reviews, Orson Welles

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ on Criterion

The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?

I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.

The Criterion Collection

The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.

Continue reading at Stream on Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘Dragon Inn’ / ‘Legend of the Mountain’ – King Hu on Criterion and Kino

Dragon Inn (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Legend of the Mountain (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

After the success of Come Drink With Me, the pioneering wuxia pian (“martial chivalry”) adventure that mixed martial arts, romance, comic action, and historical settings, Hong Kong director King Hu went to Taiwan for the opportunity to make films with greater freedom. Dragon Inn (also known as Dragon Gate Inn, Taiwan, 1967), his first film in Taiwan, pits a group of enigmatic strangers against soldiers sent by a power-hungry Eunuch in the court of the Chinese Emperor to murder the children of a popular government official. They all converge on a the lonely inn of the title, an isolated, windscoured building in the middle of the desert near the Dragon Gate military outpost, where they play out games of social civility between sneak attacks and martial arts skirmishes that build from clever little displays of skill within the inn to sweeping battles against the rocky backdrop of the desert and the lush mountain forests and peaks nearby.

Criterion Collection

Shih Chun, Hu’s favorite leading man, is the wily, grinning loner who swats aside arrows without spilling a drop of wine and catches daggers with chopsticks, and Shangkuan Ling-fung is a warrior woman traveling in the guise of a young man, and they team up to protect the children from the hordes of soldiers sent by the villainous eunuch (Bai Ying under a flamboyant head of white hair). Given his large cast of characters, he effectively gives the primary players distinctive (if broadly drawn) personalities and body language, making them stand out even in busy battle scenes, and his impeccable compositions keeps the film centered on our heroes even in the heat of battle.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘Curse of the Cat People’ from Shout! Factory

Curse of the Cat People (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.

Shout! Factory

This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.

More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Film Reviews, Michael Powell

Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror

Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

Continue reading at Stream On Demand