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

Videophiled: True Blu-ray Americana – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ and ‘The Right Stuff’

BestYearsLivesBy all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.

It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.

BestYears2
Coming home

Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.

Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.

It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.

RightStuffThe Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: ‘The Buccaneer’

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer is a pirate movie by way of a grand historical adventure a la DeMille. Based loosely on the true story of the French-born “privateer” Jean Lafitte (he preferred the term to pirate), who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812, it stars Fredric March as the flamboyant Captain who targets foreign ships passing through the Caribbean and sells his pillaged booty to New Orleans society on the black market. His brazen ways earn him a bounty on his head, which he embraces with just a modicum pride (the $500 bounty is a little too low for his ego) and a lot of humor (he puts a bounty out on the Governor in return). This wanted man claims no nationality (“I am a privateer, under the flag of Barataria,” he proclaims) but he has a fondness for the still fledgling nation that made him Louisiana’s Most Wanted.

The American melting pot of 1814

DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but is surprisingly accurate to the big picture of the historical record and to defining details that make Lafitte such a larger than life character. He makes his home in the self-proclaimed colony of Barataria, built on a cove deep in the Louisiana swamps, where his fleet hides from American law and conducted its smuggling and pillaging. He has standing orders to leave the crews and passengers of his victimized ships unharmed. And while he’s wanted by the State of Louisiana for his black market operations and high seas piracy, he’s quite popular among the citizens for breaking the shipping embargo on European goods.

More importantly, DeMille has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles. The Buccaneer opens in 1814 with the British invasion of Washington D.C. and the flight from the capitol. Spring Byington provides a classic DeMille take on Dolly Madison: cultured hostess with a streak of practical frontier spirit. As the presidential residence is evacuated in the midst of a reception, Dolly slips back in (without her guards) to retrieve a last-minute treasure before the British burns everything to the ground. What could be so important? Only the Declaration of Independence, she explains with a tossed-off aside and a matter-of-fact manner. That’s DeMille’s idea of American leadership — sophistication, aplomb, and simple can-do spirit — and this ideal defines General Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern), whose rustic dignity and colorful manner offers a hearty, earthy American contrast to the oily arrogance of British aristocracy and pompous stateside traitors.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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

DVD: Classic DeMille, Psychedelic Sexploitation, and the French Disconnection

The Buccaneer (1938) (Olive)

This first version of the historical adventure / pirate movie (it was remade in 1958 by Anthony Quinn) stars Fredric March as Jean Lafitt, the flamboyant French-born privateer (he preferred the term over pirate) who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812.

The American melting pot of 1814

Cecil B. DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but he also has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles, making Lafitte both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot who sides with the Americans against the British even though they have put a price on his head. March’s Lafitte may have one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, but he is a commanding and charismatic leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor. The obligatory romantic subplot has Lafitte courting a high society belle while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) moons over Lafitte after he rescues her from a rogue pirate who defies orders and attacks an American ship, a breach that Lafitte ultimately must take responsibility for.

The rest is a paean to the multicultural collection of characters who make up the American melting pot, including Akim Tamiroff’s lovable, loyal rogue of a second-in-command to Lafitte and Walter Brennan as Jackson’s buckskin-clad aide-de-camp. DeMille’s films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but this has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Hugh Sothern as a hearty, earthy Jackson), and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille’s more rousing productions. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine.

Marianne Faithfull is naked under leather

Girl on a Motorcycle (Kino/Redemption)

A very sixties portrayal of one woman’s sexual liberation. Girl on a Motorcycle could be the mod Euro answer to Easy Rider with a sexy young Marianne Faithfull in the saddle. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Naked Under Leather, which is not particularly poetic but is accurate: she climbs naked from the marriage bed and dons the skin-tight leather bodysuit in the opening scene. As she rides her Harley Davidson Electra Glide from her home in France, where she lives with her devoted but dull and unadventurous schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton), across the border to visit her lover (Alain Delon), a seductive professor of literature who gave her the bike as a wedding gift, her story plays out in a succession of flashbacks, sexual fantasies, and kitschy psychedelic imagery. Those acid-drenched neon video shades of purple and orange and green take over whenever she makes love with Delon, which has the unintended effect of turning sex into a bad psychedelic trip. Stream-of-consciousness narration fills in the rest of her sexual vision quest across the border of conformity. Faithfull is not much of an actress but she is a marvelous presence, not classically pretty yet quite beautiful, slipping between coquettish girl and experienced woman in a matter of seconds.

Read More “DVD: Classic DeMille, Psychedelic Sexploitation, and the French Disconnection”