Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood was easily the best classic Blu-ray release within the last twelve months, but what were the other “bests” of this period?
Looking back and slightly ahead, here are my top picks from October 2017 through September 2018:
Best New Release – Baby Driver (2017)
Best Classic Release – The Old Dark House (1932)
Edgar Wright’s high adrenaline thriller Baby Driver was one of last year’s most exciting films while James Whale’s The Old Dark House is more a comic gem than a genuine horror classic given class A treatment by Cohen Media.
Best New Release – Wind River (2017)
Best Classic Release – The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River was one of last year’s best films, one that was both a taut thriller and contemporary social drama. George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is an ageless comedy of manners given deluxe handling by Criterion.
Woman Walks Ahead is a well-intentioned though historically inaccurate film of the events leading up to the assassination of Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Grand River in the Dakota Territory on December 15, 1890.
Portrait painter Susanna Carolina Faesch Schlatter, called Catherine Weldon in the film, was the short, plain-looking Swiss-born wife of a fellow Swiss, a doctor, living in Brooklyn, New York who had an illegitimate child with another married man who eventually abandoned her, forcing her to live with her mother and stepfather while raising her son when her estranged husband divorced her. She became an advocate for Native Americans in the late 1880s and changed her name to Caroline (not Catherine) Weldon. In 1889, not 1890 as depicted in the film, she traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with her then-12-year-old son to act as secretary, interpreter, and advocate of Sitting Bull, the Lakota holy man and leader who had returned to the reservation after leaving Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In the film, Weldon is portrayed as a much younger woman, a widow with no children albeit with long, lovely flowing red hair who looks and sounds like Jessica Chastain with a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes. Her purpose in coming to the Reservation is to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, which is an odd premise since many famed earlier portraits had already been made. Although she is seen making one such portrait in the film, Weldon made four before being asked to leave the reservation by Sitting Bull with whom she had a falling out. She was not present at the time of his assassination as depicted in the film.
Book Club is a film for women of a certain age. That age is somewhere younger than 67, the age of the four lifelong female friends who are the main characters in the film. Anyone that age or more, and anyone who knows women of that age or higher, will know how fake this movie is.
The four 67-year-olds who decide to spice up their lives after reading the trashy 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels in their book club are played by two 72-year-olds, a 65-year-old, and an 80-year-old.
72-year-old Diane Keaton is top-billed as the addle-brained widow of an accountant. On a plane to Arizona to visit her 40-ish daughters, she meets 62-year-old Andy Garcia, a pilot and self-made millionaire with a magnificent home in beautiful Sedona, who falls madly in love with her. She has a choice to make between moving in with her daughters or going for the gusto with Garcia. In real life, the Garcia character wouldn’t give her a second look, or if he did, would get away from her as fast as he could after the plane landed.
80-year-old Jane Fonda is second-billed as the never-married wealthy owner of a thriving Los Angeles hotel who reconnects with a lover of forty years ago, played by 68-year-old Don Johnson. Her story is that although she has had sex with many men, and continues to do so, she can’t fall asleep in a bed with any man until her second go-around with Johnson. After wooing her unsuccessfully, Johnson gets on a plane to return to New York but comes back. In real life, the Johnson character would have kept going.
First Reformed is the latest in writer-director Paul Schrader’s long list of thought-provoking films.
Schrader has said that no matter what he does, the first line of his obituary will be that he wrote Taxi Driver. Probably so, but he also wrote the screenplays for two of Martin Scorsese’s other most acclaimed films, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Like those three films, most of the films he has written and/or directed were about men who fall into desperation as their worlds fall apart. First Reformed is no different.
Like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, George C. Scott in Hardcore, Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Ken Ogata and the other actors who shared his character in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper, and Nick Nolte in Affliction, Ethan Hawke is a complicated protagonist, a flawed but interesting man in Schrader’s best film in more than twenty years.
Hawke, who began acting in films as a teenager, has his best role ever as the upstate New York minister having a crisis of faith in the film, A four-time Oscar nominee, two for writing (Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and two for acting (Training Day, Boyhood), submerges his trademark affability to play the reticent man of God who says little besides what is expected of him.
The House of Tomorrow is an unusual coming-of-age film about two rebellious Minnesota teenagers who form a punk rock duo. One, played by Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo), is a naïve kid who was home schooled in Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s domed house of tomorrow by his former hippie grandmother, played by Ellen Burstyn. The other, played by Alex Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band), is a more worldly-wise youth recovering from a recent heart transplant. They meet when Wolff, his father (Nick Offerman), and sister (Maude Apatow) are part of a group touring Burstyn and Butterfield’s unique home.
First-time director Peter Livolsi wanted the best for his film, so he figured he’d start at the top and work his way down. He sent the script to Burstyn, not sure she’d accept, and not having the faintest notion that she had known “Bucky.” It turns out she had attended one of his lectures while she was filming The Exorcist and flew to Chicago to interview him during a five-hour stopover at O’Hare. They became friends and she has the home movies to prove it. She not only leaped at the chance to make the film but provided a delightful home movie of her and “Bucky” riding in a car.
Burstyn and Offerman are quite good in their roles, but the film belongs to the three young actors. Apatow, the daughter of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann, grew up with Wolff and the two make a very believable brother and sister. Britisher Buttterfield, as he proved with The Space Between Us, does an American regional accent flawlessly.
On Chesil Beach is about a 1962 marriage that lasted six hours, the events that led up to it, the events of the afternoon and evening following the wedding, and its aftermath. It’s from an acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan (Atonement) who also wrote the screenplay. Directed by Dominic Cooke (TV’s The Hollow Crown), it stars Saoirse Ronan fresh from her Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Lady Bird.
Ronan once again proves herself to be the Meryl Streep of her generation, giving us both a different accent and an unforgettable character with each film she makes. Here she is the upper-middle-class British daughter of socially prominent Samuel West and Emily Watson, who is a classically trained cellist and member of a local musical quartet. On holiday after her college graduation, she has met and fallen in love with a young man whose family is not in her social circle, although she assuages her parents’ concern by informing them that his father is the headmaster of a primary school in the country. The boy is played by played by the equally gifted Billy Howle (TV’s The Witness for the Prosecution). His father is played by Adrian Scarborough (Notes on a Scandal) and his brain-damaged mother by Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy).
The two are clearly madly in love, but things do not go well in their attempt to have sex for the first time after their wedding. Will they work things out or will their wounded pride keep them apart for the rest of their lives? Reminiscent in style with the great British films of the era in which it takes place, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, and The Go-Between, although dramatically quite different, it is, like them, a very special film. Not a great success at the box office, it nonetheless will be remembered in years to come as one of the great early showcases of a legendary actress.
Tully is the third collaboration of writer Diablo Cody and director Ivan Reitman. Their initial collaboration, 2007’s Juno earned Cody an Oscar and Reitman an Oscar nomination along with star Ellen Page and the film itself. Their second collaboration, 2011’s Young Adult earned star Charlize Theron a Golden Globe nomination. Theron is back as the star of their third collaboration.
Sold as a comedy, the humor in Tully is very biting. Far from being funny, it’s a razor-sharp examination of a middle-aged woman suffering from sleep deprivation and exhaustion after the birth of her third child. She is gifted with a “night nanny” by her brother (Mark Duplass), a young woman who takes care of the baby at night so that she can get some rest. Despite the help, Theron’s days are still filled with taking care of the needs of her three kids, a nine-year-old daughter and a handful of a six-year-old boy somewhere on the autistic spectrum, as well as the baby girl. Her husband (Ron Livingston) loves her but is hardly there even when he is. The “night nanny” (Mackenzie Davis) seems too good to be true.
Theron gained fifty pounds for the role and she’s terrific in it, but this is not a film that goes down particularly easy. The last half-hour is so harrowing that I had to re-watch it to figure out what was going on and then I still wasn’t sure of what I had seen until I read the spoilers in an online review on IMDb. The clue to unravelling the mystery is a matter-of-fact answer given by Livingston to an indecipherable question asked by a hospital emergency room clerk in the background with lots of noise in the foreground. I had assumed the question was something else since the response is an answer to a question that might have been asked about something else, a question that in hindsight made no sense in coming from that clerk whereas the question that was asked makes perfect sense given the setting. Bottom line, though, this is a film worth seeing, especially for exhausted young mothers and those who love them, and that should be all of us.
Tully is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
A Matter of Life and Death AKA Stairway to Heaven opened in New York on Christmas Day 1946 to a rave review from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times who placed the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film among his ten best of the year the following Sunday while dismissing Frank Capra’s similarly themed It’s a Wonderful Life, “which would have got into the charmed circle if its philosophy had been less candified.”
As with Bicycle Thieves AKA The Bicycle Thief, the British title of A Matter of Life and Death is more salient to the film’s theme than the American Stairway to Heaven, a title that was imposed on it in the U.S. because it was presumed that Americans wouldn’t want to see anything with “death” in the title so close to the end of World War II. The same thing happened the previous year with the U.S. release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp which had its title shortened to Colonel Blimp. That assumption would be put to rest by the success of Kiss of Death when it was released in September 1947.
The Hollywood film that A Matter of Life and Death is most frequently compared to is 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. That’s because both films exist in two worlds – real and fantasy – the difference being that in The Wizard of Oz the real world is in black-and-white and the fantasy world is in color whereas the reverse is the case in A Matter of Life and Death.
Isle of Dogs has already won several awards including one for Wes Anderson as Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The six-time Oscar nominee might well win his first Oscar for Best Animated Feature if not Best Picture, Director, and/or Screenplay as well at the next Academy Awards, the film is that good.
Set in near-future dystopian Japan in the fictional city of Megasaki and its dump site on the equally fictional Trash Island, the plot deceptively revolves around the exile of dogs suffering from a supposedly incurable canine flu. But don’t be fooled, this cleverly written film is really about a megalomaniacal ruler and his anti-immigrant, anti-poor flunkies who wreak havoc on the downtrodden. Fill in the names of anyone in real life, living or dead, who fit the description.
The narrative follows the search by Atari, the resourceful 11-year-old nephew of the city’s mayor (voiced by Koyu Rankin) for his missing pet/bodyguard dog, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), who has been banished to Trash Island by his uncle, the mayor. The kid is aided in his search by five dogs, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum, all with distinct personalities. Other canine characters include those voiced by Scarlett Johansson as the prettiest dog, F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton as the smartest dogs, and Harvey Keitel as the leader of the aboriginal dogs.
Lean on Pete won Charlie Plummer the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Although the film received strong support at the 2017 Telluride and Toronto film festivals among numerous other venues, it was not released theatrically until April of this year. Directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years), from Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, the film is about hope in the wake of the failure of the American dream, a thread that runs through two of the writer’s and director’s influences, The Grapes of Wrath and Midnight Cowboy. Like Henry Fonda and Jon Voight in those films, Plummer (All the Money in the World) is an imperfect but essentially good person you root for through thick and thin.
Although the film’s title is that of the name of the horse that Plummer’s character bonds with, the story is really about the 15-year-old kid’s search for home. The strong supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi as the sleazy horse trainer he takes a summer job with, Chloe Sevigny as the seen-it-all veteran jockey, and Alison Elliott as the kid’s estranged aunt. Filmed on location in Portland, Oregon and other locations in the great northwest, this is a treasure of a film.
Available on both Blu-ray and DVD, extras include an informative making-of documentary.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the dystopian horror film A Quiet Place has a unique premise in that the film’s monsters are blind but possess a heightened sense of hearing that forces the survivors to live in a world of silence. Directed by John Kasinski who stars in the film opposite real-life wife Emily Blunt, the film also stars Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), Noah Jupe (Wonder), and newcomer Cade Woodward as their three children.
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood is a cause for celebration. Beautifully restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive labs, the collection is comprised of the six films von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood following their initial collaboration on the 1930’s The Blue Angel, which was filmed in Berlin. The first of them, 1930’s Morocco, has been given a 2K restoration while the other five films have been given even more spectacular 4K restorations.
Paramount premiered Morocco in New York on November 14, 1930, three weeks before the American premiere of The Blue Angel on December 5, 1930, giving American audiences the chance to see the Hollywood version of the new international star before getting a gander at her in the earlier film that Europe got to see earlier in the year.
As late as 1971, as evidenced by an interview she gave to Swedish Television in English and offered as an extra here, Dietrich was still claiming that she was a nobody when von Sternberg discovered her in a one-line part in a play in Berlin and cast her in the starring role in her first film. The Blue Angel was, in fact, her 21st film, her first having been made in 1919 when she was just 17 years old. Von Sternberg didn’t exactly discover her in that play either. She had begged him for an audition which he refused having seen her in German films but decided to see her in the play in which she may have had one line, but more importantly sang in the manner he was looking for. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Curse of the Cat People is not so much a sequel to 1942’s Cat People as it is its own special little film.
Producer Val Lewton was given the title of this 1944 film by RKO’s front office and had no choice but to use it. It didn’t stop him, however, from charging writer DeWitt Bodeen with the job of going in a completely new direction.
Unlike the typical Universal sequel in which a dead monster such as Frankenstein or Dracula would simply rise from the dead, Lewton was determined that his RKO unit would do something different. Simone Simon may be back, but instead of reprising her role of cat-woman Irena, she is now Irena’s ghost, the imaginary friend of 8-year-old Ann Carter, the daughter of Irena’s widower (Kent Smith) and his second wife (Jane Randolph) who saves her from danger in a dilapidated old mansion inhabited by a lonely retired actress (Julia Dean) and her menacing daughter (Elizabeth Russell).
Co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, this was Wise’s first directorial credit. He was not credited on The Magnificent Ambersons which he completed at the insistence of the studio after Orson Welles left the project. It was veteran actress Dean’s first film since 1919. Extras on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray include a 19-minute audio interview with Ann Carter. The child actress (I Married a Witch, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) passed away in 2014.
The Woman in the Window is prime film noir, one of two back-to-back mid-1940s films in which Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea form an unholy alliance under the direction of Fritz Lang. Newly remastered in high definition, the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is superb in every detail.
The Woman in the Window was released in late 1944 at the same time as Edward Dmytyrk’s Murder, My Sweet and Otto Preminger’s Laura, on the heels of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity at the beginning of the crime drama craze that became known as film noir when the term was later coined by French critics. Although each of these films is unique in its story line and presentation, The Woman in the Window bears an uncanny similarity to Laura in that both films feature an iconic scene in which the male lead (Robinson here, Dana Andrews in Laura) is mesmerized by the portrait of the film’s leading lady (Bennett here, Gene Tierney in Laura). In the case of The Woman in the Window, Bennett’s portrait in a store window is so life-like that when the woman herself appears next to Robinson in a reflection in the window, for a moment you don’t know what you’re seeing. It only gets more intriguing from there.
Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon co-star in this tale of blackmail, deceit, and murder. Lang’s Scarlet Street reuniting Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea in a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (The Bitch) followed in 1945.
Journey’s End, adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s autobiographical novel and play, has been filmed for the big screen three times, in 1930 by James Whale, in 1976 (as Aces High) by Jack Gold, and in 2017 by Saul Dibb. The play has itself been performed numerous times on stage and TV since its original success in the late 1920s.
Although the current version purports to go back to the novel, rather than the play, it is nevertheless quite faithful to Whale’s acclaimed screen debut which had been memorably referenced in flashbacks in Bill Condon’s 1998’s Oscar winner Gods and Monsters.
The 1930 version not only made a major filmmaker of its director, but stars of its lead actors, Colin Clive and David Manners, both of whom are best remembered for their roles in classic horror films. Clive was Henry Frankenstein in Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein, while Manners was John Harker in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Manners, who was a year younger than Clive, had his last film released in 1936, Clive in 1937, the year of his death at 37. Manners lived another sixty-one years, dying in 1998 at 97.
In Whale’s Journey’s End, Clive is Stanhope, the British officer in charge of a company of infantrymen assigned to six weeks in the trenches at the front in early 1918 as the Great War is escalating. Manners is his newly assigned junior officer, Raleigh, who had asked to be assigned to Stanhope’s company as he was Stanhope’s three years younger friend growing up. His older sister is, in fact, engaged to Stanhope. Raleigh finds Stanhope much changed as the horrors of war have made him cynical, tough, and paranoid. In the new version, Stanhope is played by Sam Claflin and Raleigh is played by a still baby-faced Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo), who is ten years his junior. Although both actors acquit themselves well, the disparity in their ages stretches the credulity of their having grown up together.
The Big Country, William Wyler’s mammoth 1958 film, has been newly remastered in HD, the new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber correcting the horizontal stretching of the previous 2011 Blu-ray release from MGM. That stretching was caused by the remastering of the original Technirama negative as though the film were shot in Cinemascope, a different widescreen process requiring a different digital conversion.
Western purists disliked Wyler’s film because it was not a traditional western, but more of an anti-western like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon or Wyler’s own Friendly Persuasion. The hero here is not a macho cowboy but a peace-loving dude from back East, played by Gregory Peck in his first western since 1950’s The Gunfighter. The film was so long in post-production, however, that Peck’s subsequent western, The Bravados was released first.
Peck and Wyler had been wanting to make another film together since the success of 1953’s Roman Holiday. Peck brought Wyler the story, and the two worked as co-producers, but had a falling out over Wyler’s refusal to reshoot a scene in which Peck felt he did not give his best performance. Peck walked off the set, and when he returned, the two did not speak during the remainder of the shoot. They didn’t speak again until Wyler’s AFI tribute in 1976, which was hosted by Peck.