Woman of the Year is one of the best Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases ever. Not only do we get George Stevens’ classic 1942 film, the first of nine films over a twenty-six-year period starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, we get loads of significant extras.
The extras include a new on-camera interview with George Stevens Jr., a 1967 audio interview with George Stevens, a new interview with George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, an appropriately titled 20-minute documentary on Katharine Hepburn called Woman of the Century, and two of the best feature-length film show biz documentaries of all time, 1984’s George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey by George Stevens Jr. and 1986’s The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn.
The film itself won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a much-deserved nomination for Hepburn. Oddly enough, neither Hepburn nor Tracy received a nomination for any of their other collaborations until their last, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for which Tracy was nominated posthumously and Hepburn finally won her elusive second Oscar.
Women at preview audiences found Hepburn’s feminist character too smug so they re-filmed the ending which made her character more human by having her made vulnerable by not knowing how to fry an egg. For a time, more modern women scoffed at that, as women being successful in the kitchen as well as the office have become commonplace. Maybe it’s time to relax and just enjoy the film for what it is, one of the smartest comedies ever made.
Nominated for a total of ten Oscars between them, Lion with six, Hidden Figures with three, and Toni Erdmann with one, all walked away empty-handed, but all three should add to their haul of fans now that they are available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Garth Davis’ Australian film, Lion, is that rare film about lost and homeless children with a happy ending. It’s based on the true story of a five-year-old Indian boy who falls asleep on an empty train and ends up on the other side of the country when the train finally stops in Calcutta two days later. Unable to correctly spell or even pronounce his name, the place he comes from, or provide a name for his mother other than “Mum,” he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple and twenty-five years later, having become a successful Australian businessman, begins a Google search for his place of birth and reunites with his mother with the blessing of his adoptive parents.
Sunny Pawar carries the film’s first fifty minutes or so on his very capable young shoulders, while Oscar-nominated Dev Patel supplies his usual expertise to his portrayal of the older version of the character. Fellow Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman tops the supporting cast as his adoptive mother. The only flaw in the film is that the main character goes from little boy to grown man with no in-between, leaving a lot of questions unanswered. Despite that, it’s worth your time. Greig Fraser’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is especially noteworthy.
Taken on its own, Rogue One might prove confusing to the uninitiated, but in the context of the Star Wars saga, it makes perfect sense. It’s the missing link between the original three films in the franchise and the later prequels. Featuring a literate script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and astute direction by Gareth Edwards, the almost constant CGI isn’t as annoying as it would be in a lesser work.
The narrative takes place just before the events of the original Star Wars, now known by the convoluted title of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, take place.
The first half of the film centers on the search for a kidnapped scientist. The second half centers on the Rebel Alliance’s mission to find the plans for the Death Star before it can destroy whole planets. The cast is headed by Felicity Jones as the daughter of the kidnapped scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) and Diego Luna as a rebel pilot. The supporting cast includes Riz Ahmed as another pilot, Alan Tudyk as the voice of the resourceful K-2SO, Ben Mendelsohn as the arch villain of the piece, and an underused Forest Whitaker as a wise rebel elder. Best, however, are James Earl Jones, back as the voice of Darth Vader, and a perfectly done CGI version of the late Peter Cushing superimposed over the face of Guy Henry.
Rogue One is available in various Blu-ray packaging, including 3-D, as well as standard DVD.
It was ten years ago this week that my first DVD Report appeared on CinemaSight. At the time, DVD was the king of home media, having been around for more than ten years and having long since supplanted VHS as the preferred format for renters and collectors. Ten years later, Blu-ray is the preferred format for collectors, whereas renters are more inclined to stream than rent an actual disc. How long will it be before DVDs and Blu-rays are totally extinct? No one knows, but so long as there is demand from sufficient numbers of collectors, that won’t be for a while.
The decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales has stopped the major studios from releasing all but new films in disc format. New DVD and Blu-ray releases of classic films have become the province of boutique labels such as Criterion, Twilight Time, and Kino Lorber. Only Warner Bros, mostly through its Warner Archive, continues to consistently release films on disc from its deep catalogue, which includes old MGM and RKO films in addition to the studio’s own output.
So, here we go into our 11th year with comments on the new (Silence, Julieta, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, A Monster Calls, 20th Century Women, and Patriots Day) and the new-to-Blu-ray (Blow-Up, What’s the Matter with Helen?, and Lifeboat).
This isn’t a particularly good time for political films. With real life events involving crimes in high places taking bizarre turns nearly every day, it’s almost impossible to take a contemporary political thriller seriously on the big screen. Maybe that’s the reason last year’s highly anticipated Miss Sloane flopped at the box-office and with awards voters.
Jessica Chastain gives one of her best performances as the Washington lobbyist who gives her all to the job, and then some. Her title character leaves her long-time firm in disgust when they take on a client who wants them to mount a campaign to stop a modest gun control bill from going through Congress. She’s been recruited by the other side. Her former bosses, led by Michael Stuhlbarg and Sam Waterston, backed by the gun lobby, set out to not only win the argument in Congress, but to destroy her in the process. She has the support of her new boss (Mark Strong) and the loyal staff she’s taken with her (including Douglas Booth), but it’s an uphill battle, especially after she makes vulnerable anew a victim of violence (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) she had befriended. Along the way, she’s lost her best friend (Allison Pill) to the dark side and incurred the wrath of the powerful Congressional Committee Chairman (John Lithgow) who is a tool of the gun lobby. The only bright spot in her life is the call-boy with a heart of gold (Jake Lacy) who lies to protect her at the hearing that will decide her fate.
The film was directed by John Madden, who cut his teeth on British television (Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse) before directing such films as Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He directs Miss Sloane more in the style of his early TV work than his later, lighter films.
August Wilson (1945-2005) was a celebrated Pittsburgh, Penn.-born African-American playwright who is best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle, ten plays he wrote about black life in his native city, two of which won him Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for Fences in 1987, the second for The Piano Lesson in 1990. Until recently, more people were familiar with the second than the first, thanks to an award-winning 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame production starring Charles S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard.
While the 1987 Broadway version of Fences won Tonys for Best Play, Director (Lloyd Richards), Actor (James Earl Jones), Featured Actress (Mary Alice), and two additional nominations for Best Featured Actor (Frankie Faison, Courtney B. Vance), its 2010 revival had a higher profile. That version won Tonys for Best Revival of a Play, Actor (Denzel Washington), Actress (Viola Davis) and six additional nominations including Best Featured Actor (Stephen Henderson).
Wilson wrote a draft of his play for the screen, but had insisted since 1987 that it could not be filmed unless it was directed by an African-American. It was only when Washington agreed to direct, that it was finally filmed, earning 2016 Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Wilson), Actor (Washington), and winning Best Supporting Actress for Viola Davis in the role that won her a Tony for Best Actress and her predecessor Mary Alice a Tony for Best Featured Actress. Also in the cast were Stephen Henderson, repeating his Tony-nominated role of Washington’s friend, along with Mykelti Williamson repeating his role of Washington’s mentally challenged brother, the part for which Frankie Faison received a Tony nomination in the 1987 version, and Jovan Adepo as Washington’s and Davis’s 17-year-old son, the role that earned Courtney B. Vance a Tony nomination in the 1987 version.
Films about American first ladies are rare, yet there have been more than two hundred theatrical films and TV productions made about just four of them. There have been 38 each featuring Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Washington and 86 featuring Mary Todd Lincoln. Jacqueline Kennedy (Onassis) is in the middle with just 56, but then Mary Todd Lincoln had 100 years more of being famous than she did.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first film in English concentrates on the life of the widow of the 35th President of the United States in the days following his 1963 assassination as she plans his funeral and lays the ground work for his legacy via an interview with a Time Magazine journalist.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie is far and away the best thing she’s done on film. She not only gets her look, walk, and idiosyncratic speech patterns down pat, she gets inside the character in one of the most devastating portrayals of grief ever put on the screen. In a year when she and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea gave the two best Hollywood portrayals of grief-stricken characters since Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment, he won the preponderance of awards for Best Actor whereas she was only able to win a handful of awards for Best Actress. There is some consolation in the fact that she had already won most of the Best Actress awards in 2010 for Black Swan, but this is the film she should have received all that recognition for.
Portman dominates the film, but she receives strong support from Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, Billy Crudup as the journalist, and the late, great John Hurt as a priest.
Jackie is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
At the 1984 Academy Awards, a befuddled Laurence Olivier, nearing the end of his storied career, came out to present the Oscar for Best Picture. Instead of reading the names of the films nominated for the award, he immediately announced the name of the winner as Amadeus. What wasn’t known at the time was that Olivier hadn’t opened the envelope revealing the name of the winner. He looked at the name of the first nominee on the back of the envelope, which happened to be Amadeus, and announced that as the winner. Fortunately, Amadeus was the actual winner. Nothing like that has happened since, but something similar happened at last week’s presentation of the 2016 Academy Awards.
This got me to thinking that instead of the mix-up occurring at the Best Picture presentation, suppose an incident like the Olivier one happened with the presentation of another award, such as Best Supporting Actress. Imagine that Mark Rylance had looked at the back of the envelope instead of opening it, and announced Viola Davis in Fences as the winner, but after giving her acceptance speech, it was revealed that the actual winner was Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It would have been devastating for both actresses.
Instead, this year’s awards ended on a high note when Warren (Rules Don’t Apply) Beatty and Faye Dunaway, his Bonnie and Clyde co-star of fifty years ago, were given the wrong envelope, resulting in the announcement of tinsel-town favorite La La Land as the winner, when underdog Moonlight turned out to be the actual winner, resulting in a heartfelt expression of movie love between the producers of the two films. Coincidentally, both Moonlight and Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply were released on Blu-ray and standard DVD two days later.
Sustained grief is something we don’t encounter very often in American movies. You’d have to go all the way back to Robert Redford’s 1980 film Ordinary People to find a popular film as mired in the subject as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Both films, though their approaches are different, give us characters who can’t let go of the deaths in their families, despite their best efforts at trying to move on.
Ordinary People was about a family of four in which the older son is killed in a boating accident and the younger son (Timothy Hutton) is recovering from an attempted suicide because he blamed himself for the accident that killed his brother. His father (Donald Sutherland) tries awkwardly to move on, while his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) is in denial.
Boating plays a part in Manchester by the Sea as well, in that the lives of the two brothers (Kyle Chandler, Oscar winner Casey Affleck) and the older brother’s son (Lucas Hedges) spend a lot of time on the older brother’s boat. The older brother (Chandler) dies from a heart attack and the younger brother (Affleck) is appointed guardian of his brother’s son. Slowly we are drawn into the family’s history, which involves divorces from both brothers and their wives’ remarriages, while the men remain unattached.
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is the French-Canadian director’s fourth film to factor into the Oscar race, but the first for which he himself is nominated for Best Director.
Villeneuve’s first flirtation with Oscar came with the nomination of 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. The film, which was about adult French-Canadian twins, one male, one female, who travel to the Middle East after the death of their mother in search of their father. It lost to Denmark’s In a Better World.
His second flirtation with Oscar was with 2013’s Prisoners in which he directed Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in the edge-of-your-seat thriller about two kidnapped girls. It earned Roger Deakins the 11th of his stil- Oscarless 13 nominations for Cinematography. Deakins would earn his 13th for Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller, Sicario, which also received Oscar nods for Editing and Scoring. The performances of Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro as FBI border agents were well-awarded as well, but not by Oscar. Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan were also under consideration elsewhere, but not by Oscar. They are both nominated this year, Sheridan for his screenplay for Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water. Joe Walker, who earned his first Oscar nod for editing Sicario, is also nominated for editing Arrival.
One of the few shocking things about this year’s Oscar nominations is that Jeff Nichols’ Loving is only nominated for one Oscar, albeit one of two that should have been slam dunks.
One of 2016’s most highly anticipated films, Loving was expected to be a film that focused on the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia court case that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, putting an end to the criminalization of interracial marriage in the U.S. That, though, is not how Nichols works. If you’ve seen any of his previous four films, of which I’ve seen three – Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special – you know that regardless of the story, the emphasis is on characterization. That is exactly what you get from Loving, with the poignancy of the love story taking center stage.
Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga plays Mildred Loving, the black wife and mother, with quiet dignity. Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Richard, her white construction worker husband, with dogged determination. Both should have been nominated for Oscars. Negga was, Edgerton sadly was not, although both were nominated for Golden Globes and other awards.
Warner Archive has released a sparkling Blu-ray upgrade of Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 film Bells Are Ringing, the last musical from prolific MGM producer Arthur Freed.
Minnelli’s first musical since his Oscar win for 1958’s Gigi, the film is a faithful, albeit nicely opened up, transposition of the 1956 Broadway musical that won Judy Holliday a Tony over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Co-starring Dean Martin, it features such instantly hummable songs as “Just in Time,” “Drop That Name,” “The Party’s Over,” and “I’m Going Back (to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Factory).”
This was Holliday’s first film in four years. Sadly, it was also her last. She died just before her 44th birthday five years later.
Bells Are Ringing was part of a Broadway culture in which the most popular shows, both musicals and straight plays, were routinely made into films. On November 29, 1956, the night that Bells Are Ringing opened on Broadway, there were thirteen other plays in their initial Broadway run that would soon be turned into films, most of them highly successful. Two others, though not yet made into movies, would become frequent Broadway revivals. They were the musicals Candide and The Most Happy Fella, which had been made into a film some years before as They Knew What They Wanted.
The thirteen plays that were soon made into films were:
One of 2016’s most anticipated films, Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, disappointed most critics who found it too long, too slow, too sentimental, and so on. Balderdash! It’s a nice old-fashioned post-World War I romance that plays out nicely at 133 minutes. Disney should have given the film a limited release where it might have built into the hit it deserved to be, instead of throwing it to the wolves in a wide release.
Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by M.L. Stedman. Beautifully filmed in New Zealand, the story takes place in Australia on a remote island off the western coast where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet. Michael Fassbender is a four-year British veteran of the war who takes a temporary job as lighthouse keeper that morphs into a permanent one. On one of his infrequent trips to the mainland, he strikes up a friendship with Alicia Vikander, a young woman whose two brothers were killed in the war. They marry and Vikander becomes pregnant twice, miscarrying both times. She is at her most despondent when they discover a raft washed up on shore with a dead man and a still breathing infant. She persuades him to not report the discovery, but to pretend the infant girl is their own. Against his better judgment, he goes along, but when he meets the child’s still grieving mother (Rachel Weisz) four years later, he can no longer keep still. All three leads and the young girl, winningly payed by Florence Clery, are put through an emotional wringer for the remainder of the film.
Emily Blunt has been on the verge of major stardom ever since her sit-up-and-take-notice supporting turn in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, but her climb to the top has been slow and not always successful despite stunning lead performances in the likes of The Young Victoria, Into the Woods, and Sicario. She finally has a role where she is front and center as the sole star of The Girl on the Train.
The film, based on a best-selling novel, is skillfully directed by Tate Taylor (The Help). It gives Blunt plenty to sink her teeth into as a woman obsessed with the lives of her ex-husband, his new wife and child, and their babysitter. Commuting daily on the Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson line, she can’t help but be drawn to the lovely suburban home that was hers before the divorce. She calls the house to talk to her ex-husband who won’t talk to her. She goes to the house to hold the baby she couldn’t give him herself. Then she insinuates herself into the life of the babysitter, as well as the babysitter’s husband and shrink. She does this all through an alcoholic haze in which she may have even murdered the babysitter. It’s only when she stops drinking that she sees clearly what has been going on.
Since the film is narrated by and from Blunt’s point of view, the audience is as confused as she is as to what’s real and what isn’t until it becomes clear near the end. In the meantime, we are treated to some expert acting not only from Blunt, but from a strong supporting cast as well. Rebecca Ferguson as her husband’s new wife is an enigmatic figure who is difficult to read. Haley Bennett as the babysitter is a tragic figure even before she’s murdered. Justin Theroux as the ex-husband keeps his feelings under wraps. Luke Evans as the babysitter’s husband is ready to explode at any moment. Edgar Ramirez as the shrink is smoothness personified.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and immediately leapt to the forefront of everyone’s 2016 Oscar predictions. By August, however, those hopes were dashed when news stories began circulating about the 1999 rape of an 18-year-old girl at Penn State for which the then-19-year-old Parker was exonerated, but his writing partner on The Birth of a Nation, Jean McGianni Celestin, was convicted. The story gained even more notoriety when it was revealed that the victim in the case suffered from mental problems for years thereafter and ended up taking her own life. Parker essentially became persona non-grata in Hollywood. But, as they say, “apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
The film stands up quite well beside the monumental 1977 TV miniseries Roots and the 2013 Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. There are, however, several historical inaccuracies that mar it. That shouldn’t be a detriment to a work of art as historical novels, plays, and films often play with the facts to fit the story. It wasn’t until 1995’s Braveheart that critics, both professional and non-professional, began to take a harsher view. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, the biggest flaw is in depicting Nat Turner (Parker), the literate slave and preacher who led the 1931 Virginia slave rebellion, as having lived his entire life as a slave on the Turner plantation. He is depicted as having grown up with Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who becomes his owner upon his father’s death. The Turner family, including Samuel, treats him as kindly as any owner treated a slave in the Antebellum South, which makes the climactic betrayals on both sides difficult to understand. What is left out is that Samuel Turner died in 1823 and Nat was sold to one owner while his wife and children were sold to another. That his new owner would not treat him with the same respect Samuel did, makes a lot more sense.