What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, came late in the cycle of horror films in which actresses of a certain age attempted to revive fading film careers by playing leads in horror movies, often as grotesque characters. The cycle began with 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, who produced, but did not direct Aunt Alice, the only one of numerous films he produced that he did not also direct.
Aldrich was primarily known for such testosterone driven macho films as Kiss Me Deadly, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Dirty Dozen with the grand guignol Baby Jane and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte lucrative outliers.
Geraldine Page, 44 during filming, and Ruth Gordon, 72 during filming, form an unusual pairing playing characters from the novel The Forbidden Garden in which Page’s character was older than Gordon’s. To make them appear closer in age, Gordon wears a red wig.
Page, who began the decade with high profile starring roles in Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, Toys in the Attic, and Dear Heart while continuing in high profiles roles on stage and TV, had by the middle of decade retreated to supporting roles in such films as You’re a Big Boy Now and The Happiest Millionaire. What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was her first starring role on screen in five years. Gordon, on the other hand, was enjoying a career resurgence.
Bad Times at the El Royale is not a horror movie per se but horrific things happen in it which I got more goosebumps from than most of the scares in last year’s two more highly praised horror films, A Quiet Place and Hereditary.
Drew Goddard, who previously directed the well-regarded 2011 horror film The Cabin the Woods, directs this leisurely paced neo noir in the style of a Quentin Tarantino film in which people come to the fictional motel/hotel in Lake Tahoe which is literally half in California and half in Nevada.
Set circa 1959, the guests include Jeff Bridges as an elderly priest suffering from memory loss, Cynthia Erivo as a struggling singer, Dakota Johnson as a mysterious young woman, and Jon Hamm as a vacuum cleaner salesman. Lewis Pullman is the hotel’s nervous manager. Chris Hemsworth shows up later as an enigmatic cult leader.
Bridges, Pullman, and Hemsworth all turn in noteworthy performances, but the standout is Erivo in her film debut. A Tony winner for the recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple, Erivo more than holds her own in dramatic scenes with the film’s more experienced film actors and has the added responsibility of singing several songs a cappella which she does brilliantly. It comes as no surprise that she is the sole cast member singled out by the various awards-granting bodies who have included the film in their year-end recognition.
Black Panther, BlackKklansman, First Reformed, Isle of Dogs, Three Identical Strangers, You Were Never Really Here, Leave No Trace, and Support the Girls are among the films garnering year-end awards recognition that have already been released on home video, but what of the other major awards contenders released theatrically in 2018? Which other acclaimed films from the year just passed will we see released on home video in the new year, and when?
Don’t expect to see Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma any time soon, if at all. Cuaron’s film, which could conceivably be nominated for and win Oscars for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture, is controlled by Netflix. Netflix only grudgingly opens their prestige films in select markets for awards consideration. Once they have completed their Oscar qualification runs in the Los Angeles area, they are available only on Netflix streaming services. Although Netflix has released select TV series on Blu-ray and standard DVD, they have yet to release any of their films on the home video market.
Roma‘s chief competition for Best Foreign Language Film, Cold War, has just been released in the U.S. and will not be available on home video for a while, but will be available in the U.K., where it opened last August, on January 7th.
The first major awards contender to be released on home video in the U.S. in 2019 will be The Old Man & the Gun on January 15th. By then we will know if Robert Redford has won or lost his 7th Golden Globe on his 11th nomination. His first four wins were for Most Promising Newcomer for 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover and as World Film Favorite of 1974, 1976, and 1977, awards that no longer exist. His fifth was for Best Director for 1980’s Ordinary People, for which he also won an Oscar. His sixth was for the honorary Cecil B. DeMille award at the 1993 Globes. The 82-year-old screen legend says his portrayal of the elderly bank robber will be his last acting role.
Murder by Death, newly released on Blu-ray by Shout Select, was a major box-office hit in 1976. Starring three Oscar winners, Alec Guinness, David Niven, and Maggie Smith; and six other nominees, Peter Sellers, Eileen Brennan, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, James Cromwell, and James Coco, Neil Simon’s script was a spoof of 1932’s The Old Dark House with nods to 1945’s And Then There Were None.
Directed by Robert Moore, the film begins with host Truman Capote inviting five famous detectives to his decrepit mansion to solve a murder yet to be committed. The detectives and their guests include thinly disguised versions of Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man (Niven, Smith), Sam Spade and his Girl Friday from The Maltese Falcon (Falk, Brennan), Charlie Chan and his adopted No. 3 son (Sellers, Richard Narita), Hercule Poirot and his chauffeur (Coco, Cromwell), and Miss Marple and her nurse (Lanchester, Estelle Winwood). Capote’s household includes a blind butler (Guinness) and a deaf and dumb temporary cook (Nancy Walker). The screaming doorbell is comprised of Fay Wray’s screams from King Kong.
Both Myrna Loy and Katharine Hepburn were originally attached to the film, but Loy (who would be replaced by Maggie Smith) had second thoughts about playing a spoof of her beloved Nora Charles. Hepburn, who was to have played Agatha Christie, decided she didn’t want to do the film if Loy wasn’t in it. She was replaced by Estelle Winwood whose character was then changed to that of Miss Marple’s nurse.
It was the week before Christmas and all through the large manor house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The thirteen guests were all snug in their nightclothes in their separate bedrooms watching their favorite old Christmas movie.
In two of the rooms, Ebenezer Scrooge was being shown the errors of his ways by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and to come in A Christmas Carol. In one room he was played by Reginald Owen substituting for Lionel Barrymore in the 1938 Hollywood version. In the other he was played by Alastair Sim in the acclaimed 1951 British version known by the original release title of Scrooge in the U.K.
James Stewart took center stage in two other rooms. He was the senior sales clerk in Frank Morgan’s gift shop falling in love with his secret pen pal not knowing by day she was the new junior clerk who annoyed him in the person of Margaret Sullavan in 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner. In the other room he was a reluctant banker about to give it all up when Henry Travers in the form of his guardian angel showed him what life would have been like had he not been born in 1946’s ever popular It’s a Wonderful Life.
Not to be outdone, Barbara Stanwyck was holding court in two rooms as well. In one she was a petty thief in the custody of her NYC prosecutor (Fred MacMurray) who takes her with him when he goes home to Pennsylvania to spend the holidays with his mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) in 1940’s Remember the Night. In the other, she was a magazine food writer who wrote mouthwatering recipes provided by restaurant chef S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall who accompanies her on a holiday retreat to entertain her unsuspecting publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) and his naval war hero guest (Dennis Morgan) in 1945’s Christmas in Connecticut.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the sixth film in the now 23-year-old franchise that was based on the highly successful 1960s TV series that ran from 1966-1969.
Not a remake of the TV series, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt is an agent in the same elite covert operations team that was led by Peter Graves’ Jim Phelps character, played in the 1996 film by Jon Voight, a character long gone from the film series.
The latest film is the first actual sequel, all the others were stand-alone stories. Following events set in motion by 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the film brings back Michelle Monaghan as Cruise’s ex-wife Julia, featured in 2006’s Mission Impossible: III.
Julia is now remarried to a doctor without borders played by Wes Bentley. They feature in the film’s climax but are not prominent in the earlier portions of the film which focus on Cruise, new partner Henry Cavill, old partners Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, and MI-6’s Rebecca Ferguson from 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Alec Baldwin from that film is also on board, as is Angela Bassett who, along with Baldwin, represents Cruise’s controllers.
The new film, which clocks in at 2 hours and 27 minutes, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) who previously did the same for Rogue Nation.
Searching, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a first-rate suspense film about a Korean-American father (Film Independent Spirit Best Actor nominee John Cho) who searches for his missing daughter on the internet while the police do the legwork.
Filled with Hitchcockian level suspense, the film starts out innocently enough as Cho and his wife (Sara Sohn) introduce their young daughter to a computer and support her interest in piano.
Following his wife’s death from cancer in 2015, Cho and his now teenage daughter (played by Michelle La) have grown somewhat apart. He doesn’t know any of her friends or if she even has any. When she leaves home one day without her laptop, skips school, and doesn’t come home that night, he becomes alarmed and searches the internet for clues before calling the police. Eventually he does and the detective on the case (Debra Messing) and he work well together until he becomes too closely involved and is told to let the police do their job. Fortunately for the audience, as in all good mysteries, he doesn’t. This, however, leads him to follow a red herring until a chance conversation with a minor character leads him back on the trail of the actual culprit.
We the Animals has been nominated for five Film Independent Spirit awards, the most of any film this year. The nominations are for Best First Feature, Film Editing, Cinematography, Supporting Male (Raul Castillo), and Someone to Watch (director Jeremiah Zagar).
Documentary filmmaker Zagar’s first narrative feature is an adaptation of the 2011 best-selling novel by Justin Torres about the lives of three mixed race brothers growing up in upstate New York with their Puerto Rican father (Raul Castillo) and white mother (Sheila Vand). The film is narrated by the youngest of the boys, ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), who is different than his brothers (Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian), partly because of his love of literature and partly because he is gay.
The film has the look and feel of two other recent highly acclaimed films about children growing up in relative poverty, 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight and 2017’s The Florida Project. Unlike those two films, however, which ended in uncertainty, this one ends on a positive note that is somewhat at odds with the ending of the novel. Nevertheless, the author loves what the director has done with his work.
All three of the boys are excellent first-time actors. Castillo is best known for TV’s Looking and Vand is best know for playing the lead in 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
The Children Act was shown at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequent film festivals before finally being given a theatrical run in the U.K., France, and elsewhere in August 2018 and the U.S. in September. It has now been released on DVD only by Lionsgate with little fanfare, which is a pity because Emma Thompson’s award-worthy performance deserves to be seen by larger audiences.
Thompson plays a British High Court judge who deals with difficult cases involving children. In the opening segment, she’s dealing with an issue regarding the separation of conjoined twins. The doctors want to separate them which will cause immediate death to one of them. The parents want to keep both boys alive for as long as they can even though the life of the healthier one will be shortened if they remain together much longer.
The crux of the film, however, deals with a case involving a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness dying of leukemia whose parents are refusing to allow his doctors to provide him with a potentially life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. Before making her decision, she insists on visiting the boy, played by Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead who also turns in an amazing performance.
BlacKkKlansman is easily Spike Lee’s best film in decades. Taken from Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of his experiences as an undercover black detective in Colorado Springs, who in 1979 posed as a white man in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, the action in the film is moved back to 1972 to encompass Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, allegedly supported by the Klan.
John David Washington, who made his film debut as a six-year-old in Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X starring his father, Denzel Washington, has the lead as Stallworth. Adam Driver co-stars as his partner, a Jewish detective who stands in for Stallworth when he meets with the Klan, not only pretending to be a black cop pretending to be white but having to hide his own heritage from the dangerous, hate-filled Klan. Both actors turn in excellent performances, making this riveting drama totally believable from start to finish.
Robert John Burke as Stallworth’s supportive police chief and Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard are also outstanding in their roles. The one scene that doesn’t seem real is the penultimate one in which Stallworth reveals himself to Duke on the phone. Factchecking reveals that this never happened. Duke didn’t learn until 2006 that he had been duped.
The Big Parade, the screen’s first great war film as well as anti-war film, was released just seven years after the end of World War I. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war to end all wars on November 11, 2018, let’s pause to remember and plan to watch at least one of the best films about the war and its aftermath available on home video.
As noted in my recent profile of director King Vidor, The Big Parade premiered on a reserved seat basis in November 1925 and went into general release in September 1927. By 1930 it was still drawing audiences as a spate of other, even more powerful anti-war films came along. John Gilbert had his greatest role as the privileged son of a Midwest banker who forgoes the officer title his father secured for him to join his buddies as an ordinary foot soldier who sees the worst of it first-hand in France. There he falls in love with a local farm girl while on leave. Wounded in the war, he returns home to find his fiancée in love with his brother leaving him free to return to France to reunite with his true love.
In the midst of the success of The Big Parade came William Wellman’s 1927 film Wings the haunting drama of fighter pilots in the war that won the first Oscar for Best Production. Although it’s best remembered for its powerful imagery of planes in battle that became stock footage for aviation films for decades, the film’s powerful message about the waste of youth in war was a potent one that still tings true today. Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, and, briefly, rising star Gary Cooper, all give unforgettable performances.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is one of the year’s biggest surprises, a totally enjoyable sequel to a film whose popularity I never quite got.
While 2008’s Mamma Mia! from the Broadway hit was entertaining with its stolen plot from Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, it seemed little more than an excuse for its talented cast to sing songs from the Swedish singing group ABBA’s playbook. The sequel expands on the original plot to explain how Meryl Streep’s character met the Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard characters, one of whom is the father of Streep’s daughter, Amanda Seyfried. Here we go back in time as spirited Lily James winningly plays Streep’s younger self who meets and falls in love in quick succession with the younger versions of the three men played by Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan, all of whom prove to be excellent singers and dancers. The plot weaves back and forth between the past and the present as Seyfried gets ready for the grand opening of the hotel that Streep, whose character died sometime between the two films, had spent years planning.
Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard have all come for the opening as have Streep’s friends Julie Walters and Christine Baranski and Streep’s mother, played to the hilt by Cher. Streep herself appears as a ghost in the film’s finale in which she sings a ballad at the baptismal font of the church in which Seyfried and Dominic Cooper’s baby is being christened.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime example of a film whose word-of-mouth has long outlived its poor marketing. Officially released in February 1956, Don Siegel’s science-fiction masterpiece did not open in New York until Friday, April 27th of that year as part of a double-bill with World Without End at RKO and other neighborhood theatres where they were advertised as “horror” films rather than the science-fiction films they clearly were. Their five-day run was sandwiched between a three-day re-run of Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause and the incoming Carousel, which had a high profile opening at the Roxy on Broadway in February.
Films, in those days, almost always had their world premieres in New York or Los Angeles where good reviews bolstered their box-office potential as they fanned out to the rest of the country and the world. Films released directly to neighborhood theatres in New York were not always reviewed by the local newspapers and these two films were no exception. You won’t find a New York Times review of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers anywhere because there wasn’t one. The only way to track down its run is to go to the New York Times print edition or the online archival copy and look for the printed ads.
Despite its lack of support by Allied Artists whose big film of 1956 was Friendly Persuasion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was fondly remembered by all those who were lucky enough to see it in its initial run. It later had a long life on TV and has been a home video staple since its initial VHS release in 1981. Olive Video, which released a Blu-ray version of it in 2012 has now released an Olive Signature edition to join the likes of High Noon, The Quiet Man, and Johnny Guitar as one of the films they have given extra special attention to. Extras include both archival interviews with stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter and a new two-part interview with Siegel’s son, actor Kristoffer Tabori.
Three Identical Strangers is an amazing documentary that plays like the best of fictional detective stories.
The story begins in 1980 when 19-year-old Robert (Bobby) Shafran begins college in a small town in upstate New York. Greeted by many young people on campus as “Eddy,” it is obvious that he is being mistaken for someone else. A friend of “Eddy” (Eddy Galland) deduces that Bobby is Eddy’s twin and that the two must have been separated at birth. They arrange an immediate meeting at Eddy’s house on Long Island. The story makes headlines in the local newspapers where David Kellman sees it and realizes that he is also Eddy and Bobby’s double. The overnight twins are now overnight triplets. Raised in different New York City suburbs, one (Eddy) is well off, one (Bobby) is middle-class, and one (David) is from a struggling family of immigrants. All three knew that they were adopted as infants but neither they nor their adopted parents were aware of any family relationships.
The boys became instant celebrities who were invited on every extant TV talk show. They moved together into an apartment in Greenwich Village where they became part of the New York party scene and eventually opened a popular restaurant of their own in the city. Despite their euphoria, however, there were questions that the boys’ adoptive parents wanted answers to.
Leave No Trace is one of the rare films to receive a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Debra Granik’s first narrative film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, Leave No Trace has the potential to do the same for New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie.
Although McKenzie is 18, she is highly effective playing a 13-girl-old girl who at the beginning of the film is living with her father off the land in a large urban park outside of Portland, Oregon. We gradually learn that the father, expertly played by Ben Foster, is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The two are rescued and brought to a Christmas tree farm where they are given a house in exchange for the father’s work on the farm, but will Foster’s reentry to civilization last?
The film is both esthetically pleasing with its lush landscapes and emotionally gripping with its depiction of a tortured soul and his impressionable daughter.
Leave No Trace is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The second film in a planned trilogy, Sicario: Day of the Soldado lacks the moral compass provided in the original Sicario by Emily Blunt’s character who was removed from the project by director Stefano Sellima when he was brought onto the project to replace Denis Villeneuve who had to withdraw from the project due to the scheduling of his films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.