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The DVD Report #255

Mixed martial arts star Carla Garano stars as a betrayed super-agent in Steven Soderbergh’s spy thriller, Haywire. Backed by cast of big names including Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Angarano, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas, the story is one we’ve seen a thousand times before. What distinguishes it, if anything, is the location filming in Dublin and Los Alamos, New Mexico, among other places. The acting by Garano leaves a lot to be desired, but so does the acting of some of her more experienced co-stars, most of whom seem to have signed on either because of the director’s reputation or to make a quick buck or both.

The film’s set pieces are the fight scenes between Garano and Tatum; Garano and Fassbender and her final confrontation with McGregor. Fassbender, as usual, delivers a decent performance but it’s a bit of a shock to see Tatum outclassing a so-so McGregor and a pretty awful Banderas and Douglas.

Haywire is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.

Joyful Noise, veteran Broadway and film actor Todd Graff’s third film as director, is a pleasant surprise. It’s a bit of a throwback to the Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland musicals of the late thirties with Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) as the teenage girl with the golden pipes and Broadway star Jeremy Jordan (Bonnie & Clyde; Newsies) as her male counterpart, who is head over heels in love with her.

The story revolves around a Georgia church choir’s entry in the annual Joyful Noise competition. The choir is led by Palmer’s mother (Queen Latifah), who became choirmaster after the death of Jordan’s grandfather (Kris Kristofferson) to the chagrin of his grandmother (Dolly Parton). Latifah and Parton have top billing, but their stories are secondary to the budding romance with Latifah receiving more screen time than Parton. Jesse L. Martin has a supporting role as Latifah’s absent Army sergeant husband.

Joyful Noise is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

For her second directorial effort, pop star Madonna has tackled the oft-filmed affair of American divorcee Wallis Simpson and Britain’s Edward VIII in W./E.. Not content just to tell one story, the director, who also co-wrote the ludicrous screenplay, places her focus on the corresponding story of a contemporary New York woman whose mother named her after Simpson.

The modern day tale is a total bore that wastes the talents of Abbie Cornish as the abused housewife who takes up with a Russian émigré, played by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac. Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy play Wallis and Edward in flashback, in which among other things, they dance to not yet written modern music in the Gershwin era. In their bizarre last scene, the nearly 76 year-old Wallis does the twist for Edward on his deathbed. Then it’s on to a happy ending for the contemporary heroine and her new man.

The best that can be said about the film is that it has striking sets and costumes, the latter accounting for the film’s only Oscar nomination.

W./E. is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

Long unavailable, Warner Archive has released the 1961 film Bridge to the Sun, directed by Etienne Perriér, based on the autobiography of Gwendolen Terasaski.

Carroll Baker gives the performance of her career as the young American woman who falls in love with a Japanese diplomat (James Shigeta) and marries him shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The film, which follows her life in Japan during World War II, was the first to show the hardships of the war on everyday Japanese people. Shigeta is also excellent as the husband who acts one way in the U.S. and another in his native Japan.

Warner Archive has also released a number of films noir from the late forties and early fifties. Among them are High Wall; Bewitched and No Escape.

Robert Taylor was a good actor but he rarely showed emotion in his characters. His confessed murderer in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1947 film, High Wall is an exception. Playing a World War II veteran who returns home to discover his wife has been unfaithful, he strangles her in an impassioned frenzy, blacks out and wakes up to discover she’s dead. Thinking he’s killed her, he dumps the body and is caught. Audrey Totter is the psychiatrist who is not so sure he did it. Not only does she fall for her patient, she also takes in his six year-old son, who is unaware of the details surrounding his mother’s death.

The strong supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall, Dorothy Patrick, H.B. Warner and Warner Anderson. It doesn’t take long to figure out who really did it, but the how and why are not revealed until the exciting conclusion.

Psychiatry also figures heavily into Arch Oboler’s 1945 film, Bewitched in which Phyllis Thaxter stars as a young woman with dual personalities who murders her fiancé when her evil other takes over her body. A pre-cursor to the multiple personality flicks that would be unleashed a decade later, this one is more interesting than you might think given its rather unknown status. Thaxter, best known for playing Van Johnson’s wife in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, her film debut a year earlier, was a fine actress in the Teresa Wright-Dorothy McGuire mold who rarely got the opportunities those actresses did. This role was an exception.

Horace (Stephen) McNally and Edmund Gwenn provide strong support.

Speaking of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, that film’s famed aerial sequences are used in the previously mentioned Bridge to the Sun form the perspective of the people on the ground.

Lew Ayres had a long career as a star and later as a character actor. He was in transition in Charles Bennett’s 1953 film, No Escape in which he plays a world-weary piano player and minor composer who is caught in the murderous web of detective Sonny Tufts. His leading lady is Marjorie Steele, a talented young actress whose fourth and final film this was. Married to Huntington Hartford, one of the wealthiest men in the country, she didn’t have to work. Living in Ireland since her third marriage in 1967, she became a well-known sculptress, whose works have been exhibited all over the world, including the Vatican. She makes a very nice undaunted heroine in her film swan song.

Gertrude Michael has an interesting bit as a booze hound.

Not in the same league as these three is Joseph Losey’s 1951 film, The Big Night, also being released by the Warner Archive.

Losey’s usual taut direction in in evidence in the tale of a young man who witnesses his father’s beating and sets out to avenge the slight. The problem is that he is played by John Barrymore, Jr., a lackluster actor whose performance was an embarrassment to his family, particularly his Aunt Ethel. Talent, it seems, skipped a generation until it got to his daughter, Drew.

The film, which co-stars Preston Foster, Joan Lorring and Dorothy Comingore, has curiosity value, but that’s about it.

This week’s new DVD releases include Underworld: Awakening and The Vow.

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