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Blu-ray Consumer Guide: April 2, 2014

"All The King's Men" (1949) (Twilight Time)

I gave this Best Picture Oscar winner from 1949 some smack recently, calling it a "blustery mostly-mess" on my blog, which, you know, is looser and less subject to strict professional standards than other outlets to which I contribute tend to be. Looking at the excellent new Blu-ray from Twilight Time helped me take a more measured stance. The problem with the Robert Rossen movie is that it's stalled between the more naturalistic approach I suspect Rossen's deepest artistic instincts were pulling him to, and a showier, more sentimental approach for which not only Hollywood can be faulted, but the Robert Penn Warren source material as well. Anyway. This extras-slim disc looks damn fine; Burnett Guffey's cinematography doing a more comfortable balancing act between a documentary you-are-there feel and more expressive noir tones. And Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge bring their respective unique presences very strongly. —B+

"The Americanization of Emily" (Warner Archive)

Warner Archive Blu-rays are still pretty bare bones, although now they will port the extras from the standard-def discs with regularity. So the rule of thumb ought to be, if you liked the standard-def, you'll love the high-def. And the upgrade for this movie certainly looks fabulous, really excellent blacks, a highly impressive range of grays. As director Arthur Hiller says, in a commentary recorded in the early 2000s, "The film is in black and white…more of the feeling of reality." The reality, for those not familiar with the picture, is James Garner, Julie Andrews and James Coburn, along with a superb studio supporting cast, sparring cynically in World War II London to Paddy Chayefsky's mordant tune. Pretty damn daring for a 1964 picture. While Hiller's never been a particularly visually trenchant director, he keeps things moving, and the settings, and the people, are always worth looking at. But this is still most crucial for Garner, Andrews, and Paddy fanatics. For whom this will serve as a good library copy. —B+

"Anchorman 2" (Paramount)

Paramount may be almost harrowingly hit-and-miss with its treatment of catalog classics (see my thoughts on the two new Howard Hawks discs below; on the other hand, the "Samson and Delilah" issue was tops, or close), but when the studio has got filmmakers enthusiastic about the Blu-ray format on board, the resulting discs can be pretty innovative to say the least. This disc, for instance, offers three different cuts of 2013's relentlessly funny, celeb-cameo clotted, and not entirely toothless slapstick media satire, one of which is almost two-and-a-half-hours long. Whew. As gag cornucopias go it's a bit of an endurance test but that's actually one of the things I found most appealing about it. Its look is the bright shiny thing one almost subliminally associates with wide-release DCP comedies these days. Live with it. That aside, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Docked a notch for perpetuating the myth that cameo participant Kanye West has an actual sense of humor. —A

"Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia" (Twilight Time)

Sam Peckinpah's 1974 near-gonzo "Sierra Madre" riff, with Warren Oates seemingly having the time of his life playing the director's stand in, hasn't benefited from a full restoration here; this solid high-def transfer of the movie was made from materials that were not the most pristine. So the quality is what you'd get from, say, an excellent projection of a print that's been on a ten-city tour. More than watchable, for certain. It retains the older supplemental material from the MGM standard def release and adds a new commentary between TT co-honcho Nick Redman (who was also on the older commentary) and longtime Peckinpah cohort Garner Simmons, who alternates between admiration for Peckinpah's genius and a tone that suggests that merely remembering the horrors that Peckinpah put him and other crew members through is a revisit to Hell's despite. No-holds-barred stuff.  —A-

"The Counselor" (20th Century Fox)

Speaking of innovations in Blu-ray and Blu-ray supplements. The news here is two-fold. This movie sparked a lot of controversy on release: was the collab between Literary Guy screenwriter Cormac McCarthy and master technician and/or visionary Ridley Scott a New Kind Of Profound Thriller or Some Unholy Risible Alliance Of B-Movie Brutality And Highfalutin Posturing? I myself thought it pretty damn ballsy, if silly in part; the longer cut ups both quotients, and looks spectacular. What's really interesting though is the three-and-a-half hour version of the movie, which features a Scott commentary (detailed and tech-wonky as usual, but with a special emphasis on theme) and interpolates different making-of mini documentaries into the movie itself. A form of home theater hypertext, if you will, and pretty damn fascinating. And also the sort of thing that only really works in Blu-ray. And wait'll you see what happens to poor Brad Pitt in the unrated cut. Oy. —A

"Crimes and Misdemeanors" (Twilight Time)

Any claim Woody Allen has on being a great, rather than mostly very good and largely spotty, filmmaker will have to be based more on this than on, say, "Manhattan" or "Stardust Memories." ("Annie Hall" ought to figure prominently in the argument too, of course.) The key is the structural complexity and how the film's themes of guilt and faith refract against each other as a result. It's a real feat, particularly in both the writing and editing departments, and Allen pulls it off more deftly here than he does in pretty much any other picture he's made.  So yes, it is worth owning. And the Blu-ray looks very good, albeit a little on the pinkish side. Or yellow-getting-pink in the sunlit scenes. But really beautiful for the most part. Damn thing was shot by Sven Nykvist, of course it looks great. One-time NYC landmarks such as Tavern on the Green are seen to nostalgic effect if that's what you're into. Daryl Hannah and Victor Argo make surprising appearances. And I guess you could call Dylan Farrow turning up in a shot in the wedding scene finale surprising too. The movie is full of terrific performances, from Alan Alda to Mia Farrow to especially Martin Landau—the acting's so good throughout that Allen ends up being the movie's weakest performer by default. No extras. —A

"Dukes of September" (429 Records)

Readers of Donald Fagen's "Eminent Hipsters," which contains what many consider an overly dyspeptic diary of his tour with this combo, which he frontlined with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, may well be curious as to how the Steely Dan frontman comported himself in this context. This is a good way to find out. I didn't consider Fagen's piece dyspeptic so much as bracingly honest and not without self-criticism, and this "Great Performances" episode was shot both near the end of Fagen's travails and for a knowledgeable and respectable Lincoln Center house. Which is my way of saying that what we see and hear here is not miserable at all. It's a well-shot, kind of conventionally conceived and edited, document of three white rock stars of higher-than-average talent, taste, and intelligence giving their level best to some R&B tunes both well-known and obscure (Teddy Pendergrass's "Love TKO" is one of the niftier surprises) as well as their own catalogs, backed by a killer band. There's some goofy stuff too (their revised-for-the-occasion "Sweet Soul Music" lyrics), but if the encore of Buddy Miles' "Them Changes" is some kind of piss-take, I don't know how. Excellent sound, which justifies the Blu-ray. No extras. —B

"El Dorado", "Hatari!" (Paramount)

Glug, and, alternately, bleaugh. Two of Howard Hawks' more interesting latter-day efforts get electronically desecrated for high-definition in edge-enhanced Blu-rays that succeed in neither representing the movies as they ought to appear or of upticking them to some kind of perverse big-box store standard. And I love "Hatari!" so much that I can watch it in any manifestation, so am stuck with this and will be happy whenever I watch it, but why, oh lord, why? The more problematic "El Dorado," which begins promising an interesting Robert Mitchum/John Wayne dynamic before devolving into a hesitant gloss on the great "Rio Bravo" will prove more resistible for me I suppose. "Hatari!" has zip in terms of extras, while "El Dorado" has plenty, left over from the standard-def edition, including a Richard Schickel commentary in which the critic observes, "Charlene Holt is obviously an attractive woman." I prefer the stuff featuring recently departed Paramount honcho and all around good guy  A.C. Lyles. I wonder if he could have done something about these lousy discs had he still been around. —B-

"Equus" (Twilight Time)

According to the Wikipedia entry on this movie, a little-celebrated 1977 Sidney Lumet number, fans of the stage play on which it was based were unhappy with its realistic depiction of horses and stuff, cause it deprived the work of its use-your-imagination/magic-of-theater aspect. What. Ever. I only remember it being received as a pretty pro-forma obligatory adaptation of an Important Theater Piece. It's a bit more interesting than that. Richard Burton is a little on the overstated side here but gets off some convincing gravitas here and there. It's also interesting to see just what a heavy presence Peter Firth had even in his youth. After using some overtly theatrical flourishes in his opening, Lumet reverts to what I call his "British" style, which can also be seen in the likes of "The Offense:" a relatively realistic visual dankness, good maintenance of parametric framings even in moving camera shots, almost always with a relatively weak or diffuse light source in the frame. Oswald Morris shot it, and did so well, although the "Reflections In A Golden Eye"-redolent tint in a climactic hayloft scene is a mistake. I guess. It all looks really good on this Twilight Time disc. I forgot this is the movie in which Jenny Agutter pulls a gender reverse Travis Bickle on Peter Firth's character and drags him to a skin flick. If you want to keep your horses safe, don't do that sort of thing, is the lesson of Peter Shaffer's play. I guess. —B

"The Freshman" (1925) (Criterion)

Harold Lloyd's 1925 slapstick delight isn't quite as jaw-dropping in the stunts department as 1923's "Safety Last," which was released on Criterion last year. But it's still a fun romp, and this restoration, transferred in progressive high def, not interlaced as "Safety Last" was (the shortfall with interlaced scan is that there's "combing" sometimes visible, which doesn't happen with a more solid progressive scan), makes it look like a fresh print, giving the amiable and innovative comedy stylings a really fresh feel. The audio is terrific too, giving real depth to the Carl Davis orchestral score. The voluminous extras include a Leonard-Maltin-hosted commentary from a previous edition, featuring Lloyd experts Richard Bann and Richard Correll. There's an engaging video conversation between Correll and silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, who knew Lloyd, and three vintage Lloyd shorts, one of which, "The Marathon" has a really irritating blackface component but another of which, "High and Dizzy" has some hair-raising pre-"Safety Last" building-ledge-walking gags. Overall a terrific package. —A+

"The Great Beauty" (Criterion)

As a Paolo Sorrentino skeptic at best, I was quite taken with the overall watchability of this lengthy sumptuous film, widely hailed as a 21st-Century gloss on Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." I'm dazzled by its visual component, which is gorgeously captured on the Blu-ray, but a little nonplussed by the actual content. One is supposed to be appalled by the decadent rooftop party at the movie's opening, but honestly, I've seen worse, or "worse." And I saw it, like 30 years ago. At Area. Or Danceteria. I forget exactly which. Maybe the people whose jaws got dropped by the tattooed burlesque type dancing within a glass enclosure ought to get out more. Who am I to say. Anyway, as the movie goes on, it paints its aging Roman protagonists as failed urbanites who wanna go back to being provincials, and concludes that today's public intellectuals aren't even real intellectuals. Heck, I don't need Paolo Sorrentino to tell me the second part. And if I wanna go back to being a provincial myself (and more and more often I do!) I know which way to go. Anyhow, nifty disc. In the extras, academic and salonist Antonio Monda makes an apt inquisitor of Sorrentino. A deleted scene features an aged filmmaker declaring,  "De Oliveira is older than me." Again, a really beautiful looking disc! —A-

"The Hidden Fortress" (Criterion)

Hokey smokes. Longtime fans of Akira Kurosawa are, in my experience, invariably delighted by this 1958 comic adventure. It is, among other things, among the least tortured of his films. The antic story came after a long run of bleak visions—"I Live In Fear," "Throne of Blood," "The Lower Depths" —and also afforded Kurosawa his first opportunity to work in widescreen, and his delight in the vistas he can put together shows from the very first frames. (And yes, this movie was a major inspiration for George Lucas' 1977 release "Star Wars," there, I mentioned it, are you happy?) Anyway, this Blu-ray upgrade from one of the first 120 of Criterion's standard def DVDs looks great in a new 2K restoration, features the good Stephen Prince commentary from that edition, has got an uncompressed mono soundtrack that's super vivid and also the three channel "Perspecta" quasi surround track that was on the original Japanese theatrical release, which I like because I'm into Quad and stuff, and more. An essential beauty —A+

"L'Immortelle" (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber's domestic issuing of Redemption's swell series of films by awesomely adept French lit perv Alain Robbe-Grillet continues apace. Let us pause for a moment and praise providence or whatever. Back in the days you were lucky if you could see this stuff on the fly at a rep house—Robbe-Grillet never really caught on with American cinephiles the way Resnais did, or maybe there were just business and rights issues, who can say—and now here's near the entire ARG filmo in nifty high def versions accessible at nearly the push of a button. It really is a partially delightful world we are approaching the end of, no? In any event, this fairly scintillating thriller-like narrative, in which Jean Doniol-Valcroze bids fair to become the recipient of the world's longest you-know-what tease from gorgeous enigmatic Françoise Brion in exotic Istanbul is so far the best looking of the ARG Blus. Amazing rich blacks, flawless whites, and fabulous detail. This was his debut feature as a director, made in 1963, and has the most in common with "Last Year At Marienbad," and is quite a trip. Should also be seen by anybody who was intrigued by that Vanity Fair piece about Robbe-Grillet's widow the octogenarian dominatrix, as she shoots the camera some very disciplinary looks every now and again. Sole extra is another lengthy interview with the auteur, who is unfailingly wry and articulate. As always. —A-

"Inside Llewyn Davis" (Sony)

Readers of this site and my blog know that this movie made me feel all the feelings, so obviously my recommendation is necessarily colored by my high regard for the movie. Which was shot on 35mm, and may be the last movie by the Coen brothers to be so lensed. Interestingly, at a press conference for the movie at the New York Film Festival Joel Coen said words to the effect that even shot-on-film movies are so heavily manipulated in the digital domain, which is now the default mode of post-production, that—and I'm not quoting or paraphrasing here, just spelling out an implication I picked up from his words—one might as well shoot digitally anyway. I bring this up because it's only on the Blu-ray that I felt I was seeing the effects of the digital treatment on the movie. That is to say, its deliberately wintry look is so consistent in a particular way that I felt a kind of filtering going on, which I didn't notice in theatrical screenings. Something in the color grading, perhaps. I found this discovery "interesting" rather than upsetting, and also found the image on the Blu-ray overall to be very handsome and noise free. There's nothing special in the extras. —A

"King of Comedy" (Fox)

This is not the "visual powerhouse" kind of movie that a lot of Martin Scorsese's prior pictures were—you know, "Raging Bull"—and in fact at times has a nearly drab tone. This is all entirely deliberate and apt. And the Blu-ray image is solid, detailed, and comprehensive, relative to what the movie's offering. And the movie is essential. The extras are pretty remarkable. There's a video record of the Tribeca Film Festival screening last spring with Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis that is kind of remarkable, especially for Lewis, who is riveting when he's refusing to take things seriously and surprisingly on-target when he's choosing to actually engage. And then there are almost 40 minutes of deleted scenes. Which were, I think, deleted for very good reason but are incredibly fascinating from an academic/critical perspective. For heaven's sake, Rita lets herself get picked up by the mugging restaurant client played by Chuck Low! Yep, you've got to see it to believe it. Also: Rupert Pupkin tells a Reagan joke, which is really almost too ballsy when you think about it. —A+

"The Past" (Sony)

Asghar Farhadi's intense, convoluted followup to his international arthouse breakthrough "A Separation" gets a conscientious Blu-ray presentation that highlights the movie's somber, mentholated color palette. More than with most movies, the view seems to be mediated by glass, and this is likely deliberate. In Farhadi's commentary—is in Farsi, with English subtitles, which alternate with the movie's own English subs to interesting effect—he discusses glass, and characters separated by panes, as a visual/thematic leitmotif. So there. Most of the commentary otherwise is of the "This scene was really hard" variety, with this notable variation over a dinner scene: "This is an Iranian dish that is a favorite in Iran. Everybody likes it. It's traditional Iranian food. The actors wanted to get to the scene quickly so they could eat the food. But we did so many takes of this scene that I'm sure they'll never have this food again."—A

"Performance" (Warner Archive)

This once absolutely reviled picture, shot at the “Sympathy For The Devil” end of the ‘60s but not released until the post-Altamont onset of the ‘70s, has grown in reputation the extent that one critic (a committed Godardist, admittedly) considers in the Greatest British Film Ever. And it is pretty amazing, and still genuinely disquieting. Hence, this Blu-ray is apt, and while it’s not a stem-to-stern restoration—the opening credits are still windowboxed, for one thing—it looks and sounds as decadently trippy and mordant as it is meant to. That said, there’s the matter of the soundtrack, and this version has the U.S. version, which compromises the movie by having an American actor dub in the voice of Johnny Shannon, who plays a key gangster in the movie. Shannon’s accent rendered his speech practically incoherent to American ears…but it is authentic. This can’t be condemned as an “illegitimate” version—it is the U.S. release soundtrack—but it will be an issue for some. The extras are the same as the standard def. I’ve always been entertained by the super cheesy pre-EPK type short film advertising the movie’s forward-thinking-ness in the music soundtrack production department with great bits of narration such as  “Jagger makes great use of a unique device called a Moog Synthesizer to write and then record his music. …the synthesizer is an electronic machine capable of reproducing any sound in the world.” Sounds awesome! —B+

"Persona" (Criterion)

Criterion goes to town with an elaborate, exciting presentation of Ingmar Bergman's galvanizing, still-problematic 1966 psychodrama. The 83 minute movie feels epic, unwieldy, because the frames themselves seem to be in so much pain. Bergman grapples with trauma over the state of the world, over personal relationships, and even over his own state in the increasingly quarrelsome world of film culture in the foment of the 1960s, that there is not a moment here that is not fraught. The 2K digital restoration is beautiful: bet you never thought you'd be able to see freckles on Nordic vision Bibi Andersson, but here they are. Bergman scholar Peter Cowie presents a searching prologue, costar Liv Ullman and Bergman devotee Paul Schrader contribute insight in interviews, and the recent documentary "Liv & Ingmar" is also included as a supplement. Another great film, beautifully presented, with a master class on it as well—a Criterion landmark presentation! —A+

"The Swimmer" (Grindhouse)

This was once a Sony DVD, but it sure as hell did not look as good as this. Typically for the incredibly conscientious folk at Grindhouse, this 1968 studio oddity—a John Cheever adaptation that's a horror movie that doesn't know it's a horror movie, if that's not giving away too much—gets the 4K scan treatment, and the rolling hills of the sterile Connecticut monied vales have never looked so greenly forbidding. Shirtless Burt Lancaster trades winks with Kim Hunter, Marge Champion, Janice Rule and even Joan Rivers but strikes out bad with teen Janet Landgard…anyway, if you've never seen it, trust our founder Roger Ebert's blurb on the front cover: "brilliant and disturbing." Also brilliant: the accompanying, correspondence and text-heavy making of doc that's one of the movie's voluminous extras, which also include liner notes from Stuart Gordon. What a movie. What a package. —A+

"White Light/White Heat" (Universal Music Group)

Mark E. Smith, frontman for The Fall, once said in an interview, "I'm a 'White Light/White Heat' person." That sounds like the articulation of an ethos, and it is one. Understand who will, as they say. Anyway, I am too. I've been listening to the second Velvet Underground album, recorded in 1967, for over 40 years, sometimes over headphones even. And I thought maybe if I could ever hear through the sludge that resulted from a too-in-the-red recording (the engineer here was Verve house man Val Valentin, who would be similarly challenged by the volume of The Tony Williams Lifetime a couple year hence), the secrets of the universe would reveal themselves. In any event, the sludge itself was pretty damn revelatory. The CD remaster of the "45th Anniversary Edition" impressed me sufficiently that an audio-only Blu-ray seemed worth checking out. And it is—this has the most detail of any version of the album I've heard. "Lady Godiva's Operation" is definitively creepy, you can hear the beautifully sensitive detailing of the arrangement on "Here She Comes Now," and "Sister Ray" actually now features a rocking rhythm section as opposed to the suggestion of one. That said, this is hardly an ideal presentation. Of the three lossless formats offered here, the Dolby is not what is advertised, which kind of doesn't matter much as the LPCM and DTS versions are just dandy. It presents only the stereo mix—the punchier mono offered on the recent CD version would have been nice. And the whole package overall has a parsimonious air, particularly since it retails for nearly forty damn bucks. That said. It's the best I've heard this record. Which is not nothing. —A-

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