American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Most of the 2014 Oscar contenders have hit Blu-ray and DVD (with "Selma" and "American Sniper" leading up the rear in the next few weeks), which means there's been a bit of a lull in terms of new Blu-ray and DVD releases for your favorite consumer guide. That's not to say there aren't titles worth watching or even buying. But we have more Criterion and TV releases this week than average, including one of the most influential films ever made from Preston Sturges, and one of my top ten TV shows of 2014. There's definitely still something to rent or buy. Just dig a little deeper.
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
This may be the most diverse array of ten new releases on Netflix that we think you should check out to date. Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language" is available in 2D, so those of you who missed it at Ebertfest this year can catch up. One of the best horror movies of the decade so far is on Netflix and Blu-ray Special Edition. There are a few excellent documentaries. And then there's a Jason Statham movie. Netflix! Something for everyone!
3 NEW TO VOD
Three of this period's biggest indie films hit VOD before their theatrical releases, including a great Western with Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn that you can also see on the big screen at the Chicago Critics Film Festival on May 3rd if you're so inclined (or don't own DirecTV, which is the only way to get it On Demand as of right now). The other two are more widely available, and will be reviewed today and tomorrow.
"Adult Beginners" (Friday, 4/24)
9 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
"Sullivan's Travels" (Criterion)
No one does dialogue like Preston Sturges. He really created the model by which so many screenwriters build their work to this day. Watching "Sullivan's Travels", arguably his most influential piece, recently released on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, one is struck by how little it has aged, especially when compared to some of the comedies of its era. Wit doesn't age. And that's the word I think of when I consider "Sullivan's Travels". It's so consistently witty, almost dizzying in its wordplay and social commentary. The first half is stronger than the second half, but that might just be because the first half is perfect. When Joel McCrea says "I believe good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy," it sounds like something Sturges taught all of cinema. The transfer is good here and the special features are very strong, especially an episode of "American Masters" that offers solid biographical background on Sturges, a filmmaker who somehow still seems underappreciated and underrated. If he had made "Sullivan's Travels" alone, he would still be an essential filmmaker.
Audio commentary from 2001 by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean
"Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" (1990), a seventy-five-minute documentary made by Bowser for PBS's "American Masters" series
New video essay by film critic David Cairns, featuring filmmaker Bill Forsyth
Interview with Sandy Sturges, the director's widow, from 2001
Interview with Sturges by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper from 1951
Archival audio recordings of Sturges
Plus: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans
Why did so many people bow at the feet of "The Babadook," not just the most critically acclaimed horror film of the half-decade but one of the most critically acclaimed films, period, of any genre? Relatability. We fear that to which we can relate. The slasher pics of the '80s got so extreme that they became movie constructs instead of anything in which we could actually picture ourselves. But consider the horror films that last. "The Shining" is about domestic violence (and alcoholism). "Halloween" is about the bogeyman. "The Thing" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" are about fear of the other. And "The Babadook", at its core, is about one of the scariest things in the world: parenthood. Jennifer Kent, assisted by a perfect performance from Essie Davis, taps into something emotionally turbulent in all parents, and twists it into a waking nightmare. This is a film that will last and influence. Even just opening the Blu-ray case with a Babadook pop-up gave me the chills. Now, that's effective filmmaking.
Cast and Crew Interviews
Behind the Scenes of the Making of The Film
Jennifer Kent's Short Film, "Monster"
"Escape From New York"
Shout Factory has risen to the top of the list when it comes to Special Editions of older films, producing Criterion-level HD transfers, and packages filled with special features. Even the art on their Blu-rays rules. It's gotten to the point where I await certain Shout Factory titles with the same anticipation as I do Criterion titles. And John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" is their best release so far this year. First, the transfer, which looks amazing, scanned from the original negative in a way that almost looks like film. The story of Snake Plissken is one that takes place in darkness and the blacks and grays of this transfer are perfect, deep and detailed. The film itself has held up remarkably well. I forgot how weird much of "Escape From New York" is, and I mean that in a good way. And no one did anti-hero as well as Kurt Russell did here for this entire generation. Many of the special features are imported from previous releases, the highlight of which is a 1994 commentary track by Russell and Carpenter, in which the expert filmmaker really details the process behind making a low-budget film look this good.
New 2K High Definition scan of the inter-positive, struck from the original negative
New Audio Commentary with actress Adrienne Barbeau and directory of photography Dean Cundey
Audio Commentary by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves
New look at the special visual effects including interviews with Dennis Skotak, Robert Skotak
New interview with still photographer Kim Gottlied-Walker (author of "On Set with John Carpenter")
Deleted Scene: The Original Opening Bank Robbery Sequence
"Return to Escape From New York" Featurette
"Odd Man Out" (Criterion)
Carol Reed's brilliant document of an unsure, injured country healing from the wounds of World War II is well-known for being Roman Polanski's favorite film, a piece that he holds in higher esteem than "The Third Man". I'm not sure I can go that far but the new Criterion edition helps make a convincing case with a great restoration and interesting, informative special features. Watching it again, I was struck by the deep sense of regret and melancholy in the piece. When Johnny is first encountered after the robbery gone awry, he asks, "Did I kill that fellow?" It's not his safety but the potential murder that haunts him. This is a film of haunted people, men and women trapped by an increasingly violent world. And it contains not only one of James Mason's best performances but some Reed's most striking visual compositions. Watch the way the robbery is staged. Watch Johnny's hideout after, and the way Mason is placed in the corner of the room to make it look bigger (and more like a cell). Watch the shadows cast by the streetlights as Johnny runs for safety. He is a man without a place to call home, and clearly the subject of the title of the film, but he also represents an entire country looking for safety after WWII. These deeper themes are explored in some excellent special features, including an enlightening interview with John Hill.
New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New interview with British cinema scholar John Hill, author of "Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics"
Postwar Poetry, a new short documentary about the film
New interview with music scholar Jeff Smith about composer William Alwyn and his score
"Home, James," a 1972 documentary featuring actor James Mason revisiting his hometown
Radio adaptation of the film from 1952, starring Mason and Dan O'Herlihy
Plus: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
"The River" (Criterion)
It's interesting to me that Criterion chose to release Jean Renoir's "The River" two months after releasing his "A Day in the Country," in that both films place a strong emphasis on the waterway as symbolic of life in its twists, turns, and natural flow. There's also an interesting connection to be made in film history as "Odd Man Out" greatly influenced Roman Polanski and this film notoriously pushed Martin Scorsese on his path filmmaking. The interview with him on the Criterion release in which he speaks about the emotional response he had to the film at 9 years old is a great one for fans of either Renoir or Scorsese. Renoir's first film in color is one of his most painterly, as many of the compositions here could be framed and hung on a wall. It's a beautiful, lyrical film, a great choice to upgrade to HD for that reason alone. And the new video essay by Paul Ryan is a strong new special feature. Unlike Scorsese, it's not my favorite Renoir, but it's still a must-see for most and a must-own for cinephiles.
High-definition digital transfer from the 2004 Film Foundation restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Archival introduction to the film by director Jean Renoir
"Around the River," a 60-minute 2008 documentary by Arnaud Mandagaran about the making of the film
Interview with filmmaker Martin Scorsese from 2004
Audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney from 2000
"Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India," a new video essay by film writer Paul Ryan
Plus: An essay by film scholar Ian Christie and original production notes by Renoir
Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about the Penn State scandal looked at one point like it might rock the world with revelations about Joe Paterno and what really happened. That's not the movie Bar-Lev set out to make. And that fact seemed to disappoint a lot of people, looking for a piece that took sides more than "Happy Valley" does in the end. Bar-Lev has made a more complicated piece about environment and response more than action and crime. My only hesitation about "Happy Valley" is that I think he made it a little too soon. It feels like a piece that could really resonate in 5-6 years, when we're further away from the story and more chapters have been written. For now, most of the defenders are still too blinded by their love for the school while most of the attackers can't understand that viewpoint. History will bring them closer together. And maybe this great documentarian will make a follow-up film then.
PRX Interview with Director Amir Bar-Lev
"The Missing: Season One"
Time for the TV portion of the HECG and TV doesn't get much better than Starz's first essential drama, a piece about the ripple effect of the unimaginable more than the crime itself. When a boy goes missing in a French town, it is an action that reverberates across borders and years. It is not just the family torn apart but the police, the townspeople, the reporters, the suspects, etc. who are forever changed. The loss of a child is so horrendous that it forever alters much more of the world than just that child's family. This theme has never been better represented than in "The Missing", which also features a phenomenal performance from James Nesbitt. This is great TV.
Behind the Scenes
Time Changes All
"Fortitude: Season One"
If "The Missing" is great TV, "Fortitude" is on a step just below it: "good TV". This frozen mystery sets up a number of suspects and then kills one of them, leaving us to wonder who did the dastardly deed. Agatha Christie would be proud of the array of potential bad guys in this icy town and the use of setting is the best thing about "Fortitude". Well, that and the always-great Stanley Tucci as the investigator sent in to get to the bottom of the crime. Some of "Fortitude" feels too planned, more written than organic, and a little, sorry, "cold", but there's a lot to like here, especially if you're curious about how to use environment as a character in mystery storytelling. "Fortitude" does so masterfully.
Over 30 minutes of bonus content, including behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew.
"Manhattan: Season One"
"The Missing" is great TV, "Fortitude" is good TV, "Manhattan" is OK TV. The period of the creation of the atomic bomb seems like one ripe for dramatic storytelling, but a bit too much of this show comes off as overly scripted, more manipulative than character-driven. There are still a few great performances and, again, I find the historical setting of "Manhattan" to be an intriguing one. How did the men who were creating the most impactful weapon of destruction go home to family dinner every night? How did they sleep? How did they go on with "normal" lives when they were doing something that would change history?
Ground Zero: Bringing the Bomb to Screen
P.O. Box 1663: Creating a City that Didn't Exist
"Now I Am Become Death": J. Robert Oppenheimer
Recreating an Era: "Manhattan" Costume Design
Commentaries with Cast and Crew
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...