Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
We're back with a relatively slight version of the HECG. It's been a little quiet in the world of Blu-ray and DVD as a number of March/April releases recently hit the home market and, well, there's not much more to say about films like "Woman in Gold" or "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." And the rest of the market has been a little quiet, although things will pick up soon with Criterion versions of "Dressed to Kill" and "Day For Night" in a couple weeks. Until then, we have an array of catalog films recently released on Netflix, a very diverse selection of Blu-rays and DVDs that might be of interest, and previews for three films added to VOD since we last spoke. Find something to watch this weekend.
7 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
"The People Under the Stairs"
When I was young, I didn't know what to make of Wes Craven's blistering critique of the Reagan era and the growing income gap. I was used to Craven giving me films like "Nightmare on Elm Street," and this simply wasn't going to cut it in terms of horror. It just wasn't scary enough. It's still not, really. And the film critics who claim that it's one of Craven's best are delusional. I love Craven but his social agenda and his execution here don't quite connect, largely due to an awful kid performance by Brandon Adams. At least he's off-set by truly fun turns from Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (who would reunite on "Twin Peaks") as the owners of the house on the corner all neighborhood kids knew to avoid. While I think the film is dated (watch "They Live" for a better critique of the failure of trickle-down economics in horror form), the Scream Factory Blu-ray restoation is typically fantastic. These are Criterion-level transfers, people. The movie looks great, and it's accompanied by excellent, informative special features. My greatest hope is that any resurgence of interest in this movie gets Craven to make another one. (He hasn't since "Scream 4.") It's been too long.
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Wes Craven
Audio Commentary with Stars Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Birch
House Mother - An Interview with Star Wendy Robie
What Lies Beneath - Interviews with Special Make-Up Effects Artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman
House of Horrors - An Interview with Director of Photography Sandi Sissel
Setting the Score - An Interview with Composer Don Peake
"Night and the City" (Criterion)
The Criterion Blu-ray release of Jules Dassin's excellent noir drama contains one of the most interesting special features a young film critic could watch in a 23-minute companion that examines the differences between the British cut of the film and Dassin's preferred "American" version, which not only has a few different scenes but, most importantly, an ENTIRELY different score. If you've wondered what impact the score has on your experience, the side-by-side comparisons of key scenes in "Night and the City" with drastically different musical compositions will be eye-opening (and you really should someday see an early workcut or test screening with no score at all...it can be unsettling). The edits to "Night and the City" for the British version, which is also included in its entirety, changed the film slightly, but it's really the scores, created entirely independently, that make them completely different films. They're both good, and I even like some of the "lesser" score in the British version more. Blasphemy, I know.
Complete 101-minute British version of the film
Audio commentary from 2005 with film scholar Glenn Erickson
Interview with director Jules Dassin from 2005
Excerpts from a 1972 television interview with Dassin
Comparison of the scores for the British and American versions of the film
Plus: An essay by film critic Paul Arthur
A surprising winner of the 2014 Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, "White God" is certainly a unique take on the dynamic between man and dog. Co-writer/director Kornel Mundruczo can get a little clunky with his reaches for Great Social Cinematic Vision but he has an undeniably confident eye, which sometimes results in striking, memorable imagery. Dogs racing over water in slow motion. The final shots. The dogs looking down from the balcony in the music house. These are great images. And yet it says something that I value the film more as a series of images than as a social commentary. The comparison between a young girl being pushed around by an angry father and obnoxious teacher with the way we treat stray animals in this world don't quite work. Still, "White God" is one of the most buzzed about foreign films of 2015, and so you really should see it just to be up on the conversation. And to really anticipate what Mundruczo does next.
Behind The Scenes of "White God"
Interview with Writer/Director Kornel Mundruezo
Interview with Animal Coordinator/Technical Advisor Teresa Ann Miller
Speaking of visually confident films, you can feel the heat and dust in Kristian Levring's sometimes-great Western about a man trapped in a nightmare. The always phenomenal Mads Mikkelsen, who does more with his eyes than most actors do with a monologue, plays a man who has finally made enough of himself that his wife and son can come to the States from overseas after seven long years. After picking them up at the train station, they are brutally murdered after a stagecoach altercation. Mads gets revenge, and is then sold out by his fellow townspeople when one of the murderers' brothers (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, doing some excellent squinting) comes looking for vengeance. Cycles of vengeance, fear of others, even corporate greed; "The Salvation" plays with some fascinating themes while also offering a fantastic array of great character actors, including Mads, Morgan, Eva Green, and Jonathan Pryce. The movie sags a bit in the middle but the set-up and the climactic shoot-out are pretty fantastic. Definitely worth a rental.
Behind The Scenes
Being an English major, I studied Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" several times and have seen film versions of it since, including Julie Christie's excellent take on the tale and the variation on it in "Tamara Drewe". Perhaps my over-familiarity with (and lack of absolute adoration for) the source material here colors my response to this admittedly gorgeous adaptation, but Thomas Vinterberg's 2015 film lacks the passion needed to justify adapting the story again. The main reason to see it is the cast. Carey Mulligan is one of the best actresses of her generation, and Michael Sheen and Matthias Schoenaerts are well-cast (although I didn't quite buy Thomas Sturridge). In the end, this take on "Madding Crowd" is pretty and well-done and nice, without ever feeling like an essential version of a beloved novel.
Adapting "Far from the Madding Crowd"
Bathsheba Everdene: Acclaimed actress Carey Mulligan talks about playing one of the most iconic female protagonists in literature.
Russell Crowe's directorial debut is a well-meaning but flat film that definitely reminds us how much we'll miss the recently-passed Andrew Lesnie (it looks great, especially in HD) but also how filmmakers better at this kind of historical drama (like Ridley Scott) bring relatable, modern passions and concerns to their tales. Crowe never quite finds the heart of his film about a man who goes to the decimated front after the end of WWI to find his missing three sons, presumed dead in the conflict. Like a lot of war films, "The Water Diviner" is about how people and countries heal from the deep wounds caused by combat. And, as I said, it looks fantastic, but Crowe's complete dismissal of the entirety of the time period in which his film takes place (the Armenian genocide is ignored, which is like setting a film in Germany in 1942 and not mentioning the Holocaust) is a mistake. It speaks to his desire to create surface-level entertainment instead of honest filmmaking.
"The Making of 'The Water Diviner'": Go behind the scenes and get an in-depth look at the making of this epic film.
"The Battle of Gallipoli": Recalling this titanic clash on its 100th anniversary.
Speaking of dishonest filmmaking, has there been a Young Adult adaptation as listless and dull as this sequel to "Divergent"? Sure, "The Host" was an abomination, but most people correctly ignored that. This absolute mess somehow made a fortune and has a solid fan base. Watching "Insurgent," I was struck by how many talented people wasted their time making it. Kate Winslet is one of our best actresses. Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are two of the best of their generation, and both look SO bored here that you can practically see them endorsing their paychecks. There are a few interesting ideas about fate and governmental control, but everything that takes place in "Insurgent" has been done better elsewhere, most often in "The Hunger Games" movies, which look like masterpieces comparatively.
"Insurgent" Unlocked: The Ultimate Behind-the-Scenes Access (a feature-length, in-depth look at all aspects of the movie-for the ultimate fan)
From "Divergent" to "Insurgent"
Diverging: Adapting "Insurgent" to the Screen
The Others: Cast and Characters
The Train Fight Unlocked
The Peter Hayes Story
Audio Commentary with Producers
3 NEW TO VOD
In Two Weeks: "Day For Night," "The Knick," "Unfriended," and more!
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at the entire "Alien" franchise, and a reappraisal of its unloved installments.
A review of the first four hours of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return".