The Great Gatsby: Blu-ray
Opening, as it did, at the beginning of the summer movie season and against tough competition, everybody’s eyes were on “The Great Gatsby.” Apart from the curiosity that naturally follows any production with Baz Luhrman’s name attached to it, studio executives were curious to gauge how much clout he still packed, considering that it’s been 12 years since his last big hit, “Moulin Rouge!” Teenagers who stunned prognosticators by flocking to “Romeo + Juliet,” 17 years earlier, were approaching middle age, after all, and fretting over the going rate for babysitters. If any book possessed built-in brand identity, though, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age romance, “The Great Gatsby.” For many students, being required to read the short and easily relatable novel might have been the best assignment any English teacher ever gave them. Leonardo DiCaprio would bring his own legion of fans to theaters, as would soundtrack attractions Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Fergie. Even so, Warner Bros. took nothing for granted, launching a marketing campaign that made all-things-Gatsby nearly inescapable for weeks ahead of its debut. WB made the strategic decision to open the movie in the U.S. and Canada—Vietnam and Dominican Republic, too, for some reason—five days ahead of its gala screening at Cannes. In this way, “Gatsby” could enjoy an opening weekend without the expected carping from festival audiences and mindless analysis by industry wiseguys. American mainstream critics would already have spoken and their words mostly forgotten by the time the movie’s star hit the festival’s red carpet. As was easily predictable, their opinions were mixed. The pundits who focused on the translation from book to movie, alone, were trumped by the opinions of those who accentuated the over-the-top party scenes and chemistry between the on-screen lovers. In this way, readers who still value the opinions of learned scribes knew that, whatever its literary shortcomings, “Gatsby” was going to be fun to watch.
All of the hoopla translated into excellent box-office numbers for the opening weekend and word-of-mouth carried through the rest of the month. Tack on the international totals and I’m pretty sure that WB was happy with the $344-million haul. In Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and DVD, it should find an even more enthusiastic audience. Some movies look better in hi-def than others and “Gatsby” is impressive in all three formats. It’s one of those movies that encourage at-home audiences to use the freeze-frame and slo-mo functions, simply to absorb everything that’s going on in a particular scene. The parties at Gatsby’s mansion are especially sumptuous, with interesting things happening everywhere on the screen all the time. Moreover, the reproductions of life in the mansions of Long Island and in the teeming streets of New York will drive viewers to the bonus features to see how they were accomplished. The supplemental material adds several such making-of featurettes, with observations by all of the stars and key behind-the-camera talent. It also contains Tobey Maguire’s behind-the-scenes tour; “The Swinging Sounds of ‘Gatsby,’” with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Fergie, will.i.am, Lana del Rey, Bryan Ferry, Florence + the Machine, Andre 3000, The XX, Sia, Gotye and other contributors to the film’s jazzy soundtrack; take-outs on historical aspects of the production; 14 minutes worth of deleted scenes and an alternate ending, all with Luhrmann’s introductions; and the 1926 trailer for “Gatsby.”
Pain & Gain: Blu-ray
Most of director Michael Bay’s movies already look as if they’ve been pumped up with performance-enhancing drugs, so the hyper-frenetic pace and balls-to-the-wall action in “Pain & Gain” should come as no surprise to viewers. The primary difference between it and, say, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”—Bay’s last lollapalooza of movie—is the $170 million Paramount didn’t incur in production costs. Even taking into account the fact that Bay, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson took pay cuts to keep the budget to below $25 million, “P&G” looks like a much more expensive movie. Based on an actual Miami crime spree, “P&G” describes what can happen when body builders mix steroids and cocaine in the service of a ridiculously ill-conceived kidnapping. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play personal trainers who want to achieve the American Dream—as promised by get-rich-quick hucksters on TV—without actually investing the minimum amount of sweat equity in its pursuit. Tony Shalhoub plays a thoroughly obnoxious gym member who constantly brags about how easy it is for him to make money … that is, when he isn’t showing off his wife’s 52 DDD boobs. Even though he’s blindfolded most of the time, it isn’t difficult for the pornographer to identify his abductors and attempt to turn one against the other. No matter how much punishment he endures, however, there’s no way he’s going to give up to numbers to his safe. Neither does he die easily. The more frustrated the kidnappers become, the more cocaine and PEDs they ingest and, in turn, they’re much less likely to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
And, yet, the muscle-heads do manage to extract a sizable chunk of money from their victim. The windfall was intended for investment in a state-of-the-art gym, but, given the characters involved, things didn’t work out as planned. They remain free for as long as they do, thanks to the inept crime-solving techniques used by the local gendarmes. It isn’t until an ex-cop played by Ed Harris enters the fray—and he’s no relation to the Armani-clad Crockett and Tubbs of “Miami Vice”—that anyone in authority takes the investigation seriously. The P.I.’s obsession with the case is partially based on the premise that no criminal enterprise this sloppily run should be allowed to flourish, while smarter crooks are busted every day. “P&G” works best as farce, with chases and violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Keystone Kops” comedy. Bay normally limits his works to PG-13, so it’s possible that the R-rated movie was considered risky in some circles. Because the budget and break-even point were so low, however, he knew that there was little to lose, even if the picture tanked. One or two good weekends at the box office would be all the time Paramount needed to break even and the studio had Wahlberg and Johnson in its corner in this regard. The “R” was fairly earned due to its profuse violence, profanity-laced dialogue, drug abuse and some mild T&A, mostly of the gratuitous variety. Viewers looking for jaunty repartee and logical plot twists in a picture about over-amped body builders should rent Bob Rafelson’s exponentially better “Stay Hungry” (1976), which starred Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The “P&G” Blu-ray really sparkles, but any thought of a bonus package apparently was sacrificed in the effort to keep costs down.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Blu-ray
Things happen quickly in Mira Nair’s impassioned adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s much-honored novel of the same title. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” opens with the kidnapping of an American educator at an Anglo-Pakistani university in Lahore, at which the film’s protagonist, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), also teaches. The book and the movie follow Changez’ journey from growing up in a posh Lahore suburb, to his blossoming as a financial whiz kid both at Princeton and on Wall Street, and back to a deeply divided Pakistan, where he uses his teaching position to denounce the United States and radicalize his students. In the meantime, he also falls in love with an emotionally unstable American artist (Kate Hudson) and earns money by eliminating jobs in companies around the world. It is during one such trip, to the Philippines, that he watches the attacks of 9/11 play out on CNN. He returns to a New York that is greatly changed from the city he left only a week or so earlier. Suddenly, Changez finds himself on the hot seat in airports, on the streets of Manhattan and, after growing a beard, at work. It doesn’t matter how much his job-slashing proposals helped stockholders, he was made to feel unwanted and unloved in his adopted homeland. His American dream shattered not by terrorists, but misinformed American goons, Changez moves back home to Lahore with a chip on his shoulder. By the time the American professor is kidnapped, Changez is well known to local police, CIA operatives and Al Qaeda recruiters, who admire his ability to motivate students.
The movie’s central conceit is the conversation that takes place between Changez and an American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), as time is running out for the safety of the teacher. Where Hamid envisioned the conversation as more of a soul-searching “inner dialogue” on Changez’ part, Nair’s screenwriters use it to exaggerate the tension and action in the final reel. I found it difficult to believe that Changez would agree to a self-serving interview—he demands that Bobby listen to his life story first—with a sketchy American journalist suddenly interested in the radicalization of Pakistani educators. In the novel, Changez pours out his story to a nervous American stranger in a café and the moment of truth between them plays out very differently. It’s also relevant to note, I think, that the book was published in 2007, before the capture of Osama Bin Laden and subsequent imprisonment of the Pakistani informant; American drone attacks in the mountains of western Pakistan; the Taliban shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai; and vicious terrorist attacks on Mumbai by pro-Kashmir separatists. By now, Americans are leery of all things Pakistani and might find it difficult to be overly sympathetic to an American educator naïve enough to believe he could avoid being kidnapped. Changez’ rapid transformation from rah-rah capitalist to fire-breathing fundamentalist makes his ethical and moral foundation that much shakier, as well. In the wake of the continuing American presence in Afghanistan and the border regions, he wouldn’t be the first highly educated Muslim to undergo such a dramatic conversion, though.
There’s no questioning Nair’s ability to make a movie that commands our respect and admiration. The settings all have a distinct air of authenticity about them and, although Hudson takes some getting used to, the actors are mostly spot-on. Her strategic integration of traditional and pop music into the storyline hints at the turmoil experienced by Changez. He was, after all, raised by a distinguished poet (Om Puri) who opened the gates of his home to Sufi musicians, literature other than the Koran and other cultural interests not in line with narrow-minded teachings of fundamentalists. The splendidly conceived soundtrack includes traditional Pakistani songs, Urdu poetry set to music, Pakistani pop and funk, folksy vocals by Amy Ray of Indigo Girls and a new song by Peter Gabriel, as well as Michael Andrews’ orchestration. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, and there’s a pretty good making-of featurette included in the package.
Shadow Dancer: Blu-ray
The events described in James Marsh’s chilling IRA drama, “Shadow Dancer,” unfold about five years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that effectively put an end to more than 20 years of “troubles.” In the early 1990s, it was still possible for an innocent child to be caught in the crossfire between British troops and IRA or UDA militants, if for no other reason than that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what happens to the wee brother of Collette McVeigh (Andre Riseborough) and hardens her heart against the deaths of innocents of other backgrounds. Twenty years later, McVeigh is still kicking herself for sending the boy out of the house to perform a chore she could easily have done herself. These lingering feelings of guilt cause her to participate in an aborted IRA scheme to bomb the London subway. She’s arrested and browbeaten by a MI5 officer, Mac (Clive Owen), who gives her one choice: snitch or rot in prison. McVeigh, a single mother, is torn between protecting her brothers, who are IRA militants, and remaining free to raise her son in a way that might prevent him from becoming a martyr to the cause.
Unlike other MI5 agents, Mac appreciates the risks McVeigh is taking for a country she regards as an enemy. He knows that one slip-up would inevitably result in her execution, possibly at the hands of family members. Still, he remains steadfast in his determination to squeeze answers from his charge. It isn’t until Mac figures out that she is being played indirectly, as well, by his superior, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson). Kate hopes to protect her own informer within the IRA by hanging McVeigh out to dry. This, Mac won’t tolerate. The tension builds as the hour of another terror attack approaches, this time closer to home. Despite her character’s willingness to plant a bomb in a subway, Riseborough is able to bring out McVeigh’s fragility and inner turmoil. It isn’t easy to build sympathy for a terrorist these days. Our feelings for Owen’s MI5 agent evolve and change as he begins to experience the same degree of treachery as is inflicted on IRA suspects. Also very good is Belfast native Brid Brennan as the McVeigh family matriarch. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews with cast and crew.
The Painting: Blu-ray
This delightful French import once again demonstrates how far French filmmakers have come in the highly competitive genre of animated features. Such diverse titles as “The Illusionist,” “Persepolis,” “The Triplets of Belleville,” “The Secret of Kells,” “A Cat in Paris,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Tales of the Night” attest to the industry’s willingness to embrace sophisticated storytelling and not capitulate to the same family-film mandate that so often collars animators here. As it is, finding a French title among the nominees for a Best Animated Feature Oscar isn’t unusual, anymore, despite the discrepancy in budgets. Although the characters that come alive in “The Painting” aren’t all that dissimilar to those in “Toy Story” or “The Nutcracker,” the emphasis isn’t on enchanting children and, incidentally, their parents. Instead, it assumes that viewers have been to an art museum or two and have taken the time to study things that may not be obvious from a distance. It’s also necessary to empathize with the victims of racism, caste and religious discrimination. In Jean-Francois Laguionie’s inventive parable, a large unfinished painting of a fantasy kingdom hangs on the wall of a studio that belongs to an absentee artist. On closer inspection, the figures created by the artist’s imagination come alive on the canvas. It’s a three-dimensional world, in which the inhabitants are divided into the three groups: the fully realized Alldunns reside in a majestic palace; the Halfies, represent figures left incomplete; and the Sketchies are little more than charcoal lines.
A strictly enforced caste system keeps an Alldunn figure, Ramo, from entering into a loving relationship with a Halfie, Claire. The Alldunns assume that the Painter—or, if you wish, God—intended for the figures to be ranked by their colors and the painting in which they reside is complete, as it is. This didn’t sound logical to Ramo and Claire, so, along with a Sketchie friend, they decide to take off through the dense forest to find the Painter. Once they reach the forbidden Death Flowers, which represent the borders of their civilization, the characters come to the edge of the canvas. It is here that they discover an escape route to the greater world of the studio, which is filled with paintings, both finished and incomplete. Each contains an animated world of its own. The explorers have faith that someone will lead them to their creator and answer the mystery of the castes. Their journey is beautifully illustrated and the characters they meet will remind viewers of images that can be found hanging in the Louvre. The Blu-ray picks up the entire color palette and makes the works in “The Painting” come alive for its audience, as well. A 30-minute making-of featurette describes both the creation process and philosophy of the film, with Laguionie and screenwriter Anik Le Ray. There’s also a concept-art slideshow.
A Company Man: Blu-ray
The Gangster: Blu-ray
Through some crazy twist of fate, Hyeong-do found his calling in life at as an assassin working for a Seoul company, whose public face is that of a metal-trading company. The high-rise office is populated by the kind of fiercely dedicated white-collar employees known in the east as “salarymen” and “career women.” They’re all in the same business and it has nothing to do with metal. For Hyeong-do, the company in “A Company Man” represents the only family he’s known and he owes his entire sense of self-worth to it. In return, he’s a hitman of the first water and someone who can be entrusted with the most challenging assignments. Basically humorless, it’s difficult to tell whether Hyeong-do enjoys his work or could take it or leave at the office before leaving for home every night. In the normal course of doing business, he is assigned a job that requires him to kill a hapless apprentice after disposing of the prime target. Before taking out the younger man, Hyeong-do is asked to visit the victim’s mother and pass along the money he’s saved for his family. The gesture triggers something deep in the deeply sublimated conscience of the assassin and prompts him to do the unthinkable, by allowing him to escape. He does, however, deliver on his promise to visit the mother’s house and give her the money. Hyeong-do is surprised to learn that the woman, Mi-yeon, is the same pop star he fell in love with from afar as a teenager. After an unlikely relationship blossoms, the assassin begins to harbor thoughts of retirement from the company. Not only is such an idea out of the question, but when his bosses also discover that he purposely blew his assignment, Hyeong-do becomes the prey. It isn’t difficult to figure out what freshman writer/director Lim Sang-yoon is trying to say about the life of a salaryman in a cutthroat capitalist society. What makes “A Company Man” special are the exquisitely choreographed clashes between Hyeong-do and his former co-workers, assigned to eliminate him. There is a making-of featurette attached to the Blu-ray explain how some of the killing is accomplished.
“The Gangster” is set during a particularly lawless period in Thai history, the 1950s-60s, when gangs seemingly modeled after the Sharks and the Jets terrified poor Bangkok neighborhoods. Stylistically, the hoodlums may have taken their cues from James Dean and Elvis Presley, but the street-fighting techniques are homegrown. I’ll admit to being confused by who was fighting who, and why, for long stretches of time during “The Gangster.” After a while, though, certain key players emerge and none of them is particularly virtuous. Writer/director Kongkiat Khomsiri (“Muay Thai Fighter”) intersperses interviews with now-elderly men and women, who witnessed the criminal activity and add a dose of realism and context to the story, however forced. For me, the movie’s chief selling points are the rockabilly hairdos, fashions and attitudes adopted by the gang-bangers. It’s as if the design teams for “Walk the Line” traveled to Bangkok to consult on “The Gangster.”
Kiss of the Damned: Blu-ray
Prior to this lush and stylishly sexy vampire thriller, Xan Cassavetes’ only directorial credits were the short film, “Dust,” and the excellent documentary, “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” about a pioneering cable-TV experiment in L.A. I don’t know if the huge commercial success of the “Twilight” series even remotely influenced the decisions she made during production of “Kiss of the Damned,” but the same young-adult viewers who endorsed that series could benefit from watching Cassavetes’ decidedly non-“90210” approach to the subgenre. It’s easier to trace the film’s lineage to Tony Scott’s steamy “The Hunger,” various titles in the Hammer Film and Jean Rollin catalog and Italian Giallo. It betrays a Euro-trash gloss, with exceedingly attractive characters and posh settings. Despite some holes in the story, I liked “Kiss of the Damned” very much. Smashing French newcomer Joséphine de La Baume plays Djuna, the less treacherous of two vampire siblings. The other sister, Mimi, is played with great lustful menace by Roxane Mesquida, who some might remember from Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” and “Sex Is Comedy,” and a short story-arc in “Gossip Girl.” As the movie opens, Djuna is failing miserably in her efforts to resist the advances of a successful screenwriter, who’s in rural Connecticut suffering from writer’s block. Paolo is played by Milo Ventimiglia, a deceptively youthful actor seen in such TV series as “Heroes,” “The Bedford Diaries” and “Gilmore Girls.” Once in Djuna’s embrace, though, Paolo happily offers himself up to her as a victim of love.
Just as the couple begins to adjust to their eternal blood pact, Mimi arrives at Djuna’s country estate, seeking refuge from some misdeed or another. Her youthful beauty belies a mean streak that’s taken many generations to hone. Moreover, Mimi simply is incapable of keeping her fangs out of the necks of fragile young things that spark her libido. During a party of artsy-fartsy vampires and their non-Kindred friends, Mimi’s misbehavior also tests the host’s tolerance for divine decadence. Xenia is a breathy Marlene Dietrich-type performer whose addiction is aggravated by the younger vampire’s presence. She’s played by Anna Mouglalis, who Francophiles will have seen in “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinky” and “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.” The contrast between the love playing out in Djuna’s country retreat and the lust on display at Djuna’s party speaks volumes about the differences that separate the sisters and, by extension, other vampires. Just for shits-and-giggles, Michael Rapaport and Elvis and Pricilla’s granddaughter, the quite capable Riley Keogh, also turn up on the menu. Throughout “Kiss of the Damned,” Cassavetes displays no reluctance to spare us the gore or temper Mimi’s bloodlust. Love hurts, after all. The sex scenes are torrid, without also revealing much skin. As is the case in most European horror flicks, style frequently comes at the expense of story here. After a while, though, you don’t miss it. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette. It will be interesting to see what Xan, daughter of John and Gena, does for an encore.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s
PBS: The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain
Anyone who enjoyed the curiously compelling BBC mini-series “Mr. Selfridge,” in which Jeremy Piven plays the American-born department-store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, will find a great deal to like in “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” New York’s Bergdorf Goodman and London’s Selfridge & Co. were founded 10 years apart, near the turn of the last century. Their owners understood that the experience of shopping was more important to their customers than simply the exchange of money for products. Clerks were expected to be knowledgeable, friendly and helpful to all patrons, even those who couldn’t yet afford their dreams. Wealthier customers would, of course, be accorded privileges according to their rung on the social ladder. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, both stores remain in business today, representing the same values and clientele. The fewer surprises viewers anticipate in Matthew Miele’s film about the Manhattan institution, the easier it will be for them to savor “Scatter My Ashes.” Equal parts oral history and infomercial, it accentuates the glamour and prestige of shopping at Bergdorf’s, without also addressing such controversial issues as the sale of furs and exotic skins; the exploitation of teen models forced to lose weight to meet unnatural expectations; designers subcontracting work to sweatshops; and feeding the addictions of customers who simply can’t stop buying things. “Scatter My Ashes” isn’t alone in this regard, of course. Most documentaries that showcase editors, designers or supermodels avoid the tough questions. The 2011 documentary, “Girl Model,” caused a stir in the fashion industry simply by revealing the process whereby Siberian girls as young as 13 are recruited by scouts at regional beauty contests and literally are thrown into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim in Japan and Paris. As a one-dimensional portrait of a store with a unique history, profile and culture, however, “Scatter My Ashes” works pretty well. Among the many celebrity witnesses are the Olsen twins, Susan Lucci, Joan Rivers, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Rachel Zoe, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi and Vera Wang.
Likewise, PBS’ “The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain” takes a reverential stance on a venerable institution. This time, it’s the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. It began in 1962 with a mandate for promoting works by George Bernard Shaw, but has since expanded its repertoire to include plays by the playwright’s contemporaries and those who embody his radical spirit. Each spring and summer, the company performs around 10 plays on 4 stages. The documentary chronicles a single season, over the course of eight months, from rehearsals and readings, through set design, construction and fund-raising. Apparently, that year, everything ran smooth as silk, because there aren’t any blemishes visible in the film. “Behind the Curtain” should appeal most to students and theater enthusiasts interested more in the nuts and bolts of putting on plays than what happens on stage on any particular night. And, that’s OK.
No Place on Earth
Stories of survival from World War II still have the power to surprise and enlighten, even 70 years after the events took place. Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” dramatized the amazing story of Leopold Socha and the risks he took to hide Jews in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov for 14 months. Coincidentally, a couple hundred miles to the east, two families of Jews also found refuge underground. That’s the story told in “No Place on Earth.” To avoid being transferred to a ghetto and almost certain death, 30 members of the Stermer and Wexler families escaped into the gypsum caves of western Ukraine. Despite some setbacks, they lasted 511 days on the barest of subsistence rations. Fifty years later, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent would pursue his caving hobby in the same long and intricate system. Because Christopher Nicola thought he was exploring virgin territory, the artifacts he found left behind in the caves from the Stermer and Wexler families’ ordeal put him on the trail of a more meaningful discovery. The memories of local residents conveniently overlooked the episode in their own history, possibly for reasons related to the anti-Semitism that flourished in the region before, during and after the war. One elderly woman recalls that a few Jews lived in the caves, but that was it. Further investigation revealed Esther Stermer’s 1975 memoir, “We Fought to Survive,” of which only 500 were printed and distributed among Jewish and Holocaust-specific institutions. It allowed Nicola to find survivors, a few of whom lived close to him, in the Bronx, to interview. Janet Tobias’ documentary describes Nicola’s obsession with the story and follows him on a 2010 trip back to the site, with four survivors and two of their grandchildren. (Actors were used in the dramatization, as were stunt caves located in Hungary.) It’s a fascinating tale, even if Janet Tobias’ documentary does allow for some needlessly sappy moments. The DVD adds extended interviews with the survivors.
If ever a politician and his city were attached at the hip, it was Ed Koch’s New York from 1978 to 1989. Arrogant, self-aggrandizing and abrasive in equal measure, Koch probably couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher anywhere else than the Big Apple. Somehow, though, he served three tours of duty as New York’s mayor. In “Koch,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky takes an up-close look at Koch’s frequently tenuous hold on New York, while also explaining how he changed as much as the city during his tenure as mayor. It opens at a time when New York was being given up for dead by everyone who understood what a shambles the city had become. In fact, the now-famous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” might have provided the spark for the then-congressman to run for mayor. Even after Koch led the city’s march to economic recovery and resurgence, the film makes New York looks as if it’s unmanageable. There are almost as many special-interest groups as there are voters and every one of them believes that we’re entitled to their opinions.
Koch had the gumption to stay the course, but was undone by several issues that were festering below the surface of the city’s thick hide and exploded as he sought a fourth term in office. He was partially undone by the greed and corruption of people he trusted enough to put into positions of power. Impossible-to-keep promises he made to the African-American community in his first campaign would come back to haunt him years later when it came time to pay the inevitable bill for maintaining a hospital no longer sustainable. Bitterness over his perceived lack of action on the AIDS epidemic was compounded by persistent speculation on his own sexual preferences, if any. On the plus side, though, it would have been difficult to find a politician so unabashedly in love with his city and the vibrancy of its people. He would win back hearts as a judge on TV’s “The People’s Court’ and the odd stint as movie reviewer. Barsky interweaves vintage newsreel footage, with recent interviews with Koch, who died earlier this year, along with the observations of friends, political allies and foes. Almost as telling is a shorter documentary, included the bonus package, in which a variety of people recall how they survived the 1970-80s. There’s also a Q&A with Koch and other material.
BBC: Smiley’s People: Blu-ray
By now, at least three generations of readers and viewers have been introduced to the espionage game by Ian Fleming’s seemingly immortal creation, James Bond. No less a fan of 007 than President John F. Kennedy endorsed the series by telling a reporter that “From Russia With Love” was one of his 10 favorite books and that he had read “Casino Royale” in 1955, while recuperating from back problems. The Bond novels were exciting and easy to understand, despite their British pedigree. They also allowed Cold War-weary Americans to pretend to understand, at least, what was happening in the “secret world.” John le Carré, who presumably worked for some of the same people as Fleming, created a very different spook in George Smiley. Far less prone to action and not at all interested in the spoils of the job enjoyed by Bond, Alec Guinness’ Smiley could have been mistaken on the street for an executive of an insurance company or lifelong bureaucrat. He didn’t doubt the necessity for espionage, but wasn’t convinced that Britain and the United States were always on the side of the angels. His targets didn’t own private islands or submarine fleets and they didn’t require freakish bodyguards to take care of their business. Smiley’s personal nemesis, the Soviet agent Karla, was far more camera shy and infinitely less flamboyant than the supervillains that Bond engaged.
Although Karla’s physical presence represents little more than a cameo in the 1982 BBC mini-series, “Smiley’s People,” his absence throughout all six episodes is deafening. Smiley brings himself out of retirement to investigate the murder, in England, of one of his most valuable moles in the Soviet military. General Vladimir, a former Soviet military hero and Estonian nationalist, lives for the day when his homeland is liberated from Soviet rule. Because of this, the General and his émigré cohorts remain a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. One day, out of the blue, Vladimir dials a largely unused number at “the Circus,” hoping to contact Smiley. Even though a young operative doesn’t quite know what to make of the spy lingo, he tracks down Smiley, who does. Before they can connect, however, the General is assassinated. It takes almost the entirety of the mini-series for Smiley to connect the dots in his investigation, which is complicated by Cold War politics, the fading memories of elderly agents, the necessity for quasi-legal shortcuts, several murders and Karla’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The release of the Blu-ray edition would be welcome for any number of reasons. That it follows on the heels of the big-screen version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” also a BBC mini-series, could signal theatrical versions of “Smiley’s People” and “A Perfect Spy.” The Blu-ray edition revisits the interview with Le Carre that took place in 2002 and was included in the “Tinker Tailor” package. There also are several deleted scenes, a Le Carre biography and bibliography, production notes and a booklet with a glossary of characters and terms.
The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Sons of Anarchy: Season Five: Blu-ray
Twenty years ago, if a maverick network executive had pitched series that revolve around the zombie apocalypse and an anti-heroic motorcycle gang, he would have been carted off to the woodshed and forced to watch reruns of “My Mother the Car” and “The McLean Stevenson Show.” Today, that same broadcast executive would be given the courtesy of a polite refusal before being laughed out of the office. In the world of cable television, though, crazy ideas are bounced off the wall every day. Some of them even stick. “The Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy” are two such unusual concepts. Neither series has been given its due by Emmy voters, except in technical categories, even though critics, fans and other guilds and industry groups have been effusive in their praise.
The third season of “The Walking Dead” opens with the group that escaped the farm eyeing an occupied prison as their new home and a safe place for Lori to deliver her baby. Naturally, the walkers have other plans for the survivors. Meanwhile, a different group of survivors discovers a safe haven in Woodbury, which is ruled by a new character, the Governor (David Morrisey), who isn’t enthusiastic about the prospects of newcomers dividing up his pie. Hostilities between the Governor and Rick’s prison survivors lead to a battle royal. Many critics consider Season Three to be the best one, yet. The new season will begin October 13 on AMC, with a new show-runner and a few additional characters to replace those who really do die. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, a French-language track, Spanish subtitles and an hour’s worth of making-of featurettes.
The big news in Season Five of “Sons of Anarchy” comes in the form of Jimmy Smits, who plays the owner of a Central Valley brothel whose girls look as if they would be a better fit in a Manhattan or Las Vegas escort service. Clearly, Hollywood has no use for hookers who they couldn’t take home to mom. Smits’ Nero Padilla doesn’t know what kind of fire he’s playing with when he begins socializing (a.k.a., screwing) with Clay’s estranged wife, Gemma. Although she seems all too willing to play the unattached skank, Gemma isn’t at all reluctant to watch Clay put his life on the line for her honor. She’s also is desperate to drive a wedge between Tara and Jax, using Wendy as the tool. Meanwhile, various members of SAMCRO are thrown into prison, brutalized by guards and cops, instigate trouble between rival gangs and commit crimes. More happens in one episode of “Sons of Anarchy” than entire seasons of other hour-long dramas. The more episodes you’ve watched, the more sense all of it makes. Miss a season and catching up will cost you more than a couple hours of your time perusing these compilations. The Blu-ray edition adds commentaries, deleted scenes, gag reels, fan-appreciation pieces and character “good-byes.”
Me and My Gal
American Guerrilla in the Philippines
A Walk With Love and Death
A Flea in Her Ear
The Fiend Who Walked the West
Contemporary screenwriters and directors would do well to study the films in Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s “Fox Cinema Archives.” Although the word “classic” is thrown around like a Frisbee at picnic these days, there’s usually something in these golden oldies that’s worth absorbing and, more to the point, enjoying. Fox launched the Archives” collection in 2012, offering titles manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. They are available through such catalog and retail sites as Amazon, Movies Unlimited, JustClassicMovies, LovingTheClassics and other Internet outlets. Considering the age of most of the films, they don’t look much the worse for the wear. Still, buffs should know that not all of the transfers are of the highest order and original aspects sometimes have been ignored. Because bonus features are practically non-existent, apart from trailers, the prices are kept affordable. The movies in the 200-plus-title collection speak for themselves.
I can’t remember when I’ve laughed as much I did while watching an American rom-com, as I did during director Raoul Walsh and writer Arthur Kober’s “Me and My Gal.” The snappy repartee between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, along with the animated delivery of their lines, is something rarely seen today. It saves the 1932 picture from being drowned in the perfunctory melodrama of a prison escape and bank heist. Tracy plays a hilariously self-assured cop, whose beat includes waterfront dives teeming with drunken stevedores and other unsavory types. After some antagonistic verbal foreplay between the cop and Bennett’s platinum-haired waitress, they discover how well suited they are for each other … which, blessedly, doesn’t end the bickering. Although newly married, the waitress’ sister (Marion Burns) carries a torch for a meaty gangster about to escape from stir. Conveniently, she works at the bank his gang plans to rob. Forget all that, however, and focus on the dialogue and witty pre-Code sexual innuendo.
If “An American Guerrilla in the Philippines” looks different than most other post-World War II movies, credit direct Fritz Lang and Fox’s decision to shoot it in Technicolor, on location in the Philippines, using extras who lived through the Japanese occupation. It is based on the experiences of Iliff Richardson, who had the distinction of being both a U.S. Navy ensign and U.S. Army major while fighting with the islands’ resistance. Tyrone Power plays him here, with Tom Ewell, Micheline Presle and Jack Elam in supporting roles. Despite the fact that Lang practically disowned the movie, buffs will recognize his hand on the rudder and enjoy “American Guerilla” for the patriotic rouser that it is. Indeed, Daryl F. Zanuck insisted in rushing post-production to release the picture ahead of the Korean War. No favors were done viewers by collapsing the aspect to fit TV’s full-frame format, as the Technicolors frequently blur in the translation.
Even loyal fans of John Huston’s movies should be forgiven if they’ve missed “A Walk With Life and Death,” a costume rom-dram set during the Hundred Years War. Based on a novel by Hans Koningsberger, the lushly shot movie is best when Huston was able to take advantage of the Italian and Austrian locations. Angelica Huston (John’s daughter) and Assi Dayan (Moshe’s son) play a pair of free-spirited lovers trapped in a repressive culture more attuned to war than peace. Hello, the movie was released in 1969. After peasants ravage Lady Claudia’s castle, she takes up with a wandering student who believes that he’s been “called” to the sea. Along the way, they witness scenes of carnage and intolerance. It’s easy to see why Huston was drawn to this story of star-crossed lovers, which plays out against a realistically medieval backdrop, especially since it served as his daughter’s first lead role. Alas, as was the case with Sofia Coppola in “Godfather III,” Angelica proved not to be ready for prime time. But, then, neither did Dayan. Both would go on to do bigger things in better roles, however.
The New York Times took apart Jacques Charon’s adaptation of the classic Georges Feydeau farce, “A Flea in Her Ear,” when it opened in 1968. Vincent Canby described Charon’s pacing as “elephantine,” compared to his recent staging of John Mortimer’s English translation for Britain’s National Theater Company. It’s the movie’s superb cast that makes “A Flea in Her Ear” worth revisiting today. Rosemary Harris plays a woman who suspects that her husband (Rex Harrison) is having an affair, so she sets a trap for him. Being a farce, nothing is likely to turn out as planned. Louis Jourdan and Rachel Roberts round out the list of key players.
“The Fiend Who Walked the West” is Gordon Douglas’ remake of the classic 1947 noir, “Kiss of Death,” with Hugh O’Brian as the crook seeking redemption and Robert Evans as the “kooky killer.” In 1958, O’Brian was midway through his tenure as TV’s Wyatt Earp, while Evans had just completed “The Sun Also Rises” and “Man of a Thousand Faces.” This was a good 10 years before Evans would become the wunderkind producer at Paramount. Here, his sociopathic character, Felix, benefits from sharing a cell with O’Brian’s blabbermouth bank robber. Once on the outside, Felix heads straight for the loot missing from the heist, but not without killing some solid citizens along the way. The robber is released from jail in an effort to re-capture or kill the greater threat to society and protect his family. Evans never considered himself to be a good actor, but he’s fun to watch here.
Legend of the Goatman
Anyone aspiring to stardom in the horror game would do well to pay attention to the alarmist docu-dramas dished out on a regular basis by Reality Entertainment. By appearing to take reports of paranormal and supernatural phenomenology and mythic creatures seriously—financially speaking, at least—the company provides templates for aspiring filmmakers looking for ideas for genre flicks. It’s up to them, however, to create something new and different from the legends dramatized and “expert” testimony proffered. “Legend of the Goatman: Horrifying Monsters, Cryptids and Ghosts” introduces us to some new creatures, while re-introducing such golden oldies as the Goatman and Sasquatch (a.k.a., cryptids). I’ll leave it to viewers to judge the veracity of the expert testimony and first-person sightings, but the witnesses don’t wear aluminum-foil hats to work or demand that we believe their reports … or else. Besides the Goatman and Sasquatch legends, this anthology also offers some hocus-pocus about famous regional ghosts.