Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 17, 2015
Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper). Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.
The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 27, 2015
Woman They Almost Lynched is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman. The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 16, 2014
Albert Lewin is an elusive figure in the history of Hollywood. He was an educated aesthete with a B.A. from NYU and a M.A. from Harvard who took a job as a script reader at Samuel Goldwyn studios. He swiftly rose through the ranks after Goldwyn was absorbed by MGM, and he was one of the five “Thalberg Men” who facilitated the studios success, overseeing hits like Spawn of the North and Mutiny on the Bounty. When not overseeing super productions, Lewin directed six unusual features, almost all about artistically inclined loners enmeshed in a debilitating obsession. His most famous film is his 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. It is a startlingly controlled production, from Hurd Hatfield’s evocatively blank lead performance to the deep focus photography of DP Harry Stradling, which gives ample space for Gray’s emptiness to expand.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 11, 2014
UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 21, 2014
Farrelly Brothers movies are akin to family gatherings. They are filled with extreme neuroses, unexpected violence, and deep undercurrents of affection. Their films are even populated with friends and relatives from their Rhode Island home. Listen to any of their audio commentaries and you’ll find that half the actors are bankers and car salesman who grew up with them back east. Every time I see a Farrelly feature I think of how Manny Farber described Howard Hawks’ “weird mother hen instinct.” The Farrellys have it as well, just weirder. Dumb and Dumber was their directorial debut and an enormous hit, a tale of ignorant male friendship that lowered scatalogical slapstick so far it went below lowbrow and out the other side. It’s also their first attempt at depicting the bonds of brotherhood, in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels perform a kind of radical acceptance of each other’s flaws — through complete stupidity, but still (they treated the same theme with greater complexity in Stuck on You, their greatest film and biggest bomb). The long-gestating but certainly not maturing sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, comes out next month.
The Farrellys follow-up to the original Dumb and Dumber, though, will never get a sequel, though it did come out on Blu-ray last week. Kingpin is another tale of success-challenged males learning to live with the other’s failure, this time in the lacquered middle-aged crisis world of bowling. Though where Dumb and Dumber is an abstract performance piece, as Carrey and Daniels could have been performing in front of a blank wall to similar effect, Kingpin tries to embed its outrageous characters into a semblance of the real world. Each bowling alley and auto-body shop is lovingly detailed, and essential to the development of its sad sack characters. The lead failure Roy Munson, Jr. (Woody Harrelson) is from the made-up small town of Ocelot, Iowa, a corroded rust belt city where he was once its proudest son as State Bowling champion, while ending up in a pit-stained flophouse in Scranton, PA dodging his scrofulous landlord’s bill. He sees a way out in the smooth stroke of Amish naif Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who he thinks can win the big bowling competition in Reno, and take down his longtime nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 2, 2014
Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 26, 2014
“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!” -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam
In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation - Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 17, 2014
The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 1, 2014
Peter Collinson’s effective slice-of-life drama UP THE JUNCTION (1968) makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut in the U.S. this week thanks to Olive Films. Today the film is often fondly remembered by fans of sixties cinema for its South London setting, colorful mod fashions, beehive hairdos, boastful bikers and jazzy psychedelic pop score by Manfred Mann. But UP THE JUNCTION has more to offer viewers besides an abundance of great style and an unforgettable soundtrack.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 8, 2014
With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.
This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.
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