"Brute Force"

October 2020

Prison-Reform Agitprop ca. 1947

The Criterion Collection 383
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***1/2

In these weeks and months following the death of George Floyd, we’ve heard a lot about prison reform and police brutality. The issue has been around a while -- witness this 1947 film from director Jules Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger. But there’s a huge difference between the prison-reform controversy of the 1940s and today’s: Few Black faces are seen among the prisoners in Brute Force, who are mostly white. The themes, on the other hand, are all too familiar.

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"The Comfort of Strangers"

September 2020

Terror Lurks in the Shadows of Venice

The Criterion Collection 1041
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
***

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***

In The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on holiday in Venice, trying to define their relationship. Mary wants a firmer commitment; Colin is happy with the loose arrangement they’ve had so far. In early scenes, they frankly address their differences -- or rather, Mary addresses, Colin deflects. Seemingly by accident, they run into a married couple, Robert (Christopher Walken) and Caroline (Helen Mirren), who live in a luxurious, Byzantine-style apartment. Robert tells them much of his history and acts as a tour guide; Caroline’s part in this story grows more gradually.

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"The War of the Worlds"

August 2020

A Sci-Fi Classic Reborn on Criterion BD

The Criterion Collection 1037
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
*****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
*****

Extras
****1/2

H.G. Wells’s science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds was first serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, and published in hardcover by William Heinemann the following year. In the 122 years since it has appeared in numerous versions, including several films. But the 1953 version directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal, though freely adapted from Wells’s story, has proven the most iconic and durable. Nearly 70 years after its release, The Criterion Collection’s bang-up edition informs us that it’s a classic that will remain in the repertory.

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"An Unmarried Woman"

July 2020

Jill Clayburgh’s Radiance and Depth

The Criterion Collection 1032
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
****

After establishing shots of New York City set to composer Bill Conti’s jaunty main theme, we discover a jogging couple: Erica (Jill Clayburgh) and Martin (Michael Murphy). She’s happy and carefree; he’s quarrelsome, nervous, withdrawn. When he steps in some dog poop and begins having a conniption, she placates him, and they then run home to make love. There we’re introduced to their 15-year-old daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), and this well-to-do family’s domestic life. It all looks perfect. Later, as Erica and Martin are taking a walk, he trembles as he tells her, “I’m in love with another woman.”

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"Matewan"

June 2020

John Sayles’s Vision of 1920s West Virginia Rings True

The Criterion Collection 999
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
*****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
****

Independent filmmaker and screenwriter (and novelist) John Sayles has been interested in depicting social injustice in most of his films, and in none so prominently as Matewan (1987), based on a massacre that took place on May 19, 1920, in Matewan, West Virginia. On that date, coal miners organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) confronted 12 agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who were working for the mine owners. The mayor, two citizens, and seven agency men were killed, and others were wounded.

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"Torso"

May 2020

Classic Italian Thriller Gets the Ultimate BD Treatment

Arrow Video AV171
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***

Extras
****1/2

Films in the Italian genre called giallo, or yellow -- we call them horror thrillers -- were prominent in Italy in the early-to-mid 1970s, and predated and inspired such American slasher films as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). The word giallo originally referred to popular Italian mystery novels that were published in cheap paperback editions with yellow covers. A genuine giallo film is a murder mystery containing gratuitous nudity, sex, violence, and lots of graphic gore. Although giallo and slasher movies have much in common, the latter are more about “howdunnit, who’s next”; the giallo, despite its lurid trappings, is more a whodunnit steeped in mystery.

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"So Dark the Night"

April 2020

A Minor Gem Worth Your Time

Arrow Academy AA040-TM
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
***

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***

COVID-19 has turned just about every man, woman, and child into a movie buff. By now, many have been through the classics and are surfing frantically for movies they pick by title or star. Such a search can be an adventure, but you’d best be prepared that streaming Netflix or Amazon can uncover some real clunkers. Last night I watched After Darkness -- a waste of my time and Kyra Sedgwick’s talent. But turning to a stack of unwatched B movies on disc, I uncovered So Dark the Night (1946), a nifty noir whodunit based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg and directed by Joseph H. Lewis. This succinct (70 minutes) detective procedural set in France has a very twisty ending.

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"The Fugitive Kind"

March 2020

Brando Smolders on Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 515
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
***

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***

Amid a long string of successes from playwright and screenwriter Tennessee Williams came this third-time’s-the-charm effort. Its origins date back to an early Williams play, Battle of Angels, which closed during its trial run in Boston, in 1940. Seventeen years later, after much rewriting and rethinking by Williams, Orpheus Descending, based on Battle of Angels, premiered on Broadway in 1957. Reviews were unflattering, and it closed two months later. Nonetheless, a film version was made: The Fugitive Kind (1960).

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"Fail-Safe"

February 2020

Taut Suspense Scores on BD

The Criterion Collection 1011
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
***

After 1949, when the USSR began testing nuclear weapons, the US ramped up its own nuclear program. The Cold War had begun. The American public was indoctrinated with information about what would happen if an enemy exploded a nuclear bomb within the US, and about how the armed services would retaliate. Though scientists said the results would be catastrophic, government officials came up with a program, aimed at children and parents, that used an animated film starring a turtle named Bert. It gave false assurances that all would be hunky-dory if kids just ducked under their flimsy school desks and covered their heads with their hands -- the famous “duck and cover” program.

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"Now, Voyager"

January 2020

Bette Davis at Her Peak on Criterion Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 1004
Format: BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
****

Olive Higgins Prouty wrote several novels that revolved around the aristocratic Vale family of Boston, Massachusetts. Most popular of these was Now, Voyager (1941), which was quickly optioned by Warner Bros. as a vehicle for Bette Davis, then at the height of her career and the reigning star of popular “women’s movies.” The film was released the following year, ably directed by Irving Rapper (Deception, The Glass Menagerie), and with Davis getting admirable support from Gladys Cooper, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and Franklin Pangborn. Ever since, it has been considered a classic.

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