Tag Archives: 2009 Reviews

DVD Reissue: Z ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley


Z – Criterion Collection DVD

This 1969 film was a breakthrough for director Costa-Gavras, and a high-watermark for the “radical chic” cinema that flourished at the time. Yves Montand plays a leftist politician who is assassinated after giving a speech at a pro-Peace rally. What at first appears to be an open and shut case of a violent action by an isolated group of right wing extremists unfolds as a suspenseful conspiracy thriller. The story (set in an unspecified Balkan nation, but based on the real-life assassination of a Greek political figure back in 1963) is told from the perspective of two characters-a photojournalist (a young Jacques Perrin, future director of Winged Migration) and an investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The great Irene Papas is on hand as Montand’s wife. Although the film is more of a static affair than its exalted reputation as a “fast-moving” political thriller may lead you to believe (there’s much more talk than action), it is still essential viewing. It’s a little bit Kafka, a little bit Rashomon, but ultimately a cautionary tale about what happens when corrupt officialdom, unchecked police oppression and partisan-sanctioned extremism get into bed together. Criterion’s edition has a beautiful, restored print. Extras include a commentary track and interviews.

DVD Reissue: Wings of Desire ****

By Dennis Hartley


Wings of Desire – The Criterion Collection DVD (2-disc)

I’ve never sat down and tried to compile a Top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time (I’ve just seen too many damn movies…I’d be staring at my computer screen for weeks, if my head didn’t explode first) but I’m pretty sure that Wim Wenders’ 1987 stunner would be a shoo-in. Like 2001 or Koyaanisqatsi, if you try to summarize this film in a paragraph or two for someone who has never seen it, it’s like describing color to a blind man. I mean, if I told you it’s about a trench coat-wearing angel who hovers over Berlin, monitoring people’s thoughts and taking notes, who spots a beautiful trapeze artist one day and follows her home, wallows around in her deepest longings, watches her undress, then falls in love and decides to chuck the mantle of immortality and become human…well, you’d probably say “Dennis, that sounds like a story about a creepy stalker.” And if I threw in the fact that it also features Peter Falk, playing himself, you’d say “OK, where’s the hidden camera? I’m being punk’d, right?” But it’s more than that. It’s about everything, and nothing…now I sound pretentious. OK, maybe you should rent it first, then decide if it’s worth owning. Personally, I own two copies, MGM’s original DVD issue and the new 2009 Criterion edition, which has a markedly improved transfer and a plethora of extras.

DVD Reissue: North by Northwest ****

By Dennis Hartley


North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition) – Warner  (2-disc)

I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual mastery than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest. The 50th anniversary restoration by Warner is crystalline, and corrects the color issues that marred the previous edktion.

DVD Reissue: Nickelodeon ***

By Dennis Hartley


The Last Picture Show/Nickelodeon – Sony DVD (2-disc)

The main reason I was thrilled about Sony’s Peter Bogdanovich double feature reissue was that it made his 1976 film Nickelodeon available for the first time on Region 1 DVD (not to denigrate the status of what is arguably his crowing achievement, The Last Picture Show, which has already been available as a stand-alone disc for some time now). Nickelodeon is Bogdanovich’s love letter to the silent film era, depicting the trials and tribulations of independent filmmakers, circa 1910. It leans a little heavy on the slapstick at times, but is bolstered by charming performances all around from a great cast that includes Ryan O’Neal, Stella Stevens, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Tatum O’Neal. The film is beautifully photographed by the late great DP, Laszlo Kovacs. Anyone who truly loves the movies will find the closing sequence incredibly moving. The real treat here is the additional inclusion of the director’s cut, presented in black and white  (which was Bogdanovich’s original plan). Bogdanovich’s commentary track is wry and illuminating.

DVD Reissue: Gone With the Wind ****

By Dennis Hartley


Gone With the Wind  (70th Anniversary Edition)  – Warner (2-disc)

1939 was a good year for director Victor Fleming. Even if he had been hit by a bus after helming The Wizard of Oz, his rep would have been secured; but he also delivered a little sleeper you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind that very same year. If you want to get technical,  he “inherited” the project from director George Cukor, who dropped out over differences with producer David O. Selznick (who in essence co-directed). At any rate, no matter who actually called the shots, the end result is generally considered the quintessential American film epic. You know the story (based on Margaret Mitchell’s  sprawling novel); spoiled, narcissistic Southern diva (Vivien Leigh) has unrequited love for dashing Confederate war hero (Leslie Howard) who is betrothed to her saintly rival (Olivia deHavilland) and takes 2 hours of screen time to realize she really belongs with the roguish (and equally self-absorbed) Clark Gable.

The burning of Atlanta (and other Civil War distractions) provides an occasional sense of release from the smoldering passion and sexual tension (which finally reaches torrid consummation about 3 hours in). That’s a lot of foreplay, but in the meantime you are treated to a visually sumptuous feast and mythic performances by all four leads. While it is hopelessly “of its time” in its unfortunate characterizations of African-Americans, it is ahead of its time in one respect-it features some very strong and self-sufficient female protagonists. This is one film that transcends its own medium. Warner’s 2009 transfer is breathtaking.



DVD Reissue: The Friends of Eddie Coyle ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2008)


The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Criterion Collection DVD

One of the best film noirs of the 1970s finally made its belated debut on DVD , thanks to Criterion. This vastly under-appreciated film from director Peter Yates features one of the last truly great performances from genre icon Robert Mitchum, at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best as an aging hood. Peter Boyle excels in a low-key performance as a low-rent hit man, and Richard Jordan is superlative as a cynical and manipulative Fed. Steven Keats steals all his scenes as a skuzzy black market gun dealer. Paul Monash adapted his screenplay from the novel by George P. Higgins. A tough and lean slice of American neo-realism enhanced by DP Victor J. Kemper’s gritty, atmospheric use of the autumnal Boston locales. Criterion’s restoration and transfer of the  print is outstanding.

DVD Reissue: El Norte ****

By Dennis Hartley


El Norte – Criterion Collection DVD (2 discs)

Gregory Nava’s effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings making their way to the U.S. after their activist father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads give naturalistic, completely believable performances as the brother and sister whose desperate optimism never falters, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending-this 1983 film is not easy to watch but thoroughly enlightening. Claustrophobic viewers  should be forewarned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a roving rat colony during an underground border crossing though an abandoned sewer might give you nightmares. Criterion’s sparkling transfer is a world of improvement over the previous PAL editions.

DVD Reissue: Dodes’ka-den ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley


Dodes’ka-den – Criterion Collection DVD

Previously unavailable on Region 1, this 1970 film by Akira Kurosawa rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as The Seven Samurai or Ikuru; nonetheless, it stands out in his oeuvre as one of his most unique and impressionistic efforts. After 27 years (and nearly as many movies) into his career, this marked the first project that the great director shot in color-and it shows. Almost as if he was making up for lost time, Kurosawa saturates the screen in an explosion of every vivid hue imaginable, like an excited kid experimenting with his first 120-count box of Crayolas. Perversely, the subject matter within this episodic tale of life in a Tokyo slum (mental illness, domestic violence, rape, alcoholism, starvation, etc.) is as dark and bleak as its visual palette is bright and colorful. It’s challenging; but if you can give the director the benefit of the doubt and grant him the somewhat leisurely pace of the initial 30 minutes to get acquainted with the characters, your patience will be richly rewarded. The film creeps up on you with its genuine humanity, packing a real (if hard-won) emotional wallop by the devastating denouement. Criterion’s DVD features a lovely transfer and some nice extras.

DVD Reissue: Carny ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley


Carny – Warner Archives DVD

This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his pal (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle. The story is raised above its inherent sleaze by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the Insult Clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

The reissue is part of the Warner Archive Series, which is a good news/bad news proposition for film buffs. Bad news first: These are bare-bones editions (they are burning them “on demand” based on number of orders placed on their website). Also, these are not necessarily restored prints (making the $19.99 list price a bit dubious). But the good news is that Warner claims to be uutilizing this new product line as an excuse to eventually clean out everything  languishing in their vaults that was previously unavailable on DVD.

RIP David Carradine: All life is precious…

By Dennis Hartley

…nor can any be replaced.

I was very saddened to hear about David Carradine’s passing this week. He may not have always necessarily been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft. According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there). One thing’s for sure, I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine that is forever cemented in their minds via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:

Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for the then fledgling director Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part as a drunk in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.

Americana-Carradine and Hershey teamed up again in this odd, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981) that Carradine directed and co-produced himself. He plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s a little bit Rambo, a wee bit Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent as those films) and a whole lotta weird. What really makes this film a curio in the “coming home” genre is that none of the violent acts in the story are perpetrated by its protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays during the closing credits. This pre-dates Deer Hunter by 4 years, by the way.

Death Race 2000 At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (from what I understand, music was his first love).

The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from the highly-stylized action film maestro Walter Hill. I think it’s one of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting on display. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).

Q, The Winged SerpentI know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a personal guilty pleasure of mine. It’s actually one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard that is randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (in a truly demented performance) is ostensibly the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some very wry lines, and I think he shows some very subtle comic timing throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark. C’mon-a dragon in NYC…you’ve gotta love it!

Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you just knew that at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of the most plum roles of his latter-day career, giving him a second wind with a whole new audience of potential fans.