Tag Archives: 2018 Reviews

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2018

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2018)

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As 2018 closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 feature films out of the 50 or so I reviewed this year. As per usual my list is presented alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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Big Sonia – There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer).

But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world. Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. You think you’ve had problems in your life? Let me put it this way…I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. (Full review)

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Black KkKlansman – So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.  (Full review)

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Fahrenheit 11/9 – Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions

As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity. If you’re a Moore fan, you won’t be disappointed (though you may be a bit depressed). If you’re a Moore hater, you won’t be disappointed. (Full review)

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The Guilty –Considering that nearly all of the “action” in Gustav Möller’s low-budget gem is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, Möller and his star Jakob Cedergren perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies.

Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and completely bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. (Full review)

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Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full review)

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Little Tito and the Aliens – I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss. (Full review)

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Outside In – The rain-washed town of Granite Falls, Washington (population 3400) is a palpable character in Lynn Shelton’s drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome. Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher.

Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco, who can say more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors convey with a page of dialog. Duplass (who co-scripted) also delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could call it a series of Zen moments; a reflective and meditative glimpse at the intimate workings of the creative process. It also documents Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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Wild, Wild Country – On one level, co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way’s binge-worthy Netflix documentary series is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up. It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). The Ways mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia. (Full review)

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – In his affable portrait of the publicly sweet, gentle, and compassionate TV host Fred Rogers, director Morgan Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead).

That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now. (Full review)

I hate my sister: Mirai no Mirai (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2018)

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If you seek a family-friendly film for the holidays that doesn’t involve Grinches or umbrella-powered English nannies, the Japanese anime Mirai no Mirai (“Mirai of theFuture”) may be the ticket. The latest effort from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda is a fantasy-drama that plays like a cross between Where the Wild Things Are and Labyrinth.

The story centers on 4-year-old Kun and his busy parents (Dad is an architect and Mom is an executive). Not unlike many 4-year-old boys he’s a wrecking ball, but he seems like a happy kid, doing happy kid things like cavorting with his dog, playing with his toy trains, and generally enjoying all those perks that come with being the Center of the Universe.

Sadly, poor Kun has little clue that the dynamic of this pretty sweet deal is about to shift.

The thing is, Mom and Dad haven’t just been busy at the office. One day, Mom comes home with a little surprise for Kun. It’s a baby sister. Initially, Kun appears excited about the family’s new addition, much in the same manner a 4-year-old gets excited about a shiny new toy before the novelty wears off. His excitement soon changes to consternation when it becomes obvious that the novelty of “Mirai” isn’t wearing off for Mom and Dad. 

In fact, this little Mirai character is starting to suck all the air out of the room. Why are his parents treating Kun like he’s persona non grata? He was here first! What’s so special about her, anyway? She can’t even form a sentence. All she does is eat, cry and sleep. For this, she gets a medal?! In a fit of pique, Kun takes one of his toy trains in hand and menacingly looms over her crib. Luckily Mom stops him, then gives him a scolding.

Confused and angry, Kun pitches a major tantrum. He flees into the garden, where he bumps into a man lurking in the trellises, who imperiously introduces himself as the “prince” of the house. Or at least he was…until Kun dethroned him simply by being born (long story). This kick-starts a reality-bending journey through the time-space continuum for Kun, who learns the importance of unconditional familial love and ancestral bonds along the way (whether a 4-year-old is capable of such an epiphany…is open for debate).

Mirai no Mirai is less complex than Hosoda’s previous films (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) Still, its heart is in the right place. Kids will identify with the child’s-eye perspective, and adults may be transported back to that period of the life cycle when worries are few and everything feels possible (before your mental carousel gets clogged up with excess baggage, if you catch my drift).

Blu-ray reissue: 2001: A Space Odyssey ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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2001: A Space Odyssey – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of prehistoric humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Earlier this year, for the 50th anniversary, Christopher Nolan supervised a theatrical 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences experienced it in 1968. And, not missing an opportunity to make me re-purchase it for the 6th time (VHS, DVD, “remastered” DVD, Blu-ray, and “remastered” Blu-ray) Warner has released a “restored” Blu-ray (as well as a pricier 3-disc set that adds a 4K-UHD version).

This review is based on the 2-disc Blu-ray set (one disc is for the extras). There are no technical notes included; so I can’t confirm this is a 4K scan.  After an A/B comparison with my copy of the 2007 Warner Blu-ray, I can confirm the new scan is spectacular, with vibrant color grading, rich deep blacks and sharp contrast. Audio has also been upgraded. Extras are identical to the 2007 version (Warner is historically stingy with those) but it’s worth the dip for those who want the best possible home viewing experience of the film.

Blu-ray reissue: 12 Monkeys ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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12 Monkeys – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many more surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.

Arrow Films’ 4K restoration is a marked improvement over Universal’s previous Blu-ray; picture and audio quality are outstanding. The commentary track (by Gilliam and Charles Roven) and an 87-minute documentary (The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys) have been ported over from the Universal edition, but Arrow adds several new features-including a video appreciation by Ian Christie and an image gallery.

Blu-ray reissue: True Stories ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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True Stories – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. The episodic vignettes about the quirky but generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas should hold your fascination once you buy into “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment.

Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray. The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps- but for some reason, I have an emotional attachment to this film that I can’t even explain.

Finally, “Someone” (in this case, Criterion) has done justice to Lachman’s lovely cinematography by giving this film a properly matted 1:85:1 transfer (for years, the only version available on home video was a dismal “pan and scan” DVD). The newly restored 4K transfer was supervised by Byrne and Lachman, and it’s gorgeous.

The 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio also lends a crucial upgrade to the soundtrack quality (all those great Talking Heads songs really pop now!). Extras include a CD of the complete music soundtrack, deleted scenes, written essays, and documentary shorts (new and archival).

Blu-ray reissue: Shampoo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Shampoo– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie).

Beatty allegedly based his character of “George” on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings).

This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 4K restoration (previous DVDs have been less than stellar in picture and sound quality). Extras include a conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich and a 1998 TV interview with Warren Beatty from The South Bank Show.

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Cheated Himself ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Man Who Cheated Himself – Flicker Alley Blu-ray

This marks the third collaboration between releasing studio Flicker Alley, the Film Noir Foundation, and UCLA Film and Television Archive in their mission to unearth and restore forgotten film noir gems from the classic noir cycle (it was preceded by Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run).

The ever-gruff Lee J. Cobb stars as a bad, bad cop (a noir staple) who gets in the middle of a kerfuffle between his girlfriend (Jane Wyatt, cast against type as a femme fatale) and her estranged husband. The incident ends badly for hubby, and love-struck Cobb scrambles a cover-up. Adherent to the Rules of Noir, the more he tries to cover it, the deeper the hole gets. Having his straight-arrow rookie homicide detective brother (John Dall) by his side working so enthusiastically to solve the case doesn’t exactly quell his anxiety.

While I wouldn’t call this 1950 effort from prolific director Felix E. Feist (perhaps best-known for his cult noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride) a classic genre entry, it’s still quite involving, the performances are solid, and it’s always noble to rescue a forgotten noir. The real star is ever-cinematic San Francisco; some of its most iconic locations are used to great effect by DP Russell Harlan (especially the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point).

Extras include a mini-documentary about the original production, a “then and now” virtual tour around contemporary San Francisco scouting out original locations for the film, and a souvenir booklet.

Blu-ray reissue: The Magnificent Ambersons ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Magnificent Ambersons – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

It’s sad that the late great Orson Welles has (unfairly) become the perennial poster boy for “squandered talent” in the film industry. Granted, he was a rapscallion who loved to push people’s buttons; unfortunately, some of those “people” were powerful producers and studio heads who didn’t get the joke back in those days when “maverick” and “genius” were dirty words in Hollywood.

But he was a maverick, and he was a genius…he just wanted to make the movies he wanted to make, precisely the way he wanted to make them. But alas, the “boy genius” became enslaved by his own legend soon after making Citizen Kane at age 25.

Welles’ disillusionment with the studio system began with the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, as what hit theaters was essentially a butchered version of how he had envisioned the film. Unfortunately, he had conceded final cut in a deal made with RKO (a decision he came to regret). Adding insult to the injury of the 50 excised minutes from Welles’ original rough cut, studio heads ordered that the negatives of that footage be destroyed as well. Regardless, the film is still heralded as one of Welles’ finest efforts.

Welles adapted the script from Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel. It’s the story of a well-to-do family whose “magnificence” (as Welles’ stentorian voice-over narration informs us) “…began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” This sets the tone for what ensues, which is the rotting of that “splendor” from the inside out; not only the decline of a family dynasty, but of a mannered, measured way of life whose destruction was assured by the onslaught of the Second Industrial Revolution (the price of Progress can be steep).

Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a real showcase for Stanley Cortez’s striking chiaroscuro photography, and a testament to Welles’ mastery of visual storytelling. Extras include two commentary tracks by film scholars and critics, new video essays by film historians and scholars, an excerpt from the 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, written essays, and more.

Blu-ray reissue: Little Murders ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Little Murders – Indicator Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This dark, dark comedy from 1971 is one of my all-time favorite films. It was directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own self-described “post-assassination play” (referring to the then-relatively recent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy). That said, it is not wholly political; but it is sociopolitical (I see it as the pre-cursor to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network).

Elliot Gould is at the peak of his Elliot Gould-ness as a nihilistic (and seemingly brain-dead) free-lance photographer who is essentially browbeaten into a love affair with an effervescent sunny side-up young woman (Marcia Rodd) who is bound and determined to snap him out of his torpor. The story follows the travails of this oil and water couple as they slog through a dystopian New York City chock full o’ nuts, urban blight, indifference and random shocking acts of senseless violence (you know…New York City in the 70s).

There are so many memorable vignettes, and nearly every cast member gets a Howard Beale-worthy monologue on how fucked-up American society is (and remember…this was 1971). Disturbingly, it remains relevant as ever. But it is very funny. No, seriously. The cast includes Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi (who has the best monolog) and Donald Sutherland. Arkin is a riot as a homicide investigator.

Indicator’s limited-edition Blu-ray features a gorgeous high-definition remaster (please note that it is a Region ‘B’ locked disc that requires a multi-region player). A plethora of extras includes a 2004 audio commentary with Gould and Feiffer, an alternate commentary track from 2018 by film journalist Samm Deighan, new and archival featurettes, interviews, and critical re-appraisals, a 40-page booklet of essays, and more.

Blu-ray reissue: King of Hearts ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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King of Hearts – Cohen Film Collection/Sony Blu-ray

The utter madness of war has rarely been conveyed in such a succinct (or oddly endearing) manner as in Philippe de Broca’s absurdist adult fable. Alan Bates stars as a WW1 Scottish army private sent ahead of his advancing company to a rural French village, where he is to locate and disarm a bomb that has been set by retreating Germans.

His mission is interrupted when he is suddenly set upon by a coterie of loopy and highly theatrical residents who (literally) sweep him off his feet and jovially inform him he is now their “king”. These happy-go-lucky folks are, in fact, inmates of the local asylum, who have occupied the town since the residents fled. The battle-weary private decides to humor them, in the meantime brainstorming how he can coax them out of harm’s way before the war inevitably intrudes once again.

It’s wonderful to have a newly-restored 4K scan of this cult favorite, which has been previously difficult to track down on home video. Extras include a feature-length commentary track by film critic Wade Major, a new conversation with the film’s leading lady Genevieve Bujold, and a new conversation with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.