After an extended hiatus, a return. No fanfare, let’s get to it. At the end, a belated valentine to 2013.
Over the six (six!) years I’ve been affiliated with Popdose, I’ve done my best to get Oscar nominations coverage up on the site ASAP. With No Concessions HQ moving house in Brooklyn, however, I stretched “ASAP” to the breaking point, and I’m happy to report that in my absence early bird Jeff Johnson caught that worm. His picks are solid. (Surrounded still by a sea of boxes, I feel like non-nominee Robert Redford in All is Lost.)
But I do have some Academy Award-winning material to share. Tis the season for studios to put their nominated wares on home video (Captain Phillips, Blue Jasmine, and Dallas Buyers Club are all out now) and revisit the winners of yesteryear on Blu-ray. Out now are two greats, The Killing Fields (1984) and Sunrise (1927).
When producer Saul Zaentz died I observed on Twitter that he produced one of the best-loved Best Pictures of all time (1976’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and one of the least-liked (1996’s The English Patient, famously pilloried, when still in theaters, on Seinfeld). Somewhere in the middle, and perhaps a little undervalued today, is his third (third!) winner, Amadeus. But it isn’t as good as one of the films it beat 30 years ago, The Killing Fields. A harrowing masterpiece, the true story of the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny in Cambodia and a cross-cultural friendship tested to its limits is as riveting as ever, and has received its due on Blu-ray after an indifferent history on home video. Besides a sterling transfer, the disc offers a commentary track from director Roland Joffe (ported from a 2001 DVD release) and the handsome DigiBook packaging is outfitted with stills and info on the cast and crew.
What was the first Best Picture? Technically, though the category was then Outstanding Picture, Wings (1928). But Sunrise, from the great F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), also came up a winner at that first ceremony, claiming the never-again-awarded statuette for Best Unique and Artistic Production–rightly so, as it broke the mold, and helped create the language of cinema without a word being spoken. Murnau’s “Song of Two Humans,” one of them Oscar winner Janet Gaynor, also won statuettes for cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who devised several astonishing tracking shots for the simple, symbolic tale, which among much fascinating Expressionist adornment never loses sight of its heart. A fine set of extras atop a laudable transfer (you should look so good at 87) includes a detailed commentary by DP John Bailey (As Good as It Gets, Groundhog Day).
The Oscar Nominated Short Films are among us once more. Art aside, these are good for a few points on your Oscar ballot. If you’ve seen Frozen, you’ve seen Get a Horse!, which introduces Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney) to the 3D generation. Nostalgia should cinch this to win Best Animated Short, though the competition is strong–I particularly liked Feral, about a wolf child sent to school for “civilizing,” and Possessions, a bit of folklore set in 18th century Japan. Bundled with the nominees are a trio of “highly commended” shorts, one of which, The Blue Umbrella, is so charming it almost made me regret not seeing Monsters University, which it was yoked to theatrically.
The Live Action Shorts tend to fall a bit…short, but this year brings two standouts, the tense, half-hour Just Before Losing Everything, about a mega-mart worker’s desperate flight from her abusive husband, and The Voorman Problem, a twisty comedy, with Martin Freeman as a shrink evaluating a maximum security prisoner (Tom Hollander) who claims to be God.
The Short Documentaries are rather lengthy watched end to end, so they are split between two programs. Program A is highlighted by the engaging The Lady in Number 6, about Alice Herz Sommer, at 109 the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. My hunch, though, is that the winner will be Program B’s Prison Terminal, an affecting HBO Documentary Films production about the knotty problem of our aging prison population. Its subject, Jack Hall, is a terminally ill World War II veteran who has spent much of the remainder of his years in stir for murder; in his final weeks, we meet his caregivers, who illuminate little discussed facets of “life in prison.”
Fond farewells to Oscar winners Maximilian Schell and Shirley Temple. With regrets, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Lawyer Up! The Oklahoma Legal Group in Oklahoma City wrote to tell me that they’re big fans of Popdose and that, oh, by the way, at the behest of the municipality they’re coming after me for those “incidents” that occurred when I was there recently. So to square it with them I agreed to publicize this list they put out about best legal movies. If the list hadn’t included Otto Preminger’s sublime Anatomy of a Murder (1959) I might have reconsidered, but sure enough it’s on there, along with a bunch of other worthy titles. (I particularly like their No. 10 pick.) And the infographic is great; how many billable hours did that take to create? So, color me impressed, and let’s forget about those transgressions, OK? I’ll post a best dentist movies list if anyone wants to give me a free checkup in return.
Stuck with the Kids? A warming trend is in evidence but it doesn’t make a winter break inside away from the elements any easier. I was pleased to discover that there are now two volumes of Nutbrown Hare stories on DVD, Guess How Much I Love You: Hidden Treasure and the newly released Guess How Much I Love You: Friendship Adventures. Sam McBratney’s beautifully illustrated book is a mainstay in our house, the perfect right before sleep reading with its gentle, reassuring sentiments, and the Australian-made cartoons (seven per disc), follow suit, as Little Nutbrown Hare explores the forest around him with his animal friends and his dad steps in to guide their exploration. It joins the similarly calming (though not sedate) Little Bear as ideal wind-down material from toddlers’ more caffeinated viewing.
Our favorite Disney movie tends to be the latest that turns up on Blu-ray. Right now it’s The Jungle Book (1967), which I should be mad at, for helping inaugurate the trend that replaced voiceover artists (I dabble) with celebrities. But who can argue with Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera, the black panther who shelters “wolf cub” Mowgli, Phil Harris as Baloo the carefree bear, Louis Prima as King Louie the swingin’ orangutan, Sterling Holloway as Kaa the Indian python, or the great George Sanders as Shere Khan the villainous tiger? Not me–for one thing it builds cine-literacy, as my daughter instantly recognized Sanders by his voice alone when we caught a few minutes of All About Eve on TCM. There’s nothing to begrudge; the last animated feature that Walt Disney oversaw was the first one I saw theatrically as a kid, and a rich transfer revived my appreciation. (Purists scoff that the studio brightens these films too much, so that they better conform to contemporary tastes in color, but unlike them I can’t recall how they looked back then, being, you know, Mowgli’s age at the time.)
Disney collectors may want to hang onto a prior DVD version, which includes seven deleted songs (the movie endured a fairly brutal gestation from Rudyard Kipling’s text to animated perennial). Otherwise the extras seem to have been ported over in full, including a nice making-of and a commentary track featuring, among others, songwriter Richard M. Sherman, who was clearly having fun satirizing the competition with the Fab Four vultures. (Actual British invaders Chad Stuart, of Chad and Jeremy, and manager Lord Tim Hudson contributed voices.) Sherman, gracious in discussing “The Bare Necessities” (it wasn’t a Sherman brothers song, so no Oscar nomination for them), also figures in a new, ten-minute reminiscence, and there’s also a peek inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom and storyboards for an alternate ending involving a hunter. It’s intriguing, but lacks the undeniable erotic undercurrent that the close has. The things you notice as a grownup…
Hall of Shame. Rifling through all those boxes yielded as much trash as treasure. I sort of wish I hadn’t found Carrie, from the MGM remake mill that yielded the equally undistinguished redos of Red Dawn and RoboCop, or Dario Argento’s Dracula, a pain in the neck in two dimensions, much less the three it was filmed for. With star Chloe Grace Moretz approaching Barbara Steele levels of genre outings, the former holds no surprises, and twists the material in ultimately unsatisfying ways; an alternate ending that should have been buried but is instead included as an extra is ludicrous. I hope it proves that Carrie, already the recipient of a poor sequel, TV remake, and Broadway musical, isn’t a property that can withstand reinterpretation, and that this finishes it, leaving the book and 1976 film to stand tall in the rubble.
While Dracula is an evergreen for reimagining, Argento, who has been hard up for inspiration since the late 80s, wasn’t the filmmaker for the job. While a little better than his wretched Phantom of the Opera (1998), his latest shows that classic monsters aren’t his bag. (What is, after a run of disappointing giallos, is a question mark.) With tired blood performances (an out-of-it Rutger Hauer plays Van Helsing opposite the uninteresting Dracula of Thomas Kretchsmann, who, small world, portrays Van Helsing on the Dracula TV show), a look indebted to Hammer horror, and silly add-ons like a Dracula who transforms into a rubbery praying mantis, Argento does little except strip down his daughter Asia (again) for cheap thrills. The DVD does, however, offer a decent making of, showing talented people yoked to nonsense.
Let’s throw those on the scrap heap, along with The Evil Dead remake, 47 Ronin, Gangster Squad, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Hangover Part III, Identity Thief, and Paranoia, light a match, and be done with it. I’m reprieving The Counselor, which I hated, but which spawned some fine criticism, enough to make me consider a revisit (an extended cut is now on Blu-ray) when I’m in a self-flagellating mood.
Surprises. I liked, more or less, Pain & Gain (pictured) and Spring Breakers. The Great Gatsby wasn’t the chore I was anticipating. The affection for Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Passion, and To the Wonder baffles me. Still on the fence about Nebraska.
Movies I Liked on My iPhone. The Last Stand and Parker. You should never watch a movie that way. But I did. And they’d probably hold up on an actual screen.
11s. A slew of better-than-decent films out there last year, not counting the many I missed, includes Behind the Candelabra (HBO), Blue Caprice, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Computer Chess, Frances Ha, From Up on Poppy Hill, Frozen, The Gatekeepers, The Grandmaster, Her, I Am Divine, In a World…, Iron Man 3, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (HBO), No, Pacific Rim, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Room 237, Rush, Seduced and Abandoned (HBO), Six by Sondheim (HBO), A Touch of Sin, Upstream Color, Vanishing Waves, The Wind Rises, and The World’s End.
Top 10. For those still here…
The Act of Killing
All is Lost
Blue is the Warmest Color
Let the Fire Burn
Stories We Tell
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
And that’s a wrap.