My Great Escape story: Some years ago at a trade show I was in an overcrowded restroom when one of the vendors asked, “What actors played The Magnificent Seven? Ocean’s 11? Who made The Great Escape?” I got props for knowing Brad Dexter was one of the Seven, and that Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson migrated from that surprise hit to Escape, which was also directed by John Sturges, who was able to keep two- and three-hour movies lean and taut. McQueen’s insouciant prisoner (“Cooler!”), who steals the show with his exciting motorcycle chase, is its iconic personality, and James Garner and Richard Attenborough keep the British and American ends up under captivity, respectively. (Garner is intriguingly paired with Donald Pleasence, as the documents forger; two wholly different kinds of performers who somehow mesh.) But the heart of the enterprise belongs to the character actor James Donald, as the British captain who immediately provokes the Nazi captors and marshals the construction of the underground tunnels. Donald is the real hero of The Great Escape–and I was, temporarily, the hero of the washroom for remembering his name.
The plentiful extras include a lengthy Showtime retrospective documentary that aired on the film’s 30th anniversary; History Channel featurettes from 2001 focused on the actual events and personalities from the World War II breakout; and a patched-together but cohesive commentary track with several of the film’s stars, production personnel (like motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins), and Sturges, from a 1974 interview. At $9.99 on Amazon The Great Escape is a steal, particularly if you don’t have the SE DVD.
Another “great escape” from 1963: Jason and the Argonauts. It’s been on Blu since 2010, but the reason I bring it up is to commemorate the late, great, Ray Harryhausen, a legendary filmmaker whose life is threaded into my own. Not as a direct influence, like, say, Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi, or Guillermo del Toro, who direct inspiration in his films to make their own–more like me telling the kids at school, “Hey, did you see Jason and the Argonauts on the 4:30 Movie yesterday?” Which birthed the critical impulse and sent me on my way.
In any case Jason on BD is an enthralling experience. (Way better than watching it panned and scanned and over two afternoons in the pre-home video epoch.) I had hoped to interview Harryhausen about it for Cineaste, but, sadly, that fell through. The disc is like having him right there with you, however, as he comments on his greatest mythological film, one of the finest and most literate of fantasies. Indeed, the Blu-ray is very much a portable Harryhausen, with a second commentary track that has Peter Jackson waxing enthusiastic about many other aspects of the production (Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of his finest, is one of my favorite soundtrack CDs) and a full complement of documentaries. A watch and a listen is as good a way I know to pay tribute, and I trust Sony/Columbia will upgrade The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), the only Harryhausen I saw first run in a theater, before long.
Produced by the inexhaustible del Toro, Mama is in some ways a spiritual cousin to The Haunting, best filmed in 1963. Expanding their Spanish-language short film, an Internet sensation, into a feature, the siblings Andres Muschietti (director/co-writer) and Barbara Muschietti (producer/co-writer) wisely keep the things that go bump in the night off camera for a fair amount of the duration. This gives the tireless, dark-tressed Jessica Chastain, fresh off Zero Dark Thirty, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), and the rest of the cast to develop characterizations, as their foster parents are threatened by a particularly nasty spirit named “Mama” by their two trauma-plagued girls. Mama, played creepily by Javier Botet, is a memorable movie monster let loose in an atmospheric setup, but perhaps we see too much of it, which dilutes the fear factor. There is, however, a satisfying conclusion, and Mama‘s brisk boxoffice performance, coupled with that of last year’s The Woman in Black, indicates that there is a horror audience beyond remakes.
Besides the expected spooktacular transfer, Mama extras include a thorough commentary by the Muschiettis (not too many brother/sister teams out there), behind-the-scenes featurettes, OK deleted scenes, and the short, which you can see right here. Don’t say you weren’t warned.[youtube id=”WRqS6pBC42w” width=”600″ height=”350″]
Can we keep the Game of Thrones connection going? Natalie Dormer (who I loved as Anne Boleyn on The Tudors) leaves the royal frippery behind when she plays Irene Adler on Elementary, which ended its first season last night. Not that I saw it; I prefer my Holmes canonical, though I make an exception for the BBC’s most excellent Sherlock, which brings the stories up to date. And I also enjoy The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), which Shout Factory has seen fit to put on Blu-ray/DVD in a silkily attractive edition, after its appearance as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from Universal. (Shout has also upgraded MODs of Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion and the Oscar-nominated The Portrait of a Lady to Blu.)
Based on Nicholas Meyer’s book and directed by Herbert Ross, the film is an ideal confection, teaming Holmes (the late Nicol Williamson) with Sigmund Freud (the irreplaceable Alan Arkin) when Watson (Robert Duvall, oddly, if winningly, cast) notes that the detective’s cocaine fixes are getting the better of him. The mystery angle in the Vienna-set production doesn’t come to much but this is how Hollywood used to make them, and it wasn’t making too many of them then, either. (It’s something of a cousin, an exemplary one, to the “nostalgia craze” typified by the previous year’s flop Lucky Lady, a Shout DVD that was one of my favorite excavations of 2011.) So much else works, though, including the rich period detail, and look at that supporting cast–Laurence Olivier (as Moriarity), Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Eggar, and Joel Grey, plus a Stephen Sondheim number. 100% delightful. The one extra is a good one, an interview with Meyer, later of the Star Trek family, about his Holmes reboot.
Finally…a dud. They can’t all be good, and the January flop Broken City isn’t good. My buddy Scott Malchus reviewed it on Digital High Definition video before my Blu-ray arrived and I’m afraid I can’t be more upbeat about this tired political thriller, a quick-dump January release if ever I saw one. (When your agent says your movie is opening in January, arrange to be out of town; exceptions remain rare.) The disc doesn’t bring much to the party, with a decent making-of making you feel sorry for a good cast for getting involved. We can only hope for better next week.