Screening Room: ‘The Virgin Spring’

My review of the Criterion Blu-ray edition of The Virgin Spring is at PopMatters:

You can easily imagine the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s devastating The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1961) calling where they live “God’s country”. Their farm is situated in a kind of pristine wonderland of thick pine forests and gurgling streams. Religion plays a central role in most of their lives as well, with the mother, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), seeming to spend her every waking moment in contemplation of God, and her husband, Tore (Max von Sydow), only slightly less fervent in his faith. They are certain of their place in the world, and God’s gifts to them…

Here’s a clip:

Screening Room: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

There’s a new Criterion Blu-ray edition out with a gorgeous presentation of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 wartime afterlife romance A Matter of Life and Death. And yes, it’s pretty much required viewing.

My review is at PopMatters:

After making a run of cheery but subversive movies during World War II, always under the watchful eye of Winston Churchill — who refused to shut down the film industry as it was during the Great War — the Ministry of War came to [Powell and Pressburger] with a request: Could they make a movie that would make the British and Americans love each other? A seemingly odd request, given that the nations were at the time fighting tooth and nail to dislodge the Nazis from Western Europe…

Here’s a trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1’

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is out on DVD now. My review is at PopMatters:

A friend who didn’t know much about The Handmaid’s Tale, either the terrifying series or the even darker Margaret Atwood novel it was adapted from, was surprised when I called it an alternate history. All he knew was glimpses of the ads, which highlighted the show’s visual signature: Lines of meek-looking women shrouded in blazing red robes and face-hiding white bonnets. He thought it was some show about 17th century America. That’s by design. This is science fiction set in the future that looks to the past and magnifies the present…

Screening Room: ‘Baby Driver’

So here’s the pitch for the unlikely summer blockbuster Baby Driver: There’s this getaway driver who’s creepy good at his job. Only he has this thing where he listens to music all the time and doesn’t really talk to people. This annoys the bank robbers he works with. Sound good? Well, the soundtrack is, at least.

Baby Driver is out now on DVD. My review is at PopMatters:

In the desultory extras accompanying the DVD of Baby Driver, there isn’t much to explain the movie’s genesis besides the obvious. Writer/director Edgar Wright was obsessed with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and thought it would be a great song for a car chase. So, like the eager fanboy that Wright is, he doesn’t wait any longer than the opening scene to drop that sequence…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ghost in the Shell’

The Scarlett Johansson live-action remake of the classic 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell hit DVD and Blu-ray this week. My review is at PopMatters:

For a movie ostensibly about uniqueness and what makes us human, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t make a strong argument for either. This is a story in which the technology fascinates and the people bore. Sense memories of other movies proliferate until you forget quite what it was you were watching in the first place. That’s the sort of thing bound to happen when the star (Scarlett Johansson) is playing a role she can sleepwalk through and the story was only groundbreaking when first filmed over 20 years ago…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

manwhofelltoearth-dvdIn 1976, David Bowie was a rock star, but pretty much still just that. Then Nicolas Roeg cast the singer/songwriter with the alien alter ego(s) as an alien wandering around Earth and having an existential crisis. The film was remembered less for itself

My review of The Man Who Fell to Earth, now out in a deluxe new Blu-ray/DVD release with fab new digital transfer, is at PopMatters:

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those curious sci-fi projects that are occasionally indulged in by filmmakers who didn’t have any particular interest in the genre per se, but found it a useful springboard for their ideas. David Bowie plays an alien who’s come to Earth looking for a water supply for his drought-ravaged planet. Calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton and looking like some kind of spectral hipster in his sunglasses and anorak, he’s first spotted wandering through a small New Mexico town, pawning a ring and drinking stagnant water as though it were the nectar of the gods…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘His Girl Friday’

his-girl-friday1

Criterion’s two-disc edition of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday hit stores last week and it’s a real pip. Packaged with all the usual supplemental features and interviews, you’ve also got the full edition of Lewis Milestone’s first film adaptation of the play The Front Page from 1931. But all you really need is the film itself, a sparkling new 4K restoration that makes every gag from this whirlwind-speed screwball comedy ring clear.

his-girl-friday-dvdMy review of His Girl Friday is at PopMatters:

Unlike his lionized peers Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, Hawks didn’t stick to one genre. He made some crime and war dramas like Scarface and The Road to Glory, but was better known for romances and screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and Twentieth Century. His defining characteristic, though, served him in good stead for his newest project: speed…

Check out the trailer here.

Screening Room: ‘A Touch of Zen’

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 4.53.14 PM.tif

In 1971, former martial-arts director King Hu embarked on an epic reimagination of what the genre would look like. The three-hour A Touch of Zen was magical, weird, and breathtaking, often in the same scene. It was mostly ignored in its butchered release, except for some brief acclaim after finally getting a proper showing at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

touchofzen-dvdSince then, the film—which deeply influenced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—has been mostly confined to obscurity. Thankfully, Janus Films gave it a proper release earlier this year, and now there’s also a beautiful new Criterion DVD edition.

My review is at PopMatters:

The film’s second third comes as a relief after the deliberate mannerisms and fussy perfectionism of the first third. Here, A Touch of Zen pivots from quiet pastoral with supernatural elements to more John Sturges Western. As villainous forces marshal against Yang and the two fugitive generals who came to her aid, Ku uses his study of classic works of strategy to plan their defense. The set-piece battle in which the small army of guards are lured into the supposedly haunted fort for a spectacular night-time ambush is a marvel of geometric precision and subterfuge…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’

holygrail1Back in 1975, Monty Python was just starting to get a name for themselves outside of the UK. That was the year their first proper film landed in theaters, and comedy just wasn’t the same after that. Killer rabbits and all.

My review of the 40th anniversary DVD / Blu-ray release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at PopMatters:

Shot by a ramshackle Dadaist comedy troupe over a chaotic and fairly drunken month in Scotland in 1974, right around the time that their Flying Circus TV show was coming to an end, and funded primarily by having some rock star friends of the troupe (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) throw in a few thousand pounds each, the film should have been one of those debacles where everybody wishes they had just packed it up and retired instead. Among the extras on the anniversary edition—including outtakes and some newly unearthed animations by Terry Gilliam—is an on-the-set BBC piece where Gilliam seems more chuckle-headed college joker than co-director, John Cleese barely able to contain his irritation with being directed and all the last-minute rewrites, and set mechanics so primitive they could be out-done by an early Doctor Who episode…

Here’s the original trailer:

TV Room: ‘House of Cards: Season 3’

“That damned, smiling villain…” Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)
The third season of House of Cards is out now on DVD for those of you out there not streaming. My review is at PopMatters:

When last we left Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the frenetic second season of House of Cards, he had bested all challenges and ensconced himself in the Oval Office. It was a thunderclap of a climax, his school ring rapping on the desk like a gunshot, the echo calling to mind the long line of rivals he had run over on the way there like human speedbumps. You almost expected the story to end there. But as every striver for the throne from Macbeth back to the Roman emperors discovered, staying in power is as much or more of a struggle than getting there in the first place…

Here’s a trailer, to catch you up:

New on DVD: ‘Batman: The Complete Series’

Batman-DVD setFrom 1966 to 1968, ABC showed one of the greatest series ever to grace the American TV screen. The original Batman TV show was different from pretty much everything that came before. Full of bright Pop Art colors and tongue-in-cheek satire, it both celebrated and mocked the superhero genre in a way that kids could take straight and adults could enjoy as comedy.

Finally, after years of legal wrangling, all 120 episodes are finally available for your viewing pleasure on DVD and Blu-ray. My review of Batman: The Complete Series is at PopMatters.

Also, here’s The Jam performing the unassailably cool theme to Batman:

New on DVD: ‘The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden’

Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter in their Galapagos garden, c. 1932 (Zeitgeist Films)
Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter in their Galapagos garden, c. 1932 (Zeitgeist Films)

galapagos affair-dvd coverA Nietszche-loving disgruntled German doctor and his worshipful, sickly wife; a “Baroness” who believes no man can resist her; an isolated island; weaponry and jealousy. How could anything go wrong? The story of how it really, really did is the subject of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, one of the year’s curiouser documentaries.

The Galapagos Affair is on DVD and Blu-ray now. My review is at PopMatters:

In 1929, a certain kind of European man apparently thought nothing of packing up and moving himself and his family to a remote cluster of islands far off the coast of Ecuador … The first couple to arrive on the tiny and uninhabited island of Floreana was Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch. From his and Dore’s writings, it’s clear that Friedrich was a walking stereotype of the clueless Germanic intellectual, so slavishly devoted to his beloved Nietzsche that reality didn’t stand a chance. A successful doctor who believed society to be “a huge impersonal monster,” Friedrich moved them to Floreana in order to “make an Eden.” That they were both married at the time to other people and didn’t know much of anything about surviving in the wild wasn’t deemed an obstacle…

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘August: Osage County’

One of last year’s great but overlooked dramas and one of its better-than-average FX blockbusters are hitting DVD and Blu-ray today.

August: Osage County

John Wells’ star-stocked adaptation of Tracey Letts’ sprawling and brawling Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan is perhaps a little too truncated but mostly hits it out of the park. For once, Julia Roberts proves herself to be not only not done with acting but able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Meryl Streep. Full review

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second of Peter Jackson’s all-too-much trilogy on The Hobbit packs in even more non-Tolkien material to its middle-part travelogue following the intrepid dwarves and hobbit on their way to steal back the stolen riches of Smaug the dragon. Better by far than the first bloated entry, and possessed of a greater sense of rollicking adventure, still in need of a good pruning. Full review

 

Small Screens: ‘Batman’ Returns!

 

Once upon a time you could safely rely on being able to find a couple things somewhere on TV, if you just flipped around long enough: The Three Stooges and the old Batman series. Running in seemingly near-constant syndication long after its too-brief run (120 episodes over 3 seasons from 1966–68), its Pop Art-mad cheeky humor was the way that most people growing up in the 1970s was introduced to the Caped Crusader. Once Frank Miller and Tim Burton started going all gothic on Bruce Wayne in the ’80s, it was always characterized as a reaction to the camp factor of an Adam West Batman and villains like Liberace, Tallulah Bankhead, and Milton Berle.

But the show has been increasingly hard to find outside of YouTube and black-market dubs, due to a long-running rights dispute. That may soon be over, as it was reported yesterday that the entire run of the series will be released in a box set of DVDs and Blu-ray sometime later this year. The news was broken by … Conan O’Brien. Big fan?

New on DVD: ‘Before Midnight’

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in 'Before Midnight'
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in ‘Before Midnight’

beforemidnightdvd1In 1995, Richard Linklater impressed with Before Sunrise, a sharp, talky piece about Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a traveling American who meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a beguiling young French woman, on a train. Nine  years later, in Before Sunset, the two meet again, nine years older. Both films were redolent with romantic longing and possibility. Now in Before Midnight, the two are married, and it doesn’t seem like mere love is going to cut it anymore.

Before Midnight is available today on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Before Midnight turns out to be a bright, good-humored, and painfully combative love story that stings more than it soothes. In it, modern cinema’s most enduring couple discovers what life is like after peeling back the veil of conjoined love and discovering the specters of selfishness lurking behind. Every moment of this swift yet relaxed film (time-compressed like the first two, it all happens over just one sunny day and moonlit evening) feels like a negotiation or a skirmish, viciously fought…

You can watch the trailer here: