The Palm Beach Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Leave it to Preston Sturges to create the sexiest and most grown-up romantic comedy of his day. Claudette Colbert has never been more desirable as Gerry Jeffers, the flirtatious pragmatist with a clear-eyed take on the realities of men, women, and sex, and Sturges turns Joel McCrea’s All-American stiffness into comic perfection as her husband, the aspiring inventor Tom, a would-be Horatio Alger with a sense of pride and honor at odds with Colbert’s willingness to leverage her sex appeal. She’s not mercenary exactly, merely more socially sophisticated, and without the usual homemaking skills of the traditional housewife, those are tools she is more than willing to use. They are opposites in everything from attitude to onscreen energy to body language. Colbert moves like a dancer and even her dialogue seems to dance through the film while the stocky, blocky McCrea is slow-moving, deliberately speaking bedrock, a foundation of hard-working focus and unbending values. They shouldn’t work but when his hands work the stubborn zipper on the back of her dress, they temperature rises noticeably.
The Palm Beach Story is a variation on the classic comedy of remarriage, a theme that runs through such films as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Not that this couple divorces, but that’s Gerry’s plan, convinced that he’s better off without her expensive tastes, and she runs off with little more than the clothes on her back and almost literally falls into the lap of an idle rich oddball (a brilliantly underplayed comic turn by Rudy Vallee) and his cheerfully man-hopping sister (a sparkling Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Tom runs after her and gets introduced to Palm Beach society as her brother, Gerry’s plan to leverage the situation to finance his future as well as hers. She’s nothing if not thoughtful.
The Hollywood romantic comedy does not get any better than this classic from the height of Sturges’ astounding run of films in the first half of the 1940s. He was one of the wittiest writers of the era, a master of dialogue that defined its characters while bouncing punchlines like a tennis volley, and a lover of slapstick comedy. That mix of high and low, of snappy banter and vaudeville pratfalls, gives his comedies a decidedly American spark. Other Preston Sturges films may be funnier or cleverer or have a sharper satirical edge, but none are as romantic or as sexy. And no other Sturges film has such a magical way of rolling through such wild yet delightful contrivances to push the characters along: the Weenie King, an elderly rich eccentric with a romantic streak and a hearing problem; the Ale and Quail Club, who adopt Gerry as a mascot until their intoxicated antics explode in slapstick chaos. Colbert leverages sex appeal with such matter-of-fact savvy that it hardly feels like scheming; she has her own sense of ethics and plays everything square. Yet even in a screwball world of eccentric millionaires and mistaken identities, it’s the familiar intimacy of an ‘old married couple’ that generates the most heat.
It’s a lovely disc, mastered in 4k from a nitrate fine-grain print and a safety duplicate negative, and digitally cleaned up to look nearly flawless. It features a video interview with writer and film historian James Harvey about director Preston Sturges and a somewhat off-the-cuff appreciation of Sturges’ comedy by actor and comedian Bill Hader (who reads from the screenplay), plus the 1942 World War II propaganda short Safeguarding Military Information written by Sturges and featuring Eddie Bracken (star of two later Sturges classics), the “Screen Guild Theater” radio adaptation of the film with Colbert, Vallee, and Randolph Scott in the McCrea role, and a leaflet with an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.
Fright Night: 30th Anniversary Edition (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – The first Twilight Time release of Fright Night a few years ago sold out immediately—it was limited, like the overwhelming majority of the company’s releases, to 3000 copies—and quickly became a collectible fetching high prices. This anniversary edition is a rare example of Twilight Time getting a second round at a title, upping this release to 5000 copies and adding supplements not included on the original release. And guess what? It sold out in pre-order! Which is not to say there won’t be copies around (some of those buyers are probably investors looking to profit from an out-of-print disc), it’s just that they’ll be on the collector’s market. The good news is that prices should be a little lower than the first release, what with 8000 units now in circulation.
William Ragsdale is the 17-year-old horror movie buff who suspects his handsome new lady-killer neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire and Roddy McDowall is the out-of-work late night horror movie host he coaxes into helping investigate. This is 1985—before the culture went mad for Ann Rice and Buffy and the teen soap opera of the “Eclipse” books—so the vampire’s greatest weapon is that no one really believes in the old school monsters anymore. The lively, self-aware horror film, written and directed by Tom Holland, anticipated the vampire movie revival with a witty and wily take on the genre and a pair of movie-buff heroes who are hardly equipped to take on the real thing and know it. Which is what makes them so much fun, especially McDowall as the washed-up horror movie actor meeting real life monsters and putting the act of his life with equal parts bluster and part ham overkill.
The new edition features two commentary tracks (one by filmmaker Tom Holland with actors Chris Sarandon and Jonathan Stark and moderator Tim Sullivan, the other by Holland with actors William Ragsdale and Stephen Geoffreys and FX artist Randall Cook and moderated by Sullivan and journalist Jeremy Smith), the Fright Night reunion panel from Fear Fest 2008, the featurette “Shock Till You Drop Presents Choice Cuts with Tim Holland and Ryan Turek,” plus vintage EPK video and a gallery of stills and memorabilia. And, of course, it features Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Also from Twilight Time this week are four films making their respective debuts on Blu-ray.
Francois Truffaut’s 1968 The Bride Wore Black (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel, shows the director’s love of Hitchcock thrillers, Jeanne Moreau is the cold, meticulous bride, as a kind of black widow murderess executing a systematic revenge on four men with no seeming connection … but that’s part of the mystery. Meticulous and coolly clever, Truffaut’s sophisticated, sly style keeps us on the outside looking in. Michel Bouquet, Jean-Claude Brialy, Charles Denner, Claude Rich, Michael Lonsdale, and Daniel Boulanger co-star and longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann wrote the score. This disc features the English dub version of the film and commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Stephen C. Smith, and Nick Redman, and there’s a bonus CD with a 79-minute interview with Herrmann
Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is another of his valentines to the magic of movies. Set during the depression, this film suggests the escape of movies both literally, when the goofy romantic second lead Jeff Daniels steps out of a dizzy screen comedy and sweeps movie-mad spectator Mia Farrow’s off her feet, and figuratively, when the sorrows and frustrations of real life are swept away for a few brief moments in the dark of a movie theater. Gordon Willis shoots this deft, quietly poignant comedy and Danny Aiello, Edward Herrmann, John Wood, Deborah Rush, and Van Johnson co-star.
Breaking Away (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) stars Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley as the “cutters,” local blue collar kids in a college town, who take on the snotty, privileged frat boys in an annual bicycle race. Peter Yates directed this wonderful and modest drama of small town life and simple dreams. Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman host actor Dennis Christopher for a new audio commentary track and there’s a featurette as well.
The 1994 film Bandit Queen (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), directed by Shakhar Kapur, is a brutal and controversial drama from India based on the true story of victim-turned-outlaw and folk hero Phoolan Devi (played by Seema Biswas). It was banned in India and startling success in the rest of the world. This disc features commentary by Kapur.
All four feature Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Lucy (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Luc Besson and his EuropaCorp studio is the salvation of the unpretentious, mid-budget, hyper-charged action movie. Usually Besson is content to write and produce the films, which have launched careers of such protégés as Louis Letterier (The Transporter), Pierre Morel (Taken), and Olivier Megaton (Colombiana), but he takes charge of this marvelously ridiculous action fantasy starring Scarlett Johansson. She plays Lucy, an American girl in South Korea who becomes the unwitting recipient of an overdose of an experimental designer drug that supercharges her brain and her consciousness along with it.
The premise is built a science cliché that is a misrepresentation at best and outright falsehood at worst—that we only use 10% of our brain, or the potential of our higher brain functions, as the sage professor and narrator played by Morgan Freeman puts it—and the script goes batshit crazy with it. Her growing abilities (measured with regular updates on the percentage of her brain now utilized) are a mix of superhero powers and telekinetic powers indistinguishable from magic and explained with science mumbo jumbo. It’s basically a fantasy wrapped in the guise of science and used as an excuse for an action thriller, but what a thriller. This is a kinetic explosion at its best with Johansson striding through it with a sense of drive and assuredness that is a super power all its own. Weaving through her journey is a revenge tale involving a Korean drug lord (played by Choi Min-sik—Oldboy himself!) and part of the pleasure of the film is how, after such a build-up, unimportant that whole subplot is to Lucy. The way she handles that annoyance is far more effective at explaining Lucy’s transformation than all the exposition spouted by Freeman. Besson’s attempts to frame it in some kind of evolutionary context would be laughable if it wasn’t so damnably fun.
On Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray includes two featurettes and bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film. Also on cable and digital VOD.
The Boxtrolls (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), one of the five nominees for animated feature in this year’s Oscar race, is a satisfying throwback to the art of stop-motion animation. The sensibility of this tale of mischievous trolls who scavenge junk from the streets of a storybook town is British, as is most of the voice cast, but the film is from the American studio Laika, the same folks who created Coraline and Paranorman, and they cram the movie with the kind of playful detail that makes this kind of model-based filmmaking so much fun.
On Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary and six behind-the-scenes featurettes. Also on VOD.
On Golden Pond (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) was the final film for Henry Fonda and both he and his co-star Katherine Hepburn, who plays his wife, won Oscars for their roles as couple facing the realities of aging during a summer vacation in their Maine cabin. Jane Fonda developed the project and co-stars as his daughter. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and it won three, including Best Adapted Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut features commentary by director Mark Rydell and two featurettes, both carried over from the previous DVD release.
Eric Rohmer’s 1987 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (KimStim / Icarus, DVD) plays like a series of sketches more than feature, and that’s pretty much what it is: a series of short films shot quickly during the production of Summer with a cast of Rohmer regulars and non-professionals. It’s light and fun and playful and this DVD release marks its disc debut in the U.S. In French with English subtitles, featuring a video interview with actress Jessica Forde and an accompanying essay by Eric Rohmer scholar Leah Anderst.
Adua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) gets a spotlight review later in the week.
Also new and notable:
The Drop (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Finnish filmmaker Michael R. Roskam from a script by Dennis Lehane, is the last feature that James Gandolfini completed before his death. He co-stars with Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace.
Christoph Waltz stars in The Zero Theorem (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD), a steampunk sci-fi vision constructed on a budget by Terry Gilliam. Mélanie Thierry and David Thewlis co-star and Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon are memorable in small roles.
Rudderless (Paramount, DVD), the directorial debut of William H. Macy, stars Billy Crudup as a grieving father who starts performing the songs written by his late son.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Available on cable VOD in advance of disc release this week are a pair of comedies: the racially-charged college satire Dear White People and Lynn Shelton’s Laggies with Keira Knightley and Chloë Grace Moretz.
Available on Friday, January 23, same day as theaters, are the dramas The Humbling with Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig and Song One with Anne Hathaway.
SnagFilms is now streaming the 2010 drama Holy Rollers, starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Hassidic Jew who becomes a drug mule and a player in the New York ecstasy trade, for free.
Available for purchase on Digital HD before disc: Dear White People (Lionsgate), Dracula Untold (Universal), and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (plus bonus Him and Her versions) (Anchor Bay).
Classics and Cult:
My Winnipeg (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Love is the Devil (Strand, Blu-ray, DVD)
World For Ransom (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Woman They Almost Lynched (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Track the Man Down (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Weapon (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
La Belle Captive (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
War and Peace (1956) (Warner, Blu-ray)
TV on disc:
Satisfaction: Season One (Universal, DVD)
Save Our Skins (BBC, DVD)
Cracked (BBC, DVD)
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Second Season (Shout Factory, DVD)
Little House on the Prairie – Season Four (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
The African Americans & Black in Latin America with Henry Gates Jr. (PBS, DVD)
American Experience: Edison (PBS, DVD)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Coherence (Oscilloscope, DVD)
May in the Summer (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD)
By the Gun (Millennium, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Bet’s a Bet (Cinedigm, DVD)
Life’s a Breeze (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Annabelle (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
Winter Blood (Alive Mind, DVD)
The Pirates (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
The Green Prince (Music Box, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Alive Mind, DVD)
D**k: The Documentary (IndiePix, DVD, Digital)
The Atticus Institute (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Mule (XLrator, Blu-ray, VOD)
A Little Game (ARC, DVD)
The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Lost Legion (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
Gnome Alone (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
In The House of Flies (MVD, DVD)
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Tough Love (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD)