Blu-Ray Review: Cat People

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen
Starring: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph
Country: USA
Running Time: 73 min
Year: 1942
BBFC Certificate: PG


CCat People is a film I saw a long time ago and have vague fond memories of, so I was keen to check out The Criterion Collection’s UK Blu-Ray release. I thought it might also get me in the mood for the usual October horror movie celebrations we film bloggers like to partake in.

From the title, Cat People sounds pretty silly and trashy, and, by all accounts, it was originally intended to be a cheap crowd-pleasing fright-fest. RKO Pictures were in trouble after Citizen Kane proved an expensive commercial failure on release (which is surprising to hear now). So they hired writer Val Lewton as a new producer for the studio, strictly to make low budget horror movies to help recoup some cash. His first film was Cat People and, although he did keep it under budget as promised and it made a lot of money, he turned a potentially daft concept into something quite poetic, subtle and intelligent.

The film sees the beautiful Serbian fashion sketch artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), now living in New York, meet and quickly fall in love with Oliver Reed (not the booze loving actor, but a character played by Kent Smith). The couple get married soon after, but cracks soon appear in their relationship as Irena refuses to consummate the marriage. She believes in an old legend from her home town about the ‘cat people’ – those who had turned to witchcraft, devil worshipping and other wicked sins through their slavery to the Mameluks, who were driven out by King John. John had these sinners killed, but some escaped to the mountains, to become cat people. Supposedly these half human, half feline creatures kill those that they kiss, so, believing she is one of their descendants, Irena is afraid of the consequences of taking her new husband to bed.

The waters are further muddied when Reed’s work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) confesses her love to him and, aided by the cracks appearing in his new marriage, he reciprocates. As Irena begins to suspect something going on between the two, her jealousy unleashes a dark, possibly cat-like side.

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Blu-Ray Review: The In-Laws – Criterion Collection

Director: Arthur Hiller
Screenplay: Andrew Bergman
Starring: Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini, Ed Begley Jr., James Hong, David Paymer
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1979
BBFC Certificate: PG


This was a blind watch for me. I didn’t know anything about the film before the press release was sent. I’d heard of, but not seen, the remake and didn’t realise that was based on another film film anyway. Criterion can generally be trusted to release quality titles though and the cast was appealing, so I took a gamble which I’m happy to say paid off.

The In-Laws is a comedy about two father-in-laws to be; uptight Jewish dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) and crazy Italian American criminal/government agent Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk). The film opens with a daring open air robbery of some federal reserve plates (stamps used to print money), which soon make their way into the hands of heist mastermind Vince, who rushes straight from the scene to have dinner with the parents of his son’s fiancée. Here, Vince’s wild mood changes and crazy stories about giant, baby-carrying flies don’t impress potential in-law Sheldon, who wants to call the wedding off. His daughter talks him out of it, but the next morning Vince shows up at Sheldon’s surgery asking for a favour. He wants him to break into his own safe and bring him the contents. Sheldon is somehow talked into it and from then on his life is thrown into a ridiculous spiral of chaos, taking the duo all the way to South America where Vince plans to sell the plates to a crazed general. Vince claims he’s a CIA agent and this is all part of an elaborate plan to bring the general down, but Sheldon (and the audience) aren’t convinced.

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Blu-Ray Review: Here Comes Mr. Jordan – Criterion Collection

Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, Seton I. Miller
Based on a Play by: Harry Segall
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Rita Johnson
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: U


Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a film from 1941, based on a play called Heaven Can Wait, that spawned not only a sequel (Down to Earth in 1947), but a remake in 1978 (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s Heaven Can Wait), another in 2001 (Down to Earth starring Chris Rock) and even a remake in India in 1968 called Jhuk Gaya Aasman (English: The Skies Have Bowed). Some suggest it also helped kick start the mini-boom of guardian angel films in Hollywood during the 40’s and early 50’s, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Angels in the Outfield. With the original film hitting the UK list of Criterion Collection titles today, the question is, does it still hold up today?

Here Comes Mr. Jordan tells the story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), known as ‘the flying pug’ in his burgeoning career as a boxer. Whilst living up to his name and flying himself to his next fight, Joe crashes his plane and dies. His spirit is taken by messenger up to a cloudy runway to be flown up to heaven, but Joe complains to the angels that it isn’t his time and it turns out it isn’t. The messenger picked him up too early as Joe would have survived the flight and lived another 50 years. On learning that Joe’s body has been cremated, the angels, led by Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), try to make up for the clerical error by allowing him to enter the body of someone else recently deceased.

They pick out a crooked, wealthy businessman, Bruce Farnsworth, who’s just been murdered by his wife (Rita Johnson) and her lover. Joe is reluctant to take over this identity at first, until he meets Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), an attractive young woman who pleads to Bruce to help her father who he had sold worthless bonds to. Joe promptly chooses to become Bruce and pays the money back to all the small business owners he’d screwed over. This angers his business associates of course, but also his wife, so Joe has to work to keep this new body alive whilst wooing Bette and also trying to kickstart his boxing career in his new body.

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Blu-Ray Review: Overlord – Criterion Collection

Director: Stuart Cooper
Screenplay: Stuart Cooper, Christopher Hudson
Starring: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball
Country: UK
Running Time: 83 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 15


I must admit I’d never heard of Overlord before receiving a press release about its Blu-Ray release as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK. Generally only the crème de la crème gets selected for the collection (other than the odd exception – Armageddon?!) and the fact that it was shot by regular Kubrick DOP John Alcott piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a whirl and review a copy.

Overlord follows a young man, Tom (Brian Stirner), as he’s drafted into the British army during World War II. We follow him through basic training and the agonising wait to be deployed into battle. He’s convinced he’s going to be killed during this time, so a sense of impending doom builds up to him being sent to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. During the wait he befriends some of his fellow comrades and falls in love with a young woman, Janie (Julie Neesam) at a local dance.

It may sound like your typical war movie, but Overlord is refreshingly different from your usual flag waving or ‘horrors of war’ affairs. One major aspect of its production and presentation that marks it out from the rest is the fact that a large proportion of the film is made up of archive footage, shot during the war. The film isn’t a documentary though, it’s a fictional account of a soldier’s life during the war, but through the footage supplied by the Imperial War Museum (culled from a phenomenal amount of material) and by basing Tom’s experiences on those described in letters written by real front line soldiers, the film is infused with a powerful naturalism.

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Blu-Ray Review: L’Avventura – Criterion Collection

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Starring: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 143 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: PG


Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura is one of the most highly regarded films of all time. It’s one of the few titles to have been in Sight and Sound’s prestigious top ten greatest films list three times – second in 1962, only two years after it’s release, fifth in 1972 and seventh in 1982. It still stands in the longer most current list at #21 in the critics list and #30 in the director’s poll. However, it didn’t get off to the best of starts. Premiering at Cannes, the first screening was met with boos and jeers from the audience. However, the critics loved it and the film ended up winning the Jury Prize. Following its worldwide release soon after, the film became hugely popular too and helped revolutionise art house cinema across the globe.

Now I’ve never seen L’Avventura, but I’ve been aware of its reputation so it’s been on my radar for a while. Needless to say I jumped at the chance of reviewing this new Blu-Ray re-release as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. The question is, will I side with the critics or the audience at Cannes?

L’Avventura sees a group of wealthy Italian socialites head off on a yachting trip together. One of the group, Anna (Lea Massari), is having doubts about her relationship with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). She’s had a month alone and this trip is supposed to be their reunion, but she’s not convinced she wants to be with him anymore. Part way through the trip, on visiting a small island where the two have an argument, Anna goes missing. The group are all distressed at first, but most give up caring quite soon. Her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro remain troubled by what happened though and set out to try and find her. After a while however, the two grow closer together and form a relationship as they gradually forget their friend.

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Really Excited for June 28

clouds-criterion

  • New 2K digital master, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interviews with director Olivier Assayas and actors Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart
  • Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, a silent 1924 documentary by Arnold Fanck that is seen in the film
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Molly Haskell

strangelove-criterion

  • Restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack
  • New interviews with Stanley Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill; archivist Richard Daniels; cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton; camera operator Kelvin Pike; and David George, son of Peter George, on whose novel Red Alert the film is based
  • Excerpts from a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by Jeremy Bernstein
  • Four short documentaries from 2000, about the making of the film, the sociopolitical climate of the period, the work of actor Peter Sellers, and the artistry of Kubrick
  • Interviews from 1963 with Sellers and actor George C. Scott
  • Excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1962 article by screenwriter Terry Southern on the making of the film

Blu-Ray Review: Grey Gardens

Director: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Starring: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jerry Torre
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 12


Well, I’m gleefully happy to be able to say this and I never thought I’d see the day (particularly now that physical media is struggling to stay relevant), but the world renowned home entertainment distributors The Criterion Collection are going to be releasing titles in the UK. The first wave is upon us this April and I have been offered the initial releases up for review. The eclectic titles to become available over the next couple of weeks are Grey Gardens (1975), Macbeth (1971), It Happened One Night (1934), Speedy (1928), Tootsie (1982) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Now I was very tempted to review every single one of them, but family and other review commitments forced me to take just one, so I went for the highly acclaimed Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, as it’s a classic title I’ve never seen and I do love a good documentary, as regular readers will know.

Anyway, enough gushing over the exciting news and on to the film at hand.

Grey Gardens is a ‘fly on the wall’ look at the lives of mother and daughter Big and Little Edie Beale, two former members of high society and cousins of Jackie Onassis, who at the time of filming were living in relative poverty in the remains of their derelict mansion in East Hampton, New York. We observe their empty lives as they shuffle around, endlessly bickering and reminiscing about the days when they had wealth and their lives showed promise.

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August Criterion Blu-Rays Announced

And boy am I excited; for we’re finally getting a quality transfer of Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! Now if we could just get a Criterion of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But I digress…

Although not a lot of titles, there are five good ones here. I have quite fond memories of Y Tu Mamá También as it was one of the first foreign language films I saw in a theater. Vengeance is Mine was one I used to own (the standard Criterion DVD) until about three years ago. We had a contest here in the third row and someone chose that DVD as their prize, so I had to cough it up. All that Jazz is on my list of shame and one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while – long live the memory of the Scheider! Meanwhile, John Cassavetes Love Streams is one I know next to nothing about.

At any rate, here’s a quick breakdown of August releases from Criterion…

 
 

Special Features:

New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Two audio commentaries: a feature-length one with editor Alan Heim and a scene-specific one with actor Roy Scheider
Razzle-Dazzle, a new video essay on the film by critic Matt Zoller Seitz
Episode from 1980 of the television talk show Tomorrow, featuring director Bob Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille
New interview with Heim
New interview with Fosse biographer Sam Wasson
Interview excerpts and footage from the set, featuring Fosse and Scheider
Portrait of a Choreographer, a 2007 documentary on Fosse
The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards, a 2007 documentary about the music in the film
Interview from 2007 with George Benson about his song “On Broadway,” which opens the film
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by theater critic Hilton Als
More!

 
 

Special Features:

New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New audio commentary featuring writer Michael Ventura
New video essay on actor Gena Rowlands by film critic Sheila O’Malley
New interviews with executive producer and director of photography Al Ruban and actor Diahnne Abbott
Interview from 2008 with actor Seymour Cassel
“I’m Almost Not Crazy . . .”—John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work (1984), a sixty-minute documentary by Ventura on the making of Love Streams
Trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a 1984 piece by Cassavetes on the film from the New York Times

 
 

Special Features:

New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Pedro Almodóvar and executive producer Agustín Almodóvar, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New documentary on the making of the film including interviews with Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar; actors Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril, Loles Léon, Rossy de Palma, and Penélope Cruz; production manager Esther García; editor José Salcedo; and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine
New interview with Almodóvar collaborator and Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker
Conversation from 2003 between Almodóvar and Banderas
Footage from the film’s 1990 premieres in Madrid and New York
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring a 1990 piece about the film by Almodóvar, a conversation between filmmaker Wes Anderson and critic Kent Jones, and an interview with Almodóvar from 1989

 
 

Special Features:

New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Audio commentary from 2005 featuring critic Tony Rayns
Excerpts from a 1999 interview with director Shohei Imamura, produced by the Directors Guild of Japan
Trailer and teaser
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a 1994 interview with Imamura by writer Toichi Nakata, and writings by Imamura on Vengeance Is Mine and his approach to filmmaking

 
 
 
 

Special Features:

New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and approved by director Alfonso Cuarón, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
On “Y tu mamá también”: Then and On “Y tu mamá también”: Now, two new pieces on the making of the film, featuring interviews with actors Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, and Maribel Verdú; Cuarón; cowriter Carlos Cuarón; and Lubezki
New interview with philosopher Slavoj Žižek about the film
On-set documentary from 2001
Deleted scenes
You Owe Me One (2002), a short film by Carlos Cuarón
Trailers
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Charles Taylor and character biographies by Carlos Cuarón

Blu-Ray Review: Couscous (The Secret of the Grain) [2007]

couscous-poster

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche (Blue is the Warmest Colour, Black Venus, Sweat)
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
Producer: Benoît Pilot
Starring: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache, Abdelhamid Aktouche, Bouraouïa Marzouk, Sabrina Ouazani, Olivier Loustau
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 151 min.
Country: France/Tunisia

 

 
You must excuse me for any hyperbole that may lie within this review. The jumped up raves of a reviewer can distract a reader and take their interest away with it. I must stress however that it has been a while since a film has shook me as hard as Couscous, a quietly captivating drama from the acclaimed director of Blue is the Warmest Colour. It was was a film I heard little about, despite it’s positive reception in 2008, so I arrived at the piece with little preconceptions, although I did bulk somewhat at the lengthy running time.

I hadn’t expected Couscous to be shattering experience, because the film is so subtle in it’s execution. This is a drama of marginal gains which finely drip feeds details to be succulently absorbed throughout as it gently glides towards a stirring climax. The film starts quite innocuously enough as we follow Slimane; a divorced, French-Arabic shipyard worker who decides to follow his dream of opening a couscous restaurant after becoming laid off. He is egged on by his girlfriend’s headstrong daughter, while guardedly criticised by his family and scrutinized by bureaucracy.

What could have easily been a languid and saccharine tale becomes a dense family drama in which director Abdellatif Kechiche dangles the narratives frayed edges with the same delight of a cat owner with yarn. Couscous pours it’s lens not only on the complicated family relationships (Much of film deals with the tense conflict between Slimane’s family and his current beau), but takes an upfront look on themes of immigration, class and infidelity. Kechiche deals with these topics not with a hammer but a wonderfully deft touch. Couscous strength stems from Kechiche’s ability to coax warmth from it’s central community. From the idle chatter from Slimane’s bedsit friends, to the heartening dinner conversations of the family, there is a delicate sense of humanity that contrasts itself against the gloominess of the Port town of Sѐte. We spend so much time with them, we become wrapped in their narratives.
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