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    • The Circle on DVD

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  1. New Books

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    • A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright

    • By Donald Spoto

      "A girl's got to breathe!" Teresa Wright to Gary Cooper after receiving a lengthy kiss in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

      Teresa Wright lived a rich and complex life against the backdrop of Hollywood's Golden Age. She worked with some of the leading actors of that generation in beloved films including Mrs. Miniver, The Pride of the Yankees, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Best Years of Our Lives

      "I never wanted to be a star," she told the noted biographer Donald Spoto at dinner in 1978. "I wanted only to be an actress." She began acting on the stage in summer stock and repertory at the age of eighteen. When Thornton Wilder and Jed Harris saw her in an ingénue role, she was chosen to understudy the part of Emily in the original production of Our Town (1938), which she then played in touring productions. Samuel Goldwyn saw her first starring role on Broadway--in the historic production of Life with Father and immediately offered her a long contract.

      She was the only actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for her first three pictures -The Little Foxes; Pride of the Yankees; and Mrs. Miniver), and she won for the third film. Movie fans and scholars to this day admire her performance in the classics Shadow of a Doubt and The Best Years of Our Lives. The circumstances of her tenure at Goldwyn, and the drama of her breaking that contract, forever changed the treatment of stars. She had two rocky marriages, the first to writer Niven Busch--who wrote Duel in the Sun for her but she had to drop out when she became pregnant--and then to writer Robert Anderson. Both ended in divorce.

      Spoto had the cooperation of Wright's family and heirs and also had exclusive access to her papers and letters. He draws on a number of interviews and anecdotes from a variety of directors and actors who worked with the actress including Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Karl Malden, Jean Simmons, Bette Davis and many more.

      Donald Spoto is the author of twenty-nine books published in more than twenty-six languages including The Dark Side of Genius, High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly and Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn.

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    • The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

    • By Michelle Morgan

      Thelma Todd began her career in silent movies but went on to work with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, and make a series of hilarious shorts with Patsy Kelly. She was a savvy businesswoman who opened her own successful nightclub and a beloved comedienne who's mysterious death has intrigued film fans for years.

      This new biography of the actress dubbed "the Ice Cream Blonde" traces Todd's life beginning with her as a vivacious little girl growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Her brother's death changed the dynamics of the family. Todd wanted to go to college but her mother insisted she enter beauty contests. The reluctant daughter became a beauty queen.

      It wasn't long before the movies beckoned and Todd found herself in demand as an actress. She worked steadily throughout the mid-to-late 1920s and made the successful transition to sound.

      Increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood, in 1934 Todd opened Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café, a hot spot that attracted fans, tourists, and celebrities. Despite success in film and business, privately the beautiful actress was having a difficult year including receiving disturbing threats from a stranger known as the Ace and having her home ransacked. It all ended tragically when she was found dead in a garage near her café. An inquest concluded that her death, at twenty-nine, was accidental, but in a thorough new investigation that draws on interviews, photographs, documents, and extortion notes-much of these not previously available to the public--the author offers a compelling new theory that the vivacious young actress was murdered.

      But by whom? The suspects include Thelma's movie-director lover, her would-be-gangster ex-husband, and the thugs who were pressuring her to install gaming tables in her popular café. This fresh examination on the eightieth anniversary of the star's death raises interesting questions and is sure to interest any fan of Thelma Todd or of Hollywood's Golden Age.

      Michelle Morgan is the author of The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals, The Mammoth Book of Madonna, and several books about Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential, Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modeling Years, and Marilyn's Addresses: A Fan's Guide to the Places She Knew.

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    • Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story

    • By Mollie Gregory

      Stunt players are often the unsung heroes of filmmaking. They rarely receive recognition for the harrowing work they do to make the leading actors and villains look convincing. This is often even more true for women in the stunt industry.

      In the early days of filmmaking, women were highly involved in all aspects of film production, from writing to editing to directing to stunt work. But as the movies matured and sound was introduced, women found their roles curtailed. Capable stuntwomen found themselves on the sidelines as stuntmen donned wigs and women's clothes to double as actresses. As a result very few stuntwomen found work between the 1930s and the 1960s.

      Not until the political movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s raised the issue of flagrant sexism and discrimination did the number of working stuntwomen begin to increase. But even as late as the 1990s, stuntmen were still doubling for actresses and some were "painted down" for more convincing performances.

      For decades, stuntwomen have faced institutional discrimination, unequal pay and sexual harassment even as they jumped from speeding trains and raced horse-drawn carriages away from burning buildings. They've traded punches in knockdown brawls, crashed biplanes through barns and raced to the rescue in fast cars.

      Featuring sixty-five interviews, Stuntwomen showcases the absorbing stories and uncommon courage of women who make their living planning and performing action-packed sequences that keep viewers' hearts racing.

      Mollie Gregory is the author of Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, 1973-2000 .

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    • Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays

    • By Karie Bible and Mary Mallory

      We have all seen those wonderful black and white photographs of stars posing for holiday pictures--Bette Davis posing amidst a box of chocolates (Valentine's Day), Mae West as Lady Liberty (4th of July), Clifton Webb carving a turkey (Thanksgiving), W.C. Fields as old Saint Nick (Christmas), and just about everybody helping to sell War Bonds during World War II.

      Marvelously illustrated with more than 200 rare images from the silent era through the 1970s, this joyous treasure trove features film and television's most famous actors and actresses as well as starlets on the brink of discovery, celebrating the holidays, big and small, in beautiful re-produced photographs.

      The images were often taken by legendary stills photographers and the entire book harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when motion picture studios devised elaborate publicity campaigns to promote their stars and to keep their names and faces in front of the movie-going public all year round.

      From Clara Bow to Elizabeth Taylor to Ann-Margaret, there is a wonderful mix of black and white and color photography throughout the book.

      Karie Bible is the 'Historian in Black,' at the famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery where she gives guided tours and shares with visitors the stories of the famous and nearly forgotten who are buried at the Cemetery. She co-authored the book, Location Filming in Los Angeles with Marc Wanamaker and Harry Medved. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

      Mary Mallory is a film historian, photograph archivist, and researcher, focusing on Los Angeles and early film history. She is the author of Hollywoodland and she blogs on early Hollywood history for The Daily Mirror. She serves on Hollywood Heritage, Inc.'s Board of Directors, and acts as a docent for the Hollywood Heritage Museum. She lives in Studio City, California.

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  1. DVD Reviews

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    • Point Blank on Blu-ray

    • When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank, where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

      Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker's odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker's attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

      Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence. It opens on a gunshot that should have killed him and he struggles to put it all together when he wakes up: "Cell. Prison cell. How did I get here?" Marvin is enigmatic, to say the least, as he tracks down his unfaithful, guilt-ridden wife (Sharon Acker), his wife's sister (Angie Dickinson), his old friend turned double-crossing heist partner Mal Reese (John Veron), and finally the syndicate bigwigs, all just to get his due: "I want my 93 grand."

      This vision of urban Los Angeles is alternately crowded and noisy and urban, and austere and empty and dislocated. His footsteps echoing through an empty, anonymous hallway becomes the disembodied beat of his march of revenge. A scatting, screaming R&B singer at a chic night spot called The Film Club is the feral soundtrack of a brutal backstage fight, at once visceral and abstracted in the clutter of 35mm film cans and nightclub supplies. The aftermath of a suicide becomes a psychedelic vision of destruction, which disappears in a cut to the apartment suddenly empty, a ghost house with no evidence of life or death, just transition.

      The dialogue is loaded with references to "a dream" and characters constant remind Walker that he's supposed to be dead. Keenan Wynn adds another level of remove as the devil whispering in Walker's ear, another unreal figure with a carefully concealed agenda who is preternaturally attuned to Walker's movements. More than an informant, he appears from nowhere to provide a name, an address, a piece of information on the trail to the top man in the Organization as Walker's debt keeps getting passed up the chain of command.

      Walker is both an unstoppable sentinel who seems more than flesh and blood and a vulnerable man wounded by betrayal who has armored over his emotions with a mission. Marvin delivers both sides of the character without compromising either. There's a cold fury under his deliberate movements and his eyes betray a moment of regret and sadness when he finds his wife dead by her own hand, but it is all pushed down and kept in check by his single-minded focus. "I just want my money" is his mantra, not a matter of greed but a debt to be settled to balance the scales. Marvin is at once deliberate and relaxed, a veteran criminal soldier alert to everything, which makes his character even more fascinating. He doesn't demand attention on screen, he commands it through confidence and ability and cool focus.

      That alone makes him more admirable than Mal, who is played by John Vernon as an oily, arrogant, amoral rat, selling out anyone and everyone to buy his way back into the Organization. The rest of the members of the cast don't play characters as much as cogs, functionaries in a criminal enterprise as a cutthroat corporation, simply doing their jobs as if Walker was a rival in a hostile takeover. Only Angie Dickinson's Chris has the passion and fury and emotional life of a human being, siding with Walker out of both loyalty and for payback against Mal ("He makes my flesh crawl") and the Organization that has taken over her business and her life. Sharon Acker, who plays Walker's wife, comes off less haunted than simply weak. She barely leaves an impression, which is fitting for her character but fails to offer any sense of tragedy to her story, and she's almost instantly forgotten after she exits the film. It's really the only weak element of the film, which otherwise is strong, confident, and sure from beginning to end.

      Point Blank has been called a modern film noir but it has more in common with Performance, another crime thriller that fractures time, offers enigmatic and ambiguous characters, and equates organized crime with big business. Boorman delivers meticulously executed set pieces that are designed for the wide CinemaScope frame with a sure sense of space and a dispassionate perspective. He emphasizes intelligence over action and presents Walker as total professional, never flustered and always emotionally removed from the situation. And if Walker is an extreme incarnation of the revenge driven noir anti-hero, the modern syndicate has transformed the old school mob into a world of paper jungles and corporate businessmen, an alienating concept to a two-fisted, gun-wielding independent like Walker. "Profit is the only principle," is their motto. Almost 50 years later, it's more modernist than modern, a fascinating time capsule of an era when young directors brought nouvelle vague style to classic genres, and a cryptic crime thriller that turns Marvin into the most enigmatic criminal professional in the movies.

      Boorman creates a hard, austere look for the film and the new Blu-ray delivers a sharp clarity to his vision of Los Angeles as an impersonal modern city. Apart from a few scenes, he strips the frame down to isolated figures in an empty urban landscape under the hard light of the California sun. It's an urban desert and the disc preserves that atmosphere of a ghost city by day and a shadowy underworld at night when the crowds gather on the streets and in the clubs. The impersonal palette of concrete surfaces and blank office interiors in the day gives way to the color of human habitation after dark, which oddly enough has a warmer atmosphere than the harsh light of day.

      Carried over from the earlier DVD release is an audio commentary track with director John Boorman and fellow director Steven Soderbergh, a fan of the film who essentially hosts the commentary. He engages Boorman in conversations about the film's style, the use of color and camera lenses, working with Lee Marvin (who became close friends with Boorman), and making his Hollywood debut with a film that refused to play by the studio rules. Soderbergh's The Limey was clearly indebted to Point Blank in both its theme of revenge and in its fractured storytelling and unconventional use of flashbacks. Taking part in this commentary is like paying tribute to his inspiration.

      Also features the vintage promotional featurette The Rock (in two parts), which looks at shooting the film on location in Alcatraz, and the original trailer.

      by Sean Axmaker

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    • Ravenous on Blu-ray

    • Ravenous (1999) channels the story reminiscent of the Donner Party disaster and the legend of Alferd Packer (the only American ever convicted of cannibalism) into a gruesome survival thriller with a crimson-hued streak of black humor and an elemental hint of the supernatural. The resulting film takes top honors as the definitive frontier cannibal movie. Not that there's a long list to choose from, mind you, but this earns its position with honors, thanks to a gleefully weird and savagely bloodthirsty sensibility.

      Guy Pearce is Captain John Boyd, whose battle cowardice during the Mexican-American war inadvertently results in making him an accidental hero. The ordeal of playing dead under the bleeding corpses of his fellow officers also puts him off meat, as the opening scenes so vividly illustrate. Director Antonia Bird cuts straight to the heart of the situation as she intercuts soldiers devouring bleeding-rare steaks at a military luncheon with the bloody casualties of battle stacked like cordwood: meat is meat, at least as far as this film is concerned. Boyd's commanding officer (John Spencer of The West Wing), who knows that his valor is a fraud, ships him out to the fringes of military reach: a fort in a California mountain pass, which runs with a minimal compliment during the impassable winter months. "This place thrives on tedium," smiles fort commander Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who takes everything with a bemused indulgence. How else to survive a company made up of a useless drunk second-in-command(Stephen Spinella), a giggling weed-head idiot (David Arquette), a twitchy, mumbling chaplain (Jeremy Davies), and a macho soldier boy (Neal McDonough) who holds the rest of the company in utter contempt?

      The tedium is quickly dispersed when a bedraggled disaster survivor (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into camp. He spins a horrific story of a lost wagon train and an incompetent scout who strands them in the mountains, where as the winter snows traps them and desperation leads to feeding on human flesh. It's a tale right out of the Donner Party until it turns feral, but it's not even close to the real story of Carlyle's wild-eyed survivor. For a starving man, he looks remarkably fit when he doffs his shirt, and other clues suggest that this is no production gaffe. One night, while camping on the trail to his old camp to search for survivors, he's caught licking the bleeding wounds of an injured soldier. You know, tasting his next potential meal.

      That's when the film takes its twist into weird and wild horror, a bizarre plot that doesn't really make much logical sense but sure makes for a wicked mix of psychodrama and visceral body horror. The Native American Wendigo myth is referenced to explain madness, but you could say it's a vampire tale without the supernatural dimension--it turns out human flesh is addictive, and it helps to have a nest of fellow flesh-eaters to keep the diet coming--or call it a particularly gruesome metaphor for manifest destiny. However you label it, it is off-the-charts crazy, an eat-or-be-eaten thriller served very, very rare.

      British director Antonia Bird seems like an odd match for this material. She honed her craft on TV drama and made her reputation with the tough, wrenching dramas Priest and Face, two films with complex characters and socially conscious themes. What they have in common with Ravenous is star Robert Carlyle, who recommended Bird after the film's original director Milcho Manchevski was let go after three weeks and the producer's chosen replacement, Raja Gosnell, was rejected by the cast. Bird (who passed away last year at the relatively young age of 62 after a battle with thyroid cancer) was frustrated by the conditions of the production and the oversight of the producers and she complained that her cut was compromised in post-production. That may explain the awkward pace, jarring turns, and a climax that feels tossed together--an uninspired way to end such a devious film--but she is clearly the architect of the odd, offbeat key of the film's blackly comic tone and surreal atmosphere and Carlyle is her partner in outsized madness. He leads the cast in playing their eccentricities big, though next to Carlyle's juicy performance, Arquette and Davies come off more like actor's studio sketches in twitchy weirdness or fidgety indecision than actual characters. Guy Pearce provides the contrast, creating a character fighting to maintain control and keep his emotions and his reflexive revulsion in check as everyone else lets their freak flag fly. It oddly enough makes him the most intense character on screen. As all that fear and disgust and anxiety just bottles up behind his desperate eyes and increasingly battered body, Pearce shows us the toll this ordeal exacts on him. In this survival drama, he's the one in true survival mode.

      Scream Factory's Blu-ray features a solid new HD transfer that preserves the dynamic contrast between the white-out daylight scenes of snow and the ominous shadows of the deep forest and the dark rough-hewn quarters of the frontier fort. Night doesn't have to fall for the darkness to seep into the image. Given the elemental quality of the imagery--much of the film takes place in the snowbound wilderness, with the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia standing in for California--the transfer has a satisfying level of grain that not only preserves the texture of the film but gives the entire atmosphere an added level of authenticity. These images feel like they were carved into the film.

      The film was previously released on DVD over a decade ago with three separate commentary tracks. Director Antonia Bird and composer Damon Albarn team up for the most informative track, with Bird talking in detail about the physical challenges of the production. Screenwriter Ted Griffin and co-star Jeffrey Jones tend to lapse into silences in their track and actor Robert Carlyle is even more intermittent in his the solo track. Also carried over from the earlier disc is a collection of deleted scenes (many of them in rough-cut form) with optional commentary by Bird and a gallery of stills. New to this edition is a 20-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones, who looks back on the themes of the film.

      by Sean Axmaker

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    • Southern Comfort on Blu-ray

    • A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It's 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors--a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft--are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They've got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don't know that it's just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn't matter if they did. They've been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.

      Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only. Beyond the swaggering banter of the soldiers and self-deprecating comments of Spencer (Keith Carradine), the self-appointed company joker, they have no real training, no experience under fire, and no commitment to one another. These guys are more like barroom buddies playing soldier than a disciplined force.

      There are two voices of restraint in the wilderness, Spencer and new guy Hardin (Powers Booth), a transfer from Texas who doesn't know anyone in the company but sizes up their weaknesses quickly and realizes that they haven't much a chance as long as wild cards like Reece (Fred Ward) and Stuckey (Lewis Smith) go charging through the swamps looking for payback. Casper (Les Lannom) takes command by virtue of an essentially meaningless detail of rank and bumbles around quoting regulations and making speeches, doggedly following the book because he hasn't a clue what to do next. The filmmakers don't make him a figure of ridicule, mind you, just a guy falling back on the only thing he knows. In fact, none of them are necessarily "bad guys," though like any Hill ensemble, it has its share of jerks, bullies, racists, and anger management candidates and the pressure brings out their worst instincts.

      So yes, it's a story of American soldiers in an alien land, lost in an unfamiliar landscape and outmaneuvered by a guerrilla army at home in the jungle. Director / screenwriter Walter Hill and producer / co-screenwriter David Giler insist to this day that Southern Comfort was never intended to be an allegory for Vietnam, simply a survival tale in an overwhelming and unfamiliar environment. It's hard to take them at face value but it is easy to forget the allegory in the heat of the drama. It also shares DNA with Deliverance, another film about city boys with guns who take their sense of ownership and entitlement into the wilderness, threaten the locals, and end up hunted by them. But where John Boorman's primal thriller turns his Appalachian backwoods men into brutal outlaws who take pleasure in stalking the city invaders, Hill and Giler keep their Cajun soldiers hidden, seen as figures in the distance or blurs running behind the trees, ghosts on the fringes of sight. They treat the would-be soldier like wild game, silently shadowing their progress and whipping them into a state of panic to steer them into their traps. And whatever the short-fused guys in the platoon think, this is no cultural conspiracy to wipe out the invaders. Their enemy consists of a handful of isolated hunters who didn't start the war but by God are determined to finish it. The rest of the Cajun folks they meet don't seem to be a part of it, though after a couple of days in the swamps, the paranoia is powerful enough to make every sidelong glance look ominous. Ry Cooder's eerie and haunting score only intensifies the paranoia.

      What ultimately differentiates them from the soldiers of a classical platoon drama is that they haven't bonded under fire and have never had to put their trust in one another. This group unravels and tears itself apart from fear and panic and unfocused rage. And in classic Hill manner, there are no philosophical musings or existential conversations. The closest the film comes to putting its theme into words is from the mantra of a terrified Simms (Franklyn Seales), who finds himself cut off from the group and suddenly aware of just how vulnerable he is. "I'm not supposed to be here," he repeats, as if begging the universe to correct some cosmic planning error. And then he's no longer there.

      While this band of infighting brothers wades blindly through the swamp without a clue as to their bearings or direction, Hill's direction never falters. He has always had a sure hand as a storyteller, keeping his plots uncluttered and letting the details of character, conflict, and the world around them define the story. Southern Comfort limits the world to the middle of the swamp, where we (like the soldiers) are unable to find any point of reference, and observes how the discomfort of the environment and the constant disorientation takes its toll on what little good sense the characters bring with them to the mission. It exacerbates the already dysfunctional dynamics of this platoon of battle virgins and is as deadly on its own as the native hunters who use the environment as a weapon in their arsenal. It's not necessarily skill or even luck that saves the guardsmen who survive the ordeal. In classic Hill fashion, it is a matter of intelligence, awareness, teamwork, and the commitment to do what is necessary to survive. There's no sense of victory in survival, merely relief.

      Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack. Both discs feature the new HD master but the Blu-ray of course features superior clarity and richness of color. Both are clean, strong images while the Blu-ray shows off excellent detail. The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack puts the mix right up front. A couple of scenes of chaos and confusion overwhelm the dialogue with background sound, which is surely intentional but still seems a little out of balance to my ears.

      New to this release in an original 27-minute featurette with new interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Lewis Smith, and Peter Coyote and, on low-resolution video via Skype, director Walter Hill and producer David Giler, who collaborated on the script with Hill. The actors share stories of shooting in the Louisiana swamps in February with wet suits under their uniforms, six weeks of working in the cold and damp, and they remind us that they were all in it together. The crew endured the same conditions so no one had the right to complain. More interesting is the discussion around the themes of the film. Hill and Giler maintain that while they did not intentionally set out to make a Vietnam allegory they were aware that audiences would make that connection, while the actors admit that they knew it was an allegory from the moment they read the script. Keith Carradine's reading is particularly detailed and interesting. Curiously, none of the six participants mention Deliverance.

      Carried over from the old DVD release is a brief collection of outtakes and the original trailer. All of the supplements are featured in both the Blu-ray and DVD discs of the Combo Pack.

      By Sean Axmaker

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    • Tess on Blu-ray

    • Tess (1979), Roman Polanski's film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1890 novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, has in 2014 received a sublime Blu-Ray and DVD release from Criterion. Restored by Pathe under the direct supervision of Polanski himself, the movie looks and sounds magnificent. At first glance, the lushly beautiful Tess is a seemingly unusual work for Polanski, whose films we tend to associate with horror and sex, but this was actually a highly personal project for the master filmmaker. It was his first picture after fleeing the United States in 1977, and also a project that his wife, Sharon Tate, had suggested he make as a vehicle for herself -- just before she was murdered by the Manson gang in 1969. Polanski read the novel after her death and realized it was indeed right up his alley, and he dedicated the eventual film to her with an on-screen inscription.

      Hardy's tale, to which the film is very faithful, is about a poor English girl, Tess, whose father learns he is a distant descendant of a once prominent, rich family, the D'Urbervilles. He sends Tess to the home of a remaining D'Urberville to find employment (or at least a handout), but Tess winds up being seduced by the ne'er-do-well Alec D'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who becomes obsessed with her. Fleeing Alec, she eventually finds work at a dairy farm and starts a passionate relationship with a young farmer named Angel Clare (Peter Firth). But in this society, the revelation of the sins of her past, even if they were not her fault, could doom Tess to shame, ostracism and worse. Ultimately, Tess is about a woman struggling to make her way in the world, looking for happiness, or at least survival, but finding that a judgmental society, timing and even luck are all working against her.

      Polanski explores this theme vividly, sympathetically and cinematically. Costumes, speech and physical mannerisms of the actors all convince the audience of the time period and of the distinctions among the social classes, and the film's pictorial beauty does much to stress the contrasting cruelty of some of the characters. The movie is not "pretty" for prettiness' sake. Most important, one really feels the isolation of Tess throughout the film, which is at once sprawling and intimate. The plot itself, while important, feels less vital here than the depiction of Tess' emotional experience of the world she is forced to inhabit, and as a result, the long running time feels entirely appropriate and never tedious.

      Tess was shot entirely in France, mostly on locations in Normandy and Brittany, because Polanski worried that if he traveled to England he would be extradited to the United States. Polanski later wrote, "To tell the story at all, it was essential to find the proper setting, a twentieth-century equivalent of Hardy's nineteenth-century Dorset. The only way to convey the rhythm of his epic was to use that setting as an integral part of the film, signaling the passage of time and the change in Tess herself by means of a visible, almost palpable change in seasons. Once our rural locations were chosen, we would have to film throughout the year from early spring, through high summer, to the depths of winter." With such a shooting strategy, filming wound up lasting nine months over 80 separate locations, and Tess became, at $12 million, the most expensive film ever made in France to that point. Freak weather and labor strikes only added to the overall time and expense.

      If Tess is atypical of Polanski, it's in the way that The Age of Innocence (1993) is atypical of director Martin Scorsese. But in fact, both films are completely emblematic of their directors' concerns and are indeed suffused with violence. It's just that the violence is emotional, an undercurrent beneath a pristine surface -- exactly like the societies the films depict.

      That being said, it's hard to shake some of Tess's most exquisitely beautiful imagery, such as the lovely natural light of an outdoor dance, or the riders and dogs on a fox hunt who appear out of a sublime mist, or the face of Nastassia Kinski, who is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (a quality, incidentally, that is vital to the story). Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who had shot such films as Becket (1964) and Cabaret (1972), died a few weeks into production and was replaced by Ghislain Cloquet, who sadly would himself pass away two years later. They shared the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also won for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score.

      Criterion's dual-format release contains one Blu-ray disc and two DVDs, with both formats containing the film and identical extras. And there are plenty, starting with three short documentaries about the film's making (originally included in Columbia's 2004 DVD release), directed by Laurent Bouzereau and totaling 73 minutes in length. Bouzereau expertly interviews key players like Polanski, producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill, co-writer John Brownjohn, actors Nastassia Kinski and Leigh Lawson, set decorator Pierre Guffroy, costume designer Anthony Powell, hair and makeup artists, the crew electrician, the assistant editor and others. The artists discuss fascinating details of production, like the challenge of getting the "strawberry seduction" scene between Kinski and Lawson just right (which astonishingly was shot on a rainy day despite looking on-screen like the height of warm summer), the creation of the Stonehenge set outside of Paris, and the design of the costumes to be authentic and truly expressive of character -- beautiful without being decorative. Powell is fascinating as he discusses his approach, and also about the little splotch of blood he put on the hem of Tess' dress at a key point in the story, which Polanski shot for maximum impact.

      Burrill recalls that on location the filmmakers were only able to see the rushes days after shooting, rather than the next day, and not always under the best conditions. But gradually, he says, "we started to see what was happening, the magic that was coming off the screen, and the extraordinary professionalism of Nastassia.... I don't think there was ever one day when she fluffed a line. She was word-perfect, always."

      Second is a 52-minute documentary from 2006 by Daniel Ablin and Serge July entitled Once Upon a Time... Tess. This is also interesting, but it covers much of the same material as the Bouzereau pieces, with many of the same interviewees telling the same stories. It's also not as smoothly edited. But unlike the Bouzereau film, it includes composer Philippe Sarde, and delves more into Polanski's pre-Tess life and career. It also recounts the difficulties in Tess's post-production, particularly concerning the running time. Francis Coppola was brought in by producer Claude Berri to trim the film, which was deemed overlong, but Polanski hated the result, leading to a falling-out between Berri and Polanski and between Polanski and Sarde. Polanski himself eventually trimmed the film by about 20 minutes, resulting in the current running time of 171 minutes.

      Third, there's a 1979 episode of the French TV program Cine Regards, running 48 minutes, that looks at the making of Tess and interviews Polanski during the film's production. The interviews with Polanski are revealing, but the real strengths of the piece are the long, uninterrupted slices of life on the set as Polanski directs and thinks through scenes, conducting his orchestra of crewmembers. These sequences go on long enough to make us feel as if we are there.

      Fourth is a 1979 episode of the British TV program The South Bank Show, 50 minutes in length, in which host Melvyn Bragg interviews Polanski. And Criterion rounds things out with the film's trailer as well as a handsome printed booklet containing a fine essay by Colin MacCabe and crisp, colorful photos from the film, almost all of which feature the entrancing Nastassia Kinski. It's a beautiful package and motion picture, all very highly recommended.

      By Jeremy Arnold

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    • Used Cars on Blu-ray

    • The opening of Used Cars (1980) has the ominous, wind-scoured character of a modern crime film in a desperate southwest town where a Sergio Leone western wouldn't be out of place. The camera cranes down from a high shot over a struggling used car dealership, where a few pathetic beaters line the lot, and slowly glides over to one car with someone is crammed under the dashboard. The only sound is the lonely wind--the kind of strangled, desolate howl you get in dustbowl dramas and desert survival thrillers--and the grunts of the man struggling with the mechanics under the dash. And then we see the odometer turn back, shaving some 40,000 or so miles from the record. The title hits the screen, a brass band jumps in with "Stars and Stripes Forever," and the unidentified mechanic wriggles out to reveal Kurt Russell in a cheap, loud suit making his rounds to mask the sorry condition of the cars on the lot. It turns out that this is a crime movie after all, or at least a film of multiple misdemeanors and bald-faced misrepresentation, and the perpetrators are the good guys.

      The second feature from director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Used Cars comes right out of the screen comedy culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the underdogs snubbed their collective noses at authority, propriety, property and privacy laws and anything else that crossed their paths in slobs vs. snobs comedies like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984). Used Cars is raucous and reckless and far more gleefully corrupt than any of its brothers in rebellion, embracing the confidence games and illegal stunts pulled by the skeleton crew that works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), who is the closest thing that the film has to an honest man. The devotion of salesmen Rudy (Russell) and Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and mechanic Jim (Frank McRae) to Luke is really all that separates them from Luke's rapacious brother and across-the-street rival Roy L. Fuchs (Warden again) and his slick sales force. That and the fun they have ripping off the rubes who wander on to their lot.

      The premise of film - two used car outfits at war with one another - was hatched by John Milius, who was one of the executive producers (along with Steven Spielberg), but the script is pure Zemeckis and Gale. The rivals are twin brothers, the Cain and Abel of used car dealers. When impending freeway construction threatens to destroy bad brother Roy's dealership and make the good brother Luke rich, Roy finds a way to speed the demise of Luke's bad heart and Rudy makes good on his promise to keep Roy from taking over the lot. Rudy has his own, more immediate motivation, of course--he's trying to buy his way into the local political machine and he's still a little short on the down payment--but it's also personal. Luke is something of a father figure to the crew, which makes them the mischievous sons who break the rules whenever dad's back is turned. After Luke dies, their antics more outrageous, from secretly burying Luke on the lot (his beloved convertible fittingly serves as his casket) to jamming satellite signals with wild pirate commercials replete with gratuitous nudity and senseless destruction of private property. The plot seems to careen from one comic collision to another but there's a nicely-constructed plan under it all, simple but ingenious enough that you don't actually see how the pieces are laid in place until it all comes together in the ragged spectacle of final act.

      It's not really a satire of American business so much as a wicked lampoon: lie, cheat and steal as the American way, as long as you do it with a sense of fun. Kurt Russell was just breaking out of his clean-cut post-Disney persona when he took on the role and he sinks his teeth into Rudy, turning the brash characters into the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises. Gerrit Graham is his partner in commercial piracy, unfazed by anything but harbingers of bad luck, notably red. Deborah Harmon is both romantic interest and plot complication as Luke's long lost daughter, who shows up just after dad's death. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is ubiquitous character actor and future director Alfonso Arau in his first great comic role in an American film (Romancing the Stone and Three Amigos soon followed). But the entire cast is in danger of being upstaged by the adorable dog Toby, who has his own role to play in the sale stunts. This pooch's hilarious performance makes him one of the greatest movie dogs.

      Zemeckis matured into a polished filmmaker and an ambitious storyteller and went on to make more sophisticated, more provocative, and certainly more subtle films, but he never made anything as savagely funny as Used Cars. Its banged-up ingenuity and rough-and-tumble energy and warped mirror reflection of the American Dream as a snatch and grab free-for-all is wickedly funny. Everyone is a crook here and the epilogue even enshrines mendacity as a virtue, at least when it comes to stepping into the used car game.

      Used Cars has a remarkably tidy visual aesthetic for a film about a seedy, shabby culture, with a screen that is uncluttered and flooded with desert sunlight in day scenes and blasted with floodlights as bold as a football stadium night game for the after-dark stunts. The new HD transfer shows a well-preserved print and is sharp and clear. Simply put, it looks superb.

      The commentary track with Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell, carried over from the 2002 DVD reelease, is almost as fun as the movie. "We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, except he's totally corrupt," is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of Rudy. Kurt Russell laughs back: "So you cast me!" These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Few commentaries manage to balance the information and entertainment so well.

      There's a four-minute reel of outtakes (apparently taken from surviving video dub; it's all quite hazy), a radio interview with Russell, a car commercial featuring Russell, galleries of art and stills, and not one but two isolated score tracks: along with Patrick Williams' musical score heard in the film is an alternate, unused score by Ernest Gold. We don't quite get it in the context of the film (at least not with dialogue and sound effects) but it's a more conventional, less satirical approach. The accompanying 8-page booklet features another fine essay by Julie Kirgo.

      By Sean Axmaker

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  1. Press Release

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    • TCM Remembers Patty Duke (1946-2016)



    • This petite, gifted former child performer had appeared in more than 50 television shows by the time she won Broadway fame at age 12 in The Miracle Worker. Patty Duke won an Oscar® for reprising her role as the young Helen Keller in the 1962 screen adaptation. In 1979, she won an Emmy for playing Keller's teacher--the role originally played on Broadway by Anne Bancroft--in a TV version of the same play. Duke made a successful transition to teen star playing vivacious twins on the popular TV series The Patty Duke Show (ABC, 1963-66). But after starring in the cult classic Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Me, Natalie (1969), she mostly concentrated on TV roles. Over her career, Duke won two other Emmy Awards, as a runaway pregnant Southerner befriended by a black lawyer in the TV-movie My Sweet Charlie (NBC, 1970) and as a mentally unstable wife in the NBC miniseries Captains and the Kings (1976). She played a rather sensuous Martha Washington in both George Washington (CBS, 1984) and George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation (CBS, 1986). Duke brought her warm maternal presence to Always Remember I Love You (CBS, 1990) and garnered praise as real-life journalist Betty Rollin who struggled to assist her mother (played by Maureen Stapleton) to die with dignity in Last Wish (ABC, 1992). In 1990, Duke co-produced and played herself in the small screen adaptation of her memoirs, Call Me Anna (ABC), which detailed her lifelong struggle with mental illness. After her initial success with her own sitcom, Duke failed to find an appropriate follow-up. She was wife to Richard Crenna and mother of Helen Hunt and Anthony Edwards in It Takes Two (ABC, 1982-83) and the first female President of the United States in the short-lived Hail to the Chief (ABC, 1985). Duke also played a woman involved with a younger man in the summer sitcom Karen's Song (Fox, 1987) and a woman who becomes a minister and moves to Idaho in Amazing Grace (NBC, 1995), which she also co-executive produced. An unglamorous, earnest performer, Duke most often played sensitive but troubled types who sometimes display an inner reserve of considerable strength but never lose their essential ordinariness. In her autobiography, she revealed details of her turbulent childhood and her victory over bipolar disorder, which she further chronicled in A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic-Depressive Illness. Duke became only the second woman to be elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1985, resigning from the post in 1988. During her 1973-82 marriage to actor John Astin, she was billed as Patty Duke Astin; the couple's two sons, Sean and Mackenzie, went on to respectable acting careers of their own.

      (Biography courtesy of TCMDb).

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    • Dick Dinman, Peter Ford & Eddie Muller Salute GILDA & WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

    • DICK DINMAN, PETER FORD & EDDIE MULLER SALUTE "GILDA" & "WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS": The Criterion Collection has just released a knockout 2K digital restoration on Blu-ray of the torrid and deliriously tawdry Rita Hayworth/Glenn Ford noir classic GILDA and Glenn Ford's talented author/actor son Peter Ford joins producer/host Dick Dinman in saluting this legendarily inflammable screen masterwork after which Dick is joined by the aptly anointed "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller as they salute Twilight Times' nothing less than amazing 4K restoration (from the negative!) of Otto Preminger's tough and terrific "crooked cop" classic WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS in which noir icon Dana Andrews socks across one of his most unforgettably powerful and haunted performances.

      COMING NEXT: NOIR TOUGH GUYS MARATHON AS DICK DINMAN AND EDDIE MULLER SALUTE "THE BIG SLEEP" AND "KEY LARGO" AND REVEAL THE BITTER ON SET TENSIONS BETWEEN ROBINSON AND RAFT ON "A BULLET FOR JOEY."

      The award-winning DICK DINMAN'S DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR is the only weekly half hour show devoted to Golden Age Movie Classics as they become available on DVD. Your producer/host Dick Dinman includes a generous selection of classic scenes, classic film music and one-on-one interviews with stars, producers, and directors. To hear these as well as other DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR shows please go to www.dvdclassicscorner.com or www.dvdclassicscorner.net.

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    • Library of America's The Moviegoer on THE MALTESE FALCON

    • Library of America's new regular web feature called The Moviegoer is devoted to great films inspired by classic American writing. This biweekly column features columns by Megan Abbott, David Denby, Wendy Lesser, Charles McGrath, Farran Smith Nehme, Carrie Rickey,Terrence Rafferty, Harold Schechter, Michael Sragow, & others and launched on January 27, 2016.

      American literature has proven an endlessly renewable resource for filmmakers, its originality and vitality inspiring whole catalogues of memorable movies. Now Library of America, the acclaimed nonprofit publisher of the nation's greatest writing, presents The Moviegoer, a biweekly column in which curator Michael Sragow (Film Comment) and other leading writers and critics offer fresh, penetrating examinations of the best of these films, gems that readers will want to revisit or watch for the first time. Standing at the intersection of classic American writing and classic filmmaking, The Moviegoer, offers not reviews but full scale reevaluations that explore the creative alchemy involved in translating a masterwork from page (or stage) to screen. It takes its inspiration, and its catholic compass, from the hero of Walker Percy's famous novel, and, in the words of curator Sragow, "aims to generate new enthusiasm for cinema as well as for literature."

      To read the entry in the series on The Maltese Falcon by Michael Sragow and to sign up for an alert when a new Moviegoer is published, click here.

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    • Dick Dinman Salutes Charles Walters (Parts 3 & 4)

    • DICK DINMAN SALUTES MGM DIRECTOR CHARLES WALTERS (PART THREE): Producer/host Dick Dinman and Charles Walters biographer Brent Phillips cover Walters' films THREE GUYS NAMED MIKE, TEXAS CARNIVAL, THE BELLE OF NEW YORK (and Walters intense dislike of Vera-Ellen), and Walters' ultimate masterpiece LILI.

      DICK DINMAN SALUTES MGM DIRECTOR CHARLES WALTERS (PART FOUR): Producer/host Dick Dinman and Charles Walters biographer Brent Phillips discuss Walters' Esther Williams box-office bonanzas DANGEROUS WHEN WET and EASY TO LOVE, the notorious Joan Crawford headlined TORCH SONG, and a GLASS SLIPPER sabotaged and shattered by it's producer.

      The award-winning DICK DINMAN'S DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR is the only weekly half hour show devoted to Golden Age Movie Classics as they become available on DVD. Your producer/host Dick Dinman includes a generous selection of classic scenes, classic film music and one-on-one interviews with stars, producers, and directors. To hear these as well as other DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR shows please go to www.dvdclassicscorner.com or www.dvdclassicscorner.net.

      COMING SOON: DICK DINMAN SALUTES CHARLESWALTERS (PART 5 & 6)

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    • SPEEDY - Available Now from The Criterion Collection

    • Speedy was the last silent feature to star Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!)--and one of his very best. The slapstick legend reprises his "Glasses Character," this time as a good-natured but scatterbrained New Yorker who can't keep a job. He finally finds his true calling when he becomes determined to help save the city's last horse-drawn trolley, which is operated by his sweetheart's crusty grandfather. From its joyous visit to Coney Island to its incredible Babe Ruth cameo to its hair-raising climactic stunts on the city's streets, Speedy is an out-of-control love letter to New York that will have you grinning from ear to ear.

      1928 • 85 minutes • Black & White • Silent • 1.33:1 aspect ratio

      SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
      - New 4K digital restoration
      - Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1992, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray
      - Audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York's Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies program director Scott McGee
      - In the Footsteps of "Speedy," a new short documentary by Goldstein about the film's New York locations
      - Selection of rare archival footage of baseball legend Babe Ruth, who has a cameo in the film, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio
      - New visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film and narrated by Goldstein
      - Selection of Lloyd's home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd
      - Bumping into Broadway, a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel
      - PLUS: An essay by critic Phillip Lopate

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Alan Ladd: The 1940s Collection DVD
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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir on DVD
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was $14.98
Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous...
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  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca
  •  
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca
  •  
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca