Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Days of Wine and Roses 

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman.
1962.
In terms of his overall career, this harrowing warning shot about how alcohol can destroy lives, livelihoods and families seems to have been a highly unusual project for Blake Edwards, and there are a couple set pieces in the second half that give you a Lemmon that audiences hadn’t previously seen and really didn’t again.
Extras: The unusually vintage Edwards commentary may put off some, but I found it fascinating.
Read the Full Review

Charley Varrick

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andy Robinson, Felicia Farr.
1973.
Don Siegel’s much-deserved newfound glory as a full-fledged ‘A’ director was put to use in a slightly eccentric way for his first picture after Dirty Harry turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Though it’s as mean, lean and pepperishly cast as Siegel’s previous pictures, Charley Varrick has always seemed a little off-center, serving up what was always the closest we ever got to “Walter Matthau — Action Hero.”
Extras: Film historian Toby Roan provides a voiceover commentary, and there’s a 72-minute production documentary, which has a lot of stuff on the movie’s standout stunt work.
Read the Full Review

 

 

Days of Wine and Roses

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars 
Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman.

When I finally got around to seeing it for the first time maybe 25 years ago, the toughness of Days of Wine and Roses in its original “Playhouse 90” TV incarnation from 1958 really surprised me. And so much so that the Warner Bros. feature version, made four years later and new on Blu-ray, had tended to recede from my mind. My generally misplaced assumption was that despite having the same writer on both (J.P. Miller), the refashioning, on a fresh viewing, would prove to be too slick for the material. For one thing, there was that indelible but rather luxuriant Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer title tune, which everyone but Walter Brennan seemed to have recorded at the time.

Yet within the confines of a December major studio release that was definitely not designed to lose an old and cranky Jack Warner too much money by depressing moviegoers, I can see from the Days-’62 Blu-ray that this isn’t really true — or that, to the extent that it is, in ways beneficial to its set-up. In terms of his overall career, this harrowing warning shot about how alcohol can destroy lives, livelihoods and families seems to have been a highly unusual project for Blake Edwards — substituting here for the TV original’s John Frankenheimer, who had directed Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie to great acclaim. But even Edwards’ participation — within two years, Hollywood’s most original comic director of his era this side of Auteur Jerry Lewis would be launching the Inspector Clouseau series — turned out to make more sense than it seemed.

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For this big-screen version, Edwards had Jack Lemmon (a longtime buddy from their Columbia Pictures’ apprenticeships) and Lee Remick — both eventually delivering performances that were successfully positioned for Oscar nominations they deserved by the movie’s limited L.A. release at year’s end. My 14-year-old self got on a downtown bus to see it during my own city’s first-run engagement the following spring, which shows you what a cultural farm my Al Roker neck of the woods was in those days. By that time, the Oscars had either taken place or were about to, and the award that many thought might have gone to Lemmon went to Gregory Peck’s can’t-fight-city-hall turn in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, nominated as well were Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, which has probably outlived all three voter choices, and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz, which I always thought pretty close to Burt’s career performance, or at least until Atlantic City. You can get a sense of why critic/historian Danny Peary, in his typically wonderful Alternate Oscars book, says that1962 was second only to 1967 for producing the volume of films that remain most beloved from that decade of mass change.

Set in and around San Francisco, the movie Days gives us a version of what Lemmon’s character in The Apartment might have become had he gone all to hell over his seamy work/romance situation in that Billy Wilder Oscar winner or had he had he inherited less booze-resistant genes. Working and occasionally even reluctantly pimping for clients in his public relations post, he’s a willing participant in the heavy drinking that went with that territory more than ever in those “Mad Men” days. When Lemmon meets and, at first, stormily courts a fresh-faced secretary (Remick) for one of the execs, he’s surprised to learn that she doesn’t drink. She’s a sucker, though, for chocolate, and he becomes the devil on her shoulder when he slips her a chocolate drink. Remick is really good in these early scenes because she projects a subtle dose of hard-to-read edginess that suggests she isn’t completely the Scandinavian straight-shooter/innocent raised by a gruff widowed father we kind of take her to be. Dad, by the way is Charles Bickford, expertly riffing on his prototypical screen self, the kind of no-nonsense studio head he played so well in the Garland-Mason A Star Is Born.

One thing leads to another, and the movie is especially good at showing how post-marriage boozing on both parties’ parts incrementally deep-sixes Lemmon’s work situation and (by extension) the quality of their living digs. The actor indulges his familiar gestures in the early part of the movie, but there are a couple set pieces in the second half that give you a Lemmon that audiences hadn’t previously seen and really didn’t again. Emmy-nominated Piper Laurie had an advantage in the TV version because she more naturally conveyed dissipation (think of The Hustler, not Son of Ali Baba); even late in the game when almost everything goes to hell, Edwards’ can’t fully camouflage that Remick is one of the most stunning actresses ever. But hers is quite some performance, and if you freeze the frame when the character hits her lowest point, the stuporous human wreckage it conveys is chilling.

Edwards almost never worked in black-and-white, but earlier in the same year, had used it when teaming with Remick for Experiment in Terror, a standout FBI-vs.-psych thriller that still holds up well. He worked a little more frequently in non-amamorphic processes throughout his career, including (noting films made around the same time) the humungous box office smash Operation Petticoat and the truly iconographic Breakfast at Tiffany’s — even though we think of him as a widescreen filmmaker, obviously aside from his TV work, Edwards shot Days in 1.85:1 and in black-and-white, which makes it close to unique in his career, permitting intimacy but also giving him room to block a horizontal image in a way close to approximating his familiar widescreen visual style. His talents as a comic director — and especially one behaves himself here, which he didn’t always do — serve him well here because without the light comic touch in the early going, two hours of solid tragedy might have been too much.

The unusually vintage Edwards commentary may put off some, but I found it fascinating. It begins weakly with long gaps of nothing, a personal admission that he’s not good at these kind of look-backs and that he’s seeing the film for the first time in years. But as it progresses, you can feel that Edwards is finding himself moved by the picture in ways that surprise him. Edwards tries making a case that his old “Richard Diamond” radio show and classic “Peter Gunn” TV shows were dramas, too — but they hardly dealt with material of this sort. What does hit is Edwards’s admission that he, too, was an alcoholic at one point before basically quitting cold turkey without too much help from Alcoholics Anonymous, though the portrayal here of AA seems at least “feels” authentic to my layman’s eye, with the performance by Jack Klugman as an AA sponsor memorably sympathetic.

Edwards opines that Days was a really good film for him to do on the heels of Tiffany’s (actually, Terror was in the middle), and certainly this lightning-in-a-bottle combo suggests an alternate direction his career might have taken. But he loved expensive pie fights, Herbert Lom meltdowns and World War I planes as big-screen playthings, and that was that. He was a complicated guy and one of my favorites, and yet without question, the source “Playhouse 90” (which was the live-drama series of all time, imho) demands a look as well. It’s on the Criterion DVD box devoted to Golden Age TV.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Charley Varrick

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andy Robinson, Felicia Farr.

Don Siegel’s much-deserved newfound glory as a full-fledged ‘A’ director was put to use in a slightly eccentric way for his first picture after Dirty Harry turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Though it’s as mean, lean and pepperishly cast as Siegel’s previous pictures, 1973’s Charley Varrick has always seemed a little off-center to me, serving up what was always the closest we ever got to “Walter Matthau — Action Hero.”

I never really bought that concept and always regarded Matthau as an actor for whom it was difficult to forge an emotional attachment, though his Oscar-winning “Whiplash Willie” characterization in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie remains, for me, one of the movies’ most memorable characterizations from a reliably comic sourpuss force. A lot of Charley fans disagree with the earlier point, and I have to respect this from a film that originally tanked at the box office and yet has a cult bigger than I knew. Though it’s kind of a cold cookie — which is not the same thing as a lack of sentimentality that was always a Siegel hallmark — it’s something of a model in no-fat story construction and planting seeds that will pay off much later. And the new 4K presentation here captures exactly what Universal Pictures looked like in 1973 (along with another of those Lalo Schifrin scores that recalls what they sounded like: ’60s TV from Universal subsidiary Revue Studios).

Nevada crop duster Varrick is a onetime air show pilot wed to a onetime air show entertainer (Jacqueline Scott) who’s now the getaway driver for her husband’s minor bank heists in the Southwest. We open when another of their presumed small-time stickups goes horribly wrong near Albuquerque, resulting in her death and added fatalities on both sides of the law. This leaves pragmatic Charley with just one accomplice: a not very bright Vietnam vet with a drinking problem played by Andy Robinson — who’s not really that akin to the all-timer psycho Robinson played as Dirty Harry’s central heavy but just a dunce who’s never had a chance to enjoy even the most minor of life’s luxuries.

Well, he has the opportunity now because an expected tally of a couple grand ends up being close to three-quarters of a million dollars, which Charley is savvy enough to realize must be part of a money-laundering scheme likely run by mob-connected parties who’ll be in a vengeful mood to get this booty back. For this reason, he tries to put the kibosh on spending the loot for three or four years while realizing that this just isn’t going to sell with his impatient younger partner in crime. We also get a resigned-to-it vibe that Charley realizes that the kid’s splashy plans will get him killed closer to sooner than later.

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So here we go. The local cops (shown for once as competent) are after the perpetrators. Hood point man John Vernon (in an example of “of course” casting) is after them, too — as is, more directly, the Stetsoned muscle he hires to enforce matters in sadistic ways (a svelte Joe Don Baker, before he put on the pounds that helped make Mitchell my all-time favorite “Mystery Science Theater 3000” entry). This is a movie where everyone is in it for something, including a couple of women characters who turn out to be somewhat more amoral or at least less sincere than they initially seem to be. Yet it’s tough to figure out what even a tidy monetary reward could do to fill the walking void that is Baker. Superficially, he has more on the ball than fellow racist Robinson, but it’s all relative. Neither one would be a likely candidate to named anyone’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The film is based on a John Reese novel called The Looters and screen-adapted by past Siegel collaborators Howard Rodman (Madigan, under a pseudonym) and Dean Reisner (Dirty Harry) — and, if anything, I love Madigan even more than the Eastwood phenom, regarding it as one of the three or four best American cop movies of all time. The same grubby pedigree sets the table for Varrick, and despite never being bowled over, I’m full of objective admiration for the craft with which Siegel put it together. And of the veteran pros he got to be in it (beyond the aforementioned, we get Sheree North, Norman Fell, William Schallert, Tom Tully and even, as a bank guard, veteran ‘B’-pic cowboy star Bob Steele, to whom Siegel probably gave the role as favor to an old-timer). Plot-wise, the only moment that feels blatantly false to me is the zip (and un-zip) with which the Felicia Farr character succumbs to the physical charms of a craggy crop duster when nothing about suggests that she’s particularly indiscriminate. Though as Toby Roan suggests on his Blu-ray voiceover commentary, maybe Siegel couldn’t resist plunking Jack Lemmon’s real-life wife into bed (and a round one at that) with Matthau.

The always encyclopedic Roan loves the picture, as presumably does film historian Howard S. Berger, who obviously put a lot of thought into this disc’s ethereal visual essay on Siegel’s style; for me, it has a low tons-o-fun quotient, and it’s the casting, staccato editing rhythms and brutal attitude toward life that make the best Siegels work for me.

And yet, critic and Blu-ray essayist Nick Pinkerton is also an apparent enthusiast, as are the production veterans or sons of veterans interviewed on an accompanying 72-minute production documentary, which has a lot of stuff on the movie’s standout stunt work. (There’s nothing like having a car hood flying up — unplanned — when you’re the stunt person behind the wheel in a fast-moving getaway scene.) Apparently the only person who didn’t like the picture was Matthau, and some thought his bad-mouthing convinced the studio to give up even on the fall release of a picture that had once intended as an Easter attraction. Starting with its three or four fatalities in the well-staged opening scene, commentator Roan is right to ask, “What about Charley Varrick says ‘Easter’ to you?”

Even at the time, I thought the picture felt overextended, given a director whose movies were known for the taut punch of those great Carmen Basilio-Gene Fullmer bouts from my early adolescence; in other words, it was a warning. I couldn’t have been too wrong because the only Siegels I liked for the rest of his career amid a sea of disasters were John Wayne’s The Shootist (which has always been more of a double or triple to me instead of a home run) and, to some extent, Escape From Alcatraz, which is impresses less if you’ve seen Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.

Still, Siegel is a major figure in my formative filmgoing experience, and Charley Varrick is well-crafted enough to mandate at least some level of personal appreciation. For the record, were I to list my ten favorite Siegels in order of appreciation, the list would go something like: 1) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’56); 2) Madigan (all just out from Kino Lorber); 3) Dirty Harry; 4) Baby Face Nelson; 5) Flaming Star; 6) Hell Is For Heroes; 7) The Shootist; 8) The Big Steal; 9) The Lineup; 10) Coogan’s Bluff. One I need to see again is The Duel at Silver Creek, which surprised me at the time by being something of a standout in terms of Audie Murphy Westerns, which I enjoy on sheer principle, anyway.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Mike’s Picks: ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ and ‘My Favorite Year’

David Crosby: Remember My Name

Sony Pictures, Documentary, $25.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language, drug material and brief nudity.
Featuring David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne.
2019.
Filmmaker A.J. Eaton had apparently been working with Crosby for a while fashioning what came to be a combo confessional, irresistible rock-memories clip show and something of an L.A. tourist road movie that veers off into footage of its subject on the road trying to survive the grind of touring to small venues while in his late 70s. Then rock-journalist-turned-auteur filmmaker Cameron Crowe entered the picture to sign on as one of the producers and also as off-camera interviewer. The result displays the savviness toward its subject and milieu that we’d naturally expect from someone of Crowe’s origins.
Extras: In addition to deleted and expanded scenes, there’s a half-hour Q&A with Crowe joining Crosby on stage for questions after a pre-release showing of the film.
Read the Full Review

My Favorite Year

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna.
1982.
Richard Benjamin struck gold as a director in a way he never would again in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a modest but transcendently sweeter-than-ever comedy.
Extras: The Warner Archive Blu-ray includes a commentary from Benjamin carried over from the old DVD.
Read the Full Review

My Favorite Year

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Comedy;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna.

Richard Benjamin struck gold as a director in a way he never would again in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a modest but transcendently sweeter-than-ever comedy inspired by the same “Sid Caesar Experience” that long ago entered the realm of folklore from the likes of surviving raconteurs Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Think about what Caesar demanded of his colleagues: a weekly 90-minute comedy revue (eventually shortened to an hour under various marquee titles) that aired on NBC for 39 Saturday nights a year. And these were packed with lengthy skits that never played down to their audience, though it helped that Caesar fans were among the sharpest of all TV viewers.

This is the background, but there’s also a foreground, and despite the picture’s bulls-eye casting all the way down the line, it’s dominated by Peter O’Toole, who got his seventh of eight Oscar nominations here (a run that got him no wins, though he did eventually get a special career award). If I had to pick one movie to explain why O’Toole was so beloved by so many for so many screen decades, Year would have to be on the short list of contenders and quite possibly in the top spot. He had the natural tools to pull off playing an old-style movie swashbuckler hero, and there weren’t many actors after the collapse of the studio system who could do that. But O’Toole also gave us a flawed fading superstar now in a perpetually pickled state, a condition that never obscured a protagonist that the character had surprising residues of depth despite masking his insecurities with bravado.

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The year we’re talking is 1954, and when the movie’s opening gives us two minor musical anachronisms and a mild movie one within a couple minutes, its artistic future is far from assured. Yet all three of these not-quites are in the emotional spirit of the times as delineated by a keen Norman Steinberg-Dennis Palumbo script. So when there’s suddenly a shot of Radio City Music Hall advertising its current showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, all is forgiven. This last is as “1954” as “Sh-Boom” and Willie Mays’s catch off Vic Wertz in the coming fall’s World Series (though we’ll leave Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn out of the discussion because Year is conceived as a happy movie where even its heavy is on the far side of lovable.

In a stroke of good fortune, Benjamin found Mark Linn-Baker (the first young actor he interviewed) to play “Benjy” Stone, a staff assistant who’s assigned to keep an eye on O’Toole’s Alan Swann character during the lead-up to the show. Swann is conceived as a takeoff on Errol Flynn, who actually did guest on one of the Caesar shows without incident but was otherwise famous for offscreen drinking and scandals with women, some of them on the young (and even too-young) side. Benji’s instructions are to keep Swann in his presence at all times, as if this onetime screen legend is a bag carrying nuclear codes, which in a way he is.

Another casting jewel is Joseph Bologna as the bigger-than-life character inspired by Caesar (here called “King Kaiser”); if there were an Oscar category for best shoulder pads, Bologna would have won it here in a runaway. These accouterments are part of the show’s continuing routine that’s been spoofing (and infuriating) a Hoffa-like combination of well-dressed labor leader and hood (Cameron Mitchell) — stuffing that makes the already large Kaiser look even bigger than he is. This is in keeping with reality: Though you wouldn’t know it from the way he permanently slimmed down from the late ’60s on, stories of Caesar’s onetime physical strength (lifting tables, lifting cars, etc.) are legion. My favorite, told by either Reiner or Brooks (who were, respectively, Caesar’s TV foil and writing staffer) involved a driver who stole a parking place that Caesar wanted and then just sat there in the driver’s seat with the window cranked down enough to leave a little open space at the top. Whereupon an enraged Caesar confronted the guy and asked him if he were anxious to relive the circumstances of his birth.

There are other subplots or at least plot tributaries, all of them good to one degree or another. The standout of these involves Benji taking Swann to dinner at his parents’ apartment in exotic Brooklyn — a set piece that some no doubt criticized for hitting every Jewish stereotype in the book, except that Benjamin (delivering a supremely enjoyable commentary from the old DVD) is adamant that everything here is vastly toned down from reality. Which they no doubt are. (Not to equate the two, but I was always struck by how the original source books that were adapted by Martin Scorsese into Casino and Wolf of Wall Street had episodes or at least references that were more anti-social or even sociopathic than anything in the movie versions.)

The character-rich script has so much old-school comedy going for it, but modest in scale or not, this is definitely a picture that’s directed; gags are set up (sometimes multiple scenes in advance), and Benjamin proved to be an actor’s director with his feature debut, though it always helps when you’re in sync with a simpatico cast of like comic minds. Adolph Green, Bill Macy, Selma Diamond, and Lou Jacobi are just some who have privileged moments, while Jessica Harper is comely-plus as an assistant with looks — as Benjamin points out in his commentary — that’s very true to the period. I’ll never be able to figure out why so many of Benjamin’s subsequent projects were bombs because there’s no indication here that his contribution was any fluke.

Caesar’s stable of writers had such a deep bench that it also included Neil Simon and (later in the run) Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen — with Lucille Kallen living what had to have been a really interesting existence as the only woman, though Selma Diamond joined after the original “Your Show of Shows” morphed into “Caesar’s Hour.” All this may be tough to follow, so the best solution might be to watch this movie and then one of the many Caesar collections that have been issued on DVD over the years in good-quality kinescopes.

His pairings with Imogene Coca and later Nanette Fabray remain indelible, but forced to choose, my favorites (both as a child and still) are Caesar, Reiner, Howard Morris and wigs not to be believed in their rock-spoof routines featuring “The Haircuts” — sometimes known as “The Three Haircuts.” I even have their 1955 RCA-Victor rendition of “You Are So Rare to Me” on my iPhone, a recording that came out around the same time as “Rock Around the Clock” but failed to knock it off the charts. Sometimes, timing is everything.

Mike’s Picks: ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ and ‘My Favorite Year’

 

David Crosby: Remember My Name

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Sony Pictures;
Documentary;
$25.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, drug material and brief nudity.
Featuring David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne.

I’ve never heard how Keith Richards responds to all the “How can you still be alive?” jokes but also related legitimate questions that have followed him around for years. But fellow rocker David Crosby is used to it (probably never more so than when he was promoting the self-lacerating portrait, Remember My Name) and is always up front about it, in that he’s as amazed as anyone else.

Let’s put it this way: If Crosby’s body contained the submarine pathway in a remake of Fantastic Voyage, you’d want to make sure the craft had the best navigation system in the business because the dead ends, detours and checkpoints would be voluminous enough to make you think you were in a Jeep touring 1948 West Berlin. He’s survived addictions (and at the same time) to cocaine and heroin, has eight stents in his heart (the maximum, he says), has had hepatitis-C, also a liver transplant and sports unusually expansive purple-ish splotches under his skin, the kind one identifies with blood disorders. Crosby says sometime in the next two years, a heart attack is going to get him and that medical science won’t be able to do much about it.

So he’s trying to make amends for a lifetime of rotten behavior, a prodigious task in his case, for which there’s not a whole lot of time. This is a guy, to name one mammoth infraction, whose temper-fueled difficult personality managed to sink two rock supergroups: Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (which were, notably, different artistic entities). Now just think a moment. Given their own egos and short fuses, it isn’t all that tough to imagine hacking off Stephen Stills and Neil Young. But at least going by public personas here … Graham Nash? And all three? Late in the picture, we see Nash being radio-interviewed well after the final split, and he’s obviously still pained (what’s more, he and Crosby had teamed just by themselves in the ’70s to become an appealing touring/recording team). And in terms of women companions, it wasn’t enough for Crosby to become an addict; he had to take multiple partners down with him. Fortunately, eventual wife Jan went into successful rehab at the same time he did himself (post-imprisonment) and remains a steadying influence. Or at least she is in the footage we see.

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New-to-me filmmaker A.J. Eaton had apparently been working with Crosby for awhile, fashioning what came to be a combo confessional, irresistible rock-memories clip show and something of an L.A. tourist road movie (obviously pre-fires) that veers off into footage of its subject on the road trying to survive the grind of touring to small venues while in his late 70s (not too well). Then rock-journalist-turned-auteur filmmaker Cameron Crowe, perhaps smarting from the reception of his last few films (though I’m in the tiny minority who had a really good time with the much lambasted Aloha), entered the picture to sign on as one of the producers and also as off-camera interviewer. The result displays the savviness toward its subject and milieu that we’d naturally expect from someone of Crowe’s origins, but virtually every movie he’s written and directed suggests that he’ll be compassionate enough to get away with asking a penetrating question and getting a straight answer. Of course, it helps that Crosby is at the point of his life where all he wants to do is give straight answers while gazing at you with eyes that somehow manage to seem both world-weary/tired and penetratingly alert.

The result is something of an anomaly for the genre, in that on the one hand, it has gaps that even a mediocre alternative might cover; unless I was dozing, for instance, I do not recall the words “Buffalo Springfield” crossing anyone’s lips here, even though two members of the group later contributed as many letters for CSN&Y — not even to mention Crosby’s own brief Buffalo fill-in on occasion. On the other hand — and, ultimately, this is what really matters — I’m not sure I’ve ever quite seen a soul-bearer like this, with Crosby offering un-procrastinated direct opinions on a variety of subjects. He’s the foremost of these, for sure. But on at least two occasions, he almost revels in how little use he had for the Doors’ Jim Morrison.

If you want seductive side issues, there are a few here. One truly wonderful passage has Crosby’s driver taking him and Crowe to the literal source of Nash’s pro-domestication “Our House,” a tune that celebrated the domicile he and Joni Mitchell shared in what the recording, at least, indicated was harmony. Crosby, by the way, is boundless in his praise for Mitchell, calling her the most talented of them all (which he should since it’s only her due). There’s also at least some discussion of what a cold cookie David’s father Floyd was, in contrast to a mother who exuded warmth. The senior Crosby had a spotty career (not in terms of personal craftsmanship but in projects he served,) but he did win an early Oscar for shooting Tabu (one of my favorite films of all time) and later High Noon. Later, he became part of the Roger Corman stable and then wrapped it up at Warner when David’s Byrds were riding high with The Cool Ones — which, as far as I know, is the only movie to feature both Phil Harris and Mrs. Miller. You have to wonder if Mrs. Miller ever came over to jam with the Byrds, though her back pages were a heavy lift.

In addition to deleted and expanded scenes, there’s a half-hour Q&A with Crowe joining Crosby on stage for questions after a pre-release showing of the film. Unlike most back-and-forths of this length (I did many with film folk back in the day), the two are standard. It must have been, and indications are, that it was an exuberant moment with a receptive audience, because otherwise, this is a performer who’s earned the right to sit down, no matter how forgiving or not you are of his offstage past.

Mike’s Picks: ‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ and ‘My Favorite Year’

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’

When We Were Kings

Criterion, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for images of violence, brief nudity and some language.
Featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton.
1996.
The now famed, Zaire-set 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman provided the century-caliber upset of which Oscar-winning documentaries are made, which is what happened with 1996’s When We Were Kings, one of my favorite movies of any kind ever made, dealing with Ali’s spiritual renewal with the African people who adored him.
Extras: A three-night event featuring concerts by some of the era’s major musical acts was filmed leading to the main event, and much more of the music footage formed the basis for 2008’s theatrically released Soul Power, which is included on this release as well.
Read the Full Review

The Return of Martin Guerre

Cohen, Drama, $22.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gerard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye.
1982.
The possibility of identity theft in The Return of Martin Guerre provides the drama, as it looks at the effect its title’s mysterious not-exactly-stranger has on a 16th-century village. A onetime arthouse hit that Hollywood later modified and more or less remade, it boasts two international stars, one or two familiar faces from French cinema and a lot of cackling chickens who’d probably be crossing the road if there were any roads here beyond modest horse paths.
Extras: Includes an interview of female lead Nathalie Baye.
Read the Full Review

 

When We Were Kings

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG’ for images of violence, brief nudity and some language.
Featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton.

“No. No way. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to pay that much money to watch Ali get killed in the ring.”

That was me to my best friend in 1974 as the now famed, Zaire-set Rumble in the Jungle approached, the subsequent Rope-a-Dope bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman — long before the latter became the Anthony Bourdain of college dorms. This was the same friend with whom I’d seen the closed-circuit broadcast of Ali-Frazier II in Washington, D.C.’s long extinct RKO Keith’s — right round the corner-and-change from the White House and we were the only white guys in the raucously wild-ass balcony (an experience). Later, we’d see Ali in person win a close and controversial decision against Jimmy Young up in Landover, MD. But as for the Rumble, I wouldn’t go back to the Keith’s or anywhere the fight was transmitted, thus missing the century-caliber upset of which Oscar-winning documentaries are made. Which is what happened with 1996’s When We Were Kings, one of my favorite movies of any kind ever made.

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Ali’s imminent death or at least serious maiming was the common wisdom at the time, stated by no less than Norman Mailer (author of The Fight, a book I love) and George Plimpton, all the way down to just about any person on the street, which by that time was where Richard Nixon was not quite three months after his resignation. Everyone knew that Ali was too old and too sapped (particularly by what the U.S. government had done to him), while Foreman was a sullen destroyer still eons away from a subsequent and complete alteration of his personal image, one arguably more jolting than Frank Sinatra’s and Dick Powell’s put together. Whereas Ali eventually spent most of his time actively charming the locals and then some, Foreman showed up in Zaire with a German shepherd, which was not the pet of choice for all the Africans who remembered or knew about British colonialism, which was just about everybody.

This all became the nucleus of the film but not by design. The original intention was to film a concert thrown in as an extra added PR attraction by Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko, a typically bloody-handed despot who also embezzled billions, which makes you wonder if he regarded the bout’s promoter Don King as a soul brother. But during the lead-up, Foreman walked into a training camp elbow — delaying the fight for six weeks perilously close to the rainy season. The concert dates and performers were bound by contracts, and these were heavy hitters: James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Celia Cruz and more. The three-nighter was filmed, albeit with no one in the audience for the first two nights, thanks to the postponed main event. And in the interim, filmmaker Leon Gast began to think that there might be a more novel documentary out there, dealing with Ali’s spiritual renewal with the African people who adored him. Plus, of course, the fight itself.

Cut to a modest wait of maybe two decades when Gast finally got the money (thank you, producer David Sonenberg) to begin assembling what he had from a few skyscrapers’ worth of shot material. The filmmaker wisely elected not to distract from what truly mattered by now, making the concert a presence but definitely a sideline affair. Eventually, much more of the music footage formed the basis for 2008’s theatrically released Soul Power, which in typically classy Criterion fashion is included on this release as well (it actually runs a teensy bit longer than Kings). Not exactly a concert film per se, it deals as much with its own backstage material and is a little like Murray Lerner’s Festival in that regard. The No. 1 reality it conveys is the intense heat endured by the performers (at least the fighters were mostly stripped down). The Spinners are dripping with sweat by the time they hit their first note, and, like most artists showcased, are wearing performing duds. Though the Spinners drummer, no fool, seems to be saying the hell with that and is in a t-shirt.

Back to the fight. The final capper to transform a superb documentary into an all-timer came when friend-of-the-production Taylor Hackford took a look at assembled footage and decided that a few perspective-oriented voices might round things out: Mailer, Plimpton, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, Spike Lee. Watching Mailer talk about anything — and do we ever need him and all his first-person pseudonyms in the present political climate — puts most movies in the shade just by itself. Also great to see is Lee’s appalled reaction to the fact most young people know almost nothing when it comes to even recent history — while Plimpton gets to end the picture on a perfect anecdotal note following a couple spectacular climactic peaks: the fight itself and then one of the best music-backed photo montages I’ve ever seen to the celebratory title tune.

It’s also sweet to see Mailer given the opportunity to laud the beloved individual that Foreman eventually became, and unlike Frazier (who became understandably embittered at the adulation Ali accumulated) looked after the now handicapped champ on and offstage when Kings took the Oscar that was only its due (it had previously cleaned up in critics’ awards as well). When deciding whether or not to give the movie a “go” when an assemblage was put together, Foreman ended up seeing it 11 times, which we have to take as an affirmative. He said every viewing convinced him that he was going to win, but Ali, of course, had successfully tired out Foreman by enduring several rounds’ worth of the latter’s sideline punches while leaning against the ropes, outlasting a totally intimidating force until he could score a knockout in the eighth.

After damage inflicted here and also by Frazier and certainly by 22 subsequent bouts, Ali never lost his intelligence, but his motor skills were shot for the rest of his life. As a result, what happened to him accomplished what my seeing Benny “Kid” Paret beaten to a delayed death from a March 24, 1962, beating on ABC’s “Fight of the Week” did not: Make me lose my taste for boxing despite fervent fandom that went back at least to the three Patterson-Johansson contests and extended through all the Saturday ABC-TV broadcasts (was there a Basilio-Fullmer LXVIII?; it seemed like it).

Years after the Rumble, on the way back to my hotel after the New York press screening of Terrence Malick’s already mesmerizing film of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, I saw Ali standing out in front of his hotel on the corner of 54th Street and Avenue of the Americas posing tolerantly (maybe even contentedly) next to one more yahoo whose buddy had an Instamatic. I’d never been more tempted to go the same yahoo route myself (of course, it would have helped if I were carrying a camera in those pre-cellphone days) but finally rejected the thought. This, however, didn’t keep me from stopping in my tracks and staring for as long as was socially acceptable; I felt I was in the presence of a king. That’s where this documentary puts you, hence its title, as Mailer, B.B. King and The Godfather of Soul rounds out a Murderer’s Row of royalty.

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’

The Return of Martin Guerre

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Cohen;
Drama;
$22.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gerard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye.

You don’t need stolen credit card numbers or bank information to engage in identity theft, a reality that extends backwards in screen history well beyond “Mad Men” icon Don Draper to possibly even French tillers of land. And it’s this “possibly” part in 1982’s The Return of Martin Guerre that provides the drama, as it looks at the effect its title’s mysterious not-exactly-stranger has on a 16th-century village. A onetime arthouse hit that Hollywood later modified and more or less remade, it boasts two international stars, one or two familiar faces from French cinema and a lot of cackling chickens who’d probably be crossing the road if there were any roads here beyond modest horse paths.

Despite all this activity, I’m most struck here by the most pleasing 4K treatment we get in the latest Blu-ray release from Cohen Media Group, a distributor that so often seems to make foreign-language films look even better than I remember from their original theatrical engagements. Of course, there was a little to work with here. Anne-Marie Marchand’s costume design for a film without a whole lot of cafe society got an Oscar nomination, losing to Fanny and Alexander (well, you can’t fight that one), while the production design (Alain Negre) took one of MG’s three Cesar Awards.

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A major spear-header of the production was director Daniel Vigne, who also co-authored the screenplay (with Bunuel favorite Jean-Claude Carriere) from a real-life story that has inspired varied stage/screen riffs in different settings over the years even beyond Hollywood’s take. This comes directly from the Blu-ray’s bonus interview of the picture’s female lead Nathalie Baye, an actress one always sensed even way back when would age gracefully (and indeed she has). Her character is in a grin-and-bear-it marriage with Martin — though, actually, there isn’t too much grinning in this picture other than during celebrations one of which takes place when Martin, uh, returns.

Told in flashback, the story’s anchor is the final debriefing between Baye’s character (Bertrande) and a judge of note (Roger Planchon, one of those familiar French-actor faces I mentioned) over what we’ve just seen transpire. Husband Martin is inadequate in multiple ways, and one day he up and disappears for years. When he returns after fighting for years in some vague war, he looks a little different from what folks had remembered. But no one seems to notice much, even his wife — though because Gerard Depardieu is playing him, it’s safe to say that he probably would look different from just about any other human specimen you could name. Helping to mitigate any doubts is the minute personal information he carries around — details about his marriage ceremony, scars and moles, those kinds of things.

The old Martin was not without controversy — he abandoned his wife, for one thing — but comes from a kind of “connected” clan and had no shortage of friends or friendly acquaintances. There was always a little tension between him and his well-heeled uncle, but things are now going smoothly, and especially with wife Bertrande. Until, that is, Martin/Depardieu raises the issue over money he thinks he’s owed by his elder relative, which has a way of destroying family harmony. Also around this time comes an accusation by a couple stray vagabonds that Depardieu’s new-and-improved Martin isn’t Martin at all but an imposter they recognize from their wanderings. These aren’t guys with whom you’d trust your last onion, but they plant just enough doubt that at least some of the populace begins to note certain inconsistencies with their memories. (Up till then, the village has been pretty big on groupthink.)

This leads to a trial to that consumes a lot of the movie — one with enough back-and-forth and ambushing surprises emerging to send William Talman’s “Perry Mason” character (Hamilton Burger, which always cracked me up from a nickname POV) to the men’s room on a continual loop. Even so, this is less interesting than the human dynamics here. They give the movie a little extra kick and enabled it to catch on to a degree in the U.S. at a time when a solid French movie could still get booked into single-screen theater in a gray-matter city and wangle a multi-month run.

The 1993 remake, shoehorned into a Civil War setting, was Sommersby. Roger Ebert had a point in his published pan when he said the update made its central conceit (that so many acquaintances could find themselves uncertain one way or another) tougher to swallow than it is in a predecessor set in medieval times. Still, the chemistry was so good between Richard Gere and Jodie Foster that the result still ranks among the most tolerable of the European retreads. Think of the stillborn attempts of Hollywood to have its way with France’s Diabolique and Germany’s Wings of Desire (which was called City of Angels, if you’ve forgotten — and if you haven’t, why not?).

Martin Guerre isn’t among my true favorite foreign-language releases of the period — Danton, which would soon follow with Depardieu, is — but it’s deftly planed-and-sanded and, as mentioned, looks most handsome on the home screen. I had forgotten that Depardieu took the ’83 best actor citation from the National Society of Film Critics, though it was an award shared with his performance in that same Andrzej Wajda epic about George Jacques Danton’s French equivalent of “mano a mano” with Maximilien Robespierre. That one hasn’t gotten an American Blu-ray release but is available in a couple all-region imports.

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

The Tall Men

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell.
1955.
A substantial hit in its day that made Clark Gable give a damn because he took a percentage deal against his already meaty salary, The Tall Men is a combination cattle drive drama/wagon train epic with a long stop-off in San Antonio.
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There’s Always Tomorrow (Demain est un autre jour)

All-Region French Import
Elephant, Drama, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD, NR.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett.
1955.
Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow had been previously filmed under the same title in the 1930s, but it couldn’t have offered the same trenchant observations of what at times can be maddeningly rigid suburbia that distinguish one of the most unjustly overlooked and certainly underrated Hollywood movies of its decade.
Read the Full Review