Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’

The Far Country

MVD/Arrow, Western, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan.
1954.
Though his infectious smile directed mostly at Walter Brennan goes a long way to defuse this perception, The Far Country surprises a little by casting James Stewart as a real hard-ass with some unattractive traits, given that his character hasn’t been personally wronged the way he is in some of the other Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns.
Extras: Includes a substantive Philip Kemp essay (nice still photos, too); a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; the always amusing Kim Newman on both the film and other Mann Westerns; and another documentary on Mann and Universal.
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The Bells of St. Mary’s

Olive, Drama, $27.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers.
1945.
Olive Films’ much appreciated “Signature” upgrade of director Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s offers a lovely visual rendering.
Extras: Features a voiceover commentary by Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, a featurette about the film at hand in relation to McCarey; an on-screen essay by Abbey Bender, and a discussion of Bells’ prequel/sequel status from effervescent Prof. Emily Carman.
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The Bells of St. Mary’s

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Olive;
Drama;
$27.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers.

Christmas has arrived early for Old Mikey this year, what with Olive Films’ much appreciated “Signature” upgrade of The Bells of St. Mary’s, a lovely visual rendering that features exactly the right person for its voiceover commentary: Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins.

Of course, laying that handle on Giddins and then letting it go at that is a little like suggesting that “White Christmas” was Crosby’s only hit single. But the credit is especially germane here, given that Vol. 2 of Little, Brown and Company’s Giddins-Crosby chronicle (Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1941-46) concludes just a little after Bells became not just its year’s biggest box office hit but the biggest live-action box office hit that RKO ever released. I’m qualifying this achievement just a little because there’s a claim from either Giddins or another bonus commentator here that the studio’s distribution deal with Disney up until 1954 allowed Bambi to take RKO’s all-time No. 1 spot, which is something I didn’t know. But you get the idea: This was more than the studio revenues taken in even by King Kong, or at least it was until the foiled Kong-Fay Wray courtship saga got re-issued to death before RKO went under.

Another hat worn by Giddins is his status as something of the go-to guy for any pointers on director Leo McCarey, something that Criterion was savvy enough to realize when they interviewed the critic/historian for their releases of The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, both films released in 1937 and at the apogee of Hollywood in the ’30s. For Bells, McCarey and Crosby re-created the latter’s once-thought-to-be dicey casting as the hip young priest from Paramount’s Going My Way, which had recently swept a slew of 1944 Oscars after becoming the single most popular Hollywood movie of the war years.

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Bells wasn’t a sequel but a then very rare prequel that teamed him with the most prominent screen artist who hadn’t won her own ’44 Oscar for GMY. This would be Ingrid Bergman for her performance as the badgered wife who more than anyone put her movie’s title into the now common lexicon as a verb: Gaslight, as directed by George Cukor in a vastly superior screen remake of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play. Having spent almost all of her Hollywood career steeped in acting angst, Bergman fought David O. Selznick (who contractually held the keys to her profession destiny) to play the film’s Sister Superior and sparring partner — both with Crosby and an initially inept playground student pugilist in one of the picture’s most memorable scenes. Selznick had a way of compromising his contract players starting around of the time of Bells’ production — less out of mean-spiritedness than from a case of artistic myopia probably exacerbated by Bennies he used as chasers.

There’s one bit in GMY where Crosby sports a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt, which despite ’44 having been the Browns’ real-life one-hit-wonder World Series year (they still didn’t win it), suggests that O’Malley empathizes more than most with human failing. Meanwhile, Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict takes a more traditionally rigid approach between the beams of light her very being exudes — hence the conflict dramatized with velvet gloves in Dudley Nichols’ script. This tension predominantly manifests itself over a) a young female student who’s a product of what was once viewed as suspect parentage; and b) conflicting attitudes over whether dilapidated St. Mary’s is worth saving — a moot point, perhaps, due to a developer (Henry Travers) who has constructed a modern office building right next door and is on his way to locking up a deal to use the school’s real estate as a parking lot.

McCarey couldn’t have known at the time how film history would play out, but the developer is portrayed with his typical disarming whimsy by Henry Travers, who was still a year way from playing Clarence the Angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But anyone who’s been breathing in the years since (and can make casting associations) will likely sense that he or she won’t have to worry too much. Fortunately, to riff on the Sherman Brothers, the movie avoids employing a warehouse of sugar to make the tough stuff go down. Nichols and McCarey are sly enough to have Travers note, after a rare act of altruism, that it’s “tax-deductible.”

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Still, the picture could have gone off the rails were it not for the almost incalculable charm and chemistry between the two leads (this is my favorite Bergman performance) and the equally incalculable auteurist flair McCarey always brought to movies both great and not so good (as with, alas, the ones that found themselves on the upswing later in his career). The famous and certainly oft-quoted line about McCarey came from Jean Renoir when he said that the former understood people better than any other Hollywood director. To this, one might include cats as well because Bells boasts the greatest screen direction of one (and possibly the best in any setting, given that cats really can’t be directed) that I’ve ever seen. As for his direction of the very young children in a Nativity scene that equals the killer one in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, McCarey had the touch there as well — though it’s been said that after giving the kids some basic instruction, he left the room as they did their thing with the camera rolling.

Bells’ setting is drab — this school is really rundown — but cinematographer George Barnes goes to town when it comes to lighting the actors and making Bergman look absolutely luminous (Barnes got an Oscar for black-and-white Rebecca and shot some of the era’s most gorgeous Technicolor pictures: later De Mille epics The Spanish Main, The Emperor Waltz, Frenchman’s Creek, the last visual spectaculars when I got to see them in nitrate 35mm prints). This Signature release is much, much improved over the previous Olive release, which looked kind of like a patch job to me. Arrow Films has its own handsome Region B release that’s newly available as well, and I assume it’s from the same source.

Aside from Giddins the Great, who sounds as if he might be battling a cold here, the extras include an array of goodies — all of which I liked — about the film at hand in relation to McCarey (by Steve Massa); an on-screen essay that I had a little trouble navigating on my screen (Abbey Bender); and a discussion of Bells’ prequel/sequel status from effervescent Prof. Emily Carman. She gets more out of the subject than I expected, due to the paucity of single big-screen follow-ups (as opposed to Tarzan, Nancy Drew and other series) in the era. There’s also a Faith and Film interview with Sr. Rose Pacette — I have a sweet spot for movie-loving nuns — who discusses what she likes about Bells and what she thinks is an offensive stretch (most prominently the control O’Malley has over Sister Benedict’s fortunes). It all dates from when she first saw the film decades ago as a much younger person, and it’s clear this is a movie that she, on balance, likes a lot.

I first saw Bells at a neighborhood theater’s 1958 Saturday afternoon triple bill — bookended by Stanley Donen’s Fearless Fagan and Bob Hope’s arguable career stretch in The 7 Little Foys. I came out of it with warm feelings toward Bergman’s characterization (Sister Rose comes off the same way) and Catholicism in general, which lasted until the following Tuesday. It was then, up at “my” shopping center, where I witnessed a kid my age from the nearby Catholic school mouthing off a little to a nun — cheeky waggery on his part but nothing more than what I was prone to say every day throughout 12 years in my own school system. It was then that the nun laid a huge slap across his face — not exactly Emile Griffith/Benny “Kid” Paget stuff but enough to make him see stars.

After this, I decided to remain a lapsed Presbyterian, but my love for McCarey’s last great movie (An Affair To Remember pretty close to an exception) has never waned. It’s my favorite Hollywood film of 1945 next to John Ford’s They Are Expendable, another instantly identifiable auteurist work.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Art School Confidential’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Art School Confidential

Street 11/6/18;
MVD, Comedy, $24.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent.
2006.
Something of a halfway follow-up to Ghost World, Art School Confidential remains the last feature to date of Terry Zwigoff, full of been-there comic observations that give Confidential a distinct point of view.
Extras: This Blu-ray release is basically a replication of the old Sony DVD, but the colors have added vibrancy, a couple of the bonus deleted scenes add to the dark party.
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Olive, Sci-Fi, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.
1956.
Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, the original screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years.
Extras: Includes a pair of commentaries, one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. There are also readings from director Don Siegel’s autobiography, other filmmakers describing what the film meant to them, a look at the filming locations and numerious retrospectives.
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Sci-Fi;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.

Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, or even as a stepping stone project for producer Walter Wanger after he served time for shooting his wife’s lover in a parking lot (pant, pant) … the original 1956 screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years. And this “Signature” Blu-ray from Olive Films is worth getting despite at best a marginal visual upgrade from that distributor’s 2012 predecessor because nearly of them all get discussed in depth on this bonus-heavy new package.

Originally released in non-anamorphic SuperScope (akin to today’s Super 35) but shown on TV for generations in 1.33:1, cult filmmaker Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s Collier’s magazine serial — intelligently adapted by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring — was either anti-communist or anti-Red Scare, according to whichever political faction was speaking after both eventually took the picture under their allegorical wings. Male lead Kevin McCarthy says here that he can recall no political discussion of any kind over an unbelievable 19-day shooting schedule (some say 24, but so what?) — but he does note that Siegel often referred to Allied Artists executives as “pods.” He was, of course, referring to the celestial seeds that, per the movie, co-opted and replicated the sleeping physical bodies of our parents, teachers and probably even Orval Faubus to produce alternative versions of themselves that lacked genuine feelings, emotions and, to be sure, imaginations.

At first, the studio seemed to have high hopes for the project because after his short prison term for shooting agent Jennings Lang over an illicit affair with actress-wife Joan Bennett, Wanger had begun his comeback with the Siegel-directed Riot in Cell Block 11, a sleeper “glorified-B” that had delivered on box office and prestige reviews in 1954. (Lang survived to produce a couple good films and a slew of howlers like Swashbuckler, Earthquake, The Sting II and three Airport sequels — though let it be said that without him, George Kennedy and Bibi Andersson would never have worked together). But Allied Artists was after more easily exploitable shlock — hence, the schlocky title they wanted affixed (Finney’s book was simply The Body Snatchers) against the wishes of Siegel, who liked McCarthy’s excellent suggestion: Sleep No More.

The studio also demanded a more hopeful and much belatedly filmed “frame” around the story that all kinds of people knock, though I was happy to hear the spear-headers of separate commentaries here — one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with McCarthy and co-lead Dana Wynter — giving this part of the movie a little love, as I have always liked it myself. (The climactic look on Whit Bissell’s face when he learns that some guy has been dug out of a truckload of pods is worth the price of admission just by itself.) Dante also speaks up for Carmen Dragon’s score, which, to my surprise, Smith says has been criticized as well — though I love its insistent brass enough to have included the opening credits music in the March-April 1956 playlist of my audio archives history project — along with Elvis’s “Tutti Frutti” and Perry Como doing “Hot Diggity” (these were cerebral times).

In any event, the studio slapped on the trashy moniker and relegated Snatchers to second billing under lesser titles (even, madre de Dios!, Lon Chaney’s The Indestructible Man) — pretty well icing it, along with a New York-area premiere engagement in Brooklyn, that the Times’s now famously numb-nutsy senior film critic Bosley Crowther wouldn’t touch it for reviewing purposes. And it was fairly obscure; I, who began charting and making notes on film releases starting in early elementary school, never even heard about the picture until 1959 — when the best-looking girl in all of seventh grade unexpectedly told me about it while sitting across from me in art class (one of only a couple really substantive discussions we ever had because I spent years looking at the floor out of self-consciousness when taking to her). I finally saw it on local TV in about 1961 — on a bright Sunday afternoon at that — launching a lifetime of pod-ish enjoyment. (I also love Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, which I saw first-run in theaters maybe 90 minutes before Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes — who lived a block over from where I grew up — famously slugged that Clemson player on national TV, thus ensuring an evening where I satisfied all the pop culture food groups.)

So as Dante reiterates, Snatchers owes its following (or at least its germination) to TV, where I don’t think the 1.33:1 framing ever bothered anyone at the time. This said, the famed bit in McCarthy’s greenhouse — a perfect movie scene if there ever was one — is so masterfully composed for a wider screen that we must have all been myopic in terms of what we were missing (has there ever been more dramatic use of close-ups?). Later, of course, the picture became a staple of rep houses that was also easy to double-bill because a) it runs only 80 minutes; and b) is also applicable to all kinds of programmable series concepts (say, did anyone ever do “Whit Bissell”?; it would run two years even if you included only half of his output).

As mentioned, the bonus extras rock. The Smith and Dante commentaries are appealingly complementary, though both dwell a lot on the outdoor locations that dominated the shooting schedule and exhausted McCarthy because he spend most days constantly running across them in pursuit by marauding pod people. Smith practically knows every supporting actor’s dental records — which is important here because the cast is packed with not quite peggable familiar faces (Sam Peckinpah plays a gas man who, like nearly everyone here, is up to no good). And Dante has terrific chemistry with the since deceased McCarthy and Wynter, something this humor-heavy duo further displays during their own interactions. McCarthy ended up making several films for the much younger director, while Wynter (who also shows up visually with her co-star in a look-back featurette) remained gorgeous as a senior.

Siegel’s real-life son with Viveca Lindfords (actor Kristoffer Tabori) reads from Siegel’s autobiography, which I’ve had in hardback for years but have not yet read (Dante calls it “remarkably uninformative” — or close). The passage is mostly about the troubles he had with Allied studio execs, whose one shining light must have been Walter Mirisch, a future Midas whose career trajectory spanned Bomba jungle epics to West Side Story and beyond. And don’t knock Bomba, who was played by Johnny Sheffield, who had previously been “Boy” in the Tarzan series; how would you like to spend your entire career heaving a spear and pounding your leopard loin cloth on a rock?

So what else? Other filmmakers (Mick Harris, Stuart Gordon, the always funny John Landis) chime in about what the movie has meant to them; there’s another McCarthy interview that is, again, remarkably personable; assorted documents; and a really fun then-and-now look at the locations, which scrambled Los Angeles geography yet still impress for their breadth-on-a-low-budget. Very informative and off the beaten track is a featurette with Mathew Bernstein, author of another possessed hardback I’ve long wanted to read but haven’t — his bio on producer Wanger.

Pre-gunplay, the latter’s credits included the cinematic wack job Gabriel Over the White House but also Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent before sinking himself with the bank-breaking Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. A decade later, there was a major post-Snatchers comeback with I Want To Live! (Oscar for Susan Hayward) before Wanger took on Fox’s Cleopatra, which did for his career what Vietnam did for LBJ’s. From surrounding bookshelf appearances, interviewed Bernstein is a fellow subscriber to the Library of America (good to see), and he knows enough about his subject to report that Lang was up and playing tennis before very long despite rumors (noted on one of the other bonuses) that Wanger had shot him right … there. Whew: The lob shot also rises — or apparently did, which is something pod people presumably didn’t have to worry about all that much.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Art School Confidential’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Great Balls of Fire!

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Drama;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Trey Wilson. 

Nobody pulled too many muscles remastering Orion Pictures’ cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis biopic for Blu-ray release, but curio seekers may want to be reminded — because I had totally forgotten myself — that Alec Baldwin plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the real-life cousin of rockdom’s self-ordained “Killer.” Actually, it’s another cousin who looms large in the Lewis saga (more on that in a minute), but let it be noted, also for the curious, that Baldwin doesn’t even attempt a characterization. We can almost hear the actor bellowing, “None of that Dennis Quaid peroxide mixed into in my hair, you don’t.”

It’s the similar lack of detail beyond the onetime standard tabloid boilerplate of the day that hurts the picture, which was positioned and certainly promoted to be a hit, what with Lewis’s cooperation and even his agreement to record improved-fidelity versions of his career-making Sun Records hits from his brief time at the highest rungs of the top. Since his wedding-related tumble, of course, Lewis has always been a formidable “name” at the very least, as well as an undeniable killer when it comes to showmanship. Boomers everywhere have long waited for him to co-author a health-tips volume with Keith Richards called How To Defy the Odds by Living Half-a-Century Longer Than Anyone Predicted.

Much like Richards’ Rolling Stones of the ’60s, at least when at least compared to the Beatles dressing like gentlemen on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” dangerous Lewis posed a threat to parental stress levels that Elvis didn’t fully replicate, or at least all the time. Elvis, after all, occasionally scored smash hits with ballads like “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” or “Love Me Tender” or “Don’t” — and even romanced Debra Paget tender-ly in his Tender screen debut. Judging just from his performing behavior — and you can get a short idea of how scary he was at the time via a brief clip in that mammoth six-part American Music: The Root of Country doc that Ted Turner aired in 1996 — Lewis on screen with Paget would likely have been more akin to what the actress (as “Lilia”) had to endure during the Golden Calf orgy scene in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

All of this was exciting, of course, to us fourth and fifth graders at the time — a good topic of discussion during school detention, to be sure, after our near-daily adventures in Ohio classroom disrupting that anticipated everything in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. On the small screen, as opposed to concert appearances, Lewis was at his piano-pounding wildest on “The Steve Allen Show” and even named his son after the comic host — whose not-ever-to be-missed Sunday night variety show got programmed by NBC opposite Sullivan for a much hipper hour, though one not as big in the ratings (think Cavett vs. Carson in the counterculture early ’70s). This is kind of odd because like the equally uproarious Stan Freberg, Allen disdained “the new sounds” (I think both made rock critic Dave Marsh’s “Enemies of Rock and Roll” list). But he also appreciated outrageousness when he saw it, went with the flow, and his too brief appearance as himself in this movie is a minor high point.

The high point here is probably Winona Ryder as Lewis’s 13-year-old first cousin (removed) Myra, whose marriage to him as wife No. 3 did not amount to a crackerjack career move in late 1957 (just as the film’s title tune was soaring the charts around Christmas time after Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On had ripped up the previous summer). Ryder is fully credible playing someone very young (and, indeed, might even pass for 13), though this part of the movie’s chronology is completely screwed up here in terms of Lewis record releases. (The Dave “Baby” Cortez recording of “The Happy Organ” also shows up on the soundtrack about a year before it would have been possible to do so.) The Jerry-Myra union — which, for a long while, managed to survive a pompously negative British press of Uriah Heep types during a disastrous musical tour in early ’58 — didn’t keep that spring’s “Breathless” from being a top-10 hit (it’s a killer itself). But it likely did make a big dent in the potential sales of follow-up High School Confidential!, which sported one of the coolest 45 jackets ever in that it showcased not just Lewis, but the cast of actors who headlined that teen-junkie trash classic, including Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren. I had it (of course) and played it in my room after detentions.

After that, things went downhill for the singer pretty fast, and a final indignity came in 1959 when someone ghosted an article under (the original) Jerry Lewis’s name in Photoplay (with Elvis in army uniform on the cover) called, “I Am NOT Jerry Lee Lewis.” And even when Jerry Lee made one of the greatest live albums ever in the mid-’60s, its release was held up for years.

Even so, the movie ends on a happy note suggesting that Lewis and Myra ended up together for decades of walks into the sunset, but he ended up being as married almost as many times as Larry King (I can’t remember if they ever married each other). The director here is Jim McBride, who had directed Quaid in one of his most appealing efforts (The Big Easy) but in this case can’t keep his star from doing the truly impossible: fashioning a performance as Lewis that is, of all things, too broad — a trait it shares with the movie. Nearly two hours of sheer burlesque, Fire! tries to be (or, at least, is) such a pastiche of everything that was happening in the musical/pop culture scene at the time that nothing seems authentic. The minor compensation for this is the film’s accelerated pace and an occasionally hilarious response or reaction shot by Quaid, usually over some indignity. And though, as mentioned, the print could use a fresh, modern-day remastering, the production design is so sprightly under any circumstances that I’d even enjoy living with the wild two-toned carpet in the home the newlyweds look at, even if no one else I’ve ever known likely would.

Through it all, Baldwin’s Swaggart remains a moral compass who is many public years away from the phlegm-faced adulterer whose nationally broadcast-to-death mea culpa in 1988 inspired my then 21-month older son (now an anesthesiologist) to take a baby’s milk bottle out of his month and identify him, when asked on a lark, as the first George Bush. Thus, we do not get to see a Baldwin dramatization of quaking Swaggart crying, “I have sinned” on the airwaves three years and change before a subsequent arrest with a prostitute — but the way things are going with Donald Trump, maybe a newer version will eventually show up on “Saturday Night Live.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

 

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

Running Wild

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin.
1927. Director Gregory La Cava’s silent-era crowd-pleaser is funnier than expected given that W.C. Fields is without his vocal deliveries, but he was such a physical performer, and La Cava such a deft viual director, that little is missed here.
Extras: Includes a commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films).
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Great Balls of Fire!

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Trey Wilson.
1989. Nearly two hours of sheer burlesque, this cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis biopic is a pastiche of everything that was happening in the musical/pop culture scene in the 1950s. Curio seekers may want to be reminded that Alec Baldwin plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the real-life cousin of rockdom’s self-ordained “Killer.” The high point here is probably Winona Ryder as Lewis’s 13-year-old first cousin (removed) Myra, whose marriage to him as wife No. 3 did not amount to a crackerjack career move in late 1957.
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Belle Epoque

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Comedy;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz.

A color-drenched period comedy about robustly healthy (i.e., not leering) sex in the physically resplendent Spanish sticks, Belle Epoque won me over in its first-run theatrical engagement for providing an hour/50 of incessant enjoyment — in other words, even before director Franco Trueba upped my good tidings by thanking Billy Wilder for inspiration when he accepted the foreign-language Oscar on 1994’s telecast.

Good man, though there aren’t a lot of obvious direct lines to Wilder’s work here — except perhaps for when impossibly lucky protagonist Fernando (Jorge Sands) finds that he really likes it hot amid a cross-dressing romp with the one of four comely sisters who happens to be gay. No worries, though, because at least during this one solitary romp on the way back from a costume party, she enjoys getting it on with him as she sports a moustache (he’s in drag as a maid). Hey, whatever works, as Tonya Harding might have said.

The year is 1931, the seeds of the coming civil war are being watered, and Fernando falls into a household of free-living republicans. Household patriarch Manolo (the late hard-working character actor Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a sex-appreciating painter who suffers from erectile dysfunction when it’s anything but afternoon delights with his wife. Unfortunately, she’s always on the international road emptying theaters with her Florence Foster Jenkins soprano act, accompanied by a smitten, money-losing manager who’s naturally distraught when she wants to romp with Manolo on her infrequent trips home. But this is getting ahead of the story.

Most of that has to do with young Fernando’s escape from the seminary and his relationship with the couple’s daughters: a young widow; the aforementioned gay one; a third who’s being pursued by possibly the No. 1 nerd in Spain (he’s mother-dominated, too). No. 4 is the baby of the bunch, though she she’s not exactly still in her diapers, given that Penelope Cruz (in one of her first movies) plays her. Eventually, Fernando works his way through the checklist, though without any guile or duplicity — both unneeded, given that the sisters aren’t exactly reserved about the situation and are, in fact, on the aggressive side. It’s a made-to-order male fantasy for someone trying to get the seminary out of his system, though let it be said that this is already a milieu in which the local priest enjoys playing cards at the best/only brothel in the village.

When I heard that Belle Epoque was coming out on Blu-ray, I immediately wondered if the color values would be rendered right because sheer visual splendor is one of the reasons the pace here never flags (along with a slew of vividly-delineated characters who keep hopping in and out of a gorgeous frame). Though distributor Olive Films (and for that matter, Raw Deal’s ClassicFlix as well) continues to exasperate me when its releases always revert back to the movie’s beginning whenever one shuts down the player for not very long, BE in high-def is very much the visual stunner that it would have to be not to disappoint, though a commentary certainly wouldn’t have been unwelcome. (I’m of the school, however, that it’s far more important to get the presentation right before we go onto to any discussions of gravy.) Trueba’s tickler had a lot of strong Oscar competition in its year: Farewell, My Concubine; Ang Lee’s The Wedding Party; The Scent of Green Papaya; and a fourth title I’ve never seen. We were still in an era when foreign-language releases could at least attract U.S. audiences a little before the dumbed-down video game culture took over.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’

Raw Deal: Special Edition

ClassicFlix, Film Noir, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr.
1948.
Dennis O’Keefe, who’s something of a comfortable presence throughout Raw Deal despite its occasional pronounced brutality, found himself an ideal actor of noir, thanks to looks on the high-side of “Average Joe” and a demeanor that suggested he could take care of himself.
Extras: There’s some really first-rate talent on the bonus extras: Jeremy Arnold for the voiceover commentary; Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo; director/historian Courtney Joyner; and arguably dominant film historian Alan K. Rode. One unexpected extra in this release’s bonus section is an interview with O’Keefe’s son. Nice.
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Belle Epoque

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz.
1992.
Franco Trueba thanked Billy Wilder for inspiration when he accepted the foreign-language Oscar on 1994’s telecast for this color-drenched period comedy about robustly healthy (i.e., not leering) sex in the physically resplendent Spanish sticks.
Read the Full Review