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Criterion Round-Up

Otto Preminger was certainly a “hot button” filmmaker for his era, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER (160 mins., 1959), regarded as one of the director’s finest pictures, arrives as a Criterion Blu-Ray edition this month.

Jimmy Stewart stars as a Michigan small-town lawyer who takes the case of an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) charged with the killing of a local tavern owner who allegedly raped and assaulted his wife (Lee Remick). Stewart’s folksy charm is on full display (and likely served as a blueprint for later characters like Andy Griffith’s “Matlock”) here in a Wendell Mayes-scripted adaptation of a bestselling novel that had been written under a pseudonym by a real Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

By today’s standards “Anatomy of a Murder” is hard from graphic – in fact, any episode of “Law & Order: SVU” is about ten times as explicit as Preminger’s movie, but younger viewers (myself included) have to keep in mind that at the time of its release, “Anatomy of a Murder” was a groundbreaking film for its frank discussion of sex and in its depiction of Remick’s character, who may or may not have engaged in a consentual relationship with the slain bartender.

At over two-and-a-half hours, “Anatomy” does feel overlong, and with the “shock value” of its premise having worn off, the picture endures primarily through its performances: in addition to Stewart, Remick and the recently-deceased Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell is marvelous as Stewart’s alcoholic ex-lawyer confidant; George C. Scott shines in an early turn as a big-city prosecutor; Eve Arden (“Our Miss Brooks”) perfectly embodies Stewart’s secretary; while Murray Hamilton, Orson Bean and a number of other familiar faces likewise appear in support. In contrast to the story, the film aesthetically has lost little of its appeal, with a fresh, atypical jazz score by Duke Ellington (who also appears in the film) and Saul Bass’ memorable opening credits sequence adding to the film’s uniqueness for its period.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray includes a generally outstanding transfer from the Columbia vaults – crisply presented in its original B&W 1.85 aspect ratio, “Anatomy” only shows signs of DNR filtering during reel changes, when the image briefly becomes noticeably glossy (perhaps to hide damage to the source material), only to return back to its otherwise unadulterated image. The original mono audio is on-hand, but I preferred the new 5.1 DTS MA track which includes true stereo mixing for Ellington’s music and an expectedly wider dynamic range.

Extras include a fresh interview with Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch; a featurette with Gary Giddins exploring Duke Ellington’s score; Bass biographer Pat Kirkham examining the relationship between Bass and Preminger; news reel footage; excerpts from a Preminger appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” circa 1967; excerpts from the work in progress ‘Anatomy of “Anatomy”; behind-the-scenes photographs by Life magazine’s Gjon Mili; the trailer and a booklet featuring a 1959 Life magazine article on real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch, who plays “Judge Weaver” in the film.

Criterion also offers up something a bit different this month on Blu-Ray: Lena Dunham’s TINY FURNITURE (99 mins.), the 2010 debut feature from the 24-year-old filmmaker who started off producing Youtube videos and graduated to independent film with this offbeat picture, starring Dunham as a college grad who moves back in with her mother and sister (played by her real-life family).

“Tiny Furniture” is, as expected, rough around the edges and feels prolonged at 99 minutes, but Dunham offers some wry comic observations along the way and also does a good job making her at-times annoying heroine sympathetic.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers an interview with writer-director Paul Schrader (admirer of the film); a conversation between Dunham and writer-director Nora Ephron; Dunham’s first feature, “Creative Nonfiction”; four other shorts by Dunham; the trailer; and an AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio.

Also new from Criterion this February is THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (93 mins., 1964), the first film from Japanese filmmaker Hideo Gosha that reworks familiar samurai conventions in its straight-ahead account of a rogue assassin (Tetsuro Tamba) who gets wrapped up in a plot by two other samurai (Isamu Nagato, Mikijiro Hira) to execute peasants responsible for kidnapping the daughter of a local, corrupt judge.

Deftly shot in B&W 2.35, “Three Outlaw Samurai” was a feature extension of a popular Japanese TV series, and Criterion’s Blu-Ray serves up a magnificent AVC encoded 1080p presentation with exceptional clarity and detail. The Blu-Ray is light on extras for a Criterion title – just the trailer and the label’s customary booklet notes are on-hand – but Japanese cinema enthusiasts should be thrilled with the natural transfer of this action-packed Gosha film.

Two other Criterion titles available this month include:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unique science-fiction noir WORLD ON A WIRE (212 mins., 1973) has been fully remastered from its recently rediscovered, 3.5-hour German television version, with a restored AVC encoded transfer supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhous. Criterion’s Blu-Ray is presented in 1.33 full-screen, in German with English subs (in an uncompressed mono soundtrack), with extras including a 50-minute Making Of doc by Juliane Lorenz; a new interview with German film scholar Gerd Gemunden; a trailer for the 2010 release; and Ed Halter’s booklet essay touching upon the film’s impact and Fassbinder’s singular vision.

Finally, Louis Malle’s cinematic swan song, VANYA ON 42nd STREET (119 mins., 1994), also joins the Criterion Collection this month. Malle’s film is a unique endeavor: a 1994 portrait of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” as performed in a David Mamet adaptation by Andre Gregory’s private-theater troupe in a then-abandoned Amsterdam Theater, with an impeccable cast including Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and George Gaynes (from “Police Academy”) bringing an intimacy and humanism to Chekov’s work. Cirterion’s Blu-Ray includes new interviews with Gregory and members of the cast; the trailer; a fresh AVC encoded digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Declan Quinn; and a PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Recommended.

New From BBC

A number of new “Dr. Who” titles and assorted Blu-Rays highlight the BBC’s latest releases this February.

A new Special Edition DVD, DR. WHO: THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI hails from the relatively brief Peter Davison era (1982-84), finding the Doctor and Peri caught between a war between General Chellak and Sharaz Jek and an army of androids, and later infected by an incurable toxemia. Commentary from Davison, Nicola Bryant and director Graeme Harper is on-hand in the 99-minute multi-part arc, with additional extras including a featurette with Harper; two behind-the-scenes segments; four minutes of extended scenes; an isolated score; news reports; PDF materials; and vintage news reports on Davison’s departure.

DR. WHO: THE SENSORITES has William Hartnell’s Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan landing on a spaceship orbiting a distant world where a human crew lies frozen. At the heart of the mystery are the Sensorites who live on the “Sense-Sphere,” and the Doctor has to deduce the intentions of the alien beings in order to survive. This Peter Newman script (running 150 minutes all told) offers a vintage, early Dr. Who adventure with numerous extras included, from commentary to a featurette on Newman, ample PDF materials and assorted short featurettes.

Contemporary Dr. Who is new on Blu-Ray in DOCTOR WHO: THE DOCTOR, THE WINDOW AND THE WARDROBE, the 2011 Christmas special that riffs on C.S. Lewis and was aired over the holidays on BBC America. BBC’s Blu-Ray includes a nifty 1080i HD transfer, DTS HD audio and extras including a prequel and three “Best of Dr. Who” features.

Also new from BBC are a Blu-Ray edition of THE HOUR (344 mins., 2011), the acclaimed series that takes viewers back to 1956 London where the creation of a new BBC news program leads to controversy, ratings, politics and even murder! Atmospherically shot, this leisurely-paced but splendidly performed series seeks to do for its setting what “Mad Men” did for Madison Avenue, starring Romola Garai as the producer leading “The Hour” with Ben Whishaw as her best reporter and Dominic West as frontman Hector Madden. Sterling supporting performances make “The Hour” a treat, especially on Blu-Ray where viewers can enjoy its 1080i transfers, stereo soundtracks and pair of featurettes for extras.

TOP GEAR 17 (362 mins., 2012) hits Blu-Ray running with the boys celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jaguar E-type; heading to South Africa to find an alternative to the hummer; testing the latest Mini rally car in wintry conditions; and surviving a run-in with Alice Cooper among others! The Complete 17th season of “Top Gear” includes 1080i transfers, stereo soundtracks and a number of extras on Blu-Ray including a bonus episode from the US series; behind-the-scenes chats with guests Amy Williams and Ross Noble; celebrity laps; and other goodies for fans.

Finally, Season One of THE FADES (338 mins., 2012) also arrives on Blu-Ray this month. Iain De Caestacker stars as Paul, a 17-year-old who begins to see visions of the apocalypse and the Fades – spirits of the dead – with one in particular putting Paul, his best friend (Daniel Kaluuya) and family in mortal danger. This BBC import offers satisfying supernatural terror, reworking familiar conventions in a satisfying if bleak manner, with BBC’s Blu including extra/deleted scenes, outtakes, cast interviews and 1080i transfers with DTS MA 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

Also New on Blu-Ray   

DANGEROUS LIAISONS Blu-Ray (***, 119 mins., 1988, R; Warner): One of two adaptations of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” that turned up in the late ‘80s, Stephen Frears’ film of Christopher Hampton’s stage play was the more commercially viable, perhaps no surprise with its star casting.

Coming off her celebrated turn in “Fatal Attraction,” Glenn Close is ideal as the conniving Marquise de Merteuil, an aristocrat whose demure exterior masks a scheming persona that wants to exact revenge on her ex-lovers. John Malkovich’s Valmont joins her in a quest to ruin the young fiancee (Uma Thurman) of one of her former lovers, while simultaneously pursuing the pure Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose husband is away.

Strongly performed, “Dangerous Liasions” earned three Oscars (for adapted screenplay, costume design and art direction) and performed well at the box-office, leaving its cinematic counterpart – director Milos Forman’s 1989 adaptation “Valmont” – to reduced grosses and generally less acclaim several months later. Years later, though, I think “Valmont” is the stronger film – even more impressive visually (with most of Forman’s “Amadeus” production team having worked on the picture), with more of a playful and humorous air than “Liasions.” This is still a highly entertaining film, though somewhat muted in its emotions and not quite as devilishly funny as it might’ve been under another filmmaker.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Dangerous Liaisons” looks tremendous: the AVC encoded 1080p transfer is natural and shows no signs of having been tampered with noise reduction. George Fenton’s scoring comes off well in a nicely mixed DTS MA soundtrack, and extras include the trailer and commentary from Frears and Hampton.

BABA YAGA Blu-Ray (83 mins., 1973, Unrated; Blue Underground): Eclectic, surreal adaptation of an Italian comic strip from director Corrado Farina finds witch Carroll Baker making moves on young photographer Isabella DeFunes.

At only 83 minutes “Baba Yaga” feels something like a tease, with DeFunes dreaming of Nazis and encountering an S&M doll that comes to life, with a few deaths and hallucinations provided to spice up the T&A quotient along the way. The story doesn’t advance very far but “Baba Yaga” is certainly an interesting early ‘70s Italian import, and DeFunes (essaying Valentina) is lovely enough to keep most watching.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray includes a perfect 1080p transfer with no DNR on-hand along with extras including deleted/extended scenes, the trailer, a documentary on Guido Crepax (whose comic inspired the film), and an interview with Farina. The DTS MA mono audio is offered in both English (dubbed) and subtitled Italian.    

TOWER HEIST Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 105 mins., 2011, PG-13; Universal): Ben Stiller plays a luxury condo owner who decides to lead his staff against a Bernie Madoff-esque Wall Street investor (Alan Alda) who’s screwed them over in a “Power to the People”-type heist comedy from director Brett Ratner.

A mild performer at the box-office last fall, “Tower Heist” is pleasant yet fails to leave a lasting impression. Perhaps it’s the lack of chemistry between Stiller and Eddie Murphy, or the hodge-podge supporting cast, which includes everyone from Matthew Broderick and Casey Affleck to Tea Leoni and “Precious” Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sibide. Visually, the film comes off as a stylish Hollywood product, with Dante Spinotti’s widescreen cinematography shining here in high-def, but while the Ted Griffin-Jeff Nathanson script yields a few laughs, “Tower Heist” feels like this decade’s version of “Sneakers” – an amiable enough lark with a transparent social message that’s never as funny, or as much fun, as it ought to be.

Universal’s Blu-Ray includes two alternate endings, a gag reel, a video diary, behind-the-scenes featurette, and a crew commentary. The DTS MA soundtrack and 1080p transfer are both excellent, while a DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy are also included in Universal’s combo package.

JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 102 mins., 2011, PG; Universal): I’m not sure what part of the world wanted to see a sequel to “Johnny English,” Rowan Atkinson’s mild spy-comedy, but it definitely wasn’t North America, which by and large shunned this superfluous follow-up to the tune of a limp $8 million domestic gross.

Atkinson fans still might find a few chuckles out of this inoffensive but tired sequel that returns Johnny to the world of international intrigue where he’s charged with taking out a group of assassins out to cause global chaos. Other than Gillian Anderson now speaking with a British accent, there are few surprises in Oliver Parker’s sequel, which Universal brings to Blu-Ray this month in a DVD/digital copy combo pack with deleted/extended scenes, a gag reel, “Wheelchair Chase” featurette, and commentary with Parker and writer Hamish McColl comprising the extras. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both excellent.

HONEY 2 Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (111 mins., 2012, PG-13; Universal): You might think it’s a bit late for a sequel to the forgettable Jessica Alba dancing vehicle “Honey,” but then again, was there ever going to be a good time to follow up that dancing spectacle without the benefit of Alba’s assets?

“Honey 2" tries to serve up a similar dish with Katerina Graham starring as Maria Ramirez, an aspiring 17-year-old Bronx dancer who returns home to lead a group of dancers in a national competition. “Honey 2" mixes in a bit of “Bring It On” in a routine yet competent affair from director Billie Woodruff, who not coincidentally helmed the original “Honey” as well, and throws in the same dance moves and flashy choreography as its predecessor.

Universal’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, dance sequences, numerous featurettes, a commentary from Woodruff, Ultraviolet digital copy, DVD, a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

Stars Who Have Seen Better Days Dept.

LONDON BOULEVARD Blu-Ray (**, 102 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Disappointing contemporary crime-thriller/character study from “Departed” screenwriter William Monahan, who directed this barely-released adaptation of a Ken Bruen book.

Colin Farrell stars as an ex-con who gets a new start in London by taking on a bodyguard gig for paparazzi-stalked celeb Keira Knightley. Unfortunately, the underworld is never far from Farrell’s presence, whether it’s in the death of a blind friend at the hand of street thugs or Farrell getting mixed up with gangster Ray Winstone.

“London Boulevard” never gels into a film with much urgency – Monahan populates the picture with a number of different story elements and would-be colorful characters, yet none of them are that compelling. The packaging wants to sell the picture on the basis of the Knightley subplot (even though it doesn’t kick in until over a half-hour has gone by) yet it’s just one aspect of a picture that’s drab and uninvolving, punctuated by a “who cares” downer ending and a surprising lack of sympathy one feels for Farrell’s character.

Sony’s Blu-Ray does look good with fine Chris Menges cinematography, a crisp 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extras include a Making Of featureete.

THE REBOUND Blu-Ray (**, 95 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Another star-driven vehicle that failed to land a theatrical release, “The Rebound” stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman who flees her philandering husband for a new life in Manhattan where she falls for her new babysitter: a coffee shop worker played by Justin Bartha. Bart Frundlich wrote and directed this older woman/younger man rom-com, which starts off badly, then improves before stumbling again with a weak ending. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack (sporting a Clint Mansell score), and fluffy behind-the-scenes interviews.

BENEATH THE DARKNESS Blu-Ray (*½, 96 mins., 2011, R; Image): Where have you gone, Dennis Quaid? Even his brief supporting turn in “G.I. Joe” looks like Oscar caliber material when compared to this tired, indie “horror” film shot in Quaid’s home state of Texas.

Perhaps the proximity to his office had something to do with Quaid taking on one of his worst roles, as a mortician named “Mr. Ely” who preys on a quartet of too-interested high schoolers in a dismal film from director Martin Guigui. Quaid hams it up and puts on his best Anthony Perkins, but it’s all for naught because of Bruce Wilkinson’s limp script and a straight-faced tone that shouldn’t scare anyone over the age of seven.

Image’s Blu-Ray does sport a behind-the-scenes featurette and the trailer, plus a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

New On DVD

MIGHTY MACS DVD (***, 99 mins., 2011, G; Sony): Sincere and well-acted, albeit predictable, underdog sports movie recounts the true-life story of the Immaculata College women’s basketball team in the early ‘70s, which, under the guidance of coach Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), became the first to win a women’s national championship. Gugino is believable in a somewhat atypical role for the actress, with Ellen Burstyn as the elder nun who challenges the new coach and Marley Shelton as a young nun who offers much-needed support. Tim Chambers’ movie is good-natured to a fault, and William Ross’ score seems to channel late-period Goldsmith at times, though the movie lacks an edge (no surprise given its G rating) and falls back on standard sports movie cliches when it could’ve given the unique story more atmosphere and conviction. Still, “The Mighty Macs” is likeable and certainly suitable viewing for family audiences. Sony’s DVD includes a good, not great 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio, deleted scenes, a Making Of and ESPN segment on the film.

TRACK 29 DVD (**½, 90 mins., 1987, R; Image): Unusual teaming of director Nicolas Roeg and writer Dennis Potter resulted in a patently bizarre film starring Roeg’s wife, Theresa Russell, as an alcoholic, unhappy wife married to surgeon Christopher Lloyd. Into Russell’s dreary world comes Gary Oldman as the child she gave up for adoption as a teenager – but whether Oldman is real is just one of many mysteries at the heart of this Handmade Films production splendidly shot by Alex Thomson. Oldman is terrific in “Track 29,” but co-stars Lloyd and particularly Sandra Bernhard come off as totally disposable in a movie that has its share of devotees in spite of the fact that no proper US DVD has been issued of the film until now. Image’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with mono audio and no extras, and is priced right at/under $15 in most outlets.

NEW FROM E ONE/MPI: The 1981 TV mini-series THE MANIONS OF AMERICA (286 mins.) has been dusted off in a strong new DVD package from E One. This ABC/EMI co-production offers a young Pierce Brosnan as an Irish farmer who crosses the Atlantic in an epic mini-series from director Joseph Sargent with an excellent supporting cast (Kate Mulgrew, Linda Purl, David Soul, Barbara Parkins, Simon MacCorkindale, and the first Spider-Man, Nicholas Hammond) and Morton Stevens scoring supporting a lengthy production typical of its era. Bonus archival interviews with Sargent and creatore Agnes Nixon are on-tap along with a remastered transfer that looks great with one caveat: its 16:9 framing, which chops off the top and bottom of the image...A Sundance favorite, THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM (81 mins., 2011) stars “Eastbound & Down”’s Steve Little as a young priest who takes a canoe trip with his high-school idol (Robert Longstreet) in a weird and occasionally funny film from writer-director Rodd Rohal. IFC’s DVD includes commentary with Lohal, Little and Longsteet, plus a short film, outtakes, two trailers, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack...THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (96 mins., 2010, Unrated) follows four youngsters on their last night of summer vacation in an affecting coming-of-age drama written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. MPI’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack...Felipe Esparza’s THEY’RE NOT GONNA LAUGH AT YOU (58 mins., 2011) finds the Last Comic Standing winner performing in his debut hour-long concert special that aired on Showtime last year...The First Season of TODD & THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL (290 mins., 2011), a wacky Canadian series about high schoolers taking on assorted supernatural horrors, comes to DVD this month from E One. The multi-disc set includes three commentaries and a good array of extras including outtakes/deleted scenes, extended musical sequences, promo clips and behind-the-scenes content...Wrestling champ Trisha Stratus makes her feature debut in BOUNTY HUNTERS (78 mins., R, 2012), a routine (and short) actioner with Trish and her team of mercenaries trying to deliver a mob informant to the police. E One’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 audio, behind-the-scenes material and a trailer.

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: The First Season of BORGIA: FAITH AND FEAR (690 mins., 2011) hits DVD in a multi-disc set including all 12 one-hour episodes from the series, a U.S./Czech co-production. 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks comprise Lionsgate’s DVD....MERCENARIES (97 mins., 2012, R) is a low-budget direct-to-vid actioner with Robert Fucilla leading a special ops team to Europe in order save a U.S. ambassador being held hostage. Billy Zane is the sole name of note in a routine thriller from Paris Leonti that Lionsgate brings to DVD with a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack and featurette...Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Barbara Hershey and Erik Palladino star in the ensemble drama ANSWERS TO NOTHING (123 mins., 2011, R), an indie effort that Lionsgate has released on DVD in a feature-packed Special Edition with commentary, deleted scenes, an alternate ending and music videos included along with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

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