"Forty Guns"

January 2019

Barbara Stanwyck as The Woman in Charge

Criterion Collection 954
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
****

Forty Guns (1957) opens in silence. There’s an overhead long shot of the arid prairie, a small wagon crossing it like an ant. In a medium shot, the wagon is revealed as carrying three men whom we later learn are the Bonell brothers: Griff (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix). The sound of hooves is heard, getting louder and louder. Suddenly, from around a bend in the road, Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) appears all in black, on a galloping white horse, leading 40 horsemen in two ranks. They split up to surround the wagon, and the point of view nervously shifts between high and low shots, emphasizing the tenseness of the situation. Drummond won’t appear again onscreen for another 20 minutes, but . . . what an entrance! Stanwyck was given one of the most memorable introductions ever caught on film.

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"Lost Horizon"

December 2018

Sony Pictures 51742
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
**1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***1/2

Most readers know the plot of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), based on the novel by James Hilton. British government envoy Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) escapes a war-torn Eastern European country, only to discover that he and his four companions have been kidnapped and transported to Shangri-La, a mythical land in the Himalayas. Conway, a pacifist, almost immediately feels at home in this land that has no rulers, no strife, no war, and little of the other baggage of civilization.

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"Dragon Inn"

November 2018

Criterion Succeeds with an Early Wuxia Masterpiece

The Criterion Collection 937
Format: 4K BD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
**1/2

Extras
***1/2

In film, inns, taverns, and barrooms are usually plain, innocuous settings with an undercurrent of mystery that often attract conniving patrons who ramp up the action and turn them into battlegrounds. You find them in all cultures. Remember Treasure Island and the Benbow Inn? The titular establishment in this film is an isolated, peaceful inn with wooden tables, a bar on the first floor, and, on the second, a balcony leading to bedrooms -- nice accommodations for travelers.

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"My Man Godfrey"

October 2018

The Criterion Collection 114
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***

Extras
***

In any conversation about screwball film comedies, My Man Godfrey is sure to be mentioned. Released in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, it derided the rich as frivolous and empty-headed, and boosted good opinions of the poor, while still being breezy and riotously funny. One wonders if any of the ennobled poor could afford to see it.

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"Heaven Can Wait" (1943)

September 2018

Is the Hero of Ernst Lubitsch’s Comedy Hellbound?

The Criterion Collection 291
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***

Extras
***1/2

You’d think most people would try to avoid spending the afterlife in Hell, but Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), after ruling out admittance to Heaven in his own mind, is afraid he won’t be accepted as a denizen of the lower depths. His Excellency the Devil (slyly played by Laird Cregar) asks him to recount his life on Earth, including the women Henry has known. And that’s the basic story of director Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943): Henry Van Cleve’s birth, coming of age, and adult years. Scenes in Hell occur only at beginning and end, to frame a tale told as one long flashback.

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"A Matter of Life and Death"

August 2018

A Blu-ray Gem from Criterion

The Criterion Collection 939
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2

Picture Quality
*****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
****1/2

Released in 1946 in the UK as A Matter of Life and Death and in the US as Stairway to Heaven, this postwar film is a unique jewel of cinema that operates on many different levels and succeeds on all of them. Its creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who together wrote, produced, and directed it, had been approached by Jack Beddington, head of the UK Ministry of Information’s film commission, to make a movie that would soothe the frayed feelings between the UK and the US at the end of World War II. This genius partnership came up with A Matter of Life and Death, which, below its surface of romantic comedy, explores more serious matters.

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"The Addiction"

July 2018

A Different Kind of Vampire Film

Arrow Video AV-152-TM
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
***

Have you ever thought of Christopher Walken as a vampire, or of vampirism as an allegory for addiction? Renegade director Abel Ferrara, best known for Bad Lieutenant, had the idea back in 1995 when he created The Addiction, a black-and-white cult favorite.

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"Moonrise"

June 2018

The Criterion Collection Tries to Resurrect Frank Borzage on BD

The Criterion Collection 921
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
**1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***

Extras
**1/2

I seldom listen to music when driving my little bright-red 2008 Toyota Yaris. There, old-time radio is king, and for the past month I’ve been listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. This variety show, broadcast from 1929 to 1948, ran the gamut from humor to drama to pop song to opera arias sung in their original languages. From 1937 to 1939 the show was hosted by Nelson Eddy, but listening today, I wonder what all the excitement was about: Eddy bleats his top notes, shamelessly ruins bonbons from Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and sings the most racially insensitive rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread” ever. One day, when Eddy was on vacation, he was replaced by baritone Donald Dickson, whose voice was worthy of the Metropolitan Opera -- where, indeed, Dickson sang in the mid- to late 1940s.

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"Killer Klowns from Outer Space"

May 2018

A Cult Classic Gets a Classy Revival

Arrow Video
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
****1/2

Maybe you’re not afraid of clowns, but you may be after watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), a unique cult favorite that this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. Or you’ll appreciate this movie’s outright wackiness and dark humor. Or both. Written by the Chiodo Brothers -- Stephen, Charles, and Edward -- and directed by Stephen, it’s a skillful mix of stop-motion animation and live action -- the seams are hard to spot.

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"King of Jazz"

April 2018

A Glorious Restoration from Universal/NBC and Criterion

The Criterion Collection 915
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***

Extras
****

Today, Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) is mostly remembered as the man who commissioned and first performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But in the 1920s he was a superstar comparable to such contemporaries as Babe Ruth (1895-1948). He sold a million copies of every new record, and his frequent diets were front-page news. Whiteman was on the portly side, and didn’t seem to mind critics and fans who called that to everyone’s attention. He was dubbed the “King of Jazz,” yet his music was more dance-hall pop spiced with some jazz elements -- Whiteman himself called it “symphonic jazz.” He and his band, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, led the way to the swing styles of the 1940s. Whiteman’s name was also descriptive of who he was and whom he worked with: although the musicians who created and led jazz itself were black, the faces of the virtuosos in Whiteman’s band were all those of white men -- no African-Americans, and women performed only as singers or dancers.

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