by Tony Dayoub
This will probably be my final opportunity to recommend some Blu-ray releases (along with actual screen captures) before we get into festival and awards season. Let's look at a few of the best August had to offer.
If you enjoy Brian De Palma's latest release, this week's absurd Passion, in all of its reflexive and outlandish glory then get a load of 1984's Body Double, just released by the boutique label Twilight Time. Limited to 3000 copies, it's already sold out. But occasionally, because of returns and other reasons, a hidden stash pops back up for sale. Anyway, Body Double is De Palma's riff on Rear Window crossed with Vertigo, if you can picture that. Dullard Craig Wasson plays a sort of eternal patsy, a claustrophobic, out-of-work actor who gets caught up in a murder investigation that brings him into contact with a very hot Melanie Griffith as porno starlet Holly Body. This plot gives De Palma license to poke roman-a-clef fun at his own films (frequent De Palma actor Dennis Franz plays a variation on the filmmaker himself). Though the early part of Body Double draws you in, once Griffith bursts onto the picture this erotic thriller becomes electrifying. Even Pino Donaggio's usual stand-up score (available as an isolated track) goes up a notch from the simply florid into the truly arousing when Griffith first arrives onscreen, his violins and synthesizers now accompanied by female vocalizing in the form of sighs and moans. It all wraps up in a finale transition right out of North by Northwest, making Body Double the most Hitchcockian of De Palma's thrillers, which is saying quite a lot; this is praise, not a slam.
One of this year's best reviewed films, Mud plays even better at home than it did in theaters. I've put Jeff Nichols' previous two films on my end-of-the-year lists. But Mud left me a little cold when I saw it at the movies, perhaps because I don't really buy handsome Matthew McConaughey as the grimy, ostensibly ugly, titular character. A chipped tooth, scraggly beard and greasy hair is not enough to get me to buy McConaughey as a fugitive who's spent his life idolizing Reese Witherspoon's trashy Texas belle with little reciprocation, no matter how good an actor he is. On a smaller home screen though, it's easy to squint past McConaughey's glamour puss and focus on the great performances (McConaughey included) of a cast led by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) as a sort of contemporary Huckleberry Finn. Native Arkansan Nichols expertly freshens up this coming-of-age tale by highlighting the eastern lowland locations along the Mississippi River making Mud an above average story for children of all ages if not necessarily the kind of top film most critics are calling it.
There are couple of big downsides to the new Blu-ray release of Shane. First, it has exactly the same extras it did when it first came out on DVD in 2000, a shame considering the importance of this western in the American cinema canon. Second, although there was some debate about the film's original aspect ratio that caused some hubbub online—the film was framed for both 1.37:1 (Academy ratio) and 1.66:1 (theatrical ratio) and likely played in the latter at its premiere—this release only contains the Academy ratio version. It's a missed opportunity considering the flexibility the Blu-ray format offers and the fact that Shane's April 1953 premiere could perhaps make it the earliest American film to open in widescreen. The big upside is that Shane has never looked better. The subtlety in Loyal Griggs' low lighting has never been so immediately apparent, a big improvement for a movie which has looked fairly muddy in past releases. Now you can see the grain in the images of the expansive Jackson Hole mountain vistas, the stubble on Van Heflin's beard, and sadly, the age on the 51-year-old Jean Arthur playing a woman about two decades younger. Shane is a classic that everyone should see, and this is likely the best way you'll ever see it. That's a good enough reason to merit its inclusion here.
In what one might expect to be a completely wrongheaded attempt at humor, the Lubitsch touch is applied to the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in To Be or Not to Be. German-Jewish émigré Ernst Lubitsch somehow manages to walk the fine line between tragedy and farce in a way that Quentin Tarantino no doubt studied for his Nazi-themed fantasy, Inglourious Basterds. But equal credit is due to the brilliant line readings by Jack Benny, Carole Lombard (in her final film) and the rest of the cast playing a theater company that gets involved in some screwball cloak-and-dagger during Poland's darkest days. "Heil Hitler!" salute two background actors onstage in the company production, Gestapo, as der Führer—or an actor called Bronski (Tom Dugan) playing him—walks into a room. "Heil Hitler!" says stage star Joseph Tura (Benny) to the ersatz Hitler. Bronski's retort? "Heil myself." Other lines are much edgier, like a response by Tura (disguised as a Nazi commandant) when he's told that they call him "Concentration Camp Erhardt": "Yes, yes. We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping." Yikes! To Be or Not to Be is cringe-inducing comedy at its finest, and tomorrow, it joins the Criterion Collection in a spiffy new Blu-ray that includes a 1916 silent short starring and directed by Lubitsch, a French documentary on the masterful director, and a commentary by historian and TCM Movie Morlock David Kalat.