New This Week
Shazam! is a lighthearted action film about teenager Billy Batson who turns into an adult superhero when he utters the word SHAZAM – an acronym comprised of the names of the of the gods who grant him power – (Solomon – Wisdom. Hercules – Strength. Atlas – Stamina. Zeus – Power. Achilles – Courage. Mercury – Speed).
The character’s name, in its original 1939 iteration, was Captain Marvel, not to be confused with Marvel Comics’ character of the same name. The Billy Batson-Captain Marvel was a Fawcett Comics creation, later absorbed by DC Comics in a settlement over a lawsuit in which DC claimed copyright infringement because the character was too much like DC’s Superman. DC later changed his name to the word he utters to avoid confusion with rival Marvel’s ever-changing character.
Zachary Levi makes an engaging superhero, but the heart of the film is its family dynamic. In this version of the character’s beginnings, he wanders away from his mother as a toddler and is raised by a series of foster families. He runs away from all of them in search for his mother who he thinks he has abandoned, even though it was she who abandoned him. He finally finds his true home when he is placed with a diverse family with five other foster children.
Asher Angel as Billy and Jack Dylan Grazer, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, and Jovan Armond as his foster siblings are all outstanding. Mark Strong is the villain and Djimon Hounsou is Billy’s wizard-mentor.
Shazam! is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
A hero of a different sort is played by Irish actor Andrew Scott in A Dark Place.
Best known as Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Scott plays a mentally handicapped sanitation worker who takes up the cause of a murdered six-year-old boy that the local sheriff has washed his hands of. Set in rural Pennsylvania, where it was filmed in the middle of Trump country, it was made with British money and crew in 2016 and released in the Middle East in 2017, shown in film festivals in the U.K. and South Korea in 2018, and finally released in the U.S. and the U.K. in April of this this year.
It’s slow-moving but fascinating with a strong central performance by Scott. It’s well worth seeking out on Blu-ray or standard DVD from Shout! Factory.
At the other end of the spectrum, 1984’s Grace Quigley, newly released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, was the film in which Katharine Hepburn played her last starring role on the big screen. Made the year after she won her fourth Oscar for 1981’s On Golden Pond, it was directed by Anthony Harvey, who directed her to her third Oscar in 1968’s The Lion in Winter. Playing an old lady who hires a hit man played by Nick Nolte to bump her off, it was a sad end to one of the screen’s most glorious careers. It’s worth seeing only for Hepburn completists.
Released on home video for the first time in the U.S., 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn is amazingly topical as it explores the politics of U.S.-Mexico border relations involving the attempts of gigolo Charles Boyer to cross the border. He ups his chances by marrying gullible schoolteacher Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-nominated performance with the encouragement of floozy Paulette Goddard. Rosemary DeCamp gives a touching portrayal of a pregnant woman determined to have her baby on U.S. soil.
Mitchell Leisen (Remember the Night) directed from a script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity). It’s available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.
Also released on home video for the first time in the U.S., Criterion’s Blu-ray of 1938’s The Baker’s Wife is a worthy follow-up to Criterion’s celebrated release of writer-director Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy. Raimu, who played César in the Marseilles/Fanny trilogy to Charpin’s Panisse, plays the cuckhold baker whose wife has run away with marquis Charpin’s head shepherd. Ginette Leclerc is the errant wife whose return is necessary for the town’s only baker to resume his tasks. After all, he can’t be both a cuckhold and a baker, as he muses to the townspeople awaiting their daily bread. Sharp, observant, and perfectly delightful, the film won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Film of 1940.
Criterion has also released an overdue Blu-ray upgrade of Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute for which Jane Fonda won her first Oscar as the high-priced call girl in mortal danger. Donald Sutherland is the cop trying to protect her from her would-be killer. Extras include a new on-camera interview of Fonda by Ileana Douglas and an appreciation of Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice).
Sony has released the second of three planned film noir compilations on Blu-ray. Called Noir Archive Volume 2: 1954-1956 9-Film Collection, it features nine films, some of which were previously released on standard DVD, some which weren’t.
The best known titles in the collection are Footsteps in the Fog, which was given a stand-alone Blu-ray release by Arrow Academy earlier this year in the U.K., and 5 Against the House, which was previously available in a standard DVD compilation from Sony.
Directed by Arthur Lubin (1943’s Phantom of the Opera), Footsteps in the Fog stars Jean Simmons as a maid who blackmails her employer (Stewart Granger) into marrying her after she discovers that he murdered his wife. Bill Travers and Belinda Lee co-star.
Atmosphere and star power keep it afloat.
Directed by Phil Karlson (1960’s Hell to Eternity), 5 Against the House is about a group of Korean War veterans attending college on the G.I. bill who plan and execute a robbery on a Reno casino with the aid of a cabaret singer played by rising star Kim Novak whose next films would be The Man with the Golden Arm and Picnic. The vets are played by Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, and Kerwin Matthews. It’s deftly handled with a highly satisfying ending.
The remaining films are all B-level with the British made Spin a Dark Web starring Lee Patterson and Faith Domergue as a boxer and a femme fatale the most fascinating and Rumble on the Docks with James Darren and Robert Blake as teenage hoods the least interesting.
This week’s new releases include Blu-ray upgrades of two more Mitchell Leisen films, Death Takes a Holiday and Easy Living.