Summer ’21 sees the pandemic retreat with moviegoers hopefully returning in droves to actual theaters for the over-priced popcorn, big-screen Dolby Atmos sound and a communal experience.  There are it appears 2 blockbusters, sure things that depend not on critics or even word of mouth to rake in a global billion dollar box-office gross.  There’s just a huge hunger for Universal’s ‘F9: The Fast Saga’ arriving June 25th and on July 9th Scarlett Johansson as Marvel’s ‘Black Widow.’

Scarlett Johansson stars in “Black Widow,” a prequel exploring her origins. (Marvel Studios/TNS)

Yes, there’s already been one spectacular box-office belly-flop with Lin Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights,’ a movie that the trade paper Variety said could not expand beyond its cult audience despite a $40 million ad campaign.  I wonder about test screenings for ‘Heights’ – somehow they must have happened and if so, wasn’t there a feeling that this was 30-40 minutes too long?  Another essential problem for a big-screen musical not based on familiar hits like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ the Freddie Mercury Queen biopic: Showstoppers! With a huge ensemble ‘Heights’ had not one break-out moment where you watched, suddenly stunned, thought ‘That’s a star being born!’ and applauded.  That sense of discovery is, I think, essential.  Hugh Jackman’s ‘The Greatest Showman’ had it, Disney musicals depend on it.

Dascha Polanco as Cuca, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela and Stephanie Beatriz as Carla in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In The Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Summer will be, in its Darwinian showbiz reduction, a starry test for 2 would-be A-list leading men.  Chris Pratt headlines the expensive ‘The Tomorrow War’ (July 2), an elaborate sci-fi monster movie that might rightly be called ‘Son of Alien.’  For Pratt, this lacks the security of his pre-sold franchises, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’  Will audiences show up to see Pratt, heroic and humorous as ever?

Chris Pratt attends the world premiere of “Onward” at the El Capitan Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Henry Golding became a real, old-fashioned heartthrob with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in 2018.  He cemented that status with a $100 million grossing hit opposite ‘Game of Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke in the rom-com ‘Last Christmas’ (2019) and was featured opposite Matthew McConaughey in Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Gentlemen’ (also 2019).  Like Pratt, what Golding really wants is to be an action star and with ‘Snake Eyes,’ opening July 23,he signed on to reboot and rejuvenate the lackluster ‘G.I. Joe’ franchise.  This could be a sleeper. Or a snooze. But it’s action supported by charismatic vets who know how to soar: Iko Uwais, Samara Weaving and Andrew Koji.

Also on July 23, a truly dependable A-lister M. Night Shyamalan with ‘Old’ looks to be stepping into new territory, or in this case, a new beach.  As a brand name Shyamalan, like Hitchcock, means suspense and thrillers.   From the premise of ‘Old’ – a family on a vacation beach begins to age inexorably and horribly — you wonder, Where’s the suspense?  That interest in twisting expectations may come to define the Summer of 2021.


FORTIES BRIT NOIR                             There are 5 obscure films in ‘British Noir III’ (DVD, Kino Classics, Not Rated).  They range from a stage adaptation with the 1940 ‘The Frightened Lady’ and a musical with popular British radio host Carroll Levis playing himself opposite imported Hollywood star Carole Landis (‘I Wake Up Screaming’) in ‘Brass Monkey,’ a smuggling caper, to ‘Breakaway’ which stars Hollywood’s Tom Conway (he took over The Falcon ‘40s series once his brother George Sanders abandoned the role).  ‘Breakaway’ is a kidnap thriller with future Pussy Galore Bond girl Honor Blackman.  Speaking of 007, director Terence Young (‘Dr. No’) helms ‘Tall Headlines’ (also known as ‘The Frightened Bride’) which stars Sweden’s Mai Zetterling (Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’) and Dame Flora Robson and chronicles a family’s efforts to go on after the eldest son is tried – and executed! – for murder. Not a happy bunch.

INDY BOXED                                                         With all the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas series now boxed as ‘Indiana Jones 4-Movie Collection’ (4K Ultra HD +Digital, 4 discs, Dolby Atmos, PG and PG-13), we can reflect on these boy’s tales inspired by the low-budget 1930s Flash Gordon serials. Spectaculars with elaborate production design, special effects and simple storytelling, the Indy series found its lead in ‘Star Wars’ discovery Harrison Ford only because the original choice, Tom Selleck, couldn’t get out of his TV commitments to do the movie.  Ford doesn’t offer much range. His Indy is mostly grim and ready for whatever obstacle appears – and they are constant.  Seen today, they really are elaborate funhouse ‘rides,’ jumping from one hair-raising escape to the next with all of it resembling a diagram for a Universal Studio’s Indiana Jones attraction.  Because of the controversy that the 2nd film, the 1984 ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ generated — with a PG rating it graphically depicted a young boy roasted alive and what was wrong with 10-year-olds having that in their memory banks!  Spielberg persuaded the ratings board to create a new rating so he (and others) could avoid the dreaded R as in Restricted rating.  Thus was the PG-13 rating born.  Perhaps that’s the biggest contribution ‘Indiana Jones’ made to the culture??

In this Sunday, May 18, 2008 file photo, producer George Lucas, left,  actor Harrison Ford, center, and director Steven Spielberg pose at the “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” photo call during the 61st International film festival in Cannes, France.  (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)

HIGHMORE IN SPAIN                                         Freddie Highmore easily escaped the trap of child stardom by simply getting better as he grew up.  Now 29, honored and acclaimed for his series work (‘The Good Doctor,’ ‘Bates Motel’), he leads the way in the Spanish heist thriller ‘The Vault’ (DVD + Digital, Paramount, R). Highmore plays — what else! — a boy genius who is the only one in the world capable of getting into the buried vault of the title to retrieve centuries’ worth of valuables. Cleverly, the robbery is timed to coincide with a mighty distraction: Spain’s World Cup final.  With Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley and Famke Janssen.

Freddie Highmore in a scene from THE VAULT

NIFTY NOIR                                                      For those who like late 1940s black-and-white crime stories, ‘The Web’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) offers a first-rate illustration of why this category of film noir is so beloved.  ‘Web’ rocks from the start with poor but determined lawyer Regan (Edmond O’Brien, a future Best Actor Oscar winner for ‘The Barefoot Contessa’) storms the corporate citadel of Colby Enterprise’s CEO (Vincent Price, ‘The Fly,’ ‘The House of Wax’ were to come much later) who owes  Regan’s client less than $70.  For his gutsy belligerence Regan is enticed to come onboard as Colby’s security.  Before he can blow his nose, he’s killed an elderly ex-con who was threatening Colby in his office with a pistol.  All too soon Regan wonders, Was I set up?  What was he, a lawyer, doing with a gun??  Yes, ‘The Web’ is getting spun and Regan can see who looks to be the fall guy without even a glance in the nearest mirror.  Price is slinky sleaze personified.  Nice work from William Bendix as an Italian-American police chief, a late ‘40s example of diversity.  Audio commentary by film scholar Jason A. Ney.

CLASSY CON MEN                                                                   The 1948 ‘Larceny’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) boasted a quartet of notable actors who enlivened this noir-ish study in have-nots, crooks and confidence men fleecing the rich. With bloody results.  John Payne had just delivered the role that would define and insure his legacy – the lawyer who romances Maureen O’Hara and defends Santa in court in ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ ‘Larceny’ is a complete turnabout from that truly nice guy.  in ‘Larceny’ Payne’s smooth-talking con man arrives in a California town determined to get $100,000 from Joan Caufield’s wealthy war widow.  In contrast to this angelic, still grieving would-be philanthropist is the devilish blond gangster’s moll Tory, played with scene-stealing relish by Shelley Winters who was fresh from her big break as a doomed waitress in the Oscar-winning ‘A Double Life.’  What stands out as well in ‘Larceny’ are the buildings, apartments, cars and attitudes that make this a living portrait of a long gone postwar America.

FAUST & CROOKED POLITICOS                                              Venerated, and justly so, John Farrow’s 1949 ‘Alias Nick Beal’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) is an imaginative take on the Faust legend about the man who sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for worldly riches.  That devilish tempter is played with suave hauteur by Ray Milland, the Best Actor Oscar winner for Billy Wilder’s 1945 ‘The Lost Weekend.’  Milland always registers best with a curdling criminality – he’s known not just for the campy ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ where he’s paired head by head with Roosevelt Grier but Hitchcock’s ‘Dial M for Murder’ where he schemes to murder his beautiful wife Grace Kelly.  As Nick Beal, Milland tempts politician Thomas Mitchell (‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘Stagecoach’) with sultry hooker Audrey Totter brought in for the, so to speak, kill.  Farrow was then Paramount’s top director with his choice of projects. He rejected the studio’s offer to make ‘The Great Gatsby’ with Alan Ladd, preferring ‘Alias Nick Beal’ because its theme of temptation and doing good struck a personal code for Farrow, a devout Catholic. The film’s following is personified by the eagerness of TCM Noir Alley host and Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller to do the audio commentary.  Muller reveals he had ‘retired’ from commentaries – but his love for the film and Totter, who he knew personally thru her appearances with his Noir Foundation, brought him back.

DAFOE & FERRARA RETEAM                                              Willem Dafoe and outlaw writer-director Abel Ferrara have now collaborated 6 times, with the 2019 ‘Siberia’ (Blu-ray + Digital, Lionsgate, R) being the latest.  For Ferrara, Dafoe has played murdered gay Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and been among the many humans facing extinction in ‘4:44 Last Day on Earth.’ ‘Siberia,’ intentionally symbolic and often wordless, premiered at the 70th Berlin Film Festival.  Dafoe, a 4-time Oscar nominee for ‘Platoon,’ ‘Shadow of the Vampire,’ ‘The Florida Project’ and as Vincent van Gogh in ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ was initially famous for his work with off-Broadway’s Wooster Group and its frequent nudity.  Here as Clint, a dead man (or is he?) forced to confront his dreams, Dafoe takes the strangest kind of dream journey which ranges from a remote Arctic cabin where he bartends and makes love to a very pregnant visitor to a Lawrence of Arabia-style African desert.  There are conversations with his (dead?) father, who is Dafoe, the nightmarish vision of men being stripped, shot dead, their bodies dumped in a pile.  And always the Siberian Huskies who carry our traveler thru the snow, ice and darkness.

TODD HAYNES’ BOLD BREAKTHRU                               In 1991 Todd Haynes staked his claim as a Great American Filmmaker, a new voice in serious cinema, with ‘Poison’ (Blu-ray, Zeitgeist, Not Rated), a 3-part film inspired by 3 novels by France’s gay ex-con icon Jean Genet. It rates as an oblique response to the then-raging AIDS epidemic.  It also heralded the arrival of what was called the New Queer Cinema. That year saw milestones in gay cinema like ‘Paris Is Burning,’ ‘Swoon,’ ‘My Own Private Idaho,’ ‘The Living End’ and  Derek Jarman’s ‘Edward II.’  Haynes had first won critical attention with an ingenious 47-minute short film, ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.’   It told the tragic story of the popular singer who died of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa in 1983 with a ‘cast’ of Barbie dolls.  He presented Carpenter’s story seriously, highlighting anorexia as  prompted by a child rebelling against a controlling parent’s domination.  ‘Superstar’ could never be shown legally. Still, as an underground hit it announced a visionary filmmaker – one whose films now include ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ ‘Carol,’ ‘Far from Heaven’ and the Bob Dylan study, ‘I’m Not There.’  ‘Poison’ benefited from the culture wars. When attacked by right-wing politicos, it became a national hit. It also won Cannes’ 1991 Grand Jury prize.  Multiple Bonus Features:  A new intro from Haynes on the occasion of this 30th anniversary Blu-ray. A 20th anniversary Sundance Q&A with the filmmaker and producer Christine Vachon (who has continued to produce all of Haynes’ films).  There is also a 1999 audio commentary by Haynes, Vachon and James Lyons who stars in ‘Poison’ and edited it as well. Lyons, who died of AIDS, was Haynes’ lover.  There is also a booklet essay from Dennis Lim, the critic turned programming head of Film at Lincoln Center.

Director Todd Haynes poses for a portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

BREEZY EARLY ELVIS                                       Where does ‘It Happened at the World’s Fair’ (Blu-ray, WB Archive, Not Rated) from 1963, which is set at the actual ’62 Seattle World’s Fair, stand in the Elvis Presley cinematic firmament?  His best musicals are, easily, ‘Viva Las Vegas’ with Ann-Margret followed by ‘Jailhouse Rock.’  His finest work as an actor is, hands down, the New Orleans-set ‘King Creole’ opposite Carolyn Jones, Dolores Hart and Walter Matthau.  ‘World’s Fair’ has its charms. The Fair is remembered, if at all, for its Space Needle restaurant and this movie.  ‘Fair’ begins as a buddies-in-distress comedy – Presley’s pilot Mike hopes to start a flying business but is hampered by his would-be partner Danny’s gambling debts.  Danny is played by Gary Lockwood who would soon have 2 milestones on his resume: Kubrick’s ‘2001’ as the doomed astronaut and Jacques Demy’s L.A.-set ‘Model Shop’ opposite Anouk Aimee.  Elvis has 10 songs in ‘World’s Fair’ and gets kicked in the shins by future superstar Kurt Russell, then a kid actor.  Russell used his memories of being with Elvis while making John Carpenter’s acclaimed 1979 biopic ‘Elvis.’

BIGFOOT?   REALLY!                                     Billed as a ‘paranormal’ comedy, the offbeat, sublimely silly horror comedy ’15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot’ (DVD, Cranked Up, Not Rated) finds Brian (Brian Emond), a miserable millennial reporter who feels stagnant career-wise and otherwise-wise.  When he’s assigned to cover a Bigfoot expedition (and if you are asking, Are there really Bigfoot expeditions? you are not alone), Brian contains his unhappiness and dutifully takes what he presumes is a dead end assignment.  The deal is that this expedition is led by a ‘rock star’ among cryptozoologists into the Appalachian Mountains. And dead may be more than descriptive: It may turn out to be fact.

LOW KEY NAZI TALE                                  ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ (DVD, Greenwich, Not Rated) is Oscar winner Caroline Link’s film adaptation of a critically praised 1971 children’s novel of the same name.  The book is author Judith Kerr’s autobiographical response to her son’s wrong impressions watching ‘The Sound of Music.’  Unlike that film’s showbiz reductions, the boy learned his mother and her family endured much to flee Nazi Germany, first via Switzerland and then, in drastically reduced financial circumstances, in Paris before they settled safely in Britain.  ‘Pink Rabbit’ is notable for the impressive performance of Riva Krymalowski as 9-year-old Anna Kemper. In German with English subtitles.

STARRY MUSICAL SALUTE                              It seems curious today, the mania MGM had for Florenz Ziegfeld as box-office bait.  Ziegfeld was semi-notorious for his sexy Broadway revues (1907-31) featuring scantily draped women parading to Berlin, Gershwin and Kern tunes. The Follies were inspired by the (topless) Parisian Folies Bergère. Ziegfeld was billed as the man who glorified American women but his shows were equally famous for the talent he presented, the era’s future superstars: Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Fanny Bryce, torch singer Ruth Etting (her story told in the biopic ‘Love Me or Leave Me’) and Eddie Cantor. Ziegfeld lost his fortune in the Depression and died, at 65, in 1932. His widow Billie Burke came out of retirement to make movies and pay his debts, most notably as Glinda the Good Witch in MGM’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ MGM struck Ziegfeld gold with their 1936 all-star ‘The Great Ziegfeld,’ a sanitized biopic with ‘Thin Man’ star William Powell as Ziegfeld and an Oscar-winning Best Actress in Luise Rainer as Flo’s discarded first wife Anna Held.  ‘Great Ziegfeld’ also won another Academy Award, as Best Picture. A decade later came MGM’s follow-up ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ (Blu-ray, WB Archive, Not Rated). Here, mimicking the actual Ziegfeld revues, 7 directors offered a series of unrelated musical numbers and comedic sketches.  Among the many stars: Dancers Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, singers Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Kathryn Grayson, comediennes Lucille Ball and Fanny Bryce (the only one in the cast who had actually been in a Ziegfeld show), the aquatic star Esther Williams and Powell in a cameo reprising Ziegfeld.  Special Features: 2 classic cartoons, audio only outtakes, the featurette ‘Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches.’

1936: A scene from the film ‘The Great Ziegfeld’, a biopic of the Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld directed by Robert Z Leonard for MGM. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

DEMILLE GOES WEST                                                        Two of Cecil B. DeMille’s patented historical spectaculars are here in vivid Blu-ray, as well they should be.  Both star Gary Cooper who (alongside Clark Gable) reigned as the era’s great romantic lead.  The 1936 ‘The Plainsman’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) is what might rightly be called hokum as it revolves around the romantic and political issues of 2 legendary 19th-century figures, sharp-shooter Wild Bill Hickok (Cooper) and buckskin-clad Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur who had become a star opposite Cooper in ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’).  DeMille had originally hoped to cast Mae West as Calamity; Arthur ranked it among her favorite roles. With little regard for historical accuracy, DeMille includes Lincoln’s assassination, a heroic General George Armstrong Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody well before he made history with his Wild West Show.  When DeMille teamed with Cooper for the 1947 ‘Unconquered’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated), the motion picture pioneer would live to make only 3 more films, all massively successful: the Biblical tale ‘Samson and Delilah,’ the Ringling Brothers circus-set ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and, his legacy film, the story of Moses with ‘The Ten Commandments.’  ‘Unconquered’ is an overripe Technicolor extravaganza co-starring Paulette Goddard (DeMille’s ‘Reap the Wild Wind’). At the time it ranked as DeMille’s most expensive picture ($5 million) with the longest running time (146 minutes) after his most extended shooting schedule (102 days).  Realism was taken to such extremes that after a scene with fireballs and flaming arrows, 30 extras were hospitalized.  Set in the mid-1700s, ‘Unconquered’ initially intrigued DeMille when he discovered Englishwomen were brought to America as indentured slaves and sold at auction. His portrait of the early American frontier teems with settlers battling Native Americans (whom it gravely stereotypes and demonizes).    Nick Pinkerton does the informative audio commentary.

Film director Cecil B. DeMille talks with actor Gary Cooper during the filming of “The Plainsman” in 1936. Behind Cooper with gun in hand is Porter Hall. (AP Photo)

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