Note: films available in Blu-ray and DVD formats are listed in boldface and italics.
You will either find Stephen Daldry’s adaption of Jonathan Safar Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner) a moving story about an sensitive young boy’s attempt to make sense of his father’s (Tom Hanks) death in the destruction of the World Trade Center destruction, or a relentlessly cloying melodrama about a somewhat disturbed kid who drives everyone around him crazy with his endless questions about the same. It’s one or the other – no in-between. However, there should be no debate about Max Von Sydow’s turn as an elderly man who communicates only through a “Yes” and “No” inked on his palms. The veteran actor, who rightly netted an Oscar nomination for his performance, says volumes about the burden of survival by using no words at all.
In this corner: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), father of modern analytical psychology, mystic and libertine. And in the other: Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), father of psychoanalysis, prude, fan of a good cigar. The prize: the soul (and other parts) of Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a seemingly deranged Russian who becomes the playing field for both men’s ideologies. That’s the (cheeky, reduced) premise of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (Sony), which arrived in theaters to little audience fanfare but critical acclaim for Mortensen and mixed reviews for Knightley’s scenery-chewing early scenes. The subject matter may seem a curious choice for Cronenberg’s dark interests, but the themes of emotional violence, psychological exploration and the liberation of mind and body through science have run concurrent through his work since the early 1970s. It’s talky, to be sure, but all three players give solid performances, and the disc includes a master class on filmmaking conducted by Cronenberg himself.
Also on the heavy side: In the Land of Blood and Honey (Sony), which marked Angelina Jolie’s debut as director. She’s to be commended for the subject matter, which involves a relationship between a Bosnian Serb soldier and a Bosnian Muslim woman now interred in the prisoner of war camp he oversees during the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s. Jolie doesn’t shy away from depicting the atrocities visited upon Muslims, and particularly women, during the conflict, though the star-crossed romance itself is a bit ponderous and paper-thin. The end result is a well-intentioned but lop-sided picture that sacrifices engaging its audience in favor of delivering its message, though the largely Eastern European cast is uniformly excellent.
There’s also Crows Zero (Blu-ray from Tokyo Shock), another berserk transmission from the mind of Takashi Miike (Thirteen Assassins, Sukiyaki Western Django), this time based on the popular manga by Hiroshi Takahashi. It’s a prequel of sorts to the comic’s story of warring factions within a tough Japanese high school, which are thrown into chaos with the arrival of Shun Oguri, the flinty son of a Yakuza boss. Highly stylized violence, shot through with moments of high melodrama, make this a worthy addition to Miike’s vast and aggressive body of work.
How about something on the lighter side? Try Romantics Anonymous (New Video Group), a charmingly eccentric love story between two neurotics – painfully shy chocolatier Isabelle Carre and her boss, Benoit Poelvoorde, who hides his own crippling social anxiety behind a thorny exterior. It’s a low-wattage affair, driven by the slightest of plots (the pair has to come together to save their chocolate factory), but full of marvelous asides, like Carre crooning “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music prior to her first date, that deliver a more honest depiction of the fumblings and yearnings in early romances than any recent Hollywood rom-com.
Critics have been opining about Casablanca since its release in 1942, so I won’t add much to the word salad save to say that its enduring popularity is probably due to the fact that its central themes – love, loss, loyalty and honesty in the face of insurmountable – remain as relevant to viewers today as they did to audiences seventy years ago. It certainly helps that the messages are served with such style by a host of iconic performers, including Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains, giving some of their best screen turns. The 70th Anniversary Limited Edition (Warner Home Video) offers as complete a tribute to Casablanca as one might hope for, with 14 hours of supplemental features, including multiple commentaries, deleted scenes and a vast amount of archival material. Some of these extras will be familiar to those who have purchased previous DVD editions of the film, but for buyers who have yet to add this film to their collection – and you really should – it’s essential.
Meanwhile, that ring-a-ding sound you’re hearing isn’t tinnitus, but rather a chorus of martini glasses heralding the arrival of several features starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on DVD and MOD. They’re mostly minor affairs, though 1962’s Who’s Got the Action? (Olive Films) is an agreeable comedy with Dino as a gambling addict, Lana Turner as his long-suffering wife and a supporting cast of scene-stealers, Walter Matthau (as gangster Tony Gagoots!), Paul Ford, Nita Talbot and Eddie Albert. Olive also has Bud Yorkin’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Assault on a Queen (1966); the former stars with Sinatra as a serial bachelor and future director Tony Bill (My Bodyguard) as his impressionable younger brother, who hopes to follow in his older sibling’s footsteps, much to the consternation of parents Lee J. Cobb and Molly Picon. Neil Simon wrote the script, based on his own play, with Norman Lear. The latter features Frankie as a diver who engineers the retrieval of a sunken German U-boat to hijack and rob the Queen Mary. It has an impressive pedigree, including a script by Rod Serling and a cast full of memorable mugs, including Tony Franciosa, Richard Conte and Val Avery, but it ultimately comes to naught.
Olive also has It’s Only Money (1962) and Who’s Minding The Store? (1963), a pair of Jerry Lewis comedies helmed by Frank Tashlin, who handled some of the comic’s features with Dean Martin and six of his later solo efforts, including these two modest placeholders that landed between Lewis’ breakout as a director, The Bellboy (1960) and his biggest hit, The Nutty Professor (1963). They’re for JL completists, mostly, or for those who haven’t finished celebrating his 86th birthday (March 16).
Also on the revival front: David Lean Directs Noel Coward (Criterion), a four-DVD set that compiles the Lawrence of Arabia helmer’s four collaborations with playwright Coward, including 1945’s heartbreaking Brief Encounter, with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as strangers involved in an affair, the patriotic In Which We Serve (1942), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and the comedy Blithe Spirit (1945), about a medium (Margaret Rutherford) who conjures up the spirit of skeptic Rex Harrison’s wife. The impressive package includes new high-def transfers, interviews with Lean and other participants, a TV doc on Coward and expansive liner notes by Terrence Rafferty and Kevin Brownlow, among others. Criterion also has the harrowing A Night to Remember (1963), director Roy Ward’s Baker take on the Titanic sinking that blends epic filmmaking with strong character portrayals and scripting in a way that the James Cameron film achieves only in bold strokes.
Elsewhere, there are two melodramas by Mitchell Leisen (Hold Back the Dawn, Easy Living) – No Man of Her Own (1950, Olive Films) with Barbara Stanwyck as an unwed mother who gains a better life by impersonating a woman killed in a train wreck, and the pulpy Bedevilled (1955’s Warner Archives), with Anne Baxter as a nightclub singer on the lam from hoods who sorely tempts seminary student Steve Forrest. Troubled romances also abound in Something To Live For (1952, Olive Films) with Joan Fontaine as an actress whose career is ruined by alcoholism and Ray Milland as a man in recovery who offers spiritual and romantic revival, and the rarely seen Pieces of Dreams (1970, MGM Limited Edition), with Robert Forster as a priest who falls, understandably, for social worker Lauren Hutton.
Chief among the baser pleasures this week is Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Anchor Bay), a career-spanning documentary on producer-director Roger Corman and his vast, crowd-pleasing library of drive-in, which encompasses everything from dire schlock like Apache Woman (1955) to the gorgeously Gothic Masque of the Red Death (1964) from his acclaimed Poe “cycle” of the 1960s. Corman moved into producing full-time in the 1970s, where he famously gave first breaks to Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante and (later) James Cameron and Carl Franklin. Corman has been the subject of countless tributes and retrospectives in books and films over the last 40 years, most of which cover the same ground as Corman’s World; the film’s chief appeal is its eye-popping collection of clips from his efforts, which should serve as a high-test Whitman’s Sampler-style introduction to his fast-and-furious style, as well as testimonies from many of his former employees and acolytes, the most show-stopping (and oddly moving) of which is a teary-eyed talk with Jack Nicholson.
Now in his eighties, Corman is still producing features, thought largely for direct-to-DVD and the SyFy Channel. AB is also releasing one of his latest efforts, Camel Spiders, a nicely grotty throwback to ’70s eco-horror like Frogs or Kingdom of the Spiders, with a modern twist involving a plague of enormous desert spiders from the Middle East (based in part on urban legends about American troops’ encounters with the creatures in Iraq and Afghanistan)) vying for the opportunity to eat C. Thomas Howell’s face.
Also on deck: Sergeant Dead Head (1965; MGM Limited Edition), a last-gasp attempt to repurpose the beach party pics by Corman’s old bosses at American International Pictures, with Frankie Avalon as a hapless astronaut (make that astro-nut, and cue the laugh track) and a cast of slumming Hollywood players, including Cesar Romero, Gale Gordon, Buster Keaton and the great Harvey Lembeck. MGM is also serving up the Saturday afternoon staple Pharoah’s Curse (1957), which turns a young Egyptian into a blood-drinking creature (NOT a mummy, as numerous review sites have emphatically stated) that wreaks havoc at an archaeological dig. Grislier fare is available in The Girl in 2A (Mondo Macabro), a 1974 Italian sickie about a boarding house run by a death cult that preys on its lodgers. Less giallo than gross-out, it’s an unsavory downer, but you know, that works for some people.
The Emmy-winning BBC miniseries I, Claudius was a big deal during its broadcast in the States on PBS in 1976. Some of the attention was due to its copious sex and violence, which later required me to get a permission slip from my folks in order to watch it as part of my Latin II class in high school, but the production’s appeal lay more in its extraordinary performances, led by Derek Jacobi as the stuttering Roman Emperor Claudius and John Hurt as a malevolent Caligula, and Jack Pulman’s script, which blended the history and flavor of Robert Graves’ source novel with irresistible levels of intrigue. The 13-part series has been released on several occasions prior to this 35th Anniversary Edition, but all have been derived from washed-out and edited sources. The five-disc presentation from Acorn Media is not only uncut and remastered, but comes with a wealth of extras, including extended versions of several episodes, two making-of documentaries and the documentary I, Claudius: The Epic That Never Was, which recounts a failed 1937 attempt to bring the story to screen. Those not up for another round of Mad Men will find plenty of turmoil and sexual tension here – plus togas!
If Claudius sounds like too much history homework for you, there’s also Death Valley: Season One Uncensored (MTV), a clever mockumentary-style series about LAPD officers on the trail of vampires and werewolves in the Valley. I might buy the premise if it had been set in West Hollywood (specifically on Santa Monica between Fairfax and La Brea), but the mix of shaky-cam horror thrills and police procedure is handled here with a surprising amount of smarts and style for an MTV production.
Or you could go with Live from Baghdad (HBO Archive), a smart, gripping made-for-cable drama from 2003 with Michael Keaton as CNN producer Robert Weiner, whose footage of the American strike on Baghdad served as the first images of the 1991 Gulf War and the beginning of our long entrenchment there. Also on the MOD front: The Three Stooges (Sony Choice Collection), a 2000 made-for-TV biopic about the venerable comedy team produced by Mel Gibson, of all people. It’s a bit treacle-heavy, especially when dealing with the Stooges’ eviction from Columbia after decades of service. But the cast is solid, especially Paul Ben-Victor (The Wire) as Moe and Michael Chiklis as Curly, and probably serves the Stooges’ memory between than the big-screen… revival? Revamp? Whatever that is that’s coming out next week.
Last but certainly not least, Shout! Factory serves up Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXIII, a four-disc box set containing two Joel episodes (King Dinosaur and the excruciating Castle of Fu Manchu) and two Mikes (Code Name: Diamond Head and Last of the Wild Horses) and the usual bushel of extras, including an interview with Kevin (voice of Tom Servo) Murphy and a featurette on King Dinosaur producer Robert Lippert, the man responsible for such other MST3K experiments as Lost Continent and Rocketship X-M. The collection isn’t as strong as previous SF sets, but like so many other things, Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains funnier than most current primetime programs even when it’s operating on half-blast.