Disc Junkie: DVD and Blu-ray Releases, April 10-16, 2012

Please note: films released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray or Blu-ray only releases are both italicized and in bold font.

MULTIPLEX

The party line on The Iron Lady (Anchor Bay) is that Meryl Streep’s performance as polarizing UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher far exceeded the scope of Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic, which fails to decide on depicting Thatcher as either the British Reagan, whose uncompromising conservative stance caused the ruination of the middle class in the 1980s, or as a strong-willed female politician who held her own in UK politics. If you’re only watching for Streep’s Oscar-winning performance,  however, it’s a solid one-woman show, though well abetted by Jim Broadbent’s sympathetic turn as Thatcher’s loyal husband, Denis. Extras are surprisingly lightweight, with one frivolous featurette devoted to the fashion of the period. That may work for you, though. I can’t say.

ARTHOUSE

As the father of a daughter, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation (Virgil Films) tackles a subject close to my heart: the depiction of women in the media. We may assume that viewing women as subservient figures is a thing of the past – Gloria Steinem put an end to that, right? – but Newsom provides example after example of content from films, television, advertising and online media to show that the “modern” view of women has barely progressed beyond the Mad Men days, with male affection and material goods still being put forth as the core of a woman’s existence. A host of famous faces, from Lisa Ling and Rachel Maddow to Diane Feinstein and Condoleeza Rice, talk about their own experiences in asserting their places in their respective fields; their participation will undoubtedly be a key draw for most viewers, but it’s the subject matter that makes the deepest impact.

Equally unsettling and thought-provoking is Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (MPI), his examination of the death penalty through the prism of a 2001 murder case involving two Texas teenagers who killed three individuals, including a widowed mother, in order to steal a Camaro. The impact of the senseless acts, as well as the execution order for one of the convicted killers, is viewed in sobering, often heart-wrenching detail by interviews with all of the participants, including the parents of both the victims and the perpetrators. Herzog remains remarkably impartial to the argument, weighing both sides from the perspective of murder as the ultimate futility, whether for profit or justice. No extras, unfortunately, as Herzog’s commentaries are often as fascinating as the film’s themselves.

Also on the indie front: Littlerock (Variance), an engaging drama with hints of Jim Jarmusch about the edges that concerns two Japanese tourists stranded in the titular North L.A. County town who attempt to bridge cultural and language barriers with the town locals; the documentary When the Drum is Beating (First Run Features), which explores six decades of Haiti’s history, from colonialism and uprising to the terrors of the Duvalier regime, from the perspective of Septentrional, a 20-piece orchestra that performed regardless of their own safety throughout the half-century of turbulence; Charlotte Rampling: The Look (Fox Lorber), a glossy meta-documetary on the cooly elegant ’60s icon’s career and philosophy, which is explored in conversations with director Paul Auster, poet Edward Seidel and others; and the grim drama King of Devil’s Island (Film Movement), based on the true story of a brutal boys’ reform school off the Coast of Norway that erupted into revolt over the cruelties imposed by its martinet headmaster (Stellan Skarsgard).

REVIVAL HOUSE

One of Italian director Luchino (Senso, Rocco and His Brothers) Visconti’s final film efforts prior to his death in 1976, Conversation Piece makes its Region 1 debut on DVD and Blu-ray from Raro Video. Filmed shortly after Visconti suffered a debilitating stroke, the film ruminates on themes of fading authority and impending obsolescence in its story of a staid professor (Burt Lancaster) whose solitary life is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a dissolute marchesa (Silvana Mangano), her lover (Helmut Berger) and an entourage rent the upper floor of his palazzo. Raro’s typically stellar presentation includes the original trailer as well as an interview with critic/screenwriter Alessandro Bencivernni about the film and an illustrated essay by Mark Reynolds.

One of the highlights of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was a recreation of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), which featured the now-iconic image of an irate Man in the Moon with a rocket wedged in one eye (you know, the one in that Smashing Pumpkins video). Now, Melies’ original film has been restored with the original hand-painted color tinting and a new score by AIR. The Flicker Alley DVD and Blu-ray also include a documentary about the challenges presented by the restoration process.

Elsewhere on the revival front: a stellar 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Warner Bros.) featuring many of the extras from the 2006 special edition DVD, including insightful commentary by co-star Karl Malden, Richard Schickel’s 1994 documetary on Kazan, making-of featurettes concerning the problems of transferring Tennessee Williams’ erotically charged play to film, and a 1947 screen test featuring Marlon Brando trying out for Rebel Without a Cause!

There’s also a new disc of Francois Girard’s imaginative 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) from Sony Classics, as well as the rarely-seen Terrorists (Anchor Bay), a 1974 thriller, originally released as Ransom, that pits security chief Sean Connery (desperately trying to distance himself from 007) against Ian McShane, who has commandeered a British jet. And from the land of MOD, there’s a two-disc presentation of The Strawberry Statement (Warner Archives), a 1970 adaptation of James Simon Kunen’s novel about student unrest on a college campus in the late 1960s. Though at times dated, the film features a great Age of Aquarius soundtrack with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s take on “The Circle Game,” as well as songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Thunderclap Newman. The second disc features the uncut international version of the film, which adds a few moments of sexual humor. Warner also has the 1975 version of The Spiral Staircase, with Jacqueline Bisset as a mute woman targeted by a serial killer, and recent Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (and his astonishing Beefsteak Charlie mustache) as one of several red herrings.

GRINDHOUSE

The Detroit-made Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except (Synapse) registered barely a blip on the radar when it was released to theaters in 1985, but has developed a loyal cult in the ensuing decades due to the presence of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, as well as other Evil Dead alumni in its cast and crew. The film itself, co-scripted by Campbell and directed by Josh Becker, is more than just an Evil Dead footnote: it’s a relentlessly gruesome and feverishly paced action-thriller-gorefest with Raimi devouring whole chunks of the threadbare scenery as a Mansonoid cult leader whose murderous habits rouse the ire of a recently returned Vietnam vet (Brian Schulz). Synapse’s Blu-ray takes the Criterion route by not only remastering its grungy 16mm photography, but loading the double-sided disc with extras, including commentaries by Campbell, Becker and Schulz, the 1980 Super 8mm short used to secure financing for the film, deleted scenes, and a thorough making-of featurette.

I am a not a fan of horror comedies or stoner comedies (any stoner “entertainment,” really – “yeah, but we were HIGH!” remains as invalid a reason for ineptitude and idiocy as it did in high school, mannnn…), but Devi Snively’s Trippin (Alternative Cinema), which plays with both the “based on actual events” and “cabin-bound teens in party overdrive plus killer” tropes, tries a bit harder to avoid the boneheaded humor and winkety-wink-nudgey-nudge self-referential gags that make most similar efforts unpalatable. The two-disc set includes many of Ms. Snively’s previous shorts, including the amusingly titled “I Spit on Eli Roth.”

Elsewhere, you can indulge your basest desires with Rat Scratch Fever (Media Blasters), a low-budget creature feature about giant rats taking over our fair city; the jaw-droppingly primitive special effects harken back to such ’50s favorites as The Killer Shrews.

SMALL SCREEN

Timed judiciously to capitalize on the groundswell of attention (both good and bad, judging from early press) for Tim Burton’s upcoming Dark Shadows feature, MPI is releasing the original series (1,225 episodes between 1966-1972) on a staggering 32 DVDs. A delirious blend of Gothic horror and bodice-ripper romance in its heyday, the daily daytime drama, created by Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Winds of War) probably plays like high camp for the Twilight crowd; its central character, the vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), who inspired Beatles-like frenzy during the network run, is a quaint throwback to Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee –  both museum pieces for modern vampire fans (not saying it’s right, but that’s how it is). But for those who fondly remember coming home from school to see the latest batch of supernatural trouble with the Collins family and relations, which counted a few ghosts, a werewolf and Kate Jackson among its number, Dark Shadows remains a glossy, guilty pleasure. Diehards with money to burn can purchase the entire set in a 131-disc coffin box (see above) that includes new interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an autographed postcard from Jonathan Frid – perfect for framing and deep, longing sighs. Yours for just $539!

Also on the ’70s small screen scare front: Season Three of Rod Serling’s much-maligned horror anthology series Night Gallery (Universal). Quality control and behind-the-scenes mishegas between Serling and producer Jack Laird resulted in a show that veered wildly from genuinely terrifying stories to jokey claptrap that wouldn’t pass muster on The Munsters – often within the same episode. By its third season, all participants had largely given up on the series, and it limped to an ignominous finish in 1973. The two-disc set includes the final fifteen episodes – a mix of outright stinkers and inspired moments like “The Girl on the Barge,” an effective vampire story directed by Leonard Nimoy – as well as reconstructions on four episodes, unseen in their complete form since their initial broadcast.

Also on TV DVD: a Logan’s Run: The Complete Series (Warner Home Video), a modest adaptation/spinoff of the 1976 science fiction cult favorite, with Gregory Harrison in the Michael York role and a host of former Star Trek writers behind the scenes; I imagine that TV purists will be up in arms over the battered image quality, but the set includes three unaired episodes.

Meanwhile, there’s also the seventh and final season of Jack Webb’s by-the-books LAPD series Adam-12 (Shout! Factory), a perennial cop show favorite; a two-part, eight-disc presentation of the first season of Tarzan (Warner Archive), a straight-faced and largely successful translation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels to a weekly series (1966-1968), with an impossibly buff Ron Ely as the jungle king, impressive Mexico locations and a rotating list of famous face guest stars, including George Kennedy, Woody Strode and Julie Harris (stay tuned for Season Two, with The Supremes as nuns!); and Justice League: Doom (Warner Bros.), DC Universe’s latest feature length animated effort, which pits the JL (Superman, Batman, et al) against a Legion of Doom-styled cabal of super villains. The film is the final project by the late writer-producer Dwayne McDuffie, who oversaw many of DCU’s titles.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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