Disc Junkie: DVD and Blu-ray New Releases, May 22-28, 2012

Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray combos and Blu-ray only titles are listed in both italics and bold font.

MULTIPLEX

The recently revived Hammer Films, England’s legendary house of horror from the 1950s through the early ’70s, continues the winning streak (artistically speaking, if not financially) begun with such fine fright efforts as Let Me In and Wake Wood with The Woman in Black (Sony), an effective period ghost story starring Daniel Radcliffe from the Harry Potter franchise. Radcliffe acquits himself well as a widowed lawyer dispatched to a remote English village to complete a deceased client’s paperwork. There, he becomes aware of the shadowy title figure, whose presence is the source of great dismay for the locals. What follows is an atmospheric Gothic thriller with enough scares to satisfy patient modern horror fans with an appreciation for slow-building suspense and visual style. The Blu-ray includes commentary from director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass).

Already among the highest-grossing Japanese animated films of all time, The Secret World of Arriety (Walt Disney) is the latest effort from Studio Ghibli, which oversaw such critically acclaimed anime features as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Penned by Ghibli’s co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, Arriety scales less epic heights than its astonishing predecessors in its story (adapted from the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton) of a young boy with a heart condition whose sense of adventure is re-ignited by a tiny, headstrong girl from a secret race of little people. Their friendship, as well as attempts to keep Arriety from a prying housekeeper, form the backbone of the film, which is engaging if slight; what sets the picture apart from other animated projects is the dazzling animation, which injects a genuine feeling of otherworldliness missing from the interaction between its human and Borrower heroes. But even with its reduced scope, The Secret World of Arriety has enough wonder and excitement to captivate most younger viewers, as well as those enamored of Ghibli’s previous accomplishments. Disney has also released this week DVD/Blu-ray combo sets of Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart and Castle in the Sky.

ARTHOUSE

Dragonslayer (First Run), which I forgot to include in the May 15-21 column, is a polarizing documentary about skateboarding champ Josh “Skreech” Sandoval’s descent from the spotlight into an apparently permanent state of nothingness, punctuated by runs through empty pools in Fullerton (itself seemingly enveloped in a hazy twilight) and brain cell erasure at parties populated by hangers-on leeching off his waning popularity. A redemption of sorts is presented in the form of long-suffering teenaged girlfriend Leslie and a child from a previous relationship, but Sandoval appears entirely unready to rise to the challenge of fatherhood, as evidenced by a wince-inducing scene in which he struggles with a collapsable stroller. Your appreciation of director Tristan Patterson’s film is dependent upon whether you can find sympathy for Sandoval’s miniscule efforts to drag himself out of his predicament; some may seem a glimmer of hope in Patterson’s honeyed visual compositions, while others may find themselves praying fervently for Sandoval’s offspring.

While Robert Downey Jr. stands astride the box office this summer courtesy of The Avengers, his father, avant-garde director and world-class provocateur Robert Downey Sr. receives his due with Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr., which is part of Criterion’s Eclipse Series. Downey Sr. turned up the heat on social mores during the 1960s and 1970s, exposing the inherent lunacy behind politics, race, consumerism and sex in his black-and-white satires. Putney Swope (1969), which is perhaps his best known work, is included here, and its story of a black advertising exec who wreaks politically incorrect havoc after assuming control of his agency, remains an irreverent and provocative production, as well as an entirely accurate weathervane for the direction of comedy in the 1970s. The four other features included in the set range from punchy low-budget satire (Babo 73, with Warhol superstar Taylor Mead as a daffy President) to Dadaist experiments (No More Excuses, which veers wildly between a story about a time-traveling Civil War soldier and Downey’s own “expose” of the swinger scene). There’s also Chafed Elbows (1966), Downey’s jittery take on the monumental social change of the 1960s as it wreaks havoc on his hapless, mother-obsessed hero and the women in his life, all of whom are played at the point of nervous distraction by his then-wife (and Robert Jr.’s mom), Elise. No extras save for detailed liner notes, but you don’t need ’em: Downey Sr.’s movies are special features unto themselves.

Criterion also has Certified Copy, director Abbas Kiarostami’s extended meditation on the nature of relationships and art as viewed through the prism of a seemingly random encounter between an author (opera singer William Shimell) and a woman  (Juliette Binoche) who attends a reading of his latest book. Their trip through the Tuscan countryside appears to reveal that the pair have not only met before, but have been romantically entwined, though Kiraostami keeps viewers guessing as to whether their statements are the genuine article or an act. Themes of authenticity in both emotion and art are at the core of this intimate film, which is beautifully photographed and performed by its leads (Binoche won the Best Actress Award at Cannes in 2010). Criterion’s set includes Kiarostami’s rarely seen second feature, The Report (1977), which examines life in his native country, Iran, prior to the ousting of the Shah from the perspective of a couple’s collapsing marriage, as well as interviews with the director and a making-of featurette.

It’s tempting to label 95 Miles to Go (Video Services Corp) as the “light” feature in this week’s Arthouse roundup, and in truth, the documentary, about comedian Ray Romano performing an eight-date tour shortly after his series, Everybody Loves Raymond, wrapped its final season, doesn’t quite explore the human condition with the same depth as Certified Copy. That doesn’t mean that the film, directed by Raymond writer/producer Tom Caltabiano, who also serves as Ray’s opening act on the tour, is fluff. On the contrary, the picture can be seen as an extension of Raymond‘s central thesis – that real life is funnier, stranger and more poignant than anything produced in Hollywood – by examining the highs and low of how we travel and work together. Romano, who comes across as a more sober presence in real life than his sitcom persona (though it extends to his work as well evidenced by the late, lamented Men of a Certain Age), has his likes and dislikes, as well as a small host of personality quirks, all of which are put to the test by the environment of the road (lack of bathrooms are a major stumbling block). It’s not fun to go from here to there, and being a major celebrity does not seem to alleviate the situation. Thankfully, Romano has an outlet in stand-up comedy, where he is able to channel the everyday irritations, as well as his observations on family and maturity, into very funny truths about our shared experiences, which is the key to his enduring success. His stand-up is featured prominently throughout the documentary, as well as in the disc’s abundant extras, which include some amusing on-camera commentary by Romano and Caltabiano. They’re also featured in Q&As at the Magic and Comedy Club in Hermosa Beach and at SXSW, the latter of which is hilariously “crashed” by Raymond co-star Brad Garrett.

REVIVAL HOUSE

Four fine screen adaptations of classic adventure stories are available on MOD from Warner Archives. Though he doesn’t show up until the picture’s halfway mark, Errol Flynn is an invigorating presence in The Prince the Pauper (1937), action specialist William Keighley’s take on the Mark Twain novel about twins switching identities in Tudor England. Drink and poor health had stolen most of Flynn’s famed vitality by the time he was top-billed in Kim (1950), with Dean Stockwell as Rudyard Kipling’s young hero of destiny, but he handles the action scenes like the old professional he was, and the location shooting in India (as well the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine) remains stunning. By the time of its release, Flynn was being replaced as Hollywood’s top action star by younger players like Stewart Granger, who wields a sword with considerable aplomb in the 1952 remake of Scaramouche, which still offers one of the longest (eight minutes) and most exciting screen fencing duels in film history, as well as a fine supporting cast including Mel Ferrer, Janet Leigh and Nina Foch (and yes, Oscar Goldman, a.k.a. Richard Anderson). The late Mr. Ferrer is also front and center in Knights of the Round Table (1953), a swell, high-gloss version of the Arthurian legend, with Ferrer as Arthur, Robert Taylor (shortly after Ivanhoe) and Ava Gardner as Guinevere.

Warner Archives also has four silent features with the legendary Lon Chaney Sr. working outside of the genre that made him a star – horror films. That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of the macabre in three of the offerings; Tod (Dracula, Freaks) Browning helmed West of Zanzibar (1928), with Chaney as a crippled magician who rules an African outpost through a voodoo scam while cultivating a scheme to avenge himself on the man (Lionel Barrymore) who took away his wife and mobility; Where East is East (1929), Chaney’s final silent film, and another morbid turn as a scarred animal trapper trying to protect his daughter (Lupe Velez) from her fiendish mother); and the milder Blackbird (1926), which casts him as a master thief by night and kindly, crutch-bearing mission keeper by day. Tell It to the Marines (1926) rounds out the trio, with Chaney sans both makeup and physical manipulation as a tough Marine D.I. in a love triangle who whips a reluctant recruit into fighting shape. Of the three,  Zanzibar is the pick to click, with Chaney putting his body through elaborate contortions to portray “Dead Legs” Flint while Browning indulges in his typical perversity, including live burials, forced drug addiction and all manner of Pre-Code unpleasantry.

GRINDHOUSE

Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (Blue Underground) is an exceptionally dark Italian Western, marked by a shocking level of callous violence (even for that trigger-happy subgenre) and allegiances that shift from moment to moment with a distinctly noirish air. Gian Maria Volonte is a hot-wired bandit who leads a gang of marauders (among them the ever-watchable Klaus Kinski) across the Mexican desert on a looting and killing spree, ostensibly to steal arms for a revolutionary leader, though the amount of civilian deaths seem to indicate a more aimless, amoral goal. American actor Lou Castel (fresh from Fists in the Pocket) is the well-dressed gringo who joins the gang, and in doing so, brings about their downfall. Gorgeously gloomy, even in the blinding brightness of its Spanish locations, Bullet speeds on a track free of even the modest moral compass by which most spaghetti Westerns operated; the doomy tone and solid cast (which includes Martine Beswick from Thunderball) should make it palatable for even the most ardent opponents of horse opera action. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray includes both the U.S. and international versions of the film (the former is three minutes shorter than the latter) and a second disc featuring an informative documentary on Volonte’s exceptional career with such directors as Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville and Elio Petri.

Also from Italy is Plot of Fear (Raro), a bizarre giallo-styled thriller from 1976 with future director Michele Placido as a cop investigating a series of violent murders while becoming involved with mystery woman Corrine Clery (Story of O), whose involvement with a group of homicidal animal-lovers-cum-kinksters is somehow tied into the killings. Common sense and linear plot are secondary in this genre-bender, which offers gratuitous American stars (Eli Wallach and Tom Skerritt) and set pieces that are at once beguiling and baffling in their lack of coherence. Raro’s DVD includes interviews with Placido and co -writer Enrico Oldoni, and an essay by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander that does its best to corral all the film’s elements.

SMALL SCREEN

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be the arthouse equivalent of Channing Tatum: coming seemingly from nowhere, he is suddenly everywhere, with roles in major features, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse and the upcoming Hobbit. He is perhaps best known in the States as the 21st-century version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed consulting detective in the BBC’s Sherlock, producer Steven (Doctor Who) Moffatt’s modern dress re-vamp of the classic detective stories. Cumberbatch is appropriately cerebral and chilly as the reclusive Holmes, while Martin Freeman (The Office, as well as The Hobbit) is a grittier Watson, home from Afghanistan and seeking an outlet for his frustrations by aiding his old friend in solving various cases. Three long-form, self-contained stories are featured in Season 2, including clever takes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Final Problem,” which marked the end of the literary Holmes before public outcry brought him back.

Sherlock is just one of your small options, now that the current primetime season has passed into history. The others include the second and final season of S.W.A.T. (Shout! Factory), which earned its place in history for its impossibly funky theme song and a level of violence so high for ’70s TV that the network canceled it despite high ratings; The River: The Complete First Season (ABC), producer Oren (Paranormal Activity) Peli’s ambitious but flawed attempt at a weekly horror series about the search for a missing documentarian in the Amazon; and Inch High Private Eye: The Complete Series (Warner Archives), a lesser-known ’70s Saturday morning cartoon from Hanna-Barbera about… well, it’s about a private eye who, inexplicably, measures an inch high. The presence of voice over greats Lennie Weinrib and Don (voice of Scooby-Doo) Messick solidify the set, which contains all 13 episodes, as pure comfort food entertainment.

But if I had to commit my summer to one show on DVD, it’d be Route 66: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory), TV’s truest attempt at Beat/existential drama, with Martin Milner and George Maharis (and later Glenn Corbett) as two restless young men – one privileged, one blue-collar – who criss-crossed the U.S. in a spectacular Corvette while searching for meaning in the material abundance of postwar American. Their travels unfolded as an engrossing, anthology-style drama about average people caught up in problems, both major and mundane, in cities and towns across the country. Created by Oscar-winning writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Herbert Leonard, the show carries the weight of live drama on its back, which occasionally renders the episodes on the morally ponderous side, but as a weekly TV drama, Route 66 remains a bold experiment in making real social issues, as well as the tapestry of everyday life, the focus of a major network show. An astonishing Who’s Who of talent, from Robert Redford and Martin Sheen to Lee Marvin and blues singer Bessie Smith, populate the episodes; the 24-disc (!) boxed set includes excerpts from a 1990 Paley Center retrospective featuring Maharis and director Arthur Hiller, as well as a 2003 documentary on Corvettes which features the show’s car in production footage. Oh, and there’s that theme song by Nelson Riddle, which still evokes a sense of uncertain, nervous freedom.

And if you’d like a little more spectacle on your small screen, you can choose either The Strange Case of Alice Cooper (Shout! Factory), which features Mr. Furnier in concert circa 1979, or Divinyls Live: Jailhouse Rock (MVD), a 1993 show featuring the Australian band live at Queensland’s notorious Boggo Prison. Their countrymen, the ragged but right Rose Tattoo, also got their shot at playing for the big house, as evidenced by Rose Tattoo – Live at Boggo Road Jail (MVD), which features the original lineup, led by Angry Anderson.

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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