Disc Junkie: DVD and Blu-Ray Releases, May 29-June 4, 2012

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

MULTIPLEX

Goon (Magnet) is a big, amiable lug of a picture, not unlike its hero-of-sorts, an affable if not terribly bright bouncer played by Seann William Scott who discovers that his true calling is as a hockey enforcer, one of those thick-skulled mugs dispatched to pummel the life out of opponents on the ice and up the excitement for the crowd. I’m not sure why this Canadian comedy, written by actor Jay Baruchel (who also plays Scott’s obnoxious pal/enabler) and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express), didn’t click with audiences: most likely, there weren’t enough laughs for those expecting a knucklehead comedy and not enough brawling for armchair goons. Too bad, as Goon is refreshingly free of any sort of message and sports a great supporting cast, including an impressively mustachioed Liev Schreiber as Scott’s nemesis, as well as a wealth of Canadian talent, including Eugene Levy, Allison Pill (as a hockey mama inflamed by the sight of bruised flesh), Marc-Andre Grondin (very funny as Scott’s vain teammate, who suffers from PTSD after an encounter with Schreiber), the great Nicholas Campbell, Kim Coates and even a cameo by the Trailer Park Boys.

ARTHOUSE

Actor Ralph Fiennes makes an assured directorial debut with an updated adaptation of Coriolanus (Weinstein Co), one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known dramas. Fiennes shrewdly moves the play’s action to the modern day in a Rome re-imagined as an ersatz Slavic/Baltic state in the grip of a bloody civil war; there, his icy general Coriolanus is welcomed as a conquering hero and then betrayed by the powers that be, spurring him to seek revenge with the aid of his former enemy (Gerard Butler). Fiennes’ picture is no Romeo + Juliet; it’s an exceptionally dark and violent drama, driven by the intensity of its leads and a supporting cast full of pros, including Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave, who is hypnotic as Coriolanus’ venomous mother. It’s also a challenging text to follow – there’s a reason it’s a lesser-known play – which undoubtedly hampered its box office performance.

Challenging is also the best term to describe We Need to Talk About Kevin (Oscilloscope), director Lynne (Morvern Callar) Ramsay’s unsettling adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling to find an emotional connection to a son who commits a horrendous criminal act in his teenaged years. I will admit that I am not a fan of Swinton, who, while technically brilliant, always seems encased in a Lucite block: I can hear the machinery of her performances humming, but they are housed in an icy, empathy-free environment. And while I found the subject matter compelling, the build-up towards the atrocity, which is rife with giant red flags concerning Kevin’s behavior, felt a bit like the doomy slide to entropy in Michael Haneke’s films. I don’t want to paint Kevin as a complete bummer, but will instead say that viewers should be prepared for an epic slice of heavy.

You should also be aware that Sing Your Song (New Video), a new documentary about the life of entertainer Harry Belafonte, focuses less on his extraordinary career as a singer and actor than on his considerable efforts as a social activity. A key player in the pursuit of racial equality, the end of poverty and hunger and political reform for over a half-century, Belafonte was a tireless campaigner for the basic rights of all people, which brought him in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond and other major figures in the civil rights movement. There’s an exceptional amount of archival footage on display in the film, from Belafonte’s controversial screen romance with white actress Joan Fontaine in 1957’s Island in the Sun to clips of his involvement in South Africa, Haiti and Ethiopia, but the most compelling moments are provided by simple one-on-one interviews with the man himself, who remains the epitome of grace and heart in his mid-80s.

The life of ’70s fashion design icon Halston somewhat pales in comparison to Belafonte’s accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean that Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (New Video Group) isn’t a worthwhile documentary. It’s a decidedly lighter-weight effort, with director Whitney Smith traveling the country in a Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am to interview the famous faces that surrounded Halston during his heyday. What follows is an occasionally uproarious pageant of show biz figures, from Liza Minnelli and Billy Joel to Angelica Huston recalling the wild times orbiting Halston’s star as it rose in the fashion world before descending into obsolescence prior to his death in 1990. Ultrasuede works best as a tongue-in-cheek valentine to the hedonistic excesses of 1970s fashion, which continues to render even the wildest aspects of the current scene as safe as milk.

But the life of Halston at its most over-the-top cannot compare to the very strange world of Henry Darger, a Chicago-area recluse who spent much of his adult life writing and illustrating The Realms of the Unreal, 15,000-page fantasy novel about an army of young girls leading an epic revolt against their slave owners. Discovered, along with hundreds of paintings, in his apartment after his death, the book and its creator are the focus of Jessica Yu’s engrossing documentary In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (Pathfinder). The film shrewdly avoids editorializing about Darger, preferring instead to let his own words (read by actor Larry Pine) detail his Dickensian upbringing and descent into solitude, which begat his novel, sections of which are narrated throughout the film by Dakota Fanning. Yu does not shy away from discussing the more controversial aspects of Darger’s obsession, which contain more than a whiff of pedophilia and mental illness; to her credit, she allows the viewer to draw their own conclusion about this ultimate outsider artist.

REVIVAL HOUSE

Let’s start with the silents: Grapevine Video, which specializes in vintage films on DVD, has released a spate of exceptional pre-talkie features from Europe, including  Ecstasy (1933), featuring Hedy Lamarr as a divorcee in pursuit of sexual fulfillment; the Czech-made drama was an international scandal because of Lamarr’s nude bathing sequence and a scene which depicted (in very oblique terms) the actress achieving, well, ecstasy. Grapevine also has the extraordinary FP1 Doesn’t Answer (1932), a science fiction thriller about the sabotage of a floating air station by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) filmed in German, French and English-language versions (the Grapevine DVD includes both the English and subtitled German versions) and Maciste in Hell (1926), with Italian actor Bartolomeo Pagano reprising his strongman role from Cabiria (1914) and taking on the Devil himself in a lavish fantasy-spectacle that influenced not Federico Fellini’s decision to become a director. but the entire sword-and-sandal adventure genre of the 1960s. Grapevine’s version is a tinted and toned 35mm print with an original score.

Grapevine’s silent roster is rounded out with Variete (1928), E.A. Dupont’s morality play about a fatal love triangle between circus performers that features stunning photography and aerial camerawork by Karl Freund (film history fans should note that the Grapevine version is the shorter but more breezily placed version that played in America) and glimpses of Berlin nightlife at the end of the Weirmar Republic; and G.W. Pabst’s White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), the epic mountaineering drama with Leni Riefenstahl, which some may remember as ending its run at Melanie Laurent’s theater in Inglourious Basterds.

Moving forward in the 20th century, Criterion has Alfred Hitchcock’s first great thriller/romance, The 39 Steps (1935), with Robert Donat as a Canadian tourist on the trail of spies with the aid of cool blonde Madeline Carroll while evading the London police. The Blu-ray edition includes the documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years (2000), which covers his pre-war efforts, along with the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation and excerpts from Francois Truffant’s famed interviews with the director. Also on Blu-ray (in a DVD combo pack) is 1947’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (HD Classics), an exceptionally grim noir with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas (in his film debut) as deeply damaged souls caught up in a dizzying web of forced marriages, concealed murders and unrequited passion. Noir rarely gets as morbid as this.

You can ride out the 1950s with Olive Films’ The Lawless (1950), rendered timely half a century later by its story of human rights abuses against Mexican immigrant workers in California’s farming industry, or Summer with Monika (1953), Ingmar Bergman’s story of a free-willed Stockholm girl (Harriet Andersson) suddenly saddled with the responsibility of marriage and family. Criterion has the Blu-ray of this once-controversial picture, which earned the wrath of censors for mild nudity, as well as Bergman’s Summer Interlude (1951), with Maj-Britt Nilsson as a dancer reflecting on a youthful indiscretion and its lasting effect on her adult life and career. Both Blu-rays feature Criterion’s typically top-notch supplemental features, including a making-of featurette and new interview with Andersson on Monika, as well as a discussion of its debut in America in truncated form as Monika, The Story of a Bad Girl.

Olive also has Too Late Blues (1962), John Cassavetes’ debut as a studio director, with Bobby Darin as a jazz pianist who scales the heights of the music business after adding Stella Stevens – a lousy singer but a real looker – to his band, which then precipitates his decline. Made in the wake of his groundbreaking Shadows (1960), the picture lacks the verite qualities of his own independent work, but features some jazz greats, including Benny Carter and Slim Gaillard, on screen and as part of the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. reproduces their no-frills presentation of The Outlaw Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood’s best Western prior to Unforgiven, for a Blu-ray release.

GRINDHOUSE

Labeling French director Jean Rollin’s efforts as simple horror or sexploitation dismisses the genuinely unique vision he brought to his films, which processed Gothic/vampire tropes – Gothic cemeteries, cobwebbed castles and lonely seascapes – into a surreal slideshow of narrative-free imagery that hewed closer to tone poem than spook show. Three of his features from the late ’60s and early ’70s – The Demoniacs, Requiem for a Vampire and The Rape of the Vampire – arrive on Blu-ray from Redemption USA that offer vast improvements upon past releases from Image, with deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews and trailers as well as remastered sound and image. Rollin’s pictures are an acquired taste, both for non-horror fans and genre aficionados; though flesh and blood are openly featured in his films, their hallucinatory nature takes some patience and willingness to allow his visuals to reveal his story, rather than any three-act story. For Eurohorror fans and those looking for something outside the usual fang-and-slash business, Rollin’s pictures offer sights and sounds that have few peers, even with their severely parched budgets, save for Jess Franco’s more cohesive/obsessive titles, or the equally poverty-struck but more aggressive work of Jose Mojica (Coffin Joe) Marins.

Fellow Continental cult favorite Lucio Fulci is best known for his gore-soaked horror films like Zombie or The Beyond, but the late Italian director worked in numerous other genres, from thrillers and comedies to spaghetti Westerns. His best effort in the latter arena, Massacre Time, arrives on DVD from the boutique Wild East label under its evocative American title, The Brute and The Beast. Franco Nero (Django) is top-billed as a prospector who returns to his home to find it under the control of a corrupt family led by bullwhip-wielding lunatic Nino Castelnuovo; after taking a savage beating, Nero recruits his alcoholic brother (George Hilton) to win back the family homestead. It’s a stylish, fast-paced Eurowestern with touches of Fulci’s trademark sadism (the whip fight is something to see); Wild East’s DVD offers both the American and European versions of the film, as well as an audio interview with Fulci.

SMALL SCREEN

Though actor James Garner enjoyed a long and largely successful movie career, he always seemed more at home on television. Most likely that’s because audiences first saw him there in Maverick, the enormously likable Western comedy-drama about a fast-talking card sharp who traveled across the West in search of little more than a good game and some female company. The complete first season of the series, which aired from 1957 to 1962 on ABC, is available on a seven-disc set from Warner Bros., which features 27 episodes that hinge on Garner’s easygoing, tongue-in-cheek delivery. He’s well partnered with Jack Kelly, who joined the show in its eighth episode as a long-lost, more serious brother, which allowed the network to cut costs by shooting episodes that featured either Garner or Kelly in the lead. Though a half century has passed since Maverick left the airwaves, the series remains undated, breezy fun and an eminently watchable alternative to the parade of reruns, no-hope pickups and reality junk populating the summer small screen. 

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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