Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray/DVD combos or Blu-ray only releases are listed in italics and bold font.
It’s easy to see why Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist swept the Academy Awards earlier this year: it plants a big, wet Gallic kiss on the notion of Hollywood and Hollywood filmmaking as a dream factory, churning out sparkling, wholesome entertainment to uplift audiences, and not, say, a collection of sprawling, soulless, taste-free corporate entities. Why wouldn’t the Academy pay tribute to a film that gilds the lily (or, rather, the Lucite) in such a devotional manner? That’s not to say that The Artist isn’t a good picture: it’s a charming conceit, driven by the twin charisma powerhouses of Oscar winner Jean Dujardin as a silent cinema idol in freefall (more) and Berenice (Mrs. Hazanavicius) Bejo as a starlet on the rise. And Best Director winner Hazanavicius does a remarkable job of evoking the look and style of the silent period without tipping his hand toward parody. The criticism most frequently levied at The Artist is that it’s all evocation and very little innovation: Hazanavicius began his career in France by assembling mock-Hollywood epics through clips from American films, and one can say that he’s done something of the same here by culling stylistic cues and story tropes from the past to create his own meta-silent film. Here’s the thing: the argument probably would have been moot had The Artist not been such an award magnet. Having swept the major ceremonies on both sides of the Atlantic, critics (armchair and otherwise) felt it necessary to examine the picture’s pedigree for worthiness. And yes, if you’re going to view The Artist through the lens of “undying classic,” it’s not. It’s a sweet film, well made, with some lovely moments and a swell supporting cast of Stateside players, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell and Missi Pyle. And it has a lot of heart and energy, all of which happened to capture the attention of audiences and critics and more than a few award organizations. It’s happened before (Slumdog Millionaire, Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Driving Miss Daisy, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, and so on), and you don’t have to like or agree with it. Just don’t let it stop you from seeing the film, as it’s most likely worth a few moments of your time.
Otherwise, you have the boom-and-bang with 21 Jump Street (Sony), a bemusing revamp of the ’80s TV series, with the ubiquitous Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as adult cops masquerading as high school students while in pursuit of a drug ring. It’s an amusing trifle (speaking of trifles), enlivened by the surprising chemistry between its leads and an all-pro supporting cast fronted by a spectacularly foul-mouthed Ice Cube as the duo’s superior, as well as Brie Larson, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper and yes, most of the original series’ stars, including Johnny Depp. Larger, more elaborate boom-and-bang is central to Wrath of the Titans (Warner), an improved sequel to Clash of the Titans (2010), with Sam Worthington still rigid and clenched as hero Perseus, who fights a horde of mythological monsters (all impressive CGI creations) in his attempt to again stop the spectacularly bearded Ralph Fiennes from taking over the ancient world. Less meandering than its predecessor, Wrath is still mostly a video game on film, albeit with a heavyweight cast (Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramirez, Danny Houston, etc.). It probably looks and sounds terrific on a big screen set with souped-up sound, so if you’ve got one of those, you might want to give this a test drive.
Bullhead (Drafthouse Films) is a modest thriller/character study from Belgium driven entirely by its lead, Matthias Schoenaerts, as a deeply damaged cattle farmer built to Michelin Man size by copious steroids. The surrounding plot, which puts the taciturn hero in danger’s path by associating with mobsters dealing growth hormones, is well handled if not particularly gripping (though it netted an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film), but Schoenaerts anchors the picture with his wounded eyes and massive shoulders, which still strain to bear the weight of a traumatic childhood. The Blu-ray extras detail the actor’s astonishing physical transformation, which required to add some 60 pounds, as well as the mental preparation needed to play the role.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Cinema Guild), from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a crime story in which the act itself is less important than the impact of the act upon those required to resolve it. Set in the titular region, which border the majority of Turkey, it follows a group of law officials as they accompany two murder suspects to a rural area in the search for a buried body. The accused men’s inability to locate the victim sets in motion a seemingly fruitless journey which allows the participants – law and alleged criminals alike – to reflect in small, subtle conversations on life, death and, more importantly, the struggle to find one’s true place in the world, an existential status underscored by the sweeping locations, against which the men are frequently shot as minor figures on a landscape. Winner (with France’s The Kid with a Bike) of the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Anatolia might be considered a challenging picture – it is, after all, a film largely about men talking and driving – but the quality of the storytelling, which builds to a major revelation about the crime, is so finely etched, performed and filmed that one actually comes to value the lack of dramatic “fireworks,” so as to spend more time listening to these men’s stories and the truths they contain.
Elsewhere, there’s Oranges and Sunshine (New Video Group), a crushingly sad drama about the real-life deportation of thousands of English orphans and group home residents to Australia, where they were promised the titular rewards but were instead treated as slaves in workhouses or Catholic institutions. Emily Watson plays the social worker spurred into investigating the allegations by now-grown deportees, which is met with derision and dismissal by officials in both countries. Director Jim Loach, son of social realist Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley), does a fine job of keeping the picture out of the mires of moral indignation or grisly exploitation by focusing largely on Watson’s quietly determined performance, as well as that of David Wenham (Lord of the Rings) as a survivor of the most hellish destination for the deportees.
Though the legacy of Deliverance (Warner) has been blunted by decades of dismissive jokes (in-bred hillbillies, “Dueling Banjos,” “squeal like a pig,” Burt Reynolds’ career in the ’80s), its arrival on Blu-ray should serve as a reminder that John Boorman’s film is still one of the most terrifying thrillers of the 1970s (and beyond, really). The horror that runs through the film, however, has less to do with the violence that is visited upon four businessmen (Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) whose trip down a Georgia river turns into a struggle for survival after an assault by a pair of locals, than about the terrible choices people make in a time of crisis. The scene in which Beatty and Voight are beset by Bill McKinney’s monstrous hillbilly remains a visceral nightmare, but the crimes committed in response to that act by the nominal “heroes” of the piece, that underscore the picture’s alarming central theme: the ease with which people can shed their civilized exteriors and get to their animal core, and the awful repercussions of doing so. The film’s four leads, all of whom advanced to stardom after its release, are featured in retrospective interviews, as well as a new roundtable discussion, on the 40th anniversary disc, as is an informative commentary by Boorman.
Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic Samurai Trilogy (Criterion) also concerns itself with the lasting impact of violence on an individual’s life, though in more meditative terms. Toshiro Mifune is top-billed in all three pictures (the first of which won the 1955 Oscar for Best Foreign Film) as real-life samurai Musashi Miyamoto, whose transformation from brutish thug to repentant soul brings enlightenment, but also the heavy price for early years spent on warfare. Samurai/chanbara fans may find the Trilogy‘s pace a bit on the glacial side when compared to Mifune’s better-known work with Akira Kurosawa or the more action-driven Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi series, though the films do feature their share of well-orchestrated swordplay. What registers strongest, however, is Mifune’s nuanced performance as Miyamoto, equal parts thunder and calm, which rivals his best work with Kurosawa.
The rest of the week’s schedule is as follows: Night of the Grizzly (Olive Films) is an old-fashioned Western adventure from 1966, with king-sized Clint Walker (Cheyenne) as a former lawman whose attempt to claim his family’s Wyoming ranch are thwarted by an avaricious rancher (Keenan Wynn) with designs on the spread, a former partner (Leo Gordon) with revenge on his mind for Walker sending him to prison and a tank-sized bear named Satan. Though it sounds like tense material, Grizzly is remarkably tame (though never dull), especially for a film featuring a killer bear. Olive’s Blu-ray features a new interview with the 85-year-old Walker, who still appears capable of wrestling man or beast into submission. Olive also has The Spirit is Willing (1967), a wan supernatural comedy with TV icon Sid Caesar set adrift in an Old Dark House scenario that’s for completist fans of its director, William (The Tinger, 13 Ghosts) Castle. Meanwhile, Fox’s MOD program, Cinema Archives, offers Intent to Kill (1958), a tidy B&W thriller helmed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff and starring Richard Todd as a surgeon racing against the clock to complete brain surgery on an injured South American president (played by Czech Herbert Lom) before assassins can finish him off. Fox also has Slattery’s Hurricane (1949), a heavily truncated rewrite of Herman Wouk’s novel, with Richard Widmark as a former Air Force pilot working as a drug smuggler who reflects on the failures of his life moments before flying into a major storm. The Production Code of America forced Fox to take out references to adultery and drug addiction, leaving a minor melodrama enlivened by Widmark’s anti-hero and Linda Darnell and Veronica Lake as doomed former flames.
Tales That Witness Madness (1973; Olive Films) was a late-inning entry in a string of outlandish but enjoyable horror portmanteau films produced by Amicus, an English production house overseen by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Like their previous efforts in this arena, which included Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973), the picture, directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, offers four grisly short stories that hinge on a framing story with Donald Pleasance as a psychiatrist who relays the histories of four deranged patients as a means of explaining his unorthodox methods to a colleague (Jack Hawkins). Said cases involve a young man whose friendship with an imaginary tiger provides the ultimate argument solver for his combative parents; a husband whose affection for a tree sparks his wife (Joan Collins) into a jealous rage; and a literary agent (Kim Novak, who emerged from retirement to replace Rita Hayworth in the role) whose desire to land a sinister author leads to a dinner party in which her daughter plays a very vital (ahem) role. It’s all very absurd stuff, even by Amicus standards, but well played by a game cast, save for Novak, who seems somewhat baffled by the proceedings, and should provide some dark, giggly chills for a warm summer night.
Also playing this week: New Year’s Evil (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a grotty slasher pic from Cannon Films circa 1980 with Roz Kelly (Pinky Tuscadero from Happy Days) as a DJ presiding over a live “punk rock” countdown to the ball drop who’s plagued by a psycho (Kip Niven) planning to commit a murder each time the clock strikes midnight in a different time zone. It’s typically scummy stuff, though not without its cult following, though its biggest attraction for general audiences might be its soundtrack, a blend of second-string New Wave/power pop and metal lite featuring two real acts, Made in Japan and Shadow, whose songs have the unfortunate tendence to burrow, like a noisome insect, into your brainpan to take residence there for far longer than one might hope.
Meanwhile, Sector 7 (Shout! Factory) is a big-bang monster movie from South Korea, and their first in 3-D to boot, but all the special effects and visual trickery don’t add up to much beyond a body count picture, with a group of Flat Stanley characters traipsing around an oil rig while waiting for a slobbery, slimy monster from the ocean floor to dispatch them. If you’ve put in the hours in the creature feature trenches, then you’ve seen this before, and done much better (The Host, also from South Korea, pretty much set the bar for 21st century giant monster pics), but those seeking no-frills, mashed-potatoes monster action will probably find this a passable time-killer.
Speaking of Shout, their subsidiary Timeless Media Group is releasing the complete 87th Precinct series, which ran on NBC from 1961 to 1962. Based on the seminal police procedural novels by Ed McBain, the series featured iron-jawed Robert Lansing as Detective Steve Carella, the great Gena Rowlands as his deaf-mute wife, Teddy, Norman Fell as Meyer Meyer, the precinct’s sort-of comic relief and Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 from Outer Space) as a sanitized take on heavy-handed cop Roger Havilland. Produced by Hubbell Robinson (the Boris Karloff anthology series Thriller), the series has an agreeable amount of network-approved grit and a swell rotating cast of period guest stars, including Robert Culp as a nasty con man, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy as a pusher – and holy shit, is that Nancy Reagan? Yep, the future first lady gives one of her last screen performances in a truncated version of McBain’s fifth 87th Precinct novel, “King’s Ransom,” which later served as the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). 30 episodes on six discs, served up cold in black and white.