Please note: titles released solely on DVD are listed in italics, while Blu-ray and Blu-ray/DVD combos are listed in italics and bold font.
Actor-writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids (Lionsgate) benefits from its high-wattage cast, which includes Westfeldt’s boyfriend, Jon Hamm, as well as Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Adam Scott and Megan Fox. But in its attempt to present both an offbeat romantic comedy and some kind of zeitgeist statement on 21st century parenthood, it struggles to balance de rigueur potty humor, the tired sitcom attitude towards parenting that equates having children with a life sentence with no parole, and a romantic comedy involving Westfeldt and Scott (Parks and Recreation) attempting to escape the fate that befell their married-with-kids friends by procreating without marriage. As expected with such a Hometown Buffet of ideas, some work while others are dead on arrival; the film’s most appealing aspect is the slow-building relationship between Scott and Westfeldt, which benefits greatly from the actors’ charisma and comic skills.
Chemistry between leads also fuels Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Sony), director Lasse Hallstrom’s lightweight adaptation of Paul Torday’s novel about a tightly-wound fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) sent to the Middle East to help facilitate a sheik’s desire for fly-fishing in the desert. Emily Blunt is the ultra-efficient land agent tasked to aid McGregor in the plan; the pair prove enormously appealing in their tentative progress from business allies to romantic partners, while Kristin Scott Thomas is terrific as the mile-a-minute press secretary to the UK prime minister, who sets the whole plan in motion in an attempt to score an international public relations coup.
The Farrelly Brothers’ Three Stooges (Fox) is an impressive carbon of the long-running slapstick shorts series, with a note-perfect turn by Chris Diamantopolous as Moe Howard and amusing takes on Larry Fine and Curly Howard by Sean Hayes and Will Sasso, respectively. There’s also a funny bit with Larry David as a crotchety nun named Sister Mary Mengele, but for the most part, you’ll find bigger laughs in the original shorts, which are all widely available on DVD. Same goes for Casa de Mi Padre (Lionsgate), a spoof of telenovelas that hinges largely on Will Ferrell’s deadpan performance (done entirely in halting Spanish) as a straight-laced rancher’s son who tangles with drug dealer Gabriel Garcia Bernal (who’s very funny). But again, you’ve seen Spanish-language soaps spoofed before, and ultimately done better.
4:44 Last Day on Earth (MPI) upholds Abel Ferrara’s status as an acquired taste with this typically offbeat but dreadfully draggy story about a group of New Yorkers passing the last remaining hours before the end of the world. Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh are high-rise dwellers who decide to spend their final day together, but their choice of activities swings between intense sex and utterly mundane time-killers like painting and Skype. Other residents make similarly snoozy choices: feeding their dog, ordering takeout, etc. There is, I am sure, a message here in regard to humanity’s tenacious need to remain true to their habits in the face of enormous change, but that doesn’t make watching it any more interesting.
Three seminal films of the 1950s make their Blu-ray debut this week. Olive Pictures, offers crystal-clear presentations of two titles from their recently acquired Republic Pictures catalgo: Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning High Noon (1952), still one of the best postwar Westerns, with Gary Cooper as the lawman who finds himself abandoned by his constituents when a trio of badman arrive in town for a showdown, and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which has lost none of its power to unsettle with its story of an alien invasion in fictional Santa Mira, California (actually Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, Los Feliz and Bronson and Beachwood Canyons), which is overrun by plant-like creatures capable of perfectly duplicating humans. Both pictures were held up by the critical community as allegories for the McCarthy hearings and the Red Scare in general, with its Average American citizens revealing their true and decidedly untrustworthy natures under duress. Removed from that interpretation, both films still retain their visual and narrative power, as well as their status as required viewing for film fans. Only downside to the Blu-rays: no extras, as is usually the case with Olive releases.
Meanwhile, Warner has a 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), one of the greatest of American musicals, as well as a frequently funny spoof of Hollywood filmmaking that hews closely to the recent Oscar winner The Artist in its story of a leading man (Gene Kelly) and his struggle to bring a sound picture to fruition with a leading lady (Jean Hagen) whose grating voice is best suited to silents. In addition to winning performances by Kelly and co-leads Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, the film contains a moment of the purest Hollywood magic in its title tune, crooned with irresistible joy by Kelly in a manmade downpour. The Blu-ray presents a sparkling digitally remastered presentation, as well as two comprehensive documentaries on the film’s production and MGM’s musical unit and clips from previous and subsequent films that used the venerable songs from the film, including Eleanor Powell’s take on “You Are My Lucky Star” and Bing Crosby burbling through “Beautiful Girls.”
Elsewhere, Criterion has a terrific Blu-ray of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986), the follow-up to his 1984 debut Stranger Than Paradise that fuses its low-fi, black-and-white aesthetic to a Depression Era Hollywood road comedy in its story of two New Orleans dead-end cases – small time pimp John Lurie and boozy DJ Tom Waits – whose stint in jail is enlivened by the unlikely presence of a baffled but nevertheless buoyant Roberto Benigni. Equal parts sweet and strange, Down By Law remains one of Jarmusch’s most enjoyable efforts, thanks largely to the offbeat chemistry between its three leads and the singularity of Jarmusch’s B-movie-cum-arthouse style. The Blu-ray preserves the gorgeous gloss of Robby Muller’s cinematography, and includes a wealth of extras, including a Q&A and feature-length interview with Jarmusch (it’s not really a commentary track), press conferences with the cast and crew at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, which are enlivened by Benigni’s clowning, 2002 phone calls between Jarmusch and his cast, and the director’s video for Waits’ take on Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” from the Red Hot + Blue album.
Meanwhile, Warner has a new Blu-ray of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which ports over the making-of featurette and commentary from the Special Edition DVD. There’s also First a Girl (VCI), a bouncy 1935 comedy-musical with Jessie Matthews, one of Britain’s biggest stars of the 1930s, as an aspiring actress who takes the place of a female impersonator and accidentally becomes a stage sensation. Adapted from a 1933 German feature, this was later the inspiration for Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria, and features some impressive musical numbers (most notably the climactic tune, set in a colossal bird cage), though modern audiences will be most likely amused by the film’s inability to reference the fact that Matthews’ mentor is unquestionably gay.
Lastly, Warner Archives has a trio of fine ’40s noir titles by director Jean Negulesco, two of which feature the marvelous screen team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The “Fat Man and the Little Man” are reunited with their Casablanca co-star Paul Henreid for The Conspirators (1944), with Hedy Lamarr as an alluring mystery woman at the heart of the Lisbon resistance, whom Henreid is charged with determining whether she’s in collusion with the Nazis. Lorre and Greenstreet are also front and center for Three Strangers (1945) as thieves charged by a vengeful Geraldine Fitzgerald to retrieve a foreign idol with supposed magical powers. And Fitzgerald returns for Nobody Lives Forever (1946) as the target for con man John Garfield, who ends up falling for her. Tried-and-true scene stealers Walter Brennan and George Coulouris are also on board as Garfield’s partners.
Redemption USA has two rarely seen British horror films on deck this week: the awkwardly named Blood Beast Terror (1967), from Hammer competitor Tigon, poaches the former company’s durable leading man, Peter Cushing, as a quirky inspector investigating a series of murders of young men. The culprit turns out to be a monstrous moth (!) capable of transforming into a woman (Wanda Ventham) for the purposes of luring said men to their doom. Robert Fleyming (from Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) is the well-intentioned if totally dotty scientist responsible for the creature, of which the less said about the makeup for its insect state, the better. Cushing, however, lends his usual degree of class and professionalism to the offbeat material.
Redemption’s other UK offering is Burke and Hare (1971), not to be confused with the recent horror-comedy of the same name by John Landis, and directed by Blood Beast helmer Vernon Sewell, who had been laboring in the B-fields for the British film industry since the early ’30s. Apparently, this take on the infamous 19th case of bodysnatching and murder by the scurrilous title characters (Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards, who play them as jolly sorts) was so sleazy and dull-witted that he retired shortly after completing the film. One can understand his motivation: the picture is lunk-headed and leering, with Hammer starlet Yutte Stensgaard on full display, but camp fans may find some laughs here, especially in its perky pop title tune by The Scaffold.
British author M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” was memorably adapted to the screen by Jacques Tourneur as Curse of the Demon (1957) before this 1979 version for ITV Playhouse on British TV, which debuts on American DVD from Acorn Media. Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who helmed most of the BBC’s memorable Ghost Story for Christmas specials, it’s very loosely based on the James story, with the action transferred to the modern day and focused on a television producer (Jan Francis) whose documentary about the occult brings her into contact with mystic Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson), who takes frightening measures to dispel her skeptical viewpoint about the power of magic. Clocking in at 50 minutes, the ITV adaptation loses much of the character detail that aided Tourneur’s version, but it still offers a great deal of atmosphere, most notably in its opening, where an ill-fated critic of Karswell is pursued by something malevolent that moves just out of range of the viewer’s eyesight. The television production setting also brings to mind the setting of both the American and Japanese versions of The Ring, which owes a slight debt to James’ stories of ancient and implacable evil.