Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray titles and Blu-ray/DVD combos are listed in both italic and bold fonts.
Yes, The Hunger Games (Lions Gate) is a over-caffeinated, tween-friendly retread of The Most Dangerous Game, Battle Royale and a half-dozen other human-hunting-humans stories, and will probably require some Dramamine to keep up with director Gary Ross’ hyperactive camera. But it also boasts a terrific cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, who lend a lot of credibility as two teens drafted to track down and kill each other as part of a dystopian future competition. They’re well abetted by a cast of pros, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Lenny Kravitz, who continues his impressive transition to acting following his turn in Precious. The Blu-ray/DVD is loaded with extras, including interviews with Ross (who isn’t returning for the next entry in the franchise), as well as a solid introduction to series author Suzanne Collins.
With a whimper, not a bang is how the ordeal of the West Memphis Three ends, as seen in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Oscar-nominated documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Docurama). Eighteen years after being railroaded into life sentences for the murders of three young boys on evidence that most Third World courts would have refused to accept (plus a healthy dose of religious paranoia), Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. were set free on a decision that still rendered them guilty of the crimes in the eyes of the law. The conclusion of this drawn-out lunacy is a relief, but a paper-thin one – the murders are still unsolved, the three accused men have spent half of their lives spent behind bars, the most likely suspect remains at large (and will never been tried due to the decision regarding the trio’s freedom), and the law officials responsible for turning a blind eye to the mountain of conflicting evidence remain unrepentant – the astonishingly myopic Judge David Burnett, who oversaw the original case, is now a U.S. senator. The world still turns for all involved, but a little slower, perhaps, and, it could be assumed, with a lot more shadows.
Equally dark and disorienting, though thankfully a 100% work of fiction, is Kill List (IFC), which begins as a crime thriller involving an out-of-work contract killer (Neil Maskell) who accepts, against his better judgement, an assignment from a shadowy client to execute a trio of high-ranking individuals. The murders, which are painful and difficult to watch, are also filmed in a flat, unadorned, and decidedly unattractive manner which stands in direct contrast to the splashy, money-shot-centric style of modern crime pictures. In doing so, director Ben Wheatley leaves the viewer disarmed – all the better to pull a breathtaking 360-degree tonal shift in the picture’s third act that will leave all but the most jaded viewers feeling as if they’ve taken a two-by-four between the eyes. The Blu-ray and DVD include interviews with and commentary by Wheatley, his production team and the cast
And if you have the stamina for another head-spinning feature, direct your attention to The Raid: Redemption (IFC), an Indonesian-made action pic about a young, untrained squad of policemen trapped in a highrise building by a drug warlord and his seemingly endless array of well-armed hoods. What ensues is probably the most high-voltage, physically grueling martial arts film since the emergence of Tony Jaa, with a healthy dose of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 thrown in to thicken the mixture and a Southeast Asian brand of martial arts called silat, which evokes a sort of streamlined brutality in the smoothness and efficancy of its punishing moves. Beyond the action, there’s little going on writer-director Gareth Evans’ film, but the hand-to-hand stuff is so frantic and so plentiful that to complain that the picture lacks a sufficient story is a bit like saying that a Black Sabbath tune is missing some upbeat elements: that is, simply put, not the point. The DVD includes interviews with Evans and his composers, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Joe Trapenese, as well as comprehensive video blogs that cover the picture’s construction and the fight scenes’ elaborate staging in considerable detail.
Those seeking more subdued material are directed to First Run Features’ slate of documentaries, which include veteran filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer’s Art is… The Permanent Revolution, which discusses the connection between art and sociopolitical commentary as seen through the work of three printmakers who use their work to speak out against global ills; The Callers, about a multi-generational family of auctioneers; and Inventing Our Lives – The Kibbutz Experiment, which traces the history of the kibbutz movement from its inception in Jordan at the turn of the century to its modern incarnation. All three offer a glimpse into largely insular worlds, which prove as rich in detail, conflict and emotion as any studio effort.
I don’t need to sell you on the new Jaws (Paramount) Blu-ray, do I? It’s probably one of the most unimpeachable films in the American canon, and the rare popcorn film that delivers equal parts exhilaration and terror without sacrificing story and character. The deluge of extras, many of which have been ported over from previous DVD releases, include the terrific documentary The Shark is Still Working, which attempts to explain the picture’s enduring popularity, and the extended TV version, which includes some deleted scenes.
Altogether satisfying, although in a manner entirely different from Jaws, is Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which gets a deluxe upgrade from Criterion. At once a inspiredly silly comedy and a sad and lovely parable about attempting to regain something that you never had, the film features Gene Hackman’s last great performance as the rough-hewn head of a New York family who attempts to return to his patriarchal state by feigning a fatal illness. Hackman’s return has long-reaching effects on his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) and deeply traumatized children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson), who are all forced to examine their own lives as the past is forced upon them. Told as a sort of storybook (narrated by Alec Baldwin) for very enlightened children, The Royal Tenenbaums lingers in the memory like a well-loved novel through the perfect merger of the melancholic and absurd engines that drive his work, and remains his most accomplished film to date. The Criterion Blu-ray offers the same extras as the DVD release, with Anderson’s commentary, a making-of documentary by Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) and best of all, a faux Charlie Rose-style interview program with Larry Pines chatting up bit players from the film, among its many highlights.
Like its UK namesake, Juan of the Dead (Entertainment One) is a broad, gory comedy that views the zombie apocalypse genre through the cultural prism of its country of origin – which happens to be Cuba, making Alejandro Brugues’ film something of a rarity, given that relatively few features from that region make it to American shores, much less genre titles like this one. The Cuban setting, however, adds more than just an exotic locale for the film; the conditions in Havana, which border on somewhat apocalyptic after decades of poverty under Communist rule, provides something of an ironic counterpoint for the story, which follows a group of fringe figures who have already endured so much at the hands of the government that hordes of the hungry dead are more of an aggravation than anything else, and can be overcome with the same level of by-any-means determination and survival tactics that allowed them to carry on in post-Fidel Cuba. The humor is very dark and the violence often spectacularly gross, but it’s the perspective that ultimately makes Juan of the Dead one of the more memorable and inventive entries in the zombie subgenre.
Elsewhere, there’s Madness (Raro Video), an Italian-made thriller from 1980 with Joe Dallesandro as a hard-bitten criminal who finds that the remote cabin where he stashed his ill-gotten loot is occupied by a vacationing couple and a third-wheel sister. Ugliness naturally ensues, which in the hands of veteran crime director Fernando Di Leo, gets fairly intense at times. Little Joe also acquits himself nicely to his brutish role, a sort-of flipside figure to his silent, often vacuous screen roles. Nothing really new here, but fans of hard-boiled exploitation will approve, no doubt. Also on deck is 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon (Tokyo Shock), the thirteenth and one of the most ludicrous entries in the original run of the Japanese monster’s adventures. Here, the atomic-powered dinosaur takes on the title creature, a giant cockroach god of an undersea kingdom (populated by white guys in togas) as well as the hook-handed, buzzsaw-sporting alien Gigan from the previous G-film, 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan. Aiding Godzilla in the fight this time is robot Jet Jaguar, who represents the series’ nod to the TV superheroes like Ultraman that had supplanted Toho’s giant monsters in the hearts and mind of young viewers. It’s sloppy, silly stuff that lacks the energy and maturity of Ishiro Honda’s early Godzilla efforts; those dedicated to collecting all things Japanese and monster will note that the disc, which was delayed several times due to issues with Toho, is bare bones.
However, even in its dopiest moments (and there are plenty), Godzilla vs. Megalon does not begin to approach the depths of dumb approached by Bigfoot (Asylum), a SyFy original movie that pairs aged teen idols Barry Williams and Danny Bonaduce as former band members now at odds over a parcel of land slated for a rock concert and currently under the domain of a raggedy-looking CGI Sasquatch. An unrecognizable Sherilyn Fenn and character actor Bruce Davison (who also directed) do their best to look rattled by the creature, which approaches Mighty Gorga-levels of ineptitude; Alice Cooper is also in the mix for a moment before wisely heading for the hills. I will admit that my wife and I were suckered into sitting through this due to the undeniable chutzpah of its lead actor pair-up; what we got were two very long hours, capped by one of the most jaw-dropping (not in a good way) denouements we’ve ever seen. I cannot advise that you follow in our footsteps without proper levels of food, sleep and (possibly) medication.
Could a series like Harry O make it on television today? Let’s consider the facts: the series, which ran on ABC from 1974 to 1976, featured former Fugitive star David Janssen
then in his mid-40s) as San Diego cop Harry Orwell, who became a private eye after catching a bullet during a robbery. Strapped with constant pain and a non-functioning Austin-Healy which required him to take the bus (!) in order to conduct investigations, Harry tackled his cases with a methodical world-weariness that stood in direct contrast to the flashier, more action-oriented TV PIs of the day. Chances are, Harry wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s market, which prefers its crime-solvers deeply damaged and working in the medical field, but that essential humanity, as embodied by Janssen’s lived-in face and gravely delivery, remains the key to the series’ appeal, as well as Harry’s testy interaction with the police, as embodied by the great character actors Henry Darrow and Anthony Zerbe (who won an Emmy for his performance). All 22 first-season episodes are included in Warner Archives’ six-disc set, as well as the show’s original 1973 pilot, “Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of”; it failed to secure a pick-up, but a second try, 1974’s “Smile, Jenny – You’re Dead,” served as the show’s official launching spot (it’s available as a stand-alone disc from WA).