Disc Junkie: DVD and Blu-ray New Releases, September 11-17, 2012

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

MULTIPLEX

I will simply let you know that Snow White and the Huntsman (Universal) and What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Lionsgate) are what the majors have for you this week. What you do with that information is entirely of your choosing.

ARTHOUSE

A lot of people seemed to openly loathe Lola Versus (Fox), director Daryl Wein’s starring vehicle for indie mainstay Greta Gerwig about a young woman who stumbles through a series of complicated romantic scenarios following an abrupt ending to her long-standing engagement. Gerwig’s Lola doesn’t make a lot of sensible choices, like falling for one of her best friends (Hamish Linklater), but then again, most people fall apart in spectacularly awful ways in the wake of a major blow to their well-being. Gerwig has been a likably off-kilter presence in a number of films, including Baghead and House of the Devil, and for me, she was the only palatable thing about Greenbaum, though I understand that I am largely alone in my negative opinion of that picture. Here, she brings her low-wattage, feline unpredictability to a role that requires a degree of patience from the viewer in regard to her behavior. If you can provide that, you’ll probably enjoy Lola Versus.

And if not, well, there’s Entrance (MPI), a slow-moving but effective psychological thriller about a young L.A. resident (Suziey Block) who discovers that her feelings of paranoia and persecution are entirely warranted. Like Lola Versus, the film will undoubtedly polarize viewers, who will either love or grow weary of its glacial progress towards an unspecific ending. Again, those with patience will find a few shivery moments that do much to make up for the long, dry patches. Meanwhile, Eagle Rock has Produced by George Martin, a lively, hour-long documentary on the famed producer’s illustrious career from its humble beginnings with comedy acts like the Goons to his work with the Beatles. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both put in appearances to discuss their studio collaborations with Martin, but it’s the subject himself, a humble figure despite the vast scope of accomplishments to his name, that makes the journey into the past worthwhile.

REVIVAL HOUSE

There’s ’70s-era action aplenty from Warner Archives this week, featuring a host of old-school he-men, including Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, George Kennedy, Ian McShane, Peter Graves and, erm, Dean Martin. Mitchum is front and center in two pictures: in Going Home (1971), he’s a recent parolee who returns home after serving time for the murder of his wife (Sally Kirkland) to face his now-grown son (Jan-Michael Vincent), who’s carrying a king-sized grudge against the old man. Mitchum then heads south for The Wrath of God (1972), a spaghetti Western-style adventure by drama specialist Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Lilies of the Field) about a trio of mercenaries – Mitchum’s gun-toting faux priest, Irish terrorist Ken Hutchison and gunrunner Victor Buono – tapped to bring down a Mexican despot (Frank Langella). It’s an agreeable Saturday afternoon adventure, enlivened by Jack Higgins’ script and a final screen appearance by Rita Hayworth as Langella’s devout mother.

McShane also gets a pair of showcases, the best (and most brutal) of which is probably Sitting Target (1972), with Oliver Reed as a psychopathic con who breaks out of prison with sidekick McShane to track down his ex-wife (Jill St. John), who has taken up with another man during his stint in the clink. Edward Woodward completes the film’s UK Tough Guy triumvirate as the inspector on Reed’s trail, while Stanley Myers’ angry jazz soundtrack (recently released on CD by Finders Keepers) lend an extra note of menace to the vicious goings-on. Ian McShane performs a similar duty and then some for Richard Burton’s gay, mother-obsessed and completely deranged mobster in Villain (1971). Burton’s Vic Dakin, based on real-life Brit gangster Ronnie Kray, is a Compleat Monster in decline, a one-time top dog spiraling around the underworld toilet bowl while clinging to boyfriend McShane, a pimp who procures for members of Parliament. It goes from ugly to worse from there, though Burton, McShane and Nigel Davenport as the cop on their trail, do much to class up the sleazy scenario. Speaking of which, VCI has In the Devil’s Garden (1971), a tacky British psycho-thriller with Suzy Kendall (Bird with the Crystal Plumage) as a teacher who teams with inspector Frank Finlay to find the maniac preying on students at her all-girl boarding school. Whiffs of exploitation (not the least of which is the casting of twenty-something starlets, including Lesley-Anne Down as schoolgirls) obscure a fairly taunt, mature suspense show.

Also on deck is Zig Zig (1970), a little-seen thriller with George Kennedy as a terminally ill man who decides on an unorthodox insurance plan for his family by framing himself for a high-profile crime in order to provide them with the reward money. Naturally, things do not work out as planned. There’s also Mr. Ricco (1975), the final starring feature for a very tired-looking Dean Martin, who plays a San Francisco lawyer who uncovers shady dealings surrounding the death of two cops allegedly killed by his client, black militant Thalmus Rasulala (front and center in Cool Breeze, another recent WA release). It’s a lightweight thriller enlivened by its Bay Area setting, which makes it a sort of alternate universe Dirty Harry. And The Five Man Army (1969) brings together Peter Graves, James Daly and Bud Spencer of Trinity fame as three-fifths of a team of thieves who plan to boost a fortune in gold from a train laden with Mexican soldiers. It’s a lesser entry in the long-running Italian Western genre, though with Dario Argento among its screenwriters and a typically rousing score by Ennio Morricone.

Speaking of Graves, he’s one of several stalwart leading men who make absolute fools of themselves in Airplane! (Paramount), which was something of a rite of passage for young idiots in the early 1980s. I’m not sure if this is as drop-dead hilarious for new viewers as it was back then, when you could pass a dull hour by ticking off the memorable lines (“I haven’t seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert”). Maybe it’s still a riot. Either way, the Blu-ray ports over all the extras from the Special Edition DVD, including commentary by its directors, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, and deleted scenes.

GRINDHOUSE

Three underrated horror titles make their Blu-ray debut this week. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1987; MGM) is Tobe Hooper’s much-maligned sequel to his landmark 1974 feature, which substitutes its freakout sensory assault for blackly comic commentary on ’80s consumer culture (though the presence of Dennis Hopper as a demented Texas Ranger certainly qualifies as freakout material). No idea on the extras, though one can assume that the extra footage from the unrated Gruesome Edition DVD will most likely be included. MGM also has the Chiodo Brothers’ Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), a wonderfully woozy knock on ’50s science fiction films that replaces bug-eyed aliens with a carnivorous platoon of circus clowns. Alternately unsettling and Mad-magazine-absurd (often in the same scene), it’s a truly independent-minded horror film before such an appellation was part of the vernacular. Tons of extras with the Chiodos, who gleefully recall pulling together the film on a threadbare budget. Equally clever, but decidedly more malevolent, is Jeepers Creepers (2001), with the ubiquitous Justin Long (prior to his pop culture ubiquity) and Gina Phillips as siblings on a cross-country trip who discover that the aggressive truck driver dogging them through rural Florida might be a killer stashing bodies along the interstate. Unfortunately for the pair, their suspicions prove not only true but just part of the story regarding the mysterious driver (though MGM’s Blu-ray artwork tips its hand in that regard), which unfolds in increasingly nerve-wracking scenarios before a genuinely shocking ending. One of the more original horror efforts of the last decade, it spawned an equally unsettling if little-seen sequel that deserves its own Blu-ray release.

SMALL SCREEN

Britain’s Hammer Films, having fallen on hard times in the late 1970s, tried their hand at  television with Hammer House of Horror, a 13-episode anthology series for ITV in 1980 that attempted to merge their particular brand of Gothic chills with the sort of graphic fare that had usurped their theatrical releases. The result was a decidedly mixed bag, with some episodes delivering grisly shocks while others suffered from lightweight ideas dragged out to a 50-minute running time. Synapse Films has compiled the entire series in its original uncut format in a remastered five-disc set that gilds the weaker efforts while providing the better episodes with a showcase that far outshines A&E’s presentation of the series in 2001. Fans will be pleased to note the appearance of beloved Hammer veteran Peter Cushing as a kindly shopkeeper with a horrible secret in “The Silent Scream,” while Pierce Brosnan, Brian Cox, Denholm Elliott and The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s Patricia Quinn each contributing supporting or lead turns in various episodes. Two brief interview featurettes and new introductions from genre writer Shane Dallmann provide some welcome background on the individual episodes.

More macabre TV awaits with Dark Night of the Scarecrow (VCI), one of the most effective made-for-television efforts in the horror vein, with Charles Durning as a small town mailman turned self-appointed judge and jury in the case of a mentally handicapped man (Larry Drake, playing a role similar to his Emmy-winning turn on L.A. Law), who appears to have caused the death of a young girl. Durning and a posse visit some Western-style justice on Drake, but soon after find themselves targeted by an unseen figure out for its own taste of revenge. First broadcast in 1981, this one had a huge impact on my fellow sixth-graders, who recalled its surprisingly gruesome moments and slow-building suspense in breathless tones the following day. Unlike many childhood trauma titles, Dark Night actually holds up three decades later, thanks largely to an intelligent script by J.D. Feigelson and directon by Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose). VCI’s Deluxe Collector’s Edition simply combines the extras from the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases, but said features are solid, including commentary by De Felitta and Feigelson, premiere and rebroadcast promos, an extended version of the original making-of featurette, and a cast and crew reunion Q&A from 2011.

And if that’s not enough alarming material for you, may I suggest Appropriate Adult (Inception), a fascinating if occasionally grueling account of social worker Janet Leach (Emily Watson), who was called in by British police in the 1970s to serve as observer and third party aide to serial killer Fred West (Dominic West of The Wire), who along with his wife, Rose (Monica Dolan), brutally murdered a dozen women, including their own daughter. Originally broadcast over two nights on ITV in 2011, the feature is less about the gruesome crimes than about the breakdown of Leach’s perspective and judgement after prolonged exposure to Fred West, an absolute dullard who, like many psychopaths, also possessed the ability to draw in outsiders through finely calibrated manipulation of his words and personality. The strip-mining of Leach’s soul unfolds in a matter-of-fact manner that lacks the firepower of bigger-budget projects along these lines – this is no Silence of the Lambs-style cat and mouse – but the performances of the three leads, especially Dolan as an absolutely ferocious Rose West, carry enormous dramatic power. Fans of police procedurals and other UK TV crime efforts like Red Riding or Wire in the Blood are recommended to seek out this challenging title.

And lastly, while we’re talking police procedurals, Shout Factory bids adieu to Kojak, one of the best TV cop shows of the 1970s, with its fifth and final season set. Series star Telly Savalas directs the show’s final episode, which features a surprising dramatic turn by Danny Thomas as an aging assistant chief inspector whose need to prove his worth to his superiors nearly capsizes an important case, while other guest stars include Armand Assante, Shelley Winters and Priscilla Barnes. Even in its final network go-round (prior to its revival in TV-movie form in the mid-1980s), Kojak retained the grit and smarts that made it an enduring police show favorite.

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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