Movies Till Dawn: Spring Cleaning Edition

“We Are X” (2016, Magnet) As an introduction to the glam-symphonic metal of X Japan, Stephen Kijak’s doc “We Are X” provides a primer on the veteran group’s highly theatrical music and stage presence – which plays as an amalgam of KISS and Queensryche filtered through a chest-thumping anime theme – and the astonishing run of personal and professional tragedy that has run concurrent with their three-decade career. Much of the former, which is showcased in the group’s debut at Madison Square Garden in 2014, hinges on an axis of pop-metal pomp and super-human exertion, as personified by drummer/co-founder Yoshiki, whose on-stage collapse following a punishing solo is viewed as apart of the performance. Yoshiki’s health, which could be best described as tenuous, is at the core of the latter aspect, a litany of dreadful woes that include the suicide deaths of two bandmates and singer Toshi’s allegiance to a religious cult that put X Japan out of commission for a decade. It’s easy to dismiss the band’s pomp and thunder, and its almost supernatural bad luck, as Spinal Tap-style tragic comedy, but Yoshiki’s unwavering commitment to his band in the face of what appears to be a constant threat to his health keeps the doc out of the camp swamp. It’s not likely that you’ll be an X Japan convert after viewing “We Are X,” but as an overview of life – and survival – in a little-seen and offbeat corner of the rock landscape, it holds the attention in a way that its subject’s music may not. Magnet’s Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, interview segments and songs.

World Without End” (1956, Warner Archives Collection) A rugged crew of American astronauts, including a pre-fame Rod Taylor, set out for Mars in 1957, but instead wind up in the ruins of 26th century Earth, where their arrival is met with barely contained desire by the last remnants of civilization – subterranean glamour girls in costumes by pinup artist Alberto Vargas – and decided enmity by the one-eyed mutants that roam the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, which stands in for the post-apocalypse desert. Depending on your viewpoint, this ambitious sci-fi effort from low-budget studio Allied Artists, which borrowed so liberally from “The Time Machine” that it generated a lawsuit from the estate of H.G. Wells, is either threadbare jokebait or delirious Saturday afternoon-styled fun that increases in enjoyment with each passing oddity – Taylor wrestling frantically with a floppy giant spider puppet, the astronauts waging war against the mutants with a homemade bazooka, and so on. Director Edward Bernds, who directed countless Three Stooges and Bowery Boys titles, cut corners by employing stock footage from other films (“Flight to Mars”), while Allied Artists loaned out props like the spider puppet to later productions like “Queen of Outer Space.” The WAC Blu-ray’s sparkling HD scan adds gloss to the Technicolor presentation.

Toni Erdmann” (2016, Sony Pictures Classics) Oscar-nominated comedy from Germany about a frazzled business consultant (Sandra Huller), who reluctantly reunites with her father, Ines (Peter Simonischek), whose penchant for confrontational humor – and costumes – paints him as an eccentric (at best) and pain in the ass (at worst). Sensing that his daughter’s job – which consists of enduring condescension by her bosses at a Romanian oil company as she instructs them in the best way to lay off their employees – has robbed her of any joy in life, Ines decides to intervene, albeit in his own way: donning a ridiculous wig and false teeth, he poses as Toni Erdmann, a free-wheeling “life coach” who pushes his daughter into uncomfortable social situations as a means of cracking the ice that’s formed around her. What should play as schlocky and syrupy (which we may expect from the American remake, currently in some state of production with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig) is instead very funny, thanks largely to the fine-tuned performances by the leads, and writer-producer-director Maren Ade’s knack for finding genuine humor and emotion at the heart of some truly mortifying scenarios, not the least of which is a sort of clothing-optional mixer. Sony’s DVD includes commentary by Huller, Simonischek and producer Janine Jackowski, and an Q&A with the filmmakers at the AFI Fest.

Strange Cargo” (1940, Warner Archives Collection) Bizarre religious allegory by way of a prison drama, with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford (still pre-box office poison here) in their eighth screen pairing as a convict and lady of ill repute, respectively, who join a group of desperate types trying to escape a French penal colony. Among the fugitives is the saintly Cambreau (Ian Hunter – not the Mott the Hoople frontman), who tends to the wayward flock through good deeds and, on occasion, last rites as the jungle claims most of their number. The heavy-handed elements of Lawrence Hazard’s script are made palatable by snappy dialogue (“I know that routine – it starts out with a prayer and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other”), the chemistry between the leads and and broad-swinging performances from the supporting cast, including Peter Lorre in creep mode as Monsieur Pig, Paul Lukas as the group skeptic and Albert Dekker, who carries a torch for a boyish escapee (John Arledge). The combo of old-time religion and steam heat earned “Strange Cargo “condemnation from the Catholic Legion of Decency, but the new Warner Archives MOD DVD lets you watch it, guilt-free, anytime you like; the disc also features several extras, including the 1941 short “More About Nostradamus” (with Hans Conried as the Pope!), a featurette about Gable and Crawford’s off-screen romance, and the cartoon “Lonesome Stranger,” which depicts Mexicans in a manner that would surely win approval from Fox News. 

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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