Let us begin this inaugural tip sheet for home video omnivores with some recent Oscar winners and nominees on DVD and Bluray: David Fincher’s gorgeously gloomy U.S version of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (Sony), which netted an Academy nod for Rooney Mara’s outa-space take on novelist Stieg Larsson’s goth-danger-girl-cum-heroine Lisbeth Salander, among others (and won for Best Film Editing), arrives in both DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo format. Also from the dark side: Tomas Alfredson’s icy remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Focus), with Gary Oldman’s marvelously controlled and nominated turn as (seemingly) unassuming British Intelligence agent George Smiley,a performance that rests comfortably alongside Alec Guinness’ iconic turn in the ’70s TV productions. A winner in the bunch, both in terms of trophy and charm, is The Muppets (Disney), a charming revival-update of Jim Henson’s beloved primetime players by producer/star Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) that netted a Best Original Song Oscar for music supervisor Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. Shut out of this year’s race, but still worth your hard-earned time, is Carnage (Sony), Roman Polanski’s brittle take on Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning play God of Carnage, with Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as high-strung New Yorkers whose attempt to sort out a squabble between their children descends into ugly class warfare.
On the revival front: Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (Inception Media Group), a 1933 adaptation of Damon Runyon’s “Madame La Gimp” (which Capra) later remade as 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles) with May Robson in a terrific turn as a down-on-her-luck apple vendor at the center of an elaborate scam by good-hearted gangster Warren William. Slightly less warm-hearted is 1952’s The Steel Trap (Warner Archives), an oddball thriller/family picture with Joseph Cotten as a mild-mannered bank manager who plans to rob his branch and hightail it to Brazil. Wife Teresa Wright, who co-starred with Cotten in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, gives the plan the gasface, which forces Cotten to break back into the bank and replace the cash.
It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Kinji Fukusaku’s berserk Battle Royale (Anchor Bay) returns to DVD and Blu-ray the same week that The Hunger Games descends upon movie theaters. Both share the same central conceit – young adults are forced to compete in a death match by a dystopian government – though Fukusaku’s film, which saw release eight years before Suzanne Collins’ series debuted in 2008, is a decidedly meaner, gorier affair, shot through with oddly endearing moments of coal-black humor. Viewers can choose between a single-disc edition and a four-disc Complete Collection that offers the director’s cut, the 2003 sequel, and a staggering amount of extras.
Violence of a different kind is at the heart of Letter Never Sent (Criterion), a rarely seen Russian drama about a quartet of Soviet geologists on a search for diamonds that turns into a fight for their own survival. The 1959 feature hews closer to a Herzog take on high adventure than a standard-issue action piece, as the back story of the geologists, as well as their own interactions and motivations, are as important as its final battle against an unforgiving Siberian wilderness. Criterion is also serving up a Blu-ray edition of The War Room (1993), a riveting, Oscar-nominated documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop) about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, which made media stars of advisors James Carville and George Stephanopolous.
Also on deck from the documentary department: Women Art Revolution (Zeitgeist), a history of feminist art featuring interviews with Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, the Guerilla Girls and many others, as well as a score by Carrie Brownstein; Louder Than a Bomb (Virgil), which follows a quartet of Chicago high school poetry teams as they compete at the world’s largest youth slam; One Lucky Elephant (Virgil), a bittersweet portrait of animal-human relationships as viewed through the bond between a circus performer and the elephant he must return to its own kind; and General Orders No. 9 (Passion River), a surreal and ultimately moving look at the changes wrought by progress in the Deep South, which comes across as a blend of nature preserve and fairy tale realm.
And while we’re on the subject of otherworldliness, the life and work of visionary UK pop producer Joe Meek gets the biopic treatment with Telstar (Inception), a 2009 film adaptation of James Hicks’ play, with Con O’Neill as the tortured Meek, Kevin Spacey as his manager, Major Banks, and a parade of ’60s UK talent, from Screaming Lord Sutch (played by the Darkness’ Justin Hawkins) to hapless Tornadoes frontman Heinz Burt (JJ Feild). It makes a swell double bill with Gainsbourg (Music Box), a wonderfully offbeat account of France’s beloved singer/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg from his childhood struggles with self-loathing (brought to horrible life by Doug Jones as a monstrous living caricature of anti-Semitism) to his tumultous relationships with Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Jones), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and France Gall (Sara Forestier).
Creature (Arc) generated a lot of pre-release press for its “old-school” horror vibe, which essentially translated into lots of ’80s-style gore and skin draped over a well-worn monster-in-the-swamp storyline. It tanked in the teaters, and DVD doesn’t exactly spitshine its numerous faults, but it’s always nice to see cult movie hero Sid Haig and character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince get some screen time.
You might be better served by A Lonely Place to Die (MPI), a fairly gripping UK thriller about a group of mountaineers (led by Melissa George) pursued by kidnappers after they rescue a young Croatian girl held captive in the Scottish Highlands. The end takes a turn towards Wicker Man territory that doesn’t quite work, but the first half of the picture is rife with suspense. Or you could go the retro route with Puppet on a Chain (Scorpion), a heady chunk of Bond-esque intrigue with Swedish singer/actor Sven Bertil Taube (the 2009 Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as a European agent on the trail of drug smugglers. There’s a terrific action set piece with speedboats through the canals of Amsterdam and a groove-heavy score by Piero Picconi (The 10th Victim).
For those required more deranged fare, look no further than 1977’s The Dragon Lives Again (CFS Releasing), which pits the recently deceased Bruce Lee against a horde of ’60s and ’70s pop culture icons, including James Bond, the Man with No Name, The Exorcist and Dracula, all of whom have designs on taking over control of the Underworld (as in Hell). It’s truly the loopiest of all “Brucesploitation” films, a subgenre not known for its subtlety or coherence. CFS also has Funeral Home (1980), a Canadian-made staple of public domain releases about killings at a former mortuary turned bed-and-breakfast (!). Neither, however, can hold a candle to Mac and Me (1988), a shameless E.T. knockoff highlighted by blatant product placement for Coke, Skittles and McDonald’s, including a long musical number featuring Ronald McD himself. It’s paired with the dreary Aliens in the Attic and Robots on a single-disc triple bill from Fox.
Oh, there’s also a long-overdue release of Roadracers (Echo Bridge), a 1994 cable effort from Robert Rodriguez which aired on Showtime as part of their Rebel Highway series, which remade ’50s-era B-pictures. It’s a trifle, at best, but features early screen appearances by Salma Hayek and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and a soundtrack filled with the likes of Link Wray, Hasil Adkins and Glen Glenn.
Shout! Factory has a pair of swell TV releases up for grabs this week. First is the second season of The Adventures of Tintin, a French-Canadian animated adaptation of Herge’s much-loved comics series that aired here in the States on HBO in the early ’90s. The show adheres closely to the old-fashioned charms of the original publications, including its serial-style thrills, which were all but bulldozed over by the recent big-screen feature version.
Like most ’70s TV shows, the cop drama Kojak bears a patina of camp, which is completely unwarranted: the award-winning series, which ran from 1973-1978, was a gritty police procedural buffeted by Telly Savalas’ showy (but not overdone) turn as tough, flamboyant New York lieutenant Theo Kojak. SF releases the series’ third season this week, which features the show’s signature blend of unsentimental, often downbeat stories and quality guest stars, including Jennifer Warnes and a pre-fame Sylvester Stallone as a trigger-happy cop.
However, a show truly deserving the camp label (among other descriptive phrases) is My Living Doll (MPI), an astonishing 1964 “sitcom” with the ever-whitebread Bob Cummings as a government psychiatrist who is given the task of training a robot (Julie Newmar) on how to act human. Cummings schools the zaftig fembot on the finer points of domestic servitude while fending off his horny neighbor (Jack Mullaney). For those who view the current crop of TV as a vast wasteland, I offer My Living Doll as Contrary Exhibit A.