Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray or Blu-ray only titles are listed in italics and in bold font.
The screen is dark this week at the Multiplex, although you certainly have the option to check out the over-caffeinated Mark Wahlberg thriller Contraband (Universal). Or, you could do something useful with that 90+ minutes. Like clean your house. Or call your mom. Pet the dog. I leave the choice to you.
Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011) came and went from theaters in late December of 2011, which was a shame, since the indie feature about a African-American girl (Adepero Oduye) struggling to balance her sexual identity with her parents’ expectations surpassed superficial comparisons with Precious (it thankfully lacks that film’s histrionics) to deliver a smart, honest and original portrait of a teenaged life that rarely earns screen time. Hopefully, it will earn a second life on DVD and Blu-ray, though the relative lack of extras on both are a bit of a disappointment.
Another coming-of-age story left largely unexamined by the movies comes from The Time That Remains (IFC), which examines the pain and turmoil of a half-century of Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the prism of writer-director Elia Suleiman’s life and family. Told in vignette style and with flashes of Suleiman’s trademark deadpan comic tone (his immobile, hangdog visage draws favorable comparison to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati), the film stitches together a portrait of lives locked into a conflict that seems both inescapable and incomprehensible, leaving only flecks of beauty and freedom – a desert grove, an ice cream cone in the middle of the night – to draw some semblance of a life. Suleiman occasionally betrays a heavy metaphoric hand, but The Time That Remains is a worthy third part to his unofficial movie trilogy, which includes Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention.
Return (Entertainment One) was seen mostly through digital platforms like VOD prior to its DVD release (though it was the sole American entry in the 2011 Director’s Fortnight at Cannes), which most likely saved this small but solid film from complete oblivion. Like Pariah, it focuses on a topic largely ignored by most major-league media: women soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who struggle to re-enter society like their male counterparts. Linda Cardellini is exceptionally good as the reservist who wants to immerse herself in her old life, but finds that the world in her small town, and the people that populate it (including husband Michael Shannon), have moved on without her. The performances, all finely calibrated, are what drive the film, and Cardellini is well abetted by Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) and John Slattery (Mad Men) as a Vietnam vet who offers her some solace. Cardellini’s underrated turn is echoed in a pair of solid performances by Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Brown Findlay and Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) in Albatross (MPI), a UK drama which pits wild child Findlay against Jones’ novelist in training with designs on escaping her stifling home. You’ve seen this story before, but the two leads, along with Julia Ormond as Jones’ mother, enliven the well-traveled coming-of-age plotline.
The week’s other arthouse entries include a slate of Criterion releases, including the Oscar-nominated The Organizer (1963), which reunites Big Deal at Madonna Street director Mario Monicelli with that film’s star, Marcello Mastroianni, who ditches his loverman looks to play a rumpled professor who inspires striking factory workers to unite. Criterion also has A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, which compiles many of the poet-turned-avant-garde-filmmaker’s most striking experimental films, and the multi-disc set Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave, a collection of ’60s-era arthouse surrealism by Jan Nemec, Jiri (Closely Watched Trains) Menzel and Jaromil Jires, as well as the five-part anthology film Pearls of the Deep (1966), which serves as a primer for their politically charged work.
And on the other side of the arthouse aisle, you’ll find Let the Bullets Fly (Well Go USA), reportedly the highest grossing Chinese film to date; the period period action piece with Chow Yun-Fat as an opium lord whose iron rule is opposed by con man Ge You and writer/director Jiang Wen’s bandit chief, is outrageously violent and festooned with excessive, giddy style. It’s also funny as hell and absolutely worth your time, especially if you favor Chinese action. Even more berserk, if that’s possible, is the Shogun Assassin: 5 Film Collector’s Set (Animego), which some of you might know as the gore-soaked Lone W0lf and Cub (or Baby Cart in the River Styx) series about a rogue samurai and his infant son traversing the feudal Japanese landscape righting various wrongs with the help of the child’s cart-cum-rolling death machine. The first two films in the series were stitched together to form Shogun Assassin, a 42nd Street favorite in the early ’80s; this set features the English-dubbed versions of all five films, so purists, take note.
And if you’re still craving some mind-altering arthouse, there’s 1968’s Girl on a Motorcycle (Redemption), which pits a leather-clad Marianne Faithfull against Alain Delon’s icy Gallic charms. In addition to its comely stars, it also features gorgeous European scenery and scads of vintage VWs and Audis for the motorhead crowd. Or you can try on Of Dolls and Murder (Seminal Films), a genuinely creepy/cracked documentary about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dollhouse-sized dioramas of violent crime scenes constructed in the 1940s to aid police investigators. The crime scenes, which later inspired a particularly weird-o story arc on CSI, are intricately constructed down to the smallest detail, and also quite bizarre, focusing on grisly murders in often tawdry surroundings. John Waters narrates the whole thing, lending an even deeper level of surrealism to this rub-your-eyes-you-won’t-believe-it project. It makes a swell, head-spinning double bill with The Story of Rock N Roll Comics (Wild Eye Releasing), which looks at the brazenly unauthorized comic book bio series produced by Todd Loren and Revolutionary Comics. Loren’s comics took extreme liberties in telling the stories of Guns N’ Roses, KISS, Pearl Jam and others; some, like Mojo Nixon (who appears in the film), found it hilarious, while others (Axl, natch, but also New Kids on the Block) took Loren to court. The doc tries to balance the idea of Loren as a First Amendment patriot while offering up stories of his underhanded dealings with his artists, which is a tricky juggling act, but at least offers a more complex view of Loren and his world, which came to an unpleasant end in 1992. It works best as a glimpse into the seedier, less publicized side of comics publishing and the life of one of its most brazen participants.
Badge 373 (Olive Films) always seems to get lost in the shuffle when great ’70s cop movies are discussed; most likely, that’s because the film, starring Robert Duvall as a hard-nosed cop based on Eddie Egan, the man behind the case that inspired The French Connection, has been hard to find in recent years. Olive Films has righted that wrong with this DVD/Blu-ray release, which pretties up the image but can’t quite clear away the grime behind Duvall’s bitter, dogged quest to find his partner’s killer amidst the New York narcotics underground. Journalism legend Pete Hamill penned the script, and that’s the real Eddie Egan as Duvall’s superior. Hard-boiled to perfection.
Also heavy on the grit: Sidney J. Furie’s Hit! (Olive), with Billy Dee Williams losing his trademark cool after his daughter’s drug-related death and forming a death squad with Richard Pryor and other victims of the heroin trade, which bring heavy firepower to the cartel in France. It’s pulpy stuff, but well-handled by Furie and his cast. You can also spend some quality time with gridiron great turned actor Jim Brown in four of his lesser-known films, all from Warner Archives. 1968’s …tick…tick…tick… features Brown as the newly elected black sheriff of a small Southern town, determined to do right in the face of long-simmering bigotry, while The Split (1968) – the first feature film to receive an R rating – casts Brown as Donald Westlake’s ruthless criminal Parker (here called McClain), who rips off the L.A. Coliseum during a Rams game and incurs the wrath of vengeful cop Gene Hackman. The supporting cast, featuring Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, James Whitmore and Jack Klugman, is a character actor fan’s dream come true. Brown’s behind bars in 1973’s The Slams as a career criminal whose key to freedom is the location of a million-dollar stash he hid before serving his time. The most obscure of the quartet is probably Kenner (1969), with Brown in India and on the hunt for his partner’s killer. There’s a romantic subplot with Madlyn Rhue (which generates one of the screen’s first interracial love scenes), which for some viewers will gum up the action works, but the location setting is suitably gorgeous.
More vintage fare can be found in VCI’s I Was a Spy (1933), an early British talkie with Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps) as a Belgian spy for the Allies working in a German hospital during World War I, and Conrad Veidt as the commandant who falls for her. A Who’s Who of UK talent populates the supporting cast, including Martita Hunt, Nigel Bruce and Herbert Marshall as Carroll’s partner in espionage. Warner Archives has 1940’s Grand Central Murder, with Van Heflin as a wiseacre private eye on the case of a showgirl murdered in a private railway car at Grand Central Station, while HD Cinema Classics offers a DVD/Blu-ray combo of The Red House (1947), a terrifically morbid noir with Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson as siblings who keep some very deep, dark secrets from their adopted charge (Allene Roberts). Robinson’s performance – a 360-degree turn away from his usual streetwise screen persona – and some memorably alarming images that seem culled from horror pictures of the period.
Ghost stories have tipped perilously towards the over-saturated state of the vampire move in recent years, thanks in no small part towards filmmakers who saw the seemingly simple scare machinery of the Paranormal Activity franchise and thought, “Hell, that’s all it takes?” Thankfully, there remains a few standout efforts, including The Woman in Black and Eclipse, as well as Ti West’s The Innkeepers (Dark Sky), an exceptionally creepy exercise in atmosphere and suspense with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy as a pair of bored twenty-somethings who attempt to prove that the Victorian Connecticut inn at which they work lives up to its status as a haunted location. With cameras and recording devices in hand, they set out to record some ghostly sights and sounds, and end up with much more than they expected. As with West’s previous film, the exceptionally clever House of the Devil, pacing and mood carry greater freight than big, house-rocking “jump” scares, but that’s not to say that The Innkeepers doesn’t have its share of shocks; rather, it produces a sustained mood of anticipatory disquiet that pays off mightily once West’s spooks make their appearances. Stylish without being showy, and featuring fine supporting turns by Kelly McGillis and Lena (Girls) Dunham, The Innkeepers underscores West’s status as one of the horror scene’s most independent-minded filmmakers.
That The Wicker Tree (Anchor Bay) suffers in comparison to its predecessor, The Wicker Man is no surprise – the 1973 feature (not that 2006 remake – Jesus, no) remains a high-water mark in horror films, beloved by critics and genre fans alike for its fiendishly clever subversion of genre tropes (thanks to screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) in its terminal clash between rigid Christianity and rural paganism. Surpassing that film’s impact seemed both foolish and impossible, but director Robin Hardy, who also helmed Wicker Man, attempts to sidestep any pitfalls by essentially follows the same through-line with Wicker Tree, dispatching a pair of smug n evangelicals to the Scottish countryside in an attempt to sway the locals to their faith. Their fate also echoes that of Edward Woodward’s policeman in the original, but the path to that end is so unfocused and scattershot in both tone and execution that the payoff is really not worth the journey. Christopher Lee, who starred in the ’73 Wicker Man, turns up briefly to lend a much-needed note of sinister old-world class.
Elsewhere, you have your choice of two great whacking slabs of ’70s Eurosleaze in Killer Nun (Blue Underground), with Anita Ekberg as a homicidal, drug-addicted Mother Superior, or The Cats (Warner Archive), with Rita Hayworth in her final role as the boozy mother of quarreling criminal siblings Klaus Kinski and Giuliano Gemma. Warner Archives also has Hate for Hate, a solid 1967 spaghetti Western with ex-pat John Ireland as an aging outlaw on the trail of the partner who double-crossed him with the help of Antonio Sabato (not the oleaginous soap opera/Lifetime Channel staple, but his more talented dad). There’s also The Theater Bizarre (Image), a new-fangled take on horror anthologies, with segments helmed by some very talented genre directors, includy Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), Richard Stanley (Hardware), Jeremy Kasten (the Wizard of Gore remake) and special effects maven Tom Savini, and The Hellcats (Cheezy Flicks), a camp-heavy biker movie about a gang where the mamas call the shots. Elvis pal Sonny West plays one of the cycle freaks.
Oh, and there’s also a ton of old-school kung fu on the shelves this week. Arc Entertainment’s Dragon Dynasty line has two double feature titles, including the Shaw Brothers classics Avenging Eagle, with Ti Lung and Alexander Fu Sheng, and Blood Brothers, by Five Deadly Venoms director Cheh Chang. The highly influential Chang also helmed Golden Swallow on Dragon Dynasty Double Feature 2; it’s the sequel to his great Come Drink With Me and features that film’s star, Pei-pei Cheng, along with the King Boxer himself, Lo Lieh and the great Jimmy Wang Yu. It’s paired with 1976’s Killer Clans, a lesser effort that was later remade as Butterfly and Sword (1993). Meanwhile, Well Go USA’s Sword Masters series has Cheh Chang’s 1971 feature Duel of Fists, with Ti Lung and some astonishing ’70s fashions, and Swordsman and Enchantress, a kitchen-sink period piece hinging on a romantic triangle between Ti Lung and Liu Yung over Yung’s wife. Guess how that gets settled.
Cinema Verite (HBO) recalls one of the most watched television events of the 1970s: the PBS documentary An American Family, which covered the lives of the Louds, a “typical” suburban, middle class unit that came unglued in front of the cameras that covered their every move. The picture occasionally plays fast and loose with the facts – the suggestions of a romance between producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) and Pat Loud (Diane Lane) are specious, at best – but the cast carries the piece, which includes Tim Robbins as Bill Loud and Thomas Dekker as future Mumps player Lance Loud, over any rough terrain.
The success of the recent feature version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman has naturally prompted a new Blu-ray release of the 1979 TV version with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, which remains one of the best espionage stories, if not one of the best miniseries ever made for television. The Blu-ray beefs up the extras from the earlier DVD release by adding an interview with director John Irvin and deleted scenes, along with the previously issued conversation with John Le Carre, who penned the novel on which the series was based.
Elsewhere, there’s Season 2 of Car 54, Where Are You? (Shanachie), still one of the funniest and most irreverent sitcoms of the 1960s, with vaudeville comic Joe E. Ross and the great Fred Gwynne as mismatched cops on the New York beat. An amazing collection of character players and TV staples people the episodes, including series regulars Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell and Charlotte Rae, as well as guest turns by Larry Storch, Margaret Hamilton, Jack Gilford and Jake (Raging Bull) La Motta! Or you can keep it post-modern with two fine Comedy Central specials – Patton Oswalt’s Finest Hour and Paul F. Tompkins’ Laboring Under Delusions. Both transcend the bounds of standard-issue stand-up with intelligent humor that skirts the edges of commentary.