Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray or Blu-ray only releases are italicized and in bold font.
Perhaps the least sexy movie ever made about sex, Shame (Fox) is a glossy but frequently gripping story of a sex addict’s circle of hell – obsession, pursuit, gratification, emptiness – driven by Michael Fassbender’s fearless turn as a man in the grip of his unquenchable desires, and Carey Mulligan as his deeply damaged sister, who struggles with her own catalog of issues. Co-written and directed by UK filmmaker Alexander McQueen, whose previous collaboration with Fassbender was the equally grueling Hunger, this is a picture for which the descriptive term “challenging” was made – much of the action focuses on Fassbender’s silent, desperately lonely consumption of pornography and anonymous sex in vast amounts, which grow more reckless as the film wears on. It’s definitely not a casual watch, but for both the timeliness of the subject matter and the performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, the descent into darkness provides as honest a portrait of the human condition under extreme pressures as you’re likely to see on film.
The characters in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) also labor under intense pressures, but in a more formal and subtle manner, which makes the strain all the more personal and painful. At once a story of a relationship put to the test by familial expectations and a finely etched portrait of the clash between outdated ideals in a new, more complex society, the film concerns a professor (Chishu Ryu) and his faithful daughter whose close, largely unspoken bond is torn apart by pressure to marry her off before she enters her late ’20s and, it is more than implied, loses her worth. The father’s attempt to soften the blow for his daughter only leads to more emotional wounds, with all parties taking on shrapnel from their explosive decisions. Ozu’s trademark still-life compositional style, with figures moving in and out of a seemingly frozen frame, presents a portrait of tremendous emotional upheaval under the placid exterior of a household bound – or trapped – by tradition. The Blu-ray includes Tokyo-ga, director Wim Wenders’ 1985 documentary about Ozu’s life and career.
Criterion also has Alambrista! (1977), director Robert M. Young’s verite-style account of the life awaiting many Mexican immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally for work. Told without the heavy-handedness and moralizing that often accompany films on this subject, this is a quietly powerful docudrama about the grim realities of farm life in the States for these workers, and the events that spur them to undertake such a grueling odyssey. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Young as well as an interview with actor Edward James Olmos, whom he directed in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.
On the documentary front, First Run Features has a terrific batch of feature-length efforts on deck this week, all character profiles of figures both at the forefront and in the shadowy background of war and politics. The Hitler Chronicles is a four-disc set of docs that avoids the Discovery Channel/World at War route by focusing on the personal and emotional factors involved in the rise of the Third Reich; of the four films, Dear Uncle Adolf is perhaps the most affecting in its presentation of what were essentially fan letters to Hitler from the German people. Their declarations of fealty and even love have a cumulatively chilling effect in their unwavering dedication to his cult of personality. Also available is The Man Nobody Knew, a fascinating account of William Colby, whose tenure as a spymaster for the CIA stretched from World War II to Vietnam, by his son, Charles Colby, who attempts to make sense of his father’s storied career and how it came crashing down amidst the Watergate scandal. An equally complex account of a life in espionage can be found in Garbo: The Spy, which concerns Juan Pujol, whose outrage over the fascist involvement in the Spanish Civil War led to an incredible career as a double agent in World War II, where his ability to juggle multiple personas led in part to the success of the D-Day invasion.
Elsewhere, you have your choice of Cook County (Hannover House), with a deeply damaged Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) driving a wedge between his brother, ex-con Xander Berkeley, and his nephew, while running a Texas meth lab with a iron fist, or Domain (Strand), with a deeply damaged Beatrice Dalle as an mathematician whose self-destructive tendencies stir protective feelings (as well as more base urges) in her impressionable nephew. Dennis Farina is not so much damaged as worn down in The Last Rites of Joe May (New Video), a ’70s-style character portrait of a small-time Chicago hood facing age and obsolescence after an extended stay in the hospital leaves him rootless. Farina, a great character actor way back in the early ’80s, has only gotten better with the passing years, and his graying but still flinty persona has lent a gravitas to his work that buoys the picture’s somewhat lightweight drama.
There’s a lot of ground to cover this week at the Revival House, so hang on to your hats: first and foremost is Allison Anders’ fine indie drama Gas Food Lodging (1992), with Brooke Adams as a mom raising daughters Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk in a trailer park. Anders neatly sidesteps all the cliches associated with its location to focus on the complex relationship between daughters and mothers, as well as both girls’ flirtations with love and independence. It’s odd to see this receiving the MOD treatment through Sony rather than the deluxe treatment it deserves, but it’s at least available and not consigned to the OOP heap. Dinosaur Jr. fans should take note, as J. Mascis provided the soundtrack as well as a hilariously addled cameo. Also from Sony, and equally long out of the loop: Chapter Two (Sony MOD), Neil Simon’s frothy romantic comedy about the tentative steps taken by a widower (James Caan) and a divorcee (Marsha Mason) towards newfound happiness and love. Both leads handle the Simon repartee with style, and there’s a fine supporting cast led by Valerie Harper and Joseph Bologna as skeptical sidekicks.
Slightly less sunny is The Sky’s the Limit (Warner Archives), a surprisingly dark comedy-musical starring Fred Astaire as a flying ace worn down by hero worship who disguises himself as a civilian for a furlough in NYC; there, he meets photographer Joan Leslie, who disparages Fred for his apparent lack of commitment to the war effort – irony of ironies! Astaire not only shines in a more complex role than what was usually offered to him, but also choreographed the dance numbers, which include one of the finest of his career, a tormented solo tear through “One For My Baby.” There’s also a swell musical score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and comic relief from the great Robert Benchley.
More grit, you say? Try out The Doorway to Hell (Warner Archives), a Pre-Code gangster drama featuring a rare bad-guy turn for Lew Ayres as a crime lord who turns over the business to his second in command (James Cagney, in his second film appearance), only to be forced back into action when rivals kidnap his kid brother. Or there’s Tales of the Big House (Alpha), a quartet of prison stories culled from Four Star Playhouse, an innovative ’50s TV anthology produced by and frequently starring David Niven, Charles Boyer and Dick Powell. Niven turns up in three episodes opposite Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Jan Sterling, among others, while Boyer is top-billed in an episode directed by Robert Florey (The Cocoanuts, Murders in the Rue Morgue). Alpha also has Lost Detective Classics from the Vault, a mixed-bag foursome that includes an episode of the 1952 spy series The Hunter and a black-cast mystery spoof called The Private Eye directed by Erle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls).
The curious 1972 UK horror film The Asphyx has gained a small but loyal following over the past few decades that hinges on its novel premise: Victorian-era scientist Robert Stephens discovers, through his morbid hobby of photographing the terminally ill, that an entity is released from a person’s body at the time of their death. Believing that by capturing the spirit, a mythological being called an asphyx, he can ensure his own immortality, Stephens subjects himself and his family to a series of near-death experiments in order to lure out their respective asphyxes (asphyxi?). Naturally, these do not go according to plan. Released at an awkward juncture in horror history, when the glossy Gothic thrills of England’s Hammer Films were being supplanted by more graphic American fare like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Asphyx attempts to satisfy both camps through its blend of modest grue and costume drama skullduggery, but director Peter Newbrook’s wonky execution, and the decidedly Muppet-like appearance of the Asphyx itself, undo whatever promise the picture initially held. As it stands, the support for the film seems to be for what might have been, not for what ultimately ended up on the screen. For those curious to see how this three-legged dog jumps, Redemption USA’s Blu-ray includes the theatrical cut and an extended version, as well as a trailer and a smattering of promotional photos.
Speaking of Hammer, Sony’s Choice Collection is offering their pungently-titled 1965 thriller Die! Die! My Darling! (cue Misfits fans), which pits Stefanie Powers against the industrial-strength lunacy of her dead fiance’s mother, religious fanatic Tallulah Bankhead. It’s an entirely agreeable carbon of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte and other geriatric horrors, fueled largely by Ms. Bankhead’s histrionic turn, which bulldozes right over the furthest boundaries of camp while still managing to be somewhat unsettling. Oh, and that’s a young Donald Sutherland as the most oafish member of Tallulah’s crackpot household.
You might not know it, but Miramax Echo Bridge is rolling out a Blu-ray edition of Jackie Chan’s 1991 action epic Armour of God II: Operation Condor under its Stateside title, Operation Condor II: The Armour of God (why? Just to confuse you). It’s a no-frills release, but there’s no need for extras when the film is loaded with some of Chan’s best action set pieces, including an incredible, gravity-defying bit inside a massive ventilation fan.
For those wondering while TV writers and fans are still talking about Ernie Kovacs more than a half-century after his death, The ABC Specials (Shout Factory) provides some of the pioneering television comic’s most imaginative exercises in small-screen surrealism in the form of eight half-hour specials produced for ABC a year before his death in 1961. The specials, which were also featured in SF’s massive Ernie Kovacs Collection in 2011, follow no pre-ordained format aside from whatever floated through Kovacs’ imagination during their creation – the subject matter flows freely from visual non-sequiters to silent pastiches with Kovacs’ Everyman, Eugene, contending with a world set apart from the laws of physics and even common sense. The specials also provide a glimpse of the furthest borders of Kovacs’ talents, which lay far beyond his anarchic stage presence; a striking silent piece, timed perfectly to music, follows a group of men and women preparing for an evening out before evolving into a melancholy tone poem on heartbreak. At the time of their release, Kovacs’ ABC Specials were unlikely anything on television, and fifty-plus years later, they remain largely unmatched, save for the best moments of Letterman/Conan, Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall and Tim & Eric – all of whom owe much of their skewed world views to Ernie.
Otherwise, there’s Treme: The Complete Second Season (HBO Studios) – I’m still not competely sold on this series set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but my admiration for its lead actor, Wendell Pierce, and producer/creators David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, all prior participants in The Wire, and its superior musical guests (among the artists appearing this season are Galactic, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, John Hiatt and Shawn Colvin), warrants its mention here. PBS enthusiasts can stock up on new Blu-ray two-fers of the popular UK TV period adventure series Sharpe (BFS Entertainment) starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) as the eponymous soldier-cum-professional loose cannon, and a host of British stars in mutton chops and corsets, including Paul Bettany, Brian Cox, Daniel Craig, Elizabeth Hurley and the late Pete Postlethwaite. Or they can take the educational route with Frozen Planet (BBC Warner), a visually extraordinary documentary about the life and changing times of the Arctic and Antarctic. The series’ seventh episode, which concerned climate change, generated much mishegas on both sides of the global warming argument in the press. It’s included on the DVD and Blu-ray, but Alec Baldwin’s narration for the Discovery Channel broadcast has been replaced by the original commentary from the BBC version by naturalist David Attenborough. I can’t imagine that will pose any issue, but you never know.