Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray or Blu-ray/DVD combo releases are listed in italics and bold font.
Loathing for Silent House (Universal) reached China Syndrome status upon its brief release in September 2011, which, I think, had more to do with moviegoers’ and critics’ desire for a more concrete, by-the-books horror film than one that hinged on suggestion and sound design and a technical conceit (the story appears to unfold in unbroken real-time blocks). As it stands, the film, a remake of 2010’s La Casa Muda, from Uruguay, works exceptionally well as a scare machine, with indie star Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) in semi-heart attack mode as a young woman trapped in her family’s crumbling and definitely creepy lakeside home, though there’s little to the picture beyond its constant state of build-up and shock, and the payoff may leave some viewers in a high state of aggravated “Whaaaa?” Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who helmed the equally unsettling Open Water, discuss the film’s technical conceits in considerable detail on the Blu-ray’s commentary track, which is also its sole extra.
The elegant and oddly moving Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Magnolia) is a lovely little meditation on the pursuit of excellence as viewed through the prism of 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono who works tirelessly at perfecting his craft while overseeing a tiny 10-seat restaurant that, despite its size and odd location (a Tokyo subway station) has earned a reputation as one of the finest dining experiences in the country, if not the world. Said status is due entirely to Jiro Ono’s drive to impart a sense of omami, the purest satisfaction derived from food, to his customers, which is nothing short of intensive and all-encompassing, but his gentle musings on food and his particular art are fueled entirely by a genuine love for his work. That level of affection is shot through scenes of Jiro and his staff creating sushi, which director David Gelb shoots in long, languorous close-ups over gentle orchestral music. The effect is both fascinating and appetite-inducing, so be prepared to dine soon after (or during) viewing – and may we recommend Sugarfish, overseen by the equally obsessed and legendary sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa?
Obsession is also at the heart of The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box), Terence Davies’ sad, stately adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play about a young wife (Rachel Weisz) who flees the material comfort of her staid marriage to a much older judge (Simon Russell Beale) for the physical pleasures of a fling with an ex-pilot (Tom Hiddleston of The Avengers) who feels nothing for her. Weisz’s performance is the key reason to see the film – it’s impressive emotional high wire work in an unsympathetic role that nevertheless draws in the viewer due to the obvious pitfalls that lay in her path, and which she steps into with a mix of breathless desire and despair.
There is also an obsession of sorts at the hearts of Institute Benjamenta, the first feature length live action film by animation legends the Quay Brothers, who oversaw this new restored transfer for Zeitgeist Films. Like all of the Quays’ work, the film is odd and often alienating, but nevertheless fascinating in its construction of a bizarre and darkly beautiful world that draws inspiration from German Expressionism, the more macabre elements of classic fairy tales and the Quays’ own interest in antique ephemera. The plot orbits a subcutaneous triangle between Mark Rylance’s aspiring butler and Alice Krige and Gottfried John as a brother-sister team who operate a school for servants, but really, Institute exists as a longform canvas for the Quays to exercise their visual slight of hand, which retains its quiet power to attract and repeal in equal amounts.
Also on deck: Clockwork Orange County (Celebrity Home Entertainment), which details the history of Costa Mesa’s Cuckoo’s Nest club, which hosted shows by the likes of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Adolescents and countless others during the late ’70s and early ’80s before its demise at the hands of angry neighbors and city officials. Interviews with key players, including Henry Rollins, Dez Cadena, Jello Biafra and Rick Agnew, as well as a wealth of live clips from the Cuckoo’s Nest, highlight this under-the-radar documentary. And The Monitor (Lionsgate), the unfortunate English-language title for the 2011 Norwegian thriller Babycall, is a briskly paced effort – sometimes too much so – fueled largely by current European It actress Noomi Rapace’s committed turn as an abused mother whose protective instincts towards her son veer towards paranoia when her child monitor begins picking up what sounds like a murder in her apartment building.
The underwhelming response to director Whit Stillman’s recent Damsels in Distress most likely had indie film aficionados looking back at the early, celebrated titles in his c.v., two of which arrive on DVD in Blu-ray editions from Criterion. 1990’s Metropolitan and 1998’s Last Days of Disco are hallmarks of the director’s unique touch in regard to the rituals of East Coast upper-middle-class youth, whose references to high culture and upward social mobility are a well-manicured mask for their basic yearnings for love and acceptance. Metropolitan introduced audiences to Stillman’s early stars, Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, who serve as twin poles of influence to decidedly middle-class Edward Clements’ awkward expedition into the world of young Manhattan socialites in a mythical semi-1970s setting; Eigeman essentially reprises his role in Disco, which moves the action to the early 1980s for a series of nightlife adventures involving literary agency assistants Chloe Sevigny and an awesomely unpleasant Kate Beckinsale. The Blu-rays import the excellent supplemental features from Criterion’s previous DVD releases, including commentaries featuring Whitman and his cast, deleted scenes, outtakes and alternate casting clips (Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman turns up in Metropolitan), essays by Luc Sante and David Schickler and Stillman reading from his 2000 sort-of novelization of Disco.
Meanwhile, Kino has They Made Me a Criminal (1947), a British noir with Trevor Howard as a former RAF flier who becomes embroiled with a brutal contraband smuggler (Griffith Jones). The subject of smuggling during postwar rationing was a hot topic for the British press, which called for tighter censorship in the wake of this film and others of the period, including Brighton Rock; one can understand the uproar, given the film’s surprising degree of violence and seamy atmosphere, which is the key to its appeal for modern audiences. More budget-minded viewers might give the once-over to four new 50-movie DVD packs from Mill Creek Entertainment, each devoted to public domain titles bundled under cutesy titles: The Fabulous Forties, Nifty Fifties, Sensational Sixties and Swinging Seventies. Based on the pictures featured in each set, one might think that the world film output from these decades was comprised entirely of monster movies (The Manster, Toho’s The Magic Serpent), redubbed imports (Mr. Scarface) and made-for-TV features (Congratulations, It’s a Boy! with swinging bachelor Bill Bixby suddenly saddled with a son), but the sets balance the lowbrow with more mainstream fare (The Man with the Golden Arm, the original D.O.A., Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist). For camp/cult fans, the sets are a treasure trove of tripe, and priced below $20, which smoothes over the occasionally spotty picture quality on certain titles.
There is little I can add to the tidal wave of ink spilled over John Frankenheimer’s disaster-plagued 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau (Warner), which returns to the video fold in a Blu-ray edition of the unrated director’s cut. The film features an awesomely bizarre performance by Marlon Brando in the title role that tips an already woozy take on the H.G. Wells novel into deeply surreal territory (abetted by his on-screen partner, the speck-sized Nelson de la Rosa, whose presence later inspired both Mini-Me and Dr. Alphone Mephisto’s sidekick Kevin on South Park); having said that, the film has its moments, most notably David Thewlis, who struggles mightily to keep the picture grounded in something like reality as the shipwrecked visitor to Moreau’s island, and Val Kilmer’s much-derided but self-amused turn as Moreau’s gone-native assistant. The film has enjoyed a second life as something of a cautionary tale about movies gone completely out of control, with original director Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Hardware) getting the boot and then reportedly sneaking back onto the set dressed as one of Moreau’s manimals, while replacement director John Frankenheimer, Brando and Kilmer battled openly between and during takes. That the picture was even completed, much less in its out-to-lunch state, is something of a miracle; WB’s Blu-ray attempts to throw a shovelful of dirt over the whole thing by removing Frankenheimer’s caustic commentary, which repeatedly threw Kilmer under the bus for his discretion, but retained a forgettable five-minute making-of featurette with Kilmer, Thewlis and special effects designer Stan Winston in talking-head interviews.
The big TV release this week is, of course, Games of Thrones: The Complete First Season (HBO), which arrives in a massive five-disc set, but you know me: I always want to give a little nod to the dark horse candidates. So I’ll instead direct you to Boss: Season 1 (Lionsgate), which trades on the same “hey, we’re on cable” tropes as Game of Thrones with its freewheeling excess of violence and nudity, but remains anchored and watchable thanks to Kelsey Grammer’s turn as a Chicago mayor who turns the news of his impending demise into a full pass to exert a vise-like control on his city and enemies. It’s an exceptional turn, fueled by the same self-loathing and inflated sense of self as Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, and an exceptional showcase for Grammer’s lesser-known dramatic talents. Those seeking something lighter are directed to Childrens Hospital: The Complete Third Season (Warner), a very funny spoof of medical dramas with a terrific ensemble cast led by series creator Rob Corddry and featuring Ken Marino (whose Party Down co-stars reunite for an episode included here), Malin Akerman, Rob Huebel, Lake Bell, Megan Mullally and Henry Winkler. The tone is decidedly absurd, as evidenced by an episode in which medico Erinn Hayes is the “only” person who can save a boy stuck in a box of quicksand. The set includes an abundance of deleted scenes, outtakes and six miniepisodes that rival the full-length shows in their absurdity.