Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray and Blu-ray/DVD combos are in italic and bold fonts.
I will solve your dilemma over whether or not to see Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (Paramount) by saying that you should instead invest your hard-earned time and energy to Richard Linklater’s Bernie (Millennium). It features no soft-target Kardashian jokes, but instead a pair of fine performances by leads Jack Black and Matthew McConaghey, both of whom rein in their natural over-the-top tendencies to play what one might call smaller-than-life performances. Black is a genial, small-Texas-town funeral director whose extremely close friendship with a crusty widow (Shirley MacLaine) goes south – meaning, he kills her – after she discovers that he has spent a sizable sum of her fortune on good deeds for members of the community. McConaghey is the county district attorney who attempts to paint Black as a predatory figure, but finds that his constituents have rallied around this odd duck based on his philanthropic gestures. Linklater does a fine job of balancing the dark core of the story – which is based on a real-life case – with the gentle quirk of the three main characters, which in its best moments, evokes the blithely macabre humor of ’50s-era Ealing Studios efforts like The Ladykillers.
Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation (Sony Pictures Classics) concerns a series of small tragedies with wide-ranging effects on an Iranian couple and those around them. The husband and wife at the center of this ripple effect are divorcing due to their divergent wishes regarding their young daughter: the wife (Leila Hatami) wants to raise the girl away from the tumult of life in Tehran, while her husband (Peyman Moaadi) feels duty-bound to stay and care for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The morass of Iranian politics and class struggle soon overpowers their attempts to do right by those around them, most notably a deeply religious housekeeper (Sareh Bayat) hired to care for the father. It’s sad, to be sure, but also at times suspenseful (though the film’s overall tone of quiet desperation largely indicates the end result), and anchored by exceptional, intimate performances by the Iranian cast.
Meanwhile, Shout Factory has Los Lobos: Kiko Live, a terrific concert film featuring the band celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1992 album – probably their finest – with a 2006 performance at the House of Blues in San Diego. Two decades have not reduced the fragile beauty of songs like “Saint Behind the Glass,” “Dream in Blue” and “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” or the band’s palpable pleasure in playing them. The disc includes interviews with the band members about the making of the record, as well as rehearsal footage and three encore numbers, including crowd-pleasers “Volver, Volver” and “La Bamba.” Shout Factory has also released a 20th-anniversary edition of the album itself, which includes demos and live versions culled from a 1992 session at Capitol Records.
And hot on the heels of the recent Whisperer In Darkness comes The Color Out of Space (BRINKFilm), an atmospheric, feature-length adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. German director Huan Vu transposes the action to his native country but retains Lovecraft’s central storyline, about a meteor that wreaks cosmic havoc with the residents of a rural town. Told largely in flashback, which greatly aids the pace of the picture, and photographed in a lush, at times Expressionistic black and white, Color suffers only from budgetary issues, which hamper the impact of the CGI effects. Otherwise, it’s a fine addition to the current boom in Lovecraft-inspired features.
First, the kid stuff: Disney is releasing seven animated feature titles on Blu-ray this week, the best of which is The Aristocats, an unfortunately overlooked musical from 1970 featuring the voice of Eva Gabor as a pampered house cat on the lam after her owner (Hermoine Baddely) wills her considerable fortune to her and her three kittens. Phil Harris does his lovable rogue bit as the alley cat who aids Eva, and there’s a host of fine vocal talent in support, including Scatman Crothers, Paul Winchell, Disney vet Thurl Ravenscroft, Nancy Kulp and Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsay as a pair of comic relief bloodhounds. The score, by Robert and Richard Sherman, is one of their most swinging, and is capped by a title song featuring Maurice Chevalier, who came out of retirement to lend his signature Gallic charm. The Blu-ray includes an alternate opening and a deleted song, as well as a brief featurette on the Sherman Brothers. Also on deck from Disney is The Rescuers (1977), the company’s last great animated feature until their revival in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Based very loosely on the novels by Margery Sharp, the smart, exciting adventure is driven by another great voice cast featuring Eva Gabor, Bob Newhart, John McIntire, Bernard Fox and Jim Jordan, radio’s Fibber McGee in his final screen performance. And the story, with Newhart and Gabor as members of an international mouse rescue team on the trail of a child abducted by Geraldine Page’s malevolent villainess, is thrilling without being traumatic and often visually striking – the result of a collaborative effort between members of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” team of animators and a newer unit that would come to prominence during the company’s later revival. The Blu-ray includes the decidedly lesser 1990 sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, as well as the Oscar-winning 1952 Disney-produced Technicolor documentary Water Birds – A True-Life Adventure, as well as a deleted song. If Disney product is on constant rotation in your household, both features are worthy additions to the lineup.
Meanwhile, grown-ups can beat the ghastly September heat with a selection of icy-hearted noir from Warner Archives, including Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950 – whatta title!), with Joan Fontaine playing against type as a malevolent socialite who cons all-day-sucker Zachary Scott into marrying her (all the better to get her hands on his money) while Robert Ryan is the hard-bitten writer who knows she’s no good, but can’t resist her charms. The WA DVD includes a never-before-seen alternate ending that puts a spin on the downbeat finale imposed by RKO studio chief Howard Hughes.
Also on deck from Warner is another early Ray effort, A Woman’s Secret (1949), which unravels the truth behind former singer Maureen O’Hara’s murder of her protege, Gloria Grahame (who began her tumultuous relationship with Ray shortly after completing the film). A slew of flashbacks, narrated by Melvyn Douglas (as O’Hara’s partner), attempt to piece together fiction and fact, much in the same fashion as co-writer Herman Mankiewicz’s earlier effort, Citizen Kane (194o). There’s also Southside 1-1000 (1950), a procedural-styled thriller from director Boris Ingster, who helmed what most fans consider to be the first noir film, Stranger on the Third Floor, with T-man Don DeFore on the trail of a counterfeiting ring while fending off hot-blooded arch-dame Andrea King; Walk Softly, Stranger (1950), which reunites Third Man co-stars Joseph Cotten and Valli as, respectively, a con man hoping to get out of the business with one final scheme and the disabled heiress he falls for; and the fizzy Las Vegas Story (1952), with Jane Russell fashionably fetishized by producer Howard Hughes and Victor Mature as her pneumatic male counterpart in a scheme involving a stolen necklace, with Vincent Price as Russell’s bad-luck husband and Hoagy Carmichael as a lounge singer who gets to croon three numbers. The picture’s back story is somewhat less charming – screenwriter Paul Jarrico lost his credit over his alleged Communist sympathies, which spurred a lawsuit against Hughes and RKO. Be sure to save some space for Cool Breeze (1972), an urban remake of The Asphalt Jungle produced by Gene (brother of Roger) Corman with the ever-classy Thalmus Rasulala as an ex-con who assembles a team (including Raymond St. Jacques) to rip off $3 million in diamonds from the Man in order to fund a bank for black clients. Not everything works – the dialogue is particularly ripe in places, and director Barry Pollack struggles to balance gritty action and broad humor – but the score by Solomon Burke is funky and Pam Grier is well cast in the Marilyn Monroe role.
On the action front, there’s John Badham’s WarGames (MGM), which remains one of the most suspenseful Cold War thrillers, even if the Russians don’t plan to bomb us any time (soon, at least) and the technology has been rendered near prehistoric. The Blu-ray ports over most of the extras from a previous DVD release. Meanwhile, Olive Films has Captain Carey, U.S.A., with Alan Ladd as a former OSS operative in postwar Italy to ferret out the Axis traitor that caused the deaths of his fellow agents. There, he discovers Wanda Hendrix, the woman he loved and thought dead at the hands of the Nazis, not only alive but married to world class heel Francis Lederer. Olive’s other release this week is Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (1954), starring and co-written by the great Ida Lupino as a singer who takes the express elevator down to Nightmaresville with detectives Howard Duff (Lupino’s husband) and Steven Cochran after they boost a fortune in stolen loot from a murdered thief. Things go very badly for all involved in this final effort from Filmmakers, an indie production company co-founded by Lupino and Collier Young. Flash forward a few decades for Brass Target (Warner Archives), an all-star conspiracy thriller alleging that General George S. Patton (George Kennedy) was murdered to cover up the theft of Nazi gold. The plot doesn’t hold water, but the cast, which includes Sophia Loren, Max Von Sydow, John Cassavetes and Robert Vaughn, look sufficiently concerned throughout.
I once asked the late Mr. Universe-turned-actor Mickey Hargitay about his participation in Black Magic Rites (1972), a thoroughly unhinged supernatural mishegas from Italian director Renato Polselli. Ever the straight-shooter, Mickey told me that he had no recollection of ever working on the picture, and stared goggle-eyed at me as I attempted to recall the picture’s plot, which had something to do with a reincarnated witch (Rita Calderoni) carrying out Satanic rituals in the dungeons of a Italian castle inherited by his baffled hero. That encompasses precisely one per cent of the goings-on in Black Magic Rites, which was previously released on VHS and DVD by Redemption as The Reincarnation of Isabel; the rest is a lysergic riot of naked flesh, colored lights, velour wardrobe, and a relentlessly noisy soundtrack, all tackled together in an mentally assaultive editing scheme of flash-forwards, -backwards and, on occasion, kaleidoscope effects. Suffice it to say that if you love Eurocult movies or disorienting experiences (or both), this is your candy-colored electric freakout. Redemption/Kino’s Blu-ray includes the equally baffling trailer along with previews for their other vintage horror releases, including Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon.
The second half of this week’s bill is Kill and Kill Again (101 Distribution ADA), a fun, silly martial arts adventure from South Africa with James Ryan (a dead ringer for Doug Kershaw) as a kung fu champ hired to rescue a scientist kidnapped by billionaire despot Marduk (Michael Mayer, Little Ricky from I Love Lucy!) for his mind control formula made from, and I’m not making this up, potatoes. Much has been made of the film’s primitive “Bullet-Cam” sequence a la The Matrix, in which we follow the super-slo-mo trajectory of a shell fired at the scientist, but the chief raison d’etre for Kill and Kill Again is its array of scrappy fight scenes, which make up for their lack of polish with lots of sweat, overwrought grunts and grimaces. VHS heads from way back will appreciate this nostalgic rocket ride back to the days of top-loaders, long boxes and titles released by dubious companies, as well as the faux “remastered” tag, which just means that someone made a digital dub from a videotape source.
The Adventures of Tintin: Season Three (Shout Factory) is the final go-round for the popular animated series, which aired on HBO in the early ’90s. As with the previous two seasons (both readily available on DVD), this installment succinctly captures the grand scope and serialized thrills of Herge’s original comics without needing to resort to oversized doses of bang-boom like the recent feature film, which probably turned off more potential Tintin fans than it attracted. I cannot speak to its efficacy in keeping the attention of school-age kids (it’s too much for those under, say, seven), but given the fact that Tintin has been going strong since his inception in 1929, one imagines that it should keep more than a few bright young viewers enthralled.