Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray and Blu-ray/DVD combos are shown in italic and bold font.
Nothing. Honestly, nothing fresh, hot and new from the studios this week. Oh, LOL, with Miley Cyrus, but you don’t need to see that.
I think everyone’s on vacation. Maybe you should be, too.
However, there’s a lot of quality stuff on deck at the Arthouse, so let’s get to it: the Oscar-nominated Le Havre (Criterion) is a lovely fable from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki about an elderly Frenchman (Andre Wilms) whose simple existence in a small French fishing village is dramatically changed, for both the better and the worse, by the arrival of a young Gabonese immigrant (Blondin Miguel). At once a gentle comedy cut from the same deadpan cloth as many of Kaurismaki’s previous efforts, and a satire/critique on modern attitudes towards immigration, Le Havre‘s main charm, which won over viewers at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, is the interaction between its leads, who transcend age, heritage and social standing to forge something genuine: the simple human gesture to look after our fellow man in a time of need. The Blu-ray is stocked with interviews with cast and crew, as well as the full performance of the charmingly cracked rockabilly performer Little Bob from the picture.
Also on the life-affirming front: Lions Gate’s Blu-ray presentation of Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1938 drama about a quartet of World War I soldiers – three French POWs (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Marcel Dalio) and the German commandant (Erich Von Stroheim) who oversees the Gothic fortress-camp where they are imprisoned – whose weariness over a world in flux forges a bond between them, even as the Frenchmen plot an escape. An enduring touchstone for world cinema fans thanks to its deeply humanistic story, Grand Illusion recently underwent a major reconstruction through Studio Canal, which is detailed at length in the Blu-ray’s supplemental features. Suffice it to say that the quest for the film’s original negative is as engrossing as the picture itself.
On a very different plane – both cosmic and thematic – is The Whisperer in Darkness (Microcinema), a marvelously atmospheric adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story about an attempted invasion by elder space gods directed in the style of ’30s-era horror. It’s the second labor of love for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which produced an exceptional short film of The Call of Cthulhu (2005) done as a Jazz Era silent, complete with era-correct special effects. Whisperer is a more ambitious affair, both in terms of scope – it’s feature-length, with sound and (low-key) CGI effects – and style, which hews to the Expressionistic black-and-white classics from the Universal stable. The Blu-ray offers a feature-length commentary by the film’s dedicated creators, as well as a sizable making-of featurette and a gallery of deleted and extended scenes. Those weary of in-name-only Lovecraft adaptations will appreciate the faithfulness of this low-wattage but extremely ambitious (and successful) take on one of the author’s best stories.
Also on the indie front: Last Days Here (MPI) is a relentlessly grim documentary about singer Bobby Liebling, whose dedication to his band, the cult doom metal act Pentagram, remains unwavering despite decades of professional missteps and a debilitating drug addiction. As a cautionary tale, the footage of the 50-ish Liebling eking out a wretched, addled existence in the basement of his parents’ home is heartbreaking, though there are glimmers of hope in the faith exhibited by fan-turned-manager Sean Pelletier, who labors tirelessly to give his client the comeback (or debut) he deserves, despite Liebling’s every effort to upend that goal. And CJ Entertainment America, the Stateside imprint of Korea’s CJ Entertainment and Media label, has two premier offerings: Hindsight, with Bong Joon-ho regular Kang-ho Song as a mob boss who falls for the woman hired to kill him, and No Mercy, a grim thriller about a medical examiner whose investigation into a grisly murder puts his daughter’s life in jeopardy. Both are modest but watchable genre efforts from the increasingly impressive South Korean cinema scene.
Fox’s new seven-disc set Forever Marilyn, which compiles new and gorgeous Blu-ray presentations of five Marilyn Monroe features with two previously released titles, offers much-needed counterpoint to the cloying, occasionally necrophilic pop culture fascination with the actress, who remains more of a marketing icon for many viewers than an actual person who lived and made movies, some of which were very good. The set presents the highlights of Monroe’s brief tenure in Hollywood, as well as a solid showcase for her abilities and still-entrancing screen persona, which veers from the self-confident, very much in control women in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) to kittenish sex objects in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) and finally, an object of desire in decline in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961). One can spend hours – decades, even – debating how Monroe never got a proper role to display the true breadth of her talents, and how the Hollywood machine contributed to her downfall, but better time is spent watching her pass from archetype to archetype in each feature while retaining her key appeal – a vivacity and screen magnetism that transcends her pure physical attributes, which is, one supposes, the reason for her enduring legend. The set also includes River of No Return (1954), which partners Monroe with Robert Mitchum to excellent effect, as well as Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which is essentially a remake of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; the set includes trailers for each title, as well as Movietone reels featuring footage from the premieres of Misfits, Show Business and Millionaire.
I am not at all sure why Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (Lionsgate) has earned its new “Mind Bending” Blu-ray edition beyond the fact that a new version is currently playing in theaters. The movie, as I call from seeing it back in 1990, is a lightweight action-thriller tailored to star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fan base that eschews much of the Philip K. Dick story that serves as its source material in favor of Verhoeven’s usual over-the-top approach. But stranger and sillier films have dedicated fan bases, and this picture clearly has its devotees, who will most likely enjoy the commentary by its director and star, as well as a host of making-of featurettes that examine its visual and makeup special effects (by Rob Bottin) in detail.
A more welcome new entry in the Blu-ray field is Force of Evil, writer-director Abraham Polonsky’s bitter, noirish 1948 drama about a mob lawyer (John Garfield) whose involvement in a numbers racket scheme spells disaster for all of those around him, including his disillusioned brother (Thomas Gomez), before falling victim to his own ambitions. A supremely dark, downbeat story of corrosive corruption, it was the last major effort for Polonsky, an avowed Marxist whose dim view of capitalism informed his work, before the HUAC blacklist brought his Hollywood career to a standstill for nearly two decades. The Olive Blu-ray restoration not only brings considerable luster to the gorgeously stark photography by George Barnes (Spellbound), but also adds a brief interview with director Martin Scorsese, a longtime proponent of the film who discusses its impact on his own work. Olive also has the Polonsky-penned Body and Soul (1947), about a rough New York kid (Garfield again, too old for the part, but still solid) who attempts to make good as a boxer but finds himself dragged into the muck by a host of unsavory types, including William Conrad as his unscrupulous manager. It too has choice words for the money-making machine and its effect on decent working class types, but the Oscar nod Polonsky earned for his script couldn’t save him or director Robert Rossen from the McCarthyites.
Also in the revival house queue is a brace of Late, Late Show features like Close-Up (Alpha), a 1948 thriller about a photographer who accidentally snaps a pic of a Nazi fugitive on the streets of New York (great location footage here), and Club Paradise (Alpha), which is the TV title for 1945’s Sensation Hunters, a brisk cheapo potboiler with former screen serial Batman Robert Lowery as a handsome cad who drags a naive young thing into the lower depths of show biz while two-timing her all over town. Alpha also has the surviving five reels of Terror Island, a 1920 exotic-lands adventure starring Harry Houdini as a submarine inventor in search of sunken treasure and threatened by future character actor extraordinare Eugene Pallette as a vintage dastard and a horde of uncomfortably stereotyped cannibals. Naturally, the villains place Houdini into a series of seemingly inescapable scenarios in order to display his formidable sleight of hand (aided by stunt double Bob Rose).
Eurocult imprint Mya Communications has The Facts of Murder (1959), an Italian-made thriller written, produced and starring Pietro Germi (Divorce, Italian Style) as a detective investigating a series of crimes in a Rome apartment building, with Claudia Cardinale, Eleonora Rossi Drago and Nino Castelnuovo as likely suspects for Germi’s methodical inspector to consider. The most astonishing, at least from a visual standpoint, of this week’s lot is Salome (Alpha), a 1922 adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play starring and produced by actress Alla Nazimova as the seductive Princess of Judea who danced for John the Baptist’s head. With a set design inspired by the work of artist Aubrey Beardsley, the film reveals in a barrage of hallucinatory images – dwarfs, Nubian slaves, elaborate dungeons and Salome’s own headdress, a collection of giant pearls bobbing on springs that quiver with erotic delight at the actress’ every move. It also moves at a dream’s pace, building up to Salome’s celebrated dance, which is almost an afterthought in the face of so much Kenneth Anger-cum-Mask-of-Fu-Manchu atmosphere. A colossal flop upon release, it wiped out Nazimova’s fortunes and career, but don’t let that detract from your enjoyment of this unique viewing experience.
Cult movie fans seeking to fill in the gaps in their collection will be pleased to hear that Blue Underground is reissuing a substantial portion of their catalog in double- and triple-feature DVDs. Volume 1 is devoted to Italian horror courtesy of the legendary Mario Bava, whose late-inning supernatural thriller Shock (1977) is paired with son Lamberto’s unsettling Macabre (1980) and A Blade in the Dark (1983). Volume 2 focuses on Italian Westerns, with genre vet Tomas Milian up front and center in Sergio Corbucci’s rousing, comic Companeros (1970), also starring Franco Nero and Jack Palance, and Run Man Run (1968), a semi-sequel to The Big Gundown (1966). The set is rounded out by Lucio Fulci’s grim Four of the Apocalypse (1975), with a psychotic Milian tormenting Fabio Testi, Lynne Frederick and Michael J. Pollard in the desert. Testi also turns up in Volume 3’s The Big Racket (1976) and Heroin Busters (1977), two brawny crime dramas by the great Enzo G. Castellari (the original Inglorious Bastards), whose Street Law (1974), with Nero, rounds out the set. Volume 4 revives three titles from Blue Underground’s terrific Giallo Collection from 2002, including Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) and Who Saw Her Die? (1972) – two eerie, lesser known but high quality gialli with heavy conspiracy overtones – and Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978), with an uncredited soundtrack by genre favorites Goblin. Two more volumes are set for release at the end of the month, and most, if not all, retail for less that $20.
The History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (Sony) takes a sober look at the decades-long, post-Civil War fight between two West Virginia-Kentucky border in families that came to largely define the word “feud” in popular culture. The five-hour project does much to humanize the participants, led by Kevin Costner as the Hatfield patriarch and Bill Paxton as his equal on the McCoy side, pulling them out of the stereotype of toothless hillbillies taking potshots at each other. But director Kevin Reynolds (a longtime Coster collaborator) and his co-writers also shy away from a revisionist approach to the feud; there is no question that the fight, which stretched over decades and resulted in wholesale slaughter on both sides, was the result of ignorance, perceived slights, and bullheadedness – qualities that still serve as fuel for ugliness a century-plus later. Costner and Paxton’s excellent performances are well matched by a solid cast that includes Tom Berenger, Powers Boothe, Jena Malone and Mare Winningham; the Blu-ray and DVD presentations include a minor making-of featurette and a video of Costner and his band, Modern West, performing the song “I Know These Hills.”
Somewhat lighter fare (fewer people die horribly, at least) can be found in Shout Factory’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV, which includes one of the best Joel episodes, the patchwork Japanese sci-fi adventure Fugitive Alien, and its follow-up, Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2, as well as two funny Mikes (The Sword and the Dragon and the incredible Samson vs. the Vampire Women, an English-language dub of a Santo lucha libre flick). Extras are typically fun and creative, most notably an interview with producer Sandy Frank, who stitched together edited versions of the Fugitive Alien pics, as well as the Gamera series, and a low-key but interesting follow-up on Frank (TV’s Frank) Conniff’s career after leaving the show. A short history on Fugitive Alien by Japanese genre expert August Ragone and a pair of mind-numbing shorts (including the grisly A Date with Your Family) are also top-notch, but a featurette on producer K. Gordon Murray, who brought countless Mexican movies like Samson/Santo to American TV, is too slight, given the subject matter’s long career; more substantive info on Mr. Murray’s adventures in filmmaking can be found here.
And while the phrase “drawn from the files of the Treasure Department” may not set most TV viewers’ hearts to racing, Federal Men (Film Chest) is an entertaining retro-rocket from the early 1950s TV tombs. Fist-faced Walter Greaza is top-billed as “the Chief,” who dispatches a small army of agents in pursuit of counterfeiters, con men and other assorted monetary scofflaws, all played by old pros and up-comers like Lee Marvin, Cliff Robertson, Charles Bronson and a very young James Dean in two episodes. The three-disc set culls 15 episodes from the final season of the series (complete sets of seasons 1-4 are available from Alpha Home Video), which aired as Treasury Men in Action on ABC from 1950 to 1955. It’s no-nonsense, just-the-facts crime TV, served up in chilly black and white. Case closed.
Those seeking more vintage small screen titles can eyeball The Suicide Club (Alpha), a 1960 adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story for the Chevy Mystery Hour (hosted by Vincent Price) with Cesar Romero and Everett Sloane as a pair of thrill-seekers who stumble upon a secret society of desperate souls who are selected at random to end their lives by enlisting another member to kill them. Alpha also has Fireball Fun-For-All, a 1953 episode of an anarchic live variety series starring vaudeville comic team Olsen and Johnson, whose berserk energy is barely contained – or captured – by the live action production. It’s paired, oddly enough, with an episode of Chopsticks, a 1950 quiz show in which five young musical prodigies, one of whom is a very young Billy Preston, are challenged to a piano showdown.