Please note: all titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-rays and Blu-ray/DVD combos are in italic and bold fonts.
Despite superb word of mouth, screenwriter Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew (Cloverfield) Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate) saw only middling business at the box office, due largely to a shakeup at MGM that marooned titles from its 2011 slate. Those that did see the picture during its brief theatrical run were largely impressed by its meta-take on horror movie tropes built around a (deliberately) hoary old premise of college kids on holiday versus an onslaught of the supernatural (what Joe Bob Briggs used to call “Spam in a Cabin”). The results are gory and clever and pay off in a third act that manages to surprise while not undermining the elaborate set-up that precedes it. Die-hard horror fans may not appreciate the monster movie mash-up that runs through the picture, with homages to George Romero, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and various stalk-and-slash efforts piling up on the path to the conclusion. All others may find it the sort of smartly written, imaginative effort that most modern horror should aspire to.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox) could’ve used a touch of inspiration – it’s a pleasant enough comedy with an appealing cast of older British talent, including Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, each given a modest dramatic arc hinged around their resilience (or lack thereof) in the face of age and set against the backdrop of a supposedly opulent retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. The cast imbues considerable class upon the material, which without them would probably play like a high-end made-for-TV movie. The locations look lovely, though.
Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise (1945), which arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion, is a gorgeous, timeless fairy tale about a 19th-century courtesan (Arletty) whose beauty and spirit captivates a disparate quartet of men, including a mime (Jean-Louis Barraut), a dashing nobleman (Pierre Brasseur) and a scurrilous rogue (Marcel Hernand). Only the flintiest of souls will remain immune to its old-fashioned charms, even with its three-hour, two-part running time, though the sacrifices made in the name of love by the central characters pale in comparison to the real-life challenges faced by Carne and his team, who shot the film during the height of the Nazi Occupation in 1943 and 1944. Members of the French Resistance worked as extras in order to avoid capture, and often shared screen time with background players loyal to the Vichy government; Carne himself hid key reels of the film from Occupation observers in the hopes that they could be completed after the Allied liberation, while the film’s production designer and composer, who were Jewish, worked in total secrecy. A truly magical film and a significant artifact in both French and world cinema, Children of Paradise‘s rich history is detailed on Criterion’s two-disc set by a pair of making-of documentaries, which discuss Carne’s efforts to complete the film, as well as the extensive restoration required to restore the film to its original state.
Jay and Mark Duplass’ The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (Fox Searchlight) was shot in 2008,
several years before their ascent to the top of the indie field with Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, but bears all their hallmarks that have made their off-kilter, low-wattage dramas so frequently appealing. Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis are estranged brothers who use an unexpected reunion as the impetus for launching a second round of the titular competition, a series of 25 events based largely around petulant and perverse challenges that drove them apart as high schoolers. What might have unspooled as a dopey comedy about man-children’s need for one-upmanship becomes instead an amusing and occasionally sad look at power dynamics within families, as the brothers’ bullheadedness pulls in their parents and Zissis’ long-suffering wife (Jennifer Lafleur) and offers up their own relationships for examination. Like most of the Duplass’ work, it’s dramatic and involving in a slower-paced but decidedly more believable manner than most major studio features.
Though decidedly different in focus and technique, the Oscar-nominated independent animated feature Chico and Rita (Icon) might make for an interesting double bill with The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. Both pictures concern the weight and impact of the past upon the present; in the case of elderly Cuban pianist Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona), it’s his tumultuous relationship with singer Rita (Limana Meneses), who became his musical and romantic partner in a career that carried them from Havana circa 1948 to fame in America. What follows is a tried-and-true showbiz romance undone by promises of stardom and too much passion, but made fresh and vibrant by director Fernando Trueba, designer Javier Mariscal and animator Tono Errando, who underscore the heights and depths of Chico and Rita’s lives with gorgeous, kinetic artwork powered by a soundtrack featuring jazz great Bebo Valdes and tracks by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk (those with the dough should pony up for the three-disc DVD/Blu-ray/soundtrack package).
Music also fuels Paul Simon: Live in New York City (Hear Music/Concord Music Group), a CD/DVD document of his 2011 date at Webster Hall that features songs from his most recent release, the excellent So Beautiful or So What, alongside songbook classics and a few that haven’t been heard live in years, like “Kodachrome.” And Ice-T makes an impressive debut as director with the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina), which presents as cohesive an overview of the genre’s origins and development as possibly in its under-two-hour running time. Lots of essential artists and cities don’t make the cut, but New York, Los Angeles and Detroit are well represented through interviews with pioneers like Afrika Bambaatta, Rakim, KRS-One, Chuck D and others.
The rest of the week’s schedule is filled out by 1977’s The Devil, Probably (Olive Films), one of French director Robert Bresson’s final efforts, a young, disaffected intellectual whose growing dismay with the state of the world forces him to make a drastic decision. Bresson’s work, marked by non-actors and austere camera choices, can be a challenge for even the most determined film aesthete, but here, the chilliness emphasizes his characters’ despair over a world seemingly out of their control.
Regarding Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Paramount): if your affection for Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than a passing fling, you’re going to buy this. Plain and simple. What you get for your money is all four features, from Raiders to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in about the finest visual and audio presentations you can imagine. Is that guilding going to make Crystal Skull all the more palatable? Probably not, but there are a wealth of extras – seven hours in all, to be exact – though if you own any of the previous releases, you’ve already seen all of it save for a new, hour-long making-of for Raiders. At least two hours of extras from the Crystal Skull DVD are also not present, though I imagine that fans of the four films aren’t crying too deeply over that loss. Again: you like Indiana Jones, you’re going to buy this, and most likely, you’ll be pleased with the end result.
It is probably no coincidence that the studios’ MOD departments churned out an extraordinary number of ’40s- and ’50s-era adventure films for release this week. Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas based the four Jones films on serials and vintage action films like 1953’s Treasure of the Golden Condor (Fox Cinema Archives), with Cornel Wilde in search of lost gold in the jungles of Guatemala, or Swordsman of Siena (Warner Archives), with Stewart Granger taking up the rapier once again to protect an Italian noblewoman (Sylvia Koscina). Warner also has The Secret of Monte Cristo (1961), with Rory Calhoun as a sword-swinging soldier of fortune; John Sturges’ The Scarlet Coat (1955), with Wilde (the Harrison Ford of his day) as a Revolutionary War spy on the trail of traitors in the Continental Army; King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), which pits George Sanders against Rex Harrison (as the Muslim leader Saladin) for the fate of the Holy Land; and The King’s Thief (1940), with David Niven in dashing over-drive as a duke who plans to overthrow the court of England’s Charles II. Fox, meanwhile, has Lancer Spy (1937), with Sanders as a British spy posing as a German baron during World War I, as well as Son of Robin Hood (1959), with Al (later David) Hedison in the title role. In all, it’s enough old-school derring-do to fill the next four Saturday afternoons. You provide the short subjects and popcorn.
I suppose that you could also include Olive Film’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) into the above list, though much of the fighting comes in verbal form, as delivered by Jose Ferrer in his Oscar-winning turn as the French swordsman whose skill with both words and swords can’t quite win the love of Mala Powers’ Roxanne, who’s fallen for drippy young soldier William Prince. Olive also has Orson Welles’ gloomy, expressionistic Macbeth (1948), which took considerable critical drubbing upon its release, spurring Republic Pictures to withdraw the film and later reissue sans 21 minutes and with a new soundtrack that eliminated the actors’ allegedly troublesome Scottish accents. The Olive Blu-ray presents Welles’ original, full-length version, which makes for an interesting double bill (listen, I like double bills) with their Blu-ray release of A Double Life (1947), a noir-flecked drama with Ronald Colman in an Oscar-winning performance as a Broadway actor who invests himself fully into a production of Othello, only to find himself echoing the Moor’s murderous intent when he learns that his own ex-wife (Signe Hasso) has found another man. Colman won an Oscar for his performance, which anchors the film when George Cukor’s heavy-handed director threatens to push it into campy waters.
More spousal malevolence is on hand in Man Trap (1961), actor Edmond O’Brien’s lightweight noir with Jeffrey Hunter as a Los Angeles contractor pulled into a heist involving Mob money by his former Korean war buddy (David Janssen). Stella Stevens is on hand as Hunter’s drinky-drinky wife, who complicates matters between the pair. After so much hot-blooded behavior, you could probably use a palate cleanser, though Wake Me When It’s Over (1960) and the utterly bizarre Wizard of Baghdad (1960), both from Fox Cinema Classics and both starring manic comedian Dick Shawn (the original Producers – and the voice of Snow Miser!), may not be the right things for you, despite the presence of the late, great Ernie Kovacs and Don Knotts in When It’s Over. I will instead direct you to End of the Road (1970), a fascinating proto-indie penned by the legendary Terry Southern (Easy Rider, Candy) with Stacy Keach as a young college professor whose tenuous grip on his sanity is further loosened by unorthodox treatment from psychiatrist James Earl Jones. Originally released with an X rating for a grueling medical scene, the film remains startling due to the intensity of the performances and Aram Avakian’s direction, which employs psychedelic effects, visual montages and elliptical edition to evoke the abstract nature of the source novel by John Barth. Director Steven Soderbergh brokered the film’s release on DVD with Warner Bros. by shooting a making-of documentary featuring interviews with the surviving cast and crew.
You have your choice of vintage horror on Blu-ray this week: from Kino comes Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), his gorgeously Gothic chiller about a condemned witch (Barbara Steele) who attempts to possess the body of her lookalike descendant. A landmark effort in the genre that merged the atmosphere-driven efforts of the past with the more graphic direction of future films, it also established Bava as a world-class stylist and Steele, with her hypnotic eyes and sepulchral cheekbones, as the height of graveyard glamour. Kino also has Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), a startling and perverse mix of giallo, supernatural thriller and psycho-thriller about a bridal shop owner with a penchant for killing newlyweds, and the candy-colored freakout Lisa and the Devil (1974), a doomy, surreal dream-picture with Elke Sommer plagued by apparently hallucinations, not the least of which is Telly Savalas as Satan himself (maybe), that blossom into full-blown murder. Its non-linear storyline spurred producer Alfredo Leone to recut and re-shoot parts of the picture as an Exorcist knockoff, complete with Sommer spewing green goo. Both versions are presented on the disc, while all three feature commentary by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, thee acknowledged expert on all things Bava.
Meanwhile, Shout Factory kicks off its new retro horror imprint, Scream Factory, with deluxe DVD and Blu-ray editions of Halloween II (1981) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Neither picture has enjoyed much critical respect in the three decades following their release, though to be fair, Halloween II is a pretty dreary effort, enlivened only by the let’s-do-our-best-here presence of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance from the original film. Halloween III, however, is a gleefully macabre effort that’s totally unrelated to the John Carpenter original or any of its follow-ups, and instead concerns, an novelty company over (Dan O’Herlihy) who plans to murder children using his Halloween masks, a television commercial, and Druidic magic (!). The former is for Michael Myers completists, while the latter is a thoroughly out-to-lunch diamond in the rough that deserves its slow-building cult status. Both DVDs and Blu-rays are loaded with extras, including commentaries by the filmmakers and cast (though not Carpenter, who penned II and took a producer’s credit on III but otherwise distanced himself from the projects), as well as deleted scenes, alternate endings, and TV and radio spots.
There’s also Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (Touchstone Home Entertainment), a movie for which I’ve always had conflicted feelings. On one hand, it’s a fairly loving tribute to the desperately untalented but eager director of Plan Nine from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda? and other cult/accidental surrealist films, with a great performance by Johnny Depp in the title role and an even better one from Martin Landau, who took home the Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi, who had descended into drug addiction and obscurity by the time he fell in with Wood during the late ’50s. There are also very funny turns by Jeffrey Jones as the ersatz mentalist Criswell and Bill Murray as Plan Nine star Bunny Breckinridge, and you can’t fault any movie which features a cameo by Korla Pandit. But it’s also a complete fiction, a cotton candy rewrite of Wood’s rather sad and tragic life, which ended in the depths of alcoholism in the late 1970s after decades of humiliation. I suppose that version probably wouldn’t have made it to the screen via Disney’s Touchstone wing, so this confectionary take will have to do. Those interested in the real Ed Wood story are encouraged to read Rudolph Grey’s exhaustive oral history, Nightmare of Ecstasy.
Speaking of cult and outsider art, television doesn’t get much further on the fringe than Get a Life, one of the most willfully bizarre sitcoms to ever make it onto a major network. Broadcast by Fox between 1990 and 1992, the series was created by and starred Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old paperboy who made life miserable for anyone unfortunate to enter his orbit, including his parents (played by Elliott’s real-life father, Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray fame, and Elinor Donahue from Father Knows Best), as well as his best friend (Sam Robards), who could be conned into joining Elliott on even the most harebrained scheme, much to the consternation of his apoplectic wife (Robin Riker). What set “Get a Life” apart from the standard-issue arrested development comedy was the undeniable fact that Elliott’s character was insane, and often dangerously so, and that the series refused to brook with any sense of reality, with numerous episodes devoted to Elliott’s violent death (only to see him return the following week), as well as a disgusting alien visitor, a hostage-taking pen pal and Elliott’s attempts to refashion himself as a male model (and later, male escort). It’s jaw-dropping stuff, overseen by David Mirkin and Adam Resnick, who, like Elliott, were part of David Letterman’s writing bullpen, while individual episodes were written by Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation.), among others. The six-disc set, which compiles the entire two-season run of the series, features a wealth of interviews and commentaries by the cast and crew, as well as admirers like Judd Apatow and James L. Brooks, and, most tellingly, a commentary track by a psychologist, who does her best to understand Elliott’s behavior.
Shout Factory’s other big TV release this week is Steve Martin: The Television Stuff, a six-hour, three-DVD compilation of Martin’s four small screen specials for NBC, as well as a stand-up special from HBO and an eclectic selection of guest appearances, speeches, music videos and his Oscar-nominated 1977 short, The Absent-Minded Waiter. For those who (like me) could recite Martin’s Comedy Is Not Pretty LP chapter and verse, the Television Stuff set is a nostalgic reminder of why his brand of super-charged, absurdist comedy took off like a rocket in the 1970s. While some of the bits have withered on the vine, so much remains fresh and funnier than any on current TV, including “The Elephant Guy” sketch, with Martin as a Elephant Man (complete with trunk and ears) drunk on his own fame, and an Olympic diving bit which still has the power to reduce the viewer to helpless laughter. Dan Aykroyd shows up on 1981’s Best Show Ever to do his Czech Brothers bit with Martin, while Paul Simon, Eric Idle and most of the original Saturday Night Live cast are also featured opposite Martin’s cyclonic energy, which encompasses balloon animals, banjo, juggling, tap dancing and rope tricks. It’s hard to think of a current comedian who presents as diverse and consistently funny package as Martin did in these specials and appearances, which makes the material archived in this set all the more significant.