Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-rays and Blu-ray/DVD combos are in italic and bold fonts.
The Five Year Engagement (Universal) is an appealing showcase star Jason Segal and director Nicholas Stoller’s particular brand of humor – broad physical comedy and awkward social situations blended with a healthy dose of gentle charm and sweetness, as evidenced by their work in The Muppets, Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – in its story of a couple (Segal and Emily Blunt) whose wedding plans incur some considerable snags over the course of their half-decade of planning. Segal and Blunt are both likable romantic leads and exceptionally funny comic performers (Blunt, in particular, continues to stake her claim in this regard), and they’re well-abetted by a solid supporting cast that includes Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Lauren Weedman, Rhys Ifans, Kevin Hart, Brian Posehn (a show-stopping bit) and the formidable Jacki Weaver. Most importantly, it’s a romantic comedy in which the working parts of each genre work well together to move the picture forward, rather than pull it in different directions.
Director Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 neo-realist drama Umberto D (Criterion) threatens to overwhelm the viewer with sentimentality – it is, after all, the story of a retired public servant (Carlo Battista) eking out out a miserable existence with only a cute dog for a companion. But what unfolds is more of an observation of the injustices incurred by those who have slipped into the fringes of society, like Battista and the only other sympathetic figure in the film, a young maid (Maria Pia Castillo) on the verge of losing her job due to her pregnancy. At its core, though, it is a tearjerker – why else to bring in that dog? – and the finale should melt all but the frostiest of hearts. The Blu-ray includes an interview with Castillo, who passed away in early 2012, as well as a retrospective profile on De Sica’s life and work and an essay by Umberto Eco.
Also on deck this week is The Navigator: Ultimate Edition (Kino), silent film comedian Buster Keaton’s exceptional 1924 comedy about a spoiled young man (Keaton, in a slightly more resourceful variation on a role he played in several previous pictures) who finds himself stranded aboard the titular ocean liner with his estranged fiancee (Kathryn McGuire). The pair rekindle their romance through a series of misadventures, not the least of which requires Keaton to don a diving suit to repair a gash in the ship’s hull, which feature some extraordinary sight gags and set pieces. Keaton’s physicality and subtle timing is matched by his fearlessness as co-director with actor Donald Crisp (who turns up as the image of a crusty sea captain in a portrait) – among his most astonishing achievements here are an underwater battle with a swordfish and a complete 360-degree turn inside a submarine which presage the visual genius of his greatest film, The General (1927). The Blu-ray’s features are topped by an informative commentary track by silent film historians Robert Arkin and Yair Solan, who go to lengths to provide detail on the production and its participants.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), which returns to DVD as part of Universal’s centennial celebration, remains (for my money) his best effort from that decade, with Vertigo (1958) close behind it. Smart, sexy, stylish and heart-stoppingly scary in its final moments, its success hinges on a terrific idea – wheelchair-bound James Stewart observes the aftermath of a murder in an apartment across the courtyard of his Greenwich village walkup – and an unimpeachable cast, including James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter (a memorable turn in a career full of memorable turns), Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr (as well as Ross Bagdasarian of the Chipmunks fame and Frank Cady, a.k.a. Sam Drucker from Green Acres, as fellow apartment dwellers).
Thrillers are also on the schedule this week from Olive Films, which offers up Child’s Play (1974), Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of the Tony-winning play by Robert Marasco about a rivalry between two private school teachers (James Mason and Robert Preston) that comes to a head during an outbreak of violence in the student body that seems to have supernatural overtones. Olive also has The Dark Mirror (1946), with Olivia de Havilland pulling out all the stops as twins – one Good, one Evil, naturally – connected to a murder and Lew Ayres as the cop who turns to a psychiatrist to suss out the guilty one, and Man on a Swing (1974), Frank Perry’s little-seen suspense drama with Joel Grey as a clairvoyant whose accurate vision of an unsolved murder leads detective Cliff Robertson to suspect him of the crime. The oddest of the lot is probably Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948), with Joan Bennett in her final collaboration with the director (which also yielded Man Hunt and The Woman in the Window) as a spoiled socialite who learns a bit too late that her husband (Michael Redgrave) has a morbid fascination with murder – to the extent that he has tableaux of famous crime scenes set up around his house – which may result in her own demise.
Otherwise, you have your choice of Warner Archives’ slate of adventures starring rugged Australian actor Rod Taylor (most recently seen as Winston Churchill in Inglorious Basterds), including the Bond spoof The Liquidator (1965), with Taylor as John Gardner’s secret agent hero, who prefers to let a professional killer do the dirty work for him. Taylor also plays Sir Francis Drake opposite Terence Hill (from the Trinity Western series) in the Italian-made swashbuckler Seven Seas to Calais (1962) and an Irish revolutionary-turned-playwright (based on Sean O’Casey) in Young Cassidy, a 1965 drama begun by John Ford but completed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who directed Taylor in The Liquidator and Dark of the Sun). Warner also has the terrifically bitchy whodunit The Last of Sheila (1973), with Raquel Welch, James Mason and Ian McShane among the suspects in movie producer James Coburn’s efforts to find his wife’s killer, and a script by Broadway lyricist Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins based on real-life mystery party games they gave for friends.
Perkins is also featured in John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (WA; 1972), a bloated biopic of the famed Old West “hanging judge,” with Paul Newman in the title role and Ava Gardner, Jacqueline Bissett, Ned Beatty, Stacy Keach, Roddy McDowall and dozens others in the sprawling cast. More worth your time in the horse opera department is Pursued (Olive), director Raoul Walsh’s, complex noir-flecked Western thriller with Robert Mitchum as the sole survivor of a family massacre in his childhood who discovers that a one-armed stranger (Dean Jagger) may be the killer with designs on finishing the job. Those seeking simpler frontier fare, however, should check out The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (Lionsgate), a back-to-nature family film about a Los Angeles construction worker (Robert Logan) who flees the city with his brood to live off the land in the Rocky Mountains. A massive hit during its four-wall limited release in 1975, it spawned two sequels, Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1978) and Mountain Family Robinson (1979), both of which are also available on DVD from Lionsgate; the full trilogy is also airing on EST and On Demand as of September 4.
Family fare of an entirely different kind can be found in 1967’s Mad Monster Party (Lionsgate), a favorite among former and current creature feature kids thanks to its cross-pollination of Universal’s slate of monsters and stop-motion animation by Rankin/Bass, the fine folks who produced Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer, among countless others. Best of all, they got Boris Karloff to voice Baron Frankenstein, who brings together his creation and its bride (voiced by the late, great Phyllis Diller), along with Dracula, the Wolf Man and other Halloween all-stars to announce his retirement from the monster-making business. What ensues suggests the end results of a Famous Monsters and Mad magazine all-nighter – no wonder, as Mad‘s Harvey Kurtzman wrote the script and the legendary “Jolly” Jack Davis contributed character design – and would later influence Tim Burton’s stop-motion efforts, including The Nightmare Before Christmas and the upcoming Frankenweenie. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes two making-of featurettes, including a spotlight on its boss soundtrack. Also on the weird-comedy front are two lesser-known efforts from exploitation producer extraordinaire William Castle: a 1963 comic remake of James Whale’s The Old Dark House, made in conjunction with England’s Hammer Films, and Zotz! (1962), a completely out-to-lunch fantasy about a coin that allows its owner to slow down time to a crawl. Comedy was never Castle’s forte, so the films, which are available from Columbia Classics, are for completists only or fans of Tom Poston (Newhart), who stars in both pictures.
The obvious pick to click this week is Re-Animator (Image), Stuart Gordon’s 1985 comic gorefest, based loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft’s short story about a scientist (Jeffrey Combs) who invents a solution that brings the dead back to life. Gordon’s take is both wryly humorous and completely berserk, with disemboweled corpses running amuck, surgical tools put to unique uses and a penultimate set piece involving the severed, re-animated head of David Gale’s snobbish medico and a restrained Barbara Crampton reaching the heights of absurdist gross-out. A high water mark for horror in the bleak 1980s, Re-Animator retains its power to shock, amuse and surprise, even in the face of two-plus-decades of increasingly gruesome films that followed in its wake. The Blu-ray and DVD port much of the extras included in a previous digital presentation, including a hilarious commentary-cum-reunion for the cast.
Equally black-humored but decidedly more crass is Mother’s Day (Anchor Bay), the original 1980 gagfest about a trio of women whose camping trip is interrupted by a pair of pop-culture-crazed hillbillies, who argue the merits of punk versus disco and Sesame Street over Star Trek between acts of extreme violence. Director Charles Kaufman – brother of Troma Films chief Lloyd Kaufman, who also distributed the film – takes a few passes at societal critique, though the message is muted by seemingly endless rounds of ugliness. It has its following, though, as does Hal Needham’s Megaforce (Henstooth), a big dumb sci-fi adventure from 1982 with an impossibly well-coiffured Barry Bostwick as the spandex-clad leader of a band of high-tech mercenaries who take on a military ruler (Henry Silva) bent on dominating a tiny foreign country. The subject of a recent retrospective at the New Beverly, Megaforce is camp fun for motorheads, car crash enthusiasts and those who never quite got over their Big Wheels.
While we’re on the subject of scary fare and Boris Karloff, Image has released a double-disc “fan favorite” edition of his NBC anthology series Thriller, which boils down its two seasons (1960-1962) to ten episodes. I’m usually opposed to best-of/themed sets – choices tend to be either obvious or arbitrary – but in the case of Thriller, a hit-and-miss show that couldn’t quite decide if it was a horror or suspense program (which led to its early demise), condensing the show to its most effective episodes is not only a smart move for those curious about the show but warned off by the expensive complete-series set Image released in 2010, but also preserves its reputation as one of the more frightening shows ever produced on TV. Included in the set are the genuinely disturbing “Pigeons from Hell,” with Brandon De Wilde as a young man who stumbles on a bayou mansion inhabited by the living dead, and “The Cheaters,” about a pair of glasses that present the wearer with nightmarish visions. Karloff himself turns up in “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” while Rip Torn, William Shatner and Richard Chamberlain are featured in other episodes. Save money on air conditioning and play this set to keep chilled this month.
The third season of Bored to Death (HBO) also marked the end of this frequently laugh-out-loud series, created by Jonathan Ames and starring what might have been the best comedy team of the last twenty years in Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zach Galifiniakis as an ersatz Ames-turned-private-eye, his permanently pickled editor friend and a comic book author sidekick with a secondary stint as a surrogate dad. In its best moments, Bored to Death approached screwball-levels of absurdity, which makes its premature cancellation all the more downbeat.