“They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” (1969, Kino Lorber) A cross-section of desperate types take part in a Depression Era-dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier, hoping to reverse their downturned fortunes with the prize money. Among them are hard-bitten would-be starlet Jane Fonda and drifter Michael Sarrazin; aging sailor Red Buttons; starving Oakies Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia; and faded actress Susannah York, each of whom endure more than a month of near-non-stop dancing, with occasional breaks for brutal “derbies,” while seedy, tragic MC Gig Young and a goggle-eyed audience egg them on. Based on the novel by Horace McCoy, this grim drama from Sydney Pollack earned eight Oscar nominations, including a Supporting Actor win for Young; it remains one of the bleakest commentaries on human nature ever put on film, and entirely relevant in an era steeped in voyeuristic television, celebrity shaming and winning any race at any cost. Performances are uniformly excellent, especially Young and Fonda, who remade their careers with their brittle performances, but also Buttons, a heartbreaking Bedelia and Sarrazin, whose fine work in the ’70s seems forgotten today. Kino’s Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks ported over from the 1996 laserdisc: one with Pollack and the other compiled from interviews with Fonda, Buttons, Bedelia, Sarrazin and producers Irwin Winkler and Michael Baum. A making-of featurette, which shows Pollack putting forward as much physical effort as his actors in rehearsing the derby run, and the theatrical trailer round out the set.
“Whale Rider” (2002, Shout! Factory) Tradition dictates that only first-born boys can lead the small Maori community of Whangara, on New Zealand’s North Island, but Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes, “Game of Thrones”) – whose twin brother and mother die in childbirth, and whose grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) is opposed to any deviation from long-established rules – has other ideas. Moving and much-lauded coming-of-age story from director Niki Caro (“The Zookeeper’s Wife”) tackles “big” issues of maturity, gender roles and cultural heritage without heavy-handed emotional cues or the condescension that Hollywood often applies to films about indigenous people; she’s aided by terrific performances from the Maori cast – which includes Cliff Curtis and actor/director Rachel House (“Eagle vs. Shark,” “Moana”) – and especially the then-13-year-old Castle-Hughes, who earned an Oscar nomination for her luminescent turn. Save for a few salty words, “Whale Rider” is perfect viewing for any adolescent –boy or girl- looking for an uplifting and honest film about growing up; Shout Factory’s 15th Anniversary Blu-ray includes extras commentary by Caro, interviews with the primary cast, producers and composer Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance), screen tests featuring Castle-Hughes, and eight deleted scenes with commentary by Caro.
“I am the Blues” (2015, Film Movement) Intimate and meditative look at the lives of blues musicians performing in the small clubs, bars and backyards that make up the remnants of the Chitlin’ Circuit across the Deep South. Emmy-winning Canadian documentarian Daniel Cross (“Last Train Home”) anchors his film on 81-year-old Bobby Rush – the veteran performer and recent Grammy winner is the closest thing to a “name” in the picture –who serves as a conduit to lesser known players, including left-handed guitarist and soul singer Barbara Lynn and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who claims to be the last proponent of the beautiful and melancholy Bentonia School of guitar playing. Their stories, which freely mix encounters with blues architects like B.B. King and the realities of a hard life in music, elevate Cross’s film from music documentary to a story about tradition, dedication and culture (like “Whale Rider”), and should broaden its appeal beyond the blues faithful. Film Movement’s DVD includes expanded interviews with Rush and deleted scenes involving New Orleans giants Allen Toussaint and Little Freddie King.
“Go, Johnny, Go” (1959, Sprocket Vault) DJ Alan Freed and Chuck Berry recall, via flashback, their discovery of pop singer Johnny Melody (played by pop/R&B singer Jimmy Clanton), whose natural rhythm takes him from the orphanage to the top of the charts. Low-budget rock and roll picture offers the usual no-nothing stance on the music and a sappy romance between Clanton (whose real music career showed a bit more grit) and Sandy Stewart, but it’s also buoyed by some boss musical performances, including Berry (“Memphis, Tennessee” and the title track), knockout vocal group R&B from the Flamingos (“Jump Children”) and Cadillacs (“Please Mr. Johnson”), Jackie Wilson sliding and gliding through “You Better Know It,” and the sole film appearance by 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, who delivers “Ooh My Head” with palpable joy (Eddie Cochran is also present, but he’s saddled with a stiff, “Teenage Heaven”). The music segments are the primary reason to check out the film, though Sprocket Vault’s digitally remastered DVD looks stellar and the commentary by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker runs a close second for its mix of scholarship and bemusement over the film’s stiffer moments. Not to bring you down or anything, but within a year of this film’s release, both Valens and Cochran were dead, Berry was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the original lineups of the Cadillacs and Flamingos had split, and Freed’s radio and TV career was over, due largely to accusations of payola.
“The Ghoul” (2016, Arrow Video) In an attempt to root out information about a suspected murderer, police detective Tom Meeten feigns clinical depression in order to speak with the killer’s psychologist (Niahm Cusack). Though their sessions are ostensibly a setup to gain access to her files, Meeten begins to reveal to her that part of his pathology involves fantasies about being a police detective. These confessions blossom into a full-bore alternate reality (maybe) in which Meeten stalks his former girlfriend (Alice Lowe) – a forensic profiler who advised him on how to fake his illness – and his pursuit of the killer might just lead a third, even more bizarre possibility. Again, maybe. Disorienting debut feature by Gareth Tunley, who appeared in several films by British director Ben Wheatley (who serves as producer for “The Ghoul”) overcomes its low-budget limitations and offers an experience that may draw in as many viewers as it leaves unsettled or alienated. A preference for metaphysical mysteries of the David Lynch variety may be required to land in the former group; those who want a clear-cut path to the end won’t find it here. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes interviews with cast and crew, commentary by Tunley and Meetan, and a short film, “The Baron,” with many of the same players.