“The Harder They Come” (1973, Shout! Select) Jimmy Cliff turns outlaw and self-styled folk hero when his dreams of becoming a reggae singer are met with corruption from the Kingston music industry and brutality at the hands of the police. The first feature made in Jamaicans by Jamaican filmmakers (director Perry Henzell), “Harder” had the right mix of authenticity and grit – as well as a stellar soundtrack featuring Cliff on the iconic title track, “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” as well as Desmond Dekker‘s “007 (Shanty Town)” and the Maytals‘ “Pressure Drop” – to win over Stateside audiences during its extended run as a midnight movie (distributed by Roger Corman) in the 1970s, and eventually help to serve as a beachhead for Jamaican music to enter the global mainstream. Shout! Select’s three-disc Blu-ray set is a stellar showcase, offering multiple interviews with the late Henzell, Cliff, crew and family members, admirers (like Ridley Scott), but the real find is Henzell’s long-lost second film, 1986’s “No Place Like Home,” which documents an American production crew’s deep dive into Jamaican culture while shooting a commercial (starring P.J. Soles!) on the island. It ambles where “Harder” pops and crackles, but looks gorgeous, and deserves wider exposure.
“The Fate of Lee Khan” (1972, Film Movement) In this Chinese historical drama, the fate of Mongolian general Lee Khan (Shaw Bros. vet Tien Feng) – as in Genghis and Kublai – will be decided at a remote desert inn, where he hopes to obtain a resistance group’s battle plans, and where a cadre of secret and double agents intend to prevent (or defend) him from doing so with their fists and feet. One of three “inn” films made by the eclectic Hong Kong director King Hu (the others being the terrific “Come Drink with Me” and “Dragon Inn“) before delving into the epic fantasies “A Touch of Zen” and “Legend of the Mountain,” “Lee Khan” is a martial arts film that places as much emphasis on character study and backroom political drama as it does on roundhouse kicks, though the latter – choreographed by the great Sammo Hung – are exciting and expertly detailed. The mix shouldn’t work, but Hu makes room for it all, moving his players around the inn set with chess-like precision; the film also enjoys an appealing feminist streak in a quintet of freedom fighters led by the great Li Li-Hua and including Shaw Bros. vets Angela Mao and Helen Ma, who meet their match in Khan’s sister, a formidable warrior played by Hsu Feng. It’s kung fu action for grindhouse devotees and arthouse types alike, and well served by Film Movement’s Blu-ray, which features a 2K restoration, a discussion of Hu and “Lee Khan,” new and original trailers, and an essay by historian Stephen Tao.
“Dogman” (2018, Magnolia Home Entertainment) Dog groomer Marcello Fonte – mild-mannered and mostly overlooked in his faded Italian seaside hometown – supplements his income by selling cocaine to the locals, including mountainous thug Edoardo Pesce, who upends his life. Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2018 is a satisfying mix of black comedy and gritty-grisly noir from director Matteo Garrone, who underscores here the keen understanding of the deep and ugly emotions behind casual violence and displays of power he showed in his previous films (the brutal mob drama “Gomorrah” and the eccentric and gruesome “Tale of Tales“); his ability to balance heartbreak, humor and brutality elevates this quiet character study to a memorable cautionary tale about getting what you want. Magnolia’s DVD is subtitled and in widescreen.
“Merrill’s Marauders” (1962, Warner Archives Collection) World War II drama based loosely on the real-life Army unit sent behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia to stop the Japanese army. Jeff Chandler (in a role intended for Gary Cooper) is the hard-nosed general leading the troops through the Burmese jungle in spite of his increasingly dire health, while Ty Hardin, Andrew Duggan and Claude Akins carry out his orders. Though compromised by the studio’s instance on an positive ending, “Marauders” showcases director Samuel Fuller‘s grasp of the toil, sweat and terror inherent to combat; there’s no false bravado on the battlefield here, just soldiers fighting because they’ve been called to do so, even under insurmountable circumstances like the finale at a maze-like railroad yard. The Warner Blu-ray offers a new HD master presentation and includes the extended theatrical trailer featuring the film’s technical adviser, real-life Marauder Lt. Gen. Sam Wilson.
Thanks to Warner Bros. for sending this Blu-ray gratis for review.
“Savage Harbor” (1987, Vinegar Syndrome) Sailors Frank Stallone and Chris Mitchum dock in San Pedro, where Stallone begins a relationship with ex-working girl/addict Karen Mayo-Chandler based on their mutual interests in avocados and public displays of affection. Crime boss Anthony Caruso (who had been playing bad guys since World War II) takes umbrage and kidnaps Mayo-Chandler, which activates Stallone’s one-man-army mode. Grimy action-thriller (also known as “Death Feud”) from director Carl Monson and producer/”Tolucan Times” publisher Marti Rustam delivers a modest amount of slam and bang, but its core appeal is its eccentricities: Stallone’s seemingly improvised dialogue (and all that avocado talk), the shambling pace, distracted pace and oddball casting (Lisa Loring, a.k.a. Wednesday Addams, and scary Nicholas Worth). Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray – drawn from a new 2K restoration – includes an amusing, self-effacing interview with Stallone and another with cinematographer Jack Beckett, who worked on everything from the Beach Blanket films to “Manson.”