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Kapò and The Sadist With Red Teeth – Two Kinds of Horror and the DVDs of the Week

Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House)

In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?

Kapo
Kapo

Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.

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These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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DVDs of the Month: The African Queen and Bigger Than Life

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

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Last Call for Nearly 30 Criterion DVDs (and one Blu-ray)

Just in this week on the Criterion website: Criterion is losing the rights a number of titles in their collection in March. (See the original post on Criterion Currents here.)

The curtain is soon to fall on Criterion's lavish DVD of Powell and Pressberger's "The Tales of Hoffman"

The home video rights to a number of films from the StudioCanal library will go to Lionsgate at the end of March. The Criterion editions will go out of print (or on moratorium, as they say in the video industry) and will be unavailable commercially on the U.S. until Lionsgate puts out their own editions.

As you may know, Criterion has direct access to the Janus film library, a tremendous collection of international classics that makes up the majority of its releases, but they also license many films from other studios and collections. Those contracts last for a period of time and then are up for renewal, and in this case StudioCanal did not renew with Criterion. It’s likely nothing personal, just business, as they say, and perhaps not even something they have a choice over. Lionsgate has been releasing a lot of StudioCanal films (coming up later this month are Blu-ray editions of Kurosawa’s Ran, Godard’s Contempt and the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers) and this just may be a contractual part of their relationship. (This is, mind you, merely supposition on my part and not based on any inside information.)

Regardless, a number of Criterion titles (including a couple of box sets) will be unavailable by the end of March (see list below) so Criterion is offering a deal through their website: an extra $5 off each of these titles while supplies last. You can also continue to purchase them through Amazon and other traditional merchants until the end of March (or until the current stocks are depleted, whichever comes first).

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Good Things in Big Packages: DVD Box Sets of 2009

I’m winding down my year in DVD coverage with this highly subjective survey of the box sets of 2009 that brought new titles to DVD (no collections of previously released titles in new packages here). To be clear, I didn’t see every set that came along, or even every film in those that I did see, but I made an effort to see as many interesting things as I could over the course of my duties as the DVD reviewer for MSN Entertainment. (Conspicuously absent is Criterion’s lavish AK 100, simply because I did not receive a review copy and couldn’t afford to plunk down the purchase price for a set with only four DVD debuts.) Here are the most interesting sets I had the pleasure to see in the course of my DVD reviewing in 2009, in brief sketches. I have written at more length about some of these releases and offer links to those reviews where possible.

10. The Secret Policeman’s Balls (Shout! Factory)

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman

When Amnesty International needed to raise money and their profile, John Cleese called up his buddies (which included the members of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to help put on fundraiser. And then another. And the rest is history. This three-disc set collects the films made of five of these benefits, beginning with the 1976 Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, part documentary (with extensive footage of rehearsals) and part performance film. Adding to the fun is role swapping: Peter Cook in a Python sketch, Terry Jones joining Beyond the Fringe, everyone belting out “The Lumberjack Song.” Pete Townsend provides acoustic musical interludes in the 1979 The Secret Policeman’s Ball, where Rowan Atkinson (among others) joins the fun. Musical guests became more prominent in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), including Sting, Bob Geldoff, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and downright dominate The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987), but the skit comedy focus returns in the final benefit film. The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989) opens with Michael Palin and John Cleese doing “Pet Shop” (with a twist punchline) and features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their first live appearance together in years), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The set also features a wealth of unseen skits and musical performances and the feature-length 2004 documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? among the supplements.

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DVD Discoveries and Rediscoveries 2009

A sexy giallo thriller
"A sexy giallo thriller"

My oh my how spoiled we get. Once upon a time, we cult hounds would hunt through neighborhood video stores to uncover off-brand VHS releases of obscure Italian horror films and dubbed editions of foreign movies, which we would devour no matter how grainy the transfer or censored the print. Now, more than ten year into the DVD age, we have become so… demanding. Uncut prints. Restored masters. Clean soundtracks. And widescreen films should be anamorphic. Otherwise, they look soft and fuzzy when blown up to fill our widescreen HD home theater screens.

The following films are not the necessarily of the finest video or audio quality, but they are all much appreciated releases of forgotten, unavailable or otherwise enigmatic foreign rarities and cult items with irresistible (credentials). Some of these films I knew by reputation only, some I had never even known of, until the DVD release introduced me to the glories of these films. There are surely many other films that slipped by me this year, but these were my discoveries of 2009. This is why I love DVD.

5. Lookin’ to Get Out: Director’s Cut (Warner) – Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Ashby was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it’s hardly a lost masterpiece but it is a revelation of sorts, a shaggy dog gambling caper with characters whose eccentricities are so passionately embraced by the performers that they come to unexpected life. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything.

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TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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Ten DVD Releases That Made 2009 Great

I’ve done my “Best of 2009 on DVD and Blu-ray” list for MSN, which features the usual mix of films old and new and packages creative, lavish and otherwise really, really cool. Here I’d like to do something a little different. This isn’t about the greatest transfers, the most splendiferous supplements, the coolest commentaries, the biggest box sets or the latest, most lavish edition of some perennial collectible (be it The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or The Seventh Seal, all of which were rereleased on DVD in impressive new editions in conjunction with their stunning Blu-ray debuts). This is all about the movies themselves, those long awaited releases of classics, landmarks, auteur oddities and cult favorites. And yes, quality is an issue, but not the issue.

I’ll be tackling box sets, cult oddities and silent releases in separate features but I begin with ten films that made their DVD debut this year. Not necessarily the most important or the greatest, but those unheralded releases that make my job such a joy. In no particular order, I count them down starting with my own modest contribution to the year in DVD…

The Exiles
The Exiles

10. The Exiles (Milestone/Oscilloscope) – In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in the DVD release of this amazing American indie, almost forgotten until Thom Anderson featured it in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. I play moderator on the commentary track with author/filmmaker Sherman Alexie and I interview Alexie for a separate audio-only interview on the second disc of the collection. That said, this is arguably the great archival release of the year. Kent Mackenzie’s independently produced 1961 drama (when independent cinema was the realm of mavericks and dreamers working in the margins, rather than studio subsidiaries and major actors looking for a challenge) chronicled the lives of urban American Indians (all of them non-actors drawing from their own lives) on the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles over one long, alcohol-lubricated night.

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DVD Tricks and Treats: Small Screen Halloween Picks

Instead of the usual “best of” countdown of familiar classics, here’s a look at some of the more interesting horrors that have arrived on DVD within the last year. (Reviews originally published on seanax.com)

The Hills Run Red
The Hills Run Red

Direct to DVD:

The Hills Run Red (Warner) is the rare self-aware horror by an unabashed fan of the genre that works on its own terms. Dave Parker’s first feature, his sadly underappreciated love-letter to Italian horror films and giallo buffs The Dead Hate the Living!, was made ten years ago. In the meantime he honed his technical skills on movie documentaries and featurettes for DVDs. As a result, The Hills Run Red—which sends another horror buff on the trail of a lost movie with a camera, a small crew and the lost girl-turned-junkie stripper daughter (Sophie Monk) of the mysterious, long dead director and into a real-life continuation of the film—is leaner, tighter, more assured in its direction and less obvious in its references. His male leads are a bit thin—Parker creates likable characters but not particularly vivid or memorable heroes—but Sophie Monk takes a big bloody bite out of her part and William Sadler makes the mad movie director into a real gone guy, an obsessive lost in his delusions of suffering for art. Other people’s suffering, that is. “Everybody is expendable for the good of the movie,” is his mantra. “Everybody.” The signature villain, Babyface, is as visually distinctive a figure as you could hope for (it has eerie echoes of a creature escaped from a Quay Brothers nightmare) and the shake of a baby rattle as he runs after his victims is a nice touch.

You can find echoes of Psycho, Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project and Theodore Roszak’s cult cinephile novel Flicker in the script (which was significantly worked over by The Crow screenwriter David J. Schow) and imagery, and there’s a timely meta-textual debate on the aesthetics of modern horror cinema that is played for grisly humor between warring art-killers. While one argues for the importance of context and emotional resonance, the other makes the case for shock value and upping the ante on sadism spectacle: “Nobody cares about that subtext shit.” But the film works on its own merits. Parker knows what he wants and he gets it. He plays with the contrast of movie-movie gore (the idea that what we’re seeing is a special effect) and the “real” gore assaulting our characters by shifting our perspectives time and again, and he blurs the line between on-screen and off-screen reality, at least for these characters. Features commentary by Parker with writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett and the shot-on-location featurette “It’s Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red,” which is a bit disorganized but captures the excitement of the creators (like Parker, they create trailers and DVD featurettes for other people in their day jobs) getting to make their own feature.

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Nikkatsu Noir – DVDs for the Week

Nikkatsu Noir

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of Japan’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. Whether or not the five Japanese gangster films in the Nikkatsu Noir box set from Eclipse are true noirs is debatable, but they are lively B-movie artifacts from the wild and weird era of Nikkatsu’s glory days of crime movie programmers, when the mob movie rats (like Seijun Suzuki) ran wild through the genre.

Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse
Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse

It’s no surprise that the Suzuki contribution to the set is the most visually and stylistically dynamic, which is not necessarily to say it’s the best. Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) has a great title, a dynamic opening scene (which, no surprise, begins with a police prisoner transport bus sighted through a rifle scope) and a thoroughly routine detective plot that Suzuki turns into a hot-blooded crime conspiracy thriller featuring kidnapped girls, punk snipers, a stripper killed with an arrow to the breast, a paroled criminal tossed off a cliff, faked deaths, hidden agendas and a prison guard (Michitaro Mizushima) turned dogged investigator trying to piece it all together. In classic crime movie fashion, the bad guys don’t just shoot the good guys, they tie them up in the cab of a gas tanker, let the brake off and send it down a hill trailing gasoline, and light a match to the trail. Given the incendiary dimensions of the scene, I’m particularly impressed that the victims use a lighter to try and burn through the ropes before the fire catches up to the tanker. Mizushima has a real straight-arrow presence amidst the cast of crazed killers, colorful small-time crooks and wild girls, but he has the personality to hold his own and Suzuki packs a lot into 79 minutes of black-and-white Nikkatsuscope craziness.

In fact, all the films in the set are B&W widescreen with the exception of the Koreyoshi Kurahara’s moody I Am Waiting (1957), the earliest film in the collection. The tale of an optimistic bar owner with dreams abroad and a beautiful runaway singer with a painful past (“I’m a canary that’s forgotten how to sing,” she explains) has an atmosphere that recalls the grim beauty of the Jean Gabin French poetic realist films of fog-wrapped port towns and pitiless villages. It’s the outskirts of Yokohama here, where handsome, helpful ex-boxer Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a pretty girl (Mie Kitahara) from a rainy coast storm and gives her a place to stay in his colorful dive of a dockside bar. They’re both walking wounded, licking their wounds from careers cut short, but it takes another shot to knock the dreams out of Joji and set him on the trail of his brother’s killer, which just so happens to lead to the gangster who has made a claim on the girl. The fog, the night scenes and the grimy port town atmosphere do wonders to keep the budget down and the mood up, but it all gets less dreamy and more tawdry as Joji goes up against the gangster thugs and battles it out in a nightclub with a floor that lights up. It’s easily the most restrained film in the set, more mood piece than action movie, which gives it a little more class than the more aggressively explosive films that follow. And a great bluesy theme song crooned like a lament.

A similarly regret-laden saloon song is crooned over the credits of Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958), which is otherwise more gangster thriller than shadowy noir, complete with a Naked City-style opening narration explaining the culture of crime and corruption ravaging the city. As an arrogant crime boss laughs off every arrest with a hearty cackle, a crusading District Attorney pressures a former criminal (Yujiro Ishihara) trying to put his past behind him to testify, to no avail. At least not until it becomes personal, a matter of honor and revenge. There’s plenty of blackmailing and double-crosses and suicide and Jo Shishido (pre-plastic surgery, just before he became a genre icon with the puffy cheeks) gets tossed off a train, and sure enough a rusty knife is pulled out for a bout of poetic justice. Conventional all the way, to be sure, but the juvenile energy of young thug high on hush money and the city streets and abandoned lots shrouded in night give it a perfectly shadowy atmosphere.

Jo Shishido has barely a few minutes of screen time in Rusty Knife but takes the lead in the final films in the collection, with his now distinctive chipmunk-cheek look in place. (Chuck Stephens writes a bit about the curious – and strangely successful – plastic surgery that Shishido undertook to give him those puffy cheeks and set him apart from the rest of the pretty-boy action starts in the accompanying notes). Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs. Togawa (Shishido), sprung from prison early so he can run the heist for a big business gangster leader, has reservations about the job and for good reason. He and his reliable second-in-command are stuck with a sneering junkie and a punch-drunk boxer a few knocks away from brain death. Shishido’s Togawa is a cool customer, pensive and still, always sizing up the situation, which serves him well when the perfect armored car heist hits a glitch. It’s telling that they hole up in a former American military base, now a decaying slum of rotting buildings; the American influence hovers over the entire film, a classic American crime movie in a Japanese idiom. “I need payback,” Togawa demands, just before he’s grabbed by thugs who would like nothing better than help him metes out his revenge without mercy. The brassy score powers it along with a driving beat, down into the sewers and back up into a thoroughly nihilistic ending.

Jo Shishido is a cool killer
Jo Shishido is a cool killer – but what’s with those cheeks?

The set ends in 1967 with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, though if I’m not mistaken it’s actually a Baretta that is assassin Shuji’s (Shishido) handgun of choice. For his hit on an aging crime boss he uses a high powered rifle, but the killing is the last thing that goes right on this job. With the airports and docks covered, Shuji and his partner hole up in a port town truck stop while awaiting new travel plans. Once again, Shishido is the cool customer in a world of easily corruptible crooks and civilians. He trades his own life to rescue his partner, but in this world it’s apparently just fine to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot it out at your surrender. Shuji is a pretty far sighted guy; he has a second brake hidden in his getaway car and even digs himself a shallow grave for the final showdown, but he’s got other plans for it. The great spaghetti western-inspired score adds familiar Japanese instruments and jazz inflections as it progresses, becoming a real genre symphony, and Nomura pulls out all stops for the mad shoot-out in an abandoned quarry: this film’s answer to the desert plains of a spaghetti western. It ends the set on a high note and I was left high on crazy crime movie fumes. None of these are masterpieces but they are all inventive little nuggets of genre fun with energy, attitude and style, and in moments–such as the wild finale here–it’s just plain delirious.

Eclipse is Criterion’s budget-minded line of box set so there are no supplements, but Asian film expert Chuck Stephens provides brief essays with each film. Stephens has a rather overripe writing style, more expressive of his love of the films than of the films or the genre itself, but he does offer some context and background on the films and filmmakers and on the youth culture that brought younger and younger faces on to the screens.

The transfers are all fine, the earliest showing a little wear, the later ones sharper and with strong contrasts. Only Take Aim at the Police Van shows any noticeable flaws: in the master shots the image has a soft pocket in the center right, but only for long shots. Close-ups and medium shots look fine, which leads me to believe that it’s an issue with the master materials. Regardless, it’s a very minor issue and does not distract from the film. The soundtracks are strong, with only minor hiss, and the music comes through strong and clear. All in all, a real treat.

Published in conjunction with seanax.com.

Honda’s Sci-Fi, Cassavetes’ Husbands, Tati at Play – DVDs for the Week

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

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Claude Chabrol on DVD

Consider this a post-script to Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon: your guide to revisiting Chabrol on DVD (U.S. DVD releases only). More than half of Chabrol’s over 50 features have been released to DVD stateside, thanks in large part to such labels as Kino, Kimstim, Pathfinder and First Run, with other labels filling in the gaps with individual titles here and there. It’s almost enough for a representative retrospective. Almost.

The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films
The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films

Most of Chabrol’s major films are available, but among the most glaring omissions are his match set of debut features: Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), both starring Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. The roots of his entire career can be found in these beautifully crafted dramas, which are not thrillers per se but complex character studies with roiling relationships; that dynamic remains throughout the best of Chabrol’s films. (For the completist with an all-region player, there are Australian releases of both films in PAL format.) Criterion, how about tackling these New Wave essentials, either in special editions or a no-frills Eclipse collection with some of Chabrol’s less well-known films, like Les godelureaux (1961), also with Jean-Claude Brialy. Also unavailable are Landru (aka Bluebeard, 1963), his beautiful but uncharacteristically neo-realist The Horse of Pride (1980) and his “Dr. Mabuse” film Dr. M (1990), and the anthology films Les sept peches capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1962) and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (World’s Greatest Swindlers, 1964), to which Chabrol contributed a short film apiece.

What’s most frustrating about the treatment of Chabrol’s films that are available on DVD is that he isn’t given the critical attention of his New Wave compatriots. Criterion has lavished attention on the films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle with beautifully restored and remastered editions of the films supplemented by new and archival interviews and documentaries. The Kino releases of Chabrol’s early films are fine and KimStim’s releases look good, but many of the Pathfinder releases are indifferently mastered from mediocre prints and the quality varies substantially from disc to disc. Ten years ago it wasn’t as much of an issue, but with the growth of home theater and HD widescreen monitors, what was a minor defect before becomes magnified.

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The Seventh Seal – DVD (and Blu-ray) of the Week

The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray
The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.

The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.

As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.

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M Butterfly and The Sky Crawlers – DVDs for the Week

M Butterfly (Warner)

Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved by some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. That said, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Seattle International Film Festival and thus only had time to see one of them, but it was a revelation.

M Butterfly on DVD
M Butterfly on DVD

David Cronenberg’s M Butterfly was largely misunderstood or, worse yet, dismissed by most critics when it was released in 1993. The coolly dispassionate screen adaptation of the David Henry Hwang’s Broadway play, itself based on a true story, is in the same key as Cronenberg’s Crash and A History of Violence, and explores the same issues of identity, sexuality and self-definition that he’s been exploring all his career. But in 1993, coming in the wake of The Crying Game and Farewell My Concubine, this elegantly directed period film struck critics as wrong-footed. Jeremy Irons’ René Gallimard, a French diplomat in 1964 Peking, falls in love with Chinese Opera star Song Liling (John Lone), who becomes his fantasy of the submissive Asian woman, as much René’s creation as Song’s. Because, of course, Song is a man. It’s not only obvious to us but to everyone around René that Song is a man (if not as it plays out, then in retrospect – the odd looks René gets as he comes backstage at the Chinese Opera to see Song and the disgust on the face of Song’s servant as René visits Song’s home are not for Song but for René). His mistake is not a misreading of the culture – that would require some knowledge of it – but a complete ignorance of it.  Anyone who knows anything about Chinese Opera understands that the female parts are  all played by men, as least before the Cultural Revolution put an end to all such decadent and chauvinistic practices. There’s plenty of evidence that René sees only what he wishes to in the Chinese culture, from the trap that he and his wife fall in to accepting all the western assumptions of Chinese clichés to his disastrous predictions of the Chinese response to American policy in Vietnam. Just like the opera that gives the film its name (and the name that René gives Song: Butterfly), it’s a western fantasy of idealized, self-sacrificing Asian submitting to the power of the west with demure grace and romanticized tragedy. In other words (Song’s words specifically), another example of imperialist arrogance in a foreign land.

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Jo Shishido and the Red Cherry Blossom Wanderer – DVDs for the Week

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Kino)

detectivebureau2-3
Jo Shishido is too cool

It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.

With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.

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