At Barnes & Noble, Christmas comes twice a year for movie buffs, when the store holds its popular half off sale on all Criterion Collection Blu-rays and DVDs. With one week remaining on its fall sale, here’s five recommendations. (And, what the hell, a few more, sight unseen, like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and David Fincher’s The Game, and two favorites from last year, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. Criterion’s enshrinement of Michael Cimino’s perplexing, fascinating, and maligned Heaven’s Gate, due later this month, may be the cinematic reclamation event of the year.)
For your consideration:
David Lean Directs Noël Coward. Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia has finally made it to Blu-ray in its 50th anniversary year, and, to paraphrase Monty Python, there has been much rejoicing. But there is a case to be made for the greatness of the earlier work that stands in the shadows of Lawrence and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and this box set, which celebrates the pairings of the former film editor and the playwright-turned-screenwriter, weighs in for the defense. The sublime romance Brief Encounter (1945) gets a makeover, while the other three–the affecting, pro-Navy In Which We Serve (1942), the between-wars family saga This Happy Breed (1944), and the “spirited” ghost comedy Blithe Spirit (1945)–are new to Criterion. (Breed and Spirit are in glorious Technicolor.) Extensive extras that focus on the two men also take in the two other members of their “Cineguild,” writer-co-producer-production manager Anthony Havelock-Allan and cinematographer-writer Ronald Neame; Neame, who later directed The Poseidon Adventure (1972), participates in an interview filmed shortly before his death in 2010, at age 99.
Eating Raoul. I discovered the late, great Paul Bartel’s wonderful indie, a bellwether of that vital DIY era in American cinema, on VHS and cable in 1983, went to revival screenings thereafter, and hoped for something better than the subpar DVD that’s out there. It’s Criterion to the rescue, giving the saga of Mary (Mary Woronov) and Paul Bland (Bartel), frugal, sexless gourmands who find homicide their meal ticket to a better way of life, a much-needed A/V transfusion. The film itself hasn’t aged a day and is timelessly funny if you like your comedies served pitch black. Extras include two shorts from Bartel (the director of Death Race 2000), Naughty Nurse and The Secret Cinema, which was later remade for the Spielberg-produced TV show Amazing Stories. Its ideal co-feature is Bartel’s Private Parts (1972), which is on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.
The Forgiveness of Blood. Contemporary indies come and go, and most last but two or three weeks on screens even in New York. Bubbling up from the morass of VOD is the sophomore feature from Joshua Marston (2004’s Maria Full of Grace), about teen siblings, content in present-day Albania, who are drawn into a blood feud with neighbors by their vengeful father. Modernity slips away ruthlessly as the past stakes its claim on the present in an absorbing drama. Marston’s informative commentary track sets the tone for the extras, which are steeped in Albanian lore. I can only wonder where he’ll go next.
Godzilla. And Gojira. Courtesy of a spectacular Criterion Blu (and DVD) enjoy the Big G’s first appearance in two variants, the Japanese original, from 1954, and the Raymond Burr-ed American recut of 1956, which is far from a throwaway (it’s what we grew up, and all in all it’s a sensitive job of assimilation). The Criterion package builds on a touchstone Classic Media release from 2006 with fresh transfers and a typically outstanding array of supplements, focusing on the actors and key creative personnel, the effects that brought Godzilla to life, and the tragic real-life incident that sparked the film. (On the other end of the G spectrum Media Blasters has on DVD the first official release of 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, which is to Godzilla what A View to a Kill is to James Bond, but still tacky fun, and with greater unintentional amusement than an infamous 1977 NBC telecast, hosted by a Godzilla-suited John Belushi; my mom let me stay up till 11pm to watch it. With December’s release of Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) we just need an official issue of The Return of Godzilla (and its Burr-ed American recut, the dodgier Godzilla 1985) for a full house of Godzilla goodness on disc. Go, go, Godzilla!–and Criterion continues the Japanese madness this month with an Eclipse set, “When Horror Came to Shochiku,” that includes “4:30 Movie” favorite The X from Outer Space and the chilling apocalyptic terror of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.)
The 39 Steps. A banner year for Alfred Hitchcock on Blu-ray (which includes fine Region B discs of The Lodger and Lifeboat) includes a welcome upgrade of his 1935 classic, which set the standard for breathless intrigue. (You can see a very rough outline for the Bonds here.) Extras include a commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary from 2000, a radio adaptation from 1937, and a excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s legendary 1962 interview with the filmmaker. The delightful stage play adapted from the film is probably still kicking around somewhere and is worth a visit.
While you’re at it, may as well throw in Brave for the kids. (Throw in the cheaper one if, like me, you’re not 3D-capable.) They’ll probably demand to have the year’s top-grossing animated movie to date on their shelves–but how much they’ll revisit it is open to question. With the purely-for-profit release of Cars 2, and sequels to Finding Nemo and the ho-hum Monsters, Inc. on the drawing board, it’s clear Pixar has entered a new and more mercenary phase of its existence. Brave, an original story and the company’s first foray into fairy tales, is a reminder of what used to be. (If the still-to-come is up to the levels of the Toy Story trilogy, we can relax.)
What used to be, however, used to be better, or at least more inclusive. Pixar reemphasized the “family” in “family entertainment”; the Scots-themed Brave will appeal more to the wee ones, and I have to say mine were a bit restless in between appearances by the scary, limb-lopping bear who functions, half-heartedly, as the villain of the story. (The limb-lopping is implied, if you thought otherwise.) The movie, which had a troubled production history, has its heart in the right place, with a demanding mother-restless daughter conflict that might resolve a few arguments at home. But, for as much as I enjoyed the voice performers (Kelly Macdonald is the willful princess, Merida, Emma Thompson her distracted, annoyed mother, and who else but Billy Connolly could be the fun-loving king?), the stunning animation prowess that brought a fantasy glen to life, and Patrick Doyle’s lilting score, I felt more than a tinge of deja vu at both the antics and the uplift. The story is essentially Freaky Friday, with the girl taking on the grown-up responsibilities she thought she wanted and mom transformed into a (nice, befuddled) ursus. My kids loved that Merida’s three brothers also turned into bears thanks to a misplaced curse but wandered around the living room for a chunk of the rest, which isn’t a good omen for rewatchability. (On the other hand my daughter has asked for a bow and arrow for Christmas.)
That al said, this deluxe edition of Brave is, ahem, loaded for bear. Besides the superlative image and audio we take as givens from Pixar there are abundant extras, including a thorough directors’ commentary that minimizes the backstage conflicts, behind the scenes footage, extended scenes, promotional material, the Oscar-nominated short La Luna, and a pull-no-punches piece about ancient Scotland titled “Dirty Hairy People.” It’s a solidly edifying set lacking only a movie to match it; we can only hope that Pixar will continue to be brave, like Merida, and forge new paths in the commercial wilderness.