Let’s get crazy with a roundup of new, recent, and upcoming releases on Blu-ray and DVD…
Bad Dreams/Visiting Hours: A hospital-set “Killer Double Feature” on DVD has received a slight upgrade on Blu-ray, and Visiting Hours (1982), the lesser of the two movies, has been madeover with some interesting new interviews, with producer Pierre David and screenwriter Brian Taggert, both veterans of north of the border “Canucksploitation,” and co-star Lenore Zann, whose eventful career took her from a hooker here to The L Word and, currently, Canadian politics. No one oversells the merits of Visiting Hours, on the surface one of the more misogynistic slashers (scarred by childhood trauma, a blustering psycho, played by a fresh-from-Scanners Michael Ironside, assaults news anchor Lee Grant, who’s crusading for women’s rights, then turns up at the hospital to finish what he’s started) but possessed of a certain Canadian reticence about hot-button stuff destined for consumption in American multiplexes and cast with older veterans like William Shatner and Linda Purl and not the usual screaming teens. Audiences who didn’t see it on HBO a few times in the ERA era probably won’t have share my residual affection for the film. Niftier, and swifter, is Bad Dreams (1988), a seeming ripoff of Freddy Krueger mythos that goes its own intriguing way, as a young woman awakened from a coma (Jennifer Rubin, straight from the third Nightmare on Elm Street entry) is plagued by the long-deceased cultist (Richard Lynch, always chilling) determined to avenge himself from the beyond. Sharply written and edited, it was the first credit for 24-year-old Andrew Fleming (subsequently of The Craft and Dick), under the aegis of Gale Ann Hurd and James Cameron, and he has to lot to say about it on a commentary track retained from the 2011 DVD. (The film might be better known if Guns N’Roses, whose “Sweet Child O’Mine” plays on the soundtrack, had made a tie-in video at the cusp of their stardom, but it was not to be.) Other supplements ported over include a segment on makeup artist Michèle Burke, a two-time Oscar winner (for Quest for Fire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and interviews with Rubin, Lynch, and co-stars Bruce Abbott and Dean Cameron, in which bad blood over Bad Dreams is discussed.
Bloodlust!: Distributor Film Chest has been doing a good job redeeming public domain eyesores with decent HD restorations derived from original 35mm elements. Not all the titles, however, reward their efforts. Exhibit A: This low-rent knockoff of the 1932 classic The Most Dangerous Game, which was produced in 1959, escaped in 1961, and was apparently still playing drive-ins in 1970. It’s notable for two reasons: The supporting presence of Robert (“Mr. Brady”) Reed, as one of a quartet of innocents trying to outwit a mad hunter in the tropics, and its enshrinement by Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1994. Minus the yuks its ineptitude is still mildly funny on its own.
Festival Express: Concert movies aren’t really my bag, and beyond, say, Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz, and Stop Making Sense my interest in the genre thins. But rediscovered cinematic artifacts do grab my attention, and so up from the depths, with well-preserved image and sound, we have this account of a bumptious, substance-fueled 1970 concert tour via train through Canada, with performances by Janis Joplin (singing “Cry Baby” a few months before her death), The Band (“Slippin’ and Slidin'” and “The Weight”), The Grateful Dead (“Don’t Ease Me In” and “Friend of the Devil”), and more. (Sha Na Na really got around in those days, and the audience loves them.) Besides the concerts there’s lots of candid footage (shot by Peter Biziou, an Oscar winner for Mississippi Burning in 1988) and, in the supplements, an hour’s worth of bonus performances by Joplin, the Dead, and others. Fans will want to board this one.
Fists of Legend: A sort of cross between the underrated Warrior and the underattended Grudge Match, this Korean drama centers on the TV show of the title, a mixed martial arts reality program that dredges up streetfighting legends for televised tussles. High school buddies, long separated due to their involvement in a past crime and including in their number a single dad angling for his daughter’s respect, are pitted against one another for the $200,000 prize. Much of the film, which runs an epic 155 minutes, focuses on their wary reconciliation, but the convincingly staged action is fast and brutal, if unfortunately too often underscored by Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which may not be as much of a cliche in Korea as it is here. Extras include a making-of and an OK English language dub if you prefer your MMA minus subtitles.
Foreign Correspondent: Alfred Hitchcock’s precursor to the great chase picture North by Northwest (1959), his second American film after Rebecca that same year, still works best in parts for me, and you know which parts they are: the windmill, the umbrellas, the plane crash. A top-notch Blu-ray transfer, miles ahead of a prior DVD, and a typically comprehensive package of Criterion Collection extras go a long way toward considering the whole, however. These include critic Mark Harris with an excellent video piece, “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” that dovetails nicely with his outstanding new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Hitchcock, not one of the five directors profiled, did his best to massage the propaganda content of the film), effects ace Craig Barron on the still-riveting setpieces, overseen by the great William Cameron Menzies (Things to Come), and a colorful Dick Cavett interview with the director from 1972. 1940 was quite a rollercoaster year for Hitchcock: Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent were up for a total of 17 Oscars in 1941, with Rebecca edging out the spy film for Best Picture (and adding only a second Academy Award, for cinematography, despite those multiple nominations).
Frozen: Before the billion dollar gross, the two Oscar wins, and the “Adele Dazeem” flap at the Academy Awards, I took my daughter to see the Disney blockbuster at an early screening, and figured she would really warm to it after 500 or so viewings on DVD and Blu-ray. Thanks to a screener we blew past that some time ago, and a gorgeous Blu-ray should have us past the 800 mark soon. Yes, Olaf is a bit of a drag, stylistically and for older viewers, but the movie gets a lot more right–the characterization of Elsa nails the Carrie vibe of supernatural pathos stronger than the recent remake, and the duplicitous prince (voiced by Santino Fontana, the Prince Charming of Cinderella on Broadway) is genuinely subversive for Disney. It’s not just kids stuff. And it’s given us our 12th EGOT, composer Robert Lopez, who achieved the quadruple crown in just a record ten years. Unlikely to win any prizes, alas, is the scant special edition content, which does include the Oscar-nominated short Get a Horse! but is otherwise unrevealing. (A 3D Blu-ray presentation, as yet unannounced domestically, can be obtained region-free and at a reasonable price from Amazon UK.)
The Grandmaster: Nominated for two Oscars, Wong Kar Wai’s latest makes for a sumptuous Blu-ray, with stunning A/V. This is the kind of film that sings on home video, though the content is off key. Wong’s attempt at a more lyrical, impressionistic version of the life of the famed martial artist Ip Man (Tony Leung), the subject of a half-dozen Hong Kong movies of late, drifts, and it’s not the 20 or so minutes of cuts to a film that ran 130 minutes at Cannes; I’ve seen that version (available on DVD and Blu-ray from international suppliers like YesAsia) and it also frustrates. Wong is seemingly more interested in Ip Man, mentor to Bruce Lee, for decorative purposes than anything else, and Leung cuts his usual brooding romantic figure, with a wonderful hat. But we don’t get much from him, and Wong is more fixated on his rival, the cunning Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who figures in its most pulse-quickening sequences. (The gifted martial arts choreographer, Ju Kun, is alas among the missing on MH370.) What Wong can do with rain, and snow, and the steam from a train surrounded by warring martial artists is nothing short of miraculous, but mood isn’t everything. Adding texture to the viewing experience are some decent supplements, focused on Ip Man, his relationship with Lee (explained by his daughter, Shannon Lee), and the film’s complex production. RZA has a few words to say, too. (Am I the only person who enjoys his Man with the Iron Fists?)
Hollow Triumph: Film Chest makes more of better material with this unsung noir from 1948, which was photographed by that great stylist of the form, John Alton (T-Men, The Big Combo). It was produced by and stars Paul Henried, who was eager to break a streak of earnest portrayals following his Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942). He’s quite good as Muller, a crook who, in a tight spot after a failed casino heist, assumes the identity of a lookalike psychoanalyst–save for a telltale scar on the shrink’s face, which proves to be Muller’s undoing once the doctor has been dispatched. (You may have seen this on TCM under an alternate title, The Scar.) Co-starring first lady of noir Joan Bennett (of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and written by Daniel Fuchs, who was soon to pen the classics Criss Cross and Panic in the Streets, this is a dark gem worth excavating.
Iron Sky: Did you love this scattershot sci-fi farce about moon-based Nazis who invade the Earth 70 years after the supposed decimation of the Third Reich? Were you clamoring for a director’s cut with an additional 20 minutes of footage, a 90-minute making of, a 32-page exclusive concept art book, and other goodies, all encased in a sturdy steelbook? No? Well, it’s here anyway. I did chuckle a few times, the production (it’s a Finnish-German-Australian co-production) is impressive, and I’ll see anything featuring Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein). And now I have.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: What a stupendous package Criterion has prepared. You get: The general release version of Stanley Kramer’s all-star comedy from 1963, clocking in at 163 minutes, and a reconstruction of the 198-minute road show edition, surpassing an effort noted archivist Robert A. Harris led in the early 90s on laserdisc (I still have that LD set, and I’m grateful Harris had the chance to better it). Tons of priceless period clips documenting its filming and release and some more contemporary ones, too. (With the passing of Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney is its last surviving headliner.) An almost insanely detailed commentary track featuring devotees Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt on its effects and audio design. (I was always impressed by the risk taking the comedians took; turns out most were doubled by cleverly masked stuntpeople, an illusion that even high-def resolution can’t dispel.) New art from Mad magazine’s Jack Davis. And a fine essay by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick. Amazing. But somehow it’s not the same as watching it when I was a kid, cut and panned and scanned, on CBS once or twice a year, in a three-hour evening timeslot; I got to stay up until 11pm on a school night, and laugh it up with my parents and sometimes grandparents, too. You can’t beat that. And with the passage of time, it’s not the gags I most like, it’s that quiet scene that Dorothy Provine and Spencer Tracy share near “the Big W,” right before the money is uncovered. Provine shares her fantasy of what she might do with the loot, then, as the shouts go up, comments, “Well, it was a nice dream, if only for two minutes,” as Tracy, about to join the fracas, looks at her wistfully…
King of the Hill: What could be better than a Criterion Blu-ray of Steven Soderbergh’s luminous, and long absent, third feature (from 1993)? How about a Criterion Blu-ray that pairs it with his noir-inspired, and long absent, fourth film, The Underneath (1995)? Not that you’ll hear all too much good about it from Soderbergh, who in an interview segment on the disc is both disparaging and apologetic about a heavily stylized movie (based on Daniel Fuchs’ Criss Cross script) that I kind of like, and that I’m not alone in kind of liking. Ease up. Surprisingly he’s no less hard on King, an acknowledged career highlight adapted from A.E. Hotchner’s boyhood memoir of hard times in Depression-era St. Louis, whose protagonist (Jesse Bradford) grows up, for long stretches alone, in a hotel of borderline quality. Soderbergh thinks the film is too pretty, too often at odds with the squalor of the era, and it’s true that once he got this production fussiness out of his system he became a more adaptable, more grounded filmmaker. Yet it’s also heartfelt, unsentimental, and beautifully acted. (Jeroen Krabbe and Lisa Eichhorn are the parents; in support are Karen Allen, Spalding Grey, Elizabeth McGovern, and a pint-sized Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl.) Additional supplements include a more sanguine conversation with the 93-year-old Hotchner, a visual essay about Soderbergh’s early films, deleted scenes, and a booklet with an appreciative essay and a selection from the book. Who wants to see the go-for-broke Kafka, Soderbergh’s second film, get the Criterion treatment? [raises hand]
Noah’s Ark: With everyone vexed over the “historical accuracy” of the upcoming Hollywood epic, along comes the tie-in DVD debut of this 2007 animated feature from Argentina, which features a blond-haired African God, lots of talking, squabbling animals, and many cutesy add-ons to the text as the beasts have their say. Kids might enjoy it; a faith-based audience already uncomfortable with Russell Crowe, perhaps not.
Odd Thomas: The ringer of the bunch, as it’s not out on DVD or Blu-ray until March 25. But it is on VOD, and it did play a few theaters, briefly. I watched it via a video link, and this melange of options is a snapshot of what it’s like out there for indies, even decently budgeted ones like this, without big studio backing. (They get to contend for Independent Spirit Awards, then for Oscars the next night, which, if you ask me, is kind of a joke on independent cinema, but I digress.) It’s a “personal” film for director Stephen Sommers, of the first two Mummy movies and G.I. Joe, which is to say it’s smaller, darker, and weirder than those PG-13 hits, but also at one with them, being based on a creepy/funny novel by Dean Koontz. Anton Yelchin is cast to a T as Odd, a fry cook who sees dead people, and resolves to help them, a task complicated by ever-odder characters, some of them played by Willem Dafoe, Shuler Hensley, Patton Oswalt, and the Mummy himself, Arnold Vosloo. Not lacking in good bits, and with a poignant turn toward the end, the movie suffers from that most common of maladies, an inconsistent tone. If you like this sort of thing, chances are you’ll meet it halfway, so look for it in indie purgatory.
On the Job: Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for…a hitman movie. Yeah, I know [stifles yawn.] But this one, from Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti, is a notch or two above the norm, based as it is on an actual scandal that saw inmates temporarily released from prison to whack the opponents of powerful politicians and military officials. The film traces a police investigation into the murder of a drug dealer, a case that leads to the conspiracy, with much covering of tracks; besides the expected (and unexpected) double crosses and shootouts, On the Job offers incisive, well-acted character studies of the two cops and the two killers, all ensnared in a trap that threatens their families. The gritty, hard-edged presentation on Blu-ray is supplemented by some deleted scenes and a making-of.
Thor: The Dark World: Thor struck me as the runt of the Avengers litter. But Joss Whedon took what was good about it (namely the chemistry generated, separately and together, by stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston), made it work for The Avengers, and I found myself looking forward to, sort of, the next chapter in the story of Thor and Loki. The sequel embraces, and owns, the Viking/alien cheesiness of the concept, and if you can overlook the absence of a credible threat, a wonky storyline that has the characters jack-in-the-boxing out of wormholes in the universe, and a hammer’s-load of weak CGI, it’s fun. If you have a giant-sized monitor to watch the spectacular Blu-ray presentation on, more fun. (Apparently some of the little throwaway moments I liked–“Really?”–were added late in the game to lighten the tone.) Extras include a commentary track featuring Internet crush object Hiddleston and director Alan Taylor, recruited from Game of Thrones, making-ofs focused on the sibling rivalry at the heart of the enterprise and the score, and, as usual, segments dedicated to the last film in the Marvelverse (“All Hail the King,” a teasing short featuring Ben Kingsley from Iron Man 3) and the next one (an exclusive look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon: The last of the martial arts madness this edition, as the prequel to Tsui Hark’s return to form, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), hits Blu-ray with an eye-popping transfer. (Not in its theatrical 3D, though a 3D disc is available from overseas vendors; if you saw and enjoyed Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in that format, spring for it.) Tsui, whose heyday corresponded with my own time in Hong Kong in the late 80s and early 90s, has rebounded strongly, and the Sherlockian character of sleuth Dee Renjie, a member of the Imperial police force, is the primary reason. There’s a lot for him to investigate, as a sea monster is consuming battleships, a lovelorn humanoid fishman is on the prowl, and someone is brewing killer tea. The CGI isn’t always up to Tsui’s fervent imagination but when he’s cooking there are few filmmakers as fun as he is, and the disc, barebones except for a trailer, will delight fans and maybe pull in a few newcomers besides.
You Will Be My Son: Who’s the scariest actor in movies today? A braindead Buzzfeed list wouldn’t wander far beyond our borders, but I’d put Niels Arestrup in serious contention. Not for War Horse, which you may have seen him in, but certainly for A Prophet and now this French melodrama, set amidst the splendor of wine country but roiling with serpents. Arestrup, in full King Lear mode, is Paul, an aging, tyrannical vintner who feels his college-educated son is incapable of running the family winery to his obsessive satisfaction. When the son of his dying estate manager shows up to care for his father, Paul feels he has a new heir–setting off a chain reaction where more than red wine may be spilled. Resentment and recrimination run thick and fast in this absorbing saga, which I would have added to my notable releases of 2013 list if I had seen it before my cut off, merde. The disc includes the trailer, deleted scenes, and an interview with director Gilles Legrand and co-star Lorant Deutsch, who plays the beleaguered fils.