After a run of superhero mash-ups, Doctor Strange kicks the tires on the MCU, and got my pulse racing a bit after the fatigue of cluttered Avengers and Captain America installments. Adding sorcery and metaphysical elements broadens the palette, with periodic bursts of psychedelia (tiny hands!) and Inception-ish city morphing literally expanding the (Marvel) universe. Yes, it all leads to the usual nondescript Big Bad, lurking somewhere in the far corners of the multiverse, but there’s more fun in getting there this time. With Sherlock having reached its apparent (and disappointing) end, Benedict Cumberbatch, working Hugh Laurie’s American accent from House, has a new franchise character to call his own. The company he keeps is a distinguished lot, too–Chiwetel Ejiofor and a scene-stealing Benedict Wong shine, while Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams fill out stock Marvel roles (the latter in the “girl” part recently vacated by Thor co-star Natalie Portman). Director Scott Derrickson’s commentary begins haughtily, with a back of the hand to critics, but he is forthright about the “no win” casting of Tilda Swinton as the all-knowing Ancient One. (It was, he says, a matter of going conventional and uninteresting, or risking “Dragon Lady” cliches by casting an Asian actress; Swinton, antennae always attuned to the celestial, makes the conception work.) A knockout transfer is accompanied by deleted scenes (favoring Mikkelsen’s “little bad”), a gag reel with Cumberbatch cutting up, making-of’s exploring the fight scenes, music, and design, and a mockumentary spotlighting Thor, whom Doctor Strange seems likely to visiting in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
Speaking of displacement and the universe, an 80s cult favorite, The Quiet Earth, has been released on Blu-ray. The first sci-fi film produced by the New Zealand film industry (in 1985), it’s a “last man” scenario, with the excellent Bruno Lawrence (of seemingly every NZ film of its era) as a researcher mysteriously left alone to sort out “The Effect,” which has claimed all planetary life. Or, maybe, something else is going on in his troubled mind? It’s the kind of movie that asks questions rather than answers them–but if you get stuck, no less an eminence than Neil deGrasse Tyson is on hand for occasional commentary to sort things out. (It’s one of his personal favorites.)
The Ardennes: So I get sent things to watch. Some work out, some don’t. Falling more into the latter category is this mashup, not of superheroes, but of super-directors Martin Scorsese and David Fincher, favorites of Belgian director Robin Proust. The heavy visual pall of Fincher flicks like Seven and Fight Club overlays a Scorsesean study of a paroled robber whose violent tendencies worsen when reunited with his brother, who’s trying to go straight, and his girlfriend, who has secretly taken up with the brother in the interim. The bodies can’t stay buried for long–and fresh ones need dumping in the Ardennes forest, where the movie retreats and grims up. My interest was intermittent. Yet a full complement of supplements–director and actor commentary and interview, making of, and a “Proustian” short film–keep it from being a dead loss.
Beauty and the Beast: No, not that one. This French take is more vintage 40s Cocteau than Disney 90s musical, from Silent Hill director Christophe Gans, whose Gallic epic Brotherhood of the Wolf was an international hit in 2001. Given the pedigree, and two recognizable stars as Belle (Lea Seydoux, Spectre) and the Beast (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan), I thought this would reach our shores nearer its 2014 release, but here it is, three years later, on (beautiful) Blu-ray. It’s a little stiff, and maybe not too engaging for younger viewers. It is, however, luxuriant, in a Mario Bava dreamscape way, and there are evocative, exciting touches, like the living statues that defend the Beast (whose funk over a lost love takes up too much of this retelling.) I’ll take eye candy over live action transcription of well-worn songs anytime. Gans and the two stars appear in supplemental interviews.
Black Dragon’s Revenge and Joe Bullet: The Film Detective has sleuthed a couple of 70s oddities. In the former, from 1975, American martial artist Ron Van Clief goes to Hong Kong to investigate Bruce Lee’s untimely death–not the best idea, as the film’s distributor, nervous about lawsuits, had Lee’s name clumsily scratched from the optical track. Whole sections of the lethargic and poorly made movie, one of many “Bruce Lee” knockoffs from the period, could have been junked with it. But Van Clief, whom the actual Lee dubbed “Black Dragon,” gets some good licks in toward the end and keeps his cool as the movie collapses around him. More peculiar than this “Bruceploitation” is South Africa’s contribution to “blaxploitation,” 1972’s Joe Bullet, which was banned by the apartheid government and lost for decades. Set in the high stakes world of football, it’s also part spaghetti Western, as the title character (Ken Gampu, a familiar face from movies like The Naked Prey and the 1985 version of King Solomon’s Mines) protects players from a mobster out to fix the championship match. It’s rudimentary entertainment, but a commentary from writer-producer Tonie van der Merwe adds valuable perspective about the era, and theorizes that Joe Bullet, with his guns, sports car, and women, was simply too maverick and independent for the powers that be in the regime.
Boiling Point and Violent Cop: My introduction to the wild world of Japan’s Takeshi Kitano came via a 1990 Hong Kong Film Festival screening of the latter film, which was titled Warning! This Man is Wild and was billed as another Lethal Weapon. It was anything but, being a fascinatingly grim and gnarly story of a cop whose hard-nosed policing of yakuza killers brings about many a downfall. Kitano, pigeonholed as a comedian (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, with David Bowie, was a rare departure), leapt at the chance to reinvent himself locally when the project found itself without a director, and the story of his unexpected but successful transition to more brooding and unpredictable style and persona is part of the disc supplements. Boiling Point, his equally accomplished followup, is a comedy of errors about a hapless baseball player mixed up with gangsters, including Kitano, who gives the audience all the scene-stealing it might want–washed down with some heavy violence, and quirky contrasts. After dire DVD releases, both films look their best on Blu-ray, image softness notwithstanding, and Boiling Point has another retrospective piece about Kitano’s evolution as a filmmaker.
The Brand New Testament: Perfect for Lent, the latest from Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto the Hero) is the story of a cranky God’s ten-year-old daughter, who rounds up six apostles of her own (one played by Catherine Deneuve) to undo some of his mandates on Earth. More No, God! than Oh, God!, this is a bright, irreverent, and thought-provoking comedy, and the DVD has plenty of extras, mainly focused on the filmmaker, whose occupied his own niche for decades. (After this, try to catch his film Mr. Nobody, with Jared Leto.)
Cold War 2: The first installment of this police conspiracy series was a big hit in Asia five years ago, not that it ever got a release here. The Blu-ray cover art, suggesting that Mr. Freeze sneaked on set and blasted the actors, isn’t going to move many units of the orphaned sequel. But, what the hell, I decided to take a flyer on it anyway, because: Chow Yun-Fat. Love him, and he’s in good form as a legislative councilor caught in the sometimes literal crossfire betwwen the characters from the first movie, a tough cop (Tony Leung Ka-fai, Chow’s co-star back in the day) and his by-the-book rival (Aaron Kwok). Hong Kong’s political structure was internecine when I lived there, and it’s only thickened since the handover twenty (!) years ago–I got lost in the thicket of details, which will remind you of the Internal Affairs movies without the payoff (and no hope of Martin Scorsese launching a Departed-style remake). But the stars strike a few sparks and the action, including a tunnel car crash, is explosive. Brief making-of supplements are included.
The Exterminating Angel: There’s strange, and there’s Luis Bunuel strange. Fifty-five years young this year, one of his best films, a surrealistic broadside against Franco’s Spain, still surprises, as guests at a fancy party find themselves unable to leave. Their mounting desperation is an excuse for the filmmaker to dole out some payback, and it’s a dish served delirious. The HD upgrade shows its age in image and sound, but the supplements ported over from a prior DVD are excellent, and include an interview with co-star Silvia Pinal and a feature-length documentary about Bunuel, “The Last Script.”