I don’t do holiday gift guides. Not my bag. But–’tis the season and everyone’s having big sales from now until the end of the year, so rather than be Scrooge about it, feel free to stuff your stockings with new releases from these distributors, many of them the smaller ones that are keeping our beloved physical media alive in the age of streaming.
Despite our practically being neighbors here in Brooklyn, Big World Pictures is a label previously unknown to me. Not anymore, as I was recently showered with some of its foreign film acquisitions. Chief among them is an Eric Rohmer comedy-drama, A Summer’s Tale (1996), the story of a music-minded mathematician, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), juggling three appealing women while vacationing in Brittany. Which will he choose for something more lasting…and which will have him? It’s never clear-cut in a languidly paced but somehow always compelling Rohmer film, the sort of movie I appreciate more in my middle years than I did when I was Gaspard’s age, when I bought the infamous line uttered by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975)–“Rohmer–that’s like watching paint dry.” No, it’s not–and the paint is gorgeously hued, anyway, in this HD restoration.
Also new from Big World: Georgia’s entry for the 86th Academy Awards, In Bloom, is a quietly devastating portrait of two adolescent girls facing the usual teenage tribulations amidst strife in Tbilisi in the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Cohen Media Group continues to make waves from New York, where it recently purchased the Quad Cinema. Its planned repertory offerings will surely include its complete version of Fritz Lang’s suspenseful Hangmen Also Die! (1943), a collaboration with “Bert” Brecht–which is how the great playwright Bertolt’s name appears in the credits, a slight typical of his expatriate years in Hollywood. But the film, adapted from the true-life Gestapo manhunt for Czech resistance fighters who successfully assassinated top Nazi officials, slips a good deal of noir-ish Lang excitement into its rabble-rousing propaganda, and a high-quality transfer is complemented by an insightful Richard Pena commentary.
The scars left by the war years are tended to by documentarian Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) in The Last of the Unjust, a 40-year project for the 87-year-old filmmaker, as he grapples with the multifaceted Benjamin Murmelstein. Murmelstein, the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, was the only “Elder of the Jews” not to have been killed during the war. His tireless efforts helped thousands of Jews leave the country and preserved Theresienstadt, but did his “model ghetto” make him a kind of collaborator with the loathesome Adolph Eichmann? It’s a vexed question, and one the movie returns to over the course of its 3.5 hours–which go by quickly, thanks to the depth of Lanzmann’s inquiry and the immense storytelling skills of his subject, who died in 1989 yet appears larger than life here.
You know what would be a dream come true? Barnes & Noble having Criterion Collection Blu-rays and DVDs available for 50% off all year long. Until that wish is granted, we must content ourselves with its twice-per-year sales, the latest of which wraps up today. What to get? Start with Bob Fosse’s razzle dazzler about himself and his fixation on dance, pills, muses, and death, All That Jazz (1979). Another phantasmagoria, Federico Fellini’s scandalous exploration of the seedy world of Rome’s tabloids, La Dolce Vita (1960), has never looked better than it does on this Blu-ray, and like the Fosse film (like just about every Criterion release), it’s loaded with supplements. Want more sin? There’s Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), whose comical depiction of bondage and toy scuba diver masturbation (you sort of have to see it) landed one of his off-kilter rom-coms in the NC-17 doghouse. Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas fan the flames as a kidnapped actress and her lovelorn tormentor.
Speaking of romantic comedies, the grand duchess of the genre, It Happened One Night (1934), has happened to Criterion, and it is a glorious union. Frank Capra’s multi-Oscar winner was a movie no one particularly wanted to make, yet Capra, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert gritted their teeth and got the thing done, only to find out that their throwaway about a runaway heiress and a scoop-sniffing journalist had made movie magic that resonates 80 years later. (1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, another Criterion title, are the only other two films to have won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor and Actress). The template for the screwball comedy is a hoot, from the carefree era before Capra started piling on the messages, and the 4k restoration is glorious. Among the extras: a digital restoration of Capra’s first film, the 1921 short Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House.
Two of the finest films by a maverick on the margins, Monte Hellman, get the deluxe treatment as The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are twin-billed. Funded by Roger Corman and shot back to back, both feature Jack Nicholson, whose shaky film career got a little bit more a foothold thanks to their festival exposure. Nicholson also wrote and co-produced Whirlwind (1966), a more conventional yet exciting depiction of vigilante violence in the Old West, which Hellman directs tersely, with an eye toward interesting visuals on location in Utah. Cameron Mitchell, in one of his better films as his career declined, and another actor on the rise, Harry Dean Stanton, co-star. The wilder ride is The Shooting (1967), written by the pseudonymous Carole Eastman, who would later pen one of Nicholson’s standout credits, Five Easy Pieces (1971). An elliptical puzzler that has Nicholson, Whirlwind‘s Millie Perkins, and the great Warren Oates on a fraught desert journey that comes to a strange and stunning end, The Shooting is a major “minor” movie, ripe for rediscovery. Complementing handsome new transfers are commentary and interviews with Hellman, Corman, Stanton, and Perkins.
Disney adds to its stable of Studio Ghibli releases with three films directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. My six-year-old daughter was captivated by Disney’s dubbed versions early on and indeed a repertory screening of Castle in the Sky (1985) was the first movie she saw in a theater, so Ghibli has a special place in my heart. The winsome Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is one of our favorites, and the story of an apprentice witch (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) and her black cat Jiji (Phil Hartman) as they try to get an airborne delivery service off the ground (Amazon drones, take note) is a charmer for any age. Everything that distinguishes Miyazaki–strong female characters, flight motifs, and gorgeous animation that spans periods of architectural history, minus the bludgeoning pace of too much American animation–is here in abundance, topped by one of Joe Hisaishi’s scores. (Disney is said to be planning a Broadway version.)
Not for younger children is Princess Mononoke (1997), which sent Larissa screaming from the room when we tried to watch it last year. The PG-13 rating should have tipped me off–this was the first Miyazki film I saw, at that year’s New York Film Festival, and I’d forgotten how intense it was, as if Akira Kurosawa had embraced animation and used it to tell a tale of shape-shifting forest gods, demons, a prince (Billy Crudup), and the princess of the title, a lupine woman (Clare Danes). Miyazaki’s concern for the magic of the natural world, besieged by humans, is, as it is in a number of his films, the thematic undercurrent in a rich and exciting pageant–for when my girl’s older.
I saw Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, said to be his last feature film, at last year’s New York Film Festival. In telling the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Zero airplane the Japanese deployed during World War II, Miyazaki is in a way telling his own, about the tension between art and the creative spirit and the ruthless, corrupting demands of commerce. Despite vivid passages (including a recreation of a devastating earthquake) I found it a bit fuzzy (it proved controversial, though I had a hard time detecting anything overtly militaristic in the director’s dreamy, haunted vision), and the romance between Jiro and his true love, a tuberculosis sufferer, simpy. My latter misgiving was eased by the vocal performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, who dry it out somewhat versus the overemphatic Japanese actors–this is the one instance where I saw the original version first. Viewers should know, however, that Disney has used “dubtitles” based on the English-language tracks rather than subtitles if you prefer to watch the films in their original language, and in the case of Kiki’s in particular has been free with reinterpreting a few story and character points. Still, these are the versions my daughter and I fell in love with, and while we await a hi-def Spirited Away (2002) from Disney they look radiant in Blu-ray.
Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, adds to a roster of titles that includes the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing and Abel Ferrara’s scuzzy rape-revenge classic Ms. 45 (1981) with The Congress, featuring Robin Wright as…Robin Wright, an aging, unhappy actress who goes down the rabbit hole of our all-consuming digital age when she sells her image to “Miramount” Studios. Twenty years later, the digitized Wright is the star of an animated sci-fi franchise and Miramount fronts the Futurological Congress, which wants everyone to cartoon themselves into her popular avatar…and then things get very strange, with Jon Hamm voicing a toon resistance leader and Wright passing through worlds in search of her disabled son. Israeli writer-director Ari Folman used animation expressively to tell his own story in the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir (2008)–telling “Wright’s,” he’s just as assured with media, yet despite a very game lead performer he can’t quite bring off a complicated story of altered states built on ideas by Stanislaw Lem. If you’ve read this far, however, you’re likely to be hooked at least in part by the film, and the disc, co-released with Cinedigm, contains a commentary by Folman and an interview with Wright.
The “foodie movie” as we know it–mix humor and sentiment, and spotlight lots of tasty dishes–has been with us since the Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast (1987) and is now a perennial of world cinema. This year’s US entrees included the hit Chef and, from DreamWorks, The Hundred-Foot Journey, with Helen Mirren (all starch and vinegar, and with zee French accent) as the proprietress of a famed restaurant in southern France whose life is upended by the arrival of Indian immigrants opening their own bistro next to hers. The familiar culture clash is ably joined by the outstanding Om Puri and nicely whipped up by director Lasse Hailstorm, an old hand at this sort of thing, with Chocolat (2000) on his resume. Extras focus on producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, in their first collaboration since The Color Purple (1985), the film’s production, and, for food porn addicts, the preparation of the coconut chicken served in the movie. Bon appetit!
Film Chest does what it can to refurbish movies that have fallen into the public domain and can’t get up. It’s shown a little love to noir gems like Detour (1945), Fear in the Night (1947), and Quicksand (1950), with the late Mickey Rooney, and the results are, as a dame in a B-noir might say, satisfactory for the price, if you don’t expect too much. The label has turned to horror this fall, with The Killer Shrews (1959) and Don’t Look in the Basement (1973). Shrews is beloved by MST3K fans for all the obvious reasons, like the glacially paced, housebound first hour and the outsized shrews, played by mangy puppet heads and annoyed dogs in fanged makeup. As a kid, though, I found man-eating doggie shrews kind of scary, and the escape plan hatched by the survivors on the remote island they inhabit ingenious, if silly. So chalk this one up to nostalgia, and the full-frame “digital remastering” is decent if you must get your shrew on. (Its star, James Best, appeared in a 2012–yes, 2012–sequel, and that’s Baruch Lumet, father of Sidney, as the misguided scientist with the accent the MST crowd made fun of.) I’m also defensive of Basement, whose (unsurprising) ending is spoiled by Film Chest’s cover art–when the film was aired on New York’s Channel 9, it took me two commercials-ridden hours to get there, but I didn’t mind, taken as I was with the eccentric acting and dingy production, as a nurse new to an experimental asylum (portrayed by Playboy model Rosie Holotik, credibly uncomfortable) triggers blood squibs a-plenty as she interacts with the staff and patients. (Lobotomized Sam, touchingly played by Bill McGhee, is the standout.) This scrubbed down full-frame transfer looks not much better than it did 40 years ago on rainy Saturday afternoons; still, the weird atmosphere got to me all over again, and I can’t see anyone else coming to its rescue at this late date.
Film Movement has been inundating me with its latest DVD releases, which is not a bad thing, as the films have ranged from at least interesting to very good indeed. I Am Yours, a slice of Pakistani life in Oslo, Apaches, a Corsica-set melodrama of youth gone wild, and To Kill a Man, a Spanish-language revenge thriller, take us to unfamiliar places and are rarely dull. I can’t say the same for Lines of Wellington, a patchwork story about the advance of Napoleon’s army in Portugal started by the avant-gardish Raul Ruiz and completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento, but the film was apparently cut down from a TV miniseries that may have been stronger on plot, characterization, and other basics. That said any movie that however briefly brings together John Malkovich (as Wellington), Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Amalric, and Melvil Poupaud (hello again!) can’t be all bad.
Much better is an absorbing documentary about softcore filmmaker Joe Sarno, A Life in Dirty Movies. “Softcore” isn’t quite the right word for Sarno, whose salaciously titled movies, like 1964’s Sin in the Suburbs, were modeled on Ingmar Bergman’s black-and-white masterpieces and grimmer than the usual fare; when hardcore moved in, Sarno eventually got out of sexploitation. Director Wictor Ericsson follows Sarno, in his 80s, contemplating a comeback based on the rediscovery of his work, and centers on his long and supportive marriage to Peggy Steffans, who acted in some of his films. You’ll be touched by their unconventional partnership.
Later this month comes 1,000 Times Good Night, which gives the great Juliette Binoche the plum role of a war photographer who finds domesticity with her husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and two daughters a poor substitute for life in the world’s trouble zones. An early scene as she tracks a suicide bomber in Kabul ratchets the tension; feeling uneasy for placing her convictions above her family, she takes one of her children to a “safe” refugee camp in Kenya, which proves not to be the best bonding experience. Director Erik Poppe was a Reuters war photographer and the movie has a boots-on-the-ground authenticity. Film Movement releases tend to include interviews, making-of and other supplements and this one is no exception; highly recommended.
I love Muhammad Ali, so I couldn’t help but like the documentary I Am Ali, a Focus World release via Universal. The director, Clare Lewins, was granted access to “The Greatest’s” audio journals and built around his ever-candid comments are interviews with his family members and fellow boxers Mike Tyson and George Foreman. It’s a genial, intimate portrait, not particularly groundbreaking but a good primer on a remarkable life, certainly better than Michael Mann’s heavy-spirited Will Smith biopic (or the champ’s own hagiobiography from 1977) and a nice addition to a growing set of Ali-related films, including the 1970 documentary A.k.a. Cassius Clay, the outstanding Oscar-winning story of the “Rumble in the Jungle” with Foreman, When We Were Kings (1996), and HBO’s thoughtful film about his Supreme Court case, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013).
I get a lot of kicks from Well Go Entertainment–and punches, body blows, and other damage to my person as I absorb its latest, action-packed releases from Asia. Politically speaking, Hong Kong is on fire these days, which worries this former resident. Better the fictional disaster of As the Light Goes Out, a Christmas-set movie about a warehouse fire that flares out of control, causing a blackout and threatening much worse, unless a trio of firefighters can work out their personal differences. Soap suds threaten to submerge the plot (similar to that of another recent HK thriller, Out of Inferno) yet there’s plenty of peril packed into its two hours, plus a Jackie Chan cameo.
A remake of a fun Yuen Biao movie I saw first run in Hong Kong in 1989 (one of those occasions where the confused ticket takers tried to shoo me to a “Hollywood movie”), Iceman casts Hong Kong’s reigning martial arts star, Donnie Yen, as a Ming Dynasty warrior, frozen during a battle, who is thawed out in the present and obliged to resume his campaign against his more technological-savvy foes. The concept retains the original’s basic appeal yet goes overboard on slipshod CGI effects (originally in 3D) and with a jumbled script tripping it up Iceman never finds its feet. More satisfying is a “kimchi Western,” the Korean-made Kundo: Age of the Rampant, an involved 19th century epic pitting righteous outlaws, the kundo, against greedy landowners. There’s plenty of sword-swirling and gun-slinging action, some spaghetti-styled digs at capitalist oppression, and lines like “Attain your fucking Buddhahood!” to keep you engrossed.
Finally, a Christmas cracker. Purveyors of “pubic porn” (that is, from the 70s and early 80s, the kind pervs of a certain age, like me, grew up on), Vinegar Syndrome also walks on the wild side with cult horror and exploitation films. The one of a kind (and thank God for that!) Raw Force (1981), a mash-up of bad kung fu, zombies, washed-up stars, and skin flicks, must be seen to be disbelieved, and Night Train to Terror (1985), another locomotive into the horror badness of my misspent youth, isn’t far behind. But I love them anyway, as I do most of the stuff, clothed or unclothed, that Vinegar offers. And it’s made the holidays merry indeed this year by releasing one of my Yuletide favorites, Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out), in a combo pack highlighted by a Blu-ray with spectacular Santa (and other) reds and a sled full of features ported over from past editions. Pair it with the Joan Collins “stalking Santa” segment of 1972’s Tales from the Crypt, newly released with its companion Vault of Horror on Scream Factory Blu-ray, and have a ho-ho horrible Christmas.