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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies

Red white & Blu: Best BD re-issues of 2013 (so far)

By Dennis Hartley

Since we’re halfway through the year, I thought I’d offer my picks for the top ten Blu-ray reissues (so far) for 2013.Most titles are released concurrent with an SD edition, so if you don’t have a Blu-ray player, don’t despair. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

City That Never Sleeps- The original studio tagline for this 1953 noir from director John H. Auer teased a sordid thriller that took you “…from the honky-tonks to the penthouses” of Chicago, where “…the creeps, the hoods, the killers come out to war with the city!”  Gig Young stars as a life-tired cop who has burned out on both work and marriage. He finds some solace with his mistress (a stripper) but is having commitment issues with that relationship as well. Collusion with a corrupt lawyer could be his ticket out…but as anyone familiar with noir tropes might guess, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride. While it admittedly falls a little short of turning the Windy City into The Naked City (from a narrative standpoint), it is redeemed by atmospheric nighttime photography by John L. Russell (who served as DP on Hitchcock’s Psycho). I’m developing a love-hate relationship with reissue specialists Olive Films. While commendably digging up and releasing coveted rarities in HD, so far they demonstrate zero interest in restoring them.

The Duellists -If you can get past Harvey Keitel’s anachronistic Brooklyn wise guy stance and Keith Carradine’s oddly mannered take on a 19th-century “popinjay”, there’s a lot here in director Ridley Scott’s sumptuously photographed 1977 debut (adapted from a Joseph Conrad story) for cineastes to revel in. Keitel and Carradine play a pair of officers in Napoleon’s army who engage in a series of duels spanning three decades (some people just don’t know when to “let it go”). Happily, the existential futility of this purloined stalemate becomes moot, as it is cloaked in one of the most visually stunning period pieces you’ll ever feast your eyes upon this side of Barry Lyndon (all the more impressive when you consider the $900,000 budget, which is coffee and a donut compared to the $130,000,000 spent on his dreary-looking Prometheus). Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray skimps on extras, but this long-overdue HD transfer is most welcome.

Help! -This is a much fluffier affair than its groundbreaking predecessor A Hard Day’s Night (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plotline. There are a few good zingers here and there in Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s screenplay; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for pure visual invention. The main reason to watch this film is for the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (and pretty much the blueprint for MTV). Talk about a killer soundtrack: “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Universal’s new Blu-ray is a noticeable upgrade in picture/audio quality.

Medium Cool- What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a socio-political document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he makes protestations to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes (weirdly prescient of the current NSA scandal). He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12 year-old son. They both eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (the actors were filmed whilst being literally caught up amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it occurred). Many of the issues Wexler brings up here (especially involving the integrity and responsibility of the media) would later be more fully explored in films like Network and Broadcast News. Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a beautifully restored transfer, and insightful extra features.

My Neighbor Totoro - While this 1988 film was anime master’s Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature, it was one of his (and Studio Ghibli’s) first international hits. It’s an episodic tale about a young professor and his two daughters (aged 4 and 10) getting settled into their newly acquired country house (a definite “fixer-upper”) while Mom convalesces at a nearby hospital. The rambunctious 4 year-old goes exploring one day, stumbling into the verdant court of a “king” (of sorts) nestled within the enveloping roots of a gargantuan camphor tree. This king rules with a gentle hand; a benign forest spirit named Totoro (a furry, whiskered amalgam of every cuddly toy you ever cozied up to as a child). Miyazaki’s most simplistic and unabashedly “family friendly” effort…but that’s not a putdown. Miyazaki’s pet themes are intact; the animation is breathtaking, the fantasy elements simply magical, yet the human characters remain universally relatable. Disney’s HD transfer is excellent, and they have ported over all of the extras from the SD edition.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry / Race With The Devil -Talk about a guilty pleasure! This is a real deal low-budget “grindhouse double feature” from the actual era that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez spent $53 million attempting to recreate with their 2007 mock-up. For my money, Jack Starret’s 1975 occult thriller Race with the Devil was the primary reason I picked up this “two-fer” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as a couple buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a group of devil worshippers, and it’s downhill from there (it’s literally a “vacation from hell”). It’s a genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you on the edge of your seat right up to the end. John Hough’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is another Fonda vehicle, co-starring my first major teenage crush Susan George (*sigh*) and Adam Roarke. Fonda and Roarke play car racing partners who take an ill-advised detour into crime, robbing a grocery store in hopes of getting enough loot to buy a pro race car. They soon find themselves on the run from the law. A shameless rip off of Vanishing Point; but muscle car enthusiasts will dig the ride (and the cherry ’69 Dodge Charger). Extras include some entertaining recollections from Fonda and George.

Repo Man- This oddball, punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause actually represents one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as a disenfranchised L.A. punk named Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by a sage veteran named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in a masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he may have found his true calling. A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox also tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix. Great use of L.A. locations . The soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks. I suspect I’m not the only cult movie geek who was quite excited to learn that this gem was finally receiving the deluxe Criterion treatment, and they did it proud.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth Sherlock Holmes has weathered an infinite number of movie incarnations over the decades, but none as fascinating as Nicol Williamson’s tightly wound coke fiend in this wonderful 1977 Herbert Ross film. Intrepid sidekick Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall), concerned over his friend’s addiction, decides to do an intervention, engineering a meeting between the great detective and Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Naturally, there is a mystery afoot as well, but it’s secondary to the entertaining interplay between Williamson and Arkin. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who adapted from his own novel) would repeat the formula two years later in his directing debut Time After Time, when he placed similarly odd bedfellows together in one story by pitting H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper. Shout! Factory’s transfer is excellent; the Blu-ray also includes an interview with Meyer.

Wake in Fright - Restored in 2009 for a successful revival in Australia and considered a great lost film from that country’s “new wave” of the early to mid-1970s, Ted Kotcheff’s psychological horror tale is a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Cars That Ate Paris. A burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba (the nearest town with an airport) where he will need to lodge for one night. A (too) friendly town cop subtly bullies the teacher into getting completely blotto, kick-starting a truly weird “lost weekend” that lasts five days. It veritably drips with an atmosphere of dread; tempered by sharp, blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted the script from Kenneth Cook’s novel). The drunken, nighttime kangaroo hunt has to be seen to be believed! Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray looks great, and is chock-a-block with some fascinating extras.


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