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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies

Blu Xmas: Best BD re-issues of 2013 (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

Back in July, I offered my picks for the top 10 Blu-ray reissues (so far) for 2013. Since procrastinators (who, me?) still have a window to send packages in time for Christmas delivery (through the 21st for priority mail, according to the USPS), I thought I’d toss out some gift ideas, with ten additional Blu-rays to consider. But first, a gentle reminder. Any time of year you click an Amazon link from this feature as a portal to purchase any item, you'll help your favorite starving bloggers get a little something more than just a lump of coal in our stockings! Most titles are released concurrent with an SD edition, so if you don’t have a Blu-ray player, don’t despair. So without further ado...in alphabetical order:

Badlands- With only 6 feature-length projects over 40 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America's Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, had he altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm. Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a 20-something ne'er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate). Malick took the "true crime" genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory; disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot and one of the best American films of the 1970s. Criterion's Blu-ray transfer does proper justice to Tak Fujimoto's outstanding "magic hour" cinematography.

A Boy And His Dog - This low budget 1975 sci-fi adventure, based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, has garnered a devoted cult following. A youthful Don Johnson wanders a post-nuclear desert landscape, chock-a-block with the requisite mutants and ruffians, ever on the prowl for canned food (which doubles as currency) and sex. The wonderfully droll voice-over work by actor Tim McIntire, "as the dog" who acts as Johnson's telepathic guide, steals the movie. Look for the late Jason Robards, Jr. in what is unquestionably the weirdest role of his distinguished career. Decidedly un-PC and definitely not for all tastes, the film nonetheless holds a kinky charm for "midnight movie" lovers. Director LQ Jones is as quirky as his film on the commentary. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray transfer is a huge improvement over previous DVDs. A recently videotaped conversation between Jones and the ever-prickly Ellison (who now begrudgingly acquiesces to the director's creative choices, which he mercilessly savaged for years) makes for an entertaining bonus feature.

The Driver - Writer-director Walter Hill's minimalistic 1978 noir is arguably his least-known and best film. Ryan O'Neal is quite effective as a dour, taciturn "wheelman" who hires himself out for assorted criminal enterprises (in the credits, he is simply referred to as "The Driver"). Bruce Dern ("The Detective") is at his sleazy best as the cynical but driven cop on his trail. After all these years, I still can't determine whether Isabelle Adjani's enigmatic performance as "The Player" was a conscious acting choice, or perhaps a sign of acting inexperience, but coupled with her icy beauty, it's still oddly compelling. O'Neal didn't have to stay up too late cramming for the part; the word count for his character's lines totals around 350. The action scenes (Hill's forte) are riveting, but this is an uncharacteristically existential exercise for the director. Philip Lathrop's atmospheric cinematography really comes to the fore in Twilight Time's Blu-ray transfer.

Electra Glide in Blue- This police procedural/character study was one of the last of the true 60's counterculture films (even though it was released in 1973). The twist here is that the existential anti-hero isn't riding a chopper or racing across the country in a Challenger evading "The Man", but in fact is "The Man"...a motorcycle cop. One-shot director James William Guercio (primarily known as producer and manager for the band Chicago) does an admirable job, and leaves one pondering why he didn't continue to pursue filmmaking. Robert Blake is excellent as a highway patrolman yearning for a promotion to homicide detective. The supporting cast is superb; look for several members of Chicago in bit parts. Conrad Hall's expansive cinematography recalls Vanishing Point (and John Ford) with its sweeping vistas of the American West. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray doesn’t offer too much in the way of extras (save Guercio's commentary) but sports a spectacular transfer.

I Married a Witch - Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s sexy allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes some 300 years after putting a curse on all the male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake. She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) make it their first order of business to wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides it would be amusing to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion…but her plan goes south after she accidently ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues! Extras are skimpy (especially for a Criterion release) but this sparkling (restored) print is most welcome.

Nashville - Robert Altman was at the top of his game when he conjured up this 1975 gem. Utilizing his patented network narrative style, Altman and his screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury masterfully juggle the stories of at least two dozen characters for nearly three hours without once dropping the ball, resulting in an absorbing entertainment that is at once a sprawling, neorealist portrait of a “music city” and a microcosm of America’s political climate at the tail end of the Nixon era. The impetus for this initially disparate gaggle of players to eventually converge is a big political rally for a candidate running on the “Replacement Party” platform. Ironically, presidential hopeful “Hal Phillip Walker” is never actually seen (although his eerily prescient Tea Party-ish tenets drone on throughout the film, via loudspeakers mounted on a campaign van). All the actors were encouraged to improvise (which adds to the naturalistic tone) and did their own singing; a few even did their own songwriting (most notably, Keith Carradine, who earned an Oscar for his performance of “I’m Easy”). Lily Tomlin (her first dramatic role) and Ronee Blakley were both nominated for Best Actress. A richly textured film that has aged like a fine wine. Criterion’s hi-def  transfer is gorgeous and the disc includes a wealth of extras.

Night Of The Comet- This tongue-in-cheek 1984 homage to cheesy 50s sci-fi may have "80s kitsch" written all over it, but remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures from that decade. The setting is Los Angeles, on the evening Earth has a close encounter with a passing comet, which (not unlike a neutron bomb) seems to leave the planet's infrastructure intact but reduces human beings into something akin to a pile of salt (just accept it, okay?). In strict accordance with the Rules and Regulations of Post-Apocalyptic Movies, there are survivors, although the majority of them are zombies. Enter our heroines...two sisters from The Valley (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) who appear to be the only hope for civilization (god help us). Director Thom Eberhardt (and his entire cast) sell this silly concept with such good-natured abandon that you can't help but get caught up in the goofy spirit of the whole thing. Also with cult movie stalwart Robert Beltran (reunited with his Eating Raoul co-star Mary Waronov in one scene). Scream Factory piles on the extras for their Blu-ray, which should make devotees happy.

Reuben, Reuben - Robert Ellis Miller directed this wickedly funny 1983 satire. Tom Conti gives a tour-de-force performance as Gowan McGland, a drunken, womanizing Scottish poet who survives off his ability to charm rich, bored bourgeois housewives into becoming patrons (he's a bit like Max Bialystok in The Producers ). However, when he meets a beautiful, smart and unpretentious young woman (Kelly McGillis) who sees through his bullshit, his whole world gets turned upside down. Venerable screenwriter Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca) based his script on Peter De Vries' eponymous source novel and Herman Shumlin's original 1967 stage adaptation (renamed "Spofford"). An adult and sardonic observation on art, love and regret. Olive Films skimps on extras, and doesn't necessarily take pains to restore prints, but it's great to see this sleeper on Blu-ray.

Safety Last!- Criterion's beautifully restored print of the classic 1923 Harold Lloyd silent is "that one"...the one featuring Lloyd’s iconic “hanging off the clock” routine. He plays a bumpkin from Great Bend who moves to the big city, promising to send for his sweetheart and marry her once he has found his fortune. When she pops by for a surprise visit, Lloyd scrambles to cover up that he’s still making peanuts as a lowly clerk in a department store. When he learns that the manager will pay $1000 for a winning marketing idea to bring in more customers, Lloyd cooks up a “human fly” publicity stunt,  sparking one of the most hilarious, inventive and thrilling daredevil sequences ever filmed. Even by modern filmmaking standards, it boggles the mind as to how they did it. There are a plethora of extras, including a feature-length 1989 documentary about Lloyd.

Shoah - You may need to clear several evenings to fully take in all 9 ½ hours of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 1985 Holocaust documentary, because watching it all in one setting is too psychically draining. It is the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. There is no added drama, no camera tricks, no flashy editing, no contextual voiceover narration...because none of that is needed. It is a collection of people (victims and perpetrators) who lived it, simply telling their stories; adding up to an invaluable historical document that bears witness for the millions of perished souls who cannot. Criterion has really outdone themselves here; the extras include 3 more Lanzmann films.

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