Saturday, June 30, 2012
Saturday Night at the Movies
Summertime Blus: Best BD reissues of 2012 (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 2012, and take a sneak peek at notable upcoming releases. Most titles are still being released concurrent with a standard DVD edition, so if you don’t have a BD player, don’t despair. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical, not preferential, order…
Chinatown - There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here are my top five:
Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.
He owns the police.
She’s my sister AND my daughter.
Of course, I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll likely produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”, in every sense of the word. Paramount’s Blu-ray has a beautiful transfer, and ports over the extras and commentary track from their previous SD edition.
The Deer Hunter- “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans Coming Home, and Michael Cimino’s shattering drama, which was (perhaps arguably) the most intensely affecting of the four. Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is essentially a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing P.O.W. experience in Vietnam, and suffer through P.T.S.D. (each in their own unique fashion). I still remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes. I literally had to “collect myself”, and no film has ever affected me like that, before or since. Amazing performances from the aforementioned players, as well as from Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuch Aspegren and George Dzundza. The film has been long overdue on Blu-ray, and Universal’s hi-def transfer really showcases the exemplary Oscar-nominated lens work by Vilmos Zsigmond (the film did end up winning in five other categories, including Best Picture and Director). It’s a little skimpy on extras, but still worth owning.
Forbidden Zone- Picture if you will: an artistic marriage between John Waters, Max Fleischer, Busby Berkeley and Peter Greenaway. Now, imagine the wedding night (I’ll give you a sec). As for the “plot”, well, it’s about this indescribably twisty family who discovers a portal to a pan-dimensional…oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, any film that features Herve Villechaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension, Susan Tyrrell as his Queen and soundtrack composer Danny Elfman channeling Cab Calloway (via Satan), is a dream for some; a nightmare for others. Directed by Danny’s brother Richard. Arrow Videos’s Blu-ray includes a “making of” feature, plus a choice of seeing the film it its original B&W or colorized version. Either way you look at it, it’s deliriously over the top.
Godzilla - It’s no secret that the “king of the monsters” was borne of fear; the fear of “the Bomb” as only the Japanese could have truly understood it back in 1954 (especially when one considers it was released only 9 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It’s also important to distinguish between Gojira, the original Japanese cut of the film, and the relatively butchered version released in the U.S. in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. That is because the original Japanese cut not only has a more haunting and darkly atmospheric quality, but carries a strong anti-nuke message as well (it’s an American H-bomb test that awakens the long-slumbering beast from his deep-sea hibernation). The U.S. cut downplays this subtext (replacing cut footage with inserts featuring Raymond Burr). This is why American audiences remained oblivious to the fact that the film was inspired by a real 1954 incident involving a Japanese fishing vessel (“The Lucky Dragon”). The boat was in an alleged “safe zone” near one of the Bikini Atoll bomb tests conducted by the U.S. Many crewmembers received serious burns, and one of the injured eventually died of radiation sickness. Criterion’s Blu-ray includes both the original 1954 Toho version (the first and the best of what was to ultimately become a silly franchise) and the U.S. cut. Needless to say, the films have never looked better. Insightful commentary tracks and a plethora of fascinating extras make this one a winner.
Harold and Maude- Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (the wonderful Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where they Meet Cute. The effervescent Maude is Harold’s diametric opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that actually manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens (a disc extra features a recent interview with the reclusive musician, who for the first time talks about how all the songs came together). Criterion’s transfer is outstanding.
Notorious - It’s really a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). Now, if you want to throw in qualifiers, like say, which of the Master’s films would I consider his sexiest…then that makes it a little easier. Or at least I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest , To Catch a Thief (see my review below), and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for quite a suave American agent, and Claude Rains is a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, all set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a seemingly counterintuitive mixture of worldly cynicism and unselfconsciously sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actresses would be able to sell so convincingly. To be honest, MGM’s Blu-ray was not quite what I had hoped for, vis a vis the picture quality (it’s only a marginal improvement over Criterion’s out-of-print SD edition), but it is the best looking print currently available, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
The 39 Steps- Along with The Lady Vanishes, this 1935 gem represents the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period. In fact, many of the tropes that would come to be known as “Hitchcockian” are already fomenting in this early entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality, but imagine his surprise when he awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a mysterious map clutched in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapidly paced entertainment. Criterion’s new Blu-ray transfer is as good as a 77 year-old film is going to look. The biggest improvement is in the audio quality, which has been problematic in previous DVD versions. A highlight amongst the extras is a 1966 TV interview, wherein Hitchcock shares some amusing backstage tales about his early career.
To Catch a Thief- This is one of those rare Hitchcock films that’s really more about the romance, the scenery and the clever repartee than it is about the chills and thrills, but that certainly makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. Life is going quite swimmingly, until a string of high-end jewel thefts (all resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie goes to work to clear his name and help smoke out the real culprit, his life becomes more complicated when a love interest enters the picture (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s pretty lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the sexy chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming and the delightful supporting performances (particularly from Jessie Royce Landis, who steals all her scenes as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (who also scripted Rear Window , The Trouble with Harry and the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much ). MGM’s Blu-ray transfer is sparkling, doing full justice to Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography.
Tokyo Drifter - The key to understanding what makes this existential hit man thriller from Japan’s Nikkatsu studios so uniquely entertaining…is to not try to understand it. Don’t get hung up on silly conventions like “narrative coherence”; just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. If that sounds like the reassuring counsel someone might give to a friend who is taking their first acid trip…you’re right. Because when this film was made (1966), an awful lot of people were taking their first acid trip, including director Seijun Suzuki (at least that’s my theory). The “drifter” of the title is a yakuza with a strong personal code (and really cool Ray-Bans) who is trying to go legit…but of course, “they pull him back in”. But as he does not wish to dishonor his boss/mentor, who is also trying to get out of the game, he splits the big city to wander Japan and let the chips fall where they may, as members of various rival gangs dog his every step. Highly stylized and visually exhilarating, this is a real treat for lovers of pure cinema. Suzuki’s wild mash-up of genres, which quotes everything from French New Wave to James Bond and westerns to film noir, was pretty bold stuff for its time, and it’s obvious that postmodernists like Tarantino have watched it once or twice. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer dazzles the senses.
Yellow Submarine - This is a new one for me…a Blu-ray viewing completely turning my opinion around on a film. Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” what all the fuss was over the “innovative” animation (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats). But, being the obsessive-compulsive completist that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s new Blu-ray version, and found it to be a revelation. The restoration for the 2012 transfer was apparently done by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning. The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one particular standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.
…and here are some more noteworthy Blu-ray reissues, due out in the near future:
Kino Classics Presents: The Devil's Needle and Other Tales of Vice And Redemption (7/3), Barbarella (7/3), Outland (7/10),Altered States (7/10), Chariots of Fire (7/10), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (7/17), Singin' In The Rain: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition (7/17), Mean Streets (7/17), Down by Law (7/17), Metropolitan (7/24), The Last Days of Disco (7/24),Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (7/31), TThe Seven Year Itch (7/31), Johnny Guitar (8/7), Shaft (8/14), Quadrophenia (8/28), Man on a Swing (9/4), Children of Paradise (9/18), Eating Raoul (9/25), Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection (9/25).
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Dennis Hartley 6/30/2012 05:30:00 PM