Saturday, December 10, 2016
Saturday Night at the Movies
Blu Xmas: Best re-issues of 2016, Part 2
By Dennis Hartley
Last week, I shared some of my picks for the best Blu-ray reissues of 2016, in the event you were looking for gift ideas. For you procrastinators out there, I’ve dug up a few more. But first, a gentle reminder. Any time of year you click a link from this weekly feature as a portal to purchase any Amazon item, you help your favorite starving bloggers get a nickel or two in the creel. Most titles are released concurrent with an SD edition, so if you don’t have a Blu-ray player, don’t despair. So here you go…in alphabetical order:
In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) – It’s apropos that a film about a writer would contain a soliloquy that any writer would kill to have written: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Those words are uttered by Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile temperament. He also has quirky working habits, which leads to a fateful encounter with a hatcheck girl, who he hires for the evening to read aloud from a pulpy novel that he’s been assigned by the studio to adapt into a screenplay (it helps his process). At the end of the night, he gives her cab fare and sends her on her way. Unfortunately, the young woman turns up murdered, and Dix becomes a prime suspect (mostly due to his unflagging wisecracking). An attractive neighbor (Gloria Grahame) steps in at a crucial moment to give him an unsolicited alibi (and really spice things up).
A marvelous film noir, directed by the great Nicholas Ray, with an intelligent script (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes) that is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right up until the end. It’s a precursor (of sorts) to Basic Instinct (or it could have been a direct influence, for all I know). Criterion’s 2K transfer is outstanding. Extras include a slightly condensed 1975 documentary about Ray.
Lone Wolf and Cub (The Criterion Collection Box Set) – Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:
“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”
Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.
Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (The Criterion Collection) – Some have called this 1971 Robert Altman gem an “anti-western”, but I’ve always thought of it as more of a “northwestern”. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest mining town called Presbyterian Church. To call this burg “rustic” is an understatement; there’s definitely some room for urban improvement. All it takes is an entrepreneurial visionary, like gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who rides into town one blustery day to find his fortune. He quickly gleans that the most assured way to profit off the motley (and mostly male) locals would be to set up a brothel. The only thing he lacks is business acumen, which (lucky for him) soon arrives in the person of an experienced madam (Julie Christie). Once the two cement a (mostly) professional partnership, their enterprise really takes off…until evil corporate bastards intervene, in the form of a ruthless and powerful mining company.
As he had done with the war movie genre with his surprise 1970 hit M*A*S*H, Altman likewise turned the western on its ear with this entry. Thanks to the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is imbued with an immersive naturalism that wasn’t replicated until…well, Zsigmond (!) photographed Michael Cimino’s western Heaven’s Gate nearly 10 years later (interestingly, Cimino’s film shares a similar “little guy vs. the Big Corporation” theme). Altman’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music remains one of the most wonderfully symbiotic marriages of sound and vision in American film (even more poignant now with Cohen’s recent passing). The new 4K transfer is stunning. Extras include a new making-of doc, and an Altman commentary track recorded in 2002.
One-Eyed Jacks (The Criterion Collection) – Marlon Brando only directed one film…but it’s a doozey. A “western” with numerous beach scenes and artful shots of crashing surf? That’s only a sampling of the unique touches in this off-beat 1961 drama (which began as a Stanley Kubrick project). It was widely panned, but has come to be anointed as a near-classic. It shares more commonalities with film noir than John Ford; not only in mood and atmosphere, but in its narrative (adapted by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham from Charles Nieder’s novel), which is a brooding tale of crime, obsession and revenge (which puts it in league with western noirs like Johnny Guitar and Day of the Outlaw).
Brando plays a suave bank robber who (unwittingly) takes the fall for his partner-in-crime/mentor (Karl Malden) after a botched heist. After doing hard time, Brando sets off in search of his old “friend”. The relationship between the two men is decidedly Oedipal (the Malden character is even given the helpful surname “Dad”). It’s one of Brando’s most charismatic performances (naturally, he gives himself plenty of choice close-ups), with some excellent support from Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, and Slim Pickens.
Criterion’s edition is a godsend for fans of the film, as it represents the first proper (and fully sanctioned) video transfer for home consumption. The film had fallen into the dreaded “public domain” for a number of years, resulting in a number of dubious DVD and Blu-ray editions all basically working with the same washed-out print. But now, with a restored print and beautiful 4K transfer, you can clearly see why DP Charles Lang’s work earned the film an Academy Award nomination (if not a win) for Best Cinematography. Extras include a Martin Scorsese introduction and several film essays.
The Quiet Earth -- (Film Movement Classics) – In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.
Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).
Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).
# # #
Here’s a few additional gift ideas for you…there are some enticing Blu-ray reissues due out between now and Christmas, and all are available for pre-order: The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series , The Roddenberry Vault,
The Asphalt Jungle (Dec. 13), Dreamscape(Dec. 13), Roma(Dec. 13), and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dec. 20).
More reviews at Den of Cinema
digby 12/10/2016 06:00:00 PM