Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day Weekend Video Roundup: Attack of the Killer Criterions (And Two Others)!

Well, it's coming up on Dad's holiday, and what better excuse could I have for reviewing some of the more interesting and/or alarming DVD and Blu-ray releases that certain good folks (inexplicably, perhaps, but god bless 'em for the wonderful work they're doing) continue to favor me with?

Hell -- one of these movies even has a tenuous connection to the mission statement of this very blog.

In any case, if you haven't already gotten the old man something nice, I suspect any one of the following might bring a smile to his face. Tech note: Unless otherwise specified, I viewed all of these on DVD.

1. Things to Come (Criterion)

The first great science-fiction film of the sound era, and largely due to the art direction of the incomparable William Cameron Menzies (who also designed Gone With the Wind and Invaders From Mars, which may be about the two most dissimilar films ever made) it still holds up as a spectacle. H.G. Wells' script -- about which the word didactic seems somewhat inadequate to describe it -- is another thing altogether, but between Ralph Richardson chewing the scenery as a futuristic warlord and a really gorgeous orchestral score by Sir Arthur Bliss, there's more than enough to hold your interest even when the picture threatens to get a little preachy. Criterion's Blu-ray version is by far the best looking video representation of the thing I've ever seen, and there's some very interesting bonus stuff, including a perceptive essay on the Bliss score by my old Video Review colleague Bruce Eder.

2. Two Lane Blacktop (Criterion)

Director Monte Hellman's existential road picture -- starring the then young and hairy James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson in the roles that more or less ended their film careers before they'd even begun -- was practically born a cult movie (seriously -- Esquire magazine ran the screenplay, complete, a month before the flick was even released).  And I vaguely recall vaguely liking it at the time (1971), although I'm pretty sure there were drugs involved on my part. (I'm pretty sure there were drugs involved on Taylor and Wilson's part too, although that's another story, obviously). Having just seen it for the first time since then, in a typically gorgeous looking Criterion Blu-ray remaster, I can safely state that it's a great movie if you have a high tolerance for films in which nothing really happens. That said, the always entertainingly twitchy Warren Oates is in it, so that's good, and like I noted previously , this new version looks fantastic (sounds fantastic, too -- the soundtrack has been goosed up from the original mono into 5.1 Surround, with Hellman's approval.)

3. George Gently Collection: Series 1-4 (Acorn)

In case you haven't seen it -- and I must confess to coming to the party rather late -- George Gently is an absolutely fantastic period (the early to middle '60s) British cop show, featuring the amazingly rumpled and world weary Martin Shaw as the titular Inspector Gently, and Lee Ingleby, who looks and dresses just like a member of some 2nd tier Brit invasion band like the Searchers, as his young and somewhat callow partner. The show's subtext is,  to a large extent, the social upheavals then roiling the UK, with Gently, who's pretty much seen it all, functioning as a sort of moral compass for his impulsive and occasionally bigoted co-worker. The period detail, with the sole exception of an episode in Series 3 that gets the hippie stuff about as embarrassingly wrong as some crappy old American TV shows from the early 70s, is smashingly rendered, and the mise en scene of the thing is gritty, occasionally creepy, and often really depressing. Fortunately, the acting is brilliant across the board, and Shaw is one of the most charismatic leads in a police procedural ever. Acorn's transfers -- the feature-length episodes are shot widescreen in High-Def video -- look pristine; if you get as hooked as I have on the show, you'll be pleased to hear that the company has Series 5 readied for release as well, and that the BBC has Series 6 in production. Highly recommended.

You can watch the box set trailer here for a real taste of the thing.

5. Monsieur Verdoux (Criterion)

Chaplin's 1947 comedy of murders -- Verdoux is, literally, a ladykiller, but he only does it to get his victim's insurance money to pay for his own crippled wife's medical bills -- is obviously even more pertinent than it was back in the day (death panels, anybody?) and no less hilarious than I recalled; if your only memories of the late Martha Raye are from those embarrassing TV denture commercials, her performance in this will be a revelation (in any case, you'll never look at a rowboat the same way again). Revisiting Verdoux  -- in Criterion's stunning new digital restoration -- I was also surprised to find I was rather taken with Chaplin's final speech about the morality of murder, which I had, in years past, always found to be a little too Author's Message-y for my taste; for whatever reason, it seems to work for me now. In any case, the film's a masterpiece, and its done full justice by this package (which includes a whole bunch of cool bonus stuff, including a 2003 making-of documentary featuring director Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd).

6. Ministry of Fear (Criterion)

Has there ever been a director who made such brilliant use of obviously artificial studio sets as Fritz Lang? Okay, that's a rhetorical question which I don't have a definitive answer to, but allow me nonetheless to state, for the record, that the look of this absolutely brilliant spy thriller is riveting; in fact, Ministry of Fear -- from a Grahame Greene novel just dripping with paranoia and menace -- would probably work due to its visual style even if the script wasn't as good as it is. Like Criterion's earlier version of Lang's Man Hunt, this new version features a black-and-white transfer from a print that doesn't look a day older than a day old; bonus features include a new video essay by Lang scholar Joe McElhaney, and a characteristically perceptive appreciation -- "Ministry of Fear: Paranoid Style" -- by my former Stereo Review colleague Glenn Kenny. (Hmm. This seems to be my day to plug old professional chums. Heh.)

7. Naked Lunch (Criterion)

Perhaps the best movie ever made from a theoretically unfilmable book, this one now strikes me as the masterpiece of director David Cronenberg's horror period; certainly it's the most ghoulishly funny artifact of his earlier -- pre-Viggo Mortensen -- work. It's also one of the greatest pieces of contemporary surrealism this side of that TV commercial where the chuck wagon goes under the sink, and in Peter Weller Cronenberg found precisely the right actor to embody the drily drugged/bemused voice of author William Burroughs;  in fact, Weller actually makes the old Bill character likeable, which may have been the film's most audacious trick (although the giant talking bugs are pretty cool too). Criterion's Cronenberg-approved high def transfer is gorgeous (really); bonuses include very droll audio commentary by Cronenberg and Weller, as well as a recording of Burroughs reading excerpts from the original novel in his unforgettably sepulchral tones.

8. Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (Shout! Factory)

Okay, I love this man and have for nearly fifty years now. No, seriously -- I really love this man and I would have his children if at all possible. That said -- this new career retrospective (originally aired as part of the PBS American Masters series a few weeks ago), and featuring all new interviews with Mel and some of the folks (Carl Reiner, Andrew Bergman, etc) who've worked with him over the years, manages to be not only (and expectedly) a fricking laugh riot but also features a bunch of stories which even the rabid Mel-aholic that is I had not previously heard (the one about Gig Young, who was supposed to play the Gene Wilder role in Blazing Saddles was something of an eye opener, and Mel's account of the comic routine he used to do on the diving board by the pool of whatever Catskills resort he toiled at had me absolutely bust a gut).

Have I mentioned that I love this man? Act now, obviously.


Noam Sane said...

The James Taylor interview clip reminded me very much of this:

steve simels said...


In any case, it's been so long since Taylor looked like that that I'd forgotten he used to be a heartthrob for sensitive college girls.

Jerry Lee said...

Two-Lane Blacktop is one great still photo after another, watch it with your finger on the pause button. No one's credited as cinematographer, but Gregory Sandor is "Photographic advisor". Warren Oates is always cool. The first time I saw it was in a drive-in theater with Woodstock and The Wild Bunch. It was a late night.

GLLinMO said...

I recall reading the Esquire piece on Two Lane Blacktop when it came out. My dad was given a subscription to the mag and never read it. Thought it must be a great movie. A great line up. Subsequently read a review by Hot Rod mag, gear head that I am. Not very flattering to say the least. Finally saw the movie several years later. Plot wise,and character wise, completely vapid. In review, did it even develop a cult? Not sure how.

Mel Brooks is a God. Nuffi said.