[It is perhaps a wonderful testament to the essential goodness of human nature that there are still publicists at various video companies who continue to send new product to an undeserving scribbler at an obscure blog. Herewith, then, in an attempt to justify this largesse, are my thoughts on a a couple of the more interesting cinematic artifacts to have crossed my desk of late; unless otherwise noted, I viewed them all on DVD. I should also add that Matango -- guest reviewed by my little brother Drew, who turned me on to it -- has actually been on disc for a couple of years, but as it was screening at the Japan Society a couple of weeks ago, I thought it appropriate to include it here. -- S.S.]
1. Panic Button (1954, Warner Archive)
A business group in deep financial doo-doo decides to solve their money problems by creating an expensive and deliberately flop television pilot and using it as a tax write-off. Yes, you guessed it -- this is essentially The Producers a decade ahead of its time, only with Maurice Chevalier and Jayne Mansfield's breasts instead of Hitler jokes. Pretty bad overall -- George Sherman directs with all the subtle comic timing of a Visigoth -- and some of the dubbing (it's one of those American-Italian co-productions) is particularly egregious. But as historical curiosities go it's relatively interesting (Warner Archive's print isn't so hot, however).
2. Murdoch Mysteries Season 7 (2014, Acorn)
If you've never seen this show -- which is world famous in its native Canada -- essentially it's CSI: Toronto, set at the tail end of the Victorian Era. Which is to say it's a lot of fun -- the period detail and history stuff are a hoot (the titular Murdoch, a brilliant police constable with a penchant for inventing all sorts of forensic gizmos, is constantly running into real life folks, from Winston Churchill to Thomas Edison)-- and its tongue is, quite often, set quite firmly in its cheek. It's currently running on American cable (Ovation -- check your local listings) under the odd title The Artful Detective, but Acorn Video's DVD version looks significantly better. Trust me -- watch any episode from this most recent set and you'll want to go back and watch all six previous seasons, which are also available from the good folks at Acorn.
2. Godzilla (2014, Warner Home Video)
How do I love this one? Let me count etc. For starters, it totally erases any memories of the appalling Roland Emmerich version from the late 90s, which featured an obviously embarrassed Matthew Broderick, a monster that looked nothing like Godzilla, and more offensively stereotypical ethnic characters than any American film since The Birth of a Nation. For another thing, director Gareth Edwards -- whose earlier no-budget Monsters is definitely worth seeking out -- is a genuine visual poet with a great eye for light and shadow, and as a result this is the first CGI flick in recent memory with sequences that actually take your breath away. Godzilla-wise, of course, it hits all the right notes from the Japanese originals; my only criticism -- spoiler alert -- is that they kill off Bryan Cranston a little too early, thus causing the human characters to be considerably less interesting than the big beasts. Other than that, this is non-stop terrific; make sure you watch it on the largest TV monitor you can find
3. My Winnipeg (2008, The Criterion Collection)
A fabulous hallucinatory phantasmagoria on his home town from visionary filmmaker Guy Maddin, a/k/a the David Lynch of Canada, My Winnipeg would be worth checking out for its black-and-white cinematography alone, but it also boasts one of the all time great casting coups in Ann Savage...
...the ultimate, deeply terrifying film noir femme fatale from Detour, the 1945 Edqar G. Ulmer quickie that just may be the most noirish film noir of them all. Savage had apparently mostly retired from the business years ago -- a Wiki search reveals that she had appeared a few times on Saved By the Bell, if you can believe it (the idea of her and Elizabeth Berkley going head to head is almost too much to contemplate), but one can only assume that Maddin knew exactly what he was doing by using such an iconic cult figure and in any case, it's all but impossible to take your eyes off of her when she's on-screen. Criterion's version, which does full justice to the film's surrealist look, comes with all the bonus feature bells and whistles you'd expect, but, frankly, compared to Savage herself they're pretty thin gruel.
4. Matango aka Attack of the Mushroom People (1963, Media Masters)
Any musicians out there reading this? Are you looking for a new tune to play around with? Try the one that starts up in an early sequence of this movie. The character Mami abruptly takes up a ukulele, strums a few bars, and starts singing a wordless song, and it's one of a number of unexpected pleasures in this genuine genre oddity. In fact, Matango is an effective and disturbing contemporary horror thriller -- contemporary for 1963, that is -- set mainly on an unspecified island off the coast of Japan. Director Ishiro Honda and his scriptwriters critique the city-based society that has arisen after the conclusion of World War II; no way that you will forget this movie. Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock's DVD features a nice widescreen transfer (you can watch it dubbed or subtitled) and some bonus extras that are worth checking out. -- Drew Simels
5. The Bubble (1966, Kino Classics)
Writer/director/producer Arch Oboler is all but forgotten now, but in his day -- which began in radio, with the anthology series Lights Out -- he was highly regarded as a sort of low-budget Rod Serling (he directed Bwana Devil, the film that kicked off the early 50s 3D craze, as well as the wonderful Five, one of the first serious meditations on a post-nuke apocalypse). The Bubble, filmed in Space Vision 3D, essentially anticipates the plot of Stephen King's Under the Dome, but with a more oddball cast, including 50s heartthrob crooner Johnny Desmond and Michael Cole, later of TVs Mod Squad; it was obviously made on a shoe-string, and it's way too long -- a half hour Twilight Zone episode blown up inappropriately to feature film length. But the story, however padded, is compelling and the 3D effects, while a little subtle by today's IMAX standards, mostly keep you hooked. This new version -- the film last played theatrically back in shortened form back in 1976 -- has been meticulously restored by The 3D Film Archive (the trailer above was not, BTW) and looks far better than it has any right to. Kino's Blu-ray version requires a 3D TV or disc player to get the full effect, but if you watch it on a normal video system, it looks just fine in 2D.