[As I've said in previous installments, 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 couple of the more interesting cinematic artifacts to have crossed my desk of late; unless otherwise noted, I viewed them all on DVD. -- S.S.]
1. The Hateful Eight (2016, Anchor Bay, Blu-ray)
I absolutely lurved the last two Quentin Tarantino flicks, which were basically brilliantly over the top revenge fantasies in which, respectively, the Jews won WWII...
...and the slaves won the Civil War. So I had really high hopes for his latest, which, alas, merely recycles stuff from his earlier films with no discernable point and a palpable air of weary desperation. To be fair, star Kurt Russell is very good, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that large ambulatory slab of beef Channing Tatum can actually act. Also: the film is, in its outdoor scenes at least, pictorially lovely and Ennio Morricone's bracingly post-modernist score deservedly won the composer a long over-due Oscar. Other than that, I think the word for this is "meh." Anchor Bay's video transfer is gorgeous; there are some extras included, but frankly I couldn't care less. Your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for the film itself.
2. Phoenix (2014, The Criterion Collection)
And speaking of the Holocaust. Set in Germany just after WW II, director Christoph Petzold's latest collaboration with astounding actress Nina Hoss is, without giving anything away, a sort of cross between a meditation on the whole unpleasantness with the Final Solution (Hoss plays an Auschwitz survivor) and an homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo, i.e. a thriller with more on its mind than suspense. It's pretty much the best film I saw last year, and Criterion's characteristically superb video transfer does it full justice (the new English subtitles look particularly good). Extras include a revealing conversation between Petzold and Hoss and a more or less generic making-of doc.
3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, The Criterion Collection, Blu-ray)
There's not much new to be said about John Frankenheimer's way ahead of its time Cold War thriller masterpiece, although for what it's worth, with the benefit of hindsight it's now obvious that if the film has a weak link, it's Frank Sinatra, who -- while mostly appropriately tortured as one of the GIs brainwashed by those perfidious Commies -- delivers line-readings that occasionally betray his membership in the Rat Pack. That aside, Criterion's brand new video transfer looks incrementally better than any other version I've seen, i.e. pretty fabulous. Extras include an audio commentary (from a previous 1997 Criterion release) featuring Frankenheimer, a brand new interview with star Angela Lansbury, still delightful at age 91, and a video essay by documentarian Errol Morris, who has very perceptive things to say about the film's cinematic innovations and its continued relevance to American politics in 2016.
4. The Easybeats: Easy Come, Easy Go (1968, Umbrella Entertainment)
Director Peter Clifton's documentary on the Easybeats' pilgrimage to London -- where among other things, the band recorded their classic world wide smash "Friday on My Mind" -- was assumed lost for several decades, so when it resurfaced in Australia a few years ago, it was greeted, rightly, as essentially the discovery of the Holy Grail of Australian rock. I'm a huge Easybeats fan -- and you should be too; these guys were right up there with the best of the Brit Invasion bands -- but the reality of the thing is that it's a moderately interesting period piece, with a very high Too Groovy for Words quotient. Still, there's a lot of terrific music in between the more calculatedly whimsical moments, including some fascinating scenes of the band working in the studio with genius producer Glyn Johns, who turns out to have been even cooler than I had previously assumed.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, Lucasfilm)
The good news: J.J. Abrams' reboot of George Lucas's Flash Gordon pastiche franchise gets the look and feel of Lucas's 70s originals down to the proverbial T. The bad news: J.J. Abrams' reboot of George Lucas Flash Gordon pastiche franchise gets the look and feel of Lucas's 70s originals down to the proverbial T. Which is to say, Abrams' Chapter VII is so slavishly detailed and accurate about recreating the whole Star Wars esthetic that his movie is essentially a remake of the 1978 first episode. That said, the film benefits from better acting than any other installment in the saga so far, and once Harrison Ford shows up, it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the charm of the thing, even if it is completely second hand. Bottom line, at best a reasonably diverting time waster. Bonuses include several zillion making of--documentaries, and apart from an actually interesting one featuring composer John Williams I can't think of a reason to bother watching them any of them ever again.
6. Bad Influence (1990, Shout Factory, Blu-ray)
A sort of Bush I era remake of Strangers on a Train. James Spader, who really was the most interesting young American actor around when this was made, and Rob Lowe are very good in, respectively, the Farley Granger and Robert Walker roles (Lowe surprisingly so) and the whole thing is twisty enough to be diverting. But the characters as written are paper thin and in the end this is just another okay psycho-sexual yuppie thriller of the period (exemplars of which are too numerous to mention; if you want to see one that's actually great, check out Nick Kazan's unjustly forgotten Dream Lover, also with Spader, from 1993). Director Curtis Hanson, of course, went on to better things with L.A. Confidential. Shout Factory's print and video transfer are first-rate; the sole bonus feature is an interview with screenwriter David Koepp.
Have a great weekend everybody -- regular musically themed postings resume on Monday.