Remember these? The Review Roundup column is designed to remind you about recent releases but July offered a lot of titles that you youngin's out there have probably never heard of at all. Too bad. There was vinatge sci-fi, relatively obscure drama, and a decidedly obscure animation. Some of these corrected existing problems with previous releases and some were available for the first time in many, many years. Most challenging? Without a doubt the masterful The Turin Horse which is said to be the swan song of director Bela Tarr. Most fun? For me it would be a tie between Singin' in the Rain and Altered States. Without further adieu I'll let you get on with the business of deciding whether to rent or buy the following but you could do way worse than to make sure you see everything listed below.
Singin' In The Rain: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition (Blu-ray/DVD Combo)
Some films just make me happy. Scratch that. Some films just make EVERYBODY happy. This is especially true when they come in a large colorful box containing a collectible umbrella. Singin' in the Rain (1952) has been remastered in hi-def and it's gorgeous enough to make you cry. The sound is every bit as dynamic as well. This is a stellar upgrade. All the great bonus features from the previous two-disc SE are present and accounted for in SD (which, sadly, is more or less standard treatment for the move to BluRay even in special cases like this) but there is a great new HD doc about an hour long that featuring some surprisingly articulate commentary on the influence and artistry of the films amazing dance numbers from cast members of Glee, High School The Musical and others. This can be purchased sans box and collectibles but for hardcore musical or classic film fans this should go right on the shelf next to other recent BluRay box sets like Ben Hur (1959), Gone With The Wind (1939) Casablanca (1942) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). One special note rather than include full size posters folded into the box as was done in the Casablanca box, the company has chosen to offer purchasers the chance to get them through the mail which is nice. I'd rather have a rolled poster any day of the week.
Altered States [Blu-ray]
I was quite excited to see this again after many, many years and was struck not only by the excellent video transfer but by how well the film itself still played. Altered States (1980) is at it's heart an adult drama that embraces genre trappings as part of a larger theme. It never sneers at the viewers desire to be carried along by spectacle but it tries to go deeper, using trippy imagery and gonzo effects to invoke characters yearning to break through. In the end a film ostensibly about a Harvard scientist conducting experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber isn't about the effects of those experiments (as spectacular as they are) but the search for truth and the mystery of love. No extras here which is a crying shame. Am I remiss if I fail to mention this was directed by Ken Russell? Probably. But it's also written by Paddy Chayefsky and while it's no Network (1976) it does emerge as a worthwhile film for sci-fi enthusiasts, fans of eighties genre stuff or cineastes with an existential bent.
What doesn't work about Brainstorm (1983) is myriad but it doesn't sink the film for those who remember the period in which it was made so fondly. 1983 was also the year that Return of the Jedi, Krull, War Games, Videodrome, The Hunger, Cujo, Christine, Psycho II, Something Wicked This Way Comes, all came out. In short it was a great year for great to just fun genre film. For a better take on shared brain wave and sense experience through tech try Dreamscape (1984). But Brainstorm does boast Christopher Walken in a straight leading man role, Natalie Wood in her last feature film and all the nascent computer effects available at the time. The end result is a mildly interesting sci-fi conspiracy thriller. Video transfer? Dynamite. No extras which is somewhat sad, especially considering it's directed by no less a luminary than Douglas Trumball whose effects work on Bladerunner (1982) and 2001 A Space Oddysey (1968), among dozens of other groundbreaking science fiction films, should have warranted a commentary at the very least. Trumbull also directed Silent Running (1972).
Coma (1978) still manages to give me the creeps. It's a surprising accomplishment even considering it's distinguished cast. Bottom line is that the medical thriller has long been an established subgenre so the central premise here can seem a bit creaky. That and the fact that conspiracy thrillers tend to collapse under the weight of their own logic lapses could have relegated this early effort into late night fodder long ago. But, Tea party histrionics aside, the idea that the government and corporate industry working together will eventually secretly farm us all for body parts is creepier than ever. Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, Genieveve Bujold, and Michael Douglas more than elevate the material past simple genre thrills and chills even when the films visuals verge on self parody. Coma may well be almost as good as truly terrifying conspiracy stuff like Seconds (1966) and The China Syndrome (1979). It's certainly as good as Capricorn One (1979).
Chariots of Fire [Blu-ray Book]
The winner of Best Picture 1981 proves it has legs upon review and one can only hope that the producers of the current spate of evangelical sports films would give this masterpiece a second and third look before making another one. Relying on the power of it's premise involving two Olympic runners, one a Jew and one a Christian, Chariots of Fire eschews sentiment in it's dialogue to draw a strong connection between spirituality and sport as it follows the men toward their respective conflicts. The sound and the picture are notably updated here. The packaging is a gorgeous book style with an extra soundtrack sampler disc. The extras from the previous SE DVD are carried over and a whole new hour of hi-def special features are also included. In short get this immediately. It is a great film, going far beyond easy sentiment into the stuff of deep dramaturgy.
First off, let it be said that Outland (1981) is legendary amongst DVD collectors precisely because the only available version of it is awful, offering a transfer so muddy that many scenes are virtually unwatchable. Consider that problem corrected. This is a gorgeous transfer. Of course in the long run that doesn't solve the films many problems with pacing. Director Peter Hyams is most famous for his work on high concept projects like Capricorn One (1979) , 2010 (1984), Timecop (1994), The Relic (1997) and End of Days (1999) which despite their problems are pretty accomplished simple genre movies. Here he aims for an update of High Noon (1952) and the result drags it's way to a predictable conclusion that seems somehow anachronistic. Another problem is Jerry Goldsmith's score which has, to my ears, aged rather badly. Outland would work much better with music that didn't telegraph every single emotion. No extras.
Margaret (Blu-ray/ DVD Combo)
Around Awards season last year I kept hearing about one film over and over again but, alas, a consideration screener/screening never came. Now I know why everyone was so excited. Margaret (2011) is a remarkably deep film. Anna Paquin plays a high school student who witnesses a traffic accident and becomes convinced she is partly to blame for it. When she tries to make things right she finds herself at the center of a complex adult world full of compromise, indifference and outright cruelty. Paquin is supported by a phenomenal cast at the top of their game that includes Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin and Mathew Broderick. But the actress is also supported by a dynamic screenplay that is presented here in a 149 minute cut and a longer three hour version. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had so much difficulty editing the film that lawsuits resulted and though the final product could be tightened it is certainly one of the most vital films released last year.That longer cut is the only extra here and, curiously, it's on DVD.
4:44 Last Day on Earth [Blu-ray]
Abel Ferrar is never less than interesting. He also has a rep for being a bit too iconoclastic for his own good. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, the results of his filmmaking are usually worth checking out and this end of days effort is no different. How would you spend the last day on earth? Not just your last day but the last day of mankind itself? Willem Defoe and Shanyn Leigh play a bohemian pair who decide to face the end with one another only to find themselves. This effects -lite look at apocalypse is melodramatic to be sure but it is perfectly cast and the actors wring plenty of insight out of it's, at times, overwrought script. As is expected this is a visual feast. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch offers a noirish sensibility filtered through the moody but ultimately hopeful vision of Ferrara which finds meaning in human connection even in the face of utter destruction. It's existential to a fault but it's also entirely at the service of something far beyond borrowed virtue. The ultimate comfort comes from outside and death is just a doorkeeper. The only special feature here is the trailer.
Next of Kin [Blu-ray]
Patrick Swayze left behind a neat little legacy. Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990) have since gone down in history as two of the great feel-good films, and his late-career brilliant turn in Donnie Darko (2001) showcased him in ways that does make one wonder what might have happened had he not died so young. But equally enjoyable is this bit of nonsense that has long been a staple of bad movie nights everywhere. Next of Kin (1989) isn't a bad movie per se but it is pretty over the top- hence the bad movie night status. Not only does it star Swayze but Liam Neeson has a dynamite turn as a murderous hillbilly out for revenge and the cast also includes Helen Hunt, Ben Stiller, Adam Baldwin, Bill Paxton, Andreas Katsulas and the always fun to watch character actor Michael J. Pollard. In other words, don't forget to pass the popcorn while you are wondering how anything this silly could occasionally be so involving. No extras. But the film looks and sounds absolutely great in it's Blu debut.
Mean Streets [Blu-ray]
Martin Scorcese finally gets a BluRay release of this early important work. Those who only know his take on gangsterism via stuff like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) need to see this. Far more realistic and stylistic, Mean Streets (1973) plays like an antidote to the stylistic contemporaneous masterpiece The Godfather in that it is first and foremost interested in it's characters as eternal souls in a fallen world rather than as purveyors of power and enjoyers of the trappings of the material success power brings. This is a fabulous transfer of the film. It looks dynamite, sounds dynamite and though it could have more in the way of special features the commentary track featuring Scorcese and co-writer Mardik Martin and actress Amy Robinson is a deeply personal one providing some great anecdotal and technical stuff. As if all that weren't enough the cost of this disc is incredibly low. Must buy? NO Scorcese fan, or film student should neglect this passion project from one of cinema's great directors.
The Turin Horse
An oft told story about Friedrich Nietzsche is that near the end of his life he went mad after defending a horse being beaten by it's owner on the side of the road. Carried back to his home the philosopher slowly descended into near complete insanity until dying a little more than a decade later. Using the horse and the man as a starting point, writer director Bela Tarr along with co-writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai and co-director Agnes Hranitzky create a tale that many feel reflects on Nietzsche's life struggle to find meaning in the midst of a world that seemed at best one of stifled potential and at worst one abandoned by an indifferent creator. An old man, with one good arm, shares a meager existence with his daughter and a single horse. The viewer is invited to follow them through the mundane at times degrading, rituals that make up their day to day struggle for survival in the gale whipped plain they live on. If the cinematography alone didn't invite the viewer to search deeply for meaning the confidence with which Tarr approaches his subject matter should. This is a sincere effort to examine the harshness
The extras here are incredible. Jonothan Rosenbaum delivers a commentary some 70 minutes in length which, though at only half the runtime of the film itself, is a primer on Tarr and a humbly delivered one. I would call it essential for any student of the director or his works. Viewers also get a 50 minute press conference with Tarr and cast from he Berlin Film Festival and a feature length guided tour of Tarr cinema complete with audience Q and A moderated by programmer/critic Howard Feinstein. Noted critic J. Hoberman contributes an essay to the booklet and the Tarr short Hotel Magnezit (12 minutes).
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season One [Blu-ray]
It looks every bit as beautiful as you've heard. This is a much needed video upgrade for a show that, though dated, is still thoughtful and thoroughly engaging. Picard and company hit BluRay with a whole slew of extras that are ported over from the previous release but the end result is so stunning it looks like it could have been shot yesterday. What stands out as a result aren't just the effects but the performances. Patrick Stewart has never seemed as majestic or authoritative as Picard and even in the very beginnings of the series the rest of the cast brings depth to a series that many feel is the best Trek ever had to offer. You get all the season one episodes but mot importantly you get idea driven science fiction and challenging character arcs.
I fell asleep during this screening at Fantastic Fest but that has nothing to do with the film itself. I was 18 hours into my day and had already sat through two other films. But I caught enough of it to be very upset when I woke up near the end. This is a funny engaging screwball comedy wrapped up in sci-fi clothes that also happens to be perfectly cast. Vigalando is aiming for a level of pathos he can't quite achieve but the characters are so engaging viewers aren't likely to care. A worthy folllowup to the masterful Timecrimes? I would say absolutely yes. But where is the BluRay? Catching this on DVD I was struck by the bleakness of the mainstream romcom invasion, full of movie which rarely venture into anything dark, disturbing or real as they put interchangeable characters through well-worn paces. There's a deeper critique of Extraterrestrial's narrative failings but even then this is funny, charming, surprising stuff.
Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life [DVD]
The decision by Zeitgeist to release this on DVD as opposed to BluRay must come down to dollars and sense. This won't have mainstream sales, after all and getting it out at all is simply a labor of love for which Zeitgeist should be commended for making the feature debut of these remarkable filmmakers finally available. For those of us who have followed the Quay Brothers for awhile the question isn't whether to pick it up in ANY format but how soon can we get our hands on it. Purists will want to check out the British BluRay but this elegantly packaged DVD version makes a nice shelf-mate with the previous Zeitgeist releases and it looks and sounds great. This decidedly strange visually compelling piece of arthouse experimentation manages to tell a solid story but it's the images you're likely to remember.
There are some nice extras as well. Eurydice She, So Beloved is a 2007 twelve minute black and white short that is reminiscent of Institute. On the Set of Institute Benjamenta clocks in at about a quarter hour and compares color footage with the finished black and white version of the film. You also get a trailer and a booklet with an extensive history of the Quay's film output.
The Hunter [Blu-ray]
Will somebody please bronze Willem Defoe before he goes the way of all famous flesh. The man is a walking talking national treasure, pulling the human condition into stark relief out of virtually any material and The Hunter is no exception. A slightly above average thriller, it is immensely elevated by Defoe's underplayed approach and high level of filmmaking craft. Defoe plays a hunter sent out to illegally bag a a rare tiger by a shadowy benefactor. But as the emotionally unavailable man begins to open up to the family that boards him between forays into the jungle he finds himself at the center of a mysterious conspiracy. The sense of suspense is palpable and the human relations in this dour tale seem even more so at the film's best. Extras on this great looking great sounding BluRay include a commentary from director Daniel Nettheim and producer Vinbcent Sheehan, a surprisingly solid 35 minute making of doc and deleted scenes with optional commentary.