Good thing 'Medical Center' is around to patch up the pieces
More vintage shows are debuting via the more const-conscious MOD mode. Here are some of the highlights of recent TV on DVD-R releases.
"Man From Atlantis: The Complete TV Movies Collection" (Warner Archive) – Before "Dallas," Patrick Duffy washed upon the beach of network TV in the 1977 TV movie "Man From Atlantis," the first of four telefilms with Duffy as the mysterious stranger on dry land "Mark Harris." That's the name he adopts after Dr. Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda Montgomery) saves his life when he's found unconscious on the beach. When modern medicine fails to get him breathing again, she drops him back into the water, which apparently is enough to keep him around an otherwise alienating facility monitored by a military that sees him as a either a national defense asset or a potential military threat. But it's not like he can go home again, since his memory is a blank. He doesn't know who he is or where he came from and hanging around with the humans is his best bet at getting some answers. Duffy's blank naïveté plays like an analogue precursor to Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a guileless innocent with fabulous abilities -- the guy outswims Flipper in the film's best special effect and skin-dives to the ocean floor of the Bermuda Triangle -- and a fondness for human society balanced his instinctive suspicion of human motives.
The pilot itself, which brings him in contact with a modern Captain Nemo (Victor Buono), falls somewhere between Gene Roddenberry seriousness and Irwin Allen fantasy, while the follow-up "Man From Atlantis II: The Death Scouts" adds an alien visitor angle to his mystery: a UFO crash lands in the water and a couple of underwater-breathing humanoids with unblinking eyes, webbed hands and monotone speech patterns emerge to take stock of the land above the waves.
"Man From Atlantis: The Complete TV Movies Collection" (Warner Archive) features all four TV Movies made in 1977 ("Killer Spores" and "The Disappearances" fill out the set) on two discs. The subsequent weekly incarnation was short-lived and all 13 episodes are collected in the four-disc set "Man From Atlantis: The Complete Series" (Warner Archive). Both in standard cases with hinged trays.
"The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series, Part One" (Warner Archive), starring Stephanie Powers as the very capable Agent April Dancer, is no more campy than its big brother series, which still gives it a lot of leeway to play it tongue in cheek. In the first episode alone, the antidote to a top secret drug (which makes people move at half speed) is parachuted into Greece on a dachshund (or rather, on the dog's fleas) and then chased down by U.N.C.L.E. and T.H.R.U.S.H. agents alike. Otherwise it's a colorful Cold War spy romp with Powers sent all over the world for glamorous assignments that call for her to dress up in jumpsuits and harem outfits and the like and Noel Harrison providing back-up as her partner Mark Slate. Leo G. Carroll provides the adult supervision as U.N.C.L.E. director Alexander Waverly. The show lasted a single season. This four-disc set features the first 15 of the show's 29 episodes.
"Medical Center: The Complete First Season" (Warner Archive) was part of a new wave of medical dramas post-"Dr. Kildare." There was still the mix medical stories with personal stories and the obligatory dynamic of the veteran chief of staff (James Daly) and the dedicated younger firebrand (Chad Everett) who also headed the Student Health Department at the University (because, you know, he's a little more with it when it comes to the kids), but it also brought medicine and ethical issues up to the modern age, Well, modern for 1969, anyway, which feels fairly dated by today's standards. Guest stars this season include Dyan Cannon, Tyne Daly, Mercedes McCambridge, Walter Pidgeon, Slim Pickens, Martin Sheen, Richard Thomas, Cicely Tyson and William Shatner (in case you want to jump ahead, he's in "The Combatants" on disc six). 26 episodes on six discs in a standard case with hinged trays.
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here.
The original 1973 TV movie is not all that scary but it is a little weird
It's standard practice on home video to cash in on whatever chips the studio has in the vault whenever the opportunity comes, especially when it comes to sequels and remakes. But with the drop in DVD sales (and the subsequent loss of shelf space in the major retailers) over the past couple of years, more of the vault titles are being sidelined into the less costly (for the studios) manufacture-on-demand release streams.
So, with Guillermo del Toro's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" hitting theaters this weekend, the original 1973 TV movie is back on DVD (well, DVD-R) through the Warner Archive in a new "Special Edition" (at lead by MOD standards).
No, it's not a lost masterpiece, but it is fun. Young marrieds Kim Darby and Jim Hutton move into an old house with a secret locked away in a boarded-up room. William Demarest is the amiably crusty old carpenter who warns them that "Some things are better left as they are," advice they predictably ignore. Their renovations unleash a small swarm of mumbling demons in furry jumpsuits and rubber masks (they look like cousins to the gremlin from the "Twilight Zone" episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but with creepy shriveled heads). Hutton comes off as the worst kind of paternalistic husband, patronizing in one scene, scolding her like a fed-up parent in the next as the creepy little demons (who carefully hide themselves from all other eyes) hound her to distraction and terror.
Plus 'Bambi II,' 'Rounders' and 'Hostage'
The DVD editions came out in June. Now "The Women in Cages Collection" (Shout! Factory), a collection of three Roger Corman-produced exploitation films of the seventies, debuts on Blu-ray. Cult filmmaker Jack Hill directs "The Big Doll House" and "The Big Bird Cage" and Pam Grier is featured in all both films plus "Women in Cages." Videodrone's review is here.
When out-of-work actor Jon Favreau tired of waiting for his big break, he decided to go the Sylvester Stallone route and write his own. The result was "Swingers" (Lionsgate), the 1996 indie hit that launched the careers of Favreau, Vince Vaughn and director Doug Liman. Favreau plays the sad sack of the bunch of aspiring LA actors still hung up on the girl back home who broke it off. His happy-to-help buddies (led by the would-be smoothie of a ladies man Vaughn) drag him from one nightspot to another, plying him with cocktails while coaching him in the ways of the swinger. Full of wry humor, knowing references and dead-on guy talk, "Swingers" is a snapshot of a time in the American indie culture where they made the kinds of films that the studios had given up on: small character pieces with genuine characters, and now it makes its high-def debut. That is so money, baby.
Features all the supplements from the previous DVD special edition: two commentary tracks (one with director Doug Liman and editor Stephen Mirrione, the other with writer/star Jon Favreau and co-star Vince Vaughn), the four-part documentary "Making It in Hollywood," five deleted scenes and the short film parody "Swingblade," a mock trailer which drops the mumbling dimwit Karl (of "Slingblade") into the hip LA scene, complete with button-up short, hiked-up pants and guttural communication: “You are so money, baby!” “Mm hmmmm.”
Did you know there's a sequel to "Bambi"? Sixty years after the debut of Disney’s masterful animation classic came the 2006 "Bambi II" (Disney), a direct-to-DVD sequel that fills in the time after Bambi’s mother is shot by hunters and his father, The Great Prince, teaches him the ways of the forest. Bambi’s beloved friends Thumper, Flower, Owl and others return for the adventure. It arrives in a Blu-ray+DVD Special Edition this week, along with featurette "The Legacy Continues," a deleted song, an optional subtitle Trivia Track and set-top games and activities for young viewers among the supplements.
"Rounders" (Lionsgate) stars Matt Damon as a former poker hustler trying to lead a straight life as a law student and Edward Norton as a sleazy, scamming buddy (appropriately named Worm) who pulls him back into the gambling world. Director John Dahl makes the most of the masks, moves, and double dealing by the characters. He understands the gambler’s motto -- you don’t study the cards, you study the person -- far better than the hackneyed script does. Dahl, Damon and the cast carry the film through the narrative hoops. John Turturro and Famke Janssen cut fine performances from their roles, John Malkovich hams it up shamelessly with a flamboyant Russian accent, Gretchen Mol is lovely window dressing, and Martin Landau brings dignity to a plot device. Features two commentary tracks and featurettes on the film and on the world of professional poker.
In "Hostage" (Lionsgate), Bruce Willis is an aging, burned-out L.A. hostage negotiator who has retreated to a job at a sleepy county sheriff's department but pulled back in when a pair of joy-riding teens (led by Ben Foster) turn a home invasion into a hostage situation with Willis' family in the middle. There’s an air of terrifying plausibility for much of its running time, especially when Willis sweet talks a spunky adolescent boy into harm’s way (his voice almost cracks as he puts this boy’s life on the line to save his own family), but it loses its credibility when Foster goes on the hunt like a blood-simple psycho with the moves of a movie spymaster. Director Florent Siri has a tough style and an unforgiving attitude, but it gets drowned in the queasy blood lust. Features director commentary, deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary by Siri and a featurette.
And don't forget Koreyoshi Kurahara
"The Warped World Of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Eclipse Series 28)" (Criterion) is an introduction to another of the lively directors who flourished making crime thrillers, youth dramas and other genre films as the new blood hit the studios starting in the late 1950s. This set, from Criterion's budget-minded line, presents five jumped-up genre pictures made for Nikkatsu through the 1960s by Koreyoshi Kurahara. Videodrone's review is here.
"Sword and Sorcery Collection" (Shout! Factory) boxes up four films from the Roger Corman version of the sword and sandal genre, which includes heaping scoops of nudity. "Deathstalker" (1984) stars Richard Hill as a warrior bent on revenge, but only after he wins the hand (or is it body?) of princess Barbi Benton in a grand tournament. Features commentary by producer/director John Sbardellati, special makeup effects artist John Carl Buechler and co-star Richard Brooker. Jim Wynorski directs "Deathstalker 2" (1987), with John Terlesky taking over the role of the barbarian warrior and B-movie queen Monique Gabriel as a princess and her evil twin who, controlled by sorcerer John Lazar, usurped her throne. Both films have been on DVD before but this set features their respective debuts in anamorphic widescreen.
The second disc features a pair of films released by Shout! Factory as a website exclusive earlier this year: "The Warrior And The Sorceress" (1984) is a crude post-"Conan" sword, sandal and sex fantasy starring David Carradine, deep in his B-movie slide into the eighties, while "Barbarian Queen" (1985) is a shamelessly exploitative femme-force revenge flick with Lana Clarkson, Katt Shea and Dawn Dunlap, all required to perform in various stages of undress. This latter film, shot in South America, was directed by Hector Olivera, and Argentine filmmaker whose career features some ambitious and intelligent films, which he put on hold to try and break into the American industry by churning out cheap genre films. This one may be his worst. I delve into the film in far more detail (don't ask me why, I was simply flabbergasted that the director of "Funny Dirty Little War" could create a film with so little redeeming value) at my blog here.
"Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension" (Disney) launches the hit Disney Channel cartoon about the harmless antics of imaginative step-brothers and best friends Phineas and Ferb into their own feature, complete with an epic tale involving their pet Platypus (who is secretly an undercover agent), a "platy-pult," an alternate universe and the evil Dr. Doof. Comes in a two-disc edition with a bonus digital copy, deleted scenes, a bonus episode of the series and eight bonus songs from the movie, among the supplements.
It's just one of two family-friendly animated originals debuting this week, the other being "Tom and Jerry & the Wizard of Oz" (Warner), which sends the legendary cat and mouse team along the yellow brick road with Dorothy and friends. Available on DVD and Blu-ray+DVD combo pack. Includes an alternate version with a sepiatone opening scene and "Tom and Jerry and the Science of Oz."
"Dear Uncle Adolf: The Germans And Their Führer" (First Run) reveals the heart of the German people during Hitler's Third Reich through a trove of recently discovered personal letters sent by citizens to their Führer, charting the public mood from 1932 through 1945. In English and German with English subtitles.
"Wrong Side Of The Bus" (First Run) documents the quest of Dr. Sidney Bloch, a South African-born Jew who moved from his homeland after graduating medical school, to return to South Africa for his school reunion and confront his collusion with apartheid, which he disagreed with but never confronted. Features a bonus interview with director Rod Freedman.
And the rest:
Valie Export's avant-garde drama "Invisible Adversaries" (Facets) is available as a Facets Limited Edition. In German with English subtitles.
"Peeping Blog" (MVD) is the latest zero-budget horror from Creep Creepersin.
Two celebrated films from the South Korean director debut this week
The films of South Korean director Lee Chang-dong have won acclaim and awards all over the world for their intelligence, compassion and emotional power. This week his two most celebrated films arrive on DVD and Blu-ray: "Secret Sunshine" (Criterion), a devastating drama of anger and grace that won the Best Actress award at Cannes 2007, and the sublime "Poetry" (Kino), which earned Lee the Best Screenplay award at Cannes 2010.
So why isn't Lee considered in the same company as Hong Sang-soo or Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook? Perhaps because he came to film from prose (he was a respected novelist before making his first film) and is more attuned to words than images. Fair enough. Lee's unadorned images are rarely more than functional (though they are often graceful and evocative) and he's a more judicious writer than an editor, but he is a superb screenwriter and a magnificent director of actors and he brings an insight to the complexities of emotional lives and anxieties and frustrated ideals of ordinary humans in his films. You can see it back in his 2002 "Oasis," which took home a shelf-full of awards from the the Venice Film Festival.
"Secret Sunshine" (2007), which received only a limited release in the U.S. years after its debut, confronts a potentially controversial issue – one woman's feelings of betrayal when the Christian faith that consoled her in a time of terrible tragedy now fails her – with both intelligence and an understanding of the furious emotional storm of the fragile woman's response. While the film can be seen as critical of religion (the evangelical brand of Christianity is quite popular in South Korea), it is more about the personal than the scriptural and Jeon Do-yeon's portrait of rage and betrayal, one of the great performances of the past decade, fuels the devastating journey. "Lee makes lengthy, expansive, unpredictable movies always gripped by emotional tribulation, and the red-eyed Jeon… goes to hell and back," writes Michael Atkinson in The Village Voice.
"Poetry" (2010), an enthralling drama of an aging woman whose compassion is tested when she learns that her teenage grandson is guilty of a terrible act, is just as intimate and resonant. Yoon Jeong-hee, the respected Korean actress he coaxed out of retirement to play his lead, creates a human portrait in unquestioning self-sacrifice who only starts to question it when she's faced with her grandson's crime at the same time she's diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's. In many ways it is also a portrait of a woman betrayed, this time by the family she has covered for all her life and the culture that made her what she is, and she's determined to express herself while she's still lucid. She is the only fully realized character in the film (a trait it shares with "Secret Sunshine") but Yoon's performance is so delicate and evocative that it suggests an entire life hidden behind her impassive face (she learned long ago to guard herself). It only makes the conflicts roiling behind her sad eyes, and her compassionate resolve, all the more evocative. For more, read my in-depth review at Parallax View here.
Both films arrive on DVD and Blu-ray. Criterion's "Secret Sunshine" features a new interview with director Lee Chang-dong and the featurette "On the Set of Secret Sunshine," plus a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim (you can read it on the Criterion website here). Kino's "Poetry" featuring an interview with actor Ahn Nae-sang and a making-of documentary.
"Poetry" is also available through Fandor as a streaming video, and for a limited time you can stream it for free when you log in through Facebook.
Feverish snapshots of an unraveling culture
"The Warped World Of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Eclipse Series 28)" (Criterion) is an introduction to another of the lively directors who flourished making crime thrillers, youth dramas and other genre films as new generation of young, ambitious filmmakers hit the studios in the late 1950s. This set, from Criterion's budget-minded line Eclipse, presents five jumped-up pictures made for Nikkatsu through the 1960s by Koreyoshi Kurahara.
"Intimidation" (1959), a tightly-wound crime thriller about a predatory bank manager, a meek, submissive assistant and a blackmail scheme, serves as kind of a prologue to the films to come. It opens on a train barreling through the screen to deposit a flamboyant urban gangster in a sleepy rural town but the rest of the film slows to a more classically controlled piece of filmmaking, a quietly oppressive psychological drama with the obsessive dementia of a Patricia Highsmith novel. It's a well-tempered piece of genre filmmaking -- the corruption and mind-games all play out behind the façade of social decorum -- and Kurahara shows he has the chops, but it's with the subsequent films that he breaks out of conventions and into unpredictable territory.
With "The Warped Ones" (1960), his world has become completely unstable. His contribution to the juvenile delinquent genre (called the "Sun Tribe" films in Japan) is more like a piece of jazz than a traditional story, like a Japanese "Breathless" with a sociopath at the center. Tamio Kawaji's jazz-loving Akira is an angry and reckless petty thief who walks out of juvenile detention with a new partner in crime (Eiji Gô) and a contempt and arrogance that has built up during his incarceration. He's not a rebel without a cause, he's id unleashed, bouncing from one brutal antic to another without a glimmer of self-awareness or moral twinge. Kurahara directs it like a series of riffs and meandering solos, as when he follows the characters on drive to the beach as if it were an extended improvisation, and rides Akira's feral drive right to the end, where a twisted bit a dark humor leaves us with characters more self-absorbed and undisciplined than ever. Call this Kurahara's story of cruel youth.
Pure exploitation from Jack Hill and friends in the Philippines
The DVD editions came out in June. Now it's on Blu-ray: Pam Grier made her first bid for B-movie stardom in the exploitation films for Roger Corman. "The Women in Cages Collection: The Big Bird Cage / The Big Doll House / Women in Cages" (Shout! Factory) is a trio of women in prison films, all of them featuring Grier, all of them knocked out in the Philippines. Videodrone's review is here.
Grier takes her first lead in the Jack Hill-directed "The Big Doll House" (1971), a minor classic in the genre that established the new rules of the game: abusive guards, lots of showers, late night groping, and the payback prison break. It’s pure exploitation and bit mean spirited, but it was a smash hit and started Corman’s New World Pictures in the WIP exploitation biz. Hill’s superior semi-sequel "The Big Bird Cage" (1972) elevates Grier to top billing as a mercenary/revolutionary in an unnamed South American country who (with partner Sig Haid) engineers a women’s prison break from the outside. Why? Because their rag tag soldiers are looking for revolutionary sisters to join their cause… and their beds. This is pure B exploitation powered with oddball humor—Grier and Haig’s first heist is a corker—and energetic action. The 1971 "Women in Cages," made between the two Hill pictures by veteran Filipino director Gerry (Gerardo) de Leon and featuring Grier as the sadistic head matron in a women’s penitentiary, fills out the triple feature.
The two-disc set features entertaining commentary by director Jack Hill (originally recorded for an earlier DVD release) on his two films. (My favorite tidbit: the location for the prison in "Bird Cage" was later used by Francis Coppola for Kurtz’s compound in "Apocalypse Now," where it looked much darker and more menacing.) New to the set is the 48-minute documentary "From Manila With Love," a detailed look at the making of "The Big Doll House" and "The Big Bird Cage," the films that reworked the WIP film as tawdry drive-in exploitation genre and launched Corman's New World Pictures.
The director talks about his first film in 21 years
"Road to Nowhere" (Monterey, reviewed on Videodrone here) is Monte Hellman's first feature in 21 years. The director of "The Shooting" and "Two-Lane Blacktop," a resolutely personal director who turned out drive-in pictures for Roger Corman and spent his career largely transforming work-for-hire productions into distinctive and mysterious films, spent years taking jobs as editor and second-unit director while one project after another failed to come together.
Among his projects during that time was working with the Sundance institute, where he helped a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino workshop a film called "Reservoir Dogs." Hellman signed on as executive producer and helped Tarantino get his film made. The role of educator and mentor eventually took him to CalArts, the private arts college where he has been teaching for the past six years.
"Road to Nowhere" is a welcome return by a master filmmaker, a film aware of its existence as a film, and his first digital production. Which he shot with a still camera, mind you, that he adapted to shoot a feature film. The result is imagery as rich as paintings. The 79-year-old rebel brings a whole new beauty to digital photography.
That's one of the things we talked about in my brief but lively phone interview with the director, along with the creative process and, of course…
What's in your DVD player?
I've been away for a month so I haven't actually haven’t had a DVD in my DVD player over that time. One of the last was "The Secret of the Grain." I was watching the Criterion disc. And there was something after that which I liked a lot, another Criterion disc, a Blu-ray of "Sweet Smell of Success."
You were very involved in the Criterion edition of your film, "Two-Lane Blacktop." In fact, you conducted and produced the interviews with Kris Kristofferson and James Taylor for the "Two-Lane Blacktop" disc.
I did about four pieces for the DVD and that was a lot of fun. In fact, I'm going to be doing similar things for Criterion releases of my two Jack Nicholson westerns, "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind."
That's a scoop! Criterion hasn't even announced these discs.
They're a ways off. We haven't even closed the deal yet but we've talked about it and basically agreed. They're not going to be doing it until sometime in 2012.