Blu-ray Round-up: "King of Kings" and "Soylent Green" debut
Plus the original "Scream" trilogy anticipates the new edition
I excavate "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" with all 14 films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the quintessential big screen Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in my review of the set here and revel in the glorious cinematic insanity of Dario Argento's "Inferno" ("a visual symphony of color, camerawork and characters following impulse over logic, as if driven by some primal instinct") here. Read on for more Blu-ray debuts, both classic and contemporary.
"King of Kings" (MGM) - Nicholas Ray's 1961 epic drama of the story of Christ (and ostensible remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent classic) has less spectacle than the other epics of its era but it remains one of the most interesting and perceptive Biblical epics of its era. Narration (by Orson Welles) takes us back to the Roman invasion of the Holy Land and the enslavement of the Jews, setting the historical and social backdrop against which the familiar stories—the Nativity, the baptism, the apostles, the betrayal, the crucifixion and resurrection—play out, with blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter as the calmly intense Jesus preaching peace with the passion of in his eyes and a gentleness in his carriage. Robert Ryan is a magnificent John the Baptist, a rough-hewn peasant touched by divine inspiration and following his faith to the end, and Rip Torn makes Judas a fiercely dedicated revolutionary fighting to free his people from Roman bondage at the side of Barabbas (Harry Guardino). In Jesus, he sees the man who will lead them, but he fails to hear his message of peace.
"King of Kings" is arguably the most revolutionary of any story of Christ (as least until "The Last Temptation of Christ"), putting Christ's message of peaceful resistance next to the armed rebellion led by Barabbas and Judas, and offering Judas as a misguided apostle who believes his betrayal is part of Christ's plan. He's right, of course, but for the wrong reasons—he foresees an Old Testament showdown with Christ as a holy Samson or a modern Moses tearing down the walls as he faces down the enemy—which makes him more of a tragic figure than a villain. There are plenty of weaknesses in the film, from some awkward performances and risible dialogue to clumsy scenes (some of which can be attributed to interference). But whereas detractors dismissed the films as "I Was a Teenage Jesus," it's more accurate to describe it as "Rebel With a Cause." The Blu-ray debut of this Samuel Bronston production, shot in Spain on 70mm, looks superb and includes the overture, entr'acte and exit music of the original roadshow presentation. The supplements are threadbare, consisting of a vintage featurette, newsreels of the premier and the trailer.
"Soylent Green" (Warner) – Set in 2022 New York City, population 40,000,000, this eco-conscious science fiction artifact from 1973 looks more prescient than ever. In this overpopulated world, the gap between the rich and everyone else is enormous, poverty is rampant, unemployment high and "the greenhouse effect" (those very words are used in the film) has brought on climate change of a scale that has decimated agriculture, resulting in food shortages for an unsustainable population. This is all backdrop to a classic murder mystery and Charlton Heston stars as the police detective assigned to the politically sensitive case involving an uber-rich member of the board of directors of Soylent, which controls a significant percentage of food production and essentially rules the country. Edward G. Robinson the aging professor who shares Heston’s cluttered apartment and Leigh Taylor-Young the companion of the murdered industrialist (the term used in the film is "furniture," which nicely communicates how she has traded herself as a commodity in return for survival).
The film, ably directed by Hollywood workhorse Richard Fleischer and smartly adapted by Stanley Greenberg from a novel by Harry Harrison, makes its points in the unspoken details of life in this dystopia: homeless hordes fill apartment stairwells and hallways at night, food riots are routine and the first order of business when Heston enters the lavish apartment to investigate the scene of the crime to plunder everything he can—making sure that the forensics team and his boss all get their due cut. Where so many science fiction visions of the era have dated, this gritty creation of a depressed (and depressing) future recycling the junk of the past, and where assisted suicide has become simply another social option, looks all the more real. You may remember the "twist" of the end but in context of the rest of the film, it's less an insidious conspiracy than a last-ditch solution to feeding the world on the only protein left. The Blu-ray features the supplements of the 2003 DVD release: commentary by director Richard Fleischer and star Leigh Taylor-Young and the vintage promotional shorts "A Look at the World of Soylent Green" (where Heston is called a "scrupulously honest cop," apparently by a copywriter who never actually saw the film) and "MGM’s Tribute to Edward G. Robinson’s 101st Film" (look for George Burns in the celebration footage).
"Scream" (Lionsgate) / "Scream 2" (Lionsgate) / "Scream 3" (Lionsgate) - Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson are reuniting to revive the "Scream" franchise with the first new installment in ten years. Which makes it time for the original "trilogy" to hit Blu-ray. The original "Scream," starring Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette and a cast of victims and suspects wasn't the first self-referential horror to hit movie screens but it was the first to hit with audiences and it became the most successful teen horror film in years. And the most fun. The key wasn't in referencing the clichés and conventions but in the way it understands, undercuts and refreshes them. A sequel was quickly put in the works and Williamson took the opportunity to deconstruct horror sequels in "Scream 2" but dropped out for "Scream 3." All three films feature commentary (by director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson on the first and Craven with producer Maddalena and editor Patrick Lussier on the others), production featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes among the supplements.
"Dogtooth" (Kino) – This surreal social satire/skewed family comedy from Greece, the only 2011 Foreign Language Film nominee on DVD, now hits Blu-ray in all its perverse and transgressive glory. " It's every dictatorship in human history boiled down to a single home, with all of the madness and cruelty that implies -- but also absurd humor and moments of strange and graceful beauty," writes MSN critic James Rocchi in his essay on MSN's Top Ten of 2010 list. "Of all this year's films, "Dogtooth" was the most uneasy, queasy and fascinating -- a brilliant dark fable with a sharp, savage bite." Features a 13-minute interview with director Yorgos Lanthinmos, deleted scenes, a still gallery and a trailer.
"Les Gamins" (Happy Chicken) is not just an example of "gravure," a mix of Japanese art house and softcore erotica, but one of the biggest genre hits of 2010. The American debut features the "extended international version" as well behind the scenes footage and commentary by director HCK.