American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
2014 was a good year for Blu-rays. Gotta level with you
though: every year that there have been Blu-rays has been a good year for
Blu-rays. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons, I
suspect, that in subsequent years things won’t be AS good for Blu-rays even as
they continue to be pretty-to-very good for Blu-rays. First off: as physical
media becomes more of a thing of the past, Blu-ray discs are more and more
becoming a niche product. Of course “niche product” has a kind of negative
connotation to it. Doesn’t it sound better if you call it a “long tail” product.
Yeah, that’s good. Even as streaming bids fair to replace ALL OTHER FORMS of
motion-picture dissemination, Blu-ray remains the gold standard of home video
fidelity experiences, even as we wait for 4K and…well, this is a movie website,
not a tech website, so let’s not sink into that morass. I’m skeptical of
streaming, especially HD streaming, but I can’t say for sure that it won’t get
to a place where it’ll offer a viewing experience consistently comparable to
that available from a well-made Blu-ray disc. Hell, I’m old enough to remember
the first TiVos (those early DVRs, for you youngsters), and how they reduced
everything they recorded to the picture quality of a sock-puppet show on a
badly degraded videocassette. And now DVRed material is, you know, perfectly
acceptable to watch.
In any event, the reason it was a good year for Blu-rays was as elemental as it gets: a lot of good movies came out on Blu-ray, and a lot of those good movies were just beautifully transferred to Blu-ray. And a bunch of them also had supplements that were pretty awesome. As such, many of these items will/would make great holiday gifts. You see where I’m going with this. Instead of doing individual capsule reviews as I have with my prior Blu-ray Consumer Guides, I’m going to recap according to categories that I just make up. Everyone cool with that?
The Year in Boxes and/or Multi-Disc Sets
This incredibly long-awaited compilation was worth the wait: a sixteen-film compendium of major works by European cinema’s greatest visionary-anthropologist-archaeologist-fantasist-obsessive, spanning three decades and including not just near-universally-acknowledged classics such as “Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” but need-to-be-seen relative (and haunting) obscurities such as “Heart of Glass” and the searing simultaneous doc/sci-fi picture “Lessons of Darkness.” All with naturally fascinating audio commentaries and other extras. Amazing.
Another very useful collection but a less even, quality-of-the-films-wise, overview of a single director, this eight-disc collection puts two utter greats—“Duel” and “Sugarland Express” on Blu-ray for the first time. It also puts a well-intentioned dud, “Always” on Blu-ray for the first time. And it also puts a nearly unmitigated disaster on Blu-ray for the first time. I actually pitched another publication a “Was ‘1941’ Really That Bad?” piece before I got this set, and I’m glad it got a pass, because it turns out “1941” really IS that bad. I’m glad to own it, though, because it costars Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune and there is some interesting stuff among the badness. The other movies in the collection, “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” (or is it the other way around?) have all been on Blu-ray before, and are very good to great to “Jaws.”
One reason The Criterion Collection is a National Treasure: Prior to the release of this box, the oeuvre of Blank, a maker of largely short films that ebulliently celebrate American music, food, and other good things, was thoroughly difficult to see. One box, three discs, 14 films, all in lovely 4K restorations that maintain the rough-and-ready beauty of the images, problem solved.
The loving curators of early and esoteric cinema at Flicker Alley offered gorgeous presentations of the most breathtakingly stunt-filled and funny pictures from what some consider Charlie Chaplin’s most free-wheelingly creative period; from “The Immigrant” to “The Rink” and beyond, these movies are legendary, and this set gives us the best representation of why. The Sennett box is a frankly amazing cavalcade of low comedy that’s both culturally revelatory and often hilarious (not to mention jaw-droppingly tasteless).
I wrote about the all-region U.K. box set of work by pioneering Polish animator turned live-action provocateur Walerian Borowycz here. The stuff isn’t for everybody, not by a long shot, but for those it IS for, this is an amazing presentation of it.
The redoubtable Shout!/Scream Factory continues to do The Lord’s Work in presenting our favorite eerie-voiced thespic Maestro of the Macabre, the divine Vincent, in high-def. The first collection gave us the expected goodies so this one digs deeper, and strikes pay dirt with excellent Poe-by-Corman “The Tomb of Ligeia,” tossed-off sendup “The Raven,” and most exciting, “The Last Man On Earth,” an early ‘60s “I Am Legend” adaptation shot in the same futurist-architecture Rome neighborhood as Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” with which it makes a great double feature.
Three essential, idiosyncratic French directors get some of their due in extensive, exhaustive, supplement-rich Criterion presentations. Gifts that keep on giving, for sure.
Worth it for presenting “Giant” in the proper aspect ratio alone. Who says cinephiles are hard to please?
Worth it for presenting “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” on domestic Blu-ray for the first time.
The Year in Auteurism
Disseminating the work of important/underappreciated directors is always done more efficiently if the work can be seen in a beautiful presentation…here are some highlights, Walter Winchell or Louis Ferdinand Celine style…The preservation/restoration mavens at Milestone Films put out two pieces of its Shirley Clarke Collection, “Ornette: Made In America” and “Portrait of Jason,” both of which I wrote about here…Mario Bava’s 1965 “Terrore nello spazio,” AKA “Planet of the Vampires,” a crucial influence on sci-fi/horror hybrids such as “Alien,” got a really impressive Blu-ray resurrection via Kino, with beautiful image quality and a great commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas…also from Kino, a sharp presentation of Anthony Mann’s spectacularly taut 1958 “Man of the West”…is, as commentary contrib Lem Dobbs posits, “Bunny Lake Is Missing” the Last Of The Great Premingers? Maybe, but the Twilight Time Blu-ray is a typically excellent presentation…as is its “Flaming Star” a superb rendering of the epochal meeting of Elvis Presley and Don Siegel…Kino’s Studio Classics imprint is putting out a lot of great and unusual stuff, including two unusual Billy Wilder pieces, his underseen “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” and overplayed (most entertainingly, it must be said, particularly by Charles Laughton…) “Witness For The Prosecution…” But it’s Olive Films that has to be credited with the biggest Wilder coup of the year with its release of Billy’s amazingly meta “Sunset Boulevard” companion piece, the remarkable “Fedora…”…Kino Lorber’s partnership with Carlotta Films in France has yielded excellent new presentations of early films of Leos Carax, “Mauvais Sang” and “Boy Meets Girl…” Criterion’s continued upgrade of Antonioni is most welcome: Because his sharp focus, always-acute black-and-white work deserves to be seen with absolute attention to detail, the Blu-ray upgrades of his 1959 “L’Avventura,” and 1962 “L’Eclisse” (the company released the in-between “La Notte” in fall of 2013) are essential…oft-beleaguered American maverick Monte Hellman got an excellent 2014 presentation with the Criterion double feature of his 1960s existentialist Westerns “Ride The Whirlwind” and “The Shooting,” while Raro/Kino put out his utterly desolate “Robinson Crusoe” meets “Red Dragon” masterpiece “Iguana.”
A good year for Sergio Leone fans, particularly those who like to argue: A new restoration/remastering of “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” as part of a new Western collection from MGM/UA…some complain that the color has been drained out of this version but I found the enhanced detail and dominant palette provided a very exciting viewing experience…the MGM/UA “Duck, You Sucker” is more standard-issue but still welcome; the Warner update of “Once Upon A Time In America” features restored scenes that couldn’t be fully restored, so if this is bothersome, the higher-priced version is the way to go as it also retains the most recent restoration which is more seamless in image quality…HOWEVER, the new longer version finally brings back Louise Fletcher, whose name was in the credits of the mutilated U.S. version first released but who never showed up in the movie!...Joseph Losey’s harrowing antiwar parable “King And Country” got a very robust rendering from VCI while Richard Fleischer’s small-town-rot-meets-more-rotten-bank-robbers thriller “Violent Saturday,” long only available in a non-16x9-enhanced version, got released in its full widescreen color glory by Twilight Time…Gorgeous new versions of Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor,” (Warner) Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai,” (TCM/Sony) and DePalma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” (Shout! Factory) are, to this reviewers mind, essential library additions…
The Year in Cinerama
There are a few sobersides out there who are of the opinion that releasing Cinerama movies on any home video format is a bad idea. I am not one of these. I kind of revel in the fact that MOST Cinerama movies are kind of novelty items, and in point of fact the Cinerama title “Holiday In Spain,” released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time, is much better known as “Scent of Mystery,” the title under which Michael Todd, Jr. tried to realize his late father’s dream of “Smell-O-Vision,” that is…well, you know. John Waters did a variant of it with “Polyester.” In any event, the 1961 picture isn’t much of a movie, but as presented in the Smilebox format, which replicates the curved three-panel format of theatrical Cinerama, it’s a heckuva show, particularly when presenting such curvy sights as bikini-sporting Diana Dors and cab-driving Peter Lorre. Flicker Alley has been in the Cinerama biz for a bit by now, and their releases just-in-time-for-the-holidays of travelogues “Seven Wonders of the World” (1956) and “Search For Paradise” (1957) are a lot of fun in and of themselves (the former is particularly pertinent if you’re boning up on your Lowell Thomas) and packed with historically intriguing Cinerama-centric supps.
The Year in Criterion Releases (Besides the Ones Already Mentioned In The Box/Multi-disc Sets Entry)
The Criterion Collection maintains such a consistently high standard in terms of selection and presentation that it’s almost boring/predictable to rave about their products. To make matters more conflicted, I myself sometimes contribute booklet essays and regularly write for the outfit’s blog, Current. That said, facts are facts, and the facts are that the Criterion upgrades of two amazing Kurosawa films, the Macbeth transposition “Throne of Blood” and the George-Lucas-inspiring “The Hidden Fortress” were spectacular. As was, speaking of a film that was sometimes screened in something like Cinerama, the work on Stanley Kramer’s unusual “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which I wrote about at some length here.
Criterion also did a bang-up job with several beloved old Hollywood classics: “To Be Or Not To Be,” “It Happened One Night,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “My Darling Clementine;” European awesomeness spanning the 20th Century, such as Polanski’s “Macbeth,” “La Vie de Boheme,” “Persona,” “Master of the House,” “Pickpocket,” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” and against-the-grain latter-day American fare such as “Love Streams,” “Thief,” and “All That Jazz.” And we cannot forget the Canadian classic “Scanners.”
Odds and Ends
Exhausted and/or broke yet? I feel you. But wait. There’s more. The Warner Archive made a strong Blu-ray showing this year, with terrific presentations of first-class noir “Out Of The Past,” unusual Hollywood-Goes-Wilde piece “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” Jack Webb’s peculiar jazz meditation “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (with a coupla great Ella Fitzgerald numbers) and the splashy musical “Hit The Deck.”
Kino Lorber and its multiple affiliates provided eclectic satisfactions with the release of a large chunk of the film work of controversial postmodern master Alain Robbe-Grillet (for my money “L’Immortelle” and “Trans Europa Express” are the best of the lot, although perverts may want to be aware that neither of these has the oodles of nudity one finds in the like of “Successive Slidings of Pleasure,” if you’re into that sort of thing) and a range of foreign classic releases going from “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” to Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” and beyond. The Studio Classics imprint is a pretty constant source of surprise/delight; nice to see the likes of Lester’s “Juggernaut” and Michael Crichton’s “The Great Train Robbery” surface on Blu-ray courtesy of the imprint. In stand-alone releases from the bigger studios, Sony’s high-def upgrade of Scorsese’s corrosive “The King of Comedy” is clearly a keeper, as is Warners’ vivid rendering of Friedkin’s long-semi-lost “Sorcerer.” Fox’s Blu-ray of Murnau’s “Sunrise” is long overdue and great. Still-newish label on the block Cohen has been knocking it out consistently, kicking off 2014 with some crucial Godards (“Hail Mary” and “Forever Mozart”) then elating with nifty renderings of Claude Chabrol’s bracing Inspector Lavardin films and a really beautiful version of Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht’s “Hangmen Also Die.”Finally, Grindhouse released an exhaustive package on Frank Perry’s remarkable and terrifying “The Swimmer,” in which exceptionally buff Burt Lancaster hops from pool to pool in a chi-chi suburb en route to…well, can’t give it away. I can give away that the late, great Joan Rivers is pretty interesting in a dramatic role here.
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...