Holiday Specials


By • Dec 15th, 2000 •

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Here’s hoping this article finds all of you knee deep in DVDs – those you’re giving to loved ones, and those you’ve let casually slip that you wouldn’t mind finding in your stocking. What a year it’s been. And it’s not too late for some recommendations, for those of you looking for the best in home video last minute shopping.

One of the thrilling ongoing occurrences of the year 2000 was the proliferation of titles on DVD that had never appeared in two decades of Laser Discdom. I’d be hard put to recall a title that pleased me more this year than either MickeySpillane/Mike Hammer’s The Girl Hunters (Image Entertainment, reviewed elsewhere on the site) or “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (Winstar TV and Video). I’m thrilled whenever I pass my DVD shelves and spot their identifying spines staring out at me. Moreover I’m not sure I ever really believed they’d surface.

Shall I make it a top ten? These are my faves, incidentally, so it’s not an ‘objective’ pick. The Girl Hunters, for instance, is a flawed, often enjoyably laughable, but also sometimes genuinely effective noir, most notable for having the author play his alter ego. If you think your gift-target might enjoy something of that order, I’d spring for it in a nanosecond. But if that special person you’re contemplating is into, say, Hollywood musicals, well, I’d ponder this nutty little noir a bit more carefully. Know what I mean?

So, eight more personal favorites never out on laser disc:

The two versions of Hawks’ The Big Sleep (Warner Home Video) + a documentary. I remember people telling me they saw the earlier version overseas in the armed forces. That must be where all the market test prints were shipped after WB made the decision to pump up the Bacall role and play down the logic (or maybe they never consciously made the latter decision) Whatever, it’s two completely different films, and you should double bill them. However, I’m counting it as one, since they’re on the same disc.

La Grande Bouffe (Image Entertainment) – This one’s been out of circulation so long, I’m still reeling at its emergence. Directed by cinematically sociopathic Marco Ferreri, now residing in that great film studio in the sky, it deals with four friends who retire to a country house and eat themselves to death. Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are the suicidal gourmets. I caught the film at a Ferreri tribute at Lincoln Center when it was pulled out of mothballs for one screening a few decades or so ago. He was there, and I approached him afterwards with my son, who was about ten years old. Ferreri looked appalled that a child had been allowed in to see the film. Maybe he had some limits after all…

Jesus of Nazareth (Artisan) Doug Pratt, in his LaserDiscDVD Newsletter, rightly commented on the mediocre quality of the visual image on this disc, but wrongly assigned it to the original negative. Franco Zeffirelli doesn’t do mediocre work visually, and this made-for-tv mini-series was stunning to look at when it was originally broadcast. In fact many of the shots were innovative. What happened? I can’t say. Maybe Robert Harris could. Either it was the video transfer, or inferior elements supplied for the tranfer, but it wasn’t the original film. So you have to give a little. This is another one I feared would be passed over for eternity. The narrative spends a good deal of time prior to Jesus’s adulthood, which is good, for it attempts to be both intellectually stimulating and biblically definitive. Some of it, like’s Mary’s impregnation visitations, have the eeriness of science fiction about them, which I like. I also like Maurice Jarre’s score, though the ghost of Page Cook may be coming down to visit me for saying it. Zeffirelli is a very encompassing filmmaker, coming from opera as he does, and his art direction and scoring are redolent aspects of most of his films that help them transcend other personal indulgences or weaknesses. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, for instance, has been vilified, but has far too many virtues to be dismissed, and I hope we see its appearance on DVD soon.

The Behind the Planet of the Apes documentary (Fox) was not released when the series came out on laserdisc. It covers all the films, interviews everybody, and even shows the makeup test footage of Edward G. Robinson as Professor , which the ailing actor found too difficult to endure.

The Epic That Never Was (Image Entertainment) comes as part of the
I Claudius 3-DVD boxed set. This remarkable documentary reconstructs the troubled production of I Claudius in the 30’s, directed by Joseph Von Sternberg, produced by Alexander Korda, and starring the supremely neurotic Charles Laughton, who was just one of the many serious impediments to the film’s progress. When leading lady Merle Oberon was flattened in a car accident, Korda (her hubby) closed down the production. Ms. Oberon told me the story without giving it the interpretive edge it deserved, namely that her misfortune was the excuse her husband needed. Insurance would have covered her convalescence; Korda wanted it over with. The doc shows how spectacular and alluring it looked, and we can only lament its demise. Of particular delight is interview footage of Elsa Lanchaster (Mrs. Laughton) remembering her husband’s emotional turmoil, and commenting not too kindly on Von Sternberg’s personna.

A Bucket of Blood (MGM), one of Roger Corman’s few horror quickies to break through into a kind of quality, the other being The Little Shop of Horrors. I prefer this one. A black comedy cum horror film, it was remade dismally, whereas WB’s remake of Little Shop was ecstatically satisfying, even minus the bangup ending which was excised, then made it’s way onto DVD for two seconds, only to be pulled off the shelves, I’m told, at David Geffin’s insistence. I never did manage to get my hands on one.

Cry Uncle (Troma), uncut, a crude, misanthropic black comedy detective film which, once it gets rolling, is almost unrelentingly successful. A young, fat Allen Garfield/Goorwitz excels in the kind of role Ned Beatty essayed in Deliverance, not that he gets stalked and then sodomized, but I think it took as much guts to do what he does on screen. And the commentary track is a hair-raiser, thanks to Goorwitz’s uncouth image of what should and shouldn’t be told. John Avildson directed, before Rocky or The Karate Kid.

Movin’ With Nancy Sinatra (Image Entertainment) – This is, despite its hokey pop-culture sensibility, an experimental music-variety show for its day, and still very collectible for its gathering of talent – Sinatra Sr. and Jr., Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lee Hazelwood, etc. The long tracking pullback shot used for “Jackson” – with Nancy and Lee marching and dancing toward us as they sing – had an electrifying effect on me when I originally saw the special on the tube. I fell in love with tracking pullbacks and got to do them in my own work many years later – the interview with George Romero in Document of the Dead, and some of the riding shots in Burt’s Bikers. Another film that makes great use of the device is a roundly lambasted creature called Times Square, just out from Anchor Bay, which is nine parts terrible and one part sublime. Tim Curry prances around trying to find the magic again (which he never did, and director Alan Moyle explains it on the commentary track: the production crew, for reasons Moyle couldn’t fathom, were practically abusive toward the British star), but Robin Johnson does a dance down the real 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, 54 minutes in, which will make the nostalgic weep for the return of Pre-Disney/Giuliani sleaze. There are lots of extras on the Nancy Sinatra DVD, and there’s a commentary track on Times Square featuring Ms. Johnson and director Moyle, who gets periodically overcome by seeing the film again after twenty years. Seem it was one of those depressing studio situations where he was booted off, his cut was reedited, the studio cut was released, and he held a grudge for two decades. During the viewing of the DVD print he continually expresses his joy and surprise at how good the pieces look, if not the whole.

The Abominable Snowman of the Himilayas (Anchor Bay) I’ve been waiting for this one for so long, and figured, as with The Alligator People or The Killer Shrews, that its time had come and gone. Crisply filmed in Scope, it’s a philosophical debate in Hammer Horror clothing, as the commentary track by Director Val Guest and Screenwriter Nigel Kneale testifies. It’s great to hear them refer to Peter Cushing, in another of his wonderfully earnest performances, as ‘Props’ Cushing, and then to watch his choices of props for his various dialogue scenes. Co-star Forrest Tucker, seeing what Cushing was up to, tried the prop routine himself, with less success. When told his ideas weren’t being used, he replied, “Okay, if that’s how you wish to be remembered.” It’s one of the better stories (and there are many to be had.)

New Orleans (Kino Video)
This was an Orson Welles project that slipped away from him, and ended up being directed by the ubiquitous and rather limpid Arthur Lubin (mentioned again a little further on in this article) in 1947. One can only dream what it might have been like in Welles hands. But it’s an astounding historical document – Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Woody Herman, etc., in a narrative about the birth of jazz. And not only are there some nice extra materials – jazz shorts made in the ’30’s with Armstrong and Holiday – but an essay on the making of the film that includes a letter Armstrong sent to Welles which is fascinating to read and, by association, makes the film better than Lubin was able to. Know what I mean? So read the essay first, then see the film.

I think that was a dozen… Sorry…

And now for several Great or Favorite Films released on DVD this year which have already appeared before on laserdisc:

Shane (Paramount) with a makeover that looks very good indeed, and a wonderful commentary track featuring George Stevens Jr., who was on the set at age 17, plus Ivan Moffet, who was Associate Producer. Lots of great stories and insights, both technical and personal), and the film remains a classic.

The Chaplin Library, but if I had to single out one, I’d make it Limelight (Image Entertainment) which is Chaplin’s best film, and this beautiful transfer includes an entire scene I’d only read about in bootleg screenplays and shot continuities over the years, where Calvero (Chaplin’s aging vaudevillian character) is forced to borrow money from an armless entertainer who tries to comfort him by saying “I’ll be sticking my foot in your pocket one day.”
The greatest autobiographical statement in cinema (others include the soon-to-be-produced Criterion DVD of 8 1/2), it features most of Chaplin’s kids, making it a bizarre family album, and even wife Oona can be seen in one shot substituting for Claire Bloom. You should have the whole collection, but this is a standout.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (MGM) My favorite Bond film (can you believe it), with a subdued, seductive color palette, scenes of etherial, almost comic-book action, a poetic editorial style, and a romantic score. The Laser Disc wasn’t a dead-on transfer. This is closer. And it has many extras, including an appealing George Lazenby in the ‘making-of’ doc who, if he’d played his cards right, clearly would have had a career. His case should be used in abnormal psych classes to demonstrate self-destructive behaviour.

Thunder Road (MGM) – Like The Girl Hunters, there’s nothing else quite like it in the annals of film history. Robert Mitchum produced, his only stint in an executive capacity, and in subsequent interviews he admitted that he should have taken his behind-the-camera role more seriously, but you know what, the off-handed, ill-cast, pedestrianly directed, questionably scored, cumulative mise-en-scene is a great part of the film’s charm. Keely Smith’s somnambulance, the surrealistic chase scenes, Mitchum’s penultimate 50’s cool (this and Brando’s The Wild Ones were it), make this one of the curios of the decade.

The Decalogue (Image Entertainment) The NBR is giving a special award to this film on January 16th, even though it’s several years old. What’s up with that?

Carnival of Souls (Criterion) Please refer to the DVD review in the site’s usual column. This is a terrific incarnation of a title that has surfaced many times before in different cuts, with intros and without, but never with such a surfeit of supplementary materials, some of which are as compelling as the film. The documentary on Saltair is haunting. The reunion footage is touching. The outtakes are a riot. The director’s old commercials and industrial films are edifying fun. This film is the cinematic equivalent of the little engine that could, and you should add it to your collection.

And what about that special person who deserves more than a single DVD? What then?
Well, tis the season of the Boxed Sets, and they’re impressive. So for that special person, here are your options:

The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus (A&E) is the mother of all Boxed Sets. The menus may be a little frustrating, but the materials contained therein are tremendous. Most people have their favorites, and usually there was, as in the early SNLs, one great sketch per show. That means at least 30 or 40 classic laugh fits, because there are – count em’ – 14 DVDs in this collection! A&E is also issuing the great TV show The Prisoner, but to date has only half of them out, in two boxed sets. Well, you can get started, and finish next year on your special loved one’s birthday…

The X Files, The Complete Second Season (Fox) The X Files found its identity in the second season, and for that and the next few they were flying, could do no wrong, even with the less desirable government cover-up running plot. There are 24 episodes contained here, including Humbug, the mesmerizing black comedy set in a retired circus freak’s community, and 3, a vampire tome wherein Mulder manages to crack an AIDS joke and get away with it. This is a great collection, highly recommended.

The Sopranos, the Complete First Season (HBO) This was the Twin Peaks or The Prisoner of the Milennium, a breakthrough, brilliantly cast and conceived, which outshone pretty much everything in the theaters. With material like this, you just can’t write off the boob-tube. Here they are in all their streetwise, lethal glory, infinitely replayable.
One aside here: I received an invitation to the Christmas party for the Guild of Italian American Actors, est. 1937. I checked out the price, the food being served, etc., browsing the text until I came to the ‘goals statement’, which read thusly: “Promoting positive images of Italian Americans in the mass media and popular culture whenever possible while keeping the Italian American community and general public informed that actors must sometimes accept stereotypical roles in order to ‘earn a living’ or to advance a career.” I thought that pretty much covered all bases as a mission statement.

I Claudius (Image Entertainment) Great Roman soap opera. Sex, Betrayal, Power…actually it sounds like Dallas, doesn’t it, but it’s really a few notches above that.

From MGM, the ‘James Bonds’ have come out over the past year, repressed and chock full of interviews, documentaries, photo files, Dolby Digital demo-quality delights, and decades of formula fun that I notice everyone still seems to revel in. My fave, noted above, is OHMSS. Many people choose the Hitchcockian From Russia With Love. I was friendly with Robert Shaw, who played the villain in that one, and he told me they were coming up with many of the Hitchcock homages on location.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Universal is coming out with an 8-Hitchcock Boxed set early next year. So if you have to return a boxed set, perhaps this will be in stores in time for a switch. Featured are the Special Edition Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt. In the meantime, though they don’t have a boxed set for you, I guess you could buy several of the Classic Monster Series and create your own box… I was watching the Claude Rains/Arthur Lubin Phantom of the Opera the other day, and boy that’s a pedestrian piece of work, but to watch the breathtaking Technicolor cinematography with the commentary track turned so that you’re listening to Scott McQueen’s mellifluous voice rather than the film’s soundtrack, that actually makes it viable.

VCI Home Video has a boxed set of three Mario Bava films of varying aesthetic quality but very good print quality, Blood and Black Lace, The Whip and the Body, and Kill,Baby…Kill! The first two have commentary tracks by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog and soon-to-be-released definitive study of Bava in print All the Colors of the Dark. I am not the Bava fan I wish I was, since I acknowledge not only that he was a stylist and an innovator, but apparently he was a nice person, which is a unique and endangered species in Hollywood and elsewhere in the film industry. Alas, I find him a formidable if garish visual presence, and a boring, superficial directoral presence. But that still can represent a glass half full depending on the individual film, and I do recommend several of his works to collectors, including Black Sunday and The Girl Who Knew Too Much (both Image Entertainment). I haven’t fully checked out this Boxed set, so I’ll report on them individually later. What I did confirm, however, was the quality, which is very good.

Best for Last, The Orphic Trilogy by Cocteau (Criterian) – An elegant boxed set, and I think the best DVD release of 2000. The packaging is a work of art, the DVD labels are lovely, the pressings of Cocteau’s three Orpheus films are near-immaculate, and the extras are just that many more gems in a jewel-box already overflowing. (seek out my review in the DVD review column)

Now there are some I haven’t seen yet – the two Fantasias, for example – and so I may be adding to the list in January. But for now…

…have a great holiday season.

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