Stephen Frears directs and Christopher Hampton scripts Cheri (Miramax), a deft adaptation of two Colette novels of love and life in La Belle Epoque Paris (when high society prostitutes were veritable celebrities), but it’s Michael Pfeiffer who brings the film alive as the aging courtesan Lea who makes a business of romance. “This was my only place of business and the customers have all gone,” she sighs while sitting on her bed, a mix of regret and relief and acknowledgment of her fragile power in a culture that reveres youth and beauty. So she reaches out for her own taste of youth through Cheri (Rupert Friend), the callow, decadent, 19-year-old son of a fellow courtesan she takes as a lover in brief affair that lasts six years, until social convention intervenes. It’s a flip on the usual May-December romance and the chemistry of these performers makes it not just believable but almost inevitable: emotionally guarded beauties who inadvertently allow affection into their relationship. Includes “The Making of Cheri” and deleted scenes.
Black Rain (AnimEigo) is Shohei Imamura’s 1989 sobering look at Japan after the bomb. The intimate and devastating drama contrasts the terrifying horror of the blast and its immediate aftermath (the blackened bodies running through the streets, unrecognizable and moments from death, operating on whatever survival instinct is left, is an image not soon forgotten) with the calm, pastoral countryside where, 10 years later, victims of the blast still deal with the legacy. As the devastation of the explosion turns from abrupt destruction to slow death, Imamura charts the populace’s attempts to put the event behind them, to the point of distancing themselves from the survivors and their lingering problems. Even in a seeming Eden of the lush picture-postcard country village in this film, the legacy of the bomb lives on. The new DVD edition of the 1988 film features the alternate color ending and interviews with actor Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director Takashi Miike among the supplements.
A couple driving a van through a stormy night stops to pull a body out of the back and bury it, stopping only briefly when it turns out not to be as dead as they thought. Now that’s how to open a horror movie. Originally made for Italian TV, Lamberto Bava’s Until Death (Mya) begins as an Italian The Postman Always Rings Twice and ends as a ghost story. It’s quite restrained coming from Bava, who forgoes the gore and creative mayhem of previous films for image that give the film, if not exactly a haunting quality, at least an effective tone of revenge from the grave. The third-act visitation, with its almost psychedelic freak-out, is as creative a scene as Bava has concocted. The region free disc is available with English and Italian soundtracks but no subtitles. The English soundtrack is full of noise and audio damage but the video transfer is fine. Note that though the (untranslated) Italian intertitle explains that we have jumped “Eight Years Later,” the English dialogue shortens it to six years (which makes her son a little younger than he appears).
Blood: The Last Vampire (Sony), a live action adaptation of the popular Japanese anime, is an awkward and odd international hybrid: shot in English by a French director (Luc Besson protégé Chris Nahon) with a Hong Kong action choreographer (Corey Yuen), a cast of Brits posing as Americans and Japanese actors performing in English. Saya stars as the part-vampire immortal demon hunter (imagine the ninja love child of Buffy and Spike with a very big blade) working for an international agency to stop a vampire infestation in 1970 Japan that has already gotten a hold on the local American military base (which is introduced with the not-so-subtle musical cue “War, What Is it Good For?”). So Saya dons the obligatory Japanese schoolgirl uniform to go undercover in the base school and ends up defending Alice (Allison Miller), the daughter of an American General, from a pack of schoolgirl vampires. The CGI globules of vampire blood is quite lovely and gives it an otherworldly feel, but the rest of the production is a bizarre mix of sensibilities that falls apart into a mess of cultural cues. The result is as tone deaf as the confused accents. Includes the featurettes “The Making of Blood: The Last Vampire” and “Battling Demons: Behind the Stunts.” The Blu-ray features exclusive storyboards.
The Joe McDoakes Collection (Warner Archive) – Who is Joe McDoakes, you may ask? He’s the comic everyman behind the eight ball of 63 comedy shorts made between 1942 and 1956. Originally created Richard L. Bare in the student film So You Want to Give Up Smoking, a spoof of the how-to films and non-fiction short subjects starring George O’Hanlon, the film was bought by Warner Bros., who hired Bare and O’Hanlon to create a series. Each of the “So You Want to…” shorts finds the comic potential in a contemporary theme or simple premise (from horse racing to fatherhood to buying a TV), with an omniscient narrator providing the voice of authority and our middle class Joe unraveling the lessons as his earnest intent dissolves in desperation and ineptitude. They are most definitely period pieces but the simple formula still works in its own hoaky way. All 63 shorts are collected on this six-disc collection in an extra-wide case with hinged trays from the Warner Archive Collection. [You can purchase the set here.]
Blu-ray of the week: Billy Jack (Image) – Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a cultural icon of the seventies, a half-Indian/half-white ex-Green Beret back from Vietnam who tries to turn his back on violence but is forced to use his martial arts prowess when the forces of corruption, hypocrisy, greed and prejudice threaten the peaceful community on the reservation. The character first appeared in the AIP biker film Born Losers (1967) but Billy Jack (1971), the story of an alternative “Freedom School” on an Indian reservation under attack from the greedy and the powerful of the local town, is the film that Laughlin and his co-star/co-writer/wife Delores Taylor had spent 17 years trying to make. It explores the plight of American Indians, celebrates the counter-culture and promotes peace through communication and comedy (Howard Hesseman and Alan Myerson, of the San Francisco improve troupe The Committee, perform satirical sketches as part of the community drama program). And when peaceful protest is met with guns and brutality, Billy kicks ass as a one-man-army of poetic justice. Laughlin and Taylor are featured on two separate commentary tracks: one recorded in 2000, the other recorded in 2005 and moderated by their son, Frank Taylor, which covers pretty much of the same territory. The “Mini-Documentary” is a new, graphics-heavy 14-minute featurette that chronicles not the making of the film but the inspiration behind the production and unprecedented marketing that turned it into a phenomenon. Also features the TV spots that Laughlin developed for the film’s 1973 re-release.
I reviewed The William Castle Film Collection (Sony) in my column here.
Also new this week: super-deluxe special editions of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Paramount) on DVD and Blu-ray [read my review of the film here], Carlos Saura’s music film Fados (Zeitgeist), a Criterion edition of Mira Nair’s 2001 Monsoon Wedding (on DVD and Blu-ray) and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter (Cinema Libre).
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.