Jan 31 2010

DVD Loose Ends for January 2010 – Johnnie To, Jackie Chan, Robert Siodmak and Wim Wenders

Late arrivals and overstuffed release weeks meant that quite a few titles slipped through the cracks over the last month. Here’s a few that I was able to catch up with.

Tactical Unit – Human Nature (Tai Seng) – Johnnie To’s hit Hong Kong cop movie PTU not only launched a whole genre of urban policier dramas, it spawned its own series of feature film spin-offs. Simon Yam, Maggie Siu and Lam Suet have different names than they sported in PTU but they play essentially the same characters—Yam as the crisply professional and unfailingly loyal leader of the police tactical unit (essentially street cops trained with soldierly precision), Siu as his colleague and Suet as a sloppy, morally questionable police detective who went through the academy with Yam—in simple but effective morality dramas. This episode of loyalty and corruption and duty is played out in the midst of a major investigation. Lam is a disgraced detective deep in debt to a loan shark and Yam is the incorruptible street cop and fearlessly loyal comrade who defends his reputation. Good action, great atmosphere and terrific urban location shooting, but be warned that the English subtitles are nearly incoherent.

Simon Yam

Despite his name above the title, Jackie Chan is merely producer of Jackie Chan Presents Wushu (Lionsgate), a youth-oriented martial arts buddy movie. Chan’s old school chum and frequent collaborator Sammo Hung, a legend of eighties Hong Kong action cinema, is in the old master role, a widower and paternal Wushu instructor whose two sons are among his best students. The first act is all cute kids and sentimental music, swimming in kid innocence and friendship as the five buddies meet up and bond, and the transition to teenage years is terrific: they literally leap into their mature bodies in a series of flips and a little CGI magic. The rest is a weird mix of gooey friendship and young love colliding with a criminal gang of child snatchers in the middle of a tournament, but the most interesting component is a side-trip with a former student and tournament champion to a film set, where he works as a stunt coordinator. He’s quite sanguine about what former martial arts champions do: they work on films and become cops or bodyguards. Unspoken is that the brutal champ during his time went into crime and now leads the kidnapping ring. There’s plenty of cool moves but it’s only when old master Hung joins the fight that the film really kicks into gear. In Mandarin with English subtitles, with optional English soundtrack and two featurettes.

British Cinema Collection Vol. 3: Drama (VCI) – The headliner of this quartet of fifties films is The Rough and the Smooth (1959), the only British film by German émigré-turned-Hollywood film noir specialist Robert Siodmak. Nadja Tiller plays a seductive little beauty who turns mercenary when her thug of a lover needs big money to get out of a jam and it’s surprisingly adult and a little racy for its era. The film, based on a novel by Robin Maugham (nephew of Somerset and author of “The Servant”) plays the “fatale” part of Tiller’s femme with a little ambiguity—she’s dangerous by nature, mercenary by circumstance and ruthless by experience; “I don’t cry easy; I’m used to being hurt,” she remarks at one point—which makes her more interesting than Tiller’s performance might otherwise suggest. She gets top billing but the story is really about Tony Britton’s archeologist Mike Thompson, who feels himself railroaded into an engagement with his boss’ niece and rebels with an affair with this reckless little beauty. William Bendix is the faded American star imported for marquee value and he’s marvelous as the tough guy businessman who goes all soft when it comes to Tiller. With that tough-girl beauty and those doll eyes, not to mention a few choice shots of the petite blonde in stockings and garters, it’s not hard to see his attraction.

The two-disc set also features Kill Me Tomorrow (1957), a decidedly second-rate thriller from future horror specialist Terence Fisher with Pat O’Brien as a souse of a veteran newsman who sabotages his career in a fit of pique and then sells his future when his son lands in the hospital with a rare condition that calls for an expensive operation. George Coulouris is a crime boss that O’Brien shakes down for the money and Lois Maxwell (the future Miss Moneypenny) shows up as a love interest for the nearly 60-year-old O’Brien, surely the least convincing part of the undercooked film. This was O’Brien’s last leading role; he spent the next twenty years-plus of his career mostly doing TV guest shots. The programmers Grand National Night (1953) and The Scamp (1957) fill out the set.

VCI has also tossed together a couple more two-disc/four-film collections: Action Man Collection (VCI) is a collection of international productions with American stars, headlined by the French crime film Action Man (1967) with Jean Gabin and Robert Stack and featuring Peking Blonde (1967) with Edward G. Robinson, Big Game (1971) with Stephen Boyd and Ray Milland and Day of the Wolves (1973) with Richard Egan. Drive-in Grindhouse (VCI) features the mondo doc Psychedelic Fever (aka Like It Is) (1968) along with The Farmer’s Other Daughter (1965), Summer School (aka Mag Wheels) (1978) and Up Yours – A Rockin’ Comedy (1979).

Finally, Lionsgate offers four films in the “Music Makers” collection, including the DVD debuts of two films—A Man Called Adam (1966) with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ballad In Blue (1964) starring Ray Charles as himself—and a re-release of Beyond the Sea with Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, each with a bonus CD with a handful of songs. For me, though, it’s the re-release of Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders’ documentary on the aging but still vital Cuban musicians that produced the Grammy winning album of the same name that stands out. It’s a documentary you can’t help but get up and dance to, interspersing (often too brief) concert clips with first person career remembrances. Wenders weaves the music and musician into a rich wholeness while celebrating how music travels across cultures and dissolves political difference – at least for the length of a concert. Read my full review here.

For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

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