The DVD of the Week is, without a doubt, Criterion’s magnificent edition of the 2008 restoration of Max Ophul’s final film, Lola Montes, and I review it here. But along with something old, Criterion has something new, or rather a couple of somethings new, foremost among them Steve McQueen’s unforgettable Hunger (Criterion). Before he went out speaking the king’s as a crisply proper British officer in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Michael Fassbender played Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands who, at the age of 27, went on a hunger strike in 1981 to protest the British government’s refusal to recognize IRA inmates as political prisoners. British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen creates a film unlike any traditional biopic or historical drama: an overwhelming visceral experience composed of the sight and sounds and sensations of men in prison, played out as an almost abstract portrait in power and resistance until the film’s sole dialogue, a debate between Sands and a Catholic Priest.
McQueen isn’t taking sides or making political points; in the brutal world of Ireland during the troubles, there’s plenty of reprehensible behavior to go around. Hunger is a study in the deterioration of the human body (we literally watch him waste away on camera) and the will it takes to endure such self-mortification in the name of cause. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, both featuring the tightly focused 13-minute documentary “The Making of Hunger,” bonus video interviews with McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender and a 1981 British TV documentary on the Maze prison hunger strikes, plus a booklet. As a side note, the menus are particularly haunting and unsettling.
According to director Götz Spielmann, Revanche (Criterion) has a double meaning: revenge and a second chance. Fitting for this story of the fateful collision of an ex-con who robs a bank and the village cop who stumbles upon the waiting getaway car. “Nothing can go wrong,” Alex (Johannes Krisch) promises his girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko), an immigrant hooker in a brothel where Alex works as the handyman. He’s going to steal enough to buy into a Spanish bar and get his sweetheart out of the clutches of her pimp, but then when does nothing does nothing every go wrong in a bank robbery movie? This is not an action movie, however, and the aftermath is all about the emotional reverberations of loss and guilt and rage and blame and the illogic of how it unravels lives. Spielmann gives his portrait a hard, austere beauty, a story and a canvas both stripped of distractions to study the emotional reverberations of bad choices and bad luck through the lives of the characters. It’s all in the image that opens the film: the placid reflection of the forest on the still surface of pond broken by an object breaking the surface and sending ripples across the screen. The way Spielmann brings us back to that image is beautiful. On two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray, both featuring a 36-minute featurette, a video interview with director Spielmann and his award-winning student film Fremdland (Foreign Land), plus a booklet. In German with English subtitles.
A tongue-in-cheek tribute to the black exploitation action cinema of the seventies, Black Dynamite (Sony) is a dead-on parody of the sloppy filmmaking, aggressive overacting and slapdash writing of the cheapest films of the genre. Michael Jai White, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, dons a neatly sculpted afro and a tough guy mustache (both patently phony) and the flamboyantly excessive fashions of the period to play the super stud of the streets, a mean mother (shut your mouth) who puts together a small army of stereotypes to fight a diabolical conspiracy against the brothers. He fights the man, battles corrupt cops, takes on the minions of Kung Fu Island, follows the trail straight to the Honkey House and exclaims the defining line when he uncovers the true plot “You diabolical dick-shrinking motherf****r,” all without cracking a smile. The overkill is fun and the results are often quite funny, though you can feel the strain of maintaining the enterprise for 84 minutes; the downside to a pitch-perfect recreation of sloppy filmmaking is that pretty much sabotages the momentum along with it. After a while, this kind of winking self-awareness gets tired. This is best watched with a boisterous group and a bottle of Anaconda Malt Liquor.
The commentary by co-writer/director Scott Sanders, co-writer/star Michael Jai White and co-writer Byron Minns is dominated by trio pointing out the gaffs (not all of them intentional, but they aren’t ones to toss out a perfect mistake) and homages to blaxploitation cinema (heavy on the Rudy Ray Moore) and other inspirations (“This is our tribute to Ed Wood”). “Lighting the Fuse” traces the making of the film from conception to release with the creators and cast, “The 70’s Back In Action” considers the style of the film (from filmmaking to fashion to music), plus there’s “The Comic-Con Experience” and 25 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, filled with even more clichés, absurd scripting, aggressively bad performance and egregious filmmaking gaffs that they just couldn’t fit into the film.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (Lionsgate), the sequel to Eli Roth’s debut feature, has been finished since 2008 but is only now getting released direct to DVD. Maybe because of the “unrated” extremes of bodily fluid horror and flesh rotting off the student bodies, maybe the radical change in tone, maybe because the producers balked at director Ti West’s extreme gore farce once they saw the results and West distanced himself from the version that they finally came up with. (West rebounded from the experience quite handily by creating the acclaimed The House of the Devil, a film over which he did exercise complete control and final cut.) Whatever the reason, it’s an inconsistent but entertaining collision of seventies-style teen sex comedy, George Romero apocalypse and Peter Jackson splatter farce, all tossed together in the crucible of a high school prom where the infection spreads like a juicy rumor. West shows a real affection for seventies films and filmmaking and indulges in the period details (disco balls and rotary phones) for an out-of-time feeling. He tosses in doofus humor (courtesy of Giuseppe Andrews as the witless Deputy Winston) and a few animated sequences for comic diversion and a scene at a strip club to push it right into unrated territory (for so many reasons). The energetic mix of affectionate homage and anything goes gross-out gags don’t really add up to a fully realized movie but it’s more fun and far more fleet and fast-paced than the usual horror fare. Director West is noticeably absent from the supplements, which consist of a basic 12-minute “making of” featurette and a 3-minute “Gore Reel” (a montage of blood and carnage highlights).
While George Méliès Encore (Flicker Alley), a new collection of 26 films by the original movie magician, can be seen as a postscript to Flicker Alley’s earlier box set Georges Méliès, First Wizard of the Cinema, this collection of newly discovered, preserved and restored films from the pre-feature days between 1896 and 1911 also stands on its own as a survey of the stage magician and showman turned filmmaker. Méliès moved to cinema by adapting his sleight of hands to a kind of sleight of film, editing and double exposures to create the first examples of movie magic and special effects, but he moved beyond gimmick films to incorporate his techniques into more ambitious narratives. These shorts show the range of his work, from his famous “trick films” and special effects spectacles to slapstick comedies and theatrical narrative films. Five of the discoveries feature original hand-coloring and five others include spoken narration written by Melies (in French and English versions) and all feature new scores. It’s of interest mostly to that small group of fans of early cinema, but we fans are much appreciative of this lovingly produced anthology.
The original 1974 Profumo Di Donna (Scent of a Woman) (Hen’s Tooth) is neither kinder nor gentler than the American remake with Al Pacino. The Italian drama about a blind, embittered army officer (played with hearty machismo by Vittorio Gassman) who tours Italy with his young aide is a small story centered directly on the Colonel and his journey to sate his libidinous appetites and bring his life to a kind of closure. He’s a crass old man, hiding his bitterness and loneliness behind bravado and sex and the film doesn’t slide into sentimentality and rousing speeches. This drama ends with the harsh, introspective whimper of reality, not the bang of Hollywood cliché. Unfortunately the American DVD debut features an unforgivably dreadful transfer with poor visual fidelity and color and an unstable image. I can’t recommend this disc. In Italian with English subtitles, no supplements beyond the trailer.
Super-set alert: Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros. (Warner) is to date the biggest box set dedicated to a single career. Eastwood of course is both screen icon and prolific director and the 34 features on this 19-disc set (most of them two-sided flipper discs) represent both sides of the artist, often together, sometimes separately, in his forty-year relationship with Warner Bros. Thus the first five films in the set, beginning with the 1968 Where Eagles Dare (Clint’s first really big budget production) and including the first three Dirty Harry films, are Clint the action star in front of the camera only. With The Outlaw Josie Wales, Eastwood moved his Malpaso shingle to the Warner lot and most of his subsequent features, on both sides of the camera, came out with the Warner shield up front, including films where he remained behind the camera: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), the Oscar-winner Mystic River (2003), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) (but not Flags of Our Fathers, a DreamWorks co-production) and Bird, arguably Eastwood’s most passionate and personal film. The forty-year span represented in the set ends with the 2008 Gran Torino, which Clint said would be his last appearance in front of the camera. While that may be true, Eastwood the director shows no signs of slowing down. There are a few clunkers strewn through the set (pretty much anything with Clyde the chimp) and a few more underrated films (Bronco Billy and A Perfect World spring to mind), but by and large they form a portrait of a dedicated artist who was both acutely aware of his screen and anxious to show that he had more to say than his terse screen persona would suggest. The new documentary The Eastwood Factor by Eastwood biographer and buddy Richard Schickel brings the count up to 35 films. The discs are collected in a 8×11 ½ inch hardcover book with two discs per bookleaf pages and each sleeve reinforced with a foam-core spacers to make the disc a little easier to remove. Also features an accompanying 24-booklet with extracts from Schickel’s new book (there’s quite a promotional push for this new monograph on Clint) and other memorabilia.
For a survey of the Lionsgate’s inaugural Blu-ray releases in the StudioCanal Collection—Ran, Contempt and the original The Ladykillers—see my write-up here.