TV on disc: ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Peaky Blinders,’ the end of ‘Hannibal,’ the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more TV on disc

BetterCallSaulS1Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.

Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.

PeakyBlindersPeaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.

The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.

HomeFiresMasterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.

Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.

There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.

Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

CodeS1The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.

It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.

HannibalS3Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).

InsideAmyS3Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.

Gift IdeasGameThronesS1Steel

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.

Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.

GameThronesS2SteelSeason Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.

The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.

Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.

 

The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.

And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).

GreatAmericanThe Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).

Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.

On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.

The Whole Story

McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.

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Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.

In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.

JusticeLeagueUnJustice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.

It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.

39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.

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Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.

Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.

LegendsMystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.

From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).

And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

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Blu-ray: Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’ and ‘Pit Stop’

Spiderbaby
Arrow

Spider Baby (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of the greatest blasts of creative B-movie inspiration to hit American drive-ins and grindhouses. It was the solo directorial debut of Jack Hill (whose Coffy and Foxy Brown both recently hit Blu-ray from Olive), a low-budget film that was financed by real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business and got stuck in limbo for years when the producers went bankrupt. Shot in 1964, it was finally released in 1967, by which time black-and-white films were no longer considered for first-run bookings. It was sold as a second feature and then fell into the public domain, where it became a cult movie a generation later, thanks to cheap videotape copies. Hill never made a dime on it, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I still think it’s his most inspired film.

The final descendants of the Merrye family live in an isolated manor, hiding their curse from society in an old family home that could have been built as a vacation home by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye’s Syndrome, a (fictional) malady causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. “The unfortunate result of… inbreeding,” explains Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters playing (and tattling on one another) in schoolgirl frocks. Gangly Sid Haig as the bald, infantile Ralph, an older brother slipping into back into a pre-verbal state. Things are fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman) but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting.

It’s kinky and cruel and oddly sweet all at the same time, and it sneaks by thanks to the performances (not necessarily sophisticated but all committed to the characters and perfectly pitched to the tone of the film), grindhouse elements and the offbeat humor and black comedy woven through the piece. Hill peppers the script with Wolf Man references, from a conversation between Peter and Anne (the lawyer’s secretary) discussing horror movies to Lon Chaney’s Bruno ominously observing “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.”

Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn
Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn

Washburn and Banner are a terrific sister act, one moment sniping at each other, the next conspiring, and they reveal a childlike innocence to their actions: murder as a form of play and curiosity, without any real understanding of the consequences. Sid Haig is absolutely perfect as Ralph, sweet and curious, a well-meaning giant infant in an adult body. He dresses for dinner in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that looks like it shrunk down three sizes since he donned it. Quinn Redecker plays Uncle Peter like he’s the B-movie Robert Cummings role and he does a great job of it. He’s affable, likeable, kind, and instinctively affectionate toward the children. “Aw, he’s just a big kid!” he exclaims when Ralphie crawls over to check him out, like a puppy unsure of this odd new smell. Chaney cited this as one of his favorite roles and it shows in the emotion he puts into it. His final scene (which I won’t give away) is truly touching, a last sacrifice to protect the children the only way he knows how.

Hill clearly draws from Psycho, but with an innocence to the psychos of the story, with the lighthearted attitude of a William Castle film, but Hill’s strange brew end up being more Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks and Freud, with a provocative commentary on adolescence and the primal drives of the human animal through the lens of a genre movie. Think about it: as these adults regress to children, they revert to primitive stages: deadly games, cannibalism, death and murder as acceptable forms of protest, and adolescent sexuality. I really don’t understand what Carole Ohmart is doing in skimpy lingerie parading in front of the mirror (and for the camera). It’s adult content for what is more properly a drive-in movie, a mix of horror and parody and surreal weirdness, a weird detour that displays her kinky side, but it also rouses feeling in Ralphie, who spies on her through the window and carries her off like an infantile Frankenstein’s monster driven on curiosity and inexplicable instincts. Put this next to Virginia’s teasing little game of spider with Uncle Peter and you’ve got something both inspired and unsettling. While he’s tied to a chair, she climbs into his lap and says how much likes him, suggesting a nascent (or lingering) sexual desire behind the mental and emotional regression, either leftover from their “older” selves or a rather Freudian portrait of childhood sexuality complicated by the collision of a child’s emotional state with an adult body.

This is far more daring than Peter Brook’s famous take, and it was all but ignored by critics, largely due to its exploitation origins. Because of the film’s long delay from completion to release, it was dumped onto the second half of double bills. Decades later it was revived and reevaluated, thanks to public domain video copies and TV showings, and it’s been on DVD in numerous editions. Arrow presents it Blu-ray debut in a superb “Director Approved” Blu-ray+DVD Combo set, with a lovingly restored image (few public domain movies have received the kind of love that this film has gotten in the last decade or so), and it also has a companion piece of sorts in another Jack Hill Blu-ray debut.

PitStop
Arrow

Spider Baby stars Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn reunited with Hill for his edgy, tight 1967 racing picture Pit Stop (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), one of Hill’s best efforts and a little seen gem. Dick Davalos (James Dean’s brother in East of Eden) is a curt, quiet street racer lured to the dangerous, short-lived sport of Figure 8 racing (a hair raising collision of stock car and demolition derby) by conniving promoter Brian Donlevy. He just wants a grudge match with his quick-tempered, strutting champion (Haig), but cool customer Davalos has bigger ambitions: he wants to use the crowd-pleasing track as a catapult to the pro circuit and he’ll run down anyone in his path.

It’s a surprisingly handsome picture considering, shot quickly and cheaply in B&W to make use of fast film stock for the high energy nighttime race track scenes. The careening track scenes are so dynamic they overshadow the climactic professional race but Hill makes that work for him in a chilly coda. The real story is how Davalos turns from cool competitor to ruthless rival and his icy stare and surly attitude is perfect. Haig’s explosive turn as the preening champ is both wild and wounded but the best turn belongs to the understated Ellen Burstyn (under the name McRae) in her first major role as the mechanically minded wife of a racing champ.

Both of these films have been mastered from new HD transfers supervised by Jack Hill, and both feature a substantial collection of supplements.

Spider-Baby features commentary by Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig, recorded for the 2007 Dark Sky DVD release, and three featurettes originally produced for that disc: “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” an excellent comprehensive retrospective featuring interviews with (among others) director Jack Hill, DP Alfred Taylor ASC, and actors Quinn Redeker, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburne, Mary Mitchell, and Karl Schanzer, plus the ten-minute “Spider Stravinsky” (an appreciation of composer Ronald Stein) and seven-minute “The Merrye House Revisited,” with Hill back on location with director Elijah Drenner more than 40 years later.

New to this edition is the “Cast and Crew Panel Discussion” with director Jack Hill and actors Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn from a screening at the 2012 Film-to-Film Festival at Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There’s also an extended scenes and alternative opening title sequence (which have been included other earlier disc releases) and Jack Hill’s 1960 student film “The Host,” which is also the film debut of Sid Haig.

Pit Stop features new commentary by Jack Hill moderated by Hill biographer Calum Waddell and archival interviews with director Jack Hill, actor Sig Haig, and producer Roger Corman, plus a restoration demonstrating with technical supervisor James White.

Both sets feature booklets with new essays and archival articles, and two-sided covers with reversible artwork.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Miami Blues’

MiamiB
Shout! Factory

Miami Blues (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) should have been the first film in funky crime movie franchise. It’s based on the first of four novels by modern hardboiled crime author Charles Willeford featuring Miami police detective Hoke Moseley; adapted and directed by George Armitage, who learned his trade making pictures for Roger Corman; and produced by Jonathan Demme, who brought in much of his regular production team, including cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and editor Craig McKay. Fred Ward is spot-on casting for Hoke, not so much a maverick as a slovenly oddball who isn’t all that concerned with procedure, but his character is played down in favor of the equally offbeat psychopath of a crook, a freshly-sprung career criminal who prefers to go by the name Junior. He’s played by Alec Baldwin in his first starring role, fresh off Demme’s Married to the Mob, and while I’m sorry that Ward’s role was eclipsed, it’s clear who had the star power in this film. Ward wears the role of Hoke like a rumpled suit pulled out from under a pile of weeks-old laundry. Baldwin, young and buff and with a spark of trouble in his eyes, inhabits Junior as a guy ready to follow his worst impulses at the first sideways glance, never jittery but constantly restless and overcharged.

The story is simple but never dull: Junior announces his arrival in Miami by (inadvertently) killing someone within minutes of landing, breaking the fingers of an airport Krishna and sending him into fatal shock. It sets Hoke on his trail; when Junior steals Hoke’s badge and gun and false teeth, it gets personal. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars as a guileless young hooker who Junior impulsively marries, fooling himself into setting up house in suburbia with the sweetly naïve and sincere lost girl. Armitage gets Willeford’s cracked black humor and slightly off-kilter universe and Demme is an appropriate midwife for the project, which mixes the energy and personality and color of Demme’s eighties film with Armitage’s ruthless, unsentimental sensibility. It should have been a hit and launched a franchise. Instead it launched Alec Baldwin.

The disc includes a featurette with new interviews with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh reflecting on the film. It leans a little too much on film clips but it’s still interesting to hear these actors discuss the film and their early career.

Check out an interview with George Armitage at Film Comment here.

More recent Blu-ray debuts here

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Warner cures the HD-DVD blus…

blu-ray_logoWarner Home Video is offering customers who own Warner HD-DVD titles the opportunity to trade them in for Blu-ray editions, a bit of goodwill extended to those who chose the wrong side in the early high definition format wars. The “Red2Blu” program is not exactly free – there is a $4.95 fee per disc, plus a shipping and handling charge – but it looks fairly easy to use and it’s a nice gesture. I hope some of the other labels will follow suit.

Here’s the press release sent out by Warners today:

WHV has announced a new program, “Red2Blu,” for those who want to upgrade titles they currently own on HD-DVD to Blu-ray. By visiting Red2Blu.com, consumers can trade up virtually any of their WHV HD-DVD titles (up to 25) for the same title on Blu-ray for a small fee plus shipping and handling. For details and restrictions, visit Red2Blu.com.  “Red2Blu” is available to residents of the United States only.

Blu-ray Essentials

Wall-E on Blu-ray
Wall-E on Blu-ray

I recently wrote up a kind of Blu-ray 101 – an introduction to the format and a list of stand-out discs for the essential library – for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It went live on Tuesday. February 17. Here’s a few of my picks:

STATE OF THE ART

WALL-E (Disney): Pixar’s robot love story is a joyous and gorgeous work of animation, and it practically leaps off the screen on Blu-ray. The picture is crisp and rich, the color iridescent and the sound mix a marvel of subtlety and aural depth. Beyond the movie, the supplements are magnificent, and the Blu-ray exclusive picture-in-picture video commentary is the best use of that technology I’ve seen yet.

THE DARK KNIGHT (Warner) / IRON MAN (Paramount): The second film in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the “Batman” franchise made use of Imax cameras, the high-definition peak for film, for select scenes — the first studio feature to do so. Blu-ray is the closest you’ll get to that Imax experience on home video. “Iron Man” has no Imax scenes but, like “The Dark Knight,” features impeccably mastered image and sound.

ZODIAC: DIRECTOR’S CUT (Paramount): David Fincher shot this 2007 feature on state-of-the-art digital video. On Blu-ray, the stellar grain-free image is so sharp and pristine, it’s unreal.

The complete feature and the rest of the picks can be found at the Seattle P-I online here.

DVD of the Week Extra – Criterion Blu-ray: The First Wave

Criterion's first release
Criterion's debut release: "Citizen Kane" on laserdisc

Criterion’s name is synonymous with the gold standard when it comes to presenting the definitive editions of classic and foreign cinema on home video. The company began in the laserdisc era and essentially defined the “special edition” presentation as we know it with releases like Citizen Kane (their first laserdisc release ever) and the follow-up 3-disc DVD (which expanded the supplements) and the “director approved” collaborations with Martin Scorsese (whose commentary on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) set the bar for director commentary tracks and inspired many aspiring filmmakers). They’ve carried their loving care for classic and contemporary movies to DVD, finding vintage supplements for classic films and contributing to the critical record with their efforts. What gives the Criterion stamp meaning is not that they create the “best” DVD editions around, but that that they lavish their efforts on films that don’t get that kind of attention from the studios.

Thus, the announcement earlier this year that Criterion was going to start producing Blu-ray discs was considered evidence that the new format was indeed something that serious film folk should consider. It’s not just for The Matrix and Transformers and The Dark Knight, but for The Godfather (Paramount), Casablanca (Warner) and No Country For Old Men (Miramax).

The smeared world of "Chungking Express"
The smeared world of "Chungking Express"

The four titles that Criterion adds to the Blu-ray format limn the span of the gamut of their interests: The Third Man (classics from the canon), Chungking Express (contemporary international), The Man Who Fell to Earth (cult favorites) and Bottle Rocket (American indie). All the supplements from their definitive DVD editions are carried over to the Blu-ray disc, with the notable exception of the booklets (which are represented by smaller, thinner booklets with only some of the essays and interviews of the original DVD offerings), and the films are newly remastered for the 1080p high definition standard. What you get is a sharper, stronger image that is also more sensitive to preserving the textures of the chemical process of film. Yes, I’m talking about film grain, that reality of celluloid that modern films have been so effectively been scrubbing away in the new film-to-digital-and-back post-production process. It dances across the sc screen of The Third Man with such clarity you think something must be wrong. It’s startling, because we’ve seen so little of it on DVD, but the presence also warms the image, makes it a little more organic. Criterion isn’t the first to do this – The Godfather and Casablanca embrace the grain also – but it really jumped out at me in The Third Man and started me reevaluating what constitutes a proper restoration and mastering standard for classic cinema. It’s not quite so obvious in Chungking Express, but then that film, with its smeared colors and stuttery motion and images pushed and pulled to the extremes of film registration, is all about the texture. Criterion’s Blu-ray preserves that texture so well you can’t imagine seeing it without that kind of clarity.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Godfather Collection: The Coppola Restoration’ – September 23, 2008

Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount first put out The Godfather Trilogy in a special edition in 2001, at a time when the archival materials at hand had yet to be extensively restored. The original negative was worn out and the prints used for mastering were not accurate to the original release. The new release The Godfather Collection: The Coppola Restoration, released on both DVD and Blu-ray, is a corrective.

"Now who's being naive, Kaye?"
"Now who's being naive, Kaye?"

Is it overkill to claim that The Godfather on Blu-ray is a sign of the format coming to maturity? Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestseller remains the great American epic of the immigrant dream turned family business. Al Pacino stars as Michael Corleone in this dark side of the American dream story, rising from clean-cut son of New York Godfather Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in an Oscar –winning performance) to ruthless mob leader to modern American businessman trying to pull his family’s tentacles from the criminal world. The Godfather (1972) has become the great evocation of the dark side of the American Dream (“I believe in America,” it begins) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) is less a sequel than a further exploration of the family business that both reaches back from and looks beyond the story of the first film, contrasting Michael’s increasingly ruthless rise with the life of young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro, who won his first Oscar for the role). Both films won multiple Oscars, including “Best Picture, Coppola picked up a Best Director award for Part II. Separately the films are masterpieces. Together, they are a landmark work of American cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola oversaw this DVD and cinematographer Gordon Willis personally supervised the restoration and mastering of the film for DVD, and new featurettes on the film and on the restoration process supplement the already rich collection of supplements carried over from the previous special edition.

Read the complete review on my MSN DVD column here.
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Blu-ray Triumphant!

Or so it looks.

blu-ray_logo.jpgI’m not one to make sweeping pronouncements (really, it’s not in my character), but the momentum is pretty indisputable. Netflix and Best Buy threw their support behind Blu-ray earlier this week, and on Friday Wal-Mart announced they would stock Blu-ray as their exclusive high-definition video format. Here’s the Wired report on the announcement. The New York Times has already provided HD DVD’s obituary.

I like to think of it in terms of the primary campaigns. Just a couple of months ago, the format war resembled the Democratic campaign, with studios split between the Blu-ray and HD DVD. When Warner and Fox committed to Blu-ray exclusively, it tipped the balance and the metaphor jumped parties. Now it’s akin to the Republican primaries with Blu-ray as the John McCain campaign. Now everyone’s just waiting for the HD-uckabee to toss in the towel and give in to the inevitable momentum.

 

A few friends have been keeping much closer tabs on the politics of high-definition. Seattle film critic Jeff Shannon sent me this link from the US News and World Report blog about the Netflix decision earlier this week.

Nils von Veh followed up with this E-mail, which I reprint with his permission. Continue reading “Blu-ray Triumphant!”

DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?

Have you been waiting for the industry to settle on a standard before committing to a new high definition DVD system? Warners, the last of the studios to release its HD offerings in both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, has tipped the balance (ostensibly past the point of return) by announcing its commitment to the Blu-ray format solely. They will honor their HD DVD commitments through the end of May, and then drop the format, leaving only Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Dreamworks Animation supporting HD DVD.

“The high-definition DVD war is all but over,” opens the New York Times piece by Brooks Barnes.

Hollywood’s squabble over which of two technologies will replace standard DVDs skewed in the direction of the Sony Corporation on Friday, with Warner Brothers casting the deciding vote in favor of the company’s Blu-ray discs over the rival format, HD DVD.

In some ways, the fight is a replay of the VHS versus Betamax battle of the 1980s. This time, however, the Sony product appears to have prevailed.

“The overwhelming industry opinion is that this decides the format battle in favor of Blu-ray,” said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, a market research firm in Seaford, N.Y.

You can also get more information in this Variety article:

Warner Bros. will throw all its weight behind Blu-ray later this year, a decision that could serve as a death blow to the rival HD DVD format.

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