Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Queen of Earth’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’

QueenofEarthQueen of Earth (IFC, DVD), Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to his breakout feature Listen Up Philip, is much more intimate a character drama. Elisabeth Moss, who was the neglected and betrayed girlfriend in Philip, takes the lead here as a Catherine, a young woman reeling from the sudden death of her father at the same time as the emotional fallout of a bad breakup. She takes refuge in the comfort of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), a trust-fund baby spending her days on perpetual vacation, in her Virginia’s family upscale vacation cabin in the woods.

Catherine and Virginia are not what you would call likable. These best friends are privileged women who slip into defensive posture whenever they feel the glare of judgment upon them, which is often. They are ostensibly there for each other, yet so self-involved they can barely break out of their own little bubbles. Neither writer/director Alex Ross Perry nor his actresses attempt to soften these characters. Moss plays Catherine as vulnerable and in pain, tangled in a torrent of contradictory emotions—anger, betrayal, love, hate, don’t leave me and get the hell out of here—but also narcissistic, self-involved, without any ability to empathize, and Waterston is distant and wary as Virginia, still angry at Catherine’s neglect of her emotional turmoil in a previous getaway. Yet, surprisingly, we actually come to care for them—or at the very least worry about them.

What should be a weekend of bestie comfort becomes fraught with expectations, assumptions, and resentment. It’s like an American indie reworking of Hollywood high melodrama—initial pettiness and sniping grows into passive-aggressive war between bitchy frenemies in close quarters—but instead of the theatrical thrill of showboating spectacle of divas dueling with sophisticated wit and sneering delivery we get something uncomfortably intimate and personal. Moss is truly scary as she slips into dazed smiles and giggling fits. It may sound unpleasant to watch but Perry and his performers draw you into this raw chamber piece. You can’t look away, and neither can you dismiss the emotional wreckage of friends who fail each other so spectacularly.

On DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and producer / star Elisabeth Moss and a featurette. Also on Netflix.

BoneTomahawkAvailable on Tuesday, December 29 is Bone Tomahawk (RLJ, Blu-ray, DVD), the other 2015 western starring Kurt Russell. But rest assured, this is no knock-off created to cash in on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The feature debut by writer / director S. Craig Zahler is a sturdy frontier western about strong but decidedly mortal settlers who take the responsibilities of community seriously, and its odyssey takes them to the border of horror cinema without leaving its frontier drama landscape or sensibility.

Russell is Sheriff Franklin Hunt, the aging lawman of a small, mostly peaceful town that is rocked when a deputy and a doctor (Lili Simmons), the wife of an injured cowboy, are kidnapped in a guerrilla raid on the local jail. His rather small posse consists of his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins in the chatty Walter Brennan role), an erudite gunman with a particular hatred of the Indians (Matthew Fox), and the injured husband (Patrick Wilson), enduring a fractured leg that becomes gangrenous along the way. Even the local tribes don’t recognize the renegade tribe as Indian—they are troglodytes, according the town’s only Native American representative, cave dwellers that have turned to cannibalism—and that’s where the horror creeps into the drama.

Zahler takes his time—the film lopes along for more than two hours—and favors the rhythms and evocative dialogue of a frontier drama. For all the urgency of the posse’s mission, it’s a journey of days through the desert and the characters fill the time with defining personalities: the easy-going affability of Sheriff Hunt that becomes sharpened by the focus of tracking the raiding party, the garrulous way that Chicory talks, like a lonely old man trying to be useful (“It’s the opinion of the back-up deputy that…”), the arrogance and urbane language of the educated townsman whose character recalls the gamblers of classic westerns but whose backstory reveals different tale, the resolute determination of the cowboy husband who will not shirk his duty despite the crippling ordeal. It’s something like a western story song with gruesome twist.

There’s a gruesome edge to it in the opening, a prologue with David Arquette and Sid Haig as cutthroats who run into the savage tribe, and in the final act, where the tribe’s sadistic brutality is shocking even this age of cinema violence. But Zahler doesn’t revel on the violent spectacle. It flirts with horror but remains rooted in the physical frontier world and grounded in character, both of which Zahler sculpts with a richness of texture and detail that makes it live and breathe.

The film had a limited theatrical release along with a Cable On Demand availability. Apparently the studios have little faith that a western can bring an audience into theaters, at least not one that doesn’t come with Tarantino’s pedigree. It deserved better and I hope the disc release will bring more attention to this smart, savvy genre picture.

There’s a featurette, a deleted scenes, and a Q&A with the director and cast at the Fantastic Fest screening. It’s also available to stream on Amazon Prime starting January 1.

Also new and notable:Pan

Pan (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is yet another take on the “Peter Pan” story, this one a lavish fantasy that imagines the origins of the boy who never grew up with Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Garrett Hedlund as Hook, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Levi Miller as Peter. Joe Wright directs. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette. The Blu-ray includes three additional featurettes and director commentary plus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

Pawn Sacrifice (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky in this dramatization of the chess match that became the focus of the world when it became a symbolic battle of minds in the Cold War. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Videophiled: ‘Escape from New York’

Scream Factory

Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – “Plissken? I heard you were dead.” “Call me Snake.” Maybe it’s not John Carpenter’s best film, but it’s one of his most fun and the premise is irresistible: in the future, Manhattan has been turned into a high security island prison and Liberty Island is the guard station. When Air Force One is hijacked by an American revolutionary outfit (this may be what the future looks like from 1981, but these yahoos look more like holdovers from the early seventies), the American President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands in the middle of no man’s land and becomes a bargaining chip for the reigning king of the outlaws (Isaac Hayes), who runs the place like a gangland Godfather.

Kurt Russell hisses out a B-movie Clint Eastwood impression as Snake Plissken, a one-time war hero turned notorious criminal and his arrival at Liberty Island in cuffs makes him the only hope they have of rescuing POTUS before very bad things start to happen. What exactly isn’t important. It’s a deadline that Plissken has to meet if he wants out alive, which is how head of security Lee Van Cleef, Plissken’s nemesis turned wary ally by circumstance, guarantees his cooperation. As he navigates the feral streets to rescue the President, he picks up a motley, not completely trustworthy crew (including Harry Dean Stanton as the weaselly Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as his pistol-packing lover, and Ernest Borgnine as a big-band loving cabbie). But Russell is the revelation. He was best known for Disney comedies at the time and Carpenter had to push the studio to accept him in the lead. He delivers.

Carpenter’s dark, garbage-strewn streets lit by bonfires and headlights makes for inspired art direction and his synthesizer score is suitably minimalist and moody. Shot for a song in the rougher parts of St. Louis (doubling for the Big Apple) with simple but bold model work (some of it created by James Cameron in his Roger Corman days) and striking computer graphics, it’s a hoot, yet behind the colorful personalities of the prison yard gang is a sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America lost to poverty, runaway crime, and gangs that rule the inner city. This really was a product of its time.

“Call me Snake”


Escape from New York is both a marvelously scruffy film and a well-produced piece of dystopian cinema superbly shot by Dean Cundey in Carpenter’s beloved Panavision widescreen. The new 2k digital master, scanned from the inter-positive struck from the original negative, doesn’t take anything away from that. It gives shows the squalor in much greater detail, and the clarity helps give definition to the nocturnal imagery. This is, after all, a film that takes place mostly on the streets at night.

MGM released the film on Blu-ray a couple of year ago but it was a bare-bones affair with none of the extras from the terrific DVD special editions. This two-disc edition features the two previously available commentary tracks—a thoroughly entertaining track with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away like old (“By the way, both of our ex-wives are in the movie”) and a second track by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves covering more technical material—plus a third newly-recorded commentary track with co-star Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, looking back with over thirty years’ hindsight. Barbeau has a lot of affection for the film and for Carpenter, to whom she was married at the time.

There are also five new interview featurettes on the second disc. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York” featuring interviews with visual effect DP Dennis Skotak and matte artist Robert Skotak, “Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth” (who collaborated with Carpenter on the score), “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York” with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, “I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger,” and “My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau.”

Carried over from the previous DVD release are the complete ten-minute robbery sequence that Carpenter cut from the film (it was meant to be the opening scene) with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell, the vintage promotion featurette “Return to Escape From New York,” trailers, and a gallery of stills, posters, and promotional art.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Used Cars’

The opening of Used Cars (1980) has the ominous, wind-scoured character of a modern crime film in a desperate southwest town where a Sergio Leone western wouldn’t be out of place. The camera cranes down from a high shot over a struggling used car dealership, where a few pathetic beaters line the lot, and slowly glides over to one car with someone is crammed under the dashboard. The only sound is the lonely wind–the kind of strangled, desolate howl you get in dustbowl dramas and desert survival thrillers–and the grunts of the man struggling with the mechanics under the dash. And then we see the odometer turn back, shaving some 40,000 or so miles from the record. The title hits the screen, a brass band jumps in with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and the unidentified mechanic wriggles out to reveal Kurt Russell in a cheap, loud suit making his rounds to mask the sorry condition of the cars on the lot. It turns out that this is a crime movie after all, or at least a film of multiple misdemeanors and bald-faced misrepresentation, and the perpetrators are the good guys.

The second feature from director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Used Cars comes right out of the screen comedy culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the underdogs snubbed their collective noses at authority, propriety, property and privacy laws and anything else that crossed their paths in slobs vs. snobs comedies like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984). Used Cars is raucous and reckless and far more gleefully corrupt than any of its brothers in rebellion …

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Videophiled Classic: ‘Cry Danger’ Restored and ‘Used Cars’ Revived on Blu-ray

You can thank The Film Noir Foundation for the rediscovery of Cry Danger (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the independently-produced 1951 film noir developed by star Dick Powell as a follow-up to Pitfall (1948). Like a lot of films made outside of the studio system, it fell through the cracks and was only recently restored by UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation, who searched for the best materials available and created a new negative and 35mm prints for screening. That restoration is the basis of this disc debut.

Dick Powell is in fine sardonic form as Rocky, a guy released from prison after serving five years for a bank heist he didn’t commit, thanks to a witness who verifies his alibi, and goes in search of the real criminal to spring his buddy, who is still serving time. Richard Erdman is the witness Delong, a Navy vet just off his last tour of duty, and he hitches himself to Rocky to see if he’ll find the loot. Rhonda Fleming is the buddy’s wife, but before that she was Rocky’s girl. Her affections are rekindled but there is more rapport between the low-key, unflappable Powell and Erdman, whose injured vet is a drunk and makes no bones about it. Erdman is even funnier and drier than Powell and has an inspired courtship with a blonde pickpocket in the trailer park, a young cutie who keeps robbing him as if theft was a form of flirtation.

Robert Parrish made his directorial debut with this film and it is terrific: efficient, tight, well-paced and full of attitude and dry humor. He shoots most of it on location in Los Angeles and the key location, a dumpy little trailer park on a hill that looks down upon the city, gives the film a great sense of character and location: they can see the dream below them as they mark time in their cramped trailers. There’s a dark heart under the snappy surface like the best low-budget noirs. William Conrad co-stars as the signature heavy, a gang leader by the name of Louis Castro that Rocky believes is the real mastermind behind the heist, and Regis Toomey is the tough cop with a wary respect for Rocky.

Olive doesn’t go in for supplements—they offer well-mastered discs at low prices—but this is one disc I’d love to see get the special edition treatment. Co-star Richard Erdman is still alive and well and sharp as a tack (he’s the world’s oldest college student in the TV sitcom Community) and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller has provided a lot of commentary tracks and interviews for other film noir releases on disc. A little background on the film and its production would have been very nice, but when it comes down to it, it is all about the film and the quality of presentation and this is top notch given the rescue job performed by UCLA.

Used Cars (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Robert Zemeckis made some of the most famous blasts of American pop culture cinema—Back to the Future and Forrest Gump among them—but none has his films root about the cynical underside of the American dream with the gleeful anarchic pleasure of this satirical cult classic from 1980. Kurt Russell is the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises, aided ably by his superstitious buddy Gerrit Graham. The outrageous stunts (such as illegally jamming the Superbowl with a guerrilla commercial and hiring strippers to bump and grind on the cars like a Vegas sideshow) are more than simply high concept gags: Zemeckis and Bob Gale squeeze the limits of bad taste out of these lemons for a deliciously tart cinematic lemonade. The R rating is for foul mouthed tirades and nudity that would be at home in a risqué burlesque farce. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is none other than Alfonso Arau, the ubiquitous character actor and director of Like Water for Chocolate.

The Blu-ray debut includes the commentary recorded for the earlier DVD release and the talk from director Zemeckis, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell is almost as much fun as the film itself. “We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, except he’s totally corrupt,” is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of the story. Kurt Russell laughs back: “So you cast me!” These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Also features four minutes of outtakes and along with Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score is a bonus score track with the unused score. Also includes an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

TV on DVD 3/2/10 – Elvis, Alice, Poldark and a Bollywood Hero

Kurt Russell is the King in Elvis (1979) (Shout! Factory), John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie, which charts the rise of Elvis Presley from Memphis rockabilly phenomenon to rock and roll superstar to his phoenix-like comeback as a Vegas showman, but keeps the focus on the man behind the iconic image. Russell’s effortless impression captures the voice and cadence and physicality of Elvis without tipping into impersonation. He delivers the unbridled energy and musical passion that the young Elvis unleashed in every performance while allowing us to see then man in the bubble offstage, trapped by the very success that has made his fame and fortune. Carpenter, meanwhile, puts the dramatic focus on the relationships and tricky social dynamic with the male friends who became Elvis support group and entourage. It’s the first collaboration between Carpenter and Russell and it remains the most perceptive of Elvis biopics.

Kurt Russell is Elvis - thank you very much

Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell provides the singing voice and Shelley Winters, Pat Hingle and Joe Mantegna co-star. Trivia note: the film is written and produced by Anthony Lawrence, who earlier wrote three of the silliest of Elvis musicals back in the sixties. This is the DVD debut of this superb made-for TV production and the first time that the complete 170-minute production that has been available in any form for decades. Includes the featurette “Bringing A Legend To Life” featuring archival interviews with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, commentary by vocalist Ronnie McDowell and author Edie Hand (who co-authored a handful of Elvis recipe books) and rare performance clips from “American Bandstand” among the supplements.

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