It’s been another great year for DVD. This reviewer somehow crammed in about 480 movies in 2004, including DVDs produced in the USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and all over Europe, with movies from those countries plus places like Brazil, Egypt, and Indonesia. It’s been especially fun to sample genres that only a couple of years ago were pretty much inaccessible in America: Edgar Wallace mysteries from Germany, Hong Kong musicals, Italian giallo
, Soviet fairy tale adaptations, Coffin Joe’s Brazilian horrors. Thanks to DVD I’ve become hooked on genres I never knew existed in my laserdisc days. Back in the mid-1990s getting a Japanese laserdisc of, say, 100 Shot, 100 Killed
(a 1966 Jun Fukuda spy film) meant actually going to Japan and perusing video shops; in 2004 it’s possible to order a DVD from anywhere in the world with just a few clicks on the computer.
In America, too, the DVD line-up only seems to get better and better. There were some real bargains in 2005, a slew of great documentaries, and supplement-packed boxed sets of current and cult TV shows. Season sets of TV shows have long been a staple of counties like Japan, and now in America, finally, the concept has taken off with a vengeance. Many of the best (and most easily overlooked) DVDs were classic TV shows stuffed with some pretty incredible extras, and about half of them seemed to come from Paul Brownstein Productions and/or Shout! Factory.
So while The Star Wars Trilogy, Return of the King and every other Criterion is singled out for praise, let us look at 10 other titles, must-haves perhaps way down on your wish list, but in many ways equal to those higher profile releases.
(In Alphabetical Order)
The Best of Abbott and Costello (Volumes 1-3). If any one studio dominated this reviewer’s 2004 slate, it was Universal, whose (mostly) budget-priced DVDs were easily the bargains of the year. Nearly every major franchise in the company’s history seemed to come out in 2004, from the six-film Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack to Francis the Talking Mule and Ma & Pa Kettle to dozens of classic Universal horror films to the often deliriously funny Airport Terminal Pack. The Best of Abbott and Costello offers fans of that iconic comedy team a whopping 24 features, nearly every film they made at Universal from 1940-53, with most beautifully remastered, all for about $75 retail. (Meaning smart shoppers could easily buy all three for around $50 – about $2 per movie!)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (Seasons 3-5). Image and Paul Brownstein Productions set the standard for classic TV shows when the first two seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show were released in the fall of 2003. If anything, the latter three sets (all released in 2004) are even better: great shows with a wonderfully satisfying collection of supplements: Emmy Award presentations, on-camera interviews, audio commentary tracks, original commercials and promos -- you name it. Handsomely packaged and organized, with great looking transfers, The Dick Van Dyke Show really is the Rolls-Royce of ‘60s sitcoms.
Okay, okay. Here’s Lucy -- Best-Loved Episodes from the Hit TV Series was no milestone of television comedy, but Shout! Factory and (once again) Paul Brownstein Productions, working with the Lucille Ball estate, crammed this set of 24 shows with tons of fascinating behind-the-scenes extras. Today, of course, TV shows always have one eye on a possible DVD release, but 35 years ago such backstage footage was limited to home movies and footage shot for the benefit of network executives and sponsors. Yet, somehow, Here’s Lucy overflows with the stuff: from rehearsal footage to producer Gary Morton’s audience warm-up to blooper reels and audio commentaries, Here’s Lucy offers a rare and surprisingly detailed look at the production of a 1960s “three-camera” sitcom, the kind of show Ball had mastered with Desi Arnaz in the early-1950s and which has changed very little in the 50-plus years since. The better-than-you’d-remembered-it comedy is actually pretty funny here and there, and fans of Lucille Ball’s slapstick antics will be pleased, but for students of television comedy, this is a real find.
Night of the Big Heat (Region 2/PAL). Fast-becoming the Blue Underground/Anchor Bay of the U.K., DD Video wracked up some impressively supplemented cult faves in 2004, including this obscure but effective sci-fi thriller top-lining Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, along with their favorite director, Terence Fisher, all working outside the House of Horror (this being a Planet Film production). Beyond the usual up-to-snuff 16:9 anamorphic transfers and fun audio commentaries, DD Video has been supplementing their titles with gorgeous full color booklets replete with color stills and informative essays. With more titles due out early next year (including Island of Terror, another of this reviewer’s guilty pleasures), DD Video is a company to watch in 2005.
Once Upon a Time in Italy -- The Spaghetti Western Collection. Though originally sold as separate releases in 2001, Anchor Bay repackaged these five disparate Spaghettis into a money-saving boxed set early in 2004. Now with Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly out in pristine special editions (and the remaining Leones on the way), now is a good time to sample what others were doing within the genre. Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios (1966) is fascinating in how not like a spaghetti it is, while Sergio Corbucci’s Companeros (1970) teams genre icons Franco Nero and Tomas Milan (and includes another great Ennio Morricone score); Keoma (1976) is a superlative, underrated and haunting Western from director Enzo G. Castellari, while Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse (1975) isn’t half-bad, though not up to the level of its interesting premise. Best of the bunch: Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (1967), a fascinating tale of a lowly Mexican bandit’s (Gian Maria Volonte, of Fistful of Dollars fame) belated political enlightenment. The build-up is a bit slow, but what a pay-off!
Outfoxed -- Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Whatever your political affiliation, there was no denying that 2004 was the year DVD activism seemed to spring out of nowhere to became a major political force. From Unconstitutional: The War on Civil Liberties to Buried in the Sand -- The Deception of America, Thomas Paine has gone digital, and these pamphlet-like, direct-to-video movies measurably rallied the Silent Minority in numbers not seen since Vietnam. (Yes, the Right made some of their own, like Celsius 41/11, but in retrospect they made considerably less impact.) Outfoxed presents a chilling portrait of the patently biased Fox News and the larger issues of media conglomerates with far-right political agendas dominating the airwaves.
Sherlock Holmes Collection #3 / Hound of the Baskervilles / Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A major thank-you goes to the folks at the UCLA Film & Television Archives, as well as distributor MPI, for releasing each and every Sherlock Holmes movie starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. A number of the films have fallen into public domain, and after the so-called “National Film Museum” (HA!) released their slickly-packaged set of inexcusably piss-poor masters, the series that began as period films at Fox then moved to Universal to become entertaining war propaganda and gothic horror-cum-mysteries seemed like it might be lost forever. Already several bottom-feeding PD companies appear to be profiting from UCLA’s hard work (and Hugh Hefner’s generous donations; he helped financed their restorations) by simply ripping off these new-and-improved film-to-tape transfers. Featuring expert audio commentaries and informative, entertaining liner notes, these MPI versions are the ones to buy.
In a great year for documentaries, one of the best ever made was barely acknowledged upon its June 2004 DVD release. But The Times of Harvey Milk is nothing less than a great film -- a funny, tragic, and supremely compelling document of California’s first openly gay elected official, who was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by disgraced former City Supervisor Dan White. The Academy Award-winning feature deservedly is packaged with an entire second disc of supplements, many of which bring the dramatic story up to date, including a fascinating 45-minute symposium on the legacy of White’s precedent-setting trial. Superb.
You Bet Your Life -- The Best Episodes. A follow-up to Shout! Factory and Paul Brownstein Production’s 2003 release You Bet Your Life-- The Lost Episodes, The Best Episodes is more of the same: the one, the only Groucho Marx bemused and amused by ordinary and not so ordinary visitors to his hugely popular quiz show. The nearly ten hours of material includes 18 complete shows (often with their original commercials and, in some cases, racy outtakes). Most intriguing of all is The Plot Thickens, an unsold, goofy TV pilot from 1963 in which a game show panel (including Groucho) grill suspects in a mini-murder mystery movie written by Robert Bloch and produced by William Castle. Favorite show: a 1957 episode featuring a woman whose attraction for announcer George Fenneman is the most hilariously naked display of raw lust this writer has ever seen.
(…and one carry-over from 2003)
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see every new release on or near its street date, and this reviewer spent the early months of 2004 catching up on a number of older releases, including Blue Underground’s incredible The Mondo Cane Collection. It’s a fascinating set, and as stated at the top of this column the great thing about DVD, for this writer anyway, is that the format spurs movie buffs to take chances on titles I’d likely have passed up in the days of VHS. While the early work of Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi -- Mondo Cane, Women of the World, etc. -- is fascinating on its own level, Africa Addio (Director’s Cut) (1966) is a revelation. It’s quite simply one of the best documentaries ever made, yet was completely unknown to me until reading about it on Blue Underground’s website -- and Randy Miller III’s thoughtful reviewhere at DVDTalk. A sprawling document of Africa during the 1960s, when the white colonial powers cut bait and left the continent to an indigenous people ill-prepared for their newfound independence, Africa Addio is a portrait of how man can turn paradise into a living (and, as history has shown, ongoing) hell. It’s an extremely difficult film to watch, far worse than even the most graphic horror film, yet essential viewing, particularly in first-world societies that continue looking the other way. As a film it is almost transcendental and dream-like, aided immeasurably by Riz Ortolani’s superb score, probably the best ever written for a documentary. A must-see, and worth the purchase of The Mondo Cane Collection for it alone.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.