by Stuart Galbraith IV
You won't find The Two Towers or the Alien Quadrilogy here. No, this is a list of 10 DVD releases from the past year unlikely to make many (or any) other Top Ten lists. This reviewer freely admits to not having a speck of influence with big money, high profile releases, and so humbly opts to use his bandwidth to instead encourage readers to sample the following offbeat entries, movies and TV shows that made a lasting impression on those lucky enough to stumble upon them during 2003.
(in alphabetical order)
Avanti! -- Older library titles, films like Avanti! (1972), what with its ordinary mono sound and standard 1.85:1 presentation, rarely get much attention from the technophile crowd. And Billy Wilder's last masterpiece was too adult, too leisurely cinematic to be appreciated when it was new, and today is lost in the shuffle of retrospectives, which invariably pass this one over in favor of better-known, more popular titles. It was released to DVD earlier this year but hardly anyone noticed, partly for its lack of supplements and techno-pizzazz. But Avanti!, about a middle-aged businessman (Jack Lemmon) who has an affair with the daughter (Juliet Mills) of his father's mistress, is Wilder's sweetest, most romantic, and most melancholy film. In some ways it's similar to the director's much more famous, Oscar-winning The Apartment (1960), but this is the richer, more mature work. MGM's DVD is a stunning presentation, with Luigi Kuveiller's lush cinematography of the Italian coastline looking better, probably, than it did in theaters when it was new.
Carry On Collection (Region 2/PAL) -- On the heels of Anchor Bay's box set of the first 11 Carry On comedies (plus the compilation film That's Carry On) comes Carlton's same-titled collection of the 18 features that followed, made between 1966-78. This mammoth box is, admittedly, for die-hard fans, but even those who casually enjoy British screen comedy will want to sample such latter-day classics (all sold individually) as Carry OnÖUp the Khyber (1968), Carry On Camping (1969), and Carry On Abroad (1972). Most titles come with warmly nostalgic commentary tracks, elaborate and full-color booklets, and complete episodes of the mid-'70s half-hour series "Carry On Laughing." Follow That Camel (1967) has a nice archival interview with star Phil Silvers, while even two of the weakest films, Carry on England (1976) and Carry On Emmannuelle (1978) have their fair share of tempting extras. The former offers both the censored reissue version and the original director's cut, while Emmannuelle (sic) includes an amusing and informative documentary on the 30-film series, What's a Carry On?, produced in 1998.
Christ in Concrete -- All Day Entertainment's DVDs are, as they put it, "movies that fell through the cracks." As for Christ in Concrete (1949) - it was pushed. A kind of urban Grapes of Wrath, adapted from Pietro Di Donanto's semi-autobiographical novel, Christ in Concrete (also known as Give Us This Day) was made in England by blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk, before he turned fink to salvage his evaporating career. The film is almost revelatory in its effective blend of noir and neorealism, especially the moving performances of lead actors Sam Wanamaker and Lea Padovani, whose naturalness is years ahead of its time, more so even than the Method acting that was simultaneously invading Hollywood. A nearly lost film of historical, literary, and cinematic import, All Day has supplemented the DVD with a commentary track, an original featurette, DVD-ROM material on the picture's spotty distribution, and even a 1965 spoken-word opera adaptation of the novel with Eli Wallach.
Circus World (Region 2/NTSC) -- This is one of four Samuel Bronston's epics (the others being El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire, and 55 Days at Peking) at long last given the royal treatment on DVD, in 16:9 enhanced transfers with 4.0 Dolby Digital stereo, albeit in Japan under the TFC Classic Library label. El Cid (1961), the classic Anthony Mann/Charlton Heston epic, is the obvious choice, but Henry Hathaway's circus story is the most underrated of the batch. It has a surprisingly intimate script whose qualities have never been properly acknowledged, and overall the film runs three rings around Cecil B. DeMille's hokey Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Not counting Chaplin's The Circus, it's probably the best film of its kind; certainly none of the other contenders (The Big Circus, Berserk!, et. al.) even come close. With its epic production values-which include the real-life capsizing of a giant shipload of circus animals and an uncomfortably realistic fire, all impressively achieved without the aid of CGI-along with an underrated performance by John Wayne and great support from character player Lloyd Nolan, Circus World is film ripe for rediscovery. And, thanks to TFC's import DVDs, Samuel Bronston's roadshows can finally be seen in the best possible light.
Game of Death (Region 2/PAL) -- For such an emphatically ludicrous and exploitative picture, Game of Death (1978) sure is a lot of fun. This is the notorious faux Bruce Lee movie built around footage Lee shot (for an ultimately unmade film) shortly before his death in 1973. With the exception of Warner Bros.'s Enter the Dragon American fans of the martial arts icon have been stuck with awful PD versions of Lee's films, or unimpressive 4:3 letterbox versions from Fox. In Britain, though, Medusa Communications and Hong Kong Legends have released gorgeous (and legitimately-licensed) 16:9 versions of these same titles, lavishing them with the kind of attention and exhaustive extras usually reserved for the likes of James Bond. This DVD has everything: a commentary track by genre expert Bey Logan, a lengthy documentary/retrospective on Lee, endless featurettes on the various martial arts seen in the film, interviews with cast and crew members (even ex-Bond George Lazenby, who was to have co-starred in Lee's 1972 version), deleted scenes and trailers. Best of all is a 40-minute reconstruction of Lee's original concept for the incredible climax, using a good deal of footage of Lee not used in Game of Death.
Home from the Sea (Region 3) -- Hong Kong's Panorama Entertainment has been steadily releasing classic and contemporary films from Japan's Shochiku library for several years now, everything from epic Hideo Gosha jidai-geki to Kurosawa's Scandal (1950) and Ozu's Late Autumn (1960). Shochiku's decision to basically dump its assets in Hong Kong is a mixed bag for consumers. Panorama's releases have been less than pristine (i.e., scratchy, non-anamorphic transfers), and the English subtitles, fine at first, have become increasingly slapdash and inadequate. The DVDs are so cheap that people who love Japanese cinema are racing to purchase these long-lost classics, but one can't help but wonder how this might impact the market for Region 1 editions down the road. In any case, it's impossible not to welcome the availability of so many great films which at best received limited theatrical release in the U.S. One 2003 release that particularly stands out is Home from the Sea (1972), a richly woven drama from director Yoji Yamada, whose work is long overdue for a U.S. retrospective. The film follows Seiichi (Hisashi Igawa) and Minko (Chieko Baisho), a married couple who haul tons of rocks aboard their rickety, outdated boat along the Seto Inner Sea. This is one of those movies that really puts the viewer deep inside the minds and emotions and daily lives of its subjects. A middle-period work from the writer-director of Twilight Samurai (2002), Home from the Sea is exquisite, recalling the great Italian Neorealist films of the 1940s. The subtitles are pretty good on this title, though the DVD is incorrectly (and non-anamorphically) letterboxed at about 1.66:1 (film was shot in Shochiku GrandScope - 2.35:1).
Shock Waves -- No DVD label is doing more for drive-in sleaze and Euro-trash than Blue Underground, whose team is composed of recent emigrates from the Anchor Bay label. Few of their titles thus far could actually be called good movies - though this reviewer is a big fan of the international heist thriller Grand Slam - but who else would produce so glossy and respectful a tribute to the likes of Jesus Franco? Their sleeper of 2003 is Shock Waves (1977), a delightfully retro yet effective sci-fi/horror movie about Nazi zombies sloshing about off the mucky, remote Florida coast. Though made on a shoestring budget, producer Reuben Trane and director/co-writer Ken Wiederhorn managed to wrangle name and rising talent like Brooke Adams, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine to the project, which is consistently inventive. One of the very best no-budget horror films.
The Truth About Charlie/Charade -- First, let's get one thing clear: I'm not a fan of The Truth About Charlie, I've never seen The Truth About Charlie, and have no particular interest ever in seeing The Truth About Charlie. But I adore Charade (1963), the witty, romantic thriller directed with much imagination and style by Stanley Donen. The film was never properly copyrighted, and for years everyone and his mother released tapes and DVDs of this public domain title, usually off ugly, faded TV prints. Criterion released a very nice special edition version a few years back, but that was in non-anamorphic, 4:3 letterboxed format. Finally a definitive version of the movie is out there. Universal shrewdly included a 16:9 enhanced Charade as a supplement to their DVD of The Truth About Charlie, the tepidly-received 2002 remake. Even people who profess to not liking "old" movies will surely be sucked into this sharply written (by Peter Stone), admirably unpredictable thriller which also happens to be one of the most romantic films of all time. Unsurprisingly, Cary Grant is effortlessly enchanting and the luminous Audrey Hepburn proves what a marvelous comic actress she was. And, despite the obvious difference in their ages - he was 59, she was 34 - they have terrific screen chemistry. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy are featured; Henri Mancini wrote the memorable score and Maurice Binder did the eye-popping title design.
You Bet Your Life - The Lost Episodes -- All classic television shows deserve the love and attention Shout Factory has given this still-funny '50s game show, which was little more than an excuse for comedian Groucho Marx to ad-lib with ordinary people. Now more than ever, the program plays like a time capsule of 1950s Americana, with Groucho cautioning his audience about the dangers of juvenile delinquency, joking about the 1952 presidential race and Marilyn Monroe, and awkwardly interacting with iconic '50s comic Ernie Kovacs, whose style was completely at odds with the 60-something vaudevillian. The show was also an anomaly among the WASPish, white bread '50s airwaves. Groucho was a big supporter of civil rights, had one of TV's first integrated orchestras (led by The Wild Bunch's Jerry Fielding), and had more minorities as guests on his show than virtually anything else on television. And it was the guests and Groucho's interaction with them that was the heart of the program, from Emmett Ashford, the first black umpire in professional baseball to, especially, the hilarious and surreal exchange between Groucho and a bemused Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales. Shout Factory's set of 18 episodes, spanning 1950-59, easily gets my vote as the most attractively-packaged (by an outfit called Tornado Design) box set of 2003. Included is a full-color 20-page booklet crammed with photos and information about the show. The extensive extras continue with a wide variety of original commercials (best of the bunch: a beret-wearing Groucho driving down the Champ Elysťes in a new, king-size De Soto), original outtakes, some of which can be programmed to play within the context of the episode, a behind-the-scenes film, a holiday record sent to De Soto dealerships, and the show's original radio "audition" tape. This is one classy package.
Zulu (Region 2/NTSC) -- Director Cy Endfield and producer-star Stanley Baker's epic film (based on a true story) about vastly out-numbered British soldiers defending a mission against thousands of chanting Zulu warriors still holds up as terrifically suspenseful entertainment. MGM released a not-bad, no-frills monophonic version of this title, but better still is Paramount's Japanese DVD, which uses the same 16:9 video master, but offers a resplendent, full stereo Dolby Digital Surround mix that, to my ears at least, sounds phenomenal. Also included is an informative audio commentary track and a multi-part 16:9 documentary that would be definitive were it not for the absence of Michael Caine, whose role in this picture helped make him an international star. (He's also missing from the DVD of The Italian Job--what's up with that?)