As a growing number of people make streaming video their default choice for watching movies, the world of physical media is becoming increasingly dominated by items targeting connoisseurs and collectors. That’s fine, especially if future Blu-ray and DVD packages trend in the direction of 2013’s best releases, which combined terrific remastering with voluminous bonus material, all without pausing to buffer the stream.
On The Waterfront
The 1954 working-class drama On The Waterfront was the product of multiple talented young artists working with the kind of confidence that people have when they know they’re on the right path. It was primarily a collaboration between director Elia Kazan (who’d mastered staging and nuance in the theater), screenwriter Budd Schulberg (a dramatist with a reporter’s eye), cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who saw the finer shadings of the New York streets), composer Leonard Bernstein (then still in the process of merging classical and jazz), and star Marlon Brando (leading a troupe of actors who’d been trained to eschew phoniness). The story of how the movie came to be—and whether Kazan and Schulberg intended its inquiry into union corruption as a defiant justification for collaborating with HUAC—is as important as On The Waterfront itself, and Criterion’s Blu-ray set provides just about everything a newcomer or a fan would need to understand it. The discs include the three different aspect ratios that Kaufman used to accommodate different venues, as well as multiple documentaries, a chummy Richard Schickel/Jeff Young commentary track, and a booklet containing one of the magazine articles that inspired the movie. Altogether, it’s an insightful examination of why this particular film happened at this particular time.
Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection
In addition to the four major Bruce Lee films included on DVD and Blu-ray in Shout! Factory’s Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection—The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury, The Way Of The Dragon, and Game Of Death—this massive set has documentaries, fan appreciations, and rare archival footage aplenty. And that’s important, because Lee died so young and left behind so little that every scrap of existing material matters. Lee’s movies (aside from the classic Enter The Dragon, not included here) contain only a fraction of the martial-arts legend’s influential combination of philosophizing, acrobatics, raw strength, and Hollywood charisma. It’s in the reminiscences about Lee—and the blurry home movies of his kung-fu demonstrations—that the fuller picture emerges of how he changed action cinema and some 1970s self-help movements.
Wake In Fright
The 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation raised awareness among cult-movie aficionados of weird and wonderful gems from the land down under. Drafthouse followed through with a retrospective run of 1971’s Wake In Fright, a terrifying exercise in hyper-masculinity that features a rite of passage every bit as bracing as the one in the contemporaneous Straw Dogs. Detailing the misadventures of an ineffectual schoolteacher (Gary Bond) in The Yabba, a backwater of vigorous drinkers and ferocious brawlers, the film is awash in sunstroke yellow, and leads to a kangaroo-hunting sequence that’s masterful and justly notorious. Drafthouse treats all its DVD/BD releases with care, but it makes a forceful argument for Wake In Fright’s legacy with a new commentary track, a contentious 45-minute Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival, a featurette by Not Quite Hollywood director Mark Hartley, and an essay that reveals how close the film came to being permanently lost.
Telling the truth is dangerous business, but not as dangerous as letting the media get word that a movie’s running over budget. As with Heaven’s Gate, the initial reviews of Elaine May’s subversive comedy Ishtar were more a referendum on its purportedly out-of-control director than the film itself—bad enough that May hasn’t directed a film since. And like Michael Cimino’s runaway Western, May’s Middle Eastern misadventure has become famous in spite of itself, its reputation inverted until it achieved legendary status. In a lightly trimmed director’s cut (all of two minutes have been shorn), Ishtar emerges as an endlessly amiable shaggy-dog story, with wonderfully terrible songs by Paul Williams and the misfit comic stylings of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Even finally committed to disc, Ishtar is still an underdog, and that’s as it should be.
Criterion’s extravagant edition of Alex Cox’s cult classic isn’t as overwhelming as the contents of the movie’s radioactive Chevy Malibu, but it’s an impressive Blu-ray nonetheless. Like the life of a repo man, its assortment of extras is always intense: a “cleaned-up” TV edit of the film, a commentary track, a roundtable discussion, a new interview with theme-song performer Iggy Pop, and a booklet that includes Cox’s original proposal for Repo Man and an illustrated production history. The director-approved 2K transfer looks great, and, as discussed on The Dissolve’s first Movie Of The Week feature, the film remains a hilariously weird document of its era. Even the packaging is cool, with funky artwork by Mondo’s Jay Shaw and Tyler Stout. The disc itself is cleverly designed in homage to the unbranded products that litter Repo Man’s production design, but this set is anything but generic.
The Big Parade
When King Vidor’s The Big Parade was released in 1925, the World War I epic set a new standard for what a blockbuster Hollywood movie looked and felt like, by placing large-scale battle sequences behind the heart-tugging story of three army buddies from different social classes. Besides looking fantastic, Warner’s Big Parade Blu-ray set reproduces some of the original promotional materials, and adds an outstanding commentary track from historian Jeffrey Vance, who weaves in readings and audio excerpts of interviews he’s conducted over the years with silent-era legends. The extras explain what the marketplace was like when the film was originally released, at a time when movies were more ephemeral and less long-lasting, and they delve into Vidor’s then-rare ambition to construct a timeless film out of a grand theme.
“Long overdue” doesn’t do justice to Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of Peter Weir’s 1993 masterpiece, which took 20 years to make it to widescreen release. But let’s live in the present, shall we? The haunting story of a plane-crash survivor (Jeff Bridges) who takes to believing he can live without fear is a complex exploration of the glorious pain of being alive. Rosie Perez gives the performance of her career as a bereaved mother who can’t deal with having outlived her toddler son, and it’s fascinating to watch how much Bridges can give to a scene by helping others dig deeper into themselves.
The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection
(Flicker Alley/Drag City)
Before Curtis Harrington started directing campy B-movies and TV series in the 1960s and 1970s, he was a pioneering figure in both avant-garde and queer cinema, movements that were closely aligned in mid-20th century America. The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection assembles his best-known experimental work—the surreal cruising saga “Fragment Of Seeking,” the windswept “Picnic,” and the occultist inquiry “The Wormwood Star”—and adds vintage Harrington interviews and some lesser-seen exercises, including a 40-minute Edgar Allan Poe adaptation he made toward the end of his life. Combined with the dreamy 1961 feature Night Tide—out on Blu-ray this year from Kino Classics—this set is central to appreciating one of the oddest auteurs ever to haunt Hollywood.
It’s wonderful when The Criterion Collection gives an established masterpiece of world cinema the beautiful Blu-ray it richly deserves, but it’s arguably even more valuable when it spotlights a less-heralded work ripe for rediscovery. That was certainly the case with the company’s gorgeous edition of Jubal, a 1956 Western by Delmer Daves about a wandering cowboy (Glenn Ford) who finds a new home with a gregarious cattle rancher (Ernest Borgnine)—and new antagonists in the rancher’s jealous right-hand man (Rod Steiger) and unfaithful wife (Valerie French). Criterion released Jubal concurrently with its release of another, more famous Daves and Ford collaboration, 1957’s 3:10 To Yuma; fans of that film are encouraged to seek out this one for its glorious Technicolor vistas and Ford’s stoic but sensitive performance. A lack of quality extras beyond a typically illuminating essay by Kent Jones is the only thing missing from this excellent disc.
The Jazz Singer
Though Warner’s Jazz Singer Blu-ray set more or less repeats the features from the earlier DVD—and though The Jazz Singer itself is better watched for its historical value than its entertainment value—this should be an essential part of any cinephile’s collection. Between the commentary track, the 90-minute documentary about the history of sound in film, and the hours of short subjects, the Jazz Singer Blu-ray amounts to a useful cinema-studies seminar, covering the early years of the motion-picture business, when the art form was already becoming enamored of new technologies. Along the way, the bonus materials shatter some myths about what happened in Hollywood when silent movies gave way to “talkies.” Also, the movie itself now looks—and sounds!—better than it ever has before.
Starting with Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief Of Bagdad back in February, the Cohen Film Collection has been plucking classic titles from The Rohauer Library and other sources, and releasing them in attractive, supplement-filled Blu-ray editions. These have included everything from small gems by René Clair and Jean-Pierre Melville to a recent four-film tribute to Vivian Leigh, but Cohen’s beautiful presentation of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance restores vitality to a spectacle that has often seemed more relevant to film-history courses. While it’s true that Griffith’s four-pronged epic about oppression and intolerance throughout the ages—ancient Babylon, Christ’s crucifixion, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, and modern times—laid the building blocks of montage, the scale of its vision has never been equalled in the 97 years since. The two-disc Blu-ray has a second disc with Griffith’s feature versions of the Babylon and modern-day stories, and essays both visual and written give the full picture of its historical significance.
Produced right in the middle of John Frankenheimer’s 1960s heyday, 1966’s Seconds has long been a cult favorite for James Wong Howe’s inventive black-and-white photography, an ace Saul Bass title sequence, and a story of identity-shifting that’s all the more resonant given what later emerged about the life of its star, Rock Hudson. But it was near-impossible to find in the VHS era, and though Paramount rectified that with a 1997 DVD, Seconds has finally been given a proper platform in the Criterion Blu-ray edition, which underlines the sharp contrast of Howe’s photography and the vivid nightmare of a middle-aged suburban man (Hudson) getting the life he thought he wanted. Criterion can’t take credit for the best part of the disc, though: The commentary track, recorded for the 1997 version, makes a strong case for Frankenheimer as one of the great masters of the form. He remembers every shot and anecdote as if it happened yesterday, not 30 years earlier.
The Vincent Price Collection
Vincent Price didn’t set out to become a horror star, but he turned into one anyway, one film at a time. From the late 1950s on, Price made horror his speciality, and The Vincent Price Collection offers six films from his prime filled out with copious extras. These include four from the cycle of hallucinatory Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made with Roger Corman in the early 1960s, the brutal cult film Witchfinder General, and the goofy The Abominable Dr. Phibes. The lattermost captures Price at his campiest, but the set as a whole neatly demonstrates why he became an icon in the first place. Beneath that much-imitated delivery, he always found the vulnerability in even the creepiest characters.
The Quiet Man
John Ford’s brightly hued fable of Irish life has always been a popular favorite, though its critical reputation has never equaled that of The Searchers or Stagecoach. The Quiet Man’s lighthearted view of the homeland Ford never lived in is, for all its local color, an outsider’s, conditioned more by his childhood imagination than the country’s strife-torn reality. Olive Films’ Blu-ray finally restores the film to something like its original glory, making more poignant the conflict between its lively caricature and the dark tide of history that threatens to derail the romance between a flame-haired lass (Maureen O’Hara) and an Irish-American (John Wayne) trying to find a place in the old country. It’s a magnificent film, and a far more complicated one than its reputation as amiable blarney would suggest.
Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, No. 1
The Criterion Collection has such singular status among cinephiles that it sometimes shoulders an unfair burden: No outfit, no matter how successful or well-respected, can bring every great cinematic work to market, and the absence of this or that film doesn’t mean the company is at fault. Nonetheless, the near-total absence of titles from certain parts of the globe has been noticeable. The first volume of the cumbersomely titled Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project doesn’t singlehandedly remedy that situation, but it goes a long way, packaging films from Senegal, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Morocco, and India under the banner of one of the world’s best-known film advocates. The downside is that the three-Blu-ray, six-DVD box commands a price hefty enough to scare off casual browsers, but those who take the plunge will be rewarded with a bottomless buffet that offers discoveries for even the most dedicated aficionado.