Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalogue titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This twice-monthly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
PICK OF THE WEEK:
Paramount Scares, Vol. 1: There’s something of a random grab-bag quality to this five-film collection from Paramount; all are from the studio, and all are horror, though the wild scope of age (from 1968 to 2022) means the styles of horror are rather all over the place. But they’re all worth seeing (or seeing again in HD). Rosemary’s Baby (which just got a stand-alone 4K a couple of weeks back) is clearly the best of the bunch, both in quality and presentation, remaining a haunting mixture of supernatural thriller and the cinema of paranoiac dread. Last year’s Smile has something of a Rosemary’s flavor, gathering steam as its heroine becomes more and more unhinged, though its effectiveness is undercut by the cheap jump scares (including multiple wake-ups from nightmares). Pet Sematary (first issued on 4K in 2019) is a faithful and unnerving adaptation of one of Stephen King’s scariest books, while Crawl is the most underrated film in the box, a Single-Issue Thriller with inventive kills, well-crafted thrills, and a simple but effective set-up. The sole entirely-new-to-4K title is Sweeney Todd, which manages to be an entertaining and successful adaptation of the Sondheim stage musical while still being a late-period Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration. (Films include audio commentaries, featurettes, trailers, deleted and extended scenes, and short film; box includes special Fangoria magazine, logo pin, sticker sheet, and exclusive slipcovers.)
ON APPLE TV+:
The Pigeon Tunnel: Errol Morris’s previous mano-a-mano films — The Fog Of War, The Unknown Known, and American Dharma — were basically confrontational, with the documentarian sitting down across from a divisive political figure and interrogating them for a couple of hours. The style of his latest is the same, but the approach is different; he and his subject, the spy-turned-spy-novel-author known as John le Carré, appear to genuinely like and respect each other, even if they approach each interaction with suspicion. That’s a refreshing dynamic, and it couples with explorations of thematic areas that Morris hasn’t previously dwelled in. Not to worry, though; the hallmarks of Morris’s films (the stylized dramatizations, the hypnotic music, the clever cutting) are still very much in place.
ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
Lynch/Oz: This thoughtful essay doc on David Lynch’s career-long obsession with The Wizard of Oz is the latest from director Alexandre O. Philippe, who indulges in digressions and detours similar to his excellent Psycho examination 78/52. But he’s not repeating himself; rather than replicate the clips-and-talking-heads format of the earlier film, Philippe breaks Lynch/Oz into thematically organized chapters, each one narrated by a different expert (most of them fellow filmmakers, though ace film critic and historian Amy Nicholson kicks things off, and well.) The results are something closer to Room 237 – whose director, Rodney Ascher, is one of the participants – than a conventional documentary, and the film is better for it, tackling both Oz and the Lynch filmography from multiple angles, perspectives, and degrees of reverence.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One: The most recent installment in Tom Cruise’s long-running franchise is the weakest of his collaborations with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie — it eliminates a regular character with irritating predictability (and cavalierness), and feels like it’s short on the big set pieces we’ve come to expect from these titles. But it still has a good one (a handcuffed car chase) and an all-timer, an intricate bit with a train car that recalls both The Gold Rush and Spielberg’s tribute to it in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Best of all, it adds the shot of electricity that is Hayley Atwell, who brings a playful sense of screwball comedy to her role as a gifted pickpocket who stumbles charmingly into the latest of Ethan Hunt and company’s very big adventures. (Includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
Squaring the Circle: Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn is no slouch in the filmmaking department; his stylish Control is still one of the best biopics of recent years. This feature documentary preserves his interest in music history, telling the story of Hipgnosis, the two-man operation responsible for many of the most memorable and iconic album covers of the 1970s. It’s informative as hell, gathering embryonic materials, music, and memories from many of their collaborators (including Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, and surviving members of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin), and Corbijn plunges the viewer into the scene with verve, vividly deploying edits, overlaps, and visual trickery to reflect a period-accurate substance-altered mindset. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scene, archival photos and trailers.)
The Others: Tom Cruise must’ve really dug Alejandro Amenábar; in 2000, he starred in Vanilla Sky, the English language remake of Open Your Eyes, and then the following year he produced the director’s English-language debut, with Cruise’s then-wife Nicole Kidman in the leading role. She’s magnificent as a mother haunted in more ways than one, desperately attempting to protect her sickly children from terrors real and imagined. Criterion’s excellent 4K restoration beautifully captures the shadows and blackness of this haunted house tale, an inversion of The Innocents that gets right under your skin and stays there. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, audition footage, and trailer.)
Cujo: Lewis Teague’s 1983 chiller plays like both an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and a riff on the previous year’s Poltergeist, trafficking in similar images of complicated ‘80s domesticity and the dangerous fallout of an unencumbered free market. It’s not supernatural, as so much of King’s work was in this period; everything here is grounded in normalcy, from the central threat of the titular rabid St. Bernard to the performances by a frazzled Dee Wallace Stone and terrified little Danny Pintauro. Their relationship, and their terror, plays as real and credible, and gives the entire picture an extra jolt of power. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, roundtable, and featurette.)
East End Hustle: This 1976 Canadian crime film (new on 4K from Canadian International Pictures) concerns a sex worker (Andree Pelletier) who leads a group of her colleagues in exacting revenge against their sadistic pimps. It’s not entirely escapist — the material is appropriately grisly and grim — but it delivers the exploitation goods: it’s competently mounted (one of the writer/producers is Allan Moyle, here credited with the inexplicable middle name of “Bozo,” who would go on to direct Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records), adequately acted, properly sleazy (the sex is more explicit than the norm), and utterly satisfying. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and trailer.)
Witness: It’s easy to forget, with all of his action work, that Harrison Ford is one hell of a fine actor. Exhibit A: Peter Weir’s riveting 1985 mystery/drama (new on 4K from Arrow), which landed Ford his only Oscar nomination to date. He plays John Book, a city cop in Amish country, protecting a young boy who’s witnessed a murder. The romance between Ford and Kelly McGillis (as the boy’s mother) is a little arbitrary, but that’s a minor infraction; Weir’s direction is tight, the mystery is a humdinger, and the portrait of the Amish community is both fascinated and respectful. (Includes audio commentaries, new and archival featurettes, interviews, deleted scene, and trailer.)
Black Sabbath: Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology combines, per Boris Karloff’s introduction, “three tales of terror and the supernatural. I do hope that you haven’t come alone!” KL Studio Classics’ reissue of their 2015 Blu-ray preserves AIP’s English version, which reordered its three stories (and made some other alterations) from Bava’s original Italian version. But it works either way; for my money, the English ordering gains momentum as it goes, ending with the strongest of the tales. (Karloff also acts in that one, and gets a properly theatrical entrance). Yet all are suspenseful and handsomely mounted, with Bava expertly shining a Gothic sensibility and style through even the most contemporary or stories. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)
Marfa Girl / Marfa Girl 2: Photographer Larry Clark made the transition to filmmaking with 1995’s Kids, a sleeper hit and a critical sensation, and has in many ways spent his career since attempting to recapture that high. This pair of mid-2010s pictures are probably as close as he’s come, and feature many of the same elements: naturalistic acting by a cast of mostly non-professionals, semi-improvised dialogue, graphic sexuality, and a genuine attempt to authentically capture a time and place. His style verges on self-indulgence, but when it works, he gets at a kind of documentary-style truth that his slicker counterparts rarely graze. (Includes trailers.)
Godmonster of Indian Flats: This joint Blu-ray release from AGFA and Something Weird (a re-release of their 2018 disc) truly lives up to the latter’s branding, a homegrown-as-hell Western-tinged monster movie — a 1973 labor of love by the visual artist and occasional filmmaker Frederic Hobbs. The monster at its center is an absurdly oversized human/sheep hybrid, but writer/director Hobbs makes the movie an awkward hybrid as well, grafting the usual scientists-tampering-in-God’s-domain stuff with a rather intricate plot about real estate disputes and casual racism in an “Old West” tourist town. It’s all completely insane, but in the best way. (Includes period shorts, monster trailers, and bonus feature The Legend of Bigfoot.)
Beast from Haunted Cave: Monte Hellman made his feature directorial debut as many of his generation of filmmakers did: working for Roger Corman. Corman hired theater director Hellman to shoot this script by Charles B. Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors), devised specifically to be shot in snowy South Dakota for a new and different look. When it was completed, the ever-resourceful Corman gave the cast a day off and then rolled them into production of another Griffith script on the same locations, Ski Troop Attack, which he directed himself (it’s included on Film Masters’ new Blu-ray as a bonus feature). Title notwithstanding, Beast isn’t really a monster movie; it’s a crime picture, filled with colorful characters, exploiting a Key Largo-esque central conflict before the monster — a pretty goofy one, but it’s used sparingly — takes over for the climax. In other words, it’s From Dusk Till Dawn 37 years early, and it’s a well-crafted hoot. (Includes audio commentaries, theatrical and television versions, featurette, and trailers.)
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg: This 1994 bio-doc (long out of print but back on DVD via Kino-Lorber) aired on PBS’s American Masters back in the day, and is a fairly straightforward film of that particular school, almost entirely talking heads and archival materials. But the interview subjects are so articulate and colorful, their memories so evocative, that it’s a feature not a bug, and the footage and images are fascinating as well. Director Jerry Aronson draws direct connections from the poet’s life to his work, and shines light a-plenty on the latter; we hear quite a bit of Ginsberg’s poetry in the brief film, occasionally at the expense of biographical detail, but it strikes the right balance between information and appreciation. (Includes additional interviews, featurettes, archival footage, additional poems, and more.)