By Aaron Hillis | The Playlist August 6, 2013 at 3:06PM
Before digging into early-to-mid August's disc highlights, I'd like to set the Way Back Machine to two weeks ago and point out some eclectic late-July gems we missed, such as Twilight Time's exquisite Blu-ray edition of Walter Hill's 1978 neo-noir "The Driver," Olive Films' unexpected release of Anthony Mann's 1958 brazen, quasi-hicksploitation melodrama "God's Little Acre," and the Warner Archive re-release of 1998's eccentrically funny "Zero Effect," starring Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman as a socially stunted private investigator. From Europe, Raro Video lived up to their name with a rare trilogy of gritty moralist thrillers in "Fernando di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection (Volume 2)," Music Box Films stressed us out with the terrifically icy German thriller "The Silence," and sci-fi didn't get more provocative than the erotic Lithuanian curiosity "Vanishing Waves" (which Artsploitation lovingly packaged as a two-DVD set that includes director Kristina Buozyte's feature debut "The Collectress"). Are you caught up? Super, let's push on...
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BEST OF AUGUST, PART ONE:
1947, dir. René Clemént
(Cohen Media Group, available on BD, DVD)
In a celebrated 1954 Cahiers du cinéma article that staked his claim (at 21 years old!) as one of history's most vital film critics, François Truffaut backhandedly grouped writer-director René Clemént in with other "Tradition of Quality" French filmmakers whose work was skilled but not idiosyncratic enough to be called auteurist. Perhaps that's technically true, but there's no denying the masterful, often neorealist mise-en-scène of Clemént's "Purple Noon," "Forbidden Games" and this noirish, end-of-WWII melodrama (available for the first time in North America), an engrossing psychological portrait of evil, retribution and desperation in cramped quarters. Aboard an oppressively staged, shadowy U-boat escaping Oslo to South America, a cast of defeated Nazis and assorted collaborators—including an SS officer, a Wehrmacht general, an Italian industrialist, his cheating wife, a Scandinavian scientist and his virtuous teen daughter—are further compromised by the presence of a kidnapped doctor (Henri Vidal), the film's unreliable narrator. Starkly, hauntingly shot by Henri Alakan some three decades before "Wings of Desire" (but also incorporating wartime doc footage for verisimilitude), the panicked bunch begins to crumble like Hitler's regime itself, as if Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" only housed villains and turncoats.
The Skinny: At Cannes that year, the film won the "Prix du meilleur film d'aventures et policier" (Best Adventure and Crime Film), not that anyone was expecting that to be nabbed by fellow '47 competition titles like Minnelli's "Ziegfeld Follies," Bergman's "A Ship Bound for India," or "Dumbo" (yes, you read that correctly).
Bonus Round: Postwar-film scholars Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson point out repeated motifs, details and expressionistic angles in their solid, occasionally dry commentary track, but Domonique Maillet's hour-long 2010 doc "René Clemént, or The Cinema of Sketches" fares better, as filmmaker Costa-Gavras and other collaborators—no double meaning intended—discuss Clemént's underrated career and thematic predilection for stories about "the imprisoned man."
Makes a "We All Live in a Narrow Submarine" Triple Feature with: "Das Boot," "Run Silent, Run Deep"
"Ishtar: Director's Cut"
1987, dir. Elaine May
(Sony, available on BD only)
Though it predates and predicts both peak-era Farrelly Brothers and the Age of the Apatow Bromance, May's maddeningly underrated comedy—one of Hollywood's most razzed bombs, its problematic history the notorious stuff of legend—wasn't exactly ahead of its time so much as simply not of its time. Passionate but buffoonish singer-songwriters Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are "Rogers and Clarke," a mismatched pairing which manages to be neither "Astaire and Rogers" or "Lewis and Clarke." They aspire to be the next Simon and Garfunkel, but write hilariously awful lounge ditties with clunky lyrics about software, lawnmowers, and the dangerous business of telling the truth. (Trivia: Paul Williams was hired to write the "bad" tunes.) Booked for a sketchy hotel gig in Morocco, the two schlemiels get ensnared in a political thriller plot between a Middle Eastern emir, a manipulative CIA agent (Charles Grodin) and communist guerillas aided by a mysterious lady disguised as a boy (Isabelle Adjani, Beatty's then girlfriend). While the majority of the film takes place among the blind camels, street cafés, and sandy dunes of north Africa, the film's first twenty minutes in NYC alone—including a flashback montage of the duo's first meeting and subsequent creative process—are funnier than most of today's studio comedies, you smuck. ("Now say 'sshhh' and 'muck' together real fast.")
The Skinny: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright are all unabashed fans of the film. So are Beatty and Hoffman, regardless of any reported on-set clashes and the kind of directorial indulgences that were typical of May's films ("A New Leaf" and "Mikey and Nicky" are also brilliant works that went wildly over budget).
Bonus Round: That an "Ishtar" DVD still doesn't exist should tell you there aren't any extras on the Blu-ray, but Movieline chronicled some of May's reflections in 2011 here, when this slightly shorter cut screened for a New York audience.
Makes a "Turkey Tastes Good to Me" Triple Feature with: "At Long Last Love," "Heaven's Gate"
1966, dir. John Frankenheimer
(Criterion, available on BD, DVD)
The transcendently ominous final chapter in Frankeheimer's paranoia trilogy (following "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May") is also a refined, downbeat entertainment that could be shelved under sci-fi, horror, thriller, psychological drama and, undeniably, classics. Beginning with a tone-setting, spine-tingling Saul Bass title sequence and fiendishly shot by the late James Wong Howe in disorienting Dutch angles (sometimes aided by fish-eye lens and canted mirrors), this adaptation of a David Ely novel concerns a "Twilight Zone"-esque second chance for jaded middle-aged banker and husband Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph). After a stranger inexplicably hands him a scrap of paper with an address, vouched for by telephone from an old friend thought deceased, Arthur finds himself coerced by a shifty corporation into being "reborn". His death faked and plastic surgery performed to transform him into affluent, studly Malibu painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson, subversively cast against his rom-com type in his greatest role). Still not satisfied—is anyone?—the newly made man can't fit in with the younger generation of orgiastic wine stompers and a phony life of luxury, discovering far too late that there are severe internal and institutional consequences for not being happy enough with life's superficial pleasures. Timelessly creepy and surreal, this one will get under your skin... with or without the surgeon's drill.
The Skinny: Around the time The Beach Boys recorded SMiLE, a drug-addled Brian Wilson purportedly walked into a movie theater just as one of the mysterious "Seconds" antagonists says, "Come in, Mr. Wilson." Convinced that musical rival Phil Spector had the studio create the film just to toy with his mind, Wilson fearfully did not see return to a theater until 1982's "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial."
Bonus Round: In the first of two fantastic featurettes that includes production photos and recollections from actress Salome Jens, the director's widow Evans Frankenheimer reveals that Laurence Olivier was originally considered to play both Arthur and Tony's roles until Paramount squashed the idea because he wasn't enough of a star, while the second video has Alec Baldwin extolling the film's merits as he refers to his late director friend as sophisticated, feisty and devilish. Criterion packs their discs, per usual, so there's also a rare 1971 video interview with Frankenheimer, a scholarly visual essay, and excerpts from a 1965 TV program featuring a Hudson interview and on-set footage made more jarring by screening in color.
Makes a "Who Am I Anymore?" Triple Feature with: "A Scanner Darkly," "Open Your Eyes"
WORTH A SPIN:
"A Band Called Death" (2012, Drafthouse Films, on BD, DVD) – Was the birth of punk in an East Detroit spare bedroom? Jeff Howlett's energetic, soulful rockumentary portrait of the eponymous proto-punkers—three politically engaged African American brothers with eccentric tastes—sure thrashes out a compelling argument, and witnesses their "Searching for Sugar Man"-style rebirth.
"A Boy and His Dog" (1975, Shout! Factory, on BD/DVD combo) – An 18-year-old nuclear apocalypse survivor (a pre-"Miami Vice" Don Johnson) with a telepathic bond to his misanthropic mutt gets into some kinky, violent misadventures in this nutty sci-fi comedy and remastered cult staple, based on a Harlan Ellison novella and directed by "The Wild Bunch" co-star L.Q. Jones.
"The Deep" (2012, Virgil/Focus World, on DVD) – Sandwiched between his Mark Wahlberg vehicles "Contraband" and "2 Guns," Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's somber survival drama (based on true-life events) concerns a poor fisherman battling hypothermia, painful slogs over volcanic glass, and worse after a 1984 shipwreck.
"I Killed My Mother" (2009, Kino Lorber, on DVD) – The Cannes-vetted feature debut of French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan ("Laurence Anyways," "Heartbeats"), directed when he was just 20 years old, gets a long-overdue release. Dolan stars in this stylish, semi-autobiographical dramedy as a gay teen at odds with you-know-who.
"Paradise: Love" (2012, Strand Releasing, on DVD) – Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl ("Import/Export") kicks off the first of his parallel-story "paradise" trilogy with a naturalistic, darkly comic tale—as repellent as it is oddly beautiful—about an elderly woman who travels to the beaches of Kenya as a sex tourist.