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Love Streams

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: “Manakamana,” “Love Streams” and more!


The latest from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for formally adventurous documentaries like Leviathan (2013) and Sweetgrass (2009), Manakamana (2014) is another mind-expanding, wholly engrossing trip to another world.

ManakmanaDirected by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana is in some ways the formal opposite of Leviathan, which saw camera placement taken to (sometimes uncomfortable) extremes, turning observation into abstraction. Here, the camera is locked down for 11 shots of almost identical length, as a cable car ascends and descends in Central Nepal. These static shots put us in the position of companion to the men, women, children and others riding on journeys to and from a sacred Hindu temple.

The initial effect is one of repetition, and one might be tempted to assume this is the film’s main formal conceit – sort of a Jeanne Dielman in a gondola scenario – but while the film’s measured pace does contribute to a hypnotic effect, the filmmakers have structured the film in a continuously surprising way.

A figure just out of frame will suddenly make an appearance, causing one to reassess their entire conception of the riders. Some rides play out like mini-thrillers, the suspense mounting as one tries to determine the nature of the riders’ relationship. Others are purely delightful, like a pair of women racing to finish their ice cream bars before the heat dissolves them or three band members taking endless snapshots. Each one is revealing in its own way, about the people or the culture or the history. Time races by. 10 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to spend with some of these people.

And about that formal construction – the film essentially plays out as one long take, the cuts masked by darkness at the end of each trip as the gondola enters the station. Pretty basic stuff, right? Except, these trips don’t necessarily occur in the order one might expect, a playful little dashing of expectations that isn’t even necessarily apparent at first glance.

Cinema Guild has offered up another must-own package, with a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that beautifully reproduces the Nepalese landscape and the expressive faces of the riders appreciating it. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately subdued, but punctuated by very loud machinery noise as the cable thunders over certain parts of the track. Extras include a commentary from the directors, 30 minutes of additional rides and behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim and a director Q&A.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Manakamana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 118 min / $34.95


Love Streams

Consider this an essential addendum to Criterion’s already indispensable John Cassavetes box set. Love Streams (1984) was basically Cassavetes’ last film he directed, and it’s also his final screen performance, and though his contributions behind-the-camera are more renowned, he was also an intensely fascinating performer, especially given the chance to work alongside his wife, i.e. perhaps the greatest actress of her generation.

Love StreamsGena Rowlands and Cassavetes play siblings whose separately self-destructive paths lead them back to each other, and even though they spend the majority of time on screen apart, there’s a tangible connectivity between their patterns of broken relationships and self-deception, fumbling toward love without really understanding what it takes.

Cassavetes always excelled at taking clear-eyed perspectives at his damaged characters, but his camera cuts to the quick in Love Streams, making for a difficult, draining watch. In many of his earlier works, like A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cassavetes balanced his characters’ dysfunction with optimism for the future – perhaps these people would find a way to be happy. In Love Streams, the future is here, and it’s not very pretty.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, based on a 2K restoration, is as gorgeous as any in the earlier box set. Images are clear, full of stable, well-resolved grain and consistent colors. The film-like transfer is accompanied by an exceptionally clean uncompressed mono track. The bountiful slate of extras includes new interviews with cinematographer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott and a 2008 interview with Seymour Cassel, along with a video essay on Rowlands, Michael Ventura’s behind-the-scenes doc, a commentary track from Ventura, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim, yet again.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Love Streams Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***1/2

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 141 min / $39.95


We Won’t Grow Old Together

A good companion to much of Cassavetes’ work is another excruciatingly unvarnished look at relationships from Maurice Pialat, We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). Jean (Jean Yanne) is a misogynistic, needlessly cruel bully to the younger woman, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), he supposedly loves.

We Won't Grow Old TogetherThe cycle of breakups and reconciliations is emotionally exhausting, but Pialat’s formal construction is absolutely stunning as he elides almost anything that might help the viewer conventionally understand why these two are continuously drawn to each other. Highly charged reunions and disintegrations make up the bulk of their relationship, eventually leading the viewer to a kind of perverse understanding.

Kino brings Pialat’s masterwork to Region A-locked viewers with its solid Blu-ray release, featuring a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There’s a slightly blue-ish, cooler hue to most of the images throughout the film, but it’s a clear transfer with appreciable levels of fine detail and nicely rendered film grain. Extras include a short appreciation from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, an interview with Jobert, a trailer and an insert with an essay by Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s We Won’t Grow Old Together Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Kino Lorber / 1972 / Color / 1.66:1 / 115 min / $34.95



If Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) isn’t the platonic ideal of thrillers, I’m not sure what is. Bresson’s economical caper film, like his previous film, A Man Escaped (1956), can be enjoyed as a white-knuckled suspense picture without engaging with its underlying spiritual or humanistic concerns.

pickpocketRiffing on Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket follows the increasingly dangerous exploits of a young thief (Martin LaSalle) who steals because he can, toying with a police officer and mostly neglecting his ill mother. Bresson will never shake the label of asceticism, and rightfully so in some contexts, but to re-watch Pickpocket with fresh eyes is to see a film of intense feeling, sublimated thrills building to a deeply felt conclusion.

Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray upgrade is a thing of beauty, full of silvery, film-like images and greatly improved levels of clarity and detail above the respectable old DVD release. The copious extras, including an audio commentary from the brilliant James Quandt, an introduction from the heavily influenced Paul Schrader and several documentary programs, are all carried over from the DVD.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Pickpocket Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ****

The Criterion Collection / 1959 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 76 min / $39.95


Southern Comfort

Walter Hill makes it clear in Shout! Factory’s new interview on their release of Southern Comfort (1981) that he doesn’t see the film as any kind of statement on the Vietnam War. His dismissal of movie as metaphor isn’t shared by stars Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, but either way, Hill made a hell of a terse, escalating action film in which a group of National Guardsmen piss off some Cajuns in the Louisiana swaps, turning routine field exercises into all-out guerilla war.

Southern-Comfort-Blu-rayHill’s film is, at turns, beautifully atmospheric and brutal, as the peacefulness of the natural setting is decimated by the ugliness of men on both sides. The film’s final sequence plays with that tension, heightening it to a nerve-fraying level before finally relenting at its conclusion.

Shout’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer isn’t the sharpest, with some mishandled grain and a few pretty soft sequences. It’s a pretty pleasing transfer for the most part though, with a consistent color palette and solid levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono track is clean and crisp, handling quiet and chaotic moments equally well. Extras include the aforementioned set of interviews, some stills and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Shout! Factory’s Southern Comfort Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: **1/2

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Shout! Factory / 1981 / Color / 1.78:1 / 105 min / $29.93




Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.


Darkman featured

Blu-ray Review: “Darkman” (1990)


After the first two Evil Dead films became instant cult hits, director Sam Raimi decided to attempt a more mainstream effort, and planned a film adaptation of The Shadow, the legendary crimefighter of pulp novels and radio. Unable to obtain the rights to the character, Raimi instead worked with his brother Ivan to create his own action hero, one that would appeal to his love of classic horror as much as his fondness for comic books. The result was Darkman (1990), a stylish superhero outing that proved popular enough to spawn two direct-to-video sequels, a TV pilot and comic books. Previously released as a no-frills disc by Universal in 2010, Darkman is now available in a new special edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, Shout! Factory’s label for cult/horror titles.

Darkman tells the story of Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a researcher developing a synthetic skin that can be molded to resemble anyone’s features. He has achieved remarkable results, but is unable to get the skin to last more than 99 minutes when exposed to light; after that, it dissolves. Just as Westlake is on the brink of a breakthrough, his lab is invaded by sadistic mobster Robert Durant (Larry Blake) and his gang of thugs. Sent by corrupt real estate mogul Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to retrieve an incriminating memo discovered by Westlake’s girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney with the DA’s office, Durant and his gang assault the scientist, kill his assistant and destroy the lab with a fiery explosion. Blown clear of the blast, an unidentified, comatose and horribly burned Westlake recovers at a hospital where the staff severs his nerves to relieve his extreme pain. Upon regaining consciousness, he breaks through his restraints and escapes, the loss of sensory input having made him prone to bursts of adrenaline-fueled rage that give him near-superhuman strength. Determined to perfect his discovery so he can conceal his hideous disfigurement and resume his old life, Westlake reconstructs his lab in an abandoned factory. Spying on Julie (who believes him dead), he sees Strack and Durant, triggering his rage and filling him with a lust for revenge. Using his synthetic skin to impersonate members of Durant’s gang, Westlake becomes an avenging hero destined to be known as . . . Darkman.

Darkman belongs to that subset of superheroes who behave as obsessed vigilantes dishing out pitiless justice—Batman, The Punisher, etc. Although Universal may have backed the project based on the enormous box office success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the character clearly owes more to Raimi’s original confessed inspiration, The Shadow. Like his pulp predecessor, Darkman is often garbed in a dark hat and flowing, cape-like coat while waging war on the criminal underworld, and sometimes uses disguise to infiltrate the gangs. The radio Shadow could become invisible via his hypnotic ability to “cloud men’s minds”; Dr. Westlake can effectively make himself disappear by assuming another identity and blending into the crowd. The influence of classic movie monsters, especially those of Universal Studios, is also a key component of Darkman. (in 1990 interviews, Raimi often referred to Darkman as a monster movie.) Those characters often had a tragic side to them, and it is this quality, along with the evocative visual iconography of the genre, that Raimi chooses to tap.  Like The Phantom of the Opera, Darkman is a violent disfigured genius with a hidden lair who is motivated by his ultimately doomed love for a woman. Like The Invisible Man, Peyton Westlake is a scientist swathed in bandages struggling to hold onto his sanity while desperately searching for a cure to his condition. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these nods to classic characters might have made Darkman come across as a lazy knockoff, but Raimi and his cast believe in Peyton Westlake and the world he inhabits. In their hands, the homages to the past are just a foundation upon which to build something new. Liam Neeson, still three years away from his breakthrough role in Schindler’s List (1993), does a good job pulling together the disparate sides to the character and evoking audience sympathy without resorting to mawkish pathos. Some scenes call on him to turn on a dime and switch from caring boyfriend to snarling madman, and Neeson is able to make it all seem like different facets of the same man, even when most of his face is concealed by bandages or Tony Gardner’s (very effective) grotesque makeup design. Like Boris Karloff and some of the other stars of classic horror, Neeson seems to enjoy the challenge of working in the makeup, and he invests his scenes as the disfigured Westlake with an old-fashioned melodramatic flair that suits the genre.


Raimi uses all the skill and tricks he learned in his early low-budget efforts in directing Darkman, and the film greatly benefits from the lively, kinetic visual style he brings to it. Distinctive Raimi touches are easy to spot: elaborate montage sequences; the “shaky cam”; dramatic low-angle tracking shots that dolly in to close-ups of characters; stylized, “comic-book” lighting; etc. Raimi’s experiences on Darkman would clearly influence his later work on the Spider-Man films; compare, for example, Westlake’s hospital escape with that of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, or the construction site battle with the one in Spider-Man 3. Given his horror movie background, it’s not surprising that Raimi excels at the film’s horror/Gothic touches; some of the most memorable moments are Darkman alone in his factory lair struggling to come to grips with his new, monstrous identity. First-time cinematographer Bill Pope does an excellent job realizing Raimi’s style and gives the film a polished, attractive look. The production design by Randy Ser further compliments Raimi’s vision of Darkman as a Gothic-tinged comic book, making Westlake’s abandoned factory resemble a mix of Dracula’s crumbling castle and a classic mad scientist’s laboratory.

Unfortunately, an interesting hero and a sense of style are not enough to carry a film, and Darkman falters badly in the areas of character and story development.  Frances McDormand’s Julie is meant to be a strong, independent modern woman, but she’s so hopelessly underwritten as a character that she’s a forgettable cypher. She is supposed to be an attorney with the D.A.’s office, but we never see her doing her job other than foolishly confronting the villain with her knowledge of his guilt, which causes her boyfriend to be disfigured and his assistant killed, and puts her own life in jeopardy. She compounds this error by not linking Strack to the accident until late in the film, and even allows the sleazy developer to flirt and dance with her. For most of the film Julie is just a symbol of the life to which Darkman wishes to return, a prize to be sought like the stuffed bear Westlake tries to win at a carnival he visits. By the end she’s just the standard damsel in distress, and it’s disappointing to see the talented McDormand wasted in such an unrewarding role. (In the disc’s extras, McDormand admits to some frustrations with the part and not always being in sync with Raimi’s vision.)

Not faring much better is Colin Friels as Louis Strack, ostensibly the film’s chief villain. Strack is corrupt, greedy and ruthless, but there is no sense that he has any larger evil scheme other than to make money off of the new high rises his company is building. In Robocop (1987), the villains are also plotting a major real estate development, but we understand that it’s part of a grander plan to seize power in all aspects of society. There is nothing comparable in Darkman; for all we know, Strack has no ambitions beyond real estate. He’s a more ruthless but less colorful Donald Trump, and comes across as a supervillain wannabe. (The Blu-ray’s commentary track mentions that scenes were cut further developing Strack’s character and hinting at broader corruption among the city’s power elite; one suspects that these could only have bolstered this weak aspect of the film.) Beyond being dull, Strack is also quite possibly the dumbest villain in superhero movie history: After going to great lengths to retrieve the incriminating “Bellasarious Memorandum”, he carelessly leaves it on his desk for weeks in plain view instead of destroying it. Why? So Julie can discover it in the film’s third act, when the filmmakers need her to figure out that he was involved with the lab explosion. This is lazy, careless plotting of the worst kind. (One can imagine an alternate version of the film in which a diligent member of Strack’s janitorial staff turns the memo over to the D.A.’s office, thus saving Darkman a good deal of trouble.) With Strack written so poorly, all the heavy lifting in the villainy department is left to Larry Drake’s Robert Durant. In 1990 Drake was widely known for portraying the gentle, mentally challenged law clerk Benny on TV’s L.A. Law, and his turn here as the cold, cruel Durant was startling at the time and remains memorable. Whether he’s chopping off fingers with a cigar cutter, barking out commands to his gang or firing a machine gun from a helicopter, Drake steals every scene he’s in. He, not Friels, is the villain everyone remembers, and it’s not surprising that Drake was invited back for the sequel and TV pilot.


As an action film, Darkman delivers a terrific setpiece in which Durant snags Westlake on a cable suspended from a helicopter and flies him high above the city to be smashed into the sides of buildings and lowered into oncoming freeway traffic.  Featuring a live stuntman in most shots—no dummy, no CGI double—it’s a thrilling sequence peppered with amusing touches, such as Darkman politely apologizing after crashing through a high rise window and a near-collision with Raimi’s beloved Oldsmobile Delta 88. Unfortunately, the film’s finale is, by comparison, a letdown. The concept for the scene is fine: a climactic showdown high up on the girders of a skyscraper under construction. Ultimately, though, the scene lacks the excitement of the helicopter chase because we’re never convinced that our leads are hundreds of feet up.  In spite of state-of-the-art (for the period) effects, the scene feels like it’s confined to a nice, safe soundstage.  There’s less suspense in the scene than in a Harold Lloyd thrill comedy from the 20’s. (It doesn’t help that the confrontation is between Darkman and the dull Strack, rather than Durant.) It ends Darkman on an unsatisfying note and contributes to the sense that the film never lives up to the full potential of its interesting premise. Raimi may have felt the same way, as he would complain that studio meddling forced him to remove a number of scenes, including more Darkman “rage montages” that take the viewer inside Westlake’s tortured psyche. Even had Raimi been allowed to release his director’s cut, though, the film would still suffer from poor supporting characters and some careless plotting, flaws that must be laid at Raimi’s doorstep as co-screenwriter and creator of the original story. As released, the film is at best a mixed bag (albeit a stylish one) for which Raimi deserves to take a share of both credit and blame.


Shout Factory’s new special edition Blu-ray of Darkman should please the film’s many fans. The transfer captures the subtle gold and rose highlights featured in early daytime scenes, the lurid comic-book bursts of red that accompany Darkman’s rage and the fine details found in the many scenes set at night or in heavy shadow. Grain management appears to have been applied, probably to even out the mix of original photography and opticals. It’s not as overdone as in some earlier Universal Blu-ray releases like Tremors, but purists with large displays will definitely find it quite noticeable. This reviewer would have preferred a more natural, film-like texture, but in general did not find the grain reduction to be too objectionable in this instance. The audio, available as either 5.1 or 2.0 DTS, is strong, with Danny Elfman’s brooding score coming across particularly well. Subtitles are available in English only. Like most Scream Factory releases, the disc is Region A locked.

Sam Raimi is conspicuously absent from the Blu-ray’s newly-produced bonus material; one wonders if it was merely a scheduling issue or if he still harbors bitterness over the changes Universal imposed. Even without Raimi, there’s still plenty here for fans to enjoy. Cinematographer Bill Pope contributes an entertaining commentary with plenty of anecdotes about the production and working with Raimi. There are a half-dozen new featurettes adding up to roughly one hour; interviewed are stars Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand and Larry Drake; supporting players Dan Bell and Danny Hicks; production designer Randy Ser and art director Philip Dagort; and makeup artist Tony Gardner. Rounding out the package are vintage EPK featurettes and interviews (Raimi and Colin Friels do appear in this material), the trailer, a dozen TV spots and still galleries devoted to production stills, behind-the-scenes photography, storyboards and posters. The plethora of extras helps compensate for the imperfections of the transfer, and make this release an attractive package that is highly recommended to Darkman enthusiasts.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Darkman rates:

Movie: ***

Video: ***

Sound: ****

Supplements: Audio commentary, new and vintage featurettes; still galleries.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES

Vincent Price

Home Video: The Best of 2013

Despite continued dire assertions that “DVD is dead” and that Blu-ray is a fading niche market in an era of downloadable movies, from our vantage point we’re seeing more desirable titles premiering on DVD and Blu-ray than ever before, even if some of these best new releases require a region-free player to see them, or are titles increasingly farmed out to independents charging higher prices than we’ve gotten used to. This year we give a particular round of applause to labels like Olive Films, Inception Media Group, Cohen Film Collection, and Flicker Alley, places run but dedicated, film-savvy entrepreneurs who clearly love these movies as much as we do.

And so, in ascending order, here’s our list of the best of the best of 2013:

Paul Williams

10. Paul Williams – Still Alive (DVD only; Virgil Films)
The past decade has been great for documentaries about singers and songwriters: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (both 2010). Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) is yet another funny, moving and ultimately revelatory portrait of the ubiquitous if diminutive songwriting superstar, who seemed to vanish into thin air after the early 1980s. Director Stephen Kessler’s unusual approach makes the show as much about his mostly awkward personal relationship with his reluctantly willing subject, who now seems much happier living in comparative obscurity than he did at the height of his celebrity. A profoundly entertaining film about a supremely talented artist whose intimate, confessional songs about loneliness and depression always seemed negated by the clownish, cocky media star far more complex than anyone imagined.


9. The Damned (Cohen Film Collection)
Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, but René Clément’s The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie we’ve ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war. Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich. This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.

Right Stuff

8. The Right Stuff (Warner Home Video)
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” The Right Stuff (1983) is the best American movie of the 1980s. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie essentially tells two stories: Chuck Yeager’s exploits as a test pilot, in particular his attempt to break and go beyond the sound barrier; and the earliest days of NASA, as seen through the eyes of its seven Mercury Program astronauts (and their wives). The material is by itself compelling, but what makes The Right Stuff so special is in the telling. It tells its familiar story of heroic American pioneers in unusual and unexpected ways. Some see it as a modern variation of John Ford’s last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an apt comparison. In Ford’s film, a cowboy and gunfighter emblematic of the Old West, played by John Wayne, essentially steps aside so that an aspiring attorney, James Stewart, symbolizing a tamer, civilized West, can take his place. The lawyer becomes a celebrated political figure while the once-famous gunfighter dies in total anonymity, completely forgotten except by his closest friends. In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is the Wayne character (even if Shepard plays him like Gary Cooper), while the seven Mercury astronauts are Stewart’s. In some ways it’s the last great movie epic with, among other things, the subsequent CGI revolution and Ron Howard’s obscenely overrated Apollo 13 making not the slightest dent in its lasting impact. It simultaneously satirizes Cold War politics and mass media hyperbole with its prefabricated American heroes yet, almost indescribably, this only serves to make each act of personal bravery all the more awe-inspiring. In a way, the Mercury astronauts are also Wayne’s character, outwardly enjoying the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity, with the public oblivious to or simply not interested in their genuine but mostly private and personal heroism. The Blu-ray has been among the most anticipated releases of the last few years, and from a technical standpoint it does not disappoint, offering a near-perfect video presentation supported by spectacularly good audio. There are numerous extra features, though nearly all are ported over from a 2003 DVD release.


Fighting Kentuckian

7. Olive Films
More than any other home video label in recent years, Olive Films has been a movie-lover’s dream come true. Culling mainly from Paramount’s long-neglected library holdings, they plucked from obscurity movies never before released to home video and have presented them with dazzlingly good high-def transfers. Neglected films, particularly from Republic Pictures’ B-movies, previously available on VHS and DVD with awful, ancient video transfers, have been revelations as Olive Blu-rays. From Betty Boop to ‘50s sci-fi to classic and recent French thrillers, Olive Films is the home video label of the year.

Vincent Price

6. The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory)
American International Pictures releases licensed from MGM, this Halloween release containing House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witchfinder General (1968), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) brought back fond memories of the NuArt Theater’s glorious AIP film festival of 20 years ago, when these movies, available then only in the murkiest of panned-and-scanned video transfers, could be experienced as they were meant to be seen: good 35mm prints on a big, wide screen. These high-def transfers, with their rich color, gorgeous cinematography and extraordinarily good art direction, reveal riches lost when they were played to death on TV throughout the seventies and eighties. Shout! also went the extra mile combining MGM’s preexisting featurettes with some wonderful new material, including introductions to most of the films by Mr. Price himself, videotaped for Iowa Public Television back in the 1980s!

Puppetoons 2

5. The Puppetoon Movie (Inception Media Group)
A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.” The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


4. Nashville (Criterion)
For once the tag lines were accurate: “Wild. Wonderful. Sinful. Laughing. Explosive.” Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), one of the best films of the 1970s, is a divisive, inarguably indulgent film, but also one uniquely experimental and prophetic, especially so when it was new. The epic, 160-minute has no single protagonist and instead is a tapestry cutting among 24 major characters and numerous minor ones. It has no plot to speak of, despite an undercurrent of political maneuvering and a vague exploration of professional ambition and fame set against Nashville’s country music scene. Altman had been evolving toward this kind of storytelling beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and, after crystalizing the form in Nashville would return to it again in the underrated A Wedding (1978), the somewhat overrated The Player (1992) and a few others. But in 1975 Nashville was quite daring, the work of a supremely confident, in some ways self-destructive filmmaker to whom ordinary movie-making rules did not apply. Nashville had previous been released by owner Paramount as an okay if no-frills DVD in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers vastly improved picture and wonderfully immersive sound, the latter vitally important in fully appreciating the work’s complex sound design. The new Blu-ray-plus-DVD combo also includes scads of extra features, including an original making-of documentary featuring some of the film’s key participants.


3. Pierre Étaix (Criterion)
Though we like to think we’re well-versed in the art of film comedy, we confess we had never even heard of circus clown-turned-actor-director Pierre Étaix until Criterion’s revelatory boxed set of this delightful disciple of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Included are three charming short films and all five of his ‘60s/early ‘70s features: The Suitor, As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. The transfers of these long-unavailable films (due to legal problems) all look and sound great and, happily, the 85-year-old Étaix is on-hand to introduce each film.


2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Criterion)
One of Criterion’s best-ever home video releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is also an incredible value. Smart shoppers were able to purchase the set at one point for less than $100, but even at its suggested retail price of $224.95, for 25 feature films plus the many valuable extra features it’s still quite a bargain. Most readers are probably unaware that a near-simultaneous release in Japan, but covering only the first 18 movies, retails for a wallet-busting¥ 56,700, or about $550. That’s more than twice Criterion’s SRP yet minus the last seven films. The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu’s unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema. At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.

Cinerama South Seas Adventure

1. Cinerama Holiday/Cinerama South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley)
Let me say this right up front: you’re going to want to get these. The original Cinerama travelogues were never exhibited in conventional movie theaters, never shown on television, and until now, never before released to home video. Indeed, after about 1963 they weren’t shown anywhere. Restoring these once hugely-popular but virtually lost films has been a personal crusade of many film buffs, historians, and preservationists, but it took the tenacity and ingenuity of Cinerama reconstructionist David Strohmaier to get the job done, aided by innumerable craftsmen and technicians. Via distributor Flicker Alley, the first two Cinerama Blu-ray releases, This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958) were issued last year to much-deserved acclaim. These discs were beautifully packaged, compromised only by the lesser elements available: 70mm film. These next two releases, Cinerama South Seas Adventure and Cinerama Holiday (1955) have gone back to the original three-strip, six-perf high original camera negatives, replacing unusable bits and pieces with three-strip material deposited with the Library of Congress. The results are, in a word, glorious, and Strohmaier’s exacting recreation of the original road show experience comes as close as possible to replicating the Cinerama experience. It’s still not quite true Cinerama: a large, deeply curved screen is essential in order to experience the “audience participation” effects of the process, but it’s darn close. Further, the Blu-ray (a DVD version of the film is also included, but you’ll definitely not want to watch the film in that format) comes with many invaluable extra features including, appropriately, a reproduction of the original theater programs.