As 2015 shrinks in the rear view mirror, the home entertainment community welcomes 2016 with both optimism and ambivalence. Sure, there’s great excitement over the launch of yet another disc-based format, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. 4K Blu promises greater video performance, including four times the resolution, high dynamic range and increased color gamut. Doubt manifests in the hand-wringing over whether digital downloading has tipped the scales of antiquating packaged media for good. Next month’s Consumer Electronic Show might add clarity, but for now, there’s still plenty of content still to be released in ye olde 1080p HD Blu-ray.
In fact, if you’re into deep catalog cinema and television, 2015 was a banner year. Between Twilight Time, Kino Lorber and Olive Films, many of the old UA releases finally got some spinning disc love. Irwin Allen’s “Lost In Space” may not be respected by serious science fiction fans, but that didn’t stop Fox from releasing arguably one of 2015’s best-in-show titles with their 18-disc Complete Series box set. And Criterion seems to be on a tear these days. Every month they announce at least two titles that my library craves.
With the New Year, there’s the inevitable annual resolutions, to-do lists and general hopeful thinking for the next 12 months. In that spirit, I’d like to throw out to the CE universe what I would like to see released in Region A Blu-ray – maybe 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray? – starting January 1st.
I realize that these lists can reveal more about the compiler than invoke any aesthetic consensus. After considerable deliberation, wondering if I wanted to risk derision and ridicule for my selections, I concluded: Screw it. I like what I like.
In alpha-numeric order:
- 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960) – Jonathan Swift, Ray Harryhausen, Kerwin Mathews and Bernard Herrmann. Need I say more? Twilight Time has a stellar record for releasing classic Harryhausen (Mysterious Island, First Men in the Moon, Golden Voyage of Sinbad), so I’m hoping that 3 Worlds will eventually materialize in a “Coming Soon” announcement.
- 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) – George Pal’s compassionate fantasy about a mysterious traveling circus. Based on Charles Finney’s 1935 cult novel, the original novel was very episodic and far more judgmental about the small town patrons of Dr. Lao’s soul-reflecting mythological mirrors. Thanks to Pal, screenwriter Charles Beaumont, star Tony Randall and William Tuttle’s astonishing make-ups, 7 Faces dials down the cynicism for a gentle parable about redemption and tolerance.
- 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) – One of the seminal adventure films of the previous century. Available in HD, but only digitally. Hoping for full-blown retail packaged media release, but will settle for a Disney Movie Club exclusive. Under those circumstances, however, I’ll have to keep the DVD for the bonus features. DMC BD exclusives are usually feature-only. (Sad-face emoticon here.)
- After The Fox (1966) – Film as United Nations: After the Fox stars British comic genius Peter Sellers, directed by Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica from a screenplay by American playwright Neil Simon. Sellers plays super criminal Aldo Vanucci aka The Fox, who masterminds a crazy plan to steal a gold shipment by masquerading as a film director shooting a movie about a gold heist. Mix together Burt Bacharach’s hip score (dig the “Italian Fuzz” excerpt), Sellers’ mad brilliance with skewering European stereotypes and Victor Mature’s sly turn as a dimmed star expat, After the Fox is quintessential 1960’s American/international co-production cinema. It also happens to be damn funny. Good news! I can already cross this one off the list: Kino Lorber releases the Blu-ray March 22nd.
- Bedazzled (1967) – Losing one’s soul was never so zany as in Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Faust update, set in 1967 swingin’ London. Forget the 2000 remake with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. Besides, with all due respect to Ms. Hurley’s considerable presence, who can compete with Raquel Welch as Lillian Lust? Region B Blu-ray available in Germany, but I’m too lazy to buy a multi-region player.
- Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) – Another Disney live-action masterpiece. Part of the charm comes from the filmmakers using practical in-camera effects over optical trickery to create the spatial divide between mortals and leprechauns. The result? The viewer’s mind literally becomes the special photographic effects supervisor, but in a good way. And it boasts a very young Sean Connery before the world attached another name to him.
- Defending Your Life (1991) – Albert Brooks dies an early death to find that Heaven is actually Judgment City, a complex resembling a mixed retail/industrial business park. Brooks’ character undergoes a “trial” where he must justify how he dealt with fear during his Earthly stay. A radiant Meryl Streep exercises some comedic chops, but the brilliance here was casting Rip Torn as celestial defender Bob Diamond. When Diamond isn’t insulting humanity with his “little brains” dig, his speech about how fear is the one thing that keeps us from being divine should be plastered on billboards all over our currently tested Republic.
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) – Another trip down Damnation Alley. German émigré William Dieterle directs a story set in 1840’s New England, written by an American man of letters (Stephen Vincent Benet) about New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) who enlists Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to help him regain his soul from the diabolical “’foreign prince” Mr. Scratch (a gleeful Walter Huston). Think Murnau’s Faust filtered through Welles’ Citizen Kane. If you want a moving, literate speech about what it means to be an American, check out Webster’s closing statement to the “jury of the damned.”
- Joe Vs. The Volcano (1990) – You either adore this movie or deem it the most expensive “Gilligan’s Island” episode ever filmed. Ironically, once Joe gets to the island to face his titular antagonist, the narrative loses steam. But with Meg Ryan essaying multiple versions of Eve to Tom Hanks’ Garden-of-Manhattan Adam, John Patrick Shanley’s fable about navigating life’s crooked paths still enchants. Ossie Davis’ brief screen time as a sage limo driver shows just how shortsighted the Oscar folks can be.
- King of Hearts (1966) – My first midnight movie. Director Philippe De Broca shows us what would happen if the inmates ran the asylum. The image of Alan Bates standing outside, buck naked holding a birdcage while wearing his army helmet, wanting in instead of out, still haunts me thirty-eight years after my first wee-hours screening.
- Moulin Rouge (1952) – John Huston’s 3-Strip Technicolor paean to artist dysfunction. Elegant in execution, gorgeous to observe, between Oswald Morris’ intoxicating cinematography and Jose Ferrer’s fearlessly unsympathetic incarnation of Toulouse-Lautrec, we are exhilarated and depressed by the final fade-out. Region B Blu-ray available in France, but you know… “lazy.”
- Oliver Twist (1948) – While most critics laud David Lean’s 1946 film “Great Expectations” as the superior Dickens-to-film adaptation of the filmmaker’s illustrious career, I’ve always held the follow-up in greater esteem. Why? Take your pick: Guy Green’s moody black and white cinematography, Alec Guinness’ ogre-channeling interpretation of Fagin (anti-Semitic accusations notwithstanding), Robert Newton’s ferocious Bill Sykes. I’m just scratching the surface. Even Sykes’ dog has his star moment, when he’s cowering in the corner after witnessing one of Sykes’ atomic rages. The Criterion DVD is no slouch, but long in the tooth.
- One, Two, Three (1961) – Billy Wilder’s Cold-War satire of sex and soda still has some fizz. Despite dated political, cultural, sexual and historical references, One, Two, Three still has it where it counts, in James Cagney’s ludicrous speed performance as C.R. MacNamara, a scheming Cola-Cola executive stationed in West Berlin, just before the Berlin Wall split the decadent West and Communist East. In lesser hands, these elements would paint a living nightmare: infidelity, prisoner torture, political espionage, and matriculated Nazis. Five decades later, Wilder still had audiences laughing to tears, witnessed at a recent American Cinematheque screening (in glorious 35mm).
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director’s Edition (1979/2001) – Master restorationists Michael Matessino and David C. Fein achieved over no small miracle when they transformed 1979’s muddled “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” into 2001’s more confident “Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director’s Edition.” While ST:TMP DE still has its flaws (inherent in the surviving script, performances and direction), they ameliorated many of the technical and editorial compromises that plagued the infamously difficult production. Unfortunately, because the newly created visual effects were rendered in standard definition, an HD upgrade requires virtually a re-restoration. With Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary next year, here’s hoping Paramount springs the needed coin to make ST:TMP DE a reality – AND available in 1080p Blu.
- Tex Avery MGM Cartoons (1940s-1950s) – Hoping Warner Archive has a box set in the works, similar to the Compleat Tex Avery laserdisc collection from the 1990s. These one-reel masterpieces of hand-drawn mayhem are DEFINITELY not for children. And they reflect – regrettably – certain ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes of the era. But like Rabelais and Benny Hill, Avery revelled in the lunacy that ensues from overindulging basic human appetites.
- Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – Released in the Golden Year of American major studio cinema – 1939 – John Ford’s visual tone poem, metered at 24 frames per second, elevates the early years of our 16th President into myth. Criterion’s impressive DVD release turns 10 year next year – over two formats old. Imagine watching Henry Fonda’s Lincoln walking into the lightning in HD!
Wishing everyone a safe and Happy Holiday season! Here’s hoping 2016 is a year of good health, much success, and great home viewing!