DVDs you should have seen -- but didn't

Nuns in the Himalayas, Jarmusch in Memphis, Jackie Chan back in Asia, Gamera, "Death Race 2000" and more

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 24, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

A still from "Black Narcissus"
A still from "Black Narcissus"

Let me save you some time, along with wear and tear on those e-mailin' fingers. Yes, the title of this sporadic feature is obnoxious, and the DVDs reviewed are (in some but not all cases) almost willfully obscure. That's pretty much the point! I mean, look: "Kick-Ass" is out on DVD too. But let's think about that for a second: You don't care what I think about that movie, and neither do I. Are we clear?

I've neglected this franchise for so long that I had to winnow down insanely to get to an initial list of 25 or 30, and then just pick the final 10 (actually 11) by pure whim and/or recent release date. I could do an entirely different list of DVDs released before May, not to mention the veritable gold mine that lies ahead of us in August. I could have done a list that read even more like an infomercial for the Criterion Collection than this one does. So ritual apologies to the publicists who torment my mail carrier, and we'll get to some more discs soon.

Dubious as I remain about the Blu-ray format — sure, it looks awesome if you've got the right equipment, but talk about planned obsolescence! — I too have relented. We've tried to catch every instance where a film is available on both formats, but I'm simply not thorough enough to pay attention to the different extras often available on Blu-ray. The complaint desk is open alternate Thursdays from 12:01 to 12:45, in every month without a "u," "r" or "y."

Please chime in with your own suggestions, since I've definitely left out a lot of great stuff.

"Gamera the Giant Monster" and "Gamera vs. Barugon"

What mad, nerdy, completist spirit has led the folks at Shout! Factory to release the original Japanese-language versions of two second-string mid-'60s monster movies (never previously available on DVD)? Well, the same spirit led me to watch both of them with tremendous relish. If you've worn out your Godzilla library, you'll find much the same blend of Cold War dread and high-camp cuteness in these sagas about the reheated giant turtle from the Lost Continent of Atlantis, accidentally thawed when a Soviet bomber is shot down in the Arctic. Created by Daiei Studios as a rival to Toho's "King of the Monsters," Gamera and his spinning-saucer flight technique held his own in the Japanese market for several years, and became a staple of Stateside kids' TV in badly dubbed versions. Shout! will reissue all six of the Daiei films, but the low-tech, black-and-white claustrophobia of the 1965 original has the most force. "Gamera vs. Barugon" is the first color entry, featuring an evil lizard that threatens to launch a new Ice Age, along with Japanese actors playing New Guinea natives. Awkward! But really fun!

Columbia Film Noir Classics, Vol. II

Columbia Pictures arrived late to the vault-scouring game of releasing big packages of '50s genre films on DVD, but by partnering with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation on these loving restorations and remasterings, they've absolutely done it the right way. This second set of Columbia noirs features five little-known films, but all are worth seeing and at least two qualify as major discoveries. I'd never seen Fritz Lang's "Human Desire," a 1954 Emile Zola adaptation (!) with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford as the parties in a tangled love triangle, but it's a doozy. Jacques Tourneur's "Nightfall" lacks star power and isn't as good, but features classic noir cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Scorsese himself introduces "The Brothers Rico," an obscure but ruthless and absorbing late-'50s Mafia flick. In Richard Quine's terrific 1954 "Pushover," cop Fred MacMurray falls for gangster's moll Kim Novak (in one of her earliest starring roles) with predictably disastrous results. And what would a noir collection be without nuclear paranoia? In Irving Lerner's 1958 "City of Fear," Vince Edwards breaks out of prison with a canister of white powder he thinks is pure heroin. Whoops!

"Shinjuku Incident"

Amid all the Hollywood dreck he's been churning out since the '90s, it's tough to remember what a massive and irresistible superstar Jackie Chan was, and is, in Asia — a Cantonese-speaking combination of Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Tom Cruise. Chan never totally quit working in Hong Kong, and over the course of the last decade he's returned to Chinese movies almost full time. Writer-director Derek Yee's crime drama about a Chinese immigrant laborer named Steelhead, who rises to become a Tokyo mob boss, is a fairly routine H.K. action vehicle, delivered with grit and intensity. (I've heard good reports on Chan's "New Police Story" from 2004, but haven't seen it). But it's great to see Chan quit playing the cutie-pie, lovable-mutt characters he's always assigned in American movies and kick some yakuza ass. Even at his relatively advanced age, Jackie pulls off the fight scenes with brio, and "Shinjuku Incident" overall ranks among his meatiest and most satisfying flicks.

"Mystery Train" (Criterion Collection Special Edition, on DVD and Blu-ray)

Welcome to Memphis, circa 1989, both as a real place and the dream home of the American unconscious, as perceived through the cracked, off-kilter genius of Jim Jarmusch. Japanese tourists, Joe Strummer, a mysterious Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) and her overly talkative roommate (Lorraine Bracco); Screamin' Jay Hawkins as a desk clerk and Cinqué Lee as an unhelpful bellboy. A tremendous, and tremendously odd supporting cast of musicians and street characters and presiding over it all, of course, the ghost (both seen and unseen) of Elvis Aron Presley. Jarmusch is the director who puts the loose in "allusive" and the lipstick in "elliptical"; I fully recognize his movies aren't to everybody's taste. But this charming, radical, deceptive meditation on rock 'n' roll, race, Memphis and America might be his most enjoyable, most thoughtful and most profound film, all at once. Watching it now — for me , at least — involves multiple layers of personal nostalgia piled atop cultural nostalgia, so I won't even pretend objectivity. So I kind of think it's a great movie, but even if you don't agree, it's plenty of fun and not like anything else.

"The White Ribbon" (DVD and Blu-ray)

Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning black-and-white fable, set in a Protestant village in rural northern Germany just before the outbreak of World War I, looks amazing in its hi-def DVD/Blu-ray release — and like all the Austrian director's meticulous tales of shaggy-dog evil, it gains tremendous resonance from repeat viewings. From my original review: "Shot in spectacular black-and-white by cinematographer Christian Berger, and marvelously acted by a first-rate German ensemble, 'The White Ribbon' captures a mood of thickening tension and mounting violence as a series of brutal but apparently unrelated events — vandalism, fires, accidents and abductions — turn the people of the village against each other and shatter what remains of a fragile social consensus. If Haneke's most obvious point is that the hierarchical, aristocratic society of peasant Germany was replaced by something much worse — by the 'New Order' created by its mistreated children, a generation later — it definitely can't be reduced to a fable about the roots of fascism. 'The White Ribbon' is a dense account of childhood, courtship, family and class relations in a painfully repressed and repressive society, which seems to channel both early Ingmar Bergman and the 'Bad Seed'/'Children of the Corn' evil-tot tradition." For more discussion of what may or may not be "going on" in the movie, here's my interview with Haneke.

"Death Race 2000" (Roger Corman's Cult Classics, on DVD and Blu-ray)

Let's see — it's the year 2000, and pretty much all sports, politics and pop culture have been replaced by a coast-to-coast auto race where the point is to kill as many pedestrians as possible. David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone and Warhol pal Mary Woronov are among the leading racers — but wait, a bunch of Commie anti-race activists are looking to kill them! Well, OK, there's no mention of that rigged presidential election, but otherwise that's a pretty accurate description, wouldn't you say? This 1975 Corman production (actually directed by Paul Bartel) captures the moment when B movies finally crossed the boundary into postmodern art. Shout! Factory's new wide-screen, hi-def transfer comes with loads of featurettes and extras, including interviews with Corman and Carradine, two commentary tracks and a documentary on the film's groundbreaking design team. Other titles in Shout!'s Corman series include "Forbidden World," "Galaxy of Terror, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Suburbia," with plenty more to come.

"Black Narcissus" (Criterion Collection Special Edition, on DVD and Blu-ray)

I haven't yet seen Criterion's new release of "The Red Shoes," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's acknowledged masterpiece, but in some ways the British sensualist duo's lesser-known 1947 "Black Narcissus" is more worth noticing. To say that this tale of a group of nuns trapped high in the Himalayas is strange, gorgeous and intoxicating is just to say that it's a Powell-Pressburger film, but even by their standards this gorgeous yarn about cultural isolation, sexual repression and terrible weather, set against a harsh but beautiful mountain landscape, is something special. The all-female cast headed by Deborah Kerr is outstanding, and Criterion's disc is predictably loaded with extras, including a commentary track by Powell and leading admirer Martin Scorsese, an introduction by Bertrand Tavernier, and two interesting making-of documentaries. Both directors are deceased, but the hi-def transfer was supervised by cinematographer Jack Cardiff and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who is also Powell's widow).

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" Vol. XVIII

With 18 DVD sets, not all from the same distributor and not all simultaneously available, the digital-media history of meta-movie-mockery cult series MST3K is becoming as convoluted as the show's original history. Nonetheless, if you're a fan, put all that aside and just buy this — and if you're simply curious, this collection makes a fine place to start. Once again we get four episodes never previously available (at least legally), including two cackle-inducing classics, "The Beast of Yucca Flats" (which features a true MST3K high point, the Puerto Rico short "Progress Island, USA") and the immortally strange Soviet folktale "Jack Frost." Also here: "Lost Continent" from the early, Joel Hodgson days, along with a Season 4 sci-fi mess that's totally new to me, called "Crash of the Moons." Wait, there's more (as usual). Extras this time include introductions by MSTers Frank Conniff and Kevin Murphy, original trailers, four exclusive mini-posters and a new documentary about the unbelievably bad "Beast of Yucca Flats."

"Night Train to Munich" (Criterion Collection)

Not only had I never seen this 1940 British espionage caper from "Third Man" director Carol Reed — made during the earliest and most dangerous stiff-upper-lip days of World War II — I'm pretty sure I'd never heard of it either. It turns out to be a handsome and thoroughly enjoyable adventure in a light, early-Hitchcock mode, starring Rex Harrison as a suave British superspy who must conduct a Czech scientist and his attractive daughter (Margaret Lockwood) across the heart of Nazi Germany. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's screenplay has some nice switchbacks, and Reed keeps the pace bubbling, especially by period standards. Of course the middle-European "locations" are all the Shepherd's Bush studios in London, but such high artifice has its charms too.

"The Maid" ("La Nana")

Friends and acquaintances kept telling me I was a dope for missing Catalina Saavedra's award-winning performance as the blank, hostile, passive-aggressive "nana" to an upper-crust Chilean family. Now I get it: Whether you call Sebastián Silva's film a dark comedy or a class-war drama is up to you — Latin American movies about social class are virtually a genre unto themselves — as is the question of whether Saavedra's Raquel is a mistreated heroine or a manipulative villain. What I can be sure about is that this is a subtle, disturbing and funny film, suggestive of Hitchcock or Chabrol and open to various interpretations — and that Saavedra marvelously evokes a damaged and dangerous character who never asks you to understand or pity her.

Special months-old personal bonus selection: "Rocky Road to Dublin"

This witty, despairing 1967 documentary about the dire social and cultural condition of Ireland, 40-odd years after independence from Britain, is an absolute must if you (like me) have roots in that place and time. (Director Peter Lennon shares my great-grandfather's name, for the love of God.) But it's also interesting on other levels, as a fine early example of the ethnographic personal essay, shot by great French cinematographer Raoul Coutard, that includes interviews with such Irish leading lights as writer Sean O'Faolain, academic and diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien and Yank expat filmmaker John Huston. Bizarrely, Lennon's documentary was the last film shown at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before protests led by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard shut the place down. While that's in no way relevant to its subject matter, it has helped cement the film's legendary status. For any Irish person, With its depiction of a priest-ridden, repressed and mildewed version of nationalism, "Rocky Road to Dublin" may serve to remind Irish folks that, bleak as things on that dubious green island may be at the moment — and they're fairly bleak — nobody wants to go back to that.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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