DVDs you should have seen -- but didn't: Beat the winter blahs!

Crap movies got you down? Stay home with Guillermo del Toro, Robert Mitchum, David Cronenberg and much more

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 2, 2011 1:30AM (EST)

Clockwise, top left: "Metropolis,""The Films of Rita Hayworth," "Cronos," "Inspector Bellamy"
Clockwise, top left: "Metropolis,""The Films of Rita Hayworth," "Cronos," "Inspector Bellamy"

If you're new to this sporadic franchise, some guidelines to help you write letters of complaint:

1) Yes, the title is obnoxious. In many cases it may also be wildly inaccurate. No, I do not think that "Modern Times" or "The Night of the Hunter" are especially obscure releases.

2) Yes, lots of better known and more contemporary films have come out recently on DVD. Hey, have you heard about "The Social Network"? Yeah, it's pretty good. For that matter, plenty of terrific films we've covered extensively here, from Gaspar Noé's nutty and gorgeous "Enter the Void" to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's deliriously slapstick "Micmacs" to the mesmerizing documentary "The Tillman Story" (an Oscar omission, if you ask me) have made it to home video in the last few weeks.

3) My purpose here, as I see it, is to provide some suggestions that might help you push your personal reset button, right in the middle of one of the coldest, dreariest winter in North American memory and -- let's face facts -- a pretty darn dismal season for moviegoing. I mean, if you're still red hot with "Green Hornet" fever, then more power to you and you don't need my help. Otherwise, onward.

Hollywood Heavyweight Box Sets: Elia Kazan and Rita Hayworth

Nearly six decades after Elia Kazan's fateful testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and seven years after his death, Hollywood has finally made peace with one of its greatest filmmakers. I don't have the time or space to rehearse the Kazan controversy one more time, nor the inclination to argue that he should be damned or beatified. But the monumental "Elia Kazan Collection," curated by Martin Scorsese for 20th Century Fox, makes a powerful argument for Kazan's artistic and social importance. This exhaustive survey includes 15 of Kazan's films, from acknowledged masterpieces like "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden" and "A Face in the Crowd" to more obscure and arguably lesser pictures like "Boomerang," "Pinky," "Viva Zapata!" and "Wild River." Also here is Scorsese's moving 2010 documentary "A Letter to Elia," in which Scorsese credits Kazan as his first filmmaking inspiration and principal avatar.

I won't claim that Columbia's five-disc set "The Films of Rita Hayworth" carries quite the same heft, but if you're not familiar with the Latina sex bomb (née Margarita Cansino) who ruled the screen in the 1940s, this is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with one of old Hollywood's hottest starlets. The best of these films is probably Charles Vidor's 1946 noir "Gilda," with Hayworth opposite a seething, demented Glenn Ford. There's also the Technicolor musical "Cover Girl" (with Gene Kelly and songs by Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern), William Dieterle's bizarre 1953 production of "Salome" (with Stewart Granger and Charles Laughton) and the South Pacific erotic drama "Miss Sadie Thompson," in which Hayworth's ample talents were originally presented in 3-D.

Silent Masterpieces: Chaplin's "Modern Times" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

I can offer no better endorsement of Charlie Chaplin's 1936 "Modern Times" -- the great filmmaker and comedian's last screen appearance as the Little Tramp -- than to tell you I recently showed it to a couple of 6-year-olds, who loved every minute. Of course Chaplin's thrilling stunt work and technological gags made them giggle uncontrollably, but they were also totally caught up by the film's heart-rending vision of poverty, violence and resilience in Depression America. (I didn't really try to explain the role that Communism and cocaine play in the plot -- and yes, this was very much the film that got Chaplin branded as a seditious Red sympathizer.) Even if you think "City Lights" or "The Circus" or something else is a purer distillation of Chaplin's art, "Modern Times" is an irreplaceable work of genius that speaks clearly across 75 years. That's more true than ever in Criterion's beautiful new digital transfer, which comes packaged with loads of extras, including deleted scenes and a hilarious 1916 Chaplin two-reeler called "The Rink." (DVD and Blu-ray.)

From a film-history point of view, nothing released in 2010 could possibly be as important as the recent restoration of "Metropolis," the sci-fi masterpiece by Fritz Lang that paved the way for dozens of dystopian-future movies to come. Incorporating 25 minutes of footage discovered in a Buenos Aires archive and a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original score, this "Complete Metropolis" has superior pacing and improved dramatic tension, and presumably comes very close to the original 1927 release. An absolute must for genre fans, this new DVD/Blu-ray from Kino should bring Lang's hypnotic and nightmarish vision, and his groundbreaking use of special effects, to a new generation of fans.

Unknown Masters of World Cinema: Helma Sanders-Brahms and Masahiro Kobayashi

If you're undaunted by relative obscurity and emotional intensity -- indeed if you crave them -- here are a couple of unjustly neglected directors to pursue. While such New German Cinema figures of the '70s as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and R.W. Fassbinder went on to worldwide fame, Helma Sanders-Brahms remains a sort of historical asterisk, stereotyped as the movement's angry feminist. (Her Wikipedia page is a stub, at least in English.) Yet the best films in Facets Video's new Sanders-Brahms box set, including "Under the Pavement Lies the Strand" from 1974, "Germany, Pale Mother" from 1980 and "The Future of Emily" from 1985, are ferocious dramas that crackle with electricity, and seem both classic and well ahead of their time. In finding explosive truths beneath the surface of women's lives and ordinary domestic relationships, Sanders-Brahms blends Ibsen and feminist theory, and prefigures much of the independent cinema of decades to come.

If Sanders-Brahms could almost be called an emotional maximalist, Japanese director Masahiro Kobayashi goes in the other direction, setting his stringent, low-dialogue stories against the semi-rural chill of northern Japan. He got some international recognition for "Bashing" in 2005, with its memorable performance by Fusako Urabe as an aid worker held hostage in Iraq who is shunned in Japanese society after returning home. But the other films in Facets' set "Kobayashi Four" are nearly as compelling, beginning with his 1999 debut "Bootleg Film," a black-comic black-and-white encounter between a cop and a yakuza that announces Kobayashi as an heir to Ozu, by way of Jim Jarmusch. Also included are "Man Walking on Snow," with a gorgeous central performance from Ken Ogata, and "The Rebirth" from 2007, with Kobayashi himself playing a grieving father who strikes up a strained acquaintance with the mother of his daughter's killer.

The Most Cronenberg You Can Get: "Videodrome"

I'm an unrepentant fan of nearly all David Cronenberg's work, and in fact I suspect that his post-auteur adaptations, from the unjustly maligned "M. Butterfly" to "Eastern Promises," will only get better with repeat viewings. That said, his grotesque and visionary science-fiction films from the '70s and '80s are in a class by themselves, and one can definitely make a case that the prophetic and exceptionally disturbing 1983 "Videodrome," with its conception of a consciousness-altering underground of torture media, right-wing conspiracy and bodily transformation, reaches paranoid heights unmatched in movie history. Criterion's new high-def restoration features all manner of Cronenbergundian delights, including commentary tracks by the director, cinematographer Mark Irwin and stars James Woods and Deborah Harry, two documentaries on the film's transformative special effects, a 2000 short film by Cronenberg and the complete footage of "Samurai Dreams," one of the pirate broadcasts seen in "Videodrome." (DVD and Blu-ray.)

Latin Visionaries: Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Santa Sangre" and Guillermo del Toro's "Cronos"

OK, arguably I'm conflating two continents and stretching a point here, but not entirely without reason. Chilean-born madman Alejandro Jodorowsky, an avant-garde cult figure whose work goes from cinema to spirituality to drugs to comic books, spent much of the '60s and '70s in Mexico, and it's a pretty safe bet that his untethered hallucinatory aesthetic had an impact on the young Guillermo del Toro. With Severin Films' new DVD/Blu-ray release of his surrealist horror film "Santa Sangre" -- which tells the story, more or less, of a boy who becomes a serial killer after watching his circus-performer mother mutilated -- Jodorowsky's three major films are all on high-quality home video for the first time. ("El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" were released on DVD in 2009, after decades of copyright problems were unwound.) It's too bad, I think, that Jodorowsky never got to make a proposed late-'70s adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune," which would have starred Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles. What can you say, really?

As for "Cronos," a low-budget Mexican vampire movie that blends the Hammer Films Poe adaptations of the '60s with some seriously weird mechanical effects, it might seem tame after "Santa Sangre." But this intriguing 1993 debut launched del Toro on a rich and strange career trajectory that keeps getting better, and its combination of old-fashioned storytelling with newfangled gizmology is immediately distinctive. Federico Luppi plays Jesús, a courtly, aging antiques dealer who happens upon a mysterious golden scarab, a device built in colonial times for which a nefarious American (the ever-enjoyable Ron Perlman) has been hunting. This Criterion restoration features new English subtitles, numerous commentaries and interviews, and "Geometria," an unreleased del Toro short from 1987.

The French Hitchcock Bids Farewell: "Inspector Bellamy"

If you've got to go, go out on top, and French mystery master Claude Chabrol, who left us in September at age 80, did just that. "Inspector Bellamy," the last of Chabrol's 55 or so feature films (!), barely got a look in United States theaters, but it's got all the wit, style and cold-blooded subterfuge that runs through the "French Hitchcock's" best work, along with a fine performance from Gérard Depardieu as its eponymous protagonist, a pudgy, cynical, homebody detective whose country vacation keeps being disturbed by unwelcome late-night visitors. Now, does "Inspector Bellamy" belong on the list with, say, "La Ceremonie" or "Violette" or "The Unfaithful Wife," among the Chabrol thrillers that transcend their genre? Probably not, but it's a lean, economical and deceptively casual film, self-consciously modeled after the great crime novelist Georges Simenon, with a sting in its tail (as is customary with Chabrol) that you almost certainly won't see coming.

Dark Travelers: Bergman's "The Magician" and Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter"

Little appreciated except by completists, Ingmar Bergman's 1958 "The Magician" deftly delivers all the Swedish master's central concerns -- life and art, men and women, language and silence, God and the supernatural -- in a drily entertaining little black-comic package. It's beautifully photographed by the underrated Gunnar Fischer (Bergman's pre-Sven Nykvist cinematographer) and features many Bergman regulars, including Max von Sydow as Vogler, the mysterious traveling magician, and Gunnar Björnstrand as the pompous Dr. Vergérus, who hosts Vogler's troupe in a passive-aggressive attempt to expose them as charlatans. (Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson also appear.) You can explain the film's obscurity in various ways -- its droll tone, ambiguous verdict and deus-ex-machina conclusion apparently convinced '50s critics that it didn't measure up in philosophical heft to "Wild Strawberries" and "The Seventh Seal," both made a year earlier. Personally, I think it holds a key to Bergman's worldview, and belongs on any list of his best films. This Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release features archival interviews with Bergman, a visual essay by scholar Peter Cowie, and a tribute to "The Magician" from French director Olivier Assayas.

I probably don't need to introduce "The Night of the Hunter" to film buffs, except to explain that the great English actor Charles Laughton's only film as a director, made three years before "The Magician," is also a fable about a seductive drifter who claims contact with supernatural authorities, but whose soul is poisoned by cynical darkness. There's no Scandinavian angst to preacher Harry Powell, the signature role of Robert Mitchum's career -- he's got plenty of can-do American spirit, along with "HATE" and "LOVE" tattooed on his knuckles and a version of religion "the Lord and me have worked out betwixt ourselves," as he explains to cellmate Peter Graves. It's a creepy, spectacular fable of innocence and experience, murder and misogyny, a classic horror film with a thread of Grand Guignol comedy that Bergman must have appreciated. The real tragedy, of course, is that "Night of the Hunter" was too much for Hollywood, and for 1950s America, although in retrospect it looks as if Laughton, Mitchum, screenwriter James Agee and cinematographer Stanley Cortez made one of that decade's greatest American films.

Bonus British Isles TV selections: "Blue Murder" in Manchester; "Single-Handed" in the west of Ireland

Two quick hits for fans of small-screen Britcrime: Caroline Quentin is tremendous as Manchester detective Janine Lewis -- a single mum solving her battered city's most gruesome crimes -- in the 2003-9 ITV series "Blue Murder," now available in a complete box set from Acorn Media. Also just out on Acorn, from the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ, is the satisfyingly pulpy "Single-Handed: Set One," starring Owen McDonnell as a young cop who comes home from Dublin to the windswept, treeless west coast, where he discovers that small-town law enforcement involves uncovering secrets (some of them his own family's) that most people are happy to leave buried.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Charlie Chaplin Dvd Reviews Marlon Brando Movies