Wednesday, December 15, 2010

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Eric Somer

This list compiles the selections of Eric Somer, who has been contributing reviews to VW since sometime in 2008. Eric studied journalism at Central Michigan University and works for Family Video in Glenview, IL. He is presently working on a book about prize fighting in the cinema, and we expect it will be a knock-out. - TL

By Eric Somer

*NOTE: I stubbornly ignored multi-film sets this year in the interest of establishing a more level playing field.

1. PSYCHO: 50th Anniversary Edition (Universal)
Start naming the greatest films of all time, and then start compiling the greatest horror films of all time. Next, how many films could conceivably top both lists? That third list would have to be brief, but Universal’s new Blu-ray treatment of PSYCHO prepares further evidence that the Hitchcock classic is the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, and thus the greatest horror film of all time. To watch PSYCHO on a large monitor in its most pristine state to date—and with a crisp new 5.1 digital audio track for those interested—is to re-discover every close-up, every acting nuance, every camera movement, every reason why audiences were so taken back upon the film’s original theatrical run, and every reason why the experience holds up remarkably well today, despite countless imitations, including a pointless shot-for-shot remake. Though the supplements are mostly common to prior editions, this new 1080p transfer necessitates the upgrade, regardless of how many times you have purchased/rented/borrowed/lost PSYCHO already.

The elaborate supplemental documentary “Charles Laughton Directs THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” offers immense ammunition for those who buy into the auteur theory. Some critics have dismissed the once popular school of thought based on the notion that filmmaking is a collaborative process, which it is, but this collection of dailies makes it clear Laughton was not looking for a lot of advice. He obviously had a rigid, predetermined mental image of every sequence, right down to the delivery of each line of dialogue, which he obsessively forced actors to repeat until he was 100% satisfied (he was particularly tough on Shelley Winters and 10-year-old actor Billy Chapin). Can’t really argue with the results, of course. The lone directorial effort from Laughton is a tremendous addition to The Criterion Collection. It’s a shame Laughton never offered a follow up to his hauntingly beautiful fairy tale noir, in which “false prophet” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) menaces a little boy (Chapin) and girl (Sally Jane Bruce) in pursuit of stolen money. All films are about good vs. evil, but nobody describes it quite like Powell (Spike Lee paid tribute to Mitchum with one of his characters from DO THE RIGHT THING). You might chuckle when Willa Harper (Winters) proclaims she is “quivering with cleanness,” but those words strikingly anticipate her last scene, which is no laughing matter. Considering the film’s original release was in 1955, this was probably the most expressionistic noir film of its decade other than, perhaps, TOUCH OF EVIL. This restored digital transfer is available in both Blu-ray and 2-disc DVD editions.

3. MOON (Sony)
Though settings may be futuristic, sci-fi dramatics almost always revolve around present-day concerns, like the exploitation of the working class. In this rendition of the future, the harvesting of Helium-3 capsules via lunar rock on the dark side of the moon has resolved all of earth’s fossil fuel-based energy issues. A presumably large corporate entity oversees the mining operation from earth, keeping expenses under control by reducing the need for human labor to an absolute minimum—all site work is handled by a lone worker (Sam Rockwell), who is contractually bound to a three-year stint (as in METROPOLIS, workers become extensions of their machines). His only companion is a robot named GERTY (memorably voiced by Kevin Spacey). The film’s resolution juxtaposes a proletarian call to action with nightmarish plutocratic realities. Watch it with a friend and rest assured there will be a lot to discuss later. Sony’s presentation of this impressive feature film debut from Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie) is enriched by multiple audio commentary tracks. Reviewed in VW # 156 by Michael Barrett.

I reviewed this not-to-be-missed Werner Herzog/Nic Cage teaming in VW #157. The First Look Studios Blu-ray might be the most affordable HD option in my Top 10.

5. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (Paramount)
Better late than never, right? At least Paramount treats the U.S. digital bow of THE AFRICAN QUEEN with an awareness of the film’s many fans. The Commemorative Box Set Blu-ray edition, though alarmingly pricey, looks oh-so-cool in one’s assortment of, well, other expensive gift set purchases. It includes a separate audio CD with the original Lux radio broadcast of THE AFRICAN QUEEN, four 35mm frames that illustrate the Technicolor process, lobby card reproductions, a “making of” special feature, and a miniature paperback copy of “The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN” by Katharine Hepburn, and of course a restored presentation of the entertaining adventure itself. For whatever reason, I still crack up when Rose (Hepburn) admits to Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) she needs help getting back into the boat after bathing.

6. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, Music Box)
David Fincher indeed seems the logical choice to helm the remake of this intense Swedish thriller, but the original might be tough to match in light of the unforgettable performance from Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Given the forceful, sometimes shocking narrative material that informs this elaborate search for a girl who long ago vanished, the concluding moments are surprisingly heartwarming and reassuring, a testament to the development of characters worth paying attention to. David Kalat’s full VW review can be found in VW #159.

Now available for the first time on domestic home video. Film noir fans are well-advised to snap up VCI Entertainment's welcome remastering of this excellent example of the genre as it existed in the Fifties. Broderick Crawford and Richard Conte offer performances that serve to underline their respective careers, and the hardboiled dialog is top-notch. My full review can be found in VW #159.

It’s this year’s MARTYRS in terms of gross-out factor—your stomach will have to be in tip-top shape at certain “I wish I didn’t see that” intervals. But there is a surprising amount of suggestive cinematic techniques and an engagingly dire atmosphere underscoring things in this undeniably bold effort from filmmaker-to-watch Tom Six. Be sure to check out our upcoming coverage of the MPI home video treatment in VW #160.

9. GAMERA VS. BARUGON (Daikaijû kettô: Gamera tai Barugon; Shout! Factory)
Shout! Factory has done an amazing job with the original Daiei Gamera series, granting the Shōwa era the serious treatment the respective films consistently have been denied in previous domestic releases. My favorite classic GAMERA film was always GAMERA VS. GYAOS (Daikaijû kûchûsen: Gamera tai Gyaosu) until I revisited this inspired sequel to the original GAMERA. It compares favorably to any kaijū eiga and is a must-own even for casual fans of the genre. August Ragone and Jason Varney team up for the commentary duty.

10. HOUSE (Hausu; Criterion)
Landing officially on U.S. shores this year via The Criterion Collection, this delirious exercise in experimental filmmaking won the hearts of film fans 15 years of age and under at the time of its original theatrical release in 1977, though most everyone older had no idea what to make of it; perhaps it’s Japan’s more violent ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There is a neat moment in the supplemental interview with director/co-producer Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, who recalls how the lighting crew devoted hours to finding a tiny screw that fell out of his eyeglasses. When Ôbayashi asked why they spent so much time looking for something he assumed unrecoverable on a ridiculously cluttered soundstage, one of the men said that Ôbayashi was the first Toho director to address him by name, which moved him so that he and the crew decided to find what the director presumed lost.

Other key home video releases (in no particular order):

Notable disappointments:
INCEPTION (interesting on paper and entertaining on film are not always the same thing), ANTICHRIST (admit it Lars, you hate women), MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Herzog might have something here if he trimmed it down to under 60 minutes), THE CRAZIES (God-awful remake of my favorite Romero film), SHUTTER ISLAND (see comment on INCEPTION).

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