Friday, December 16, 2016


With the holidays rapidly approaching, it's time again for another annual round-up of the year's best releases, but I find myself not particularly interested in playing that game. For one thing, it's what everyone else is doing; and secondly, given VIDEO WATCHDOG's declining publication schedule this past year and the general economic state of the industry, screeners weren't coming into us as plentifully as they once did, so there are frankly a number of the year's best titles we didn't get to see. That said, I think it may be more in the real spirit of VIDEO WATCHDOG to dig a bit deeper than the obvious choices and offer up pointers to some real buried treasure. 2016 was a terrible year in many ways, but it can't be faulted in terms of the overwhelming options it offered to us on Blu-ray. The market was literally overwhelmed with releases of exemplary quality, so many that dozens of worthy titles could be easily overlooked, even instantly forgotten as the next week of the deluge covered them up. Beyond this, I certainly want to direct you back to other individual titles I covered here in this blog over the past year, including Synapse Films' TENEBRAE and Olive Films' THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK. Please remember that titles highlighted in blue denote links to pages where these products can be easily obtained, and I'll thank you to use them.  

This is not over my top overlooked title of 2016, it's my top title, period. Less than $30 scores you 32 hour episodes of the highest caliber classic television - a courtroom drama starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed (pictured above) that functions as a show about the nuances of law, and the needs for it to occasionally be fine-tuned and rewritten, rather than a standard whodunit. Numerous timely and still-sensitive issues are touched upon in this heroic series. Here you'll see all the top young talent of the early 1960s learning their chops - Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Joan Hackett, Gene Wilder, Joanne Linville, Clu Gulager, Fritz Weaver, Arthur Hill, Richard Thomas (as a child actor!), Frank Gorshin, Frank Overton... and that's just the first few episodes! Writers include Reginald Rose, Max Ehrlich and Robert Thom, and the directors include Buzz Kulik, Jack Smight, John Brahm and (turning in some particularly fine episodes) Franklin Schaffner. A top-shelf release, and a must for any video library devoted to drama as an eloquent, socially responsible art form. Note to Shout! Factory: Please release the remaining three seasons.

THE 39 STEPS (1935)
It's been my own subjective experience that the works of Alfred Hitchcock - the very definition of film as a luxury item, as "slices of cake" - have a perverse way of becoming almost invisible in their upgrading to Blu-ray, as if something in me refuses to believe they can be improved upon as raw experience. They are too easily taken for granted. But each of these Criterion discs, in its own way, is a startling revelation of textures and refinements inherent in materials known to us as scratchy and aged; in restoring these films cosmetically, they are inadvertently restored on the levels of their spontaneous creativity, their daring, their modernism. We feel ourselves more in the presence of the sly devil on their cutting edge. And once we have that pleasure of refreshed acquaintance, there are the depths of pleasure afforded by the context Criterion amasses for each title: the scholarly audio commentaries, the documentaries, the rare on-camera interviews from foreign television sources, the radio adaptations, dissections of special effects sequences. THE LADY VANISHES includes a bonus feature, CROOK'S TOUR (1941), featuring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as their characters in the Hitchcock film. 

Released last December, this 10-disc box set encompasses all five films in one of cinema's most absorbingly layered, flamboyant, exhilarating gangster sagas, outfitted with entire discs of bonus materials. Also available as a 13-disc limited edition with a bonus book of essays pertaining to the yakuza genre, including Paul Schrader's classic 1974 FILM COMMENT text "Yakuza-Eiga."  

THE KNACK AND HOW TO GET IT (all Kino Classics)
Throughout this past year, and slightly before, Kino has been separately releasing a wealth of Richard Lester features in gorgeous new high-definition transfers. While these free-floating titles beg to be collected as a set with the proper commentary and supplemental annotations, they nevertheless amount to the most important excavation of Lester's subterranean career - below the surface of his Beatles and Musketeer work - to date.

THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT (Olive Films)
These two releases were also easy to overlook given their lack of attention-grabbing extras, but these two bare-bones releases stand out as two of the most important home video restorations of 2016. Though these restorations were performed some years ago for HD television, Roger Corman's THE TRIP is finally available in its restored director's cut (minus the disclaimer, nudity edits, and lens-smashing finale imposed on the film by American International) and Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT is shown for the first time in its director's cut, running almost 20 minutes longer than any previous release. It should be noted that the UK release of THE TRIP from Signal One Entertainment ports over the Roger Corman commentary and various supplementary items from the earlier MGM DVD.

We're pleased to see Flicker Alley continuing with its slate of Cinerama restoration releases. While the films can seem a trifle overlong, corny, and overbearingly patriotic at times, they are invaluable time capsules of the world as it once was (and no longer is), and of the enterprising American spirit as it raced to catch up with the potentials of this cinematic technology. THE BEST OF CINERAMA (1962) is ideal one-stop-shopping for the curious, and RUSSIAN ADVENTURE (1966, hosted by Bing Crosby and incorporating footage from six different Kinopanorama productions from the Soviet Union) is a wintery spectacle ideal for holiday viewing. The extras on these two DVD/BD combo sets include a number of shorts filmed in the Cinerama process.

EUREKA (Twilight Time)
Beginning with PERFORMANCE in 1970, Nicolas Roeg presided over one of cinema's great run of 1970s classics. That sequence of masterpieces - WALKABOUT, DON'T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, BAD TIMING - concluded with this, one of his most visually ravishing achievements - and a must in 1080p. Twilight Time's limited edition disc presents the film with an isolated music and effects track (with partial isolated score by jazz great Stanley Myers), a 104-minute Q&A with Roeg from the world premiere screening, separate interviews with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, producer Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson, and more. 

This BD release launches The Joseph W. Sarno Restoration Series with his earliest extant film (SIN, YOU SINNERS! from 1962) and a later, color film that shares and intensifies some of its thematic concerns with the occult. VAMPIRE ECSTASY (formerly VEIL OF BLOOD) is particularly rejuvenated here, with Steven Silverman's cinematography rising to comparisons with the look of Jean Rollin's most elegant vampire poems. I'm writing the liner notes for this series, drawing on new interviews with Sarno's widow Peggy Steffans Sarno, which offer not only my own critical readings of the films themselves but explore newly unearthed biographic details that make the films themselves a more candidly meaningful expression of their author. 

These are just two of several DePatie-Freleng animation discs released by Kino this past year, but they are beautiful to behold on disc and insanely funny, if you're in the right mood. THE ANT AND THE AARDVARK (17 cartoons), which finds impressionist John Byner providing the two voices (modeled after Dean Martin and Jackie Mason, respectively) is basically Friz Freleng's stab at a Road Runner franchise of his own, while THE INSPECTOR (34 cartoons in a two-disc set) goes beyond its Clouseau roots to tap into occasional Fantomas-like abstractions of Gallic crime and surrealism. Also available are the complete TIJUANA TOADS, ROLAND AND RATTFINK and CRAZYLEGS CRANE, which I haven't yet delved into.

This is not my favorite 1950s monster movie, but as I look back over the discs I saw and enjoyed this past year, I must say that no high-definition restoration impressed me quite as much as this one. Yes, it's just a cheap, black-and-white, man-in-a-suit programmer, arguably better than many despite its silly, pseudo-science dialogue, but Olive Films had the luck of the draw where its source materials were concerned. Watching this disc goes beyond the entertainment at hand to provide what feels like a real looking glass window into a world of more than half-a-century ago. Genuinely eye-popping.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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