On the evening of December 3, 1966, Shirley Clarke—one of the pioneers of what was then called underground film—showed up at New York’s Hotel Chelsea with a small camera crew to interview one of the building’s long-term residents, a fortysomething gay man who called himself Jason Holliday. They filmed until morning; the result ranks alongside Richard Pryor: Live In Concert as one of the most electrifying performance films ever made. Playing to the crew and the movie audience, Holliday treats his living room as a stage, jazzing about happiness, pain, and race relations in between gulps of booze and puffs of smoke. Portrait Of Jason has long been available on muddy bootlegs; this new release is the result of a long-in-the-works restoration, and is joined this week by Clarke’s superb Ornette Coleman documentary, Ornette: Made In America.
Shot back-to-back, these two minimalist, eerie 1966 Westerns were little seen at the time of release, though they marked the emergence of Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) as a major American filmmaker. (As was often the case back then, the French got hip to Hellman first, with The Shooting—which went straight to TV here—playing in Paris for a whole year.) Like all of Hellman’s best works, these existentialist mood pieces take place somewhere at the intersection of grit and myth; their characters are figures moving across a desolate landscape that is as much psychic as physical. Criterion’s two-disc set is sourced from new transfers supervised by Hellman.
Though his reputation has grown considerably over the past decade, Allan Dwan remains one of classical Hollywood’s most unjustly neglected great directors. Dwan began making movies in 1911, but hit his creative peak in the 1950s; 1949’s Sands Of Iwo Jima (Olive)—which earned John Wayne his first Oscar nomination—was made right on the cusp of that fertile period, and though it’s far from Dwan’s best film, it’s still the work of a remarkably confident filmmaker with a tight sense of style and performance.
Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time)—in which a single mother has to prove that her missing daughter exists before police will start looking for her—was little loved back in 1965, but it’s since come to be regarded as something of a classic, a thriller defined by the interplay between its irrational subject suspense and its detached style. Plenty of contemporary critics have positioned David Fincher as the modern successor to Preminger; this, conversely, is Preminger at his most Fincheresque.
Elvis Presley starred in more than 30 movies, a few of which are actually quite good. Flaming Star (Twilight Time) is one them; directed with typical clarity and gusto by Don Siegel, it’s a sensitive, straightforward Western with only one perfunctory musical number. Serious Presleymaniacs tend to prefer Charles Marquis Warren’s Charro!—the closest Colonel Tom Parker ever came to letting the King play a straight dramatic role—but this frontier oater, which stars Presley as a half-Kiowa torn between the white and Native American sides of his family, has plenty going for it, not the least of which is Siegel’s use of the wide, rugged landscape.
Though nowhere near as notorious as Mandingo, the spin-off Drum (Kino Lorber)—which shares several cast members with its predecessor, and was similarly adapted from a Kyle Onstott novel—is actually more tawdry, a straight-up plantation-set blaxploitation movie with Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Warren Oates, and an eerie Charlie Smalls theme tune.
Speaking of Tarantino touchstones: White Lightning (Kino Lorber), a longtime favorite of cinema’s most inarticulate motormouth, hits home video this week. Directed by Joseph Sargent (the original Taking Of Pelham One Two Three), the film stars Burt Reynolds as a moonshine runner who makes a deal with the Feds in order to take down a crooked local sheriff (Ned Beatty). Though never a major talent, Sargent—who worked almost exclusively in TV after the 1970s—had a facility with slow dolly-ins and low angles; the car chases, directed by Hal Needham, are nothing to sneeze at. The entertaining Reynolds-directed sequel Gator (Kino Lorber) also hits Blu-ray this week; those who just can’t get enough of the Burt can also pick up Sam Whiskey (Kino Lorber), a clumsy 1969 Western comedy directed by TV vet Arnold Laven.
Fans of cannibal movies and/or godawful filmmaking have a buffet of releases to pick from this week: Mondo Cannibale (Intervision), a sleepy shot-on-video feature from Italian schlockmeister Bruno Mattei, which consists in large part of people sitting in a wood-paneled room, watching clips from others movies about cannibals; Mattei’s In The Land Of The Cannibals (Intervision), which was shot back-to-back with Mondo Cannibale and contains less sitting; and the marginally more respectable Cannibal Massacre Collection (Severin), which includes Jesús “Jess” Franco’s Devil Hunter, Alain Deruelle’s Franco-scripted Cannibal Terror, and last, but certainly not least, Papaya: Love Goddess Of The Cannibals, directed by Joe D’Amato. If nothing else, D’Amato—the man behind Some Like It Hard, Robin Hood: Thief Of Wives, The Emperor Caligula: The Untold Story, The Erotic Adventures Of Marco Polo, and Porno Holocaust—knew how to title a movie.
Those that prefer their Italian genre movies a little more competent can pick up Lamberto Bava’s Demons (Synapse) and Demons 2 (Synpase). Bava—son of the great Mario Bava and grandson of silent-era cinematographer Eugenio Bava—only had a brief film directing career, of which these are the stand-outs; both are packed with squirmy kicks, and showcase a filmmaker with a knack for framing and coloring space. He could’ve gone a little easier on those diagonal lens flares, though.
Viewers who can stomach the squealing MIDI score will find plenty of playfully perverse imagery in Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (Shout! Factory), including a man-eating, grizzly sized teddy bear and a firing squad of wooden soldiers. Also out this week from Shout! Factory: The Bruce Lee Premiere Collection, which is basically a slimmed-down version of the label’s earlier Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection.
Yôji Yamada directed all but two entries in the 48-film Tora-san franchise, but it took until 2002’s The Twilight Samurai (Twilight Time) for his name to attract Stateside attention. Though this muted chanbara flick might, at first glance, seem like a radical departure from the formulaic melodramas that Yamada cranked out for three decades, its values—hearth, home, happiness—are very much in line with his earlier work. Also out this week from Twilight Time: John Frankenheimer’s typically compelling Birdman Of Alcatraz; Jimmy Murakami’s When The Wind Blows, an animated feature about an elderly couple in a post-apocalyptic England that’s ripe for rediscovery; and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg, which has all the glib self-congratulation one would expect from a movie about war crimes directed by the man who brought us Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Also out this week: the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol (MGM); Christmas In Connecticut (Warner Bros); and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite The Killer Shrews (Film Chest).
Happy Christmas (Paramount)
That Joe Swanberg would eventually switch to shooting on film seemed inevitable; though his career was partly enabled by digital technology, his work has always shown an ambivalence toward newfangled tech. Shot on warm, fuzzy Super 16 mm, this low-key comic drama stars Anna Kendrick as an irresponsible twentysomething who comes to Chicago to crash in the tiki-themed basement of her filmmaker brother (Swanberg, once again playing a quasi-fictionalized version of himself). Mike D’Angelo didn’t much like the film when he reviewed it in July, but this writer thinks that it’s a better, more charming, and more cleanly organized counterpart to Swanberg’s previous Kendrick collaboration, Drinking Buddies—a small film that feels thoroughly grounded in the texture and rhythm of everyday domestic life.
Mood Indigo (Cinedigm)
Adapted from Boris Vian’s cult novel Froth On The Daydream, Michel Gondry’s Surrealist romance is messy and over-stuffed, but also frequently captivating. The version released to U.S. theaters—which our own A.A. Dowd gave a middling grade—was cut down by nearly 40 minutes; this home-video release restores it to its full length, which makes it easier to appreciate and scope and imagination of Gondry’s alternately whimsical and unsettling vision. This may be far from perfect, but it isn’t undistinguished.
Jealousy (Cinema Guild)
Philippe Garrel’s movies feel like ghost stories, and this one—about a doomed romance between two actors, one successful, the other not—is no exception. As in most of Garrel’s dramas, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how much time is passing between scenes, which contributes to the movie’s atmosphere of emotional claustrophobia. Ominous references—Vladimir Mayakovsky, Seneca The Younger, The Sorrows Of Young Werther—circle the central couple; the stark black-and-white cinematography and skippy, gap-filled narrative often makes it seem as though the movie were being projected from the afterlife.
Brian Trenchard-Smith—the prolific Anglo-Australian director behind such video-store closing-time classics as Stunt Rock, Dead End Drive-In, and Leprechaun 4: In Space—managed to snag a rare theatrical release for his most recent film, Drive Hard (Image). Our own Jesse Hassenger gave it a D grade, writing that “the movie’s car action may represent the least impressive-looking driving ever tax-incentivized in Australia.” For the writer of this column, those words are like a siren’s song, beckoning him ever so softly toward the Blu-ray player.
If nothing else, Clint Eastwood directed the hell out of Jersey Boys (Warner Bros), his adaptation of the long-running Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons jukebox musical. However, the trade-off of Eastwood’s efficient, energetic direction is his stubborn adherence to the script; he’s wholly committed to an underdeveloped drama that was designed only to set up extended musical numbers, which in turn makes the songs seem intrusive and padded.
It hasn’t been a good year for Jason Reitman. Before putting out the much derided Men, Women & Children, Reitman released Labor Day (Paramount), a film which was then seen as a misstep, but, less than 10 months later, seems like a precursor of things to come. “Despite its borderline-offensive assertion that a wanted, potentially violent man of the house is better than no man of the house, Labor Day is too fatally polite to incense,” wrote our own A.A. Dowd in his review. “It’s a mostly colorless weepie, aiming for the mythic power of a Great American Novel, but achieving dramatic vagueness instead.”
The 3-D documentary James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (Millennium) follows the ocean-obsessed blockbuster director as he prepares to become the first person to alone pilot a submersible around the Mariana Trench. In his B+ review, David Ehrlich wrote: “At its best, the film is a staggering underwater spectacle, a cinema of attractions that outclasses each of Cameron’s previous technical achievements: Creating Pandora from scratch was impressive, but showing us previously unfathomable and unseen new frontiers of our own world is a far more profound success.”
“[How To Train Your Dragon], a high-water mark for DreamWorks Animation, had a simple-but-resonant narrative, built around the close bond that develops between a boy and his exotic pet,” wrote A.A. Dowd in his B- review of the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (20th Century Fox). “How To Train Your Dragon 2 probably functions best as stereoscopic eye-candy, pouring millions of studio dollars into the creation of teeming dragon hoards and the staging of kinetic, airborne pursuits.”
The road comedy Tammy (Warner Bros) casts Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon as, respectively, the title screw-up and her hard-drinking grandmother. Our man Dowd had mixed feelings about the film, concluding that “ultimately, the big problem with Tammy is Tammy herself: She’s an ill-conceived underdog—a down-on-her-luck heroine who oscillates, per the demands of the poky plot, between typically caustic wit and an uncharacteristic defeatism.”
Also out this week: the buddy comedy Let’s Be Cops (20th Century Fox); the Muhammad Ali documentary I Am Ali (Universal); and the offbeat vampire comedy Summer Of Blood (MPI).