Full transparency: all Blu-rays reviewed were provided by Kino Lorber and Criterion.
On this month’s episode, I’m very happy to have my first guest with fellow Cicada Cinema co-founder and by far the most encyclopedic cinephile I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling my friend, Nile Arena! I decided I need some help talking about the mountain of movies Kino Lorber and Criterion sent over to me this month and he was more than happy to help. We get into a couple of hidden gems with the 1984 coming-of-age comedy written by a post-Fast Times at Ridgemont High Cameron Crowe, The Wild Life, and a nasty piece of British noir called Cast a Dark Shadow that comes as double feature with a similar film, Wanted for Murder. We finally wrap it up with a personal favorite of both of ours, Mel Brooks’s directorial debut, The Producers. I also fly solo for a bit and get into what I love about Kino’s most recent release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and try and triangulate my thoughts about Olivier Assayas’s Maggie Cheung vehicle Irma Vep.
The format shifts once again, but the movies continue to be great. Give it a listen and hear for yourself.
Also out this month…
This was an incredibly stacked month at Kino Lorber and there were far too many films to cover in the main show, so here’s a speed round of things I’d still highly recommend you check out.
I have been waiting for some martial arts films to make their entrance into these articles since I started writing them. I’m a firm believer that movement is such a big part of what makes cinema so mesmerizing and anything involving choreography, be it dancing, pratfalls, or fighting, is always welcome. 1977’s Taiwanese/Hong Kong martial arts film Dynasty is certainly big on movement. Why? Because it fully commits to its 3D gimmick. Dynasty — while being a somewhat convoluted story about an evil general framing a prince with formidable fighting skills and the defectors and dissidents who help him to defeat said evil general — is a movie more about tossing the wildest weapons at the screen while you watch in your old-school red-and-blue 3D glasses, or if you’re a weirdo like me and happen to own a 3D TV, then that’s an option too!
Dynasty is a crowd-pleaser like Master of the Flying Guillotine or The Five Deadly Venoms. Within its 94-minute runtime, people are decapitated with incredibly inventive weapons, arrows come flying at the screen with abandon, each showdown has multiple moments that will make you whistle in either amusement or amazement, and it all leads to a final confrontation that takes some wild turns. It’s a great popcorn movie. Along with including a pair of 3D glasses, an old pulpy comic book, and three 3D featurettes to sink your teeth into, I think this is well worth your time.
Dynasty is available from Kino Lorber, with a special shoutout to the 3-D Film Archive for restoring it. No trailer available but here’s a clip in glorious red-and-blue 3D to give you an idea.
Sometimes when I request films for these reviews, I’ll do so purely on the names of the people involved or the strength of the premise summarized in two to four sentences, knowing absolutely nothing about the film going in and becoming pleasantly surprised when a film makes me giddy. The Man in Search of His Murderer is a double knockout in that regard. Helmed and co-written by two of the great German-expat filmmakers Robert Siodmak (The Killers, Phantom Lady) and Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Irma La Douce), The Man in Search of His Murderer is a nearly-lost retelling of the popular premise of “sad and/or disgraced man attempts suicide by hiring a killer to murder him” and all the hijinks and twists that come with the story, this time with Heinz Rühmann as the titular man in search of his murderer.
It’s a funny and macabre film with gallows humor and early German Expressionist-esque cinematography sprinkled throughout its 50-minute runtime. (The film is short due to only five of its nine acts being in existence now, with the other four lost. The film doesn’t feel broken because of this, just a bit rushed in places.) For me, the thrill of seeing this early work of two filmmakers who survived in the old Hollywood system making a film in their native land and spotting all the little flourishes they would be famous for later is what makes this worth a watch. It’s also pretty funny. I’d say track down a copy of this if you have a curious mind about classic cinema.
The Man in Search of His Murderer is available from Kino Lorber.
I love long-gap sequels and follow-ups to stories and subjects where you return to a place or people that had its own type of magic in one era and has a completely different allure and conceit in the new era. I had never heard of Heartworn Highways, the 1981 film by director James Szalapski, before I sat down to watch it. I knew a bit about “Outlaw Country” through some friends (it’s a subgenre of country that deals with a healthy opposition to law enforcement and being confessional about struggles with substance abuse and personal relationships; Willie Nelson is the most famous name associated with it), but I wasn’t the most well-versed with the music or people. So, experiencing Heartworn Highways was an eye-opening and rousing experience. Featuring musicians Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell, Gamble Rogers, Steve Young, and The Charlie Daniels Band, the film is shot in and edited in a way that feels like you’re just sitting down to hang out or shoot the breeze with a group of people who have good stories to tell and even better songs to sing. As Pauline Kael summarizes so aptly in her review: “It’s disorganized … it’s like being at a good party, but you don’t know how you got there, and you never quite catch the last names of the assorted celebrities telling tall tales and singing lovely sad songs.” It’s a great and lovely hang-out film I think more people should check out, even if they have no interest in country. It’s a snapshot of a time and place that feels long gone.
Yet its follow-up, Heartworn Highways Revisited by director Wayne Price, highlights just how much has changed in Nashville and in country music over the years. So many of the original subjects from the first film had passed by the time this started shooting in the early 2010s, and even more would pass before the film was finished, but focusing on the place and the new crop of hungry, young musicians aching to tell their own stories through the prism of all those that influenced them was a good choice. The musicians in Revisted don’t have the same grit and melancholy as the innovators before them, but their frame of references and music have its own spice. These are incredibly intelligent and technically proficient musicians that are making music for what the world is today. And while the film is a little more formal, it’s still a great peek into a world filled with tales to tell.
Heartworn Highways (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) and Heartworn Highways Revisited are both available from Kino Lorber.
Mel Brooks’s 1987 Star Wars/sci-fi blockbuster parody Spaceballs is one of those movies that’s beloved and oft-quoted among its passionate fan base but has never ever quite worked for me. It was his first film since his hot streak starting with The Producers (which we talked about on the podcast) and kind of ending with History of the World, Part I. From that period of 1967 to 1981, Mel felt tapped into the parodies he was doing. He wasn’t just punching down and spoofing musical theater or westerns or old black-and-white horror films, he was reading into the subtext of the chosen genre and making it the big joke (the easiest to spot is Blazing Saddles with him highlighting the racial aspect of the Western and the American frontier). Spaceballs has always felt surface-level to me. Yes, there are still funny jokes, and as an entry point to Borscht Belt humor for kids I can definitely see why this strikes a chord with older millennials. Yet the closest the movie comes to the sharp and simultaneously blunt humor Brooks is known for is some lip service about merchandising and some political shots taken at the pompous doofuses in charge of running things. Everything else sadly really feels like some hollow and, to the film’s credit, still pretty funny jokes about Star Wars.
I mention all this to say that while I am not the exact audience for this movie, what Kino Lorber has given that target audience is something truly special. This 4K edition of Spaceballs is as definitive as it gets. The commentary track from the laser disc back in the day makes its way over on the 4K disc and the Blu-ray. A making-of/retrospective doc called Spaceballs: The Documentary is present, along with a conversation with Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan. There is also a tribute to the late great John Candy, bloopers, a feature that lets you watch the film in “ludicrous speed,” storyboard comparisons, and multiple trailers and galleries. Besides having Rick Moranis come to your house and watch the movie with you, you honestly couldn’t ask for much else. And while I think this isn’t Mel’s best movie, it doesn’t matter what I think! If you love Spaceballs, I’d say this is a must-own for your collection. The image and sound are phenomenal and the treasure trove of features gives you more than enough to supplement the experience.
You can grab Spaceballs from Kino Lorber.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.