Full transparency: all Blu-rays reviewed were provided by Peekarama, Vinegar Syndrome, Fun City Editions, and Kino Lorber.
We have what I would call a pandering line-up of titles for this half of the month’s Blu-ray reviews. Who’s it pandering to? WHY, ME, OF COURSE. What I mean is that all four films I will talk about this month contain elements of the things I’m always frothing at the mouth to talk about in this column, or at the very least it’s just 5-outta-5-stars masterpieces that I think every self-respecting movie watcher should have on their shelf. August’s titles include some sci-fi smut from a new distributor to these write-ups, Peekarama, and the Carter Stevens film Rollerbabies. Kino Lorber continues their tradition of putting out certified bangers in luscious 4K with their release of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal hard-hitting noir The Killing, and comin’ in hot with dual picks of the month are Vinegar Syndrome and Fun City Editions with their respective releases of the Hong Kong face-shredder Righting Wrongs (aka Above the Law) and another lovingly packaged discovery from Fun City Editions in the form of Bob Roth’s 1984 film Heartbreakers.
This month is shaping up to be a treasure trove of deep cuts and canon classics. Please read these words and see what August might have to offer you.
I’ve been trying to get more sexually explicit material in these columns for a few different reasons. Much like the Shaw Brothers releases I keep evangelizing, sexploitation, erotica, and pornography are having a big boom in the boutique Blu-ray market. Another reason is that I simply adore physicality in cinema in EVERY. SINGLE. FORM that it takes. Slapstick and pratfalls? Love ’em. Dance? More, please. Martial arts? Yum yum, gimme some. It’s a visual medium and no matter how big or small the movements are, your eye is drawn to them in the most subtle and explicit of ways. Each contains their own visual language as well as their own world tropes. Lastly, I really do just like watching people go to town on each other. Cinema is the artform of desire after all.
So Peekarama (a label partner of Vinegar Syndrome) heard my cries and sent me a piece of soft sci-fi with hardcore scenes called Rollerbabies from 1975. Directed by Carter Stevens, Rollerbabies takes place in a dystopian future where sex has been outlawed but self-satisfaction is held up as a perfectly proper pasttime. This means that in order to have intercourse, you have to be a licensed sex performer, and one with a gimmick at that if you want to stay on top of the pops (so to speak). Enter sleazoid network programmer Sherman Frobish (played by Alan Marrow), who holds the power to cast and certify young ladies in his line-up — and you can probably guess by my use of the world “sleazoid” that he does NOT wield this power responsibly — but Frobish is in for a rude awakening when he gets news that he owes a lot of money to the wrong people and his network isn’t doing as well as it once was. But then… there was ROLLERBABIES.
Which if I’m being honest is an exaggeration because the titular Rollerbabies don’t enter the film until about the last 15 minutes. The movie is mostly loosely tied together schtick (it’s got very Borscht Belt-y humor) and shenanigans that are the glue that hold together the sexcapades that range from raunchy and bizarre (PISTACHIO ICE CREAM… EVERYWHERE) to… movie-ruining. Be warned watching this that there is an explicit rape scene that I fully just skipped when I realized it was going to happen. People are into what they are into but that’s not why I watch these types of movies. Outside of that unpleasantness, it’s nice to watch another film in the “dystopian sci-fi porn where sexual politics are punishable under law” genre that my beloved Café Flesh occupies. It’s occasionally funny, and inventive for what it is. I had in fact never seen sex on rollerskates before, so check that off the bucket list.
Packaged with another Carter Stevens film called Mount of Venus, you can find Rollerbabies from Peekarama through Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
Sometimes I’m not quite sure what to write for films with a pedigree as large as what The Killing has: Sterling Hayden out front, Jim Thompson on the words, and Stanley Kubrick behind the lens. It’s been written about ad infinitum, rediscovered and re-evaluated. It’s been the basis of so many films with the premise featuring a seemingly airtight heist that isn’t as airtight as it seems. Yet considering that Kino Lorber opted to send me the 4K re-release of this noir staple, I decided to focus less on the theming and more on the images.
The Killing stars the great Sterling Hayden as the leader of a $2 million racetrack heist consisting of a bunch of low-lifes and acquaintances that all play a very specific part in order for the plan to go off without a hitch. However, due to loose lips sinking ships, that doesn’t quite happen. Honestly, at 84 minutes that’s about as much as you need to know going into the film. While the heist itself isn’t airtight, this film is. It feels like its been cut to the bone for how economical it is. Yet the biggest thing to note besides author Jim Thompson’s story and crackling dialogue is how effective the visual storytelling is. It’s one of those textbook films that you could strip the words out and and still get a clear picture of the story being told, and what a clear picture it is in 4K! This is the movie that features two of the most iconic ending images in cinema history along with some laser-focused mid shots, close-ups, and some damn fluid camera movement. People always say that Kubrick liked to pop into a genre, master it, and peace out. It’s hard to look at The Killing and not think that might be true.
Featuring a new audio commentary from film historian Alan K. Rode and 4K scan of the original camera negative, you can find The Killing from Kino Lorber.
For my first pick of the month, Vinegar Syndrome drops a long-awaited re-release for all the Hong Kong heads out there. Presented in a lavish 3-disc deluxe edition, it’s Righting Wrongs (aka Above the Law). Starring Yuen Biao as Ha Ling-Ching (who also serves as action director along with film director and co-star Cory Yuen), a straight-and-narrow prosecutor who is sent over the edge to take the law into his own hands after the key witness to a murder is snuffed out. With the help of Senior Inspector of the C.I.D. Cindy See (played by genre favorite Cynthia Rothrock) and “Stink Egg” (Yuen), it’s up to these three to sniff out the culprit, disregard corrupt courts, and right. some. wrongs.
I’m prone to hyperbole but Righting Wrongs whips harder than Indiana Jones raiding a temple filled with woefully underpaid henchmen. Hong Kong action of the ’80s and ’90s has by far some of the most aesthetically pleasing and inventive action in the martial arts genre. It’s why people like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Wo Ping, and Jet Li all made their way stateside eventually in different capacities because nothing like this existed in the US (and with some choice exceptions… never really did afterward). Righting Wrongs has some throwdown, knockout fight choreography complimented by a perfectly placed camera and some on-point editing. There’s a sequence that takes place in a parking garage that features some of the tightest filmmaking I’ve seen in a movie, a ballet of hand-to-hand and vehicular combat that had me gripping my couch, not to mention the stellar fight between Rothrock and Karen Shepard later in the film. I honestly can’t do this movie justice writing about it. You have to see it with your own eyes.
Each disc of Righting Wrongs has something special to offer. Disc one contains the original version of the film with new, more accurate translations along with both endings to the film (the original ending rules so hard but you’ll understand why there’s an alternate ending). Disc two contains the vastly different extended Chinese cut of the film along with the dubbed 92-minute Above the Law version. Disc three takes us home with the 1990 doc The Best of Martial Arts, which contains interviews from just about every cinematic martial arts great of the late 20th century that you could hope for, as well as a collection of old and new commentaries and featurettes on the first two discs that you will want to dig into after your first watch.
You can find Righting Wrongs from Vinegar Syndrome.
I don’t know whether to call Fun City Editions prospectors for all the gold they constantly dig up or postal workers because they always deliver. Either way, in Bobby Roth’s Heartbreakers (1984), they have distributed one of the best films I’ve seen this year. An intimate and surprisingly sensual portrait of close male friendship and male ego, Heartbreakers delves into the complications of what happens when inspiration, commiseration, and libido all intersect. Taking place in L.A., it chronicles the relationship between artist Arthur Blue (in what is easily my favorite Peter Coyote role) and businessman Eli Kahn (Nick Mancuso). It’s a friendship based on competition and compassion for each other. There’s a one-two punch of Arthur’s girlfriend Cyd (Modern Romance’s Kathryn Harrold) deciding she’s had enough and leaving him for a more successful and debatably talented artist, and Eli’s father passing away. In this period of uncertainty, Arthur leans further into his fixation with the beautiful women that populate and inspire his art. Egos clash and a (vaguely) platonic romance is put in danger.
Part of the reason I was so taken with this one is because it’s so rare to see male friendships portrayed so… intimately. There’s a ménage à trois with the late great Carol Wayne (who has a great part in the film Surf II) that tests their ability to cede ground and to be open and present in the experience that sticks with me. The only other films I can think of that inspire the same type of thought are the films of John Cassavetes and Elaine May, specifically Husbands and Mikey and Nicky, but there’s less desperation here. Things don’t seem doomed as much as they seem in flux. It also helps to have the ethereal, big-bodied synths of the one and only Tangerine Dream really set a mood that embodies this version of L.A., an L.A. that feels like it exists in some horny and expressive underworld as painted by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. It’s a treat to behold.
Featuring a new introduction and interview with director Bobby Roth, as well as new interviews with Peter Coyote and Nick Mancuso, essays from DJ and journalist Margaret Barton-Fumo and historian Richard Harland Smith, and commentary from podcasters Chris O’Neill and Bill Ackerman, you can find Heartbreakers from Fun City Editions through Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
Join me again in a couple weeks when we will have more titles from Kino Lorber, an early Safdie Bros. joint from Criterion, and some slightly different kind of Hong Kong films from Arrow Video.
Created in a dark room after being exposed to images from infinite worlds, Aja Essex seeks to engender thought, conversation, and possibility through film. Co-founder of Establishing Shot as well as co-founder and co-operator of Bloomington’s own Cicada Cinema, she has always aimed to spotlight the underseen, underscreened, and underappreciated. She hosts, edits, and produces the IU Cinema podcast, Footage Not Found, with the same haphazard but enthusiastic zeal as her writing. She loves getting lost in a song and despite her namesake being her favorite Steely Dan album, she has probably listened to Countdown to Ecstasy more.