Full transparency: all Blu-rays reviewed were provided by Kino Lorber, Fun City Editions, the Criterion Collection, Imprint Films, Arrow Video, 88 Films US, Dekanalog, and Vinegar Syndrome.
Well, here we are everyone: at the end of another calendar year for this column and another incredible year for physical media. We saw long-awaited releases, upgrades to classics, hidden gems rediscovered, sets boxed with care, and genres finally given their due. It’s been a blast covering it all, but it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that this will be the final entry of this column on this particular space. I will continue to keep covering Blu-ray as long as I have the trust and permission of all the lovely distributors I’ve gotten to work with and know in the past two-plus years. This originally began with me wanting to cover the set of films directed by Agnès Varda for the Criterion Collection and spiraled out into a whole enterprise. I’ve met some wonderful friends because of it (shoutouts to Drusilla and Jonathan), found countless films that have and will make their way into Cicada Cinema’s programming, and expanded my cinematic horizons a thousand times over. Sitting down and watching hundreds of hours of features and behind-the-scenes footage and interviews truly made me take leaps in understanding the scope of cinema I don’t know if I could have accomplished by myself without the fine curators at these institutions digging deep and putting some possibilities out into the world.
So, this isn’t the end of me writing and talking about Blu-rays, but for the final column I decided I’d highlight some new titles from the past couple of months and then give you my “Picks of the Year” to go out on.
Criterion Collection released Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic document of the Velvet Underground with a film of the same name. Taking a blend of archival footage, current-day interviews from surviving members and associated artists, and snippets of audio and video from those who have passed, combined with Haynes trying to capture the raw energy of the band through some lite experimental film techniques, the film is a good watch. While it doesn’t quite keep up that energy even past the halfway mark in favor of letting people talk about their experiences and process making music for the band, it’s always fascinating to watch people talk about their influences and connections that led to some of the most unique-sounding music of its time. I’m still delighted at learning that the idea for the droning nature of the Velvet Underground came from their take on simple rock riffs. Seeing it illustrated in the movie brings the theory to life. It’s informative, it’s emotional, and it’s definitely worth your time. No Apple+ subscription needed 😉
You can find The Velvet Underground through the Criterion Collection.
Imprint Films has assembled something special with their “After Dark” series of neo-noir collections. It’s easy to get eyes on the Blood Simple’s, Blade Runner’s, and Brick‘s of the world, but there’s a whole lot more lurid lore captured on film to lap up. Running headlong into the erotic-film boom and crime movies being big mainstream box-office draws, neo-noir had fertile soil to grow in in the ’90s. The ’90s were a good time for skepticism and doomed figures running up against powers beyond our control, but what makes the “After Dark” series of films so interesting is that it’s less about those powers and more about man’s own folly and avarice. After Dark, My Sweet is Jim Thompson’s novel about a femme fatale and a dirty cop running their scam on a violent and mentally ill ex-boxer — not quite the mark you want for your grift. Mortal Thoughts is a pre-Thelma and Louise story about two women getting over and away from abusive, greedy men. Rush is the story of getting in too deep and addicted to the wrong parts of a job. Carl Franklin’s incredibly tense and visceral One False Move centers around failing to escape a past that was left behind, while Flesh and Bone and Twilight seek to make something from the past right.
I think we associate neo-noir as a style over substance genre. Pastiche and homage. Sex and scenery. In reality, “After Dark” showcases that these are all very human stories about dealing with inherent character flaws and the traumas of the past. In a way, it’s not too different from the foundation noir was built on as a WWII genre, just updated for a time where people were a little more inclined to crave more capital and fret about the uncertainties the end of the century had to bring.
You can find “After Dark: Neo-Noir Cinema Collection One” from Imprint Films.
HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE
This year, Kino Lorber has gone all out with their 4K releases. In addition, they’ve really been focusing on continuing their tradition of highlighting the more colorful side of cinema with some underseen gems making it into the mix while expanding their film noir selection. Here are some films that may make your loved ones happy this December:
Brando, De Niro, Norton, and Bassett star in this “3-star” (non-pejorative) crime caper directed by Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?). The “it” actors (if were being generous) from three generations of cinema. Worth a look.
Martin McDonagh’s breakout feature film after taking the theater world by storm a decade earlier (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman) about two hitmen, one (played by my forever crush Colin Farrell) dealing with guilt of an unintentional murder and another hitman (Brendan Gleeson) who puts them in hiding in Farrell’s least favorite place as they await orders from their livid boss (Ralph Fiennes). McDonagh’s post-modern sensibilities shine through and it’s a career-best performance from Farrell, who has a whole slew of them. Highly recommend it.
A Fistful of Dollars / For a Few Dollars More
Kino put out Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on 4K last year and decided to finish out the trilogy this year. These feel like no-brainers for those who want some deeply saturated, somewhat surreal, and textured pieces of film history in their library. They made the “Spaghetti Western” popular and made Clint Eastwood an international superstar. I have a fondness for A Fistful of Dollars myself since I never tire of the “man comes to town and plays both sides for the sake of the town and himself” story. It’s tried and true. These films dazzle in 4K and I’m sure your parents or aunts and uncles wouldn’t mind some pristine versions of films they’ve seen a buncha times on cable.
Dressed to Kill
I think me and my editor disagree on De Palma (Michaela, chime in here if you like*), but I find his brand of sexually explicit Hitchcock homage my exact brand of the “sickos” meme — “Yes…Ha Ha Ha…YES!” The subtext is removed, which is what me and some other observers have noted that it felt like what Hitch wanted to do in the first place. This movie is no different, being De Palma’s take on Psycho. I’ll save plot details for your viewing, but over the years, the big elephant in the room about this movie (and Psycho) have been its portrayal of trans people. As a trans woman, I’ve had to grapple with this movie over the years. Its filmmaking is undeniable but its depiction is pure shlock. There have been new reads of the film over the years by trans scholars and critics as well as famous filmmakers arguing for its intentional and unintentional empathy and I tend to see both sides. It doesn’t deter me from watching it, but as I highly recommend this gorgeous scan to you, I say take some time and think about the film after you watch it.
*Ed. note: De Palma is a titan of cinema and he gave us the first Mission: Impossible movie, so I can’t totally bag on him, but did he try too hard to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock and is Body Double a terrible movie? Probably!
Some Like It Hot
Nobody’s perfect, but baby, this movie is!
Planet of the Vampires
The Mario Bava movie that went on to inspire Ridley Scott’s Alien. An electrifying piece from Italian cinema’s “Golden Age.”
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema X
Kino’s film noir box set series gets in the ring with two Tony Curtis and one Tommy Shea pictures about box-ing! Down on their luck pugilists and noir go hand in hand like chocolate and peanut butter. A decidedly different type of “dark city” experience than the detective stories you’re probably used to seeing.
What if the princess and the pauper became besties? What if it was set in early ’80s New York Citaayyyy? What if TIM CURRY was there? If that doesn’t move the needle for you, I still think you should give this delightful film about friendship with a whippin’ soundtrack a shot.
I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: normies can’t be trusted. I’ve gone around my whole life thinking Bruce Willis and Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk was some sort of unwatchable slog, instead of, you know, an incredibly entertaining piece of cinema that was doomed to not connect with the general public. It joins the ranks of Sam Raimi’s Crime Wave, Get Crazy, Tapeheads, and, to an extent, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as this live-action cartoon that was never going to go over well with a typical moviegoer. Everyone shines, with a special shoutout to my love Richard E. Grant, who runs away with the whole thing. Does it work all the time? No. Do I care? Absolutely not. I think this one is worth a purchase and some friends over to see something that must be believed.
PICKS OF THE YEAR
‘Round Midnight from the Criterion Collection — read my full review
The Tales of Hoffmann from the Criterion Collection — read my full review
Wild Things from Arrow Video — read my full review
The Wicker Man from Imprint Films — read my full review
Air Doll from Dekanalog — read my full review
One Armed Boxer from Arrow Video — read my full review
Righting Wrongs from Vinegar Syndrome — read my full review
Heartbreakers from Fun City Editions — read my full review
Cutter’s Way from Fun City Editions — read my full review
A Fugitive from the Past from Arrow Video — read my full review
Married to the Mob from Fun City Editions — read my full review
The entirety of March 2022 (Love Jones, Come Drink With Me, The Odd Couple Collection, To Sleep as to Dream, Shaolin Mantis, Monkey Kung Fu, The Last Waltz) — listen to my full review
With those final films, I need to sign off from here. There will be more Blu-ray reviews in the future! I just hope in my time getting to do this, you found something you cherished enough to keep in your home and treasured. I hope your tastes expanded and found cinema to be as infinite as I do. While a Blu-ray is no replacement for a cinema, it can be a gateway into worlds you never considered.
Thanks for listening and thanks for reading.
— Aja Alexandria Essex
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.