Well we're back again with the bumper crop of must-have DVDs and Blu-rays for the month of May – from historic Italian epics to underground American sensations to a chilly, expressionistic film noir to movies where Raquel Welch plays a Vegas showgirl fleeing a murderer – we’ve got them all hear for you. So look on below to see what's worth your money this month….
"1900" (1976) Blu-ray
Why You Should Care: At the time of its release, Bernardo Bertolucci's historical epic was said to be the most expensive (requiring the financial commitment of three major studios – 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and United Artists) and ambitious ever mounted in Italy. It's a tale of two friends (played by Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu), born on the same day at the dawn of the 20th century, and the way that their lives crisscross, intersect, and diverge wildly over the rocky course of history. What's so amazing about "1900" is that its scale is vastly huge (topics covered include fascism, Communism, worker's rights, and both World Wars) but also profoundly personal, essentially boiling down to the story of these two men. "1900" was fraught with production and distribution problems, with an original intention of being six one-hour installments for Italian television being rejected in favor of one super-long movie (eventually intended to be cut down the middle and released in two sections). The film ended up clocking in at 317 minutes, initially released in America and many other parts of the world as a 255-minute version (after Bertolucci was unhappy with a 180-minute cut made by his producer Alberto Grimaldi). Over the years it was gradually expanded and reconstituted, although pushback came from the American studios after the original cut garnered an NC-17 rating (due mostly to its depictions of real-life animal slaughter and its frank sexuality). Finally in 2006, thirty years (!) after its initial release, "1900" came out on home video, uncut and now, it arrives in high definition on Blu-ray. The movie is beautiful and profoundly moving as well as being an utter and complete spectacle that you can't take your eyes off of, no matter the running time (you imagine Scorsese had something like this in mind when he sent out to make "Gangs of New York").
What's On It: The film, split in half as initial intended, with its original five-and-a-half hour long running time, over two Blu-ray discs, with a third DVD featuring an hour-long, interview-heavy documentary called "Bernardo Bertolucci: Reflections on Cinema." Tech geeks will especially appreciate the lossless audio on the Blu-ray (and its beautiful, sundrenched 1080p HD transfer).
Release Date: May 15th via Olive Films
Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. DVD
Why You Should Care: Because it's the Eclipse box set many at the Playlist have been waiting years for – one devoted to the radicalized height of anarchic underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. (Others of us were just hoping for a decent "Putney Swope" Blu-ray, but we digress…) Included in the box set are: "Babo 73" (Downey Sr.'s fearless first feature, shot on 16 mm); "Chafed Elbows" (a hellzapoppin' comedy set at the 1954 World's Fair, made for the cost of a used Nissan, comprised mostly of 35 mm photographs and a variety of performances by Downey Sr.'s wife, Elsie); "No More Excuses" (co-directed by Robert Soukis, it's a typically in-your-face and scattershot look at dating in New York in the late sixties… plus a time-traveling Civil War soldier); "Putney Swope" (a hands-down satiric masterpiece about a black man put in charge of an advertising firm after the death of the chairman of the board, gorgeously shot in velvety black-and-white); and "Two Tons of Turquoise to Toas Tonight" (which may be the set's crown jewel to some – a newly re-edited, never-before-seen riff of Downey Sr.'s 1975 film "Moment to Moment," again centered around a number of characters all played by Elsie). For less than $40, this inexpensive box set, handsomely produced by the folks at Criterion but without the usual extra features bells-and-whistles, is worth it as a curiosity alone – a time capsule of experimental and avant garde filmmaking that still managed to be riotously funny and entertaining. Also: we can't wait to see that new "Putney Swope" transfer.
What's On It: Nothing, really. That's what you get for that cheap price point: a bunch of good movies with solid transfers but not much else.
Release Date: May 22nd via Criterion
"Castle in the Sky" (1986), "Whisper of the Heart" (1995) and "Secret World of Arrietty" (2010) Blu-ray
Why You Should Care: Since Disney obtained the U.S. theatrical and home video rights to the Studio Ghibli movies (those animated delights either directed or personally overseen by Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki), we've only gotten two of them on Blu-ray – the aquatic fairy tale "Ponyo" and the somewhat impenetrably post-apocalyptic "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind." While the "big three" (genuine masterpieces "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service," and "Spirited Away") haven't been scheduled for release yet, it's something of a miracle to animation freaks to get three Miyazaki titles in one gulp – delightful aerial fantasy "Castle in the Sky" (released in 1986 as the second Studio Ghibli feature); "Whisper of the Heart," a tender, oddball little movie from 1995 that Miyazaki wrote and produced (but was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, an animator who died tragically just a couple of years after the film was released); and "The Secret World of Arrietty," released in Japan in 2010 but released earlier this year in the States (based on the Mary Norton 'Borrowers' novels, it was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi – the youngest filmmaker to ever helm a studio Ghibli joint). All three of these films are overflowing with whimsy, magic, and heart, and we cannot wait to see them shine in high definition.
What's On It: "Whisper of the Heart" and "Castle in the Sky" should include everything from the previously-released special edition DVDs from a couple of years ago, notably peeks inside "The World of Ghibli," and a video introduction from John Lasseter (it was Lasseter who prodded Disney into obtaining the rights to the Ghibli films – remember Totoro in "Toy Story 3"?). Given the increased size of the Blu-ray disc, though, we could easily see them squeezing in a few more features. As for 'Arrietty,' you'll get the English dub track (directed by sound designer and Pixar stalwart Gary Rydstrom) alongside the original Japanese track (although we were kind of hoping to hear the British dub too, which featured Mark Strong), a complete storyboard version of the film (fascinating!), two music videos from the film, and the original Japanese trailers and TV spots.
Release date: May 22nd via Disney
"The Big Heat" (1953) Blu-ray
Why You Should Care: Because film noirs don't get much better than Fritz Lang's 1953 pulp classic (Roger Ebert called it "Lang's greatest masterpiece of film noir"). "The Big Heat" was based on a work of serialized fiction by William P. McGivern, originally appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and then collected a year before the film's release in novel form, and stars Glenn Ford as Detective Bannion, who gets a tip to investigate a fellow officer's death that was initially ruled a suicide. From there he gets caught up in his small town's seedy underbelly, running afoul of a mob boss (Alexander Scourby) and a moll with seemingly virtuous intentions (Gloria Grahame). Lee Marvin also shows up as a zoot-suited enforcer. What's amazing is how much punch the movie still carries, particularly in a still-shocking sequence when Bannion's wife is murdered in an explosion (that's when the once above-board cop starts to slip into the dark side). Like all Lang films, it seems effortlessly stylish (we can't wait to see Lang's black-and-white photography in HD), his expressionistic flourishes still very much evident, but also incredibly tense, with an offhanded realism. A few months ago the film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, with the selection committing noting that it is "one of the great post-war film noirs." We couldn't agree more.
What's On It: An isolated music track featuring the film's moody score (courtesy of composers Arthur Morton and Henry Vars), the film's original theatrical trailer, and essays/linear notes by Julie Kirgo. Oh, and it's a limited edition – 3,000 and they're gone so get on it.
Release date: May 8th via Twilight Time
"Flareup" (1969) DVD
Why You Should Care: Because, even though we've never seen it (and probably can't pinpoint a dozen people who have), it sounds like one of the most incredible movies ever made. The plot concerns a madman (Luke Askew) who murders his estranged wife and then turns on the Vegas showgirl (played, naturally, by Raquel Welch) who Askew blames for turning his wife against him. If you're not sold already, we're not sure what's wrong with you. Eventually Welch flees to Los Angeles, in what feels like a mash-up of "Showgirls" and early-nineties Stephen King (when he was going through that weird feminist phase, "Rose Madder," "Gerald's Game," etc). The official description of the movie promises that it will "keep you gasping" although everything about the movie screams late-'60s camp – the poster, which features a sultry Raquel Welch, a vaguely art deco design, and one of the best taglines ever – "Most Men Want to Love Her… One Man Wants to Kill Her!" Yes, because nothing screams "legitimate thriller" like an exclamation point in your tagline. This surely has to be at least late night movie watching fun (probably even more so if you're drunk or stoned or really tired).
What's On It: Nothing. This one comes from the made-to-order folks at Warner Archive.
Release date: Out now via Warner Archive
Also out this month (and worth checking out): the David O. Selznick Polynesian-set melodrama “Bird of Paradise,” rescued from public domain obscurity and given a new scrub by Kino (out now); Rock Hudson and Doris Day get the deluxe treatment on a new Blu-ray of “Pillow Talk” timed to Universal’s 100th anniversary celebration (out now); the 1959 Pat Boone/James Mason “Journey to the Center of the Earth” gets dusted off with a Blu-ray release that gives a dedicated audio track solely to Bernard Hermann’s atmospheric score (May 8th); Joe Dante’s off-the-wall sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (bafflingly) gets a Blu-ray upgrade (May 8th); lurid (but stylish and structurally ambitious – almost the whole thing is told through a series of interlocking flashbacks) 1974 Italian thriller “Plot of Fear” (May 22nd); Michael Caine stars as Harry Anders, a riff on Ted Allbeury character Ted Anders (commonly referred to as the “anti-Bond”), in the made-for-HBO movie “Blue Ice,” directed by the perennially underrated Russell Mulcahy (May 15th); Criterion gives us a tricked-out Blu-ray edition of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s weirdo “Being John Malkovich” (May 15th); under-the-radar 1983 slasher “Mortuary” (starring a young Bill Paxton) finally gets exhumed (May 15th); early Mike Newell feature “The Awakening,” based on Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel “Jewel of Seven Stars,” starring Charlton Heston, Susannah York, Stephanie Zimbalist, and a mummy (May 15th); Shout Factory is releasing a new deluxe box set of the “Walking Tall” trilogy (the first one starred Joe Don Baker, the subsequent two Quentin Tarantino favorite Bo Svenson), the somewhat biographical tale of bad-ass law man Sheriff Buford Pusser; the BBC’s immaculate “Sherlock: Season 2” (the first episode of which is flawless) will wash the bad taste of “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” out of your mouth (May 22nd); and a frame-by-frame restoration has given way to a deluxe reissue of animated Beatles oddity “Yellow Submarine” (May 29th).