Well, with the holidays just around the corner, the producers of fine home video product are really stepping up their game and releasing a slew of interesting titles this month. For some reason the theme in November seems to be failed masterpieces – from Brian De Palma’s attempt at translating a national bestseller, to Otto Preminger trying to wrangle the whole of the sixties into one crazy movie, to Michael Cimino’s historical epic “Heaven’s Gate” (probably the most polarizing of the bunch) – it’s a month in which the artistic process yields ungainly results. Plus, some really great smaller movies that are easy to overlook but very much worth your time.
“Bonfire of the Vanities” (Brian De Palma, 1990)
Why You Should Care: One of the most notorious flops of all time (hey, we’ve got two of those on our list this month!), Brian De Palma’s sprawling, unwieldy adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s worldwide bestseller, is, in hindsight, sort of underrated, although crippled by a devastating series of bad decisions (mostly to do with casting). In the 2006 documentary “Boffo,” a taciturn Morgan Freeman, who was cast as a character described in the novel as an old Jewish man and is still clearly upset by the experience, said: “When an airline crashes, they say that it’s mostly as a result of series of mishaps. Same thing.” While performances like Freeman’s stand out as being completely misjudged (the less said about Bruce Willis, the better), there are other, smaller delights to be had in “Bonfire of the Vanities,” including some of De Palma’s most virtuosic camerawork (ignored because it wound up in a shitty movie) and an agreeably low-key performance by Tom Hanks, during a period in his career where he was slipping some depth into his usual screwball roles (the same year he did the bizarre “Joe Versus the Volcano” and the year before he appeared in “The ‘burbs”). “Bonfire of the Vanities” is best appreciated alongside Julie Salamon’s brilliant nonfiction chronicle “The Devil’s Candy,” which charted the film’s arduous production and remains one of the all-time great making-of books (a later reprint included rebuttals from key principles in the book). If, after reading “The Devil’s Candy,” you don’t appreciate “Bonfire of the Vanities” a little more, at the very least you’ll find yourself begrudgingly admiring that it got made at all.
What’s On It: While the film’s Blu-ray release has presented the opportunity to go back and reevaluate the film, getting comments from various cast and crew members who worked on the project (and hearing from the critical community about its reception then and now), Warner Bros. has chosen to not include a thing on this new disc. You’ll have to go to YouTube to watch the trailer.
Release Date: Out now via Warner Bros.
“Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (Robert Aldrich, 1977)
Why You Should Care: Because you’ve probably never seen it (or heard of it) and it’s really, really good. An outstanding political thriller from Robert Aldrich, the perpetually underrated journeyman director responsible for genuine classics like “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” it concerns a bunch of prisoners who have just escaped from a military prison (let by the irascible Burt Lancaster) and taken over a nuclear missile silo (“This is Lawrence Dell, we have taken over Silo 3…” Lancaster intones severely). Re-watching the film, not everything works (at 146 minutes, it’s a bit baggy and Jerry Goldsmith’s militaristic score is sometimes distractingly overactive), but most of it does – Aldrich’s razor-sharp direction (which includes some of the best non-De Palma uses of split screen ever); the rich supporting cast which includes Paul Winfield as a fellow prisoner and a balloon-like Charles Durning as the President of the United States; and the whip-fire script by Ronald Cohen and Edward Huebsch, adapting Walter Wager’s novel “Viper Three” (our favorite Winfield line: “We broke out of death row to end up in a gas chamber?”) While the story centers around a typical extortion plot, there’s a fair amount of post-Vietnam righteous fury, and it’s clear that the movie served as inspiration for everything from the Ed Harris subplot in “The Rock” to “The Simpsons” episode that takes place at an air show, not-so-coincidentally titled “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” (“Did someone say box kites?”)
What’s On It: A lone extra that’s worth purchasing the disc just as much as the feature – a gripping 69-minute documentary called “Aldrich Over Munich” that examines the making of the movie, the political climate that gave birth to the film, and the critical reassessment of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” featuring interviews with Aldrich’s family members, collaborators, and biographers. Totally amazing.
Release Date: November 13th from Olive Films
The Otto Preminger Collection
Why You Should Care: A collection of three really interesting (and bizarre) films by the vaulted Preminger, made after the director had concluded a string of mainstream successes (including “In Harm’s Way,” “The Cardinal,” “Advise and Consent” and “Bunny Lake Is Missing”); the box set includes a notoriously overwrought psychedelic comedy, an antebellum epic that many thought would be the next “Gone with the Wind” (clearly, it was not) and a small-scale dramatic comedy written by Elaine May (under a pseudonym). “Skidoo,” released at the end of 1968 and ostensibly a critique and celebration of sixties counterculture, was a notorious bomb upon its initial release, seen largely as a cluster-fuck of ideas and celebrities (the cast includes – deep breath – Jackie Gleeson, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx to name a few) with little in the way of a cohesive narrative. Still, it’s a blast to watch, if only for its WTF-value, and seems genuinely ahead of its time. “Hurry Sundown,” released the year before “Skidoo,” is decidedly more old-fashioned, a Southern epic (at 146 minutes) set in 1946 America, stocked with a bunch of movie stars (including Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, and Faye Dunaway) and based on the novel by K.B. Gilden (a pseudonym for married couple Katya and Bert Gilden). The film was widely criticized for being too old fashioned, with many citing the outdated presentations of sexuality and race. “Such Good Friends,” released in 1971, is hopelessly modern, and stars Dyan Cannon as a woman who maneuvers various heartaches. The movie is based on the novel by Lois Gould, which was widely read but proved incredibly difficult to adapt (Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne even put some work into the screenplay), before Mike Nichols collaborator Elaine May (who was Preminger’s original choice for screenwriter) became available and finally cracked it. May, who didn’t want her name attached to something that someone else had started, withdrew her credit and resented Preminger for using her in the film’s promotion. Lots of drama on and off the screen.
What’s On It: Sadly, nothing.
Release Date: November 13th from Olive Films
“The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” (Robert Ellis Miller, 1968)
Why You Should Care: It’s a reissue of the film, based on Carson McCullers’ debut novel, that earned widespread critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations for two of its leads. Awash in Southern Gothic melodrama (with a sharp shift in setting, from the novel’s Depression Era south to a more contemporary, but just as contemptuous, sixties setting), the film concerns a deaf-mute (played by Alan Arkin) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl (Sondra Locke, who would go on to become Clint Eastwood’s creative and romantic partner in later years and who was also nominated for an Oscar) who dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Of course, this being the small town south, the townspeople aren’t too trusting of this relationship, and soon a cavalcade of hurt feelings, hidden agendas, and dark secrets are unleashed. While the movie, at just over two hours, seems somewhat creaky today (director Robert Ellis Miller was known more for how quickly he could produce than for the quality of his work), it is anchored by a collection of fine performances – in addition to the two leads, Stacy Keach, Percy Rodriguez and Cicely Tyson all show up and perform well, and the McCullers-derived atmosphere, all hanging Spanish moss and ghosts of old, survive the severe change in setting.
What’s On It: As this is one of those burn-to-order deals, it is entirely features-free
Release Date: Out now via Warner Archive
“Heaven’s Gate” (Michael Cimino, 1980)
Why You Should Care: Michael Cimino’s unfairly maligned masterwork, largely unavailable in its uncut form, is finally being unleashed for home video consumption, thanks to the good folks at the Criterion Collection. This is, in short, not just the home video event of the month – it might be the home video event of the entire year. Loosely based on the historical Johnson County War, in which ranchers fought each other to the death, the film was more notorious for its troubled production than what actually ended up on screen. There were reports that Cimino, drunk on power coming off the success of “The Deer Hunter,” was a mercurial tyrant and stickler for historical authenticity who made baffling, dunderheaded decisions (like rebuilding a major set because it didn’t “look right”) and pretty much drove everyone nuts. When the movie was originally released, it had an oppressively lengthy runtime of over 200 minutes. That version was critically savaged by the handful of critics who saw it (including Vincent Canby from the New York Times, who called it “an unqualified disaster”) and when the film finally saw wide release, about a half-a-year later, Cimino had truncated the cut to a more manageable, if creatively compromised 149-minutes. Even in its messiest form, “Heaven’s Gate” is still a stunner, stacked top to bottom with top-shelf performances (from people like Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and John Hurt) and some of the most dazzling camerawork ever (courtesy of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond). The original version of “Heaven’s Gate” was trumpeted by forward-thinkers like Jerry Harvey, who ran the revolutionary cable channel Z Channel, and throughout the years defenders have come forward (including Martin Scorsese), despite the fact that the film had never been fully reconstructed, in its original form, until earlier this year. That’s the version we’re getting on this forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray, and hopefully it will be the final word on the long, storied history of “Heaven’s Gate.”
What’s On It: A bountiful collection of extras await you on the Criterion disc, including a demonstration of the restoration of the film; a thirty-minute documentary with director Cimino and producer Joann Carelli discussing the film’s tortured history; new ten-minute interviews with Kristofferson, assistant director Michael Stevenson (who worked for David Lean before Cimino) and musician David Mansfield; the film’s original teaser and TV spot, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. For more on the ‘Gate,’ watch “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” a killer documentary by Xan Cassavettes.
Release Date: November 20th, which is of course one day after the half-off Criterion sale at Barnes and Noble ends
Other releases: Criterion unleashes a new edition of Akira Kurosawa’s multi-angled masterpiece “Rashomon” (out now); finally a special edition of John Carpenter’s magic-sunglasses epic “They Live” is released, with new special features and a commentary track featuring Carpenter and Rowdy Roddy Piper (out now); Kino packages a collection of “Fritz Lang: The Early Works,” which includes “Harakari,” “The Wandering Shadow,” and “Four Around a Woman” (out now); the three excellent “Paradise Lost” documentary films are finally (superbly) packaged to form “The Paradise Lost Trilogy” (out now); Billy Wilder’s masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard” is finally on Blu-ray (out now); marginal eighties horror movie “Death Ship” gets the unexpectedly deluxe treatment (out now); alongside the release of “Brave,” Pixar is releasing the second volume of the “Pixar Shorts Collection,” this time including work that their famous animators did in school (November 13th); John Huston’s “The Barbarian and the Geisha” makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray (November 13th); Peir Paolo Pasolin’s “Trilogy of Life” debuts thanks to Criterion (November 13th); “Lawrence of Arabia” makes a splashy high-definition debut on Blu-ray with all the bells and whistles (November 13th); Nicholas Ray’s truly bizarre experimental film “We Can’t Go Home Again” makes its way to home video after spending the better part of last year doing the film festival rounds (November 13th); Criterion (FINALLY) releases a deluxe version of Godard’s “Weekend” (November 13th); Ridley Scott’s flashy debut “The Duellists” comes to Blu-ray (November 20th); Joel McCrea/Veronica Lake western “Ramrod” piques the interest of the curious (November 20th); and Richard Widmark hopes to avoid “The Trap” (November 20th).