Spielberg disciples can order up this week’s “Lincoln” like it were a combo meal. There’s a small, DVD-only package, or your can up-size for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, even a mega four-disc combo edition with a gold border and enough superfluous material to bore a history teacher. At least Dreamworks isn’t doing that dastardly, old-school cash grab where bare-bones discs are released, with special editions hitting shelves at a later date to get buyers to “double-dip” into their wallets. Universal, on the other hand, should be embarrassed that they’ve re-released yet another “Jurassic Park” Blu-ray, less than a month before the 3D version takes a bigger bite out of your savings account. Okay, enough griping about The Man, take a peek at four highlights that are indeed worth your dough:
(Starz / Anchor Bay)
Not to be confused with the 1983 Rodney Dangerfield comedy, “Safe House” director Daniél Espinosa’s handsomely staged, downbeat crime thriller (originally titled “Snabba Cash” as 2010’s top-grossing film in its native Sweden) nimbly intertwines a triptych of schemes involving a multicultural sampling of underworld ne’er-do-wells. In a whiz-bang opening, Chilean hooligan Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) breaks out of prison and aims straight back into the cocaine business with Swedish-Arab partners. Paid to keep his homeland’s hold on the coke trade, Serbian enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) is hunting down Jorge, a dirty job made tougher by the forced guardianship of his eight-year-old daughter. Then there’s swaggering, go-getting business student J.W. (Joel Kinnaman, star of AMC’s “The Killing”), a poor, rural Northerner who desperately wants to be accepted by his new pals in Stockholm’s moneyed elite as one of their own. He sells term papers to wealthy students, secretly works for a taxi service run by Arab criminals, and will drop everything to pad his pocket in the name of continuing his upper-crust masquerade. With the players in their position, three cautionary tales of get-rich-quick ambitions and morally skewed justifications are flung at each other, but not with the random, faux-clever plot synchronicities of a Guy Ritchie gangster picture. Rather, with unexpected dollops of pathos and comedy that come from realistically flawed antiheroes instead of mindlessly violent stereotypes, Episonosa—working from Maria Karlsson’s adaptation of Jens Lapidus’ best-seller—crafts an immaculately shot, jazzy entertainment out of timeless themes like hubris, friendship and betrayal. (A trilogy is in the works, for what it’s worth, as is an inevitably crappy Hollywood remake.)
“The Devil and Miss Jones”
Here we go again: Not to be confused with the notorious 1973 Golden Age porno “The Devil in Miss Jones,” director and anti-communist crusader Sam Wood’s terrific 1941 comedy holds up well as a warmly conscientious peek at how-the-other-half-lives class differences. Seeking to unionize at a New York department store, a team of agitators led by Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) hangs a stuffed dummy in effigy of the richest man in the world—the store’s curmudgeonly fat-cat owner John P. Merrick (a riotously funny Charles Coburn, who was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor). When the publicity-shy tycoon discovers the photo on the front page of the New York Times, a rag he’s paid plenty of money to stay out of for twenty years, he sets out to infiltrate his own company by impersonating an already undercover private dick, impersonating a fifth-floor slipper salesman. Enter Miss Jones (screwball legend Jean Arthur, and again, that’s not to be read in a rated-X context), Mary Jones that is, kind-hearted salesgirl and gal pal to the ousted unionizer Joe. Feeling sorry for Merrick, whose intrinsic hopelessness at pretending to live a working-class life is misconstrued for sad-sack awkwardness, Mary takes him under his wing and helps him become a better salesperson to get a overbearing department manager (Edmund Gwenn) off his back. Even as the grouchy capitalist’s greedy heart unsurprisingly begins to melt, there are still fabulously condescending class-warfare gags, such as a Coney Island double-date sequence in which Merrick is smugly frustrated that his beach companions think his exclusive, priceless, label-removed wine is undrinkable swill not worth 50 cents. (“Aw, Tom, they saw you coming,” Joe jokes.) The warmhearted, romantically padded ending may have all the markings of Capra corn, but Coburn and Arthur’s platonic chemistry is effortlessly charming, and Norman Krasna’s Oscar-nominated screenplay can still pull out some hearty laughs many decades later.
Blu-ray of the Week: “Little Fugitive”
And further tales from Coney Island… It’s hard not to be hyperbolic about 1953’s micro-budget wonder “Little Fugitive,” an Academy Award nominee, Library of Congress selection for the National Film Registry, Silver Lion winner and Truffaut-vetted precursor to the Nouvelle Vague. There are certainly shades of “The 400 Blows” in the joyous boardwalk adventures of young Joey (Richie Andrusco), the eponymous seven-year-old who runs away to the land of hot dogs and carousels after being tricked into thinking he’s killed his older brother. Today’s digital filmmakers could steal a few tips from the mobile, handheld, ever-precise camerawork of filmmaker Morris Engel (sharing writer and director credits with Ray Ashley and Engel’s photographer wife Ruth Orkin, who also edited), which doesn’t just emulate Joey’s childlike point of view of beach side curiosities, but also his spontaneous feelings of excitement, shame and melancholy. Photojournalistically, the film could be seen as a proto-vérité doc about a forgotten Brooklyn, but as a neo-realist portrait of childhood glories and fears, it has all the timeless poetry and directness of a magic trick. Kino Lorber’s stellar new Blu-ray, featuring the Museum of Modern Art’s immaculate restoration, includes two featurettes by Mary Engel that places her filmmaking parents in context: 1995’s “Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” and 2008’s even richer “Morris Engel: The Independent.”
Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pick: “From Beyond”
It’s been said that the cosmic horror and science fiction of legendary author H. P. Lovecraft (“The Call of Cthulhu”) is too profound, eccentric and married to its literary form to be adapted to other mediums, but Chicago-born filmaker Stuart Gordon’s faithfully icky takes (“Re-Animator,” “Dagon,” “Castle Freak”) are pretty damn vital to the genre-cinema canon. Originally a 1920 short story about a scientist who creates a resonating, electronic device that stimulates the pineal gland and allows users to perceive monstrous new planes of existence, “From Beyond” stretches the mad-doctor trope into depraved sexuality, Cronenberg-ian body-horror, even broad political satire. After the crazed Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) is found decapitated next to his nefarious Resonator, his skittish assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) is committed to the psych ward, where his incredulous but true stories are investigated by Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, in what she rightly calls her best role on a supplemental interview), a buttoned-up doc whose uninhibited erotic side will soon be aroused by that horrid machine. Pandora’s parallel gateway is opened, and the flesh-stretching, inventively gooey practical effects worm their way into the Day-Glo mood lighting and, in turn, our brains. Gordon and his lively cast are forthcoming in their feature-length commentary, and the storyboard-to-film comparisons are a hoot, but the extended interviews—especially the 23-minute bit with the F/X team—hide the choice anecdotes. One of the crew almost lost two fingers on set, and who knew that the fake pineal glands—bobbing, phallic worms that extended from the foreheads of the overly-Resonated—nearly cost the film an X-rating?
Hillis has written about film for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, LA
Weekly, Variety, Filmmaker, IFC News, Premiere and Spin. He is the
former curator of the reRun Gastropub Theater, and the new owner of
Video Free Brooklyn (three-time “Best Video Store in NYC” winner,