With apologies, this week's column was delayed due to the whirling, queso-and-beer-and-movies dervish called the SXSW Film Festival. In fact, tonight in Austin there will be a special screening of Dave Grohl's rock-doc crowd pleaser "Sound City," which dropped on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Grohl and his Nirvana bandmates recorded "Nevermind" in that film's titular recording studio some 22 years ago, and three more before that? "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Willow" were released, both newly freshened up in 25th anniversary Blu-ray releases. But now on to the real treasures from this past Tuesday...
"Ministry of Fear"
Less expressionistic than he'd come to be known for, Fritz Lang's creepy 1947 espionage noir—a loose adaptation of Graham Greene's novel—may not prop up the cinematic canon like such pillars as "Metropolis," "M" or "The Big Heat," but it's still a ominously stylish and riveting piece of postwar pulp. Simultaneously jittery and suave, the guilt-ridden Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from an asylum during the Blitz in England, accidentally accepts a cake with a hidden film baked inside (related: Jafar Panahi's wonderful "This is Not a Film" hits DVD this week, look it up!), and plunges into a shadowy nightmare pitched somewhere between Kafkaesque surrealism and the innocent everyman's hell of a Hitchcock thriller. Nazi spies turn out to be the true villains who want the microfilm back, but every immaculate black-and-white shot seems paranoid and everyone a suspect, including a frosty femme fatale, a seemingly blind train passenger, a séance-holding fortune teller who shares her name with an older gypsy, and a twofaced tailor who dials a telephone with scissors almost as frighteningly oversized as the nihilists' dream sequence in "The Big Lebowski." (That's not a referential stretch: a gunshot through the door of a darkened room, letting in a hole of outside light, was cribbed by the Coens in their debut "Blood Simple.") The third act turns more conventional and exposition-heavy in Seton I. Miller's screenplay, but to reiterate, a lesser Lang picture is by no means a lousy one. In Criterion's typical "film school in a box" fashion, be sure to check out their illuminating, 17-minute interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney.
"Expectations / Confessions"
In his book "Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses," author Howard Hampton considers porn director Anthony Spinelli (1927 – 2000) to be the ambitious real-life equivalent of Burt Reynolds' character in "Boogie Nights," before nailing his signature style as such: "Spinelli's penchant was for gutter psychology and a worm's-eye-view of sexual conquest." You wouldn't expect the forgotten work of a notorious hardcore merchant to find its way to a 2K scan remastering, but that's why you have to love (or is it lust?) the new boutique label Vinegar Syndrome, who promises to restore "a massive number of exploitation titles" from the bowels of genre cinema past. On their double-feature disc of scuzzy X-rated productions Spinelli directed for Essex in 1977, "Expectations" takes a slight edge over the bored-housewife hooker humpfest "Confessions." In the former film, insatiable San Francisco socialite Margo (Delania Raffino) meets hippie swinger Montana (Chris Cassidy) and the two decide to switch identities for shits and giggles. The scheme is sort of explained in Margo's stoned Penthouse Forum voiceovers, likely recorded after the sex scenes were shot, but who's paying attention to anything but the filthy blowjobs, interracial lesbian cuddling, close-up lactations, and the half-abusive, half-sensual dominations of AVN hall of famer Joey Silvera? ("I'm gonna cut your hair off," he quietly menaces. "I changed my mind. I'm gonna eat you.") Be warned, especially if you're overly sensitive: the tanlines back then were Coppertone severe, and the lack of manscaping adds an extra hairy layer of sleaze, perhaps even a palpable musk.
That frivolous 2011 lawsuit, in which "Drive" distributor Film District was unsuccessfully sued by a woman who felt the Cannes-winning art film was being misleadingly marketed as "The Fast and the Furious," could have been squashed even faster if she had waited until Hong Kong's Cheang Pou-soi ("Accident") made his perfectly slick hybrid of the two. A cool, classy crime thriller produced by beloved auteur Johnnie To should get some cinephiles onboard, but those looking at its generic box art might not realize this smart, charismatic diversion shares some of the existentialist DNA of Walter Hill's "The Driver" (itself a "Drive" inspiration). On the Kowloon police force's "Invisible Squad," speed-freak rookie Chan (Shawn Yue) and his soon-to-be-retiring partner Lo Fung (veteran actor Anthony Wong) chase four-wheeled fugitives in plainclothes and souped-up Audis. A mainland getaway driver from Lo Fung's past returns to HK to extract a cohort from prison, and the familiar but tightly drawn dynamics are set in place as Chan becomes hotheadedly obsessed with catching him and learning the perfect 90-degree spinout. The action erupts so quick and often (seven or eight chases in a mere 86 minutes) that it's almost laughable how nobody seems to react to its frequency, but there's enough fatalistic sincerity in the teacher-and-pupil character building and moody, elegantly controlled kineticism to the pacing and camerawork here that even the film's narrative simplicity feels rewarding.
Blu-ray of the Week: "Tristana"
(Cohen Media Group)
Falling between two of Luis Buñuel's most recognized masterworks (1967's "Belle de Jour" and 1972's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie") and thematically similar to his 1961 "Viridiana," this remastered 1970 provocation is more classically complex than surrealist in its deliciously disturbing take on power shifts, Catholicism and sexual mores in 19th century Spain. Adapted from Benito Pérez Galdós' 1892 novella, this dark-humored, occasionally Freudian psychodrama stars a 26-year-old Catherine Deneuve (dubbed in Spanish) as the eponymous, orphaned innocent who is taken under the ward of her rich, perverted uncle Don Lope (Buñuel late-period regular Fernando Rey). An outspokenly anti-clerical Socialist, Rey's actually poor aristocrat does his best blaspheming while rationalizing the ravaging of his no-longer-virginal niece; she then rebels against his hypocrisies and runs off with a studly young painter named Horatio (Franco Nero, the original "Django"). Time passes, and the once naïve but now baggage-heavy Tristana develops a cancerous tumor, leading her to return to Don Lope's side, but she only accepts his marriage proposal (with vengeful bitterness) after having her leg amputated. The plot might sound like a melodrama of the soapiest variety, but Buñuel subtly hypnotizes with lyrically streamlined stagings and dreamlike imagery, most notably a pendulous bell clapper in the hallucinatory form of Don Lope's decapitated head. On the stunning Blu-ray edition, the always astute critic and programmer Kent Jones has a feature-length commentary chat with Deneuve, a deconstructive half-hour visual essay with Buñuel scholar Peter William Evans, and an alternate ending from the European release.