Black Book (Sony)
After the crash-and-burn that ended Paul Verhoeven’s career as a director of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, the director took some time off from filmmaking before returning to his native country, the Netherlands, to make this World War II potboiler reeking of sex and betrayal. Star Carice van Houten is all wide eyes and pursed, pouty lips — shoot her in monochrome and you’d swear you were watching an actress from a 1940s melodrama. (Well, but for her copious nudity, I suppose.) It’s not a great film, but a very entertaining one — certainly good enough to qualify as Verhoeven’s comeback. Looking back at my original review, I’m surprised I gave it only a B, not a B+.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Black Book or Black Book [Blu-ray]
Knocked Up (Universal)
There’s something so close to offensive simplemindedness about this whole enterprise that it’s a wonder the results are so strong — dirty, funny, and only suffering from a general adherence to mainstream formula. The subjects of pregnancy and childbirth really do add a new dimension to the ever-present sex comedy, and Judd Apatow’s witty, family-values approach (only glancing reference is made to abortion, and you have to figure a Hollywood comedy isn’t going there anyway) manages to avoid pandering.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Knocked Up (Unrated Widescreen Edition), Knocked Up – Unrated (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition), or Knocked Up [HD DVD]
Death Proof (Weinstein Company)
OK, boo and hiss to the Weinsteins’ decision not to release the complete, underrated and underpatronized Grindhouse experience to DVD. (At least not yet.) While I’m not sure how Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror will play divorced from its nudge-and-a-wink omnibus context, Death Proof should be a strong experience on its own. Tarantino’s idea of girl talk may be more than a bit indulgent, but he backs it up with one hell of a car chase. And who doesn’t want to see the “missing reel” that includes Vanessa Ferlito giving Kurt Russell a lap dance?
Buy it from Amazon.com: Grindhouse Presents, Death Proof – Extended and Unrated (Two-Disc Special Edition)
From Beyond (MGM)
Stuart Gordon’s second horror movie (after the classic Re-Animator) is still his second best — only the 2001 Lovecraft adaptation Dagon, which finally goes pleasantly nutso in the last reel, registers as a close third. Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton reunite for another Lovecraft-inspired splatter romp, this one about scientific experiments on the human pineal gland opening up a portal into another dimension. I can’t vouch for the importance of the restored material in this “director’s cut,” which I haven’t yet seen (it actually premiered on HD cable in 2006). But here’s Gordon, quoted in a 2006 press release from cable channel Monsters HD, on what hit the cutting room floor when the MPAA got hold of his original cut:
“The scene that upset them the most (and as I describe it, it is truly disgusting) is when Jeffrey Combs’ character’s pineal gland has gone out of control and he’s hungry for brains. He attacks a psychiatrist, played by my wife [Carolyn Purdy-Gordon], and he plants his mouth onto her eye socket and starts sucking. And the material that was cut out was when he actually sucks her eyeball out, spits it onto the floor and the eyeball lands looking back up at him and he continues to suck her brains through the eye socket and the camera pushes in. It’s really disturbing and it’s the longest restored piece, my guess is it’s about 30 seconds or so. I think it’s the most horrific moment in the whole movie.”
If this sounds like a good time I’m pretty sure you’ll get a kick out of it.
Dexter: The First Season (Showtime/Paramount)
Premium cable’s answer to C.S.I. is this comic crime drama about a forensics expert at the Miami police department who moonlights as a serial killer. Dexter is a real crowd-pleaser, in large part because the show’s writers have figured out how to walk a fine line between condemning Dexter’s actions and making him thoroughy likable. His victims, you see, are already guilty of their own heinous crimes — in many cases, Dexter just has to track them down before his colleagues actually get to them, or even realize what they’re looking for. The central performance by Michael C. Hall is a make-or-break proposition, veering between hammy affability and high-strung sadism. If you don’t appreciate Hall’s smirky, snarky approach to the material, Dexter is a tough sell. But Dexter boasts a strong supporting cast as well as a glossy visual style (I interviewed the HD cinematographer, Romeo Tirone, last year for Film & Video), a propulsive story arc that’ll push you easily from episode to episode, and a winning playfulness about fairly heavy psychological issues.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Dexter – The First Season
The Lives of Others (Sony)
The German film The Lives of Others is about the East German secret police, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to suggest certain parallels between the Stasi’s eavesdropping and intimidation tactics and certain post-9/11 tendencies in the contemporary U.S. government. Writing for the White Plains Times earlier this year, I noted that “Ulrich Mühe plays Captain Wiesler, a surveillance and interrogation specialist with big eyes and a serious, perpetual glare…. [He] is terrific as the conflicted functionary who mounts a covert, one-man struggle against the orders he’s meant to follow.” (As it turns out, Mühe — who also appeared as the father in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games — died last month of stomach cancer. He was 54.) I also complained then about writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “mile-wide sentimental streak,” but I’ve softened a bit on that count. This is really solid filmmaking, and it should translate well to DVD.
Buy it from Amazon.com: The Lives of Others
If you ever felt, as I did, there was some missing backstory associated with the smartly amusing Shaun of the Dead and its somewhat-less-brilliant follow-up, Hot Fuzz, you may be excited to make the acquaintance of Spaced, the consistently ingenious British TV show where director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost cut their comic teeth. Storywise, it’s no relation to Shaun of the Dead, even though it feels somewhat like a prequel — and it’s a bit thrilling to think of Tim Bisley, the videogame-addicted comic-book artist Pegg plays in Spaced finally given a chance to face the zombies who populate his dreams in a real-world post-apocalyptic showdown.
Bill Chambers was kind enough to send me word earlier in the summer of an impending exhaustive, four-disc (!) version of Dust Devil coming from Subversive Cinema. (I wrote about this and its predecessor, Hardware, at Cinemarati in December.) You might think the last thing the world needs is a fuggin’ four-DVD version of what amounts to a solid B horror movie, cult following or no. But it looks definitive — sure, it’s got the two versions of the film, with audio commentary and a “featurette.” But it’s also got several unrelated documentaries by director Richard Stanley, on the subjects of Afghanistan, Haitian voodoo, and the search for the Holy Grail. Of course it’s possible they all suck. But maybe not. And it can’t help but be a big upgrade from the German DVD I picked up at Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s last year. For $29.95, I think I’ll take the chance. Scarecrow Video has it listed as a 9/26 release and is taking pre-orders.
Because I’m a big ol’ geek, the best news I got all week is that The Double Life of Véronique — the first Krzysztof Kieslowski movie I ever saw (and, probably not coincidentally, my favorite) — is coming to DVD through the auspices of The Criterion Collection. It will have a boatload of extras. My heart leaped into my throat when I saw that someone at Criterionforum.org (second post on this page) had posted a frame grab from an existing (European) Véronique DVD put out by MK2 that had the color all wrong. (I saw it three times on its original theatrical release, and at no point was the image out-and-out green as it seems to be on the MK2 disc.) But I trust Criterion has got it right. (Thanks, Criterion! Usually, I have to break down and buy an import version of a favorite movie before you’ll announce its domestic release.)
Blue Underground released this notorious and oft-censored installment in the Black Emanuelle series, directed by the well-known schlockmeister Joe D’Amato and starring the knockout Laura Gemser as a labored metaphor for the free love movement. Emanuelle in America boasts the softcore action you’d expect, including some nude underwater frolicking and copious amounts of disinterested fondling and caressing. It also delivers the action you don’t expect — like a woman masturbating a horse (yes, this actually happens on screen) and some hardcore, ahem, inserts shot from the kinds of camera angles that might have been commonplace in the 1970s but now seem rather unusual.