June 22, 2010

Death Race 2000

Also this week: Red Desert, Time Bandits, Hung: Season One, Le combat dans l'île

Highlight of the Week
Death Race 2000 (Shout! Factory) In the year 2000, the national sporting event of choice will neither be the Super Bowl nor the World Series. Friends, the sport of the future will be a game in which drivers earn points by killing pedestrians while trying to stay alive themselves. Now three-for-three (with the release of Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Suburbia last May), Shout! Factory knocks another Corman classic out of the park with their release of one of my all-time favourite exploitation titles. Post–Kung Fu David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, the reigning champ, who faces stiff competition from rookie racer Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, portrayed by pre-Rocky Sly Stallone. This may be geared for cult-friendly viewers, but behind the gore, boobs and DIY production values is a campy political satire that is more potent today than it was in 1975. If you have even the remotest interest in what I’m writing about, makeDeath Race 2000 this weekend’s priority viewing. Available on DVD and Blu, either way you’re getting a terrific presentation in its original aspect ratio. Just don’t mistake this for Paul W.S. Anderson’s crap-tastic remake. New and old extras are outstanding: we get loads of commentaries, featurettes, interviews, poster art and more. 
Also Available
Red Desert (Criterion, E1) Michelangelo Antonioni’s first foray into colour has always held my vote as one of the most aesthetically mind-blowing films ever. So you can imagine my delight upon scoring Criterion’s high-def release of this long-out-of-print title that never looked hot on home video to begin with. As often is the case with Antonioni, plot plays second fiddle to mood and atmosphere. Muse/partner Monica Vitti plays a disenchanted mother and wife wandering through bleak industrial landscapes intensified by abstract images and sounds. The closest thing a live-action narrative can get to painting or poetry, Red Desert comes wholeheartedly recommended to anyone interested in the transgressive capacity of cinema. It comes as little surprise that Criterion’s AV is spot-on (adjusting those hues is not easy), as are welcomed extras like scholarly commentary, archival interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, two docs and more.
Hung: The Complete First Season (Warner) TV sensibilities often vary, but I don’t get how viewers overlooked the first season of this particular HBO series. For starters, the pilot is helmed by exec-producer Alexander Payne, who hasn’t done much of anything since 2004’s Sideways. Second, Thomas Jane is really, really good (really!) as a divorcee who lands himself in the male prostitution biz in order to keep afloat after his house accidentally burns down. (Amazingly surreal sequence, I might add.) And it’s not just the pilot that rocks; all 10 episodes are consistently well acted and scripted, injecting the right amount of humour and drama in all the right places. If you need a break from all the vampire noise, look no further. Extras: commentaries, interviews, personal ads.
Le combat dans l’île (Zeitgeist) Thérèse notwithstanding, Alain Cavalier’s films have gone under the nouvelle vague radar of just about every film academic. Sure, he doesn’t have the universal appeal of Truffaut, Chabrol or Godard, but his oeuvre is not without it distinctive merits. A little background info: he began as an assistant director for Louis Malle, who paid it forward by assisting Cavalier with this 1962 feature debut. As a direct response to the political uproar in France during that period, the film is part neo-noir and part allegorical love triangle, where the affections of a woman (the then-24 and stunning Romy Schneider) culminate to a, well, combat dans l’île. Exquisite black-and-white photography from renowned DP Pierre Lhomme — further enhanced by Zeitgeist’s stellar restoration — sweetens the pot. Extras: nice 2010 retrospective by Cavalier, rare photos and a swell booklet. 
Time Bandits (Alliance) Four years after Jabberwocky, Terry Gilliam continued his own bizarro brand of filmmaking with this history-revising dark comedy that, nevertheless, is stacked with classic Python-isms.Time Bandits (also hilariously translated on this DVD to Bandits Bandits en français) has already seen numerous extras-stuffed releases. This ain’t one of them. All we get is a brief interview and nothing more. But wait, Alliance is now the first to put out a high-def transfer, and the result is somewhat pleasing. Why they continue to release part of their Blu-ray catalogue in 1080i (rather than 1080p) is irritating. Since Time Bandits was never meant to look like Avatar, I’ll let this one slide. But seriously guys, if Troma can do it….