Knightriders (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is easily the gentlest film ever made by George Romero, a romantic story of gypsy bikers who create a kind of traveling Renaissance faire built around the chivalric ideal of an Arthurian court. There’s a streak of the Camelot story played out all in modern times, but on a more intimate, human scale which Romero uses explore the dynamics of idealists in the real world who play-act their fantasies in a communal setting. Ed Harris took his first leading role as Billy, the benevolent king of the troupe and the man who created this scruffy nomadic community and struggle to hold on to his singular vision as the troupe grows. He’s a moral rock but also unbending and at times fanatical in his devotion to the code, which takes its toll on the individuals who joined this collective ideal for reasons of their own.
Tom Savini, Romero’s special effects artist and a memorable biker co-star of Dawn of the Dead, is quite striking as the charismatic “dark knight” Morgan, who has no investment in the Arthurian ideal but likes the spirit of competition and the charge of jousting on cycles, and Brother Blue is the troupe’s Merlin, a medical doctor dropout turned shaman and storyteller, but the entire cast meshes in the most naturalistic ensemble of Romero’s career. He’s so devoted to their stories that he lets the film run on the long side and fudged some of the practical details and decisions for the sake of dramatic moments, but he’s committed to keeping their shows firmly in the world of permits and insurance and first aid tents and making accommodations to modern society a matter of degree where opinions differ. The stunt work is excellent but down to earth, executed with a mix of circus showmanship and gearhead sportsmanship. Getting rough is part of the deal, but it’s all in fun.
For all the medieval throwback of clashing swords, suits of armor and knights on motorbikes, Knightriders isn’t a fantasy. It’s a modern film about the difficulties of sustaining an idealistic alternative to the material world, sixties values meeting human nature, and Romero views it with optimism. The folks that this band attracts are not all of one mind, but they are ultimately bound by a sense of community and commitment to an ideal.
The Blu-ray debut is mastered with vivid color (it brings out the rich greens of the forest scenes that set the idyllic tone of the film) and a clean image with only minor signs of wear. It looks great and features the commentary track recorded by director George Romero, actors Tom Savini, John Amplas, and Christine Romero, and film historian Chris Stavrakis for the Anchor Bay DVD release over a decade ago plus vintage video footage of the motorcycle stunt riding. Exclusive to the disc are three new interviews with Romero, Savini and Ed Harris, who has nothing but good memories of the film and pride for his performance.
Documentarian Chris Marker and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme shot Le Joli Mai (Icarus, DVD, VOD), a portrait of Paris conducted through random interviews with ordinary citizens and minor celebrities on the streets in May, 1962, just after the cease-fire that ended the war in Algiers. With a portable handheld camera, they take an informal survey of what’s on the minds of a cross-section of Paris inhabitants while the film segues into more political territory for the final section. An early piece of direct cinema from an idiosyncratic filmmaker (Marker made this non-fiction epic concurrently with his experimental science-fiction short La Jetee), it’s quite a snapshot of a place and time and it comes to DVD after a new restoration and revival brought it back to American cinemas after fifty years. Simone Signoret narrates the English language version, but this edition also includes the original French soundtrack, with narration by Yves Montand. Both feature English subtitles. Check out Glenn Erickson’s review for more detail.
The two-disc set includes three bonus short documentaries from the era – Playtime in Paris (1962) directed by Catherine Varlin (with editing by Marker and cinematography by Lhomme A Distant Gaze (1964) directed by Jean Ravel, and Exercise in Director Cinema featuring Lhomme – plus 17 minutes of deleted scenes and a 26-page booklet with interviews and essays.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition (Shout Factory, DVD) celebrates by premiering four episodes never before released on disc – the Hammer Films sci-fi film Moon Zero Two, the Russian fantasy The Day the Earth Froze, The Leech Woman from 1959, and the British giant monster movie Gorgo. Joel Hodgson (later replaced by Mike Nelson) and bots on the Satellite of Love – Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Cam-bot – yuck it up with heckling commentary as the films run and present their own skits during breaks. In addition, the set features two long-out-of-print fan-favorite episodes: Joel’s last show, Mitchell and Mike’s first episode, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. The five-disc set also features the three-part documentary “Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000,” featurettes, bonus interviews, and four mini-posters among the supplements, all collected in a tin case.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman – 25 Films (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is officially the biggest original box set to come from the Criterion imprint. The 25 films, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the wandering blind masseur and master swordsman, are mastered from new digital restorations and collected on 9 Blu-rays and 18 DVDs and comes with a 1978 documentary, a new interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns, trailers for every film, and booklet with essays and notes. Review copies were limited in this one so I didn’t get a chance to look at it, but I can guarantee that this is will make a few Christmas wish lists this year.
Jeroen Krabbé directs Left Luggage (Hen’s Tooth Video, DVD), a drama set in the Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium, and starring Laura Fraser, Isabella Rossellini, Topol, Marianne Saegebrecht, Maximilian Schell and director Krabbé.
The Horror Show (Shout Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the 1989 serial killer film produced by Sean Cunningham and starring Lance Henriksen as a cop pursuing serial killer Brion James, who continues his reign of terror after the electric chair turns him into a high-voltage supervillain.