Snowpiercer (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), an international production from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho based on a French graphic novel, is a high-speed metaphor speeding down the science fiction tracks of genre cinema. That’s the way I like this brand of filmmaking: with the metaphors big, muscular, detailed, and punchy. You either give yourself over to the allegory, in this case a giant train as a self-contained eco-system traveling through a world plunged into an ice age with passengers segregated into castes and the oppressed poor rising up in revolution, or give up. There’s not much in between.
Think “The Odyssey” as reworked by Karl Marx and set on the Siberian Express. Chris Evans (Captain America himself) is the angry young leader in the dungeon of steerage class battling his way through the train, car by car, to the engine, seeing his fellow revolutionaries cut down by the stormtrooper soldiers as the poor, huddled masses progress through the levels of privilege and decadence. And Tilda Swinton all but steals the film from him as the devoted functionary dedicated to class division and population control through repression and purges, embracing the essence of her character as both live action political cartoon and deluded acolyte of an Oz-like ruler with Darwinian tools. It is the class system of the industrial revolution in microcosm played out as high-concept action movie, and with Bong (The Host) at the helm, it’s a violent, graphically dynamic journey.
Blu-ray and DVD with hosted by Geek Nation film critic Scott Weinberg and featuring William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew Mcweeny (Hitfix.com), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), Peter S. Hall (Movies.com), and my old colleague James Rocchi (who is identified as MSN Movies, despite the fact the site effectively shut down a year ago). A second disc features additional supplements: a nearly hour-long French language documentary “Transperceneige: From the Black Page to the Black Screen,” the shorter “The Birth of Snowpiercer,” a piece on ‘The Characters” with actor interviews,” an animated prologue, and addition interviews and concept art galleries.
Stunt Squad (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1977 Italian poliziottesco from director Domenico Paolella, is not quite the stunt movie you might expect from the title, but it is a vivid crime thriller with a truly vicious criminal nemesis and a strike force of a special police unit created to respond to the protection racket enforcers who use phone-activated bombs to terrorize shopkeepers and citizens alike. Marcel Bozzuffi, familiar as one of the drug traffickers in The French Connection (he’s the one getting shot by Hackman at the top of the subway steps in the famous action still), is Police Inspector Grifi, an honest cop in Bologna tired of the mob getting away with murder, and Vittorio Mezzogiorno is the brutal, amoral enforcer, a handsome but cold-blooded character who never wears a shirt under his jacket and never hesitates to shoot at the slightest hint of the police. The squad doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the picture but that doesn’t stop Paolella from teasing audiences with flashforward shots of the cycle team in action.
Domenico Paolella isn’t as sharp or as accomplished as Fernando di Leo, the godfather of the genre (Raro has already released di Leo’s films in fine editions), but he has an edge and bring a vivid sense of outrage at the mobsters. There’s no sense of romantic criminal code here and no sense of mob politics. The mafia is an evil organization hated and feared by the public, who have no respect for the police that allow such brazen criminals to get away with murder. So Inspector Grifi is given free rein to do what it takes to stop the bombings, protocols be damned, and the squad goes into action, with the cycle riders tag-teaming in their pursuit of gangsters on the run.
In Italian with English subtitles (which are sloppy and riddled with grammatical gaffs; they could use a proofreader) and an alternate English dub track, with a video introduction by Mike Malloy, who also writes the essay in the accompanying booklet.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – The Saturday morning kids show created by Paul Reubens was the most imaginative and energetic children’s show to hit Saturday morning TV when it premiered in 1986, and to this day its playfulness and creativity is only matched by such imaginative shows as Adventure Time. Reuben’s Pee-wee was first created for an adult cabaret show and then turned into the goofy innocent in a boyish suit and bow tie of the hit movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In this series, he’s a squeaky, gawking, endlessly whimsical child man in a land of make-believe, the sugar-boosted host of his own psychedelic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in a toy box of a clubhouse. Each episode is packed with colorful characters, inventive activity, animated interludes, and peals of party screams whenever the word of the day is uttered. The regular playhouse buddies include Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, and William Marshall as the King Of Cartoons, who appears to show clips from surreal cartoons of the 1930s, mostly by the Fleischer Bros. The show is both sophisticated and innocent, finding a simple joy in goofy jokes and make-believe while slipping in innuendo that the adults can recognize but never degrades into salaciousness.
It won 22 Emmy Awards during its six-year run and this set, remastered for Blu-ray from the original 35mm masters (previous DVD releases were from the show’s master videotapes), shows a detail unseen in previous incarnations. And this is a show where detail counts; the art direction and design of this show is amazing. 45 episodes on eight discs, plus four hours of new bonus material, including ten featurettes on the development, design, and characters of the show, all with new cast and crew interviews, and the 1988 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, a prime time show with special gusts Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Charo, Del Rubio Triplets, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Grace Jones, Oprah Winfrey, k.d. lang, Little Richard, and Zsa Zsa Gabor calabrating the holiday season with activities, games, fruitcakes, songs, and a Christmas wish list is so long that Pee-wee creates a present shortage around the world!
The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years 1951-1955 (Timeless, DVD) – Red Skelton was as much clown as TV comic and he reigned supreme as America’s favorite TV funnyman for two decades, where he played such characters as goofy bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper, boozy Willie Lump Lump, inept Sheriff Deadeye, punch-drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg, and good-hearted tramp Freddie the Freeloader (in classic clown make-up and often performed in pantomime) in the spotlight skits of the half-hour show. It’s not a one-man show but it feels like it the way he goofs, ad-libs, and keeps his supporting players off balance in these early episodes, and while there are notable guest stars, they are little more than walk-ons in the early seasons. In later episodes, he incorporated them more fully into the show, such as “Dial ‘B’ for Brush” with Clem Kadiddlehopper as a traveling salesman in a castle with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Vampirella, and “An USO Thanksgiving” with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It’s a piece of TV history—this was one of the most highly rated programs of its day—and a tribute to a beloved comic. 90 half-hour episodes from the show’s first four seasons, from 1951 to 1955, on ten discs, plus a bonus disc with a bonus episode, a complete dress rehearsal of the episode, and the 1955 Look Magazine awards hosted by Skelton.
Mad Men: The Final Season, Part 1 (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), like Breaking Bad before it, splits the final season of the defining AMC series into two parts, essentially making two short seasons of it. This set features seven episodes that ran in 2014, which are set in 1969 and chart the efforts of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to work his way back into the good graces of the company he helped build (and then sabotage with his impulsive actions), the evolution of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) into his creative equal, and the odyssey of senior partner Roger (John Slattery), who flirts with counterculture drugs and free love until he mans up to become a true leader in the firm. On Blu-ray and DVD, with featurettes.
A Letter to Momo (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), an animated feature from Japanese filmmaker Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin-Roh), tells the tale of an 11-year-old girl dealing with the grief of her father’s death with the dubious help of three mischievous spirit creatures who live in the attic of her rural island home. Features original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles and optional English dub track, plus a featurette. Reviews here.
Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays (HBO, DVD) presents Billy Crystal’s one-man Broadway show, based on his autobiography of growing up in New York. The DVD features a longer version of the show than seen on cable.
More imports: Le Chef (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) from France, starring Jean Reno; The Last Sentence (Music Box, DVD, VOD), a Swedish drama from Jan Troell; Siddharth (Zeitgeist, DVD) from India; and Cannibal (Film Movement, DVD) from Spain.
More new releases of a more mainstream variety available on disc and Cable VOD this week: Sex Tape (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD) with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, the family adventure Earth to Echo (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD), the zombie romantic comedy Life After Beth (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the standup comedy film The Fluffy Movie (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) with Gabriel Iglesias, and the horror sequel The Purge: Anarchy (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD).
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
We the Economy: 20 Short Film You Can’t Afford to Miss, a collection produced by Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Morgan Spurlock’s Cinelan and directed by a group of filmmakers including Ramin Bahrani, Joe Berlinger, Catherine Hardwicke, Mary Harron, Steve James, Barbara Kopple, Adam McKay, and Jessica Yu, debuts for free on multiple platforms and streaming sites (including Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Fandor, SnagFilm, Crackle, Google Play, and YouTube), cable VOD, and other platforms (including an app you can download at the official website).
Listen Up Philip, a witty and somewhat discomforting portrait of an abrasive young New York novelist (Jason Schwatzman) who gets lessons in entitled arrogance from a Philip Roth-like literary legend, is an indie comic drama with literary flourish. It opened on New York and Los Angeles theaters last week and is now available everywhere on cable pay-per-view and web-based video-on-demand.
On Thursday, October 23, before it hits theaters, the anthology horror film V/H/S: Viral, featuring short films from six indie horror directors, will be available via Cable VOD.
On Friday, October 24, 1,000 Times Good Night (Film Movement, Cable VOD), starring Juliette Binoche as a war photographer, comes to cable VOD the same day it opens on New York. Also on Friday is Stonehearst Asylum, a thriller starring Kate Beckinsale and Michael Caine.
Available to purchase on Digital HD before disc is Jersey Boys (Warner, Digital HD), Brett Ratner’s Hercules (Paramount, Digital HD) with Dwayne Johnson, and the dance sequel Step Up All In (Lionsgate, Digital HD).
La Dolce Vita (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
F For Fake (Criterion, Blu-ray)
The Naked Face (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gorky Park (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
To All a Good Night (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Girl Hunters (Scorpion, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Woman in Flames (Film Chest, DVD)
Hugh Hefner (MVD, DVD)
Borgen: The Complete Series (MHz, DVD)
Soul Man: The Complete Second Season (Shout Factory, DVD)
Annie Oakley: The Complete TV Collection (Cinedigm, DVD)
Santa’s Magic Toy Bag (Legend, DVD)
Silent Witness: Season One (BBC, DVD)
Silent Witness: Season Seventeen (BBC, DVD)
Downton Abbey: Seasons 1-4 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
Unit One: Series 1 (MHz, DVD)
Unit One: Series 2 (MHz, DVD)
Unit One: Series 3 (MHz, DVD)
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (PBS, DVD)
Nova: Rise of the Hackers (PBS, DVD)
For a Woman (Film Movement, DVD)
Satellite (IndiePix, DVD)
Kundo: Age of the Rampant (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
Canopy (Monterey, DVD, Digital, VOD)
CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (Paramount, DVD)
Mona Lisa is Missing (Virgil, DVD, VOD)
Nuclear Nation (First Run, DVD)
Uranium Drive-In (First Run, DVD)
The Scribbler (XLrator, Blu-ray, DVD)
Play Hooky (Wild Eye, DVD, VOD)
Wrong Turn 6: Last Return (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Misfire (Image, DVD, Digital)
Autumn Blood (Arc, DVD, VOD)
Mobilize (Disinformation, DVD)
The Search for Simon (MVD, DVD)