by Don Stradley
Let the shopping begin!
If you love a good historical epic, you can start your August spending spree with a pair of fascinating reissues. From the glory days of CinemaScope comes Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a bigger than life drama from the great Howard Hawks, who never met a genre he didn't like. Filmed on location in Egypt, this gargantuan production involved thousands of extras, gorgeous sets, and enough desert scenery to give you some serious dry mouth. Add to this a beautiful but greedy queen played by prime Joan Collins, and you have a great Blu-ray to savor. The new 4K restoration is from the original camera negative, and the extras include audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (and even some old commentary by Hawks!) Since this is from the Warner Bros. vault, you'll also get a Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Sahara Hare." Bugs Bunny and Joan Collins? You won't find a better pairing this summer! (Color, 104 mins, available July 18)
If Joan Collins in Egypt whets your appetite, you might follow Land of the Pharaohs with another new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection, Helen of Troy (1956). Much like Hawks, director Robert Wise got his start with smaller, grittier films and went on to direct big screen spectaculars like this one. From the press release: "One woman possesses a beauty that launches a thousand ships and sparks a war that destroys the greatest city of its age--Helen of Troy." Rossana Podesta, who was much better known in Italy than in America, plays the title character. The film also stars Stanley Baker, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and a very young Brigitte Bardot. If a woman destroying a city with her beauty isn't enough for you, the new disc also includes three "Behind the Cameras" sequences from the Warner Bros. Presents TV series and, of course, a cartoon entitled "Napoleon Bunny-Part." (Color, 111 mins, available July 25)
Elvis Presley starred in a couple dozen films of differing quality. Some were excellent, some were silly and formulaic. A new Blu-ray of Spinout (1966) is coming from the Warner Archives. You can see for yourself which side this one falls on. Elvis plays Mike McCoy, a racing car driver who happens to be a rock singer (of course) and is being pursued by three women (Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain, and Deborah Walley). Though it feels like one of Elvis' routine workouts, it does feature some fun musical moments, the usual parade of pretty girls, and snazzy little cars. In a nod to the times that were a-changing, Presley even spruced up the otherwise middling soundtrack with a Bob Dylan song, "Tomorrow is a Long Time." (Dylan once told Rolling Stone that he was quite fond of Elvis' version.) Also, one of the female love interests happens to be the drummer in Mike McCoy’s band, which in 1966 was somewhat forward thinking. For those wondering, Spinout was directed by film veteran Norman Taurog, who was 67 and suffering from poor eyesight but could still whip up a high-energy party scene for the gosh-darn King of Rock 'n' Roll. It may not be one of Presley's great movies, but Spinout is lively and fun. As a bonus, you'll get a couple of Tom & Jerry cartoons: "Catty-Cornered," and "Filet Meow." (Color, 90 mins, available August 29)
The 1980s are often dismissed by film buffs as an era of Hollywood blockbusters and stupid teen films, but the early part of the decade yielded some fine and interesting movies. Consider Gloria (1980) from that independent trailblazer, John Cassavetes. With his wife Gena Rowlands in the title role, Cassavetes weaves a suspenseful yet earthy tale of a former mobster's girlfriend who finds herself caring for a neighbor's small child and a mysterious ledger. The neighbor (Buck Henry) turns out to be a mob accountant who is on the verge of getting whacked, which leaves tough old Gloria to go on the run with the child and a ledger full of mob secrets. Since she's a former gun moll, she knows how to handle herself. It is an underrated movie, and a great tribute to New York in the days before Disney bought it. Minimal extras included, but what did you expect? Cartoons? To enjoy a scrappy performance by Rowlands, and to see how the Big Apple used to look, check out the new Blu-ray of Gloria. (Color, 121 mins, available July 18, from Kino Lorber)
Need a last minute impulse purchase? You might try the new Sony Blu-ray release of Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981). Made after his 1970s run of animated cult favorites (Wizards, Lord of the Rings, Fritz the Cat), American Pop follows four generations of musical performers, from the days of vaudeville to the psychedelic era to the nasty days of punk rock. The story is only so-so, but the visuals are exceptional. (Color, 96 mins, available August 22.)
For the reading room: Dwayne Epstein's new book, Killin' Generals: The Making of The Dirty Dozen, the Most Iconic WW II Movie of All Time, explores the history behind Robert Aldrich's crowd pleasing war epic. Having previously written a biography of Lee Marvin, it was a logical step for the author to write about one of Marvin's most popular movies. Whether The Dirty Dozen is really the "most iconic" movie about the Second World War is debatable, but the production's large cast provides ample grist for storytelling. With an ensemble that included Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker, Jim Brown, and Ernest Borgnine, you'll get plenty of unpleasant behavior and hi-jinks. "War-movie buffs are going to love this.” —Library Journal. (Citadel, hardcover, 256 pages, now available.)
Those are my picks for this month. May the rest of your summer be nothing but blue skies and Blu-rays!