"Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush." - Doug Larson
1 from Twilight Time
The Birth of a Nation (U.S., 1915)
Controversial on release and equally so today for its overt racism, D.W. Griffith's three-hour epic The Birth of a Nation breathed new life into the Ku Klux Klan as it explored the origins, duration and aftermath of the American Civil War through the prism of two families, North and South. With the lovely Lillian Gish as its star, the movie is also an innovative work of cinematic art, a classic of the silent era by any definition, forever preserved in the Library of Congress, National Film Registry.
Twilight Time's new all-region Blu-ray set, on two discs, marks the fourth time The Birth of a Nation has been released on home video in high definition. It features the wonderful Photoplay Productions restoration from 2015, and is a big step up from the editions put out in the U.S. by Kino Lorber in 2011 and in the U.K. by Eureka! Masters of Cinema in 2013, which both used only a partial restoration from 35mm archival elements. A newer U.K. release, by the British Film Institute in 2015, benefited from the Photoplay restoration, but its discs are region-locked.
Extras differ between editions, as well. Both the Twilight Time and Kino sets feature Griffith’s ‘talkie’ prologue and intermission from the movie's 1930 sound reissue, but while the Kino and Eureka! BDs included seven Civil War-themed shorts that Griffith directed in 1910 and 1911, Twilight Time follows the BFI's lead with Griffith’s The Rose of Kentucky (1911) and three other shorts directed by Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett, plus two 17-minute making-ofs. Like the BFI, Twilight Time also add 40 minutes of outtakes and camera tests, and video of the modern recording sessions for Joseph Carl Breil's original music score, a pastiche of works by Verdi, Weber, Suppe and, most famously, Wagner (whose Ride of the Valkyries is played over the KKK’s "ride to the rescue.") There's also audio of Griffith on the Lux Radio Theater with the equally legendary Cecil B. DeMille. The illustrated booklet has essays by Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and Ashley Clark.
2 from Criterion
Moonrise (U.S., 1948)
Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) carries a burden of shame: his father was a murderer, executed for his crime. In small-town Virginia, will Danny be able to bury the past with a forgiving schoolteacher (Gail Russell) in defiance of her abusive fiancé (Lloyd Bridges)? This grim but compassionate noir by Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm) is new to Blu-ray; Criterion's 4K edition comes with an 18-minute conversation between Swiss author Hervé Dumont and British film historian Peter Cowie.
Beyond the Hills (Romania/France), 2012)
At a monastery in Romania, a young nun (Cosmina Stratan) is torn between the attentions of a priest and a friend from the orphanage (Cristina Flutur). Based on a true story, Beyond the Hills won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is now being released in 2K on Blu-ray simultaneously with director Cristian Mungiu's latest film, Graduation. The disc has over two-and-a-half hours of extras: a making-of, a director interview, the Cannes press conference, and 12 deleted scenes.
3 from Eureka! Classics
Marty (U.S., 1955)
Marty (Ernest Borgnine) works as a butcher in the Bronx. He's Italian-American, is in his mid-30s, doesn't have a girlfriend, still lives with his mother. One night, at a dance, he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a sweet-natured schoolteacher who will change his life. Marty was a low-budget movie made outside the Hollywood studio system and was slated for failure until it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes; it went on to surprise everyone at the Academy Awards by winning the awards for best picture, best director (Delbert Mann), best actor (Borgnine) and best writing (Paddy Chayefsky). The acting throughout is first-rate, the tone sentimental but not cloying, the working-class Italian stereotypes easily recognizable as real, and the backstory a real underdog tale of unexpected success. Besides interviews and trailer, the major extra on the new British Blu-ray/DVD set is the original teleplay of Marty (also penned by Chayefsky) that NBC broadcast in 1953, with Rod Steiger in the title role. (It's also available on DVD in Criterion's The Golden Age of Television boxset.)
Inherit the Wind (U.S., 1960)
Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly star in this classic courtroom drama. Set in Tennessee and directed by Stanley Kramer, it's based on the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial that pitted Christian fundamentalists against Darwinist educators on the subject of evolution. Another fine choice for re-issue by Eureka!, Inherit the Wind comes to Blu-ray/DVD with a new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard. (In the U.S,. Kino issued its own BD in January with a full audio commentary track.)
Breakheart Pass (U.S., 1971)
A Western murder mystery on a speeding train, with hunky Charles Bronson hot on the killer's trail – what's not to enjoy? Like the BD that Kino released in 2014 in the U.S., this new one from Eureka! gives us a lacklustre transfer from an unrestored master, plus an original theatrical trailer and one extra that will interest Bronson fans and aficionados of '70s action movies: a half-hour interview with film critic and horror/fantasy novelist Kim Newman, a columnist for Empire film magazine.
1 from Second Run
Intimate Lighting (Czechoslovakia, 1965)
Nothing much happens in Czech director Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting – some music rehearsals in a small town, the disruptive arrival of a virtuoso and his sexy girlfriend, some antics around the kitchen table – and in that gentle simplicity lies the movie's enduring charm. British distributor Second Run best their 2006 DVD with this new 4K restoration on Blu-ray, keeping a 20-minute interview with Passer and adding one significant extra: his keenly observed debut short film from 1964, A Boring Afternoon.
2 from Olive Films
Odds Against Tomorrow (U.S., 1959)
Harry Belafonte stars as a debt-ridden gambler who hooks up with a racist gun-for-hire (Robert Ryan) and a corrupt ex-cop (Ed Begley) to rob a New York City bank. Made outside the Hollywood studio system by Belafonte's own HarBel Productions, this heist picture also boasts a classic jazz soundtrack by pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Although shot by director Robert Wise in Academy ratio (1.37:1), the movie was projected widescreen in cinemas at 1.78:1, which is what you get here from Olive. (If you want full-frame, check out the region-B-locked British BD from Eureka! Masters of Cinema, with loads of extras.)
Cold Turkey (U.S., 1971)
Why have I never heard of this funny satire on smoking? I guess I was too young to appreciate it when it came out, despite its popular pedigree. Made by TV's Norman Lear (All in the Family), scored by Randy Newman ("Short People") and starring Dick Van Dyke (of Mary Poppins fame) and Bob Newhart (who'd soon get his own show), it's the story of a small town in Iowa that takes up a cigarette company's impossible challenge to butt out for 30 days in order to win $25 million. The visuals on the Blu-ray look like they're been sourced from a remastering of the movie; they're crisp and colourful. There are no extras, unfortunately.
1 from Second Sight
Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1985)
An epic TV series from the mid-1980s, Heimat went long on German history and wound up redefining television as slow food for the masses. In 11 episodes totalling nearly 16 hours, alternating scenes in colour and B&W, writer-director Edgar Reitz calmly laid out the semi-autobiographical story of the people of the fictional village of Schabbach, in the rural Hunsrück area of the Rhineland. We see the Simon family and their neighbours survive defeat in World War One, witness (and profit from) the Nazi rise in the 1930s, survive defeat again in the Second World War, rebuild during the Americanization of the late '40s and '50s, reconcile with their past in the industrious '60s, and see their fortunes change again in the '70s and early '80s. Restored in high-definition in 2015 and brought to Blu-ray in Germany, the series now gets an English-friendly release with (non-optional) subtitles courtesy of Second Sight. The six-disc set is a major improvement over the region-locked DVD set that U.K. distributor Tartan put out way back in 2004, and an enormous step up from the awful-looking one that Facets put on the American market the following year. Unlike those barebones editions, this one is widescreen (1.66:1) and has a wealth of extras. Most significant is a two-hour documentary that Reitz made about the Hunsrück in 1981, his basis for Heimat. The set also comes with a 50-page book. The discs are coded region-B, so you'll need the appropriate player (or an all-region one) to access the content.
2 from Paramount
Grease (U.S., 1978)
We staged this musical at my high school (with me in charge of lighting) and it was a hit, so I'm hopelessly devoted to it. Catchy songs ('Those Magic Changes,' 'Summer Nights,' 'Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee') winning performances (by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta), and plenty of '50s-era teen vulgarity make Grease a fun romp. First brought to Blu-ray in 2009, the movie has now been restored and remastered, with an improved soundtrack and new additions to the already plentiful extras; the best is a half-hour look at the musical's original Chicago stage production. You get three editions to choose from: Blu-ray/DVD in digibook, Blu-ray in steelbook (which comes with the sequel Grease 2 and the TV re-make Grease Live) and a 4K Ultra HD edition.
Up in Smoke (U.S., 1978)
Released the same year as Grease, Up in Smoke channels a different sensibility altogether. We're in deep '70s stoner territory here, played for lighthearted laughs by stars Cheech Marin and Timmy Chong. As rich boy/poor boy amigos, they get into a series of comic misadventures after they hit the road in a van made entirely of marijuana, pursued by some hopelessly inept cops led by Stacy Keach. The Blu-ray is a first-time format for this movie, and it comes with a DVD and digital copy, with a slipcase but no booklet, which seems a missed opportunity. Extras include a few featurettes old and new, including a 40-year lookback by 'Cheech & Chong' and by their director, Lou Adler, and half a dozen outtakes, fancifully called "roach clips," that come with optional commentary.
1 from Olive Films
Mermaids (U.S., 1990)
"I know you're planning a celibate life, but with half my chromosomes that might be tough." So says sexpot Rachel Flax (Cher), warning her eldest daughter, Charlotte (Winona Ryder) about the difficulty she'll have taming her raging teenage hormones. The object of virginal Charlotte's unspoken desire is hunky Joe (Michael Schoeffling), the 20-something caretaker of the convent up the road in the small seaside town near Boston where the Flaxes have moved to. Younger sister Kate (Christina Ricci, in her film debut), is only 9 and obsessed with competitive swimming. It's late 1962, and the family are oddballs in town — fish out of water, so to speak, hence the title of the movie, based on the novel of the same name by Patty Dann. Mrs. Flax hooks up with the local shoe salesman, an amateur painter named Lou (played by Bob Hoskins, doing what British actors do so well in Hollywood, hide their accent) Lou is Jewish like her, and just as libidinous, but ultimately annoys her because he wants to settle down and help raise her kids. Charlotte, who narrates the movie, styles herself Roman Catholic and spends her time reading about the lives of the saints, dissing her free-spirited mother and worrying about committing carnal sin herself. And little Kate, well, she just gets along swimmingly with everyone. Helmed by the actor-director Richard Benjamin (My Favourite Year), the movie tries to be a lot of things: a comedy of one-liners, a weepie about growing up, a parody of Christian family values, a paean to a changing America (the JFK assassination looms large), and, in the end, a feel-good chick flick where everyone ends up doo-wop dancing in the kitchen to all two-and-half minutes of Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy". You'll either feel drawn into the story and have a laugh and a cry, or you'll feel repelled by the manipulative sentimentality and want to shut the TV off – Mermaids is that kind of polarizing movie. Give me Bill Forsyth's Housekeeping, any day – similar themes, much better story. Mermaids comes to Blu-ray from Olive in a crisp-looking transfer but, just like the old MGM DVD from 2001, is sorely short of extras save for one grainy trailer. Somebody should put together a retrospective look at Mermaids some day; the troubled production history (two directors were fired and a lead actress sued for damages after she was replaced at the last minute by Ryder) is a story all by itself.
3 from the British Film Institute
They Came to a City (U.K., 1944)
J.B. Priestley makes a brief appearance in his own allegorical fantasy about what the world will be like after the Second World War. A neglected gem from Ealing Studios directed by Basil Dearden (The League of Gentlemen), They Came to a City is now available on home video for the first time. The movie never really loses its studio-bound theatrics (it was adapted from Priestley's play of the same name) but is compelling nonetheless, anchored by fine acting (by Googie Withers, John Clements and Raymond Huntley) and strong art direction (by Micheal Relph, who the same year did Dead of Night, the classic anthology film of the supernatural). The BFI Blu-ray sports a new 2K transfer and comes with an accompanying DVD and an illustrated booklet. Extras are plentiful and pertinent: an hour-long lecture from 1969 by legendary Ealing boss Michael Balcon (the audio can be made to play over the film), and another hour's worth of vintage shorts, five in all; they range from "We Live in Two Worlds" (1937) and "Britain at Bay" (1940), both narrated by Priestley, to "A City Reborn" (1945), by none other than Dylan Thomas, to two animated shorts from 1948 publicizing postwar reconstruction. Like all BFI home-video releases, the discs are code-locked for Europe; get an all-region player and give them a spin.
The Touch (Sweden/U.S., 1971)
In the first of Ingmar Bergman's two English-language films (the other was The Serpent's Egg), Elliot Gould plays an American archeologist who has an affair with the wife (Bibi Andersson) of his Swedish friend (Max von Sydow). The BFI offer a 2K restoration of the movie in this dual-format (one Blu-ray, one DVD) edition; there are optional English subtitles for the occasional Swedish dialogue. The big extra is a vintage making-of by Stig Björkman that clocks in at just under an hour and really gets into Bergman's working methods. Next up is 72 minutes of Liv Ullmann on stage in London this year talking about her career and Bergman. Lastly, there's a 21-minute interview with British actress Sheila Reid. A 16-page booklet rounds out the set.
The Magic Flute (Sweden, 1975)
Another Bergman outing, this time for Swedish TV, this is a colour-film version of Mozart's final opera, The Magic Flute. Be forewarned: the visuals, shot full-frame in 16-mm, aren't exactly high-def. Unlike the barebones DVD that Criterion issued way back in 2000, the BFI discs (BD and DVD) come with several extras, all about Mozart. There are two 11-minute shorts from the mid-1930s: a silhouette animation called Papageno and a travelogue about Mozart's Salzburg (with Nazi flags in the background, since this was shot in 1938). There's also a three-reel short from 1955 directed by Anthony Asquith that takes us to the Glyndebourne Festival for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. A 20-page illustrated booklet completes the package.