There's a pile of recently released and watched specialty Blu-rays on my coffee table, which means it's probably about time I write about them. We've got something for baseball fans, something for noir junkies, something from Russia, from Italy, from England... well, keep reading and you'll see.
1. The Virgin Spring - Here's one of the unlikeliest influence tales in film history: Ingmar Bergman's austere 1960 black-and-white parable of innocence lost and vengeance gained was the inspiration for the grisly horror movie Last House on the Left. Hey, the muse strikes where it will. The original is one of Bergman's most haunting creations, a gorgeously framed mix of Christian and pagan images and themes, with Bergman stalwart Max von Sydow delivering one of this most indelible performances. (Criterion).
2. Hitler's Hollywood - When we think of Nazi propaganda films we think of documentaries extolling Aryan mastery and dehumanizing Jews. That's just part of the story, as this 2017 documentary from Rüdiger Suchsland lavishly illustrates. Hitler and Goebbels were voracious consumers of Hollywood movies, and the filmmakers of the Third Reich went in big for musicals, melodramas and comedies (which managed to extol Aryan mastery and dehumanize Jews). The Reich knew propaganda could work best when it's all but invisible, smuggled within a benign form. (Kino Lorber).
3. I Walk Alone - The criminal mastermind who wants to go straight is an old noir cliché, but this seedy little 1947 crime yarn directed by Byron Haskin stands among the best of the bunch. Kirk Douglas, in full slimeball mode, plays the crooked Noll, who opens a lucrative nightclub business while his buddy Frankie (Burt Lancaster) takes the fall for their last job. When Frankie finally gets out of the pen he wants what's his. Instead he gets a corporate runaround and a handshake. This is a seminal film about the corporate gangster who stays clean as a whistle and pays others to do the dirty work. (Kino Lorber)
4. Rocco and his Brothers - The crowning achievement of Luchino Visconti, one of the greatest Italian filmmakers, the searing Rocco sets up shop at the intersection of neorealism and melodrama. The result is a gut punch of a family epic, following a mom and her five sons as they transition from a small rural village to the hustle and bustle of Milan and all its temptations. The hulking Simone (Renato Salvatori) and the sensitive Rocco (Alain Delon) fall in love with the same prostitute (Annie Girardot), sending the entire brood down a jagged spiral. This is the movie that made the cat-like Delon an enigmatic star. It's also a heartbreaking family portrait of the modernity's perils. (Milestone)
5. Bull Durham - I'm willing to argue the point, but this is the best baseball movie ever made, the one that gets the rituals, the superstitions, the spit and the mud and the mind games that make the sport go 'round. It's also the platonic template for a subgenre that would lose steam over the years: the Ron Shelton sports dramedy about down-on-their-luck fringers finding solace and romance in competition and a good woman (in this case, Susan Sarandon). Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well. (Criterion)
6. The Return - Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyaginstev has turned heads in recent years with gravely humanistic dramas of Russian corruption and everyday life, including Leviathan and Loveless. The Return is his haunting 2003 feature debut, the story of a man (Konstantin Lavronenko) who suddenly reappears after several years away from his wife and two sons. The tense, central roadtrip moves from urban to pastoral as the two kids continue to wonder: Who is this guy? A sad footnote: Vladimir Garin, the promising young actor who plays the oldest son, drowned shortly after the film was completed. (Kino Lorber)
7. A Matter of Life and Death - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were giants of British cinema, by turns whimsical and tragic, almost always deeply romantic. This Technicolor gem finds them in top form, and the new 4K digital restoration makes the film look strikingly modern. An RAF pilot (David Niven) falls in love with a USAAF radio operator (Kim Hunter) moments before he jumps without a parachute and dies. Or does he? The film's two worlds, one color, one black and white, carry echoes of The Wizard of Oz, and the metaphysical romance is captured with aplomb. This one is a jaw dropper. (Criterion)
8. Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood - Marlene Dietrich made indifference sexy, never more so than in these six films she made in Hollywood with director Josef von Sternberg. The German siren could go from ingénue to tyrant in the blink of an eye, as in the funhouse baroque of The Scarlet Empress, and she could bring Gary Cooper to his knees, in her first Hollywood movie, Morocco. In von Sternberg's films the lighting is always perfect, bringing out every nuance of his star's visage. It's hard to think of a better-matched star-director pair. As Imogen Sara Smith writes in the booklet that comes with this set, Dietrich exuded "easy confidence, sexual authority, emotional unavailability." Many have imitated her; none have matched her. (Criterion)