Here in razor-sharp high-definition Blu-ray is Thank Your Lucky Stars, an entertaining time capsule from WWII. The film is a featherweight all-star revue that refers lightly to the war while corralling a group of dramatic stars to do unlikely things like sing and dance. We’re tempted to quip that never have so many given so little for so much, but the movie was a very successful fundraiser for the Hollywood Canteen founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, which is why they’re in the picture and got so many of their colleagues to appear.
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This unusual suspenser brought together several talents at budget-conscious RKO to become a surprise hit of 1939. It’s now available on demand from Warner Archive.
Five Came Back might be one of the original “high concept” movies, since the whole idea is spelled out in the title. Twelve diverse people, conceived as quickly sketched types, are in a small airplane that gets blown way off course and crashes in a lush jungle en route from Los Angeles to Panama City. Search planes fail to find them, and they must spend weeks repairing the plane and forming a community.
3-D Rarities promises “22 ultra-rare and stunningly restored 3-D films”, courtesy of the 3-D Film Archive, and it delivers. This is one of the year’s most delightful collections, and it’s accessible to all, for the Blu-ray automatically plays flat versions if you don’t have 3D equipment. That’s a good test, because if a movie’s not worth seeing flat, why bother to add depth? With the Archive’s determination to fix and improve bad parallax work, the results are 3D movies that play better than back in the day.
First come compilations of demo and novelty material from the ‘20s, the earliest surviving examples of a 3D film tradition that goes back to 1915. The first film, with touristy shots of Washington DC and New York, includes footage hearkening back to the gimmicks of the earliest cinema: an approaching train, a pretty dancer, a man pointing a gun at the camera as in The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Dziga Vertov (born David Kaufman in Ukraine) specialized in a hybrid of documentary, fiction, and propaganda that demonstrated his theories of montage by combining footage into forceful, meaningful motions and a sense of life, action, and progress. His work is showcased on a new Blu-ray anchored on an astoundingly clear print of his 1929 masterpiece The Man with a Movie Camera. What the viewer sees is a full-frame silent print (nothing lopped off the sides), struck from the negative, that Vertov himself left in Amsterdam; missing bits have been restored, including chapter numbers and a brief shot of a baby’s birth. The Alloy Orchestra’s score is based on Vertov’s notes. Although these features are excellent, don’t get rid of the 2002 Image DVD if you have it, which has critical commentary, or the 2003 Kino DVD with Michael Nyman’s score.
The paradoxical title of Hard to Be a God matches the paradox of its artistry in that its brilliant success makes it a tough sell for many viewers.
There are plenty for whom the phrase “three-hour black and white Russian film” already makes them reach for their gun, and this specimen immerses audiences in a free-floating fetid stew of medieval mud and bodily fluids populated by gibbering idiots and pustulant drunkards constantly spitting or upchucking. This grim panorama presents itself in the patented Russian manner of vivid historical cinema: a restless handheld camera (of which the gesturing characters are aware) executing complex pans and queasy staggers and focal shifts while looking up everyone’s nostrils. You can almost smell the farts and pop the zits.