Anton Bitel provides a look at six titles heading to streaming and physical media releases this month that you should add to the top of your viewing list.
Fiercely indebted to low-ranking mafioso Louie (John Tormey) who once saved him from being killed, “Ghost Dog” (Forest Whitaker) carries out professional gangland hits for his ‘master’ – until internecine plotting drives him to have to take out the entire mob, and face his own death with an honour that most of them lack.
Where the none-too-bright mafiosi endlessly watch TV cartoons, Ghost Dog himself has broader interests, rigorously adhering to an Ancient Japanese warrior code (whose precepts regularly punctuate the film), listening to RZA’s hip-hop in stolen cars, communicating only by carrier pigeon, befriending a francophone man (Isaach de Bankolé) whom he cannot understand, and exchanging with a girl (Camille Winbush) a range of books as eclectic as writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s own influences, including the collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, with its parallel mix of perspectives and motives.
With several nods to Seijun Suzuki’s surreal Branded To Kill and to Jean-Pierre Melville’s similarly titled, similarly existential Le Samouraï, what might sound like an ordinary gangster picture is in fact a rich amalgam of crisscrossing genres, where East meets West and culture itself follows more than one Way.
Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai is available on 4K UHD/Steelbook, Blu/DVD/digital, distributed by StudioCanal
Set during the Qing dynasty, and adapted from Jin Yong’s novel The Deer and the Cauldron (published serially 1969-1972), Wong Jing’s comic wuxia follows Wei Xiaobao (Stephen Chow), a lowly brothel raconteur who is elevated by dumb luck as much as his own wits into a Forbidden City drama not unlike one of the shaggy dog stories he used to tell, all the while receiving endless undeserved promotions to surreally niche posts.
Wei is a mercurial antihero and venal timeserver whose picaresque presence always places him at the centre of key events — and Chow, already a hugely celebrated actor whose later, similarly celebrated directing career would not begin for another two years, imbues this slippery rogue with a real charm.
Here there is courtly intrigue, power struggles, double- and triple-crosses, crazy conspiracies, impostures both magical and more mundane, several sutra-sized Macguffins, gravity-defying wire-fu, telepathic tickling, beheadings, scalpings and bodymelts (graphic if weirdly bloodless) from the get-go, and a litany of dick jokes, as Wei crosses paths with royalty, religious leaders and various other pretenders from all sides of a strife-ridden nation. A sequel, clearly promised at the end, would come later that year.
Royal Tramp is released on Blu-ray along with Royal Tramp II (1992) as part of The Royal Tramp Collection, 13 Nov via Eureka! Video
“I just happen to sell pictures and fantasies and maybe 90-minute vacations of escape from all that madness in the street.”
George Fuller (Terrence Howard) owns the Warner Grand, the classic Los Angeles ‘movie palace’ where he projects a repertoire of film reels from the 80s and the 90s. These mostly star Estonian ‘Force from the North’ Claude Luc Hallyday, a composite of Reagan-era he-men, aptly played by Dolph Lundgren. Hallyday is as faded as the films in which he appears, all post-apocalyptic trash, daft westerns, erotic cyberthrillers and vamp-slaying action. Yet as dodgy developers circle to take over George’s property by any means, George finds himself living out the plot of his beloved films, valiantly defending his old-fashioned workplace from aggressive corporate takeover, with help from the visiting Hallyday himself and armed with old film props.
Writer/director Orson Oblowitz has lovingly crafted a feature presentation as meta-cinematic as it is nostalgic, conjuring a dying breed of scuzzy old-school cinephilia in an age of digital uniformity. John Savage turns up too, as George’s pawnbroking neighbour Lucky who, like George or indeed this film, deals in the abandoned treasures of yesteryear with an incorruptible affection.
Showdown at the Grand is on digital platforms from 13 Nov via Signature
“Can an individual rise above a species? Is death a species’ victory over an individual?”
So asks Mikami (Yuichi Mikami), an earnest pupil in his final year at the rural Ota Junior High. Shinji Somai’s feature, written by Yuji Kato, captures a classroom of children on the cusp of adolescence, as they start to negotiate their sexuality, even their mortality, and to discern the difference between their dreams and the more likely reality that their futures will bring.
This is a coming-of-age drama, but without any sentimentality towards its young characters. In the opening sequence, Akira (Toshiyuki Matsunaga) is nearly drowned by a group of girls who find him watching them from the pool. Coming from a loveless homelife, disturbed Ken (Shigeru Benibayashi) tries to express his desire for Michiko (Yuka Ohnishi) by pouring acid down her back — and later will attempt to rape her. Two girls are exploring their emerging lesbianism, while Mikami’s neighbour Rie (Yûki Kudô) runs away to Tokyo, in flight from the constrained destiny she sees for herself.
The typhoon that these schoolmates use an excuse not to go home also serves as an objective correlative for their raging, potentially dangerous emotions, as death makes its first encroachment on their not-so-innocent lives.
Typhoon Club is released on Blu-ray (4K digital remaster from original negatives), 27 Nov via Third Window Films
Some years after the events of Ron Underwood’s original film, with Kevin Bacon committed to Apollo 13 Val McKee now happily married, it is left to his broke friend Earl (Fred Ward), and eventually also to divorced military nut Burt (Michael Gross), to eliminate a new population of ‘Graboids’ terrorising an oilfield in Chiapas, Texas. “Maybe this is your big second chance,” Earl is told by new hunting partner Grady (Christopher Gartin), practically announcing that this is a sequel – although the giant Pre-Cambrian worms now reveal their own second chance, in the form of an additional metamorphic stage that resembles the ostriches which Earl has been failing to breed back home.
These bird-like aggressors represent a new kind of threat, influenced by the raptors in Jurassic Park, while themselves influencing the aliens in A Quiet Place. The hungry, heat-seeking predators reproduce asexually, which might at first make them resemble the terminally single Earl— until, that is, Earl ends up meeting his literal dream girl, geologist Kate (Helen Shaver), who admires his rear as enthusiastically as he admires hers. This is a charming, knowingly silly comedy creature feature, directed by S.S. Wilson who also co-wrote the franchise’s first four films.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks is released on 4K UHD/Blu-ray, 27 Nov via Arrow
The War of the Worlds: Next Century (Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecie), Piotr Szulkin, 1981
Piotr Szulkin’s SF allegory begins with a text dedication to H.G. Wells and Orson Welles — the former the author of influential Martian invasion novel The War of the Worlds (1898), the latter famous for adapting the novel into a live radio drama so convincing that some listeners believed they were hearing a report of a real alien takeover.
Szulkin’s own version deviates considerably from Wells’ original. For here the Martians are humanoid ‘midgets’ in silver puffer jackets, briefly visiting in the lead-up to the year 2000 in search of love and blood, and facing not so much resistance as accommodation from the local Polish authorities.
Yet taking inspiration from Welles, Szulkin focuses on how this otherworldly encounter is mediated. For his protagonist Iron Edem (Roman Wilhelmi) is an ordinary middle-aged married man who dons a wig to become the trusted presenter of Independent News, and now finds himself coopted into a bizarre pro-Martian propaganda campaign. As he bears witness to the way television is used to numb the people (himself included) into submission, and comes to question his own dual nature as everyman and entertainer, Szulkin’s bitter satire shows the state playing us all as semi-willing puppets to someone else’s script.
The War of the Worlds: Next Century is released in a 2K restoration together with O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation (1985) and Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (1986) as part of the three-disc Blu-ray limited edition set The End of Civilization: Three Films by Piotr Szulkin, via Radiance Films
Published 16 Nov 2023
By Anton Bitel
Cannibals, ghosts, demons and housewives are on the schedule for this special spooky season round-up of all the latest in Blu-Ray and DVD releases.
By Anton Bitel
Ken Russell, Peter Bogdanovich and Nicolas Cage's first starring role are among this month's bevvy of exciting home ents releases.