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To have and hold onto DVD

by Philip Martin | November 19, 2021 at 1:32 a.m.
October (Ten Days That Shook the World), Reds and Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed

I've been trying to get this column back in the newspaper proper for a couple of weeks; we've been overstuffed with reviews of new films and other features that take priority.

I still get to hold forth on whatever each week in the On Film video, and a couple of the columns that I've intended for this space have ended up elsewhere in the newspaper. You learn to economize in this business.

But before we get too deep into the shopping season, I wanted to call attention to a few movies on DVD that have recently come out. While our collective appetite for physical media is waning -- our Home Movies column now primarily concerns itself with streaming features -- there will always be a curator class that wants to own a concrete object. The fact that nearly any song you can think of is available with a few keystrokes doesn't necessarily eliminate the desire for vinyl records. A lot of us would like to keep jewel-cased DVDs around, even if we have access to the film libraries of Netflix, Apple and Amazon Prime.

My case isn't typical -- I keep a lot of DVDs for quick reference because I show them to classes, and for purely sentimental reasons. We have a weekly movie night that allows me the opportunity to prowl through the stacks and pull out old favorites. (Our most recent screenings -- John Sayles' "Matewan" from 1987, and the 1997 Norwegian thriller "Insomnia" -- are both Criterion Collection titles.)

I tend to keep DVDs that matter in some way beyond mere entertainment. For instance, I've just received new copies of the Warren Beatty films "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) and "Reds" (1981). We may rewatch both of them, but I doubt "Heaven Can Wait" -- an enjoyable enough movie, as I remember -- will end up in the permanent collection. "Reds" might, in part because of the serendipitous arrival of a copy of Sergei Eisenstein's 1927 silent film "October (Ten Days That Shook the World)." Both were based on American journalist John Reed's 1919 book about the 1917 Russian October Revolution.

I might keep "Reds" and "October"; I might decide to write about them in depth or to use them in a class. "Heaven Can Wait" might end up in the Home Movies column before being passed on.

Similarly, I will hold on to a new copy of George T. Nierenberg's award-winning and joy-inspiring 1982 documentary "Say Amen, Somebody" (Milestone Films/Kino Lorber). Nierenberg, a white man, takes a deep dive into the roots and history of gospel music in America, focusing primarily through the lives of two of its pioneers: Thomas A. Dorsey (known as "the father of gospel") and Willie Mae Ford Smith ("the mother of gospel").

The movie is as entertaining as it is edifying, with remarkable barn-burning performances by the Barrett Sisters, the O'Neal Twins, and Zella Jackson Price. While I've got the film on DVD, I'll want to keep this new Blu-ray for its bonus features including audio commentary, retrospective interviews and outtakes.

The same goes for Film Movement's new Blu-ray edition of "Deep Blues," Robert Mugge's 1992 documentary about his journey with Robert Palmer, the famed critic and musician from Little Rock, into the heart of North Mississippi Hill Country and the Delta to survey the best rural blues performers. The film -- originally released in concert with a groundbreaking soundtrack album and Palmer's companion book "Deep Blues" -- stands as one of the most important music documentaries ever made. I could see a film series where these two films might be screened back-to-back, maybe with Les Blank's 1968 "The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins" and 1999's "Buena Vista Social Club."

Another likely keeper from Film Movement is its set "The Early Films of Lee Isaac Chung," which includes the "Minari" director's 2007 debut feature "Munyurangabo," 2010's "Lucky Life" and "Abigail Harm" (2012). Part of my interest in these DVDs stems strictly from homerism -- Chung, as everyone who reads this section is likely to know, grew up in rural Arkansas. (We wrote extensively about "Munyurangabo" back in the day; it had an Arkansas screening.)

All of these movies are the work of a sophisticated and original filmic intelligence, with "Munyurangabo" -- shot as part of a filmmaking course Chung taught for Rwandan street kids in 2006 -- perhaps a little more accessible than "Lucky Life," a quietly disturbing and lyrical contemplation of the nature of memory based on a Gerald Stern poem, and the experimental "Abigail Harm," which features Amanda Plummer as a middle-aged woman living in an altered version of New York City who falls in love with a mysterious man (Will Patton, who also collaborated with Chung on "Minari") who may well be an alien. The program notes say the film's inspired by the Korean folktale "The Woodcutter and the Nymph."

Arrow Video, which is like the Criterion Collection for horror and cult movies, is bringing out a deluxe 4k edition of Wes Craven's seminal 1977 cannibal shocker "The Hills Have Eyes," as well as the first volume of a multi-volume series of "Giallo Essentials" which consists of Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini's "The Possessed" (1965), Bazzoni's "The Fifth Cord" (1971) and Flavio Mogherini's "The Pyjama Girl Case" (1977), loosely based on a Depression-era Australian unsolved murder case.

I probably won't hold onto the Arrow Video discs forever; which is a mistake. Arrow's "Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy" boxed set, released in 2016 with a list price of $49.99, is reselling for between $350 and $500 online.



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