Needful Things

BY Richard Ostrum

‘Tis the season, time for gift giving, blah! blah! blah!  Y’all know the drill. If you happen to count among your so-called loved ones a jaded movie nerd or several, I may have just the handy article for you. This fine Christmas month I will spotlight a four pack of quality home video jewels that should suit the high set standards of any film elitist in your family nest.

First is Herzog: The Collection, a sprawling 13-disc Blu-Ray gathering of 16 films from the beginning half of the prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s vast career. This collection, coming care the exiting, new-school reissue label Shout! Factory, plays like a kind of Greatest Hits Vol. 1 project. It is by no means complete (several films, including Herzog’s debut piece Signs of Life and the largely obscure mountain climbing epic Scream of Stone, are absent) but does offer up many of the strongest projects Herzog managed to craft between the years 1970-1999.

Among the most notable are Even Dwarfs Started Small, a crazed monochrome fantasy set at a remote asylum of sorts where the inmates overpower their oppressors and run rampant, the overall point of difference being that all the cast members are “little people” cast by Herzog for supreme oddball effect.

Cinema_groupHeart of Glass is an 18th century semi-fable set in a Bavarian town based around a prominent glass-blowing facility. The dreamy results of the subtle resulting dramatics came about as the director had the majority of his cast placed under hypnosis and set them loose to interpret their characters accordingly.

Elsewhere in the set are many gems including the 1997 German television documentary about the amazing escape efforts of a P.O.W. pilot named Dieter Denglar, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (the basis for the 2007 Christian Bale retake Rescue Dawn), the partially Wisconsin-set Stroszek which follows the trek of three truly curious social misfits as they venture from the dead end of their German homestead to seek out that ever-elusive thing known as the American Dream.

Assembled here too are all five of Herzog’s vivid collaborations with the often violently unpredictable Klaus Kinski (and there’s a good summation of their frequent paring in the mix as well in the documentary My Best Fiend) from the epic on a budget antics that pertain to the quest for El Dorado, Aguirre, the Wrath of God through sagas of the bloodthirsty (Nosferatu the Vampyre), the over-ambitious (Fitzcarraldo), the terribly put-upon (Woyzeck) and ending with Cobra Verde, a lesser-known tale of an outlaw bandit turned slave trader.

Overall, this massive Herzog retrospective is perfectly aimed at the dedicated art- film fan and/or serious devotee of said director’s impressive (and ever expanding) body of work. There are plenty of nice little extras sprinkled about (largely audio commentaries) and a decent booklet with mini essays for each given work. Hopefully this first collection will prove successful enough for a future follow up, I would love to see how they would address that goofy Bad Lieutenant remake Herzog put together with the ever bugged out Nicholas Cage.

Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker

Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker

Next up from the folks at Shout! Factory as well (care the imprint Scream Factory) is Nightbreed-The Director’s Cut. For those who’ve never heard (or maybe tried to forget), Nightbreed is the ill-fated sophomore directorial outing from the highly regarded author of many things fantastic, Clive Barker. Following the sharp success of his modestly priced debut Hellraiser Clive sought to up his game with what he hoped would prove to be the Star Wars of monster movies, a film (aimed at booting another franchise) that placed the odd creatures and scary things ultimately as heroes.

Alas, it was not to be. The funding studio types greatly misunderstood and mishandled the film in both the post-production and the theatrical release phases. Nightbreed was pushed as a stalk-and-slash effort and would never truly connect with a mass audience. But the film slowly gained cult momentum and, after several decades, a rally was put in place to spark interest in a more complete and faithful edition of the film, which led to the newly unleashed edition we speak of now.

Nightbreed-The Director’s Cut presents an altogether different variation of the picture. It incorporates about 40 minutes of new footage and excises some material from the original theatrical version that was the only available option up to now. The total film features material that fleshes out the central relationship of the two troubled lovers who must flee into a monstrous underworld, Boone (Craig Sheffer) and Lori (Anne Bobby) and greatly restructures the climactic battle sequence in the film’s central monster haven of Midian.

Not everything works, there’s an especially tough-to suffer-through singing number involving the Lori character, but in total the picture feels a bit more rewarding and deeper in its storytelling specifics.

The Factory folks have made the whole thing available in a rich, three-disc Blu Ray limited edition set (a B.R./DVD combo back is also available with less content at a lower price) that includes both edits of the film for the serious completest to compare/contrast without restriction plus many a bonus gift to help flesh out the whole Nightbreed experience, from conception through production to final unveiling.

Clive Barker participates a great deal in the whole beastly thing by contributing both an intro piece to the new version as well as audio commentary that breaks down many a trivial particular for those who are just dying to know (just be patient with Clive, his voice has really seen better days).  This swell new set with its’ superior presentation of both takes on the film can be snapped up at various spots on the Internet starting with the main source,

Now for a pair hailing from that long beloved collector’s best friend, The Criterion Collection. The Qatsi Trilogy is the first wrangling together of experimental filmmaker/activist (and former apprenticing monk) Godfrey Reggio’s glorious three-piece visual essay on mankind’s obsessive technical and consumerist progression at the violent expense of the very planet it dwells upon.

The three separate pictures are (with their fine, Hopi-derived titles) Koyaanisqatsi (“Life Out of Balance”), Powaqqatsi (“Life in Transformation”) and Naqoyqatsi (“Life as War”) and they convey through a wealth of passing images and Phillip Glass-composed sonic accompaniment the many points in which the seemingly insatiable desire of us modern peeps has an ever more drastic effect on the surroundings we touch. Each film is essentially a feature length (each around the 90 minute mark) music video aimed at entrancing the viewer with beautifully realized imagery presented in a dreamlike pattern that travels from point to point all across the globe.

The epic travelogue approach in this trilogy is spiced up throughout with injections of mass media snippets, everything from ordinary television ad spots to blurry football plays to late night cable soft-core porn passes by quick and into the Qatsi visual blender.  The third and final film, Naqoyqatsi, mostly ignores straight on photography and indulges in a mixed bag of early 21st digital techniques to bring the ongoing theme into the current era (the film arrived after the biggest gap between Qatsi projects, 14 years).

Each of these fine, unique films has come out of the Criterion machine looking as close to flawless as possible. Each film, which come together only as a three-disc box set-DVD or Blu Ray (I most recommend the latter), is dressed with extra bits such as interviews and panel discussions on the merits and values of the project in its pieces and as a whole.

There are also a few bonus short films crafted by Reggio to boot, Powaqqatsi features something called “Anima Mundi” which is a half-hour mash-up of lots of different beasts of the earth (none human) and “Koyaanisqatsi” sports a 3/4 hour work print of mostly unseen images and ideas. The Qatsi Trilogy is far and away the least “broad appeal” product to be covered in this article for sure, but for the extra open minded and adventurous film buff this is can’t miss stuff.

Scanners, the last movie for this month, is the great Canadian director David Cronenberg’s first true crossover (aka-mainstream American box office) hit. It concerns, of course, a whole lot of pursuit and conflict centered around a brand of enhanced humans with deadly, cranium-impacting, psychic powers dubbed “scanners.” Now the film is probably best recollected (especially among the gore junky Fangoria crowd) for the seminal scene in which villainous Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) unleashes the ultraviolent extreme of his scanner power leading to a head bursting open and spraying its contents all across the immediate vicinity. Now, while this is a pivotal thrill to sell the film on, the rest of the running time is filled out with a steady, solid little thriller with many a quirk in its characters and plenty of interesting developments in its plotline.

Criterion has taken Scanners under its refined wing and let it back out into the cinematic world as a fine-looking transfer in great new packaging, sporting worthy, off-center illustrations by another Canadian, Conner Willumsen. The Blu Ray/DVD release contains the usual revealing retrospective interviews, vintage featurettes and, most significantly, Cronenberg’s first stab at feature filmmaking, Stereo. A narration only, black-and-white character study that also touches on the phenomenon of telekinesis, Stereo gives fans and casual viewers a prime early glimpse into the raw talent of a director clearly out to establish his voice with a natural ease that would grow to inform his place as one of the finest and most singular directors now standing. This superior release alongside Criterion›s earlier handlings of the director’s Naked Lunch and Videodrome prove that this is a pairing to be repeated many times again in the not too distant future (or sooner, please!). 

Check out further details here; There you have it, these are but a few of my favorite things, do with them what you will.

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