One advantage of being retired is that I no longer need to devote hours and effort to a pesky “job.” Time enough at last! The downside is that frequently “unlimited time” becomes “no time”—it is far too easy to say, “I’ll just do it tomorrow,” and to repeat that mantra as tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace. It’s a conundrum. It’s a problem. I’m sure I will have your complete sympathies… as soon as you’re all done working.
In last week’s column, I shared my “Top Ten Still-Unwatched” DVDs and asked for viewing suggestions from you, my gentle readers. Thank you to all who commented, especially those of you who provided reasons for your choices! It was instructive. It helped me structure my movie-watching time. It gave me new insights into the minds of my readers.
While I didn’t get around to everything on my list (because naps) I did enjoy many of those DVDs. Here’s the nickel tour of what I have been spinning lately.
The Human Monster (1939)
The Plot In Brief: When Scotland Yard starts finding dead bodies in the Thames, it doesn’t take long for them to discover that the victims were all insured by the kindly Dr. Orloff (Bela Lugosi). Orloff is so kindly, there couldn’t be any malfeasance here, could there? This isn’t a horror film, is it?
The transfer here is problematic. Although I am sure this disc looks better than the dozens of public domain VHS tapes available in the 1980s, it is still “dupey” looking with insufficient black levels. The film is a snooze for the first hour, and the transfer is hard to watch… so is it worth it?
The one feature that makes this disc recommendable is the pair of commentary tracks that VCI includes. Lugosi scholar Gary Don Rhodes provides a textbook “just the facts” commentary. Meanwhile, on audio track #3, David Del Valle and Phoef Sutton engage in a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness commentary. I wish that the two tracks could have been joined somehow. It would have been like listening to a football game with Rhodes doing the play-by-play and Del Valle and Sutton as his color commentators.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray of Hellraiser (1987)
Arrow Video’s new Hellraiser Blu-ray is a mixed bag. I am afraid that I am getting spoiled by special editions that gather up all the supplementary material from previous special editions, as Arrow’s recent An American Werewolf in London set did so well. While there are plenty of special features on the Arrow disc, most of the 2009 Anchor Bay Special Edition extras have not been ported over.
The transfer is problematic. Am I becoming spoiled by astounding transfers? Is it getting to the point where a simply great transfer seems ho-hum? This new version of Hellraiser seems all over the place: some scenes are beautiful and perfect, especially the darker scenes; daylight scenes seem overly grainy; and some scenes seem a bit too soft. Is this simply the best transfer Arrow could manage given the quality of the materials available? I love this film and I always have; yet I found this transfer distracting. The last thing we want is for the presentation to “pull us out of the film.”
4K Blu-ray of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The transfer on this new 4K disc is astounding. I can still remember when this film was a perennial public domain VHS eyesore! It may just be this disc’s inky dark black levels, but I found this transfer a tad darker than others I have seen, even in the early, bucolic scenes. Were the technicians responsible for this disc trying to use the transfer itself as a subtle form of foreshadowing? After all, one of my college film professors once called It’s A Wonderful Life “a film noir wrapped in Christmas paper.” This new Blu-ray is the best-looking transfer of this film that I have ever seen.
Network Video’s new restoration of Monty Python’s Flying Circus
I ordered this one so long ago that I had almost forgotten that I had. Network spent plenty of time and money, going back to the original 2” videotapes and 16mm film, and did a complete restoration and upscaling to HD. The results are revelatory. This is a series I have been watching since I was in the seventh grade. I had almost started to think that the soft video quality and grungy animation were somehow part of the production team’s preferred aesthetic! Kind of like how, in the 1970s, some critics thought the horrible quality of bootleg dubs of Night of the Living Dead were somehow intentional. Nope!
Network’s restoration work here rates with Elite Entertainment’s Night of the Living Dead restoration and Universal Pictures’ recent restoration of Dracula. The results are so stunning that they force one to re-evaluate the program and make it so much easier to enjoy it even more.
There are 45 original episodes of the television program and a good amount of supplementary material, so it’s going to take me a bit more time to get through it all. I’m about halfway in, and this already qualifies as the restoration of the year. In a short supplementary feature, restoration colorist Jonathan Wood shows his work to Terry Gilliam (whose animations benefit most from the restoration) and Gilliam almost cries with joy when he sees his work restored to what he originally intended. It’s a wonderful moment, and Gilliam admits just how shitty the program has looked on video for the last forty years.
One quibble. The four seasons of the program are housed in an elaborate, “exploding Norwegian Blu-ray” box, which arrived at my house damaged. Friend of the site Mikko Vannikka reported on the Twitter machine that his set also arrived damaged. Hell, even Bill Hunt’s review copy for The Digital Bits website arrived damaged! Each individual season is in a sleeve with a substantial book detailing its creation, and the cardboard crib inside the box that cradles them is just not up to the job. The damage reminded me of a similar design flaw in Rhino’s The Complete Monkees Blu-ray set. Hopefully, Network Video will begin a program to ship out replacement boxes. The set was not inexpensive.
So, kids, what have all of you been watching lately? Anyone dig into the new Criterion Godzilla set? I haven’t, but would love to hear what you all think!