BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS (1979) / DEATH HUNT (1981). Billed on the cover as an "Action/Adventure Double Feature," this two-in-one DVD deal centers on films in which tough men attempt to survive in tough surroundings.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, a prequel that many folks probably don't even know exists, arrived on the scene exactly 10 years after the smash hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; it's probably only a bit of a stretch to say that it was ignored even by the filmmakers' own family members. Taking on the roles immortalized by Paul Newman and Robert Redford would seem to automatically lead to career hara-kiri, yet Tom Berenger and William Katt obviously survived; still, given their inability to make the characters in any way their own, I'd prefer to have seen Cheech and Chong tackle the roles. As it stands, this is a mere trifle in which Butch (Berenger) and Sundance (Katt) have a "meet-cute" amidst a barroom shootout, after which they become testy partners in crime before finally realizing their destinies are tied together. Director Richard Lester, a long way from the heights of A Hard Day's Night, at least tries to keep this constantly on the move, and the supporting cast is peppered with rapidly ascending actors Brian Dennehy, Peter Weller and Christopher Lloyd.
Death Hunt may not be as ambitious as Butch and Sundance Version 0.5, but with its shorter running time and lean, mean storytelling, it's the better bet for a midnight viewing session in a living room environment. Loosely based on a true story, this casts Charles Bronson as Albert Johnson, a trapper living an isolated life in the snow-packed Canadian wilds in 1931. Stumbling across a dogfighting ring led not by Michael Vick but by an unsavory character named Hazel (Ed Lauter), Johnson saves the animal while drawing the ire of the rubes involved. After killing one of them in self-defense, Johnson is forced to take it on the lam, with the sympathetic but duty-bound Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin) and his fellow Mounties on his trail. And to further complicate matters, a serial killer tagged the Mad Trapper is also on the prowl, leading many to speculate whether that might also be Johnson. There's always intrinsic pleasure to be had from watching a taciturn action star like Eastwood or, in this case, Bronson roughly manhandle rednecks; couple that with the sight of Bronson and Marvin trying to out-snarl each other, and the result is an undemanding bit of macho cinema.
The only extras on the DVD are theatrical trailers.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days: **
Death Hunt: **1/2
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985). After years spent making fantastic popcorn pictures like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg decided to direct what he considered his first "serious" picture. His adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was a highly controversial movie, earning harsh reviews from a handful of major critics, a condemnation from the NAACP, and even a famous dismissal by an industry insider who accused Spielberg of taking great source material and turning it into a "zip-a-dee-doo-dah Song of the South." On the other hand, the film did land on numerous critics' "10 Best" lists (including that of Roger Ebert, who had it in the No. 1 slot), grossed nearly $100 million at the box office, and snagged a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture ... but not for Spielberg as Best Director. (The movie still holds the record, along with 1977's The Turning Point, for earning the most Academy Award nominations without winning a single award.) Watching it again today, it's clear that this represents one of Spielberg's least confident turns behind the camera, as marked by the jarring shifts in tone during the picture's first half — scenes wildly fluctuate between, say, put-upon Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) cowering in fear from the abusive Albert (Danny Glover), and Albert's son Harpo (Willard Pugh) repeatedly crashing through a roof like a latter-day Keystone Kop. But thanks primarily to the performers — most notably Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey (in her film debut as the fiery Sofia) and Margaret Avery (as songstress Shug Avery) — the movie gains in strength the longer it plays out, with the second half housing some extremely powerful moments.
Walker, Spielberg and co-producer/music composer Quincy Jones are among those interviewed in the Blu-ray's various extras. They include a 24-minute making-of featurette; a 27-minute look at bringing the project from book to screen; a 28-minute piece on casting the film; an 8-minute discussion of the music in the movie; and photo galleries.
MEMENTO (2000). The film that put Inception writer-director Christopher Nolan on the map stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator whose troubles begin on the night that someone breaks into his house, murders his wife, and gives him such a bump on the head that his ability to form and retain new memories is nonexistent. So even as Leonard tries to track down the killer, he can't remember anything that happens to him for very long, a taxing situation that forces him to depend on tattoos and Polaroid shots to keep his facts straight. This stunning cinematic experiment is like Pulp Fiction magnified to the nth degree: Whereas that stylistically audacious film presents its various lengthy episodes in a decidedly nonlinear order, Memento goes one better by presenting individual scenes out of chronological order. Actually, there is a method to Memento's madness. For the most part, the story is told in reverse order, beginning with the end and working its way back in time to a logical starting point; thus, every time we think we know the score, the movie pulls in a new component from the past that forces us to reflect (and re-reflect, and re-re-reflect) on what we thought we already knew.
Blu-ray features include audio commentary by Nolan; a 25-minute making-of special for the Sundance Channel; an 8-minute discussion with Nolan; on-screen text of the original short story, "Memento Mori"; and tattoo sketches.
THE STRANGER (1946) / KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). These two examples of hard-boiled cinema had been previously released on public domain DVDs before Fox snagged them for more polished releases in 2007. Now, the Film Chest label has just released them in Blu-ray/DVD combo packs (each film is sold separately).
Orson Welles serves as director on The Stranger, although in almost every regard, it's the least flamboyant picture in his oeuvre (and his least favorite of his own works). That's not a debit, though, since this movie is propelled by its intriguing, Oscar-nominated story about a War Crimes Commission agent (Edward G. Robinson) in hot pursuit of a Nazi war criminal who's successfully managed to conceal his identity. The sleuth's investigation takes him to a small New England town — could the Nazi be hiding out as the burg's respected school teacher (Welles), who's about to marry a prominent judge's daughter (Loretta Young)? Reportedly the only Welles picture to turn a profit(!), this contains a typically reliable performance from the great Robinson as well as some impressive shots courtesy of Welles and crack cinematographer Russell Metty.
Whether The Stranger qualifies as film noir — as it's frequently promoted — is up for debate (there's evidence both ways), but Kansas City Confidential is clearly the real deal. The only thing missing is a femme fatale — the romantic interest is instead a squeaky-clean college student (Coleen Gray) studying to become a lawyer — but in all other respects, it's a down and dirty picture with all the requisite blood, sweat and double-crosses. John Payne headlines as an ex-con who's set up by a crooked ex-cop (Preston Foster) to take the rap for a bank heist in the title city. The corrupt lawman and his three henchmen — a marvelous rogues' gallery comprised of Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand — hightail it to Mexico, but their perceived patsy isn't about to let them get away with it. Payne makes for a suitably off-kilter hero while Foster is solid in an unexpectedly complex role, although the biggest thrill is watching Elam as the most nervous of the hoods — if actors were paid by the amount of perspiration they displayed, Elam could have retired right after shooting this flick.
The only extras on each Blu-ray are "before & after" restoration demonstrations and theatrical trailers. Each film also comes with an original movie art postcard.
The Stranger: ***
Kansas City Confidential: ***1/2
THELMA & LOUISE (1991). Director Ridley Scott's galvanizing picture, in which two put-upon women (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) hit the road after shooting a would-be rapist dead, created quite the stir when it debuted back in the summer of '91, being endlessly debated on op-ed pages as much as in A&E sections. This sleeper hit was quickly dismissed by some as a male-bashing fantasy and overanalyzed by others as a feminist manifesto; scripter Callie Kouri claimed that she intended neither. At any rate, this beautifully realized film remains a trenchant, almost mystical slice of Americana, with terrific turns by the two leads and an able supporting cast that includes Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic cop on their trail and Brad Pitt in his breakout role as a hunky hitchhiker. Nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Actress for both leading ladies and Best Director), this scored Kouri the statue for Best Original Screenplay. In an interesting bit of trivia, Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer had first crack at the film, and Pfeiffer also turned down The Silence of the Lambs; Foster would go on to win the '91 Oscar for Silence over T&L's Sarandon and Davis.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Scott; separate audio commentary by Sarandon, Davis and Kouri; an hour-long making-of feature; 40 minutes of deleted and extended sequences; an extended ending; and the music video for Glenn Frey's "Part of You, Part of Me."