A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that a lot of vintage movies are receiving Blu-ray upgrades lately, but I had no idea that May would open the floodgates.
Included here are no less than 14 titles making their Blu-ray debuts this week, the oldest from 1939 and the most recent from 2004, plus one that has been on Blu-ray before but is in new 40th-anniversary packaging.
If that’s not enough motivation for movie fans, two are wartime films just in time for Memorial Day and two more are intended for Mother’s Day. As if you needed a holiday to watch a movie.
“Memphis Belle” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1990, PG-13, trailer; 1944 documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”).
“The Big Red One” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1980, PG/R for violence and language, theatrical version, extended “Reconstruction” version, alternate scenes, audio commentary, featurettes, TV episode of documentary series “The Men Who Made the Movies”). These two exceptional films about World War II are based on true stories, and both intricately detail the difficulties, discomfort and terror of battle, one in the air and the other on the ground.
“Memphis Belle” is a highly entertaining, rousing, old-fashioned picture by Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and based on a documentary made during the war by populist filmmaker William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur”). (The documentary is a bonus feature on this disc).
The “Belle” is a B-17, one of hundreds of U.S. bombers based in England, flying missions over Germany. But it is the only one that has flown 24 straight missions with the same crew. As they embark on their 25th, it’s being publicized as an event for civilians back home, which has everyone on edge. Fine cast includes Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Harry Connick Jr. (in his first film), Sean Astin, David Straithairn and John Lithgow, among other familiar faces.
Maverick independent filmmaker Samuel Fuller wrote and directed “The Big Red One,” basing the story on his own experiences as an Army infantry dogface in North Africa and Europe during the last three years of the war.
For the film, he narrows the focus to a seasoned but weary sergeant (Lee Marvin in top form) navigating the terrain with four young soldiers (Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby DiCicco, Kelly Ward), which sometimes gives the film an episodic feel but allows us to really get to know these characters.
“The Big Red One” was rated PG in 1980, then was “reconstructed” years later for an extended version that received an R rating for violence, though it’s not nearly as rough as “Saving Private Ryan” or other more recent war movies.
“The Women” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1939, b/w, featurettes, trailers, cartoon). This all-female classic is billed as a comedy but it’s actually a drama with liberal doses of humor. And some of it is woefully dated as a wounded wife fights to get her husband back after he's strayed. (There’s also a six-minute color fashion show in the middle of this black-and-white film!)
But much of the dialogue is zippy (Rosalind Russell's rapid-fire delivery is a warm-up for "His Girl Friday" the next year), and fans will enjoy seeing so many great stars together — Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and such great character players as Mary Boland and Marjorie Main — all in fine form.
“The Bridges of Madison County” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1995, PG-13, audio commentary, featurette, trailer, music video). The other Mother’s Day tie-in is this midlife adultery romance based on the wildly popular Robert James Waller novel set in 1960s Iowa. In an unlikely bit of casting, Clint Eastwood is the National Geographic photographer shooting covered bridges who has a four-day tryst with a discontented farm wife (Meryl Streep, who is positively luminous). Too long and overly sentimental with a silly wraparound story, but it's entertaining thanks to the stars. (Eastwood also directed.)
“The Terminal” (Paramount/Blu-ray, 2004, PG-13, featurettes, photo gallery, trailers). If Eastwood went all soft and squishy in “Bridges,” Steven Spielberg does the same thing here, albeit in a Frank Capra kind of way. This sweet, gentle, low-key comedy stars Tom Hanks as an Eastern European traveler stuck at JFK airport when he’s denied entry to the United States but can’t return home either. So he lives in the airport, making unlikely friends along the way. Catherine Zeta-Jones co-stars.
“Amistad” (Paramount/Blu-ray, 1997, R for violence and nudity, featurette, trailer). Period courtroom drama about the international legal wrangling that followed an 1839 mutiny by African slaves aboard a Spanish ship bound for Cuba and their subsequent capture by the U.S. military. Follow-up to “Schindler’s List” by Spielberg is well-intentioned, always interesting and boasts excellent performances by an all-star cast (Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou). But it sags in the middle and is curiously remote.
“Blazing Saddles” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1974, R for language and sex, new featurette, deleted scenes, audio commentary, 1975 TV movie “Black Bart," vintage featurette, trailer; 10 postcard photos with quotes from the film). Mel Brooks’ first hit, a riotous farce that reinvigorated the off-the-wall, anachronistic comedy genre (co-opted six years later by “Airplane!”) and introduced a new level of vulgarity to movies while targeting both Western-movie clichés and contemporary racism. Bolstered by hilarious performances from Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn, among others.
“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah”/“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth” (Sony/Blu-ray, 1991/1992, not rated, in Japanese with English subtitles or English dubbed, trailers).
“Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II”/“Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” (Sony/Blu-ray, 1993/1994, PG/not rated, in Japanese with English subtitles or English dubbed, trailers).
“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah”/“Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” (Sony/Blu-ray, 1995/2000, not rated, in Japanese with English subtitles or English dubbed, trailers).
“Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.”/“Godzilla: Final Wars” (Sony/Blu-ray, 2003/2004, PG/PG-13, in Japanese with English subtitles or English dubbed, featurettes, trailers). Just in time for the new “Godzilla” movie opening next weekend come these Japanese double features in sharp Blu-ray editions with subtitles for purists or an English-language dubbed option for everyone else.
As you can tell by the titles, this is the franchise that would not die, with more than 30 movies in the oeuvre since the 1954 debut of the giant Tokyo-stomping lizard/dinosaur. These are not very good films, but they are entertaining in their own cheesy way. Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com