This week, the Shelf has on it two fantastic box sets from two of screendom’s best-loved (and most completely different) stars, a couple of this summer’s indie darlings, some horror, some crime, some comic books… what else do you really need? The answer is “nothing worth having.”
British horror icons from the ’60s included the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but for American horror at the time, there was but one name: Vincent Price. The Missouri-born thesp had made his fair share of macabre classics in the 1950s, including House of Wax and The House on Haunted Hill, but by the time the swingin’ ’60s rolled around, he was the undisputed king. Some of his best-known films were made for Roger Corman in the decade, usually in the form of adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which used the same visual sense that made Britain’s Hammer Films so popular. This set combines four of these Price/Corman/Poe collaborations, as well as two of his later masterpieces, to make this a definite buy for fans of the genre. The four Corman films in question are The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), and Masque of the Red Death (1964). All of them are fantastic, but particularly the first two are astonishing when you think of how small the budgets were (Corman being as notoriously stingy as he he is) and yet how lush and interesting the visuals could be.
Price in all four is a revelation; he’s an actor who never felt like he was being lowered to the level of horror and always delivered his A material no matter the part (much like Cushing and Lee in that respect). The other two films in the set are Witchfinder General (1968), directed by Michael Reeves, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), directed by Robert Fuest. Both of these are Price at perhaps his most monstrous. In Witchfinder, Price plays a depraved and vile traveling priest who has been given carte blanche to condemn and burn any woman he deems a witch, usually if they haven’t paid him or had sex with him. It’s a tough movie to watch at times. Dr. Phibes is a nearly-silent role for Price, who plays the maddest of mad scientists, killing off those who made his wife suffer and die and left him burnt and voiceless. Each movie in the four disc set has a plethora of great special features, including commentaries by Corman and scholars as well as interviews with people involved. Again, excellent set for horror fanatics.
In the same way that Price exemplified horror, Bruce Lee exemplified martial arts, at least in the United States. Until Jackie Chan and Jet Li, no Chinese actor had ever been as popular in the US as Bruce Lee, and most of that came after his untimely death. Still, to this day, his ferocity and screen presence, as well as his philosophy and storied history, have made him an icon of Kung Fu action cinema, and of Kung Fu in general. This year is the 40th anniversary of the passing of the man, who has been dead longer than he was alive, and we’re still infatuated with him and his films. To wit, the Bruce Lee Legacy Collection gathers all of the master’s Hong Kong films (Enter the Dragon was an American production and was released earlier this year) in both Blu-ray and DVD, as well as several discs worth of documentaries, to pretty much give you an all-in-one Bruce Lee experience. His debut film was 1971’s The Big Boss (known in the US as Fists of Fury), which he made upon returning to Hong Kong after his American TV career had stalled. It’s a brutal and gritty crime story in which Lee’s character was not initially meant to be the protagonist, but it was changed once it was clear he was the man. The final battle between Lee and the titular Big Boss (played by fight choreographer Han Ying-Chieh) is one of the best one-on-one, weaponless fights in any martial arts film.
Next, he went back in time for 1972’s Fist of Fury (known in the US as The Chinese Connection, named so to capitalize on The French Connection, even though those movies have nothing to do with each other. Confusing), a movie which saw him battling Japanese gangsters who are threatening his Kung Fu school in the early 20th century. This is the first movie where he uses his signature weapon, the nunchaku, and boy, does he use them effectively here. The fights in this are even better than the earlier movie, even if the acting is a bit more melodramatic from everybody.
Lee’s only directorial outing was 1972’s Way of the Dragon which he also wrote and produced. It has Lee playing an enforcer sent to defend his relative’s restaurant in Rome from Japanese and Mafioso tampering. They eventually get angry and bring in their own ringer, in the form of Chuck Norris. I kid you not, folks: Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris in a Roman coliseum. I wish I could say this was the best of the movies given how much control Lee had, but it’s not. That fight is genius, though.
The final movie in the group is Game of Death, the unfinished movie Lee was working on when he left to go make Enter the Dragon and never got to finish before suffering a cerebral edema. In order to salvage it (there was only about 40 minutes of completed footage), Warner Brothers enlisted Robert Clouse, who had directed Enter the Dragon, to shoot new scenes and create a new story. Stand-ins were used for Lee’s character and there was even still images of Lee superimposed at certain times. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. The disc for this also has just the actual Lee footage (including him wearing the famous yellow track suit and fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) edited together for you to see what might have been. There are also three discs of special features and documentaries concerning anything and everything you could possibly want to know about the man. Originally intended for release in the summer, this set was held back until now to ensure the best possible HD quality, and if you’re a Bruce Lee fan, or want to know where to start, there’s kind of no better place than this.
Oscar winners and former Nerdist Podcast guests Jim Rash and Nat Faxon wrote their way to a Best Adapted Screenplay win along with Alexander Payne for The Descendants, but now they’re fully at the helm with the bittersweet coming-of-age dramedy, The Way Way Back. Featuring a huge cast of familiar faces, the movie acts as a hyper-introverted boy (Liam James)’s transformation from meek to mighty through his secret summer job working at the water park in the town where he’s spending the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her new, rather asshole-y boyfriend (Steve Carell). When it becomes clear he wants nothing to do with his family or their friends (with the exception of neighbor Alison Janney’s daughter, played by AnnaSophia Robb), he finds a place as the new employee at a water park run by the ultra cool Sam Rockwell at his ultra-coolest. Maya Rudolph, and Faxon and Rash themselves, also work at the park. There’s a whole lot to like about this movie, not least of which being the across-the-board stellar performances. The story gets very real at times and can be a bit hard to watch if you have anything approaching a broken home, but the filmmakers temper these moments with the seemingly endless wonderland of the park. Not everything happens the way you think it should, or the way it typically would in movies like this, but that’s what makes it all the more engaging and a real break from the Hollywood norm. Let’s hope the pair get to make their next movie very soon.
The Conjuring – James Wan’s first horror movie of the summer is a real-life case of a haunted house from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Listen to director Wan and co-stars Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor on the Nerdist Podcast and see our own Dan Casey talk to the cast in a Nerdist News Special.
The Uninvited – In the same vein, there’s this 1944 haunted house movie starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. Neither were available to be on the Nerdist Podcast, given their hectic schedules in the afterlife. (They died forever ago.)
Before Midnight – The third in director Richard Linklater’s continuing saga of two people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) and where they are in their lives every ten years.
Necessary Evil: Super Villains of DC Comics – Feature length documentary about all the many colorful and deadly bad guys in the DC Comics pantheon.
Only God Forgives – Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive also stars Ryan Gosling and is somehow more violent and depraved and with even neon-er lighting.
AND AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD
White House Down – Jamie Foxx is the president who fires a bazooka. Nuff said.
Turbo – Snails race against cars for seemingly no reason. Nuff said.