DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Oscar Micheaux

When segregation was prevalent in America, even films were impacted. In some areas, black people had their own movie theaters to attend, while other movie theaters had designated screenings and sections for black moviegoers. Films were also produced specifically for black audiences. These films were often referred to as “race films,” although the term “race film” applied to any film aimed at minority audiences, not just black audiences. These films featured casts full of black actors and had black people involved behind the camera as well. Kino Lorber has recently released a DVD/blu-ray set of these films in their new Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema includes 19 feature-length films, 12 shorts, plus several brief fragments and home movies. Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, Kino was able to put this set together using the best known existing source material and beautifully restore everything as well as they possibly could. Many of the films included in this set have never been released on home video before.

Pioneers of African American CinemaAs you watch the films in this collection, it’s abundantly clear that these were not made within the mainstream Hollywood system. They were produced on lower budgets with non-professional actors, but there is a tremendous amount of soul and artistic vision behind them. While many of the films in this collection were intended as entertainment for entertainment’s sake, such as The Bronze Buckaroo and Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A., many others deal with deeper themes like spirituality, class, racism, and social issues in ways you don’t see in more mainstream Hollywood productions of the era. The work of Oscar Micheaux, who is known for his commitment to producing films that showed African-American characters in a positive light, is very well represented here.

But even the films that were intended to be pure entertainment still open the door to interesting discussions of race. Two Knights of Vaudeville is a comedy short, very similar to what you might expect to see in a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach short. While Luther Pollard, a manager and producer at Ebony Films, stated it proved that black performers could be just as funny as white ones without relying on stereotypes like eating watermelon or stealing chickens, just a few years after its original release, some criticized it because they felt the characters were an embarrassing reflection on the race.

One of the most fascinating things about this collection is that not all of the films in it were produced with the intention of them ever being shown in a conventional movie theater.  The collection includes some home movies, plus three films by James and Eloyce Gist, a couple of evangelists who produced their own films to incorporate into sermons. These films, Hellbound TrainVerdict: Not Guilty, and Heaven-Bound Travels, naturally deal with morality, spirituality, and other religious themes.

Anyone with an interest in film history is aware of how many films have been lost due to lack of preservation, but these films by African American filmmakers have a particularly low survival rate. Not everything featured in this collection is known to exist in its complete form. Some films, such as The Symbol of the Unconquered, are mostly complete with some missing segments while others, like By Right of Birth and Regeneration, only exist in brief fragments. Some of the fragments are in pretty rough shape. The fact that so many of these extremely important films are together in one collection, regardless of their completeness or overall picture quality, is just one of the many reasons why this set so fantastic. This is the most comprehensive film collection of this sort ever produced. For far too long, these films have been under-preserved, but now we have a beautifully produced collection that makes this overlooked part of film history readily available to the public. If you have an interest in seeing various portrayals of race in film, you’re certainly going to want to get this set. But even if you just have a deep interest in American film history, there’s a lot of very interesting things to see here.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this set from Kino Lorber.


DVD Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Released in 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever produced and is cited as one of the finest examples of the German Expressionist style of film making. Over 90 years later, Caligari looks as good as it ever has, thanks to a brand new digital restoration, just released on blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Before seeing this blu-ray, I had seen the movie before, but I quickly realized that I hadn’t really seen it. Anytime I’ve seen the movie, it was a public domain version with none of the beautiful colored tinting and without a noteworthy musical score. Being able to see it the way it was meant to be seen was really a revelation. Caligari has such a striking visual style that its impact isn’t completely lost even if you’re watching a lesser print. But the colored tinting and the addition of a much better score really added a lot to the whole experience. The restoration was done mostly using the original camera negative and it looks incredible. The end result is simply stunning; the most beautiful nightmare I have ever seen. The picture is so crisp and clear, it’s very easy to forget that it was filmed over 90 years ago.

The blu-ray includes the documentary “Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema,” restoration demos, an image gallery, trailers for other Kino Lorber releases, and an additional musical score by DJ Spooky. Overall, it’s a first-rate release for a movie that truly deserves the royal treatment.

Note: I received a review copy from Kino Lorber, which does not influence my overall opinion of this release.

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essentials Blu-Ray Collection

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essentials Blu-Ray Collection

Artwork for the US version

Simply put, if you love watching classic horror films around Halloween, you’re going to want the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essentials Blu-ray set in your collection. You really do get some of the best of the best horror movies Universal Studios has to offer: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera (1943), Creature from the Black Lagoon. For me, I thought of it as getting an instant Halloween movie collection because it has a so many of my annual must-see Halloween favorites. Only one movie in this set is new-to-me, The Phantom of the Opera (1943), but for the others, getting this set was like getting to see them for the first time all over again. The picture quality is consistently beautiful throughout the set; these movies look like they could have been released yesterday. I have never seen these movies look this good before.

Each disc is also rich with bonus features. If you have the standard DVD versions of these movies, many of the bonus features will be familiar to you, but I don’t mind that since the bonus features are still great. Each movie comes with a featurette with historians and other film authorities discussing the film. I’ve been enjoying watching these featurettes almost as much as I’ve been enjoying watching the movies themselves. If you have a 3-D TV and Blu-ray player, you’re in luck because the Creature from the Black Lagoon disc includes the 3-D version of the movie as a bonus feature.

It’s been a long time since I had this much fun with a Blu-ray or DVD set. Pretty much the only way this collection could have been better is if it had the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera instead of the 1943 version. But I am still so thrilled with the collection that I can forgive that. If you’re interested in ordering it for yourself, my one big recommendation is to buy the UK import version instead of the US version. The UK version comes with the exact same movies as the US one, has the exact same extra content, and it’s region free so it will work in US players. The only differences are the packaging and the price. With the US version, the discs are packaged in a book style where the discs slide in and out of cardboard pages. But in the UK version, the discs are housed in a more typical DVD style, which I personally prefer over the book style. But you know what the best part is? The UK version is considerably cheaper than the US version. The UK version is available on amazon.co.uk or on the Amazon US store, but at the time of writing this post, it’s about $20 cheaper to order it through the Amazon UK store.

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essentials Blu-Ray Collection UK Import

The UK Import version.

DVD Review: The Max Linder Collection

KINO-DVD-Master5If any silent film star is due for a revival of interest in their work, it’s Max Linder. In 1905, Linder started making films in France for Pathé Films and gained popularity playing his character “Max,” a very dapper type always dressed to the nines with his signature silk top hat. By 1910, Max Linder had become the world’s first international movie star and it wasn’t long before he was commanding a salary of a million Francs a year.

Max Linder’s films influenced many of the most celebrated comedians in film history — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers. Some of Linder’s other famous fans included King Vidor, Mack Sennett, and Adolphe Menjou. Like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Linder was more than just an actor and also wrote and directed many of his own films. However, after Linder moved from France to the United States in 1916, he struggled to win over American audiences. He returned to France in 1922 and died three years later. Despite being such an influential figure, Max Linder hasn’t gotten nearly as much recognition as he deserves.

If you’re interested in exploring some of Max Linder’s work for yourself, Kino Classics has just released The Max Linder Collection, a DVD featuring four films he made during his time in America. The set includes 1922’s The Three Must-Get-Theres, a delightful parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers; 1921’s Be My Wife; 1921’s Seven Years Bad Luck; and 1917’s Max Wants a Divorce.  The Max Linder Collection is only available on standard DVD, not blu-ray, and doesn’t include any bonus features, but the movies alone are enough to make it worth buying.

All four films in The Max Linder Collection have been lovingly restored and look fantastic. The source material for Max Wants a Divorce isn’t as clear as the source material for the others, but it still looks pretty good for a movie made nearly a century ago. Of the four movies, the only one I had seen before was Seven Years Bad Luck, which I really liked. The other three movies were a revelation for me. They showed Max to be a gifted, wonderfully imaginative comedian who was way ahead of the game. Why these movies weren’t big hits with American audiences at the time is beyond me because I found all of them to be quite delightful. The Max Linder Collection is a great way to be introduced to one of silent film’s most overlooked pioneers.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Kino Lorber.

DVD Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) Blu-Ray

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1920 Kino Blu-Ray CoverWhen it comes to silent horror films, John Barrymore’s performance in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the best of the genre; it easily ranks up there with Max Schreck’s in Nosferatu and Lon Chaney’s in The Phantom of the Opera.  The story of Dr. Jekyll has been adapted for film, television, radio, and the stage numerous times in the 94 years since this version was released.  But it’s John Barrymore’s masterful performance that makes this version remain one of the absolute best versions you will ever see.

On January 28th, Kino Lorber will be giving Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the royal treatment it deserves with a new Blu-Ray/DVD release.  Kino has long been one of my favorite companies for DVDs.  In terms of picture quality and bonus features, Kino has always delivered.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is my first time checking out one of Kino’s Blu-Ray releases and I am thrilled with it.  The picture quality is, for the most part, excellent.  There are a few scenes that aren’t as clear as the rest of the film, but they don’t significantly detract from the movie’s overall quality.  The quality of a Blu-Ray/DVD release can only be as good as the source material available and fortunately, Kino had 35mm elements in great condition to work with and they are presented here in beautiful 1080p.  This new Blu-Ray/DVD release also features a wonderful score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and includes five minutes of footage that had been missing from Kino’s previous DVD release of Dr. Jekyll.

The new Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Blu-Ray/DVD also includes a 12-minute version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1912, a 15-minute excerpt from a rival production of Dr. Jekyll also released in 1920, a rare audio recording from 1909 titled “The Transformation Scene,” and 1925’s Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride starring Stan Laurel. (Fun fact: Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride was written by Tay Garnett, who went on to direct 1932’s One Way Passage, 1935’s China Seas, and 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.)   Dr. Pyckle and the 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll both look quite good, but the excerpt from the rival 1920 production doesn’t look as sharp.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Kino Lorber.

DVD Review – Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection

Hitchcock Essentials CollectionSince I’m just starting to get into blu-rays, one thing I really had my eye on was the huge, 15-disc “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” blu-ray set.  That collection has so many excellent films and I thought something like that would be a nice way to help start my blu-ray collection.  But then I read some reviews of the set and started having second thoughts.  The impression I got from the reviews is that although some of the movies looked spectacular, others had room for improvement.

But then I noticed “Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection” had been released on blu-ray just a few days earlier.  “The Essentials Collection” includes Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds.  After thinking about it, I figured that even if I did order “The Masterpiece Collection,” those are the five movies I would probably watch the most often anyway so I might as well save some money and go for “The Essentials Collection” instead.

I can very safely say that I have no regrets about that decision.  After it came in the mail, the first thing I did was put each disc in the player to get a quick idea of the picture quality.  When I put in the disc for Rear Window, my first reaction was, “Wow, this was money well spent.” And at that point, I hadn’t even started watching the actual movie yet, I was still on the main menu.

All the movies in “The Essentials Collection” are presented in 1080p and look absolutely glorious.  I’ve seen each of these movies several times over the years — on television, in theaters, on standard DVD — but seeing them on blu-ray was like getting to see them for the first time all over again.  I always love it when I can find new things, however minor they may be, in a movie I’ve seen dozens of times.

Each film comes with a plethora of bonus features bound to please any Hitchcock fan.  I recognize some of the features from past DVD releases, but there are other new features, such as excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s conversations with Hitchcock, that make some very welcome additions.

All in all, I have no complaints about this collection.  If you’re like me and are looking to upgrade some of your Hitchcock movies to blu-ray, but don’t want to spend over $100 on “The Masterpiece Collection,” “The Essentials Collection” is a really nice alternative.

DVD Review: Ultimate Gangsters Collection – Classics

Ultimate Gangsters Collection - Classics2013 marks the 90th anniversary of Warner Brothers studios.  Warner Brothers has produced a lot of movies over those 90 years, but the genre they are most strongly associated with is gangster films.  Just in time for this milestone, four of Warner Brothers’ most iconic gangster hits have been released on Blu-ray for the first time in the “Ultimate Gangsters Collection – Classics.” This collection includes: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Petrified Forest, and White Heat.

Cagney. Bogart. Robinson.  In this collection, we get three of the greatest actors to ever work at Warner Brothers doing what they did best.