This week’s roundup features reviews of the new boxed set of “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve (on 4K/UHD); vintage “Superman” cartoons and recent Oscar winner “All Quiet on the Western Front” (both on Blu-ray); and new documentaries in theaters and/or streaming (“Beyond Human Nature,” “The Taking”).
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Superman—Five-Film Collection 1978-1987 (Warner Bros)
This set brings together the four Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel for the first time in 4K (the fifth is “Superman II—The Richard Donner Cut”). Donner directed “Superman” (1978), the grandly entertaining introduction to Reeve as a debonair but wholesomely Middle American Clark Kent and Superman, with the inimitable Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. After Donner was let go, Richard Lester was brought in to direct “Superman II” (1981), a sprawling comic adventure, and the misbegotten “Superman III” (1983), which wasted Reeve and Richard Pryor; finally, “Superman IV: A Quest for Peace” (1987), helmed by Sidney J. Furie and a stillborn artifact of its times, had nuclear weapons held hostage by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, a bright comic presence in three of these films). While the films are wildly uneven—including Donner’s version of “Superman II”—the presentation is first-rate: everything looks spectacular in UHD. But not all extras have been ported over from earlier releases: the main retrospective making-of documentaries are here, along with commentaries, deleted scenes and some of the original Max Fleischer cartoons (see below).
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
All Quiet on the Western Front (Capelight Pictures/Netflix)
German director Edward Berger’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel, set in the trenches of Europe during World War I, displays the horrors of war—blasts of poison gas, the excruciatingly agony of the dying—as horrific as anything ever filmed. It’s been immaculately shot by James Friend, superbly acted by a large cast and has an effective visual aesthetic sharply contrasting natural beauty with the ugliness of the battlefield, but for all that, it’s proficient, rather than remarkable, filmmaking. Even Volker Bertelmann’s award-winning score sounds derivative of other, better composers. The film’s hi-def transfer is impeccable; extras are Berger’s commentary and a making-of featurette.
Knock at the Cabin (Universal)
In M. Night Shyamalan’s latest twisty flick, a family of three—two dads and a young adopted daughter— on vacation in a remote area is accosted by a group of strangers who tell them that, to save the world from impending Armageddon, they must decide whom among themselves to sacrifice. This tired “Sophie’s choice” trope might have been done with more nuance in Paul G. Tremblay’s underlying novel, but Shayamalan does little with the conceit, instead inserting turgid flashbacks for the characters alongside video feeds of the impending end of the world. Shayamalan can make these movies in his sleep and he seems to have done that here, with wooden acting, clichéd writing and derivative directing. The film looks good on Blu; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.
Max Fleischer’s Superman (Warner Bros)
The 17 short films (most no more than 10 minutes) that make up this collection of original Superman cartoons created by Max Flesicher between 1941 and 1943 are an evocative glimpse at early manifestation of the original superhero—born in the days of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito—and a dazzling example of stunning animation marred by an ultra-patriotic, even zenophobic attitude. It’s great that Warners has restored these important animated shorts—and their colors pop vividly throughout—but there’s also a scrubbed-clean sheen that robs the viewer of the grain that that earlier releases included. There are also three featurettes about the history and legacy of the Man of Steel and the Fleischer animations.
Samurai Wolf 1 & 2 (Film Movement Classics)
The samurai films of director Hideo Gosha are faster-paced and more freewheeling than, say, those of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, and these relatively short, fleet, exciting entries that were made back-to-back in 1966 and 1967, respectively, show off their unique style. They also wear their influences (especially then-current spaghetti westerns) on their sleeve, along with gritty B&W camerawork. These newly restored hi-def prints look razor-sharp, and extras comprise an audio commentary by author Chris Poggliali and a featurette, “Outlaw Director.”
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Beyond Human Nature (Screen Media)
This unsettling documentary examines the 1992 death of Tom Monfils, an employee at a paper mill factory—he was found, drowned, at the bottom of a pulp vat soon after he had told authorities about alleged thefts by a fellow worker. Director Michael Neelsen dives into this complicated story, looking into who would have wanted Monfils killed, looking through the evidence, the police investigation, the eventual apprehension of several of the plant worker, their trials and verdicts…and exculpatory evidence. This fascinating film, filled with turnabouts that make the viewer unsure of just what happened and who’s really responsible, makes one think that the truth might never be found.
The End of Sex (Blue Fox Entertainment)
When married couple Josh and Emma hit a lull in their sex life—and conveniently while their kids are away at camp—they try to spice things up in director Sean Garrity and writer Jonas Chernick’s occasionally funny but mostly sophomoric sex comedy. Swinging, a non-starting threesome, even a lesbian romp for Emma with Wendy, a school colleague—none of it works for them, or for the viewer for that matter. Although Chernick has a wan presence as Josh, Emily Hampshire makes Emma quite interesting and charming…she deserves a better vehicle for her comedic talents.
Johnny & Clyde (Screen Media)
No one would accuse Megan Fox of being an accomplished actress, but it’s nice to see her do more than simply look good as a dangerous mob boss who confronts the title couple, a couple of nihilistic serial killers on a crime spree looking to rob Fox’s casino. Director Tom DeNucci (who cowrote with Nick Principe) seems to be making it up as he goes along, especially dropping in Fox’s lethal and unkillable spirit creature that mows nearly everyone down. But even with Fox having a blast as the villain, this isn’t even a true guilty pleasure, since it’s so relentlessly one-note and, frankly, dull.
The Taking (Dekanalog)
Appropriation of land in America is a fraught subject, and Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary is a timely reminder of just how movies can have ramifications beyond the screen: Monument Valley became iconic partly through the westerns of director John Ford and, in the process, any sense of this landscape being part of Navajo territory has been lost. Through extensive film clips as well as interviews with experts and historians, Philippe has made an eye-opening and challenging contribution to further proof of the old adage that “winners” are the ones who write (or rewrite) history.