Age of the Cult Classic

The beauty of the DVD revolution is the sheer breadth of releases available.

Sure, there are plenty of big-ticket DVD items out there this holiday season — entire series of top-rated TV shows such as the Sopranos, CSI, and Law & Order: SVU, not to mention the four-disc Two Towers set. There are also plenty of first-run movies now available for home viewing mere weeks after their theatrical runs have ended.

But the real beauty of the DVD revolution is the onslaught of lesser-known and long-out-of-print films, both foreign and domestic, that have begun to populate retail and video store shelves. Many of these cult classics have carved out a niche in the home video market with special collector’s editions loaded with fan-friendly extras: audio commentary, deleted scenes, remastered soundtracks, mini-documentaries, archival stills, original trailers, featurettes, and shorts — even posters and trading cards. Whether it’s because retailers can accommodate so many more titles in the space formerly dedicated to bulky videocassettes, or because of how easily viewers can interact with all these extra features, the DVD age is providing viewers access to a much broader range of titles than the VCR age ever did. And while some of the more obscure rereleases won’t appeal to just anybody, the field is broad enough that there’s something of interest for literally everyone watching DVDs these days. With that in mind, here are a few of the more sublime video rereleases of 2003.

The Italian Job (1969) — Collector’s Edition

Forget the recent Hollywood remake featuring Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. The original Italian Job, starring a young, roguish Michael Caine, is a much better film, as well as an important reference point for the Austin Powers movies. Set in swinging 1960s London, this action comedy has it all: 007-esque intrigue, a wide-ranging score by Quincy Jones, and a literal cliffhanger of an ending. Caine is only slightly upstaged by the celebrated car chase (updated in the remake but hardly improved), featuring three Mini Coopers dashing through Turin, Italy, with very little reverence for the city’s storied history — or its cultural landmarks. Bonus goodies include a must-see deleted scene depicting a “car ballet” set to Strauss, and an informative documentary nitpicky enough to satisfy any detail-oriented film buff.

Style Wars

A must-own for anyone even remotely interested in urban youth culture. This 1983 documentary may well have been the first hip-hop movie, one that quickly attained mythic status and proved a harbinger of the youth-centric revolution that transfixed America in the ’80s and ’90s. Filmmakers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant didn’t necessarily realize the impact their glimpse into NYC’s 1970s graffiti and B-boy scenes would have on later generations; they just knew something remarkable was happening. Their seventy-minute opus is most effective when it relates the division between kids and authority figures, a still-relevant theme. Extras include outtake footage, interviews, and a bonus disc with artist galleries and a thirty-minute segment showing hundreds of “bombed” trains in all their Krylon-covered glory.

The Tale of Zatoichi and Adventures of Zatoichi

This wildly popular 1960s film series about a blind yakuza — or Japanese gangster — who taps his sword-cane through feudal Japan was a huge influence on the kung fu genre, especially directors the Shaw Brothers and Tsui Hark. Laconic antiheroes such as Clint Eastwood and the Road Warrior in Mad Max have nothing on the stoic Zatoichi, whose combination of humility and dignity makes him an interesting character, to say the least. Two of the best films in the 26-part saga, finally available on DVD, are The Tale of Zatoichi and Adventures of Zatoichi, which will teach you never to underestimate the visually impaired. Wide-screen aspect ratios and new subtitles emphasize the films’ classic nature, and each title includes collectible posters or trading cards featuring Zatoichi in various heroic poses. Highly recommended for fans of Japanese cinema and HK martial arts movies.

Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch is Barton Fink on bug powder. Ostensibly about the writing process, and how it is affected by talking typewriter-insects who order you to murder your spouse, David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version of William S. Burroughs’ infamous novel celebrates the author as hipster icon as much as it adapts the book once said to be impossible to render on film. Depending on your perspective, Naked Lunch is either one of the most important literary works of the 20th century, or a mishmash of junk-addled horse manure that has fooled critics and other writers for years. The Cronenberg-approved Criterion Collection edition helps make sense of it all, with critical essays (including one by Burroughs himself) and a bonus disc containing a featurette on the special effects, a making-of documentary, and an audio-only track of WSB reading passages from the novel in his typically deadpan style.

Ninja Scroll Tenth Anniversary Special Edition

Japanese animation has been around long enough to have produced several full-length features now considered classics. One such long-standing favorite among die-hard anime geeks is Ninja Scroll, a mid-’90s film that has had an impact on everything from the Mortal Kombat video game to NY rap group Wu-Tang Clan. Ninja Scroll still works because it balances a thrilling plot with wicked visuals, strong characters, and subtle comedic touches. The scene where the film’s hero Jubei throws a rice ball in the air, then dispatches three opponents with his sword before the ball drops, is as stunning as anything Jet Li has ever done. Bonus materials include an art gallery, wide-screen and full-screen options, four languages, 6.1 stereo, an interview with director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and a character synopsis.

Space Is the Place

Visionary musician and self-described alien visitor Sun Ra lives on in this cult favorite from 1974, which draws on influences from ’50s sci-fi to The Seventh Seal. With its psychedelic visual montages and “right-on!” vibe, Space Is the Place (shot on location in Oakland) fits somewhere between The Song Remains the Same and Shaft. You might need to install a lava lamp in your living room to fully understand the plot, which revolves around an Afro-Egyptian time traveler, played by Ra, who attempts to lead some soul brothers and sisters to the cosmic promised land. Opposing Ra is Teddy Overseer, a devilish fiend with magical powers, a bad attitude, and even badder shades. Of course, there’s plenty of far-out jazz on the soundtrack, which only sounds slightly less futuristic than when it was first recorded. Special features include interviews with producer Jim Newman and director John Coney, plus Ra’s “home movies,” originally used as backdrops in his concerts.

Scarface Two-Disc Edition

The Brian De Palma-Oliver Stone 1983 remake of the Paul Muni gangster vehicle is that rare update that transcends the original, making it seem almost completely superfluous in retrospect. Using an ambitious Cuban immigrant-cum-drug lord to symbolize the irony of the American Dream turned out to be a brilliant idea, mainly because Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is an unforgettable screen character right up there with the baddest badasses of all time. The bonus disc delves deep into the psychology of Scarface, with several mini-docs featuring commentary by Pacino, De Palma, Stone, and various gangsta rappers (whose lives were forever altered by the film). Another short doc shows clips from the little-seen TV version. Buy this, if for no other reason than to impress your friends with your cool Montana-speak. Inside the box, there’s an ad for “Tony Montana’s Gold Monogrammed Money Clip” — imagine what fun you’ll have when you flash it as you drawl, “Say hello to my lil’ fren’.”

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