A Box Set Of Cannon Films ‘Classics’ Leads This Week’s Home Video Picks

A weekly guide to what’s new on DVD and Blu-ray

Pick of the Week: The Bombs, Babes & Blockbusters Of Cannon Films (Warner Bros.)

For a stretch of the 1980s and the very beginning of the ’90s, it was impossible to avoid the movies of Cannon Films, if only because of the sheer volume of the company’s output. Run by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon took a shotgun approach to conquering the box office, putting out dozens of low-budget films each year that ranged from teen sex comedies to action movies to musicals to art films from the likes of John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard. Golan and Globus developed reputations as shameless vulgarians and both the Hollywood establishment and critics, by and large, looked down their collective noses at films like Death Wish 3Breakin’, and Missing In Action. But the approach worked.

At least for a while: At a certain point, Cannon’s story becomes one of overreaching. Having built the company on the backs of fast-and-cheap features, Golan and Globus’ empire started to crumble as they grew more ambitious, recruiting big stars like Sylvester Stallone and trying to compete with big-budget blockbusters via decided medium-budget efforts like Masters of the Universe and Superman IV. They cracked a code then forgot their own solution.

The 10-disc The Bombs, Babes & Blockbusters Of Cannon Films barely scratches the surface of the Cannon filmography and rights issues keep it providing the most representative sample of what the studio had to offer. Absent are the gonzo 1980 musical The Apple, the Breakin’ films, any of the entries in the Enter The Ninja series, the increasingly sadistic Death Wish sequels, or The Last American Virgin — a remake of the Israeli film Lemon Popsicle that’s hands-down the most depressing teen comedy ever made. Also absent: director-driven films that ranged from Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce to Godard’s King Lear to Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly.

Instead, the box leans heavily on the action films that served as Cannon’s bread and butter. Five of the nine features included here star Chuck Norris and offer different shades of Reagan-era guns-blazin’ action, from the paranoia of Invasion U.S.A. to The Delta Force, which restaged the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 as an action fantasy in which the American military mows down the Arab hijackers with extreme prejudice. (Golan directed that one himself.) Masters of the Universe, a flop adaptation of the popular toy line, gets a spot as do Cobra and Over The Top, the company’s two team-ups with Sylvester Stallone and Bloodsport, which made a star of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

Consequently, the set’s films only tell one part of the Cannon story, but it is an entertaining part of  that story. Its best feature is the inclusion of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films. Directed by Mark Hartley, who brought a similar mix of scholarship and affection to his 2008 doc Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of OzsploitationElectric Boogaloo takes an evenhanded look at Golan and Globus’ story. The film mixes interviews with those who worked for Cannon — including actors like Alex Winter and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) who talk about their experiences in terms others reserve for especially painful dental procedures — with a generous selection of clips from the Cannon library. What emerges is a portrait of a studio run by men who loved movies, money, and attention — and who didn’t mind cutting corners or offending the sensibilities of others in the pursuit of those goals.

Cannon’s legacy is a string of cheaply made but strangely enduring films that capture the spirit of the times that made them better than most of the big-budget films of the era. Breakinfor instance, was born of an attempt to cash-in on the breakdancing craze but it also managed to put to film a lot of vibrant dance, fashion, and music that otherwise would have been left undocumented. The Delta Force is driven by an ugly fantasy of violence and the American military providing all the answers to the world’s problems, but it resonated with a crowd eager to believe in that fantasy. Cannon may have been tacky, but it brought a disarming Wild West sensibility to B-movies and a sense that anything could happen in its movies, so long as it didn’t cost too much. The world of film is less interesting without it.

Sleeper of the Week: 

The Duke of Burgundy (Shout! Factory)
The Duke Of Burgundy, the third feature from English director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is at once familiar and singular. It has the gauzy look of a 1970s European softcore movie and seems to be set in the sort of erotic idyll so often found in such films: Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an expert in butterflies, and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) live a life of luxury in a sprawling, vine-covered country estate. There they pursue Cynthia’s studies and act out fantasies of dominance and submission, with the younger Evelyn playing the submissive part. But it’s Evelyn who manages the fantasies and, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that their role-playing doesn’t quite work for Cynthia any more. It’s strange-but-familiar in other ways, too. The film seems to take place in no particular time and in a world without men where butterfly collections double as currency. But the central relationship is one of two people trying to learn what compromises they need to make to stay together, and how much of their own happiness they can give up for the other. It’s a fantasy with roots solidly planted in how relationships work in the real world, and a depiction of paradise that acknowledges heartbreak creeps in everywhere.

Also new:

Spy (Fox)
Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig have collaborated on three films now (with Ghostbusters on the way) and nothing about Spy suggests the pairing is about to run out of steam. Here McCarthy plays a deskbound CIA operative whose lack of confidence has undermined her professionally even though her smarts have repeatedly saved the day. All that changes, however, when she’s called into the field. Another sweetly vulgar Feig film that deftly mixes physical comedy with witty lines, Spy lets McCarthy be funny while bringing out the best in a supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, and an unexpectedly hilarious Jason Statham, who spends much of the film exploding the macho image he’s built up over the years.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (Buena Vista, out Friday, October 2)
The fan consensus seems to have turned against this second Joss Whedon-directed Avengers film a bit in the months since its release. And, admittedly, it’s overstuffed and some of the well-documented off-screen difficulties are evident in the finished product. But it’s also a superhero film that’s not afraid to spend time developing its characters — and one in which the heroes spend a lot more time rescuing civilians than a certain Man Of Steel.

Cop Car (Universal)
This well-reviewed Kevin Bacon-starring indie thriller came out of Sundance with considerable buzz. By the time it hit theaters, director Jon Watts had landed a job directing the next Spider-Man movie. There may be no better example of how the Hollywood system processes talent in 2015.

Christine (Universal)
Speaking of cars… John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a possessed Plymouth Fury is probably the least-loved of Carpenter’s great Assault on Precinct 13 to They Live run. But it’s still a moodily shot chiller that’s very much worth a look.

Poltergeist (Fox)
Was a remake of the Steven Spielberg-produced/Tobe Hooper-directed 1982 horror classic necessary? Probably not. But here it is anyway. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt star.

Unexpected (Alchemy)
Since the end of How I Met Your Mother, Cobie Smulders has alternated big movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron (see above) with indie films that showcase her range (see Results, released last week). Directed by Kris Swanberg, this well-received pregnancy drama falls into the latter category.

A Room With a View (Criterion)
After a while, the Merchant-Ivory name became synonymous with a certain kind of tasteful (read “dull”) literary adaptation. But the collaboration between producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) yielded a string of strong film in the 1980s and early ’90s. A Room With a View, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel of romance amongst the repressed British set in part against a sensual Italian backdrop, is one of the team’s best, thanks to the team’s use of beautiful settings and the carefully measured performances of stars Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, and others. It’s a reminder that Merchant-Ivory may have only made one sort of film, but sometimes they did it extremely well.