Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio/Executioners (1993): Criterion Blu-ray review

Flights of martial arts fantasy in Johnnie To & Ching Siu-Tung's Executioners (1993)

Before attaining international critical success with a series of cool, formally precise thrillers, Johnnie To made a pair of wildly inventive superhero movies fraught with anxiety about the approaching hand over of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997. The Heroic Trio and Executioners (both 1993) mix fantasy, science fiction, traditional martial arts and modern action into a potent dystopian stew centred on three of Hong Kong’s biggest female stars – Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung. Criterion’s three-disk dual-formal edition showcases stunning restorations by L’Immagine Ritrovata.

Lost films and alternative histories

A cultured ape (Zain Rahnat) teaches life lessons in Donn Greer's The Rare Blue Apes of Cannibal Isle (1975)

Film restoration is usually seen as an effort to preserve the canon, but there are vast areas of film history which may be less reputable, but still represent significant aspects of the past century’s most popular art form. In their recent six-disk, ten-movie set Lost Picture Show, Vinegar Syndrome highlight their own efforts to unearth and give new life to cheap, obscure, frequently disreputable examples of movies made far from the mainstream – sex. violence, politics and an occasional talking animal are on display in this ragged, sometimes enlightening, sometimes frustrating collection.

The Criminal Acts of Tod Slaughter on Blu-ray from Indicator

James Dalton, the Tiger (Tod Slaughter) becomes desperate at the end of George King's The Ticket of Leave Man (1937)

Indicator closed 2023 with one of their finest offerings yet – a four-disk, eight film box set of blood-and-thunder melodramas produced, and mostly directed, by George King and starring the inimitable Tod Slaughter as a roster of heinous villains portrayed with gleeful enthusiasm by an actor who devoted his long career to preserving an art form incubated on Victorian stages and largely fallen out of favour by the time these films preserved it with such relish. With striking restorations, mostly from original nitrate negatives, supplemented with commentaries, interviews and Slaughter-related ephemera, this is definitely the highlight of the past year.

Cheap sci-fi and hardboiled noir in 3D

Members of the gang come down hard on Mike Hammer (Biff Elliot) and his secretary Velda (Margaret Sheridan) in Harry Essex's I, the Jury (1953)

A 3D restoration of Phil Tucker’s ultra-cheap Robot Monster (1953) doesn’t really help this oddly endearing slice of poverty row sci-fi, but Classicflix’s 4K restoration of Harry Essex’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury (1953) is a revelation of what a great cinematographer could accomplish with first-wave 3D technology; Spillane’s brutal noir was shot by John Alton, a master of light and shadow, and the sense of space and imagery which plays on multiple planes in almost shot makes this one of the most impressive looking 3D movies of its time.

Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema from Criterion

A circus tightrope-walker (Pia Degermark) is swept away by romance in Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan (1967)

Criterion’s new four-disk Blu-ray set Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema introduces the work of a filmmaker who deserves to be better-known; a critic who rebelled against the dominant work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman which ignored issues of politics, economics and class, Widerberg drew on the French New Wave and New British Cinema to create politically engaged and expressive films which reflected contemporary Swedish society and recent history.

Blasts from the past

Evil and dead

Out of sync yet again …

Adapting Lovecraft

Year End 2021

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