Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray and Blu-ray only releases are listed in both italics and bold font.
Here is the unvarnished, unavoidable truth about Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Magnolia), the big screen debut of Awesome Show, Great Job! creators Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim: if you have not already sworn allegiance to them, this movie isn’t going to sway you to their side. It’s a mess, plain and simple, but then again, so is their show – a huge, deliberate mess, but also a frequently funny and alarming one. Billion Dollar Movie is essentially a Frankenstein stitch job of the pair’s pop culture/media assault (faux PSAs, commercials, movie parodies) with a berserk plot about their attempt to repay the $1 billion given to them by insane corporate head Robert Loggia to make a feature film. Their solution: rebuild a desolate mall (owned by co-producer Will Ferrell), which is, of course, a terrible idea, but in Tim and Eric’s universe, the world is built on very, very awful ideas that turn out – well, pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of celebrity guest turns, most notably John C. Reilly as the mall’s terminally ill caretaker, and some truly jaw-dropping moments (one, involving Tim coercing a child to leave his biological father for his own suspect parenting, is as cringe-worthy as it sounds) make this the feature that Tim and Eric fans have undoubtedly dreamed about, and all others feared. The DVD features commentary by the duo, as well as deleted and extended scenes.
And in a corner of the movie universe very distant from Tim and Eric is The Vow (Sony), an unabashedly corny romantic drama with Man of the Moment Channing Tatum as a husband working overtime to win back his recent bride (Rachel McAdams) after a car accident wipes clean her memory. The Vow drew in absurd, Lord of the Rings-sized numbers during its Valentine’s Day release earlier this year, despite largely negative critical response. Though from a story standpoint, The Vow and Tim and Eric couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, the two pictures both succeed in doing what they’re supposed to do, which is deliver the desired experience to their respective audiences. Neither are particularly good films, but neither are worthy of the more damning allegations lobbied at them: The Vow, while heavy-handed, is also a polished, well-performed feature (both leads are likable, and they’re supported by pros Sam Neill and Jessica Lange as McAdams’ estranged parents) and works as a sweet, unchallenging love story, and nothing more. Which is exactly what Tim and Eric did (though not the sweet and unchallenging part), though about 10 million people picked up what The Vow was putting down, as opposed to their more conservative numbers. The DVD includes commentary by director Michae Sucsy (Grey Gardens), deleted scenes and a gag reel, while the Blu-ray adds three short making-of featurettes.
I guess if I had to make a definitive pick for the Multiplex this week, I’d go with neither of these choices and instead choose Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Warner), which makes its Blu-ray debut this week. Moviegoers seemed baffled this 1989 sequel to Joe Dante’s blockbuster 1984 horror-comedy, which moves the action from small town America to a Manhattan skyscraper; maybe it’s the film’s decidedly go-for-broke pace and satirical tone, which skewers cable television, Donald Trump, movie colorization, the rigid rules of movie sequels and corporate-driven science, among any number of targets. It’s scattershot at times, which is, I think, the point, given Dante’s affection for Warner Bros. cartoons, which this film resembles in its best moments. But Gremlins 2 is also a very funny picture, thankfully free of its predecessor’s most treacly elements (Phoebe Cates’ ghastly childhood reminiscence from the first film is both revisited and amusingly revamped), and well abetted by a cast that seems energized by the picture’s screwball energy, including John Glover (as the ersatz Trump), Christopher Lee, Paul Bartel, and the great Dick Miller, who returns for a second round of abuse as the still-traumatized Murray Futterman. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Dante, star Zach Galligan and writer Charles Haas, as well as outtakes, a gag reel and an alternate sequence from the original VHS release.
Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Criterion) has lost none of its blunt impact in the seventeen years since it drew global critical attention for its depiction of the destructive nature of unfocused prejudice. The picture, which also helped to introduce Vincent Cassel to international audiences, delivers the same degree of complicated discourse on racial discord and ingrained societal racism in its story of three disenfranchised French immigrants whose long-simmering resentments reach a fatal boiling point in the wake of riots as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which it echoes in its restless camerawork and use of music as cultural commentary (Lee has gone on record as stating that La Haine is an outright and unacknowledged carbon of his film). It goes without saying that it is a harrowing viewing experience, but also a timely one, given the current atmosphere of intolerance, both here and abroad. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Kassovitz, a documentary feature that reunites the cast and crew, and deleted and extended scenes, as well as an interview with Jodie Foster, who helped secure the film an American release.
Also on the heavy drama front: Front Line (Well Go USA), a grim discourse on combat from the perspective of South Korean troops in the final days of the Korean War, who attempt to hold a strategically vital hill in the face of massive and unceasing casualties. The personal toll taken upon the war’s participants is underscored by an investigation into the murder of a commanding officer, which uncovers the growing connection between enemy forces. Much has been said about the futility of war in previous films, but Front Line manages to underscore the basic moral, human objection to wholesale slaughter in effective, often harrowing images and performances.
Elsewhere, there is Reykjavik to Rotterdam (Entertainment One), a briskly paced 2008 Icelandic thriller that served as the basis for the recent and underwhelming Contraband. Baltasar Kormakur (who, FYI, directed Contraband) is the former smuggler pressed into taking one final job in order to save the life of his hapless brother-in-law; the picture is a less frenetically paced but more effective film than its remake, with shades of dark comedy and more unsetting violence, which create a more palpable sense of impending danger looming over Kormakur’s journey. A different sort of danger and thrills are at the heart of Norman Mailer: The American (Cinema Libre), a 2010 documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist’s volcanic life and accomplishments. A host of figures from Mailer’s life, from Muhammad Ali and William F. Buckley to various beleaguered wives, children and actor Rip Torn, who engaged in a real on-camera brawl with Mailer during the filming of 1970’s Maidstone, are featured in new and archival interviews.
William Wellman’s 1951 adventure-drama Westward the Women (Warner Archives) cleverly subverts Western movie traditions in its story of a rough-hewn cowpoke (Robert Taylor) assigned to bring 150 women to California for arranged marriage to lovelorn settlers. A series of hardships, from drought and attacks to a flash flood, convince Taylor to abandon his lunkheaded ways and work with the women to survive. It’s a smart, mature Western, conceived originally by Frank Capra and written by Charles Schnee (Red River, The Bad and the Beautiful) with an ear for intelligent dialogue and characters with depth (well, not so much for Japanese cook Ito). WA’s MOD disc comes with some quality extras, including informative commentary by MGM scholar Scott Eyman and a short promotional featurette that focuses on the film’s locations in Kanab, Utah.
WA also offers Bright Road (1953), an earnest drama about a troubled fourth-grader written off by everyone in his life save for his teacher (Dorothy Dandridge), with Harry Belafonte, who co-starred with Dandridge the following year in Carmen Jones, as well as Maddie Norman and future Motown singer Barbara Randolph, and Exclusive Story, a 1936 racketeering drama based on the real-life exploits of New York district attorney Thomas Dewey, with the always suave Franchot Tone as a lawyer using the power of the press to hunt down mobster Joseph Calleia.
For many years, the only way you could see Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1972) was in one of several bleary-looking, horribly formatted and ruthlessly edited VHS copies under titles like Blood Couple or Black Evil. Gunn’s original cut re-surfaced in the 1980s, which revealed a remarkably atmospheric horror film lurking under the softball-sized grain. Duane Jones, star of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is top-billed as an anthropologist who is wounded by his deranged assistant (Gunn himself) with an African ceremonial knife, which turns him into… well, not a vampire per se, as the “v” word is never dropped during the film’s running time. But Jones does develop an insatiable taste for blood, which puts not only his life and reputation at risk, but that of his wife (Marlene Clark), who soon adopts her husband’s new appetite. It’s by no means a perfect film – Gunn’s ideas are often undone by his lack of technical aptitude – but as far as an original and provocative vision in the horror genre during the 1970s, Ganja and Hess compares favorably to such outsider efforts of the decade as Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural or (even closer) Romero’s Martin. Kino International’s Blu-ray ports over the extras from All Day Entertainment’s fine 1998 DVD release, which includes commentary by Clark and members of the production team, as well as an in-depth featurette on the film’s history by writer David Kalat.
The best of the rest is undoubtedly 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-ray Edition (Synapse), a massive “best-of” compilation of ’70s and ’80s exploitation trailers culled from Synape’s long-running DVD series of the same name. At nearly four hours in length, this collection may seem like Videodrome-styled overkill, but if you live and die by the horror, action and sexploitation titles that used to play non-stop in Times Square before its Disneyfication, you’ll want this set. “Classics” like Rolling Thunder, Shogun Assassin, Shocking Africa and Ms. 45 are all represented here (along with a German-language spot for Pasolini’s Salo – did that really play 42nd Street?), and accompanied by expert, informative commentary by Fangoria‘s Michael Gingold, Temple of Schlock chief Chris Poggiali, and Edwin Samuelson of AVManiacs.com. These guys know their sleaze.
Otherwise, you have your choice of Murder Obsession (Raro Video), a career-capping thriller by Riccardo Freda, who helped to launch the Italian horror film genre with I Vampiri, which arrived in theaters shortly before Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. It’s an oddball mishmash of giallo and ghost story, with some mind-bending leaps in logic that will leave viewers either astonished or bewildered. The Blu-ray includes interviews with special effects creator Sergio Stivaletti and composer Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame, as well as the shorter English-language version of the film.
There’s also Mother’s Day (Anchor Bay), director Darren Lynn (Saw II) Bousman’s revamp of a 1980 Troma freakout about psychotic siblings urged into a killing frenzy by their equally deranged mother. Bousman’s version is more hostage thriller than slasher effort, with Rebecca De Mornay leading her bank-robbing offspring on a home invasion to root out lost loot. Things get ugly in a hurry, which is both expected and not particularly inspired, but De Mornay anchors the picture with a carefully controlled turn that’s scarier than any gore effect or bit of “crazy” overacting. This one’s still in theaters, by the way. If it’s splatter you want, you might cast an eye at The Shrine (Zeitgeist Films), about American journalists seeking a missing backpacker in rural Poland and finding instead a human sacrifice cult. The picture, by Jon Knautz, who made the cult favorite Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, offers only modest returns, but that’s more than you can say for Shock Labyrinth (Well Go USA), Grudge director Takashi Shimizu’s wan, underfed spook show about teenagers in a haunted hospital that’s based on a real-life Japanese amusement park attraction. Sadly, that should tell you everything you need to know.
The Small Screen is in the shop this week (the v-hold needs fixing).