Movies Till Dawn: What You Could Be Watching This Week (Short and Sweet Virginia Edition)

Phantom Thread” (2017, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) Confoundingly plotted but beautiful to view, this Oscar-nominated drama from Paul Thomas Anderson concerns a love quadrangle of sorts, between a brilliant, obsessive fashion designer (Oscar nominee Daniel Day-Lewis), his devotion to his creations, the sister (Oscar nominee Lesley Manville) who protects him, and the waitress (Vicky Krieps) who becomes his muse but wants much more. I must admit that the exact intent of Mr. Anderson’s movies is never particularly clear for me, and “Thread” is no exception – emotional power plays and parallels to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” are suggested but never defined – but I guess I can appreciate the fact that he appears to aim for something beyond audiences’ ideas of a traditional movie experience, and also enjoy the excellent and occasionally, very dryly funny performances by all involved here (especially Day-Lewis, in a difficult role, and Krieps) and nearly every aspect of the production, from Jonny Greenwood‘s score and costume design by Mark Bridges to Anderson’s crisp, collaborative turn as (uncredited) cinematographer. Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pak includes commentary by Anderson over several camera tests, deleted scenes, production photographs by gaffer Michael Bauman and a faux fashion show for Day-Lewis’ designs with VO by comic Adam Buxton.

Sweet Virginia” (2017, Shout Factory) Ex-rodeo champ Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”), self-exiled to a remote corner of Alaska, finds an unexpected connection with hot-wired stranger Christopher Abbott (“Girls”), unaware that the man has come to town to collect on a horrific contract murder. Indie thriller from director Jamie M. Dagg and sibling writer team Benjamin and Paul China flew under the radar last year, which is unfortunate, since it boasts excellent performances, including Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt as two women impacted by the killing, and an abundance of wintry noir atmosphere thanks to cinematographer Jessica Gagne. The dialogue has some pulp-clunky moments, but Dagg and his cast hone their focus on the deep loneliness between the characters, where unpleasant thoughts can take root and turn dark.

Matinee” (1993, Shout Factory Select) Sweetly cracked valentine to ’50s monster movies from one of their most devoted supporters, Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), who dovetails the arrival of a schlock science fiction producer (John Goodman) and his latest disasterpiece to a small Florida town, where residents are on edge over the Cuban Missile Crisis, taking place just miles from their shore. Though fans of vintage horror and science fiction – especially those made by William Castle, whose gimmick-laden films like “The Tingler” inspired “Matinee’s” giddy film-within-a-film, “Mant!” (“Half man! Half ant!”) – are clearly Dante’s target audience, non-genre fans will also appreciate the balance of real-life tension with the overheated terror of “Mant” in the script by Charles Haas. Shout Select’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray includes new and archival interviews with Dante, star Cathy Moriarty (a scene-stealer as Goodman’s leading lady) and DP John Hora, as well as the full (22-minute) version of “Mant!” (which features Dante favorites Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert and the great Dick Miller) and deleted/extended scenes.

Pulp” (1972, Arrow Video) Paperback crime novelist Michael Caine must put his detective skills (such as they are) to the test when his new employer – an exiled movie star (Mickey Rooney) with mob connections – is killed before they can complete his autobiography. Where Caine and director Mike Hodges‘ previous collaboration with producer Michael Klinger –the UK gangster film “Get Carter” – put the grittiest possible spin on crime story tropes, “Pulp” gleefully thumbs its nose at them, from Caine’s deliberately overripe voice-over (which at one point is taken up by the passengers on a tour bus) to noir/crime favorites Lionel Stander and Lizabeth Scott playing exaggerated versions of their screen images and even an appearance by Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi, who shows up just to deliver a dreadful Maltese Falcon pun. Those who can appreciate a little disrespect for the classics might enjoy the anarchic silliness of “Pulp,” as well as Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation, which includes interviews with Hodges and members of the production team, as well as a long-lost trailer shot by Hodges and discovered recently in Russia.

Witchhammer” (1969, Second Run) The theft of a Eucharist by an elderly beggar woman is the flashpoint for a brutal witch trial, which systematically tears apart the social fabric of a 17th-century town in a torrent of hypocrisy and destruction. Czech director Otakar Vavra’s harrowing drama follows a similar path to horror-oriented witch trial films (Michael Reeves’ “Witchfinder General“), including gruesome scenes of torture, but the emphasis of the film is less on the exploitive elements that drive those pictures than an exposé of ideology that seeks to oppress perceived “weaker” elements – especially women and the poor – in the name of religion and politics. It also gave Vavra a forum to draw a parallel between the witch hunts and the Czech Communist Party’s scouring of perceived dissidents following the Soviet takeover of the country in 1968 – a take that resulted in a ban on “Witchhammer,” like many other Czech films released during and after the Prague Spring. Second Run’s all-region Blu-ray offers a new HD presentation of the film, along with excellent liner notes and an appreciation by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, who detail the misogyny and classism at the heart of the witch trials and the Soviet purges, as well as Vavra’s experimental short “The Light Penetrates the Dark” (1931).

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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