Movies Till Dawn: Little Stabs at Happiness

Quick boilerplate: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided with free copies of the Blu-rays I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982, Kino Lorber) Co-writer/director Carl Reiner and co-writer/star Steve Martin (with co-writer George Gipe) parody classic Hollywood crime films by stitching together new footage of Martin (with beautiful black and white photography by Michael Chapman) with scenes from films like “Suspicion” and “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The editing is seamless and not only evokes the sooty luster of classic noir, but also results in delirious juxtaposition, such as Martin in drag (don’t ask) pursued by Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff from “Double Indemnity.” Rachel Ward is a forward femme fatale, and Reiner a Nazi officer whose wants to use cheese mold to dominate the world. Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray features commentary by director Allan Arkush (“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School“) and historian Daniel Kremer, who note the vintage cameos and pay homage to costumer Edith Head and composer Miklos Rozsa, who logged their final credits in long and storied careers with this film.

Fire Music” (2018, Submarine Deluxe) Excellent historical perspective on the free jazz scene, its foundational players, and its contentious relationship with mainstream jazz during the post-bop years. Performance and interview clips are its primary selling point, and highlights featured by director Tom Sturgal include Sun Ra in full bloom, Albert Ayler, and Eric Dolphy, among others, as well as insight from Carla Bley (one of the few women profiled here), Archie Shepp, and Arkestra mainstay Marshall Allen, who’s still going at 97. Sturgal’s chief assertion – that free jazz was hamstrung in the ’80s by traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis – isn’t sold with particular conviction, but that won’t detract from the exceptional live footage. Playing in theaters across the country.

The Ken Jacobs Collection, Volume One” (2021, Kino Lorber) Major release for devotes of the ’60s-era experimental cinema scene in New York, featuring major works by one of its most inventive if less heralded figures. Ken Jacobs got his start with observational material like 1955’s “Orchard Street” and “Environs and Outtakes,” silent explorations of a New York City, which to current viewers, may seem as distant and alien as the turn of the century footage that Jacobs employs for one of his most famous efforts, “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son.” Using 10 minutes of footage from the eponymous 1905 comedy short, Jacobs pulls apart and reassembles the scene in a myriad of ways; the resulting deconstruction is hypnotic, challenging, and at two hours in length, both breathtaking and exhausting. Jacobs’ collaborations with fellow underground filmmaker Jack Smith – the wild free-for-all “Blonde Cobra” and “Little Stabs at Happiness,” which alternates between meditations on simple pleasures and Smith’s constantly shifting moods – are also included in the two-disc Blu-ray set, along with more recent and remarkable work like “The Georgetown Loop,” in which vintage footage of landscape seen from a train is rotated into complex patterns. Your appreciation for – and patience with – underground cinema at its most experimental will determine your enjoyment of this set, but Jacobs’ talent, both playing and probing, is undeniable. Kino’s set includes a recent interview with Jacobs and liner notes by J. Hoberman.

A Night at the Opera” (1935, Warner Archives Collection). The Marx Brothers at their most unfettered, laying waste to various high-falutin’ targets, including social strata, snobbery, and grand art. Zeppo is out, and Kitty Carlislie and Allan Jones slow down the action with various operatic numbers and wan romance, but pound for pound, “Opera” is one of the best American comedies ever; no further proof is required than the famed stateroom scene, in which Groucho must contend with Chico, Harpo, Jones, and a parade of ship’s employees while also maintaining a complicated food order. The contract negotiation runs a close second (“There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”). Warner Archives’ Blu-ray includes commentary by Leonard Maltin, the 2004 Marx Brothers documentary “Remarks on Marx,” the 1935 doc short “Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West,” which provides glimpses of Olvera Street, Walt Disney Studios (with a cameo by Walt), Wilshire and Hollywood Blvds, and Pasadena; the 1937 short “Sunday Night at the Trocadero,” in which Groucho jostles with other screen stars of the day (Frank Morgan, Reginald Denny) while various hopefuls, including Connie Boswell, perform for assembled talent scouts; and “How to Sleep,” an Oscar-winning short by humorist Robert Benchley (who’s also featured in “Trocadero”).

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide” (2020, Kino Lorber) Bittersweet documentary about Kenny Scharf, a member of the Downtown art scene in New York during the 1980s that also produced Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others. Scharf’s vibrant, graffiti-inspired world from the period evokes the scene’s playful insouciance and positivity in the face of various crises, including the AIDS and drug epidemics that would claim Haring and Basquiat, as well as many other artists like Martin Wong, who are memorialized in the film. Directors Max Basch and Scharf’s daughter, Malia, do well in balancing archival footage, Scharf’s often emotional recollections of his time in the scene, and his current endeavors, which return to his street roots.

One Crazy Summer” (1987, Warner Archives Collection) Hapless high school grad John Cusack fails to secure a basketball scholarship to college and drowns his sorrows with the eccentric flora and fauna on the island of Nantucket. Innocuous goof of a teen comedy by Savage Steve Holland (“Better Off Dead”), who favors Saturday-morning-style humor, but has the good sense to deliver it with cast that includes Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, Tom Villard, Curtis Armstrong, Taylor Negron, and the always great Joe Flaherty. Demi Moore does what she can as Cusack’s boho love interest; Warner Archives’ Blu-ray offers a 2K remaster and a vintage commentary track with Holland, Goldthwait, and Armstrong, which is, at times, more amusing than the movie.

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 Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, 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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