“All Or Nothing” (2002, Severin Films) Studies in quiet (and not so quiet) desperation via three working class families in London, who respond to the millstone of daily life around their necks with a mix of heartbreak, defeat, and carelessness. Your appreciation for writer/director Mike Leigh‘s feature depends on your ability to navigate its unrelentingly downbeat atmosphere; Leigh does not sentimentalize their lives, as many American slice-of-life dramas do (“it sure is tough, this life, but we got each other!”) nor does he take the torture-as-drama approach (see: “Six Feet Under,” “Succession,” etc.). Leigh’s three families follow realistic paths to escape (or dig deeper into) their situations, which ultimately make the material palatable. His cast handles the emotional load with skill, with top-billed Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville earning excellent support from, among others, James Corden, Sally Hawkins, Ruth Sheen, and Helen Coker. Severin’s Blu-ray features a new master presentation as well as new interviews with Leigh, Manville, Corden, and cinematographer Dick Pope, among others.
“Coming Home in the Dark” (2021, Dark Sky Films) The arrival of two malevolent strangers (Daniel Gillies and Matthias Luafutu) turns a family outing into a nightmare for teacher Erik Thomson and wife Miriama McDowell in this New Zealand-based thriller. Shocking violence sets the tone early, but actor-turned-director/co-writer James Ashcroft also folds elements of abuse, culpability, and racial disparity into an already grim recipe. The subtext roots the nihilism, which makes this less of an endurance test than, say (the unpalatable), “Funny Games”; what strains credulity is Gillies (the saintly dead doc from “Virgin River”) as an omniscient, philosophical super-killer. Dark Sky Films’ Blu-ray features a short making-of doc.
“The People Next Door” (1970, Scorpion Releasing) Uptight suburban parents Eli Wallach and Julie Harris, who enjoy their share of grown-up indulgences (cigarettes, drinking, philandering) are dismayed to discover that daughter Deborah Winters’s experiments with acid have resulted in a very public freakout (i.e., running stark naked through their neighborhood), which in turn, tears apart their family and that of clean-cut neighbors Hal Holbrook and Cloris Leachman. Time and other lesser youthquake productions have muted JP Miller’s script (based on his Emmy-winning teleplay), which now feels heavy-handed in its depiction of generational hypocrisy and drug culture; however, director David Greene (“Roots”) has a steady hand on the “big” moments (family therapy sessions, a visit to a squalid hippie den) and its cast of heavy hitters. The parents occasionally swing for the fences (especially Wallach), but that weight plays well in the intense sequences; Winters, Stephen McHattie (whose neighborhood band is the Boston area group The Bead Game, with future Steely Dan drummer Jim Hodder), and Don Scardino do well with the youthquake roles. Scorpion’s Blu-ray (a 4K restoration) bundles detailed commentary by historian Bill Ackerman and an interview with actor-turned-TV-director Scardino (“30 Rock”).
“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” (1948, Warner Archives Collection) Producer Walter Mirisch (the original “West Side Story”) oversaw this B-noir from Monogram, with future “Lassie” producer Don Castle and Elyse Knox (Mark Harmon’s mom) as a down-and-out dance team who find themselves murder suspects at Christmastime when a print from Castle’s tap shoes – tossed out the window of their dingy apartment at yowling cats (!) – is found near the scene of a crime. Former silent star turned director William Nigh embellishes the picture with stylistic flourishes (note the Expressionistic touches in the trial sequences) and oddball touches (the Death Row con who plays Chopin over and over) that do well to obscure the budgetary flaws. Writer Steve Fisher (“I Wake Up Screaming”), adapting the novella by Cornell Woolrich, wisely hands much of the picture’s weight (and subtext) to Regis Toomey, who plays a detective in a sort of sugar daddy relationship with Knox. Warner’s HD Blu-ray includes a 1931 short, “The Symphony Murder Mystery,” and a 1946 “Merrie Melodies” cartoon, “Holiday for Shoestrings.”
Thank you to Warner Archives Collection for providing a free Blu-ray for this review.
“Sleep” (2020, Arrow Video) Marlene (Sandra Huller), who suffers from recurring nightmares about a hotel, lapses into a comatose state after finding and visiting the real location, prompting her daughter (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) to uncover the unpleasant truths about the hotel and its terrible affect on guests and the nearby town. Arresting German horror-drama does not give up its secrets easily; director/co-writer Michael Venus deliberately obfuscates linear information about the hotel, its past, and its unsettling operators (August Schmolzer and Marion Kracht); the point is to approximate the logic (or lack thereof) of dreams (good and bad), which Venus reproduces to alarming effect. It’s not an easy path (or easy watch), but “Sleep” is one of the better efforts in the waking nightmare subgenre; Arrow’s Limited Edition Blu-ray is well-appointed with critical essays, including video essays on fairy tales and the unconscious state, as well as observant commentary by Sean Hogan and Kim Newman; interviews with Venus and Kohlhof, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as intros filmed by Venus for screenings during COVID-19, round out the set.