Ever since aging through the sad end of the 18-35 demographic, I find my television tastes have drifted. When clicking around these days, I tend to linger on the pop scholarship offered by basic cable stations like History, Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet.
My conclusion is that I like reality TV, I just don't like reality TV about people. As such, the three-disc collection After People — new to DVD from the History channel — is right up my misanthropic alley.
After People trades in that brand of speculation and imagery sometimes called apocalypse porn. The collection gathers four different specials aimed at the pessimist market — Life After People, After Armageddon, Mega Drought and Mega Freeze.
End-of-the-world scenarios are endlessly fascinating to those of us prone to worrying about such things. Life After People — which ran as a series from 2008-2010 — uses the usual blend of talking head interviews and passable CGI to depict the gradual decay of our man-made world when humans are removed from the picture.
The program begins where most apocalypse stories end. It's not concerned with how or why humanity dies off. It simply wonders aloud what would happen to the planet afterward. It's structured sensibly enough: We begin with what would happen one day after people, and proceed from there to one week after, one month, one year, etc.
As a filmmaker, Mel Brooks' brand of comedy is often broad, usually excessive and always delivered in the spirit of goofiness. In his best genre parodies — Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety — no gag is too obvious, no joke is too dumb.
Brooks' first movie, though, was different. Released in 1968, Brooks' barbed satire The Producers was considered so edgy and radical that none of the major studios would touch it. The director eventually secured independent distribution, but the film opened in only a handful of theaters and quickly disappeared.
Reissued this week in a new Blu-ray/DVD "Collector's Edition," The Producers stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as a pair of small time Broadway schemers. Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a washed out stage producer now reduced to seducing old ladies for patronage checks. Wilder is accountant Leo Bloom, a meek and anxious sort who dreams of escaping the sucker's life.
Looking over the books one night, the two discover that a large-scale theatrical flop can be just as profitable as a hit. They hatch a dubious scheme: Mount the worst Broadway musical in history, close the show after one night, and pocket the money from investors.
It's a funny thing about new releases in the digital and DVD business — some weeks you get nothing particularly interesting, and some weeks you get everything under the sun.
A recent flood of titles suggests the variety of options in that realm we can still call, with relative accuracy, home video. The landscape is changing rapidly these days. Popular Hollywood movies no longer just "come out on video." Instead, they're rolled out in waves, in various retail packages — single disc DVD, multi-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — and digital formats. ("Digital" is the emerging catch-all term for titles you can get via online streaming or download, via your PC or mobile device, cable box or game console.)
Digital is the coming thing, certainly. As more and more people get comfortable with online distribution, movies are gradually going the way of music. But those shiny little discs will be around for a while. Studios and distributors have concluded that there's a market for both digital and disc (at least for now) — and they're angling their offerings accordingly.
Take, for instance, the recent teen-romance-meets-sci-fi movie The Host — a big wide-release title in March and a would-be franchise from the author of the Twilight books. For the discerning but impatient teenager who can't wait to see this one — or perhaps see it again after its theatrical run — Universal has arranged for an early digital release this week. So if you're in a hurry, you can go purchase and download the movie via iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, right now.
You won't get any extras or bonus materials, though. For those, you have to wait until July 9, when the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack hits retail shelves, for purchase or (less often) rental. By keeping the bonus materials exclusive to the retail package, the studios hope to attract a different stratum of buyer — those who want the deluxe treatment, with behind-the-scenes details and a permanent, physical copy of the movie on the shelf.
What's more, The Host — like most DVD/Blu-ray combo packs — also includes a digital copy of the film. This digital version isn't actually in the shrink-wrapped DVD case you just bought. Instead, it lives in the Cloud and you use a special promo code to stream it to your smart phone, tablet, etc. Forever and ever, ostensibly. Or until the Skynet android revolution.
British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his very particular way of making films. Rather than start with a script, Leigh works with his actors in a designated improvisation period before filming begins. The director provides sketched-out ideas and characters, but the actors become full collaborators in the creation of the story and the making of the film.
It's a model that's used by other filmmakers, often in comedies. Christopher Guest takes a similar approach in his mockumentaries, as does Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Leigh's technique is, by all reports, a very rigorous process with a different goal. The intent is to strip away intent — to capture on film the spontaneous comedy and tragedy of everyday life.
Among Leigh's gentlest and funniest films is the oddball 1990 family portrait, Life is Sweet. Reissued to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, the new edition features digitally remastered image and sound, a new audio commentary track with Leigh, and the usual complement of critical essays and archival documents.
Life is Sweet depicts a few weeks in the summer of a working-class family outside of London. It's an invitation, really. Leigh and his collaborators are cordially extending a proposal to the viewer to spend some time with these people, in this place and time.
Jim Broadbent plays family patriarch Andy, a catering chef who is long on big plans but short on the follow-through. Andy's wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the kind of loving but anxious sort who smooths everything over with a running patter of small talk and jokes.
Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, 22 years old, still live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is sensible and still, with an androgynous style and an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pint at the pub with her fellow plumbers. Her sister Nicola, on the other hand, is a mess. Played by Jane Horrocks, Nicola is a walking spasm of fear and self-loathing — feelings she directs outwards toward her exasperated but concerned family.
I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.
As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."
It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.
Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.
Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.
Slight, shaggy and sentimental, the crime comedy Stand Up Guys has exactly three virtues to recommend it.
Those would be the film's trio of lead actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Nobody's gunning for glory with the performances here, but nobody phones it in, either. Anyway, these three could make a 90-minute film talking about the U.S. Tax Code and still be interesting.
Pacino headlines as Val, a career criminal just getting out of the joint after a 28-year stint. Val took the fall for his crew after a botched robbery and ended up doing the heavy time by refusing to rat on his friends. He is, as they say, a stand up guy.
Walken plays one of those old pals, a now-retired thief who goes by the name of Doc. When Val gets out of prison, it's Doc that comes to pick him up and take him out on the town. Understandably, Val is ready to party. So Doc dutifully escorts him to a bar, then a brothel, then a hospital. The 70-something Val, it seems, can't quite party like he used to.
There's another complication: Doc has been ordered by the local mafia don to kill his old friend Val. Doc doesn't want to, but he's on the hook — either Val goes into a shallow grave, or Doc does.
The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.
When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.
Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.
It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
If you only pay attention to what cycles around to Redbox, Netflix or your old-school video rental place, you might get the sense that only a handful of new home video titles get released each week.
Not so. While the high-profile Hollywood titles get the most attention, new DVDs, Blu-rays and digital releases in any given week number in the dozens — new movies, old reissues, TV series collections, independent films, documentaries, foreign films and a disturbing number of Hallmark Channel original movies.
If you're willing to spend an entirely disproportionate amount of time in front of the TV — and I am — you can find some odd gems. To wit: The archivists at Paramount have started rolling out Blu-ray season set editions of the enduring syndicated classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series' third season is being released this week, with all 26 episodes plus some nice bonus materials, including a writers' reunion hosted by Seth MacFarlane. (Several ST: TNG writers went on to create shows like Battlestar Galactica, CSI and 24.)
They've also released the frankly awesome one-off Blu-ray special The Best of Both Worlds, a feature-length presentation of the series' high-water moment: The two-part cliffhanger in which Captain Picard is kidnapped by the nefarious cybernetic villains known as the Borg. I geeked out on this Blu-ray before the plastic wrap hit the floor.
For the uninitiated, the Borg are one of science fiction’s all-time great villains, a collective hivemind of cyborgs who fly around the universe in a giant cube, “assimilating” any culture they come across. In the two-episode story arc presented here, the Borg abduct Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and subsume his consciousness into the collective.
The period L.A. crime drama Gangster Squad — starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone — is best known for its poor timing. Following the movie theater mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012, the release date for Gangster Squad was bumped. The film's centerpiece action sequence depicted, yes, a mass shooting in a movie theater.
The cast reassembled in August for additional shooting and the scene was replaced for the film's rescheduled opening in January, 2013. But critics didn't like it, audiences didn't notice it, the marketing was halfhearted and picture quickly sank from view.
New to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week. Gangster Squad is hoping for a second chance on home video. It's not a great film, but it's not bad and it has a nice feel for the genre delights of tough guys and Tommy guns.
The premise — kinda-sorta based on a true story — is made-for-Hollywood material: After World War II, vicious gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) is king of the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Cohen has so terrified the citizenry that one will inform or testify against him. And he's bought off all the important cops and judges, so no one will prosecute him in the first place.
L.A. police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) decides there's only one way to beat Cohen. He assembles an off-the-books team of hardcase cops — the Gangster Squad — to wage guerrilla war against Cohen's syndicate. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: Smash Cohen's rackets, burn down his operations and dispose of his goons by any means necessary. The team accepts, with enthusiasm.