The indie romantic dramedy Save the Date — new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — starts in awfully familiar territory.
Twenty-something Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) is a bookstore clerk and aspiring artist who's about to have her sketches premiere in a small gallery. Her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend, Body of Proof) is the lead singer of an appropriately hip indie band. They've just moved in together.
Meanwhile, Sarah's older sister Beth (Alison Brie, Mad Men) is planning her own wedding to fiance Andrew (Martin Starr, Adventureland), drummer for said indie band. Both couples are on the verge of making major life commitments. They process their feelings by way of late-night conversations in studio lofts with hardwood floors and stacks of vinyl in plastic crates. There's a lot of hand-wringing about The Future and several variations on the phrase: "I'm about to spend the rest of my life with this person!"
I've developed a low pain threshold, over the years, for indie films about attractive big city creative types and their romantic problems. I understand that you're supposed to write about what you know, but c'mon emerging Los Angeles screenwriters. Can't you stretch just a little?
All that said, Save the Date does what it does about as well as it can be done. The film's greatest strength is the lead performance from Lizzy Caplan, the future movie star whose past credits include Cloverfield, Hot Tub Time Machine and the late, lamented Freaks and Geeks.
And now for something completely different.
A loopy Buddhist fable in the shape of a blockbuster action pic, The Sorcerer and the White Snake features several big-name Hong Kong stars battling snakes, demons and one another in ancient China. The movie was a big hit overseas in 2011 and has finally rolled around to home video release in the U.S.
Based on a famous Chinese folk tale, the story concerns Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) — a battle-tested monk who leads his disciples in a perpetual war against the demons of the land. Fahai doesn't kill the demons he defeats. Instead, he traps them in the mystical Lei Feng Pagoda, to reflect upon their sins. The demons are an interesting lot — bat creatures, ice harpies, white foxes and the occasional door mouse.
Meanwhile, a curious snake demon named Susu (the celestially beautiful Eva Huang) assumes human form and rescues a young man from drowning in a mountain lake. The two fall in love and the stage is set for a showdown between the good-hearted demon and the literal-minded demon hunter. Fahai, it seems, does not approve of human/demon mixed marriage.
Sorcerer has some of the most gonzo visual effects you'll see all year, big screen or small. Between the martial arts action and the film's wild assortment of otherworldy beings, you get a real eyeful.
Gonzo does not necessary mean good, however, as evidenced by the second half of Hunter Thompson's career. The film's over-the-top fighting scenes feature the usual impossible swordplay, but also 400-foot snake demons and flying bat warriors that look like cutscenes out of a 2003 PlayStation 2 game.
Behold the mysterious knuckleball.
Unlike baseball's other pitches — the fastball, the curve, the slider — the knuckleball does not rely on spin and velocity to defeat hitters at the plate. Instead, the knuckleball floats in at a slacker's pace (60-70 mph, usually, as opposed to the fastball's 90 mph range) and ideally doesn't spin at all. That lack of spin causes interesting things to happen to the air currents around the ball as it travels to the plate. It swerves and dips, flutters and dives.
The new documentary Knuckleball, new to DVD and digital this week, is a fascinating film for even casual fans of America's pastime. Veteran documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) explore the history of baseball's weirdest pitch by profiling MLB knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey during the 2011 baseball season. They also dig into baseball's past with former knuckleball masters Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.
Throwing an effective knuckleball in the big leagues is such a hard thing to do that, in the entire history of the game, only a few dozen players have ever made a living at it. With the retirement of Boston's Tim Wakefield after the 2011 season, the lone knuckleballer in baseball is R.A. Dickey, who won last year's Cy Young award with the Mets. Dickey is the first knuckleballer ever to earn that prestigious honor. His reward? Getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason. The guys will tell you, knuckleballers get no respect.
Dickey is the film's strongest and most charismatic presence — an articulate, unassuming guy who has evident respect for history and culture of baseball. His story is especially compelling, as he transforms himself from a washed-up traditional pitcher into the game's last remaining Jedi master of the knuckleball. He's like Yoda now, out there in the Dagobah swamps of Toronto.
The DVD edition of Knuckleball comes with two hours of bonus materials, including additional and extended interviews, plus featurettes on famous knuckleball moments in baseball history. You also get more details on the weird science behind the pitch. If you're interested in mining this extra material, be aware that you may not get all of it, or even any of it, via the usual digital download and video-on-demand systems. Read the fine print.
Also New This Week:
Paul Giamatti headlines the surreal horror-comedy John Dies at the End, from the director of Phantasm, The Beastmaster and the enduring cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep.
Based on the 1970s British TV series, the UK action film The Sweeney stars Ray Winstone and Ben Drew as hardcase London cops squaring of against the usual lot of nefarious Eastern European gangsters.
Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman star in Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO original movie about the famous literary couple.
Johan "JW" Westlund, ace student at the Stockholm School of Economics, likes to take risks. A poor kid from the Swedish equivalent of Iowa, JW hobnobs with the capital city rich kids, pretending to a wealth he doesn't have and lying to everyone he knows. He's the Talented Mr. Ripley of the Stockholm jet set, and he's looking for a fast track to the big money.
Jorge is young Chilean drug-runner on the run from the cops and the Serbian mob. Recently escaped from prison, Jorge has aligned himself with an Arab crime syndicate and hopes to make that One Big Score by facilitating a huge cocaine delivery.
Mrado is an aging enforcer for the Serbian gang, tasked with bringing Jorge back to his ruthless employer. A weary but entirely competent veteran of Stockholm's criminal underworld, Mrado senses it's probably time to retire and is looking for a payout himself.
The fabulous Swedish import Easy Money (Snabba Cash) tells the story of these three men as their fates twist and collide in the brutal underbelly of Stockholm. It's a great movie — one of the best pure crime thrillers in recent years — and features a tense lead performance from Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from the AMC crime drama The Killing. That show, in turn, is based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen ("The Crime"). Toss in all the Stieg Larrson madness and this Scandanavian-American crime drama exchange is really paying dividends.
One of the more auspicious debuts in film history, the 1973 drama Badlands was director Terrence Malick's first project after film school. Loosely based on the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in 1958, it stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the lam in the badlands of the American West.
The Criterion Collection's reissue of Badlands, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, packages the digitally restored film with several director-approved extras, including interviews with the editor and producer, and a lengthy new behind-the-scenes documentary with Sheen and Spacek. The infamously private Malick is conspicuously but typically absent.
Badlands is such a scary and beautiful film. There's a kind of deep focus running throughout, both visually and narratively. Malick composes grand images of vast prairies and burning sunsets, the camera absorbing all that physical space with a thousand-mile stare. And the storytelling is deep-focus in a meditative sense. There are but two main characters in this movie, and neither talks much. The young lovers are so disconnected from the waking world, so desensitized, that even Kit's regular spikes of sudden violence barely rouse them. Their heads are somewhere else.
The included documentary provides some interesting insights into Malick's vision. Art director Jack Fisk tells the best stories. For instance, Malick had originally planned to have the runaways hide in the wilderness in a rickety lean-to. But Fisk convinced the director to let him build a three-story treehouse out of branches — which Fisk managed in a single day. This change in production plans turns Kit and Holly's wilderness hideout into a spartan, idyllic retreat. The film's most lyrical passages take place here, with Kit and Holly dancing in the dust to a ghostly AM radio broadcast. Then the bounty hunters show up.
The well-made 90-minute film documentary may be mankind's most efficient mode of communication. When put together by skilled filmmakers, the feature-length documentary can convey quite massive amounts of information while providing wit and heart and functioning as, you know, a movie.
Such is the case with the historical documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, new to DVD and digital this week. In the late 19th century, Aleichem was the world's most famous Yiddish author and playwright — his stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof. He's often referred to as "the Jewish Mark Twain." (Legend has it that when Twain heard this, he replied "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.")
Born into a Hasidic family in what is now Ukraine, Aleichem began his writing career in Russian and Hebrew, then switched to Yiddish, the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews. Aleichem's stories — he produced over 40 volumes in Yiddish alone — detailed the lives of common Jews in the small towns (or shtetls) of Eastern Europe, as they endured increasing poverty and the anti-Semitic violence of the pogroms. Aleichem's work left lasting legacies in Europe, the Soviet Union and America. When Aleichem died in New York City, in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral. It was the largest funeral the city had ever witnessed.
Directed by Joseph Dorman, Laughing in the Darkness uses a combination of archival footage and talking-head interviews to detail Aleichem's life and work. But what images! Dorman must have done some heavy scholarly lifting to excavate the film's rich pageant of photographs and grainy film clips. The film spends long moments lingering over curious details in these snapshots and moving pictures of the past. A crowded village marketplace in Russia. A family portrait in Switzerland. A busy immigrant neighborhood in New York City.
It's Fourth of July in the seaside tourist town of Claridge, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay. All is well. The parade is forming up on Main Street. The kids are tubing out in the harbor. The annual crab eating contest is in full swing.
Then the bad things start to happen. A million dead fish wash into the marina. Blackbirds fall from the sky. Some Claridge residents begin to break out in terrible, painful lesions. Others start hemorrhaging. And the less said about that crab-eating contest, the better.
That's the set-up for the found-footage horror film The Bay, new to DVD and digital this week from director Barry Levinson. That's right, Barry Levinson—director of Diner, Rain Man and The Natural.
The Bay opened in a handful of theaters last November and quickly sank from view, which is too bad. It's an effective horror picture that avoids much of the gimmickry usually associated with the found-footage thing. It's also a movie with something to say. The Bay is thoroughly steeped in ecological anxieties about pollution, pandemics, infections and runaway superbugs finding interesting disease vectors into your body.
Levinson frames his movie with the on-camera testimony of one Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), eyewitness to the terrible events of 07-04-09, who is cooperating with a Wikileaks-style group to expose a government coverup. At the time of the incident, Donna was a intern with the local news station, filming the Independence Day celebrations.
As Donna recounts the horror, Levinson splices in sounds and images from a dozen sources: surveillance cameras, police car dash cams, 911 calls, smart phones, surgical exploratory cams and of course that one relentless dad who won't put down the camera on vacation. We follow a handful of characters and their stories on that day, including Donna and her cameraman, a pair of oceanographers and the town mayor.
I don't want to give too much away, but it's safe to say that the citizens of Claridge don't fare well. It seems that the coastal waters have been poisoned over the years with nuclear materials and steroid-laced runoff from the local chicken processing plant. We hear alarming details about fungal bacteria, crustaceous isopods and something ominously referred to as "a new form evolve." Rumors fly: Is it biological warfare? Terrorism? Cults? Aliens? Whatever it is, the government wants it kept quiet at all costs.
Director Elia Kazan's classic 1954 drama On The Waterfront tells the story of dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a once-promising boxer whose life is derailed when he gets mixed up with mobbed-up labor union honchos on the NYC waterfront. As you may have heard, Terry coulda been a contender. On The Waterfront is generally regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made and won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Brando.
New to DVD and Blu-ray this week, the Criterion Collection reissue of On The Waterfront features a new digital restoration and alternate presentations in the full-screen (1.33:1) and wide-screen (1.85:1) aspect ratios. Also included in the package are various interviews and commentary tracks reprised from previous DVD iterations, plus additional critical essays, a new making-of documentary and recent interviews with Martin Scorsese and Brando's co-star Eva Marie Saint.
Among the joys of digging into a reissue like this is gleaning insights from the bonus materials as to what makes a great movie work. To wit: The film's script, we learn, was based on a series of investigative reports published in the New York Sun in 1949. In the postwar years, violent crime and corruption were running rampant among the docks and shipyards of New York City. Journalist Malcolm Johnson exposed the organized crime operation in a 24-part series called "Crime on the Waterfront," and he remained obsessed with the situation for years.
Today, millions will celebrate Valentine’s Day with their spouses, significant others and loved ones. Millions more will celebrate it alone, and some will wonder why their lives aren’t like those of Audrey Hepburn, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or (in my case) John Cusack, at least the characters they play on screen.
Though Hollywood has provided many pairs of rose-colored glasses when it comes to relationships, there’s a number of lesser-known films that are perfect for those finding themselves lonely and/or bitter on Feb. 14, that depict everything from the complexities of commitment to what becomes of the broken-hearted. Here’s five of our favorite picks.
If you’ve ever just not been that into him (or her), we recommend last year’s Save the Date (available on demand and through streaming services on YouTube, Amazon and elsehwere), which takes a number of ideas seen in countless indy films—uncertain 20-somethings, sisters with different takes on love, impulsive relationships—and finds a take that’s darker, more honest, yet still funny.
Co-written by the cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, whose autobiographical cartoons often deal with the small, sometimes biting moments of relationships, it casts Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a woman who’s so uncertain about moving in with her musician boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) that she doesn’t even bother washing the dried food off her plates before they go into her moving boxes.
Kevin is in a band with Andrew (Caplan’s Party Down costar Martin Starr), himself the fiancé of Sarah’s more grounded sister Beth (Alison Brie from TV’s Community), who’s perfectly happy planning her own wedding and a future of double-dating amongst the two couples. When Andrew gives Kevin the idea to publicly propose to the already-wavering Sarah, their relationship has a public meltdown.
This is the grist for many a rom-com, but co-writer/ director Michael Mohan gets as much mileage out of Kevin’s raw pain and humiliation from the breakup as Sarah’s rebound fling with Jonathan (Mark Webber), an overly-nice guy with a crush on Sarah from her day job at a bookstore. He claims he isn’t into marriage or being overly serious (every other character sees through this right away). The film pushes things to a moment where both Sarah and Beth’s relationships are in crisis, and Andrew’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it never loses sympathy and understanding for its characters.
Sarah herself is somewhere between sympathetic and monstrous as she commits such social faux pas as drunkenly showing up at her shared residence with Kevin while he’s still vulnerable over the breakup, or in an amorous moment pushing an uncertain Jonathan to reveal some flaw from his past ("There's GOT to be something wrong with you, you're so nice”). Caplan’s very good at conveying that this doesn’t come from a place of malice or manipulation but rather youthful uncertainty, a fear of the ecstasy of a romantic fling curdling as it becomes something more permanent.
In the days before DVD/VHS, Netflix and endless online options — back when we had a little sanity left — TV binge watching was confined to weekend basic cable marathons. If you wanted to see all the episodes of a particular show in sequence, this was your sole option. Only the most dedicated souls braved those 24- and 48-hour endurance trials.
I tried it once, years ago, with David Lynch's serial freakout Twin Peaks. Like an idiot I went in without a game plan or any training regimen at all. Amateur move. By Episode 15, "Drive with a Dead Girl," I'd lost feeling below the waist and hadn't blinked in eight hours.
Thanks to DVRs, DVD series collections and Netflix's roster of quality on-demand shows (Arrested Development, Breaking Bad), we have a lot more control over when and what we watch. "Time shifting" is what the media pros call it. For many busy adults, controlled binge watching has become the preferred method of assimilating all the great TV out there.
In fact, I haven't watched a TV series during original broadcast since ABC's Lost wrapped up in 2010. That show left a bad taste when, after four seasons of twisty intrigue, the writers ran out of ideas and started resolving everything with gunfights. Remember when there was exactly one gun on that island, and it was a commodity, and Sawyer used it to shoot that polar bear?
But I digress. I'm here to recommend two recent binge-watching opportunities and another big one on the horizon.
NBC's impossibly reliable comedy 30 Rock wrapped up with its series finale late last month. It was a rather underwhelming end to the series, but it stayed true to creator Tina Fey's singular comic vision. The Season 7 DVD collection won't arrive until March, but meanwhile you can see all previous episodes from seasons one through six by way of Netflix's online video streaming.