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.
After nearly a decade of experimentation with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis returned to live action filmmaking last fall with Flight, starring Denzel Washington. The film tells the story of commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who must confront his demons after crash landing a airliner while drunk on vodka and high on cocaine. (You can read Neil Morris' full review here.)
Flight is a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a kind of stealthy movie business maneuver. The marketing and advance trailers for Flight highlighted the film's boffo action sequence — the plane crash — and the almost gimmicky angle of the airline pilot that shows up for work drunk. This is a news story we seem to see about once a month these days.
But as anyone who has seen the film knows, Flight is a much more complicated machine. The spectacular plane crash proves to be a kind of narrative feint concealing a harrowing addiction drama and character study. It's one of the strangest and best screenplays to come along in a long, long while. (It a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.)
Anyone interested in looking under the hood of this remarkable film will want to check out the superior bonus materials included on the home video release of Flight, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week.
In the first featurette, "Origins of Flight," screenwriter John Gatins reveals that the story was conceived in 1999, well before the media trend of drunk pilot stories or the heroics of Captain Sully on the Hudson River. Both director Zemeckis and leading man Washington (also nominated for an Oscar) go out of their way to praise Gatins' script. Zemeckis says that when he first read the screenplay, he realized it was the rarest kind of treasure — a complex R-rated character drama both sturdy enough to break new artistic ground and thrilling enough to punch through into mainstream success. Washington, among the industry's most in-demand players, signed on almost immediately. He considered the script "dangerous" and kept the first draft with him on-set as a kind of talisman.
In recent years, I've become fascinated with animated foreign films for kids. There's so much good stuff out there — some recent examples include The Secret of Kells (Ireland), Chico & Rita (Spain), A Cat in Paris (France) and Ponyo (Japan). These are movies you're unlikely to see in theaters, so you have to track them down on DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.
While I certainly appreciate the artfulness of these films — each has earned various world cinema awards — I have very practical reasons for keeping them on the shelf. I have two young kids at home and if I have to watch one more goddamn Shrek movie I'm going to kill myself.
Tales of the Night — the enchanting French animated feature new to DVD and Blu-ray this week — is the kind of children's movie you can feel good about putting into rotation. It's the latest project from French animation artist Michel Ocelot and it will provide you and the kids with some images you've never seen before.
Ocelet has worked in a variety of media, but he's most known for his "shadow play" style of silhouettes set against intricate and impossibly colorful backgrounds. The six stories in Tales of the Night have been compiled from previous television specials, anthologized in 2011 for European cinema presentation.
End of Watch — the intense police drama new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — truly is a different kind of cop movie.
I know, I know. They all say that. But director David Ayer (writer of Training Day) executes an interesting game plan here and gets big results by going small. He narrows the focus radically by following two L.A. cops and their day-to-day experiences in a notorious South Central neighborhood.
Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Brian Taylor, a young patrolman for whom the term "gung-ho" was apparently invented. As stated in the film's opening voiceover, Taylor fully believes in the concept of the thin blue line: That a brotherhood of good guys with badges is the only thing standing between a safe society and a murderous criminal class of bad guys.
Taylor's on-the-job experience seems to support this theory. Along with partner Miguel Zavala (Micheal Pena, Tower Heist), Taylor encounters scene after harrowing scene of violence and despair on the streets of South Central. When the partners break down one too many doors, they're targeted for bloody elimination by a terrifying Mexican drug cartel.
The film's narrative twist is that Taylor carries a hand-held digital camera with him on duty, as part of a community college project. Director Ayer uses the digital camera — plus lapel cameras and squad car dash cams — to deliver much of the film in dizzying first-person close-up. In fact, as the extras reveal, the original plan was to film the entire movie in the "found footage" style so fashionable of late.
Ayer eventually chose to integrate traditional cinematography as well. Good call. The found footage gimmick is too conspicuous and too implausible — why would the gangbangers have cameras? End of Watch is a good movie, but it could have been even better film if Ayer had discarded the shaky cam entirely. You don't need a reason to use weird, tight camera angles. Spike Lee does it all the time.
Family lore holds that my mom and dad met as teenagers during Detroit's heyday in the 1950s, when the Motor City was an enviable American metropolis. Mom worked at a diner downtown. Dad raced hot rods up Telegraph Road. She calmed his ass down and we settled in the suburbs, six blocks from Detroit's famous 8 Mile Road.
My dad worked as a truck driver in the city for the next 40 years, often shuttling parts between auto plants. A dedicated union man, he clocked overtime pretty much every day and made enough money so that my mom didn't have to work and us kids all had the chance to go to college.
I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but my family was among the last beneficiaries of Detroit's Golden Age.
Detropia — the darkly fascinating documentary new this week to DVD, digital and cable VOD — poses the simple, awful question: What happened? Over the last several decades, Detroit's economic collapse has been so severe it's practically science fiction. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit now has half the median income and three times the poverty rate of the nation as a whole. The average home price? $9,562. In the national and international consciousness, the city of Detroit is an object of pity — too sad to even be a punchline anymore.
Detropia profiles an assortment of Detroit natives and newcomers and finds episodes both despairing and cautiously hopeful. But that shell-shocked central question — what happened? — is always pulsing underneath.
"Samsara" is a Sanskrit term that suggests the endless flow of life and death in the material world. It's a core concept in Indian spiritual traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Samsara is the trap of the waking world, from which we can only awaken through enlightenment.
The film Samsara, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, is an attempt to evoke this cosmic concept by way of music and motion picture images. It's a non-narrative documentary, a visual essay, or — in the words of director Ron Fricke — "a guided mediation on the cycle of birth, death and re-birth."
But, hey — don't let that scare you off. Above all, Samsara is a visual wonder with world-class cinematography that rivals anything bankrolled by the BBC, National Geographic or Discovery. Director Fricke has been working in this vein for a while and he knows what he's doing. He directed the similarly-themed Baraka in 1992, and before that was cinematographer for director Godfrey Reggio's pioneering Koyaanisqatsi in 1982.
The film begins with Tibetan Buddhist monks assembling a sand mandala, an intricately designed abstract pattern created over the course of days, grain by grain (literally). The sand mandala ritual is intended to suggest the world's transience and impermanence, and the rest of the film can be considered an expansion on that notion.
In the film business, Fricke is an acknowledged master of time-lapse photography and much of Samsara is built around this technique, now familiar from a thousand nature documentaries. Here, Fricke takes things to another level. As he films a particular scene — carved stone faces in the desert, say — he moves his camera in tiny increments over 12 or 24 hours. The result is a 10-second sequence in which the camera appears to be meandering through the scene at a tourist's pace. But clouds speed overhead, stars wheel in the night, and those ancient stone faces stay utterly still and serene.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a sequence like that is worth a thousand sutras. Fricke pulls off similar magic tricks throughout the film, juxtaposing images and using his cinematic toolbox to have his way with time and space.
As revealed in the DVD extras, Samsara was shot in the 70-mm film format over the course of four years, in 25 different countries, by Fricke and a four-man skeleton crew. The score — by composers Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci — moves from blissed-out ambiance to stately cathedral organ to hard-thumping EDM.
Scenes and images flow into one another in dreamlike fashion. Drifting dunes of sand give way to the pulsing red highway arteries of the city. A sequence of toddlers getting baptized flips to Asian street punks in Elvis pompadours. An opera in Milan is time-lapsed into five seconds: People file in, some other people move around a stage, people file back out. It sounds surreal, but it's not quite that. There's rhyme to the sequencing, if not reason.
In its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance proved one of the most controversial films there, prompting multiple walkouts in its initial screening. And last month, INDY Week's Neil Morris called it the best film of the year.
The film chronicles a day at a fictional fast-food franchise where the manager (Ann Dowd, who recently received Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her role) is called by a police officer (Pat Healy) informing her that a young employee (Dreama Walker from TV’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be detained until the cops arrive. Even though audience members are clued in early that the “cop” on the phone is a fake, those on the other end of the line follow through with his demands—which include a strip search and increasingly degrading acts being perpetrated on the hapless cashier.
It sounds far-fetched—until you find out this scenario really did play out more than 70 times in the United States.
“My reaction to hearing the story of the events it’s based on was one of, ‘I’m not one of those people! I would never do that!’” says Zobel in a call to his apartment in New York City.
“But then you start realizing there are times when you just don’t know what you’d do in a situation. There are things that are built into us that in some ways I’m curious about. I don’t think that this is a matter of education or intelligence level, but the relationship to authority that some people have, and how that relationship comes out in people.”
Despite the grim subject matter of Compliance, Zobel says that his cast and crew had a better time making the film than some people have had watching it. “We were certainly not comfortable on set some times, but as creators, we had a different relation to what was going on onscreen — people who make horror movies aren’t scared all day,” Zobel says with a laugh. “We were aiming for an effect, so it wasn’t so much of a situation that was like that of watching the film.
“This was a movie that was really being made by virtue of the fact that all the people involved were interested. We weren’t interested in competing with The Avengers—it was just a group of people who were really interested in this idea. So we wanted to be faithful to the ideas that got us there, and making sure those ideas came across.”
Zobel’s eclectic background includes co-founding the popular Flash animation site Homestarrunner.com, home of such cartoon characters as Strong Bad and Trogdor. After college, he attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem with David Gordon Green, and went on to work with him on his films George Washington, filmed in Wilmington, and All the Real Girls, filmed in Asheville (Green, in turn, executive-produced Compliance).
His first feature, The Great World of Sound, was released in 2007 and received warm reviews. Filmed in North Carolina, it told an offbeat story about two hucksters who recruit amateur singers to make demo recordings.