My appetite for finding and devouring new music is so voracious that I have to empty my hard drive annually just to make room for more MP3s, yet it wasn’t until my wife bought me a turntable that I became one of those obsessive, fetishistic record collectors right out of “High Fidelity.”
Now entering my second year as proprietor of the boutique DVD and Blu-ray rental shop Video Free Brooklyn, I regularly compare the creative and business philosophies of my store to the very vinyl resurgence I’ve bought into, and I’m thankful for all the customers who share my passion for the analog experience of discovering treasures through in-person browsing and face-to-face discourse. Nothing beats the collective moviegoer excitement when the lights dim in a theater, but compared to cinema that’s streamed, downloaded, or ordered with the click of a button? I’d rather get my kicks through what I can hold in my hot little hands.
It’s true that I have a vested interest in “home video,” but considering how relatively little writing is out there about it in an inane whirlpool of box-office forecasting, casting rumors and dating gossip, it bothers me that so many amazing repertory titles and new curiosities fall silently under the radar. (We can also blame the culture-fragmenting superpowers of the Internet for this, the greatest and worst thing to ever happen to media consumers.) My aim is to cut through the noise and give you a taste of what’s now available to rent or buy with this curated column, “DVD is the New Vinyl.” Twice a month here at The Playlist, I’ll scour through my New Releases shelf for auteur-driven rarities, cult wonders, and other must-sees to preemptively answer that question I’m frequently asked, “Can you recommend a good _______?” To kick things off, here’s a mega-roundup of June’s required viewing…
DISCS OF THE MONTH:
“At Long Last Love”
1975, dir. Peter Bogdanovich
(Twentieth Century Fox, available on BD)
A connoisseur of vintage Hollywood, the “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show” auteur bucked the countercultural trends of the era in his gently parodic homage to the 1930s studio musical. Extravagantly staged and dressed in black-and-white but shot in color, with a songbook of little-known Cole Porter ditties recorded live on-set by a sprightly, partner-swapping ensemble of high-society snobs (including Burt Reynolds‘ carousing playboy, Cybill Shepherd‘s icy heiress, and Madeline Kahn‘s boozy Broadway diva), the film is best known today as the indulgent art-deco flop that threatened to derail Bogdanovich’s career. It’s too bad, frankly, because much like other legendary bombs such as “Ishtar” or “Heaven’s Gate,” this Lubitsch-esque confection is more rewarding than it’s given credit for, with glamorous production design, sassy double-entendres, and a carefree sense of fun worth at least a dozen dour duds like “Les Misérables” any tap-dancing night of the week. It’s the top!
The Skinny: On his Indiewire column “Blogdanovich,” the ever-ascotted filmmaker chronicles the fate of what he used to call “At Long Last Turkey,” from debacle to revitalization.
Bonus Round: There predictably aren’t any extras, but that this “Definitive Director’s Edition” exists is thanks to the help of the late editor Jim Blakely, who had re-edited the film after the first, compromised cut was pulled from theaters. His improved version, discovered by Bogdanovich a few years ago after he was emailed a YouTube clip recorded off TV, was further refined for this first-ever home release.
Makes a “Notorious ’70s Musicals” Triple Feature with: “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Lost Horizon“
“Keep Your Right Up!”
1987, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
(Olive Films, available on BD, DVD)
“At the end of the 20th century, the Idiot’s phone rang.” The idiosyncratically cheeky voiceover opening “Soigne ta droite” couldn’t be more Godardian, nor could the man playing said Dostoyevsky-reading idiot: the French master himself, as a director determined to deliver a film in 24 hours in order to secure financing. Inspired by Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati, this intellectually and structurally cracked comedy ruminates on both art (and its futility in a world where the masses don’t care; bystanders coo over a shiny film canister instead of the 35mm masterwork inside) and death (corpses pile up in a sports stadium; a pilot reads a self-help book called “How to Commit Suicide”). Meanwhile, French rockers Les Rita Misouko cut a new album in between vignettes, but more baffling than all the cryptic references is just how rewarding it is to watch Godard pull faces and suffer slapstick pratfalls. Could this be his “Schizopolis“?
The Skinny: “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” author and New Yorker critic Richard Brody tells The Playlist: “For me, Godard’s single most moving moment is in this movie—the scene, early on, that ends with a reference to Malraux‘s ‘La Condition Humaine‘—and it, too, is death-drenched. But Les Rita Mitsouko are there, too—two young lovers with the light at their backs, keeping the flame of art alive. I suppose that, if Woody Allen hadn’t gotten there first, Godard could have called this comedy ‘Love and Death.'”
Bonus Round: It’s a bare-bones disc, but Olive gets a pass for concurrently releasing Anne-Marie Miéville and Godard’s 1976 dialectic media critique “Comment Ça Va.”
Makes a “Funny to the French” Triple Feature with: “Cracking Up,” “M. Hulot’s Holiday”
1967, dir. František Vláčil
(Criterion, available on BD, DVD)
Within the canon of international cinema, Czech filmmakers such as Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, even Věra Chytilová have cemented their status as prominent auteurs, but few American filmgoers know of Vláčil and his mystic, grand-scale yet atmospherically stark opus, hailed as the nation’s great masterpiece in a 1998 survey of their critics and film professionals. Adapted from Vladislav Vančura‘s experimental novel—in turn, based on a Czechoslovakian legend from the 13th century, when the film is set—the historical conflict between paganism and Christianity is played out in the medieval feuds of two adversarial tribes. But within the film’s complex, episodic time-jumping, the savage and self-contained dramas (raping! pillaging! kidnapping! beheading!) can be so unbelievably dense that it’s best to surrender to the exquisiteness of the filmmaking, from the evocative primitivism of period costumes and other grimily naturalistic details, to chilling sound design and symbolic B&W ‘Scope compositions (such as wolves speckled in a blizzard-white forest) that are as hallucinatory as dreams.
The Skinny: In a 2010 LA Weekly feature, critic Michael Atkinson calls Vláčil “the Czech New Wave’s arch formalist, its postexpressionist wrecking ball, the Czech Welles. Vláčil was known for having pursued what he termed ‘pure film’—a chimerical ambition shared by everyone from Von Sternberg and Brakhage to Lynch—and fittingly, his best movies display a hypnotic plastic originality.”
Bonus Round: Criterion rarely skimps, so aside from anecdotal video interviews with three of the actors and the costume designer, plus two more that add context from Czech critic Antonín Liehm and British film historian Peter Hames, there’s also a deliciously geeky bit on the film’s restoration by the project’s technical director. Also: storyboard galleries and “In the Web of Time,” a short 1989 doc portrait of Vláčil by cinematographer František Uldrich.
Makes a “Czech Masterpiece” Triple Feature with: “Daisies,” “Closely Watched Trains“
“Ninja III: The Domination”
1984, dir. Sam Firstenberg
(Shout! Factory, available on BD+DVD combo)
If we can all agree that “guilty pleasures” are ultimately just pleasures that nobody should feel shame for, then isn’t this newfangled film-critic buzzphrase “vulgar auteurism” simply auteurism, along with a pompous justification to glorify trash populism? It’s a non-starter, whereas the “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” director’s second unrelated sequel to “Enter the Ninja” and his own “Revenge of the Ninja” starts like gangbusters, with a ludicrously entertaining, extended fight sequence between an evil, pajama-clad, shuriken-and-blowdart-armed warrior and an Arizona golf course full of yuppies and cops. Goofy as sin but never boring, ‘Ninja III‘ is a nostalgic high-kick of ’80s Cannon schlock, in which Lucinda Dickey stars as a telephone line-worker and part-time aerobics instructor who becomes possessed by the spirit of the aforementioned, now-deceased ninja to then avenge his foes. In a long-lost world of genre filmmaking before CGI and wire-fu cheapened the resourceful ingenuity of stuntmen and practical effects, this camp classic is still best appreciated with a six-pack of beer among friends.
The Skinny: What, that gonzo premise alone didn’t grab you? How about a triple assassination in a hot tub, an arcade game that smokes with demon possession, and a bit of foreplay in which our horny heroine pours V8 down her shirt for her lover, more “Hot Shots: Part Deux” than “9½ Weeks“?
Bonus Round: Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert share a chilled-out commentary track, remembering how the success of “Revenge of the Ninja”—plus the distributor’s request for a female hero and a major plot twist (the supernatural element was lifted from then-recent hit “Poltergeist“)—steered the production launch. The team actually shot inside a Phoenix police station because they weren’t as busy on Sundays, and Firstenberg describes his moviemaking formula as “a lot of explosions, two good chase scenes, five good fight scenes, and two tremendous action sequences”
Makes a “WTF ’80s Action” Triple Feature with: “Miami Connection,” “Death Wish 3“
“Vivan Las Antipodas”
2011, dir. Victor Kossakovsky
(Docurama, available on DVD)
This crazy lil’ globe of ours being largely water, there aren’t very many “antipodes,” or populations that are settled at the exact opposite poles from one another. Shanghai’s antipode is in Entre Ríos, while Russia shares one with the Patagonia region of Chile, Spain connects diametrically to New Zealand, Hawaii to Botswana. With no dramatic rules in place beyond a lavishly poetic sense of momentum, juxtaposition, light and space, Kossakovsky’s global snapshot—sometimes filmed upside down to magically bridge lands, then cut together as if in real time—is represented by a truly eccentric cast of contemplative Argentinian farmers, a bustling throng of Chinese commuters, even a beached whale. The resulting viewing experience is cosmically funny and intimately melancholic, the Russian-born filmmaker’s talent so sharp that it could make Terrence Malick lie awake at night, desperate to tinker more with his ‘Tree of Life‘ footage. Perhaps due to its commercially off-putting Spanish title and uneasy-to-digest premise, this kaleidoscope of cinematic wonderment never received a proper theatrical release, and still arrives now on DVD with little fanfare. That’s shameful, as it’s one of the most unforgettable doc experiments in years.
The Skinny: Just how few places are there on Earth with a land mass on the other end of the axis? See for yourself.
Bonus Round: Cinedigm‘s Docurama Films thankfully released the film after two acclaim-generating years on the fest circuit, but why in the world (or its antipode) couldn’t they have also dropped a film this visually enchanting on Blu-ray?
Makes an “Arthouse Travelogue” Triple Feature with: “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Baraka“
WORTH A SPIN:
“American Mary” (Xlrator Media, on BD, DVD) – Canadian indie horror’s “Twisted Twins” Jen and Sylvia Soska channel the new-flesh fiendishness of fellow countryman David Cronenberg in this wicked, femme-centric gorefest, about a med-school undergrad (Katherine Isabelle) paying her tuition by performing abnormal surgical mutilations on willing Betty Boop and Barbie-smooth fetishists.
“Brooklyn Castle“ (Millennium Entertainment, on DVD) – Who’d have thought the highest ranked junior-high chess team in the U.S. comes from a Williamsburg public institution where the majority lives under the poverty level? With higher emotional stakes than “Spellbound,” good luck trying to resist this inspiring, affecting doc.
“Clip” (Artsploitation, on DVD) – Like a Serbian cross between “Turn Me On, Dammit!” and “Kids,” Maja Milos‘ sexually explicit debut might seem like a familiar if troubling teen coming-of-age set in the post-Facebook age, but its passionate storytelling shares the rebellious intensity of punk rock itself. Parents, lock up your daughters.
“The Happy Poet“ (Cinema Libre, on DVD) – Austin-based filmmaker Paul Gordon brings a sly deadpan charm to his SXSW-vetted slacker comedy as the eponymous and hapless entrepreneur, whose plan to launch an all-organic food cart is thwarted by freeloaders, economic realities, and other mildly absurd speed bumps.
“In the Family” (self-distributed, on BD, DVD) – Overt sentimentality might’ve derailed Patrick Wang‘s shattering familial drama, about a gay man’s struggle for custody of his child (prior to the DOMA overturning, naturally), but the writer/director/star’s beautifully humanistic sense of restraint rings loud and true.
“Lifeforce“ (Shout! Factory, on BD/DVD combo) – Tobe Hooper‘s lurid 1985 sci-fi/horror oddity, co-adapted by “Alien” writer Dan O’Bannon from the novel “The Space Vampires,” plays like a gothic Hammer film in the outer cosmos, with Steve Railsback and a cast of British crew members being hunted by a nude vampiress.
“No“ (Sony Pictures Classics, on BD, DVD) – Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain (“Tony Manero“) rigs the election in this darkly funny, slyly fictionalized, Oscar-nominated period drama, about how the Pinochet regime was toppled with the help of a crafty adman (Gael Garcia Bernal), the skateboarding hipster analogue to Don Draper.
“Of Human Bondage“ (Kino Lorber, on BD, DVD) – In this original 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham‘s masterwork, Leslie Howard falls hopelessly in love with cruel-hearted Bette Davis, but then so did the rest of America. Gorgeously restored, the film has been released alongside “Hell’s House,” another pre-Code Davis classic.
“The Source Family“ (Drag City, on DVD) – The cult of personality turns disturbingly literal in this engrossing doc about controversial spiritual guru, health-food restaurateur, and suspected bank robber Father Yod, who lived communally in the Hollywood Hills with his small army of followers during the early ’70s.
“Wrong” (Drafthouse Films, on BD, DVD) – Just when you thought the director of the killer-tire freakout “Rubber” couldn’t get more surreal, Quentin Dupieux bends minds again in this playfully chaotic tale of a man (Jack Plotnick), a lost dog, a pet detective, an oversexed pizza delivery girl, and more suburban wackadoos.