Robert Carlyle in "California Solo."
Up on the DVD and Blu-ray shelves this week, unplug the "Wreck-It Ralph" arcade noise (and, for the love of all that is holy, put down your guns and step away from that insipid "Red Dawn" remake) as there are some better choices to be made for cineastes of all tastes.
"College (Ultimate Edition)"
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On this side of the pond, many of us weren't aware of Robert Carlyle until 1996's international breakout "Trainspotting," in which the chameleonic Scottish actor portrayed an alcoholic sociopath who hung out with heroin junkies. Here, in writer-director Marshall Lewy's somber, sun-baked, underseen character study, Carlyle again likes his drink a bit too much as long-haired Lachlan MacAldonich, a relatively high-functioning addict living a modest existence as an organic farm manager just outside of Los Angeles. In a former life, Lachlan played lead guitar for Britpop almost-superstars The Cranks, a dream that died along with his overdosing brother and bandmate, which adds some heavy subtext to his current after-work hobby: recording a podcast called "Flameouts" about needless rock-n-roll tragedies (i.e. Marc Bolan, Marvin Gaye, Jay Reatard, but never his own bro). Trying to outdrink his guilt-ridden memories inevitably leads to an aggravated DUI, which—combined with the chomp of an old marijuana charge—puts Lachlan's immigration status into jeopardy, and deportation seems a fate worse than flaming out. But it turns out the dude is largely on his own, the peripheral players running the gamut from flirty new acquaintance (Alexa Rasmussen) and irritated employer (A Martinez) to exasperated ex-wife (Kathleen Wilhoite) and downright contemptuous ex-producer (Michael Des Barres). The story's an oldie but moldy, but Lewy's sensitively observed script avoids the clichéd meet-cutes and explosive rock-bottom descents (it's more a slow-burning crumble), instead giving Carlyle room to flesh out his wasted, stunted but still sympathetic fuck-up, his meatiest and most touching role since 1997's "The Full Monty."
READ MORE: Aaron Hillis, the Cinephile's Underdog
Like Carlyle, actor Martin Donovan first drew attention for his work in hip '90s indies, particularly his fertile collaboration with director Hal Hartley ("Simple Men," "Amateur," "Surviving Desire"—and arguably their best, 1990's "Trust," which only had its DVD premiere this past January). In his own pensive, witty feature debut as a writer-director, Donovan takes tips from the Hartley playbook, such as a shared deadpan irony, occasionally elliptical banter, and the modish casting of rock royalty (Hartley once dressed up PJ Harvey as Mary Magdalene; Donovan brings onboard Smashing Pumpkins and Hole's Melissa Auf der Mar). A semi-controversial New York playwright who has fallen out of favor, Robert Longfellow (Donovan) is introduced in a self-pitying funk under the catty morning-radio voiceover slamming his latest Broadway flop. Hightailing it away from his bread-winning photographer wife (Auf der Mar) to his mother's quaint home in L.A., Robert mopily reconnects with his now-simmering actress muse (Olivia Williams) under the guise of writing her a new vehicle. In a lower class of American disillusionment across the street, a bipolar ex-con loser named Gus (a scene-stealing David Morse) is overly excited to have a childhood neighbor back in town to chug some brews, so pill-addled that he confuses Robert's superficial politeness as kinship. Their wildly differing sociopolitical ideologies—plus an unseen inciting moment—discreetly ramps up to a hostage situation in which a gun-toting Gus and frazzled Robert are locked indoors while news reporters chronicle the play-by-play, forming a visually flat but enthrallingly acted chamber play about alienation, performance and theatricality itself. Think of it as "My Dog Day Afternoon with André."
In the shadow of his own ambitious masterpiece "The General," silent-comedy legend Buster Keaton's subsequently simpler 1927 feature—a collegiate sports rom-com, one of his last releases before regrettably signing over all creative control to MGM the following year—deserves more canonizing credit for its inventive, athletic slapstick. The ever-expressionless Keaton stars as Ronald, a scholarly mama's boy who discovers, from an embarrassing high school graduation to his early days of campus life, that jocks rule and bookworms don't get girls like baby-faced beauty Mary (Anne Cornwall). Attempting to woo her at Clayton College, Ronald clumsily flexes his virility on the stadium field, making a burlesque mockery of discus and javelin tossing, hurdling, shot-putting and high jumping. Of the escalating comic misadventures, one particular set-piece stands apart as a classic, in which Keaton takes a part-time job to pay for that expensive tuition as a soda jerk—ineptly scooping and tossing ice cream, and over-aggressively sliding egg creams down the counter like the inept antithesis of Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" (which, in retrospect, isn't as distressing as a sequence in which he dons blackface to work as a "colored waiter," the same year Al Jolson's jazz singer spoke). In the end, of course Ronald gets the girl, his passion pushing his body to its impressively hedge-hurdling, pole-vaulting limits. (Keaton did all of his own stunts, minus that last feat, which was reserved for Olympian Lee Barnes.) On Kino's must-own disc, also available on Blu-ray, film historian John Bengston narrates a wonderful visual essay on the film's locations, including the UCLA and USC campuses. Even more collectible is "The Scribe," a 1966 industrial for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario, which may have been Keaton's last filmed performance as a safety-conscious Mr. Magoo. Blu-ray of the Week: "Westworld"
(Warner Home Video)
40 years ago, and several before he penned "Jurassic Park," the late novelist-turned-filmmaker Michael Crichton made his directorial feature debut with another tale of a futuristic amusement park run amok. Just as Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster adaptation was considered a landmark CGI advancement, so too was the 2D digital image processing of "Westworld" in 1973, which simulated the pixelated POV of an android (kitschily, by today's jaded standards). Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star as upper-class guests of the $1,000-a-night getaway Delos, a high-tech role-playing vacation where adult fantasies of living in an ancient Roman, medieval, or the titular 1880's western environment are fulfilled with the help of humanoid robot servants so life-like that they can only be distinguished by their peculiar-looking hands. Amateur gunslingers can throw back whiskey and bed a bar-wench sexbot, or murder a sass-talkin' villain like Yul Brynner, who plays a cyborg analogue of his "Magnificent Seven" role, or maybe it's the proto-"Terminator" once the whole bleeping bleep-bleep tragically malfunctions and Benjamin's namby-pamby lawyer is chased through all three biospheres. The effects and blatant movie sets might be dated, but there are still more B-movie thrills and heady ideas (mutating computer viruses, the afterlife of robots—and pertinent to now, how tomorrow's technology frighteningly competes for the attention of increasingly bored hedonists) than throwaway schlock. On the Blu-ray, a special-edition upgrade of Warner's 2010 DVD, there's an entertaining vintage making-of featurette, and the rare pilot episode of "Beyond Westworld," a short-lived 1980 TV sequel that takes place hours after the film's events, directed by Ted Post of "The Baby" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" infamy. Aaron Hillis has written about film for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, LA Weekly, Variety, Filmmaker, IFC News, Premiere and Spin. He is the former curator of the reRun Gastropub Theater, and the new owner of Video Free Brooklyn (three-time "Best Video Store in NYC" winner, 2012/2013).