Happy Wednesday, Daily Grinders, and welcome back to our weekly round-up of everything new and notable in the realm of home entertainment. What follows is a wide selection of all the most intriguing titles available as of today in the DVD and Blu-Ray formats. You may notice it isn’t Tuesday anymore. Don’t hold it against me. If anything of these movies strike your fancy, we hope you can click through the icons provided and buy them from Amazon, since DG gets a commission on every mouse-click you make in this case. It’s kind of like we’re car salespeople, only we aren’t douchebags and hopefully you can trust our recommendations a little bit. Okay, here we go.
RIDE ALONG (2014)
This movie is one of the big-impact hits of the year so far. They say you can’t argue with the public, which isn’t true — you can always argue with the public, not that you’ll necessarily get anywhere — but in this case, it’s a demonstrable fact: People like Kevin Hart movies. That name is money right now. I’m still not entirely sold on Kevin Hart as a comedy superstar. I like him, but I don’t love him. Not yet, at least. It doesn’t help that this movie is straight out of the 48 HRS. playbook, and Kevin Hart doesn’t compare favorably to Eddie Murphy, because in my opinion no one does. Director Tim Story definitely does not compare favorably to Walter Hill. While I am a long-time fan of Ice Cube, both as an actor and a rapper, I think he’s kind of past the point of being the kind of imposing Nolte-esque presence a movie like this needs. After too many flat comedies and beer commercials, he’s diluted his tough-guy brand, as they say. It’s always good to see veteran character actor Bruce McGill in such a prominent role, though. You can never get enough of him. Meanwhile, you’ll soon have more Kevin Hart than you can handle, so get used to that face. Hopefully he’ll hook up with a comedy director transgressive enough to do something actually interesting with him.
THE NUT JOB (2014)
Still can’t believe a kids’ movie made it out of the gate with that title on it. I’m gonna leave it there, lest this column turn into a laundry list of puns and single-entendres. (That’s why the good Lord gave us my Twitter account.)
CAMP DREAD (2014)
Wondering what this is all about? So am I. Let’s check out the official Daily Grindhouse review together! Spoiler: It’s kinda positive!
DATE & SWITCH (2014)
Apparently we’re stuck in a bad-pun-in-the-title rut here. DATE & SWITCH is a romantic comedy about teenagers looking to lose their virginity. That doesn’t sound super-appealing at this point, but this movie definitely passes the “Does this movie have Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally?” standard that automatically makes a project worthwhile, i.e. SMASHED, Parks & Recreation, THE KINGS OF SUMMER, Axe Cop, and so on. If you see those two names on the same movie or TV show, give it a shot.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY (2014)
I’m old enough to remember this title from its former life as a Fatboy Slim album, but this is the story of a pharmacist (Sam Rockwell) who gets in a lot of trouble after hooking up with a trophy wife. I don’t know if that role is played by Michelle Monaghan or Olivia Wilde, but either way it’s worth a look. Literally. Jane Fonda narrates.
BLACK NATIVITY (2013)
Kasi Lemmons had a cool career going as an actress (in VAMPIRE’S KISS, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, CANDYMAN, and HARD TARGET) before she became a director, which yes, is in fact a big deal. There aren’t a lot of black women directing movies. There aren’t a lot of any kind of woman directing movies. The vast majority of feature films in existence and in production have men in the director’s chair, which means by definition we are only getting half of the human perspective. BLACK NATIVITY is an interesting notion, a musical (rare) based on a play by Langston Hughes and set in New York around Christmastime. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have seen Kasi Lemmons’ fascinating and unusual debut film, EVE’S BAYOU and the Don-Cheadle-starring TALK TO ME — which I loved — so trust that it isn’t only gender politics that piques my interest about any other film she puts out.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)
James Thurber is one of America’s great humorists, a writer and cartoonist with a tremendous ability to say a lot with a little. “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” is one of his most famous short stories, about a regular guy who has extraordinarily creative daydreams. The first film version of the story starred Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, and Boris Karloff. This new version had been in the offing for years, with many big directors considering the project — at one point, Steven Spielberg was scheduled to make it, with Jim Carrey eager to star. By the time Ben Stiller got to it, there was no director, so he took on that job too. As an actor Ben Stiller isn’t too unpredictable, but as a filmmaker Stiller’s a tough one to pin down — THE CABLE GUY, ZOOLANDER, and TROPIC THUNDER are all pretty terrific comedies, but as far as a worldview or any recurring thematic concern, Stiller doesn’t feel particularly present in his work (beyond, of course, appearing as an actor). I haven’t seen this WALTER MITTY movie yet but I’m interested to give it a shot, since Stiller seems to have opened up his visual palette here. The cinematographer is Stuary Dryburgh, whose next job is CYBER for Michael Mann. Yeah, I’m enough of a Michael Mann nut I will see a totally unrelated movie just for the photography. Now you know that about me.
Every time I see that title, this is what happens inside my head. That said, they had me at Stephen Frears. One of the most under-acknowledged international directors of the past three decades, he’s made excellent movies as different from each other as THE HIT, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE GRIFTERS, HIGH FIDELITY, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and THE QUEEN. Here he’s working from a script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Coogan stars, and Dame Judi Dench is in there, just in case things didn’t rule already. This is yet another movie on this list I haven’t seen at press time; hoping to change that soon.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (2013)
Another film I’ve heard nothing but good things about is Ralph Fiennes’ second film as director, after 2011’s Shakespeare adaptation CORIOLANUS. Here he plays Charles Dickens, who at the age of 45 became involved with an 18-year-old actress named Nelly Ternan. They carried on a clandestine affair for years, and she supposedly inspired several of his integral female characters. I’m not normally a huge fan of period dramas, but this is always an interesting idea, how relationships often inspire great art, even when or especially if they are considered impolite. At the very least maybe this movie will answer the question of how come middle-aged men matched up with fresh-faced ingenues has been a staple of storytelling for so many decades!
** PICK OF THE WEEK **
MEN IN WAR (1957)
MEN IN WAR is not very bombastic for an American war movie, and maybe that’s why it’s one of the better ones Hollywood ever made. It stars the enormously charismatic Aldo Ray, pitted against Robert Ryan, one of my absolute favorite movie stars, in an ethical tug-of-war directed by Anthony Mann, for whom Ryan had played a despicable villain four years earlier in THE NAKED SPUR. Here Ryan is the picture of embattled decency, a lieutenant behind enemy lines in the Korean War whose command is challenged by a belligerent sergeant, played by Ray. I wrote a bit more about this indelible film here, but let me just guarantee that there are scenes and images that are simply unforgettable, unshakeable, poetic and sad and resolutely effective. MEN IN WAR doesn’t play at being an epic, nor is it out to thrill you. It has still-potent things to say about war and violence and the futile mechanics of both, and it says them with uncommon grace and quietude. Please do see it.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
Here is a movie that can’t be contained by a single paragraph. There’s not a single aspect of its essence that lacks for greatness. Before you even see a human being in the frame, TOUCH OF EVIL announces its excellence with Russell Metty’s landmark camerawork, roving over the terrain of the bordertown where the story takes place. The typically cool, swinging, swaggering score is by Henry Mancini. Then the movie brings in its sole source of light in Janet Leigh, and one of its many sources of weirdness in Charlton Heston, playing her new husband. His role is as a Mexican cop, and of all the memorable histrionics Heston snarled through gritted teeth over the course of his career, there’s good reason he was never revered for his accent work. The sudden and conspicuous explosion of a car brings law enforcement officials to the scene, most notably Hank Quinlan, who is played by an unrecognizable Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed. As galvanizing a figure as he was in CITIZEN KANE and as romantic a figure as he was in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, that’s how grotesque and captivating Welles is as Hank Quinlan. As visually repellent as Welles makes himself here, there’s a magnetism that makes him the immediate and eternal center of this film, and it’s wholly believable that Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya still carries residual feelings for Quinlan, no matter how far he’s gone to seed. TOUCH OF EVIL is one of the more eccentric, unusual widely-acknowledged classics you’re likely to see. It works as tragic noir but is full of strange, unique touches — unless you know of another border thriller where the lovely blond ingenue has a hallucinatory drug trip in a seedy motel. Really! If you haven’t already, check it out, and have your cranial movie glossary instantly expanded.
(a Hank Quinlan drawing I did)
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Seventy years later, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is still a textbook example of model screenwriting and storytelling — as are pretty much all the films written and/or directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder capably worked across tones and genres, and is probably most associated with comedy, but DOUBLE INDEMNITY is assuredly a film noir, based on a James M. Cain novella and co-written with Wilder by none other than Raymond Chandler. The stars are Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, both better known for lighter fare — he more than she. MacMurray is famous for THE SHAGGY DOG and THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR for Disney, and for My Three Sons on TV, and he did decency as well as anyone, but here, as the unfortunate Walter Neff, he dances with darkness. This and his role in THE APARTMENT, also for Wilder, are tremendous examples of playing with and against type. Brooklyn-born Barbara Stanwyck started as a dancer, but she projected an obvious and uncommon intelligence beyond her physical gifts, and had a real distinct knowingness to her persona. She was hugely popular, lovable, beloved, and worked for directors as varied as Howard Hawks, Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra, but in DOUBLE INDEMNITY she plays what many consider to be the most cunning and lethal femme fatale in all of noir. Maybe Stanwyck’s innate likability is why it’s so easy to believe that Walter Neff is so drawn in to her character, the very married Phyllis Dietrichson, and why her cruel streak is so disarming and hard to grasp, even when she’s pulling the trigger. Noir superstar Edward G. Robinson plays a supporting role here, and he’s brusquely appealing as always. There’s much more to say, but I’ll stop here. This is an obvious recommendation to purchase.
SLEEP, MY LOVE (1948)
Douglas Sirk is a director best remembered for his florid Technicolor melodramas — deeply under-appreciated in his time and since reclaimed by critics and filmmakers who cite him as an influence (a Criterion disc of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS is due in June) — but this is a film Sirk made at the height of the film noir era, which makes it something of a B-side from an A-list filmmaker. Sirk’s films are known for their brightness, while noir is dark by definition. A Douglas Sirk film noir is a bit of an oxymoron, like a jumbo shrimp, a happy Monday, or a Black Republican. Quite honestly I’d not even heard of SLEEP, MY LOVE before seeing it listed for release this week. I dig that title, and the cast is interesting — Claudette Colbert, Robert Cummings, and Don Ameche, all of them best known for romantic comedies. Everyone’s outside their wheelhouse on this one, except for the great cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine (THE WOLF MAN, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, ROPE, POSSESSED), who knew his way around moods and darkness.
BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)
Lars Von Trier’s films are hit & miss with me, which makes sense for a filmmaker so resolutely dedicated to the fine art of fucking with people. His films alternate between beauty and extreme ugliness, sex and religion. Sometimes he switches genres during a film. Some of his films are provocations and some are meant as what they are. BREAKING THE WAVES would seem to be in the latter category, one of Von Trier’s more accessible entries, as far as the word “accessible” applies in this case. It received a lot of attention at the time for the virtuoso performance by Emily Watson, in her film debut — and rightly so. She’s great. Stellan Skarsgård had been around for a while before playing the paralyzed husband of Watson’s character, but this movie put him on the international map, sending him straight into the likes of GOOD WILL HUNTING, AMISTAD, RONIN, and DEEP BLUE SEA, in which his character meets another unfortunate fate while at sea. Von Trier would follow this movie with the much ruder film THE IDIOTS, and then with another one of his best, DANCER IN THE DARK. This here is a Criterion release of BREAKING THE WAVES, so if you’re a Von Trier fan, or if you aren’t but you wonder what’s going on in that head, there is a ton of supplemental material for you to pore over.
ROCK STAR (2001)
From the director of the far superior rock ‘n’ roll movie BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE comes this fictionalized account of Tim “Ripper” Owens, the singer in a Judas Priest tribute band who was recruited into Judas Priest for real when original singer Rob Halford split from the band. An insanely miscast Mark Wahlberg plays the Ripper Owens character — he wasn’t convincing when he was a rapper, but he’s even less so as an ‘eighties-era heavy metal frontman. Solid lip-synching though. Jennifer Aniston plays his embattled girlfriend — she’s lovely but lends too contemporary a feel to what is technically a period piece. An impressive supporting cast includes future stars Dominic West (The Wire) and Timothy Olyphant (Justified), but ultimately no one is able to give weight to a particularly light take on a famously debauched music scene. ROCK STAR isn’t at all a great film but it’s very watchable, and I have affection for it as the movie I ran to after what happened a few days after it was released, on Friday, September 7th, 2001.
REALITY BITES (1994)
I talked about Ben Stiller as a filmmaker a few entries up the page. This was his directorial debut, made not too long after his Velvet Underground of a series, The Ben Stiller Show (from whence we were given Judd Apatow, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, and Dino Stamatopoulos), and it’s the movie that pop culture at large points to as a generation-defining moment. It locked in the ‘pretty faces of Generation X’ personas of Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, and solidified Janeane Garofalo’s comedic persona in the process. The one who plays most against type is Stiller himself, as the more upwardly-mobile third player in the love triangle that includes the comparatively under-achieving Ryder and Hawke characters. He’s the straight man in the romantic comedy, the Ralph Bellamy. Again, REALITY BITES is interesting in the context of Stiller’s career as a director — does it even seem like the same person could have made THE CABLE GUY two years later (which of course he did do)? REALITY BITES never registered strongly with me personally, because I’m either at the youngest end of Generation X, or whichever one followed — I’d have to wait a bit for a movie that more reflected the world as I recognized it.
No, I’m not certainly willing to call MALLRATS that aforementioned Gen-X Jr. movie, but it is interesting, after thinking about REALITY BITES, that Kevin Smith’s CLERKS came out that same year. If you’ve kept track of his career and whatever it’s become, it may be hard to remember what a fresh voice Kevin Smith was at the time. CLERKS looks like absolute shit, to put it bluntly, and the acting is amateurish in the extreme, but the voice of the author was so strong that Kevin Smith’s distinctive foul-mouthed hyper-literacy could be fairly compared, in terms of influence on the young people watching, to his significantly more visually gifted contemporary, Quentin Tarantino. The jump from CLERKS to MALLRATS, however, should not be compared to the leap from RESERVOIR DOGS to PULP FICTION, and of course, Smith never has made his JACKIE BROWN, i.e. a movie for adults about adults.
While CLERKS had a scrappy charm to its presentation, MALLRATS is far less charming, at least on a visual basis — MALLRATS is technically Smith’s first studio movie, but he stuck with the same DP (points for loyalty, at least), and it’s really a flat-looking movie, only with the addition of color. This is the main reason, I’d bet, that the reception to MALLRATS was so much icier than the way CLERKS was received. The more one learns about filmmaking, the more ramshackle MALLRATS looks. At the time, that didn’t bother me. At the time, I loved it. At the time, Smith’s casting of skateboarder Jason Lee felt like a masterstroke — Lee was all filthy charisma, so obvious in comparison to the Hollywood-pretty Jeremy London, in the vanilla best-friend-and-theoretical-lead role. It was also a neat trick to cast Shannen Doherty as the counterpart to the beautiful but bland Claire Forlani — when it comes to movie girlfriends, let’s give Smith his due credit, he likes a feisty and smart lady who can spar on the same level as any of the guys. And it was fun to drop them into a neo-John Hughes teenage landscape, the mall. These aren’t teenagers so it’s just a bit sadder and connects nicely to CLERKS, focused again on men mired in adolescence.
For better or worse, I saw myself in CLERKS and even more in MALLRATS: I wasn’t nearly as brash or eloquent as Jason Lee’s character, but the nerdy fury was very familiar, and something I hadn’t seen on screen before. “You fuckers think just because a guy reads comics he can’t start some shit?” The weak, sexless, socially oblivious nerd stereotype, typified by the films of the 1980s and unfortunately back in vogue due to the success of the awful Big Bang Theory, does not adequately describe me and my friends and never did. I was always a weirdo and I loved comics and movies but I never had a problem talking to girls and I’ve won every fistfight I’ve been in. Those are the nerds Kevin Smith put on screen (at first; let’s not talk about Comic Book Men). I appreciated that, and I still do. What the critics missed about MALLRATS was its unconventional take on an archetype, and you know, also that it was fucking funny. And with the Stan Lee cameo it beat the modern Marvel movies to the punch by a decade.
After MALLRATS, Kevin Smith made his two most personal movies, CHASING AMY and DOGMA. The rickety visual presentation persisted, but it’s fair to say that whatever the technical problems with these two movies, some of the performances, and even the scripts, Smith had an unconventional and essentially positive take on important topics like romance, homosexuality, and religion. Outside of Howard Stern, I can’t think of any single person who has done more to mainstream the idea of homosexuality to straight men — even if you object to the language or the approach, hopefully the influence stills registers as valuable, because it is. Those are the good points. The disappointment of Kevin Smith is in his steadfast refusal to develop as a filmmaker — we know he can write, but he makes the least visually appealing films of any brand-name director. The other problem is that he can’t stop himself from talking, talking, and talking, which is way too obvious an irony considering the name of his best-known character. He’s become a chronic, inveterate podcaster who occasionally makes movies, rather than a full-time professional film director, which is a shame because I’m someone who had nice things to say about his last movie, the late-inning change-up RED STATE. If only he would put less energy into all the extracurricular activities and focus on refining his cinematic storytelling and making moving pictures that match the strength of his lively, confrontational, impassioned, profane, hilarious and individualistic dialogue, he would truly deserve the indefatigable fanbase he’s accrued, and I would gladly count myself as one of them. As it is, he doesn’t, and I don’t, and that’s a bit of a bummer. But I always leave the window of hope open a crack, because why not do that?
That’ll do it for this week. Next week’s list of releases is shaping up to be maybe the biggest one yet. Hope to see you then!
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