Once again, the new release slate is pretty slim this week, though a new-to-disc documentary for comedy geeks and a new-to-Prime indie drama are bright spots. Elsewhere, it’s all about the catalogue, with disc debuts for a pair of obscure crime pictures and the sophomore effort of a ‘90s indie darling.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Nasty Baby : The latest from Sebastian Silva (who writes, directs, and this time co-stars) is a bit of a puzzle, spending the bulk of its running time in free-wheeling, semi-rambling observation of a trio of racially and sexually diverse Brooklyn pals trying to make a baby. That’s the throughline, at least; it’s mostly a series of vignettes, slice-of-life impressions of friendship and neighborhood dynamics, until the whammo dark turn of the third act. Our own Moze Halperin had plenty to say about it upon the film’s release, and he’s right; an act of violence shifts and repositions the entire picture, but it’s not out of nowhere. In fact, on reflection, Silva’s film expertly and slyly captures the way a background simmer can suddenly boil over.
ON BLU-RAY/ DVD/ VOD
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon : This formulaic but fascinating profile of the glory years of the influential humor magazine, and of its key founder Doug Kenney, goes from its modest beginnings and unsteady early issues to its years of acclaim, spinoffs on radio and stage (featuring such soon-to-be-stars as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray), and conquering of Hollywood. Director Douglas Tirola doesn’t even mention the brand’s degeneration in recent years, and acknowledges some of the more offensive elements of the work without really engaging with it. But those complaints aside, if you’re a comedy nerd — and who’s going to see this but comedy nerds? — there’s enough rare footage (videotapes of Lemmings, Radio Hour recording sessions, rehearsals for the stage show) and wisdom from comic legends to make it worth your time.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street : So here’s the backstory: in 1974, legendary genre director Samuel Fuller, in the midst of an American dry spell, was given the opportunity to direct an episode of the German police procedural Tatort. He punted the show’s template, focusing his episode on an American private eye character unseen elsewhere in the series (and thus making his own contribution to the ‘70s private eye resurgence; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a tribute to that era, borrows Dead Pigeon’s opening theme of “Vitamin C” by Can). The results were so impressive that a small American distributor released it to theaters as a stand-alone feature the following year; forty years later, the UCLA Film and Television archive restored Fuller’s previously unseen director’s cut to its full 128 minutes. It might not need those extra twenty or so minutes – unsurprisingly (considering the filmmaker) it’s at its best when it’s lean and mean, and the action beats and confrontational scenes are inventively cut, with a rough, scrappy energy. But it drags in the longer dialogue scenes, which are done no favors by the wildly inadequate subtitles (the aforementioned American speaks in English, and some German characters do as well, while the rest are subtitled, no kidding, “[speaking German]”). But as one character notes, “most conversation is trivial anyway,” and it’s not like the convoluted plot rewards any particular scrutiny. It’s about mood and casual sleaze, and Fuller’s bonkers directorial flourishes. And to his credit: I can safely say it’s the only private eye movie of the era to end with swordfight. (Includes essays, trailer, and the feature-length Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany documentary.)
Try and Get Me! : Reading the description of this forgotten programmer (also known as The Sound of Fury) from director Cyril Endfield – appearing, like Dead Pigeon, for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray – you’d think it was a low-rent In Cold Blood rip-off, telling the story of a pair of killers and the journalist whose ethics get a little fuzzy while covering them (a newspaperman even notes, “Tyler and his partner killed that boy in cold blood!”). But it was released in 1950, nine years before the Clutter family murders, though it’s certainly possible Blood director Richard Brooks was influenced by this film’s stark photography and psychological dynamism. It’s a nasty, ruthless slice of late-period noir with a gut-punch mob-justice climax, given a giant boost by an impossibly young Lloyd Bridges and his striking turn as a smooth-talking psychopath. (No bonus features.)
Barcelona : We’ve devoted considerable attention elsewhere to Criterion’s release this week of Whit Stillman’s first three films, but just a word about this fan’s personal favorite of the bunch. Barcelona was Stillman’s second film, released in 1995, and it does what the best sophomore follow-ups to low-budget indie debuts do (Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, and Dazed and Confused leap to mind): it preserves the filmmaker’s distinctive voice, but expands their canvas and scope. Stillman’s witty dialogue and sideways worldview are on full display – and the former is given full value by early Stillman (and early Baumbach, and late Gilmore Girls) regular Chris Eigeman. Throw in a pre-Mighty Aphrodite Mira Sorvino and picturesque Spanish scenery, and you’ve got an erudite, sophisticated picture that more than holds up. (Includes audio commentary, new and vintage featurettes, deleted scenes and alternate ending, and archival television appearances.)