This is one of those weeks where the disc new releases are all about the catalogue; with only one 2016 movie of note on the docket, we’ve got an Altman essential from Criterion, a new box of Buster Keaton shorts, and a pair of unsung genre pictures worth discovering.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD/ VOD
How to Be Single: Complaints out of the way first: Christian Ditter’s female-driven R-rated comedy is way overlong (110 minutes), leaning too heavily on musical montages and Sex and the City-lite narration. But it’s lifted and carried by the considerable charisma and comic chops of its ace ensemble; Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, and Leslie Mann are endlessly likable and effortlessly funny, even when their material’s a little thin. Johnson comes off particularly well, exploiting the comic timing that made Fifty Shades of Grey occasionally bearable, particularly considering she’s saddled with the most boringly “straight” role of the bunch. It’s not a great movie, but enough pieces and performances work to make it at least worth a glance. (Includes featurettes, outtakes, deleted scenes, and gag reel.)
The Player: “Movies: Now more than ever!” goes the cheery slogan of the movie studio at the center of Robert Altman’s 1992 black comedy, which marked his return to the spotlight after more than a decade of toiling in indies, television, and stage work — after the perceived failure of his 1980 Popeye adaptation got him basically blackballed by the major studios. Altman got his revenge with this scathing portrait of a murderously insecure movie exec (Tim Robbins), and lined up dozens of actors and filmmakers to chomp on the hand that feeds them in cameo roles. But it’s not just a good Hollywood satire (and one that’s only grown more perceptive); Altman took the opportunity to jab beyond the Hollywood power structure at the spirit of corporate soullnessness that had infected it during his exile. And, bonus, it’s funny as hell. (Includes vintage audio commentary, new and vintage interviews, Cannes press conference, featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes, gallery, trailers, and TV spots.)
Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923: If you’re a good Buster Keaton fan (or movie lover, frankly), I’m sure you bought Kino’s previous Blu-ray collection of his 19 solo silent shorts, each and every one of them a masterpiece of comic precision. And I’m afraid you’re just going to have to buy them again – because Kino has upgraded that set with two more discs to include the 13 shorts he made in support of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, making this the definitive accounting of his early years. And they’re worth considering as well; the solo shorts begin with the Keaton character fully intact, but the Arbuckles (his first film appearances) trace his evolution as a film performer, from a malleable supporting player (and, shockingly, one that occasionally cracks a smile or even a belly laugh) into a supreme talent who could no longer play the background. Highlights include the knockout knockabout of “The Butcher Boy” (Keaton’s very first film), the uproarious “Coney Island” (with some priceless vintage views of the boardwalk), the iconic “Cops,” the still technically remarkable “The Play House,” and “One Week,” whose big payoff gag has been endlessly replicated but never duplicated. (Includes alternate versions and endings, new introduction, and TV excerpt.)
The Chase: Arthur D. Ripley’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear seems to set up like a standard noir thriller: sad-sack former G.I. goes to work for a dirty-dealing tough guy, falls for the slinky wife, and tries to run away with her. But, a couple of over-the-top asides notwithstanding, Ripley works a fascinatingly understated tone, substituting the usual intrigue and suppressed sexuality with a kind of deliberately paced, doomed inevitability. And then he unexpectedly hits the rest button, careening into a boldly circular third act that caps off this crisp B-movie in style. Good performances all around, particularly from a typically wormy Peter Lorre and leading man Robert Cummings, whose sweaty, twitchy, ill-at-ease leading turn is right in tune with the picture around him. (Includes two radio adaptations of the Woolrich novel.)
The King and Four Queens: Beloved and prolific genre director Raoul Walsh helmed this 1956 CinemaScope DeLuxe color Western, and it’s a peach. Clark Gable – wearing his age and authority with ease – stars as a smooth-talking operator who rides into the town of Wagon Mount, where $100K in stolen gold is reportedly stashed, and gets himself (perhaps deliberately) shot by the matriarch who’s zealously guarding it. While recuperating, he ingratiates himself with “Ma” (Jo Van Fleet, spirited and terrific) and the four comely widows of her outlaw sons, and sees what he can figure out. Walsh directs in a low-key but effective style, exhibiting an impeccable eye for widescreen composition and an ear for loaded chatter. Throw in colorful supporting performances and a pitch-perfect ending, and you’ve got a lean, entertaining little oater. (Includes trailer.)