It’s a verrrrry grim week on the Blu-ray shelf – this week’s three big new releases of note are Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Café Society . Yeesh. Lucky for you, the shelves are jam-packed with A+ catalogue titles, from sparkling classics to exploitation faves, and Netflix has got two new titles that are worth a look as well.
Mascots : Let’s not beat around the bush here – the latest improvisation-heavy ensemble comedy from director Christopher Guest falls far shy of high water marks Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman (whose leading character Guest resurrects for a somewhat inexplicable cameo). But it’s still a Christopher Guest movie, which means it’s at least occasionally funny (sometimes very much so), the characters are warm and likable in spite of their delusions, and a certain sweetness shines through. And newbies Zach Woods and Sarah Baker really shine, outpacing the regular company members as a pair of perpetually arguing married mascots.
Trapped : They call them “TRAP laws”: Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. And since the big Republican takeover in 2010, there’ve been plenty of them – over 250 new laws passed through state legislatures, mostly in the south and Midwest. Dawn Porter’s documentary focuses on a handful of independent clinics in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, and the devastation wrought there; she talks to the women who run them, the doctors who work them, and the women who come to them, now often from much further distances, at far greater expense and inconvenience, if at all. It’s a touch disjointed – the transitions from place to place and subject to subject are sometimes clumsy – but it’s propelled by a real sense of urgency and anger, and more than a little bit of sorrow.
Short Cuts : Robert Altman spent years trying to mount this passion project, in which he adapts several Raymond Carver short stories by sifting them into his familiar multi-character, multi-narrative structure. The result is a project highlighting the best of both artists, a brisk and searing snapshot of Los Angeles, as told by 22 characters of diverging fortunes and intersecting fates. It sounds more schematic than it is; as per usual, Altman’s frames capture a sense of barely contained chaos, of characters perpetually on either side of breakups and breakdowns. It’s a sprawling, raw, and frequently hilarious work, with career high performances from the likes of Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Chris Penn, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (Includes feature-length documentary, PBS documentary on Carver, vintage Carver and Altman interviews, original song demos, deleted scenes, and marketing materials.)
Animal Crackers : A Blu-ray upgrade of one of the Marx Brothers’ funniest movies would be worth noting no matter what. But this is a special restoration and release, taken from a recently rediscovered print struck during its original 1930 release – rather than the 1936 re-release print that we’ve seen in all previous home video and television versions. That version snipped a handful of lines and lyrics to comply with the more stringent enforcement of the Production Code; this “Pre-Code” version puts those bits back in, and while they only add a minute or so to the running time, they’re like buried treasure for Marx fans. The rest of the movie looks great and is as uproarious as ever, capturing the boys’ final Broadway hit faithfully, if not altogether inventively. It’s only available in the new Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection set, but no worries – the other four movies in it are great too. (Includes audio commentary.)
The Laughing Policeman : In a strange, wonderful two-year period in the early 1970s, hangdog comic virtuoso Walter Matthau repositioned himself as an action movie leading man – and, miraculously, pulled it off. This 1973 effort from director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) came between Charley Varrick and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three , and doesn’t quite match either of them. But it’s still a cracklingly good policier, with Matthau and Bruce Dern teaming up to track down a mass shooter haunting a particularly seamy San Francisco. Matthau eventually returned to comedy, but this trio of tightly wound crime pictures presents a tantalizing look at the career he could’ve had. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and trailers.)
Trouble Man : This 1972 crime drama ensured its durability well past the end of the “blaxpoitation” vogue when Marvin Gaye was hired to provide the soundtrack, and that soundtrack got a visibility boost a couple of years back when it was unexpectedly name-checked in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The movie itself isn’t quite up to the music, but few things on this earth are. Robert Hooks stars as “Mr. T,” a slick jack-of-all-trades; one of those trades is private investigation, so he’s hired to investigate a series of holdups at neighborhood crap games. It’s not quite Shaft, but it vibrates with cool, the action beats land, and Hooks is a stellar leading man. (Includes audio commentary and trailers.)
Gas-s-s-s : Socially hip and snappily paced, this counterculture comedy from director Roger Corman (it plays like a comic riff on his own The Trip) is dated 1970, but feels like a late-‘60s movie in subject and style, mostly to its benefit. Haphazardly telling the story of a deadly gas that wipes out everyone over 25, the script by George Armitage ( Miami Blues ) shifts styles every few minutes, taking up the costumes of sports movie, class comedy, religious satire, post-apocalyptic Western, and whatever else strikes its fancy. As you might imagine, it’s more than a little incoherent – but entertainingly so. (No bonus features.)
Special Effects : Under the opening credits of this inside-Hollywood suspenser, a noted filmmaker (Eric Bogosian) is asked for his biggest influence. “Abraham Zapruder,” he replies. “Honest Abe.” At its best, this 1984 thriller toys with the blurring lines between exploitation and entertainment – “The glorification of nobodies, as long as they’re victims,” as our filmmaker puts it. It was exploitation legend Larry Cohen’s follow-up to his cult hit Q, in which he attempts to pivot from horror to suspense (with plentiful echoes of both De Palma and Hitchcock), with mixed results; it’s more than a little sleazy and a touch overlong, and Zoë Lund (Ms. 45) is surprisingly unconvincing. But Bogosian is pitch-perfect as the slimy, smarmy movie-maker, Cohen’s inversion of the previous year’s Star 80 (turning the actress’s ex-boyfriend into the hero and the film director into a villain) is fascinating, and his plotting and pay-off are often ingenious. (Includes audio commentary.)