This week’s big disc releases are an indie smash and a wider not-quite-smash; both are worth renting or Redboxing or however you do. We also have streaming releases of a vintage Spanish treat and two early sound pictures from one of Germany’s cinematic icons, plus a Netflix debut that’s catnip for comedy geeks.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture : Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain’s biopic of comedy groundbreaker Doug Kenney thankfully takes itself not a whit too seriously – in fact, at its best, it plays like biopic parody by National Lampoon (which Kinney co-founded) or The State (from which Wain hails). Wain fills the picture with throwaway background gags, witty casting choices – particularly Joel McHale’s dead-on turn as his former Community castmate/semi-nemesis Chevy Chase – and self-aware commentary (narrator/Kenney stand-in Martin Mull explains, of Lampoon’s lack of diversity: “I’m sure they were out there, but we just didn’t think to look for them. It was a very different time! In our defense, we had very few Jews”). Because it’s so funny, it gets away with the serious stuff; star Will Forte, as the young Kenney, nicely captures the writer’s melancholy and desire for acceptance, particularly from his aloof parents. It’s a bit of an inside-baseball movie, but comedy nerds will love every minute.
ON DVD / VOD
The Square : Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund returns with another quietly uncomfortable pitch-black comedy, a series of escalating and increasingly harrowing confrontations, set this time in the somewhat fish-in-a-barrel setting of the contemporary art world. But he doesn’t go about this work in any of the expected ways; he’s less interested in satirizing artists than administrators, the sensible people who are supposed to marshal the madness, yet are themselves just as petty and egomaniacal (if not more so). Östlund’s approach is deliberately confrontational, and bless him for that; in his framings, juxtapositions, and structure, he’s often deliberately fucking with us, but without positioning himself above the fray. (Includes featurette, casting tapes, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women : With two major Wonder Woman blockbusters raking in the bucks, you could not have picked a better year to release a biopic of the man who created her (and the two women who inspired her). Yet this complicated character study from writer/director Angela Robinson still tanked, and that’s a shame; it tells the story of WW’s creation, yes, but as its central relationship is a polyamorous one between Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth(Rebecca Hall), and their mistress Olive (Bella Heathcote), it’s also a film that mines humor and conflict from the delicate negotiations and loaded conversations that lead them to that partnership, and genuinely digs into the complexities of faith, attraction, and love. And then it’s a fun origin story on top of that, with Oliver Platt providing J. Jonah Jameson-level laughs as Marston’s publisher, and a big in-costume reveal that’s nearly as thrilling as the one in Wonder Woman. (Includes featurettes and deleted scenes.)
Jamón Jamón : This 1992 romp (new on Blu from Olive Films) from Spanish director Bigas Luna is high-spirited and semi-absurd, gleaning most of its laughs from the inherent silliness of sexiness (while still managing to be brow-wipingly sexy). The sex-farce premise – a rich mother hires a handsome stud to seduce her would-be daughter-in-law, convinced the girl is but a gold-digger – is clever and thoroughly mined; in short, everyone’s screwing everyone, but everyone loves the wrong person. It veers wildly into melodrama and violence in its closing scenes, with mixed results, but for most of its running time, it’s an effective mix of ribaldry and sentimentality. Jamón Jamón is mostly remembered today for the early performances of leads Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem; it’s easy to see what Pedro Almovodar saw in Cruz (as it’s kind of a JV Almodovar movie in general), and there’s real fun in seeing Bardem in a straight-up beefcake role. Frothy fun and little more, with no complaints here. (No special features.)
Westfront 1918 / Kameradschaft: Criterion is offering up a sharp double-feature of early sound features from the great G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl), one set during WWI, the other immediately after. Westfront 1918 starts like a service comedy, with lighthearted introductions to its soldier characters, before immersing us in the chaos and claustrophobia of battle – with breaks for (unsurprisingly, given his previous pictures) a dash of psychosexual intensity. It’s a visceral experience, thanks to the innovative sound design and arresting images, and that goes double for Kameradschaft, which uses a real-life 1906 mining disaster as a vehicle for a story of postwar bonding and healing. The stunts and effects are scarily convincing, and the flashes of humor land gracefully. Taken together, the two films show exactly how early European filmmakers were outpacing their American counterparts in the early talkie era; while our guys were doing clunky, nailed-down stage play adaptations, they were making films that used sound only to complement image, full of scenes without any dialogue at all. Because they didn’t need it. (Westfront features new and archival interviews, restoration demonstration, and French television documentary; Kameradschaft includes new and archival interviews.)