August Home Video Releases You Need To Watch

Slither (Scream Factory)
Teen Wolf (Scream Factory)

It’s not always easy to mix horror and humor. For every successful meeting, say, Abbott & Costello and Frankenstein, or Ash and the minions of the undead, there’s a dozen films that get the ratio between scares and laughs all wrong. Even those that do get it right can be tough sells. Released in 2006, Slither was supposed to be James Gunn’s big directorial breakthrough in a career that had included a lot of on-the-job training making low budget films for Troma and working on the scripts for everything from Scooby-Doo to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. And it should have been. A tale of a small town invaded by zombie-creating aliens starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and Michael Rooker, it’s at once extremely gross and extremely goofy. Audiences didn’t buy it then, but the film’s picked up a cult following that should be grateful for this typically fine Blu-ray package with features reflecting back on its origins.

One solution to making the mix is to tilt the balance deep in one direction. The 1985 film Teen Wolf doesn’t take werewolves all that seriously, more or less just dropping lycanthropy into the mix of a not-that-inspired teen comedy starring Michael J. Fox. It is, however, a fine relic of the 1980s filled with off-the-rack pop music and dangerous and easily imitated acts of mayhem (kids, don’t surf on top of cars). Fox’s charm almost elevates it above the material, and his stardom pretty much provides the only explanation as to why this became a hit in the wake of Back to the Future. Jason Bateman wasn’t so lucky with the sequel a few years later. It’s also receiving a Blu-ray release.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (Disney)

Speaking of Gunn, things ended up working out OK for him thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy series. This second film in the series confirms it as a fine home for his sensibility, mixing gags, frenetic action, and moments of heartfelt drama about strained relationships and regret (the lattermost evident in Slither, too, not that anyone noticed).

Alien Covenant (20th Century Fox)

While we’re on the subject of this year’s blockbusters, and of movies unappreciated in their time, now’s a good time to give Alien Covenant a second look. (Or a first one if, like a lot of people, you missed in the theaters.) It’s both visually stunning and a far smarter return to the Alien world for director Ridley Scott than its immediate predecessor, Prometheus (a beautiful-looking film that suffered from a ho-hum script). If anything, it feels like a smart remix of the whole series’ greatest hits as filtered through an aging director’s thoughts on mortality and big questions about What It All Means. That and Michael Fassbender having a lot of fun as an evil android and aliens bursting through chests. Scott knows what makes the Alien movies work.

The Breaking Point (Criterion)
Night Moves (Warner Archive)

Warner Bros. enjoyed a big hit with To Have and Have Not in 1944. It gave Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart one of their biggest hits and made a star of Lauren Bacall. As a bonus, it was such a loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel that the studio could adapt it again just six years later as The Breaking Point. This second adaptation, directed by Warners’ premier house director Michael Curtiz, is less well known, but brilliant in its own right. John Garfield stars as a boat captain who finds his scruples tested when he more or less has no choice but to take a dishonest job in order to keep his business afloat and his family fed. From there he starts to walk down a dark, noir-ish path. Garfield, who’d die not long after the film’s release, brings the intensity of a man pushed to his limits to the performance and he’s beautifully matched by Patricia Neal as the femme fatale and Phyllis Thaxter, who plays his wife.

And for fans of seafaring noir, it pairs nicely with Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s brilliant 1975 thriller. Gene Hackman stars as an L.A.-based football player-turned-private eye whose latest case grows increasingly dangerous as his marriage falls apart. The action eventually moves to the Florida Keys, by which time the film’s revealed itself as doing double duty as a twisty mystery and a depiction of loneliness and disillusion.

The Lion King (Disney)

The Disney classic, soon to be the subject of a live-action remake (or whatever you call a film that combines a lot of CGI animals with real-world settings), gets another home video edition. Like past editions, it fills out the disc with some intriguing features, but it’s notable mostly for having been off the market for a few years. Does Disney’s put-them-back-in-the-vault policy still make sense in the current, streaming-dominated moment? Not really. But, as usual, if you want to have the movie always at hand without shelling out a lot of money on eBay in a couple of years, now’s your moment.

Sid and Nancy (Criterion)
Meantime (Criterion)

Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose a few months after Spungen’s stabbing death in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, an event still shrouded in mystery. “Sid Lives” t-shirts quickly followed. The myth-making around Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen began before the bodies has even begun to cool. Directed by Alex Cox, the 1986 film Sid and Nancy dives into Vicious and Spungen’s complicated, doomed relationship. Starring Gary Oldman, who plays Vicious as a kid with the odds stacked against him from the start, and Chloe Webb, who delivers a big, loud performance that seems true to the real-life Spungen, it walks a fine line, sometimes romanticizing their romance, other times emphasizing the ugliness of their dysfunctional dynamic and the squalorous depths to which their addiction took them even as they become punk heroes. The tension between those two impulses helps keep the film compelling, and makes it a far superior biopic than a more straightforward approach would have allowed. Or, for a look at the Thatcher-era England that followed the punk era, you could check out Mike Leigh’s 1983 Meantime, a drama about life on the dole starring Oldman (it’s his debut) and Tim Roth. (Again, double features are allowed.)

The Wedding Banquet (Olive Films)

Ang Lee’s films have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, but it’s worth remembering that he got his start making small, deeply felt family dramas. His second film, 1993’s The Wedding Banquet, is one of the best from this phase of his career, a sweet, complex, unpredictable comedy about a gay immigrant from Taiwan who marries a woman to help her secure a green card then has to make the marriage look real for his visiting parents.

Hopscotch (Criterion)

The most sheerly entertaining movie released this month, however, has to be the 1980 film Hopscotch, in which a gruff, mischievous Walter Matthau shuffles his way through a mounting set of Cold War tensions. Matthau plays a spy determined to get out of the game and live a nice life with his Austrian lover Isobel (Glenda Jackson). But the CIA doesn’t want him to retire, forcing him to take elaborate measures to remove himself from the world of espionage. Ronald Neame directs with a light touch and the supporting cast, which includes a Ned Beatty and a young Sam Waterston, helps create a tone that’s as anti-romantic about Cold War maneuvering as John Le Carré’s novels — but much funnier.

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