Punch-Drunk Love (Criterion)
For a while, it seemed like it would be easy to guess what was coming next from Paul Thomas Anderson. The director’s first three films — Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia — saw the director synthesizing his influences, most prominently Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, into new configurations. Each film is remarkable in its own way but, frogs falling from the sky and all, Anderson seemed to have run out of surprises by the end of Magnolia‘s three-hour running time. Then came Punch Drunk Love, a curveball starring Adam Sandler as a put-upon toilet plunger retailer who falls in love with his sister’s friend (Emily Watson), then struggles not to screw it up.
As stylistically bold as anything Anderson had made to that point, or since, part of the brilliance of the film comes from the way Anderson plunges into the tortured psyches of the anger-prone arrested development types Sandler was already famous for playing in 2002, finding a damaged person who wants what everyone else wants but keeps finding ways to sabotage his own happiness. Anderson fills the film with whimsical touches — a sub-plot involving a loophole in a pudding promotion, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a villainous extortionist — but it’s also a portrait of a fragile person on the verge of tumbling into the abyss. This Blu-ray edition, which contains some nice supplements including a look at Jon Brion’s remarkable score, shines a nice spotlight on a stand-out film that helped point its director in a new direction.
Morris From America (Lionsgate)
One of the year’s most charming films, Morris From America wowed Sundance audiences but then kind of just came and went through theaters a couple of months ago. It’s very much worth catching up with, however. In a warm performance of the sort he’s never had a chance to give before, Craig Robinson plays a widowed soccer coach working in Germany attempting to guide his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas, a talent to watch) through the growing pains of adolescence and the culture shock of being so far from home. Director Chad Hartigan rarely strays from Morris’ side, letting him be funny, frustrating, misguided, and romantic. In other words, a typical teen who’s being challenged by some unusual circumstances.
Lone Wolf and Cub (Criterion)
From its release in 1970, Kazuo Koike’s manga series Lone Wolf and Cub became a massive hit. Ultimately running for 8700 pages across many volumes, it tells the story of a former executioner for the shogun who becomes a masterless ronin, traveling feudal Japan and working as a sword-for-hire, accompanied by his toddler son and a heavily armed baby carriage. A movie series arrived in 1972 and proved popular enough to produce five sequels, three of them in 1972 alone. This new box set collects the whole series and the two I’ve had time to watch are beautifully excessive exercises in stylized violence that let bright red early ’70s stage blood flow freely as their brooding hero (the bull-shaped Tomisaburo Wakayama) do what he can to exact revenge and protect his kid. I’m looking forward to watching the rest. (The set also includes Shogun Assassin, a 1980 re-edit of the first two films that’s prominently sampled on the opening of GZA’s Liquid Swords.)
Rabid (Scream Factory)
Dead Ringers (Scream Factory)
Just a little over a decade separates David Cronenberg’s 1977 film Rabid and his 1988 film Dead Ringers, but what a difference a decade makes. With Rabid, Cronenberg attempted to package his recurring themes about our discomfort with our own bodies and the way mental distress manifests itself physically into a grindhouse-friendly horror movie starring porn star Marilyn Chambers. A squirmy tale of sexually transmitted madness filled with images for which the term “Freudian” doesn’t quite cover, it’s a squirmy, unsettling film that’s not quite up to the standards of its predecessor, Shivers, but comes close.
Dead Ringers, on the other hand, is a Cronenberg masterpiece, one that eschews overt horror for psychological unease. Jeremy Irons stars as Beverly and Eliot Mantle, twin gynecologists who enjoy a kind of functional symbiosis until one of them falls for a patient (Genevieve Bujold), throwing their relationship out of balance. Irons’ work here is stunning, shaping each Mantle twin into a distinct character while also capturing the way their personalities flow into one another. Two years earlier, Cronenberg enjoyed his biggest hit with a remake of The Fly. But here he proved that he could be just as unsettling exploring the fragility of the human psyche as the decay of the human body. (Dead Ringers is currently available. Rabid will be released November 22.)
Bubba Ho-Tep (Scream Factory)
Don Coscarelli is enjoying something of a moment thanks to the restoration of his cult favorite Phantasm and the release of its latest sequel. He’ll always be remembered for that series, but he’s rarely turned in a less-than-interesting film, and this dark comedy starring Bruce Campbell as a not-dead, nursing home-confined Elvis Presley who has to team up with Ossie Davis as a man claiming to be the also-not-dead John F. Kennedy to fight an ancient evil is one of his best efforts.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Criterion)
Akira Kurosawa delivered a career-capping masterpiece with 1985’s Ran, then just kept working up to his death. This 1990 film — made with help from Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese — features several short films Kurosawa claimed were inspired by his dreams. Scorsese also appears as Vincent Van Gogh.
Sausage Party (Sony)
Finding Dory (Disney/Pixar)
Want to watch a recent animated film? Your options now include Pixar’s so-so Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory, which boasts some charming new characters but a too-familiar story, or Sausage Party, a Seth Rogen-and-Evan Goldberg-produced send-up of Pixar themes that’s decidedly not for children.
Longtime Ang Lee screenwriter James Schamus makes his directorial debut with this generally well-received adaptation of a Philip Roth novel about a Jewish kid from New Jersey who struggles to fit at an Ohio college.
Hannie Caulder (Olive Films)
Macbeth (Olive Films)
Finally, Olive Films continues its mission to rescue films that might otherwise never see a proper release via two strikingly different projects. Orson Welles’ 1948 adaptation of Macbeth flopped at the time, but the restored version presented here has gained in appreciation over the years. The 1972 Western Hannie Caulder was part of Raquel Welch’s attempts to show her talent extended beyond her pin-up looks. It didn’t work then, but the film has since picked up a following.