Your “new” DVD and streaming releases are pretty dire this week, consisting as they do of the dull would-be Oscar contender Unbroken, the charmless Into the Woods, and the merciful conclusion of the Hobbit trilogy. But, as usual, the catalog titles save the day, with two vintage documentaries from Criterion, an off-brand sleeper by Robert Altman, a Rob Reiner sex comedy, and a forgotten but fascinating Wim Wenders odyssey. Plus, Netflix offers a chance to see how two films become one.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: When the Weinstein Company picked up Ned Benson’s ambitious debut film, you could all but set a clock to the backstage drama: what had once been a two-part story, subtitled Him and Her and told from the complementary viewpoints of its two protagonists, became a Frankenstein-ed single picture subtitled Them — y’know, for the masses, with the individual films given a smaller release thereafter. It didn’t work; all iterations of the project sank from sight, which is too bad, as they’re full of interesting scenes and terrific performances (particularly from leads Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy). Luckily, Netflix is now streaming both versions: the single, standalone Them, and the two-part Him and Her takes. Choose wisely — or watch all three, for a case study in how a movie gets mangled.
Gates of Heaven/ Vernon, Florida: As we’ve mentioned, the Criterion Collection is releasing Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line this week, alongside the two features he made before that breakthrough film. He wasn’t yet using the original scores and dramatizations that would become so identifiably part of his style; these are mostly straightforward documentaries, talking heads and archival materials, but he already displays a taste for unusual stories and fascinating characters, as well as a tendency to let his interview subjects talk and talk. Gates of Heaven (one of Roger Ebert’s all-time favorite films) concerns a California pet cemetery that, upon eviction, had to dig up 450 pets and move them to another cemetery’s grounds; Morris uses that tiny, bizarre story as a window into giant themes of life, death, the afterlife, spirituality, family, and companionship. Vernon, Florida is merely a character study of hunters, cops, and old timers in an odd, small town. Both films are mostly concerned with the musicality of the characters — Morris falls in love with their rhythms, cadences, and vernacular, staying with their rambling interviews long after most filmmakers would cut away. Together, the form a remarkable portrait of ordinary American lives. (Includes new interviews with the director and Les Blank’s short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” documenting the fulfillment of Morris and Herzog’s bet about Gates’ completion.)
The Sure Thing: Considering its winking title and the bikini-leering opening sequence, accompanied by neon-styled credits and Rod Stewart’s “Infatuation,” you’d be forgiven for presuming Rob Reiner’s 1985 Spinal Tap follow-up is a typical ‘80s teen sex comedy. But this is a better film than that, from a smarter filmmaker; what looks and sounds initially like a Porky’s or Last American Virgin is far closer to It Happened One Night. John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga are well cast as a charming fast-talker and an uptight beauty, but Steven L. Bloom and Jonathan Roberts’ road-trip screenplay allows them to bring out the best in each other — as actors and characters — lending the picture an unexpected but undeniable rooting interest. Handsomely photographed, in one of his first gigs, by future Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood and Good Night and Good Luck cinematographer Robert Elswitt. (30th anniversary Blu-ray features commentary by Reiner, featurettes, and original trailer.)
Vincent and Theo: Robert Altman is kind of the last filmmaker you’d think of to tell the story of Vincent van Gogh and his complicated relationship with brother Theo; it feels like a Scorsese/Age of Innocence situation, where it’s simply hard to imagine such a contemporary filmmaker taking on such a specific period piece. Yet, as with Innocence, Altman’s earthy, naturalistic style is actually a fine fit, giving life to the kind of tale that’s too often translated into something stiff and starchy. Plus, there aren’t enough superlatives to convey the power of Tim Roth’s turn as Van Gogh — he plays it with an end-of-the-world intensity, and when he’s smearing his paints and destroying his canvases (and himself), he means it. (Only special feature is a trailer, unfortunately — especially considering that Altman’s original, 200-minute mini-series version for British television has still never seen an official stateside home video release.)
The End of Violence: Wim Wenders’ 1997 drama was both a critical and commercial failure, and it’s not hard to guess why; it’s sometimes penetrating, sometimes obvious, and sometimes inexplicable. But it’s always fascinating — and has only grown more so, thanks to its prescient considerations of the dominance of technology and the encroachment of a surveillance state. The script (by Wenders and Nicholas Klein) is filled with thoughtful intertextuality, and Bill Pullman is wonderfully oily as the film producer at its center, a guy so high on his own supply that he makes his kidnappers a counteroffer of “a million dollars… in points.” An odd yet exhilarating bit of madness. (Includes the original trailer.)