Rob Harmon’s Picks 03/25/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 3/25/14

Rewind This! (dir. Josh Johnson, 2013)

I do not remember when my family purchased its first VCR but it was probably sometime around 1985—I would have been about 7—when most of the rest of middle-class America was jumping on the VHS bandwagon. I do, however, vividly remember my sense of awe when we inserted the first tape into the mouth of the machine and the thing whirred to life, humming and clicking, the sound of the magnetic tape winding through the machine and wrapping around rollers and heads, and, finally, an image—a movie image—appearing on our TV screen! This instrument would prove to be a Pandora’s Box for me, tantalizing and hypnotic, one which would eventually open me up to cinematic landscapes both wonderful and sordid; whose grainy, pan-and-scan images, washed-out colors, and the sounds of crinkled tape running past video heads would substantially distort the dreams of my youth.

And then there was the packaging of the movies themselves: from the bulky, cumbersome clamshell cases to the sleeker cardboard sleeves, and the oftentimes lurid artwork which promised explosions and guns, scantily-clad women, and buckets of blood and gore for the viewer. I went to see movies in the theater, too, sure, but that was different: a videotape was brought into the home and viewed, such as the moldering library tapes early on of Disney fare like ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, FREAKY FRIDAY and THAT DARN CAT, and later on, in middle and high school, taped-from-TV copies of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR WARS, ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2, which were brought out on Friday nights when friends were over.

The modestly-made but hugely entertaining new documentary by Josh Johnson REWIND THIS! is composed of just this sort of gauzy, diaphanous stuff—a memory of, not just one, but many moments in time, of the nature of a decadent era not too far distant—taking the viewer on a tour through the culture surrounding the VCR which was… and continues to be.

Like many other documentaries about subcultures (TREKKIES, CINEMANIA) the meat and potatoes of Rewind This! are the obsessive-compulsives themselves who have made the VCR their life’s work. Some seem dazed and lost in time; others are bitter about society’s current obsessions with high-resolution images and streaming content. Almost all seem to survive on a steady diet of schlock, camp, and ironic patter as they sift through their collections, freely expounding upon the virtues of random violence, splatter, gratuitous nudity, rippling muscles, exercise videos, Corey Haim, Charles Bronson and Dolph Lundgren action movies, etc.

Johnson is adroit enough to recognize that kitsch alone would be insufficient and includes interviews with a wide array of talking-heads: filmmakers (Frank Henenlotter, Atom Egoyan), archivists, writers and critics, distributors, as well as technological futurists who believe that all of this nostalgia is nauseating at best, harmful to culture at worst. Various angles are examined: history, technological development, the VHS vs. Betamax format war, time shifting (taping of material to be watched at a later time), video rental, tape distribution, tape trading, and—importantly—the influence of pornography and the adult film industry on the development of the medium. Numerous clips of cheesy movies and enjoyably-dated old VCR commercials are inserted throughout.

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The film employs a three act structure: introduction of characters and initial exposition; further exposition and development; and, finally, the big questions, such as what future there is for the VCR, videotape, and their adherents. This is undoubtedly a rosy and affectionate take on the past but it is well-edited, scored (sounding, at times, like unused portions of a minimal, synthesizer-y John Carpenter score), and leaves the viewer with plenty of thought-provoking questions, oftentimes only tangentially striking upon an idea (recognizing that to follow every thought to its logical end would be to rob the film of its light and airy tone).

In truth, Rewind This! is not about movies at all: it is about media, plain and simple, the ability to physically possess a medium or, increasingly, not to. With Best Video weathering the storms of media change year after year this film does an excellent job of consolidating and summarizing an immense amount of information into one entertaining and enlightening 90-minute package.

Incidentally, I had mixed feelings when it came time to switch over to DVD: sure, the new format was better in every way—better picture, almost standard letterboxing on every movie (finally!), smaller in size, no rewinding, etc.—but my heart ached a little at getting rid of the VCR. I set it on a bottom shelf, instead, where it more-or-less just collected dust.

Then, one evening a few years later, I was reminiscing with my brother about a beloved-old tape of ours named DAZZLING DUNKS AND BASKETBALL BLOOPERS, hosted by a pre-sex scandal Marv Albert and former coach of the Utah Jazz Frank Layden, who engage in witty banter and introduce various segments of gnarly tomahawk and windmill jams, shattered backboards, alley-oops, bloopers, and other wonders of the NBA in its 1980’s heyday. Before I knew it I was online hunting down a copy of this treasure (a steal at only $1!) and when it finally arrived in the mail a week or so later we popped it in and the VCR hummed back to life. The machine itself – with all of its hisses and whirs – seemed unspeakably noisy to me now but also strangely comforting, as though movies – not necessarily the same things as films – were meant to be accompanied by this wall of noise.

The VCR is back under my TV now on a permanent basis and I have a small collection of tapes sitting next to it: it may not get as much use as it once did but it pleases me to know that this faithful old workhorse is ready to go at a moment’s notice.

While renting Rewind This!—a movie about, well, videos—why not consider renting a VHS tape to go with it? Best Video has thousands, including, for example, Richard Brooks’ controversial 1977 drama LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR and Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS, neither of which has ever been released on DVD!

New Releases 3/18/14

Top Hits
American Hustle (drama/comedy, Christian Bale. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 90. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “The director here is David O. Russell, who, more than any other contemporary American filmmaker, has reinvigorated screwball comedy, partly by insisting that men and women talk to one another. To that end, that chatter, written by Mr. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is fast, dirty, intemperate, hilarious and largely in service to the art of the con, specifically the Abscam scandal that almost incidentally inspired the story. The real scandal dates back to 1978 and an F.B.I. investigation into political corruption that found agents posing as wealthy sheikhs anxious to buy off public officials.” Read more…)

Frozen (animated feature, Kristin Bell. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Metacritic: 74. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Allegorically, Frozen lacks the purity and elemental power of a classic myth like Beauty and the Beast, but at least its storytelling is fairly coherent, and its gleaming dream world of snow and ice is one of the most visually captivating environments to be found in a Disney animated film. There are moments when you may feel that you are inside a giant crystal chandelier frosted with diamonds.” Read more…)

Mandela: a Long Walk to Freedom (biopic, Idris Elba. Rotten Tomatoes: 58%. Metacritic: 60. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Long Walk to Freedom sustains the measured, inspirational tone of a grand, historical pageant. Events that are worth films of their own are compressed into a sweeping, generalized history. Gripping, dynamically choreographed scenes of street violence are harrowing but short, as the story hurtles forward at breakneck speed. If the lack of specifics about politics is frustrating, how could it be otherwise? Mr. Mandela’s biography and South African history are so rich and inextricably linked that it is impossible to reduce it to a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie without it feeling rushed and incomplete.” Read more…)

Saving Mr. Banks (comedy/drama, Emma Thompson. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 65. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Saving Mr. Banks, released by Disney, is a movie about the making of a Disney movie [Mary Poppins], in which Walt Disney himself [played by Tom Hanks] is a major character. It includes a visit to Disneyland and, if you look closely, a teaser for its companion theme park in Florida [as yet unbuilt, when the story takes place]. A large Mickey Mouse plush toy appears from time to time to provide an extra touch of humor and warmth. But it would be unfair to dismiss this picture, directed by John Lee Hancock from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.” Read more…)

Kill Your Darlings (Beat Generation drama/origin story, Daniel Radcliffe. Rotten Tomatoes: 77%. Metacritic: 65. A New York Times critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Long before Allen Ginsberg became the benevolent, bearded Buddha of the counterculture — and one of the most beloved American poets — he was a skinny, anxious Columbia freshman who fell in with a group of literary rebels. John Krokidas’s debut feature, Kill Your Darlings, is intent on studying these not-yet-Beats in their fledgling state, as they write the first drafts of their own legends.” Read more…)

Rewind This! (home video, video store culture, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%.)

New Blu-Ray
American Hustle
Saving Mr. Banks
Frozen
Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom
Kill Your Darlings

New British
Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet (1933, Sherlock Holmes mystery, Reginald Owen. From Mordaunt Hall’s 1933 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “Murder will out — if Sherlock Holmes is around. He is now to be seen at the Mayfair in a 1933 form, probably not recognizable to those who have seen the old drawings in London’s Strand Magazine in which his adventures appeared for so many years. But the astuteness and marvelous deductive powers of the Conan Doyle character are nevertheless not dimmed in the film version of A Study in Scarlet, which was offered last night at the Mayfair. Nor, judging by the audience’s reaction to this melodrama, has the interest in the well-known episode in the life of the famous criminologist lost any of its thrilling quality.” Read more…)

New Documentaries
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (cinema, philosophy, Slavoj Zizek. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Metacritic: 71. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Sophie Fiennes’s second collaboration with the public intellectual Slavoj Zizek, sets out a daunting task. Titling a film that way, even tongue in cheek, recalls the Monty Python sketch about summarizing Proust, only with an even broader remit. Less dynamically than in this film’s predecessor, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Mr. Zizek again harvests insights and subtexts in movies, with a bit of current events thrown in.” Read more…)

Rewind This! (home video, video store culture, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%.)

New Children’s DVDs
Frozen (animated feature, Kristin Bell, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Metacritic: 74. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Allegorically, Frozen lacks the purity and elemental power of a classic myth like Beauty and the Beast, but at least its storytelling is fairly coherent, and its gleaming dream world of snow and ice is one of the most visually captivating environments to be found in a Disney animated film. There are moments when you may feel that you are inside a giant crystal chandelier frosted with diamonds.” Read more…)