For the week of January 7th, Twentieth Century Fox's Season Four set of Archer hits Blu-ray. Since its premiere in 2009, this profane, loopy spoof of James Bond-era shenanigans has carved a niche for itself as FX's best weekly comedy (yes, even better than It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or The League), and its fourth season vaults it into the network best programs, period. What makes Archer so special - besides its deranged sense of humor and surprisingly exciting action scenes - is that it isn't afraid of change; as he did on Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021, showrunner Adam Reed (who also voices Archer's hilariously long-suffering ISIS associate Ray Gillette) allows his characters to develop in ways that are usually anathema to the standard sitcom format. That means that in Season Four, we watch Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) reintegrate himself back into the ISIS universe after some ill-timed amnesia (which results in a hilarious Bob's Burgers reference), Malory Archer (the great Jessica Walter) struggle in her new marriage to nebbish car salesman Ron Cadillac (Ron Leibman, Walter's real-life spouse), and, most crucially, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) slowly realize that ISIS's peacekeeping agenda is far less wholesome than she thought. It all culminates in a two-part finale that manages to put its characters in new emotional territories for Season Five, even as it's sending-up Reed's own Sealab (bonus points for the vocal performances from episode guest-stars Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, and Jon Hamm).
Of Season Four, Jeffrey Kauffman wrote "Archer continues to be (appropriately) arch, with a perfectly skewed deadpan sense of humor that is frequently pretty smutty (though almost always hilariously so). Mama Malory's penchant for drinking of course provides plenty of laughs, but there's a perhaps useless attempt to slightly humanize her character with the now recurring character of Ron Cadillac, who becomes Archer's stepfather. One of this season's funniest episodes sees the two attempting some male bonding which of course devolves into all sorts of chaos. The sort of acerbic humor that is regularly on display throughout Archer will of course not be to everyone's taste, but for those who like their comedy on the dark and twisted side, and their martinis shaken, not stirred, Archer continues to be one of the most consistently funny shows on television. Aided by a really great looking animation aesthetic and spot on voice work, this is one animated series that really deserves to be seen by those who normally wouldn't dream of watching a mere 'cartoon.'"
From Lionsgate Home Entertainment comes a cult favorite: the 1973 chiller The Wicker Man. The film, which follows an uptight policeman (The Equalizer's Edward Woodward) as he descends into the rituals of a bizarre Scottish community, has gained a second life, oddly enough, through its remake; Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage's risible reworking of the material has become fodder for bad-movie fans around the world. In some ways, this is not a good thing: the association of the newer film's incompetency with the superior original version dulls the achievement of the first film. Director Robin Hardy has made an iconic horror classic, a feverish, paranoid look at mob psychosis and religion that never goes after scares in the expected fashion. In fact, The Wicker Man's unpredictability is the one trait it shares with its remake. People love the Nicolas Cage iteration because of its unintentional (?) humor just as they have embraced Hardy's version because it, too, is so funny, albeit deliberately so. It's a hoot to watch Woodward's priggish authority chafe at the free-spirited ways of the Summerisle commune, which seems to express itself in ever more sexually provocative ways the more uncomfortable Woodward gets. The contrast between Summerisle's expression and Woodward's repression turns The Wicker Man into full-throated satire of the thin line between British paternalism and impotence, and the film's justly lauded finale acts as the horrific punchline. This new Blu-ray offers the "Final Cut" of the picture, a new 91-minute edit that's shorter than the 99-minute extended cut but longer than the 87-minute theatrical version.
Drafthouse Films is distributing the Blu-ray edition of one of the year's best films: The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer's acclaimed documentary revolves around Anwar Congo, a former gangster and paramilitary leader who, from 1965 to 1966, participated in the brutal anti-Communist purge that resulted in the death of over 500,000 Indonesian citizens. Prior to this film, Congo looked upon his involvement in these atrocities with great civic pride - he boasts that he killed over 1,000 people himself - but that mindset began to change when Oppenheimer convinced Congo and a number of people from his death squad to reenact their crimes for the camera. To say there has never been a film quite like The Act of Killing would be an understatement: Oppenheimer calls it "a documentary of the imagination," one where fact and fiction intertwine. At times, we are watching graphically staged facsimiles of real-life horrors, and while these fake killings should be less disturbing than Congo's descriptions of his actual murders, the fact that we can see the reenactments gives them great visceral impact. The whole film, then, becomes a postmodern comment on cinematic violence and the power of the image - we are watching Oppenheimer watch Congo pretend to do all sorts of horrible things he already did, and it's never clear how implicated we are for the act of viewing. Lest you think this reads like a semiotician's delight (and I'll admit, if Charlie Kaufman wrote for reality TV, it might look a lot like The Act of Killing), know that the film, though a challenging and unnerving experience, is also surprisingly moving. We aren't the only ones troubled by the staged violence; faced with a lifetime of sins, Congo starts to develop something resembling a conscience, and his moral awakening keeps the film from being a just a pretentious, intellectual exercise. This is masterful filmmaking.
Michael Reuben's Blu-ray review noted that "As The Act of Killing progresses, it's hard not to notice that Anwar repeatedly casts himself in the role of a victim, sometimes in interrogation scenes, sometimes in fantasy sequences where spirits return to avenge their deaths, often with copious (though obviously fake) gore effects. With increasing frequency, Anwar asks whether he has sinned, seems troubled by his victims' suffering and even expresses something resembling regret. At the same time, he remains so obviously desensitized to violence that he is perfectly capable of awakening his young grandchildren to join him in watching a brutal re-creation of an interrogation, despite Oppenheimer's off-camera protests. All of these contradictions converge in Anwar's final meeting with Oppenheimer on the rooftop where Anwar committed most of his murders and where he previously demonstrated his strangulation technique. The scene is one of the most gripping you will ever see, but how much of it is real and how much is performance? If anyone has ever demonstrated an awareness (and love) of the camera, it is certainly Anwar Congo. Would he provide the shocking demonstration that concludes the film if there were no camera to record it? Is the 'act' of contrition merely a sequel to the 'act' of killing, much like the standard apology tour after a public figure's personal embarrassment? Having successfully passed beyond Anwar's initially inscrutable exterior, Oppenheimer brings us into a hall of mirrors, and the reflections grow more distorted at each turn."
Also from Lionsgate comes the ensemble dramedy Thanks for Sharing. The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter Stuart Blumberg, who penned Lisa Cholodenko's acclaimed The Kids Are All Right, and the two film share the same template: they use comedy to explore human sexuality. In The Kids Are All Right, Blumberg constructed a romantic-comedy love triangle involving a lesbian couple to talk about sexual identity; here, he looks at the misadventures of four sex addicts (Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, Alecia Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, who also co-starred in The Kids Are All Right) as they try to avoid relapsing. At times, it plays like the sitcom version of Steve McQueen's underrated Shame - especially whenever Josh Gad's frustrated goofball dominates the spotlight - and if Shame went too far in dramatizing the perils of sexual addiction, Blumberg doesn't go far enough. Thanks for Sharing is remarkably lightweight for a movie about such a serious subject, and the stark contrast between form and content feels irresponsible in a way that The Kids Are All Right didn't - for all its humor, that earlier film was a comparatively low-stakes family drama, so it could get away with softening its punches. This movie, however, takes on an uncomfortably pandering air whenever it downshifts into farce. Ultimately, it's an unsuccessful picture, but it isn't wholly without merit. Ruffalo damn near legitimizes the proceedings through sheer force of his subtle, understated will (as a charming businessman desperate to keep his condition from sabotaging his relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow's character, he makes you feel the human stakes even when Blumberg neglects them), and Moore proves unexpectedly compelling. Moore is better known as pop star Pink, but in playing a damaged former party girl who forges a unique bond with Gad, she's able to dispense with the snarly, faux-Riot Girl affectations of her stage act.
Jeffrey Kauffman wrote that "Thanks for Sharing reveals the debt it owes to the 12 Step Program in its very title, an allusion to any given 'Anonymous' meeting where members recount the trials they're experiencing and how their attempts to maintain 'sobriety' (the term is ported over to each and every addiction, even if drunkenness or getting high isn't involved) are faring. Thanks for Sharing deals with sex addiction, a subject which also provided fodder for the 2011 Steve McQueen-directed, Michael Fassbender-[starring] Shame. That film took a resolutely serious approach to what some people at least tend to shrug off as a not all that serious 'malady,' but Thanks for Sharing seems to want to have it both ways— portraying the anguish of a trio of 'recovering' sex addicts while also engaging in about every standard romantic comedy trope imaginable. To say the least, it's an odd mash up, and the tonal variances in the film give Thanks for Sharing an imbalance that is hard to get past, at least without stumbling along with this often haphazard feeling outing."
Finally, Warner is offering an HD upgrade of its hit Tequila Sunrise. Director Robert Towne's romantic thriller seems like an anomaly today; despite the presence of three big stars (Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kurt Russell) and a high-concept hook - a love triangle between Pfeiffer's beautiful waitress, Gibson's charismatic drug dealer, and Russell's narcotics agent - the film is curiously, deliberately unhurried. We expect our big-budget star vehicles to maintain a constant state of entertainment, whereas Tequila Sunrise ambles along, underplaying its potential for melodrama at the risk of sacrificing tension. It's an odd bird now, and it didn't really fit in with the mainstream studio fare of 1988 - this is practically a low-key indie compared to Die Hard or Gibson's own Lethal Weapon. Yet it works all the same, because the actors are so good and because Towne (who also scripted Chinatown and The Last Detail) gives them things to say that are rooted in character, rather than in plot dynamics. These are (semi) real people, and even when formula creeps in (J.T. Walsh's corrupt DEA officer, the impeding arrival of a mysterious drug lord), Towne allows his cast to react off-book. I can't think of many studio pictures that would allow a drug dealer such nuance (Gibson's relationship with his tough ex-wife could sustain its own movie) or would make time for a gallery of interesting side characters that includes Arliss Howard's druggy sidekick and the late Raúl Juliá's delightful turn as a drug contact whose duplicitous nature doesn't get in the way of his friendship with Gibson. But maybe it's a dangerous thing to assume the tastes of the mainstream population: Tequila Sunrise was a success upon its release, proof that multi-dimensional characters and vivid dialogue can (sometimes) rise above formulaic swill.
In his Blu-ray review, Michael Reuben wrote that "when the film was released, both critical and audience reaction focused on the glamor of leads Mel Gibson (whose reputation was then still unblemished by personal misbehavior), Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kurt Russell, as well as the film's elegant L.A. locations. Indeed, as the film's producer has confirmed, the film was designed to be beautiful and enticing, a philosophy that prompted the replacement of the original cinematographer with the legendary Conrad L. Hall, whose delicate photography was nominated for an Oscar and won that year's award from the cinematographers guild. But Tequila Sunrise wouldn't be so compelling if it were just a series of pretty pictures. Towne's script may not have the moral depth he achieved in Chinatown, but his ability to draw complex, multi-faceted characters was undiminished. He had three of them for leads, and several more who are essential to the plot. Not content with creating real people behind the pretty faces, Towne also effortlessly melded genres so that the film's story is never predictable. The viewer really does have to pay attention to what people are saying and doing - and also to what they may be hiding - to follow the story. Even then, some viewers complained that the film's plot is incomprehensible (It isn't.) Tequila Sunrise is a crime story, a romance (two romances, in fact), a tale of two buddies who grew up on opposite sides of the law and a meditation on friendship. Towne tells all of these simultaneously, which means that the narrative often seems to proceed sideways."
This week, I've got The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films), Gorillas in the Mist and Coal Miner's Daughter (both Universal), Many Wars Ago (Raro), and The Power (Scorpion Releasing) all on the way already. Oh, and I'm going to get Almodovar's "I'm So Excited!"(Sony) and Throne of Blood (Criterion).