Flipping through the Arts section of the Sunday New York Times recently - truly the Valley of the Full-Page Movie Advertising - I stopped on a picture of penguins. Wasn't that last summer? No, it was for the big Al-Gore-global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Penguins waddling across a shrinking ice floe. Very shrewd. I flipped the page.
A naked model.
Her back to the camera.
An ad for Wordplay - not one of those soft-porn HBO "investigations" into people who helpfully take off their clothes, but an ad for a documentary about crossword-puzzle obsessives. Egregious, yes. Misleading, definitely. But there's always one, it seems. One unlikely breakout documentary hit every summer - Spellbound, March of the Penguins, Fahrenheit 9/11. You can hardly blame a distributor for wanting a little more likelihood.
Because without question, the best place to watch a documentary is still your living room. And good documentaries are hard to identify; everyone with a camera on a cell phone seems to be making one these days. Here are a couple of compelling documentaries, new on DVD, that won't get a huge ad in the Times:
Cochise County, USA - Cries From the Border (Genius Entertainment, $19.98). Made, in fact, by someone with a video camera that was sitting around. In 2003, Mercedes Maharis moved to a town a few miles north of the Mexican border. After nights of hovering helicopters chasing immigrants, she began filming. It's not the effusive work of compassion you'd expect. But it does capture the conflicted feelings a lot of people have on this issue.
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (Plexifilm, $24.98). It didn't feel like this at the time, but maybe it was a good thing punk imploded in the late '70s. The shards became the fascinating indie rock movement of the '80s, and one of the defining acts was the Minutemen. Imagine James Brown joining early R.E.M. but only playing third-rate equipment. This fascinating corner of rock history gets its due, with interviews from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sonic Youth; the bonus disc is a nirvana of concert footage you never witnessed in person because you were either too young or listening to Journey when it mattered.
LATE BLOOMERS: The first time I saw the cult TV show The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., finally available on DVD as The Complete Series (Warner, $99.98), it was at horse level. I was on the Warner Bros. lot working for a magazine, and the show was in production. The scene couldn't have been more cliched. A fake cowboy on a real horse trotted by. The horse nudged my arm. The show, anvil-jawed actor Bruce Campbell's best chance at stardom, turned out just as charming, a loosey-goosey western about a Harvard-educated cowboy (Campbell) with a bit of X-Files.
Of course, it lasted one season.
I think of that, though, because sitting here on my desk is the new DVD of Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (HBO Films, $27.98), one of the year's best movies - and one of the funniest peeks behind the scenes of a production ever. In this case, we get the story itself, a jaunty adaptation of Laurence Sterne's famously difficult 18th-century prose, until Winterbottom wanders off and gives us the story of a fictional film crew trying to adapt 18th-century prose.
Think Spinal Tap, with wigs.
SO BAD THEY'RE BAD: If you don't laugh at Hollywood, you'll be laughing with it, and that's an icky place to be. What's nice, however, is that warm months are the best days for having a laugh at the expense of serious people who assume they're doing good work. Which brings us to Patrick Swayze and the new special edition of the great movie Road House (Fox, $19.98).
Great as in totally nuts.
Swayze is a bouncer with a degree in philosophy. He also punches guys. And it's not a comedy, but released in 1989, the fitting absurd end to the cycle of '80s and early '90s action vehicles that gave us Over the Top (arm wrestling with Sly Stallone) and Double Impact (Jean-Claude Van Damme battling himself), then petered out.
Basic Instinct 2: The Unrated, Extended Cut (Sony, $26.98) reminds us that every movement and micro-movement in cinema bears its share of interesting bruised fruit. Basic Instinct 2 repackages everything cheesy about the sexual-psychological thriller of the early '90s and pretends it's fresh. Likewise, Johnny Depp and The Libertine (Weinstein, $28.95), which was in and out of Toledo earlier this year, is the utter pits of the showboating-art-flick-Oscar-bait genre - Depp plays a debaucher, basks in the 19th-century design, and ends up parodying actors who buy into their own good press.
EYES WIDE SHUT: You know how watching a movie at home can be full of distractions?
Though home theater is said to remove the inconvenience of going to a theater and putting up with rudeness and high ticket prices, personal experience says otherwise: If you buy a copy of the new DVD of The Hills Have Eyes (Fox, $29.98) or the charming Disney dog adventure Eight Below (Buena Vista, $29.99) - and more people buy than rent, a fact that never fails to astonish - you are paying more to see a film you'll probably only watch once with far more distractions.
Which brings us to Syriana (Warner, $28.98), finally available on DVD. It is beyond complicated. It is Chinatown complicated. It is Big Sleep complicated. But unlike most movies that are convoluted - generally a sign of a bad movie - complication is the intention, and, somewhat, the convolution is the meaning.
It's about the world oil market, a timely subject if there ever was one. It features George Clooney's Oscar-winning role as a CIA operative, and a great cast (Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright) doing intense, subtle turns. I beg you: Watch it only when you will have no distractions, and if you can't, don't feel bad if you get lost. The point is that the world is so complicated no one knows every angle or understands everything.
So at least turn the lights off.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org