It's all about mind-altering substances today at the video store. And who doesn't like to have their mind altered every now and again?
Midway through Tim Blake Nelson's rural comic thriller "Leaves of Grass," Edward Norton starts talking about parallel lines. As he talks his way through to the larger point he's struggling to express, it becomes clear that this is meant as a complement to the opening scene, wherein Edward Norton gives a lecture on Socrates. Thing is, they aren't the same Edward Norton. He's playing twins here — intellectual philosophy professor Billy and haze-brained pot-grower extraordinaire Brady — and there's a lot of little bits like that one, meant to emphasize their sameness underneath the surface differences. It'd be precious if it weren't so amusing, and a lot of the credit to the successful parts of this film come down to Norton. It's not often he gets to cut loose and indulge his inner goofball, and he's clearly relishing the opportunity to do so in his portrayal of Brady. With a long Okie drawl, a weed-fueled devil-may-care attitude and perpetually narrowed eyes, Brady is the kind of guy who's easy to underestimate, much like his reserved & tightly-wound brother is the kind of guy who would do the underestimating.
If only the story didn't let the rest of the film down. Fate and coincidence are well and good, but there's only so far you can push that until things start to feel jury-rigged. Around the time neurotic dentist Ken (Josh Pais, in a spastically misjudged performance) becomes integral to the proceedings, "Leaves of Grass" starts to falter. "I never take accidental encounters for granted," says Ken, and it's that sense of inorganic ordainment that sends the plot into a grimly deterministic death spiral — like a leftover from a previous draft that Nelson was never quite able to shed. But even if the script gives out there are still enough incidental pleasures in "Leaves of Grass" — the astonished look on Billy's face as Brady breaks down the details of his hydroponic system, or the hard swallow and sick smile Brady affects as he bids his brother good night with a quiet, "I'm just glad you're here, Billy" — to make it worthwhile viewing. Plus, where else are you going to see Keri Russell go catfish noodling? ("Leaves of Grass" expires from Instant on April 30th.)
If you're in the mood to honor the late Dick Clark in a more offbeat way: "Killers Three" (1968, Bruce Kesslar)
When something works, why not try it again? Musically narrated by Merle Haggard, "Killers Three" is a takeoff on the previous year's "Bonnie and Clyde" with a shiny coat of hicksploitation to provide something different. Robert Walker, his seedy charm at full blast, plays Johnny Warder, a hooch runner who's looking to trade up his lot in life by ripping off his boss. Assissted by his wife Carol (Diane Varsi) and his old Army buddy Roger (Dick Clark), his plan seems to be foolproof... but of course, things don't go as planned.
While Walker is the star, Clark is the biggest reason to watch this nowadays. He clearly believed in this project — not only is he the co-star, he's also the co-writer and producer — and you can sense he's having a little fun subverting his clean-cut image. Roger, with his rimless spectacles and sad mustache, is a word-swallowing nebbish of epic proportions with a lack of nerves and a over-fondness for whiskey. Clark's unexpectedly credible performance here suggests an alternate-universe career path, one where he built his name on offbeat character-actor portrayals rather than rock 'n' roll & game shows.
Aside from Clark, the most interesting thing about this, in fact, is its tonal lightness — it recognizes, like "Bonnie and Clyde" did, that there's a base fun about watching outlaws stick it to The Man. So there's car chases and hijinx galore, like Walker driving away a nosy neighbor with a thing for Clark by putting on a gay burlesque. And like its inspiration, that lightness only carries so far before things spin out of control. It's all fun and games until someone kills a cop.
If you're in the mood for a moody zombie movie: "The Grapes of Death" (1978, Jean Rollin)
A topless blonde woman with a patch of rotting skin on her abdomen and a pitchfork in her gut, spitting up blood and desperately trying to gasp her last few breaths: This image occurs early on in Jean Rollin's zombie opus "The Grapes of Death," and in its commingling of beauty and horror and its terrible slowness, it sums up the thrust of the film succinctly. It's a film of images and atmosphere, a slow-rolling nightmare about infection and decline constructed out of deliberate movement and widened eyes. (One of the subtle reasons the film's so effective: Almost every closeup is cut away before the subject can blink.)
I'm a sucker for this Eurohorror style of inescapable dread anyway, but I was still surprised at how effectively Rollin renders it. This is a film where the primary act of looking is elevated from an expression of desire to a sort of existential reckoning, with every reaction given wide-open space for deliberation over eventual fates and the threat of death as pervasive and toxic as the tainted pesticides that kick off the plague. Rollin, as anyone with a passing familiarity with his resume can tell you, likes to watch, and he's generous as always with the nudity. (WOW, Brigitte Lahaie. "I have no marks, no wounds." You sure don't, lady.) But that goes hand in hand with the idea that seeing something doesn't mean you understand it, and some things — e.g. the creeping latex inevitable of mortality — may not be meant to be understood. An image like a dying zombie making out with a severed head is patently absurd, but then it's not meant to be rational — "The Grapes of Death" is quietly frightening precisely because its dream-world doom is inescapable. The final shot is a woman staring up at a corpse as blood drips down onto her face. Death will come for her too. ("The Grapes of Death" expires from Instant on April 30th.)
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.