Under the Radar DVDs: Kabluey, Snow Angels, Rest Stop 2

One of my favorite things about home video is the opportunity to discover recent movies that I never got a chance to see in a theater. I'm not talking the high-profile titles that I missed because I kept saying, "Oh, I'll catch it next weekend" until the right weekend arrived but the movie was gone. (I still need to catch Burn After Reading. Next weekend, promise.)

Instead I'm talking about independent films that may have a lot going for them, both in front of and behind the camera, but that received small theatrical runs (if any) and little press attention (ditto) because a major studio's marketing and distribution deals with indie filmmakers can be as friendly as a shark in a sushi bar. Typically they arrive on our shelves on no-frills DVDs that can -- when you're looking for them and/or really lucky -- provide greater pleasures and more interesting experiences than the hyped-up titles getting the cardboard standees near the Twizzlers rack.

Here are three that passed through my player within the past week:

Kabluey (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) - Official site

This one's a low-key comedy perfectly tuned for our times. Writer-director Scott Prendergast stars as Salman, a nerdy and aimless 32-year-old man-child you wouldn't hire to feed your goldfish, never mind watch your kids. But things are even tougher for his stressed-out sister-in-law Leslie (Lisa Kudrow, always worth looking for in her post-Phoebe roles). Her husband's tour of duty in Iraq has been extended, and she's in danger of losing her medical benefits if she doesn't return to work. So, very reluctantly, she solicits Salman to move in and babysit her two monstrous, you-just-want-to-slap-'em sons. The dreadful boys instantly decide they hate Salman, who has no skill set when it comes to kids, taking control, or just everyday getting-by. He finds a part-time job with a failing dot-com, BlueNeXion -- as the company's big blue mascot Kabluey, dressed beyond humiliation in a gigantic foam rubber suit and tasked with standing alongside an exurban Texas highway handing out fliers that he can't hold in his big blue cartoon hands.

Maitland McDonagh in TV Guide:

In short, it's a nightmare. But something odd happens -- people find the forlorn blue man somehow touching: Road workers offer cold beer, a pampered housewife (Christine Taylor) hires him to work her son's birthday party, the hostile checkout girl (Angela Sarafyan) from the City Market gives him a second chance and Leslie's kids actually hug him. With the exception of anger-management class candidate Suze (Teri Garr), who lost a bundle on BlueNeXion stock, everyone likes Kabluey. But they still don't like Salman, which is the beauty of Prendergast's melancholy fable: it never succumbs to the cheap sentiment.

Marc Mohan, The Oregonian:

Prendergast, who also makes his feature directing debut with "Kabluey," has a fine eye and ear for the surface details of humanity, setting the film in a modern America where everyone is angry, lonely, suspicious and desperate despite living in one of the most affluent societies ever known. As a performer, he's got a dumbstruck, Buster Keaton style -- the guy emotes more through a faceless blue sphere than he does without it. In contrast, the underrated Kudrow lets every frazzled nerve show. It's her performance that anchors the quirky, indie spirit of "Kabluey" to real life.

Jim Ridley, The Village Voice:

Catches the nation's mood of economic anxiety and workplace exploitation more pungently than anything else in theaters.

Kabluey is a well-written, well-directed slice of bittersweet comedy all about that "quiet desperation" Thoreau mentioned. In a week dominated by news of a financial system and employment prospects going pretty much kabluey, here's a deftly crafted indie that had me smiling through clenched teeth. I'm pleased this one found me.

'Snow Angels'Snow Angels (Warner Independent Pictures) - Official site

As much as I enjoy watching Kate Beckinsale in black leather fighting vampires and werewolves, I first imprinted on her in Cold Comfort Farm and so always welcome a chance to see her play a human being rather than a comic book character. So she's one of the several things I liked about Snow Angels, an intimate and somber drama that wrings more than just poetically shot images from its snowy Pennsylvania small-town setting. This is the fourth feature film for talented young director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls) and, after the guaranteed-profits formula of Pineapple Express, his most conventional.

Snow Angels intertwines several plot threads: a coming-of-age romance between high-school trombonist Arthur (Michael Angarano) and the new girl in school, Lila (Olivia Thirlby); working mom Annie (Beckinsale) trying to hold life together for herself and her four-year-old daughter after splitting with her high-school sweetheart Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie's motel-room affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), whose wife is Annie's friend and coworker (Amy Sedaris) at a two-bit Chinese restaurant; and Glenn's struggle to mask his heartache and alcoholism with a superficial born-again Christianity that does more harm than good. Annie used to babysit Arthur, who hangs on to the wistful memories of his crush on her. Meanwhile, Arthur is navigating not only a first love and sexual awakening, he's also coming to terms with why his father (Griffin Dunne) has left his family for another woman.

All these threads of love and betrayal come as no surprise to readers of Stewart O'Nan's source novel, adapted by Green, and the novel-to-film feel of Snow Angels is one of several points of comparison with Todd Field's Little Children. The threads get a strong dramatic start when a distant gunshot interrupts the lightly comic opening scene. The story leading up to the shot, told through a flashback that fills most of the movie's run time, twines the strands together when Annie and Glenn's young daughter vanishes.

As skillful as it is, Snow Angels' nearly deal-breaking flaw began when I predicted the reason for the gunshot well before the narrative took me there. With a dire case of the trites, one of the main characters bangs Snow Angels' shin against the table edge of stereotype, and although it's not an altogether unfair bit of stereotyping, I found myself hoping that the character would provide a surprise twist, a sharp break in the predictability of preventable tragedy, and that didn't come. So when the film's moment of horror arrives, it's not with suspense but instead the sort of dully anticipatory inevitability that drains as much energy from the story as from the audience. It may be artistically sound, but its lack of surprise reduces much of the getting-there to so much well-made time-keeping.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to like here. Green again shows a casual skill and artfulness with moods and emotions and intimate portraits of his individuals. At first, Beckinsale is a hard sell as a frustrated American working-class mother, but she pulls it off with a distant air that gives us the impression that Annie, rightly, doesn't quite belong in her rural small-town home. The first-love story between Arthur and Lila is a joyful counterpoint that simultaneously reveals two young actors we're bound to see more of in years ahead. (Olivia Thirlby gets more of a chance to shine than she had in Juno.) Green's images of frosty landscapes and a town's necessary life-goes-on chill are obviously intended to linger moodily in the memory after the story's over, and they do so without quite crossing the line into Sundance-chic preciousness or heavy-handedness.

'Rest Stop: Don't Look Back'Rest Stop: Don't look Back (Raw Feed / Warner) - Official site

Here's one I watched (well, mostly) so you don't have to.

Raw Feed is the label of Warner Home Video's direct-to-DVD division specializing in horror films, many of them unrated. Released this week on DVD and Blu-ray, in rated and "unrated" versions, is the latest title under the brand. It's the sequel to the 2006 schlocker Rest Stop, about a crazed pickup truck driver terrorizing a young couple at a deserted California rest stop. That film was your average fake-horror time-waster, the sort of generic cheese food product that mistakes violence for scares. Now its by-the-numbers sequel joins it in the $5 bin with the story of Tom (Richard Tillman), who's on the road from Texas to California searching for his brother Jess and Jess' girlfriend Nicole, who disappeared in the previous outing. Joining Tom are his girlfriend (Jessie Ward) and his goofball pal (Graham Norris, failing to provide comic relief). Of course, it isn't long before the maniac who snatched Jess and Nicole gives Tom and company their own taste of abduction, torture-chamber histrionics, and ::snore:: the usual dim-bulb "shocks" that got played out about a year ago.

This time we learn the origin of the ghostly "Driver" in the yellow truck, but a bargain-basement family of Bible-spouting freaks in a Winnebago -- probably wishing they were in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or at least a Wes Craven movie -- and the "Go to Dagobah" appearance of Nicole's ghost (Julie Mond) don't add much to the originality factor. An assault via port-a-potty is probably intended for laughs, but my finger was on the fast-forward button at the time. And I grieve that Steve Railsback is now reduced to showing up in crap like this as the creepy gas station guy inserted to pass along exposition like a low-rent Dennis Hopper.

Dull and derivative and brain-dead, Rest Stop: Don't look Back is the sort of video roadkill there's just no need to even slow down for, never mind scoop up.

That said, subgenre fans who would like the movie (and I can think of one guy easily enough) will find that, unlike the two DVDs above, this one comes with a pretty decent supply of extras, all in anamorphic widescreen. The commentary with writer/producer John Shiban and director Shawn Papazian is dry but casual and holds some okay "how we did it" info for newbie filmmakers, although with quite a few dead spaces throughout. We also get a few deleted scenes (totaling a bit over ten minutes), a superfluous "alternate ending" that actually just extends the ending, your typical cast-and-crew hype featurette called "Doomed to Repeat: The Mythology of Rest Stop" (12 minutes), and an additional scene wherein things go from bad to worse for Steve Railsback's character.

Oddly, none of these extras were placed onto the Blu-ray edition.