Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Waiting for Guffman

“Transformers: The Last Knight” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.  

The common theme in all of director Christopher Guest’s loosely written and largely improvised films is delusion. That is to say that his characters, by and large, have super inflated egos that make them think that who they are and what they do are much more important than they really are. No single character embodies this theme better than Corky St. Clair, the local theater director in the small town of Blaine, Missouri, who is at the heart of “Waiting for Guffman.”

St. Clair is played by Guest. He’s an effeminate and fickle man who doesn’t exactly blend in with the locals, most of whom are descended from the original settlers who founded Blaine 150 years prior. To cover for this, St. Clair says he has a wife—who is always away—and that he does all of her shopping for her at the local women’s clothing store. Uh huh. The people in the town all like Corky though, so they believe him. Or maybe they are just rubes who are that easily fooled. It’s never made clear.

That’s part of the charm of “Waiting for Guffman.” It’s a very character-centric comedy that could easily go the more low-brow route of making fun of its characters and laughing at them. It doesn’t. We get to know the people in this town. Everyone from the mayor (Larry Miller), to the dentist, Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), to Blaine’s town historian (Don Lake) to a local UFO expert (David Cross) and UFO abductee (Paul Dooley) all get interviewed in a faux documentary style. Taking the time to do this provides the movie with an extremely rich canvass on which to put its story. This fictional town pulsates with bizarre and interesting life. Some of them make Corky look downright average by comparison.

It’s Blaine’s sesquicentennial—i.e., 150 year anniversary—and the town council wants to put on a big show to celebrate. They get Corky to write and direct a play about the founding of Blaine and the more notable aspects of its history. Corky holds auditions for local townsfolk to come in and try out for various parts. While the guy who does the scene from “Raging Bull” is a laugh out loud personal favorite, Corky settles on Dr. Pearl to be in his cast along with Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) and travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara). Then the news gets really good: Corky finds out that a man named Mort Guffman from the Guggenheim Institute in New York is flying in to Blaine to see the play. And so the delusions of grandeur begin.

The charm of “Waiting for Guffman” is in its natural style. The faux documentary format coupled with improvisation allows actors to use their creativity to explore their characters. A lot of the time when they’re on camera, the actors look like they don’t know what they’re going to say until they say it. This can be a detriment, as one conversation between the Albertsons and the Pearls in a Chinese restaurant doesn’t quite make any sense if you listen closely, but for the most part it works very well. Most importantly of all, the talented comedians that comprise the cast of “Waiting for Guffman” know how to probe their characters and mine each situation they are thrust into for absolute comic gold. Some of the funniest moments I have ever seen in my life—the ones I reflect on when I need a good laugh—are in “Waiting for Guffman.” This is one of the rare comedies that gets funnier, or at least stays just as funny, with each viewing. And that’s no delusion. Buy it on Amazon: Waiting for Guffman [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Transformers: The Last Knight

“Transformers: The Last Knight” starts with shots of giant, spiked, flaming balls flying through the air, hitting the ground, and sending large swaths of circa 484 A.D. British knights and soldiers flying through the air—in slow motion, of course. This opening is a good metaphor for this movie. It’s a giant, spiked, flaming assault on the senses that slowly but surely vanquishes large swaths of your brain cells.

The plot has something to do with a staff given to drunk charlatan turned legendary magician Merlin (Stanley Tucci) by a Transformer. The staff has the power to give—and take—life itself. Fast forward to present day and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is on the hunt for it as well on behalf of Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), a man whose family has pledged to protect the staff for generations. Yeager is assisted by over-educated Oxford scholar Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). Wembley is attractive and smart, but a bit of a bumbler, as smart people tend to be in movies aimed at audiences with their brains completely powered down. I guess it’s a way to make dumbed-down audiences like these characters more—by saying they may be smarter than you, but they make mistakes too.

Of course, Yeager and company aren’t the only ones who want the staff. Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) and Megatron (voice of Frank Welker) are also after it. For them, it has something to do with Quintessa (Gemma Chan), creator of the Transformers and their home world of Cybertron, needing the staff to destroy the enemy world of Unicron. I think. The details are a bit murky and I wasn’t totally sure of what was what amongst the Transformers.

Also, a note on the Transformers themselves. It was around somewhere in the middle of having my senses pummeled during the third installment, 2011’s “Transformers: The Dark of the Moon,” that I discovered that I really, truly, and honestly don’t care about CGI metal robots fighting each other. I’m not even awed by the spectacle of it. It’s just bland motion blur and noise to me. So, it may be my lack of interest talking, but there is a point where Megatron negotiates with the U.S. government to have some of his minions released. Once that scene was done I didn’t remember a single one of them, nor did I care when they showed up with Megatron to fight the good Transformers. It all just kind of mushes together into a meaningless spectacle.

It’s easy to dismiss director Michael Bay as a hack, but that’s not fair. Or, more to the point, it’s only half true. Bay proved just last year that he can still make gripping, intense, character-oriented action movies with “13 Hours,” about the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans lost their lives. That movie was lean, mean, straightforward, to the point, well-edited, perfectly cast and acted, and expertly directed.

Now take all of those compliments and the opposite applies to “Transformers: The Last Knight.” It’s an over-produced, over-directed, over-acted, bloated, mind-numbing, big-budget spectacle of sheer and utter nonsense. Bay can do better—and we deserve better. As of right now, there are two more “Transformers” movies planned, and a “Bumblebee” spin-off—not directed by Bay—is set for release in 2018. Perhaps this is the dawn of a new era of “Transformers” movies, with tighter story lines and characters we care about. But as they say in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture. And this one is as putrescent as they get. Skip it.

More New Releases: “2:22,” in which a man's life is derailed when an ominous pattern of events repeats itself in exactly the same manner every day, ending at precisely 2:22 p.m., starring Michiel Huisman, Teresa Palmer, and Sam Reid; and “David Lynch: The Art Life,” a documentary about the visionary director behind such classics as “Mulholland Drive,” “The Elephant Man,” and “Blue Velvet.”

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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