Saturday, July 16, 2022

HIGHBALL (1997) (MVD Marquee Collection Blu-ray Review)

HIGHBALL (1997) 

Label:  MVD Marquee Collection 
Region Code: Region-Free
Rating: R
Duration: 80 Minutes 
Audio: Uncompressed English PCM 2.o Stereo with Optional English and Spanish Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.78:1) 
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Justine Bateman, Peter Bogdanovich, Rae Dawn Chong, Dean Cameron, Noah Baumbach, Annabella Sciorra, Ally Sheedy, Eric Stoltz, Noah Baumbach

After wrapping up his sophomore film Mr. Jealousy a few weeks early and under budget Noah Baumbach parlayed that extra time and money into the bootleg third feature Highball. It's a rough hewn indie comedy about a group of friends and their interactions over the course of three parties held over the course of a year at a single location, largely using the same cast he worked with on his first film pair of films
. The returning stable of actors include Chris Eigeman and Carlos Jacott (Kicking and Screaming), Peter Bogdanovich, Annabella Sciorra and Eric Stolz who all appeared in Mr. Jealousy, as well as welcoming established actor friends like Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club), Rae Dawn Chong (Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), Justine Bateman (TV's Family Ties) in smaller but still tasty bite-sized roles, plus the director himself appears in the quirky and underbaked social gathering comedy.

The entire film plays out in three parts on three separate night inside the Brooklyn apartment of couple Diane (Lauren Katz) and Travis (Christopher Reed) during three different parties. First up is a birthday bash for Felix (Carlos Jacott, HBO's Big Love); then a Halloween masquerade; and finally a New Year's celebration. It's all very episodic in nature and does not really have a through line to it aside from seeing how the group dynamic changes over the course of a year with Diane and Travis breaking up and getting back together a few times, a mysterious traumatic event that befalls Felix between Halloween and New Year's Eve, the employment status changes of Miles (John Lehr) who goes from record company employee to record store clerk, and how pal Darien (Eric Stolz, The Fly II) keeps bringing celebrities dates to the parties by way of Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong, who play themselves. Another notable addition is director Peter Bogdanovich (Targets) who plays a friend who does celebrity impersonations of Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart to the consternation of several young women he encounters at the parties. 

Highlights for me include a magician (Dean Cameron, "Chainsaw" from Summer School!) going up in flames when a pyrotechnic stunt goes wrong, a Halloween costume mix-up, Travis' never-say-die struggle to turn Diane's kitchen into a micro-brewery with his awful 'Travis Wheat' ale, and the newly single Diane's drunken attempts at seducing Darien, which leads to a revelation all it's own.  

The flimsy premise has a more indie version of Seinfeld vibe about it, with a weird undercurrent of undefined menace, with this group of friends congregating and chatting each other up, it's a bit of an unpolished mess with uninspired lensing, bad lighting, and no coverage, but it does have a certain 90's indie film charm to, thanks in large part to the engaging ensemble cast. It's an odd but interesting mix of personalities, including small but notable appearances from 
Annabella Sciorra (The Sopranos) and Chris Eigeman (Malcolm In the Middle). 

Audio/Video: Highball (1997) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from MVD Marque Collection in 1080p HD framed in 1.78:1 widescreen - there's no verbage about the source so I might reasonably assume it's an older HD master. The source is in good shape with only some white speckling and a nick or two, and colors are well-saturated. Fine detail is not terrific, the grain can be course and noise creeps in, not helped by some oddball lighting the seems to come from the floor, apparently this apartment does not have lights on the ceiling. A lot of this has to do with the shoestring budget and the super-short six day shoot, and with that in mind it's not terrible, but it's not optimal either. Audio comes by way of uncompressed English PCM 2.0 stereo with optional English nd Spanish subtitles. It's  very talkie dialogue driven film and it's not overly dynamic but the dialogue is clean and precise, as are the soundtrack selections from The Cocktails, Le Mans and Girl Trouble and others.

The main extra is a brand new The Making of Highball retrospective documentary featuring  producer Joel Kastelberg, co-writer and star/co-writer  Christopher Reed and stars Lauren Katz, John Leer, Rae Dawn Chong, Peter Bogdanovich, and Dean Cameron which runs about 75-minutes. It's a pretty candid chat with the producer and cast which looks like it was largely assembled from video conferencing video platforms. It's an interesting conversation about a film that director Noah Baumbach has disowned, and he is not present here, What we have are tales from the making of the film which address the short six day shoot, the improv versus scripted moments, and the thrill and frustration of shooting a film in that short of time. 
We also get a trailer for the film and a selection of MVD trailers. 

Special Features: 
- NEW! “The Making of “Highball”, a feature-length documentary including interviews with producer Joel Kastelberg, co-writer and star Christopher Reed and stars Lauren Katz, John Leer, Rae Dawn Chong, Peter Bogdanovich, and Dean Cameron (HD, 75 mins)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2 min) 
- MVD Trailers (10 min) 

Highball is interesting in that it's directed by three-time Academy Award Nominee Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) over the  course of six days, but he looks back on it as a "failed experiment" and has since had his named removed, replacing his writing and directing credits with 
the names “Jesse Carter” and “Ernie Fusco”. As a narrative film it's not so great and falls short, it lacks the polish of later (and even earlier) Baumbach films, but that backstory as told in the making-of doc and the work of the talented ensemble cast makes it pretty entertaining watch in a Waiting for Guffman improvisational sort of way. 

Screenshots from the MVD Blu-ray: 


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