The Jim Cummings Trilogy, Upgraded

Alternatively, some say the "Officer Jim" trilogy concluded with Halloween Kills.
IFC Films just recently released the latest feature film by actor/ writer/ producer/ director Jim Cummings on home video.  It's often referred to as a trilogy, but really it's just an arbitrary designation for the fact that he's now made three feature films in a row, this being the third.  There's no story or character continuity across them.  And he's made other films in the past... a series of short films, as well as working on other peoples' work, perhaps most notably Greener Grass, as the ex-boyfriend forced to deliver a eulogy at the candlelight vigil for a woman he barely knew.  According to the imdb, he actually has a visual effects credit on Captain America: Winter Solider.  But for now, until he makes his fourth film, this is the trilogy.

Update 5/20/22 - 6/3/23: Adding the new, Arrow's fancy, new 2-disc special edition of The Beta Test, plus IFC's 2022 DVD, just to be thorough.
Thunder Road starts us off in 2018 with Cummings expanding his 2016 short film, also called Thunder Road, into a full-length drama.  Or dark comedy.  All three of his films, and all the shorts I've seen from him, walk a thin, empathetic line between comedy and drama, finding the humor in painfully honest moments, without losing sight of the powerful, emotional beats for any cheap laughs.  It all comes out of character, which Cummings (and the rest of his consistently strong casts) fleshes out, dancing right up to the edge of going over the top, but never quite losing its footing.
In Thunder Road, Cummings is a police officer named Jim, whose mother has just passed away.  He struggles desperately to keep a lid on things, but grief and bursts of volatile anger continue to chip away at everything in his life, from his relationship with his ex wife to his career.  It's both a comedy of manners, as Jim relatably says one wrong thing after another, to a heart wrenching tragedy watching somebody who spends his whole life fighting and losing.
The original short runs just over twelve minutes and is comprised of a single take, a trend in many (all?) of Cummings shorts.  It takes place during the funeral for Jim's mother, who goes up to speak, telling us amongst other things that Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" was a pivotal song in his mother's life, inspiring her to move out of her hometown and start a better life for herself.  He then plays the song on a small, portable CD player and sings/ dances along to it in a disastrously earnest way.  The feature recreates that opening performance, mostly still in a single take, but with a new opening and several differences throughout.  But because the short film was presumably only operating with "festival rights" for the song, in the feature, the CD player doesn't work, and Jim has to perform an even more awkward, emotionally naked performance.  I could imagine the producers panicking initially when they couldn't get the rights, "how can we make Thunder Road without 'Thunder Road'?"  But it winds up working.  I've seen the short, and it's great too; but the scene in the feature is no worse for the change.

Now, Passion River released Thunder Road as a barebones US DVD in 2018.  Thankfully, they saw the light and later released a special edition blu-ray in 2019.  And its since been released on BD in many other regions around the world.
2018 Passion River DVD top; 2019 Passion River BD bottom.
The film is presented in its proper 2.00:1 aspect ratio on the blu, but is stretched slightly taller to 1.96 on the DVD.  The framing's exactly the same, nothing different is included along the edges of the frame or anything, it's just stretched a bit.  Apart from that, this is a SOD film, so we're not looking at film grain or anything, but the jump from SD to HD is obvious on close inspection, with its increased resolution and clarity.  Only on the blu, for instance, could I read on the flag behind Jim, "we are dedicated to excellence!"  Everything's just that little bit softer and smudgier on the blu.

Curiously, the DVD has 5.1 audio, plus English, Spanish and French subtitles.  But the blu has 2.0 stereo audio, though it's lossless PCM, and no subs, despite the back of the blu-ray case listing 5.1 and all three subs.  So that's a little funky.
Now, when I said Passion River's DVD was barebones, I mean, it doesn't even have a menu.  But the blu-ray has some goodies: specifically an on-camera interview with Cummings, which runs a good 20+ minutes, talking about the making of and ideas behind the picture, and a short film.  This sounds like a perfect opportunity for fans to see how the funeral originally went, but I suppose they couldn't include that on the disc for the very same reasons the song couldn't be in the feature.  So instead we get a different short called The Robbery, written and directed by Cummings, but not starring him.  It's another single take film, even more ambitious, about a young woman who asks a Uber to wait outside while she robs a liquor store.  It's pretty great, although fans will still want to track down the 2016 Thunder Road online.
Cummings probably got on a lot more film fans' radars with his second feature, when he ventured into popular genre territory with The Wolf of Snow Hollow.  But Thunder Road fans were delighted (and possibly relieved) to see Cummings was playing much the same character, another stressed out cop named Jim with anger issues.  But now he's in an entirely new setting, a small vacation town seemingly beset by a murderous werewolf.  His performance is just as compelling the second time around, and this time he's joined by the great Robert Forster and comedienne Ricki Lindhome, who are both pitch perfect in their supporting roles.
Wolf walks a similar tightrope to Thunder Road, where that one found the perfect balance between genuinely funny comedy and emotionally compelling drama, this one teeters carefully between the beloved tropes of a classic werewolf tale and the realism of its characters.  Again, there are real dramatic stakes as well as effective moments of horror (the werewolf effects are practical and first rate), while still finding moments of humor.  Thunder Road probably remains the definitive masterpiece, but Wolf is a close second, and also the more mainstream crowd pleaser.  Warner Bros released it on DVD and blu in December of 2020.
2020 Warner Bros DVD top; 2020 Warner Bros BD bottom.
Warner Bros presents the film in 1.85:1 on both discs; no more of that indie label funny business.  Again this is a digital film, and it looks like their might be some subtle edge enhancement here, though that might be the director's choice on the original output film, and nothing to do with the home video release.  The boost in clarity is even stronger here than on Thunder Road, almost looking like the DVD is slightly out of focus.  So the BD is a much more satisfying option.

Both discs have 5.1 audio tracks this time, with English and Spanish subtitles, though the blu-ray bumps the audio up to DTS-HD.
A more surprising difference between the two format releases is in the special features.  The DVD just has one, decent but very short 'making of' featurette - the standard promotional kind of thing that mixes film clips with on-set interview clips and a little B-roll.  Nice to have, but unsatisfying by itself.  But it's not by itself on the blu, which carries it over and adds three more featurettes, which are all also quite short and still pretty unsatisfying in total.  Two of them are super short, about 90 seconds, although we do get a few extra soundbites from the cast and crew.  But the best of them is over five minutes and has no film clips, instead giving us behind the scenes looks at the special effects and production design.  It's nice, and an improvement on the DVD, but still not the kind of special edition attention this film deserves.
Finally, we have The Beta Test, the latest film that was just released on DVD and blu by IFC Films.  This time Jim's not a cop, but in some ways a similar character, this time thrust into an erotic thriller.  He's a Hollywood agent, even more weaselly than his previous roles, who winds up cheating on his fiance after receiving an anonymous proposal, seemingly forwarded by a shadowy organization with sinister designs.  Cummings performance is as delightful as ever, even more amusing as his paranoia and desperation grows as mysterious forces put the screws on him.  There are some surprisingly dark murder sequences with a well executed tone that separates this film from Cummings other works.  And while Hollywood agents are an easy target, Cummings manages to turn what would otherwise be well-worn, stale satire into something fresh, funny and all too relatable.
Cummings also has a new co-writer/ star/ director this time around, in PJ McCabe, who we'd seen briefly in Snow Hollow.  The mystery is gripping enough to keep you wondering what's going on until the end, too.  And I won't get into spoilers, but the concept turns out to be a little underwhelming.  We might've spent a little too long out of the main character's perspective along the way.  Although that aspect holds up a little better under repeated viewings and I mean, hey, if this is the worst Cummings can do, I'll be delighted to watch his future filmography for many years to come.  He's still captivating to watch, and the film is endlessly entertaining, attractively shot, often quite funny and at times downright brilliant.
2022 IFC DVD top; 2022 IFC BD mid; 2023 Arrow BD bottom.
IFC Films presents The Beta Test in 2.32:1, slightly stretched vertically to 2.29:1 on their DVD.  Even that struck me as a little odd, but Arrow preserves the 2.32, so I guess that's correct.  The back of IFC's cases say it's 2.35:1, and Arrow's case and booklet even say "2.39:1."  But on disc, at least, they agree on 2.32.  Both blus look very satisfyingly crisp and detailed, with the DVD naturally being hazier.  It's definitely worth springing for this in HD.  And between the two blus, the color timing and everything are identical; they're clearly using the same master.  The encoding is the only difference, and there Arrow does slightly gain the advantage, preserving very subtle differences that IFC smooths away.  Look at Jim's face up close in the second set of shots.  It's barely perceptible, a distinction for die-hard videophiles only, but technically it's there. 

Both IFC discs offer us the choice of 5.1 or 2.0 mixes, in DTS-HD on the blu, with optional English subs.  Arrow does the same as IFC's blu, except their stereo track is in LPCM.
Unfortunately IFC provides us with no extras at all, not even the trailer.  And this is where Arrow really steps in.  For starters, there's a great audio commentary by Cummings and McCabe.  They're laughing a lot and having a good time, picking out their favorite moments and cameos, but never to that point where they cross the line into being annoying.  You'll definitely get a better appreciation of their camerawork after listening.  There's also a pretty great 'making of' featurette that runs 20+ minutes and gives you a great look at their process.  Then there are to expert featurettes, which are kind of the discs' weak spot.  One is a brief visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who I just wrote about being on the latest Texas Chain Saw Massacre release by Second Sight, and I have a similar criticism.  There I thought she wasn't given enough time to expand on her ideas, here I think she just has less to say, and spends her ten minutes telling us all the obvious themes and plot points that are self evident when you watch the movie.  She doesn't say anything silly or wrong or anything; it just feels like filler.

The other one, on the other hand, is too silly.  It's ostensibly a second visual essay on hotel rooms in films, as a hotel rendezvous certainly plays a key role in The Beta Test.  But this time the critic, Guy Adams, features himself in a comic role, very much like that infamous featurette from the "Jane Doe" DVD edition of Fletch.  The (fictional) premise is that he's waiting for an interview with Cummings and McCabe, but they don't turn up, so we just watch him roll around on the floor in boredom/ frustration.  He does show clips from a couple other famous film scenes set in hotel rooms, but not enough to really make any cogent points.  The thesis just winds up being "isn't what I'm doing cute?"
2019 Passion River BD top; 2023 Arrow BD bottom.
But don't get too disheartened, because the commentary and 'making of' are great, and there's still a whole second disc to go!  This disc is essentially a collection of Cummings' short films, and they're all great.  Most of them are part of the same series, called Minutes, where the whole thing is shot in a single take and centers around one really strong and smartly written performance by a different actor.  Yes, this includes The Robbery from the Thunder Road blu.  They're virtually identical, naturally, but Arrow does have the superior encode again, so you're better off watching it on this disc.  And this isn't a case where seeing a filmmaker's early work is "interesting" or "a good piece of history."  These are all great films in their own right.  There's also a brief 'making of' for the Minutes shorts, another short that Cummings stars in, and two documentaries of Cummings' 2016 and 2017 voyages to Sundance.  I won't get into spoilers, but let me just advise you not to skip the Sundance ones, because he does something more creative and fun than your standard festival featurette we've seen on other discs.

There are also two trailers and a stills gallery.  Arrow's set also includes a full-color 24-page booklet, a card reproducing the notorious invitation from the film and one of Arrow's standard film promo cards (mine was for The Sacred Spirit).  It comes in reversible artwork and a slipcover.
All three films get full recommendations from me, and - thanks to Arrow - finally at least one of them has gotten the home video presentation it deserves.  And hey, at least all three are on blu with something to their names.  That'll do until The Criterion Collection releases the definitive Jim Cummings 20-film boxed collection twenty years from now.  So alright, bring on film #4!  I've heard it might be a Victorian ghost story...!

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