Employee Picks: Giant Robots, An Underrated Revenge Thriller, And One Of Cinema's Best-Ever Debuts

(Welcome to Employee Picks, a series where Jacob Knight uses his day job expertise as a video store manager to recommend unique and often overlooked alternative options to the big movies hitting theaters and home video.)

Hello and welcome back to Employee Picks! In case you missed the rules in the inaugural column's edition: for every big-name motion picture on the horizon, I suggest something from the archives to watch in its place that's either thematically, spiritually, or tangentially related. Easy peasy.

With those general parameters in mind, here are my alternative picks for every big movie dropping on Blu-Ray, DVD or VOD this June.

The Major Release:  Death Wish (2018) 

Your Alternative: Death Sentence (2007, d. James Wan) 

Though he's currently busy bringing Aquaman to a screen near you, many forget that James Wan actually delivered a way better Death Wish remake than Eli Roth ever could, and did so before the project was even a glimmer in the Hostel helmer's eye. Loosely based on the eponymous book by Death Wish novelist Brian Garfield, Wan casts Kevin Bacon as his vigilante of choice, sending him off to enact savage street justice on the thugs who attacked him and his two sons. It's a brutal, gory cinematic ride, sporting one hell of a supporting turn from John Goodman as the heavy, which too often gets lost when discussing Wan's filmography. Unfortunately, that's mostly due to the fact that nobody saw the picture in theaters, relegating Death Sentence to being something of a deep cut, waiting to be re-discovered by genre fans looking for a solid bit of the old ultraviolence to fill their Friday night.

Death Sentence is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: A Wrinkle in Time

Your Alternative: Fantastic Voyage (1966, d. Richard Fleischer) 

Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle In Time was a noble critical and commercial failure; a touch too outlandish for most audiences looking for a solid diversion to take their children to. While the movie's definitely worth a look, perhaps it could be followed by Richard Fleischer's Fantastic Voyage. While Wrinkle knocks off an item off your kids' reading list, Fleischer's film can help them learn a little about the workings of the human body, as a team of Cold War era adventurers are shrunken down and sent to try and save a nearly assassinated scientist from inside his own body. It's goofy and stuffed with old school SFX, but Fantastic Voyage is also a visual treat that will stick with most tots for the rest of their lives. This writer can vouch for the fact that it helped him remember which blood cells do what way before junior high health class!

Fantastic Voyage is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox

The Major Release: Hurricane Heist  

Your Alternative: Money Movers (1978, d. Bruce Beresford)

A somewhat rare gem from the Ozploitation boom of the '70s and '80s, Money Movers is a taut, tense, no frills thriller, zeroing in on a series of heists that have a plagued an armored car company. Morally murky and containing some rather unsettling blunt force violence, Money Movers combines classic elements of noir tough guy stories with uniquely Australian elements, fictionally capturing an aura of class divide when Australia was on the brink of economic recession. Yet it all comes down to a competition between two groups of robbers, both looking to rip off a $20 million stash from the armored car counting house, and how they intend to beat the other to that rather beautiful bounty. As far as hard boiled crime fiction goes, it's tough to beat Bruce Beresford's smashed nose work, which is just as bleak and unforgiving as any of its New Hollywood cousins.

Money Movers is available to stream on Amazon

The Major Release: Gringo 

Your Alternative: The Mexican (2001, d. Gore Verbinski) 

Funny, sweet and as slyly visually inventive as any of Gore Verbinski's other movies, The Mexican is a character comedy showcasing quirky turns from two of our finest movie stars (Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts). However, the real story here is James Gandolfini's gay hitman, who's hot on the trail of Pitt's bumbling crook, and the titular legendary gun he's attempting to transport across the border. The scenes where Gandolfini bonds with Roberts' nagging girlfriend are extraordinarily moving, subverting the tough guy tropes we've come to expect from these sorts of crime stories (not to mention this particular actor). If anything, The Mexican is a great example of the type of movie Gringo's trying to be: a peculiar mid-range farce for adults that allows a troupe of stellar performers to craft idiosyncratic, deeply human individuals.

The Mexican is available to stream on Amazon.  

The Major Release: Tomb Raider 

Your Alternative: Mistress of the Apes (1979, d. Larry Buchanan)

Campy and definitely fitting into the "so bad it's good" column, Larry Buchanan's schlock opus about the wife of a famous anthropologist disappearing into the jungle, only to be become the titular sapien queen is a cheese sandwich, double-grilled and best served with a case of cheap booze. Yet there's something endearing about its low rent call to adventure, as Jenny Neumann goes all in on bringing her quest to form a bond with these missing links alive with as much grace as she can muster while gobbling bananas and channeling her inner Bo Derek (as this was clearly a rip off of the already low rent hit Tarzan the Ape Man). Sure to be a hit with anyone who loves a massive pile of trash, Mistress of the Apes is a far cry from Lara Croft, but that's not a bad thing.

Mistress of the Apes is available to stream on Amazon

The Major Release: Love, Simon 

Your Alternative: Valley Girl (1983, d. Martha Coolidge) 

Love, Simon is a cinematic signpost: a mainstream comedy for queer kids who want to see themselves represented onscreen the same way straight kids have been for the entirety of movie history. For those of us well versed in coming of age tales, it's easy to recognize a solid bit of Valley Girl in Love, Simon's filmic DNA. Nicolas Cage's New Wave outsider finding romance with Deborah Foreman's bubbly, health food hocking popular princess is one of the finest fictional explorations of teens just trying to discover their own truths, and what those identities means to the outside world. Plus, Valley Girl owns not only one of the greatest original soundtracks in the medium's history, but also one of the most swooningly romantic screen smooches ever, set to The Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away". Don't be groady guys, let your freak flags fly.

Valley Girl is available on DVD from MGM (but is coming to Blu from Shout! this fall!)

The Major Release: The Strangers: Prey At Night 

Your Alternative: Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987, d. Bruce Pittman) 

It's kind of sad that Hello Mary Lou – the sequel in name only, decade too late follow-up to Paul Lynch's super boring Halloween knock off – never became a bigger hit, because it's a sexy, surrealist ode to teenage horniness. An incorporation of Canadian tax shelter strangeness, brazen borrowing from better films (as it holds a very similar plot line to Carrie), and tossing of creative caution to the wind, Bruce Pittman's picture still owns an identity all its own. Funnily enough, Prom Night II would hit theaters almost a full two years before RL Stine published his first of many Fear Street novels. For those initiated into that YA cult of slashers put to paper, Hello Mary Lou is going to feel strangely familiar, only it embraces the hot lust that comes with being a teenager in a far more reckless manner than Stine's somewhat prudish texts. In short, it's a red hot hoot.

Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II is available to stream on Amazon

The Major Release: Pacific Rim Uprising 

Your Alternative: Robot Jox (1989, d. Stuart Gordon) 

One of Stuart Gordon's goofier works during his days at Charles Band's Empire Pictures, competitive robot duels have taken the place of war following an apocalyptic WWW III. The contenders fight for disputed territories, and an American and Russian champion are currently throwing down over the former State of Alaska. Essentially, it's Rocky IV, but with massive, stop motion animated robots and Gordon's typically perverted sense of humor (though that last element is toned down, thanks to the movie's PG rating). Does any of it make a lick of sense? Not really. But the spectacle comes from the analog SFX, all working to deliver you into a futuristic Hellscape that may be corny, but still carries a frightening edge. Beat that, Syfy-ready Pacific Rim sequel.

Robot Jox is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory

The Major Release: Unsane 

Your Alternative: Don’t Look In the Basement (1973, d. S.F. Brownrigg) 

There's a joy to regional filmmaking that's rather unique – peculiarities that feel all the more personal to a picture thanks to its homegrown nature. Sherald "S.F." Brownrigg is one of the best examples of a local boy doing right by his Southern creative comrades, churning out Texan cheapies that are fascinating mostly due to their utter outlandishness. Though it was marketed as a Last Houe on the Left rip-off, Don't Look in the Basement is a smirking, sweaty "inmates have taken over the asylum" riff on unqualified lunacy. Composed almost entirely of leering close-ups that place the audience within the intimate bubble of copious mental patients, Brownrigg commits to creating a trash art melodrama that is quite literally screamed at full pitch so that those in the cheap seats don't miss a single, harsh moment of histrionics. While Steven Soderbergh's Unsane is undoubtedly one of the finest works of cinema '18 has seen, it's good to go back to the '70s DIY days he's emulating with an iPhone to get a better understanding of its lineage.

Don't Look In the Basement is available to stream on Amazon

The Major Release: Tyler Perry’s Acrimony 

Your Alternative: In the Bedroom (2001, d. Todd Field) 

One of the great tragedies in modern filmmaking is the fact that we haven't received another feature from Todd Field, who has helmed two of the best movies of the last twenty years with In the Bedroom and Little Children. While Children is Field's spot-on Stanley Kubrick impersonation, In the Bedroom is his version of Ingmar Bergman: an achingly intimate look at what happens when a marriage collapses, new intimacy is discovered, tragedy ensues, and grieving parents are left to pick up the pieces. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are almost supernaturally good as an aging couple trying to move on past immense sadness, while one party harbors a secret plan to get revenge on those who delivered this heartbreak into their lives. Perfectly capturing golden New England melancholy, we can only re-watch In the Bedroom and marvel at the fact that this is as good a directorial debut as cinema's ever seen.

In the Bedroom is available to stream on Amazon.