This week’s 800-pound gorilla on the home viewing scene is Christopher Nolan’s monster hit Interstellar, which gets a gorgeous transfer and a ton of extras. But if that blockbuster space epic isn’t quite your speed, there’s an abundance of other options (even more than we usually spotlight): two rediscovered gems from the ‘40s and ‘50s, one of the classics of international cinema, possibly the best documentary, oh, ever, and the latest from one of the makers of that documentary.
Life Itself: The rapturous reviews that greeted Steve James’s documentary profile of film critic Roger Ebert didn’t come as much of a surprise — if there were ever a film that was critic-proof, it’s this valentine to film criticism. But it’s not just for movie buffs and Ebert stans; adopting the theme-over-chronology structure of Ebert’s wonderful 2011 memoir, director James (Hoop Dreams — see below) gets at Ebert’s prickliness, his addictions, and the romance that saved him. And while they didn’t start the film intending to capture his final days, they ended up doing just that, lending the picture a poignancy and urgency that’s, at times, overwhelming.
Interstellar: Christopher Nolan’s space opera was one of the fall’s most surprisingly divisive movies, with a sharp split between those who dismissed it as a clunky mess and those who praised it as a visionary masterpiece. Your film editor fell somewhere in the middle, aware of its many flaws, yet grateful for the chances it takes. On second viewing, with my expectations adjusted, it plays stronger; the clumsiness of the first hour is easier to forgive, knowing the majesty and mystery that awaits once it lifts off into the great wide expansiveness of outer space. (Includes 14 featurettes — totaling nearly two hours — on the making of the film, and a 50-minute look at the science behind it.)
Cries and Whispers: Criterion gives a long-overdue Blu-ray upgrade to Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece (hot take, I know), a simple yet complex story of three sisters and a maid in varying degrees of agony. As usual, Bergman’s visual sense is impeccable — aside from his exquisite compositions and deliberate camera movements, the production design accentuates a blood-red tone that spills even into the transitions — yet his less-noted use of sound is equally masterful (the soundtrack is filled with their estate’s clocks, ticking like time bombs). It’s a tremendously violent movie, physically (how they treat each other) and emotionally (how they treat themselves); the red sets and props are deliberate, as this is a movie that draws blood, both literally and figuratively. (Includes a Bergman introduction, a new interview with Harriet Andersson, a new video essay, behind-the-scenes footage, trailer, and an extended Bergman interview.)
Hoop Dreams: The plain-sight value of an HD upgrade for a film shot on Betacam SP is debatable, but I’ll take just about any excuse to revisit this powerful, thoughtful, and unforgettable documentary from director Steve James. He and his collaborators Frederick Marx and Peter James spent four years tracking very young NBA hopefuls William Gates and Arthur Agee, plucked from the inner city and drafted to a prestigious private school; the dramatic turns and surprise heartbreaks of their story have the richness of great fiction, while the filmmakers’ access to private moments and daily struggle is astonishing. The ethical questions present in the film have only grown more pressing and the candid portrait of poverty is even rarer, but this time around, this viewer was particularly struck by the way the film sees William’s brother and Arthur’s dad — the specific way they talk about how they could’ve gone pro themselves, and how they try to live vicariously through these young men. It’s not just a great sports movie or a great documentary; it’s a great movie, period. (Includes audio commentaries, additional scenes, Siskel & Ebert clips, trailer, music video, and the new documentary Life After “Hoop Dreams.”)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry: I recognize that my cinematic knowledge is filled with gaping holes and blind spots — you just can’t see all of the things, no matter how hard you try — and yet there’s a part of me that would love to just drop-kick my guilt over all the movies I’m supposed to have seen, and spend my days luxuriating in forgotten little programmers like this. In the small, mill town of Corrinth, slightly stuffed-shirt older brother Harry (George Sanders) falls hard for a snazzy dame from the New York office (Ella Raines, fabulous), and she falls back. But when his sister (Geraldine Page, terrific in the picture’s trickiest role) lets her creepy obsession with him and their home wreck the couple’s engagement, the familial melodrama gives way to a deliciously black-hearted thriller. Ignore the tacked-on, last-second happy ending and revel in the film’s stark nastiness and marvelous manipulations. (No extras and kind of a lousy transfer, but you won’t mind.)
The Quiet Gun: The story of the incorruptible lawman fighting the Western town that he serves wasn’t exactly a fresh one even in 1957 (High Noon predates it by half a decade), but we don’t watch old Westerns for groundbreaking narratives; we watch them for style. William F. Claxton ably directs this slender, efficient oater, filling in the edges of the narrative with a range war, town politics, an unrequited love story, and some interesting (and presumably timely) commentary on the insidiousness of lynch mobs. Forrest Tucker is rock solid as the sheriff in question, but a fifth-billed Lee Van Cleef steals the show as a villain aptly described as “a pretty tough-looking hombre.” (No extras.)