I’m sure the studios and distributors do their best to create an even and well-distributed new release schedule, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Some weeks are so loaded with new movies and reissues of note that we can’t even fit them into our five-slot format; other weeks are, well, like this one, offering up the likes of Still Alice and The Cobbler and, Lord help us, Mortdecai. But we’ve got a new (and underrated) Michael Mann movie, an earlier effort worth another look, an uncommonly thoughtful boxing documentary, a heartbreaking new-to-Netflix drama, and one more that you’ll just have to hear me out on.
Fruitvale Station : Writer/director Ryan Coogler tells the true (and shocking) story of Oscar Julius Grant III, the young black man shot during an altercation with police at a San Francisco BART station early in the morning of New Year’s Day, 2009. As a true story tick-tock, it is astonishingly successful; Coogler fills the frame with keenly observed domestic details and coaxes a quietly powerful performance out of Michael B. Jordan as Grant (as well as the wonderful Melonie Diaz, playing his longtime girlfriend). But it’s not a simple film — Coogler and Jordan resist the urge to paint Grant as a martyr, instead presenting him as a troubled and problematic young man, which makes him more challenging (and dramatic) as a subject. And, sadly, its story of an unarmed black man’s tragic death at the hands of law enforcement grows only more urgently timely.
Thief : Revisited in tandem with Michael Mann’s latest picture Blackhat (see below), it’s remarkable how much of his style was already intact in this, his first feature film. You’ve got the shiny surfaces and sleek look (heavy on the cool blues), the synth-pop score, the shorthand dialogue, the brusque “professionals” at his story’s centers. Here, his focus is on an all-business thief (James Caan, in one of the few performances that approaches the raw energy and power of his Sonny Corleone) who goes into business with a powerful criminal (Robert Prosky) to make a couple big scores and ride off into the sunset. It doesn’t go quite that smoothly, as you might expect. As with the somewhat similar Heat, Mann excels at showing how this all works, the operation and logistics of life as a career criminal, and Prosky is stunning as a man who seems to affably take his power as a given, but turns chilling when it’s challenged. The somewhat overcooked closing bloodbath is about the only place where the picture feels of its time, not ahead of it; everywhere else, we can see a unique film artist popping onto the scene all but fully formed.
Blackhat : Michael Mann doesn’t exactly make out-and-out blockbusters, but he’s certainly got a following, and his latest (and his first in over five years) had an Avenger and a release accidentally but fortuitously timed to the Sony hack. So it was a bit of a surprise that it tanked so badly — especially since it’s such a stylish and jazzy picture, packaged like a cyber-thriller but playing more like a slow-burn character study. Mann luxuriates in a mien of cool, coasting confidently from one terse scene and charged dialogue exchange to the next, and its joyless critics missed the point. It’s not a film about tight plotting or slam-bang action, but about style. Pure, hypnotic, mesmerizing style. (Includes featurettes.)
Fifty Shades of Grey : Look, I’m not recommending this widely loathed adaptation of E.L. James’ widely loathed bestseller; it’s a poorly written, morally compromised, frequently goofy early-‘90s Michael Douglas movie, and Jamie Dornan plays the whole thing like he’s out to lunch. But it’s worth seeing, for one simple reason: Dakota Johnson is honest-to-God fabulous in it. She’s got a wonderfully cockeyed way of reading a line (“Strike it”) or taking a pause, playing her wide-eyed innocent both honestly and with a bit of a wink; it’s a classic case of a truly gifted performer transcending the limitations of her material, turning this trash into something resembling entertainment. (Includes unrated version w/alternate ending, featurettes, and Fifty Shades Darker teaser.)
Champs : Look, there’s no shortage of documentaries about boxing, and the parade of bizarrely chosen celebrities (Ron Howard? 50 Cent? Mary J. Blige?) in the pre-title sequence of Bert Marcus’ doc make this one seem a dubious entry in the canon. And then someone notes, “Rich kids don’t go into boxing,” and it becomes clear that this is a movie with more on its mind than fight footage and celeb endorsements. Focusing on three boxers of note (Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, and Mike Tyson, who co-produced), Marcus looks at boxing as a sociological object rather than just a sport, examining the poverty that so often births champions, the gang life and prison environment that they’re often pulled into (or barely escape from), and the lack of protection (financial and physical) afforded them at even the highest level. Marcus hits the biographical beats, glancingly but intelligently, and pulls some candid moments out of his subjects. It’s a thoughtful movie, with new and vital things to say about a subject that’s seemingly been talked to death. (No extras.)