Temperatures are rising and the multiplexes are filling with big summer blockbusters, which is about all the reason you need to say to hell with it, lock the doors, and watch movies in your living room. It’s a particularly eclectic week on the home video front, with Netflix offering up one of the year’s best films thus far, a monster war movie and a revolutionary Shakespeare adaptation on the new-release shelf, and Criterion presenting two flawed but fascinating almost-classics.
Girlhood: Writer/director Céline Sciamma takes a slice-of-life approach to the story of Marieme (Karidja Touré), an outcast who falls in — rather easily — with a trio of queen bees, roaming malls, talking shit, getting in fights. The acting is low-key and convincing, the photography is gorgeous, and even the simplest hangout scenes have a ground-level reality that’s downright revelatory. Sciamma captures something indelible about being a teenager, creating perfect moments and dramatizing how they’re shattered; deeply felt, keenly observed, and marvelously acted, it’s far more complicated and difficult than the simple coming-of-age story the title suggests.
Cymbeline: I can’t think of a more mangled theatrical release, at least in recent memory, than this one; Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of the Shakespeare play debuted at Venice, only to have its title changed to Anarchy (a more VOD menu-friendly title that nods to its Sons of Anarchy-style biker gang update) until barely a month before release, when it reverted back to Cymbeline. The fact that they couldn’t figure out what to even call the film tells you how good a handle they got on marketing it, but this is a slick, stylish, magnificently acted twist on the Bard that deserves a second life. It reunites Almereyda with his Hamlet star Ethan Hawke, and the approach is much the same: cut the text to the bone, go heavy on voice-over, get clever with the updating (the best one here: a far-carried message conveyed via iPhone text rather than note), transplant into unexpected locations (the resolution here takes place in the parking lot of an abandoned mini-storage facility), and move actors towards conversational naturalism rather then presentation. The entire impressive cast is good, but high marks in particular to Dakota Johnson (proving she’s got dramatic chops to match her comic ones), and the perpetually underused Delroy Lindo, who effortlessly conveys both heft and tenderness. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and trailers.)
American Sniper: The social and political controversy that surrounded Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Chris Kyle’s memoir last winter was loud enough (and simplistic enough) to divert critics from its real value: as the kind of lean, mean meditation on masculinity and duty that Eastwood’s always had a talent for, and that his increasingly dire output had hinted might be beyond his grasp at this point. It’s a tense, lived-in, and (yes) psychologically complex portrait of a man of war—and Bradley Cooper is utterly convincing as the figure at its center, haunted by both the things he’s seen and the things he’s done. (Includes featurettes.)
The Rose: Late in Mark Rydell’s portrait of a self-destructive rock star, her boyfriend asks, “Where you goin’?” She responds, simply, “To do what I do!” It’s tossed off, a throwaway line, but it’s the whole movie; she does what she does, whether it’s singing or drinking or loving, and she does it all without moderation. Bette Midler is magnificent in the title role, seemingly channeling both Janis Joplin (on whom it’s loosely based) and, somehow, Courtney Love. It’s a full-throated, energetic, sexy portrayal of a talented nose-thumber who’s adored the world over, yet still defines herself by how much attention and affirmation she’s getting at that moment. Director Rydell’s portrayal of road life is credible — but the real draw here is the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, who shoots the concert scenes (and there are many of them) with the angles and compositions of a concert documentary, and with the help of an all-star team of ‘70s DPs. It grounds the picture, giving Rose’s story an authenticity that helps soften the somewhat monotonous storytelling. (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews.)
Limelight: It doesn’t take much subtextual dexterity to draw a line from Charles Chaplin’s 1952 drama and its story, of a clown coming to terms with the fact that his time has passed. And to be sure, it’s a melodrama that looks and plays decidedly old-fashioned, even for the early ‘50s. But coming at this point in Chaplin’s career, as perhaps his most earnestly personal picture, it works; the naked emotion and throwback quality works in its favor, rather than against it. And on top of all that, it marks the only onscreen collaboration between Chaplin and Buster Keaton, in a sequence that’s the silent-comedy equivalent of De Niro and Pacino facing off in Heat. Their scenes, both performing and talking shop in the dressing room beforehand, are the highlights of a warm and heartfelt yet often overlooked gem. (Includes video essay, new interviews, featurettes, archival Chaplin recordings, vintage Chaplin short films, outtake, and two trailers.)