It’s a remarkably quiet week on the home video front; the “biggest” new releases on the shelf are the long-delayed (and much booed) Jeff Bridges/Julianne Moore epic The Seventh Son — not, sadly, a Lebowski sequel — and Spike Lee’s unfortunate Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. But Netflix is streaming one of our favorite sleepers of last year, and the Blu-ray shelves include a terrific dance doc, two stellar Criterion thrillers, and a pair of entertaining comedies from Monty Python alums.
Before I Disappear : Shawn Christensen’s comedy/drama isn’t exactly a narrative groundbreaker: it’s the story of desperate burnout, brought back from the brink by reconnecting with family and facing himself. So why is this film so thrillingly unpredictable and breathlessly alive? Before I Disappear is stylish and cool without breaking a sweat, yet free of the hollow emotional detachment that’s so often attached to such aesthetics. Christensen’s style is disarmingly improvisational — you never quite know where he’s going next tonally, but the steadiness of his hand (as filmmaker and actor) is so assured that it barely matters. Original, intoxicating stuff.
Ballet 422 : Your film editor has a real weakness for documentaries about process — films that simply observe a group of professionals doing what they do, without much in the way of intrusion. Such is the case with director Jody Lee Lipes’ profile of 25-year-old New York City Ballet dancer/choreographer Justin Peck, which shadows him during the preparation of his Pas de La Jolia. The pure vérité style (no retrospective interviews, no voice-overs, and sparse expositional titles) doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, and serves mostly as an appreciation of the many moving parts: tireless rehearsal, costume design, orchestra work, lighting discussions, hair and makeup, costume fittings, cue-to-cue technical rehearsals. Lipes likes the concentration and focus of the work, and the sound of shorthand and shop talk. Near the end, before the big premiere, there is a fleeting close-up of a dancer’s ravaged feet — a reminder of how taxing this work is, and an apt encapsulation of this absorbing and well-made documentary’s ethos. (Includes commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, galleries, and a trailer.)
The Confession: Costa-Gavras’ follow-up to his smash Z was another political thriller/procedural, albeit of a very different sort. He tells the story of a Communist official in early ‘50s Czechoslovakia who is, in a vivid and harrowing sequence, kidnapped by a shadowy group that turns out to be his own government and party. They are hectoring him for a confession (“Confession is the highest form of self-criticism”), though for what he does not know, and if the premise is out of Kafka, the execution is closer to documentary. The film finds its power and potency in confining itself almost entirely to his point of view, dramatizing the discomfort of his imprisonment and torture while digging deep into the monotony of his ordeal; facts and innocent admissions are restated, reframed, and repositioned to be used against him later, his life and words pawns in an elaborate shell game that he will never quite understand. Costa-Gavras invests the picture with anger and urgency, and the details of the protagonist’s brutalization and torture are only more upsetting and timely today. (Includes new and vintage documentaries and interviews.)
State of Siege: Costa-Gavras’ next film, also new this week from Criterion, was something of a spiritual sequel to The Confession — another political thriller centered on a kidnapping, with the same actor (Yves Montand) playing the victim. But the filmmaker’s allegiances are this time most decidedly with the kidnappers, Latin American rebels who’ve taken two officials and an American citizen who may not be as innocent as he looks. Those sympathies prompt the key stylistic differences between the pictures: he’s working with a much larger canvas here, taking a wider view, spinning a web of interrogations, explanations, and flashbacks that make Siege less personal but more provocative. Taken together, this double feature finds a masterful filmmaker exploring both important ideas and innovative techniques; neither is quite the classic that Z is, but then again, few things are. (Includes a new interview and vintage news footage.)
Yellowbeard/ Erik the Viking: Perhaps inspired by the recent onslaught of Monty Python nostalgia, Olive Films is bringing a pair of mildly entertaining almost-Python efforts to Blu-ray for the first time. Mel Damski’s 1983 comedy Yellowbeard features half the team (Eric Idle, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman, who co-wrote, in the title role), along with half the leads of Young Frankenstein (Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn), British comedy legends Peter Cook and Spike Milligan, and Cheech & Chong. A mid-‘80s HBO fave, it’s not got much of a reputation among Python fans, but there are funny bits and witty dialogue, and while the impressive cast doesn’t always meld well — Cheech and Chong are painfully unfunny — Damski juggles the busy script adroitly. The film’s main issue is the abundance of rape jokes, which were already déclassé by the time Terry Jones directed Erik seven years later (with himself and Cleese in supporting roles and music by frequent Python collaborator Neil Innes); its opening scene almost seems a rebuttal to that element of Yellowbeard, with this title character unable to reconcile his morality with the first half of the “rape and pillage” motto (“I don’t suppose that you do like me, at all?”). He’s played by Tim Robbins, very funny as a sensitive Viking doing his very best to be a good leader and not a bad guy; Jones is similarly inspired as a cheery king, prone to pronouncements like “You’ll have to ask us very nicely!” It’s a silly picture, and the Gilliam-esque flight of fancy in the third act doesn’t quite fit, but Jones’ commentary on masculinity in mythology is sly and unexpected. Neither film approaches the quality of true Python works, of course, but they give a reasonable idea of what a Python pirate and Python Viking movie might’ve looked like, had we been so lucky. (Trailers included on both discs.)