For my money, the biggest event of the week, new release-wise, is the long, long, long-awaited DVD/Blu-ray unveiling of the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, but let’s not downplay the rest of the week’s crop. Over on Netflix, we’ve got a solid documentary on a musical legend; Criterion has a new edition of a deliciously odd Czech classic; and two of the spring’s most interesting indies arrive on Blu-ray, along with a surprisingly moving Al Pacino vehicle.
What Happened, Miss Simone? : Early in this documentary profile of immortal singer Nina Simone, she’s asked what freedom means to her. “No fear!” she explains — exclaims, really, the pitch of her voice rising noticeably at the mere thought of such an alien concept. You see, Miss Simone lived much of her life in fear: of failure, of exhaustion, of her own difficult genius, and of a husband/ manager who was a brutal tyrant. Liz Garbus’ film is a tad conventional for such an unconventional performer, but if you can get past that, Miss Simone is filled with mesmerizingly eccentric performances, fascinating material about her pivot from jazz and pop into “civil rights music” (and the extent to which her career took a hit), and insight from her collaborators on exactly what it was that she did with a song.
Danny Collins : Al Pacino (in yet another comeback performance) stars as a Neil Diamond-esque pop star who finally receives a letter written to him in the ‘70s by John Lennon, and immediately realizes what a fraud he’s become. His subsequent journey — re-connecting with his estranged son (Bobby Canavale, very good), sparking with, for once, an age-appropriate woman (Annette Bening, national treasure), writing songs that are actually about something — is predictable to a point and borderline mawkish (hell, there’s even a sick kid involved). But the picture is so damn likable, the performances so warm and human, that you just go with it. And there are a handful of moments (the look on his face when a key performance goes to shit, the pitch-perfect closing scene) that are written and played with stunning sophistication and sensitivity. Cynics need not apply, but this is a real charmer. (Includes featurettes.)
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter : The Zellner Brothers’ tricky, muted, fascinating comedy/drama plays, on one level, as tribute; it concerns a young woman (Rinko Kikuchi, smashing) who discovers a totemic, beat-up copy of Fargo in a cave and takes its joke “true story” disclaimer a bit too seriously, especially the part where the money is buried in the snow. The Zellners use parallel characters and the echoes in their score to create a dialogue between the two films, but they’re ultimately less interested in clever homage than in telling their own evocative story of the power of delusion, and the virtual incapacitation of solitude. It sounds like a pop culture joke flick, but the deeper it goes, the more it coalesces into something genuinely powerful and surprisingly heartbreaking. (Includes audio commentary, deleted and alternate scenes.)
While We’re Young : Guessing the inspiration for the Adam Driver character in Noah Baumbach’s latest was something of a spectator sport for movie critics; some said Joe Swanberg, some said the Catfish guys, some even wondered if it reflected a cynicism about his young partner/collaborator Greta Gerwig. But beyond the connect-the-dots element, Baumbach constructs a brutally funny and frequently scathing attack on bohemia in general and Brooklyn hipsterism in particular, managing to transcend the occasional bouts of Sorkin-esque sour grapes with snazzy dialogue, piercing observation, and uproarious supporting performances. (Includes featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage, and trailers.)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders : Late in Jaromil Jires’ Czech New Wave classic, the title character asks her estranged mother, “Is this all a dream?” — and the woman responds with a rather too tender kiss, full on the mouth. That’s sort of a defining moment in this 1971 oddity, which plays like someone hired Alejandro Jodorowsky to make an Emmanuelle movie; overflowing with surrealistic imagery, impressionistic cutting, and a wild tonal shifts, it veers from daydreams to sex fantasies to nightmares, often within the same scenes (sometimes within the same frame). It’s beautiful, and bracing, and bonkers. (Includes new and archival interviews, early films by director Jires, and alternate soundtrack with featurette.)