Kicking and Screaming : Noah Baumbach’s latest, Mistress America , hits theaters this weekend, and while you could easily take the opportunity to revisit his previous two collaborations with star/sometimes co-writer Greta Gerwig (Greenberg and Frances Ha, both currently streaming on Netflix), let us instead direct you to his feature film debut, a 1995 collegiate comedy that never quite got its due — particularly nowadays, when it’s too often confused with the unfortunate Will Ferrell soccer-dad comedy. Focusing on a group of college friends who don’t know what the hell to do with themselves in the year after graduation, Baumbach assembled an ace ensemble cast (including Josh Hamilton, Olivia d’Abo, Chris Eigeman, Eric Stoltz, Cara Buono, and, this being a ‘90s indie, Parker Posey) to bring to life one of the most end-to-end quotable movies of the era. (“I’m going to be 17 tomorrow.” “Wow, now you can read Seventeen magazine and get all the references.”) It’s one of the few movies that somehow seems underrated even though it’s in the Criterion Collection; check it out now, and watch a witty, gifted filmmaker bursting onto the scene with his wit, talent, and preoccupations already in place.
Unfriended : Just yesterday, in reviewing The Gift, I noted how many of producer Jason Blum’s many horror films are confined to a single home; this time he goes one better, restricting the action to a single, cluttered computer desktop. There, protagonist Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her friends are harassed, threatened, and ultimately dispatched by what seems to be the ghost of a girl they cyber-bullied to suicide. It’s an ingenious gimmick, and while the specific technologies in play (Skype, Spotify, Chatroulette, Facebook, YouTube) will probably give Unfriended a shelf life of about five minutes, our familiarity with the technology gives it an unsettling intimacy, and allows director Leo Gabriadze to create tension out of such unlikely actions as buffering images, video glitches, and “seen by” and “is typing” messages. The gimmick can only go so far (it’s not a second too long at 83 minutes), and the acting is all over the map. But it gets the job done. And while the Blu-ray presentation is top-notch, let’s be honest: the best way to watch this one is in your laptop’s DVD drive, where it can take over the screen and really freak you out. (No extras.)
The French Lieutenant’s Woman : Karl Reisz’s 1981 adaptation of John Fowles’ novel (new from the Criterion Collection) is opened up in an ingenious fashion by screenwriter Harold Pinter: he interpolates the novel’s period romance through a contemporary one, between the two actors playing the doomed lovers in a film adaptation of the book. Those actors are played magnificently by Meryl Streep (with brainy sensuality) and Jeremy Irons (with bleary-eyed intensity), and the skill of their work in the film-within-the-film is grounded by the voyeuristic thrill of watching two of our finest actors playing actors. But what ultimately sells the picture is the cleverness of the juxtapositions — the dialogue Pinter creates between his two stories (particularly in who holds the power in those relationships), and how each makes the other richer. (Includes new interviews, a vintage television appearance, and the original trailer.)