It’s an odd week for new releases on disc and online, with the likes of Max, Pixels, and The Human Centipede 3 vying for your attention. But there’s an oddity or two well worth your time: an ace Netflix premiere, two top-shelf documentaries, a David Lynch fave, and yet another transformative performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
Manson Family Vacation : Landing in the midst of an curious resurgence of interest in the Manson Family (thanks in no small part to Aquarius and the You Must Remember This podcast), this Duplass Brothers production from writer/director J. Davis is a spiky, clever comedy/drama that begins as a study in brotherly tension before becoming something altogether unexpected. The meandering style and apparent ironic detachment — it is, true to the title, about a Manson-obsessed weirdo who wants to visit all the Family’s crime scenes — slyly covers Davis’ narrative efficiency (and his deeply felt subtext about old wounds that haven’t healed); this is a smart filmmaker, sensing when we think we’re getting ahead of him and subverting those expectations, and arriving at a conclusion far more poignant and complicated than you might expect.
ON SUNDANCENOW DOC CLUB
Taxi to the Dark Side : Alex Gibney won the Oscar for this penetrating look at America’s aggressive policies of torture and “enhanced interrogation” in the post-9/11 years, masterfully moving from a single story — of an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death by American soldiers — into an examination of an entire foreign policy philosophy. Tied up for years in a rights dispute that kept it off streaming platforms, it’s now available via the documentary streaming service SundanceNow, and is well worth seeking out; this is haunting, brutal, unforgettable filmmaking.
Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer: This documentary portrait from director Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style) borders, technically, on amateurish: handheld full-frame camcorder photography, often indiscriminate cutting, iMovie fonts, shoddy sound recording. But those flaws mostly serve to give it a handmade feel, underscored by the hang-out vibe promoted by its subject. Shabazz photographed New Yorkers from the 1970s onward, his images a vibrant, breathing time capsule of that place at the moment — images that now stand as cultural anthropology. He tells of how he worked, how he was rediscovered and embraced, and the intellectual concerns that drove him, as he photographed his (mostly black) subjects as icons, granting them a dignity, power, and agency that wasn’t often granted outside his frames. (Includes featurettes and outtakes.)
Southpaw: Around the time you find out the protagonist of Antoine Fuqua’s boxing melodrama is named “Billy Hope,” you may start to hypothesize that they’re not going for subtlety here. And to be sure, the first act of Kurt Sutter’s screenplay is almost comically overwrought (the elevator pitch is “Rocky V, but with Adrian getting shot up”) — so you can either sneer at its broadness, or give in and go with it. Indeed, the picture works best in its middle hour, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Hope busted down to gym training with a crusty survivor (Forest Whitaker) as he tries to earn back the trust of his daughter (Oona Laurence); it powers down into a low-key character study, and lands because those three actors play it with absolute sincerity and vulnerability. The back quarter degenerates into music-montage mode and no-brainer outcomes, but it has its moments, and the performances are top-notch. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
Mulholland Dr. : Revisiting David Lynch’s iconic thriller after several years, this viewer was again struck by its sheer discombulation; there’s so much in it that’s just plain inexplicable (the bungled hit, the espresso, the old couple in the back of the taxi, those Billy Ray Cyrus scenes). And yet, if anything, the bizarre detours and off-ramps heighten the experience Lynch is creating — he’s operating off nightmare rather than daytime logic, spinning a web of unnerving moods, haunting images, bizarro dialogue, and narrative curlicues. After a decade and a half, I still can’t explain it; what’s more, I still don’t want to. (Includes new interviews, a deleted scene, and a trailer, but still no chapter stops, perverts.)