It’s a pretty light week on the new release shelves, with one big hit, one underrated sequel, and a deep catalogue cut from Criterion, but no worries – we’ve got a couple of streaming recommendations for you, one happily timely, one less so.
Velvet Goldmine : We’re still reeling from the unexpected passing of the great David Bowie, particularly in light of its timing – mere days after the release of his final, vibrant, brilliant record Blackstar . What’s more, a few days earlier, the curated streaming service MUBI added Velvet Goldmine to its monthly rotation, so this is as good an excuse as any to revisit Todd Haynes’ vastly underrated, wonderfully free-spirited portrait of the glam era, which isn’t technically about Bowie, but is, y’know, totally about Bowie. Yet it’s more than merely a thinly veiled biopic, or even an I’m Not There-ish scrambling of an icon; it’s an uncommonly rich examination of pop music, idolatry, celebrity, and sexuality. (And don’t worry, it’s on Netflix too.)
Training Day : One of the (few) highlights of Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony was the presentation of the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Denzel Washington, complete with a killer montage of a career filled with montage-friendly moments. And while it served as a reminder of how many great performances he’s given us, such a career summary always prompts a fair amount of grousing about the decidedly lesser movie an actor won their Oscar for. Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 cop film – back on the streaming cycle at Netflix – has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of that criticism in recent years, for a variety of reasons (I suspect it has something to do with the poor quality of the director’s subsequent output, Washington or no). But make no mistake, this is an uncommonly intelligent and tense policer, and Washington’s performance, while admittedly lacking the scope and complexity of something as magnificent as Malcolm X, is still a monster.
The Martian : Fresh from its Sunday night plaudits as the year’s Best Comedy or Musical (snort), Ridley Scott’s crisp, involving adaptation of Andy Weir’s self-published sensation arrives on DVD and Blu as one of the fall’s true (and few) success stories. It sustained a fairly fumbly promotional run to become an honest-to-goodness word-of-mouth hit, and it’s easy to see why; it’s filled with likable actors, it tells an involving story with wit and pizzaz, and it plays like the good, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that it is. Particular kudos to Chiwitel Ejiofor, effortlessly looking like the smartest guy in the room; Jeff Daniels, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Kate Mara all come off pretty well too. But this is Damon’s show, and he nails it, finding the specific note of grace, intelligence, and hope vital to the character, and riding it all the way out. (Includes featurettes and “gag reel” – see, it is a comedy!)
Sinister 2 : Original writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill hand the directorial reins over to Ciarán Foy (Citadel) and come up with a sequel that doesn’t match the chills of Sinister, yet manages to recapture much of what made that film work. Its connections to the original are tenuous at best – James Ransone is elevated, rather shakily, to a starring role – and the new elements aren’t altogether successful (Shannyn Sossamon’s sporting a less-than-convincing “Southern” accent, and the ex-husband she’s fleeing is a damagingly cartoonish villain). But Foy maintains his skill at finding the menace of everyday spaces, and recreates the sheer sense of terror in the snuff films at these stories’ center, from their unnervingly voyeuristic photography to their cheeky titles (“Christmas Morning,” “Sunday Service,” etc.) and the promises they make. Sure, turning this story into a franchise is a bit of a stretch, and the final scene is punishingly dumb. But this is a chiller with real style and tension, and that’s still pretty rare these days. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurette.)
The American Friend : Not every role can be credibly played by Matt Damon, John Malkovich, and Dennis Hopper, but Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley was malleable like that – for actors and for filmmakers. This 1977 adaptation of her Ripley’s Game from Wim Wenders (new from Criterion) has the kind of deceptively tidy plotting she excelled at: thanks to the machinations of slimy Ripley, a terminally ill craftsman (Bruno Ganz) is given an amoral but financially lucrative opportunity, and ultimately decides he has nothing to lose. The men behind it – and the filmmaker – slowly sling the rope around his neck and tighten it; those scenes are quietly powerful, and the sequence in which he commits the crime (no music, no dialogue, all tension) is a knockout. But the back half is even more interesting, exploring the suicidal tendencies and existential undertones of the protagonist and his situation, as well as the odd bond that grows between him and the man who put him there. Hopper is terrific, conveying an unsteady menace before revealing the vulnerability beneath it, and Ganz is disarmingly unpredictable. It’s a tough, crisp little thriller, but the psychological underpinnings are what make it stick. (Includes vintage audio commentary, new interviews, deleted scenes, and trailer.)