After a brief, Sundance-induced hiatus last week, our home media column is back and our cup runneth over – seven movies this week instead of the customary five. (But if it evens it out for you, at least three are movies most other critics don’t recommend.) The spectrum this week runs from a Best Picture nominee to a first-person dating documentary to a charmingly goofy rom-com; a little something for everyone, in other words, even you fans of mediocre Bill Murray movies.
Meet the Patels : Brother-and-sister combo Geeta and Ravi Patel’s fleet-footed, frisky personal documentary is charmingly unpretentious – it’s like a home movie, but in the best possible way. Ravi, recently out of a long-term relationship, resigns himself to letting his parents find him a bride via traditional matchmaking methods, a “what the hell” situation that becomes fraught and unexpectedly difficult. It’s funny and quirky, but there are moments of real pain and honesty here (particularly in the matter of his ex, and the quiet resumption of that relationship). Comes pull-quoted as “a real-life My Big Fat Greek Wedding”; don’t let that scare you off. (No bonus features.)
Meadowland : The subject matter is bleak — a young couple’s son is kidnapped, and a year later they’re still in a free fall — the film comes across a little studied (the monologues play like capital-M Monologues), and the lack of directorial restraint sometimes hangs the performers out to dry. But seriously, what performers. The too-often underused Olivia Wilde crafts a forceful portrait of a desperate woman’s descent into self-destruction, and Luke Wilson seems to locate the quiet sadness that’s so often lurked under his nice-guy characterizations. Supporting players are equally impressive (Elisabeth Moss plays way against type, and well); the whole movie may not quite hold, but as an actors’ showcase, it’s hard to beat. (Includes featurette.)
Our Brand Is Crisis : Had this David Gordon Green-helmed adaptation of Rachel Boynton’s documentary not inexplicably tanked back in the fall, Sandra Bullock might be part of the “awards conversation” – her turn as a burned-out political operative working a Bolivian election is fierce, funny, and gleefully uninterested in likability. She spits out her strategy speeches with grit and vitriol, and lights a fire that keeps the picture moving at a splendid clip; her love/hate chemistry with Billy Bob Thornton is palpable, and lends extra spark to their slick dirty tricks. It’s funny and knowing, and the supporting cast is killer. (Includes featurette.)
Bridge of Spies : Director Steven Spielberg’s latest, a chatty Cold War thriller (with a script by newcomer Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers), was a bit of an odd duck last fall: not a lot of advance buzz, dismissed a bit by some critics as unfashionable old hat, yet an unqualified box office success and a Best Picture nominee. And for good reason – it may not be some sort of form-busting innovation, but it’s a solid, sturdy bit of craftsmanship, a spy movie of wit and intelligence, with a Hawksian hang-out vibe and ace performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Maybe it’s “old-fashioned,” but when Rylance gives his big speech about the kind of man Hanks is, in front of one of those great Jamusz Kaminksi smeary windows, and the camera pushes slowly in as composer Thomas Newman sneaks in one of his ineffable piano themes over the symphonic score, well, “old-fashioned” is downright refreshing. (Includes featurettes.)
Man Up : A self-described “sad, single loser” (Lake Bell, sublime) is mistaken for a blind date by a giddy fellow (Simon Pegg, likewise) and decides to roll with it, which sounds like a fairly typical dumb romantic-comedy setup. But then, the wildest thing happens: about a half-hour into the movie, she fesses up, diffusing the giant charade that tends to propel films like these – and then things get really interesting. Screenwriter Tess Morris and director Ben Palmer manage to create both a clever deconstruction of the romantic comedy and an entertaining representation of it; Man Up reverses the traditional first-hate-then-love trajectory, has a wildly improvisational spirit that flies in the face of the genre’s set-in-stone ethos, and features the finest Duran Duran dance scene this side of Donnie Darko. And the duo at its center couldn’t be better together; you want them to get together, and are glad that the movie doesn’t want that to happen in the traditional, trite way. (Includes gag reel, interviews, and featurettes.)
Suffragette : This dramatization of the national campaign of civil disobedience surrounding the British women’s suffrage movement was an early awards favorite last fall, before people started seeing it. It’s not hard to guess why it fizzled; it’s awfully stiff early on, and ultimately pulls too many of its punches. (That woefully ill-conceived promo campaign didn’t help.) But there’s much to recommend here – it’s stirring, it’s handsomely made, Carey Mulligan is invaluable in the lead (her awakening and her hesitations are a useful in-point for the audience), and it accumulates some harrowing sequences on the way to its forceful climax. (Includes audio commentary and featurettes)
Rock the Kasbah : “Let me do the talking,” insists Ritchie Land (Bill Murray), as his traveling party finds itself facing an armed Afghan militia near the conclusion of Barry Levinson’s military comedy – it’s his motto, and how he’s used to handling pretty much any situation that puts itself in his path. A delightfully crooked wash-up of a rock manager, Ritchie spends much of the movie dwelling in, and pumping up, his past; you could say the same for director Levinson (who misses more than he hits lately) and even, occasionally, for Murray. Look, Rock is poorly paced and occasionally desperate and its politics are a little #problematic, and yes, the inevitable redemption and pathos of the third act don’t land. But if you approach it as personality comedy, the kind of thing Abbott & Costello and Hope & Crosby used to do, there are some honest laughs to be found — particularly in the first hour, when Levinson and writer (and frequent Murray collaborator) Mitch Glazer are content to just do “Bill Murray Goes to the War Zone.” (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)