This week’s home video haul includes two greats from Criterion – one an all-time classic, one a long-elusive music documentary – plus the latest from Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith taking on the NFL, and a documentary tribute to a recently departed hip-hop innovator.
Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest : The untimely death last week of Tribe’s founding member Phife Dawg has prompted plenty of spins for the group’s vital and innovative music; this 2011 documentary tribute from actor/director Michael Rapaport is also worth your time. Filling in the group’s history (and, in the process, the concurrent rise of the Native Tongue movement) while documenting their testy reunion on the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, Rapaport ends up with something akin to a hip-hop Let It Be, in which battling egos and shifting musical purposes unravel a truly inspired crew. And it’s full of love for Phife, who comes off as warm, funny, level-headed, and charming. (Streaming free – with ads – on Crackle this week; also available for rental via Amazon and the usual suspects.)
ON BLU-RAY/ DVD/ VOD
The Hateful Eight : Quentin Tarantino’s post-Civil War Western became one of his most divisive efforts to date; some audiences and critics claimed it hit too many of the same notes as Django Unchained, while others accused it of doubling down on that film’s fetishized violence and button-pushing language, with a shot of misogyny thrown into the mix. Maybe those criticisms are valid; your experience is your own. But this viewer found Tarantino’s mash-up of old school Western and Agatha Christie drawing room mystery to be an invigorating, entertaining, and thought-provoking chamber piece – gleefully provocative, energetically acted, gorgeously mounted. And yes, it’s long and chatty and indulgent and casually disturbing. It’s Tarantino. God bless ‘im. (Includes featurettes.)
Will Smith in “Concussion.”
Concussion : Director Peter Landesman’s dramatization of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s crusade against the National Football League came and went from theaters (and awards season) rather quietly at the end of the year, and it’s easy to see why: his low-key approach to the material, clearly influenced by Michael Mann’s The Insider, perhaps wasn’t the sort of barn burner audiences and voters were looking for. But it’s a modestly powerful picture that tells an important story, and the performances by Will Smith (grounded, passionate, just plain good) and Albert Brooks (stealing scenes without breaking a sweat) are top-notch. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and deleted scenes.)
Bicycle Thieves : Vitorrio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece, first released by Criterion back in 2007, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment, and it’s well worth the upgrade; the new 4K restoration is dynamite, and though there are no new special features, the port-overs are choice. But the main attraction is obviously the film itself, a gritty and heart-wrenching portrait of poverty and struggle, told in the straightforward, unsentimental style that was a cornerstone of Italian Neorealism. Bracing and inspiring, it’s one of the finest films ever made, full stop, do not pass go, forever and ever, amen. (Includes interviews, featurette, and documentary.)
A Poem Is a Naked Person : The great documentarian Les Blank shot this portrait of rowdy and gifted musician Leon Russell between 1972 and 1974, but due to legal woes and creative differences, it didn’t see a proper theatrical release until last year. Now it makes its (legal) home video debut via Criterion, and it’s a peach – loose-limbed and go-with-the-flow, much like its subject, with an impressionistic and observational style that just kinda drifts through Russell’s world, in something of a (presumably marijuana-induced) haze. Blank is unsurprisingly more interested in the freaks and weirdos around Russell – he especially digs the folks near the musician’s Oklahoma home, adding cheerful subtitles to vernacular delights like “liked to come unglued” and “this, that, n’ the other” – but he ends up with a fascinating snapshot of road life: hanging out, chatting up groupies, getting married, philosophizing about finding yourself, rambling about snakes, and occasionally, when the mood strikes, playing some music. (Includes documentaries, interviews, and trailers.)