This week’s big home video release is, well, really big: one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, in fact. So to balance that out, we offer up a straight-up weird-fest from one of its stars, plus three festival favorites debuting on Netflix.
Christmas, Again : Every year, the trailers roll into the neighborhoods, and a certain kind of (usually) guy sets up shop, selling Christmas trees to the locals and sleeping in the generator-heated trailer between shifts. Charles Poekel’s seriocomic drama concerns one of those guys, a heavy-hearted dude named Noel (of course), who’s been doing it for five years but is having a tougher time getting in the holiday spirit this season, thanks to a recent break-up. Writer/director Poekel doesn’t manufacture conflict and doesn’t even get that concerned about plot; he just gets into this guy’s head for a while. It’s a modest film, to say the least, but a convincing portrait of heartbreak and desperation.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism : In ’80s-era Romania, all media was under state control, providing citizens with only two hours of television propaganda programming per night. So citizens would gather in apartments furnished with illegal, imported VCRs, and watch black-market bootlegs, copies of copies of American movies dubbed into their native tongue (usually by the same busy woman). Ilinca Calugareanu’s clip- and reenactment-heavy documentary is a captivating look at a subculture — loaded with fascinating details about how films were acquired, duplicated, and distributed — and is chock-full of enjoyable ’80s-style kitsch. But it’s also a surprisingly sincere tribute to the true power of cinema, even in its goofiest iterations.
Stray Dog: Debra Granik’s documentary follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone opens with a pack of aging, grizzled bikers hanging out in parking lots, roaring down highways, and drinking moonshine out of jelly jars. But within minutes, we’re watching one of them learning Spanish on his computer and painting figurines with his Mexican wife. You think you know people, and you might think you know Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, but Granik’s quietly observational movie (no interviews, no voiceover, just moments) takes in a man who seems like a type, living a very average Midwestern trailer park life, and discovers the real guy: a likable old salty dog whose warm exterior conceals a lot of sadness and a lot of pain. But it’s not a sad film, and it’s not “poverty porn” — it’s filled with earthy humor and love, for both this man and what he represents.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens : Look, it’s the all-time domestic box office champ, so you’ve probably seen J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars sequel if you were going to. But if you somehow haven’t, it’s very much the course correction this series needed, punting the punishing humorlessness and dry politics of the Lucas prequels and remembering what we’re there for: swashbuckling action, honest laughs, and good old-fashioned fun. And with the addition of a resourceful heroine and a new hero with a killer backstory, they’re not just replaying their greatest hits — they’re pointing the way towards a new and exciting mythology. Can’t wait. (Includes feature-length The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey documentary, featurettes, and deleted scenes.)
ON BLU-RAY/DVD/AMAZON PRIME
Mojave : WHAT AN INCREDIBLE COINCIDENCE, they’re releasing another Oscar Isaac movie on the very same day as TFA, complete with a pull-quote on the cover that literally reads, “This thriller with a Star Wars star is a must-see!” That said, you can’t blame them for taking whatever tack they can to sell William Monahan’s witty, bizarre, and expectation-thwarting meditation on masculinity, iconography, religion, and storytelling. Isaac is easily the best thing in it, coming on like some sort of campfire-philosophizing desert rat before revealing a true sociopath lurking underneath, following spoiled filmmaker Garrett Hedlund out of the desert and into Hollywood for a battle of wits and wills. Monahan’s dialogue is lyrical and razor-sharp, though the Hollywood satire stuff feels shipped in from another movie, and the flick gets a little sticky in the third act as conventional thriller elements arrive. Still, it’s a delicious turn from Mr. Isaac; I’m starting to think this kid might have a future in the moving pictures. (Includes featurette and deleted scenes; also streaming free for Amazon Prime members.)