We’ve got a nice spread of movies and outlets for your home consumption this week – with a new Michael Moore, an ‘80s diversion, and a stone-cold classic on Blu-ray, plus two of our favorite recent indies available on your streaming platforms. Find your flavor [Nicely done – Flavor Ed.] and dig in.
The Keeping Room : Harrowing, tense, and emotionally (and often physically) brutal, this feminist Western with echoes of Straw Dogs is, make no mistake, a bit of an ordeal. But it’s also a thrilling and powerful work, in which a trio of women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, and Muna Otaru) left behind in the Civil War South are stalked and hunted by a pair of Yankee “boomers” gone rogue. One is played by Sam Worthington, and come to find out, he’s not a leading man after all; he’s a villain, and a good one. But he’s no match for Marling, who’s simply tremendous as the strongest of the trio (all three women get a chance to shine, and all three step up). Playing long spells without dialogue — including a riveting opening stretch — director Daniel Barber impresses with the elegance and efficiency of his visual storytelling, and the sheer poetry of his images.
ON AMAZON PRIME
99 Homes : Michael Shannon is brash, brutal, and perfect as a gangster real estate broker in this urgent topical drama from Rahmin Bahrani (Man Push Cart). Andrew Garfield is a desperate construction guy who first loses his family home to Shannon, then makes a deal with this smooth-talking devil. Bahrani beautifully dramatizes the conflict: our “hero” does terrible work for incredible reward, and the filmmaker ends up slyly testing the entire concept of empathy for the protagonist. Garfield is very good, reminding us there’s a fine actor hiding under the Spidey suit. But it’s Shannon’s show all the way, particularly in his killer “America doesn’t bail out the losers” speech, which is good drama, good writing, good commentary, and great performance, all at once. Some of the storytelling is overly coincidental and the ending’s a bit too tidy, but overall, this is sharp, intelligent, and infuriating filmmaking.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Where to Invade Next : Michael Moore too often succumbs to his crude schoolboy tricks and worst anecdotal instincts, and there are chunks of his latest documentary where he seems bound and determined to ignore the legitimate criticisms that haunt even his best work. Yet when Moore gets out of his own way, he’s still capable of tremendous sequences and potent juxtapositions, like an opening credit scene that intercuts presidents explaining how we’ll cripple our enemies with sharp reminders of what we’re doing to ourselves, or a powerful sequence that compares how Germany addresses the shame of its history with how we soft-soap ours. The central conceit is clever – Moore “invades” foreign countries to steal the smart policies and good ideas that could save America – and the passion is genuine. If Moore fumbles occasionally, approach the movie like he approaches his targets: by “stealing the flowers, not the weeds.” (No bonus features.)
In A Lonely Place : Humphrey Bogart turned in one of his finest performances in this moody, quiet character study from director Nicholas Ray, as a haunted, wounded, hot-headed screenwriter. This guy is a real mess, dark and melancholy, and seeing him played by a cool customer like Bogie provides an extra wallop – particularly since he’s paired with the great Gloria Grahame, whose scorching heat is only the outer shell of an anguished, layered, unforgettable characterization. Ray slyly explores the complexity of ‘50s masculinity (his hero’s name is “Dixon Steel,” and they way its shortened version sounds like “Dick Steel” can’t be an accident), and is fascinated by the way Grahame is simultaneously terrified and turned on by his volatility, which lends the back half-hour a potent sense of creeping inevitability and dread. Criterion’s gorgeous restoration beautifully captures the black and white picture’s many shades of narrative grey. (Includes audio commentary, Ray documentary, interviews, and radio adaptation.)
The Manhattan Project : Writer/director Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote Annie Hall and Manhattan) turns what could’ve been a half-assed WarGames riff – absurdly brilliant kid and his maybe-girlfriend snoop their way into near-Armageddon – into an entertaining, intelligent, and (by its unsurprisingly high-stakes conclusion) legitimately gripping thriller. Much of its success lies in the casting by Juliet Taylor (another frequent Woody Allen collaborator), who fills the supporting roles with stars-to-be like Cynthia Nixon, Richard Jenkins, John Mahoney, and Robert Sean Leonard; best of all is leading man John Lithgow, who projects a fascinating combination of cockiness and neediness as the scientist in charge of “the purest plutonium in the universe.” (Includes trailer.)