The Trials of Muhammad Ali : The recent death of Muhammad Ali has prompted an understandable uptick in viewing of films about his life, and that life was certainly not one lacking immortalization; you can trace the bulk of Ali’s career through the scores of documentaries and biopics that have taken him as their subject. Bill Siegel’s 2013 portrait – recently re-upped on Netflix – is less concerned with him as a fighter than as a political figure, focusing primarily on Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam, which led to a three-and-a-half year legal battle and exile from the ring. As straight biography, it’s pretty familiar (and was dramatized, around the same time but from the Supreme Court POV, in the HBO movie Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight); the film’s value is in the detail paid to Ali’s development as a political thinker and provocateur, via copious (and often tense) clips from speaking engagements and television appearances. Ali was a great fighter, but he was also a fascinating man, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali pays him the compliment of viewing his life as a continuing philosophical evolution.
10 Cloverfield Lane : Dan Trachtenberg’s sorta-sequel to producer J.J. Abrams’s 2008 Cloverfield is, for most of its running time, a dazzling, absorbing, sometimes unbearably tense thriller, an efficient and precise three-hander that rarely takes a false step or sounds a false note, with flawless performances by stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (equal parts fierceness and vulnerability), John Gallagher Jr. (charming while resisting the urge to play up his character’s “simplicity”), and particularly John Goodman (pivoting easily from folksy teddy bear and paranoid lunatic). It falls apart a bit at the end, in which the ongoing questions of what lurks outside their shelter door is answered – and is, like so many of these things, a disappointment – but that complaint aside, this is a smart, gripping piece of genre craftsmanship. (Includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
45 Years : Kate and Geoff Mercer are rock solid; they have an offhand intimacy, their gentle ribbing has decades of backstory, and they’re currently preparing for their 45th wedding anniversary. But a few days before, a letter arrives, and becomes a reminder of the complexity of each other’s secrets; you spend enough of your life with someone, and you can forget they had a life before you. That life becomes an obsession for Kate, magnificently played by Charlotte Rampling as a woman haunted by a ghost; Tom Courtenay is equally smashing as a man who realizes what he’s doing to her, perhaps too late. The direction by Andrew Haigh (Weekend) is subtle and marvelous, keeping a respectful distance, and letting even the smallest moments pay enormous emotional dividends. (No special features.)
Eddie the Eagle : Director Dexter Fletcher tells the story of Eddie Edwards, the underdog hero of the 1988 Olympics, in a charmingly retro style; it’s a carefully constructed throwback, looking and sounding and playing like a movie not only set in the late ‘80s, but made then as well. It’s just about the only way you can get away with this oft-told a tale – by acknowledging that we’ve seen it all before (this isn’t even the first movie about a plucky underdog at those Olympics; Calgary ’88 was the year that gave us Cool Runnings’ Jamaican bobsled team). Some movies must overcome their clichés; this one embraces them, which veers it from moldy and trite to cheerfully knowing and impossible to dislike. (Includes featurette.)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan : Alexander Hall’s 1941 comedy (newly reissued by Criterion) concerns a prizefighter whose soul is pulled from his body just before seemingly certain death – too soon, as it turns out, so the powers-that-be on high place his soul in the body of a millionaire as he tries to reconfigure his life. It’s an ingenious premise (and often imitated, primarily via the remakes Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth), and Hall’s film has a lot of fun laying out the rules of this world, and the logistics of its theology, which ends up engaging in thoughtful ruminations on faith and fate. Claude Rains is exquisite as the title character, the guy behind the guy in the afterlife, all elegance and patience; Robert Montgomery is the terrific lead, a likably wide-eyed lug. The straight romantic subplot is kind of a clunker (not unusual in comedies of this period), but its heart is true, and the conclusion is surprisingly effective, hopeful and melancholy in just the right portions. (Includes interviews, radio adaptation, and trailer.)
La Chienne : Jean Renoir’s second sound film (also new from Criterion) is the story of an unhappily married loner who falls for a prostitute, and the pimp who encourages the relationship for his own gain. Renoir’s surprisingly frank script explores the tension of exploitation, the dynamics that drive these relationships, and how messy it gets when they explode. Renoir’s film – and his camera – move sparingly but deliberately, circling these people and waiting for this thing to go sideways, and arriving at a conclusion of true complexity, in which poetic justice and class privilege jockey for position. Haunting, frank, and remarkable. (Includes full-length television documentary, new introductions, vintage Renoir introduction, and new restoration of On purge bébé – Renoir’s first sound film.)