One of 2016’s biggest hits – unsurprisingly, it’s a movie about talking animals – and a summer sleeper comedy are the big new titles of note on disc this week, and there are plenty of other options: a riveting literary documentary, a long-lost music flick, a long-lost Bertolucci drama, and two treats from Criterion.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Don’t Think Twice: Mike Birbiglia’s first feature, 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me, was very much a star vehicle/introduction, and worked beautifully as such. He goes in a different direction for his sophomore effort, an ensemble story about an NYC improv troupe whose members are starting to realize that their small-scale success might be life “telling us to move on.” The intimacy of the filmmaking here is striking – Birbiglia writes, directs, and plays one of the troupe’s members, and it feels like it’s made from inside the group, aware of their neurosis, insecurities, and inclinations towards self-sabotage. Some of the tonal changes jar, and the improvisation scenes don’t always feel authentic. But it’s a funny and likable picture, and convincing snapshot of aging and coming to terms with where you’re at, and where you might not go. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
The Secret Life of Pets: Let’s not beat around the bush here: this story of what pets do when we’re gone, anchored by the rivalry between the old favorite and the new arrival, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Toy Story (with a weird, presumably accidental echo of Finding Dory’s animals-driving-trucks business). But its team had the good sense to hire the year’s best comic ensemble to voice it: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan and Albert Brooks all turn up, so even when the material is familiar or underdeveloped, their crackerjack timing and clever line readings render this inoffensive family pic plenty funny. (Includes featurette, lyric video, and mini-movies – including the laugh-free Minions short that accompanied it in theaters. Also available in a fairly snazzy 3D Blu-ray version.)
ON DVD / VOD
Author: The JT LeRoy Story: The scandal of JT LeRoy, the 17-year-old HIV-positive homeless hustler whose scorching fiction and harrowing backstory captivated the literary scene for a good decade before he was unmasked as an invention of thirty-something writer and fabulist Laura Albert, is fascinating enough to make for a first-class A-to-Z documentary. But writer/director Jeff Feuerzeig creates something closer to a psychological mystery, less interested in how Albert pulled off this deception than why. She spent a lifetime of struggling with identity, character, abuse, and persona, and her story is ingeniously intercut in parallel with LeRoy’s impressive rise and swift fall. It’s a cinematic page-turner – the deception keeps widening and intensifying, while the question of reliability (it’s primarily told by Albert) provides a powerful backbeat. A sensational but unsensationalistic telling of a riveting story.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD
The Big TNT Show: A few years back, Shout Factory performed a prize-worthy public service by rescuing the 1964 rock concert feature The T.A.M.I. Show from rights doldrums and releasing it, for the first time, on home video; now they’re upgrading it to Blu-ray, along with its even lesser-seen 1966 follow-up feature. Phil Spector came on to produce this one and lead the house band (featuring much of the fabled Wrecking Crew), and as with T.A.M.I., its highlights are the soul performers: a killer Ray Charles set, a knee-knocking Bo Diddley, and a Ronettes performance that’s pure joy. There are some miscalculations: Joan Baez doing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” a sluggish Byrds set, Donovan’s faux-Dylan iteration (which even the hyped live audience isn’t feeling). But all is forgiven when Ike & Tina Turner show up to close things out, with Tina coming on like a fucking firecracker. Those moments of joyful noise handily cancel out the duds, and even when it drags, TNT Show is a fascinating snapshot of the full range of pop music, in that specific, wide-open moment. (Includes interviews.)
ON DVD/ BLU-RAY
Heart of a Dog: Laurie Anderson helms her first feature in three decades, a dreamlike essay film that fills its slender, 75-minute running time with memories, stories, musings, and detours, most of them springing from her relationship with her rat terrier Lolabelle. She got the dog after 9/11, as a kind of comfort creature, and his ties to that moment provide a way in to her musings on her city, her country, our surveillance state, and 21st century living in general; she uses whatever tools are available, from home movies to news footage, abstract images to direct on-screen text, all connected with her soothing but authoritative voice. Her story spans the dog’s life, and there’s some awfully poignant material drawn from the real agony of losing a pet (“We learned to love Lola as she had loved us, with a tenderness we didn’t know we had”), which eases her into an exploration of both life and afterlife. Thoughtful, elegiac, and strangely powerful. (Includes alternate soundtrack, conversation, deleted scenes, trailer, and footage from Anderson’s 2016 Concert for Dogs.)
The Exterminating Angel: Director Luis Buñuel’s 1962 allegorical satire – a kind of dry run for his later Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – concerns a group of petty, gossipy rich people who retire to their host’s music room after a dinner party and are, for hours, weeks, months, unable to leave. Buñuel eschews explanation; they cannot leave this room, and that’s that, and as their actions and interactions grow increasingly savage, he approaches their dilemma with deadpan humor and surrealist blankness. Bleakly funny, intelligently piercing, and altogether remarkable, it’s one of Buñuel’s very best. (Includes documentary, interviews, and trailer.)
La Luna: In 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci’s (suddenly controversial again) Last Tango in Paris shattered norms for onscreen sexuality, and was a critical and commercial smash in the process. Seven years later, he attempted to go even further, with less success; this story of an incestuous affair between a mother (Jill Clayburgh) and her teenage son (Matthew Barry) was too much for even ‘70s audiences to swallow, and the film caused such a scandal that it never saw an American home video release until now. It is, indeed, pretty shocking stuff (and, in spots, plenty silly as well), and even Bertolucci ultimately can’t transcend the impossibility of the subject. And there are other problems – the meandering script misses its payoffs, and either Barry or his character are more than a little insufferable. But it’s certainly not boring; it’s gorgeously photographed (by the great Vitorrio Storarro, natch), the depiction of drug addiction is properly harrowing, and Clayburgh is terrific in a role that could ruin most actors. A bit of a niche pick, obviously, but a fascinating curio and callback to a riskier era; take in that 20th Century Fox logo movie at the beginning, and try to imagine a major studio bankrolling something like this today. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, and theatrical teaser.)