Things are picking up a bit on the home movie-watching front this week, with a nice variety of choices: terrific recent documentaries via Netflix, PBS, and DVD, plus a stirring coming-of-age-story, a classic screwball comedy, and one of last year’s most controversial dramas.
Miss Sharon Jones! : Documentary legend Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) trains her camera on Jones, the Dap-Kings leader (often, and accurately, described as “the female James Brown”) for a few tough months in late 2013 and early 2014, when she had to put her career on hold to battle stage two pancreatic cancer. It’s a shock when Kopple hard-cuts from Jones tearing it up on stage to sitting still in bed, patiently explaining her busy TV-watching schedule – but this is no tear-jerker, and the subject’s good humor and fighting spirit keep the energy up. On the side, we get a fascinating peek at the nuts and bolts of being a working musician, and the tricky dynamics of relationships within the band. But it’s mostly a story of rejuvenation and recovery, and when Jones is back on stage, struggling to remember her lyrics and apologizing for being “a little short-winded,” you’re right there with her. It’s a heart-wrenching movie, even more so in light of Miss Jones’s untimely passing in November.
ON DVD/ NETFLIX
As I Open My Eyes : A young woman coming of age, torn between the expectations of her parents and the passions in her heart, isn’t exactly an untold story. What makes this telling unique, and gives it far higher stakes, is the story’s setting in Tunis, circa summer 2010 – where such a young woman has decidedly less of a say, and singing her protest songs about that time and place puts her in actual danger. Director Leyla Bouzid is keenly observant; she understands the scariness of exerting one’s independence, and mirrors that internal conflict with those of her protagonist’s band and the pressures that may tear them apart. Heartfelt, moving, and more than a little scary. (Also streaming on Netflix.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD/ PBS.ORG
By Sidney Lumet : The very first close-up of the late filmmaker Sidney Lumet, looking thoughtful and contemplative, prompted more of an emotional response than I’d expected; I miss this man, and I miss his work. Nancy Buirski’s new documentary – created for PBS’s American Masters, which is streaming it in its entirety online – is drawn from a previously unseen 2008 interview, and drawn only from that, eschewing (as with the similarly personal De Palma ) other voices, in interviews or narration, to let this one man tell his own story. But it’s not a conventional cradle-to-grave biography, or even top-to-bottom survey of the work; it’s less interview then conversation, floating non-chronologically yet organically from topic to topic and theme to theme. And the more he talks, the more it becomes clear that while Lumet’s mostly invisible touch and genre-hopping made him seem less a stylist than some of his contemporaries, his style wasn’t about aesthetics – it was about the big ideas, of rebellion and authority and family and society, that run through the entire, impressive filmography.
ON DVD/ PBS.ORG
Command and Control : Director Robert Kenner (adapting Eric Schlosser’s book) constructs a tense, scary tick-tock of a 1980 accident at an Arkansas facility housing a powerful nuclear warhead, but he doesn’t stop there; he uses the incident as the framing device to cue historical and scientific digressions on the nuclear age and its relatively unexamined danger not to our enemies, but our citizens. The implications of disturbances like this are downright terrifying, and Kenner captures that intensity in his documentary (which recently aired on PBS’s American Experience, and is also streaming on their site) via candid interviews, stylish reconstructions, and urgent music, creating a brisk, efficient exploration of a troubling moment in our history, with questions that are very much of this moment. (Includes both theatrical and television versions.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD/ VOD
The Birth of a Nation : Others have made their arguments against supporting Nate Parker’s docudrama account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in light of troubling revelations about Mr. Parker’s past, and that’s everyone’s own call to make. But for whatever it’s worth, his film is stirring and emotionally wrecking – and important. Parker plays Turner, a charismatic preacher and leader who begins to consider exactly what it means to be a man of God, who finally decides he has seen enough injustice, and cannot see any more. The visceral power of the rebellion’s dramatization is undeniable, but Parker doesn’t just settle on this momentary victory and inspiration; he underscores the fallout as well, and understands how this story from 1831 remains relevant to this day. Suitably epic filmmaking, yet bursting with life and power. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and short film.)
His Girl Friday : As with last month’s release of One-Eyed Jacks, the good folks at Criterion have given a much-needed refurbish to a mainstay of cheapo public domain bins – in this case, Howard Hawks’s celebrated 1940 adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s stage hit The Front Page. It was previously made into a film in 1931; Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer famously turned star reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman, created a romantic history with editor Walter Burns as adversarial as their work relationship, and wound up with one of the great comedies of the era. It hasn’t lost a bit of its bite; this fast-talking, lightning-paced, whip-smart picture influenced everyone from Mamet to Sorkin to Tarantino, and the sexy spark of stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell still leaps from the screen. (Includes new and archival interviews, Hawks featurettes, radio adaptations, trailers, and a new restoration of the full 1931 film of The Front Page.)