This week’s home viewing guide isn’t quite the out-of-control melee we ended up with last week, but it’s still bursting at the seams: a recent and a vintage Oscar nominee, early John Waters and late Ben Affleck, one of last year’s best documentaries, and curios from the ‘50s and ‘70s. Plus, one of our favorite movie-ccentric TV shows returns to Netflix with some of its best episodes.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Yes, it’s a cheat, we’re just supposed to put movies on here. But Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a TV show where they watch movies, so… it gets a pass? Point is, in advance of the April debut of the cult fave’s revival season, Netflix has added a 20-title collection of episodes from the show’s original, ten-season run, and there are some mighty good ones; my favorite of bunch is I Accuse My Parents, a very typical ‘50s juvenile-delinquent drama (much like The Delinquents, below), given a thorough roasting by Joel and the ‘bots, but that speaks to my particular MST3K preference. Longtime fans and newbies alike will find much to enjoy here, from all-time classic episodes like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Pod People, and Eegah! to underrated titles like Zombie Nightmare, Catalina Caper, and Werewolf.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Live By Night: Director/screenwriter/star Ben Affleck took an unexpected stumble with his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Argo; this adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s Prohibition-era gangster novel was a critical and commercial failure last winter, which probably had more than a little to do with his subsequent “decision” not to helm The Batman. But the film itself has a lot to offer. Yes, the period gangster picture trappings of the first act feel very much like reheated leftovers. But once Affleck’s gangster flees the big city for the more modestly paced corruption of sunny Florida, the film goes in some genuinely interesting directions, with a wild-child-turned-teen-evangelist subplot that’s unexpectedly affecting (thanks to terrific performances by Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper) and a surprisingly timely, and thus endlessly satisfying, KKK vs. Mob battle. It’s certainly Affleck’s least successful directorial effort to date, but it’s far better than its odd and outright dismissal would indicate. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, and featurettes.)
Tower: Director Keith Maitland explores the 1966 University of Texas clock tower mass shooting in a strikingly unexpected way, intermingling archival news footage and audio recordings with reenacted scenes and interviews, put through the “rotoscoping” animation process. What could have been an alienating device ends up making the picture even more immediate, dramatic, and tense; it’s scary, visceral filmmaking, and the moments in which Maitland chooses to drop his devices and use color and/or the original participants are stunningly effective. It’s the story of a tragedy, but also of regular people and the searing bravery they’re capable of, and the Walter Cronkite commentary on the tragedy is, 50 years later, still distressingly relevant. (Includes character profiles, deleted scenes, and trailer.)
Miss Sloane : “Our system is rotten,” announces Jessica Chastain’s title character, near the end of Miss Sloane. “It rewards rats who are willing to sell out their country to keep their noses in the trough.” HEY MOVIES ARE GREAT ESCAPISM, EH? That little trigger warning aside, this is a mostly solid, Michael Clayton-style political procedural, filled with sharp turns, neat double-crosses, and a hard, tough central performance by Ms. Chastain that’s mostly free of soft edges and pat redemptions. Jonathan Perera’s script is somewhat overwritten, particularly in the set-up, while director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) lets it run on a bit too long. But it’s a satisfying picture – and, earlier warning aside, one that’s proudly partisan, dealing with real issues in the real world rather than ghosting in abstracts. (Includes featurette.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / NETFLIX
Fire at Sea: The distress calls, from boats loaded with migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Europe, that open Gianfranco Rosi’s Oscar nominee for Best Documentary are harrowing and desperate: “We beg you please, in the name of God… please, we beg you.” Their story is tragic, but Rosi’s film is more about behavior than information; shot on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which has become a landing point for migrants fleeing the Middle East, it situates itself at the crossroads of current events documentary and Italian neorealism. Fire is structurally and tonally risky in a way much more common to narrative films – and in fact, there are long stretches, right up to the end, where it’s not easy to figure out what they’re doing. But by the time Rosi’s cameras are tagging along on a rescue mission, looking on as reports of more dead bodies cross the radio, it’s nothing less than emotionally and aesthetically overwhelming. (Includes interviews and New York Film Festival Q&A.) (Also streaming on Netflix.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / FILMSTRUCK
Multiple Maniacs: It’s sort of hilarious that shock king John Waters’s pre-Pink Flamingos 1970 feature (previously only available on hard-to-find VHS) got not only a lavish restoration and theatrical reissue but a fancy-schmancy Criterion Collection home video release, considering what a ragtag piece of work it is – from the queasiness of the hand-held photography to the clumsy zooms to the awkward staging to the visible microphones and shadows. But the Manson-family-home-movie amateurishness is part of its charm; there’s a sense that Waters and his “Dreamlanders” are just kids playing dress-up, though they’re really fucking demented kids. And the fruit of their labors is twisted, disgusting, melodramatic, silly, and hilarious, all in roughly equal measure. (Features audio commentary and cast/crew interviews.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
Being There: Iconoclastic director Hal Ashby, innovative screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski, and one-of-a-kind star Peter Sellers (in one of his final film roles) teamed for this 1979 classic – new to the Criterion Collection – in which Sellers plays a sheltered, television obsessed gardener who becomes an unlikely political advisor. Yes, there are some uncomfortable parallels with a movie about a simpleton who only understands what he sees on the TV box becoming a political force. But it doesn’t detract for the small miracle of this movie, which takes what could’ve been a sitcom-schtick premise and invests it with wit, whimsy, intelligence, and insight. And Sellers, who was nominated for an Oscar (and, nothing against Dustin Hoffman, should’ve won) was never better. (Includes making-of documentary, excerpts from Ashby’s AFI seminar, Sellers and Koskinski TV interviews, promo reel, deleted scene, outtakes, alternate ending, trailer, and TV spots.)
The Delinquents: Let me be totally clear on this one: The Delinquents is a pretty goofy late-‘50s JD melodrama, in which a cast of typically overage “teenagers” get into trouble and learn hard lessons about being model pre-adults. What makes it worth seeing, at least for film buffs, is its curiosity value – this was the very first narrative feature from a young Midwestern director by the name of Robert Altman, and it starred an up-and-coming actor named Tom Laughlin. Laughlin would find fame a good decade-plus later, when he and his wife made a series of immensely profitable independent films in which Laughlin played karate-chopping part-Native American pacifist Billy Jack; Altman, of course, would become what of the most renowned directors of the 1970s and beyond. It’s not terribly recognizable as an Altman film – he hadn’t yet developed his signature overlapping dialogue or roving camera style. If anything, it’s amusing to watch a film helmed by one of the art’s most notorious non-conformists preaching the gospel of being a good citizen and church-goer. (Includes trailer.)
Won Ton Ton – The Dog Who Saved Hollywood: Of the many nostalgia-soaked looks at Hollywood’s early years that graced cinemas in the 1970s, the oddest was probably Michael Winner’s riff on the legend of Rin Tin Tin, directed with the kind of light comic touch you’d expect from the director of Death Wish, Death Wish II, and Death Wish 3. But it’s worth seeking out for one big reason: a rare straight-up leading role for the great Madeline Kahn, hot off her scene-stealing turns in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, absolutely killing it as “Estie Del Ruth,” the would-be starlet who takes our canine hero under her wing. Kahn handles the role’s considerable physical and verbal comedy with equal aplomb, and is effortlessly sexy besides; it’s the kind of performance that makes you wonder why she so rarely managed to break out of ensembles and carry more films on her own, since she was clearly capable of it. The movie is a treat for film buffs as well, thanks to cameos from Joan Blondell, Ethel Merman, Jackie Coogan, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Lamour, Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee, Cyd Charisse, The Ritz Brothers, and many more.