The big movie-star releases this week on disc ( The Comedian and Gold ) are, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Luckily, it’s a great week for very small films – including an Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Film) and two nominees (for Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary). Plus, two excellent Netflix originals and a new Blu-ray release of a ‘70s fave.
Small Crimes : Evan Katz, who helmed the deliciously depraved Cheap Thrills a few years back, returns with this adaptation of David Zeltserman’s novel (penned with Macon Blair, the actor/director behind another recent, and excellent, Netflix original, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore ). It’s a tasty neo-noir, with all the necessary ingredients: an ex-con antihero, hard-boiled dialogue, twisty story, and downright nihilistic worldview. Performances are ace across the board – Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is an appropriately inscrutable lead, while a slimy Gary Cole, chilling Pat Healy, and soulful Robert Forster shine in support – and Katz adroitly juggles the story’s humor and blunt violence, while throwing plot turns like haymakers. It offers up a squirmy good time, without shrinking (particularly at its conclusion) from the story’s emotional implications.
Rodney King : Even as the quality of his high-profile narrative work has varied wildly, Spike Lee has remained singularly gifted in the realms of both documentary and performance films. His latest is more the latter, though there are dashes of the former in this captivating record of Roger Guevere Smith’s stunning solo performance, an imagined monologue of the 1991 LAPD beating victim wrestling with his own demons that night, and in the years that followed. The pair collaborated on Smith’s earlier bio-monologue A Huey P. Newton Story, and they have a fruitful dialogue – the performance is elegantly shot, cut in sync with the rhythms of the text, and inventively presented. But Lee also knows when to step back, and to let the considerable power of Smith’s words and performance take hold.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
I Am Not Your Negro : “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” writes James Baldwin. “It is not a pretty story.” This free-flowing essay film from director Raoul Peck takes that thesis and drills down on it, focusing on the 30 pages of notes Baldwin left behind for a book that told the story of America through the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. But Peck does not consign their lives, nor Baldwin’s, to history; he traverses decades, even centuries, in his cuts and juxtapositions, and everything he finds (old film clips, modern news footage, advertisements, educational shorts, contemporary music) is relevant. Last year’s best documentary (and an Oscar nominee in that category), it’s a staggering, weighty film about context – about understanding the current conflicts within a long history of struggle. Or, as Baldwin puts it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (Includes interviews, Q&As, and video photo gallery.)
The Salesman : One of the pleasures of foreign films is observing the sheer mechanics of life in these distant lands, and the films of Asghar Farhadi certainly offer that. But he also seems more attuned to the day-to-day reality and stress of living on the brink of poverty, which is by no means a purely international concern – and yet it’s one that’s strangely absent from American films. What’s more, he matches that keen eye for everyday lives with an understanding of the power of offhand incidents; his films are full of fumbled interactions and unfortunate misunderstandings that cause ripples far beyond the individual moment, and of people who are trying to make the right decisions in their aftermath. The inciting action of his Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is more traumatic than usual, but he handles it with his customarily keen sense of psychological understanding and narrative sympathy; this is a powerful piece of work, from a filmmaker who knows the most urgent moments in our lives are often the quietest. (Includes interview featurette.)
The Red Turtle : There is not one word of dialogue in this Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature Film from Studio Ghibli – just (aside from the occasional grunt or yell) overwhelming, involving imagery and a luminous score. And frankly, words aren’t needed; the silence matches the serenity of the action in what begins as a man vs. nature story and transforms beautifully into a man plus nature story. Director Michael Dudok de Wit tells his story simply but disarmingly, with emotional resonance and a knack for understated metaphor. Like the best of Ghibli, it reminds us what a boundless art form animation can be – how it can tell stories of all styles, moods, and emotions, for audiences of all ages. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and Q&A.)
Saturday Night Fever : The handful of sounds and images that have imprinted themselves on the pop culture consciousness might lead one to believe John Badham’s 1977 smash is a candy-coated disco good time. It’s far deeper and darker than that, a lived-in portrait of lower-class, outer-borough, toxic-masculine ennui. John Travolta has rarely topped his performance as Tony Manero, the strutting, preening king of the disco whose inner insecurities crash to the surface; the entire picture, but particularly the scenes in his Brooklyn home, has a stumbling authenticity that belies its shiny surfaces. The new Blu-ray is trumpeted as a “Director’s Cut” that really just puts back a couple of previously available deleted scenes, but the audio/video upgrade is tops. (Includes both theatrical and director’s cuts, audio commentary, featurettes, and deleted scene.)