It’s a damn rough week for new releases on disc – the big titles of note are poor King Arthur, the decidedly mixed bag of Snatched, and the indies Wolves and The Dinner, both of which make shockingly poor use of their great casts. But we’ve got a pair of catalogue titles worth your while, and three new-to-Netflix streamers that are equally attention-worthy.
Icarus : This first-person documentary from director Bryan Fogel pulls a bit of a bait-and-switch, starting as what seems to be a sports-doping Super Size Me (Fogel, a cyclist, injects himself with performance-enhancing drugs and tracks the results onscreen), then becoming a much bigger story — because that’s the story he finds himself in the middle of. Put another way, its starts as a sports movie and turns into a spy movie, with good ol’ inescapable Russia muscling its way into the narrative, as one of Fogel’s sources blows the whistle on the country’s long-running, Putin-pushed doping programs. Icarus premiered at Sundance clear back in January, so it’s only grown more relevant since then, as the topic of Russian corruption and state-sponsored interference into international matters has become, y’know, pretty credible. But it’s also a riveting piece of nonfiction filmmaking, stylish and tense and generally explosive.
Jackie Brown : Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited, much anticipated 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction would’ve had a hard time topping that film’s quotability, inventiveness, and pop culture ubiquity; smart guy that he is, he didn’t even try. Instead, he made a laid-back adaptation of a marvelous, late-period Elmore Leonard novel, and handed the leading roles to Pam Grier and Robert Forster, at a moment when he was about the only director who could get a studio to go for that. They generate genuine warmth and affection as a put-upon airline stewardess and the bail bondsman who falls for her; Samuel L. Jackson turns in one of his most chilling performances as the bad guy who first wants to use them, and then wants to kill them. All of Tarantino’s films have aged just fine, but Jackie Brown’s mellow vibe and preoccupation with mature characters make it quite possibly the only one that’s getting better with each passing year.
Dark Night : Writer/director Tim Sutton (Memphis) fills this low-key drama with allusions to the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but it’s only about it in the way Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was about Columbine – it sees the movie theater shooting as something less tied to this specific incident than as a fact of our lives, as they are right now. He tells his story as a series of understated and often disconnected character sketches and behavioral details. We know where he’s headed, which allows some agonizing false alarms; he’s toying with our expectation for bloodshed. It’s a film that says much, but mostly avoids heavy-handedness – though occasionally a television or radio reports on another shooting, or the trial of an earlier one, a reminder that this has all become part of our fabric. Or, worse, part of the background.
The Breaking Point : In 1944, Howard Hawks adapted Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not – a terrific movie, but not much of an adaptation, dumping all but the set-up to focus on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s scorching chemistry, and a plot much closer to Bogie’s recent hit Casablanca than the original book. So it wasn’t a big deal to make a much closer adaptation, six years later – under the hand, amusingly enough, of Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. John Garfield plays the lead less in the style of Bogart’s lovable rogue than as a bitter antihero, morally flexible on everything except his marriage – which gives his flirtation with other woman Patricia Neal a real slow-boil charge. (The way she purrs, “Ew, I don’t think I like you” is a master class in subtext.) But the film’s emotional heft is carried by Phyllis Thaxter as the wife, a performance filled with moments of quiet tragedy, which end up allowing the movie to both earn its otherwise-unconvincing happy ending, and to hedge it with a series of shattering images in the final scene. Curtiz drenches the picture in sweaty desperation and hard-boiled atmosphere (“You’re very nervous.” “That’s because I’ve never been killed before”), sharply executing the brutish, tense action beats. God, what a movie this is. (Includes interview, featurette, video essay, trailer, and Hemingway-related archival TV clip.)
Freebie and the Bean : Richard Rush’s 1974 hit has not, to put it mildly, aged well, between the brownface (we’re told that Alan Arkin is Mexican – ALAN ARKIN), the casual homophobia and transphobia (in a bathroom, even), and the cheerful embrace of police corruption and brutality. But it was, as they say, a different time, and it’s a fascinating capsule of that time, for better or worse. And, incongruently, it’s also a film ahead of its time, with Arkin and James Caan’s odd-couple buddy-cop pairing (and the adjacent short-timing, bickering, breaking the rules, etc.) predating the proliferation of that strain of movie by a decade or so. Arkin and Caan bring their existing personas into battle and get an entertaining back-and-forth going; Valerie Harper, as Arkin’s (also Mexican!) wife, is straight-up terrific. So yes – a real recommendation with reservations, this one. (Includes trailer.)