Yet another new Stephen King adaptation is front and center in this week’s home viewing guide, along with a pair of very good music documentaries, a ghost story and a vampire story, a TV movie that’s better than most theatrical releases, and a TV version of a beloved theatrical release. Confused? All will become clear below.
Gerald’s Game : Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s seemingly unfilmable 1992 novel bounces off a simple yet sinister premise: a married couple is engaging in a bit of handcuffed pre-sex foreplay when the husband’s ticker goes kaput, and the wife (Carla Gugino) is left cuffed to the bed with no way out. Flanagan anchors the situation in the real and relatable – this is a troubled marriage where the participants are really trying, yet only making things worse – and he nails the giggly nervousness of self-conscious kink-sampling. But then things get very serious, very fast. The scenario is daringly claustrophobic, and the picture goes deep into her head, where she finds fantasies, survival scenarios, taunting and inspiration from an alter ego and her dead husband, and then, her troubling and suppressed memories. Though nearly undone by a final flourish that doesn’t work at all, Gerald’s Game is a solid thriller and the best kind of bait and switch – we think we’re in for a kinky/grisly survival tale, and get walloped by a serious and powerful portrait of trauma and survival.
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown : This musical bio-documentary on James Brown was released in conjunction with Get On Up , which must’ve been embarrassing for the big-budget studio biopic, since this is approximately ten times the better film. As he did with his Frank Sinatra documentary All or Nothing At All the following year, director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, We Steal Secrets) finds a new way in to a familiar subject, focusing squarely on the “work” aspect of “the hardest working man in show business,” diving deep into the dynamics of Brown and his band, and the methodology by which they mounted their electrifying stage shows and recorded their thrilling records. It’s not a cradle-to-grave affair, and it’s better for it; Gibney figures that if he understands the art, he can understand the man. And he may be right.
Tom Petty: Runnin’ Down a Dream : Aside from listening to all the music (and seriously, do that too), there are few better ways to remember the late Tom Petty than by taking in this epic 2007 documentary profile. Petty and his crew engaged no less a talent than Peter Bogdanovich to tell their story, and the filmmaker (presumably borrowing from the playbook of contemporary Martin Scorsese and his similarly in-depth, two-part documentaries on Petty’s fellow Wilburys Bob Dylan and George Harrison) takes just shy of four hours to do it. As a result, this isn’t just a greatest-hits collection, and it’s not just about the frontman either – Bogdanovich delves into the complex dynamics of the band, and the demons, addictions, innovations, and record biz politics that complicated their run.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / FILMSTRUCK
Vampyr : This German-French horror film (new to the Criterion Collection, just in time for Halloween) was released in 1932, one year after Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film it bests in every imaginable way. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) adopts a style that’s trippy and dreamlike – nightmarish, to be more precise, in both structure and execution (he seems to join the protagonist in midstream, the images are unnerving and sometimes nonsensical, and there’s a frightening sense of not knowing what could happen next). The slight unsteadiness of the camera movements and the simple yet elegant visual trickery only add to the general sense of unease. Using remarkably little dialogue, Dreyer creates a kind of mini-miracle: an early talkie that uses sound wisely, but maintains the stunning imagery of the late silents. (Includes audio commentary, Dryer documentary, video essay, radio recording, and English text version.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
A Ghost Story : The most striking element of director David Lowery’s experimental supernatural story is the sheer stillness of this thing; he holds his images (boxed in to a claustrophobic 1.37:1), letting the scenes play a beat longer, too long almost, in a way that makes you anxious. What exactly is he up to here? It turns out, he’s telling a story in aftermath rather than incident, lingering on details, weird noises, and characters merely observing each other. It’s so muted it’d be inert in the hands of lesser filmmakers and actors than these, and that’s part of what makes it so memorable – it’s the kind of movie that’s so quiet, you lean in, lest you miss something revelatory. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and deleted scenes.)
The Wizard of Lies : This dramatization of Diana Henriques’s deeply reported account of the rise and fall of fraudster Bernie Madoff would’ve been a big fall theatrical release a decade or so ago: a true-story drama, directed by Barry Levinson, starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s not exactly a biopic; Levinson and his screenwriters close in tightly on the period around Madoff’s arrest, with some glances at what came before (it functions as a portrait of their lifestyle, one of consumption, ignorance, half-truths, and misogyny), and of the period when it started to fall apart. It’s a snapshot approach that works – thanks in no small part to De Niro’s masterfully opaque performance, which takes the risk of not letting us in, and making that tell us everything about him. (Includes cast and filmmaker interviews.)
Superman: The Movie : It’s hard to wrap your head around if you’ve only lived in a stream-on-demand world, but once upon a time, network television airings of hit movies were a big fucking deal. And the 1982 television debut of Richard Donner’s 1978 superhero movie – the template, really, for all modern comic book flicks – was such a big deal, its producers convinced ABC to make it into a two-night special event, for which they restored something like forty minutes of deleted and extended scenes. That TV version was the one that many a Gen-Xer grew up watching (and rewatching, on these contraptions called VHS tapes), but it’s never received a proper home video release – until now. To be clear, Donner’s theatrical version is the better one; the producers were literally paid by the content minute, and a lot of this stuff was cut for a reason. But it’s still Superman (which is to say, great), and it’s a treat to have this iteration back out in the world. (Also includes the theatrical version and that version’s previous Blu-ray supplements: audio commentary, documentaries, screen tests, additional scenes and music, and music-only track.)