This week is a monster, busting out with double our customary ten new streaming and disc releases, and not a one of ‘em is filler: a new streamer from Noah Baumbach, shiny new Blu-rays from Kubrick and Lynch, A+ documentaries, two summer smashes – a little something for everyone, in other words.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) : The title of Noah Baumbach’s latest suggests an elliptical, stop-and-start feel that’s not entirely accurate; it builds its narrative and emotional beats, and sustains them. But there’s a whole sequence of Ben Stiller, as the prodigal son, attempting to navigate the simple act of lunch with his father, and it is like a great short story – textured, funny, familiar, and surprisingly affecting. The film is filled with scenes like that, dazzling with rapier wit at one moment, overwhelming with complicated tenderness in another, even pausing for a couple moments of legitimately great slapstick. And the characters are so rich, even the day players get to shine; Candice Bergen, for example, has exactly one scene, but she packs an entire life into it. And though Emma Thompson’s screen time is limited, she gets to speak the movie’s greatest truth: “You have your idea of yourself. And you want to hold on to that!” You can say that again, sister.
ON AMAZON PRIME
City of Ghosts: Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) tells the story of how a group of courageous citizens in the Syrian city of Raqqa – the “capital of ISIS” – use hidden cameras, savvily manipulated satellites, and the power of the Internet to share stills and video of the barbarism that had taken over their hometown. They’re quite literally risking their lives to get this information and these images, and get them out of the city, and Ghosts becomes a portrait of true, and terrifying, heroism – but with a devastating personal and emotional price. This is, in its purest form, what real journalism is about; I’ll never complain about the stupid bullshit at my job again.
ON APPLE MUSIC / ITUNES
Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives : Chris Perkel’s musical bio-doc of the legendary record label head may sound a bit inside baseball, but Davis was one degree of separation from most popular music of the past half-century, discovering and/or shepherding everyone from Janis Joplin to Whitney Huston to Kenny G to Notorious B.I.G. to success. He accumulated a lot of songs along the way – and a lot of good stories, which he tells here with relish. It’s a bit overlong and not exactly groundbreaking formally, but there’s a lot to learn here about the way the music business works, both then and now, and the staying power of being a (seemingly) good guy in a slimy line of work.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Spider-Man: Homecoming: The third opening salvo of a Spider-Man film franchise (in a mere fifteen years) has its problems: it peaks too soon, it runs too long, and it winks at its John Hughes influences too broadly, so its gee-whiz enthusiasm and light-hearted approach feels less organic, and more like a calculated, cynical strategy. (And the constant reminders – via cameos, references, and winks – that this Spider-Man is part of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” get old fast.) But it’s far funnier than most comic-book movies, its performers are engaging (particularly star Tom Holland, villain Michael Keaton, and sidekick Jacob Batalon), and at least it’s not another goddamn origin story. (Includes deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, featurettes, and “pop-up factoid track.”)
Girls Trip: Last summer’s comedy smash has an awfully bumpy take-off – clumsy exposition and obvious conflicts galore – and it can’t quite navigate the serious turns of its last half-hour (and the flabby 122 minute running time indicates someone should’ve told director Malcolm D. Lee that he didn’t have to include every scene they shot). But its middle hour is pretty great, boasting a giddy, take-no-prisoners spirit and a lot of laughs – most of them courtesy of Tiffany Haddish, the breakout Zach Galifianakis of this particular Hangover riff, whose every line reading is a treat, and who best captures the film’s most commendable quality: an unapologetic yet cheerful vulgarity. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, featurettes, and extended music performance.)
Lady Macbeth: There’s a quietly menacing stillness to the Florence Pugh performance at the center of William Oldroyd’s period drama, and it’s so powerful, the movie keys off it. It’s not a Macbeth adaptation, but it’s in the spirit of the character, if you catch my meaning; it concerns a young wife who decides she’s had quite enough of her “duties,” thank you very much, and proceeds to pursue passion and satisfaction with a quiet precision that becomes rattling, particularly when the killing begins. Director Oldroyd masterfully stokes dread and fear, and toys with our empathy – her initial actions are vaguely forgivable, but by the time she’s toying with the unthinkable, it’s too late to turn back. It’s a tightly wound and subtly overwhelming movie, and its closing shots are something else. (Includes featurette.)
The Champion: A Story of America’s First Film Town: In its earliest days, the film industry (such as it was) was centered not in Hollywood but New York City – but filmmakers slowly started shooting across the Hudson in New Jersey, which offered a wider variety of exteriors (and, thus, genres) to put their Broadway actors in front of. The Champion Film Company, built next door to an old lumber mill in Fort Lee, was the state’s first studio, and Fort Lee was the first American “studio town,” hosting not only the usual assortment of filmmakers, but the first female director and studio head, Alice Guy-Blache, and esteemed African-American independent Oscar Micheaux. The Champion is brief (35 minutes) and basic, and its boosterism for the city’s film commission is pretty clumsy. But it’s a fascinating story, especially for movie buffs – this city’s history is film history – and the bonus features are a goldmine. (Includes five films made at Champion studios, three films made in New Jersey, and a 1935 documentary short about post-cinema Fort Lee.)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: When David Lynch was promoting the Twin Peaks revival, he hinted (warned?) that this 1992 follow-up/prequel/expansion of the original series – now part of the Criterion Collection – was “very important” to its return. It made sense; since its release, he had pivoted into the formal experimentation of Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire that had as much (if not more) to do with season three as seasons one and two. Now, taking them together, you can see him working his way up to season three, a quarter-century in advance – specifically the way he fuses television and film, using the devices of each medium to keep the other at bay, and how he here bursts from the broadcast limits that were similarly moot on Showtime. Fire Walk With Me was roundly dismissed upon its release; as with most things Lynch-related, it was merely ahead of its time. (Includes deleted and extended scenes, new and archival interviews, and trailers.)
Barry Lyndon: And Criterion is releasing another film nerd fetish object this week – a gorgeous Blu-ray edition of Stanley Kubrick’s painterly period piece, one that’s funnier and sexier than you’ve probably heard. But it’s primarily a character study, of a “wanderer” (Ryan O’Neal, miscast but occasionally effective) and his evolution from good-natured rogue to total S.O.B. to loving father. Exquisitely designed and sumptuously photographed, but not just for the sake of its pretty pictures; The beauty with which it’s mounted renders the emotional and physical violence all the more jarring, and the stateliness of the pacing softens us up for the hits of the last hour. (Includes featurettes, new and archival interviews, and trailers.)
Wild Bill: Walter Hill’s portrait of Western man and myth Wild Bill Hickok (new on Blu from Twilight Time) tanked hard upon its release in 1995; it’s since been reappraised, particularly in auteurist circles, as a misunderstood masterpiece. It’s probably somewhere in between, its Wild Bill’s Greatest Kills structure growing monotonous quickly (at a scant 98 minutes, it frankly needs a bit more breathing room), the bizarre Oliver Stone-ish cinematography, full of media-mixing and opium flashbacks, a bold experiment that doesn’t work at all. But there are some great scenes (my fave: Bruce Dern calling Bill out for a duel – from his wheelchair), the rough-and-tumble barfights and whiz-bang gun battles are smoothly executed, and it’s got a damn fine ensemble – led by Jeff Bridges, in what is very much a precursor to his True Grit turn, and backed up by Ellen Barkin, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, and a particularly convincing James Gammon. (Includes isolated music track and trailer.)