This week’s home movie viewing options are nicely varied: we’ve got a new documentary and a couple-of-years-old comedy on Netflix, a summer blockbuster and a spring art film on Blu-ray, a new rock-doc on DVD, and an HD upgrade for a particularly strong early-‘90s indie.
One of Us : Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, best known for Jesus Camp, return with another portrait of an ultra-conservative religious community: New York’s Orthodox Jewish population (300,000 strong), as seen through the eyes of three people who attempt to leave it. Two young men want a more “normal” life, though they go through bouts of doubt and “secular anxiety”; the third, an abused wife, merely wants to protect herself and her children, but her custody battle becomes a neighborhood cause célèbre (complete with chilling surveillance and harassment). The fundamental conflict is one that goes well beyond this particular religious sect – it’s about “status quo,” and the question of how long it can dictate regressive, harmful behavior. Ewing and Grady flesh out that question in interactions that are often shot surreptitiously, from a distance; that’s about as close as they can get to this community. But they have their subjects, and their thoughtful telling of their own stories of abuse, ostracizing, and survival.
While We’re Young : Thanks (presumably) to the debut of The Meyerowitz Stories , Netflix has been making an effort to add writer/director Noah Baumbach’s earlier works; last week, they began streaming this tricky little item from 2014. The story of an older couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who find themselves invigorated by their hang-outs with their younger counterparts (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), it finds Baumbach constructing a brutally funny and frequently scathing attack on bohemia in general and Brooklyn hipsterism in particular, managing to transcend the occasional bouts of Sorkin-esque sour grapes with snazzy dialogue, piercing observation, and uproarious supporting performances.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
War for the Planet of the Apes : The last thing you expect from a summer sequel to a sequel to a reboot is originality and ingenuity, but somehow – again – director Matt Reeves has turned 20th Century Fox’s IP curation into a genuine work of pop art. War is a big blockbuster that doesn’t talk down to audience, working as (alternately) a revenge Western, a prison-break movie, and a war story with equal grace and intelligence, creating sympathetic characters in both physical and emotional conflict. Perhaps a franchise flick shouldn’t be over-praised for such basic requirements, but War fulfills them quite nicely, serving as a needed reminder that when the hefty budgets and staggering resources of a major studio production are at the disposal of a filmmaker with genuine ambition, they can produce work where the power of the ideas matches the skill of the craft. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and concept art gallery.)
Personal Shopper : Olivier Assayas re-teams with his Clouds of Sils Maria co-star Kristen Stewart to create something like a mash-up of that film and The Conjuring, a combination that goes down far more smoothly than you’d think. Much of that is thanks to Stewart, who carries the weight of the picture almost entirely on her shoulders, spending much of its running time alone, working through her grief, trying to figure out her life, and being haunted by ghosts metaphorical and literal. Her square-jawed, matter-of-fact approach to the material is ultimately her greatest gift; even when she’s not really doing anything, we’re riveted. Same goes for the picture – it’s a puzzle movie that’s a pleasure to piece together. (Includes Assayas interview and Cannes press conference.)
ON DVD / VOD
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World : This documentary from directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana examines the heretofore unexplored Native-American influence on rock – and blues, and jazz, and folk, and metal. It’s a journey, chronologically and geographically, off the reservations and to New Orleans, the deep South, and the Sunset Strip; along the way, we’re acquainted with Native legends both well-remembered (Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Robbie Robertson) and less so (Mildred Bailey, Peter LaForge, Jesse Ed Davis, Randy Castillo). Rumble sometimes wanders off course, veering too far into straight individual biography, but it’s never less than fascinating – the performance clips are wonderful, and the more we’re told, the more it becomes clear that this is not just music history, but American history. (Includes additional interviews, featurettes, and panel discussion.)
The Indian Runner : Sean Penn made his directorial debut with this 1991 drama, “inspired by” a Springsteen song, about a cop (David Morse) struggling to help his crook brother (Viggo Mortensen) pull his life together after returning from Vietnam. You can tell it’s a movie directed by an actor: he’s less interested in moving the plot than showcasing characters and performances, and he casts his actors in the kind of roles they weren’t really playing at the time (including putting David Morse in the lead, and ossified action star Charles Bronson in a solid, dramatic supporting role). Set in the late 1960s, Indian Runner has a lived-in character-drama vibe typical of the years that followed; it feels like a movie that could’ve been made then pretty much as is, playing alongside Scarecrow or The King of Marvin Gardens, up to and including the uncompromising bleakness of its closing passages. Mournful and moving, and Morse is particularly strong, projecting his quiet fury and frustrated strength in scene after scene. (Includes interviews and trailer.)