As we count down to Christmas Day, disc distributors are pushing out their last few pre-holiday releases, while the streamers seem to presume you’re all just watching Christmas movies anyway. But we’ve got a triple play of this year’s sharpest indies for you, as well as three smart buys from Criterion and an A+ movie buff documentary on their streaming service.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / NETFLIX
The Trip to Spain: After 2014’s The Trip to Italy, it looked like director Michael Winterbottom and writer/stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon could’ve spun this series out indefinitely – taking all the eating/joking/confessing trips they wanted to as many countries as they could imagine. I’m not quite as sure the formula is durable as that after the third outing; the seams show a bit, and there’s occasionally a feeling of obligation rather than inspiration. But those moments are fleeting, and this is, for the most part, a jaunty, funny, entertaining personal and geographical journey, brushing up against moments of truth that can sting. And, yes, they do the Michael Caine bit. (Also on Netflix.)
Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius: This year marks the centennial of Harold Lloyd’s “Glasses Character,” the plucky, likable protagonist who escapes considerable danger thanks to his resourcefulness and grace. FilmStruck is streaming a whole mess of his best stuff, but novices may want to begin with this excellent 1989 documentary, written and produced by the great silent cinema historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (who were also behind essential documentaries on Chaplin and Keaton, as well as the definitive documentary about the period, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film). It’s a marvelous introduction, deftly summarizing his skill and significance, and illustrated with curated clips showcasing his unique skills and persona. So check it out – and then go watch all the movies.
ON DVD / VOD
The Force : “This police department has a history that we have to own up to,” Chief Whent says. “It is our legacy.” Peter Nicks’ powerful and infuriating documentary is an up-close portrait of the Oakland Police Department, a force under investigation for civil rights violations and under pressure to reform – in fact, as the film begins, they’re on the verge of a federal takeover. But through exercises and training, discussions and strategizing, they seem to be changing the way they’re approaching and thinking about the work. And then the bottom falls out, with scandals involving racist texts and an underage prostitute, the results of what the city’s own mayor deems “a toxic, macho culture.” This is tough, frustrating stuff, but fascinating (it’s one of the few films I’ve seen recently that seems to end too soon), playing like Cops without the sensationalism (or casual racism), deeply concerned with both the day-to-day grind of law enforcement, and the long-term struggle to more fairly serve.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Detroit: Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the assaults and murders at the Tangiers Hotel by Detroit Police officers in the midst of the city’s 1967 riots is a tough, uncompromising piece of work, zeroing in on that brutal night of “interrogations” and giving the viewer no more of an escape route than its participants. That middle hour or so is harrowing, infuriating filmmaking; the rest of the movie is a bit messier, for better and worse, with director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (their third collaboration, following The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) perhaps biting off a bit more story than they could chew. But whatever the film’s flaws, it should be seen and considered; this is urgent cinema, tackling a subject that is in no way confined to the past. (Includes featurettes.)
Election: Alexander Payne’s sophomore feature (new to the Criterion Collection) was released by MTV Films, and promoted as your typical high school comedy, when it is anything but – this is a devastatingly precise and unnervingly scalding satire of political gamesmanship and midlife ennui. (And it’s a terrific high school comedy, on top of all that.) Matthew Broderick, savvily cast as the kind of instructor Ferris Bueller would’ve loathed (and vice versa), has yet to top his work as a schlubby English teacher who quietly, seethingly hates most of his students, and Reese Witherspoon’s turn as chirpy type-A Tracey Flick was so sharp, it seemed (for a time) to have weirdly seeped into the public perception of her actual personality. It seemed weirdly of its moment, back in 1999, but it’s the funniest thing: it’s barely aged a day. (Includes audio commentary, interview, featurette, archival news footage, and Payne’s 1990 UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin.)
The Complete Monterey Pop: Criterion already released D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking concert documentary (and its copious bonus materials) on Blu-ray once, but they created a new 4K restoration, from the original 16mm and 8-track elements, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first big rock festival of the late ‘60s, and the Bay area iteration of the Summer of Love that it celebrated. The concert-doc format was still a new one, and these films hadn’t yet fallen into a default mode of “respectful distance,” so it’s shot with a proximity and familiarity that captures the loose, hang-out vibe of both the festival itself and its cultural moment (note the intensity in Grace Slick and Marty Blain’s eyes as they sing to each other, or the tap and bounce of Janis Joplin’s feet). The film is, as ever, too damn short and weirdly paced, with great acts getting a single number (or less) while Ravi Shankar’s watch-checking performance at the end drones on and on. But it has some of the truly great moments in modern(ish) musical cinema: Joplin ripping “Ball and Chain” into soulful shreds, Otis Redding asking, “This is the love crowd, right,” before slipping into a simmering performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and most memorably, the overt, graphic sexuality of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar arson. That scene, and this movie, is still scorching a half-century later. (Includes the stand-alone features Jimi Plays Montery and Shake: Otis at Monterey, deleted performances, alternate soundtracks, audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, original accompanying short film, photo essay, festival scrapbook, and trailers and radio spots.)
General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait: Director Barbet Schroeder has fostered a career-long preoccupation with the nature of evil, from the prestige of Reversal of Fortune to the popcorn of Single White Female to the documentary precision of Terror’s Advocate. That fascination goes back to the beginning of his career, when he directed this biographical study of the Ugandan dictator (which Criterion has upgraded to Blu-ray). Schroeder mostly just lets him talk and act, capturing his interactions with citizens at events (it is noted) “carefully organized for the film”; documenting a terrifying cabinet meeting and interrupting to note the fate of its participants (“A few weeks later, the body of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was found in the Nile”); and hanging in on interviews that gradually progress from a self-created inspiring-pluck narrative to explicit endorsements of the Third Reich and the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Schroeder’s direction and Denise de Casablanca’s editing are savvy, closing as they do with a long scene of Amin winning over a cynical, educated audience with his humor and personality. And the narration wisely plays things close to the vest, mostly flat and matter-of-fact – right up to the final, pointed question. (Includes interviews.)