From Caligari to Hitler: “What does cinema know, that we don’t?” asks writer/director/narrator Rüdiger Suchsland – in fact, he asks it twice, at both the beginning and the end of this thoughtful essay film from 2014 (making its DVD debut via Kino). He borrows the title of Siegried Kracauer’s influential text, and its mission: to examine the cinema of pre-Nazi Weimer Germany, naturalistic and expressionist and all forms in between, with particular focus on Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau (both the similarities in their styles and the divergences in their themes). He breaks down the sociopolitical subtext in well-curated clips from the era, which are coupled with new and insightful interviews with contemporary German filmmakers, film historians, and cultural commentators. Of the utopian Weimar, Suchsland asks, “Maybe this country can be traced by its cinema? Maybe it survived in its movies.” And that might be true – but most remarkably, he discovers there’s also a subconscious darkness lurking in these films, subtly predicting what lies ahead. (Includes trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
It: Andy Muschetti’s long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s coked-up doorstop masterpiece has its issues: an unsteady tone, equally wobbly pace, and an overreliance on cheap tricks and jump scares. But there’s also much to recommend here, particularly in the picture’s back half, when its ragtag crew of losers and cast-offs team up to take down the evil that’s paralyzed their small Maine town. The performers are top-notch and the late-‘80s nostalgia is evocative yet unforced; it’s not the bang-on It movie we were hoping for, but after all this time, was that even possible? (Includes featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.)
The Departure : Director Lana Wilson (After Tiller) helms this intimate and casually beautiful character study of Buddhist priest Ittetus Nemoto, who has dedicated his life to conducting suicide prevention retreats in his native Japan– but must adopt his own teachings about the value of life when he finds his own health in peril. There’s something tremendously profound about his mission and how he approaches it, and Wilson’s sensitive approach honors it, following his example of listening, sympathizing, and respecting the complexity of human emotions. Would that we were all so kind, as filmmakers and as people.
Young Mr. Lincoln: A year before The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford and star Henry Fonda teamed up for this factually fictional but emotionally truthful snapshot of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest years, focusing particularly on his first big case as a lawyer. Like Steven Spielberg’s much later Lincoln, it uses that single event as the lens through which to view the future President’s entire life and character – and to indulge in a fair amount of Ford’s deservedly lauded portraiture of rural American life. It’s a modest, beautiful picture, and one of Fonda’s finest performances, which is certainly saying something. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, archival interviews, and radio adaptation.)
Inherit the Wind: And if you’re up for a classic courtroom drama double feature, you can’t do much better than Stanley Kramer’s 1960 adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s durable play, a fictionalization/dramatization of the notorious 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” which happened nearly a century ago and is in no way a thing that somehow keeps being relitigated. Anyway, Wind has perhaps the quintessential Spencer Tracy performance, plus Frederic March and Gene Kelly in fine form, and a script that matches up with Kramer’s messaging instincts without clobbering the viewer. (Includes audio commentary and trailer)