I’ve got a crisp $100 bill for anyone who can come up with a good reason why they waited to release It on disc until after the new year – seriously, that was money tossed into the winds, what with all the horror-heads people had to shop for at Christmas. Anyway, it’s here now, along with disc releases for a pair of ace documentaries and shiny new Blu-ray upgrades for two vintage courtroom dramas. And on the streaming side, we have one of last year’s most unexpectedly effective dramas, an inspiriting artist’s portrait, and a top-shelf indie comedy.
ON AMAZON PRIME
A Ghost Story : On one hand, the title of the latest from writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) is totally accurate – this is, no doubt about it, a ghost story. But that phrase draws up connotations of supernatural horror, which aren’t really what Lowery’s up to at all; the very few effects are charmingly rudimentary, and the primary spectral image is rendered with the sophistication of a five-year-old’s Halloween costume. None of it matters, because he’s not making a scary movie, but one that thoughtfully unpacks our common wisdom about those who linger in this world after their death, and the unthinkable sadness of that existence. It’s a tiny but beautiful film, and I’ll leave it at that; frankly, the less you know going in, the better.
Frank: Before his Oscar-winning Room, director Lenny Abrahamson helmed the gloriously askew send-up of the music industry in particular and celebrity in general, based on a true story (originally reported by Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the script). It’s a warm and funny valentine to outsider art and difficult geniuses, and its big casting coup – placing the impossibly handsome Michael Fassbender in a leading role and then putting him in a fake, paper-maché head for the bulk of its running time – still feels subversive.
Julian Schnabel: A Personal Portrait: Director Pappi Corsicato creates something of a hang-out documentary on the topic of painter, filmmaker, and general artiste Schnabel, in all his cockiness and controversy. The style is easy-going, but not half-hearted; Corsicato nicely captures the energy and impatience of the scene that both made and drove Schnabel, drills down intelligently on his transition to filmmaking and the idea of continuity between forms, and succinctly underscores the importance his subject places on continuing to grow as an artist, and challenging oneself. Even if you know of his work only passingly (guilty), you’ll come away inspired by Schnabel, and most likely reaching for a paintbrush, or camera, or keyboard yourself.
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)