One of the most staggeringly beautiful movies of last year makes its Blu-ray debut this week, and I’m finally understanding why gearheads want me to upgrade to this “4K UHD BD” nonsense. We’ve also got 2016’s Palme d’Or winner joining the Criterion Collection, three different versions of an unsung Orson Welles movie on FilmStruck, and favorites old and new on Netflix. Here we go:
The Polka King: Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky craft a frisky and energetic comedy with a snappy, screwball spirit, which isn’t exactly a given, considering the subject matter: it’s the true story of Jan Lewan (Jack Black), a Polish immigrant and Pennsylvania polka bandleader who bilked fans and friends out of $4.9 million in an elaborate “investment” Ponzi scheme. He was a good con artist for one simple reason: he was a total charmer. In other words, Black is perfectly cast, in one of those turns that reminds us of what makes him such an engaging presence: his pure joy of performance, both when he’s onstage (he goes for the gusto in those polka numbers) and off.
Dallas Buyers Club: The subsequent public pronouncements and general obnoxiousness of Jared Leto has taken a bit of the sheen off his 2013 comeback movie, but make no mistake, he’s terrific in it – finding a balance with star Matthew McConaughey not unlike Hanks and Washington’s in Philadelphia, in which a bigot sees the face of mortality, and discovers his own humanity. Both won Oscars for their performances, and worked hard for them; the film is not without its flaws, but its heart is in the right place.
Mr. Arkadin: This 1955 thriller from Orson Welles (newly streaming on FilmStruck) explores similar narrative and thematic ground as Citizen Kane, and concerns a character not unlike The Third Man’s Harry Lime. But he didn’t have the same resources at his disposal; it’s one of his late-period snatch-and-dash jobs, assembled in bits and pieces over an extended period across continents, and was one of the many films wrestled from the filmmaker and recut against his wishes. FilmStruck, like the earlier Criterion DVD set, provides three incarnations of the movie (including its alternate European release, titled Confidential Report), and sussing them all out is a bit of an endeavor. But in a strange way, it bolsters the movie’s unreliable-narrator structure – each version offers a different approach to this story, this character, and in some ways, to Welles himself.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Blade Runner 2049: Denis Villeneuve’s long-in-coming sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult fave was a bit of a box-office stumbler this fall, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since a) the original film kinda tanked initially itself, and b) it takes such great pains to use that original as a launching pad for its own, distinct story, rather than merely retreading the now-entrenched imagery and iconography. In fact, 2049 is odd and daring, an unsettling and at times off-putting deeper dive into the questions of identity, memory, and solitude. People looking for a cool sci-fi sequel will probably be bored, or confused, or worse. But y’know what? There’s plenty of safe bets out there for them. (Includes featurettes and prologues.)
I, Daniel Blake: Ken Loach’s up-close character study, new to the Criterion Collection, concerns a recently widowed man with a heart condition attempting to navigate the red tape, nonsense rules, and circle-jerk “procedures” of British social services. But it’s not the downer it could’ve easily been; in fact, it finds moments of levity in his quest, and its frustrations. This is a portrait of desperation and fear, told in quietly affecting moments of truth and snapshots that play like documentary. There’s an offhand quality to Loach’s writing, and the playing of it — you can’t catch these people acting — but the accumulation of what he’s up to is devastating. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailer.)