This is one of those jam-packed, slam-bang weeks on the home viewing front, with everything from this spring’s studio flicks to fifty-year-old foreign classics. It’s “a something for everyone” week, in other words, so let’s end the throat-clearing and find what’s here for you.
Small Town Crime: John Hawkes gets a welcome opportunity to flex his underrated and understated comic chops in this darkly comic pulp thriller as a drunken, disgraced cop who stumbles into a crime and sees an opportunity to prove himself. It’s a real mystery — and a good one — but directors Eshorn and Ian Nelms provide levity via winking asides of genre satire and little pauses in which their cast of gifted character actors (including Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., and Michael Vartan) can shine. The film’s a little too light to sustain the serious turn it subtly takes in the last half hour, but no matter; this is totally solid, mid-level pulp, and a rare modern movie that actually deserves the franchise treatment at which it slyly hints.
ON APPLE MUSIC
Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band: This thrilling concert documentary feature captures the immortal Ms. Smith and company two years back, at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, concluding a 40th anniversary tour in which they played the seminal title album, in sequence, complete with side-change announcement (“Now you have to turn the record, place it on the turntable… bring the arm gently toward the vinyl to the groove… and play side B!”).Director Steven Sebring occasionally throws in backstage and off-stage interludes, but his primary focus is the show, and what a show it is – equal parts concert, poetry reading, revival meeting, and exorcism.
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters: Criterion is giving Paul Schrader’s 1985 masterpiece a Blu-ray upgrade, and it’s well-timed, as his new theatrical release First Reformed deals with many of the same themes (obsessions, really). Written with his brother Leonard, Schrader dramatizes the life of Japan’s most celebrated author, Yukio Mishima, using the events leading to his 1970 protest suicide as a framework for flashbacks to key moments of his life, intercut with relevant interpretations of his work. Cinematographer John Bailey alternates crisp black and white with stylized color (along with theatrical lighting and staging) to create a sumptuous visual palate, given further juice by Philip Glass’s enthralling score. Though Mishima has the take-no-prisoners inevitability of Schrader’s best work, he never made another movie quite like it. Nor, really, did anyone. (Also streaming on FilmStruck.) (Includes audio commentary, English narrations, archival interviews, documentary, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Game Night: Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein redeem themselves for that execrable new Vacation movie with this joke-dense, cleverly plotted, and (gasp) visually inventive ensemble comedy, in which a gang of friends find their weekly game night hijacked by some very bad guys. It’s tough to pick the comic MVP – Rachel McAdams is charming, Jesse Plemmons is wonderfully weird, Lamorne Morris is just a gift, and Jeffrey Wright is surprisingly credible as a terrible actor – and Mark Perez’s script finds a perfect balance of physical comedy and witty dialogue. No two ways about it, this is the best studio comedy in years. (Includes gag reel and featurette.)
Red Sparrow: Jennifer Lawrence reunites with her Hunger Games director Frances Lawrence for this spotty yet occasionally successful spy drama, as a desperate former ballerina who becomes a Russian spy with a specialty in sex. The busy screenplay ultimately bites off more than it can chew – much of the film’s subtext of commodification and exploitation is left unexplored – and the speed with which it asks the viewer to shift gears causes some whiplash. But this is a solid Lawrence performance, smartly keying in on how, at its heart, this is a movie about acting itself, and Joel Edgerton’s gruff, roguish charm is well used. It’s a surprisingly austere piece of work, moody and somewhat low-energy, but purposefully so.
Early Man: The new stop-motion family comedy from Aardman Studios – and Nick Park’s first directorial credit since the Wallace and Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death a decade ago – is a combination Neanderthal comedy and origin-of-soccer (or, as they insist on calling it, “football”) tale. It’s awfully funny, thanks to the Python-esque silliness of the dialogue and some well-executed visual slapstick, and the voice cast is strong, though taken overall, it’s a tad slight (the end credits begin rolling at the 77-minute mark). It’s no Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep, but hey, few things are. (Includes featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / NETFLIX
Graduation: Writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s latest finds him working in something of an Asghar Farhadi mode, telling a domestic drama — a father wants his daughter to do well in school so she can leave Ceausescu-era Romania for university abroad — in which the tiniest act is met with devastating consequences. And like Farhadi, he’s a complicated moralist; his characters are presented with conflicts and choices that cause them to examine their very beings and self-perception. “All that counts is getting to a normal world,” insists the father at its center, to which his wife responds, “How you get there matters too,” and that’s the fundamental question at the heart of this thoughtful work. He takes no shortcuts as a director – his visual M.O. is the long scene played in an unbroken medium-wide shot, in which neither the audience nor the characters are offered escape, and our flawed protagonist must watch his tenuous existence spin further out of his grasp. Intelligent, angry, and, in its own quiet way, hopeful. (Also streaming on Netflix.) (Includes interview, press conference, deleted scenes, and trailer.)
Beyond the Hills: Mungiu’s previous feature also joins the Criterion Collection, dramatizing the true story of a young woman whose attempted exorcism (though the word is never uttered in the film’s entire 150 minutes) at a Romanian monastery became a national scandal. Mungui is less interested in the sensationalistic aspects of the story than he is in the motivation for it — why was this woman there, and why did she subject herself to this? As a writer, he has a gift for discerning what to articulate in dialogue and what to leave unsaid, for undercutting expectation, and for making his themes clear without smashing us over the head with them. Simply put, it is a story of faith, friendship, and responsibility — and the difficulty of choosing between them. Leisurely but involving, and given tremendous weight by the deeply felt (and keenly contrasted) performances of lead actresses Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.
A Fistful of Dollars: The facts of Sergio Leone’s 1964 (though not released in America until 1967) smash are well known: how he fused Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the tropes of the American Western to create a whole new subgenre, the Spaghetti Western, and made an international movie star out of Clint Eastwood in the process. Those are the reasons Dollars is important – what makes it great is its frisky energy and low-budget ingenuity (Leone made it for a paltry $200K), and the offhand cool with which Eastwood does his thing. It’s been on Blu-ray before, but as with Kino Studio Classics’ release of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly last summer, they’ve gone and done a spiffy new 4K restoration, so, sorry, you’re just gonna have to go buy it again. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes, outtakes, TV spots, and trailers.)