This week’s must-stream is a tiny movie, but worth seeking out: one of last year’s best documentaries, a quiet portrait of an average family’s struggle. On the new release shelf, we’ve got spring movies from Steven Soderbergh and Armondo Iannucci. And this week’s robust catalog crop includes a blaxpoitation fave, an Oscar-winning doc, an inside-Hollywood drama, a Spanish marvel, and a deluxe box set from one of the finest comics of all time.
Quest: Director/cinematographer Jonathan Olshefski spent eight years, from 2008 to 2015 (the Obama years, in fact; Obama/Biden signs cover the neighborhood early on, and the elections provide useful guideposts to the chronology), with the Raineys, a fairly typical North Philadelphia family that, in that time and before it, face a number of everyday trials and tribulations. There are money troubles and addiction demons, there are tragedies in their pasts and quite nearly one in their present. But they don’t complain and they don’t despair; they carry on, pausing only to be thankful for what they have, and who they are. Epic in scope yet modest in execution, it’s a film with much to say (without ever explicitly saying it) about class and race in America, and about family, and its small miracles. (Available 6/19.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Unsane: The latest from director Steven Soderbergh plays like a stealth act of film criticism – it’s fully aware of the tropes of this particular subset of thriller, and spends its running time toying with our expectations (and, in this case, gendered prejudices). Claire Foy (very good, though struggling with her American accent) plays a woman in a new city, fleeing a stalker, who finds herself in the midst of the Kafka-esque nightmare of being held in a mental facility against her wishes, in which her understandably violent objections snowball into self-fulfilling prophesies. More than that I won’t say, at least in terms of plot; Sodebergh’s decision to shoot entirely on an iPhone is an experiment that doesn’t quite pay off, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating film to look at, as he torques out the angles and whiplashes the camera to put us in his protagonist’s troubled headspace. It’s an itchy, twitchy movie with an endlessly satisfying payoff. (Includes featurette.)
ON DVD / VOD
The Death of Stalin: Veep and The Thick of It creatorArmando Iannuccivisits mid-20th century Moscow and discovers that hey, whaddaya know, stupidity and back-stabbing in government translates into period pieces as well. Assembling a rogue’s gallery of terrific American and British character actors as all the General Secretary’s men (and encouraging them to keep their native accents), Ianucci crafts a four-course meal of black comedy, wacky wordplay, creative insults (of course), and broad slapstick. The results are fabulously funny and more than a little tart, while the dramatizations of authoritarian kowtowing are perhaps more stinging than initially anticipated. (Includes deleted scenes and featurette.)
George Carlin: Commemorative Collection: George Carlin was, in many ways, the Bob Dylan of stand-up comedy – not only because of the ground he broke or the quality of his work, but the way in which his style and persona was in constant flux. He went through several evolutions, from clean-cut suit-wearing character comedian/impressionist to free-wheeling hippie observational comic to cranky curmudgeon to straight-up nihilist. And this exhaustive ten disc box set captures all of those variations: all 14 of his hour-long HBO specials (with, for the first time, the last two on Blu-ray), plus his final album of outtakes, and a treasure trove of rarities. The best of the bunch is a pair of 2006 appearances at the Comedy & Magic Club, workshopping very early versions of material that would turn up on Life is Worth Losing– a fascinating peek into his writing process, and a welcome snapshot of the man himself (he’s much looser and more open than the rapid-fire patter of his specials at the time). Other highlights include a rare 1973 network special (which includes material from the Class Clown/Occupation: Foole period), a lost sitcom pilot, various “best-of” specials, and a handful of those early TV appearances from the buttoned-down period. The specials have all been released before on disc, some more than once. But the bonus material here more than justifies the cost of the double-dip; this is a must-have for Carlin fans and stand-up aficionados.
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Super Fly: Just in time for the release of Director X’s slickly entertaining and slyly funny new remake, Warner Archive brings Gordon Parks, Jr.’s ‘70s classic to Blu-ray (it’s also newly streaming on FilmStruck, as part of a “Best of Blaxpoitation” bundle). Those are some high-tech options for such a scrappy, Scotch-taped picture, albeit one with a hustler’s spirit and run-and-gun style that’s influenced many a low-budget filmmaker. Some of the staging is clumsy and (aside from star Ron O’Neal) the acting is amateurish. But there’s real power here, particularly when Parks just lets the music and images tell the story (literally, in Curtis Mayfield’s astute, and famously counter-narrative, lyrics). And that ending sure is a crowd-pleaser. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and interviews.)
Bowling for Columbine: Michael Moore’s 2002 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, new to the Criterion Collection, has its detractors — it’s become particularly noted for playing fast and loose with the facts — but it remains Moore’s best and most moving film. Moved to its making by the Columbine massacre (the kind of school shooting that rarely merits more than a hopeless shrug anymore), Moore explores gun culture in America with the irreverence of an editorial cartoonist, and often with about as much discipline. But his rambling, stream-of-consciousness approach works here, taking him down unexpected side streets and into the path of assorted weirdos, even if its most affecting sequence (a wordless look at the footage from that fateful day in April 1999) is the one that plays it straightest. (Includes new documentary, featurettes, archival interviews, and Awful Truth segment.)
El Sur: Writer/director Víctor Erice’s 1983 drama (also new to Criterion) finds a young woman sifting through her memories of an enigmatic father, and how his mysteries and absences shaped who she became. In its elements of memory play and magic realism, it’s easy to find the DNA of Latino successors like Alejandro Amenábar and Guillermo del Toro (particularly the latter’s Pan Labyrinth), though El Sur is is also unquestionably its own, irreplicable thing, filled with haunted performances, elegant narration (the source material is by Adelaida García Morales), and José Luis Alcane’s atmospheric, theatrical cinematography. (Includes featurettes and new and archival interviews.)
Two Weeks in Another Town: In 1952, Vincente Minnelli directed The Bad and the Beautiful, an inside-Hollywood melodrama starring Kirk Douglas as a ruthless film producer. Ten years later, Minnelli reunited with Douglas (along with the film’s screenwriter Charles Schnee and producer John Houseman) for this adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s novel – making it something of a Fish Called Wanda/Fierce Creatures situation, a non-sequel that nonetheless revisits the same themes with much of the same personnel. If anything, the ‘60s allow Minnelli to bite the hand that feeds him with even more vigor, producing a charged and cynical work that features Douglas in his Ace in the Hole mode: tough, nasty, and decidedly unsympathetic. A mostly forgotten gem; hopefully this Blu-ray upgrade from Warner Archive will prompt some discoveries.