One of the year’s very best films hits Blu-ray and VOD this week, along with the simultaneous Hulu and theatrical debut of a shattering, powerful documentary. Also available for your viewing pleasure: three priceless peeks at vintage NYC, the latest from Steven Soderbergh, an HD upgrade for a Lubitsch classic, and a new Blu of a truly bonkers Bruce Willis thriller.
Minding the Gap : Bing Liu directed, co-edited, co-produced, shot, and co-stars in this (often uncomfortably) intimate documentary about a group of friends who discover, as one of them succinctly puts it, “We’re gonna have to grow up and it’s gonna fucking suck.” They’re teenage skater buddies, Liu included, and the way he shoots their rides (with a wide-angle lens on a roving, rigged-up camera) beautifully captures the motion and energy of the sport. But that’s just window dressing; Gap is much more the story of their lives, of real tragedy and toughness, and how the most charismatic of the bunch begins a toxic, abusive marriage with his high school girlfriend, seemingly unaware of how his friends are still suffering from the emotional fallout of such upbringings. The cycles of violence and abandonment are captured with uncommon honesty, and the director’s proximity to his subjects presumably allowed them to open up in ways they wouldn’t to a stranger. But Liu has a gift for montage and a confident way with his camera, and the emotional heft of this debut is quietly overwhelming. (Also currently in theaters.)
ON AMAZON PRIME
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; Soderbergh’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 into his protagonist’s troubled headspace. It’s an itchy, twitchy movie with an endlessly satisfying payoff.
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Smithereens : Writer/director Susan Seidelman exploded onto the ‘80s indie movie landscape with this noisy, jittery, rattling snapshot of the downtown New York scene. Her focus is Wren (Susan Berman), a specific kind of fierce, angry, take-no-shit type, all sneers and dry wit, who floats around the edges of the early-‘80s punk and art world, exploiting the guy she can have, and being exploited by the guy she can’t. But Seidelman’s film (the first American indie to compete at Cannes) is less about the love triangle than this particular time and place; Smithereens lives in a world of dirty clubs and dumpy walk-ups, and there’s an irresistible danger to Seidelman’s style, an edge that’s borderline nihilistic. (Includes audio commentary, new interviews, and vintage Seidelman short films.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
First Reformed : “It’s hard to struggle against torpor,” Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) writes. “I must get pen to paper.” In that desire to get pen to paper, the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s latest has something in common with his best-known creation, Travis Bickle – and First Reformed is closer to Taxi Driver than you might expect an austere, modest religious drama to be. It spends much of its running time in that mold, as this man of God struggles with drinking, depression, death, and the difficulty of holding both hope and despair in his head at once. Unique in contemporary cinema, it’s a film that takes religion and scripture seriously, and because it does, it must go to the very dark place it eventually goes – the place you’d expect from a writer/director with Schrader’s CV. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
Heaven Can Wait : Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy/drama/fantasy (no relation to the 1978 Warren Beatty movie) tells the story of a “retired Casanova” (Don Ameche) who passes on and, rather than make his case in heaven, presents himself “where innumerable people had so often told him to go.” In his entrance interview, he insists he simply wasn’t a good enough man, and in illustrating his case, the Lubitsch adopts a “life in review” structure – a kind of twisted cousin to It’s A Wonderful Life. Elegant, witty, and melancholy, with generous doses of dark humor (I’m particularly partial to the moment when the trap door drops Ms. Craig into the flames), it’s a fascinating mixture of seemingly disparate tones that somehow match up, and Criterion’s lovely Blu-ray upgrade does right by the picture’s glorious, vibrant color cinematography. (Includes archival interviews and television profile, home recordings of Lubitsch playing piano, and trailer.)
Gloria : Fans of maverick writer/director John Cassavetes tend to dismiss this 1980 effort (new on Blu, via Twilight Time) as some kind of a commercialized sellout — it is, after all, a studio film with stunts and shoot-outs and an overblown Bill Conti score. But in spite of being his most conventional picture, Gloria is one of his best, in which the confines of the genre hold his occasional indulgences at bay; it’s a gangster movie and chase picture, yes, but one embedded with the intelligence of his smaller and more personal movies. And it boasts a stunning, Oscar-nominated performance by his off-screen partner, Gena Rowlands, who packs both a pistol and a sharp tongue with equal skill, growling her hard-boiled dialogue with an abundance of moxie. (Includes isolated music track and original trailers.)
The Hot Rock : The talent on display in this giddy 1972 heist picture is jaw-dropping: director Peter Yates (Breaking Away, Bullitt) and screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, All the President’s Men) adapting a novel by Donald E. Westlake, with a cast that includes not only Robert Redford and George Segal, but a rogue’s gallery of the decade’s best character actors (including Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Moses Gunn, and Paul Sand). Oh, and with a Quincy Jones score! And it’s no ordinary heist picture: rather than following the clockwork-but-close-call template of the sub-genre, this crew keeps making tiny mistakes that force them to swipe the title gem over and over again. Snappily paced, expertly executed, and funny as hell. (Includes audio commentary, isolated music track, and original theatrical trailer.)
Color of Night : This 1994 entry in the post-Basic Instinct trashy erotic thriller derby is mostly remembered for two things: Bruce Willis showing his little Bruno, and one of the goofiest plot twists in recent memory. But it was also the final feature of director Richard Rush, who helmed the cult classic The Stunt Man, and Night was famously taken from the director by its producer and studio (the Disney subsidiary Hollywood Pictures), to be recut over his objections. Rush’s version maintains a lot of the silliness, but at least conveys a sense of what he was trying to do. Ultimately, you can make your own call; this new Blu-ray edition from KL Studio Classics includes both versions, and while it may be a goofy, sometimes inexplicable picture, it certainly never bores. (Includes audio commentaries and theatrical trailer.)