This week’s big Blu-ray release is one of the strangest stories of the movie year so far, an ostensible sure thing that ended up riding a wave of bad press to disappointing box office. (Twist: it’s not half bad.) We’ve also got a killer indie on Hulu, an Oscar-winning documentary on Netflix, and a catnip-for-trashy-movie-fans documentary and Cher’s film debut, both on Blu-ray.
20 Feet from Stardom: This raucous, joyous musical documentary from Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) celebrates that invaluable but under-appreciated element of modern pop music, the back-up singer. It’s a picture overflowing with thrilling music and terrific stories; my personal favorites are Merry Clayton (and Mick Jagger) recalling her session for “Gimme Shelter” and Darlene Love’s tale of her Christmas-and-Letterman-fueled comeback, but your mileage may vary. Winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and one of the most rewatchable recent Oscar winners in any category.
Gemini: Aaron Katz, best known for low-key efforts like Quiet City and Land Ho!, writes and directs this crisp little sun-and-neon-soaked neo-noir, using its deceptively relaxing palm-trees-at-night aesthetic to set up an atmosphere thick with dread, and push it until a murder almost seems inevitable. It’s the reliable story of the natural suspect (Lola Kirke) accused of murder who has to investigate the crime herself to prove her innocence. The amateur investigation hits all the right notes (disguises, tailing, snooping through a room on a clock, etc.), but it’s no mere genre exercise. Kirke is a good audience surrogate (charming and sympathetic, smart but not brilliant), and Katz uses her to give this murder mystery a helpful human anchor.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Solo: A Star Wars Story: When you think about it, it’s sort of insane that a nonsense, throwaway bit of George Lucas dialogue — “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” — would end up driving the entire narrative of another, far more expensive movie 40-plus years later. Solo, the second of the new, stand-alone Star Wars spin-offs, is an already famously troubled production, with original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street) fired more than halfway through production and replaced by Ron Howard for extensive reshoots and completion. Unsurprisingly, the tone is just all over the damn place, while the pieces of explicit “origin story” are mostly tiresome (his last name christening is particularly cringe-worthy) and some of the gags are a little obvious; the “wise guy bluffs and immediately gets called on it” bit gets a real workout. But it’s not, by any means, a total loss. Bradford Young’s artfully moody cinematography is glorious — and thankfully free of the whims of bad theatrical projection — and the big set pieces (a midpoint train robbery and the aforementioned Kessel Run) are pretty thrilling. Alden Ehrenreich makes a fine young Han, plenty likable and funny, while Donald Glover, who shows up about an hour in as young Lando, really brings the juice, channeling Billy Dee Williams yet infusing the character with his own, formidable charisma. Solo is kind of a background movie, really, and there are worse things to be; it’s just surprising the Star Wars franchise got there so quickly. (Includes roundtable, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
King Cohen: “I’m just sitting here, waiting to be adored by people,” Larry Cohen announces, from behind the table at the film convention. “Anybody like me?” He’s kidding, but he’s not, and one of the pleasures of Steve Mitchell’s bio-doc is how thoroughly it conveys the sense of a man who only wants to put on a good show, and will do absolutely anything to achieve that end. Something of a legend to a certain kind of cinephile — his credits include Hell Up in Harlem, It’s Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent — the jovial Cohen is also a hell of a storyteller, even if (when cross-referenced with his collaborators) the details don’t always check out. King Cohen runs a little long, but that minor complaint aside, this is an energetic and entertaining portrait of a one-of-a-kind moviemaker. (Includes soundtrack CD, featurettes, interview outtakes, and trailer.) (Also available on demand.)
Good Times: Sonny and Cher’s 1967 big-screen debut was directed, incongruently enough, by William Friedkin (who went on to helm The French Connection and The Exorcist), and, to its credit, it’s basically a send-up of the kind of quickie jukebox movie that it certainly was. (It looks and feels more like a Monkees movie than the actual Monkees movie.) The set-up is that a studio head wants Sonny and Cher to star in a movie, provided they can put it together in 10 days, which they spend imagining and discarding a series of ideas — allowing, in a burlesque/blackout sketch style, for the stars and director to riff on Westerns, detective pictures, and Tarzan movies, among others. There are a few, scattered, Airplane!-style laughs, though the gags get a little desperate (yes, there is a scene involving talking, smoking, dice-throwing monkeys), and the songs are mostly forgettable. The reason to see it, make no mistake, is Cher; her big-screen charisma is present from the jump, and her sheer watchability pulls the movie through its rough spots. (Includes audio commentary Friedkin introduction, and trailers.)