Netflix has a one-two punch of outstanding new indies this week, so we’re spotlighting them here, because God knows how much luck you’ll have finding them on the actual platform. (As usual, click the title below, it’ll take you right there!) One of our favorite documentaries of last year is now on Kanopy — free streaming with a library card, folks! And on disc, we have a surprisingly nimble Marvel movie, a terrific music documentary, and new deluxe editions of two all-time classics.
22 July : Somewhere around the 25-minute mark of Paul Greengrass’ harrowing dramatization of the 2011 Oslo terror attacks, I had to really ask myself if I wanted to keep watching a madman pick off teenagers one by one. It’s a question worth asking yourself before pressing play, and no one will blame you if your answer is a hard “no.” But there’s much to recommend in Greengrass’s latest, though he expends a bit too much screen time on how mean people were to the shooter’s lawyer, drifting into the waters of morally dubious false equivalence, and the creation of a big dramatic face-off to conclude the film feels a touch contrived. But it’s undeniably effective; what the survivor (Jonas Strand Gravli, searing) says, and how he says it, is pointed and potent.
The Kindergarten Teacher : Maggie Gyllenhaal is smashingly good as a 20-plus year kindergarten teacher who takes an intense interest in a student that seems to be a poetry prodigy — perhaps, it soon seems, too intense an interest. Writer/director Sara Colangelo (adapting Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film) shifts from character drama to comedy of desperation and back again, and does so with such nimble grace, we hardly notice the sense of dread she’s sneaking in. It becomes one of those films where there’s no doubt something terrible is going to happen; it just becomes a matter of what, and when. The pieces don’t all snap into place, but the skill and bravado of that Gyllenhaal performance keeps the picture humming.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library : The legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman has spent the better part of a half-century exploring the ins and outs of worthy institutions, so he’s a natural fit for a peek behind the scenes of the NYPL. But the ideal match of reporter and subject goes beyond that — he seems to be interested in literally everything, and that’s what this library offers. It’s not just a repository for books; it houses art and information, hosts public talks and private events, and functions as a valuable community center in neighborhoods rich and poor. Throughout the (as usual, leisurely) film, there are wonderful cuts that indicate the breadth of what this organization provides, from, for example, a piano recital at the Lincoln Center branch to a jobs expo at the Bronx Library Center. This library wants to provide both of those things to its patrons; Wiseman’s exquisite film sees the value of that mission, and shares it.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Ant-Man and the Wasp : The increasingly stifling seriousness of the Marvel movies — which came to a bit of a head with Infinity War — is again charmingly subverted by Peyton Reed’s sequel to his 2015 comic adventure. That film was breezy fun that felt as though it had to switch off to fulfill the obligations of the Marvel house style; this time, it seems like Reed’s been given a longer leash, so even the big set pieces are injected with inventive visual gags, and moments of overwrought backstory are subverted altogether. As before, it mostly works because of Paul Rudd’s formidable charisma (there’s an early montage, set to the Partridge Family’s “C’mon, Get Happy,” that’s like courtroom evidence of his likability), and while Michael Peña again steals the show, Randall Park also lands some very funny moments, and Michelle Pfeiffer, predictably, slays. (Includes deleted scenes, gag reel, and featurette.)
Shampoo : Hal Ashby’s 1975 Warren Beatty vehicle (a new addition to the Criterion Collection) does something miraculous: it takes what could’ve been a simple, giggly sex-com premise, and uses it as a vehicle for a genuinely probing exploration of a flawed character, and those in his orbit. Beatty plays a hot-stuff Beverly Hills hairdresser, engaged in affairs with multiple clients, all of whose husbands assume he’s safe because, y’know, he’s a hairdresser. That’s borderline Three’s Company territory, but screenwriter Robert Towne telescopes the action, sets it all on Election Night 1968, and somehow manages to make his protagonist’s wanderlust into an apt metaphor for the decaying of America. Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, and Lee Grant are all scorching as the women he will, to varying degrees, disappoint, while Beatty turns in one of his finest performances as a guy who’s coasted for years on looks and charm, yet knows, in the back of his mind, that it’s not gonna last much longer. (Includes critics’ conversation and Beatty TV appearance.)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers : One of the most influential sci-fi films of all time — which beget three official remakes and countless unauthorized imitations — joins Olive Films’ Signature Collection, and in spite of its familiarity, it still packs a punch. Kevin McCarthy returns to his small town after two weeks away and discovers something’s gone awry, with widespread reports of people freaked out by friends and relatives who aren’t what they seem; he’s assured it’s a mass delusion, but discovers something more sinister. The film’s analogues to events near its mid-‘50s release have been duly noted, and are certainly effective — but regardless of those parallels, it’s just a crackerjack piece of paranoia-infused sci-fi, with the great Don Siegel crafting scene after scene of unnerving pleasantry giving way to sweaty desperation. (Includes audio commentaries, production documents, trailer, and featurettes.)
Elvis Presley: The Searcher: When we talk about Elvis Presley, we’re talking about so much other stuff — celebrity, addiction, cultural appropriation, cult of personality — that it’s easy to forget to frame him as what we knew him as first: a musician. This exquisitely crafted documentary, which first aired in two parts on HBO earlier this year, seeks to reframe him on those original terms; the title refers to his endless curiosity as an artist, which brought him to the blues and R&B that were so essential to his style, and led him to continue experimenting, as a megastar, when he could. (Particular attention is paid to the ’68 comeback special and the muscular recordings that followed.) Clips and recordings a-plenty, of course, as well as insights from associates and admirers (heard but not seen, a potentially off-putting device that mostly works), will leave even casual admirers happy for the musical legacy he left, and mourning the recordings he didn’t make when the Colonel was forcing him to crank out a bunch of terrible movies and soundtrack albums. (Includes featurette.)