One of the most talked-about movies of the year — and a big swing for awards season respectability — landed on Netflix Friday, so we’re recommending it again, along with a goofy but enjoyable early-fall thriller that’s new on disc. And the catalogue titles this week are rich and varied, from Criterion classics to Spielberg’s Oscar winner to lowbrow delights. Let’s dig in:
Roma : Alfonso Cuarón’s latest does so many things at once, none at the expense of the other, that it’s kind of a miracle. Set in Mexico in the early 1970s — and influenced by his own childhood memories — it’s an Y Tu Mamá También-style examination of the country’s class and political struggles as seen through a distinctively personal lens, the intermingled stories of two women abandoned by irresponsible men and rising to the occasion. As ever, the patience and control of the filmmaking is astonishing, and his signature long takes are more felt than seen; they don’t call attention to themselves anymore, and don’t need to. The takeaway is not visual pyrotechnics, but emotion; the empathy and humanity of his work, always present, is this time downright overwhelming.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
A Simple Favor : Ultimately, Paul Feig just might not’ve been the right director for this affectionate throwback to ‘90s erotic thrillers — he never quite gets the tonal balance right, and it swings far too goofy by the end. But there’s a lot to like here, primarily the work of leads Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, who position themselves well as polar opposites (type-A/laid-back, mousy/sexy) and end up blurring those lines. Kendrick plays a variety of notes well, particularly as she learns to be assertive and tries being Nancy Drew, while there’s something utterly bewitching about the way Lively calls Kendrick “baby” and tells her she’s sexy. It’s not a great movie, but it’s gonna play great on TNT in a couple of years. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, gag reel, and deleted scenes.)
ON 4K / BLU-RAY
Schindler’s List : The “movie we need right now” line has been attached to a fair amount of dubious art over the past two years, but Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Best Picture winner (newly re-mastered and re-released for its 25th anniversary) certainly earns the claim. The passage of time has softened some of the legitimate criticisms — this viewer still takes issue with the girl in the pink coat, and there she is, right on the Blu-ray cover — but it’s also rightfully bolstered the power of its performances, particularly the trio (Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and then-unknown Ralph Fiennes) at its center. (Includes featurettes and Voices from the List documentary.)
Panique : The laughs land and then sting in this 1946 French comedy/drama from director Julien Duvivier, new to the Criterion Collection, in which an intimate community is rocked by the revelation of a murderer in their midst. It puts the entire town on edge, understandably, as worry gives way to paranoia, rumors, and accusations. Duvivier manifests this mounting panic via inventive photography (the Dutch angles and subjective camera are especially striking), and the flashes of wicked humor and sly sensuality serve as a fine diversion on the way to a powerfully bleak conclusion. (Includes featurettes, interviews, and trailer.)
Sawdust and Tinsel : This 1953 Ingmar Bergman effort — included in Criterion’s recent Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema box set, now available as a stand-alone Blu-ray — creates a tricky mixture of mirth and dread, of despair just out of the eyeline of joy. Bergman’s story concerns a ram-shackle, poverty-striken traveling circus, but his focus is on the washed-up proprietor, his unhappy partner, and their melancholy explorations of life away from each other during one particularly dire tour stop. It’s told with an intimacy that’s often uncomfortable, physically and psychologically (nothing’s more devastating than desperate honesty), yet most of its truths are found in the faces of its leads — particularly the looks of weary resignation they share before strolling off together, to their next nowhere destination. What a brilliant, insightful work. (Includes audio commentary and Bergman introduction.)
The Thing from Another World : This 1951 sci-fi/horror classic (newly given the Blu-ray bump by Warner Archive) was sort of the Poltergeist of its time — in that there have been arguments for years over whether it was directed by its credited director, Christian Nyby, or his better-known and beloved producer, Howard Hawks. And it’s not hard to see where the Hawks people are coming from; its crew-of-guys-on-a-base set-up is reminiscent of his Only Angels Have Wings, while the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue (particularly in the early scenes) were one of Hawks’ trademarks. Whoever is responsible, this is a firecracker of a scary alien movie (sharply remade by John Carpenter in 1982), evocatively and effectively crafted (the monster is wisely kept hidden through much of the picture), featuring a marvelously apocalyptic Dimitri Tiomkin score.
Bloody Birthday : So here’s a nasty little item from 1981, newly restored by Arrow Video, that is in many ways a typical slasher movie of the era — basically it’s end to end murders, interrupted by occasional leering at naked teenage flesh. But there’s something genuinely disturbing about this story of three 10-year-old kids, born under the same eclipse, who are absolutely ruthless psychopaths; director Ed Hunt works in a key of relentless nihilism that is undeniably effective. It’s so low budget, they couldn’t even afford a “Happy Birthday to You” sing-along at the big birthday party, but the nondescript look and cheapo production design somehow render it creepier. It feels homemade, somehow, which makes the whole thing even more unsettling. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.)