This week’s big streaming title of note is the feature directorial debut of one of our finest actors, while the new release disc and VOD slate includes an Oscar winner, a couple of shoulda-been nominees, an engaging sequel, and a forgotten little early-‘90s gem.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind : Chiwetel Ejiofor not only stars in this Netflix original, but writes and directs as well. (It’s his feature debut in those arenas, following two short films.) He tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a brilliant young man from rural Malawi whose academic brilliance could lead to a better future than that of his farmer father (Ejiofor). When the drought and flood cycle of the area puts his schooling on pause and their entire community in danger, William’s mechanical ingenuity could save the day. Ejiofor is a better director than screenwriter (a few scenes, particularly of early exposition, are clumsy), but he guides his actors with ease, and builds to a climax of genuine narrative and emotional satisfaction.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Creed II : When you really think about it, it’s wild that the most vapid and soulless entry of the Rocky franchise has yielded two films of such emotional heft. But both Creed and its new sequel zeroed in on the very real resentment of Adonis Creed (again played with force and sensitivity by Michael B. Jordan), and the heartrending guilt felt by Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). Stallone’s participation as co-writer was worrisome — part of the reason Creed felt so fresh was that it offered a new perspective on the character — and some of that worry is borne out by the bursts of storytelling-by-montage and the return of the Rocky sequel formula (mid-movie defeat, end of movie victory). But the bumpier passages are tolerable for the marvelous performances by Stallone, Jordan, and Tessa Thompson (watch the way those two look at each other, and then away, during their newborn baby’s hearing test), and for director Steven Caple Jr.’s stylish, emotional, and effective staging of the climactic fight, which plays like gangbusters. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Favourite : “They sh*t in the streets ‘round here,” the servant explains. “’Political commentary,’ they call it.” The line comes so early in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest that it’s easy to see the wink — that he’s fully aware of the pitfalls of obviousness and clumsiness that await anyone attempting political commentary at this particular moment, but he pulls it off in scene after scene of this deliciously nasty comedy/drama, in which two ruthless women (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) vie for the affections of Queen Anne (Oscar winner Olivia Colman), and the proximity to power that entails. The drawing-room wit and period setting are atypical for Lanthimos, though he handles both with ease — and sooner or later, his trademark narrative brutality and visual uneasiness come out to play as well. Yet it never seems desperate to shock, the way even his best films have tended to; this is a story of power and subjugation, a point driven home by its potent closing images. (Includes deleted scenes and featurette.)
Ben is Back : As she’s gotten older, Julia Roberts has acquired a striking ability to convincingly capture people who are just barely keeping it together — and because we’ve spent so much of our moviegoing lives sympathizing with her, when she falls apart, it has real power. She’s well-cast here as the mother of an addict (Lucas Hedges, quite good) who tries to keep him from relapsing during one-day Christmas break from rehab, and writer/director Hedges impressively arranges the trickiness of all the familial relationships — how the dynamics and triangulations and rectangulations bang each of them around — while getting inside the feeling of inevitability that surrounds addiction, and the circle of blame and guilt around it. It’s a tough picture, and it stumbles in spots, but when it works, it works. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)
Burning : This character-driven drama from director Lee Chang-Dong is one of those films that genuinely benefits from going in cold — I knew nothing whatsoever about it going in, and thus its pivot from a melancholy romance to unnerving mystery was genuinely surprising and undeniably affecting. Chang-Dong works in a meandering style, in which you’re not really certain where he’s going until he gets there, but you’re also never really worried, so striking are the images and compelling are the relationships. (Includes featurette and trailer.)
Mad Dog and Glory : Bill Murray’s pivot to drama wasn’t much of a surprise for the few of us who saw this 1993 effort from director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and screenwriter Richard Price (The Color of Money). He plays against type as a tough gangster who is, as a plot point, not funny — he moonlights as a stand-up comic — while Robert De Niro, whom you might normally expect to see in that kind of role, is also quite good as a meek police photographer. Uma Thurman is bewitching as the woman who comes between them, while a lively crew of character actors (including David Caruso, Mike Starr, Kathy Baker, and Tom Towles) keep the leads on their toes. (Includes audio commentary, archival interviews, featurette, and trailer.)