This week’s big new release contains hardly anything “new” – but it’s one of the best films of the year thus far. Also, one of last year’s most entertaining documentaries has made its way to Netflix, and it’s a rich week for catalogue titles, with new Blu-ray releases of everything from classic noir to iconic anime to snapshots of gritty ‘70s NYC.
Bathtubs Over Broadway : It began with a smirk, the day Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young discovered, while finding oddities for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment, a souvenir album from an “industrial musical” – full-fledged, Broadway-style musical shows for private audiences at company conventions. At first he laughed, but then he found himself humming the songs (they’re fluid and catchy; if the lyrics weren’t commercials, who knows?) and digging into the history of this unknown corner of show business. Director Dava Whisenant ably transfers the interest – Young’s fascination and enthusiasm is infectious – but ultimately, Bathtubs Over Broadway is about more than this tiny, weird thing. It’s about how these peculiar interests can become our obsessions, and the way that ironic detachment can develop, surprisingly enough, into genuine affection.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Apollo 11 : This riveting documentary from director Todd David Miller starts with an essential (and correct) presumption: that the only way to retell one of the most documented events in human history is in the present tense. So Miller dispenses with the standbys – no conventional narration, no contemporary talking heads, and as little background as possible – starting instead on the 1969 launch day and attempting to convey what it must have felt like at that moment– the excitement, the anticipation, the fear. Using an astonishing archive of NASA film and audio recordings, augmented with explainer animations and inventive split-screen work, Apollo 11makes this oft-told tale new again, and creates (against all odds) some of the most suspenseful scenes in recent cinema. (Includes featurette and trailer.)
Princess Mononoke : Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film gets the deluxe Blu-ray special treatment from Shout Factory, an elaborate presentation befitting a picture so epic in scope, length, and style. As per usual, it’s closer to Kurosawa than Disney, a journey film of depth and complexity, filled with haunting images and nuanced character beats. Gorgeous, bloody, scary, and funny (often all at once), it is arguably Miyazaki’s best film. And that’s saying something. (Includes soundtrack CD, book, storyboards, featurettes, and trailers.)
House of Games : David Mamet memorably transitioned from screenwriting to directing with this 1987 neo-noirthriller (bumped to Blu by Criterion), with Lindsay Crouse as a respected psychiatrist who is drawn into the world of cards, cons, and scams by a tough-talking con man (Joe Mantegna, doing perhaps his best screen work). Mamet’s script is, needless to say, dynamite – a dug-down, lived-in story of backroom card games and plain-sight grifts. But his direction is also tip-top, massaging the unconventional chemistry between his leads, finding mood and dread in his Seattle settings, and building to each twist with the confidence of his characters. (Includes audio commentary, archival interviews and featurettes, and trailer.)
The Big Clock : This 1948 film noir classic from director John Farrow – hitting Blu-ray via Arrow Video – was adapted, forty years later, into the Kevin Costner vehicle No Way Out. And it’s easy to see why; the central premise is deliciously ingenious, in which a man is forced to lead the investigation into a murder in which all signs seem to point to him. Here, that man is Ray Milland, capable as ever, while Charles Laughton is enjoyable despicable in the Gene Hackman role of the man really responsible (and, not coincidentally, our hero’s superior). Farrow navigates the story’s tension and doom with ease, and the ensemble is a who’s-who of first-rate character actors. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, radio adaptation, trailer, and promo gallery.)
The Landlord : Hal Ashby’s debut feature (new on Blu from KL Studio Classics) is a rich, funny, daring slice of early ‘70s NYC, in which a rich ne’er-do-well (Beau Bridges) decides to buy a ramshackle apartment building in the “old ghetto area” of… Park Slope, Brooklyn. “This neighborhood’s gonna be very chic,” predicts another new resident, and if it offered nothing else, The Landlord would serve as a fascinating snapshot of the earliest days of Brooklyn gentrification. But it’s so more – a shaggy yet sharp portrait of a rich dope who discovers the humanity of those unlike himself, and in the process, finds his own. (Includes interviews, featurette, and trailer.)
The Prisoner of Second Avenue : Director Melvin Frank’s 1975 adaptation of Neil Simon’s play – making its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive – offers up the all the urban escapades and crisp one-liners (many from the mouth of Simon’s frequent leading man, Jack Lemmon) you’d expect. But it’s also a darker work than Simon’s norm, as Lemmon’s career man loses his job in the midst of a New York heat wave and garbage strike, and turns into a ranting, raving, unshaved, disheveled mess. There are laughs here, and good ones. But as Lemmon announces “I’m getting’ tired of being shoved around,” and warns his wife (the excellent Anne Bancroft), “Don’t patronize me and don’t mock me,” it becomes clear that Prisoneris borne of the same, real, white male rage that fueled Death Wish andTaxi Driver, around the same time. (Includes archival interview and featurette, gag reel, and trailer.).