Two of the half-year’s best independent pictures arrive on Blu-ray and on demand this week, and that’s not at all: one of our favorite ‘90s indie pics is streaming on Prime and one of Clint Eastwood’s warmest pictures is newly available on Blu-ray, along with a Godard classic and a host of must-have Criterion discs. Let’s take a gander.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Living in Oblivion : Tom DiCillo’s portrait of the annoyances of low-budget, independent filmmaking will ring true to anyone who’s so much as dabbled (the opening sequence is an uproariously escalating catalogue of everything that can go wrong on set), while the much-whispered inspiration of Brad Pitt on James LeGros’ pretty-boy pain-in-the-ass actor character (DiCillo’s debut feature was the Pitt vehicle Johnny Suede) gives his scenes an irresistible, gossip-y kick. But more than anything, it’s a valentine to those who slog their way through the indie muck in search of gold, with Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener doing some of their best work of the era as the harried auteur and his put-upon leading lady.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
High Life : There’s something sort of delicious about imagining the Robert Pattinson fans, diehards from his Twilight days, heading to the art house a couple of times a year to get their minds melted by his latest collaboration with David Cronenberg or the Zellner brothers. But nothing they’ve seen will prepare them for this violent, disturbing, hyper-sexualized outer space drama from director Claire Denis, which begins with Pattinson and a baby all alone on a space station, and reveals the derailed prison experiment that put them there. The themes are grim and the images are unforgettable; it’s as uncompromising a work as one would expect from Denis, and that’s a high compliment indeed.
Transit : With his last film, Phoenix, writer/director Christian Petzold proved he could make a riveting and challenging WWII period picture. He undertakes a bold experiment with this adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1942 war novel: he tells her story, of fear and escape from the encroaching Germans during the war, but does so in contemporary settings, costumes, etc. It’s a peculiar choice that tracks intellectually but not always emotionally, and some viewers just might not be able to get past it. But those who do will find a quietly enthralling piece of work, filled with fine performances and moments of unexpected warmth, and some welcome French New Wave touches (particularly in its narration). And watch out for that ending; it’s a whammo. (Includes featurettes and interviews.)
ON BLU-RAY / THE CRITERION CHANNEL
The BRD Trilogy : Wildly gifted and gobsmackingly prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s trilogy (newly upgraded to Blu-ray by Criterion) features three films so startlingly sui generis in style that at first glance, you’d barely peg them as the same filmmaker. But they’re bonded, emotionally and narratively – postwar German melodramas, telling stories of forceful women, broken men, and a country in rubble. The Marriage of Maria Braun, from 1978, concerns a war widow who is scrappy and resourceful and, by the picture’s end, ruthless – she just hardens, over the course of the running time, and Hanna Schygulla’s magnificent performance is downright unshakable. (Includes audio commentary and archival interviews.) His 1982 feature Veronica Voss is a riff on Sunset Boulevard with Rosel Zech as the title character, a big, theatrical, delusional former star of the German studio system, unable to come to terms with her postwar reality; the filmmaker goes all in on the period here, with music, cinematography, transitions, and even fonts that echo the cinema of the period. (Includes audio commentary, archival interviews, and documentaries.) For Lola, from 1981, he goes in the opposite direction, telling the period tale through a decidedly contemporary lens, with stylized color temperatures and pinpoint lighting, to tell a Blue Angel-inspired story of deception, corruption, and the toils and tolls of sex work. (Includes audio commentary and archival interviews.) These were among his final films (Veronika and Lola were his second- and third-to-last), and underscore both the tragedy of his early death, and the gift that he worked so hard for his brief time among us. (All three, and much of the rest of the Fassbinder filmography, are streaming on the Criterion Channel.)
Bronco Billy : Between Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose, Clint Eastwood made this far less insulting good ol’ boy comedy, starring as the ringleader of a barnstorming “authentic Wild West show” that’s sparsely attempted and poorly produced. Some of the most entertaining material comes early, as Dennis Hackin’s script parachutes us into the flailing company and observes the details of how they roll into town, set up the tent, and try to rustle up interest. But the film finds its footing in the relationship between Eastwood and Sandra Locke, who get some excellent opposites-attract chemistry going (a favorite Eastwood supporting player, Geoffrey Lewis, is also in fine form as, what else, the heel). Laid-back, thoroughly charming fun. (Includes trailer.)
Alphaville : Jean-Luc Godard’s bold, stylish 1965 classic is a sci-fi/noir fusion that purposefully discombobulates time and place, eschewing the customary signifiers of futuristic sets and props and focusing merely on ideas, a fascinating approach that strips the ideas behind these genres down to their bones. (His best work tends to mine a similar self-reflectiveness.) Toss in some astonishing black and white photography, the requisite French New Wave tough/cool, and an eye-opening sense of grim romanticism, and you’ve got one of the best films of Godard’s best period. (Includes audio commentary, introduction, interview, and trailer.)
Europa Europa : Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 drama (new from Criterion) is set in Nazi Germany, and it’s expectedly harrowing and upsetting. But there’s also something inherently comic about its premise, in which a Jewish teen hides out among the Hitler Youth-in-training, sporting his swastika and learning how to spot one of its own; Holland explores those possibilities, while treading thought-provoking and often uncomfortable themes of self-identity and self-preservation. Keep an eye out for a young Julie Delpy in a key role. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and featurette.)