We didn’t do a “best of the year so far” list, but if we had, this week’s most noteworthy disc release would’ve likely sat atop it, a family drama that repurposes the superhero tropes into something deeply felt and stunning. Also this week: two new additions to the Criterion Collection, an enjoyable comedy/drama that got lost in the busy hive of ’99, a pair of genuine oddities from AGFA, and one of our favorite recent documentaries.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Blow Out : Brian De Palma took on Antonioni’s Blow-Up, with allusions to Watergate, Chappaquiddick, and the assassination of JFK thrown in for good measure, and come up with one of his best pictures – taut, suspenseful, intelligent, and full of knowing winks for conspiracy theorists. John Lithgow’s creepy serial killer is a highlight (his clever method of hiding his strangling wire leads to several genuinely scary moments), and the near-nihilism of the closing scenes makes this feel less like an ‘80s movie – it was released in 1981 – than a ‘70s classic.
Bisbee ’17 : Robert Greene opens his account of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation with his quote from Colin Dickey: “Cities that are haunted… seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” Greene takes the idea quite literally, using his customary documentary/narrative hybrid style to put the city’s past and present into conversation; he stages re-enactments of the events surrounding this exile of laborers and immigrants in front of the city’s modern cars and current facades, with armed men charging into contemporary homes and dragging people out – one city, in other words, on top of the other. The results are astonishing, particularly as the dispute becomes conflated with patriotism and nationalism, and observers insist, “In today’s world, this is not how you handle your issues. Those were ‘then’ values, and the world’s changed a lot since then.” Uh huh.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Fast Color : DC’s latest, Shazam, hits disc today, and frankly you can keep it – this, friends, is a real superhero origin story. Like the best of them (including Unbreakable, its clearest influence), Fast Color is less interested in effects and iconography than personality and relationships, here in the form of three generations of women with “abilities,” trying to work through how to use (or not use) them in a world of post-apocalyptic draught. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as charismatic and magnetic as ever, while Saniyya Sidney makes quite an impression as her daughter. But the most memorable work is from LorraineToussaint as the matriarch of this family of special women, and her big climactic scenes are a straight-up barnburner. Julia Hart’s direction is both focused and free; this is one of the best movies of the young year. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
Klute : Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 drama – new to the Criterion Collection – sits at the intersection of multiple movements in early ‘70s filmmaking (it’s one of the great subversions of the classic private eye movie, it’s one of the great “New York as urban hellhole” movies, etc.), and has proven one of the most influential movies of the era (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, among many others, have frequently shouted it out). But its primary value is as a performance piece, with Jane Fonda winning a well-deserved Oscar for her complicated work as the “working girl” who helps small-town P.I. Donald Sutherland track a missing friend who was also one of her johns. It remains a miraculous performance, full of tiny, keenly observed moments that accumulate into a stunningly resonant whole. (Includes new and archival interviews and featurettes.)
The Baker’s Wife : Marcel Pagnol directs this sorta funny, sorta desperate, charmingly shaggy portrait of French provincial life, full of gossip, selfishness, and petty conflict. Raimu (who often recalls Chaplin physically, in his bowler hat and little mustache) stars as the new baker in town – the last one hung himself in the cellar – whose attractive young wife quickly and unsurprisingly runs away with a hot shepherd. (Have I mentioned it’s French? It’s very French). The baker becomes so distraught that he can no longer work, and the town bands together to bring back his missus, so they can all enjoy their bread again. Snazzy and funny and sometimes sad, it’s a fizzy gem, and Criterion’s new 4K restoration looks marvelous. (Includes audio commentary, news excerpt, and vintage intro and interviews.)
Footlight Parade: This 1933 Pre-Code backstager from director Lloyd Bacon finds the movie industry already looking back at the transition to talkies with its story of a Broadway director (James Cagney) finding a new career in creating elaborate live song-and-dance “prologues” for talking pictures in former vaudeville houses. Those numbers are staged by Busby Berkeley, and true to form, they’re wildly implausible – roughly the cost of a full Broadway show, and impossible to imagine through a proscenium. But the choreography is inventive and the cinematography is ingenious, and if the racial content is cringe-worthy even by 1933 standards, there’s still a lot to like here: the assortment of fast-talkin’ operators and wise-crackin’ dames, a simultaneously sympathetic and sexy Joan Blondell, and Cagney just plain having a ball, right up through the inevitable moment where he has to go onstage himself. (Includes vintage cartoons, featurettes, and trailer.)
Mumford : Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1990s output didn’t quite equal his terrific run in the ‘80s (though I’ll go to bat for French Kiss any day of the week), but this 1999 comedy/drama has drifted into the collective memory hole even compared to those pictures, and that’s a shame. It’s a charming work, a small-town character-driven story with an unmistakable Capra influence, anchored by an A+ ensemble cast (including Hope Davis, Jason Lee, David Paymer, Martin Short, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Kasdan’s Grand Canyon co-stars Alfre Woodard and Mary McDonnell). And Loren Dean, one of those “wasn’t he supposed to be a star” actors, is an ideal lead – the very inscrutability that kept that over-the-title status at bay turns out to be just right for this enigmatic character and story. (Includes featurette, interview, and trailer.)
Satanis: The Devil’s Mass / Satan’s Children : Those demented freaks at the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird video are back with a new-to-Blu double feature for all you devil lovers, and it’s a goofy, kitschy treat. You can feel a very pronounced Manson-era fascination with cults and rituals in the 1970 documentary Satanis: The Devil’s Mass, an inside look at the “Church of Satan” sect led by the notorious Anton LaVey, but director Ray Laurent rather entertainingly takes the piss out of LaVey by frequently focusing on the hassles of running a Satanism headquarters in a residential district – he’ll cut from LaVey holding court and expounding on his philosophies to an elderly neighbor complaining about the poor upkeep of the property. It’s a hoot, intentional or not, and the rituals (certainly staged for the benefit of the cameras) are an entertaining stew of snake dances, grinning skulls, masks, costumes, bells, and copious nudity. The title card for Satan’s Children’s is accompanied by a copyright notice for “Florida International Pictures,” and that kind of says it all; this cautionary/exploitation feature from one-time director Joe Wiezycki, in which a runaway teen is taken in and exploited by a Satanist cult, is eye-openingly trashy and sometimes laughably cheap. But there are moments where its no-budget grubbiness is a virtue – where it feels like the clumsy home movies of a grimy little commune, and you kind of can’t take your eyes off it. (Includes trailers and shorts.)