This week’s big new releases are (comparatively) small movies: an intimate relationship drama, a vérité portrait of a recording session, a fashion documentary, and a personal peek into a murderous cult. We’ve also got a bit of buried ‘70s treasure and a Criterion classic making their Blu-ray reviews, and (arguably) Quentin Tarantino’s best movie returning to Netflix. Let’s begin there:
Jackie Brown : Many a review of Quentin Tarantino’s latest has compared its loosey-goosey, hangout pace and tone to this, his much anticipated 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction, a laid-back adaptation of a marvelous, late-period Elmore Leonard novel. And because he was so hot, he was able to hand its leading roles to ‘70s icons Pam Grier and Robert Forster, who generate genuine warmth and affection as a put-upon airline stewardess and the bail bondsman who falls for her; Samuel L. Jackson turns in one of his most chilling performances as the bad guy who first wants to use them, and then wants to kill them. Most of Tarantino’s films have aged just fine, but Jackie Brown’s mellow vibe and preoccupation with mature characters make it quite possibly the only one that’s getting better with each passing year.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
Charlie Says: In another (surely not accidental) piece of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood-related timing, here’s the home media release of directorMary Harron’s reunion with her American Psycho/ Notorious Bettie Page co-writer Guinevere Turner, for a film that makes its own space in the current spate of Manson-adjacent movies by focusing on the three women who went to prison for participating in the Tate/LaBianca murders. And thus, as the work of two women, it peers past the sensationalist nature of the “Family” and their activities at the Spahn Movie Ranch, drilling down on the psychology of Manson – how he got these women, and how he kept them – while drawing out the importance of humiliation and manipulation in that setting. Matt Smith doesn’t really work as Manson, and the screenplay’s structure is the kind of thing that probably read well but plays clunkily. Yet the singularity of its perspective and the performances surrounding Smith make Charlie Saysworth seeking out.
ON DVD / VOD:
Amazing Grace: Back in January of 1972, an impossibly young Sydney Pollack headed up a crew that filmed, over two nights in a Los Angeles sanctuary, the recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album Amazing Grace. It became a bestseller, but the footage was never assembled or released (for “technical reasons,” per the opening credits) – until now. The result is more a concert film than documentary, and that’s just fine, because it’s as pure a shot of sheer joy as you’re likely to feel anytime soon. Franklin is backed up by the Southern California Community Choir under the guidance of Rev. James Cleveland, who is essentially our emcee; early on, he invites us to “relax and enjoy one of the greatest sounds in the world,” which he goes on to pinpoint as “the sound of gospel,” but this viewer assumed he meant the sound of Aretha. Pollack shoots her in tight, beads of sweat rolling down her face – she’s standing still, to be clear, just singing so hard that she works up a sweat. Her singing is raw, and rowdy, and transcendent, and within a few minutes, the film itself is like being in church; when Cleveland suggests, as reverends do, to reach out to neighbor, I realized I was looking around for one. I was lucky enough to see its DOCNYC premiere, where Rev. Al Sharpton led an opening prayer, asking the Lord to “bless this film, that it blesses people all over the world.” Amen.
The Souvenir: Many of us have been in toxic relationships, and everyone’s probably been close to one, but I’ve rarely seen one captured onscreen with the depth and detail of this quiet character drama from writer/director Joanna Hogg. Her focus is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker who takes up with Anthony (Tom Burke), who first seems merely complicated and fascinating, and then proves… more. Hogg works in an elliptical storytelling style, with key scenes joined in progress, and sometimes skipped all together. But it all makes emotional sense, and there’s a blunt effectiveness to the moments she allows us to access; they let us see why Julie shouldn’t trust him, and why she does anyway. It’s emotionally wrenching, but deeply felt and magnificently played. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
Halston: Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary portrait of the fashion icon beautifully evokes the feeling of whirling around in the tornado of the coked-up, Studio 54-dwelling, go-go ‘70s NYC, and watching it all fall apart in the hands of a bunch of Wall Street jagoffs in the decade that followed. If (like me) you know the name but not his story, there’s much to learn here, about the rise of an enigma, his prickliness and perfectionism, the specific appeal of his clothes, and how the shifting tides of the business ate him alive. Crisply paced and well assembled, and full of rich little detours and mysteries, this one is both semi-tragic and a lot of fun.
ON BLU-RAY / THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
An Angel at My Table: Jane Campion’s 1990 portrait of New Zealand writer Janet Frame (a Criterion Collection Blu-ray upgrade) is structured in three parts, each based on one of Frame’s three memoirs. It begins as a cozy childhood tale, imbued with a warm, 400 Blowsquality, a pimples-and-all coming-of-age story that seizes on moments of recognizable truth: The comfort of finding your first, true friend; suffering through your first staggering loss; the mixture of pride and shame when you’re the first in your family to go to college. But the picture takes a hard turn from nostalgia to terror when Frame is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spends the rest of her life searching to stave off darkness and find herself in writing. It’s a long, patient film, and a journey – with big tonal shifts and extended story arcs spanning its expansive running time. By turns harrowing and heartwarming, and a confirmation (after the previous year’s Sweetie) that Campion was an artist to watch closely. (Also streaming on the Criterion Channel.) (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, archival interviews, featurette, and trailer.)
The Front Page: This 1974 screwball comedy is mostly forgotten by virtue of comparison: it’s neither the best adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur’s classic newspaper farce (that’d be His Girl Friday), the best Jack Lemmon - Walter Matthau movie (I vote The Odd Couple, YMMV), nor their best collaboration with Billy Wilder (The Fortune Cookie, obviously). But a “lesser” Front Page/ Lemmon and Matthau / Wilder picture still beats just about any damn thing I can think of, and there’s a lot to like here, from the bang-on period details to the fully loaded supporting cast (including Susan Sarandon, Carol Burnett, Vincent Gardenia, Charles Durning, and Austin Pendelton). But the virtues here are the obvious ones: Lemmon and Matthau’s well-honed chemistry, Hecht and MacArthur’s crackerjack script (crisply adapted by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), and the sure hand of Mr. Wilder, who orchestrates the material with the appropriate mixture of intelligence and chaos. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and trailer.)