What to Watch on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Blu-ray This Week
It's another one of those "saved by the catalogue" weeks, since the new releases on shelves and streaming include such must-misses as The Hustle, A Dog's Journey, and Brighburn. Instead, we've got a treasure trove of gems from the distant and recent past, including a couple of cult faves, an undervalued musical, a beloved melodrama, and a long-lost snapshot of the London reggae scene. Let's take a look:
ON AMAZON PRIME:
Dolemite: Just in time for the forthcoming (and terrific-looking) Eddie Murphy-fronted biopic of comedian / entrepreneur / action movie star Rudy Ray Moore, Prime has added his debut picture – with all of its atrocious acting, hilariously inept fight choreography, clumsy edits, outrageously dated dialogue, disastrously unerotic sex scenes, blown dialogue cues, and awkward framing and camerawork.You have to love bad movies to love Moore's movies, but if you do, they're a goldmine. Yet there's more to these films than the pleasure of pointing and laughing; this is the work of a true believer, a man with a story to tell who’s not going to let niceties or aesthetics slow him down. And as cheap and unwieldy as they are, they supplied a vision of black heroism, sensuality, and performance that was all but invisible onscreen, then and now.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
Babylon: Franco Rosso's social drama premiered at Cannes clear back in 1980 but didn’t appear in U.S. theaters until last year, so it functions as both a time capsule and a breath of fresh air. Sporting the rough energy of its clearest influence, The Harder They Come (and a similar story situated at the intersection of music, crime, and social rebellion), Rosso’s direction is thick with atmosphere and local color, particularly in the (thankfully subtitled) patois of the dialogue. It moves like a shot, capturing both the beauty and desperation of life in the streets of South London in the late 1970s. And the music, a striking mix of reggae and lovers rock, is to die for. (Also streaming on the Criterion Channel.) (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, cast and crew Q&A, and trailers.)
Cruising: William Friedkin’s 1980 cop thriller gets the special edition treatment from Arrow Video, and it remains as controversial and contradictory as ever: incoherent as a mystery, horrifying as representation, but an undeniably moody snapshot of a long-vanished time and place. Al Pacino plays a New York cop who goes undercover in the city’s leather bars to track down a serial killer targeting gay men. It’s a grimy, sweaty little item, and the questions that haunted its production are still worth asking; activists famously haunted the film’s locations, using music and noisemakers to wreck sound recordings, objecting that the film framed all gay life in the city as decadent and depraved. They weren’t exactly wrong, but that said, the on-location photography (scenes were shot in real leather bars) and authenticity of the background players makes it a fascinating glimpse of that specific subculture. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, and trailer.)
Sweet Charity: The mere existence of KL Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray release of this 1969 adaptation of the Broadway hit probably owes a little something to the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which uses the failure of this film – Bob Fosse’s directorial debut – as an inciting incident. But an unprejudiced viewing reveals that the picture may have been, more than anything, a victim of poor timing; this was just a lousy year to release your big, expensive movie musical, and there are plenty of other examples to back that notion up. Sweet Charity shows us a filmmaker roaring out of the gate in full control of his gifts: he’s staging the hell out of these numbers (and staging them for the camera, which is key), while coaxing out the melancholy of the narrative and orchestrating a go-for-broke lead performance by Shirley MacLaine. She’s both dazzling and heartbreaking, and while Charity certainly isn’t on the level of Cabaret or All That Jazz, it’s a mighty impressive starting point. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, trailer, and alternate version.)
The Witches: This 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s book (new on Blu from Warner Archives) was directed by Nicolas Roeg, who also helmed such all-time children’s favorites as, um, Performance, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the resulting picture is a little bit on the dark side, what with its focus on a plot by a coven of witches (led by Anjelica Huston) to feed British children poisoned chocolate that will turn them into mice. But Roeg injects the picture with his customary stylish energy, the set pieces are both funny and creepy, and Huston is at her slinkly, scary best in the central role.
Magnificent Obsession: This 1954 melodrama by the great Douglas Sirk (getting a gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade by Criterion) features a plot that’s comically convoluted even by Sirk’s standards. It tells the story (first told in Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, and again in a 1935 film by John M. Stahl) of a devil-may-care playboy (Rock Hudson) who is indirectly responsible first for the death of Jane Wyman’s husband, and then for her own blindness. Of course, they fall in love, and she still looks glam thanks to her cat-eye sunglasses. Carping about the narrative misses the point anyway; Sirk’s films are about lush photography, heart-on-their-sleeve performances, and operatic emotions, and this one has all three in spades. (Includes audio commentary, archival interviews, documentary, and the entire 1935 film version.)
The Marrying Man: This period rom-com from director Jerry Rees (who made his name in animation) and screenwriter Neil Simon was something of a flop upon its original 1991 release, its charms eclipsed entirely by the stories of its tabloid-friendly production, during which stars Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger fell into lust/love. But the film itself is a low-key charmer, a fictionalized retelling of the explosive romance and multiple marriages of millionaire Harry Karl and starlet Marie McDonald. The stars are attractive, the costumes and sets are dazzling, and Simon’s one-liners crackle. It’s not exactly a full-course meal, but as a fizzy appetizer, you could do much worse. (Includes trailers.)