Rounders: This 1998 poker drama is a classic example of a cinematic slow starter; it did little business on its initial release, but within a couple of years, the explosion of recreational Texas Hold-‘Em play (the picture’s primary card game) made the film a belated hit on home video. This tale of a reformed card player (Matt Damon) and his eternal screw-up of a buddy and partner (Edward Norton) feels written from the inside — there’s lingo, and lots of it, convincingly mouthed by the strong ensemble cast, and the picture have a good ear for the kind of street poetry rhythms found in David Mamet’s best work (“But about the money, I gotta say this: I gotta say no”). The direction, by the great and underrated John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), is moody and atmospheric; the smoke in the poker rooms is thick enough to smell. Some of the supporting characters are thin (and yes, Malkovich’s accent is ridiculous), but this brisk melodrama is fast-paced fun, and prime for repeat viewing.
Rosemary’s Baby: Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic is a rather miraculous high-wire act of diversion and misinformation; if you go into it cold (which, I know, is impossible these days), you’d be surprised by the way the screenwriter/director keeps its bombshell from the audience until the last possible moment. He spends his first two hours building up an atmosphere of unexplained haziness, fear and dread, leaving us uncertain of what, exactly, is wrong with Rosemary’s firstborn—until we find out. Oh boy, do we find out.
Super Fly: Presumably due to the recent addition of the Netflix original Dolemite is My Name, the services has added a handful of vintage blaxpoitation movies, and this is probably the best – worth watching in tandem with Dolemite because of its scrappy, Scotch-taped aesthetic, betraying a hustler’s spirit and run-and-gun style that’s influenced many a low-budget filmmaker. Some of the staging is clumsy and (aside from star Ron O’Neal) the acting is amateurish. But there’s real power here, particularly when director Gordon Parks Jr. – whose father, the influential photographer, directed the film’s contemporary, Shaft – just lets the music and images tell the story (literally, in Curtis Mayfield’s astute, and famously counter-narrative, lyrics). And that ending sure is a crowd-pleaser.
Chinatown: Nothing is ever quite as it seems (or so goes the cliché) in classic noir detective movies: the client is lying, their motives are sketchy, and the initially simple mystery gradually reveals itself to be something much bigger and more sinister. Robert Towne’s justifiably celebrated screenplay follows the playbook, but takes advantage of the freedoms of New Hollywood and the R rating to throw his mystery a twist that couldn’t have flown in the Bogart era. It’s a movie that somehow maintains its power to shock — and to thrill. (Also streaming on Hulu.)
Juice: There was an extraordinary moment, in the early 1990s, when films not only about but by African-Americans were both critically lauded and commercially successful, and in the wake of hits like New Jack City and Boyz N The Hood, major studios were willing (for once, and just briefly) to take risks on filmmakers of color. Sure, they were almost exclusively interested in similar stories of guns and crime, but some directors managed to subtly shade within those lines. Chief among them was Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee’s longtime cinematographer (he shot Lee’s first six features) who made his directorial debut with this 1992 hit, turning the story of four friends from Harlem who turn on each other into something akin to a Warner Brothers gangster movie with a film noir edge. Helping matters considerably was Dickerson’s sharp eye for young talent, with a cast that includes early spotlight roles for Omar Epps, Queen Latifah, and an electrifying young actor named Tupac Shakur.
The Nightingale: The latest from director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is an unremittingly bleak and brutal work, full of horrifying images and a particular scene of violence and terror so ugly and haunting, it’s hard to recommend the picture at all. But if you can withstand that, there’s no questioning the skill and craft Kent displays here; she tells the story of a young woman’s quest for revenge from a uniquely feminine perspective, placing her squarely in a world where every look and aside is a threat, even before those threats are carried out. Some of the flourishes are heavy-handed, and a key decision by the protagonist is left frustratingly unexplained and ill-defined. But there are scenes of real power here, and a lead performance by Aisling Franciosi that is impossible to shake.
Meeting Gorbachev: “I am a German,” Werner Herzog informs Mikhail Gorbachev at the beginning of their first interview. “And the first German you ever met probably wanted to kill you.” And thus, we’re off and running in Herzog and André Singer’s documentary profile of the last leader of the USSR, combining footage from their three conversations with archival footage and commentary by observers on the political scene. For those of us with terrible public school world history educations, it’s a detailed and informative recap of the dismantling of the Soviet Union – not, as so many documentaries would tell you, the result of a couple of events and sound bytes, but a collection of intersecting independence movements. And it’s a compelling piece of portraiture, clearly done from a place of admiration and respect.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: One of the more puzzling mysteries of the home media calendar is Lionsgate’s decision to release this one on the Tuesday after Halloween – it even starts on that holiday, with a good prank going bad as its inciting action. Nevertheless, if you’re up for one more creature feature, it’s a good one, as director André Øvredal and a team of screenwriters turn Alvin Schwartz’s classic series of horror short stories into a surprisingly robust single narrative with a juicy central premise: a haunted book, which “reads” our teen protagonists, describing their grisly demises as they play out. The kills are intricate and ingenious, something akin to a teen Final Destination, and the PG-13 rating is a real one; some of these sequences are way too intense for younger audiences. They might’ve even put a scare or two into this old-ass man. (Includes featurettes.)
Naked Alibi: #Noirvember – that annual old-movie buff tradition in which we flip from stuffing horror movies into our eyes all October to stuffing films noir into our eyeballs all November – is underway, and KL Studio Classics was kind enough to provide this shiny new Blu-ray edition of Jerry Hopper’s 1954 thriller for the occasion. It stars two of the form’s mainstays, Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame, and plays now like a proto-Touch of Evil (which came out four years later); it’s a sweaty, border-town noir, flush with atmosphere and desire. Gene Barry chews the scenery as a crazed, cackling cop killer on the lamb, Hayden is the tough detective on his trail, and Grahame is the tough broad who first loves one, then the other. She’s as bad-girl seductive as ever, and Hayden juices up his conventional good-guy role with his weathered, rough-and-tumble gravitas. (Includes audio commentary and trailers.)