It’s a big comedy week for new releases on disc and Netflix, with plenty of options: do you like your comedy romantic? How about low-budget? Maybe a little something in dark Swedish? Plus, a riveting true crime documentary and a charming reinvention of literature’s most famous detective.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: The title sounds like a South Park parody of a foreign art film, but the latest from director Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor and You the Living) is thankfully in on the joke. He’s working in his familiar style: absurd little vignettes, drab people in drab rooms captured in long wide shots by an unmoving camera, Bergman by way of Buñuel. There are recurring themes and running characters (including, in this case, the saddest novelty gift salesmen in the world), but the real focus is the style — simple yet logistically complex, boxed-in yet deceptively performative (as demonstrated by the borderline kabuki makeup of his players). And then he takes a devastatingly sharp shift into a tableau that reframes the entire film, asking if we’ve made suffering into some kind of spectator sport. It’s an odd and funny picture, until the laughs begin to cut.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart: This gripping documentary, which premiered on HBO last year, concerns the seemingly open-and-shut case of a woman who allegedly seduced a 15-year-old boy and convinced him and three friends to bump off her husband. But then director Jeremiah Zagar goes back, drills down, and looks closer; he changes angles, shifts perspectives, and asks different questions. And most of all, he looks at how the camera — the news camera, the courtroom camera, the film camera — alters not only what we see, but how we see it. No one gets away from Captivated clean (not the viewer, not the participants, not even the filmmaker), and it’s ultimately a fascinating examination of the justice system, reality television, and the insidiousness of the observer effect. Or, it’s just a good true crime story, if that’s your cup of tea.
Mr. Holmes: After disappearing for a bit too long in the Twilight movie weeds, director Bill Condon re-teams with his Gods and Monsters star Ian McKellen for this splendid tale of a very old and somewhat haunted Sherlock Holmes. It’s partially mythology subversion — this Holmes dismisses Dr. Watson’s stories as “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style” and prefers a cigar and top hat to pipe and deerstalker. But it’s mostly a story about aging and mortality, as Holmes (increasingly unstable at his country estate), haunted by his last case and his recent travels, tries to come to peace with his demons. Jeffrey Hatcher’s clever script threads between its simultaneous (and not always connected) timeframes with ease, and while the mystery element is satisfying, it’s a film more about its unexpectedly forceful emotional punch. Some of the flourishes don’t work (particularly a rather odd third-act turn), but McKellen grounds it ably, with a keenly felt and marvelously witty title performance. (Includes featurettes.)
Tangerine: This summer sleeper from director Sean Baker is best known for two key elements: its innovative, low-budget style (it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S) and its story of transgender sex workers (played by novice trans actors). These seem disparate elements, but each sharply informs the other; films viewed primarily through the lens of representation often feel like politically important cultural vegetables, but the run-and-gun nature of the production is a more accurate indicator of what they’re up to here. At its heart, Tangerine is a One Crazy Night movie, a daytime After Hours with an abundance of earthy humor, unpredictable storytelling, and memorable characters. (Includes featurettes and trailers.)
Trainwreck: I still wish screenwriter/star Amy Schumer’s collaboration with director Judd Apatow didn’t play it quite so safe (especially in the clutch), and that it was a little bit tighter (and I’m not one who usually makes that complaint about Apatow’s often outsized work). But there’s still an awful lot to like here: the deftness of the supporting players (the funniest, shockingly enough, is probably LeBron James), the fundamental sweetness of the Schumer-Bill Hader relationship, and most of all, Schumer’s total movie-star ease. It’s the first time she’s fronted a movie comedy, but it certainly won’t be the last. (Includes the cornucopia of special features we’ve come to expect from an Apatow production: unrated and theatrical versions, commentary, gag reels, deleted scenes, extended/alternate scenes, “Line-O-Rama” of discarded alternate punchlines, featurettes, film-within-a-film, and trailer.)