After a couple of very light weeks, the new release shelves are heavy with fresh DVDs and Blu-rays this week, and there are plenty of juicy titles to dig in to: a moving documentary, two terrific indie dramas, a stunning political thriller, a martial arts classic from Criterion, and one of last summer’s most surprising comebacks.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story: The title and treacly music that open this documentary are off-puttingly on-the-nose, but stick with it, because it’s a remarkable story: Velasquez is a young woman with an unknown disorder that caused difficulty gaining weight, a childhood spent in and out of hospitals, and a lifetime spent dealing with being an outsider. At 17, she was the unwilling star of a YouTube video called “THE WORLD’S UGLIEST WOMAN” that changed her life; its horrid title and loathsome comments (and seriously, why do they blur these people’s handles, let’s name and shame them) could’ve destroyed the best of us, but Velasquez, remarkably, used the same online video service that tore her down to build herself back up. Funny and kind and almost uncomfortably candid, it’s a story of triumph over adversity that’s both powerful and upsetting. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
Sicario: An FBI agent (Emily Blunt, excellent) is drafted into a multi-agency task force shaking the border trees for the head of a cartel, but discovers the situation on the ground, on the border, and in the tunnels beneath it is ever more of a disaster than she’d imagined. Denis Villeneuve’s film is thoughtful, but also visceral and affecting, placing us in this outsider’s shoes during these crossings and raids; what happens to her is what’s happening to us, and when the shit hits the fan, it’s as upsetting as it is inevitable. (Includes featurettes.)
Infinitely Polar Bear: From the twinkly title to the low-budget star-vehicle pedigree, it’s easy to assume this is just fluffy, forgettable Sundance fare. But there’s real blood coursing through the veins of writer/director Maya Forbes’ family dramedy, in which a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo, tremendous) must take care of his two children while his estranged wife (Zoe Saldana, equally remarkable) goes back to school. It’s a tricky proposition, borne out of desperation, and it’s often bumpy sailing – but in tiny, believable ways (some scenes have a real slow-motion-car-accident quality), often forgivable in the brief rays of sunshine that follow. There are big themes at play here: class, poverty, race, privilege. But they’re handled casually, less as subjects than as circumstance, and the picture maintains a sense of warmth while conveying that a conventional “happy ending” isn’t just unlikely, but dishonest. It glows and shines, yet refuses to take shortcuts. (Includes deleted scenes, audio commentary, and film festival Q&A.)
The Visit: M. Night Shyamalan comes back from the brink, and not a moment too soon, with this simple, efficient, nasty little comedy/horror thriller. Working with a far smaller budget and cast than in such misbegotten efforts as The Last Airbender and The Happening, this found-footage story finds two teens visiting their estranged grandparents and discovering something altogether discomforting in the middle of the very long country nights. It’s sort of remarkable to see how adroitly the filmmaker’s taken back possession of his gifts; in his key set pieces, he plays the audience like an orchestra conductor, and even sneaks in a dose of pathos when you least expect it. Exhilaratingly entertaining. (Includes alternate ending, deleted scenes, and featurette.)
Experimenter: Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), whose early-’60s study of adherence to authority — disguised as a study of the effects of “punishment” on learning — remains a go-to reference point in discussions of evil, is the focus of this unconventional biopic from director Michael Almereyda. The sequences detailing that experiment, from implementation to equally chilling post-mortem, are remarkable; watching these subjects sweating and struggling is, indeed, a very different experience than reading about it. Sarsgaard manages to find the man at his character’s chilly center, while Winona Ryder impresses as his devoted but troubled wife. Some of Almereyd’s formal experimentation doesn’t really work, but if nothing else, it serves to stylistically separate this odd and unshakable film from the Troubled Genius Biopic pack. (Includes featurettes.)
The Complete Lady Snowblood: Revenge narrative, chapter structure, hopscotch chronology, brutal training scenes, stylish violence, fountains of blood, pitch-black comedy – when they said the original 1973 Lady Snowblood inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, they weren’t kidding. The story of a woman born behind prison walls, trained as an assassin to avenge the people who killed her father and raped her mother, this is a story downright operatic in its emotional scope while awe-inspiring in its carnage and choreography. Alternating images of horrifying brutality and stunning beauty, it’s mythic yet personal, with a fast, immersive energy most clearly evident in its run-and-gun camerawork and iconic snap zooms. The following year’s Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance, also included on this new Criterion Blu, is obviously working with a bigger budget and on a bigger canvas, and is thus missing some of the original’s rough and tumble power. The narrative isn’t nearly as dynamic (and much more political), as returning director Toshiya Fujita attempts to reconfigure Lady Snowblood as a kind of James Bond figure (complete with the spy movie McGuffin of valuable documents). The results are decidedly inferior, but it’s worth seeing for the inventive imagery, terrific music, and the wonderful way Snowblood (Meiko Kaji) brushes off all comers in its opening and closing sequences, like so much dirt on her shoulders. (Includes new interviews and original trailers.)