It’s a big week for big risks, as Amazon Studios’ first foray into original filmmaking lands on Prime and Guillermo del Toro’s big Gothic romance makes its way onto Blu-ray. Throw in two of last year’s best indies (and, oh yeah, a Bond movie), and you’ve got a pretty stellar week for home media.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Chi-Raq: Spike Lee updates the Greek classic Lysistrata to contemporary Chicago, juxtaposing the storytelling of old with the urgency of now, and comes up with his most accomplished and vibrant fiction film in years. Sure, it’s full of odd tonal shifts and peculiar narrative detours – we’re still in Lee country, after all. But he exhibits a sure hand and cinematic dexterity that, coupled with the picture’s remarkable ambition and timeliness, reminds us of what a powerful filmmaker he can be. Chi-Raq is the inaugural feature-film outing of Amazon Studios, which apparently plans to fund prominent directors who are having trouble fitting into the current go-big-or-go-home model of mainstream movie-making; landing on Prime two months after its theatrical debut, you can still feel the force of what Lee’s done.
Crimson Peak: Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror/romance is stunningly designed and sumptuously photographed; every frame’s a knockout, every second magnificently crafted. A number of critics only granted it that, but I think it’s perhaps del Toro’s most fully realized work to date – it finds the filmmaker in total command of not only his form (which has never been an issue), but his storytelling, as he crafts a gripping, blood-soaked tale of deception, murder, and ghosts, situating the beauty of his images against the savagery of their violence. There are generous helpings of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, and plenty of moody walks down hallways clutching candelabras, but this is no mere echo chamber; Mia Wasikoswka, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston find the pulse of their characters before shedding their blood in an appropriately hysterical climax. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
Grandma: “I like being old,” says Lily Tomlin’s Elle. “Young people are stupid.” She’s got a million of ’em, this aging lesbian poet and unemployed academic, and Paul Weitz’s gentle comedy/drama plays like what it was intended to be: a Lily Tomlin vehicle, and we’ve had entirely too few of those in this lifetime. It’s the kind of late-career role that’s both a culmination of what an iconic actor can do and a celebration of what they are; every line gets that special Tomlin spin, but she invests the character with the wisdom (and more than a little sadness) of a complicated life, fully lived. The wittily shaggy script is a vignette-heavy excuse to let Tomlin shine, and that she does – brightly. (Includes audio commentary, Q&A, and featurette.)
99 Homes: Michael Shannon has never been better (which is saying something) as a gangster real estate broker in this tough, urgent drama from Rahmin Bahrani (Man Push Cart). Andrew Garfield is a desperate construction guy who loses his family home to Shannon before they form an uneasy, unexpected alliance — a deal with the devil, really. Bahrani beautifully dramatizes the conflict: it’s the story of a man who does terrible work for incredible reward, and the filmmaker ends up slyly testing the entire concept of empathy for the protagonist. Garfield is very good, giving a welcome reminder that there’s a fine actor hiding under the Spidey suit. But it’s Shannon’s show all the way, particularly in his killer “America doesn’t bail out the losers” speech, which is good writing, great performance, and timely social commentary, all at once. Some of the storytelling is overly coincidental and the ending’s a bit too tidy, but overall, Bahrani’s film is sharp, intelligent, and infuriating.
SPECTRE: After the artistic (and commercial) high of Skyfall, Sam Mendes’ return to the Bond franchise probably couldn’t go anywhere but down. But the criticisms that quickly coalesced around the latest installment in the adventures of 007 tended to focus on what seemed, to this viewer at least, to be its virtues: its long stretches of no action at all, in favor of moody, conversational consideration of the character’s darker impulses. Sure, it’s a half hour too long and Christoph Waltz is wildly underused (and his big reveal is a big nothing), but credit where due to Mendes and company for continuing to experiment with a character we all thought was basically set in stone.