One of the year’s biggest commercial and critical successes lands on disc this week, a big-name, big-budget remake from Disney that manages to use its pricey effects to tell a story of genuine heart and awe. Meanwhile this week’s primary streaming release of note is on the other side of the spectrum, a small-scale character comedy about the bizarre meeting of a pop icon and a political pariah. Plus, a Criterion double-header of late-period Orson Welles, and a cult movie icon’s best/worst picture.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Elvis & Nixon: There are few popular culture figures more imitable than Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, so it’s fun to see what two fine actors like Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon do when tasked with playing them. Spacey leans in on the impersonation – hitting the familiar cadences, the plosives and the stacatto declaratives, and builds his characterization from them. Shannon doesn’t do much impression; he has the look and the swagger, but he mostly plays Elvis as a character, filtered through the sympathetic weirdo prism he’s fine-tuned over the past few years. That study in contrasts is one of the many pleasures of Liza Johnson’s giddily goofy dramatization, which treats a fundamentally silly bit of political pandering as a quintessentially American moment. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s no throwaway.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Jungle Book: Disney’s ongoing remake parade looks, on its surface, like the most cynical kind of branding opportunism – thanks in no small part to film that kicked that trend off, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. But between the recent Pete’s Dragon and last spring’s Jungle Book (out today on disc), it’s become clear that filmmakers who approach these pictures as opportunities for heartfelt storytelling rather than easy cash can make them their own, a scenario in which everybody wins. Jungle Book director Jon Favreau ingeniously reworks the 1967 animated Kipling adaptation into the kind of live-action adventure yarn the studio churned out regularly in the same period, with a huge assist from impressively convincing computer-generated talking animals. The voice talents are aces – Bill Murray’s delightful Baloo, Christopher Walken’s gangster orangutan King Louie, and Idris Elba’s purringly evil Shere Khan are the standouts – while newcomer Neel Sethi, as young Simba, impresses the most (don’t underestimate the difficulty of acting against characters that aren’t there). The all-or-nothing inconsistency of the music is peculiar (only two of the songs show up), but that’s a minor concern; this is an exciting and frequently moving family film, and like much of Disney’s output, it’s about children on its surface, and the difficulties of parenthood underneath. (Includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
Chimes at Midnight: As he aged (and sized) into the role of Falstaff, Orson Welles must’ve despaired that the character’s appearances in Shakespeare’s plays, while memorable, were comparatively brief. So he, rather subversively, made that second banana role into a focal point, taking a jigsaw-puzzle approach to the Bard, lifting out and pushing together the Falstaff scenes from several plays to create this ingenious narrative. And it’s one of his best performances, rich and funny and melancholy, both the performance and the direction wittily navigating the tonal shifts inherent in any Shakespeare adaptation, but particularly such an unconventional montage. He gets the gregariousness and comic beats, obviously (watch how wonderfully the intensity of the battle scenes is offset by Falstaff, squat and wide in his armor, a figure out of silent comedy), but the wistful way he mutters “I am old… I am old” in a moment of silent reflection absolutely breaks your heart. Long an object of desire for Welles and Shakespeare aficionados alike, Chimes finally makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut via a gorgeous Criterion restoration; it’s one of the year’s must-have discs. (Includes audio commentary, vintage and archival interviews, and trailer.)
The Immortal Story: It’s a big week for Welles fans, thanks to the first official home media release of not only Chimes but this lesser-known 58-minute film he made for French television in 1968. It’s more of a curio than a lost Welles masterpiece, but there’s more happening in his curios than in most filmmakers’ masterpieces. Making his first color project and final completed narrative film, Welles not only writes and directs but stars in and narrates this adaptation of an Isak Dinensen story, exploring some of his recurring themes: the fluidity of storytelling, the pain of alienation, the fear of morality, and the haunting specter of the past. It’s mostly done as a series of two-scenes, none less than dynamic; much like in his Shakespeare pictures, the technique (namely the inventive angles and unexpected edits) can be flashy, but the telling is patient. (Includes original accompanying Welles profile documentary, audio commentary, interviews, and alternate French-language version.)
Disco Godfather: Vinegar Syndrome, continuing to do God’s work, finishes out their loving restorations of the Rudy Ray Moore oeuvre (following recent releases of Dolemite, The Human Tornado, and Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-In-Law) with what may well be his magnum opus: the 1979 antidrug action/dance epic Disco Godfather (or, as it was christened on subsequent home video releases, Avenging Godfather and Avenging Disco Godfather). Moore is cop-turned-nightclub-owner Tucker Williams, who goes back into action when his nephew Bucky gets hooked on angel dust, or, as Tucker calls it, “aaaaangel duuuuust.” Charmingly, after four starring vehicles, there’s no noticeable improvement whatsoever: Disco Godfather, like its predecessors, is clumsy, silly, and technically dubious, prompting stone faces in comic scenes, and uncontrollable laughter when it gets earnest. But you gotta give Moore’s movies this much: they’re not boring. Put your weight on it! (Includes audio commentary, soundtrack, making-of documentary, and stills gallery.)