We’ve got a super-sized home viewing guide this week, and for good reason: in addition to the Netflix bow of Ava DuVernay’s latest and the Blu-ray debut of Harry Potter director David Yates’s take on the Tarzan legend, we’ve got another knockout new documentary as well Blu-ray special edition upgrades for an indie fave, a ‘70s classic, a two horror masterpieces.
13th: Ava DuVernay’s documentary examination of mass incarceration – its roots in slavery, its implementation in more recent history, its ramifications in the African-American community in particular and the country in general – covers (understandably) a lot of ground, and if there’s a discernable flaw, it’s that there’s not enough of it. DuVernay is so good at highlighting the text and connecting the dots, you wish she had the length and scope of a miniseries, to take the deep dive these issues deserve. But there’s power in concision, too, in the way she tears through the American story, and views it through a specific yet omnipresent prism. It is, by turns, informative, moving, and infuriating — admirably deconstructing mythology, clarifying history, and pointing the way towards a broader understanding. A terrific and timely piece of work from one of our most important filmmakers.
ON DVD / VOD
Life, Animated: Roger Ross Williams’ documentary account of an autistic boy who learns to communicate via Disney movies sounds like the worst kind of studio infomercial — a non-fiction equivalent to Saving Mr. Banks — but it’s a lovely, moving film. It tells two stories: how his parents used those cartoons, which he’d obsessively viewed and memorized, to bring him out of his shell; and where they’ve left him at his moment of transition into adulthood and independence. “The real world is not a Disney script,” his therapist explains, and Williams gives a sense of the struggle, between the micro progressions and the macro stasis. It’s a rich and emotional story, warm and kind and often overwhelming.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Legend of Tarzan: It always sounds like damning with faint praise to make a positive note of what a movie is not, but here goes: David Yates’s The Legend of Tarzan is not, thank sweet Lord baby Jesus, an origin story about the feral child raised by apes, originally told in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels and in scores of subsequent movies. In fact, in many ways, it feels like the sequel to a “reboot” they didn’t bother to make, and is better for it; dispensing with (most of) the backstory formalities, Yates simply gets down to telling a decent yarn. And surprisingly enough, he confronts the sketchier aspects of the stories, by tackling colonialism, slavery, and white savior-dom head on (if, unsurprisingly, too cleanly). The CG is distractingly phony and the film’s penchant for moodiness occasionally translates into scenes that are too damn dark, but this is a rousingly mounted and engagingly acted entertainment, a genuine example of that old saw about how today’s blockbusters are B-movies with A-budgets. Tarzan not only is that, but knows it. (Includes featurettes.)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller: Demystifying the Western was not exactly new in 1971, as the “New Hollywood” movement and its fresh takes on established genres were in full swing. But as with most things, nobody did it like Robert Altman. His frontier drama – new from Criterion – is ostensibly about a gambler and a prostitute who go into business together in a mining town that’s being built around them. But as with most Altman pictures, it’s less about plot than characters and community. He put his actors on sets that were still being built, to match the freshness of the town around them, and pushed further his experiments into mercurial sound, putting mics on as many people as he could in each scene, background players included, to better orchestrate a sense of characters at the service of a world, rather than the other way around. The result was one of his most elegiac and evocative pictures, and one of his best. (Includes audio commentary, new making-of documentary, new and vintage featurettes and conversations, archival still photos, excerpts from Altman and Pauline Kael’s related appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, and trailer.)
Boyhood: By now the pros and cons of Richard Linklater’s ambitious yet tiny 2014 indie hit have been discussed ad nauseam, and feel free to use the occasion of its Criterion upgrade to rehash those if you’d like. But in all of that conversation, it’s easy to lose track of the ingeniousness of its central conceit, and how it’s not just a gimmick; the 12-year-long production, with a few scenes shot each year, allows the viewer to watch its protagonist develop, become a person, form an identity. You can understand how he became who he is; you see the qualities (good and bad) that he’s acquired from his parents, and his peers, and the world around him. And its elliptical storytelling does something more than merely chronicle a plot – it captures, in its own quiet way, the manner in which we retain and recall our own lives. (Includes audio commentary, making-of documentary, new conversations, video essay, and production portraits.)
The Thing: John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece is mostly remembered for its Alien-style fusion of sci-fi and blue-collar horror, and for groundbreaking make-up and practical effects that still knock – and gross – you out. (It also has its own, show-stopping scare with a creature in a stomach.) Yet Carpenter’s genius is in the psychological ramifications of his story; the alien that invades an Antarctic research base takes on the human forms of those it attacks, so the minor tensions between this crew give way to fear and paranoia, making them as much a threat to each other as the monster is. Some of the stock characters are a little musty, but cinematographer Dean Cundy’s deliberate and often chilling camera moves amp up the suspense, and Kurt Russell masterfully toys with our movie star sympathies. This is intense, scary stuff, up to and including its magnificently no-bullshit ending. (Includes audio commentaries, new interviews, new and vintage documentaries, TV version, outtakes, vintage featurettes and product reel, behind-the-scenes footage, production archive, trailers, TV and radio spots.)
Carrie: Everybody always talks about the prom night climax of Carrie, and they always talk about the wrong damn part. Yes, the split-screen fire-and-bloodshed death orgy at its conclusion is one for the books, among the all-time great set pieces in horror cinema (or, frankly, cinema in general). But the part that really cooks – particularly on re-watch, when you know what’s coming – is what precedes it, the agonizing seven-and-a-half minutes between the top of the ballot-box-to-bucket tracking shot and that bucket’s inevitable landing on our heroine’s golden locks, a deft and magnificently executed passage of sheer tension and wait-for-it suspense. Even on first viewing, even if you haven’t read Stephen King’s source novel, you know the shit’s gonna hit the fan, and director Brian De Palma takes unmistakable pleasure in fucking with his audience as they wait for that moment to arrive. And the rest of the movie is great too. (Includes new and vintage interviews, featurettes, trailers, and TV and radio spots.)