We’ve got another super-sized home viewing guide on our hands this week, with one of the year’s best indies hitting Prime, a charming documentary on disc and PBS, and the usual assortment of new titles and catalogue must-haves. Let’s dig in.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Love & Friendship: “My daughter has proven herself to be cunning and manipulative,” says Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan. “I couldn’t be more pleased.” It’s a juicy role, and the often undervalued actor shines in it, reteaming with Last Days of Disco director Whit Stillman and co-star Chloë Sevingy for this adaptation of the lesser-known, unfinished Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. But her character has a decidedly contemporary feel (the film feels closer to Young Adult than Pride and Prejudice), and the picture is a comic treat – witty, playful, and brisk, with the class and societal politics of Austen’s universe proving a smooth fit with Stillman’s.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / TV
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You: To be fair, it’d be tough to make a documentary about Norman Lear and not have it turn out delightful; it’s damn near impossible not to be captivated by the man, by his charisma, by the verve with which he sings “My Blue Heaven” or says of his advancing age (he’s 93), “Suddenly I’m extremely wise, and everybody asks me for advice!” Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) use the publication of his memoir – and the accordant interviews, audiobook recordings, and general reflection – to frame this affectionate portrait of a true groundbreaker, taking an approach that’s more thematic than strictly chronological. Such structural and formal experimentation mostly works; their picture has a fleet-footedness that separates it from the standard bio-doc, and the issues and themes presented in the well-curated clips remain as challenging and trenchant as ever. It’s out today on disc, coinciding with its television bow tonight on PBS’s American Masters; check your local listings, or just watch it here. (Includes featurettes and deleted scenes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Nerve: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 & 4) helm this Millennial riff on The Game, with a dash of Hunger Games thrown in for good measure. It’s energetically mounted and stylishly photographed, with a candy-coated, hyperactive look that does right by stars Emma Roberts and Dave Franco; they’ve got ace chemistry, and she’s particularly charming (and, when she tried on her fancy designer duds, more than a little reminiscent of aunt Julia). It falls apart a bit towards the end, with a Mean Girls subplot that doesn’t mesh and a climax that’s particularly ridiculous – an attempt to shift into morality-play mode, seemingly unaware that it’s more enjoyable to revel in bad behavior than judge it. But when this one’s fun, it’s really fun. (Includes featurettes, outtakes, and games.)
Captain Fantastic: There’s a particular kind of shaggy, quirky, star-driven indie that’s become a bit of a cliché, and in many ways, Matt Ross’s comedy/drama hits that formula pretty squarely. But Ross also seems aware of those expectations, and the ways he can casually upend them; his story of newly widowed father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raising his six children off the grid strikes, in scene after scene, precisely the right balance of fascination and admiration with wry cynicism and genuine concern. We’re basically on the father’s side, but Ross underlines the human toll of his unbending will, and the limitations of it as well. Funny and surprisingly raw, even if it goes on just a few minutes too long. (Includes featurette.)
Private Property: Here’s an inspiring tale of cinematic archaeology, a low-budget quickie, long thought lost, rediscovered and restored for proper appreciation of its skill and complexity. Originally released in 1960, it has the look of a juvenile delinquent movie and the set-up of a roughie, but it’s far more delicate and patient than its exploitation template, hinging on an hour-long, slow-motion “seduction,” by a pair of skeezy characters eyeballing a lonely, rich housewife. Writer/director Leslie Stevens’s refusal to hurry through this thing – perhaps out of necessity, shot as it was on five days, mostly in a single location – lets us take time to puzzle out the motivations and unpack the subtext, resulting in a picture that’s far more disturbing than your average thriller, simmering quietly until boiling over messily. (Includes interview and trailer.)
The Exorcist III: Horror three-quels aren’t exactly renowned for their high quality, but this 1990 follow-up to the creepy classic is an exception to the rule, for a couple of reasons. First, it wisely ignores the horrid 1977 Exorcist II: The Heretic. Second, the original film’s writer/producer William Peter Blatty is back (this time also directing). And third, he doesn’t try to play the original’s game; this time, he crafts a tense police procedural, in which Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott, taking over for Lee J. Cobb) tracks a string of grisly murders to a supernatural conclusion that’s hard for him to swallow. It’s as much a mystery thriller as a horror flick – particularly in Scream Factory’s newly restored director’s cut, which removes many of the direct echoes demanded by the studio and restores a series of lengthy dialogue scenes that are closer to Silence of the Lambs – though there are plenty of good scares in it, particularly a hospital sequence that’s a master class in sustained suspense. (Includes both theatrical and director’s cut, new and vintage interviews, new and vintage featurettes, deleted and alternate scenes, theatrical trailer and TV spots.)
The Executioner: This 1963 effort from Spanish director Luis García Berlanga concerns a folksy, merry executioner who marries off his daughter to the local undertaker, at least partially out of desperation (both occupations make them rather undesirable mates). But when the undertaker is forced, via bureaucratic machinations, to take over the old man’s gig, things get really sticky. Berlanga’s command of tone is awe-inspiring; this is a cheerfully dark comedy, which would seem an oxymoron, yet scene after scene walks a line between romantic charm and outright bleakness, aided immeasurably by its marvelously game cast. (Includes Berlanga featurette, Spanish television program on the film, trailer, and interview with Pedro Almodóvar.)