Almost there, folks, almost there; just a few days to go until Christmas, and if you can take a break from the usual holiday fare (seriously, how many times do you need to watch Christmas Vacation), two big early fall flicks have already made their way to the Blu-ray shelves. Plus: a harrowing collegiate drama on DVD, a very dark Christmas comedy and a new biopic on Netflix, and one of last year’s best movies hits Prime.
Barry: The hard question worth asking when considering a biopic is this: would it still be a good movie if it weren’t about this famous person? But it’s a question that doesn’t really work with regards to this year’s second Barack Obama origin story (hitting Netflix and select theaters this week after debuting at Toronto), because what makes Obama’s life so fascinating is that he is such a unique individual, such a sui generis assemblage of cultures and experiences. And that, to a great extent, is what this dramatization of his early days in NYC (while a grad student at Columbia) is about: moving from the classroom to the streets to the nightclubs, and in the process, trying to find a home, a place, a scene. In other words, it’s a movie about code-switching, about the choppy waters it could become necessary to navigate. Devon Terrell is aces as young Barry, nailing the mannerisms without doing an “impression,” while Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) bring life and vibrancy to their supporting roles.
Uncle Nick: Done with the usual holiday movies, the Miracle on 34th Streets and It’s a Wonderful Lifes and (God help us) Love Actuallys? Then slap this dark little item onto your watchlist. Stand-up comic and actor Brian Posehn stars in what first appears to be a hard-case character comedy (something W.C. Fields might make if he were around today). But as the darkness of his character and the people around him begins to reveal itself over the course of a hard-drinking family Christmas, it takes some decidedly taboo turns, to great effect. Not all of its beats play, but the all-bets-are-off spirit of the enterprise is certainly welcome within the confines of the holiday movie playbook.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Anomalisa: Director Duke Johnson and writer/co-director Charlie Kaufman adapt what was once a live radio play into a stop-motion animation story of first flush of infatuation, when everything about another person is simply extraordinary, and the role delusion and self-sabotage play in breaking that illusion. Kaufman’s script is a remarkable balancing act, in which banal chatter takes on the scope and importance of grand opera, conveying how an average person in an average place can lead what amounts to a life of quiet resignation. A year after its release, this one is still a stunner.
Goat: Andrew Neel’s adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir begins with a haunting and appropriate image: a slow-motion, silent shot of shirtless, handsome white guys screaming. They’re fraternity members, but it takes a while to get to them; first, protagonist Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is assaulted and robbed after a party, and Neel lingers on the horror of that attack to emphasize what the experience is really about: power. That dynamic, its shifts and psychology, is the real subject here – not just in the hazing rituals of “hell week,” which are harrowing, disgusting, and horrifying, but in the subtler narratives about how that perception of strength draws, to them, the kind of emotional weaklings they can more easily prey upon. There’s a lot to unpack, is the point, and Goat’s bracing (yet never preachy) indictments of toxic masculinity are its best quality.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua may not have a great Western in him – but he’s got a great Western hero at the center of this one, and that might be good enough. Denzel Washington has made sturdy honor and quiet determination such a cornerstone of his onscreen persona for so long, it’s sort of shocking he’s never mounted up before; he’s an excellent choice to front this remake of John Sturges’s 1960 classic (itself a riff on The Seven Samurai), heading up an engaging ensemble of ne’er-do-wells (including Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’onofrio, and Byung-Hun Lee) out to stop evil Peter Sarsgaard. It doesn’t all hold together, and it’s certainly no match for the original(s). But it’s an entertaining diversion, and Washington shows an ease in the genre that’s downright John Wayne-ian. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
Sully: The idea of Clint Eastwood directing Tom Hanks in a “Sully” Sullenberger biopic almost sounded too easy – a build-your-own-dream-movie for the (reliable!) senior movie-going set. But it’s a smooth marriage of filmmaker, star, and subject, with Eastwood’s no-frills style a perfect match for the unflappable heroism that Hanks can, by now, do in his sleep. Not that he sleepwalks; he has moments of humanity and fragility here that are as good as anything he’s done, personifying the clear-eyed spirit of not only the man he’s playing, but everyone who rose to the occasion that day. (Includes featurettes.)