Two of our favorite films of last year make their way to disc and VOD this week, and that’s not all that’s worth picking and/or queuing up: we’ve got a fascinating issue-driven documentary, a sci-fi cult fave, an Italian classic, and something a little more low-brow as well.
CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap: This non-fiction exposé from director Robin Hauser Reynolds is recommended with some reservations – namely, the way it leans on some of the more tiresome stylistic crutches of the activist documentary. But there’s much to learn and value here, as Reynolds takes a hyper-specific topic (the absence of women in tech, and specifically in the growing and vital work of coding) and uses it as the window in to a wider discussion of sexism, perception, bro culture, and stereotype breaking. Informative, provocative, well-intentioned, and genuinely urgent, if slightly formulaic.
Beavis and Butt-head: The Complete Collection: This title of this 12-disc celebration of Mike Judge’s pop culture flashpoint/phenomenon is a bit of a misnomer – no, we still don’t have the full, complete episodes of the original MTV series, including the MST3K-style music video commentary that was many viewers’ (including this one’s) favorite element of the show. And the discs we do get are the previously-released “Mike Judge Collection” volumes. But it’s a very reasonably priced repackaging of those sets, with the added bonus of the duo’s one and only theatrical venture: 1996’s Beavis and Butthead Do America, a wildly funny and frequently inventive road movie with an all-star voice cast. (Includes featurettes, specials, Comic-Con panel, promos, and the original “Frog Baseball” short.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Arrival: Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”) took the most common and tired of Independence Day sci-fi/action movie premises – the arrival on our planet of alien life forms – and instead created a film of ideas, a searching and occasionally mournful examination of exactly what we would want to find out from such visitors, and how we would go about it. Amy Adams is superb as the linguist charged with that mission (I’m not one to say people are “robbed” when they’re nominated for awards, but she wuz robbed); Jeremy Renner provides able support as the mathematician by her side. All in all, the movie’s a bit of a magic act – so many things at once, thrilling and intelligent and moving and thought-provoking, yet it never sacrifices any one quality in pursuit of the others. This, at its best, is what studio filmmaking can do: marshal seemingly limitless resources of budget and scope, but at the service of resonant, humanistic storytelling. (Includes featurettes.)
The Edge of Seventeen: Hailee Steinfeld comes on like a Roman candle in this terrific high school comedy/drama from first-time writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, capturing the very specific jerkiness of a cynical outsider teen. Craig’s most impressive accomplishment is the complexity of the character; there’s no one way she wants you to feel about her, so she can be a million contradictory things at once. She’s a mess that movie teens – even in great teen movies – rarely have the luxury of being, and Craig carefully constructs a narrative and a world around her that seems familiar, not based on those films, but from our own teenage years, which so often feel like a tunnel you’ll never come out of. Whip-smart, empathetic, and laugh-out-loud funny. (Includes gag reel and deleted scenes.)
The Tree of Wooden Clogs: New from the Criterion Collection, this 1978 Palme d’or winner from writer/director Ermanno Olmi (“featuring the people of the Bergamo countryside,” per the credits) looks at rituals and routines of daily life on a tenant farm, circa 1898. Startlingly matter-of-fact in the details and downright documentary-like in its observation, it’s a film that’s episodic in structure, but cumulatively affecting – a slow but steady drum of worrisome events builds slowly but patiently through its three-plus hour running time, amounting to a challenging but powerful meditation on faith, family, poverty, and conservatism. (Includes Mike Leigh introduction, hourlong Olmi interview program, new cast and crew discussion, archival Olmi interviews, and trailer.)
One Million Years B.C.: This 1966 sci-fi effort from director Don Chaffey (Jason and the Argonauts, Pete’s Dragon) is most famous for the advertisements of mega-star Raquel Welch in a fur bikini – and, these days, the prison-escape-enabling poster that bore that image. But she doesn’t even show up until the 28-minute mark of this “story from long, long ago” set in “a hard, unfriendly world.” It is, full disclosure, often some awfully silly business (put simply, it’s what Caveman was parodying and Quest for Fire was correcting). And it’s easy to pick apart the straight and white teeth, fake beards, and aforementioned fur bikini, but credit where due: these cave people don’t miraculously speak English or any of that nonsense. The soundtrack is all grunts, nonsense words, and effects, for 100 minutes – which is sort of daring and experimental, particularly for a big studio picture in ’66. It’s almost purely visual, in other words, which is just fine when so much of the film consists of knockout Ray Harryhausen effects – in addition to incongruent dinosaurs, it’s chock full of giant lizards, turtles, and spiders, owing more to the monster movies of the ‘50s than the actual Neanderthal era. Not a great movie, but an entertaining and oddly fascinating one. (Includes both the international and U.S. cuts, audio commentary, interviews, advertising materials, and trailers.)