Well, it finally happened – I broke the column. When we started the weekly home viewing guide back in 2015, the idea was to spotlight the five best movies on disc, demand, and streaming services, a service-oriented feature that would also hopefully spotlight some under-the-radar titles. But as time has passed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep to that number, so we regularly end up with six, seven, even eight recommendations. This week, for the first time, double digits. I don’t know what to tell you. There’s just a lot of good stuff out there, so you have no excuse for watching Fuller House.
Pete’s Dragon / The BFG: They’ll always be bound together, at least in my mind: two family releases, both from Disney, both featuring a kid and their giant friend, one from Steven Spielberg and one displaying a pronounced Spielberg influence. They both hit theaters in the summer of 2016, hit disc on the same day, and now land on Netflix within a day of each other (The BFG starts streaming tomorrow) — and both were commercial disappointments, which is the depressing similarity. Anyway, at this point I’m not quite sure how else to sell you: David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is a sweet and imaginative adventure, transcending the dreary Disney remake template by taking the general idea of the original and jettisoning all the other stuff that didn’t work, while The BFG finds Steven Spielberg working in a modest key, reveling in the story’s evocative dreaminess and absurdist humor. Queue them both up for a lovely double-feature reminder that family movies can do better than Trolls and Sing, but people have to show up when they do.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Fences: Director Denzel Washington transplants the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s classic to the screen, with himself and most of that cast intact — including a shattering, Oscar-winning turn by Viola Davis — and winds up with a picture that rarely transcends the feeling of filmed theater, but Lord in heaven, what filmed theatre. The beautifully modulated acting (which display the benefits of honing and tuning over all those performances, without feeling stale or over-prepared) captures the American vernacular musicality of Wilson’s dialogue, while the lived-in characterizations put across the feeling of people who have lived and known each other for decades, and learned how to overlook each other’s flaws – and when they can no longer do so. It’s a powerfully rendered piece of work, and surprisingly relevant for a play from the 1980s about the 1950s. (Includes featurettes.)
Elle: Paul Verhoeven’s latest is, to put it mildly, risky. He crosses a contemporary European character drama with something like a rape-sploitation picture, and then throws in generous dabs of pitch-black comedy, just to knock us further off-balance. This is obviously a tricky tone to navigate, and the filmmaker knows it – leans into it, in fact, making a movie that’s deliberately unsettling and often downright disturbing. Considering the dynamite he’s playing with, it’s hard to fault those who’ve called out its contradictions and shortcomings. But this is a filmmaker doing something genuinely provocative, and he couldn’t have a better accomplice than Huppert, who puts little spins on her already scalding dialogue, all the while hinting at the heady brew of trauma and bitterness that steers her actions. Tough, but sort of tremendous. (Includes featurettes.)
The Love Witch: Writer/director Anna Biller’s tongue-in-cheek sex comedy is a magnificently styled throwback: lurid period color saturation, authentic and witty score, ace production design, arch dialogue, and earnest acting, all at the service of the playful story of a mortally desirable young woman (Samantha Robinson) who uses her feminine wiles to wreck havoc on the men of a small California town (“Men are like children. They’re very easy to please – as long as we give them what they want”). The homage – and the detail to it – is impressive (she even replicates the flaws of these pictures, down to the clumsy staging of the “action” climax), but it’s not just empty quotation; Biller’s whip-smart script digs out the feminist subtext of these films and gives it a little push (“They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way. You have to be very tricky”). And Robinson is a real find, her bedroom eyes filling the frame, honey pouring into her voice when she’s on the make. “I’m the love witch!” she purrs. “I’m your ultimate fantasy!” Indeed. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, interview, deleted and extended scenes, and trailers.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD
Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: It’s not hard to explain the cottage industry of DVDs and Blu-rays showcasing vintage exploitation movie trailers: in a fair number of cases, the trailers were far superior to the films themselves, showcasing the three or so minutes of killer action, blood, or sex that the film itself had to find 90 minutes of padding for. So, in a way, you’re seeing all of these movies in their best possible form. (Plus, they frequently exhibited a sense of humor and self-awareness altogether lacking in film marketing today.) The latest of Severin Films’s Kung Fu Trailers of Fury discs is no exception, with two-plus hours of martial arts previews restored to varying degrees of former glory (though, in contrast to most archival releases, the target audience for these has no real complaints about a dirty, beat-up print). They’re entertaining on their own, while often serving as a kind of informal history of genre – why no, I wasn’t aware of the animated adventures of the three-eyed Bruce Lee – and the historical element is augmented by the four-star audio commentary, in which a quartet of experts and historians fill in the background of these often dodgy releases. (Includes audio commentary.)
The Lovers on the Bridge: This 1991 drama from Leos Carax has always been a dicey find on American home video (its stateside release was handled, and bungled, by Miramax), so Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray upgrade and release is particularly welcome in this post-Holy Motors world. This desperate romance between two troubled people focuses, as much of Carax’s filmography does, on star Denis Levant’s bleary, unsettling intensity; the movie feeds off his recklessness and unpredictability, and so does co-star Juliette Binoche, dirtied up but still incandescent. It’s a film bolstered by its wild visuals and anything-goes spirit – there’s more force and energy in the duo’s late-night fireworks dance than in a full season of other movies – while its poetic dialogue and echoes of City Lights give it a lush romanticism. It’s a film of weightless joy, crushing heartache, and scary brutality, often in the same scene, even at the same time. (Includes video essay and trailer.)
Canoa: A Shameful Memory: This 1976 Mexican film from director Felipe Cazals is a bit of a head fake – a horror movie in the guise of a political melodrama. It dramatizes the real story of five university employees who were lynched (four of them killed) in the small village of San Miguel Canoa in 1968; that outcome is explained in the very first scene, their story then told in flashbacks, a structure that fills the set-up scenes (as these doomed figures gather supplies, friends, and booze for what’s meant to be a recreational mountain climb) with dread. Cazalas uses the tools of the documentary form – narration, interviews to camera, geographical and historical information, time stamps – to render their situation all the more desperate and inescapable, and by the time our stranded travelers are greeted with suspicion by the insulated townfolk and the villainous, sunglasses-clad priest who leads them, Canoa has become less Z than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (Includes introduction by Guillermo del Toro and conversation between director Felipe Cazals and Alfonso Curon.)
45 Years: Kate and Geoff Mercer are rock solid; they have an offhand intimacy, their gentle ribbing has decades of backstory, and they’re currently preparing for their 45th anniversary. But a few days before, a letter arrives, and becomes a reminder of the complexity of each other’s secrets; you spend enough of your life with someone, and you can forget they had a life before you. That life becomes an obsession for Kate, magnificently played by an Oscar-nominated Charlotte Rampling as a woman haunted by a ghost; Tom Courtenay is equally smashing as a man who realizes what he’s doing to her, perhaps too late. The direction by Andrew Haigh (Weekend) is subtle and marvelous — he keeps his camera at a respectful distance, moving it only occasionally and gently when he does, and the way even the smallest moments pay off is remarkable. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, interview, and trailer.)
Drive-In Massacre: Look, I’m not gonne lie to you: this 1976 horror thriller from director Stu Segall is not, by most standards, a very good movie. It’s full of ragged camerawork and flimsy editing, with too many flatly staged scenes of pasty, sweaty cops biding their time between gory murders, and an alarming number of parking-car shots to pad the meager 74-minute running time. But it’s of historical interest, both as both a time capsule (people used to go see movies at drive-ins! A lot!) and outlier (a pre-Halloween slasher movie, complete with gory kills and simple-synth score), with some ingenious make-up effects and reasonably effective beats (particularly near the end). And it may be slapdash, but the chintziness of the production contributes to the desired sleaziness. It’s a curio and nothing more, but undoubtedly of interest to a certain breed of viewer. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and trailer.)