There’s a movie you probably haven’t seen – might not’ve even heard of – in which Alexander Skarsgård and Tessa Thompson dance and make out to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and I’m happy to tell you it’s out on Blu-ray this week. Oh yeah, and three big Oscar nominees are also out on disc, plus a terrific new Netflix original and a free stream for one of last year’s best documentaries.
Win It All: There’s a great moment, early in Win It All, that captures everything that’s great about Jake Johnson, and why he’s just right for the role of a cheerfully self-destructive young gambler. A big dude, someone of sketchy character to whom he’s clearly owed a debt in the past, appears in his kitchen with a “business proposition”: he’s going to prison for about six months, and if our man will store a mysterious duffle bag for that period, he’ll make $10K after. Johnson thinks about it for just a second, and replies, “This is an interesting opportunity.” There’s something about the grin on his face and the glimmer in his eye that you need in the protagonist of a story like this – that he really would subject himself to physical and psychological danger to chase the feeling that follows a win, of joy and pride and a sense of accomplishment. But it is, to put it mildly, a fleeting feeling. Joe Swanberg, who directs and co-wrote with Johnson, builds the movie around the ease of this persona and performance, working in a laid-back, warm-glow vibe, but pulling the tension tight when you don’t expect it. It’s a funny and wise little movie, and is easily Swanberg’s best work to date.
Newtown: Kim A. Snyder’s emotionally pulverizing documentary (produced by PBS’s Independent Lens, which aired it and is currently streaming it) opens with images from a parade — a marching band, drum majors, service people, a beauty queen. These tableaux are almost clichéd visions of Americana, and they’re quickly followed by one that’s become equally inescapable: a mass shooting in progress. Twenty children and six adults were murdered on that December day in Newtown, and Snyder’s film is a portrait of grief, as felt by an entire community: parents who spend every day in tears, surviving siblings trying to muster a strength that the world shouldn’t yet require of them, a community that will never be the same, not even close. That two of last year’s best documentaries were both about school shootings is a weird coincidence – but it also speaks to the way this subject is dominating our collective subconscious, given its frequency. We don’t really talk about this issue, not really; we make it about “rights” and “liberty” because what actually happened to these children and their families is simply unfathomable. But it happened, and attention must be paid, and this powerful film reverberates with the urgency of that need. (Streaming free until April 17.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD/ VOD:
Hidden Figures: The true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, a trio of African-American women whose work at NASA in the early 1960s was instrumental to putting Americans into space, is more inspiring than this telling of it, though there’s a whole lot here to recommend: the terrific lead performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe; their 9 to 5-style rapport; the stellar support from Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst; the neo-soul music by Pharrell Williams. And if director Theodore Melfi soft-pedals the tough truths of the times in favor of crowd-pleasing, well, it seems to have worked (it pleased plenty of crowds). Nothing wrong with putting a little earnestness into this world. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
Lion: The key opening section of Garth Davis’s Oscar-nominated drama is about as heart-crushing as narrative cinema gets, as a tiny Indian kid is separated from his brother, ends up on a train, and finds himself hundreds of kilometers from home and unable to get back (“What is your mother’s name?” “Mum”). He’s played as a child by Sunny Pashwar; as an adult (and it really is a shared role, the baton passed an hour in), Dev Patel takes over, sensitively putting across both the character’s pain and the protective shell he hides it under. His search for home becomes (understandably) an obsession, one that director Davis adroitly visualizes via the encroaching of (possibly imagined or inflated) memories and hypotheticals, until he finally figures out how to retrace those distant steps, in a thrilling and moving payoff that’s well worth the wait. As he traverses past and present, the accumulation of the picture’s emotional force is devastating; it’s a shame they spoil the delicate spell of the closing scenes by incorporating not only the tired biopic trope of “clips of the real people,” but the tired documentary trope of “onscreen action item and URL.” Still, for a good long while, Lion does something exciting and miraculous, and the performances are not to be missed. (Includes deleted scenes, BTS gallery, music video.)
Toni Erdmann: “Deliberate comedy” should be an oxymoron (most comedies wind up and spin out at the fastest pace they can muster) but it’s an apt description of this jubilant Best Foreign Film nominee from Maren Ade, which is darkly funny, uncomfortably candid, and unexpectedly tender. An aging, jokester father (Peter Simonischek) spontaneously visits his high-powered daughter (Sandra Hüller), and their reunion goes poorly — until he adopts a patently ridiculous alter ego, a vague “life coach” in a Tommy Wiseau wig, whom she finds easier to get along with than the real thing. Ade’s script gives their relationship credible strains without veering into cliché, and that goes double for the characters; Hüller makes the old chestnut of the too-driven career woman new again, and Simonischek wonderfully captures the kind of grinning prankster whose bits are initially amusing, and wear out their welcome quickly. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t really know where you’re going until you get there, and then find yourself marveling at the slyness of the navigation. (Includes audio commentary and AFI Fest Q&A.)
War on Everyone: The funniest movie of our young year — and quite possibly the smartest — finds writer/director John Michael McDonagh returning to the morally-compromised-buddy-cop-movie territory of his 2011 treat The Guard. Resplendent in their three-piece suits, Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård are a pair of cheerfully profane and unapologetically crooked police detectives; they’ve got the rapid-fire timing and bristling familiarity of a good comedy team. Both are great, but Peña is particularly enchanting, channeling the confidence and comic ingenuity of Beverly Hills Cop-era Eddie Murphy. Stylishly executed and ruthlessly paced, it’s got a giddy shoot-the-works spirit and, yes, a moral compass buried deep in its cold, black heart. (Includes featurette.)