Two big titles from early in the year hit disc this week – one big genre hit, one prestige disappointment – along with two fall flicks on your streaming services, two new offerings from Criterion, and a wildly underrated adaptation of a high-school English class mainstay. Here we go!
Kevin Hart: What Now?: As a comic screen performer, Kevin Hart suffers from a mild case of Richard Pryor Syndrome: he’ll rarely find a narrative movie that can showcase his particular talents as successfully as his own concert films. His latest, filmed during his sell-out show at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Field, has its problems: the opening Bond spoof is too damn long, there’s more than a dab of casual sexism, and some of the rich-guy-in-his-house stuff isn’t so relatable. But once he gets a good bit going, he knows how to ride it out – and how to play to any audience, even one as big as this. Couple that with his welcome vulnerability (particularly in matters of love and sex) and you’ve got a very funny, very likable comedy concert flick.
ON AMAZON PRIME
The Handmaiden: I know, I know, we’ve banged the drum rather mercilessly for this jazzy period erotic caper movie (yep, all those words) from director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy). But it’s awfully good stuff. His story, set in Korea during the period of Japanese occupation, concerns an heiress, her handmaiden, the man who wants her riches, and… on second thought, scratch that, the less you know about this plot, which twists and turns and reverses and re-plays earlier scenes with motivations re-cast, the better. What’s important is that is visually overwhelming, a film of fluttering movement and sumptuous eroticism, somehow both unlike anything Chan-wook has done before, and the culmination of everything he’s ever made. Fiendish, sexy, funny, and magnificent, it’s one of the great films of last year.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Split: The dodgy January release date and still-unsteady state of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s currency made his latest something of a “surprise” hit, but there’s no surprise here – on a nuts and bolts level, it’s just a very good thriller, efficiently crafted, well acted, cleverly structured, and smoothly executed. James McAvoy is clearly having a great time as a kidnapper/killer with 23 personalities (and a 24th on the way); this is a show-off role, and he knows it, and goes for it. Anya Taylor-Joy wisely underplays as the Final Girl opposite him, and they compliment each other well, while cinematographer Michael Gioulakis’s tight close-ups seem to place their sharp, angular features in combat with each other. (It has more direct-to-camera dialogue than any film I can recall this side of Silence of the Lambs, and underscores the power of that technique.) It has its problems; the “comic relief” is both misplaced and ineffective, and the shift into the realm of the straight-up supernatural doesn’t fly nearly as high as the straight-up claustrophobic thriller elements. But even in the midst of its silliest stuff, Shyamalan takes his time with a bit concerning a hanger and a lock, and it’s merciless — how long he takes, how slowly the camera creeps in, how close freedom is for the holder of that hanger. That’s just good suspense, and few of his contemporaries have the patience to ride a beat like that out. (Includes alternate ending and deleted scenes with introductions, featurettes.)
The Founder: I know, I know, the “[Pop culture object] is totally about Trump” trope has become the most tiresome crutch in all of cultural writing, but believe me when I tell you that if you don’t want to think about our snake oil salesman in chief, you probably wanna take a pass on this biographical drama about Ray Kroc, who didn’t create McDonald’s but sure didn’t stop people from thinking he did. As a film, it’s wobbly; Robert D. Siegel’s script is smart, but the corresponding cynical touch seems to (unsurprisingly) elude director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side). Yet there’s much here to recommend, particularly acting-wise: Michael Keaton’s fast-talking and fast-thinking leading turn, Linda Cardellini’s wise other woman, and especially Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch’s inspired two-act as the brothers who started the restaurant, and got screwed out of it. (Includes featurette and press conference.)
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Buena Vista Social Club: Wim Wenders’s 1999 Best Documentary nominee gets the Criterion treatment, and deserves it – it’s a film that pulses with joy and melancholy, often simultaneously. He profiles a group of Cuban musicians from the pre-Castro era, reassembled by Ry Cooder for an album and 1998 tour culminating with a gig at Carnegie Hall. There are documentary flourishes, thumbnail biographical sketches and funny sight-seeing footage, but they’re mostly buffer for the music, and what music it is: Evocative, moody, and gorgeous, summoning up a time and place, yet (for those that fell in love with this documentary) becoming something altogether new and vibrant. (Includes audio commentary, archival film and radio interviews, additional scenes, and trailer.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
The Crucible: Here’s a not-even-recent example of the scourge of “Oscar season”: this 1996 adaptation of the Arthur Miller classic – new on Blu from KL Studio Classics – was supposed to be the big deal movie to beat that winter, but when it didn’t live up to that expectation (or the trophies it included), it was summarily dismissed as some sort of failure. Far from it. This is a scorching and stylish adaptation, a brutally effective dramatization of mass hysteria taking hold and flight, and of the chilling circularity of accusations and arguments in “witch hunts,” literal and figurative. Director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) knows how to move the camera to compliment the dialogue, and his forceful filmmaking prevents it from feeling like “filmed theater”; every performance is strong, but Winona Ryder is so fierce, she’s downright flabbergasting. (Includes audio commentary, interview, featurette, and trailer.)
Woman of the Year: This 1942 romantic comedy was the first onscreen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and the spark between the two actors is immediate – and sort of astonishing. (For an inexplicit Code-era studio picture, there’s some very sexy stuff in it.) His rough charm and her wit and sophistication were a good combination, and make for good drama to boot; though not explicitly stated, this is a class comedy, and one where “opposites attract” ends up being, unsurprisingly, a lot of work. Its reshot ending, which mousies up Hepburn’s whip-smart career woman, is a disappointment (though a not unexpected one) – but there are little moments of subversion along the way (watch how she reacts when he takes her to a ballgame, and how he acts at her fancy cocktail party; both are out of their element, but she’s adaptable), and the dexterity with which she can turn her charm and softness on and off at will still dazzles. Sticky in spots, but it’s fluff with teeth, and good heavens is it, as ever, a joy to watch these two circle each other. (Includes new and archival interviews, trailer, and two full-length documentaries: George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey and The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn.)