It’s another one of those insanely overloaded weeks on home video, which is good news for those of us who like to crank up the air conditioner and basically avoid the outdoors once we get to this part of the year. So we’ve got last year’s Academy-ordained best foreign film on Prime, an excellent documentary streaming free on PBS, four top-notch indies on disc and demand, four foreign classics on Criterion and FilmStruck, and a ‘90s schlock classic in a glorious new Blu-ray special edition. Here we go.
ON AMAZON PRIME
The Salesman: As a filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi is keenly attuned to the day-to-day reality and stress of living on the brink of poverty – a concern that’s by no means exclusive to his native Iran. What’s more, he matches that keen eye for everyday lives with an understanding of the power of offhand incidents; his films are full of fumbled interactions and unfortunate misunderstandings that cause ripples far beyond the individual moment, and of people who are trying to make the right decisions in their aftermath. The inciting action of his Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is more traumatic than usual, but he handles it with his customarily keen sense of psychological understanding and narrative sympathy; this is a powerful piece of work, from a filmmaker who knows the most urgent moments in our lives are often the quietest.
The War Show: Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon’s powerful documentary is assembled from years of footage shot by Zytoon, a Syrian radio host, during and after the 2011 Arab spring. It’s a remarkable ground-level view of the struggle, of the real danger those protestors faced, capturing candid conversations of regular people weighing personal risk against political importance. And the inspiring protests give way to the harrowing bloodshed and fear that follows, shedding a necessary light on the less-explored story of what happens after – after the uprising, after the attention fades, after we take the green filters off our avatars. And that story, to put it mildly, is not pretty.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Lost City of Z: The latest epic period drama from director James Gray (The Immigrant) vibrates with the aftershocks of Herzog, Apocalypse Now, and even 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, and while it never quite escapes those intimidating shadows, the 1900s-set film is engaging nonetheless. It’s also gorgeous, with its overwhelming images (lensed by the great Darius Khondji) blessed with the grace of a ballet and the period resonance of tintype photos. Charlie Hunnam comes up short in the lead – his general stiffness works early on, but leaves the picture wanting in the clutch – though Robert Pattinson is terrific as his right-hand man, and Sienna Miller does well with rather an empty supportive wife role. The elegant cutting and handsome staging match the pretty pictures, and if the film never quite finds comparable emotional intensity, well, as one character puts it, “to look for what is beautiful is its own reward.” (Includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: The endlessly underrated Richard Gere is in fine form once again as a would-be political power player whose own hubris and default-liar setting is his downfall. As usual, Gere’s offhand charisma and good looks give his fading, failing character a fascinating duality; you believe everything came easy for him, once upon a time, which makes it tougher to watch him struggle. Writer/director Joseph Cedar works up some clever cinematic flourishes, and surrounds Gere with an enviable ensemble of ace character actors. This is a smart, savvy picture, hard to summarize, and harder still to predict. (Includes featurette and Q&A.)
Their Finest: Gemma Arterton has never been better than as a writer brought in to pen “the slop” (sneering slang for women’s dialogue) in WWII-era British propaganda pictures in this lovely period drama from director Lone Scherfig (An Education). Movie buffs will get a kick out the making-the-sausage stuff, as well as the affectionate yet ribbing portrayals of said films; Jake Lacy is particularly funny as the brash, talent-free American service hero who’s brought in for international interest, while Bill Nighy is uproarious and unexpectedly touching as a past-his-prime, vainglorious screen star. It takes a bad turn in the third act – too clumsily melodramatic, too conveniently timed – but that complaint aside, it’s a brisk and engaging little movie. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
Contemporary Color: Back in 2015, David Byrne assembled ten top color guard teams, paired them with ten musical artists, and had them each collaborate on an original routine that he then presented at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. And just as color guard is something of a mash-up (of dance, twirling, and cheerleading), Bill and Turner Ross’s film is a combination of performance film, backstage documentary, and movie musical. The balance isn’t always right (they too often cut away to what’s happening behind the scenes when we want to see the full performance), but their compositions and camera choreography are inventive, the music is vibrant, and the color guards just kill it. This movie is bursting with joy, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in it. (Includes accompanying videos, news segment, featurette, and theatrical trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
L’Argent: The final film from French master Robert Bresson is, as usual, a work about which “deliberate” is an understatement, done as it is with his customary deadpan staging and matter-of-fact playing. But the (surface) flatness of the approach underscores the hopelessness of its central situation, drawn from Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon, in which the single incident of a passed counterfeit bill alters several lives irrevocably (one in particular). Bresson finds tension in everyday situations and bleakness at every turn, and when his protagonist asks a woman who’s been kind to him, “Why not just throw yourself in the river,” the question seems a logical extension of the film’s worldview. It’s a difficult picture, but an undeniably effective one. (Includes video essay, archival press conference, and trailer.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Three masterpieces from the great Italian director (a previous Criterion release, getting a Blu-ray upgrade) take a searing snapshot of Europe at the end of WWII – and present a vital new style of cinema, with Rossellini perfecting the use of natural locations, handheld camera, and earthy performers (many of them non-professionals) to solidify the form of Italian neorealist cinema. These three films – Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero – display a documentarian’s interest in the details of day-to-day life for Italians and Germans: rations, black markets, random searches, curfews, air raids, and general paranoia, with everyone, it seems, either starving or hustling. But Rossellini is still an artist, and these films are moody and harrowing, as he pokes around in the shadows and rubble of cities bombed and abandoned, and takes toll of the human wreckage. A tough, spare, unforgiving trio of films, whose power has only magnified in the passing years. (Includes introductions, new and archival interviews, audio commentaries, documentaries, and video essays.) (All are also streaming on FilmStruck.)
Species: The premise was so elegantly simple, of course it became a hit: a killer alien in the guise of an insanely hot blonde, who lures men into her lair and devours them in one gulp. Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi/horror hybrid boasted a premise that would’ve made Roger Corman proud (as would its frequency of sex and violence), and one that found an audience in the ever-present fear of female sexuality and general intimacy. But it’s a cracking good B-movie, elevated considerably by the craft of director Donaldson (No Way Out), the special effects of Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the above-average cast, which includes Ben Kingsley, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen, Natasha Henstridge as the alien, and Michelle Williams as her younger iteration. (Includes audio commentaries, new interviews, featurettes, alternate ending, and theatrical trailer.)