Serious question: do video distributors talk to each other? You can’t help but wonder, if you stack this week’s disc releases up against last week’s, when we had to stretch to get to our customary five titles. This week, we’ve got nearly double that, with new streaming documentary choices via Netflix and PBS, a new documentary and docudrama on disc, and outstanding catalogue choices on Blu-ray from the ‘40s to the ‘80s. Here’s a bit more about each; follow the title links to stream or buy.
I Called Him Morgan: The teacher recalls that when his student told him that she’d been married to a jazz musician named Lee Morgan, his face gave him away. “You know the story too,” she observed. “The story” was how, one chilly night in February 1972, the wife of the acclaimed jazz trumpeter approached him after a gig in a New York City club and shot him dead – but that’s only part of the story, as revealed in this riveting documentary from director Kasper Collin. Drawing on interviews (beautifully shot by cinematographers Bradford Young and Erik Vallsten), archival footage, and an interview with Mrs. Morgan recorded a month before her death – an interview that’s more like a last testament – Collin tells a fascinating story of music and crime, but also asks difficult questions about debt, faith, and responsibility.
Two Towns of Jasper: If you found yourself wondering, during Kirsten Johnson’s excellent Cameraperson, where the material from the James Byrd trial came from, the answer is this 2003 documentary from directors Whitney Down and Marco Williams (newly streaming via PBS’s POV site). It concerns the June 1998 dragging death of Mr. Byrd, an African-American resident of the small town of Jasper, Texas, for which three white men were put on trial, individually, the following year. The filmmakers ingeniously split up: a black crew filmed the city’s black residents, and a white crew filmed its whites. This division of labor allows its subjects talk in in something like private, revealing the complexities of their beliefs, and how deeply they’re ingrained – from the “Bubbas in training” breakfast club, where white citizens spout racism that is as vile as it is casual and unapologetic, to the hair salon where black residents speak of a careful separation that sounds a lot like self-preservation. Much of that material is dispiriting, but there are small glimmers of hope in Two Towns as well – after all, this is the kind of crime that wouldn’t have even been prosecuted a generation earlier, much less placed in the center of a media firestorm. But we clearly have a long way to go, as the events of last weekend further underscored.
ON DVD / VOD
Betting On Zero: It’s very hard to watch the footage of the health supplement Herbalife’s epic conventions, celebrity endorsements, and slick PR materials and not think its participants must be in some kind of cult. They’re not, but they may as well be; according to Bill Ackman, the divisive hedge fund manager on a multi-year crusade to short their stock, it’s a pyramid scheme, with a habit of targeting immigrants, low-income communities, and other vulnerable Americans. Director Ted Braun tells Ackman’s story against the backdrop of what is to be his “death blow” presentation, finally closing the case against the multi-billion dollar company; the film is, at times, a bit much (particularly in terms of length and its manipulative score), but it’s undeniably thorough and affecting – particularly when Braun arrives at its central conflict, which comes down to betting on the morality of Wall Street. Which, you know… (Includes additional scenes and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Chuck: New Jersey club fighter Chuck Wepner briefly achieved celebrity status, twice: when he was plucked from obscurity to fight Muhammad Ali, and when that fight was used as the inspiration for Rocky. So this story of “the real Rocky” dodges familiarity by making familiarity part of the text, which is sort of genius. It also has the good sense not to take itself too seriously; Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones turn up in supporting roles, and one of the four screenwriters is Jerry Stahl. One of the others is star Liev Schreiber, who’s flat-out excellent at not only conveying Wepner’s neighborhood-guy charm, but at delivering his wry narration, which borders on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang levels of self-awareness. It’s less successful when it gets more serious, but when Chuck finally drops the bravado and talks straight, it has power; he hits a point when charm and semi-celebrity aren’t good enough, and that’s a real redemption arc. (Includes featurette.)
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Hopscotch: If the notion of Walter Matthau as James Bond makes you grin – and seriously, if not, have you no soul? – then you’ll find this 1980 action/comedy (newly upgraded to Blu-ray by Criterion) irresistible. Matthau plays a CIA lifer who’s busted down to desk duty by his Napoleonic new boss (an inventively profane Ned Beatty), and decides to instead write a tell-all book, leading the CIA, the FBI, and the KGB on a merry chase to mow him down before he can spill all their secrets. Screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his novel) gave himself the challenge of writing a thriller where his hero never fires a weapon, and the film bristles with the inventiveness required by those guidelines (the way he lures his foes into a shoot-out is particularly ingenious). Matthau is wonderfully Matthau, hangdog yet crisply funny, and his chemistry with Glenda Jackson (with whom he’d co-starred previously in the delightful House Calls) is downright charming. (Includes archival interviews, vintage Matthau TV appearance, trailer, teaser, and broadcast-friendly audio track.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
Meantime: This 1984 British telefilm was a breakthrough for not only its cast – which includes Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Alfred Molina, all impossibly young-looking – but director Mike Leigh, working in a vivid mode of Thatcher-era kitchen-sink realism. His subjects are average looking people in bland clothes, inhabiting drab flats (and occasionally keeping dirty secrets), and the film is less about what happens to them than the pride, desperation, and disappointment that drives them; like much of his work, it dramatizes people who have been simmering for years, and finally boil over. Oldman’s is the showiest performance, burning with menace as a provocative skinhead, but Roth is most affecting – in how he does so little, yet by the end of the film, is telling us everything. (Includes new conversations and archival interview.) (Also streaming on FilmStruck.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Sergio Leone’s 1966 Spaghetti Western masterpiece – re-released on Blu-ray in a 50th anniversary edition, with a new 4K restoration – opens with a giant face filling the screen, and then cuts to a vast, wide, dusty landscape. That’s the Leone aesthetic, in two shots, and the rest of the movie (which runs three hours in its superior director’s cut, also included here) is as elegantly simple: it introduces the three characters (played, respectively, by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach), pits them against each other on the trail of $200,000 in Confederate gold, and waits for the fireworks. (The Civil War element, less than common in Westerns of this period, is one of the film’s clearest influences on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.) Names notwithstanding, none of these men have any particular loyalty to anyone but themselves, which keeps things hopping right up and into its legendary closing sequence, in which Leone pulls their itchy final standoff out like taffy, as long as he can, and then longer, and then longer still. The film is tense, sweaty, bloody, and brutal, yet strangely beautiful – finding visual poetry in its fly-swarmed dustiness – and funny, both in its touches of slapstick comedy and the laughs Leone mines from its performative cool. Fifty years on, this is still one helluva movie. (Includes theatrical and director’s cuts, audio commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, vignettes, and trailers.)
Night Moves: Director Arthur Penn’s 1975 masterpiece – new on Blu from Warner Archives – does for the private-eye movie what his Bonnie and Clyde did for the gangster flick, infusing the well-worn genre with a modern sensibility, and providing a peerless showcase for his gifted star. Bonnie co-star Gene Hackman is wonderfully weary as a P.I. whose seemingly simple missing-teenager case is complicated not only by his deceitful clients and witnesses, but the rapid dissolution of his ostensibly stable marriage. It’s a cracklingly good mystery, but so much more; this is a character study of uncommon sensitivity and precision, dramatized by an actor who was always best when he had something to hide. (Includes vintage featurette and theatrical trailer.)
Duel in the Sun: This 1946 effort from super-producer David O. Selznick is something of a junior remake of his smash Gone With The Wind – concerning, as it does, the passions and tribulations of a wealthy family – but with the tropes of the Western, including cowboys, Indians, horses, and saloon duels. He puts together a hell of a cast, with Joseph Cotten doing his solemn good-man routine, Gregory Peck playing against (what came to be) type as a real SOB, and Jennifer Jones – then Selznick’s wife – fierce and fearless as the object of their desire. It’s all lusty and silly and gorgeously mounted, impressive in its scope and beautiful to look at (the color saturation on this new Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics is a knock-out), and if it’s a bit of a mess, well, it’s certainly never boring. (Includes “roadshow” musical breaks, audio commentary, interviews, and trailers.)