This week is another monster – just a reminder, the idea of this column was to do five must-see movies every week, good Lord – with everything from a massive documentary mini-series to a Prince concert film to both the biggest blockbuster and indie hit of the summer. Let’s get to it.
ON AMAZON PRIME
The Lost City of Z: James Gray’s latest is, in many ways, textbook great: handsomely mounted, (mostly) well acted, boldly audacious, gorgeously photographed. Yet for all of its admirable ambition, there’s something missing; Gray never quite manages to couple the beauty of his images with a matching emotional resonance, a balance magnificently achieved by his last picture, the masterful The Immigrant – a stunning mix of period piece and character drama. (And part of the problem may lie in the casting of Charlie Hunnam in the leading role, an actor who never quite inhabits the character convincingly, and thus never makes the human connection this adventure epic so badly needs.) Still, it’s a beautiful, challenging, and frequently powerful piece of work, and if Hunnam doesn’t quite deliver, watch how Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, and Sienna Miller disappear convincingly into their supporting roles.
Criterion Live!: Split Screen 20th Anniversary: Last May, a who’s-who of the ‘90s indie movie scene – Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Daniel Myrick, Chris Smith, Miranda July, and more – gathered at New York’s Lincoln Center to honor John Pierson, the film insider who became something of a Midas figure (his discoveries also included Spike Lee and Michael Moore); he then became a television personality, via his IFC series Split Screen, which FilmStruck is now streaming. We reported on that event here, but now FilmStruck is letting you enjoy it for yourself: the copious clips, the Smith stories, the Linklater testimonials, and most of all, the insights from the man who put a whole lot of great movies in front of our eyes that we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
ON SHOWTIME ANYTIME:
Sign ‘O’ the Times: When Warner Brothers released their sparkling new Blu-ray editions of Prince’s feature films last fall, one film was conspicuously absent: this 1987 concert film, directed by the Purple One himself, showcasing his flawless mid-decade show (featuring Sheila E. and Sheena Easton, among others). In fact, it’s been a bit of a tough find, even after his untimely death – I had to buy a region-free Blu-ray myself – which is why it’s so exciting that Showtime nabbed the rights to both air and stream it. So if you want to see a genuine genius at the top of his game, queue it up, crank up the volume, and press play.
ON BLU-RAY / PBS.ORG
The Vietnam War: Ken Burns’s epic, multi-part documentaries have covered topics ranging from baseball to jazz to Prohibition, but he always ends up circling back to war. His breakthrough film was the definitive Civil War; he tackled WWII in The War. And now, with co-director Lynn Novick, he takes on the conflict in Vietnam with his usual attentiveness, sensitivity, and narrative ingenuity – to say nothing of full context (seriously, they start a full century before what we think of as “the beginning” of Vietnam). They talk, it seems, to everyone – American and Vietnamese service members, their family, government officials, anti-war protestors, journalists, the works – and give everyone their say, because with this war, perhaps more than any other, there were no easy answers. Running 18 hours over 10 parts, PBS is airing the series over the next two weeks and streaming episodes immediately thereafter, but the Blu-ray set is the smart way to go; you’ll want to continue to reference this one for years to come, both as definitive history and essential non-fiction filmmaking. (Includes featurette and deleted scenes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Wonder Woman: Patty Jenkins’s long-overdue summer smash has its problems – it takes too long to get going, its action peaks too soon, and its climax is yet another of those ugly DC bad-CGI smash/yell/fire jobs. But what it does, it does very, very well: star Gal Gadot is charming as hell, she and co-star Chris Pine get a good, screwball energy going, the action beats are (aside from the aforementioned climax) clean and exciting, the period costumes and production design are tip-top, and most importantly, the filmmaker clearly understands the weight and power of the Wonder Woman iconography. (Includes featurettes, extended scenes, and blooper reel. 3D version available.)
The Big Sick: Stand-up comic/actor Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon co-write this somewhat fictionalized account of how they met, fell in love, broke up, and then went through a terrifying medical ordeal before they could get back together. Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) adroitly juggles the comic and serious tones, and plenty of subject matter as well: it’s about people who are struggling not just with health and love, but with family, faith, and tradition. Funny from end to end (yes, all the way to the end) and frequently heartbreaking as well, this is a rich film, filled with the kind of details and texture most mainstream comedies don’t even bother with. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, SXSW panel, and deleted scenes.)
Certain Women: A lawyer who can’t get through to a stubborn client. An impatient type-A wife and mother. A rancher harboring a crush she can’t imagine admitting. These are the “certain women” of Kelly Reichardt’s challenging adaptation of three Maile Meloy short stories – and they feel very much like short stories, less interested in telling grand narratives than in capturing tiny, keenly felt moments, and living in them. Impatient viewers need not apply (this is not the film where Richardt decided to get all fast-paced and commercial); everyone else will marvel at the absorbing performances and sublime details. It’s a small movie, but one that expands the more you consider it. (Includes interviews and trailer.)
The Hero: Sturdy, reliable, famously mustachioed character actor Sam Elliott turns in a rare leading role as, guess what, a sturdy, reliable, famously mustachioed character actor in this gentle character study from director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams). He wrote the film as a showcase for Elliott, and it functions beautifully as that: he’s funny, he’s romantic, he’s goofy, he’s tragic. The movie surrounding him doesn’t quite live up to his bravura performance; it’s your standard-issue meditation on mortality and aging and family and all the rest. But it’s 90 minutes hanging out with Sam Elliott (sometimes hanging out with Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman, even), and that’s more than a lot of movies have to offer. (Includes audio commentary.)
September: Woody Allen’s incredible mid-‘80s hitting streak (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days) came crashing to a halt with this 1987 effort, which found him returning to the dour, austere straight-up drama that had alienated a fair number of fans back in 1978, when he followed up Annie Hall with Interiors. And to be fair, September’s self-consciousness as a tragedy occasionally gives it an airlessness that’s tough to transcend. But there’s much here to recommend: a rare tearjerker turn from Dianne Wiest, deeply felt work by Mia Farrow, a charming Jack Warden performance, and most of all, some of the best feature film work of Elaine Stritch’s long career. She, like Maureen Stapleton in Interiors, gives the movie a kick in the pants without derailing its serious aspirations. (Includes trailer and isolated music/effects track.)