This week’s new release slate is thick as hell, and esoteric as usual: two of our favorite movies of the summer, an A+ new documentary on Netflix, unconventional horror on Criterion Blu-ray and Netflix, a long-overdue restoration of an Orson Welles classic, and new disc releases from Jim Henson, Woody Allen, and Garry Marshall. Let’s get to work:
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson: Johnson was a beloved trans activist best remembered as one of the women who started the Stonewall uprising. But in 1992, she died under mysterious circumstances; this documentary from director David France (How to Survive a Plague) follows fellow activist Victoria Cruz as she re-examines that 25-year-old cold case. In investigating her death, the film opens up her life, serving as a primer of the gay liberation and modern LGBT movements, but with a personal angle – and an eye on the struggle of trans people, within the movement, for visibility then and now. France also follows strands of Cruz’s own history, as well as her advocacy for current victims of anti-trans violence, so it’s an ambitious film, but never overwhelmed. It masterfully weaves together past and present, not only telling the story we’ve come to see, but the larger one besides.
Raw: If you go in to this French-Belgian co-production cold, you’re in for a fake-out. It seems, initially, like just another collegiate drama, the story of the fresh-faced introvert whose eyes are opened by all the drinking and debauchery, and eventually gets in over her head: partying, hook-ups, slipping grades, embarrassing videos. But there’s a twist. Our heroine, Justine (Garance Marillie) is a no-exceptions vegetarian who is forced to taste meat as part of a freshman hazing ritual, and finds she has a taste for it – human meat, specifically. Director Julia Ducournau telegraphs where she’s going just enough to make us woozy, and by the time she’s trawling on the loud organ music as Justine succumbs to the temptation of a human finger, eventually going at it like a damn chicken wing, it’s clear we’re in for a sui generis experience. What follows is, by turns, gross, sexy, disturbing, and funny, and by its end (oddly enough), it’s a tribute to the power of sibling protection and acceptance. (Yes, really.) It’s not for wobbly viewers – I watched a fair amount of it in flashes while glancing up from my notebook – but if you’ve got the stomach for it, there’s some very clever stuff happening here.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Baby Driver: When he unveiled this frenetic action/comedy at SXSW in March, director Edgar Wright explained this was a movie that’s “been in my head for 22 years” (making it, he added with a laugh, literally older than its leading man). And that explains both what makes Baby Driver great, and a bit of a back-step for the filmmaker. It’s very much a young man’s movie, its kinetic pace and snazzy style also projecting a sense of self-conscious play-acting; it’s got a 20-year-old’s sense of what a cool movie is, feeling in many ways more like a show-off first film than his actual first film, Shaun of the Dead. And there’s nothing wrong with making a fun, hyper-kinetic, young-man’s movie, except that the maturity and pathos of his last picture The World’s End were such a good look for Wright. That said it’s hard to complain when you’re having this much fun – Baby Driver is sheer flash, but the relentless, turnt-up energy of this thing is difficult to resist. (Includes featurettes, animatics, and extended and deleted scenes.)
The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola’s adaption of Thomas Cullinan’s novel (previously filmed by Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood) masterfully views a male terror text through a feminist gaze, telling the story of a deserting Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in Confederate territory during the final days of the Civil War who holes up in a remote girls school to recover from an injury – and, with catered approaches, to attempt to seduce each of them. Coppola keenly grasps how these characters’ repressed desires, in a hothouse atmosphere like this, could scramble an already delicate situation; we see the way they each look at him, and how he can’t help himself looking in return, gazing upon that dining room table of lonely women like a starving wolf. Coppola embraces the story’s candlelight and candelabra aesthetic with vigor, creating an evocative Southern gothic potboiler and amping up the considerable psychological terror, for all parties. (Includes featurettes.)
The Lure: This 2015 Polish production from director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (new from Criterion) boasts a concept so bonkers, it’s hard to believe it even exists: It’s a blood-spattered, candy-colored, feminist mermaid horror-comedy pop musical, with all the giddiness and gaudiness you’d expect from such a logline. But it’s also not a stunt. The songs are catchy but haunted, and Smoczyńska deftly draws upon the musical form’s capacity for communicating heightened emotion – and, often, in dealing with subjects that are too painful for mere words. Wild, wooly, and energetic, and overflowing with mind-boggling images. (Includes featurettes, deleted scenes, two earlier short films by Smoczyńska, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / FILMSTRUCK
Othello: It’s been a very good couple of years for Orson Welles fans, thanks to the gorgeous new Blu-ray editions of previously hard-to-find works like Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, and Macbeth, and now the Criterion Collection offers up an excellent new restoration of his 1951 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Wellese adapted, produced, directs, and stars as “the Moor of Venice,” and it’s one of his most celebrated (and/or notorious) productions – a three-year odyssey of shooting bits and pieces on multiple continents on scraps of film bought with his acting paychecks, requiring plenty of, shall we say, creative improvisation. (The most famous story of the production found him shooting the murder of Rodrigo in a Turkish bath, requiring only sheets as costumes, because the intended costumes were impounded by customs.) Many of those stories were told by the man himself in Filming “Othello,” a 1979 “making-of” feature – included here as a bonus – that would be Welles’ final finished feature. But the biggest miracle of Othello is that, troubled production notwithstanding, it plays beautifully; the filmmaker’s remarkable eye for offbeat compositions and crisp montage shines through, and the performances (particularly Micheál Mac Liammóir’s smooth-talking Iago) are top-notch. (Also streaming on FilmStruck.) (Includes two versions of the film, audio commentary, Filming “Othello” documentary, Souvenirs d’ “Othello” documentary, new and archival interviews, and Return to Glennascaul short film shot on location.)
Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas: If you were a young-ish person in the late 1970s or 1980s with even occasional access to HBO, there’s a pretty good chance you saw – more than once – this puppet adaptation of the beloved children’s book, which was produced for the network by the Jim Henson Company, with all the trimmings: performed by Muppet regulars Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz, songs by Muppet Movie composer Paul Williams, even a brief appearance by Kermit the Frog. But the show’s style and heart is all its own, the tender story of a poor family that pins its holiday hopes on a talent show prize, and the bittersweet outcome of that event. It’s a sweet, lovely special that deserves its holiday perennial status; this 40th anniversary DVD release treats it with the reverence it deserves. (Includes featurette, deleted and alternate scenes and songs, and outtakes.)
Take the Money and Run: Woody Allen’s first feature comedy (new on Blu from KL Studio Classics) is a pretty ragtag affair, even by the standards of his early work – very much a stand-up comedian and television personality learning how to make a movie by trial and error. But when it works, it’s explosively funny stuff, capturing Allen working in the pure comic-persona mold of his heroes Bob Hope and Groucho Marx, and engaging in some ace silent movie-style set pieces to boot (the bit in his one-room apartment is a classic). And it finds him tinkering, for the first time, with the mock-documentary format that he would return to so ingeniously with Zelig, Husbands and Wives, and Sweet and Lowdown. (No bonus features.)
The Flamingo Kid: Sitcom legend Garry Marshall’s second (and probably best) film was this sparkling 1984 coming-of-age comedy/drama, in which a nice middle-class Brooklyn boy (Matt Dillon) finds himself wrapped up in the gambling scene at a fancy private club. Dillon has rarely been better, nicely meshing street smarts with real-world naiveté, and the supporting cast – including Richard Crenna, crazy young Marisa Tomei and Steven Weber, a pre-Arrested Development Jessica Walters, and Marshall’s good-luck charm Hector Elizondo – is aces. (Includes audio commentary and trailer gallery.)