The trouble with the summer movie season is that smaller movies can easily slip from the column of “counterprogramming” to “forgotten entirely”; we’ve got two of those among this week’s new disc and on demand releases, and both are worth a second chance. Plus, a solid Western on Netflix, a terrifying documentary on Hulu, and a Criterion showcase for one of the all-time great screwball comedies.
The Homesman: In his second theatrical feature, Tommy Lee Jones reaffirms himself as an actor/director firmly in the Eastwood mold — i.e., he makes films in an even-eyed, no-nonsense style that matches his acting. Here, he adapts Glendon Swarthout’s novel into a frontier journey, giving it a dreamlike, almost supernatural tinge, full of death and disease and wailing women trucking across the prairie towards nothing in particular. And it’s got the kind of richly complicated female protagonist that’s all too rare in even the best Westerns (well played by Hilary Swank). Full of odd, eccentric twists, this is a dark, atmospheric, and thankfully unpredictable picture.
Zero Days: Director Alex Gibney follows up Taxi to the Dark Side and We Steal Secrets with another exposé of our shady government and what they’re keeping from us. The subject this time is the “Stuxnet” worm, a devastatingly effective computer virus allegedly developed by the U.S. and Israel to slow Iran’s nuclear program, and if your eyes are already glazing over, no worries; Gibney not only investigates but clarifies, digging deep into the virus’s development and implementation while keeping his story crystal-clear, thanks to straight-talking interviews, helpful graphics, and a style that speaks in the visual and aural language of a snappy techno-thriller. But make no mistake – this is terrifying stuff, particularly at this moment of cyber-warfare, with chillingly high stakes and implications.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Ingrid Goes West: This story of obsession, loneliness, and social media is sort of a spiritual successor to Observe and Report – a film that bravely puts a pitch-black comedy spin on a premise that could’ve been played for much easier laughs. And director/co-writer Matt Spicer has the right woman for the job in Aubrey Plaza, aces as a mentally ill wallflower drawn to the fabulous life of an Instagram celeb (Elizabeth Olsen, thankfully grounded) and bent on becoming a part of it. It’s a funny picture – Plaza’s sprung comic timing and adroit physicality can summon laughs on command – but its intensity and darkness is always right under the surface, a time bomb ticking louder the deeper she gets. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but challenging and rewarding for the right kind of viewer. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, and trailer.)
The Glass Castle: Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton and star Brie Larson reunite for this adaptation of Janette Walls’s memoir, mining (a bit more successfully) material similar to last year’s Captain Fantastic: it’s the story of a large, rambling family, led by an off-the-grid dreamer whose high ideals don’t always equal healthy parenting. The key difference is that Glass Castle doesn’t lionize its father figure; he’s wildly irresponsible and a hopeless alcoholic, and Cretton’s tight-fisted direction harrowingly dramatizes both the up/down whiplash of recovery and relapse, and the scary way domestic incidents can escalate in a blink. Woody Harrelson is dazzlingly good as the flawed patriarch, and Brie Larson navigates several tricky moments as the focal offspring. Glass Castle has its problems – the flashback material is far more compelling than the later narrative that’s framing it (aka the Fried Green Tomatoes Conundrum), and the metaphorical qualities of key scenes (and the title) are just right on the nose. It’s the kind of movie where you can hear the gears turning, but it’s so well-acted and sensitively mounted, you don’t really mind. (Includes deleted scenes and featurette.)
The Philadelphia Story: George Cukor’s screwball romantic comedy gets the Criterion treatment, and now the image sparkles as brightly as the movie. A brassy, snazzy, tart love triangle between Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, it’s a picture that talks fast and moves faster, its breezy romantic entanglements adroitly manipulated by its director, the great George Cukor. In a movie full of memorable scenes, my favorite is probably Hepburn and Stewart’s drunken revelry at a fancy party, but there are plenty to choose from; my only real quibble is with the man she eventually chooses, though my wife assures me I’m insane. (YMMV.) Wherever you land, this is a bravura piece of studio craftsmanship, and one of the best comedies of an era where that was no small feat. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, Dick Cavett Show interviews with Hepburn and Cukor, radio adaptation, restoration demonstration, and trailer.)