Here’s your good news for the week: there’s no shortage of great movies to rent, buy, and stream this holiday weekend, which will probably come in handy if you’re engaging in the great American pastime of ignoring your relatives, or looking for the common ground offered by a motion picture. And this week, you’re covered no matter what your choice of media, with titles on Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as those little silver discs us old folks prefer.
Mudbound: There’s a scene, about two-thirds of the way through Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, in which a character gets out of bed. That’s all he’s doing, but it’s something he shouldn’t do – and any viewer watching knows he shouldn’t, and sits in their seat quietly pleading for him not to do it, to stay put for God’s sake. That kind of urgency, attached to the simplest of action, is what you get from a master filmmaker like Rees. She’s telling a big, sprawling, period tale, far larger in scope and ambition than her debut feature, the modest character study Pariah – but she tells it with the same attention to detail and sympathy for her characters. This is a powerful, provocative piece of work.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – With a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton: Jim Carrey made his wildest swing for Serious Actor status by going full-on Method to play Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon – a process documented on video at the time by Kaufman’s friends Bob Zmuda and Lynn Marguiles, and then locked away until now, as director Chris Smith (American Movie) marries that footage with contemporary Carrey interviews about the process. The actor comes off as just a tad pretentious, and a little of his pseudo-philosophical rambling goes a long way. But the archival stuff is fascinating, as Smith looks past the awestruck hype that tends to accompany these stories, and hints at how much trouble it’d be to actually make a movie with someone who works this way. Danny DeVito – who also produced – might capture that feeling best, in a candid moment of gazing at Forman on the set and asking, with a giggle, “What’re we gonna do?”
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992: American Crime creator and 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, with the assistance of ABC News, helmed this detailed, thoughtful, and often harrowing account of the LAPD’s videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, and how the acquittal of the officers responsible led to days of riots in South Central Los Angeles a quarter century ago. It was an anniversary that, to say the least, did not go unnoticed, but Ridley’s expansive take, which considers (a la O.J.: Made in America) the impact of years of animus towards the city’s police department, is perhaps the most thorough of this spring’s many documentary considerations.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Landline: Star Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespierre’s second collaboration, after the wonderful 2014 comedy Obvious Child, maintains that film’s sense of humor and truth while expanding its canvas: bigger cast, period setting (I mean, mid-’90s, but still), and as much interest in drama as comedy. Slate gets a lot of notes to play here, all of them well; it’s a performance that keeps you off-balance, in which you never know if you’ll get a raw moment of heartbreak or a tiny piece of physical comedy. Abby Quinn is also quite good as her teenage sister; through her, Robespierre and co-scripter Elisabeth Holm nail that specific moment in a young person’s life when they’re about to become an adult, and drunk with that power, certain they know everything and are wiser than this world. And John Turturro and Edie Falco are aces as their parents, showing both the pain they’ve accumulated as their marriage has deteriorated, and how well they hide it most of the time.
ON DVD/ VOD
Lemon: One of the oddest comedies of this (or any) year, Janicza Bravo’s debut feature is so bizarre and deliberately alienating that it occasionally flirts with the kind of smug self-satisfaction that makes films like The Comedy so unwatchable. But in the pursuit of its bonkers tone, Bravo and co-writer/star Brett Gelman remember to put in some actual laughs, and their sui generis style mostly pays off; several fine comic characters actors get a chance to shine (Michael Cera, Judy Greer, David Paymer, and Megan Mullally are standouts), and by its closing passages, you might even feel some affection for the weirdo world they’ve built. (Includes interviews, deleted scenes, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Good Time: Josh and Bennie Safdie’s crime thriller is a rattling experience, a one-long-night-in-New-York movie that’s set in the present but filtered through the scuzzy gaze of the city’s past. It’s a strange beast, this movie, telling a relentless story with a beat and a pulse, yet filling it with all sorts of inexplicable sidebars and momentary breaks; its protagonist, Connie (Robert Pattinson, excellent) spends the entire movie in a mode of desperate improvisation, and the film keys off that energy and spirit. Sleazy, assaultive, and absolutely unshakable. (Includes audio commentary, music video, and featurette.)
Fritz Lang: The Silent Films: Few filmmakers of the silent era had as much impact as the great German stylist Fritz Lang, whose films were instrumental to the look and feel of the German expressionist movement, and whose Metropolis (above) influenced literally 90 years of cinematic future dystopias. This stunning new box set from Kino-Lorber collects his surviving silent features, eleven in all, beautifully restored and supplemented. Sure, start with Metropolis – but every one of these is a gem, challenging yet engaging, aesthetically striking yet emotionally audacious. (Includes audio commentaries, documentaries, interviews, newsreel footage, and original trailers.)
Jabberwocky: Terry Gilliam made this, his solo feature directorial debut, two years after co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it is very much in that picture’s mold, from its visual aesthetics (lotsa shafts of light through forest fog) and episodic, almost blackout sketch structure to its sense of humor – a specific, Python-esque mix of absurdity, slapstick, vulgarity, gore, wit, anachronism, funny names (“King Bruno the Questionable”) and background gags. But you also see Gilliam starting to experiment with his technique, and to find the voice and style that would define his work: noisy, gregarious, and operatic. He’s one of our most divisive filmmakers, and this formative effort (new to the Criterion Collection) certainly won’t turn his critics around. But fans of the director, and particularly of his Python work, will eat it up. (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, original opening, and trailer.)
Dolores Claiborne: The timing of Warner Archives’ Blu-ray upgrade for this 1995 Stephen King adaptation isn’t surprising; earlier this fall, we saw the release of Gerald’s Game, the book King wrote before this one, and one that shares its key flashback event (and trauma), as well as in interest in everyday terror, rather than that of the supernatural. Kathy Bates is electrifying as the title character, who is, as we say in my family, a real piece of work (“Sometimes bein’ a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to,” she announces), while Jennifer Jason Leigh is tortured and terrific as her daughter, and David Strathairn is utterly chilling as the villain. (A young John C. Reilly also appears, doing a super-dodgy Maine accent.) It’s directed by Taylor Hackford, so as is his custom, it’s about 20 minutes too long. But the atmosphere is moody, the cinematography is inspired, and the script (by future Oscar winner Tony Gilroy) is broodingly intelligent. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)
Cease Fire: This 1953 effort, new on Blu from KL Studio Classics, is a bit of an oddity – a 3D war movie shot on location in Korea, not long after the end of the conflict there. The story itself is pretty standard issue, men-on-a-mission stuff, and suffice it to say that we don’t have to be told that its performers are soldiers and not actors. (Also, there’s a more than comfortable number of Asian slurs in the dialogue.) But the Dimitri Tiomkin score is rousing, the 3D photography is less about gimmickry and more about you-are-there immediacy, and the picture’s half-step removal from documentary gives it a verisimilitude and authenticity most war movies can only dream of. (Includes 2D and 3D versions, trailer, and original introduction by General Mark W. Clark.)
The Violent Years: Confession: I sort of love that we’re at a point where just about any damn movie qualifies for the deluxe 4K-restoration-and-Blu-ray-release treatment, and I’m hard pressed to think of one that deserves it less than this 1956 stinker from director William Morgan and writer Ed Wood (yes, that one). It’s a film I first saw on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that really is the best place for it, but due respect: the fine folks at the American Genre Film Archive have shined it up, spruced it up with bonus features, and made it look better than has any right to. And to be clear, it is a hoot, a deliriously goofy bad-girls-run-amuck tale of juvenile delinquency and slipping morals, which includes one of the silliest “crimes” ever put to film. It’s bad, oh yes. But it’s a gas. (Includes audio commentary and trailers.)