This week’s two biggest titles – one landing on Prime, the other on disc – couldn’t be further apart tonally or emotionally, yet both display master filmmakers in firm control of their gifts. Elsewhere, a pair of excellent 2017 indies (a heartwarming documentary and an acidic black comedy) hit Hulu, and a pair of thoughtful and funny meditations on the marital state make their Blu-ray debuts.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Wonderstruck: “I need you to be patient with this story, and read it slowly.” So begins the sequence that reveals the connection between the closely parallel stories – one set in 1927, the other fifty years later – in Todd Haynes’s marvelous adaptation of the novel by Brian Selznick (Hugo). That reveal is emotionally overwhelming, but the instructions hold for the entire movie, a delicate mood piece about being a child, feeling lost and alone, and then finding the kind of companionship and support that feels like home. This is such a light, nimble movie, dancing back and forth between these two threads, displaying the mastery of craft and openness of emotion found in Haynes’s best films.
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.
School Life: At the Headfort boarding school in Kells, Ireland, married teachers John and Amanda are long-timers whose careers are coming to an end, and through the course of this engaging documentary, you get a sense both that they’re very good at what they do, and are more than ready to hang it up. But occasionally, they’re given the opportunity to really make a difference, and they seize it. The film is a school-year-in-the-life affair: classes, plays, performances (John runs the school rock band, giving it a non-fiction School of Rock vibe), end of term tests, dances, and teary farewells. Directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane adopt a fly on the wall approach, hanging out with these instructors, their colleagues, and their students, observing the relationships, and finding their silences and subtext as informative as their conversations.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The Killing of a Sacred Deer: “Do you understand, it’s a metaphor,” Martin (Barry Keoghan) explains, late in the newest nihilistic dirge from director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster), and by that point, with two dying children upstairs and rifle-waving father in his face, it’s safe to say we understand. This story of class, guilt, and suburban terror is the blackest of black comedies – it makes Heathers look like Clueless. We’ve discovered, with the Lanthimos oeuvre thus far, that he’s rather a divisive filmmaker, and if you hated his earlier movies, you’re really gonna hate this one. But there’s no denying the skill of his craft, as he expertly wields creeping camerawork and assaultive sound design to make even the most mundane interactions straight-up menacing. (Includes featurette.)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: This 1969 comedy from director and co-writer (with producer Larry Tucker) Paul Mazursky is one of those little miracle movies: one that succinctly captures a very specific cultural moment, but is also so truthful, funny, and smart, it lives outside it. Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon are the title characters, a pair of California couples whose total dedication to trendiness and openness leads them to contemplate a bit of swinging. Sexy without leering, witty without winking, and its closing passages only grow more lively and joyful with the passage of time. (Includes audio commentaries, isolated music track, and featurette.)
Husbands and Wives: This could be Woody Allen’s most controversial movie, and that’s saying something: a scorching 1992 comedy/drama that seemed to document his acrimonious break-up with Mia Farrow as it was happening, and with Ms. Farrow’s participation. Their scenes have an almost voyeuristic intensity (particularly if you’re acquainted with the details) which might render this one a pass from even his most forgiving admirers. But it’s still worth seeing for Judy Davis’s deservedly Oscar-nominated performance, a portrait of anger and uncertainty that plays, in spots, like an open wound. Frankly, that goes for the whole movie. (Includes isolated music track and trailer.)