It’s another catch-up week here at the disc and streaming column, so we’ve got a lot to recommend this week, from a giant mega-blockbuster to a tiny indie drama, from a musical bio-documentary to a knockout border Western, plus new-to-Blu catalogue titles and a pair of killer Elmore Leonard movies on your streaming subscription services. Settle in:
Out of Sight: Just in time for its 20thanniversary, Steven Soderbergh’s flawless adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s marvelous crime novel makes its way back to Netflix. Soderbergh hadn’t been up to much when the picture came his way in the mid-‘90s; he’d yet to find a project that even approached the impact of his debut film, sex, lies, and videotape, and had wandered into a wilderness of mostly unseen indies. But Out of Sight gave him a shot at a comeback, and he nailed it: armed with a witty script by Scott Frank (who also adapted Get Shorty) and a crackerjack cast, Soderbergh came up with a slick, fresh, sexy, breezy entertainment that mated his experimental style with Leonard’s spiky characters and intoxicating, unpredictable narrative.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Get Shorty: And, conveniently enough, Prime just returned this broad, fast, and uproariously funny 1995 Leonard adaptation from director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) to their streaming catalogue. Frank’s script is aces and John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Danny DeVito are top-notch in the leading roles, but as with any Leonard work, the juice is with the supporting characters — in this case, Delroy Lindo, David Paymer, and the late, great James Gandolfini and Dennis Farina.
ON DVD / VOD
The Rider: Chloé Zhao’s modest, slice of life drama concerns Brady (Brady Jandreau), a horse trainer and bronco rider who’s first seen on the mend from a particularly nasty injury. And because we begin with such a clear view of the dangers of his work, the subtle threat of further injury looms in the background of even the quieter scenes, creating tension at the most unexpected moments. That tension pays off with a climax of borderline visceral emotional urgency, and an unsentimental ending with a pragmatic message that, to put it mildly, is not common to cinematic sports stories. Zhao has a gift for capturing the listlessness of these lives, directing in an uncluttered, no-nonsense style that fuses the naturalism of documentary with the beauty of a good Western.(Includes deleted scenes and Q&As.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Avengers: Infinity War: Let’s get this out of the way first: the much-discussed all-bets-are-off (cliffhanger) conclusion of this superhero rally is a whole bunch of nonsense, overreaching for cheap emotional payoffs in a franchise where we’re acutely aware of contradictory obligations and outright impermanence. But, credit where due, there’s some damn fine stuff along the way – moments of throwaway wit (“Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards”), character comedy (it’s sort of amazing it took this long for us to see the Hulk notcoming out when he’s needed), impressive effects, inspired pairings, and, yes, some genuine emotion. (Includes featurettes and deleted and extended scenes.)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami: Director Sophie Fiennes opens this documentary profile of the iconic singer/model/actress with a clip of her singing while hula-hooping, and it sets the tone nicely: this is an energetic, theatrical performer, and one who commands attention. Fiennes mostly eschews chronology and biography in favor of a performance and hang-out approach, reminiscent of Dont Look Back– she intersperses those performances with footage of Jones going home to Jamaica, to gig but also to reminisce, see family, etc. But her most fascinating through-line is exposing the unspoken subtext of Jones’s “diva” rep – an unfortunate label for a female artist who merely expects to be respected, and to have promises kept. Or, as she more colorfully puts it, “Sometimes you have to be a high-flying bitch!” (Includes audio commentaries, Q&A, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez: This 1982 American Playhouse production tells the story of a posse’s pursuit of a Mexican-American farmer (a soulful and wrenching Edward James Olmos) accused of killing a lawman in turn-of-the-century Texas. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch – the first half, told mostly by and to a visiting journalist (Bruce McGill) frames it as a manhunt, before a new piece of information flips the entire narrative to a tale of injustice. Director Robert M. Jones fills his frames with haunting, powerful images, and assembles a murderer’s row of great 1980s character actors, including McGill, James Gammon, Brion James, Barry Corbin, and Jack Kehoe – and then, in the final scenes, even Ned Beatty turns up. An important but overlooked work, here’s hoping it gets some overdue recognition via this Criterion release. (Also streaming on FilmStruck.) (Includes interviews and archival panel footage.)
Cradle Will Rock: Tim Robbins’ 1999 directorial follow-up to Dead Man Walking was poorly marketed, barely released, and quickly forgotten. And that’s a shame, because it’s a crisply executed and wildly entertaining picture, bringing the New Deal-era NYC art scene to vivid life while cheerfully intertwining the stories of Orson Welles, Diego Rivera, Nelson Rockefeller, Marc Blitzstein, and many less bold-faced names. Robbins gathers up an enviable ensemble (including John Cusack, Bill Murray, Philip Baker Hall, Hank Azaria, Rubén Blades, Paul Giamatti, Cherry Jones, John Turturro, a rare non-Tenacious D appearance by Jack Black and Kyle Gass, and, of course, Susan Sarandon) and gives the narrative enough juice and energy to keep it from becoming a museum piece. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
The Day After: This dramatization of a nuclear attack on America – the before, the during, and the after – scared the bejesus out of pretty much everybody in the country when it aired on ABC in 1983, tapping into the very real fear and presumptions of that particular Cold War moment. The director (Nicholas Meyer, who’d recently helmed Star Trek II) and cast (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan) were mighty upscale for an ‘80s TV movie, and the extra effort shows; the characters are well-drawn, Meyer steadily builds the tension and panic, and the portrait of an actual post-apocalyptic world is eerily convincing. (Includes TV version and alternate foreign theatrical version, audio commentary, interviews, and trailers.)