One of the year’s best movies, and one of the best Netflix originals to date, is streaming on that service at this very moment, so that’s your top priority for this week’s viewing. It’s followed closely by two terrific summer sleepers, a summer blockbuster that’s not half bad, and a sprawling, masterful piece of television work from one of the finest filmmakers of the 1970s.
Private Life: It’s been more than a decade since Tamara Jenkins’ last feature, The Savages, and it was worth the wait. This one has a sitcom-ready premise: after several failures of conception and fertilization, a fortysomething couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) decide to try the process with an egg donor, and ask their step-niece (Kayli Carter) to make the contribution. And it’s a very funny movie, full of quotable but conversational dialogue and uproarious comic beats (many provided by Denis O’Hare as Hahn’s peppy, self-consciously cool OBGYN). But Jenkins can flip the switch from genuine hilarity to emotional intensity in an instant (and without missing a step), crafting a portrait of a marriage that’s genuine, honest, and at times, uncomfortably real.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Eighth Grade: “I’m just nervous all the time,” Kayla confesses, and girl, I wish I could tell you that went away. She’s about to enter high school and has the kind of social anxiety that rarely disappears entirely — but certainly seems to be at its most painful at that age, in which school transitions, hormones, and general uneasiness in one’s own skin are at their height. Elsie Fisher is marvelous as Kayla, earning our sympathy without ever pandering for it, and Josh Hamilton crafts a wonderful, open-hearted performance as her kind, goofy dad. But what’s most striking is the sensitivity of the filmmaking; writer/director Bo Burnham knows when to get close and when to keep his distance, and his instincts are spot-on. What a lovely film this is. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, and music video.)
Skyscraper: To be clear, it’s not that this Die Hard riff from director Rawson Marshall Thurber and star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (reteaming after the much better Central Intelligence) is great; the exposition is clumsy, the twists are broadly telegraphed, and the special effects are mixed. But it has some heart-stopping moments — the leap-to-the-building bit, so central to the ads, is aces — and the performers come across, with Neve Campbell doing some A+ Terrified Reaction Acting (she’s got practice) and Johnson adopting the right, Schwarzenegger-esque approach of neither winking at the audience nor taking the material too seriously. It’s nothing to write home about, but as popcorn goes, it’s pleasant enough. (Includes audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and featurettes.)
A Prayer Before Dawn: This punishing but powerful Cannes contender from director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire adapts Billy Moore’s prison memoir, of the years he spent in horrifying Thai prisons before quite literally fighting his way out, via the system’s Muay Thai boxing tournaments. Sauvaire seizes on the intensity of Moore’s nightmare journey, in which he’s subjected to hazing, threats, and terrifying rites of initiation, detailing how his surroundings bring out a rage in him — and a desperation to escape them. Star Joe Cole (best known for Peaky Blinders) is astonishingly good as Moore, in a primarily non-verbal performance (by necessity, since no one else speaks his language); he’s a convincing brawler, and even more persuasive as a self-destructive addict. (Includes featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: This five-part, eight-hour miniseries (newly restored by the Criterion Collection) was an early milestone for the brilliant and prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who crafted this self-proclaimed “family series” as a portrait of middle-class misery and dysfunction, set in bleak machine shops and drab apartment blocks. His characters are both mercilessly cruel and undeniably affectionate, and the filmmaker’s artful fusion of kitchen-sink realism and straight-up melodrama (and his excellent snap-zooms) are on full display. (Includes documentary and new interview.)