What we have here is one of the most overwhelming weeks for home viewing in some time: a summer smash, a new Coen Brothers, three of the summer’s best indies, one of the funniest movies ever made, a disturbingly kinky new thriller, and if that weren’t enough, a massive collection of works by one of cinema’s finest artists. Keep reading if you want to know more — and if you don’t mind blowing up your credit card balance.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Joel and Ethan Coen tell six stories — “Tales of the American Frontier,” according to the on-screen subtitle — in a land, as the title character puts it, “where the distances are great, and the scenery monotonous.” The results could’ve been scattershot, veering as it does between slapstick comedy, straight-up fantasy, existential darkness, and genuine warmth. Yet the stories are bound by the Coens’ irresistibly florid dialogue (a touchstone particularly appropriate to the genre, as evidenced by this film and True Grit before it) and by their often-underestimated (or altogether ignored) affection for their fellow man. Terrific performances abound, with particularly high marks to Zoe Kazan as a worried woman of the West and Stephen Root as a chatty bank teller who is not to be underestimated.
CAM: This disturbing psychological thriller from director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei feel like Netflix pulling the ol’ Hot Girls Wanted switcheroo again: luring horny viewers with the promise of naked flesh, and then getting very dark, very quick (and I do mean quick; the opening sequence is bonkers). Their story — of a webcam girl whose online identity is stolen and chillingly reappropriated — is steeped in the infrastructure of this world and in the real dangers of sex work, while their intelligent script maintains its inner logic even as our heroine’s plight creeps into the realm of surrealism. Madeline Brewer is terrific in that role, creating a sympathetic character who does deeply unsympathetic things (a neat trick, that).
ON AMAZON PRIME
Madeline’s Madeline: Newcomer Helena Howard is astonishingly good in the leading role of Josephine Decker’s risky, experimental drama, which spelunks through the chaotic psyche of a young woman whose smallest interactions are a struggle. It’s a visceral experience — Decker’s blurry, focus-shifting visual style, jumpy camerawork, and purposefully disorienting editing strategy put you right there in Madeline’s headspace. Some viewers may find it too nerve-jangling, and it’s hard to blame them. But it’s a must-see for risk-takers.
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: There’s no way for a mere capsule review to do justice to what is clearly the Blu-ray release of the year (the past several years? THE CENTURY?). But this is a case where a simple description tells you everything you need to know anyway: A Criterion Collection presentation of 39 films from the Swedish master, from 1946’s Crisis to 2003’s Saraband, all-timers and obscurities spread across 30 Blu-ray discs with copious extras (including documentaries, interviews, and commentaries) and a knockout companion book of accompanying essays. And guess what, bargain hunters: thanks to Barnes & Noble’s bi-annual 50% off Criterion sale, you can get this $300 megaset for $150 (a price that Amazon is, as of this writing, matching). Anyway, it’s a beautiful collection, full of some of the greatest works in all of movie-dom, NBD. (Many, many of these are also streaming on FilmStruck– while it lasts.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Blindspotting: Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-write and co-star in this wildly funny and proudly provocative story of Collin (Diggs) on his last three days of probation, and first day of (relative) freedom after. But this is not some wacky, Friday-style hangout comedy — that’s clear right away, when Collin witnesses a cop shooting an unarmed black man, and is haunted thereafter by the image of the crumpled body on the street — and their script takes well-aimed shots at gentrification, racism, and black rage. But it’s funny as hell, and can turn on a dime, moving from witty, vernacular dialogue humor into the kind of scenes where people say the uncomfortably quiet part out loud. Director Carlos López Estrada works in an energetic visual style, popping from scene to scene and shot to shot with a rhythmic intensity that mirrors the (mostly hip-hop) needle drops. Like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which premiered alongside it at Sundance, Blindspotting feels like an early shot in a new movement of absurdist social satire, and it’s long overdue. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, and featurette.)
Crazy Rich Asians: Jon M. Chu’s monster hit adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s monster hit novel is gaudy, luxury-porn rom-com in the Nancy Meyers mold, but with a self-awareness films like those too often lack. Constance Wu is endlessly charming as a New Yorker who heads to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family, a crew of intimidating old-money types whose implicit disapproval sends her into something of an emotional tailspin. There’s not much suspense here, of course; the pleasure is in the insight (the film is very smart about contemporary slang and the way gossip spreads at this particular cultural and technological moment) and in the playing, with a properly steely Michelle Yeoh as the cold-as-ice mother, and an uproarious Awkwafina stealing every possible scene. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and gag reel.)
Skate Kitchen: Crystal Moselle’s narrative follow-up to the The Wolfpack is cut from the same cloth — she hangs out with, and eavesdrops on, her protagonists with a documentarian’s eye for detail — while also positioning itself as an updated, gender-swapped Kids, a doc-style snapshot of NYC skater kids with no illusions about the world they inhabit. Her focus is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, excellent), a Long Island teen who starts hanging out with the skater girls she follows on Instagram and finds a community, just as she’s growing apart from her single mom. She’s a complicated protagonist, mostly because the film is about the process of figuring herself out, and Moselle dramatizes that process with clever edits and casually lovely cinematography. But most importantly, her intimate style deftly captures the end-of-the-world intensity of teenage relationships.
Some Like It Hot: Billy Wilder’s 1959 screwball classic — a new addition to the Criterion Collection — has topped more than one list of the best comedies ever made, and for good reason: it has Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag, Marilyn Monroe at her very best, Curtis’ Cary Grant impression, and one of the all-time great closing lines (“Nobody’s perfect!”). But it’s not just that it’s madly, uproariously funny; it’s one of those lightning-strike comedies that captured every involved party at the absolute tip-top of their game, and its cheerful acknowledgement of sexual fluidity means it’s aged better than any dozen gay-panic comedies that came much later. As a result, it’s a classic comedy that still feels fresh and funny on every rewatch. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, archival interviews, and trailer.)