It’s one of those weeks where the new releases are more than a little dire, but that’s okay; you can catch up on some catalogue titles, including a pair of last minute views before FilmStruck slips away.
The Game: Netflix’s regular top-of-the-month movie purge is surprisingly light in December – unless you’ve got a particular affinity for Air Bud movies, and I know some of you do – but here’s one worth watching while you have the chance. David Fincher’s 1995 sophomore feature Seven was a career-maker, confirming that the stylish music video/commercial director had genuine filmmaking chops, and so contemporary critics were somewhat baffled by his follow-up, a slick, commercial thriller starring slick, commercial thriller king Michael Douglas. But upon reexamination, it’s clear that Fincher (and an admirably game Douglas) were turning that whole ‘90s subgenre, and the characters Douglas played in them, upside down, while subtly riffing on Fincher’s own (lazy) reputation as a control freak. Moody, stylish, and haunting, and that twist is still a humdinger.
Cluny Brown: As you’ve probably heard, FilmStruck is shutting down on Thursday, barely two years after its launch, and the whole thing is pretty upsetting. There’s more to say about that, but let’s keep our collective eye on the ball here: there are movies to watch before it’s too late. Chief among them – the one that seems to appear in everyone’s tweets and posts of cramming recommendations – is this 1946 comedy/drama from the one and only Ernst Lubitsch, with Jennifer Jones as a plumber’s niece and Charles Boyer as the Czech refugee who falls in love with her. And why is everyone recommending it? Because even though Lubitsch is one of the greats, and even though this was the film he made after To Be or Not to Be and Heaven Can Wait, and even though it’s the penultimate film of his career (he died the year after its release), it’s not available on DVD. And it’s not available for rental or purchase on any other digital platform. When FilmStruck shutters, it’s gone! You just won’t be able to see it! Everything is fine!
Placido: This 1961 comedy from the great Spanish writer/director Luis García Berlanga (The Executioner) is a triple-sell: not on DVD, not available digitally, and a holiday movie too. It concerns a small town’s efforts to help their poor on Christmas Eve, but this is a rare holiday comedy without the schmaltz; as usual, Berlanga’s rapier wit and mild cynicism pairs snugly with his warm humanism, resulting in an effort that’s overdue for addition into the holiday canon.
The Magnificent Ambersons: Orson Welles’ 1942 Citizen Kane follow-up is surrounded by one of the great tragedies in all of cinema: just after wrapping photography, Welles was sent off to make a goodwill film in Central and South America, and while he was gone, the picture was taken from him and greatly reworked. Scenes were reshot under another director (including its original, melancholy ending) and something like 40 minutes of Welles’ material was tossed and, sadly, destroyed. But Welles fans spent so many years mourning what might’ve been, they only recently got around to celebrating what was: this adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s family novel is, even in this butchered form, an evocative and powerful memory play, full of stunning images and unforgettable performances. It was unavailable for home viewing for years, and only hit DVD a few years ago (as part of a Kane package); this new Criterion edition finally gives the picture the upgrade, and respect, it deserves. (Includes audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, featurettes, Mercury Theatre radio plays, trailer, and excerpt from an earlier silent adaptation.)
True Stories: Criterion is undertaking a similarly heroic act of cinematic rescue with this new release of David Byrne’s wonderful 1986 comedy/musical, available for years as only a lousy full-frame DVD. It deserves far better. Hot off the success of Stop Making Sense, Byrne somehow convinced Warner Brothers to let him co-write, direct, and star in this oddball assemblage of tabloid-inspired stories, set in a small Texas town during its celebration of that state’s sesquicentennial. Sweet, stylish, and charming, it’s full of terrific tunes, memorable characters, and pitch-perfect performances; Spalding Gray, Swoosie Kurtz, and Byrne himself all make impressions, but the scene-stealer is a young John Goodman, heartbreaking as a bear of a guy who just wants to fall in love. (Includes documentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, trailer, and soundtrack CD.)