We’re kicking off the new year with a nice, strong new release Tuesday, featuring two engaging bio-documentaries and two fall features that should’ve made more noise than they did. Oh, and one of 2016’s Best Picture nominees is back on the Netflix. Check it out:
Hell or High Water: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and (especially) Ben Foster shine in this taut yet intelligent crime drama from Starred Up director David Mackenzie, who fuses the American Western mythos with contemporary economic commentary, soaking our current anxieties into its canvas without overpowering it. The younger men are Texas brothers on a bank-robbing spree, and Bridges is the grizzled Ranger who tracks them as best he can, and waits for them to make a mistake. Mackenzie orchestrates the action beats with a sure hand, but the real force comes in the modest, contemplative moments; it’s a film filled with the quiet poetry of desperation, and its closing scene is like something out of Cormac McCarthy.
ON DVD / VOD
Bad Reputation: The best bits of this Joan Jett bio-doc come early — vivid portraiture of the sleazy ‘70s rock scene with a focus on the Runaways, which is a story good enough for a stand-alone documentary. But the rest of it is pretty compelling too, adroitly tracking the ups and downs of a true survivor in a fickle, fickle business, from the laughable early rejections to the various ways in which her industry chewed her up in the mid-‘80s to the savvy way in which she reinvented herself as a godmother of the scene from the ‘90s on. Director Kevin Kerslake keeps things moving at a good clip, and gets some interview gold from contemporaries, followers (from Kathleen Hanna to Miley Cyrus), and even one-time co-star Michael J. Fox.
Love, Gilda: This documentary love letter to comedy icon Gilda Radner lets her tell her own story, via archival interviews, readings from her journals, excerpts from her autobiography, and tapes of the free-flowing monologues that she presumably used to write it. In spite of that material, you don’t really come away from this generally agreeable movie with a much of a sense of who she was and what drove her; director Lisa Dapolito tends to merely hint at or brush past her difficulties and frustrations (particularly on Saturday Night Live, which seems a calculated choice to avoid dinging the mystique). But comedy geeks will go nuts for the archival material, which includes footage of her fabled Toronto Godspell production and wonderful home movies from her National Lampoon shows and SNL days.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
White Boy Rick: “This is Detroit,” one of Rick’s new friends tells him. “If you ain’t on the take, you gettin’ took.” Director Yann Demange (‘71) tells the true story of how Rick filled both roles in that city through the mid-‘80s, and if the results are uneven (the pace is a little punchy, and there’s something of a void at the movie’s center), there’s still much to admire: moments of keenly observed authenticity, an admirable awareness of the violence that’s always right under the shiny surfaces, sharp turns from a great supporting cast (particularly Bel Powley, who takes a cliché and pumps it full of life and juice), and yet another startling Matthew McConaughey performance. There’s a silent scene where he sits in a car with a gun in hand, trying to work up his nerve and realizing that he no longer has it in him, that represents some of the best film work he’s done. (Includes featurettes and deleted scenes.)
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Bad Times at the El Royale: Writer/director Drew Goddard’s too-long-in-coming Cabin in the Woods follow-up is, basically, The Motel in the Woods — a self-aware, structurally snazzy story that gathers a bunch of strangers in a remote motor inn, for reasons that will eventually, eventually become clear. Goddard takes his time in the opening scenes, seeming to test how long he can subsist on mere mood, performance, and charisma, and making each new piece of the story broadside the audience. It’s a little unruly and a little too long, but it works anyway; the energy is high, the dialogue is colorful, and the cast (which includes Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Jeff Bridges, the jaw-dropping Cynthia Erivo, and a frequently shirtless Chris Hemsworth) is unbeatable. (Includes featurette.)