This week’s best new releases couldn’t be further apart: a breakneck political satire on one hand, the meditative final film from an Iranian master on the other. And on your streaming services, we have one of last year’s best movies, a classic comedy, and a shoulda-been-a-classic as well. Let’s dive in:
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Say what you will about Netflix, but they recently loaded up with Python content — Life of Brian, the entire run of the Flying Circus series, a whole bunch of reunion and greatest-hit specials, etc. But the cream of the crop is, of course, their 1975 sophomore feature, shot in cold discomfort on a shoestring budget (with funds provided by fans like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd), hence the use of coconuts for horses, heavy fog to cover locations, and the like. And it couldn’t have mattered less: the script had been written, tightened, and refined for months, and the Pythons’ signature brand of intellectual silliness was a perfect match with the self-importance of Arthurian legend, creating a work that is dark (“It’s just a flesh wound!”), goofy (“Ni!”), and insanely funny.
Definitely, Maybe: If you released a sparkly rom-com today with Ryan Reynolds, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, and Isla Fisher in starring roles, it’d probably be a huge hit. But this one came out in 2008 and didn’t make much noise — which is a shame, because it’s a funny charmer, sharply written and directed by Adam Brooks, given a real boost by the considerable charisma of its top-notch cast (which also includes Abigail Breslin, Kevin Kline, and Kevin Corrigan). It landed on Netflix at the top of the month, and in many ways, that’s an ideal home for it: it doesn’t demand much, but you may find yourself watching it more than once.
Annihilation: The latest brainy sci-fi adventure from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is a bit of a puzzle — a journey into an unknowable heart of darkness, relayed by a perhaps unreliable sole survivor (Natalie Portman), who takes on the dangerous mission out of grief-fueled desperation. Her rich backstory is emblematic of what makes the picture so special: there are effects and monsters and the whole bit, but Garland is far more concerned with the unexplored corners of his characters’ psyches. And that is in dangerously short supply in mainstream cinema.
ON DVD / VOD
The Oath: This central premise of this dark social satire from writer/director/star Ike Barinholtz concerns the implementation of a “Patriot’s Oath,” swearing “loyalty to my president,” an idea that’s so close to reality, it’s barely satirical. (We should check in on this one in a few months.) But Barinholtz hits that target fairly accurately, mixing moments of scarily believable social unrest with honest portraiture of liberal self-righteousness, and by setting the bulk of its action on Thanksgiving week, he not only captures the stilted discomfort of family gatherings, but the specificity of these escalations — the rhetorical crutches, the overused buzzwords, the way everything becomes grist for personal outrage. But that material only covers the first third or so of the movie, and the turn into jet-black comedy it takes after that, most reminiscent of Very Bad Things, is very much a YMMV situation (and the ending is a bit of a cop-out). Either way, it’s ambitious and compelling, with Tiffany Haddish particularly solid (and cast against type) as the Barinholtz’s wife and calming influence. (Includes deleted scenes, featurettes, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD
24 Frames: The final film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy, Taste of Cherry), new from Criterion, is also one of his most experimental: a series of 24, four-and-a-half minute examinations of paintings and photographs (most of them his own), brought to “life” via digital animation and manipulation. The big idea is that a photograph is only a snapshot of a world that breathed before and continued after, and that idea comes across. But the film itself also has a Zen, zone-out quality, as we observe these (mostly nature) scenes, fall into the rhythms of their breaking waves or falling snow, and enter something like a meditative state. It is, to put it mildly, not for the casual viewer. But those who lock in with it will find something magical. (Includes interviews and featurette.)