Good news: this week’s big new releases are a box office champ and the Oscar winner for Best Picture! Bad news: they’re Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Green Book. But don’t worry, you have other options: A mind-bending Charlie Kaufman movie on Netflix, a terrific new indie on Prime, a must-see documentary on DVD, and two additions to the Criterion Collection. Take a look:
Synecdoche, New York: As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has never been shy about challenging his audience and confounding their expectations. But when the time came to make his directorial debut, he really decided to let us have it, unleashing a big, bold, weird look at what happens when a man’s life becomes his life’s work, and vice versa. Its absurdist style and overwhelming sadness alienated even the most diehard art house viewers, but it remains a profound and powerful examination of life, art, and their often unavoidable intermingling — and Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent in the leading role.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Thunder Road: The slyly funny and utterly heartbreaking eulogy that opens writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ 2018 SXSW winner is an extraordinary balancing act of comedy and tragedy that properly sets the stage for the extraordinary film that follows, which is a difficult yet invigorating account of a man slowly falling apart. Cummings, a terrific actor with a sprung, Owen-Wilson-ish way of delivering a line, finds the humor in his Squaresville character without turning him into a caricature; he’s the kind of guy who starts talking and just can’t stop himself, even as he’s digging a deeper hole. I’ve rarely seen a film pivot so quickly and so frequently between comedy and pathos, in a way that neither devalues the drama nor blunts the humor. It’s kind of a miracle, frankly.
ON DVD / VOD
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes: Roger Ailes was a sexual harasser, a propagandist, a bully, and arguably the most important, influential media and political figure of the 21st century. Director Alexis Bloom’s biographical documentary traces the Fox News head’s ascendance from the quintessential ‘50s suburban upbringing to show business to politics to back again, meticulously tracing how he brought the techniques and lessons of one to the other, in order to create a toxic platform that weaponized the fear and paranoia that was such a key component of his personality. It’s a hell of a story, expertly crafted, but more importantly, Bloom gives voice to several of his accusers, listening to and believing them. It becomes, very explicitly, a movie about coming forward — and the small sliver of satisfaction, at long last, for those who did.
The Magic Flute: Ingmar Bergman’s love of the theater — its conventions and its creators — was a constant throughout his career, perhaps never more so than in this 1975 film version of Mozart’s opera (now out as a stand-alone Blu-ray from Criterion). And to be clear, it’s a film version, not an adaptation; it’s shot in a theater, opening with the faces of his audience during the overture, listening in hope and anticipation (or maybe boredom). Bergman maintaining that theatricality throughout, in the staging, costumes, sets, curtains, even backstage vignettes during intermission. But he also augments the production with camera movements and compositions that heighten the piece’s intensity and emotion, resulting in a “best of both worlds” scenario. (Includes new and archival interviews and feature-length documentary.)
The Kid Brother: The only reasonable complaint one can make about Criterion’s releases of Harold Lloyd’s silent comedy classics is that they’re taking too long between them. This 1927 comedy may not have the tight plotting of The Freshman or the iconic set pieces of Safety Last! and Speedy, but it’s still a pip, a small-town comedy that finds our man Harold trying his best to prove his worth to his sheriff father, his tough-guy brothers, and the cynical townfolk. So while its rural setting is a contrast to his other urban comedies, the basic conflict is the same — and it still works. (Includes featurettes, alternate music track, archival interviews, and vintage Lloyd shorts.)