It’s a big, busy week on the disc and streaming fronts, including a new Netflix blockbuster, a couple of must-see documentaries, new releases from Criterion, Twilight Time, and KL Studio Classics, and the winner of this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. Let’s get to it:
Triple Frontier: This Netflix original from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) is a slick, muscular piece of work that merges the military interests of original writer Mark Boal (it was originally a project for his frequent collaborator Kathryn Bigelow) with Chandor’s fasciation with the interpersonal dynamics of corruption. Freely fusing elements of Three Kings, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Wages of Fear, Chandor follows a team of guns-for-hire on an off-the-books mission to rob a Colombian drug kingpin. Performances vary (I wish casting directors would just accept that Charlie Hunnam is never going to nail the American dialect), but Oscar Isaac and Ben Affleck bring the necessary haggard gravitas.
The Party’s Just Beginning: Karen Gillan stars, writes, and directs (it’s her feature debut on the latter two fronts), but this isn’t some actor’s vanity project; it heralds the arrival of a major filmmaker, with a genuine voice and a striking style. She stars as Lucy, an aimless young Scottish woman whose days and nights are a blur of monotony, yet becomes keenly aware of how her town’s overwhelming ennui is manifesting itself in inescapable suicides. It’s a refreshingly unpredictable movie — it really could go anywhere at any time, thanks not only to the wildness of her direction, but the cleverness of its cross-cutting — and Gillan’s insightful script finds the humor in some deeply dark material. And then, on top of all that, she crafts a tremendous performance, haunting yet present, dryly funny but casually tragic. There’s a real power to the filmmaking here; Gillan is, clearly, a force to be reckoned with.
ON HBO GO
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley: A few years back, medical “disrupter” Elizabeth Holmes was showing up on magazine covers and at presidential forums, and her company Theranos was valued at nearly $10 billion. “Four years later, it was worth less than zero,” intones director/narrator Alex Gibney, whose documentary is a post-mortem of a fraud, conducted with surgical precision. He dives deep into the specifics of this company and its CEO/founder, detailing how she fooled investors and influencers, the jaw-dropping secrecy and paranoia that kept the ruse going, and breathtaking speed with which the entire house of cards collapsed. Gibney lays it all out with his usual investigative acumen, but doesn’t stop there; this is also a sly indictment of how big tech is reported on — and often valorized. And that problem isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: No one on this earth was less convinced that we needed more damn Spider-Man movies (and this is not an exaggeration; I’ve said as much, in those words), and it took this animated knockout about 10 minutes to turn me around. The easiest explanation is found in the credits; though the directors are Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, Rothman’s co-writer on the script is Phil Lord of The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street — movies borne of bad ideas that knew they were borne of bad ideas, acknowledged that fact, and triumphed anyway. Spider-Verse is of that same ilk, cheerfully aware of the done-to-death nature of the Spidey story, and determined to not only find a new angle, but work on its own terms. Delightful from end to end, particularly as a reminder of the considerable comic gifts of Jake Johnson and John Mulaney. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, lyric videos, and Spider-Ham mini-movie.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
On Her Shoulders: In August 2014, ISIS descended up on the Sinjar region of Iraq and commenced a gruesome massacre of the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious minority. Nadia Murad saw most of her family murdered; she was herself raped and enslaved, but managed to escape, and now travels around the globe, visiting refugee camps and giving speeches to raise awareness of the genocide in her homeland. She is, obviously, a tremendously inspirational and sympathetic figure, but On Her Shoulders isn’t just about that, to its benefit. Director Alexandria Bombach sees Murad at her most vulnerable and private, and the telling and retelling of this story is clearly traumatic for her. Bombach assembles a montage of the questions she’s asked, all pushing for the gory details of her ordeal, a barrage of inquisition, before cutting to Murad calmly, to camera, running down some of the questions she is not asked. This is not just a snapshot of a brave activist. It’s a savvy bit of media analysis, pointedly questioning the manner in which survivors are exploited and packaged — and how we can often dwell on misery rather than take action to reduce it. (Includes featurette and trailer.)
Far From Heaven: The central premise of Todd Haynes’ 2002 masterpiece remains ingenious: make a movie in the style of Douglas Sirk’s beloved and complicated 1950s melodramas, and set it in that period, but explore the adult subject matter with a frankness not allowed by the Production Code of the time. Which is not to say that Haynes goes for full-on raunch (it’s still only a PG-13), but he makes the subtext text regarding homosexuality and interracial romance, and does so in a way that makes not only for riveting drama, but for thoughtful and incisive film criticism. Julianne Moore is marvelous (as always), Dennis Haysbert finds all the right grace notes, and this may be the finest work of Dennis Quaid’s career. And Edward Lachman’s sumptuous cinematography has never looked better, thanks to KL Studio Classics’ gorgeous Blu-ray transfer. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and trailer.)
Wanda: The old line about punk is that there were only a dozen people at the Sex Pistols’ Manchester Gig but they all started bands, and it feels like something similar must’ve happened with this 1970 drama from writer/director/star Barbara Loden (a new addition to the Criterion Collection) — it barely made a blip when it was originally released, but you can see its footprints all over American independent film. Loden was something akin to Hollywood royalty (she was married to Elia Kazan, and appeared in several of his films and plays), but Wanda feels like it was made by a documentarian, most likely one from its rural Pennsylvania setting; she doesn’t just point her camera at these drab, depressing motel rooms, studio apartments, dive bars, and diners, but seems to live in them. And her performance is a marvel of quiet observation, full of flat yet compelling line readings, a character so passive, she becomes a criminal accomplice mostly by default. Loden’s only directorial effort, it’s the work of a major talent that the industry simply wasn’t ready to reckon with. (Includes featurette, archival interviews, trailer, and a Loden short film.)
Detour: There’s something almost unseemly about the crispness of Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Edgar G. Ulmer’s no-budget wonder from 1945, which has circulated in shabby public domain versions for so long now, its seedy ugliness seemed part of its aesthetic. But finally having a great-looking version available ultimately underscores the impressiveness of Ulmer’s achievement; though it was shot quickly and cheaply for a nowhere Poverty Row outfit, Detour is blessed with the kind of tough, nowhere nihilism that seldom made its way into studio pictures of the era. Tom Neal is properly dopey as the heel of the story, but Ann Savage is the star of the show, with a performance unmatched in sheer nastiness. (Includes documentary, featurette, new interview, and trailer.)
The Big Fix: The ‘70s were a rich period for private eye movies, both throwbacks and updates (why, there are even some good books about that subgenre), but this adaptation of Roger L. Simon’s novel was one of the most firmly rooted in the era — dealing, as it does, with a private eye who was once a Berkley radical, and must come to terms with the idealistic compromises he and his fellow travelers have made. Richard Dreyfuss is spot-on in the leading role, while F. Murray Abraham is an absolute scene-stealer as a former counterculture superstar. (Includes isolated score track and trailer.)