In the four-plus years we’ve been doing our Tuesday round-up of what to buy and rent, we’ve rarely had a week as jam-packed as this one – which includes everything from this year’s Oscar favorites to a superhero smash to a classic Spaghetti Western, and everything imaginable in between. Let’s get to work:
ON AMAZON PRIME
Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski nabbed a surprise Best Director nomination with this compact, visually austere, yet emotionally scorching picture. He tells the devastating story of a teacher and student who meet in early ‘50s Poland, fall into some version of love (or at least lust), and spend the next several years basically ruining themselves for each other. It’s a wise movie – one that understands how absence can idealize a romance, and how it can curdle when that absence is resolved – and nimble too, covering a lot of story, over a long period, with a light touch (and in a tight 88 minutes to boot). Also, keep an eye on female lead Joanna Kulig, a next-level talent whose aging is stunning, whose nuance is astonishing, and whose “Rock Around the Clock” dance has more joy and freedom than any ten performances last year.
ON HULU / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
If Beale Street Could Talk: Beale Street is in New Orleans and Barry Jenkins’ latest is set in Harlem, but that doesn’t matter much; the opening quote from James Baldwin, who wrote the novel it’s taken from, explains that Beale Street is less of a place than an idea, a location for the lives and loves of black people in every city. The film — which perfectly fuses the voices of its two creators — concerns a young couple in love, and the trials they face. Jenkins’ images soar in time with the swells of the score, and the actors gaze into his camera with an emotional immediacy that’s downright transportive. Every performance lands, but special praise is due to the Oscar-winning work of Regina King; every moment, every gesture, is imbued with immeasurable love and wisdom. As is the movie itself. (Also streaming on Hulu.) (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurette.)
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Aquaman: Director James Wan follows Patty Jenkins’s lead and wisely (mostly) jettisons the drab, why-so-serious aesthetic of the so-called “DC Extended Universe” and embraces the elemental goofiness of his subject. But it’s not all winks; his action scenes have a hearty, kinetic energy and welcome sense of slapstick, the imagery is visually gobsmacking (especially in 4K), and the undersea setting of the de rigeur DC fire-and-explosion climax is at least lets in some color and flair. And Jason Momoa is first-rate – it might take a guy this tough to make a character this silly seem cool. Ultimately, Aquaman is pure candy: neither healthy nor filling, but undeniably tasty. (Includes featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Columbus: There’s a tiny, great moment early in this low-key character drama from writer/director Kogonada that tells you everything about his storytelling style. Our heroine, Cassie (the wonderful Haley Lu Richardson) is trying to start her car, and it’s a process, requiring several tries and a bit of prayer. She finally does — and then she spots Jin (John Cho, very good), a fascinating young traveller she met the day before, and she immediately shuts off the car to chase him down. It’s a scene that tells us everything we need to know about her interest in him, but does so entirely in action and silence, a guiding principle that runs throughout this very special film; it begins as two seemingly disconnected stories, bound by a feeling of aimlessness, which then intersect and bounce around each other. And as they do, Kogonada carefully chooses what to leave out and what to keep in, remembering that there are moments when we know what happens next, and don’t have to be told. (Includes commentary, short film, deleted scenes, and trailer.)
ON DVD / DVD / VOD
Jane Fonda in Five Acts: If anyone’s earned the epic HBO documentary treatment, it’s Ms. Fonda, an extraordinary actor and controversial figure whose in-the-public-eye evolution — from ingénue to activist to cause célèbre to icon — is as rich and fascinating as Bob Dylan’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s. This two-plus hour portrait from director Susan Lacy finds just the right pace and tone for this busy life, refusing to either judge or succumb to hagiography, treating each phase of her life as equally important and equally compelling. And Fonda’s commentary throughout is reflective, thoughtful, and often wryly funny.
Road to Singapore/ Road to Zanzibar/ Road to Morocco/ Road to Utopia: A couple of summers back, KL Studio Classics gave the proper Blu-ray treatment to Road to Rio and Road to Bali, two later installments in the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby / Dorothy Lamour “Road” series that fell into the wasteland of public domain. This week, they go one better, with Blu-ray debuts for the first four films in the series, allowing the viewer to see how the first-rate franchise found its groove of adventure movie spoofs, vaudeville-style two-acts, personality-driven comedy, and winking inside jokes (their fourth-wall breaks, mocking the movies they’re in and the studio they’re making them for, still feel subversive). Road to Utopia is probably the best of the bunch – it’s got the best one-liners – but the tuneful and uproariously funny Road to Morocco theme song is not to be sneezed at. (Includes featurettes and trailers for all titles, and audio commentaries for Moroccoand Utopia.)
For A Few Dollars More: A Fistful of Dollars gets love as the groundbreaker, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly as the epic, but this viewer has always had a soft spot for the middle picture in Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, which finds the filmmaker and the actor stretching their legs a bit and really starting to explore the kind of places a Spaghetti Western could go. It’s dark and grimy, yet wickedly entertaining (and not without its fair share of deadpan humor); the action sequences maintain their considerable kick, and KL’s new 4K restoration is a damn knockout. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, interviews, trailers, and original American release version.)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand: Robert Zemeckis’s first directorial effort gets the Criterion treatment, and it’s a gem; like much of his early work, it’s wild and unruly, a spinning top perpetually on that final wobble, yet never quite slowing down or peeling out. He follows a handful of Beatlemaniacs dead set on meeting the Fab Four during their first trip to New York to perform on Ed Sullivan, so it’s something akin to a caper movie; there are various plans for dodging cops, bribing security, sneaking into service elevators, and hiding under beds. Zemeckis is careful to infuse all of these events with the energy and spirit of the Beatles’ own film from the period, A Hard Day’s Night; in the big crowd scenes of rampant Beatlemania, he even apes some of the compositions and cutting of that film’s similar sequences. It’s a smart move. Only steal from the best. (Includes audio commentary, new interviews, early Zemeckis short films, trailers, and radio spots.)
Japón: Also joining the Criterion Collection this week is Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’s freewheeling 2002 journey film, the mellow yet chatty story of an urban painter who retreats to the country’s valleys and villages on a mission to kill himself – and stops short. The 16mm cinemascope cinematography is an unexpectedly effective mixture of gorgeous and modest, and the peculiar curlicues of the narrative are undeniably, sometimes uncomfortably personal. This is an earthy and singular piece of work. (Includes interviews, video diary, short film, deleted scene, and trailer.)