It’s a strangely underwhelming week on the new release front, as the primary disc of note is M. Night Shyamalan’s messy double-sequel Glass. But never fear; we have catalogue releases big and small, and a couple of (mostly) overlooked gems available via Amazon Prime. Take a look:
ON AMAZON PRIME
Amistad: In 1993, Steven Spielberg pulled off one of the great one-two punches in recent movie history, releasing box office behemoth Jurassic Park in the summer, and following up six months later with Best Picture winner Schindler’s List. He tried to replicate that doubly whammy four years later with the Jurassic sequel The Lost World and this true story of an 1839 slave ship mutiny and its subsequent legal battle, newly streaming on Prime. Amistad is no Schindler’s List (as Lost World was no Jurassic Park), but it boasts a stunning Djimon Hounsou performance and several powerful scenes; the mid-film Middle Passing sequence is as harrowing as the “Give us free!” moment is inspiring. There are flaws, some of them considerable; it’s one of those unfortunate stories of racial struggle as seen through the eyes of heroic white people — in this case, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins, very good) and Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey, not very good) — which softens the impact. But it’s still a remarkable picture, and a reminder that there’s usually nothing middling about “mid-tier” Spielberg.
In the Electric Mist: This 2009 Bayou mystery has a marquee cast, a crackerjack script, and mood to burn, yet it somehow went straight to video, and I still haven’t puzzled out why; it’s now on Prime, so maybe you can formulate a theory. Tommy Lee Jones is aces as Dave Robicheaux, a Bayou ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who encounters a rogue’s gallery of Hollywood types when a film production comes to post-Katrina Louisiana. The great Bertrand Tavernier (Coup De Torchon, Round Midnight) directs the film nimbly, keeping the scenes brisk and efficient while maintaining plenty of thick, swampy atmosphere, and the supporting cast is terrific and eclectic: Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mary Steenburgen, musician Buddy Guy, indie director John Sayles, and (in his last movie role) the one and only Levon Helm.
The Karate Kid: John G. Avildsen’s underdog story has become so firmly entrenched in popular culture – the sequels, the remake, the “Cobra Kai” spinoff, the catchphrases, the whole enchilada – that it’s easy to forget how low expectations were when it hit theaters back in 1984. But they were; it sounded like the “Rocky” director was going back to the well again, this time bringing along an unknown kid and a stand-up comic/”Happy Days” supporting player. But curious moviegoers found a surprisingly moving coming-of-age story (and tender teen romance), and in Pat Morita’s performance as the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi, one of the most enduring characters of the era. Like most popular ‘80s items, some of it (the costumes, the hair the needle drops) hasn’t exactly aged gracefully. But the stuff that matters, the relationships and characters and the incredible lift of its socko ending, is just as fresh, thirty-five years later. (Includes featurettes and theatrical trailer.)
Diamonds of the Night: Jan Němec’s feature debut, a new addition to the Criterion Collection, begins at full speed – quite literally – with our protagonists running for their lives from a boxcar bound for a concentration camp. Those opening scenes are free of dialogue and conventional exposition, just fleeing and resting, and much of the rest play out like a silent film; the rich, full narrative is played out in images, in loaded but wordless private moments and interactions, augmented with jagged detours into subconscious thought. It’s a film of trenchant commentary and excruciating suspense, compact and powerful, lean and unforgettable. (Includes new and archival interviews, new and archival featurettes, and Němec’s student film, A Loaf of Bread.)
Melvin and Howard: Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply have grappled with the contradictions and complexities of Howard Hughes, with varying success. It’s perhaps telling that the best film about Hughes (new on Blu from Twilight Time) is the one in which he’s basically a guest star – a day player in the story of a simple man whose life he would change with a single interaction. That man was Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), a likable gas station attendant who helped Hughes (Jason Robards) out one day in the desert (he said), and was later the beneficiary of one of the billionaire’s many disputed wills. Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Bo Goldman tell Dummar’s story with affection and a noteworthy lack of condescension, and every performance is entrancing. Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for her lovely turn as Dummar’s on-again, off-again better half; Goldman also took home a statue for his charming script. (Includes audio commentary, isolated music track, and trailer.)