This is a good week to check out recent “disappointments,” as the comparatively low-grossing sequel to a family blockbuster and the latest from an art-house fave hit disc, ripe for reassessment. We’ve also got a pair of noteworthy new releases on Netflix, and a nice selection of catalogue titles and oddball indies on disc. Here we go:
Knock Down the House: Rachel Lears’ documentary has been dubbed “the AOC movie” since it premiered at Sundance, and it’s important to note that it’s not just a profile of the insurgent candidate from the Bronx and her come-from-behind primary victory over longtime Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th. Lears and her team also follow three more women, from West Virginia, Missouri, and Nevada, who mounted primary challenges against Centrist Dems. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez certainly gets the majority of screen time, and there’s nothing wrong with that; she gives the best sound bytes (“Everyday Americans deserve to be represented by everyday Americans”), and her victory, after the other three defeats, gives the picture a necessary closing lift. But Knock Down isn’t just a puff piece; it’s a funny, sharp doc, moving at a good clip and providing notes of both realism and inspiration.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile: One of the many real news reports included in Joe Berlinger’s Ted Bundy docudrama includes a description of the trial attendees as “spectators drawn by a fascination with the brutal details of the crime,” and if that’s not a cinematic subtweet, I don’t know what is — particularly when Berlinger’s companion Bundy Netflix docu-series dropped the same weekend as Extremely Wicked’s Sundance debut. Our current true crime obsession means trivializing these acts, and it’s tempting to say that this film does the same thing, fixating as it does on the Dr. Jekyll domestic portion of his double life rather than the Mr. Hyde monster. But that’s the point; this is a psychological profile, just as interested in Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s long-time (and long-suffering) girlfriend. How does someone live a double life like this for so long? What’s it like to stand by him during it? And, most importantly, what kind of residual guilt does one feel afterwards? These are compelling questions, and if Berlinger doesn’t answer them all satisfactorily, there’s plenty to chew on here.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part: The original LEGO Movie was honest-to-goodness miracle, yet another example of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller taking the worst idea imaginable and spinning into gold. That sense of surprise – both at the skill of the execution, and of the shocking turn of the third act – is obviously irreplicable in this sequel (which Lord and Miller wrote, but did not direct), and it never quite finds its own voice. But there’s still a lot to like here: a clever new family conflict, a new character that sharply satirizes tough-guy movie masculinity, a funny turn for Tiffany Hadish (even if she has one too many songs), and much, much more Mad Max than I expected. Way to use all that IP, Warner Brothers! (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, music video, and “Everything is Awesome Sing-Along.”)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Everybody Knows: If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the nerve on Asghar Farhadi for just up and deciding to make a movie in Spanish, with two of that country’s biggest stars. But the language and culture barrier isn’t an issue, because although he’s perhaps Iran’s greatest filmmaker, his preoccupations aren’t regional; the pressing moral and social questions he poses, in film after film, never get lost in translation. And the best moments here aren’t verbal anyway – they’re in the bleary-eyed desperation of Penélope Cruz, as the mother terrified of losing her child, or in the fullness of emotion when Javier Bardem has a reunion he didn’t expect. Farhadi’s filmmaking has never been more confident, and his gifts are ever-present even in this supposedly lesser effort.
Sex Madness Revealed!: Tim Kirk’s riff on the 1938 exploitation classic Sex Madness (aka Human Wreckage, aka They Must Be Told) is borne of a very clever concept: it starts as a desktop movie, a la Searching or Unfriended, as a web browser tunes into an episode of “The Film Dick” podcast, which plays alongside “underappreciated classics” with facts and trivia. (Kirk has the pod patter down, including a spot for sponsor envelopesrightnow.com.) And thus the “Film Dick,” voiced by a spot-on Patton Oswalt, does what we think will be an MST3K-style walk-through of this public domain title- but he’s joined by guest “Dr. Chester Holloway,” the creepy, thick-voiced grandson of its director, who hints broadly at the “secrets” behind its production. It’s a clever idea, full of hearty chuckles and winks at these grade-Z “educational” films, though it’s not a moment too short at 68 minutes. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, trailer, and original version.)
The Heiress: William Wyler’s 1949 costume drama – this week’s new addition to the Criterion Collection – is based on the stage play, itself an adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square. The cinematography and costumes (by Edith Head, of course) are sumptuous, but this is no museum piece; this story of the tension between the suitor (Montgomery Clift) and father (Ralph Richardson) of a meek young woman (Olivia de Havilland) is fraught, loaded, and psychologically devastating. And the turn of its third act is remarkable; The Heiress features one of de Haviland’s finest performances (no small compliment), and one of the starkly darkest closing images of the era. (Includes featurettes, archival interviews and appearances, and trailer.)
Broken Flowers: Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 comedy/drama (new on Blu from KL Studio Classics) concerns a depressed Don Juan (no, literally; the character’s name is Don Johnston) gets an unsigned letter from a former lover, telling about an adult son he never knew he had. So he revisits his old flames to solve the mystery – and ends up having to confront his past. It’s one of Jarmusch’s more straightforward plots, but the idiosyncratic director makes it his own by imposing his sprung rhythms, unconventional narrative turns, and a marvelously crack post cast, led by Bill Murray in prime midlife crisis mode. (Includes extended scene, featurette, outtakes, and trailer.)
ON DVD / VOD
My Scientology Movie: When satirist and documentarian Louis Theroux announces on Twitter that his new documentary will tackle the Church of Scientology, he gets one particularly prescient @-reply: “They’re probably filming you already.” When Theroux is unsurprisingly unable to get bigwigs like David Miscavige to sit for interviews, he arrives on an ingenious workaround: “We can’t get the real Miscavige, but we can create our own Miscavige.” And thus, with departed CoS members acting as advisors, he sets about making a dramatization, with actors playing key figures like Miscavige and celebrity spokesman Tom Cruise – and sure enough, as predicted, his shoots and sessions are being disrupted by camera-wielding Scientologists, determined to make a counter-documentary. It’s a funhouse arrangement of mirrors and cameras, yet between the oddball set pieces and documentary muckraking, Theroux is slyly exploring the psychopathy at the heart of this organization – and one that may still lurk in those who’ve left it.