Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on-demand, vintage, and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalog titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This weekly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
One of the year’s best films hits disc and VOD this week, along with a TIFF ’19 sensation, a stellar new documentary, and an assortment of catalog Blu-rays with something for (almost) every taste. Let’s see how we’ll be whiling away the quarantine time this week.
“Circus of Books”: The relationship between a documentary director and their subject is tricky enough; imagine if that subject was also your mom. “I don’t know why you think this is worth documenting,” Karen tells her daughter, Rachel Mason, at one point; later, she scolds, “And I hope you put that in this movie.” But their relationship has always been tricky, especially since Karen and her husband Barry put their kids through school by operating, in her words, “a bookstore, and a hardcore gay adult business.” That store’s name is also the title of this documentary, a cheerful exploration of how a nice Jewish couple became purveyors of porn, and how successfully they kept it from the rest of their seemingly average family. But it’s not just a one-joke premise; Mason thoughtfully explores how their work affected their faith, their relationships, and their family itself while situating their story into the larger history of the West Hollywood gay scene. It sounds like a lot – too much, possibly – but Mason weaves the threads with precision and care, and finds the casual humor in her colorful characters and their entertaining byplay.
ON HBO GO / HBO NOW:
“Bad Education”: A true story of embezzlement, theft, and corruption in Long Island public schools, circa 2002 – a timely tale of public servants as shameless grifters – from director Cory Finley (“Thoroughbreds”). Hugh Jackman stars as the school superintendent, a smooth operator who knows exactly what parents and school board members want to hear, and the film’s greatest pleasure may be how slowly and carefully he unpeels this character; this is the kind of slick, charming con man that Richard Gere also moved into playing in middle age, and Jackman does it well. It’s hard not to compare “Bad Education” to “Election,” its clearest model, and find it somewhat wanting in those terms. But the writing is sharp as hell, the ensemble is tip-top, and Finley’s direction is thankfully ruthless.
ON DVD / VOD:
“The Assistant”: Kitty Green’s dramatization of a day in the life of the assistant to a film executive who’s also a monstrous sexual predator is clearly inspired by Harvey Weinstein (and the legends of his bad behavior that vibrated through Hollywood and New York for decades before his fall), but it’s also not specifically about him. Green’s perceptive screenplay and stylishly alienated direction capture all the little intimidations, humiliations, and power plays of a toxic workplace, and of how men like this one charm, humiliate, and manipulate those around them (“I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great”). Julia Garner is terrific in the title role, subdued but ravage, her expressive eyes betraying the calm of her words.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Wes Anderson’s acclaimed 2014 comedy/drama gets the Criterion treatment – as it seems all of his films eventually will – and it holds up well. If anything, a few-years-on revisit clarifies why this was the Anderson picture that, at long last, was embraced by Oscar voters (well, nominators): it gives Anderson’s hand-crafted aesthetic a wider scope and sense of ambition than usual, placing his characters into an unexpected and poignant political narrative, told in an engagingly curlicued fashion. But it works in the ways that his best films always do: the specificity of the style, the eccentric dialogue, and the memorable performances – chief among them Ralph Fiennes’ career-best work as the ever-affable concierge who finally comes to the limits of his hospitality. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, storyboard animatics, featurettes, video essays, test footage, and trailer.)
“Me and You and Everyone We Know”: Criterion’s also adding the 2005 feature debut of Miranda July, and her sui generis worldview was already well developed in her short films and performance art; much like Anderson, her pictures have a hand-crafted feel and a sense that they could’ve only come out of her particular mind. She’s also a compelling presence in the starring role, as a video artist who embarks on an unconventional romance with a shoe salesman (the wonderful John Hawkes, in one of his breakthrough roles). The Altman-esque grid of intertwined characters had become a bit of an indie cliché by the mid-‘00s, but July’s perspective and keen eye for casting keep this one rich and fresh. (Includes featurettes, Miranda shorts and documentaries, Sundance Directors Lab workshop scenes, and trailer.)
“Billy Liar”: John Schlesinger’s 1963 adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s novel (new on Blu from KL Studio Classics) was a key film in the British New Wave and in Schlesinger’s burgeoning career. Tom Courtenay stars as Billy Fisher, a humble undertaker’s clerk who offsets his drab job and living-at-home existence with wild fantasies and daydreams of a more exciting life. Free and funny, it’s essentially “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in Swinging London; Courtenay is endlessly likable (even when the character isn’t), and Julie Christie is a luminous charmer as his dream girl. Most importantly, it points the way towards Schlesinger’s biggest success, “Midnight Cowboy,” which makes similar use of convincing fantasy sequences, and plays with the friction between those visions and a less idealistic reality. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)
“King Creole”: Elvis Presley’s fourth feature film (new on Blu in the “Paramount Presents” collection) was reportedly is his favorite, and it’s easy to see why. In sharp contrast to the brainless jukebox musicals that would become his cinematic legacy, this one has a real pedigree – based on a novel by Harold Robbins, helmed by “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz, and with a supporting cast including Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow – and a real performance from the King, who puts off serious Brando/Dean vibes. As well he should; the sweaty New Orleans settings recall “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and the story is basically “Rebel Without a Cause” with songs. But this doesn’t feel like a knockoff; the melodrama is entertaining, the musical numbers swing, Russell Harlan’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and there’s not a false note in Presley’s stellar starring turn. (Includes Leonard Maltin introduction and song selections.)
“Fatal Attraction”: “Paramount Presents” is also putting out a new edition of this 1987 smash, and while its value as cinema is arguable, there’s no questioning its cultural cache. Michael Douglas stars as a yuppie family man who embarks on a weekend fling with a single woman (Glenn Close) who sees it as much more, to his eventual detriment. It’s well-acted (especially by Close) and slickly directed, though the script is sloppy and the focus-grouped ending is a cop-out; its primary value these days is as an artifact, and X-ray of the sexual politics and adjacent assumptions of its moment. (Includes Adrian Lyne intro, audio commentary, rehearsal footage, and an alternate ending.)