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.
This week we’ve got a divisive summer horror picture, an arthouse riff on the supernatural, an ‘80s action trilogy in HD, and catalog releases by Lumet, Wyler, and Sturges. Take a look!
“A Ghost Story”: Watching Casey Affleck movies is a tricky proposition these days, but good news if you’re less inclined: he spends most of David Lowery’s 2017 drama under a sheet. The writer/director knocked this one out on the down-low and on a low-budget, between his bigger projects “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Old Man and the Gun,” as a showcase and reunion for his “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” stars Affleck and Rooney Mara, who exhibit an easy, unforced chemistry as a comfortable, happy couple, torn apart by an unexpected death. Mara crafts a searing portrait of trauma and grief, while Lowery’s experimental storytelling approach yields unexpected rewards.
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“Midsommar”: “Hereditary” director Ari Aster returns with a story of communal pageantry and idyllic tableaux that takes a very, very dark turn – and by this point in its lifespan, most of its secrets have been revealed, dissected, and memed. But clearing the decks of the narrative allows a fuller appreciation of the picture’s other pleasures: the rich leading turn by Florence Pugh, who comes in messy and troubled, and spends much of the movie circling the drain; the dynamics of discomfort in her conversations with Jack Reynor’s quintessential bad boyfriend; how Aster stage-manages the slowly mounting dread; the comic rhythms of Lucian Johnston’s blunt edits; and the careful choreography of Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera, lulling us into complacency with its long, elegant takes, and then clobbering us with what falls into the frame.
“Beverly Hills Cop” 3-Movie Collection: If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the midst of an Eddie Murphy-assiance: new hit movie, big “SNL” appearance, and a “Coming to America” sequel in the wings. So you can’t really blame Paramount for putting together this quickie release of the three “Beverly Hills Cop” pictures, the latter two hitting Blu-ray for the first time. The original, of course, is still the draw here, and if it remains wildly uneven – veering unsteadily from comedy to action, rarely intermingling them – it’s held aloft by the weapons-grade charisma of its leading man. (It’s also fun to play spot-the-future star, with memorable turns by Jonathan Banks and Damon Wayans, among others.) “Beverly Hills Cop II” was directed by Tony Scott, hot off “Top Gun,” and it feels much more like a Tony Scott movie than an Eddie Murphy movie: it’s all flash and sizzle and style and not much else, though, credit where due, it sizzles pretty good. And “Beverly Hills Cop III” has a promising premise and a few funny moments, but it suffers from the glacial pacing and oddball rhythms of too much of director John Landis’ late output. Still, that first movie. It ticks like a clock. (First film includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, archival interviews, and featurettes; no bonus features on the sequels.)
“The Fugitive Kind”: Criterion gives a long-overdue HD upgrade to Sidney Lumet’s 1960 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending,” and Boris Kaufman’s luminous black-and-white cinematography has never looked better. Some of the changes (particularly the oddly executed opening stretch) don’t quite work, mostly since they’re trying and failing to “open up” the play; once it gets into those scenes and sets, it hums right along, and Lumet finds striking visual equivalents to the lyricism of Williams’ dialogue, while plucking just the right moments to put the camera closer than audiences could go and see things they could never see. Marlon Brando, still in his first golden era, is terrific – behold his quiet intensity, the secrets he seems to hold – and watching him work with Anna Magnani is a pleasure. There’s real voltage in how they circle each other, sizing each other up and working the other’s angles, both as characters and actors. (Includes archival interviews, featurette, 1958 television special “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” and an essay by David Thomson.)
“The Great McGinty”: Writer/director Preston Sturges’ incredible burst of perfect and near-perfect comedies (eight titles in five years, including “The Lady Eve,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”) only happened because the script to this one was so good, he was able to hold it hostage until Paramount let him direct it. (In return, the story goes, they only paid him $10 for the rights, or $1 in other tellings.) What’s surprising about “McGinty” (new on Blu from KL Studio Classics), seen within that chunk of work, is how much of it is pure drama; the already-forming Sturges stock company generates chuckles, of course, but much of this plays more like exposé, an informed dissection of old-school, Tammany-style machine politics. Brian Donlevy is appropriately bone-headed as the title character, rising from hobo to hired muscle to alderman to mayor to governor (and then to inmate), all thanks to his friends in high places. It’s a refreshingly cynical American success story, wherein a man can lift himself up by his bootstraps, as long as he’s willing to get his hands dirty in the process. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)
“The Good Fairy”: Sturges was also able to swing that deal (an unusual one at the time; writer/directors weren’t really a thing in the ‘40s) because of his high-demand as a screenwriter. One of his many writer-for-hire jobs was this 1935 adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play, a smooth mixture of knockabout comedy, sly romance, and farce. Margaret Sullavan (from “The Shop Around the Corner”) is bewitching in the central role of a naïve young waif who concocts a sham marriage and ends up falling for the stranger on the other side of it. The director is William Wyler, whose sensibilities would seem an odd match for Sturges, but the director of “Ben-Hur” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” shows a nice, light touch, particularly in his handling of the nervous not-quite-romance of the second half; watch how gingerly they thread this needle, and how sensitively the actors treat these characters. What a charmer this is. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)