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 offers a staggering embarrassment of riches, with attention-grabbing titles from three of the big streaming services. Beyond that, we’ve got a festival favorite on VOD, another on disc, and three classic comedies hitting Blu-ray, along with a beloved musical and a must-see of early queer cinema. A little something for everyone, in other words, so let’s see what’s for you:
“The Old Guard”: Charlize Theron leads a pack of globe-trotting, wrong-righting immortals in this adaptation of Greg Ruka’s comic book series from director Gina Prince-Blythewood. The “Love & Basketball” director might not be the obvious choice for this material, but she wisely focuses on the story’s humanity and gives the violence (and its psychological aftereffects) a welcome weight and power. The relationships feel filled-out, in a way they seldom do in the too-busy comic book franchise pictures; Ruka’s script also does us the favor of not taking its premise too seriously. Theron approaches the role with the right degree of swagger, and Chiwetel Ejiofor brings genuine complexity and pathos to a potentially thankless role. But the breakout here is Kiki Layne, in the (helpful for exposition) role of the group’s rookie; her wide-eyed amazement is nicely complemented by an easy toughness, and her hand-to-hand fight with Theron (“You really wanna do this, kid?”) is staged with the wit and intensity of a great sex scene.
“Palm Springs”: “Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same,” shrugs Nyles (Andy Samberg) early in Max Barbakow’s time-loop comedy, and boy does that line land differently than it did when this one wowed audiences at Sundance; ditto “Time is a little fuzzy” and “The only way to really live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters.” We’re deep enough into quarantine that the promise of a film that speaks to the situation may not be a selling point, but the idea of finding love and connection in a time of borderline nihilism is certainly potent. And it’s plenty good besides; Nyles is an excellent vessel for Samberg’s hyper-specific dirtbag charm, and Cristin Miloti is a terrific counterpart, displaying formidable comic chops and generating off-the-charts chemistry.
ON APPLE TV+:
“Greyhound”: Tom Hanks writes and stars in this true story of a Navy ship leading a convoy through dangerous waters in the Northern Atlantic, a mere two months after Pearl Harbor. It runs a scant 91 minutes – 82 without the credits – and there’s not an ounce of fat on it. Hanks’s screenplay is a model of narrative efficiency, jettisoning all but the scantest of backstory and forgoing the usual dumbing-down of naval jargon; the actors are so good, and director Aaron Schneider’s sense of visual storytelling is so adept, that we can figure things out without embarrassing exposition dumps. But none of it would work without Hanks’s finely tuned lead performance, which beautifully conveys both the professionalism of the character and the tiny ways he loses his bearings as this dangerous mission carries on.
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”: The Ross Brothers, Bill and Turner, merge the conventions of documentary and fiction with this frequently funny and occasionally heartbreaking chronicle of the closing night party for a Las Vegas dive bar. The construction is contrived (the brothers shot it over several nights at a bar in New Orleans, and assembled the participants themselves), but little else is; intoxicated by the notion of the dive bar as community, they capture the gutter poetry of these conversations, the rhythms of these long nights of imbibing, and how quickly bravado and bullshit can give way to genuine pain and vulnerability (and how quickly that can give way to sloppiness and hostility). Documentary purists may quibble with how they get there, but ultimately the Rosses get at the essential duality of these spaces – the bitter and the sweet, the camaraderie and the desperation. It’s a wonderful, unforgettable picture.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
“Bacurau”: Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner is a thrilling exercise in WTF-ery, incongruently intermingling heavy doses of neorealism, surrealism, and class commentary to tell a story of… well, frankly, one of the film’s true pleasures is the degree in which it withholds that information, letting the viewer surmise, deduce, and head-scratch without seeming to just jerk our chains. Let it be said that its portraiture of an off-the-grid, off-the-map (literally) Brazilian village and its invasion by tourists does, with breathless wit and high style, what the lumbering “The Hunt” could not.
“Mädchen in Uniform”: Leontine Sagan’s Weimar-era drama is getting a big push from Kino-Lorber as a pioneering work of queer cinema, and for good reason; it deals, with rather breathtaking casualness, with desire and temptation in an all-girls boarding school. Adapting Christa Winsloe’s play, it focuses on Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the “half-orphan” new girl in school who is warned that “almost all the girls have a crush on Miss von Bernburg,” and soon enough, so does she – does she ever. The sharp screenplay delves into the politics of these self-contained worlds, and how their methodology of discipline and domination plays into these forbidden attractions. A fascinating snapshot of a permissive era, and a riveting drama in its own right. (Includes audio commentary.)
“The Lady Eve”: Preston Sturges went on such a stunning run in the early ‘40s – cranking out such all-time comedy classics as “Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” at an alarmingly prodigious rate – that picking the best of them is a bit like choosing a favorite child. But there’s certainly a case to be made for this delightful 1941 comedy (upgrading to Blu on the Criterion Collection), with Henry Fonda as a brainy but socially adept beverage heir and Barbara Stanwyk as the con woman who pegs him as an easy mark, perhaps too quickly. Both stars do some of the best work of their long careers in the leading roles, but as usual, it’s the Sturges company of supporting screwballs that steal the show. (Includes audio commentary, video essay, costume designs, radio adaptation, trailer, essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, Peter Bogdanovich introduction, and conversation with Bogdanovich, Tom Struges, James L. Brooks, Ron Shelton, Susan King, Leonard Maltin, and Kenneth Turan.)
“Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”: W.C. Fields’ final starring vehicle – new on Blu from KL Studio Classics – is also undeniably his weirdest, split between a funhouse mirror version of the Great Man’s offscreen life and a dramatization of his latest screenplay, pitched in the office of a confounded studio executive. The pieces don’t all fit together, but there are some crackerjack comic bits, a terrific chase sequence, and the rare opportunity to watch Fields go toe-to-toe with not only Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn, but the Marx Brothers’ favorite foil Margaret Dumont. It may not have the end-to-end brilliance of “The Bank Dick” or “It’s A Gift,” but how many comic artists get this experimental, this late in their careers? (Includes audio commentary, vintage documentary, and trailers.)
“The Paleface”: Some of Fields’ best pictures were helmed by Norman Z. McLeod, who also directed two great Marx Brothers movies and several of the best efforts of Bob Hope, including this one. The ski-nosed comic stars as a “painless” dentist in the Old West who’s swept into trouble by Jane Russell as, appropriately enough, “Calamity Jane.” But Hope doesn’t even appear until ten minutes in, giving McLeod time to set it up as a straight-forward Western, and then bounce his “horny coward” persona off of the genre trappings. And that’s part of why it works; like “Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein,” satire often lands best as an inside job. (It also, like many a Western, is not exactly admirable in its portrayal of American Indians.) Hope was really firing on all cylinders here; he’s endlessly funny and wildly likable, regarding the camera less like a recording device than a co-conspirator. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, newsreel, and trailer.)
“Strike Up the Band”: The second of the Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” pictures, this 1940 effort from director Busby Berkeley and producer Arthur Freed is occasionally hampered by its corny plotting and plodding running time. But Garland and Rooney are terrific, generating good vibes and infectious energy (she was rarely in better voice), while Berkeley’s staging, particularly of the bigger numbers, is unsurprisingly gorgeous. (Includes Rooney introduction, supporting cartoon and short film, radio version and promos, and trailer.)