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’s big new release is an epic comic tribute to a giant summer event that has, alas, been canceled – so, close enough? We’ve also got two highly recommended new indies, classics of art and genre film on Blu-ray, and a handful of offbeat catalog titles for you adventurous types. Let’s get cracking:
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”: Will Ferrell co-writes, co-produces, and co-stars in this affectionate valentine (and kinda/sorta send-up) of the popular international song contest, which both embraces and satirizes the conventions of the rise-from-obscurity music narrative. He’s fun to watch, playing the character’s idealism and sweetness (in contrast to his go-to blowhard mode), but the star of the film is undeniably Rachel McAdams, both explosively funny and unquestionably sincere as his partner on stage and, she wishes, off. (She’s such a good actress, you even buy that she’s been pining for him for decades.) It’s all very silly, but the emotional beats land like gangbusters and there are solid laughs throughout, even of them are a bit too inside-baseball, and the 123 minute time seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, where else do you need to be right now?
“Straight Up”: The premise of this indie comedy – a young gay man attempts to “straighten” himself out by pushing himself into a relationship with a woman – could’ve gone awry in any number of ways. Yet James Sweeney, the writer, director, and co-star, nimbly recognizes those land mines, and dodges them by both taking the genuine issues at the story’s center seriously and still playing the rom-com elements: it’s witty, it’s fun, it’s fast-paced, and it generates real rooting interest in its protagonists (together and apart). And Sweeney hit the jackpot with leading lady Katie Findlay, who is a movie star, full stop.
“Scheme Birds”: Gemma lives in a tiny town in Scotland, once a center of steel production, now a place where if you stay, she says, “you either get locked up or knocked up.” Directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin manage to capture her life without descending into poverty porn; they’re taken by the simple poeticism of the vernacular speech and the everyday beauty of their surroundings, creating unexpected marriages of sound and image. It’s all delicately, beautifully rendered, telling a fairly typical coming-of-age story with an evocativeness that’s anything but expected.
ON BLU-RAY / THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
“Come and See”: Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece – new on Blu from The Criterion Collection, and also streaming on the Criterion Channel – is an unblinking portrait of the emotional and psychological toll of war, as seen through the eyes of a Belarusian teenager who witnesses Nazi soldiers’ merciless rituals of terror and humiliation firsthand. Klimov’s filmmaking requires patience; the film runs a leisurely 142 minutes, and the direction of the narrative isn’t always clear. But that’s key to its effectiveness; he understands how things happen spontaneously in a time of war, and how the current of violence can sweep one up. It is, to be clear, an upsetting experience. But this is a riveting and important work, full of stunning technique and overwhelming emotion. (Also streaming on the Criterion Channel.) (Includes new and archival interviews, featurettes, documentary shorts, and rerelease trailer.)
“Django”: This dark, bloody little item from director Sergio Corbucci was the second giant hit of the Spaghetti Western era, after the worldwide success of Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars.” That film was positively sunny compared to Corbucci’s bleak Franco Nero vehicle, which was rated “for adults only,” thanks in no small part to a grisly scene in which a character’s ear is hacked off. Sound familiar? Yes, Quentin Tarantino was a fan of Djangoeven before he made a Django film of his own — which was totally in line with the film’s legacy since it begat dozens of unofficial, in-name-only sequels in the years following its release. Arrow’s crackerjack new Blu-ray reissue even includes one such faux-Django 2, the Nero picture Texas Adios, as a bonus feature. (Also includes audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, featurettes, and trailers.)
“Hair”: Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Broadway musical smash (new on Blu from Olive Films’ Signature Collection) was already a movie out of its time when it hit theaters; a quintessentially ‘60s object, it was released in the altogether different world of 1979. But now, those dual frames render it all the more valuable as a time capsule – and, on its own merits, it’s just a very good movie musical, energetically mounted and ingeniously taking all of New York City as its stage, and the musicality of the city as its soundtrack. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and an essay by Sheila O’Malley).
“Cannery Row”: After the astonishing commercial and critical success of “The Sting,” that film’s screenwriter David S. Ward cashed in his copious chips by both writing and directing this sprawling adaptation of the John Steinbeck novels “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.” It’s kind of all over the place, a classic case of a first-time director’s ambition outstripping his skill, but it’s full of pleasures nevertheless: a sure sense of time and place (from the first frame, it feels like Ward’s been there for years), John Huston’s wry narration, and earthy vignettes galore. Best of all, we have a genuine rooting interest in the couple at its center – Debra Winger is delightfully, offhandedly sexy, while Nick Nolte is at his roguishly charming best. (Includes trailer.)
“Narrow Margin”: I don’t want to oversell the quality of this 1990 action thriller from director Peter Hyams (new to Blu from KL Studio Classics) – it’s a perfectly serviceable little programmer, a B-movie from the beginning of the decade that began phasing them out. So my affection for it may be pure nostalgia; I just plain miss the days when Gene Hackman put out five or six movies a year, and you could pretty much always find one on HBO or TBS. On the other hand, Hyams has always been an ace craftsman, and this remake of the film noir classic features plenty of tension, sharp performances, and well-executed action beats. And some days, well, that’s enough. (Includes audio commentaries, featurette, B-roll, and trailer.)
“Not for Publication”: Paul Bartel followed up the cult success of his micro-budgeted “Eating Raoul” with this giggly stab at ’40s-style screwball comedy. He doesn’t quite pull it off; the director’s unapologetic bad taste mixes uneasily with the throwback style, and the filmmaking, as ever, is cheerfully amateurish. But it’s goofily enjoyable and dizzily complicated, and he’s got the right leading lady in Nancy Allen, who talks fast and glows with misplaced idealism as the cub reporter of a sleazy tabloid who dreams of “making this crummy rag into a paper we can be proud of.” (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)