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 biweekly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
Since we last met, a flurry of prestige new releases have hit the streaming services – awards season in full swing, it seems, even this peculiar, couch-bound version of it. But we’ve also got an ‘80s fave on 4K, new disc releases for a pair of cult classics, two new titles from Criterion, and much more.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”: The idea of Aaron Sorkin dramatizing a touchstone Boomer event sounds like a recipe for disaster, and in spots (like the cringe-worthy ending), his worst instincts get the best of him. But there’s a lot to admire here: a surfeit of great performances (plus, y’know, Eddie Redmayne), reams of Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, and plenty of analogues to contemporary struggle, from the potent images of protest cops removing badges and nametags to the loaded questions of legacy in progressive politics – the question of pushing for true change vs. what wins elections. And Sorkin continues to grow as a filmmaker (he proves equally skilled at staging intimate courtroom scenes as big-canvas riot sequences). It’s messy but memorable.
ON AMAZON PRIME:
“Time”: Documentarian Garrett Bradley tells the story of Fox Rich, whose husband is serving a 60-year sentence, with no possibility of parole, for an armed robbery in 1997. But this is not another true-crime documentary, where guilt and innocence are in question; he did it, and Fox drove the getaway car (“Desperate people do desperate things,” she explains, “it’s as simple as that”). The question Rich – and the filmmaker – asks is if the crime matches the punishment if this man should continue to be absent from the lives of his now-grown sons, after missing so much so far. We feel like we’re fighting alongside her, during scenes of agonizing silence as she waits on the phone for news and updates, and we’re with her in the incredible moment where her carefully composed façade finally, forcefully crumbles. She is patient, but she is furious, and this profoundly human and empathetic portrait reminds us that no matter how our society may demonize those behind bars, these are real people, with real lives, hopes, and dreams.
“What the Constitution Means to Me”: As an awkward, nerdy teen, Heidi Schreck traveled around the country as a participant in the American Legion Oratory Contest, giving speeches about the Constitution and saving the prize money to pay for college. “A few years ago I was thinking about the Constitution for various reasons,” she muses, at the beginning of her Broadway play, so she decided to “resurrect the speech, and the context, based on what I remember about myself at 15.” The result is a remarkable, searching work, perching the razor’s edge of comedy and tragedy – it’s like watching a highwire act, the skill with which she can take you to the brink and use her inspired humor to pull you back, releasing the tension without deflating it. Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me”) directs this performance film, with a style that’s immersive but not self-indulgent; her focus remains, as it should, with Schreck, an inspired performer and gifted writer who never takes you where you’re expecting to go.
ON HBO MAX:
“David Byrne’s American Utopia”: Spike Lee’s performance film of the Talking Heads frontman’s tour-turned-Broadway show is mostly noteworthy for its simplicity: the staging, effects, costumes, and photography (with carefully but effectively deployed on-stage camera, close-ups, and overhead work) are all, ultimately, about stripping away the barriers between the audience and performer. They work splendidly; I found myself cackling at the sheer cleverness of the staging and shooting. And then he covers Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” and it’s like a slap in the face, a protest song of heart-racing fury, augmented exponentially by Lee’s inserts (which also form unexpected connective tissue to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). It’s a wonderful, joyful, powerful movie.
“Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy”: It’s a tradition as old as the hills: every new home video format of note gets its own release of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s venerable, Michael J. Fox-fronted time-travel trilogy. The new 4K model looks spiffy as hell, with an image that sparkles without losing its nostalgic tinge, and the movies remain as they are: the first a near-perfect comedy of clever construction and Oedipal impulses (the comic wizardry of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover’s supporting performances only becomes clearer with the passage of time), the second a dizzyingly inventive science fiction movie with a rueful shortage of heart and jokes, the third a fine return to form, thanks in no small part to the addition of Mary Steenburgen, the genuinely thrilling (and clearly Buster Keaton-inspired) climax, and career-high work of Christopher Lloyd. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, Q&A, featurettes, short film, and audition tapes.)
“Requiem for a Dream”: The trailers for Lionsgate’s 4K release call Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 drama “the one you swore never to see again,” which is a pretty bold strategy for a priced-for-sale re-release. Of course, that’s less a commentary on the film’s quality than its experience; it remains a harrowing journey through to the depths of addiction, as experienced by a quartet of complicated characters. Some still see it as “Reefer Madness” for heroin chic, and that’s not entirely unfair. But the electricity of Aranofsky’s technique and the sensitivity and skill of the performances (particularly Ellen Burstyn’s) continue to amaze, and the crispness of Matthew Libatique’s cinematography absolutely dazzles in 4K. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, and featurettes.)
“Mallrats”: No one – particularly not the filmmaker himself – saw Kevin Smith’s sophomore feature as anything other than a flop when it hit theaters in 1995, reviled by critics and ignored by audiences. But it had its fans, and they grew in number, so this 25th-anniversary edition from Arrow isn’t even its Blu-ray debut. But they give the picture the expected bells and whistles, and with the benefit of hindsight, its dual-layer nostalgia (it’s a ‘90s teen comedy made as a throwback to ‘80s teen comedies) holds up pretty well. (Includes extended cut, TV cut, audio commentary, deleted scenes, new introduction, new and archival interviews, featurettes, music video, trailer, and Easter eggs.)
“Reversal of Fortune”: Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 film (new on Blu-ray from Warner Archive) is full of accidental present-day relevance; its hero is Alan Dershowitz (oops), and its supporting cast includes early appearances by Felicity Huffman and Annabella Sciorra. Those oddities aside, it remains an ingeniously constructed dramatic thriller, opening with Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close) narrating from her persistent vegetative state, and walking us through the various ways in which she might’ve made her way there. The conventional wisdom, and original jury’s verdict, held that her husband Klaus (Jeremy Irons) was responsible; he hired Dershowitz (Silver) to spearhead his appeal. Irons won an Oscar, and deserved it, for his deliciously reptilian performance, but Close is also terrific in a much trickier role, frequently playing not so much a person as someone else’s interpretation of one. And the approach of Nicholas Kazan’s script is masterful, leaving each audience member to determine what they believe might be that ever-elusive quality, “the truth.” (Includes audio commentary.)
“Claudine”: Diahann Caroll stars in this 1974 comedy/drama (new to The Criterion Collection) as a housekeeper and single mother living in the Harlem projects; James Earl Jones is the garbage collector who takes a shine to her if he can get past the B.S. detectors and troublemakers that are her six kids. The strokes sound broad, but this is a warm-hearted and judgment-free tale, boosted big-time by the sensitive and lived-in performances of its leads. But screenwriters Tina and Lester Pine and director John Barry take the right approach to the material, coming up with that rarest of cinematic beasts (then and now): an honest-to-goodness portrait of actual working-class people. (Includes audio commentary, AFI seminar audio, new interviews with Robert Townsend and Imogen Sara Smith, and essay by Danielle A. Jackson.)
“The Hit”: A year before his breakthrough with “My Beautiful Laundrette,” Stephen Frears helmed this deceptively low-key thriller, with John Hurt and Tim Roth as a pair of killers hired to bring a snitch-in-hiding (Terence Stamp) from Spain to France to pay for his betrayal. But it’s less a crime movie than a road picture, with these three distinct personalities – and, later, an enigmatic woman (Laura del Sol) bouncing off each other within the tight confines of an automobile exterior. Criterion is giving this one the Blu-ray upgrade, after an SD release over a decade ago, and while its languid pacing may alienate some viewers, it offers a handful of terrific actors and a skilled director showing what they can do with what is, in effect, a chamber piece on wheels. (Includes audio commentary, archival interview, trailer, and essay by Graham Fuller.)
“Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, Volume 7”: Kino-Lorber’s latest double-feature of vintage naughty movies features two of their best to date. “Test Tube Babies” (1948) opens with copious text about the “unsung heroes” at the forefront of “artificial insemination, which is, in reality, the Miracle of Life,” but most of what follows has nothing to do with that – it’s the story of a jealous husband, his horny wife, and the drunken, stripteasing, cat-fighting swingers of their hedonistic circle. (The decision to end this fun by having kids finally happens at the 42-minute mark, and it’s all medical lectures and advice from mother from there on out.) “Guilty Parents” (1934) is an “I Accuse My Parents”-style finger-wagging exercise, gleefully dramatizing all the sins of a daughter (the marvelous Jean Lacy) whose prim-and-proper mother failed to prepare her for this cruel world. Both films are entertaining as hell, clearly relishing these tales of vice, and barely bothering to moralize at their respective conclusions. (Includes audio commentary, theatrical trailer, and short film.)