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.
This week’s fresh discs and streamers include a couple of bona fide classics, one of last year’s best documentaries, a couple of big late-2021 releases, and a whole mess of good stuff from Vinegar Syndrome and its partner labels. Let’s start with the best of those:
PICK OF THE WEEK:
“Morvern Callar”: Too hard to see for too long on home video, Fun City Editions gives Lynne Ramsey’s 2002 drama the presentation it deserves, with a new Blu-ray that captures the picture’s elliptical, sometimes upsetting imagery in all its smeary beauty. Samantha Morton gives a performance of startlingly raw power as the title character, who wakes up Christmas morning to discover her boyfriend’s dead body on the floor of their apartment, illuminated by the flickering lights of the tree; she finds a suicide note that explains nothing, and isn’t quite sure what to do with this turn of events. The story turns that follow are chaotic but not random (how would you react?), equal parts psychological exploration and dark comedy; it’s a riveting movie, and as in her best films, Ramsey marries sound, image, and mental state with an accuracy and fluidity that is riveting. (Includes audio commentary, video essay, trailers, and essays by K.J. Relth-Miller and Margaret Barton-Fumo.)
“Nightmare Alley”: The commercial failure of Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (and remake of Edmund Goulding’s ace 1947 film version) was disappointing but not surprising; studios don’t even know how to make movies like this anymore, much less market them, and that’s without figuring in Disney’s red-headed stepchild treatment of in-progress projects inherited as part of their Fox acquisition. (That treatment has continued with the media conglomerate unceremoniously dumping the picture on Hulu, barely a month after its theatrical release.) But, like del Toro’s earlier “Crimson Peak,” it’s the kind of movie that fails in the modern marketplace but finds its audience, one that can appreciate its leisurely pacing, eye for eccentricity, and doom-laden worldview for the rarities they are.
ON 4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY:
“Dead Heat”: I genuinely adore Vinegar Syndrome for their firm belief that just about any movie deserves the deluxe 4K treatment, and even I was initially dumbstruck by the announcement of this all-but-forgotten 1988 New World Pictures action comedy with supernatural overtones. But it’s something of an unsung pleasure, featuring Treat Williams (sturdy and reliable as ever) and Joe Piscopo (mugging wildly) as a pair of – all together now – mismatched buddy cops who stumble onto an evil corporation that’s reanimating dead people. (Williams eventually is killed and reanimated himself, a story turn tipped by the character name of “Detective Roger Mortis.”) It’s all very silly, but it’s full of undead guys gleefully filling each other with bullets, Darren McGavin just feasting on scenery, and crisp cinematography by Robert Yeoman (Wes Anderson’s go-to guy). And besides, any movie that includes the credit line “And Vincent Price as Arthur P. Loudermilk” cannot be altogether bad. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, trailer and TV spot.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
“Encanto”: Here we have one of Disney’s strangest success stories: their 60th animated feature hit theaters over Thanksgiving, where it was a commercial disappointment (thanks in no small part to that never-ending pandemic of ours). It was shuttled off to Disney+ by Christmas, and the strangest thing happened – viewers discovered it and embraced it with a borderline-viral speed and intensity, with its characters, catchphrases, and songs turning into memes and TikToks. And it’s easy to see why; like “Moana,” the studio’s last collaboration with composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the songs are catchy and cleaver enough to make those inevitable parental rewatches not only bearable but enjoyable, the voice actors (particularly John Leguizamo) are a delight, and the notion of feeling like an outcast, even in one’s in family, is one that almost any viewer can relate to. (Also streaming on Disney+.) (Includes short film, outtakes and deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
“Saint Maud”: First-time writer/director Rose Glass tells the story of Maud (the magnificent Morfydd Clark), who lives in a tiny, depressing room between her gigs as a live-in nurse. She prays, a lot, her “Dear God” voice-overs functioning in Glass’ script like Travis Bickle’s diaries – and while religious faith is too often an easy punch line in cinema, a snickering shortcut to indicate intellectual inferiority or just plain kookiness, Glass takes Maud’s faith seriously, challenging herself to dramatize the ways in which this woman attempts to navigate a grim world with her spirituality intact. At two key moments, she subjects herself to makeshift self-flagellation, and this viewer couldn’t help but think of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie burning himself on the church candles in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”; he, too, is a filmmaker who shines all of his work through the prism of his religious upbringing, and grapples with the contradictions therein. And this is as much a triumphant fanfare for the arrival of a remarkable new talent as that film was. (Also streaming on Hulu and Paramount+.) (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
ON DVD / VOD:
“Summer of Soul”: It seems like every music documentary of the last decade has benefited from the insights of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, so it’s no big shock that his own entry into the form is such a knockout – not only in terms of it entertainment value (which is considerable), but its filmmaking craft. His topic is the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a summer-long series of free concerts featuring a wide array of incredible music, filmed at the time and never seen again. He could have just made a film of that electrifying footage and been done with it; instead, he tells the story of what was happening at that moment in music, culture, and politics, and dives into the background of several key acts. It sounds like too much, and it could’ve been. But Thompson keeps every thread active without letting anything dominate, maintaining multiple storylines like – well, like a drummer playing a hefty kit. Disney’s decision to give this one a DVD but not Blu-ray release is endlessly frustrating (it feels like another case of them treating Searchlight pictures like second-class citizens), but if this the best we’re going to get, so be it. (Also streaming on Hulu.) (Includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
“La Dolce Vita”: We’ve had no shortage of HD accessibility for Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, a sly and cynical look at celebrity culture (when the mere idea was in its infancy), sexuality, and class; Criterion put it out back in 2014, and again as part of their “Essential Fellini” box in 2020. Now, as with “Nashville” and “Harold and Maude,” the rights have reverted to Paramount, who have put it out in a new edition with only one new extra – but that extra is a new introduction by Martin Scorsese, and if you’re the type of person that’s still buying Blu-rays, that’s probably reason enough to buy this one again. Luckily, the film has lost none of its luster. It’s not just about starfucking and paparazzi and the like; it’s a film about the way long nights turn into unfortunate mornings, both literally (in specific scenes) and figuratively (in the picture’s increasing melancholy). Marcello Mastroianniremains dazzling as a sunglass-clad cool customer, but the brilliance of Fellini’s narrative is how it sees through him. This is a man who moves among these people, yet knows in his soul that he will never be one of them.
“Miller’s Crossing”: The Coen brothers have remained gleefully unpredictable artists – a Shakepeare adaptation? Who’da thunk it? – but you really never know what you were gonna get early in their careers, as evidenced by the fact that their feature filmography veers from a sweaty neo-noir to a broad comedy to this austere, literary-minded, mostly serious, Roaring Twenties-era gangster movie. Gabriel Byrne is in top form as the right hand man to a tough crime boss (Albert Finney, terrific) whose attempts to both keep the peace and look out for his own interests backfire in spectacular fashion. But the show-stopper here is John Turturro, in his first of many appearances for the Coens, with a virtuoso scene of flop sweat and desperation that still ranks among his best work. (Includes new and archival interviews and essay by Glenn Kenny.)
“Wayne’s World”: Penelope Spheeris’ wildly successful rock comedy – still one of the precious few great movies based on “Saturday Night Live” characters – turns 30 this year, and Paramount is marking the occasion with a new Steelbook Blu-ray. That’s all hardware; the movie is still the good stuff, an explosively funny good time that doubles as a sly, keenly observed meditation on success, failure, and the not quaint notion of “selling out” that bridges them. Mike Myers is terrific as ever in the lead (it’s sort of astonishing, how clearly he had the movie star goods right out of the gate) but the passage of time has made clear the genius of Dana Carvey’s characterization of Garth, the camera-shy, mumbling, second banana. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
“El Planeta”: Visual artist Amalia Ulman writes, directs, and stars in this wry and wise deadpan comedy about a young woman and her mother doing their very best to bluff their way through impending poverty in contemporary Spain. Ulman’s real mother, Ale, plays the role, which gives the picture some “Tiny Furniture” vibes, while the the bone dry humor and black-and-white cinematography recall Jarmusch. But those influences synthesize into a truly original voice. And while “El Planeta” is very funny, there’s a layer of pain just underneath, and how casually she unfurls it (and how well it lands) marks her as a filmmaker with real gifts. (Includes blooper reel and trailer.)
“Koko-Di, Koko-Da”: Writer/director Johannes Nyholm’s 2019 Sundance effort starts out darkly funny, and then goes just dark very quick, taking a turn about 12 minutes in that’s like a punch in the gut. Turns out that’s all set-up; we catch up with the married couple at the story’s center a couple of years later, embarking on a miserable camping trip, then stuck in a time loop where they’re gruesomely murdered in the early morning by a truly demented trio of weirdos. Their inability to communicate keeps doing them in; their very lives depend on figuring it out. Nyholm is a helluva story teller, piling on complications but retaining his interest in the humanity of his characters – they’re never just narrative pawns, which is important when the story takes hairpin turns like these. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, short films, and featurette.)
“The Ernie Game”: This Canadian gem from 1967 (new on Blu from Canadian International Pictures) is a meandering but sharp-eyed character study of one Ernie Turner (Alexis Kanner), who we first take as a cheerful slacker – perhaps even a pick-up artist, based on his interactions with the fairer sex – who reveals himself as much more. Writer/director Don Owen has a real gift for writing characters who are talking about one thing while saying another, and Kanner is a fascinating presence, coming off at first like a proto-Apatow manchild before letting us have a closer look. Oddly funny and semi-tragic, it’s a small but wonderful discovery. Oh, and a young Leonard Cohen turns up for a brief appearance; the disc also includes the Owen’s excellent short documentary profile, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” (Includes short films and essay by Steve Gravestock.)
“The Unknown Man of Shandigor”: A stylish spy picture from director Jean-Louis Roy, in which a nihilistic scientist develops a bomb-neutralizing device, but refuses to share it, holing up in his villa with his daughter (“Our horizons stop at the walls of this house”) he insists. So various opposing interests – including a crew of identically dressed spies in the employ of Serge Gainsbourg – converge on the villa to get their hands on this precious cargo. Roy situates it somewhere between the sleek snazziness of a Bond and the character-driven complexity of le Carré, and it’s a good, snug fit. (Includes audio commentary, new interviews, archival featurette, trailer, and essay by Chris D.)
“Curfew”: This tightly constructed and efficient B-movie from director Gary Winick (who ended up directing… “13 Going on 30”? And “Bride Wars”???) works from a simple, effective premise, crossing home invasion thrills with slasher gore. John Putch and Wendell Wellman are the genuinely menacing villains, kill-crazy brothers who’ve escaped from prison to kill those who put them there. That includes the district attorney, whose teenage daughter comes home during the mayhem, and fights back however she can. Kyle Richards (from the “Halloween” movies and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”) is a good heroine, plucky, likable, and resourceful, and Winick crafts the picture with real skill. (Includes interviews and trailer.)
“The Monster of Camp Sunshine”: The latest collaboration between the American Genre Film Archive and the late, lamented Something Weird Video is this triple future of sexploitation movies. The main attraction is “Monster,” an absolute oddity in which a pair of city girl roommates begin visiting a nudist camp “run by a friend of mine upstate,” only to find their good times ruined by an axe-wielding sociopath. “Honeymoon of Terror” is a similarly strange mash-up of saucy wedding-night romp and adventure thriller, while the marvelously titled “All Men Are Apes!” (transferred from its original Something Weird SVHS-Master, complete with its original SWV sizzle reel) is little more than an hour-long descent into the sleazy fringes of mid-‘60s NYC decadence, and that’s just fine. From our contemporary POV, one can’t help but marvel at the quaint prurience of these things; it’s sort of charming, the hoops they jump through for their fleeting glimpses of flesh and sex. (Includes trailers.)
“Master of the World”: The 1980s were a truly golden age of Italian exploitation rip-offs of American hits, and thus we have this 1983 riff on “Quest for Fire” from writer/director Alberto Cavallone, which retains the caveman tropes but turns the gore and brutality waaaaay up – an early sequence, for example, finds several characters just eatin’ brains, right outta heads. It’s clear that Cavallone realized early on that the all-grunts, no-dialogue template meant he could, at long last, create a film that was all violence without the burden of dialogue, and he revels in the opportunity. But it’s ambitious in many of the same ways as its inspiration; it’s not easy to tell a story without dialogue, and to his credit, Cavallone gets the job done with (stomach-churning) style. (Includes interviews and trailer.)