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 twice-monthly 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 new release slate is a feast for 4K buyers, featuring recent favorites, all-time classics, and one of the great monster movies of the ’80s. Plus, we’ve got must-see new releases streaming, three new essentials from the Criterion Collection, a pair of Bob Hope comedies, a pair of crackerjack thrillers, an assortment of indie favorites, and much, much more. Let’s take a gander.”
PICK OF THE WEEK:
“Some Like It Hot”: Billy Wilder’s 1959 screwball classic – newly available on a crisp 4K disc from K.L. Studio Classics – has topped more than one list of the best comedies ever made, and for good reason: it has Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag, Marilyn Monroe at her very best, Curtis’s Cary Grant impression, and one of the all-time great closing lines (“Nobody’s perfect!”). But it’s not just that it’s madly, uproariously funny; it’s one of those lightning-strike comedies that captured every involved party at the absolute tip-top of their game, and its cheerful acknowledgment of sexual fluidity means it’s aged far better than any dozen gay-panic comedies that came much later. As a result, it’s a classic comedy that still feels fresh and funny to this very day. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, interviews, and trailer.)
“Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”: In October of 2018, Lion Air Flight 610, taking off from Jakarta, crashed 13 minutes after takeoff in clear weather, killing everyone on board – a puzzling tragedy, considering the plane in question was a brand new Boeing 737 Max. Five months later, it happened again: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, another inexplicable crash, six minutes after takeoff, again in a spanking new Boeing 737 Max. Rory Kennedy’s riveting documentary details how the investigation of these crashes uncovered horrifying corporate misconduct on the part of the respected manufacturer and the many compromises made on this plane all the line, from conception to execution. Some of Kennedy’s choices are dubious (the reenactments don’t work at all), but she makes the titular case with a potent combination of journalistic clarity and righteous indignation.
“Spencer”: Kristen Stewart just picked up her first Oscar nomination for her work as Diana, Princess of Wales – and deserves it, carefully fine-tuning an affecting combination of fragility and gravitas. Per her style, she’s deftly underplaying the character’s turmoil, and that’s the right call; the wrong kind of actor would have played the whole thing as overwrought, and ruined it. It’s one of those performances that amounts to an accumulation of the tiniest, most difficult moments, and when you put them all together, a complete picture becomes clear. Director Pablo Larraín finds the proper note of celebrity rubber-necking and psychological drama and pays his subject the courtesy of giving her the happy ’80s movie ending she deserved.
ON HBO MAX:
“Kimi”: The new thriller from director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh concerns a “voice stream interpreter” (Zoe Kravitz) for a Siri-like personal assistant who stumbles upon a recording of what sounds like a crime, and perhaps worse. We know the sandbox Soderbergh is playing in here – there are shout-outs to “The Conversation,” “Blow Out,” “Blow-Up,” and “Rear Window,” and that’s just scratching the surface – but he knows we know, and the picture’s sense of self-awareness becomes a tool rather than a wink, a shorthand that allows him to get down to the business at hand efficiently. Soderbergh’s direction is, per usual, tight and efficient, the cinematography is ruthlessly clever, and Kravitz is terrific; she’s an empathetic and charismatic actor, and she builds sympathy for the character, even in her pricklier moments.
ON 4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY:
“Looper”: Before leaving his mark on the “Star Wars” franchise (and starting a big-money film series of his own), Rian Johnson took his first crack at big-canvas studio moviemaking with this meticulously crafted, slyly witty, and blisteringly entertaining fusion of time-travel sci-fi and bruised-forearm action. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as an assassin of the future who dispatches bad guys sent back in time for easier body disposal; Bruce Willis is his older self, with whom he finds himself face to face. Johnson has fun with the sticky logistics and moral dilemmas of the situation, but “Looper” ultimately lands because it’s a good old-fashioned character-driven drama. Its characters (including Emily Blunt as a protective mother and Jeff Daniels as Gordon-Levitt’s boss) aren’t mere placeholders. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, and trailer.)
“The Hurt Locker”: Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director (the first for a female director, which is insane) and Best Picture of 2009 for this white-knuckle look at the lives and drives of the members of an Army bomb squad in the Iraq War. Jeremy Renner made his first big splash as the group’s best – and, not coincidentally, most reckless – and it’s a masterful performance, telling us everything we need to know about the character via action and attitude. At its best, Bigelow’s film does the same thing; her filmmaking is so visceral, the force of her images so heavy, that the eventual and inevitable explanation of what pushes these men into combat barely seems necessary. (includes audio commentary and featurettes.)
“Alligator”: Lewis Teague’s 1980 monster movie is cheerfully derivative of “Jaws,” to its absolute benefit; the witty screenplay, by indie stalwart John Sayles, knows the conventions, knows we know them, and kids them accordingly. Robert Forster is utterly authentic in the Chief Brody role as a tough cop who’s trying to puzzle out a series of gruesome animal attacks in Chicago; Henry Silva has a blast as the Quint counterpart, who’s “hunted big game animals all over the world.” Sayles’ gift for colorful side characters shines through, particularly as he revels in the insidiousness of the corporate slimeball villains, resulting in an eat-the-rich (literally) climax that really delivers. Scream Factory’s 4K transfer is clean as a whistle (and the gator still looks convincing, which is a pretty stellar argument for the wisdom of practical effects). (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, trailers, T.V. spots, “Trailers from Hell” with Karyn Kusama, and television version.)
“Escape from L.A.”: Watch too many contemporary blockbusters, and you’ll find yourself embracing the throwaway commercial junk of the 1990s; waved off at the time as crass or trash or worse, this stuff plays like gangbusters now by simple virtue of the fact that it has color and style and personality. Exhibit A in this reevaluation examination is John Carpenter’s 1997 follow-up to his beloved 1981 post-apocalyptic adventure “Escape from New York,” which marked a long overdue (and last) reunion with producer and co-writer Debra Hill, as well as the end of his run of collaborations with star, buddy, and (this one time) co-writer Kurt Russell. Paramount’s new 4K release isn’t always forgiving of the already dodgy digital effects (particularly the notorious surfing sequence), but those flaws only make it more of a throwback. Thanks to the energy of Carpenter’s execution, the ingenuity of his supporting cast, a keen understanding of Russell’s iconography, and a nicely nihilistic conclusion, this one plays like a Fourth of July fireworks show. (Includes trailer.)
“The Green Mile”: Writer and director Frank Darabont followed up the slow-burn success of “The Shawshank Redemption” with the closest thing he could find to a sequel: another richly emotional period prison story, based on a Stephen King work, this time with the added bonus of a leading role for Tom Hanks. The play’s cynicism met with some resistance, and “The Green Mile” hasn’t proven as culturally sticky as its predecessor. But there’s much to admire here, from the weight and sensitivity of Hanks’s performance to the tip-top supporting cast (including Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Bonnie Hunt, David Morse, Graham Greene, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Jeter, and Michael Clarke Duncan) to the evocative photography by David Tattersall, which makes for one handsome 4K transfer. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, make-up tests, screen tests, and trailers.)
“Written on the Wind”: Long overdue for the Blu-ray bump (it’s #96, for goodness’ sake!), Criterion’s edition of Douglas Sirk’s 1956 magnificent Technicolor melodrama is, as expected, gorgeous and striking. And the movie is marvelous as well, a scorching portrayal of family toxicity, wrenching alcoholism, and empty wealth. Initially a love triangle, with both Rock Hudson and Robert Stack vying for the love of Lauren Bacall, it widens to a quartet thanks to the Oscar-winning work of wild child Dorothy Malone. Hers is the showy role, and she crushes it, but don’t overlook the effectiveness of what Bacall is doing; it’s not easy playing the sole source of sanity in a story where everyone else is a mess. (Includes new and archival interviews, trailer, and essay by Blair McClendon.)
“Love Affair”: It left a long trail through Hollywood history, with director Leo McCarey revisiting the story years later for “An Affair to Remember,” which then inspired 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle” while begetting its own, Warren-and-Annette-fronted remake the following year. But it all began with this modest 1939 romantic comedy/drama, in which otherwise-attached Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer meet and fall in love on an ocean liner and make a vow to reconnect on dry land. But it doesn’t quite work out that way. This could’ve made for maudlin pap, but the delicacy of the writing and direction is astonishing, and Dunne and Boyer’s chemistry is bonkers – luckily since the entire picture rests on its credibility. (Includes interviews, radio adaptations, McCarey shorts, and essay by Megan McGurk.)
“Boat People”: This 1982 Hong Kong drama from director Ann Hui examined a still-open wound, looking at life in Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and the communist takeover. George Lam stars as a Japanese photojournalist, visiting to take snapshots of post-war life and rebirth. What begins as a potential polemic transforms first into a haunting drama of desperation and then a film of supreme physical and psychological tension – the genuine, harrowing danger of the closing passages is unexpected but unforgettable. (Includes interviews, press conference, featurettes, trailer, and essays by Justin Chang and Vinh Nguyen.)
“Ham on Rye”: So much of contemporary media is bathed in the aesthetics and sensibility of nostalgia – not even for a particular era, just for the idea in general – that it’s sort of astonishing to come across a film that interrogates that idea, and subverts it. Director/co-writer Tyler Taormina invites us in with the recognizable vibes of a coming-of-age story, with a town of teens heading out into the night for a big dance. Still, there’s something vague (where are we? When are we?) and foreboding, simmering underneath. And then, well… well, I wouldn’t dream of revealing what happens next, except to say that it’s both entirely out of left field and oddly inevitable, and the entire back half of the picture sees it shift into the last thing we expected from its opening: it’s a genuine original. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, trailer, and essays by Taormina and cinematographer Carson Lund.)
“Tragedy Girls”: “If I’m gonna be murdered… I’m glad it’s you.” That’s the kind of “feel good” dialogue that’s in plentiful supply in this giddily amoral, pitch-black, “Heathers”-style comedy from co-writer and director Tyler MacIntyre. Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand star as a pair of influence-chasing high school girls who go from reporting on crime to committing it. While the social media-scolding tone is a bit much, the film’s unapologetic mean-spiritedness and gleeful refusal to surrender to conventional redemption arcs are refreshing. Hildebrand is a blast, and Shipp is a real-deal movie star, but Craig Robinson is the M.V.P., rolling in like a pinch-hitter at the 38-minute mark and just about stealing the show. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, Q&A and red carpet interviews, featurettes, storyboards, and trailers.)
“Two Films by Aaron Katz”: The mid-aughts cinema of Portland-born filmmaker Aaron Katz is easy to shrug off as “mumblecore,” and indeed, it is imbued (some might say suffers from) many of the aesthetic earmarkers of that movement. But Katz has a style of his own, unmistakable in this collection of his first two features. The title of “Dance Party, U.S.A.” is an intentional contrast with its low-key, even dour, approach; the plot is slender (a handful of young people go to a house party, and things happen), and there’s barely more happening in “Quiet City,” a kind of low-fi “Before Sunrise,” in which a young woman visiting New York strikes up a friendship, or more, with a native. But both films are about unexpected connections, forged over moments of genuine candor and vulnerability, and Katz displays a real ear for genuine conversation and behavior among uncertain people of this particular age and time. (Includes interviews, introduction, Q&A, trailers, and booklet essay by Amy Taubin.)
“Bilitis”: You think of a certain kind of thing when you hear the phrase “French coming-of-age movie,” and sure enough, nubile schoolgirls go skinny-dipping within the first ten minutes of David Hamilton’s 1977 drama (new on Blu from Fun City Editions). But this is no ordinary soft-focus French sex movie. One of its screenwriters is the enfant terrible Catherine Breillat; it’s her third credited feature, and her voice is already clear, complicating what sounds like a simple skinflick with the nuances of feminine desire. Gorgeously photographed and unapologetically sexy, with a memorable leading performance by the fabulous Patti D’Arbanville. (Includes audio commentary, interview, and booklet essay by Samm Deighan.)
“Man on the Moon”: Director Milos Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewskifollowed up the success of their raucous biopic “The People vs. Larry Flynt” with another picture cut from the same mold: this weird, wild, and funny portrait of the life of avant-garde comedian and general nutcase Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey got famously lost in the characterization (there’s a whole other movie about that), and whatever the process, it’s one of his best performances, so thoroughly embedded in the persona that it becomes hard to discern where Carrey ends and Kaufman begins. Forman’s direction is fleet-footed, and the supporting cast is sharp as nails – particularly co-producer and Kaufman pal Danny DeVito as his manager and Paul Giamatti as his partner in crime, Bob Zmuda. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, featurette, deleted scenes, R.E.M. music videos, and trailer.)
“F/X” / “F/X2”: Once upon a time, movie studios just… produced and released a whole bunch of sharp little genre movies, sharply directed gems filled with great character actors. Wild, right? The original, 1986 “F/X” stars Bryan Brown as the best special effects man in the movie business, hired by the government to stage a public assassination of a mob informant (Jerry Orbach, perfect) who’s entering witness protection. “You are 100% protected, I give you my word,” promises his fed contact, and if you’ve ever seen a movie, you know where it’s heading. The plotting is clever, and Robert Mandel’s direction is tip-top (especially the killer, fender-bending New York car chase), though the cliché cop movie stuff is less fun. The 1991 sequel suffers from something of the same problem – there’s a little too much Lumet Lite dirty cop stuff, a little too little clever F/X stuff – but the cast is fun, and “Psycho II” director Richard Franklin stages the set pieces with precision. (Includes interviews, featurettes, and trailers.)
“12 Angry Men”: Showtime’s 1999 “Inherit the Wind” (recently released, like this film, by K.L. Studio Classics) wasn’t just an adaptation of the beloved play – it was something of a sequel to this 1997 telefilm, another adaptation of a stage standby, which also featured Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in the leading, antagonistic roles. William Friedkin directs, amping up the sweaty atmosphere and assembling a jaw-dropping cast of legends (Lemmon, Scott, Hume Cronyn, Ossie Davis, Armin Mueller-Stahl), grinders (Edward James Olmos, William Peterson, Dorian Harwood, Tony Danza), and up-and-comers (James Gandolfini, Mykelti Williamson, Courtney B. Vance) to reanimate and update the venerable story of judicial prejudice and human nature. The characterizations are finely tuned, and everyone brings their A-game; Gandolfini is especially (and unsurprisingly) electrifying. (Includes trailer.)
“The Great Moment”: This 1944 Preston Sturges effort came at the end of his run of perfect comedies, and it’s definitely the least of those efforts – in no small part because Sturges mostly abandons his attempts at laughs, instead crafting a mostly earnest biographical drama of Dr. William Morton (Sturges favorite Joe McCrea), who discovered medical anesthesia in 1846. But it’s a pretty darn good earnest biographical drama, boasting handsome period production values, sensitive performances, and welcome appearances from such Sturges rep company favorites as William Demerest and Franklin Pangborn. (Includes introduction, featurette, and trailer.)
“Where There’s Life”: The assassination of the king of the small European country of Barovia sends his countrymen in search of his illegitimate son and sole heir to his throne: a low-class New York radio personality, played to perfection by Bob Hope (one of two ’40s comedies new to Blu from K.L.). The script is rather a ramshackle affair, but director Sidney Lanfield, a frequent Hope collaborator, pulls together its mixture of farcical door-slamming shenanigans, romantic entanglements, and death-defying close calls with aplomb, and there’s a juicy supporting role for William Bendix, one of cinema’s all-time great Big Lugs. (Includes trailer.)
“Monsieur Beaucaire”: This high-spirited tale of palace intrigue and mistaken identity is one of the finest showcases of Hope’s signature character: the wisecracking, horny coward. But director George Marshall (another of Hope’s best) isn’t just making some shabby personality comedy; the film is based on a Booth Tarkington novel, with a complex plot set in King Louis-era France, and Marshall intuits the more genuine Hope’s surroundings, the closer he hews to what he’s sending up, the funnier it will be. So the supporting cast plays it straights and the sets and costumes are handsome enough to pass for a genuine period epic – and then the silliness is drizzled on top like hot fudge. What a treat. (Includes trailers.)