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.
One of the year’s true indie success stories arrives on disc this week, alongside a slew of new Criterion titles, a Tom Cruise vehicle that’s worth another look, an all-time classic of kung fu cinema, and much more.
PICK OF THE WEEK:
“Raging Bull”: Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1980 examination of toxic masculinity has seen no shortage of Blu-ray releases, but The Criterion Collection’s new 4K upgrade offers two significant arguments for double-dipping. First off, the restoration is a (pardon the pun) knockout, beautifully rendering the film’s crisp black and white images with you-are-there intimacy. Secondly, it includes Criterion’s 1990 audio commentary by Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Somewhat legendary as one of the most informative of all such tracks, it was long available only on the Collection’s 1990 laserdisc (which is to say, not really available at all). And it’s a beaut, delving deep into not only well-told but still fascinating production stories like Robert De Niro’s weight gain and the casting of Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarity, but technical details like the framing and cutting of the fight sequences and the methodology of the slow-motion. In other words, it’s like a two-hour film school master class, which is what the best audio commentaries should be. And as for the movie itself, well, it’s quite simply one of the finest movies ever made, a staggering technical achievement and a kitchen-sink drama of piercing insight. De Niro’s lead performance remains one of the gold standards of the medium. (Includes audio commentaries, video essays, featurettes, archival interviews, and essays by Robin Robertson and Glenn Kenny.)
ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL:
“The ‘Before’ Trilogy”: When Richard Linklater cast Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in his 1995 romantic comedy/drama “Before Sunrise,” none of them realized they were embarking on an 18-year journey; they just thought they were making a gentle, charming little two-hander about two strangers who meet on a train, hop off, and spend the night walking and talking through Vienna. But that film was so cherished and championed by indie fans and romantics that nine years later, they reteamed for one of the most unlikely sequels in all of cinema, “Before Sunset” – and then they did it again, nine years later, for “Before Midnight.” Taken together, the three films luxuriate in Linklater’s signature fascination with film’s ability to capture the passage of time, and how that concern can reflect an artist’s growth and maturity; the simple flirtations and desires of the first film give way to the sticky complexities of the second, which give way to the compromises of the third. But subtextually, the movies also celebrate collaboration and artistic investment – Linklater brought on his stars as co-writers of the second and third films, merging their characters’ personalities and concerns with their own, capturing the unique way that their stories had become inseparable. All of that, plus one of the great closing moments of any movie ever: Celine’s Nina Simone-infused assurance, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”: Writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as Daniels) deploy a maximalist aesthetic to this story of an average woman (Michelle Yeoh) and her unlikely ascension to hero-dom, and that more-is-more approach can grow wearying by the end of the picture’s 139-minute running time. That complaint aside – and your mileage will likely vary – this is a witty, imaginative, big-hearted story of death and taxes, fate and destiny, and learning to love both what you could be and who you really are. Yeoh is spectacular, unsurprisingly; the headline here is the return of ’80s fave Ke Huy Quan, who finds just the right combination of ingenuity and pathos as her exasperated husband. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes with optional audio commentary, outtakes, and trailer.)
“The Beatles: Get Back”: Speaking of maximalism, there’s certainly no shortage of minutiae in Peter Jackson’s painstakingly detailed account of the making of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album, assembled from the raw footage of that record’s 1971 companion documentary. The absence of the long-promised restoration of that film from this pricey “collector’s set” is a real disappointment and hint that maybe the surviving Beatles are attempting to use this project to erase the bad vibes of its previous incarnation. And Jackson’s continuing inability to put a lid on his work makes the film – expanded from its original single-film conception into a multi-part docu-series – occasionally monotonous (how long do we need to spend discussing possible concert locations when we all know where it ends up?). But, all of that said, “Get Back” is nevertheless an essential document, capturing not only the complex and tenuous personal relationships of a band that was clearly nearing the end of its rope but the sheer, exhausting grind of making music, even for geniuses like these. (No bonus features.)
“The Virgin Suicides”: Sofia Coppola made her feature directorial debut with this mesmerizing 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, upgraded (beautifully) to 4K from Criterion’s 2018 Blu-ray. Kirsten Dunst leads the ensemble cast as one of the five Lisbon sisters, whose sheltered lives and sudden deaths prompt endless neighborhood gossip and speculation; James Woods and (especially) Kathleen Turner are shattering as their panicked and helpless parents, and Coppola’s perceptive screenplay beautifully captures the specific awkwardness of teen small talk and the mercilessness of teen cruelty. The narrative unfolds with a kind of doomed inevitability, but this is a film powered less by narrative than mood, as Coppola’s dreamlike style casts the events in a haze that first looks like nostalgia but gradually reveals itself as selective memory. It’s an evocative yet immediate work, suggesting the kind of keen cinematic powers that the subsequent years have only confirmed. (Includes interviews, featurette, Coppola short film and music video, trailers, and an essay by Megan Abbott.)
“Okja”: Bong Joon-Ho’s last movie before the triumph of “Parasite,” now joining that film in the Criterion Collection, is an absolutely bonkers mash-up of social treatise, sci-fi monster movie, and elegant action picture – the kind of thing that could’ve been an utter train wreck of disparate narratives and tones in the wrong hands. These, to put it mildly, are the right ones. Bong beautifully orchestrates pathos, satire, and action set pieces, bouncing the easy, natural, and determined performance of lead An Seo Hyun off the (wonderfully) cartoonish work of Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s hard to know exactly how to sell this or even encapsulate its wonders in a single paragraph. But it’s magnificently entertaining and wildly unpredictable, and there are alarmingly few movies these days that fit both descriptions. (Includes interviews, featurettes, trailers, and essay by Karen Han.)
“Edge of Tomorrow”: Few films of the 2010s met with a more baffling case of commercial indifference than this 2014 action-adventure, which seemed to have everything: big stars (Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt), a stellar supporting cast (including Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton), a skilled director (“The Bourne Identity” ’s Doug Liman), and a juicy premise – essentially, “Independence Day” meets “Groundhog Day,” as an Army PR man (Cruise) finds himself on the front lines of an alien battle, and caught in a time loop that puts him back at his arrival each time he dies. Liman wisely plays the comedy of the situation in the front half of the picture and eases into genuine sci-fi thrills in the back, landing a wittily self-aware Cruise performance in the process and one of Blunt’s most magnetic turns to date. Warner Bros. is wise to give this one the 4K boost in light of the astonishing success of “Top Gun: Maverick”; it’s a nice reminder that, eight years ago, Cruise was already interrogating the image and ideas of that signature role. (Includes featurettes and deleted scenes.)
“Summertime”: David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” both hit the 4K shelves a couple of weeks back, prime examples of the big, bold, expensive epics that became his late-career specialty. But this (long-awaited) Criterion update reminds us that his earlier films worked on a much smaller scale, yet often with the same devastatingly emotional results. Katharine Hepburn is marvelous as a plucky American tourist on vacation in Venice (“This has been more than I ever dream of back in Akron!”) whose gee-whiz enthusiasm hides a genuine sense of solitude and sadness; Rossano Brazzi is a kind shopkeeper with whom she embarks on something like a romance. The location photography is sumptuous, but the most striking landscape is Hepburn’s visage; in exploring her fragility and vulnerability, Lean matches the emotional power of his classic “Brief Encounter.” (Includes new and archival interviews, trailer, and an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.)
“One-Armed Boxer”: PSA: the title injury does not occur until nearly a full hour into this 93-minute Golden Harvest martial arts extravaganza from director Jimmy Wang Yu. But that hardly matters – this is no novelty narrative anyway, but a rough, tough, occasionally grim kung fu flick that not only swipes the “Shaft” score but earns the right. The story is maddeningly generic (two rival schools break their piece of a trivial confrontation and spend the rest of the film trading injuries), but the action is breathless and brilliant; Wang Yu was one of the best directors of the period, noteworthy of the mobility of his camera and the ingenuity of his compositions, and the masterful photography and choreography of the many, many group fights remains astounding. (Includes audio commentary, archival interview, and trailer gallery.)
“Highball”: So here’s a peculiar little footnote to the career of Noah Baumbach, a freewheeling single-set comedy shot in six days at the end of his “Mr. Jealousy” production, using leftover funds and a few leftover cast members. Baumbach considered the film unfinished, but his producers cut and released it anyway, so he removed his credits, and it’s always had the stink of an unauthorized bootleg – and make no mistake, it is certainly missing the technical polish and storytelling discipline of even those earliest films. But there’s something sort of endearing about its after-party nature, a rough-and-tumble Mickey-and-Judy quality (not unlike the similarly slapped-together “Blue in the Face” a couple of years earlier), and the screenplay, which Baumbach wrote with frequent star Carlos Jacottand Christopher Reed, has plenty of quotable lines. It’s undoubtedly not top-tier Baumbach, but it’s worth a look for fans. (Includes documentary and trailer.)