In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it was ostensibly based, beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.
David O. Russell wrote (or rather, rewrote) Joy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD) for Jennifer Lawrence, who he directed to an Academy Award in Silver Linings Playbook(2012) and an Oscar nomination in American Hustle. Lawrence score another nomination for Joy, based on the true story of Joy Mangano, the divorced single mother turned entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop, the first of more than 100 patents in her name. It’s an inspiring true life story and a great showcase for Lawrence, who evolves from overwhelmed mother and unappreciated foundation holding up a dysfunctional extended family to ferocious businesswoman and beloved on-air pitchwoman on the shopping network QVC to self-made mogul over the course of the film.
Also reuniting with Russell and Lawrence are Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s blue collar father, and Bradley Cooper in a smaller role as a QVC executive with sparkling blues eyes suggests romance even as the script makes him strictly a mentor. This businessman is one of the few allies in Joy’s life. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) dropped out after being abandoned by husband De Niro to lay in bed all day watching soap operas (the same show seems to play 24-7) and her dad moves back into the family basement, where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) is also camping out between gigs as an underemployed singer. They demand more attention than Joy’s own school-age children, and she juggles it all with a full-time job at an airline counter. When she comes up with the design for the Miracle Mop, which she engineers herself and has produced on a small scale, every step is beset with obstacles, from bad advice to crooked manufacturers to a disinterested QVC pitchman, which sends Joy in front of the camera to sell it herself: the working class everywoman selling the American Dream directly into homes across the country.
Son of Saul (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) drops the viewer into the horror of the Holocaust with its first images. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, chosen from the prisoners of a concentration camp to work in the gas chambers, and we are plunged into his crushing routine: moving the prisoners through the dressing rooms, sifting and sorting the belongings after they are locked in the gas chamber, then dragging the bodies out and clearing way for the next group. Serving as a Sonderkommando didn’t save the men from death, it only postponed it, and Saul knows he hasn’t long.
But Son of Saul doesn’t linger on the horror. Rather Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes shoots it entirely in close-up, with a handheld camera uncomfortably close and constantly in motion as it follows Saul through the grind of his routine. We remain locked on Saul throughout the film. Nemes shoots in a squarish format, similar to the pre-widescreen era of movies, with a short lens that keeps only Saul’s face and his immediate orbit in focus. Everything else is blurred and indistinct if not completely out of frame, suggested more than seen. It’s not just to keep us from seeing it clearly, but it suggests his own state of mind: detached out necessity, numb and exhausted, going through the motions of living, focused only on the activity.
The Revenant (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K, Digital HD) has been called a revenge movie, which is true enough. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th century mountain man and guide whose story inspired legends, books, and at least one previous film (Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). Left for dead by a particularly mercenary member (Tom Hardy) of the hunting party he guides through the mountain wilds, against all odds he literally rises from his grave to pull himself from certain death and claws his way back to what passes for civilization for revenge against the man who murdered his son and buried him alive. Vengeance makes for a primal motivation but The Revenant is really a tale of survival: the settling of America as an odyssey of mythic dimensions in an untamed wilderness determined to kill all who fail to respect it.
It’s 1823 in the still unexplored (by white men at least) frontier and an expedition of fur trappers are on the run after being attacked by a local Indian tribe searching for a maiden abducted by white explorers. The assault is swift and brutal and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu sends his camera gliding through it in a rush of fluid long takes, a mix of mesmerized observer and panicked victim. Losing their canoes and most of their supplies in their escape, the few survivors have to hike out through the frozen mountains, where Glass is attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. It’s one of the few digital effects in a film that prides itself on its physical realism but it feels disturbingly authentic thanks to DiCaprio’s intense performance and the naturalism of the CGI bear, clearly based on behavioral observations of wild creatures. It’s like a natural history study let loose in a wilderness drama.
Only Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.
Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.
Losing Ground (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you’ve never heard of American playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, don’t feel bad. At least not for yourself. Collins succumbed to cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 after completing just one feature. The independently-made Losing Ground (1982) was produced before the American Indie film culture established itself with the successes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, the Coen Bros. and others. It played a few screenings but never received any real distribution or a theatrical run and remained unknown outside of scholarly circles for decades. You can feel bad that the film never received the recognition it deserved in Collins’ lifetime but better to celebrate its revival and rediscovery.
Losing Ground is one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. That alone makes it worthy of attention but Collins proves to be an intelligent, insightful, and nuanced filmmaker. She tells the story of Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a professor of philosophy at a New York City college, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, director of Ganja & Hess), a painter who is suddenly compelled to reconnect with his art on a more immediate, passionate level. When he decides to move out of the city to get in touch with his muse with a summer sublet of a gorgeous rural home, Sara’s objections mean little. She has no say in the matter, a sign that things are not well in their marriage. So while he searches for his ecstasy (and finds it in a young Latina he finds dancing in the streets), she decides to find hers by acting in a student film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
The Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).
The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?
In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.
Paris Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).
Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.
Spotlight (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the kind of film that takes on the Big Subject with modesty and self-reflection, drawing the viewer into the world of the reporters and culture of Boston in 2001 to better understand the scope of everything that’s at stake.
Spotlight is the story of the Boston Globe reporters who investigated history of abuse perpetrated on children by Catholic priests, a history that had spotty coverage in the paper over the years but was each time quickly forgotten, chalked up as another isolated case. It takes new editor Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber), someone from out of town who hasn’t grown up believing The Church an untouchable institution, to spur a serious look into what turns out to be a systemic issue. He assigns the paper’s investigative “Spotlight” unit—reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton)—not all of whom are convinced there’s a story here. Until they see a startling pattern.
Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.
A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.
As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.
Why isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).
Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.
Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.
The Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’s Red Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.
Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.