American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Welcome back to the latest and greatest on Netflix, Blu-ray and Video On Demand options like iTunes, VOD, Amazon Video and Vudu. Criterion releases have dominated the market lately, including "Ikiru" and "The Apu Trilogy," two masterpieces that we'll discuss separately in a piece next week. There's also a great kids movie, underrated drama and a Japanese hip-hop musical. Yes, you read that right. Also, look closely at the list below of the 10 most interesting titles new to Netflix in the last ten days. It includes two highly acclaimed 2015 films just released on Blu-ray, "Best of Enemies" and "Tangerine."
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
8 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
Do I love D.A. Pennebaker's groundbreaking music documentary because I'm a Bob Dylan fan or am I a Bob Dylan fan because of "Don't Look Back"? It's an impossible question to answer as my impression of Dylan is so tied into my feelings about this fantastic film, a work that I still find mesmerizing even though I've seen it a dozen times. Pennebaker is the king of the music verite doc, films that capture what's happening in front of them instead of shaping it. On the extensive and fascinating special features assembled by Criterion, Pennebaker comments several times, including on the commentary track, about how earning his subject's trust is essential to his process. Dylan and the people around him trusted Pennebaker enough to just be themselves, allowing the camera and process to disappear. The result is a portrait of an artist and a poet emerging from a music scene and structuring it at the same time. The special features are amazing, especially three early short films from Pennebaker. I love how much "Baby," a film in which he follows his daughter around the zoo, influenced his style. There's also "Jane," about Jane Fonda, which is a must-see.
New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director D. A. Pennebaker, with newly restored monaural sound from the original quarter-inch magnetic masters, presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Pennebaker and tour manager Bob Neuwirth
65 Revisited, a 2006 documentary by Pennebaker
Audio excerpt from a 2000 interview with Bob Dylan for the documentary No Direction Home, cut to previously unseen outtakes from Dont Look Back
New documentary about the evolution of Pennebaker’s filming style
"Daybreak Express" (1953), "Baby" (1954), and "Lambert & Co." (1964), three short films by Pennebaker
New conversation between Pennebaker and Neuwirth about their work together
Snapshots from the Tour, a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from Dont Look Back
New interview with musician Patti Smith
Conversation between music critic Greil Marcus and Pennebaker from 2010
Alternate version of the film’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue card sequence
Five audio recordings of Dylan songs not used in the film
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito
The debate over the Best Animated Film of 2015 seems to be between "Inside Out" and "Anomalisa," and that's understandable given how remarkable both films are. Sadly, "Shaun the Sheep Movie" is getting a bit lost in the conversation. Is it better than "Inside Out"? No, but hardly any animated film in the last five years could make that claim. And it's still a damn entertaining movie, a brilliant bit of near-silent comedy in that the film contains no dialogue. Yes, it's a film aimed at young people in 2015 that doesn't traffic in pop culture references or modern trappings. It could have been made two decades ago. And it's so charming that it can appeal to any demographic in your house. It may not be "Inside Out" or even "Wallace and Gromit" (but, again, few things are), but don't sleep on Shaun.
Making the Shaun Movie
Meet the Characters
Join Shaun Behind the Scenes
Meet the Crew
Parody Poster Gallery
It's a perfect time of year to start talking about the most underrated performances of 2015 and near the top of my list is Ben Mendelsohn's subtle work in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's character study about addiction and regret, featuring nearly-as-strong co-starring work from Ryan Reynolds. Mendelsohn plays a man at the end of his gambling addiction, about to hit rock bottom, when he meets someone who could be the good luck charm he needs to make it back to the top. The two plan to hit poker games and casinos down the Mississippi to a legendary game in New Orleans. When "Mississippi Grind" gets a bit too scripted and formulaic, it disappoints, but Mendelsohn never does. He had an amazing 2015, earning an Emmy nod (and he should have won) for "Bloodline," and doing his best film leading man work to date. Let's hope it's just a warm-up for 2016.
Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind
I can virtually guarantee that you have never seen anything like "Tokyo Tribe," recently released on Blu-ray. Sion Sono's epic tale of warring gang factions in a futuristic Tokyo also happens to be told almost entirely in hip-hop rapped directly at the camera. We have officially crossed the line between music videos and cinema. Imagine an update of "The Warriors" set in Tokyo, directed by Hype Williams, and you get SOME idea of the lunacy on display here. It's been quite a year for gonzo Asian cinema, including this, "Yakuza Apocalypse" and "The World of Kanako." In many ways, "Tokyo Tribe" is the best, illustrating Sono's stunning degree of confidence. He owns his vision, never coming off as eager to please. You really have to see it to really even comprehend what it is or why it works.
None ... but the movie is pretty darn special itself
"Best of Enemies"
Our current political discourse is so noxious and worthless that it's particularly timely to watch a documentary about when this kind of televised partisanship really began. During the 1968 convention, ABC hired famous liberal Gore Vidal and famous conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. to hold their own debates on the issues of the day. The results were some of the most heated exchanges and riveting television of the era. Buckley and Vidal held nothing back, taking personal attacks on each other and really building the stage on which admittedly inferior minds now debate. That's the thing about "Best of Enemies." Buckley and Vidal may have legitimately hated each other, but they were also both blindingly brilliant. You can't say that about most modern pundits. They get the yelling, but not the thinking. See where it all began on Netflix or Blu-ray/DVD from Magnolia.
"Downhill Racer" (Criterion)
Michael Ritchie's debut gets the Criterion treatment this month, but it's a film that I feel hasn't really held up as well as some of the other offerings from the collection. Ritchie's debut was very well-received at the time (Roger gave it 4 stars) but it feels more dated than you might expect in 2015, and bears the signs of a debut director unsure of himself, such as over-use of score to underline and highlight. The best thing about the film, other than the remarkable ski racing scenes, is the performance from Redford, who subtly conveys the anti-hero side of the sports athlete with just a wry smile. He plays a man whose ego becomes his defining characteristic, and Redford perfectly captures that aspect of modern sports: the cockiness that often comes with competition. The special features here are good, especially a recent interview with Redford and writer James Salter, in which they discuss how the film was originally set up for Roman Polanski.
Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Interviews from 2009 with actor Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman
Audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie
"How Fast?", a rare twelve-minute promotional feature from 1969
PLUS: An essay by critic Todd McCarthy
"Fear the Walking Dead: Season One"
AMC's 2015 spin-off of "The Walking Dead" hasn't gotten the same amount of attention as the program that spawned it, but the show has been renewed and the first season Blu-ray release could help bring it to a bigger audience. I find both shows can be frustrating but like the performances at the heart of "Fear the Walking Dead" from Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens. It can be tonally discouraging, and, like its predecessor, disappointingly repetitive, but it's still an entertaining watch, and a two-disc, eight-episode first season comes at a relatively low price for the undead-head on your holiday gift list. One thing that surprises me: the seasons of "The Walking Dead" have come with a digital copy. Why not "Fear"? Perhaps they'll do a season one/two release given the short length of this one and include a digital then.
A Look at the Series
Inside the Characters of "Fear the Walking Dead"
Kyle Patrick Alvarez's drama premiered at Sundance to mixed reviews and didn't make much of a splash when it hit theaters. Why include it in this week's HECG? Because, even though I have issues with it too, I think people have been a little hard on it. It's a reasonably strong rental, if only for the great ensemble of young actors, some of whom will likely be future stars. The work by Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano justifies a look alone, with notable performances from Billy Crudup and Nelsan Ellis as well. The film struggles to find a point in the infamous story of one of history's most notable social experiments (and "Experimenter," another 2015 Sundance drama, is a better choice) but don't dismiss it entirely. This one is available on DVD only.
Commentary with Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Featurette: Bringing to life "The Stanford Prison Experiment"
Featurette: The psychology behind "The Stanford Prison Experiment"
3 NEW TO VOD
"Every Thing Will Be Fine" (available Dec. 4)
"Life" (available Dec. 4)
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A review of Netflix's new series, Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events," which premieres January 13.