Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
We're back from reporting on films you probably won't see for months from Sundance and here to offer advice on films you can see RIGHT NOW. What are the latest and greatest releases on Blu-ray and streaming? Let's get right to it.
"The Palm Beach Story" (Criterion)
The best way you could spend your allowance this week would be on the Criterion version of Preston Sturges' great and underrated "The Palm Beach Story," a fascinatingly cynical comedy that came on the heels of the depression and weaved remarkable insight into the way money makes the world go 'round into its sometimes-slapstick sense of humor. Tom (Joel McRea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert, so at the top of her game) are a married New York couple struggling financially when Gerry heads to Florida to solve their money problems in a very unique manner. As she says, "You have no idea what a long-legged girl can do without doing anything." Few writer/directors can balance serious issues like financial ruin with the whimsical wordplay of "The Palm Beach Story." Criterion has meticulously remastered this classic, including a rare WWII propaganda short from Sturges and a radio adaptation of the film. An interview with Bill Hader, who I had never really associated with Sturges but the connection in sense of humor makes sense, is also pretty delightful.
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New interview with writer and film historian James Harvey
New interview with actor and comedian Bill Hader
"Safeguarding Military Information," a 1942 World War II propaganda short written by Preston Sturges
"Screen Guild Theater" radio adaptation of the film from March 1943
PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek
Given its unwarranted Oscar nomination (Josh Brolin was robbed!), you're probably eager to see what all the fuss is regarding Robert Duvall's performance in David Dobkin's relatively-ignored courtroom drama. It's yet another case of a decent acting turn in a truly mediocre movie being elevated above that standing almost sheerly due to the history of who was cast in the role. Don't get me wrong. Duvall is good here. He's ALWAYS at least good. But the film around him is not. Duvall stars as the title character, a crotchety old man who never got along with his legal eagle son (Robert Downey Jr.) until the two are forced to an eventual reconciliation through a murder case against dear old dad. The case isn't interesting. The characters are poorly developed. And Dobkin has no sense of pacing (this thing feels longer than a Hobbit movie). The only reason to watch is for the performances. And yet that's not quite enough.
Commentary by David Dobkin
Getting Deep with Dax Shepard: Dax Shepard sits down for an unusual, candid, off-the-wall interview with Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton and Vincent D'Onofrio.
Inside "The Judge": Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Director David Dobkin and the rest of the film's celebrated cast take you into the process of creating a dysfunctional family on and off camera.
Any list of the most interesting debut performances of 2014 that doesn't include Alexandra Essoe is totally incomplete. She's riveting here in this underrated horror movie as a woman who loses her way completely in a city that eats young actresses alive on a daily basis. The concept is simple enough: the starlet willing to do anything for the breakthrough role, but it's filtered through a disturbing, Argento-esque vision of Hell. What if the producer who wanted to sleep with you to give you the role wasn't just a scumbag but a Satanist? Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch excel more at set-up than follow-through for sure as the last half-hour is a bit of a disappointment, but the build-up almost makes it worth a look anyway. And so does Essoe's great work. She's totally fearless. And one to watch.
Commentary with writer-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, and producer Travis Stevens
10 Deleted Scenes
Jonathan Snipes Music Video
Alexandra Essoe Audition Video
Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
Based on the short story "Animal Kingdom" by Dennis Lehane, this drama is likely to be best remembered as the final film of the great James Gandolfini, who, heartbreakingly, gives the best performance in the flick. Gandolfini plays Marv, the owner of a "Drop Bar," an establishment that launders money from illegal operations in the neighborhood. In other words, it's the last place you want to hold-up because the money you're stealing belongs to some very important, very dangerous people. Of course, that's exactly what happens one night to Bob (a great, subtle Tom Hardy), and he's now caught in the unenvious position of having to recover the money or lose more than his salary. Hardy and Gandolfini are phenomenal but director Michael Roskam can't quite keep a leash on his subplots and supporting characters in a way that makes them as interesting as the center of the piece. Still, the two central performances justify a rental, just not a purchase.
Audio Commentary by Director Michael R. Roskam and Writer Dennis Lehane
Making of "The Drop"
"Making Brooklyn Your Own"
I walked out of my press screening of David Ayer's "Fury" pretty angry. Unlike a lot of my peers, I kind of hated it, finding the red/green laser approach to tank combat, paper-thin supporting characters and in-your-face brutality obvious button-pushing instead of realism. It feels more like the product of someone who's played a lot of "Call of Duty" games than someone who's actually done their research. I still mostly feel that way although a second viewing does expose a few more positives. Just because Ayer gives them almost nothing to work with shouldn't deny praise for Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman, who both deliver on that which is requested of them and a bit more. And the film's technically adroit set-pieces of tank combat are impressively structured. Just don't believe the hype that this is the great war movie of 2014 that was ignored. Although it may not quite be as bad as I first thought either.
Over 50 Minutes of Deleted & Extended Scenes
Director's Combat Journal
Armored Warriors: The Real Men Inside the Shermans
Taming the Beasts: How to Drive, Fire and Shoot Inside a 30-Ton Tank
Blood Brothers: Cast and Crew discuss the harrowing experience of filming in a tank together.
Much has been (correctly) made of the Oscar snub of Steve James' "Life Itself" but I feel betrayed by another choice of the documentary committee of the Academy this year as well, ignoring the second-best non-fiction film of 2014 (yes, better than "CITIZENFOUR"), Jesse Moss' phenomenal "The Overnighters." Released now on Blu-ray and DVD from the great Drafthouse, one hopes that the snub doesn't keep this film from the audience it deserves. Moss took his camera to a small North Dakota town in the middle of an economic boom from a just-found oil vein. In a time of great depression across the country, men, almost exclusively men, flocked north to find the jobs that oil creates. The influx of workers created a problem for the community in that they had no place to live until Pastor Jay Reinke created the Overnighters Program, allowing them to sleep on their church floor. Where to charity and reality intersect? As crime rates rise and the Pastor withholds some crucial information from the community, what can be done? And the final act contains a revelation that casts the whole film in a new light. It's one of the best films of 2014, documentary or not.
Audio Commentary with Director Jesse Moss and Jay Reinke
Follow-Up Interview with Subject Jay Reinke
"Tales From Earthsea"
Disney has been sporadically releasing Studio Ghibli films on Blu-ray for the last few years but they're running thin on major releases like "The Wind Rises" and "Princess Mononoke," both of which hit HD late last year (and if you're reading this you may be Ghibli fan enough to want to know that there are rumors that Criterion is working on an edition of "Nausicaa"...yes, I can't wait too). So, the latest three-film release of Disney/Ghibli contains only one film actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki ("Porco Rosso"), one by the almost-as-legendary Isao Takahata (whose "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" was just nominated for an Oscar), and one by Hayao's son Goro Miyazaki.
Perhaps it's indicative of my Hayao tendency but my favorite of the three is "Porco Rosso," a film I consider underrated in general in the Ghibli canon. Perhaps it is because of its lack of a "Wonderland" setting, something that defines a lot of Miyazaki's most beloved work, but "Porco Rosso" is just fun, and watching it again displays some connective tissue to "The Wind Rises" in its depiction of airplanes that I hadn't previously considered. This is one of the main reasons I'm such a Ghibli acolyte. I can revisit their works, even minor ones, and see new ways in which they fit in the fabric of the company overall and animation as a whole. There is no such thing as minor Ghibli. It's all worth watching.
Note: Special features are too thin on all three releases to go about listing them although trailers and storyboards are included. Sadly, no digital copies.
"My Winnipeg" (Criterion)
Guy Maddin's most personal and best film made its Criterion Blu-ray debut recently and I hadn't seen the piece in years. It was a movie I remember admiring but not adoring. I must have been in a bad mood the first time I saw it or perhaps age, with which comes nostalgia for upbringing, has changed my viewpoint. A repeat viewing of Maddin's quasi-documentary, quasi-memory paid off immensely. First, I forgot how funny much of "My Winnipeg" is with great lines like "Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism" and "Mother, maybe the most psychic of all Winnipeg-ers." Second, I think this is Maddin at his most structurally daring in that he's carefully tethering his sometimes-fanciful filmmaking techniques to concrete realities like the history of Winnipeg and his own upbringing. The result is a film that filters real life through the vision of an uncompromised director. It's a great movie, and a perfect addition to the Criterion collection. Maddin fans will squeal with glee to know that the release also includes five shorts by the prolific director, all filmed since "Winnipeg," and a new conversation with the director.
New conversation between Maddin and art critic Robert Enright
"My Winnipeg" Live in Toronto, a 2008 featurette
Four 2014 cine-essays by filmmaker Evan Johnson and Maddin on various Winnipegiana
Five Maddin shorts, the first three with new introductions by the director: "Spanky: To the Pier and Back" (2008), "Sinclair" (2010), "Only Dream Things" (2012), "The Hall Runner" (2014), and "Louis Riel for Dinner" (2014)
PLUS: An essay by critic Wayne Koestenbaum
Sion Sono is insane. In a good way. His most accessible film since "Suicide Club" is this high-energy combination of epic gangster film and ode to DIY filmmaking. In many ways, it's a lamentation for a more innocent time of filmmaking and film-watching, captured through the lens of a director who sees his form just slightly askew. Whether you take the young girl sliding across a room FULL of blood or the blindingly well-choreographed shoot-outs that pop up almost randomly, Sono's vision is distinct. And while I don't love the final product (it's way too long) as much as some of my peers, I have to admire Sono's willingness to deliver a film that feels both distinctly his and an ode to the works with which he fostered an admiration for filmmaking in the first place. I also love that Drafthouse has FINALLY gotten this film to U.S. shores (it came out in 2012) and admire the company for continuing to build a unique, unpredictable stable of filmmakers.
Press Conference with Director Sion Sono
Epic 11x17 fold-out poster by comic artist James Callahan
Finally, Twilight Time continues to impress with their catalog releases, issuing 1979's "Breaking Away" and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" in their latest wave in January. As we've come to expect from Twilight Time, both films look remarkable. This is a company that focuses on HD remastering as well as nearly anyone, second only to Criterion perhaps. Peter Yates' drama about doing what so many of don't do from our smalltown upbringings--leaving it--won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, and introduced the world to Dennis Quaid and Jackie Early Haley. In a cynical period of filmmaking, it is an earnest, accomplished document of Middle America just before the Reagan era. As for Allen's "Purple Rose," it's always been one of my favorites from the beloved writer/director. If it's yours too, there's no better way to own it than with this release. The special features are non-existent but that's something we've come to expect from Allen Blu-rays, no matter the studio releasing them. Twilight Time continues to impress with their releases of (mostly) films from the '70s and '80s that might go under the radar for young film fans who don't look past the Criterion Collection. Don't sleep on what they're offering.
Special Features: "Breaking Away"
Isolated Score Track
Audio Commentary with Actor Dennis Christopher, and Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
Road to Adulthood
Original Theatrical Trailer
Special Features: "The Purple Rose of Cairo"
Isolated Score Track
Original Theatrical Trailer
Note: There's so little of interest new to VOD exclusively (other than perhaps "The Voices") that the VOD portion of this week is shuttered. We'll be back next week. Hopefully.
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