Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
And we're back. While movie lovers discuss the Cannes premieres of the latest by Paolo Sorrentino, Todd Haynes and Joachim Trier, among many others, most of us aren't lucky enough to be on the French Riviera this Memorial Day weekend. What are we supposed to do with our time? Well, there are a few great Blu-ray releases, some On Demand choices, and some exciting new options on Netflix to peruse. Here are some of the highlights
10 NEW TO BLU-RAY
"Life can be wonderful if you're not afraid of it. All it needs is courage, imagination, and a little help." Chaplin's last great film is also his most personal, both in its fictional narrative and the way it was treated. The film didn't even open stateside until two decades after it was finished because of the Red Scare forcing Chaplin out of the country. So it wasn't until 1972 that we had a chance to appreciate one of Chaplin's most gentle, rewarding films, a piece about how life can challenge even the most optimistic and how it is those challenges that can inspire others. The tale of an aging comedian (clearly a variation on Chaplin playing himself) and a young dancer is ridiculously sentimental. By today's standards, it's nearly parody. When the bedridden ballet dancer gets up to inspire her new closest friend to fight for his life, it's so melodramatic that it became cliched. But it works because of Chaplin and Bloom's honesty and commitment to the message of the film. Criterion has beautifully restored it and included a few great special features, including an interview with the timeless Claire Bloom. I have a soft spot in my critical heart for Chaplin, and I hold the Criterion editions of his films above most others in their collection. They're all must-owns.
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
"Chaplin's 'Limelight': Its Evolution and Intimacy," a new video essay by Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson
New interviews with actors Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd
"Chaplin Today: 'Limelight,'" a 2002 documentary on the film
Archival audio recording of Charlie Chaplin reading two short excerpts from his novella "Footlights"
Two short films by Chaplin: "A Night in the Show" (1915) and the never completed "The Professor" (1919)
Outtake and two trailers
Plus: An essay by critic Peter von Bagh and excepts from an on-set piece by journalist Henry Gris
"Make Way For Tomorrow" (Criterion)
"We'll soon be together for always." This line comes in a heartbreaking scene near the end of the first act of Leo McCarey's drama and it's pretty easy to cry from that point through to the end. Orson Welles notoriously told Peter Bogdanovich that this 1937 weeper could "make a stone cry" and McCarey, who won the Oscar that year for directing "The Awful Truth," said in his acceptance speech that the Academy gave him the statue for the wrong movie. He always considered this tender story of age and tragedy (essentially remade last year in "Love is Strange") to be his best film. It's held up well, especially in the heartfelt honesty of its two central performances. As Bogdanovich discusses in his on-disc interview, McCarey wasn't a showy filmmaker, and so he's not mentioned as often as his peers, but was a very notable one, a man often credited above the title. He considered this his best film. That alone means you should take a look.
High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
"Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today," a 2009 interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich about the career of director Leo McCarey and "Make Way for Tomorrow"
Interview from 2009 with critic Gary Giddins about McCarey's artistry and the political and social context of the film
Plus: A booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, as well as an excerpt from film scholar Robin Wood's 1998 piece "Leo McCarey and 'Family Values'"
"Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"
"Over the next two years, cancer will kill more people than all of the American wars...combined." Yes, cancer is terrifying. And, right now, as you read this, there are thousands of people working on ways to cure it. Produced by Ken Burns, this six-hour documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee focuses more on modern research and the non-stop attempts to find a cure for cancer than anything else. Yes, there are some human interest stories, including a heartbreaking one about a 17-month-old with Leukemia, but the PBS doc spends way more time on the medical details and future of the disease than anything else. Almost to a fault. It could have been a third as long or shifted focus, as much of the medical discussion of the disease gets repetitive, but this is still a very valuable piece about something that will impact nearly everyone on Earth either directly or through someone they care about.
Quick. Name the highest-grossing film domestically of 2014. Not Marvel. Not "Hunger Games." Believe it or not, it was the latest film from Clint Eastwood, this Oscar-winning drama that really tapped into a demographic that's under-served in American cinema and then broke out of that success to find an audience nationwide. It felt for a few weeks there like everyone was talking about "American Sniper." Was it political? Anti-war? Pro-war? As many have pointed out, the brilliance of Eastwood's vision was that he created a Rorschach Test of a wartime drama in that people on either side of the aisle could see what they wanted within it. I under-valued the film in theaters, appreciating it way more at home, away from expectations and discussions. For one thing, Bradley Cooper is just phenomenal here, doing the best work of his career. I still have some issues with how much Eastwood avoids and how broadly he paints the wartime experience, but this is a well-made drama with a great central performance. You've probably seen it already, but now you can see it again.
One Soldier's Story: The Journey of "American Sniper"
Join director Clint Eastwood, cast and crew as they overcome enormous creative and logistic obstacles to bring the truth of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's story to the screen.
The Making of American Sniper
While nearly everyone in America has seen "American Sniper," a MUCH smaller percentage spent time with Michael Mann's divisive new cyber-crime drama ("Blackhat" actually made 2% of what "American Sniper" made. TWO!) Of the very small number of people who saw "Blackhat," most hated it. Even most of my critic friends dismissed it. I'm admittedly more of a Michael Mann fan than most people (I'll argue in favor of "Miami Vice" and "Public Enemies" too) but I can't believe how easily the filmmaking here has been ignored. Whatever narrative flaws you find in "Blackhat" (and, yes, there are a few), the filmmaking here is so robust and alive that we dismiss it at our own peril. My issue with bad filmmaking is when I can sense laziness and pure profiteering. Too many filmmakers don't care about their final product. Whatever you may say about Mann, he cares. He's a perfectionist, and we need more craftsman like him. Mann is tackling the way crime has changed in the '10s. In a sense, the villain of "Blackhat" is not far from the bad guys of "Heat" or "Collateral," but our newly interconnected world makes it easier for him to hide. Mann is fascinated by the idea that technology which brings us together create a killer who uses a computer as a weapon from a distance. History will be kind to "Blackhat."
The Cyber Threat
On Location Around The World
Rory Kennedy's Oscar-nominated documentary focuses (too) tightly on the final days of the conflict in Vietnam, noting something that's often not reported about war in that it's not so easy to leave when it ends. When the conflict in Vietnam was coming to a close, there were dozens of practical concerns, including what to do with sensitive military documents, how to protect Vietnamese people who had sided with the U.S., and the logistics of helicoptering people out of still-violent areas. The PBS Blu-ray release includes both the theatrical version that played at Sundance and earned an Oscar nod and an extended version that played on the network. I was a little surprised that Kennedy's film landed a Best Doc nod but it's a good film; definitely worth a look at home.
The Academy Award-nominated theatrical release
The extended American Experience version
"The Rose" (Criterion)
In the interview with Bette Midler on the new Criterion edition of "The Rose," she discusses how she avoided other film offers to wait for just the right part to make her debut. She made the right call. "The Rose" made her a massive star, and not just for the title track, one of her biggest hits. Midler is far and away the best thing about this variation on the life of Janis Joplin, as she gives her all to every performance and every scene. Hearing her talk about how difficult it was to work with Harry Dean Stanton and how easy it was to work with Frederic Forrest is interesting film history stuff but I have to say that "The Rose" itself hasn't held up as well as I hoped. It's too long by a sizable margin, with some musical numbers that go on well past their breaking point. Midler and Forrest are both great, but the film itself feels remarkably dated and flawed. As for the actual Blu-ray, it's another great transfer from Criterion. The restoration is excellent and the audio mix really allows Midler to shine.
New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond
Audio commentary featuring director Mark Rydell
New interviews with Rydell, Zsigmond, and Bette Midler
Archival interviews with Midler and Rydell, with on-set footage
Plus: An essay by music critic Paula Mejia
There were a large number of people who thought that this Russian drama could swoop in and steal the Oscar from "Ida" or "Wild Tales". I always suspected that Zvyagintsev's drama was a bit too bleak for the Academy, who often embraces heartwarming more than depressing in this category. "Leviathan" is a tale of control and bureaucracy destroying the little man. In other words, it's very Russian. It's also beautifully shot, and filled with a melancholy and sense of fated tragedy that makes for effective filmmaking. Every scene in "Leviathan" feels like it's pushing the characters toward the edge of a cliff. It is a statement about a government that no longer protects its people, but simply gets them out of the way when they've become a nuisance.
Toronto International Film Festival Q&A with Director Andrey Zvyagintsev
Commentary with Director Andrey Zvyagintsev & Producer Alexander Rodnyansky
The Making of "Leviathan"
Three PBS releases in one Guide! We're just that crazy. "Wolf Hall" is the biggest Masterpiece release of the last year or so, notching nearly universal acclaim for this adaptation of Hilary Mantel's best-selling Booker Prize-Winning novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies." While some PBS period pieces can come off stuffy and distant, "Wolf Hall" works by feeling relevant to modern audiences. Stars Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis shine in this look at the well-recorded years of Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn. We've seen this story before but rarely with this level of detail or moral complexity.
Go behind the scenes of "Wolf Hall," from the history and design to the people and politics.
Yes, it's out on Blu-ray. Yes, it's still not very good. But the purpose of this column is to guide you, our readers, to things that you may be interested in renting or buying, and this smash hit movie has a lot of interested renters or buyers, even if some of them may not want to admit it. Unlike some book-to-film adaptations, "Fifty Shades" really connected with audiences, making a shocking amount of money worldwide. And yet I've not yet met anyone who really "loves" the film. They all greet with a "Yeah, that was OK" attitude at best. Maybe you're one of the bigger fans of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan's breakthrough film. If so, you'll like the alternate ending and teaser for "Fifty Shades Darker." Don't worry. We won't tell anyone.
Unrated Version with Alternate Ending
Tease of Fifty "Shades Darker"
E L James & Fifty Shades
The World of "Fifty Shades of Grey": Christian Grey & Ana
Behind the Shades
The World of "Fifty Shades of Grey: Friends and Family"
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
Netflix has been a little quiet lately but don't miss one of this year's Ebertfest entries, now available for streaming subscribers.
3 NEW TO VOD
We're focusing on something unique in this week's VOD section, the early release of Matthew Vaughn's massive hit "Kingsman: The Secret Service," which is now available for purchase through Digital HD (including popular services like iTunes and Vudu) in advance of its rental release. Fox has done this with several of their titles lately: allowing those willing to buy a jump on those just seeking to rent. Is this the future? It must be working because it seems to be more common every week. As for "Kingsman," it's a well-made action flick with a great central performance by Colin Firth. I find it a bit too long and some of the violence too extreme, but there are some great action set-pieces and I actually look forward to the in-discussion sequel more. Watch it now before your friends get a chance, or check out two in-theaters films: a drama with Ethan Hawke or an award-winning doomed love story that won awards at festivals across the country.
"Kingsman: The Secret Service"
A celebration of director David Lynch's filmography in anticipation of an upcoming retrospective at the IFC Center in...
A review of the fourth original Marvel series for Netflix. And the worst.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A classic thriller that moves with a sense of purpose.