We're back after only a week since the last HECG because there are just too many titles worth your attention. There's no "New to Netflix" section this week because there's not enough there (although go watch "Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead" if that's your kind of thing), but, in terms of sheer Blu-ray quality, this might be the best edition of the Guide to date. A trio of strong Criterion releases, one of the best foreign films of last year, an Oscar nominee, a classic Disney film, and a truly great action movie. It makes me regret past editions when I said there was something for everyone because they really didn't have as impressive a roster as this week. It makes me feel OK about ignoring "Dracula Untold" and "Ouija" when there are this many alternatives to watch. In order this week of how you should pursue them.
10 NEW TO BLU-RAY
"A Day in the Country" (Criterion)
I had never seen Renoir's infamous short film until this Criterion edition and now I'm a better person. Yes, that's an exaggeration, but I absolutely adore this almost-lost short, a film Renoir shot in 1936 but then shelved when production delays forced him to move on and WWII stopped everything. Ten years later, it was finished without Renoir's assistance, and he had reportedly generally dismissed the work. It's a beauty: a subtle, quiet, graceful little piece about fate as the ever-changing flow of a river. The transfer is perfect and the special features, especially an interview about the history of the film, are informative. Renoir may have considered it one of his minor works. I would respectfully disagree.
New 2K digital restoration
Introduction by director Jean Renoir from 1962
"The Road to 'A Day in the Country,'" a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner about the film's production
"Renoir's at Work," a new video essay by Faulkner on Renoir's methods
"Un tournage a la champagne," an 89-minute 1994 compilation of outtakes from the film
Interview with producer Pierre Braunberger from 1979
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: An essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez
In my dream world, David Oyelowo, Brendan Gleeson, and Jake Gyllenhaal are competing for the Oscar in about ten days. Sadly, none of them were even nominated. Yes, that's how good Jake is here in Dan Gilroy's masterful dissection of our "if it bleeds, it leads" news culture. Gyllenhaal perfectly embodies a man whose sociopathology intersects with opportunity when he becomes a nightly news stringer. Russo is great too, and Robert Elswit was robbed from the Oscar for the way he shoots L.A. from the modern light sources of real night--headlights, dashboard lights, streetlights, camera lights. "Nightcrawler" is a great film that holds up well on repeat viewing and further solidifies its star as one of the best of his generation.
If It Bleeds, It Leads: Making "Nightcrawler"
Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Dan Gilroy, Producer Tony Gilroy, and Editor John Gilroy
Frances McDormand's performance in this HBO mini-series just won her a Screen Actors Guild Award and is likely to win her an Emmy in about six months. It would be in the Oscar conversation had this been a film and not a TV series. She's that good. The entirety of "Olive Kitteridge" is a joy to behold, a rumination on the cloud of depression and the ripple effect of seemingly minor events. The entire cast is great but McDormand's subtle work carries the piece. It's the kind of performance people will be catching up with and further appreciating for years. I'll quote my placement of the program on the best shows of 2014:
"The most striking TV movie or mini-series this year was HBO's resonant adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's short stories, starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and an ensemble of phenomenal character actors. In a career of great roles, Olive Kitteridge stands as one of McDormand's best, a woman so concerned about passing her depression down to her son that she locks her emotions away and becomes distant. And yet she's more keenly aware of the world around her than most of us. She may be the most unforgettable character of 2014. Precisely directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the brilliance of "Olive Kitteridge" comes in the spaces between, the moments when characters take in the world around them and assess their emotional response to it. Melodrama on TV is easy. It's been a foundation of the medium for years. The stunning thing about "Olive Kitteridge" is how it captures the valleys as completely as the emotional peaks."
None, but it does include a digital HD copy, guess that's something.
What a shock it is to see an action film that has a visual language. What a shock it is to see an action film that has geography and sense of place instead of shaky-cam, quick cut nonsense in place of actual fight choreography. What a shock it is to see an action film this beautifully streamlined. A reformed bad guy returns to the underworld when they kill his dog. That's it. That's the whole pitch. And on top of that, the filmmakers behind "John Wick" craft a phenomenal action film, one of the best of the last several years. It is so structurally sound, tight, and finely executed, like the great works of John Woo and even reminiscent at times, in its neon-soaked rain puddles, of Michael Mann. If you know me, that's about as high praise as I can give. "John Wick" rules.
Don't F*#% with John Wick
Calling in the Cavalry
Destiny of a Collective
Another Oscar snub a la Jake Gyllenhaal above is this great dark comedy being left off the list for Best Foreign Language Film. Ruben Ostlund's dissection of the imperfection of mothers and fathers is simple but beautiful. And it's so tonally fascinating, moving between Coen-esque dark comedy and melodrama with ease. I cherish some of the conversations I've had around "Force Majeure," the story of a man who sees his family in a dangerous situation and saves his own skin. What does that do to him? What does that do to his wife? The key to the film comes in the final two scenes, which I won't spoil here but which I believe alter all conversations to have about the what-if scenario at the heart of the movie. The roles of father as one who protects and mother as one who worries are redefined and stabilized. Is Ostlund arguing that family can't survive without them? It's a fascinating film that will be discussed long after most of the last year's Best Foreign Film nominees have been forgotten.
Interview With Writer/Director Ruben Ostlund and Actor Johannes Bah Kuhnke
AXS TV: A Look At "Force Majeure"
"Don't Look Now" (Criterion)
I love a great Criterion special feature and there's a phenomenal one on the new release for "Don't Look Now," in which Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle basically pay homage to Nicolas Roeg. They discuss how Roeg's cinematic language not only was different from his peers but how much it influenced them. The idea that "Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire," "Out of Sight" and "The Limey" wouldn't be the same without "Don't Look Now" fascinates me. Watching Roeg's film again, in a gorgeous 4K restoration, I was stunned by how much emotion Roeg imbues into the piece. I hadn't seen it in twenty years, and so I remembered more of the occult and sexy stuff than the things I focus on now as a parent. The whole piece is shrouded in dank, foggy emotion. The unimaginable pain of losing a child. Christie and Sutherland are great here, but it's Roeg's film, a man daring to tell a story in a different manner, using film fluidly as a visual medium that could have thematic importance instead of just relaying a narrative.
New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Nicolas Roeg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New conversation between the filmâ€™s editor, Graeme Clifford, and film writer Bobbie Oâ€™Steen
"'Don't Look Now,'" Looking Back, a short 2002 documentary featuring Roeg, Clifford, and cinematographer Anthony Richmond
"Death in Venice," a 2006 interview with composer Pino Donaggio
"Something Interesting," a new documentary on the writing and making of the film, featuring interviews with Richmond, actors Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, and coscreenwriter Allan Scott
"Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film," a new documentary on Roegâ€™s style, featuring interviews with filmmakers Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh
Q&A with Roeg at London's Cine Lumiere from 2003
PLUS: An essay by film critic David Thompson
Disney is the master of animation HD transfers and their latest is no exception. The Diamond Edition of the film that gave us Cruella De Vil looks amazing. The color balancing, the line definition--it's stunning. It looks better than some animated films that came out on Blu-ray last year. And it reminds one of how much I miss hand-drawn animation. There's a living art aspect to these films that we don't really have any more now that animated films have gone from reminding us of paintings to video games. As for special features, the draws here are a digital copy of the film so you and the family can watch it anywhere and a new short called "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt." But the real catch here is the film itself, the 17th film in the Disney canon and an essential one in the history of the company. The film itself is better than you remember (it never seems to get as much attention as films like "Peter Pan" or "Dumbo") and you've never seen it pop like this in HD.
"The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt"
Walt Disney Presents "The Best Doggoned Dog in the World" (1961 Version)
It's barely a movie but it's not bad. This earnest, sweet, slapsticky adaptation of Judith Viorst's book barely runs over 70 minutes. It's a nice diversion featuring a cast that's up for whatever physical humor the filmmakers can throw at them. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are remarkably likable, as is new young lead Ed Oxenbould. Given that it's a family film, the real test for parents is are you willing to watch it not once but 43 times. Kids like to watch their favorites over and over again, and "Alexander" is a perfectly fine, quick ride for the entire family. Carell's comedy skills are well known and Garner is underrated in that department. It may be too goofy for anyone high school age or older, but it's way more fun than annoying. And that's saying something for modern family films.
Alexander... In Real Life: Author Judith Viorst and her son, the real Alexander, share the story behind the book and its impact on their lives.
Snappy Crocs And Punchy Roos: The Australian Outback Yard Party
Walkabout: A Video Diary: Ed Oxenbould, who plays Alexander, sets out with camera in hand on a behind-the-scenes adventure.
And The Delightful, Magnificent, Very Good Bloopers
"Hurricane" By The Vamps - Music Video
Justin Simien's film about black culture on a small college campus was pitched as a satire and so I was expecting something broader and more comedic. It's not a satire. It's more of a character study about people deep in the current conversation about race not just in education but in society. It's a confident piece that suffers a bit from pacing problems but those are made up for by the GREAT performance from Tessa Thompson, who really should be made a star as soon as conceivably possible.
Deleted Scenes & Outtakes
PSA Series: "The More You Know About Black People"
"Racism Insurance" Parody
"The Making of 'Dear White People'" Featurette
"Get Your Life" Music Video by Caught a Ghost
DVRSE App: Black Friends When You Need Them
LEAKED: Banned Winchester U Diversity Video
Cast with Director Commentary
Why doesn't Jeremy Renner get more parts like this one? Why doesn't this film work better despite his great work in it? "Kill the Messenger" certainly isn't a bad film. It's pretty good, actually, and you should see it just for Renner's performance. But it kind of fizzles out when it needs to be climaxing. I think it's because subject Gary Webb's story is so inherently tragic that it might not make for a great film. A great documentary, yes. But Webb got destroyed by a system that should have protected him and Cuesta's approach is a bit too talky for too long. And while his story is interesting, it doesn't necessarily make for excellent cinema. See the movie for Renner, and because we need to see him get more adult drama parts like this one, but be prepared for a work that doesn't quite come together like it should.
"Kill the Messenger": The All-Star Cast
Crack in America
Filming in Georgia
Feature Commentary with Director Michael Cuesta
4 NEW TO VOD
"Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" (available Friday)
"The Last 5 Years" (available Friday)