As planes take off for Park City (and make sure to check back for all of our Sundance coverage over the next ten days of indie movie greatness), we're doing our bi-weekly customer service by presenting the latest and greatest on-disc and On Demand. What should you watch this January? Netflix is a little quiet right now and Amazon is pushing their (mostly awful) new series. Even exclusive On Demand offerings are slim. So we'll start with the Blu-rays, a robust crop of good-to-great releases that hit stores last week or this one.
12 NEW ON BLU-RAY/DVD
"The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (Criterion)
We included the great Criterion edition of "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" from Rainer Werner Fassbinder a few months ago, and the most important company on the Blu-ray market follows up that release with Fassbinder's 1972 ('73 in the states) release of "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," a fascinating cinematic experiment that really displays the filmmaker's skill with creating thematically resonant, visually striking compositions within a tightly restricted frame. Almost all of "Bitter Tears" takes place in one location, the apartment of the title character, a fashion designer confronted with loss and even potential love, and Fassbinder finds a way to keep it visually captivating. The way he places his characters within the frame is not merely functional. Study it. Look at it closely. It's often emotionally and thematically resonant. All Fassbinder should be studies at some point in a film lover's career. And while "Petra" is not one of my favorites, it should be included in the study.
New Interviews with Ballhaus and actors Margit Carstensen, Eva mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla
New interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc
Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, a 1992 German television documentary by Thomas Honickel featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: An essay by critic Peter Matthews
LAIKA continues their animation domination with this Oscar-nominated adventure film that very loosely adapts a children's book about underground monsters. The people who gave us "Coraline" and "Paranorman" are back with a film that's arguably less ambitious than those two (and slightly less successful) but also inventive and gloriously odd in a way that only LAIKA can replicate. The story is relatively simple. There are Boxtrolls that live underground. A boy is raised by them. He helps bridge the gap between the world above and the one below, despite being thwarted by an evil man (Ben Kingsley) who wants all Boxtrolls destroyed. It's a standard family film theme--those demonized characters are actually the good guys--but it's very well-done, defiantly odd, and always visually captivating, something you can truly appreciate in HD.
Dare to Be Square: Behind the Scenes of "The Boxtrolls"
5 Featurettes that Take You Inside the magical World of "The Boxtrolls"
Feature Commentary with Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Blu-ray Exclusive - Preliminary Animatic Sequences
While it didn't make the box office waves of some of 2014's blockbusters, it really feels like James Ward Byrkit's low-budge genre indie could end up being the most beloved sci-fi hit of the last year. The people who know "Coherence" LOVE "Coherence." It has the scent of a cult classic in the making, a film that future generations will view and wonder how it wasn't more appreciated on its release. The charm of "Coherence" is in its structure/execution. A group of friends get together on a night that a comet is passing overhead, leaving a potential door open to an alternate universe. I won't spoil what happens next because Byrkit didn't even let his cast in on the plot that would unfold, making their confused, frightened reactions feel even more genuine. It's a filmmaking experiment that really worked. It's just too bad Oscilloscope couldn't release it on Blu-ray too. This one is DVD-only.
Feature length audio commentary with writer/director James Ward Byrkit, writer/actor Alex Manugian, actor Emily Foxler
Behind the scenes of "Coherence" featurette with the cast and crew
Original camera test film footage with comments by director James Ward Byrkit
One of the best films of 2014 made its Blu-ray debut last week in a relatively thin release from Fox in terms of bonus material but a great one nonetheless. The film looks amazing in HD, proving further how tightly-constructed and perfectly-shot it is. The sound mix is phenomenal. And the special features are scant but cool, including a commentary and a new book about the character within the character, Amazing Amy. Even the case for "Gone Girl" feels more artistically designed than your average Fox release. As for the movie, it holds up remarkably well on repeat viewing, especially if you can appreciate the craftsmanship of Fincher's approach. Every decision is calculated and carefully considred. It's a finely-tuned watch of a film. I love it.
"Amazing Amy Tattle Tale"
"Jimi: All is By My Side"
Not being allowed access to the music of Jimi Hendrix would have likely stopped 99% of filmmakers in their efforts to make a film about one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Not John Ridley. And so the film that stars Andre Benjamin as Hendrix became known more for what it wasn't than for what it is--an intersecting dissection of the emergence of an artist. By not focusing on the crafting of his music, Ridley focuses on the crafting of the Hendrix persona and legend. There are some missteps in the supporting cast but Benjamin is phenomenal here, and it's always engaging, and it is so for what it is and not just for what's missing. I wish there was a special feature or two on the Blu-ray to explain the difficult process of making a film about a musician that can't feature the music for which he's famous, but so many people failed to see the film at all, just giving it a chance is a good place to start.
"Love is Strange"
The very opening scene of Ira Sachs' "Love is Strange" should be studied in acting and film classes. In it, we meet the two central characters, played perfectly by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, and learn so much about them with a few key character beats. It is the wedding day of Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina). The former is more nervous. He wakes up earlier, before his alarm. He can't find his glasses. George says "not today" in a way that implies Ben's neuroses are common--the kind of thing that married people say to each other in shorthand. We get to know George and Ben briefly but distinctly enough that when life tears them apart, they already feel real. I think Sachs stumbles a bit in the final act, going more for heartstring pulling than he should, but there's SO much to recommend here purely for the work of Lithgow and Molina, who give not only two of the best performances of 2014 but the best performances of their notable careers.
Commentary with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Ira Sachs
What is Love: Making of Love is Strange
LA Film Festival Q&A with John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Cheyenne Jackson and Ira Sachs
Screw Marvel, I'll take Besson. The best superhero movie of 2014 marked the return of Luc Besson, who may not be quite up to playing the cinematic game with the flair he brought to it in the '80s and '90s but he certainly delivers a gut punch of an action film, racing by at a stunning 80-minutes and 80 MPH. Scarlett Johansson rocks (AGAIN) as the title character, a woman who suddenly becomes a superhero really when a drug delivery gone wrong starts her brain headed toward 100% usage. We've all heard the stories about how little percentage of their brain the human race uses. What if you used 100%? "Lucy" is the kind of film that doesn't really work if you stop too long to think about it but Besson's filmmaking forces you to turn your brain off just as Lucy is using more of hers. That's kind of remarkable if you think about it. A fantastic car chase scene in which Lucy escapes as cars bound around her is worth the rental cost alone.
The Evolution of "Lucy" Follow Lucy's transformation though the eyes of Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman & Director Luc Besson.
Cerebral Capacity: The True Science of "Lucy" with Morgan Freeman as our guide, we dive into the world of "Lucy."
"Men, Women & Children"
Again, this column is designed more to draw your attention to films you may want to rent or buy. We clearly can't cover everything (there's no time or space) and so we try to focus on the positive. However, it can occassionally be a positive thing to warn you of a negative. Jason Reitman's latest comedy hit the Toronto Film Festival like a lead balloon. I'll never forget being outside of its press screening and seeing the stunned looks on the faces of my colleagues. Could it really be THAT bad? Yes, it turns out that it could. Reitman is trying to convey a cautionary tale on the perils of technology in the modern world but he does so with all the subtlety of "Reefer Madness." Some of the intertwined subplots in this film are among the worst written and performed of the year. To be fair, a few cast members (Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever) make it out unscathed, but this is a film better avoided than considered for too long. I can guarantee you that everyone involved has moved on by now.
Deleted Scenes Including Additional Storyline
William H. Macy's directorial debut is a well-intentioned drama with a startingly good performance from Billy Crudup at its core. Doing his best work since "Almost Famous," Crudup plays a man who loses his son to a school shooting. After retreating into a bottle for a couple years, he emerges to find that his boy was actually a pretty remarkable songwriter. Pushed along by fate, he ends up singing the songs his son wrote. Macy keeps a major fact about the narrative secret for a bit too long not to feel like a cheat and the final act stumbles a bit but he's unsurprisingly great with actors, drawing phenomenal work from Crudup and Anton Yelchin. I look forward to what he does next. Maybe Paramount will release that one on Blu-ray. This one is DVD-only.
Hear This Song
"Hold On" Music Video with Selena Gomez and Ben Kweller
"The Sword of Doom" (Criterion)
Kihachi Okamoto's "The Sword of Doom" is a startingly depressing tale of outdated nobility and madness through the lens of a samurai who has essentially lost his moral code, and in doing so, lost his sanity. From the very beginning, the tone of this 1966 drama is one of dilapidated history as the dead eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai convey those of a man who no longer holds on to even the slightest principle. He kills not out of necessity but out of cruelty, defying the samurai code. Okamoto almost portrays him as the Grim Reaper, a force of death for not just individuals but the samurai way. Criterion has upgraded an earlier release with still-scant special features but a traditionally strong Blu-ray transfer. "Sword of Doom" is a film that doesn't get the attention of more notable samurai classics, and it deserves the attention of fans of the genre.
New audio commentary featuring film historian Stephen Prince
PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien
They could have called it anti-"Taken". Whereas the trilogy of films that have made Liam Neeson a star feel about as realistically violent as a Marvel movie, this Scott Frank noir will make you want to take a shower to rinse off the grime of man's inhumanity to man. Neeson stars as a private dick who gets drawn into a horrendous case that tests his sobriety when he's asked to figure out why a drug dealer's wife was sent home in pieces even after he paid the ransom. He follows the leads to a pair of absolute maniacs, the kind of sadistic maniacs that film often avoids because we're not used to this kind of pitch-black darkness in our cinema. This is not a film for everyone and I do question the value of taking such a journey to the dark side of life but it's undeniably well-made (and gorgeously shot by Mihai Milaimare Jr. of "The Master"), and it's important every once in awhile to be reminded how much Hollywood sugar-coats real violence. There's no sweetener here.
Matt Scudder: Private Eye
A Look Behind the Tombstones
Terry Gilliam made a sci-fi movie with two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon, and David Thewlis and almost no one noticed. This is a remarkable statement of fact. There was a time when EVERY Gilliam, yes even "The Brothers Grimm," made some sort of wave across at least the indie movie world. What happened? Did he burn too many bridges with failed projects and misfires like "Tideland"? It's a shame if people are ignoring one of the most imaginative filmmakers of the last four decades. We shouldn't ignore Gilliam. Does that mean "The Zero Theorem" is perfect? No, but it's certainly more innovative than you may expect. It contains some of Gilliam's most powerful filmmaking since "Fear and Loathing," in the story of a man who realizes he's just a part of the machine and how to break out of that. It's very reminiscent of Gilliam's masterpiece, "Brazil," and it's a work that I think will be appreciated more over time and on repeat viewing. I wish the Blu-ray had a bit more in terms of special features, but the film was seen by so few people (it's made less than $1 million worldwide) that just having access to it is special enough.
Behind The Scenes
The Visual Effects
7 NEW TO NETFLIX
It's been really light on Netflix lately but here are a few recent additions to the streaming service that may draw your interest, including the debut work of Ava DuVernay, a film that Roger Ebert drew attention to on its release in ways that gave the director confidence to proceed all the way to her vision of "Selma".
3 NEW TO VOD
"Song One" (available Friday)