Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalogue titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This twice-monthly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
PICK OF THE WEEK:
Wings of Desire: Wim Wenders’s 1987 international sensation gets the 4K upgrade from the Criterion Collection, and the results are awe-inspiring; drawn from the 2018 restoration that undid the multi-generation fading required by the original optical effects, the black-and-white images of the split Berlin in its final days are as haunting as ever, while the color climax looks like it got a nice, fresh coat of paint. Wenders’s tale of a lovelorn angel (Bruno Ganz), a trapeze artist, and Peter Falk remains a profoundly moving meditation on the human experience. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes and outtakes, archival featurettes, interviews, and trailers.)
ON AMAZON PRIME:
AIR: Ben Affleck returns to the director’s chair to tell the tale of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), basketball scout for Nike, who pinpointed a college baller named Michael Jordan as the next big thing and suggested building not just a campaign but a shoe around his talent. It’s well-acted by a tip-top cast (Damon and Affleck are aces, while Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, and Viola Davis shine in support), and Affleck puts it all together with a slick sheen of professionalism. It’s just that it could use a little more juice and a little more grime; with the particulars of the story so well known, a bit more friction would be welcome. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a watch, and with Moneyball back on Prime, your double-feature is all sorted.
ON APPLE TV+:
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie: Take the title literally — director Davis Guggenheim and editor Michael Harte use bits and pieces from Fox’s own films to tell his story, ingeniously interweaving Fox’s memories, audio snippets, archival footage, film clips, stylized dramatization, and (most importantly) our general sense of who and what Michael J. Fox is. It’s compelling and confessional and clever as hell, but most importantly, STILL leaves us with some sense of who Fox is: funny, open, completely disinterested in pity. “I’m a tough sonofabitch,” he says. “I’m a cockroach and I’ve been through a lotta stuff.”
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
Knock at the Cabin: One must try not to give too much credit to the filmmaker who deftly uses the old-school studio logo, but the appearance of the ‘80s-era Universal planet at the beginning of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is such an appropriate mood-setter, invoking as it does the likes of The Thing, Videodrome, Cat People, and They Live, genre exercises with potent allegorical and metaphorical framing. Tightly wound and visually terrifying, it finds a gay couple and their adopted daughter enjoying some downtime at a remote cabin when they’re approached by a quartet of strangers (led by a superb Dave Bautista), who claim that two of them must sacrifice the third to save humanity. The plot turns are effective (particularly the hints of Q-style shared delusion and online echo chambers), and Shyamalan harnesses some genuinely horrifying imagery to supplement the Twilight Zone simplicity it shares with his best work. And frankly, bonus points to the filmmaker for tempting fate by hinting at Happening territory. (Includes deleted and extended scenes and featurettes.)
Petite Maman: Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Celine Sciamma’s latest (new to the Criterion Collection) is a keenly observed, perfectly realized short story about loss, parenthood, childhood, and change. It’s poignant from frame one, as we see little Nelly (Josephine Sanz) saying goodbye to all the old ladies in a hospital, and soon realize she and her mother (Nina Meurisse) are there because her grandmother just died. They then have the unenviable job of going to grandmother’s house, to sift through all of her things – and all of her mother’s memories. More than that I will not say, except to note that Nelly makes a friend, and the scenes of their interactions are uniquely charming; Sciamma has a wonderful ear for how kids of this age relate and communicate, and once the film’s device becomes clear, she lands all the little jokes while finding, in scene after scene, all the right, precise, delicate notes. (Includes interview and short film.)
Moving On: Lily Tomlin reunites with Paul Weitz, the writer/director who gave her the best role of her third act with 2015’s Grandma, and brings along her frequent co-star Jane Fonda for good measure. The results are frankly uneven, especially compared to the tight efficiency of Grandma, as Weitz attempts to spin a serious MeToo theme into a light-hearted story of bumbling amateur criminals. But it’s such a joy to watch Fonda and Tomlin work (and, especially, to watch them work together) that you might not much mind the inconsistencies, while Sarah Burns, Richard Roundtree, and Malcolm McDowell turn in memorable supporting work.
Branded to Kill: This was the last of “Japanese New Wave bad boy” (per the box copy) Seikun Suzuki’s long run of wild crime epics for regular studio Nikkatsu – the film at which nervous execs finally drew the line. Suzuki knew what was up; the yakuza/hitman narratives he was regularly handed, including this one, could’ve easily melted into each other had he not infused them with his distinctive visuals, wild character flourishes, and general sense of controlled chaos. All are crisply captured in Criterion’s new 4K upgrade; what was once deemed “incomprehensible” is now a symposium in style. (Including interviews and trailer.)
Superman: Five-Film Collection 1978-1987: Lest anybody get too worked up about the wild variances (in both quality and continuity) in current films inspired by DC Comics, it’s worth remembering that the original Superman movies—in many ways, the template for modern superhero cinema—changed directors midway through movie two, changed tones not long thereafter, and shifted studios to a shop synonymous with cheapo B-movies by the end of the nine-year, four-picture run. Warner’s new 4K box set celebrates that series in all its awesomeness and all its messiness, from the jaw-dropping heights of the original Superman: The Movie and Superman II to the make-do do-over of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to the lows of Superman III and especially Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (whose bargain-basement effects are done no favors by the 4K upgrade). But even those last two exhibit a modicum of wit, personality, and fun, which is more than you can say for some of the Superman-adjacent pictures of recent years. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, original Superman cartoons, trailers, TV spots, and Donner intro for Superman II.)
In the Line of Duty I-IV: 88 Films celebrates Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win in the best possible way with this handsome box set of the first four films in the beloved Hong Kong “girls with guns” action series – including Yeoh’s first two leading roles. Yes, Madam! (inexplicably presented here as the second film in the series, though released first) pairs Yeoh with the great Cynthia Rothrock in a classic buddy movie rivals-to-partners arc, and the moment when they finally raise their hands together against the big bad’s ineffectual thugs is a glorious one indeed. (Also glorious: the hilarious, wholesale lifting of the Halloween score). Royal Warriors continues the basic but effective premise, in which Yeoh uses the mistaken impression that she’s just a pretty little girl to her advantage; the action beats are relentlessly energetic, and if they’re not exactly breaking ground here (the fingerprints of John Woo and Jackie Chan, below, are all over them), they’re effectively done. Most importantly, watching these inaugural Yeoh efforts is like watching Pam Grier’s early movies—her grace and charisma are undeniable, but it’s also clear that she’s having a really good time, and that’s infectious. In the Line of Duty III and In the Line of Duty IV suffer from her absence, but in their defense, most movies do. (Includes audio commentaries, alternate cuts, new and archival interviews, and archival featurettes.)
Full Moon Trilogy: Factory 25 gathers a trio of Joe Swanberg’s most self-reflective efforts from his most prolific period (which is saying something): Silver Bullets, Art History, and The Zone, all from 2011. (He directed or co-directed three other features that year.) All three are basically examinations of on-screen intimacy, how the “job” of shooting sex scenes is rarely just work, and rarely just about the work. The target audience for this kind of thing is admittedly narrow, yet the films are not just lived-in but lived-through, and he clearly has no problem making himself the S.O.B. throughout. But he’s also not the star; each film is centered on a performance from an actress of astonishing gifts (respectively, Kate Lyn Sheil, Josephine Decker, and Sophia Takal – two of whom became directors, which doesn’t feel like a coincidence). Taken together, these films feel like a continuum, each a cigarette lit off the butt of the last, smashed into its ashes of sex, intimacy, exploitation, and discovery. (Includes “Stray Bullets” short film.)
Speaking Parts: This 1989 drama (new from Canadian International Pictures) came early in the filmography of Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan, but the aesthetic and tonal signatures of his later work are already firmly in place, and deeply compelling. He tells the story of a struggling actor and the two mercurial women in his orbit, and does so in a more linear style than his later work. But the crossing paths of characters large and small, along with the idiosyncratic dialogue and peculiarities of mood, make this an immediately identifiable Egoyan. The performers all carry it off, but Gabrielle Rose (familiar to genre audiences from The Stepfather) is especially good as a screenwriter with foggy intentions. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, new and archival interviews, student shorts, and hour-long 1987 Egoyan film Sarabande with audio commentary.)
The Naked Fog / Moonlighting Wives: The wonderful 2013 documentary A Life in Dirty Movies was the big wake-up call for a fair number of cinephiles (including this one) to the work of Joseph W. Sarno, a prolific maker of exploitation movies who nevertheless infused his works with a distinctive voice, an eye-catching visual style, and a complex understanding of sex and intimacy; some have called him the Bergman of the grindhouse, and they’re not wrong. The latest in Film Movement Classics’ series of Sarno Blu-rays captures the contrasts of his work nicely. The Naked Fog is an arty, black-and-white, European-influenced effort, notable mostly for the bleak joylessness of its sexual assignations; it’s fun to imagine the raincoat crowd peering past the dour domestic drama for the (admittedly plentiful) bare boobs. Though from the same year, Moonlighting Wives is a full color, fast-paced effort, with the snappy style and winking horniness of a screwball comedy, yet still firmly entrenched in Sarno’s areas of preoccupation: voyeurism, infidelity, sadomasochism, and the like. Together, they paint a fairly full portrait of this unique filmmaker. (Includes audio commentary and archival interviews.)
Hand of Death: Also known as Countdown in Kung-Fu, this 1976 action flick, new on Blu from Arrow, was an early feature for director John Woo (credited as Wu Yu Sheng), co-star Jackie Chan (his only appearance in a Woo film), and fight choreographer Sammo Hung. But they were not yet JOHN WOO and JACKIE CHAN and SAMMO HUNG; none had found their signature style, though Chan is fun to watch even when he’s just going through the paces, Hung’s fights are typically well-staged, and Woo directs this kung-fu programmer with energy and vigor. As with Last Hurrah for Chivalry (released by Criterion earlier this year), it’s mostly memorable as an opportunity to catch a young artist flitting about and finding his way. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, archival interview, alternate opening credits, and trailers.)
Vinyl Nation: Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone aren’t the first documentary filmmakers to examine the cause and effect of the vinyl revival, but they do it best; their film is simultaneously fleet-footed and detailed, diving into the history of the business, the aesthetics and economics of vinyl recordings, the conventional wisdom and what it gets wrong, and the logistics of how it all works. Best of all, they make a genuine effort to accurately capture and communicate why records are distinct and vital aside from streaming music–arguments which, in many cases, apply to all of physical media. It’s informative and funny and thoughtful, but most importantly, it made me want to go listen to my records.
Justice Ninja Style: Here’s the thing: there’s really no way to pull off a cool low-budget ninja. Even (comparatively) big-budget movies barely pulled it off; it just always looks like some dude from the judo school in whatever black clothes he could pull together. That shoddy presence, the backyard brawls, the copious slo-mo, the gunplay carefully placed just outside of frame—such hallmarks of homegrown, shot-on-VHS action flicks make this 1985 effort (new on Blu from VHShit fest) seem like little more than goofy kitsch. But its story of a martial arts instructor framed for murder by a corrupt small-town deputy is oddly compelling, acted with real conviction by its cast of unknowns and staged with maximum resourcefulness by writer/director Parvin Tramel. You get all the giggly pleasures you’d expect from a movie called Justice Ninja Style, and a little more than that as well. (Includes audio commentary, extended cut, featurettes, news coverage, raw footage, bonus feature, trailer, and easter eggs.)
Dracula (The Dirty Old Man): You gotta give them this: the title is not inaccurate. This 1969 oddity, out in a new edition from AGFA and Something Weird Video, is an odd mash-up of low-budget sexploitation and lower-budget horror, rendered even odder by its Killer Shrews-esque production history: the entire soundtrack was wiped and replaced with a bizarre, clearly improvised, low-down comic dialogue track. It’s like What’s Up, Tiger Lily as orchestrated by Blowfly – slightly insane, deeply sleazy, and quite unlike anything else you’ll see this week. Or year. (Includes audio commentary, alternate version, trailers, and bonus film Tales of a Salesman.)