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:
The Last Picture Show / Texasville: The Criterion Collection’s 4K upgrade to their essential edition of Peter Bogdanovich’s career-making 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel is cause enough for celebration — Robert Surtees’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography has never looked more melancholy or luminous, especially now that Picture Show is a double period piece (it was only set 20 years in the past when it was released, but that was 50-plus years ago now). And the film itself retains its considerable power, a quintessential New Hollywood re-interrogation of our cultural perceptions and nostalgia. But just as momentous is the three-disc set’s inclusion of Texasville, Bogdanovich’s 1990 sequel, mostly maligned at the time but now clearly an undiscovered gem, particularly in its longer, black-and-white director’s cut. Though the focus is primarily on Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepard, the extra time allows Bogdanovich to create a sense of community, drawing from a deep bench of both returning players (Timothy Bottoms breaks your heart) and fresh additions (Annie Potts is especially noteworthy). Taken together, they have much to say about small-town life and American ennui in the mid-to-late 20th century; they’re also sad, funny, and lovely. (Includes audio commentaries, documentaries, screen tests, location footage, introduction, archival interview, and trailers.)
Rewind & Play: This quite unusual documentary, featuring but not “about” (in any traditional sense) the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, is comprised of footage from a December 1969 trip to Paris – a bit of film of his arrival at the airport, but mostly raw footage from an appearance on the French television program “Jazz Portrait.” Monk does not seem at ease on camera (or in France, frankly), and it’s a stilted, awkward interview, the musician and his white, French host crashing against barriers of both language and culture. Gomis brilliantly shares all the outtakes, do-overs, and rough edges, which makes for a tremendously revealing look at how celebrities are packaged, how talk show conversations are created, and (especially in this period) how Black entertainers were infantilized. Finally, at the end, they just let him play, and it’s perfect: evocative, emotional, melancholy, affecting. “Oh you know, all I do is play,” he chuckles early on, and it seems like a dodge; by the end, it feels like a plea.
ON 4K UHD:
Black Hawk Down: Ridley Scott’s dad movie fave gets the 4K steelbook treatment, and it looks and sounds as good as it did in theaters back in 2001 – when its careful post-9/11 placement made it seem like a bit more of a straight-forward flag-waver than it was. There is, to be sure, a generally militarist/imperialist vibe that’s sort of unavoidably inherent to the true story being told, of the Americans injured and killed in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (first told in Mark Bowden’s book). But Scott wisely chooses to make it a human story first, even beyond the firefights and pyrotechnics, and his all-star who’s-who cast does much of that groundwork for him; of particular note are Josh Hartnett as the kinda-sorta lead, Eric Bana as the soldier of complicated swagger, and Sam Shepard as the wise Delta Force MG trying (not quite successfully) to hold it all together. As is so often the case with Scott, go with the extended version, which allows those characters quite a bit more breathing room. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, featurettes, documentaries, Q&A, music video, trailer, and TV spots.)
Terms of Endearment: Writer/director James L. Brooks crossed over from television (where his credits included The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi) to film — winning Oscars for best picture, best director, and best screenplay for his feature directorial debut — with this 1983 adaptation of (coincidentally enough) Larry McMurtry’s novel. In lesser hands, this story of a mother and daughter’s difficult relationship and the daughter’s tragic (and protracted) death from cancer could have easily been sappy, mawkish, movie-of-the-week stuff. But Brooks finds just the right approach to this tricky material, balancing the pathos with belly laughs, finding the contours of even the most seemingly stereotypical characters, and giving his marvelous cast (including Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, and Oscar winners Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson) the space to create living, breathing, sometimes broken people. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
Scrooged: Bill Murray teamed with director Richard Donner and SNL alums Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue for this manic, bizarre, top-volume riff on A Christmas Carol (also new on 4K from Paramount), which supplements Dickens’ gentle holiday tale with a gun-toting Bob Goldthwait, a toaster-smacking Carol Kane, and the Solid Gold Dancers. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Donner’s portrait of smug, unhappy network executive Frank Cross (played to perfection by Bill Murray) is so bleak, jaded, and nasty that they have to go full-on heartfelt sing-along at the end to turn it around into an upbeat holiday picture, but there are plenty of dark laughs on the way to its happy ending. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and archival interviews.)
Mark of the Devil: This 1970 West German horror flick, new on 4K from Vinegar Syndrome, gives us Udo Kier in his first starring role, an above-the-title turn for Herbert Lom (whose turn as a deeply corrupt witch hunter is chilling enough to make you forget that he was Inspector Clouseau’s boss/nemesis), and enough torture and gore to justify its immediately notorious ad campaign, which branded it as “Rated V for Violence” and promised free vomit bags to moviegoers. It hits its watermarks for gorehounds, but there’s genuine craftsmanship on display here; the production value is high, the acting is above average, and director Michael Armstrong works up a good head of sordid steam, and maintains it. (Includes audio commentary, new and interviews, Q&A, featurettes, outtakes, alternate title sequence, and trailer.)
Blood Sucking Freaks / Mother’s Day: Vinegar Syndrome’s other new 4K releases are also both heavy on the torture (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not!), though neither is as expertly crafted; these are basically cinematic geek shows, the former a low-rent Theater of Blood, the latter an early slasher-era riff on Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Both are about as sleazy as they come, and easy to dismiss as lowest-common-denominator stuff. But there’s an odd authenticity to both pictures; there’s never a moment’s doubt, in either one, that we’re witnessing a singular vision — as deranged as it might ultimately be. And VS’s 4K restorations are, as usual, unimpeachable; for extremists who’ve only seen these in cruddy VHS and DVD versions, the richly grainy cinematography and gaudy color palattes will likely be a revelation. (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, alternate title sequence, and featurettes for Blood Sucking Freaks; includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage with commentary, theatrical trailer, and TV and radio spots for Mother’s Day.)
Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar: Criterion’s new box set mirrors a “Starring Jackie Chan” program that ran on the Criterion Channel at the beginning of the pandemic, and like the first of Shout Factory’s recent Chan sets, the emphasis here is not on iconic action/comedies like Police Story but the early vehicles that found him still figuring out exactly how to mix traditional marital arts cinema with the inventive slapstick that would become his trademark. The quality on these varies wildly; there are a couple of skippables (namely, the goofy ensemble comedy My Lucky Stars and the Trail of the Pink Panther-style, cut-from-scraps Fearless Hyena II), but several more (Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, The Fearless Hyena, The Young Master) are well worth a watch, filled with stellar fight scenes and amusing throwaway moments, powered by Chan’s considerable charisma. And Spiritual Kung Fu is an outright banger, thanks both to Chan’s talents and the distinctive eye and style of director Lo Wei, whose inventive compositions and tempo boost it above the typical ‘70s kung-fu programmer. (Includes audio commentaries, English dubs, new and arhival interviews, Young Master promo reel and deleted scenes, and trailers.)
Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Crackling Collection: The use of “complete” in the title of this new collection from Shout Factory is a bit of a misnomer, seeing’s how the set does not include the Aardman Animation duo’s Oscar-winning feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (or, for that matter, the six-episode 2010 science series Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention). But it does have all four of their short films, and they’re as delightful as ever, these stop-motion adventures of a cheese-loving inventor and his sensible pooch unsopoling as equal parts Chaplin, Keaton, Rube Goldberg, and Sylvester & Tweety. And we also get the rarely-seen micro-short series Wallace & Gromit’s Cracking Contraptions, which is a lot of fun as well.
T.R. Baskin: Every once in a while, Fun City Editions pops up with some memory-holed gem of ‘70s cinema that I’ve not only not seen but never even heard of, and it ends up being one of my favorite film discoveries of the year. Rancho Deluxe was one; this is another, a 1971 collaboration between director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Peter Hyams, with a career-highlight turn from Candace Bergen. She’s the title character, a girl from Ohio with a razor-sharp wit and an above-it-all air who moves to Chicago to find herself, which is easier said than done. The supporting players are tip-top, particularly a disarmingly vulnerable Peter Boyle and a cool-as-a-cucumber James Caan, but this is Bergen’s show, and she owns it — her bone-dry delivery and wry cynicism, such a comic weapon on Murphy Brown, are well-deployed here, and when she finally, truly lets her guard down at the story’s conclusion, it lands like a haymaker. (Includes audio commentary and interview.)
Blue Steel: Despite the star turn by Jamie Lee Curtis and the pedigree of co-writer/director Kathryn Bigelow, this 1990 thriller has been hard to come by on home video, so this “Vestron Video Collector’s Series” Blu-ray release is most welcome indeed. Curtis stars as a rookie cop who pulls the trigger in a sticky robbery-in-progress on her very first day; Ron Silver is a witness to the shooting, and perhaps more, whom she finds herself unluckily involved with. It’s tough to fuse police procedural, character drama, and erotic thriller successfully, but Bigelow’s balance is never wobbly; she also gets a big assist from the performers, with Curtis at her earnest best and Silver doing his signature mixture of charming rogue and absolutely unhinged madman. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, new and archival featurettes, trailer, and TV spots.)
The Taking: This thoughtful, articulate 2021 essay film from Lynch/Oz director Alexandre O. Philippe (new on Blu from Dekanalog) is, on its surface, an examination of how Monument Valley has been used in cinema — specifically in Westerns, and even more specifically in those of John Ford, the filmmaker most associated with the area. But it’s also about Western mythology and indigenous representation (and misrepresentation), as well as the very idea and ideal of America, and also what movies do and mean. That’s a lot to pack into 76 minutes, but Philippe pulls it off with intelligence and sensitivity, pulling revelatory insights from his (off-camera) interview subjects and cutting together these loaded images with force and grace. (Includes interview, short film, Super 8 footage, and trailer.)
The Police Academy Collection: Ok, look. I’m not even going to pretend like the Police Academy movies are any damn good; even the early installments, which you can usually point to as the exceptions with long-running franchises, are fairly lousy and lazy. But these movies were undeniably popular, and certainly beloved among a certain segment of ‘80s kids (particularly once they softened them up into PG-13 and even PG-rated fare), so if you’re one of those kids, well, here they are, all seven (seven), all the way from Police Academy to Mission to Moscow. Enjoy? (Includes audio commentary for parts one and four, featurettes, additional scenes, and trailers.)
Computer Chess: It’s hard not to come at Andrew Bujalski’s 2013 comedy/drama (out in a 10th anniversary edition from Kino-Lorber) from a purely stylistic standpoint, because its look is so aggressively unique. Set in the world of early-’80s computer experts, it is shot like a no-budget refugee from the era: ugly, smeary, full-frame black and white video, which appears to have been left on a shelf for the better part of the decades since. The frames are filled with other aged technologies, from overhead projectors to the giant, desk-size computers at the story’s center, and the film’s throwback look and analog style help offset its genuine (though likable) peculiarity, occasional dry spots, and odd narrative loose ends. (Includes audio commentaries, promo videos, camera tutorial, and trailers.)