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 Ranown Westerns – Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher: These Western programmers, all starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s, were part of a quiet but ongoing movement to rethink and reimagine what the Western was, and what it could be, even as the more mainstream oaters of film and television continued in much the same key as they had for decades. Lean and mean (none of them run over 80 minutes), they carved out their own particular niche, their own specific way of telling a story, and serving a persona. Watching them together, in Criterion’s must-have new box set, makes them feel like a TV series; an anthology, perhaps, as Scott isn’t playing exactly the same character in each one. But he’s playing variations on one, a similar kind of man, usually something like but not precisely a man of the law. By the later entries, our familiarity with the actor, the director, and the frequent screenwriter Burt Kennedy has the same effect as watching a show, and the baggage they bring in fills in the blanks. (Includes introductions, audio commentaries, archival interviews, and trailers.)
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: It would be hard to imagine a cinematic genealogy that sounds more corrupt than this one – the sequel to a spin-off (2011’s Puss in Boots) of another sequel (2004’s Shrek 2). So maybe that’s why it’s so straight-up shocking that The Last Wish is such a delight, an animated adventure that not only outdoes its predecessors but recalls (and deserves comparison with) the live-action Zorro movies that got voice star Antonio Banderas the gig to begin with. He’s clearly having a blast, as is the stacked supporting cast, which includes Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, John Mulaney, and Banderas’s frequent co-star Salma Hayek.
True History of the Kelly Gang: Justin Kurzel’s dramatization of the life and times of notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly – a folk hero whose outsized legend passed down from one generation to the next, with new fictions grafted on in every iteration – wisely apes that folk-tale quality, dazzling us with his flashy camera choreography, filling his frames with colorful personalities and operatic exaggerations, the better to distract us as he quietly loads the film with subtextual indictments of toxic masculinity and nihilistic criminality. George MacKay comes up a touch short in the lead, but the supporting cast lifts him up; of particular note are Nicholas Hoult as the shockingly amoral villain of the piece, and Russell Crowe, channeling Orson Welles channeling Falstaff, as the affable fellow who takes young Ned under his wing and teaches him to ruthlessly rob. True History gives you the manic exhilaration of the best crime movies, but at a cost – its closing scenes burn it all down with unexpected force.
One False Move: A young writer/actor named Billy Bob Thornton made his first big splash with this riveting 1992 indie from director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time), a new and welcohttps://youtu.be/gGT9wUl_Q4Ame addition to the Criterion Collection. Cross-cutting between the getaway of three hard-as-nails criminals and the small-town sheriff (Bill Paxton) awaiting their arrival, the delicate screenplay by Thornton and Tom Epperson broaches issues of race, class, and urban life seldom touched by even the most thoughtful of low-budget dramas, examining the casual biases and assumptions that course through small-town and big-city types alike, and revealing its secrets with precision and finesse. And then, on top of all that, it’s a helluva good crime thriller to boot. (Includes audio commentary, interview, and trailer.)
Breathless: Sometimes, a groundbreaking, tide-shifting movie exists merely as that: a historical artifact, and nothing more. Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature – and, alongside The 400 Blows, the starter pistol of the French New Wave – is not that. It’s a film that still jolts you with the electricity of an exciting young artist taking their opportunity and seizing it with every ounce of their strength and ingenuity, as Godard uses his minimal resources (handheld camera, scraps of film, location shooting) to create a picture more gloriously, deliriously alive than pretty much anything being committed to celluloid, here or there. More than half a century later, it’s still a joy to behold. (Includes interviews, video essays, featurette, Godard short film, and trailer.)
To Live and Die in L.A.: William Friedkin’s breathless 1985 cops (okay, customs agents) movie gets 4K treatment from KL Studio Classics, upgrading from Blu-ray in all its sleazy, sweaty, coked-up glory. William Petersen does the cocky loose-canon thing with grinning glee, Willem Dafoe is chillingly creepy (even by Willem Dafoe standards), and Friedkin marshals a peerless ensemble of terrific ‘80s character actors (John Turturro, Dean Stockwell, John Pankow, Darlanne Fluegel, among them). The mood is squirrelly and the plotting is tight, and Friedkin works up a car chase that gives even his classic French Connection a run for his money, with Petersen barreling down an L.A. freeway in the wrong direction. It’s a great set piece, and a first-rate action flick all around. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, featurette, deleted scene, alternate ending, theatrical teaser and trailer, and radio spot.)
Needful Things: This 1993 thriller from director Fraser C. Heston (Charlton’s son!) isn’t often mentioned among the top-tier of Stephen King adaptations; if we’re being honest, I sort of assumed everyone had forgotten about it until KL announced this 4K release. But it’s something of a forgotten gem, a top-notch small-town skeletons-in-the-closet banger featuring Ed Harris at his Ed Harris-iest as the Sheriff of King’s beloved Castle Rock, Maine, and a cast of killer character actors that includes the late, great J.T. Walsh, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, and as (appropriately enough) the devil in disguise, Max Von Sydow. It sort of disappeared that summer of 1993, the same season as The Firm and The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire, because adult-oriented thrillers used to just be part of the moviegoing menu; now that they’re such a rarity, kudos to KL for resurfacing such a solid one. (Includes audio commentary, 191-minute TV cut, interview, and trailer.)
Swamp Thing: The general consensus seems to run that this 1982 comic-book adaptation from Wes Craven is one of his lesser works; it was his first time working for a major studio, so the emphasis is on pure entertainment (and he seems to bypass opportunities for his signature mixture of horror and self-aware satire). But it’s as movie-savvy as anything he ever made, riffing on outdoor adventures, mad scientist movies, and, most of all, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Craven understood the assignment; this is an unapologetically cheesy B-movie, silly fun and nothing more. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes, trailer, and both domestic PG-rated and international unrated cuts.)
52 Pick-Up: KL Studio Classics has really been putting in the work for the great John Frankenheimer as of late; last month they gave us top-tier 4Ks of his Manchurian Candidate and Ronin, and now they’ve re-upped their out-of-print Blu-ray release of Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1974 novel. Roy Scheider stars as a successful businessman whose extramarital affair dominoes into a complicated web of blackmail, porn, and murder. It’s rough, nasty piece of work, a spiky thriller given a sheen of respectability by its classy cast: Ann-Margret as Scheider’s wife, Kelly Preston as his mistress, Vanity as a friend in the know, and Clarence Williams III and John Glover, sleazily effective, as the piece’s chilling villains. (Includes audio commentary, isolated music track, trailer, and TV spots.)
The Anderson Tapes: Director Sidney Lumet and star Sean Connery reunited, five years after The Hill, for this elegant 1971 action/heist picture (another out-of-print Blu rescue from KL). It’s about as sturdy and professional as you’d expect from that collaboration; Connery, working all of his charm to land a successful post-Bond vehicle, stars as a safe-cracker who concocts an ingenious scheme to rob an entire upper-crust Manhattan apartment building in one fell swoop; Dyan Cannon is delightfully sexy as the woman who provides him with the notion and the access. The stacked supporting cast includes Martin Balsam, Alan King, Ralph Meeker, Garrett Morris, and, in his film debut, a peculiar young actor named Christopher Walken. (Includes audio commentary, trailer, and TV spot.)
Gloria: Fans of maverick writer/director John Cassavetes tend to dismiss this 1980 effort (back on Blu after its previous Twilight Time release went out of print) as some kind of a commercialized sellout — it is, after all, a studio film with stunts and shoot-outs and an overblown Bill Conti score. But in spite of being his most conventional picture, Gloria is also one of his best, in which the confines of the genre hold his occasional indulgences at bay; it’s a gangster movie and chase picture, yes, but one embedded with the intelligence of his smaller and more personal movies. And it boasts a stunning, Oscar-nominated performance by his off-screen partner, Gena Rowlands, who packs both a pistol and a sharp tongue with equal skill, growling her hard-boiled dialogue with an abundance of moxie. (Includes trailers.)
Nevada Smith: Steve McQueen is comically miscast in the title role of Henry Hathaway’s revenge Western—it’s just impossible not to giggle as Mr. McQueen, 35 years old at time of production and looking every damn day of it, is referred to as “boy,” “kid” and even (god help me) “poor child” in the opening scenes. But if you can get over that, this is a perfectly serviceable oater, with McQueen as a “half-breed” whose parents are murdered by a trio of very bad men, whom he sets out to pick off in retaliation one by one. But Hathaway is wise enough to keep the tone in flux, wandering off into a warm, human interlude between McQueen and David Keith (who takes him under his wing), and an adventurous sidebar on a chain gang. Meanwhile, John Michael Hayes’s smart script grapples thoughtfully with the morality of revenge narratives, amounting to a picture that’s up to much more than it initially appears. (Includes audio commentary, trailer, and TV and radio spots.)