There’s a lot that’s new in this week’s jam-packed column, from three big nominees at this Sunday’s Oscars to two previous winners to our usual assortment of indies and classics. There’s so much to see! Movies are good, you guys.
Lincoln: With Steven Spielberg’s The Post and the Daniel Day-Lewis-starrer Phantom Thread up for a generous helping of Oscars on Sunday, Netflix couldn’t have picked a better time to re-up their 2012 collaboration, which itself picked up prizes for Best Actor and Best Production Design. Working from a hyper-intelligent screenplay by the great Tony Kushner (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s essential book Team of Rivals), Spielberg wisely eschews the customary – and presumably hard to resist – cradle-to-grave arc typical of so many blander biopics, instead focusing on a single moment in the president’s political life that extends far beyond it. Day-Lewis is, as usual, sublime in the role; a jaw-dropping cast of ace character actors (including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Jackie Earl Haley, and Gloria Reuben) shines bright.
ON DVD / VOD
Quest: Director/cinematographer Jonathan Olshefski spent eight years, from 2008 to 2015 (the Obama years, in fact; Obama/Biden signs cover the neighborhood early on, and the elections provide useful guideposts to the chronology) with the Raineys, a fairly typical North Philadelphia family that, in that time and before it, face a number of everyday trials and tribulations. There are money troubles and addiction demons, there are tragedies in their pasts and quite nearly one in their present. But they don’t complain and they don’t despair; they carry on, pausing only to be thankful for what they have, and who they are. Epic in scope yet modest in execution, it’s a film with much to say (without ever explicitly sayingit) about class and race in America, and about family, and its small miracles.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Coco: Pixar’s latest is one of their best, and a welcome reprieve from a run of duds and sequels. Charming and heartfelt, it concerns a young man’s quest to become a musician – a journey that takes him across nothing less than the divide between the living and the dead (don’t worry, it’s on the Day of the Dead, so it’s less scary than it sounds), and to the truth about a family he’s never really known. The animation is inventive, the songs are lively, the protagonist is adorable, and its closing passages vibrate with earned emotion and honest poignancy. It’s a real treat. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Nothing’s better than the moment where a good movie becomes a great one, and I can tell you when that moment happens in In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest with pinpoint precision: it’s when we hear a letter Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has written to his wife, which begins as a motivation explainer, and then swims gracefully into straight-up poetry. That he can accomplish that transition, and then pivot into horrifying violence not long after, speaks volumes about McDonagh’s mastery of tone, and Three Billboards takes turns that most filmmakers wouldn’t even attempt, much less sustain. But watching McDonagh pull this off is, in its own way, thrilling; it’s one of those movies that makes you marvel at everything one film can be. (Includes featurette and McDonagh’s Oscar-winning 2004 short film Six Shooter.)
Darkest Hour: It’s easy to slag Joe Wright’s Oscar-friendly period drama, which takes a Lincoln-style snapshot of Winston Churchill is his first month or so as Prime Minister of Great Britain – and, to be fair, it seems to exist primarily as a showcase for the gifts of Gary Oldman, who is somewhere under the layers of make-up required to give him the appearance of the legendary leader. But it is one hell of a performance, mannered and studied though it may be, while Wright’s direction is fleet-footed and the supporting characters are given more dimension than you might expect. Is it a great movie? Not quite. But it’s a decent one, and Oldman’s going to win his Best Actor Oscar, so you may as well give it a peek. (Incudes audio commentary and featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / FILMSTRUCK
Tom Jones: This rowdy and ribald period comedy from director Tony Richardson, a new addition to the Criterion Collection, is mostly remembered for two things: its funny/sexy dinner scene between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman, and for being one of the “weaker” winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s not hard to see why; from its silent movie-style opening to its flashes of Benny Hill-style bedroom farce, it’s not the kind of Serious Picture that usually takes that honor, and if the movie is high-spirited, it’s also a tad uneven. But its competition that year included Cleopatra and How the West Was Won, so we’re not exactly talking grave injustices here – it’s an enjoyable bit of fluff, nothing more, nothing less. (Also streaming on FilmStruck.) (Includes theatrical version and director’s cut, featurette, new and archival interviews, and Finney on The Dick Cavett Show.)
Lady and the Tramp: Disney’s darling 1955 animated adventure has been out of reach for Blu-ray buyers for a while now (thanks, Disney Vault!), but it’s back in circulation as part of the “Disney Signature Collection,” and it’s as enjoyable as ever. The spaghetti-eating scene is the go-to image from this one, of course (and it’s properly placed on the cover), but there’s a lot more going on here: a story of romance from opposite sides of the tracks, tinged with the melancholy of rejection in the home and even a dash of heroism. The Blu-ray restoration (though the same as the “Diamond Edition” six years back) is lovely – the colors pop and the songs hum – and this remains one of Disney’s sweetest animal adventures. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, sing-a-long version, and featurettes.)
The Outlaw: This 1943 Western from producer/director Howard Hughes (and an uncredited Howard Hawks) was notoriously promoted with the ample cleavage of star Jane Russell, so ‘40s horndogs must’ve been more than a little disappointed by the film itself, in which Russell is mere window dressing for yet another telling of the Billy the Kid/Pat Garrett story (and doesn’t even show up until a good two reels in). But she does generate real heat with Jack Beutel’s Billy, particularly in a wild kissing POV and a sequence wherein (if I was following, and I think I was) she basically screws the dying cowboy back to life (off-screen, of course). The rest of the movie hits and misses; the score is horrifying and the pace drags, but Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy from It’s A Wonderful Life) and Walter Huston make a memorable Pat Garrett / Doc Holliday combo, and the film’s homosexual subtext is unexpectedly juicy. More a curiosity than anything, but KL Studo Classic’s Blu-ray transfer is a much-needed upgrade from years of poor public domain releases. (Includes audio commentary and trailers.)
Harper / The Drowning Pool: Paul Newman took on the role of Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer (here renamed Lew Harper) in two films, separated by nine years; Warner Archive is now releasing both of them on Blu-ray, and they’re a lot of fun. In the first, 1966’s Harper, Newman’s Bogart-esque P.I. dives deep into the hippy-dippy world of mid-60s Los Angeles, and mines the fish-out-of-water scenario for some good lines and laughs; it’s a hyper-cool performance, and director Jack Smight’s lets Newman’s laid-back style steer the picture, for the better. The 1975 follow-up The Drowning Pool puts him into another new environment, the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, and matches the actor up with his real-life love Joanne Woodward, which lends their characters’ flirtation some unexpected gravitas. Melanie Griffith also turns up in a sex-kitten role similar to her turn in another private dick movie that year, Night Moves, a mirroring that underscores the conventionality of these movies, and the latter in particular, in an era that gave us the subversions of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and The Late Show. But as conventional gumshoe movies go, you could do a lot worse. (Harper includes audio commentary and trailer; The Drowning Pool includes vintage featurette and trailer.)