Every week, 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.
Our first disc and streaming guide of the year presents us with a pair of fall prestige pictures, 2023’s first grab bag of Criterion Collection titles, and a marvelous assortment of ‘70s genre cinema. Let’s get to it:
PICK OF THE WEEK:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Terry Gilliam’s filmmaking flaws – spectacle over storytelling, bloated narratives, a visual style that can easily veer from idiosyncratic to fussy – have been present from the very beginning of his career, and he’s done little to tamp them down over the passing decades. But his virtues have also always been present: his cockeyed worldview, the full-steam-ahead (and take-no-prisoners) momentum, the eccentricity he draws out of his actors, because he’s so readily indulging it himself. This 1988 adventure (sparkling in a shiny new Criterion 4K) is a wildly elaborate and visually sumptuous retelling of the story of the explorer, adventurer, and fabulist; it was a notorious boondoggle at the time of its release, as industry press breathlessly insisted that its schedule and budget overruns and piddling box office had nearly sunk Columbia Pictures. They said the same thing the following summer about Ishtar, and it was bullshit too. Both films have their problems, sure, but like May, Gilliam was attempting to use the tools of the studio system to amplify his singular cinematic voice, and he had to pay for his sins. Seen now, the picture plays like an escapee from a mental institution, wild and wooly and altogether untamable. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, making-of documentary, video essay, behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, archival featurette, trailer, Gilliam short film, South Bank Show episode, and essay by Michael Koresky.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
The Menu: I’ve watched Mark Myeloid’s social satire / horror comedy twice now, and on second viewing – once you know where it’s going and what it’s hiding – it unravels more quickly than it unspools. This is not a movie that should work, so rife is it with inconsistencies of plotting, tone, and character. And yet it does, because its stellar cast has come to play; they’re all in top form, but the whole thing would crumble to dust were it not for Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes, who are each, with every withering stare and tart line reading, elevating contempt into high art. Their scenes together crackle with the feeling that they’ve each finally met their cynical match, and that kind of electricity more than pushes the picture through its rough patches. (Also streaming on HBO Max.) (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)
She Said: The problem with making a movie like All the President’s Men, telling the true story of an explosive newspaper investigation through the eyes of two young journalists and the editor who pushed them, is that then everyone’s going to compare it to All the President’s Men, and god help you. Maria Schrader’s dramatization of how Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) brought down Harvey Weinstein doesn’t fare well in that comparison; there’s an expositional artlessness to too much of the dialogue, and poor Patricia Clarkson is given nearly nothing to play as their editor Rebecca Corbett. But aficionados of the newspaper picture will find just enough perfect little moments to sustain interest: the certainty with which Mulligan says, “This is all gonna come out, Lanny”; the tears that fill Kazan’s eyes when she finally gets a named source; the firm way Andre Braugher barks, “Go write.” That’s the good stuff, and it’s good enough. (Also streaming on Peacock.) (Includes featurette.)
Sylvio: Sylvio is a gorilla in sunglasses who likes to make little puppet shows. He first appeared in a series of Vines by filmmakers Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney (Strawberry Mansion); this 2017 feature tells his whole story, of how he went from an office drone at a collection agency to a full-fledge (local) media sensation, and tells it with a disarming mixture of bone-dry absurdist wit and unapologetic pathos. It would be easy to get too precious with this kind of material, or two silly, but Audley and Birney walk a high wire act of satire and sincerity, sending up this kind of rags-to-riches, sold-your-soul-for-success story while also presenting it as the little moral tragedy it is. It’s all very strange, and very funny, and very affecting. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, bonus films and music videos, theatrical trailer, and original Vines.)
Groundhog Day: It might not be the best time to revisit a Bill Murray comedy about being a better person, but if you’re willing to navigate the ol’ “art from the artist” shuffle (a depressingly necessary bit of choreography these days), this 1993 favorite from Murray’s director and frequent collaborator Harold Ramis remains one of the breeziest (and most oft-copied) items of the era. What seemed at first like a gimmicky but serviceable Murray vehicle gradually revealed itself, via repeat viewings and close-readings, to be the closest our generation’s gonna get to a Frank Capra movie. Ramis and Danny Rubin’s screenplay uses its ingenious central conceit and the standard redemption arc to craft a story about making the conscious decision to be a better person, and see it all the way through. Maybe its star needs to give it another look? (Includes audio commentary, picture-in-picture track, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
Lady Whirlwind & Hapkido: “God damn you! Just how the hell did you lose to a lousy girl?” So asks the villainess of Lady Whirlwind, summarizing the appeal of star Angela Mao – the female fighting fury whose small role in Enter the Dragon catapulted her into brief but international fame as the lady heir apparent to Bruce Lee. It’s easy to see why, in this Arrow set collecting her two best-known features; even when the direction and fight choreography aren’t quite up to snuff, she has the sheer grace and athleticism of a great screen fighter, and the sheer magnetism of a great screen star. She’s more the central focus of Lady Whirlwind, and it’s consequently the better picture, but Hapkido also offers up Sammo Hung in a supporting role and Jackie Chan as a background actor, so it’s hard to complain too vociferously. (Includes audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, trailers, featurette, and alternate opening credits.)
The Executioner Collection: Fans of Sonny Chiba, the charismatic Japanese action movie hero and frequently name-checked Tarantino fave, have been eating well lately; Shout Factory followed up its 2019 Street Fighter Collection with last fall’s Sonny Chiba Collection, and now Arrow gets into the mix with this single-disc combo of Chiba’s 1974 films The Executioner and The Executioner II: Karate Inferno. (Real talk: “collection” might be a bit of a stretch.) And they give you everything you want: bone-crunching fight scenes, sadistic training sequences, rough-and-tumble set pieces, the works. And “the works” is what makes them so goddamn good; the kitchen sink approach of Chiba and his collaborators means we get elements of Eurocrime, American exploitation, ‘70s gangster flicks, and kung fu extravaganzas, all in one, under-90-minute package. What a bargain! (Includes audio commentary, featurette, and trailers.)
Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy: None of us need to rehash the chest-thumping and navel-gazing of the “Dogme 95” movement and manifesto and all of that – like Smashing Pumpkins and Tim Allen, some ‘90s hype should remain there – but it’s easy to forget what exactly von Trier in particular was trying to do for himself, as an artist, when he shook of the confines of cinematic artificiality for unsparing works like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. And this new set from Criterion, collecting his first three feature films, reminds us that the man was a master stylist. Europa in particular (originally released here as Zentropa; ‘90s video store kids know) is a blazingly gorgeous piece of work, all noir-infused black-and-white mood and splashes of startling saturation and expertly deployed bits of trickery and movie magic. We all first knew him as that guy. Then he became another guy. (Includes audio commentaries, archival documentaries, archival interviews, student films, trailers, and essay by Howard Hampton.)
Imitation of Life: There is a lot to unpack in John M. Stahl’s original, 1934 adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s bestseller (Douglas Sirk’s take, released in 1959, is another beast altogether), which is both a forward-facing commentary on race, class, gender, and passing, while simultaneously contributing to the assumptions, challenges, and stereotypes of those issues itself. Claudette Colbert sparkles and Louise Beavers deftly displays her character’s dignity (sometimes in spite of the screenplay’s best efforts otherwise), so it’s all deeply affecting and deeply uncomfortable, sometimes all at once. (Includes introduction by Imogen Sara Smith, trailer, and interview and essay by Miriam J. Petty.)
Solomon King: Far smarter writers have articulated the powerful wish fulfillment of blaxploitation cinema – how, for the first time, the vast volume of films made by, for, and featuring Black people were able to give their protagonists the kind of power and heroism denied them in real life (in stark contrast to white cinema of the ‘70s, which was all about demystification and reality). That accurate analysis provides a double-framing for micro-budget, regional blaxploitation efforts like this 1974 labor of love for writer/director/actor and Oakland businessman Sal Watts (long thought lost, restored from the best available materials by Deaf Crocodile); if Shaft and Superfly were, as Greil Marcus called them, “a fantasy of no-limits” for audiences “who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives,” then films like The Guy from Harlem and Solomon King were fantasies of those fantasies, in which a clothing-store owner like Watts could imagine himself as an ex-CIA/ex-Green Beret ass-kicking ladies’ man. The usual criticisms present themselves – clumsy dialogue, minuscule production value, wooden performances from non-professionals, unconvincing fight “choreography” – but seem particularly unimportant in a film like this, which functions as anthropology for a city and its scene, of good-time Charlies and lovely ladies having fun dressing up and playing pretend. And when you get down to it, isn’t that what the movies are all about anyway? (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, restoration demonstration, trailer, and essay by Josiah Howard).
Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of four books (with a fifth on the way). The former film editor of Flavorwire, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Vulture, The Playlist, Vice, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He lives in New York City.