I miss going to the movie theater so much. I would battle God atop a hilltop to even just sit and watch something in a darkened room and crowd full of enthusiastic and virus-free film lovers. Sadly, I cannot “Stone Cold Stunner” the creator of all things into letting me watch Timothée Chalamet ride a giant worm this year, so I and many others have settled into the home-viewing groove. While I know most people will opt to sit and scroll through the annoyingly expanding roster of streaming services, I hold firm that the most surefire way to discover new films and to ensure that a favorite film of yours is easily accessible is to support physical media in the best way you can. I’ve lamented the state of film accessibility in the past, but instead of being in my feelings and staring at the wall in despair (that’s an activity that should be saved for politics), I wanted to do my best to give people a place they can read up on new physical film releases they may have otherwise overlooked, or could maybe nudge people into buying films they care about on a meaningful level. Theaters aren’t gonna open in any safe capacity for a while, so let’s make the best of it, shall we?
A Life in Music
In the behind-the-scenes documentary that accompanies Allison Anders’s fourth feature film, Grace of My Heart, she flatly laments the number of female filmmakers who never saw the same success as their male counterparts in the late ’80s and ’90s indie film boom. Anders herself, even being one of the more successful examples, never reached the critical and commercial highs as, say, a Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith. Which is a shame considering that Grace of My Heart is a lovely (now bizarrely) hidden gem with an absolutely stacked cast of performers, an all-star roster of musical talent cookin’ up period-perfect pop hits, and the patron saint of elevating voices, Martin Scorsese, as producer.
Set in the 1960s just as girl groups and solo acts such as the Shangri-Las and the Supremes had fallen out of favor for male-dominated acts like The Temptations, the movie is about a struggling teenage singer, songwriter, and heiress Edna Buxton (played by somewhat underrated character actress Illeana Douglas). It centers around her detour from performer to songwriter, her career at the famous “Brill Building” in New York under her mentor and friend John Mulner (John Tuturro, whose wig in this movie was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award if I’m not mistaken) and her life through the changing and tumultuous tides of love (her suitors include Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, and Bruce Davidson) and music.
It’s a love letter to a creative period and process that wasn’t around long but made a big impact. It is also partially inspired by Anders’s own aforementioned struggles in the film industry (who like many female filmmakers has found herself directing more TV than film) and her own love life. You get insight into this on the behind-the-scenes featurette, The Idea Becomes a Movie, that interviews nearly the entire key cast and crew members, as well as the musicians who helped write and perform some incredible pieces of period-accurate music. There’s also a commentary with Anders herself and deleted scenes from the film, some of which must have been hard cuts, particularly the musical performances.
But if Grace of My Heart was a great recreation of a life in music, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Coda is the genuine article. The 2018 documentary (originally a Mubi exclusive) follows legendary musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, which may not be a household name but a name whose work with the highly influential band Yellow Magic Orchestra and film scores for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, The Revenant, and many others does put him in the pantheon of monumental talents of the late 20th and early 21st century. The movie is a melancholy profile of Sakamoto’s career as he deals with his stage-three throat cancer and the protests surrounding the then-recent Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster. There are no talking heads, just a camera that follows Sakamoto around intercut with archival footage from interviews from his youth and scenes from films he’s scored as he talks about the art he’s created and how he and it have changed over the years as the world has changed. It’s a portrait of an artist coming to terms with his own mortality, humanity, and how that rubs up against his creative process.
The movie also features snippets of Sakamoto’s evocative, often ethereal music. The film opens with a performance of his most famous composition, the theme to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and it’s a breathtaking way to give the audience a jumping-off point for a look at a career and life that never seems to stop searching for something new to explore. And for people who want more of Sakamoto’s music, the Blu-ray comes with a full-length concert doc called RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: async AT THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY, which showcases Sakamoto’s experimental music.
A Few Laughs
After Movie 43, I think it’s safe to say the comedy anthology movie starring A-list talent may be on a bit of a hiatus*, though it’s not like they were plentiful to begin with. In fact, if you don’t count the macabre humor in the EC Comics-adapted or -influenced horror anthologies like Creepshow and Tales From the Darkside, it’s safe to say that Movie 43 and Kentucky Fried Movie are two outta the three examples of multiple writers and directors taking a crack at micro sketches strung together with the thinnest thread of a framing device (honestly the final season of Key and Peele and, to a lesser extent, The State are the only other examples I can think of and those are television shows). The third is, of course, Amazon Women on the Moon, presented and co-directed by John Landis — sole director of Kentucky Fried Movie — along with Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, and Robert K. Weiss. It’s a movie that loosely strings together over a dozen sketches and the auspice of television programming at a fictional television station, occasionally cutting back to the titular film Amazon Women on the Moon, which itself borrows heavily and recycles footage from Forbidden Planet and Queen of Outer Space. The other shorts are what you can expect from any anthology of any quality: a mixed bag. But that’s OK! Because like any anthology, wait five minutes and something you may love could be the next thing up to bat.
I’d be remiss to not mention that this movie has to have the most insane cast of A-list and character actors until 2006’s Paris, je t’aime. Not gonna take up space mentioning them all here, but if you ever wanted to see a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, B.B. King, and Ed Begley Jr., then, boy, do I have good news for you. The disc is also packed with some great extras: a commentary from film historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden; a featurette that looks back at the production of the film called The True Story of Amazon Women on the Moon; deleted scenes which feature whole sketches that had to be cut from the movie; and dailies from Joe Dante’s own archive.
*I did not forget about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but since all those shorts aren’t exactly comedy, I ain’t countin’ it.
In 1971, Clint Eastwood and Don Seigel starred in and directed two films that feel like precursors to the ’80s and ’90s boom of erotic thrillers that defined so much of what it meant to make movies aimed squarely at adults which tapped into the sexual anxieties of men and women in a post-‘60s sexual revolution context. With Siegel’s The Beguiled, the movie goes into the incredibly murky waters of sexual awakening, gender dynamics, and power struggles, all set within the loaded context of an immediate post-Civil War south with characters on both sides of the conflict being equal parts sympathetic and repulsive.
Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake of the same name aimed to explore the quiet interiority of the women who populated this plantation temporarily turned into an all-girls school that is visited by a handsome and silver-tongued wounded Yankee soldier. In Seigel’s original, the movie is so much more lurid and ugly as to how the environment surrounding these characters influences their choices and — with the inclusion of a slave character played by singer Mae Mercer — how human rights rub up against the exploration of sexuality and gender. It’s not a movie looking to give answers as much as it is a showcase for Eastwood and Geraldine Page, but it’s certainly a movie that will keep you off-balance and on the edge of your seat.
In the same year, Clint Eastwood would cash in some of his critical and cultural cache and ask to direct Play Misty for Me, a movie that had been developed by frequent collaborator Jo Heims years prior with his involvement and sold to Warner Brothers. Clint, looking to put on an exhibition of the things he had learned working with Sergio Leone and his good friend Seigel (who has a small, entertaining bit part in the film), was granted the opportunity by the studio, probably as pacification. What nobody expected was that Clint would make a film that had so much confidence and style. While broad in some parts, it really does a great job of examining the dynamics between an unrepentant but quiet bachelor and a woman (played by a fully committed Jessica Walter) seeking full control over his attention. Clint’s debut has all the hallmarks of a first-time director looking to make something more than a passable picture, including blurring genres and having what is essentially a mini concert documentary of the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival right in the middle of the film. Coupled with his trademark ability to bring a movie in under budget and ahead of schedule, it’s no wonder Clint became one of Warner Brothers’ go-to directors for nearly the last 50 years.
It’s an excellent double feature, one complemented with a trove of special features, although mostly on the Play Misty for Me Blu-ray, which includes an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, an interview with supporting actress Donna Mills, an in-depth feature-length video essay on the film by Howard S. Berger, a Trailers From Hell segment with Adam Rifkin, multiple stills, a behind-the-scenes photo montage, and a featurette from 2001 that looks back at the making-of and impact of the film. Both Blu-rays share a featurette called The Beguiled, Misty, Don and Clint, which gives a very brief look at the working relationship between the artists and how these films complement each other.
Picks of the Month
While I’m not the most well-versed in the trends of the nearly 100 years of Academy Awards history that has led to certain staples of what typically get rewarded a statue, it’s hard to look at Billy Wilder’s ode to alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, and not see the seeds of what would become a category of “Oscar bait.” However disparaging that sounds, it’s certainly not my aim. The film is an achievement in how a performance, well-crafted production, and taboo subject matter can really put a viewer’s guard down and make them more open to a story that walks the fine line between overwrought and immoderate.
Ray Milland plays a struggling, dysfunctionally alcoholic writer trying to stay dry but instead plunging headfirst into a three-day binge. It’s a riveting odyssey about the chorus of self-doubt that pounds in the minds of so many people, leading them to self-destructive behavior. It’s A LOT of movie with A LOT of performance from Ray Milland, which is something the Academy would reward time after time instead of films that dabbled in things that are a little less broad. Yet it doesn’t detract from how frank the film is with the subject matter at the time, as well as how riveting a watch it still is in 2020. Billy Wilder’s stable of classics have been slowly given the HD treatment over the years and Kino Lorber’s release of The Lost Weekend looks and sounds as vibrant as it appeared to audiences back in 1944. While it comes with a modest array of features — most notably the radio adaptation from 1946 — I personally believe this is a film that needs to be on the shelves of anyone who enjoys films that are a showcase of a performance as well as a piece of genuine film history.
Coming-of-age stories tend to focus on male childhood transitioning into adolescence or adolescence giving way to adulthood, but so rarely do we get to explore those themes when adult women are transitioning into the next level of adulthood, where the questions of autonomy and independence become all-engrossing. Claudia Weill’s influential and comedic examination Girlfriends certainly doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions young women have to start asking themselves when concerns about the balance of career, relationships, and children stop being abstract. The film follows two friends living in 1970s New York City who try to maintain their relationship as one pursues a life in photography and meeting new men of different backgrounds and the other looks to settle down and pursue the more traditional life of marriage and children despite her own artistic desires.
The film is funny and poignant from just about every angle. From the schadenfreude the characters experience exploring new things to the the relationships both women have with their respective partners and love interests (this film has Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest at their most baby-faced and legend Eli Wallach giving a fully committed performance to a film he probably got paid nothing for), the film is a snapshot of a time when women’s liberation had to start reconciling the ideas that autonomy and independence were as valid as a more traditional, domesticated lifestyle while still fighting for equal rights and exploring their inner lives. In that way, Girlfriends makes for a lovely companion piece to Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, another film about women maintaining a relationship despite their very different paths in life.
Criterion’s disc comes with as much context and insight you would hope for in a movie that’s not readily discussed among cinephile circles, despite its clear influence on something like the television show Girls. There are essays from critic Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan, multiple interviews with the cast and crew of the film, as well as two short films (Joyce at 34, Commuters) co-directed by Weill, Joey Chopra, and Eliot Noyes. This is one film I hope everyone takes a chance on among Criterion’s flashier titles this month.
Also Out This Month…
*The Richard Pryor vehicle Bustin’ Loose, co-starring Cicely Tyson. Richard Pryor plays a con man forced to transport troubled kids from the east to west coast. Hijinks a-plenty.
*Kino Lorber’s 4K edition of George Miller’s genre-creating classic Mad Max. This is a must-own in my opinion. The only reason this is not a pick of the month is that it is largely the same as Shout Factory’s release from 2015 with the addition of a new interview from George Miller and a Trailers From Hell segment with Josh Olson.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.