Pick of the Week:
Here’s Fred (Chris Eigeman), a navy officer visiting Barcelona at some unspecified point in the 1980s, responding to a local who says, “But you seem very intelligent for an American,” after he explains that his career choice has been somewhat determined by his failure to excel at standardized tests: “Well, I’m not.” Is he joking? Is that a self-deprecating quip or an honest assessment? With Stillman’s dry, witty dialogue — especially as delivered by Eigeman — it’s not always easy to tell.
But if you had to wager, it’s usually better to bet on sincerity. Stillman’s films are filled with passionate young people who often discover that the world often doesn’t want to accommodate their high ideals. Or, perhaps more accurately, they learn they’re going to have to work harder than they’d planned to make their ideals work in the real world. Released in the summer of 1994, Barcelona is no exception. Both Eigeman and co-star Taylor Nichols, who plays Fred’s cousin Ted, appeared in Stillman’s 1990 debut Metropolitan as wealthy, or wealth-adjacent, Manhattanites who embody the role of what one of them dubs the “urban haute bourgeoise.” Drawing on Stillman’s own experiences working for a film distributor in Spain, Barcelona takes a pair of those UHBs abroad where they encounter both European mores and vehement anti-American sentiment
Like all of Stillman’s film’s, it’s at once witty and moving. “I’ve seen Barcelona twice,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time. “It seemed deeper to me the second time.” He was onto something, there. The first time through a Stillman film, it’s easy to get swept up in the dialogue, the winning characters, and the appealing world in which everything unfolds. Subsequent viewings reveal how much Stillman’s characters need their beliefs to survive, and the despair that threatens to envelop them when it seems like those beliefs might collapse. A less gentle, generous filmmaker might take those away from them, but Stillman’s not that sort of filmmaker, and the underlying humaneness of Barcelona, and his other films, is evident in every moment of the film, which here receives a lovely new transfer from Criterion, and a fine set of extras, including an older commentary, and a lovely video essay from critic Farran Smith Nehme, tracing the themes that flow through Stillman’s first three films: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. (And if you want all of those in a nice box, Criterion is also releasing A Whit Stillman Trilogy as a set.)
The Revenant (20th Century Fox)
There were few 40-minute stretches of filmmaking in 2015 quite as thrilling as the opening stretch of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which opens with a vicious battle scene between trappers and Native Americans that extends to a daring escape and a much-talked-about bear mauling, all of it played with Oscar-caliber intensity by star Leonardo DiCaprio. The only problem? The movie doesn’t stop there, morphing from a rip-roaring, beautifully shot tale of survival to a rip-roaring, beautifully shot tale of survival with philosophical pretensions it can’t quite support and an ending that tries to say one thing but ends up saying the opposite. Still, it’s a remarkable achievement made, as Iñárritu was not shy about sharing, under challenging circumstances. And those first 40 minutes are really something.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (Olive Films)
The great director Sam Fuller wasn’t having a lot of luck getting his from-the-gut, pulp-inspired films made in Hollywood in the early ’70s. So he took the act abroad and signed on to direct an episode of the German crime drama Tatort. That, in turn, became Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, a long hard-to-find effort making its Blu-ray debut thanks to Olive Films.
The Stuff (Arrow)
Another filmmaker with a career spent slipping commentary into genre movies, Larry Cohen tackled out-of-control consumerism with the Reagan-era horror satire about a new, addictively delicious food that’s not quite what it seems. It’s a broad, Mad magazine-inspired horror movie that’s very much of its time and very much worth a look.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Scream Factory)
There must have been something in the mid-1980s water inspiring filmmakers to use disgusting foods and the people who sell them as tools of satire. Tobe Hooper revisited the world of the film that made him famous with this over-the-top, gross, but cruelly clever sequel that emphasizes humor — but never at the expense of gore.
Silicon Valley: The Complete Second Season (HBO)
Veep: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO)
Or, for more recent satirical efforts, check out the most recent seasons of two of HBO’s sharpest shows before they make their returns.