With so many movies hitting VOD, streaming services, Blu-ray, and DVD, it’s hard to know what to watch next. New On Home Video offers a bi-weekly guide to what’s worth seeking out, with an emphasis on what’s really worth watching, from recent theatrical releases to classics and long-lost gems.
Blood Simple (Criterion)
Whenever Joel and Ethan Coen release a new film it usually arrives accompanied by lists trying to figure out how their films should be ranked. But consider this: If the Coen brothers had never made a film after Blood Simple, their 1984 debut, it would still go down as one of the most innovative and influential indie films of the ’80s. Shot in Texas on a modest budget, it’s a James M. Cain-inspired noir tale of jealousy, murder, miscommunication, and long, long stretches of highway.
The Coens entered the filmmaking world with the confidence of far more experienced directors and the let’s-go-for-it spirit of kids who weren’t afraid of breaking the rules. Their debut gives a neon ’80s sheen to classic noir elements with out-of-nowhere devices, like a shoot seemingly accomplished by a camera flying through the air. In actuality, it was mounted on a board and carried by two camera operators. It’s a tremendous achievement, not that they necessarily see it that way today. The best feature on this new edition of the film finds the Coens watching over an hour of scenes from the film with director of photographer Barry Sonnenfeld using a Telestrator to point out how they achieved the look of the film and, just as frequently, everything they wish they could have done better. It’s at once funny and revealing, whatever their mixed feelings about it now, Blood Simple holds up beautifully and from the casting of Frances McDormand to the Carter Burwell score to the blacker-than-black humor, it reveals a filmmaking team with a sensibility that’s already fully formed.
The Thing (Scream Factory)
Speaking of ranking stuff: Is The Thing the best film John Carpenter ever made? It’s a tough call to make with a filmmaker responsible for so many classics. But revisiting it, it plays like Carpenter at his apex, mixing relentless horror with peerless technical craftsmanship in a claustrophobic setting where the characters are all already half out of their mind and on the verge of killing each other even before a shapeshifting alien shows up. It’s also the apex of a certain kind of pre-digital special effects. The horror here is upsettingly visceral, sometimes literally visceral, as star Kurt Russell and a cast of great character actors playing eccentric characters square off against an alien that can take any form — and whose escape would mean the end of the world. A cult hit now, The Thing flopped in its day, prompting Carpenter to temporarily take on more audience-friendly work like Starman. That’s a fine movie, too, and Carpenter’s a more flexible filmmaker than he sometimes gets credit for being. But he’s clearly most at home here, amidst the slime, the fear, the shadows, and the shattered nerves. The new version sports a beautiful new transfer and a host of extras both new and old, including a lot of great making-of material from the previous DVD version.
Beauty and the Beast (Disney)
The concept of the Disney Vault — in which the company releases its most prestigious films for limited windows then squirrels them away in the archives — might be ridiculously outdated, but it at least has the effect of giving us an excuse to give some classics a fresh look every few years. With a live action remake on the way, it makes sense to bring Beauty and the Beast out of the archives. It looks as great as ever, a product of that moment when Disney had rediscovered its gift for creating hand-drawn animated classics (with some judicious assistance from new computer technology). It also comes from a moment when the company was rediscovering its ability to tell stories that would appeal to kids and grown-ups alike, thanks to a romance between Belle and the Beast that’s more complex than the usual fairy tale fair.
Cat People (Criterion)
Producer Val Lewton made his name by doing more with less, often a lot less. Working with very little money, Lewton made horror movies on the cheap, but he used cheapness as a virtue. Unlike the Universal monster movies, the creature in the 1942 film cat people remains unseen except in shadows, but the shadows become their own kind of monster. Directed by the great director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past), Cat People combines sexual drama with impeccably suggestive camerawork to tell the story of a woman suffering from a murderous curse — maybe. Here, to paraphrase an oft-quoted line attributed to Miles Davis, it’s the monsters you don’t see that provide the terror.
High Noon (Olive Films)
As physical media becomes increasingly the realm of collectors, it seems like fewer and fewer companies are turning out notable new releases. Olive Films usually turns out nice, but spare, Blu-ray editions of films that wouldn’t otherwise get Blu-rays, but it’s nice to see them stepping up wth the new Olive Signature line devoted to classics that deserve the best possible editions. Fred Zinneman’s High Noon certainly fits that description. A tense, thought-provoking Western, it pits Gary Cooper alone against a band of criminals when he finds no one who will stand by his side. This edition features a 4K restoration and a handful of well-chosen features, including a look at the film’s relationship to the Hollywood Blacklist.
Raising Cain (Scream Factory)
Upon its 1992 release, Raising Cain was treated as a for-fans-only act of excess from director Brian De Palma and a film of many greset pieces but little real sense. Little known at the time was how much the finished project differed from De Palma’s original plan. A few years ago, fan Peet Gelderblom attempted to restore De Palma’s original version by restructuring the original cut to match the chronology of De Palma’s original screenplay. De Palma liked it enough to push for its inclusion on this Blu-ray edition, and it’s a real revelation. Yes, John Lithgow still goes way over the top playing a child psychologist with multiple personalities, but the film works like a slow boil instead of dropping viewers directly into the madness. It’s a funnier and more effective film because of it. And, oh boy, those setpieces are really something. Here’s one that deserves a second look, and soon.
Captain America: Civil War (Disney)
Neighbors 2 (Paramount)
The Conjuring 2 (Warner Bros.)
A summer of sequels starts to make its way to home viewing and here are three very different movies that, in their own way, try to raise the stakes of their predecessors.
Did you miss our retrospective piece on this earlier this week? Not too late to check it out.