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.