Lost in America (Criterion)
David (Albert Brooks) and Linda (Julie Haggerty) seem to have it all, or at least enough to be happy, in the opening scenes of Lost in America, Brooks’ third film as a director. It’s the middle of the Reagan ’80s and, with the ’60s now a distant memory, they’re living well, not that this does anything to alleviate the anxiety and doubt that plagues both of them. But when David fails to receive a promotion at his advertising firm, he starts to question everything and decides that they need to pack it all in and live off their savings as they travel across the country in a Winnebago in an attempt to get in touch with the real America, one in which they can “touch Indians” and otherwise live a more authentic existence. At the party sending them off on their journey, their friends give them a cake with a telling inscription: “We’re with you in spirit!” Because who, after all, would be foolish enough to chase that kind of daydream?
It doesn’t take long for things to go awry, but the humor of the film — which Brooks co-wrote with longtime writing partner Monica Johnson — comes not from obvious automotive mishaps but from David and Linda’s utter unsuitability to live anywhere but the bubble they’ve built for themselves. Suddenly confronted with higher stakes and deeper concerns than whether or not the interior of their car should be leather or “Mercedes leather,” they find themselves ill-suited for, well, almost anything. It’s a comedy that plays out on the edge of an abyss. David and Linda come to recognize hollowness of their existence and the distance they’ve traveled from their youthful ideals only to find there’s nothing else for them. But the film, one of Brooks’ best from a stretch in which he could do no wrong, also finds a bit of solace in that recognition. They may have screwed up and gotten lost along the way, but who doesn’t?
Brooks is a comic genius whose found it easier to earn critical praise than widespread popularity. (At least for his own projects. He is Nemo’s dad, after all.) It’s nice to see him get the de facto canonization of the Criterion collection, and this new edition does right by the film thanks to some new interviews and a fine essay by Scott Tobias (full disclosure, a friend of this writer and an occasional Uproxx contributor.)
Species (Scream Factory)
The 1995 film Species is unlikely to ever receive that sort of enshrinement, but it remains a pretty entertaining watch that’s more stylishly made and better acted than its trashy premise has any right to be. Sort a cross between an erotic thriller and Alien (complete with H.R. Giger designs), it follows the mayhem trailed by an alien who assumes the attractive form of Natasha Henstridge and begins mating with and killing humans. The film’s had a surprisingly long afterlife, inspiring three sequels, and fans should appreciate the features package on this set, which includes a new scan and several new interviews alongside a host of older commentaries and short docs.
The word “austere” often trails the name of director Robert Bresson, whose films have become synonymous with a kind of Platonic ideal of restrained, economical filmmaking. But the “a” word has some implications that can make Bresson seem more off-putting than inviting even when his filmography includes titles like Pickpocket and A Man Escaped, each as gripping in their own way as any thriller. Bresson released his final film, L’Argent, in 1983, and it’s as uncompromising as anything else in his catalog, following a counterfeit bill that, after being deployed in a moment of greed, catalyzes a kind of cancer leading to corruption, theft, and worse crimes. It builds to a shocking conclusion that feels like the inevitable consequence of everything that’s proceeded it. It’s a bleak moral drama that never cheats, and never wastes a moment.
Running on Empty (Warner Archive)
For as large as River Phoenix’s influence looms over a whole generation of actors, his reputation rests on only a small handful of films. This one, available on Blu-ray for the first time (and not always that easy to track before) earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work as the son of ’70s radicals.
The Lost City Of Z (Broad Green)
A Quiet Passion (Music Box)
This month also saw the release of a couple of recent real-life stories you might have missed. James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a visually stunning adaptation of David Grann’s book about the life of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer convinced he’s found evidence of a lost civilization. Gray tidies up some elements of Fawcett’s life in making it the subject of a big-screen epic, but it’s a case where verisimilitude’s loss is art’s gain as the film drifts into a meditative study of obsession and the elusiveness of the truth.
Terence Davies offers a different kind of study of obsession with A Quiet Passion, a much more housebound biopic about Emily Dickinson anchored by a remarkable performance by Cynthia Nixon and Davies’ trademark lush, melancholy filmmaking.