Pick of the Week:
Straight Outta Compton (Universal)
Made with the cooperation of the surviving members of N.W.A. and the estate of Eazy-E — Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are among its producers — Straight Outta Compton often plays like what it is: an officially sanctioned, somewhat cleaned-up version of a long, messy story. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely well-told official history, however, thanks to strong performances, F. Gary Gray’s propulsive direction, and an Oscar-nominated screenplay that’s not afraid to let the story of the seminal West Coast hip-hop act sprawl out in all directions. The first half, which depicts how a bunch of kids from Compton rose from obscurity to notoriety through uncensored accounts of life in their hometown, works a little better than the second half, in which fame and money cause those same kids to drift apart. But it’s a compelling film throughout and the scenes in which the group deals with police harassment in the ’80s look as sadly relevant as ever. Consequently, so does N.W.A. The DVD and Blu-ray versions throw in a nice selection of extras, including a director’s cut that runs an extra 20 minutes, commentary from Gray, and multiple features involving interviews with members of N.W.A.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Criterion)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2013 film helped introduce Oscar Isaac to a larger audience, which is kind of an odd feat for a movie about an artist coming to the realization he’ll never break through. Set in the New York folk scene of the early ’60s — the pre-Dylan ’60s — it’s a by-turns funny and moving look at the artists history leaves behind. Isaac plays the eponymous protagonist, who’s drifting from couch-to-couch, following faint glimmers of hope while doing little to endear himself to those around him. Like most Coen movies, it practically demands multiple viewings and a deeper look at its source of inspiration, and this new Criterion edition happily provides the opportunity for both. Extras include a making-of doc, an audio commentary featuring notable music writers and historians, a feature-length concert featuring Joan Baez, Jack White and others, and a conversation between the Coens and Guillermo del Toro.
Also out from Criterion this week: Gilda, the film that made Rita Hayworth a star. Directed by Charles Vidor, it’s noted for its noir intensity and its just-within-the-bounds-of-the-Production Code sensuality. A commentary from critic Richard Schickel and appreciations from Martin Scorsese and others round out the package.
In May of 1996 a “rogue storm” killed eight climbers attempting to scale Mount Everest. The even became the subject of journalist Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air then, years later, this 2015 film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, and others. Krakauer denounced the film, but critics and audiences mostly liked it.
Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sony)
Marielle Heller’s memorable and frank adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s memoir of growing up with a bit too much freedom in ’70s San Francisco got a little overlooked in its late-summer release last year. Here’s a chance to correct that.
The Guardian (Scream Factory)
Say you’re a highly acclaimed, technically skilled director and you decide to roll the dice on making a horror film knowing that, if it turned out badly, it could be pretty silly looking. If you’re William Friedkin, sometimes you roll The Exorcist. Other times you roll The Guardian, a hilariously off 1990 horror movie about a nanny (Jenny Seagrove) who works in secret to sacrifice babies as part of a druid ritual. Also on hand: a monster tree. The film never works, but it’s a fascinating and often fun failure, highlighted by Seagrove’s sexy performance and moody lighting from cinematographer John Alonzo.
The Intern (Warner Bros.)
A Nancy Meyers comedy starring Robert De Niro as a senior citizen working an internship under a hard-charging entrepreneur (Anne Hathaway) sounds like it could be a contrived, painful experience. There are a couple of moments in the film that match that description, but the film’s both charming and disarmingly smart, thanks largely to the relaxed chemistry between the two stars and the film’s determination to avoid clichés. (Or at least too many clichés.) If nothing else, it’s a pleasant, pre-Dirty Grandpa reminder that Robert De Niro still has remarkable range, and is still capable of low-key surprises.
Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries (Olive Films)
John Huston had barely started his directorial career when the U.S. joined World War II, and for a few years, the war defined it. When Huston was called away by war service, Raoul Walsh completed his second feature, In This Our Life. Huston didn’t complete his third feature, either, the war-themed Across the Pacific. Instead, he worked for the Army Signal Corps, shooting four films in the service of the American cause. They range from the short recruitment film “Winning Your Wings” to “San Pietro,” a graphic account of a bloody battle in Italy. Unseen for many years, Huston’s documentary feature Let There Be Light chronicles the treatment of soldiers suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. (It’s also notable for being a major influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.) Considered too disturbing, the army instead replaced it with the dramatized alternate version, Shades of Gray, with which Huston was not involved. That film’s also included on this new Blu-ray which collects all of Huston’s war films. It’s an invaluable set both for what it documents and the light it sheds on a major director’s development. (It’s also another reason to read Mark Harris’ excellent 2014 book Five Came Back, which looks at the wartime career of Huston and other major filmmakers.)
I Am Thor (Dark Sky)
For a different sort of documentary, check out this film about Jon Mikl Thor, a bodybuilder/rock star/actor whose career goes back to the 1970s and encompassed everything from lewd variety shows to beautifully cheesy ’80s horror films like Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. The film’s most compelling in its opening sequence, documenting Thor’s unlikely rise, but there’s a moving humanity to the later sequences, which find Thor, now paunchy and middle-aged but still good-humored, trying to mount a series of comebacks.
The Last Detail (Twilight Time)
Bound For Glory (Twilight Time)
Two landmark films from one of the best directors of the 1970s finally get Blu-ray releases this week. Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail stars Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as navy officers charged with escorting a simple-minded sailor (Randy Quaid) to a punishment out of proportion with his crimes. Ashby followed that triumph with the great Shampoo and then 1976’s, a moving biopic of Woody Guthrie starring Keith Carradine. Both capture Ashby’s understated skill with actors and imagery, and both double as showcases for a pair of great cinematographers, Michael Chapman and Haskell Wexler, respectively.