The element of surprise can be a huge challenge for a filmmaker – we’ve all seen at least one too many M. Night Shyamalan thrillers, so it’s easy for audiences to smell a twist or a trick coming from two acts away. That constant sense of having the rug pulled out is just one of the reasons that The Invitation (Drafthouse Films) is one of this year’s best, and most talked-about, indie films, but it’s hardly the only one.
Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) keeps us on edge and off kilter from the opening scenes, in which a man and his girlfriend are reluctantly heading to a dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife and her new partner. The dinner itself just gets more and more awkward, and foreboding, but it’s really best that you go into the movie knowing as little as possible for maximum entertainment. Suffice it to say that it’ll be one of the most intense, terrifying, and yes, wonderfully surprising movies you’ve seen in ages.
Also available: James Franco stars as an author with drug issues in the gritty drama The Adderall Diaries (Lionsgate Home Entertainment), also starring Ed Harris, Amber Heard, Cynthia Nixon and Christian Slater; it’s anything but A Perfect Day (IFC Films) for Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro, as humanitarians dealing with the human aftermath of battle in a mid-’90s Balkan war zone; the novels of L. Frank Baum help one man cope with the post-apocalypse in OzLand (MVD Visual).
The censors in China tend to be fairly strict when it comes to filmmakers criticizing conditions in that country, although somehow Jia Zhangke manages to get away with it all the film, particularly in his recent masterpiece A Touch of Sin. He’s at it again in his latest, Mountains May Depart (Kino Lorber), a look at a love triangle that pits a miner and a crooked capitalist at odds for the heart of a young shopgirl. As the years pass, we see the effects of Western-style crony capitalism and other influences on the country, and we marvel again that this director can not only tell such powerful human stories but also do so under the auspices of a regime that’s not particularly friendly to art that asks too many questions.
And if you have your own questions about the director, check out the new documentary Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang (Kino Lorber), from Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station).
Also available: If Stranger Things has you hungry for more 1980s retro, check out the delightful musical Sing Street (Anchor Bay/Weinstein Company), a charming kids-form-a-band tale from director John Carney (Once, Begin Again); Hana rethinks her decision to be a Sworn Virgin (Strand Releasing Home Entertainment) when she comes down from the Albanian mountains and experiences love, Italian style; Paul Verhoeven started Tricked (Kino Lorber) but then let people online shoot their own scenes and take the film’s story into their own directions.
The great Arnaud Desplechin reteams with actor Mathieu Amalric for another autobiographical tale, My Golden Days (Magnolia Home Entertainment); Israeli Oscar entry Baba Joon (Strand Releasing Home Entertainment) sees an Iraqi émigré in Israel cope with the fact that his son doesn’t want to carry on the family’s tradition of turkey farming; Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) stars as chess champ Genesis Potini in the poignant biopic The Dark Horse (Broad Green Pictures).
They’ve evolved from a grimy corner of the publishing world to an art form that pretty much runs the table of pop culture; comic books have become central to film, television and the internet, and the documentary Comix: Beyond the Comic Book Pages (Kino Lorber) explores the medium from some of its leading practitioners (Stan Lee, Frank Miller) to the ardent, costumed fans who keep the industry thriving. This summer may have fried you out on movies based on comics, but there’s always something to be learned from movies about comics.
Also available: 1985’s The Return of Rubén Blades (MVD Visual) takes a fascinating look at the musician, actor and activist who has been so essential to Latino culture in this country; Shout Factory offers 4K UHD releases of two gorgeous nature docs: Flight of the Butterflies and Rocky Mountain Express; the colorful history of Philadelphia politics takes the spotlight in Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo (MVD Visual).
2016 has been a year with a staggering number of deaths in the film community, but perhaps none was more shocking that the demise of young actor Anton Yelchin in an automotive mishap. Best known for the Star Trek franchise, Yelchin had given many memorable performances in a number of genres, and anyone interested in this actor’s career should absolutely check out the intense thriller Green Room (Lionsgate Home Entertainment). Yelchin stars as a punk musician who has to figure out how he and his band will escape a skinhead nightclub after they’ve witnessed a murder. Also starring Patrick Stewart, Imogen Pots, Alia Shawkat and Callum Turner, this is a riveting film as well as a moving memorial to a talent taken too soon.
Also available: Werewolf drama Bad Moon (Scream Factory) gets a new director’s cut, extras and commentary in a souped-up Blu-ray edition; Mario Bava’s legendary giallo Blood and Black Lace (MVD Visual) also gets a digital restoration and release in its original Italian theatrical version; John Bradley (Game of Thrones) and Killian Scott find a deadly way to cope with desperate financial times in the terrifying Traders (Dark Sky Films); an Aussie sheep-farming family must fend off The Pack (IFC Midnight/Scream Factory) when wild dogs descend upon them.
Grindhouse queen Debbie Rochon switches to the other side of the camera for her directorial debut Model Hunger (Wild Eye Releasing); after a heart attack, a man becomes Stressed to Kill (MVD Visual) and starts bumping off everyone who’s giving him agita; Scream Factory keeps the delicious cheese coming on Blu-ray with new releases of Hellhole and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf.
Francis Ford Coppola’s debut feature never looked so good – the new Blu-ray of Dementia 13 (The Film Detective/Allied Vaughn) features a new 35mm HD restoration; it’s bawdy and tawdry – and it’s historicall significant, as the movie they go see at the drive-in in The Thin Blue Line – and now The Swinging Cheerleaders (MVD Visual) gets a Blu-ray release; Eli Roth executive-produced Cabin Fever (IFC Midnight/Scream Factory), a reboot of his own 2002 directorial debut; Listening (MVD Visual) sees a group of grad students destroyed when their mind-reading technology leads to danger and betrayal.
Two fascinating new releases this month track the history of people of color in American movies: The Daughter of Dawn (Milestone) and Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino Lorber). Thought lost for decades, the 1920 Daughter of Dawn features a cast of more than 300 Kiowa and Comanche to tell a tale of romantic rivalry, deceit and adventure against the backdrop of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. Restored by the Oklahoma Historical Society, this legendary film featuring an all–Native American cast was recently selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
The five-disc Pioneers box highlights the work of early black indie filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and James and Eloyce Gist, directors who were DIY-ing it way before Sundance or even the French New Wave. The set is a treasure trove, featuring trailers, excerpts of ethnographic films from author Zora Neale Hurston, Westerns, extant footage from lost features, and silent films featuring new soundtracks from artists like DJ Spooky and the Alloy Orchestra.
Also available: George Hamilton is a sexy cat-burglar in the action romp Jack of Diamonds (Warner Archive Collection); legendary 1973 Japanese animated feature Belladonna of Sadness (Cinelicious) gets a gorgeous new digital restoration that should introduce it to a whole new audience; Debbie Reynolds is too indefatigable for even the Titanic in the charming musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Warner Archive Collection).
Ken Russell’s delightfully dark Crimes of Passion (MVD Visual) – featuring Kathleen Turner as the unforgettable lady of the night China Blue – gets the Blu-ray release it’s long deserved, featuring tons of extras, including deleted scenes narrated by screenwriter Barry Sandler (Making Love); comedies are rarely as blisteringly hilarious as the madcap 1979 The In-Laws (The Criterion Collection), starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin; legendary director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, Julia, From Here to Eternity) capped off a notable career with Sean Connery as his leading man in the drama Five Days One Summer (Warner Archive Collection).
If you’ve been glued to the presidential campaign and the conventions on TV this summer, it’s quite possible you’ve wondered if you were watching the news or if you were watching House of Cards: The Complete Fourth Season (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). Real life and political drama often run parallel, but the connections between the Underwoods (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright) and our actual democratic process seem eerily similar. This past season saw the Netflix hit reach new heights, and the ensemble (featuring Ellen Burstyn, Cicely Tyson, Neve Campbell and a never-better Joel Kinnaman) was as sharp as ever. Essential viewing, whether or not you’re a policy wonk.
Also available: James Garner plays one of TV’s most affable private eyes in The Rockford Files, Season One and Season Two (both from Mill Creek Entertainment); Kevin Sorbo plays the Messiah’s stepdad in Joseph & Mary (Cinedigm); who will get the last, bitchy word in Vicious: The Finale (PBS)?
1970s icons Electra Woman & Dyna Girl (Sony/Legendary) get a 21st century reboot with YouTube comics Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart; Guy Pearce tackles a global conspiracy of religious zealots in Jack Irish, Season 1 (RLJ/Acorn); Kerry Washington delivers another electrifying performance in Confirmation (HBO Home Entertainment), a riveting examination of the political destruction of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
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