The Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)
If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.
One of the wonders of the film is how Gray reveals unexpected depths and dimensions of these characters throughout their journeys. And Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji create an atmosphere as compelling as the characters, a dreamy recreation of old New York that is both beautiful and tawdry. It’s a slow, simmering film with intense characters and a drama that demands patience and rewards with a rich drama about the American experience.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by director James Gray and the featurette “The Visual Inspiration of The Immigrant.”
Also on Netflix and Hulu (free with ads)
A Most Violent Year (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) should have been an Oscar contender. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and set in the crime-ridden culture of early 1980s New York City (which was the most violent year on record in the city’s history), smart, shadowy tribute to the crime dramas of the seventies and early eighties, when the culture of crime and corruption was treated as a systemic issue rather than an outlier problem solved in the final reel. Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious businessman in the oil heating market determined to succeed without mob ties and Jessica Chastain is his fierce, fearless wife, the daughter of a mobster who is convinced that he needs to mob up when his trucks and his salesmen are targeted and the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is looking into his books (yes, he’s been paying off officials, which is business as usual in that culture). She’s got a bit of Lady Macbeth to her Brooklyn character but Isaac is determined to remain (relatively) honest even when his entire business teeters on collapse as he scrambles to raise money for a deal that will either make him rich or leave him broke. Isaac and Chastain are excellent (though Chastain is left to fill in what the script fails to provide in terms of dimension) and Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as Isaac’s pragmatic (and loyal) lawyer
Chandor expertly takes us through gray area between the culture of official corruption and the criminal underworld (organized and unorganized crime both) and favors the human drama over gangster spectacle. It is a violent world, and a shadowy one (the New York winter setting is beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who has a way of suggesting that even daylight is a shadow cast by something wicked), but the violence is all in personal, intimate terms, inflicted on real people who are not equipped for this kind of warfare. His direction is both gritty and graceful, if perhaps a little studied and removed. Though not exactly glorified, the film portrays this business battlefield as a historical set piece, seen from a distance and elevated to Shakespearean dimensions. There is a cost to every decision, including the choice not to fight criminals on their own terms. Isaac’s performance clarifies that conflict beautifully.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, three featurettes, and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also feature a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Also on digital and cable VOD and at Redbox.
Manhattan: Season One (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) isn’t about the city. It’s about the project. Set on the Los Alamos, New Mexico, military base in the early 1940s, it is about the development of the atomic bomb and the uneasy society in this gated community guarded by MPs who, like everyone else not directly involved with the project, don’t actually know what the brain trust of physicists and engineers are working on.
The real-life Manhattan Project was developed across multiple sites spread around the country (the series even visits one of those sites) but Los Alamos was at the center of it. This is where the device was to be designed and built and Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the program, had two teams working in competition on separate approaches. That’s where we come into the story with young physics wunderkind Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who arrives with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) to a high-security base that is not on any map (it’s simply identified as PO Box 1663) feels like a cross between a cheaply-built gated community and an internment camp. Charlie is assigned to the favored team led by Reed Akley (David Harbour) but he’s obsessed with impressing Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), the brilliant leader of the misfit B-team who has a habit of bucking the chain of command. Olivia Williams is Frank’s wife Liza, a botany professor in her own right who is dismissed as simply another base wife by the military command even as she discovers the radiation accumulating around the camp (it’s killing the bees).
The tension between the military structure and civilian scientists and families is just part of the drama. Much of the story is caught up in the politics of the base: who gets to work on projects, how the money and equipment is used as leverage, how the culture of secrecy and suspicion undermines a sense of community and shared commitment. Hovering over it all is are representatives of the security services (notably West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) tracking every possible intelligence leak and possible sabotage attempt, especially after their mole in Germany is captured. At this point in the war, the focus is on the war in Europe and they are racing Hitler’s team to the bomb. Those stakes are more than simply a dramatic device. The fear of the Axis beating them to them bomb is a very real possibility.
This is the second original drama from the Chicago cable superstation and aspiring cable player WGN and it reaches for the level of human drama, social commentary, and historical perspective of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex. It largely succeeds. Thomas Schlamme, who visualized Aaron Sorkin’s ideas on The West Wing, is an executive producer and directs the pilot, setting the tone of the show. The Spartan setting helps stretch the budget, which uses the dusty streets, shabby shack housing, and forlorn isolation in the middle of nowhere to define the atmosphere of this community, and the personal dramas and challenges define the culture of suspicion and the social world of wartime America, with all its prejudices and anxieties. Some of the storylines stumble a bit and the personal betrayals at times come off as dramatic contrivances, but at its best the series dramatizes the stakes of the project—and the cost in lives—in human terms, and it casts its gaze on a culture that has not been explored on the screen in any depth.
The second season begins on WGN later this year.
Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary tracks on select episodes and four featurettes. Both also include Ultraviolent Digital copies (the Blu-ray edition has Digital HD).
Grantchester (Masterpiece Mystery!) (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), set in a picturesque village near Cambridge in the early 1950s, looks at first glance to be another easy-going British mystery series in the Midsomer Murders vein. It’s based on a novel by James Runcie about an amiable, slightly eccentric Anglican priest who teams up with a Cambridge police detective to solve murders in the bucolic environs of rural England. James Norton is Sidney Chambers, the vicar of Granchester, who has a way with people and a mind for solving mysteries, and British TV veteran Robson Green is Geordie Keating, the detective who is initially wary when (in the first episode) Sidney insists that a recent suicide death may in fact be murder. The unlikely alliance turns to friendship and the two men end up investigating a number of crimes together, bonding over their shared experiences as war veterans and a shared love of fine whisky.
As the mysteries continue, however, the show starts to explore some of the shadows cast by the war—shell shock, racism, homophobia, suspicion of immigrants (especially Germans)—and some of the ugliness underneath the small town values. And the characters themselves develop over the course of the season: Sidney’s opinionated housekeeper (Tessa Peake-Jones) proves to be caring and loyal under her flinty exterior, and she recruits a junior vicar (Al Weaver) to help Sidney, a young, inexperienced man who grows enormously as his horizons are expanded and convictions are tested. Through it all, Sidney struggles when his first love (Morven Christie) accepts another man’s proposal of marriage, revealing the very human side of this religious leader. It played on “Masterpiece Mystery” in the U.S.
Six hour-long episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with featurettes and cast interviews.
One Step Beyond (Film Chest, DVD) – “The amazing drama you are about to see is a matter of human record. You may believe it or not. But the real people who lived this story, they believe it. They know. They took that one step beyond.”
John Newland directs each and every episode of One Step Beyond, which debuted a year before The Twilight Zone and took a very different approach to tales of the fantastic, and he hosts as our “tour guide into world of the unknown,” introducing audiences to real life ghost stories, urban myths, psychic phenomenon, tales of possession and reincarnation, and other stories that defy reason that were purported to be true. Think of it as the original Unsolved Mysteries as a weekly half-hour anthology drama, with guest stars such as Christopher Lee, William Shatner, Elizabeth Montgomery, Cloris Leachman, Warren Beatty, and Suzanne Pleshette.
Newland hasn’t the dramatic flair of Rod Serling, either as creator or narrator, and the low-key series remained in the shadow of Serling’s iconic show for its entire run, but he had a long career on TV, directing hundreds of hours over dozens of shows, and a special interest in supernatural themes that he recurred in many subsequent projects. He directs it all with a seriousness that makes the episodes more like psychological dramas than scary stories, which gives this series in a unique place in the television of the supernatural for its determination to take stories of the paranormal seriously, both as phenomena and as human stories. The series ran for three seasons (with a new introduction each season) and almost 100 episodes. Not all of them survive and this set, the most complete ever released on DVD
70 episodes on five discs on DVD. The first season (previously released by Paramount) is complete and looks very good—it was mastered from original elements—but there is a noticeable drop in quality in subsequent seasons. No supplements and the episode guide unfortunately does not list episode guest stars.
Also new and notable:
Tobe Hooper directs Invaders From Mars (1986) (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), the colorful remake of the 1953 sci-fi thriller about a boy (Hunter Carson) who discovers an alien conspiracy among the adults of his town when a UFO lands in the family backyard. Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman are parents-turned-pod people and cult favorites Louise Fletcher, Karen Black, Bud Cort, and James Karen co-star. Newly remastered for disc, this release includes the new featurette “The Martins Are Coming! The Making of Invaders From Mars” featuring interviews with Hooper, Carson, and the special effects artists, and the director commentary carried over from the previous DVD release.
Breathless (1983) (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, a nouvelle vague classic, is updated, relocated from Paris to Los Angeles, and inverted to make the anti-hero an American car thief (Richard Gere) with a love of Silver Surfer comics and the girl a French exchange student (Valerie Kaprisky) at UCLA. Perhaps not the best idea for a remake but director Jim McBride makes this a decidedly American version of the sexy outlaw drama. No supplements on this one.
More later on the Japanese gangster film Massacre Gun (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) with Jo Shishido and the moonshine-and-cars classic Thunder Road (Timeless, Blu-ray+DVD) with Robert Mitchum.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
The Star Wars Digital Collection (Fox) marks the debut of all six official films of the Star Wars franchise in the Digital HD format. They are available for purchase on Friday, April 10, from the usual suspects (iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Flixster, and so on) and there is no word on which version of Star Wars it offers, though I suspect it’s Lucas’ most recent revision. Also includes a wealth of supplements, most carried over from the earlier Blu-ray releases with one new featurette with each film.
Available on Cable on Demand on Friday, April 10, the same day as theaters, is the romantic comedy 5 to 7 with Anton Yelchin and Bérénice Marlohe and the young adult drama The Sisterhood of Night with Georgie Henley (of “The Chronicles of Narnia” films).
Available for Digital HD purchase on Friday, April 10, in advance of disc release:
Cake (Fox, Digital HD)
The Gambler (Paramount, Digital HD)
The House Across the Street (Level 33, Digital HD)
Classics and Cult:
Imitation of Life 2-Movie Collection (Universal, Blu-ray)
Singles (Warner, Blu-ray)
Empire Records (Fan Remix version) (Warner, Blu-ray)
Detroit Rock City (Warner, Blu-ray)
After the Sunset (Warner, Blu-ray)
The Corruptor (Warner, Blu-ray)
Sharkey’s Machine (Warner, Blu-ray)
Hooper (Warner, Blu-ray)
Silent Running (Warner, Blu-ray)
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Warner, Blu-ray)
Doris Day: The Essential Collection (15 Film Set) (Warner, DVD)
The Simon Wiesenthal Collection (11 Documentaries) (Cinedigm, DVD, Digital)
TV on disc:
Inside Amy Schumer: Seasons 1 & 2 (Paramount, DVD)
The Book of Negroes (eOne, DVD)
King of the Hill: The Complete 9th Season (Olive, DVD)
King of the Hill: The Complete 10th Season (Olive, DVD)
Barney Miller: The Complete Seventh Season (Shout! Factory, DVD)
The Brady Bunch: The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount, DVD)
Frasier: The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount, DVD)
MacGyver: The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount, DVD)
Matlock: The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount, DVD)
Planet Dinosaur 3D (BBC, Blu-ray)
Wings 3D (BBC, Blu-ray)
Tiny Giants 3D (BBC, Blu-ray)
Ruby’s Quest (BBC, DVD)
Monkey Warriors (BBC, DVD)
Home Sweet Hell (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD)
If You Don’t, I Will (Film Movement, DVD)
Happy Valley (Music Box, DVD)
Monk With a Camera (Alive Mind, DVD)
Pelican Dreams (Cinedigm, DVD, VOD)
The Invisible Front (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Mad As Hell (Oscilloscope, DVD)
The Voices (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Killers (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Man with the Iron Fists 2 (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bad Asses on the Bayou (Fox, DVD)
108 Stitches (Freestyle, DVD)
Yellowbird (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)