Inherent Vice (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), Paul Thomas Anderson’s loopy take on Thomas Pynchon’s dope-infused private eye novel, earned Anderson an Oscar nomination for his ingenious screenplay adaptation and critical raves for the rich pageant of eccentrics and oddballs bouncing through 1970 Los Angeles with a post-sixties hangover. I never read Pynchon’s novel so I’ll take the word of those who insist that Anderson is faithful to the story and the spirit of the original even as he condenses and combines characters and scenes. I can say that I was drawn into this crazy world completely by Anderson and his merry pranksters, a shaggy dog mystery with a stoner Philip Marlowe applying of free-association investigative technique to various cases he’s juggling, all of which eventually tangle together in some form or another in the great tradition of the PI drama. Though “drama” is not the word I’d use for this. Absurdist flashback possibly, with socio-political commentary woven through the long, strange trip.
Joaquin Phoenix is the actor you go to for a deep plunge into character transformation. His Larry “Doc” Sportello, a joint-smoking private eye in mutton chops and beachwear, isn’t the tragic, tormented figure of The Master or the mercenary pimp with the glimmer of a soul in The Immigrant but he is equally unique, a man in his own universe that happens to cross paths with ours. Working through perpetual high, the aging beach bum of a detective is talked into tracking down a notorious developer by his old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), whose return may just be the wishful thinking of his imagination, and he trips into a couple additional cases doing his rounds: finding a missing saxophone player turned federal informant (Owen Wilson) for a forlorn wife (Jena Malone) and a white supremacist thug for an old friend, and untangling a drug cartel called the Golden fang. Not necessarily in that order. Or in any order. Meanwhile he keeps tangling with frenemy Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an uptight, hippie-hating cop with a sideline as a bit player on TV, and dropping in on assistant D.A. and occasional bedfellow Penny (Reese Witherspoon). Don’t try to keep the players straight. The connections are as twisty as the through line and the narration by a part-time psychic named Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is more beat poetry than exposition.
Anderson shot on 35mm—as much a tribute to the era it celebrates as a stand against the complete capitulation to digital production—and recreates the era without lots of digital trickery. It’s all about the atmosphere, the hazy sunlight in the city, the ramshackle beach community in the final days before developers stepped in. Audiences were confused by the tangled plot but the rambling, weirdly funny picture is the kind of crackpot odyssey I love.
Blu-ray and DVD with an excellent transfer (preserving the 35mm textures and colors) and minimal supplements: three trailers and a six-minute deleted/alternate sequence.
It’s also available to watch VOD on iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other services.
Le Silence de la Mer (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature by Jean-Pierre Melville, was both a labor of love based on novella that was considered an almost sacred text by the French Resistance and a maverick, self-financed gamble to break into the film industry as a director. A decade before the nouvelle vague, Melville laid the groundwork for the movement with an independent production that incorporated the limitations of resources into the fabric of the filmmaking.
Set mostly in the small farmhouse of a middle-aged Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) where a polite, cultured German officer (Howard Vernon) has been billeted, the film features only one character who speaks on camera (the rest of voice-over narration and reflection, thus limiting the necessity of live sound recording for most scenes). The French hosts offer their own resistance by refusing to speak in the officer’s presence, or even acknowledge him. “By unspoken agreement, my niece and I decided to change nothing in our lives, not the slightest detail, as if he didn’t exist. As if he were a ghost.” Instead of taking it as a slight, the officer treats it as an invitation to indulge in monologues on art and culture (he was a composer as a civilian), the barbarity of the German people, and his dream that French influence will civilize his culture. German though he may be, he is no Nazi and the film is as much about his disillusionment with his own people as it is about the strange and beautiful relationship between these people who might have liked and even loved one another in a different life.
Melville called it an “anti-cinematic” film, and he creates the expressiveness in what remains unspoken, the glances and gestures that take on grand drama in the minimalist presentation. It’s also been described as Bressonian, to which he replied “I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian,” referring to the transformation of Bresson’s style after the release of Le Silence de la Mer. There’s a little bit of cheek in that statement perhaps, but it also shows the confidence and certainty that define Melville’s style and sensibility and Le Silence de la Mer is an assured work. Every frame is under his control and the mix of strength and delicacy that defines his greatest crime dramas is fully formed here. Made just a few years after the liberation, with the occupation still a fresh wound to the French soul, Melville made a film with a German officer as a tragic hero.
This is the ninth Melville feature released on disc in the U.S. by Criterion and their third Melville Blu-ray. The film was shot on a tight budget with a variety of different film stocks and in the face of various mishaps that called for creative manipulation to make flawed shots work. Those imperfections are evident in the HD digital restoration, as is the beauty of the simple images shot by Henri Dacaë, who also made his debut on this film. Their collaboration continued for decades.
Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a tremendous wealth of supplements (also in French). The archival offerings include Melvilles first film, the 1946 non-fiction short “24 Hours in the Life of a Clown” and a very short interview with Melville from 1959. There’s a substantial interview with film scholar and Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau (about 17 minutes), who is articulate and offers informative background on the project and the production, and two excellent documentaries. Code Name Melville (2008, 76 minutes) explores the filmmaker’s experience in the French Resistance and the films he made about the Resistance and Melville Steps Out of the Shadows (2010, 42 minutes) is about the making of La Silence and includes an interview with actress Nicole Stephane among the participants in the film. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an excerpt from Rui Nogueira’s interview book Melville on Melville.
Wolf Hall (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), the BBC historical drama starring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell), advisor and legal counsel first to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and then to King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), is a drama of nuance and detail. There are big dramas to be sure—this is the reign of Henry VIII, with his six wives and the creation of the Church of England, after all—but this series, based on the first two books in what will be a trilogy of historical novels by Hilary Mantel, is focused on the unflappable, practically unemotional reserve of Cromwell as he negotiates power behind the scenes. Rylance is the reigning king of the British stage and all too rarely seen on the screen. Watching him hold the center of this gorgeous period piece is a lesson control and precision and deep-rooted habitation of a role. The series ends before the story does—there’s another novel coming in the series and, one hopes, another series to complete the journey. But until then, this is a riveting take on historical drama and the ways of power in the Tudor era.
It hits Blu-ray and DVD before the six-part series concludes on PBS, which means you can see the final episodes when you buy the disc. It’s a trick PBS has been using for disc sales for a couple of years now and I can only guess that it’s working for them.
Also new and notable:
Paddington (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – I didn’t get around to seeing this British family comedy but everything I’ve heard suggests that it is a charming little picture. It was a huge hit in Britain, where the original storybooks are beloved and the character practically a childhood institution, and modest hit in U.S., and it’s cuddly and sweet enough for the youngest audiences.
Mommy (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), the award-winning French-Canadian drama from Xavier Dolan, is not so family friendly. It swept the Canadian Screen Awards and tied with Godard’s Goodbye to Language for the Jury Prize at Cannes and was Canada’s official entry for the foreign language film category of the Academy Awards.
The Last Days of Vietnam (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) showed on PBS as part of the “American Experience” showcase, but before public TV it had a run on the film festival circuit and in theaters and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
Other new releases this week: The Wedding Ringer (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) with Kevin Hart as a best man for hire and Josh Gad as the geeky groom he tries to make cool, The Gambler (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) with Mark Wahlberg as a college professor and compulsive gambler, and The Boy Next Door (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a romantic thriller with JLo as a high school teacher who falls for a stalkery student and the early favorite to sweep the 2015 Razzie Awards. All of these are rated R.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Criterion, Blu-ray), adapted from the terrific novel by George V. Higgins and starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, and Richard Jordan, is probably the least heralded crime movie classic of the seventies. Criterion released it on DVD a few years ago and now they upgrade it to Blu-ray.
Miami Blues (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), the terrific adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel by writer / director George Armitage with Fred Ward as Detective Hoke Moseley, should have launched a franchise but instead it launched Alec Baldwin, whose supporting role was pumped up into the lead during production. Review to come.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Available for digital purchase in advance of disc is Still Alice (Sony, Digital HD), which won Julianne Moore her first (and very much well deserved) Academy Award, and on Friday, May 1 is Fifty Shades of Grey (Universal, Digital HD), which has its own fanbase that I’m sure is very excited for it.
Classics and Cult:
Companeros (Remastered English Version) (Blue Underground, DVD)
Barquero (Kino, Blu-ray)
The White Buffalo (Kino, Blu-ray)
Convoy (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
Hollywood Shuffle (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Little Man Tate (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Harry & Son (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lord of the Flies (1990) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Teachers (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Kino, DVD)
Wild at Heart (Kino, DVD)
From a Whisper to a Scream (Scream Factory, Blu-ray)
Satan’s Blade (Olive / Slasher // Video, Blu-ray, DVD)
TV on disc:
The Mentalist: The Complete Seventh and Final Season (Warner, DVD)
The Mentalist: The Complete Series (Warner, DVD)
The Almighty Johnsons: The Complete Series (Public Media Distribution, Blu-ray, DVD)
Cover Affairs: Season Five (Universal, DVD)
Royal Pains: Season Six (Universal, DVD)
Suits: Season Four (Universal, DVD)
New Tricks: Season 11 (Acorn, DVD)
The Mystery of Lord Lucan (Acorn, DVD)
Sgt. Bilko / The Phil Silvers Show: The Second Season (Shout! Factory, DVD)
The Jeffersons: Season Seven (Shout! Factory, DVD)
The Legacy (MHz, DVD)
Look of a Killer (MHz, DVD)
Blood of the Vine: Season 3 (MHz, DVD)
Ghost Story: The Turn of the Screw (BBC, DVD)
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (PBS, DVD)
Twice Born: Stories from the Special Delivery Unit (PBS, DVD)
The Physics of Light (PBS, DVD)
Scooby-Doo! and Scrappy-Doo! The Complete Season 1 (Warner, DVD)
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites, Season Five (StarVista, DVD)
Appropriate Behavior (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Accidental Love (Alchemy, Blu-ray, DVD)
Always Woodstock (Anchor Bay, DVD)
A Celebration of Peace Through Music (Kino Lorber)
The Admiral: Roaring Currents (CJ, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boy Meets Girl (Wolfe, DVD)
The Barber (Arc, Blu-ray, DVD)
50 to 1 (Sony, DVD, Digital HD)
Bedlam (Lionsgate, DVD)
Divas (Vega Baby, DVD, VOD)
The Devil’s Violinish (Freestyle, DVD)