‘Blonde,’ ‘Murina,’ ‘Poltergeist’ & More

Dec 29, 2022

Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalogue titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This twice-monthly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
You can tell spooky season is on the horizon, since we’re getting shiny new 4K editions of two ‘80s horror classics this week. 4K fanatics can also pick up a 2020 Oscar nominee, a breezy 2007 Western, and an uncommonly chatty 2008 action comedy, while new release aficionados have a controversial new drama on Netflix, an A+ Croatian drama, and a 1973 oddity that disappeared for decades. But let’s start with one of the best movies of the ‘90s, shall we?
“Exotica”: Atom Egoyan finally joins the Criterion Collection with this spellbinding 1994 indie drama, making its equally overdue Blu-ray debut. He focuses on a group of barely-connected characters, all in the inner or outer orbit of a Toronto strip club, and (as per usual) the viewer spends a fair amount of the running time decoding who everyone is and what their relationships are to each other. Connections that initially seem impossible slowly become clear, and then inextricably linked, and the skill with which he draws these disparate threads together in the emotionally overwhelming closing scenes is astonishing. Every performance is a bruiser, but special attention must be paid to valuable character actor Bruce Greenwood, here showing the depth of his powers in a rare leading role. (Includes audio commentary, interview, Egoyan short films and full feature “Calendar,” Cannes press conference, and essay by Jason Wood.) 
“Blonde”: Director Andrew Dominick adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, a fictionalized account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, as a hybrid of biopic, art film, historical fiction, and treatise on exploitation, addiction, and celebrity. His approach is forceful, visceral and personal, telling the story through her eyes and ears, and every exploding flashbulb feels like an act of violence. It’s a staggering technical achievement, wildly ambitious though frequently clumsy, and some of the big swings don’t connect at all. But Ana De Armas is astonishing in the title role, capturing Monroe’s beauty and her charisma, yes, but more importantly, her vulnerability and longing. Every slight and injury (and there are many) flashes across her delicate features, and you feel each and every one of them. Whatever its flaws, it’s a movie you have to grapple with, and that’s much more commendable than another boilerplate biopic. (Streaming Wednesday, September 28.)
“Sound of Metal”: There is a scene about two-thirds of the way into Darius Marder’s drama in which two men sit at a table and talk, openly and honestly, and it’s as thrilling as any action sequence – muted but scorching, quiet but indescribably moving. The two men are Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who has recently lost most of his hearing, and Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a school for the deaf where Ruben has spent some time learning to sign, and more importantly, learning to cope. He’s spent so much of his life surrounded by noise that he’s become afraid of silence, but Marder (who also wrote the script) suffers from no such fear; this is a modestly drawn movie that hits you like a thunderbolt; that scene, and the movie around it, left this viewer thinking, listening, and feeling with as much urgency as any movie in recent memory. (Also streaming on Amazon Prime Video.) (Includes interview, featurettes, music video, trailer, and essay by Roxana Hadadi.) 
“Murina”: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s Croatian drama sounds like a movie you’ve seen a million times before; “teenage girl comes into her own as a woman during a visit by her father’s wealthy friend” conjures up all sorts of visions of Euro-sleaze and winking sexual empowerment. What’s great about Kusijanovic is her awareness of that baggage, and how she turns our expectations inside out, drawing out plot turns that may never arrive while sucker-punching us with unintended motives and consequences. Every performance is a winner, but Gracija Filipovic is the one to watch; this is her film acting debut, and she crafts one of the most complicated characters of any film this year. (Includes introduction, Q&A, and trailer.) 
“The Amusement Park”: In 1973, between his classics “Season of the Witch” and “The Crazies,” George A. Romero took on a peculiar director-for-hire gig, helming this anti-ageism educational film for the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania. But it was rarely screened and long thought lost, until its rediscovery and restoration a few years back, and it’s a remarkable example of an artist sculpting their distinctive vision for unintended purposes. Shot in an abandoned Pennsylvania amusement park, it follows an old man’s attempt at a day of fun and frolic; it turns into a semi-surrealist waking nightmare of physical and emotional abuse, viscerally visualizing loneliness and obsolescence with haunting results. (Also streaming on Shudder.) (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, and script.)
“The Automat”: The Horn & Hardart automats (short for “automatic restaurant”) were ubiquitous but exclusive to Philadelphia and New York City for decades, a phenomenon of their era, in which customers could eat affordable, high quality food from coin-dispensing windows. Lisa Hurwitz’s informative documentary lays out the history of the automat and the procedures for how it worked, acutely pinpointing the keys to its longevity and the causes of its decline, with the help of insiders and historians, as well as famous patrons including Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mel Brooks (whose frequent advice on how to put the movie together becomes its best running gag). It’s a light, slight movie, clocking in at less than 90 minutes, but its pleasures are undeniable. (Includes audio commentary, extended interview and introduction with Mel Brooks, and additional archival footage.)
ON 4K:
“Poltergeist”: In the summer of 1982, just a week before the release of “E.T.,” co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg unleashed a far darker vision of suburban America. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams exude both comfy chemistry and genuine horror as parents who watch as their nuclear family is torn apart by sinister forces in their pre-fab home, and the sketchy origins of that dwelling become one of the great horror movie reveals. Tobe Hooper directs with terrifying panache, bringing off several deservedly iconic sequences (hello, Mr. Clown), while Warner Bros.’ new 4K restoration is an absolute beaut. (Includes featurettes and trailer.)
“The Lost Boys”: Warner gives a similarly impressive makeover to Joel Schumacher’s pop teen vampire classic, which is such a quintessentially ‘80s picture that the crisp image and robust sound almost does it a disservice; this was a film that most audiences viewed in gloriously chintzy, full-frame VHS form. The proper presentation spotlights Schumacher’s oft-overlooked (or minimized) sense of visual punch; it’s a neon horror flick par excellence, its first-rate SFX and effective scares given genuine weight by the human dimensions provided by the performers, particularly Jason Patric as the new recruit to the undead and Dianne Weist as his understandably concerned mom. (Includes audio commentary, video commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, music video, and trailer.)  
“Real Genius”: On one hand, Martha Coolidge’s 1985 campus comedy doesn’t cry out for the 4K treatment the way genre favorites like “Poltergeist” and “The Lost Boys” do; on the other, the cinematographer is the great Vilmos Zsigmond, and his images always deserve to be savored in the highest possible definition. And it’s aged better than most of its ‘80s gross-out comedy brethren, thanks to the way Coolidge’s female gaze balances out the inherent misogyny of the genre, and how the witty screenplay tries to keep pace with its brainy protagonists. Val Kilmer is aces as the B.M.O.C., but the scene-stealer is the delightfully smarmy William Atherton, one of the most reliable movie villains of the decade. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scene, outtakes, and TV version.)
“In Bruges”: KL Studio Classics is wisely giving a 4K upgrade to this 2008 collaboration between writer/director Martin McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson just before the theatrical release of their acclaimed reunion, “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Nice timing, everybody! And it’s held up just fine; what initially looked like yet another riff on the Tarantino talk-talk-bang-bang school of screenwriting gets an unexpected center from McDonagh (making, incredibly, his feature filmmaking debut) rooting it in the complicated relationship between his protagonists and the heady Irish-Catholic notions of guilt, sin, and reckoning. McDonagh’s distinctive dialogue – a clever mix of insults, callbacks, put-ons, understatements, and cheerfully inventive profanity – is a treat, and Ralph Fiennes absolutely wrecks shop as a particularly sour higher-up. (Includes featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, interviews, and trailer.)
“3:10 to Yuma”: James Mangold’s lean and efficient 2007 Western was a remake of the 1957 film that was itself based on an Elmore Leonard short story that first appeared in (no kidding) “Dime Western Magazine.” That sounds about right; this is an unaffected straight shooter that indulges in some character study and morality playing but is mostly about a journey, a battle of wills, and some good old-fashioned action. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are well-matched in the leading roles of charismatic criminal Ben Wade and desperate rancher Dan Evans—Crowe all calm business with flashes of wild in his eyes, Bale the somewhat broken family man on a hair triggered. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, and deleted scenes.)
“Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 4”: The latest, lavish collection of Scorsese-approved restorations and re-releases from around the globe boasts six more titles, from six countries, spanning five decades: Sarah Maldoror’s “Sambizanga,” Mario Soffici’s “Prisoneros de la Tierra,” Mohammad Reza Aslani’s “Chess of the Wind,” Dikongué-Pipa’s “Muna Moto,” Uday Shankar’s “Kaplana,” and André de Toth’s “Two Girls on the Street.” The latter is of particular note, an early Hungarian film by De Toth, who would go on to direct several B-movie classics (and Scorsese favorites), including “Dark Waters,” “Crime Wave,” and “House of Wax.” As usual, the selections are eclectic and fascinating, and the World Cinema Project continues to be an essential resource for cinephiles old and new. (Includes Scorsese introductions, interviews, and featurettes.)   
“Le Corbeau”: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s drama opens with the washing of blood from hands, and that’s far from its final metaphor. The title character (whose pen name translates to “The Raven”) is the mysterious author of “poison pen” letters, whose all-knowing missives threaten to expose both the gossip and the hypocrisy of a provincial French village. But that’s merely the surface subject; released in 1943, “Le Corbeau” powerfully and potently captures the paranoia, fear, and distrust of Nazi-occupied France. “I see all… and will tell all,” threatens the Raven, and sadly, that threat has lost none of its force. (Includes interview, documentary excerpts, trailer, and essay by Alan Williams.)
“Jason’s Lyric”: This unjustly forgotten 1994 drama, new on Blu from KL, is part of a grand tradition of street-level “Romeo & Juliet” riffs; Allen Payne stars as a blue-collar guy whose romance with the sweet but jaded Jada Pinkett is endangered by the bad blood between his ne’er-do-well brother (Bokeem Woodbine) and her gangsta sibling (Treach). But the Shakespeare parallels are less noteworthy than director Doug McHenry’s sense of warm sexuality, poetic dialogue, and moody romanticism; there’s a powerful love story at its center, and Payne and Pinkett’s electrifying chemistry creates real stakes. There’s a sad shortage of screen romances by Black filmmakers for Black audiences, but this is one of the very best. (Includes trailer.)
“Hudson Hawk”: This caper comedy starring Bruce Willis (who also co-wrote the story) was clobbered by brutal notices and only grossed $17 million on a $65 million budget when it hit theaters in 1991. And that’s semi-understandable; it’s a bloated, out-of-control vanity project, sure. But it’s also wildly weird and full of witty touches, from the gonzo performances of Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant to the Hope-and-Crosby chemistry of Willis and Danny Aiello to the charming musical interludes (yes, there are charming musical interludes) wherein our thieves run a clock on their heists by singing tunes like “Swingin’ on a Star” and “Side by Side.” It’s not a good movie, per se, but it’s got its own peculiar style and a sense of humor, and that’s more than you can say for most bloated, out-of-control vanity projects. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, music video, deleted scenes, and theatrical trailer.)
“Orders to Kill”: This WWII spy thriller, new on Blu from Indicator Films, is a truly nuts-and-bolts procedural, tracking the recruitment and training of an American bomber pilot dispatched to take out a Parisian double agent, only to find that doing the job is tougher than anticipated. It’s a patient, leisurely-paced film, digging into the details of the mission and its execution, yet director Anthony Asquith uses our familiarity with the meticulous details to draw out the suspense and tension. Paul Massie makes an empathetic protagonist, while Eddie Albert is gruff and credible as his handler. (Includes interviews, short film, and trailer.) 

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