Movies Till Dawn: Hired, Wired and Inspired Edition

First Reformed” (2017, Lionsgate) Locked into an emotional and spiritual spiral by the loss of parishioners, the death of his son and declining health, a small-town Protestant minister (Ethan Hawke) finds something like purpose in the apocalyptic visions of a local man. Intense, intimate drama dives deep into the recurring themes of writer-director Paul Schrader‘s work – the loner, adrift in his faith, that finds salvation through violence that will consume him (see “Taxi Driver,” “Affliction”) – though that path to redemption is eked out here in theological debate between Hawke (and himself), Amanda Seyfried as the man’s wife and Cedric the Entertainer as a megachurch’s sympathetic pastor. Such a method might be trying, were it not for Schrader’s finely calibrated direction and exceptional work by Hawke, whose now-craggy visage and ability to plumb his character’s moral complexities suggests a kinship with the great Robert Ryan, who also knew how to suffer silently but cinematically. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Schrader and a making-of featurette.

Filmworker” (2017, Kino Lorber) Cast as Ryan O’Neal‘s foil in “Barry Lyndon,” British actor Leon Vitali became entranced by the meticulous process and vision of its director, Stanley Kubrick, and for the next three-plus decades, served as his right-hand man – a position that had both lofty aspects (helping to cast “The Shining”) and some less so (being at the director’s beck and call at the expense of his health and personal relationships). Vitali, now in his 70s and currently overseeing restoration of Kubrick’s films, is a natural and roguish storyteller (with help from actors like Matthew Modine from “Full Metal Jacket”), and his adventures with Kubrick are fascinating and horrifying and most importantly, provide rare insight into a filmmaker who worked steadfastly and successfully at remaining a mystery. Kino’s DVD includes a Q&A with Vitale and the film’s director, Tony Zierra.

MDMA” (2017, Shout Studios) Facing money woes at an elite East Coast College, working-class Chinese-American student Angie (Annie Q) finds that selling the titular club drug at the end of the 1980s brings a windfall of easy cash, but also opens the door for a host of other problems. First-time writer-producer-director Angie Wang draws on her own experiences for her feature debut, which hold immediate interest with high-tension energy in the club/drug scenes, though these are eventually undone by trudging through well-worn crime tropes; more successful are quieter scenes involving Angie and her well-heeled (Francesca Eastwood, “M.F.A.”), with whom she finds common ground in childhoods marked by absent mothers, due largely to the talents of the performers. “MDMA” is currently playing in theaters and on VOD.

The Hired Hand” (1971, Arrow Video) Laconic cowboy Peter Fonda (who also directed) decides to reunite with the wife (Verna Bloom) he left nearly a decade before, but to his dismay, he and pal Warren Oates are allowed to stay if they work as hands on his own ranch. Fonda’s first feature after the success of “Easy Rider” is glacially paced and like its star, appears to amble aimlessly at times (save for a pair of shootouts with thug Severn Darden) but it’s also beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and edited by Frank Mazzola, and Alan Sharp’s script gives Oates some choice ornery/cosmic dialogue and Bloom an appealingly independent woman to play. Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray/DVD offers commentary by Fonda, a 2003 making-of doc featuring much of the principal cast and crew, deleted scenes (including a whole lost subplot involving a sheriff played by Larry Hagman), and a 1978 documentary by Bill Forsyth about Scottish screenwriters, including Sharp, as well as an appreciation by Martin Scorsese and an 1978 audio recording of Fonda and Oates at the National Film Theatre.

Crazy Six” (1997, MVD Visuals) Brooding American Rob Lowe and effete Arabic-French gangster Mario Van Peebles team up to steal plutonium from Ice-T, a gang lord/arms dealer operating out of an unspecified and lawless section of Eastern Europe; things look grim for Lowe until cowboy-hatted lawman Burt Reynolds arrives to bail out his scraggly butt. Junkfood thrills with an abundance of amusingly overwrought stylistic flourishes and performances – Lowe, who is a fine comic actor, is adrift as a junkie loner – that are probably best appreciated by devotees of its absurdly prolific director, Albert Pyun. And while this is not the best showcase for the late Reynolds, he shows his durability by effortlessly walking off with all of his scenes. MVD’s Blu-ray is part of its sprawling new MVD Marquee Collection imprint, which focuses on underappreciated titles and cult favorites.

Supergirl” (2016, FilmRise) Quietly compelling documentary about Naomi Kutin, a 10-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who also happens to be a competitive power lifter with the ability to heft three times her own weight. Director Jessie Auritt follows Kutin from ages 10 to 13, as she attempts to navigate three worlds at once – her religion, her sport and impending teenage status, with all that entails – and allows her subject free reign to express herself, from love for her supportive family, which includes her autistic brother, to self-doubt in and frustration with the limits of her body and online trolls who comment on it. The care afforded to this understated portrait of a very unique girl attempting to define herself makes “Supergirl” worthwhile viewing, especially for younger viewers who may be facing their own set of questions and challenges.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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