Movies Till Dawn: What’s New for 2020? (Social Distancing Edition)

Queen and Slim” (2019, Universal Home Entertainment) As lawyer Jodie Turner-Smith and godfearing Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) discover, all that’s required to turn a forgettable Tinder date into the flashpoint for a life on the run is one minor traffic infraction, one angry police officer (singer Sturgill Simpson) and a loose grip on a gun. Deliberately raw and visually striking feature debut from music video/TV director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe (“Master of None”) turns its crime movie tropes into an extended meditation on the daily challenge of being African-American in America; it’s more dreamscape than road movie, and the disjointed quality that comes with such a framework results in a few loose ends, but Matsoukas lands enough solid hits to rock viewers into a state of (hopeful) awareness. Universal’s Blu-ray includes commentary by and interviews with Matsoukas and Waithe, as well as a script read-through and location footage.

1917” (Universal Home Video) A pair of young British soldiers in the First World War are sent behind enemy lines to deliver a warning that could save the lives of 1,600 men in a British battalion facing certain death from German artillery. Multi- Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning drama (including Best Picture from the latter) from director Sam Mendes is an impressive feat thanks to its audacious construction, which tricks the eye into believing that the duo’s perilous journey unfolds in a single shot; its purpose, however, isn’t to overwhelm with visual effects or battlefield setpieces (though both are astonishing, even on home video). Rather, the focus on the two men against a vast and brutal landscape gives an intimacy to their struggle, and to the violence that surrounds them, has more resonance than all the period boom-and-bang in “Midway.” War is troop movement and victory and defeat, but Mendes, cinematographer Richard Deakins (who earned his second Oscar here) and their team also remind us that it’s also sudden and  terrible loss, and for reasons that those who survive can rarely understand – something that all the armchair hawks on the news or the net should remember. Universal’s Blu-ray includes commentaries by Mendes and Deakins and featurettes on the score, cinematography and production design.

Bombshell” (2019, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) Third film take on the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News stands out by virtue of a uniformly excellent cast led by Nicole Kidman and Oscar nominees Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie. Director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph anchor the action around what happened to anchors Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Theron) after they spoke up against the paranoid frathouse atmosphere at Fox under news director Roger Ailes, while utilizing a fictitious character (Robbie) to represent both the blind faith of the network’s devotees and a composite of women who endured mistreatment prior to the events in the film. The tone is a sometimes curious mix of coal-black humor and horror, but any uneven moments are smoothed over by Theron, whose eerily accurate depiction of Kelly almost makes her impressive makeup effects redundant; she’s backed by Robbie and John Lithgow (also under pounds of latex) as Ailes, as well as a sort of Who’s Who of Scene Stealers, including Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell and Rob Delaney. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes a feature-length making-of doc.

Uncut Gems” (2019, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) Jeweler and inveterate gambler Adam Sandler sees the sale of a rare black opal to the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett (underplaying admirably as himself) as the express ticket out of his current state – rapidly collapsing from unpaid debts and family meltdowns – but the scheme goes spectacularly awry. Anxiety-fueled crime thriller/character study from Joshua and Benjamin Safdie wears its influences on its sleeve (executive producer Martin Scorsese‘s body of work, most notably) and the endless variations on Unpleasant People Making Regrettable Decisions may exhaust some viewers, but Sandler’s relentless performance (he’s well matched by Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield and Eric Bogosian as combustible entities in his orbit), the Las Vegas funeral sheen of Darius Khondji’s cinematography and the Safdies’ frantic pace and camerawork make the repellent behavior compelling. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.

Inherit the Viper” (2020, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) Josh Harnett’s eclectic post-movie star career (see “Oh Lucy!“) continues with this downbeat but briskly paced indie about an Appalachian family of opioid dealers. Hartnett is the nominal head of three siblings, each with conflicting ideas about the family business that ultimately lands them in trouble; the core story is overly familiar, but the interplay between Harnett, Margarita Levieva and Owen Teague feels honest (Bruce Dern and Dash Mihok are also solid as local color) and first-time director Anthony Jerjen has an eye for decaying rural atmosphere and action setpieces. No extras save for a digital copy on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray.

Little Joe” (2019, Magnolia Home Entertainment) Little Joe is a houseplant, a Seussian sprout with a vibrant red flower and pollen that supposedly improves its owner’s mood. But as scientist Emily Beecham – who co-engineered Little Joe – soon discovers, it actually spawns an all-consuming obsession with the plant that turns ugly towards any perceived threat. Chilly UK sci-fi/horror from Austrian director Jessica Hausner employs the muted performances of the cast (which includes Ben Whishaw), a queasy, ecological color palette (red hair/flowers/green costumes) and an unsettling score culled from avant-garde composer Teiji Ito’s recordings to create a pervasive mood of disquiet and otherworldliness; she’s largely successful in that regard, which makes up for some opaque scripting. Magnolia’s DVD includes a Q&A with Hausner and Beecham.

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 Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, 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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