Simon Amstell’s debut feature Benjamin (Artsploitation/Kino Lorber) is a gay rom-com that’s more often ouchy than swoony, but the results are a delight all the same. Colin Morgan stars as the titular filmmaker, a rising director currently mired in a sophomore slump. He falls for Noah (Phénix Brossard, Little Joe), a real cutie whose self-esteem is about as low to the ground as Benjamin’s. That Amstell has this firm a grasp on story and character and dialogue his first time out is definitely impressive; here’s hoping he has a better go at a follow-up than his lead character.
Also available: One Lucky Grandma (GDE/Kino Lorber) finds herself in the middle of a Chinatown gang war in Sasie Sealy’s dark comedy; Haley Bennett plays a housewife who goes to extreme measures to take control of her own life in the discomfiting Swallow (IFC Midnight/Scream Factory).
Not even 2020 can kill good movies, and even if House of Hummingbird (Well Go USA Entertainment) didn’t get to have the U.S. theatrical release it deserved, this Berlinale and Tribeca award-winner still works great on the small screen. A sweet and poignant coming-of-age tale about a teenage Korean girl (Ji-hu Park’s performance as Eun-hee will break your heart) gets the big ideas and the small details just right, heralding Bora Kim as a talent to watch in international cinema.
Also available: Chilly in every sense of the word, the terse Icelandic thriller A White, White Day (Film Movement) is ideal viewing in these dog days of summer; an exiled Qing Dynasty–era singer has the Peking Opera blues in Enter the Forbidden City (Cinema Libre); in Djon Africa (IndiePix Films), a Portuguese musician takes a raucous trip home to rediscover his roots in Cape Verde.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, when The Tobacconist (Menemsha/Kino Lorber) meets Sigmund Freud (played by the great Bruno Ganz) in 1930s Vienna; a diverse collection of Berlin club-crawlers cross paths in Night Out (Corinth Films); legendary figure skater Sonja Henie, and her conquest of Hollywood and beyond, gets the lavish biopic treatment in Sonja: The White Swan (Kino Lorber)
A trio of acclaimed animated imports this month: The Korean family adventure A Dog’s Courage (Well Go USA Entertainment), the romantic Ride Your Wave (GKIDS/Shout Factory) – a must for the latest in water animation – and genre-defying, already-has-a-cult classic Promare: Collector’s Edition (GKIDS/Shout Factory)
A Canadian folk-rock icon gets the spotlight in the acclaimed Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Greenwich/Kino Lorber). And while he’s one of the smoothest dang singers around, the film makes an effective argument for his importance in musical history, from the adulation from super-fan Bob Dylan to effusive tributes from the likes of Steve Earle and Sarah McLachlan. It’s a great trip through a legendary discography that also places Lightfoot into a very specific cultural and historical context.
Also available: Celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment – or be gobsmacked that it took so long to give women suffrage – with American Experience: The Vote (PBS); Maguy Marin: Time to Act (Icarus/Distrib) examines the work of the legendary French choreographer, particularly her collaboration with Samuel Beckett; Leonor Teles became the youngest Berlin Golden Bear winner ever with the meditative Terra Franca (IndiePix Films), a look at the life of a fisherman in a waterfront village not far from Lisbon; Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klimt (Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber) celebrates the work of an essential artist often erased from male-centric surveys of 20th century art.
The Destruction of Memory (Icarus Films Home Video) takes an unflinching look at who protects mankind’s cultural legacy; produced in 1979 to celebrate the scientist’s centenary, Einstein’s Universe (Corinth Films) examines the ramifications of relativity and its ongoing impact on contemporary physics; the five-part series Asian Americans (PBS) examines the indelible impact that generations of immigrants have had on the USA; one of Austin’s legendary live-music venues faces the prospect of closing in Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub (MVD Visual).
Sure, Godzilla gets all the accolades, but if you’ve spent your life sleeping on Gamera, the greatest flying turtle of all time, then you’re only experiencing half the pleasure that is kaiju. For fans and the uninitiated alike (not to mention who know these movies only from their appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000), here comes Gamera: The Complete Collection (Arrow). Gamera was Godzilla’s main business rival (competing studio Daiei was out to get a little of Toho’s monster box office) and, unlike the nuclear lizard, began his career as a friend to children. This box set delivers all 12 Gamera adventures, and it’s never too late to catch up and become his friend, too, you weird adult.
Also available: Completists of the output of Quentin Tarantino, actor – bless your hearts – won’t want to miss Takashi Miike’s singularly warped oater Sukiyaki Western Django (FilmRise/MVD Marquee), now available in a souped-up Collector’s Edition; the horror anthology Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (Scream Factory) boasts an eclectic ensemble, including Debbie Harry and Steve Buscemi; Brits on holiday encounter flesh-eating mutants, eh what, in The Barge People (RLJE Films); and while you’re waiting for The Meg 2 to ever be made, there’s always the chum-stained waters of Deep Blue Sea 3 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
Dracula necks with a dude – and why shouldn’t he? – in the campy ’90s horror comedy Love Bites (Massacre Video); before there were dispensaries and Cheech & Chong, there were retroactively-hilarious cautionary marijuana tales like She Shoulda Said “No”/The Devil’s Sleep (Something Weird/Kino Classics), the latest in the “Forbidden Fruit” series; a mother makes a deal with the devil, and her ghost comes to collect one of her children as payment in Satan’s Slaves (Shudder/RLJE)
Valley of the Gods (Well Go USA Entertainment) offers the Josh Hartnett–John Malkovich match-up you’ve always wanted; a punk band discovers their roadie is a flesh-eating zombie, as you do, in Uncle Peckerhead (Dread/Epic Pictures); whether they’re killing corpses or killing cannibal corpses, there seems to be something a little redundant in the title Cannibal Corpse Killers (Indican Pictures), although obviously it delivers cannibals, corpses, and killing; finally available on physical media in the US is director-star Alice Lowe’s provocative pregnancy horror-comedy Prevenge (Shudder/RLJE)
Even if you’re only mezzo-mezzo about keeping physical media around – despite the fact that streaming content comes and goes because of any number of corporate whims – anyone who has a collection that purports to be serious about film needs to make room on the shelf for The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (The Criterion Collection), a wonderfully exhaustive collection celebrating one of the most important cinematic voices of the post-WWII era. Given the vagaries of copyright and ownership, it’s rare to be able to hold an entire filmography in your hand in a single release, but Criterion has put together everything – features and shorts, narratives and documentary — for the full Varda experience, not to mention previously unseen footage, archival material, and a lavishly illustrated 200-page book. And while you’re at it, pick up Criterion’s Jacques Demy box, not just because the two were married, but also because the restoration and remastering of his cinematic output was one of the many passions of Varda’s life. (Read Spool editor-in-chief Clint Worthington’s longer-form review of the set here.)
Also available: Dismissed (mostly) by the overwhelmingly male critical establishment upon its initial release in 1979, Old Boyfriends (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) – directed by Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewksbury – has undergone reevaluation in recent years; also released in 1979 was Chris Hegedus’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s lively documentary Town Bloody Hall (The Criterion Collection), capturing an unforgettable 1971 debate in which leading feminist thinkers took on Norman Mailer; Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray flirt adulterously once again in Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (Kino Lorber Studio Classics); Zhang Yimou’s luminous and intense Shanghai Triad (Film Movement Classics) makes its North American Blu-ray debut.
Lil’ baby Neil Patrick Harris gives an intense kid performance opposite Whoopi Goldberg as a sympathetic domestic in Clara’s Heart (Warner Archive Collection); Robert Duvall gives one of his most Robert Duvall–ish performances – the one that won him an Oscar – in the moving Tender Mercies (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), which also features wonderful turns from Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, the late Wilford Brimley, and the often-underappreciated Tess Harper; sports promoter Spencer Tracy memorably notes, regarding Katharine Hepburn’s athlete in Pat and Mike (Warner Archive Collection), “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.”
Budd Boetticher explores racism and other horrors of war in The Red Ball Express (Kino Lorber Studio Classics); a gay man and a lesbian falling in love with each other is A Different Story (Scorpion), all right, but one very much of an earlier era; the David Hockney documentary A Bigger Splash (Metrograph/Kino Lorber) has never looked better than in this crisp restoration of the 1974 film; do you want to see Leonard Nimoy, Lee Grant, Peter Falk, Shelley Winters, and Ruby Dee in a screen adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)? Of course you do.
Whatever you might feel about DC Comics on the big screen – and I know you’ve all got feelings – can we agree that they’re absolutely killing it on the small screen? From CW shows like The Flash: The Complete Sixth Season and Batwoman: The Complete First Season (both DC/Warner Bros.) which manage to get into wild concepts like the Crisis on Infinite Earths and make them palatable to a wide audience, to not-for-kids animated features like Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons (DC/Warner Bros.), there is freshness and fun here that only pops up periodically in their cinematic universe. Please, don’t @ me.
Also available: Mae West: Dirty Blonde (PBS), from the American Masters series, celebrates one of U.S. pop culture’s original provocateurs; while the sequel to A Quiet Place continues to circle the runway, get your Krasinski fix with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season 2 (Paramount Home Entertainment); horror (the genre) meets horror (the worst parts of human history – in this case, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II) in the acclaimed The Terror: Infamy (AMC/RLJE); the beautifully packaged series of Ultra-Man releases continues with the paradigm-shifting Neo Ultra Q (Mill Creek Entertainment).
Jason Segel leads a dynamic ensemble (that includes Sally Field and André Benjamin) in Dispatches from Elsewhere: Season 1 (AMC/RLJE); Playing for Keeps: Season 1 (Sundance Now) mixes pro Australian football and a murder mystery, and it’s a pretty delectable combo; before becoming the Maytag Man and a Hallmark hunk, Colin Ferguson played the sheriff of a wild and weird town of science gone amuck in Eureka: The Complete Series (Mill Creek Entertainment); thank a grandparent for the existence of NCIS: Los Angeles: Season 11 and NCIS: New Orleans: The Sixth Season (both CBS/Paramount); while the film franchise pooped out after one chapter, HBO’s stylish and sinister His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season (HBO/Warner Bros.) seems to indicate that this series will take us all the way through the trilogy of novels.
And while we’re all staying in, some of the best escapism comes, as always, from Acorn TV, whose latest offerings include Julia Ormond in cougar mode in Gold Digger; the darkly funny murder mystery Dead Still (Acorn), about a Dublin photographer at the dawn of the medium; and David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in a town full of secrets, Deadwater Fell (Acorn).