Here we are again: the first edition of a new month, and an explosion of VOD content for us to enjoy. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was Oscar season with the amount of Academy gold the following films boast between them, Best Actors, Directors, Pictures, and even Foreign Language Films in our midst. That’s not to say it’s all classics though, a good selection of newer releases again attesting the rising rivalry between streaming services and home video. A nice offering of cult features and comedy classics round us out for a balanced pick to suit all tastes. Here are half of this week’s highlights, expect the rest tomorrow.
The first—and courtesy of a tragically early death, the only—film directed by Steve Gordon earned Oscar nominations for star Dudley Moore and Gordon’s screenplay, which casts Moore as the titular billionaire alcoholic whose family’s fortune will be lost to him unless he marries the woman of their choosing. The arrival of working-class girl Liza Minnelli complicates matters considerably for Arthur, who comes to realise that all the money in the world can’t buy the happiness true love brings. An unremarkable morality tale though it might be on the surface, Arthur finds in Gordon’s sharp comic writing and the infectious chemistry of its leads the ability to transcend the limitations of its predictable plot, ushering in so many great laughs that the instantly obvious endpoint hardly matters at all. Harbouring all the best lines, John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning role as loyal yet unashamedly critical valet Hobson ranks among the finest comic turns ever committed to film. RECOMMENDED.
Capra’s comedy classic casts Cary Grant as the carefree nephew of two kindly old women who, he learns just as he prepares to leave on his honeymoon, have secretly euthanized some twelve elderly men to spare them their loneliness. The release of His Girl Friday back in June gave plentiful indication of Grant’s abilities as font of comic lines; here he takes a more reactionary role, his face contorting with horror at each new revelation. The scene in which he first discovers his aunts’ crimes is side-splittingly funny, their deadpan matter-of-factness as ludicrously entertaining as his overblown hysteria. While the remainder of the film isn’t quite as wildly amusing, Arsenic and Old Lace is never long without a laugh, the arrival of a Boris Karloff-lookalike brother, his nervous sidekick (played by Peter Lorre), and a trio of policemen adding indelibly to the rapid comic flow. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Instrumental in the emergence of the New Hollywood era of American cinema, Arthur Penn’s revisionist gangster classic recreates the infamous crimes of the Barrow gang in the 1930s, bringing to the story a heretofore almost unseen level of violence and sexuality that would push the boundaries of film censorship and prove the final nail in the coffin of the outdated Hays’ Code. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway take the title roles as criminal lovers obsessed with their own media celebrity who together lead a motley band of social misfits. Counterculturalism abounds in Penn’s romanticisation of their Depression-era crimes, yet the sense that no wrong deed goes unpunished slowly builds to an iconic climax in one of the most famous scenes of film history. Additionally notable as the first film role for an expectedly hilarious Gene Wilder, Bonnie and Clyde is a landmark cinematic work, as provocative and impactful today as it was almost fifty years ago. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Arguably among the finest actors working today, Philip Seymour Hoffman landed his first Academy Award nomination for his work as noted author Truman Capote, going on to take home the Oscar on the night. It’s an engrossing performance, with Hoffman capturing Capote’s distinctive voice in spellbinding detail. Moneyball director Bennett Miller makes his feature debut, his capturing of the Kansan landscapes where the murders on which Capote’s In Cold Blood were based occurred attesting a distinguished visual talent that outshines in many ways the rather lacking script, which struggles to manage the difficult story of Capote’s strange relationship with one of the murderers. First-time writer Dan Futterman has difficulty pacing the quasi-romantic attraction between the two men, leading gradually but somewhat unconvincingly from professional curiosity to personal concern. Even with a problematic narrative, Hoffman’s performance and that of Catherine Keener as Harper Lee ensure Capote remains an engagingly humanistic affair. RECOMMENDED.
Continuing to court controversy well into his eight decade with the recently released Killer Joe, William Friedkin has made a career of testing sensibilities and pushing boundaries, arguably no more interestingly than with Cruising, the unashamedly intimate portrait of a New York police officer’s undercover venture into the gay S&M community to catch a serial killer. A film which Al Pacino reputedly refuses to discuss, it required over 50 appeals with the MPAA before scoring an R rating, its graphic homosexual content far beyond the bounds of acceptability for the time. Alas, the story behind the film is much more interesting than that within it, and the relative lack of character development restrains a well-shot, admirably acted piece. Among the 40 minutes of lost footage Friedkin continues to search for may lie the material Cruising is so disappointingly missing; as is, it’s little more than an amusingly candid entry in the Pacino filmography. SO-SO.
A typical action outing with much the same innovation and inspiration as the rest of Stallone’s ‘90s work—that is to say very little—Demolition Man at least carries the benefit of an amusingly satiric look at American society, seeing Sly play a tough cop frozen in time until a utopian 2032 in “San Angeles”, where the local police force is ill-equipped to deal with a criminal mastermind who recently escaped Cryoprison. An early role for Sandra Bullock sees her play the love interest to Stallone’s character; among the film’s better scenes is one wherein the two experience the equivalent of sex for a society where “fluid transfer” is outdated and illegal. Dull underground firefights and a rather disinteresting villain in the form of Wesley Snipes do little to further the film’s merits, however, and Demolition Man offers little to make it a more appealing alternative to more entertaining Stallone fare. AVOID IT.
Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, Yōjirō Takita’s slow, compassionate, and deeply moving story of a cellist turned funeral director is a powerful mediation on the stigma of death. Beautifully paced, it stars a terrific Masahiro Motoki as the young man embarrassed by his newly chosen path in life yet staunch in his knowledge that he is contributing a service of great meaning. Though stretching on over two hours in runtime, Departures never loses its hold on the audience, its slow emotional reveals and restrained tensions crafting a deeply affecting experience. Perhaps certain instances of comic relief might feel somewhat forced and unnecessary, but with drama of this calibre missteps that minor are easy to forgive. Any film which manages to take home an Oscar over Waltz with Bashir and Revanche while avoiding all resentment must be something special; Departures offers a look at death so tender and touching it’s impossible to forget. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A welcome return to form after the unrestrained awfulness of Idiocracy, Extract sees Mike Judge return to the workplace as in his cult classic Office Space, this time focusing on the misadventures of a small food flavouring company. Jason Bateman plays owner Joel, whose certainty that his wife has lost sexual interest in him prompts him to hire a gigolo to seduce her, thereby clearing him of the guilt an affair of his own would engender. Little does he know that Cindy, the object of his affections, is in fact a con artist out to convince an injured worker to sue the company for all it’s worth. Bateman essentially fills the same role as always, bringing his usual charm to a character he’s played plenty of times before. With JK Simmons and Ben Affleck as supporting highlights, Judge concocts an amusing if somewhat slight comedy; he’s capable of much better, but after Idiocracy this will certainly do. WORTH WATCHING.
Provocative from the first, Bobcat Goldthwait’s ferociously aggressive satire sees his protagonist very early on shooting a newborn baby before its mother’s eyes. The scene may only be a twisted fantasy of the character, but it’s enough to let you know whether or not you’re ready for the level of violence and angry anti-cultural sentiment to come. God Bless America has garnered criticism aplenty for its hugely unsubtle approach, yet never does Goldthwait indicate any desire to be less than garrulously vocal about the decline of civilisation and media in particular, each scene packed with over-the-top parodies of MTV, reality television, and the cult of celebrity. Joel Murray is a fantastic choice as the disillusioned antihero, a modern-day Travis Bickle who decides that only bloody murder can help society now. His teen sidekick is a somewhat superfluous character, but Goldthwait channels their story into a fascinatingly furious comment on modern life, as unapologetically offensive as it is curiously relevant. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
An obvious choice for any list of greatest Westerns, Fred Zinneman’s real-time story of a town marshal who stays on one day past retirement when he learns of the return of a dangerous criminal he put away. Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning stoic desperation as he begs the town for aid in its defence is one of the film’s finest elements, a performance that emulates genre tropes while the rest of the film cleverly undermines them. Dubbed by John Wayne “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life”, High Noon eschews the expected aspects of contemporary westerns, opting instead for a fatalistic tone attesting the demise of community, felt by many (Wayne included) to be a reference to the Hollywood blacklisting of the time. Brilliantly shot in morbid shadows, the unforgettable work of Cooper and the film’s kick-starting of the revisionist westerns make High Noon essential to an understanding of American cinema’s greatest genre. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.