Welcome back for part 2 of this week’s bumper video on demand selection. As with yesterday’s crop, the following ten titles offer a fine choice of Oscar-anointed classics, trashy cult flick fun, high-profile new releases, and esteemed Old Hollywood comedies. What are you waiting for?
If the global financial crisis has endangered funding of the arts, it has at least provided a wealth of material steeped in human tragedy for those very arts to represent. Margin Call, the feature debut of writer/director J.C. Chandor, fictionalises the earliest indications of the 2008 crash at a high-profile Wall Street investment bank, following the haphazard efforts of increasingly senior executives to control the extensive damage. Smartly scripted with flickers of Glengarry Glen Ross’ viciousness, the film reels with technical terms while never feeling inaccessible to outsiders, building character with just as much success as it does realism. A cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore stands as one of the finest ensembles in years; the best is Spacey, who offers a performance brimming with emotional nuance surprising to find in a film like this, brilliantly utilised in Chandor’s expressionist direction. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Less regarded alongside Python’s more esteemed classics like Life of Brian and The Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life nonetheless stands the test of time as a hilariously provocative and daringly offensive assault on society’s ills. From Terry Gilliam’s typically weird opening short to the brilliant song “Every Sperm is Sacred” to the infamously disgusting restaurant scene, the Pythons’ final film is every bit as wickedly funny as the rest of their work. Eschewing any trace of a narrative through line, the troupe enacts a succession of weird sketches in the vein of their television series, each thankfully amusing enough to keep the film as a whole from suffering from a sudden lag as with so many similarly structured movies. An equal parts history lesson and look at various aspects of human existence, The Meaning of Life is a consistently entertaining romp in the company of six of the finest minds in comedy. RECOMMENDED.
Oliver Stone’s semiautobiographical Oscar winner kick-started his Vietnam trilogy and remains one of the most well regarded war films in American cinema. Following in his father’s footsteps, a competent if not always entirely convincing Charlie Sheen leads a stellar cast also including Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Forest Whitaker. The hideousness of warfare and the way it dehumanises those forced to carry out its atrocities is the film’s primary focus, with Sheen the audience surrogate helplessly narrating his adventures and the horrors he witnesses. Dafoe is on Oscar-nominated form as a soldier who maintains his compassion despite all he sees and does, preventing his fellow men from giving in to the animalistic tendencies warfare breeds within them. Stone’s message may be simple, but the convincing power with which he conveys it is undeniable; despite a handful of storytelling issues and a rocky lead performance, Platoon remains an affectingly genuine war movie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Seeing Humphrey Bogart in an unusual comic role, Billy Wilder’s 1954 comedy casts him beside William Holden as the older, more work-oriented heir to a corporate fortune. With Holden’s David set to wed a wealthy member of an influential family, a lucrative business deal is threatened by his falling in love with the titular chauffeur’s daughter, newly returned from culinary school in Paris. Entirely affable comedy ensues, with Bogart’s unwavering dourness finding a fitting foil in Holden’s playboy antics. Audrey Hepburn is dazzling as Sabrina, sporting a series of dresses that earned costumer Edith Head her antepenultimate Oscar and maintaining the utmost dignity as the love struck brothers squabble over her Parisian charms. With a nicely subtle little dig at class relations, the keen ability to draw the best from his performers, and a fine mastery of the film’s black and white photography, Wilder creates with Sabrina a memorably fun romantic comedy. RECOMMENDED.
Shot back-to-back with its 1978 predecessor, this superhero sequel was almost complete when director Richard Donner was dropped by the studio and Richard Lester brought in to finish the job. A 2006 release of Donner’s cut forms the largely different and allegedly superior film; the version presented here is the original 1980 theatrical edition. Seeing the imprisoned Kryptonians from the first film led by General Zod accidentally released and brought to Earth, Superman II is essentially more of the same action-heavy fun, with an excellent opening set piece setting a bar that the rest of the film happily lives up to. The relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane received the appropriate further attention, Lane finally figuring out the identity of her mysterious saviour and beginning a relationship with Kent rather than with Superman. Christopher Reeve again juggles his dual role with aplomb, Gene Hackman is devilishly wicked, and Terrence Stamp makes for a threateningly evil presence as Zod. RECOMMENDED.
One of those actors for whom every role is worth seeing, Willem Dafoe has proven himself time and again one of the most fascinating names in Hollywood, his choices constantly attesting his willingness to try anything once. Somewhat akin to this year’s The Grey, Daniel Nettheim’s film casts Dafoe as Martin David, the lone man against the backdrop of a great wilderness, tasked with hunting down the sole living specimen of an almost mythical species: the Tasmanian tiger. Slowly becoming something of a father figure for a host family to whom he is posing as a university scientist studying the area, Martin also learns of the fate of their own patriarch, who previously sought the same quarry he himself now hunts. With the talent of a spectacularly bearded Dafoe and an ending as fine as the best of films this year, The Hunter more than manages to overcome a handful of niggling issues in its execution. RECOMMENDED.
Sean Penn’s third film as director sees him reunite with Jack Nicholson, who takes the role of Detective Jerry Black, a veteran policeman who becomes caught up investigating the brutal murder of a young girl on the very night he is set to retire. Promising the successful capture of the murderer to the girl’s grieving mother, even the confession and subsequent suicide of a mentally ill man cannot satiate Black’s desire to uncover the truth, and his new life as a gas station owner is constantly overshadowed by this new obsession. Penn’s camera takes in the beauty of Black’s new fishing village home with pensive grace, visually documenting the measured serenity the character seems incapable of finding. Nicholson’s performance is one of restraint and reserve, but no less given to torrents of passion. The Pledge is a gripping story of a man consumed, and the sad destruction born of a promise unfulfilled. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Perennial purveyors of all things schlock, Troma Entertainment are among the biggest names in exploitation cinema, providing all the unsheathed sexuality, violence, and general madcap mayhem an audience could hope to witness. Ranking among their most recognised creations, The Toxic Avenger stands tall among comedic superheroes, being the mutated alter-ego of weedy nerd Melvin Ferd following his accidental dive from the first floor of a leisure centre into a vat of toxic waste. Notable first and foremost for staggeringly explicit violence that genuinely manages to shock, inspiring no shortage of guilty laughter, the film benefits from a charming sense of underdog triumph, albeit filtered through the lens of taste-testing gore. Predictably amateur performances and a particularly gritty aesthetic accentuate the schlockiness of the production, giving proceedings a certain warm charm. Perhaps best watched in the company of some friends and a couple beers, The Toxic Avenger is an enjoyably naff chunk of exploitation fun. WORTH WATCHING.
There’s something about Clint Eastwood and his Malpaso Productions that manage to turn what should be clunky Hollywood cop stories into strange, dark, character-driven excursions into the moral underworld. Escape from Alcatraz scribe Richard Tuggle directs Eastwood in Tightrope, a quietly cerebral sexual thriller that delves far deeper into its underlying thematic material than it seems to on the surface. Bruce Surtees’ cinematography is, as ever, the star of the show, highlighting the crags of Eastwood’s visage as he lurks in the shadows, the intimation that he himself is the murderer/rapist that he seeks ever hanging in the air. Geneviève Bujold is the archetypal strong female, an important role to developing the film’s sexual politics, yet one essentially wasted in all but a single brilliant scene. Tightrope might not be the most memorable of Eastwood’s police procedurals, but its unusual approach and hazy moralistic ambiguity ensure it remains one of his most intriguing. RECOMMENDED.
Gavin O’ Connor’s mixed martial arts drama quickly garnered a reputation on release last year for its profound emotional punch, and its appropriate relegation of its physical combats to secondary roles in developing real characters. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play estranged brothers haunted by the shadow of an alcoholic father, both of whom enter a lucrative MMA tournament for differing personal and fiscal reasons. Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his immensely engaging portrait of the men’s father, his performance the defining revelation of the hidden emotions that boil beneath the stoic façade of masculinity. Gripping though its characters and their relationships are, Warrior isn’t quite the great accomplishment it should be, certain scripting issues withholding a full emotional payoff despite the strength of the cast. Still, this is a film about far more than just fighting; the brutal beatings dealt within the cage can’t compare for an instant with the emotional poundings these fine performances mete out. RECOMMENDED.