Valentine’s Day is here, so it’s a good time to look at some movies I swooned for last year, now that they’re on home video. (Does anyone even use that term anymore? Sounds antiquated, but then again, I’ve been writing on this topic since the 80s, so I am, too.)
Speaking of the 80s: John Hughes meets James L. Brooks in The Edge of Seventeen, which updates the former’s teen movie template with the latter’s world-wise, world-weary attitude. (He co-produced.) Following in the the estimable footsteps of Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig has made a fresh, funny, and frank contribution to the genre, a relief from the turgid “YA” adaptations out there. The heart comes from the tangled relationship between its protagonist, Hailee Steinfeld, and her bestie (Split co-star Haley Lu Richardson), who swoons for Steinfeld’s older, more popular brother (Blake Jenner); the soul is provided by Steinfeld’s frazzled connection to her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick); the biggest laughs, from Steinfeld and her unlikely mentor, an English teacher played to his usual, easy-to-underrate perfection by Woody Harrelson. Rent it tonight. Disc extras include a gag reel and some deleted scenes.
American Honey, from Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold, is a vastly different take on a “teen movie,” if that’s what you can call it. It’s lengthy, impressionistic, improvisational in tone–and a likely challenge for a lot of viewers. I ended up watching it over two nights, which is usually the kiss of death, but not this time. Used to its dynamic, and refreshed, I got more deeply into the story of Star (Sasha Lane), a brutally disadvantaged Oklahoman who takes up with a gang of van-riding misfits who wring a few dollars from an obsolete profession, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. The ringleader, Krystal (Riley Keough), regards the newcomer with suspicion (understandably; Lane’s an arresting presence), but Krystal’s kept man, top seller Jake (Shia LaBeouf, on his best behavior), takes a shine to her. Searchingly shot and framed in the restrictive 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the movie presents several shards of life, withholds judgment and commentary, and invites you on the road. Pulsing with music, and odd touches (Arnold loves insect imagery), I appreciated the journey. The chief extra is a conversation with Lane and Keough about the off-the-cuff shoot.
Winner of the Online Film Critics Society’s best film not in the English language award, The Handmaiden should have been in contention for the foreign language Oscar–it’s way better than Sweden’s A Man Called Ove and Denmark’s Land of Mine, but Korea chose another film instead. Its cinematography, production design, costume design, and score should have rang AMPAS’ bell, however. And it should also be on Blu-ray–these qualities aren’t shown to their best advantage on DVD, and watching it digitally will vary depending on your streaming speed. (Nothing kills movie watching faster than buffering.) While waiting for a domestic Blu, and a rumored director’s cut, to materialize, let’s focus on what The Handmaiden is–a twisty, sexy, slow burn thriller, adapted to Japan-occupied Korea from a novel set in Victorian-era London, about a con man, a pretty pickpocket he enlists, and a reclusive Japanese heiress. The capers evolve gradually over the film’s three parts, and the ribald perversity of director Park Chan-wook (in his best film since Oldboy) slowly seeps into the gilded widescreen frame. Highly recommended.
From Korea also comes the bone-rattling thriller Train to Busan, which horror buffs need to catch, despite that unpromising title. (Train buffs, too–this is a good one, right up there with Korea’s futuristic Snowpiercer and the latest entrant, the much different Lion.) Slotted into the “infected” subgenre of the ever-popular zombie movie, it’s the story of a neglectful dad whose train trip from Seoul to the title destination, daughter in tow, proves anything but restorative when fellow passengers and crew turn rabid and begin consuming every fleshy morsel in sight. (Will the nice old ladies survive? Will the dad, a wormy hedge fund manager, make it? Does he deserve to? Stay tuned.) Resetting familiar horror tropes to a confined setting reinvigorates them, and once the situation is unbound the movie is as furiously paced as one of its newly infected predators. There’s an English track, but the dialogue is appropriately basic, so listen instead to the original Korean track, encoded in jump scare-filled DTS:X. Extras include a trailer (the movie, which played through summer here in New Yorker, was a worldwide success) and some fun behind-the-scenes footage. Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho, who has a background in animation, is clearly a talent to watch.
Valentine’s Day–well, I gave something called Two Lovers and a Bear a try, but found I liked the Arctic footage, and the (talking!) bear, more than I liked Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) and Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) as the two emotionally tormented lovers, in a Canadian-made indie quirkfest.
Today does go down better with music. The Blu-ray release of the musical tribute Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005), with guest performances by the likes of Rufus Wainwright, U2, and Nick Cave, will give you a tear. Rock romantics will surely swoon over Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, in which Iggy Pop (credited as “Jim Osterberg as Iggy Pop”) and the Stooges look back, wryly, on their revolutionary proto-punk days. It’s not the deepest exploration–Jarmusch is an unabashed fan, and the surviving bandmembers are all very pleasant and un-punklike discussing their 70s heyday. With little backstage drama to exploit, the focus is on the onstage exploits, and the rare archival footage is terrific. No sweetheart this year? Crowd-surf your blues away with Gimme Danger.