Cold War comfort food, Bridge of Spies is something I’d never thought I’d see from Steven Spielberg, an old man’s movie. Watching it a second time was like spending a couple of hours half-interested in Cozi TV, as The Lone Ranger or Here’s Lucy or some other relic calms you down before bedtime. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s an unadventurous one, telling us what we’ve been told about America, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, and not delving at all deeply into that past (which isn’t past) or murkier topics brought up, like the U-2 spy plane incident that sets its second act in motion. Lacking the more inquisitive spirit of Schindler’s List (1993) or Munich (2005), and the outsize personalities of Lincoln (2012), it could inspire a hashtag: #OscarsSoUninspired. It’s up for six, and only Mark Rylance earns his for his sly portrayal of a spy whose greatest use is as a bargaining chip for Tom Hanks’ reluctant cold warrior. “This is what displaced Beasts of No Nation from the Academy Awards?” you wonder. (Both are at 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, if that’s a yardstick for you. What, you haven’t seen Beasts of No Nations yet? Hop on over to Netflix and get to it.)
But: First-rate A/V, the usual story for Blu-rays of fresh-baked titles, with an especially absorbing DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack that will have you looking for reds under your bed when the movie segues to East Berlin. The 45 minutes worth of featurettes, four in all, are about on the level of the feature in terms of incisiveness, with key cast and crew heard from and a few surprises (German chancellor Angela Merkel shows up on location). It won’t kill you to watch Bridge of Spies. Trouble is, you’ve seen it all before, in movies made in the moment and not as museum pieces.
Take Me to the River kicks things up a few notches. More than a few actually–a documentary that brings together several generations of Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians for a historical jam session is going to raise your roof, and with 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio shaking through your speakers this one does. Terrence Howard narrates the clips sprinkled throughout the show (and also gets in on the act), but the emphasis is on the here and now, as a bunch of artists collaborate on their 2014 album that salutes a gloriously influential legacy while looking toward the future. Representing: William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Lil P-Nut, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy (an Oscar winner for Three 6 Mafia’s awesome “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from Howard’s 2005 breakthrough Hustle & Flow), and The North Mississippi All-Stars. Rollicking good fun to watch, the good vibes carry over into the supplements, which include an extra song (“Be Like Me,” performed by 8-Ball and MJG) and interviews with Snoop Dogg and singer William Bell, and Howard and former Stax Records president Al Bell.
Bridge of Spies recreates the past; Take Me to the River revitalizes it. Kansas City Confidential (1952) is the past, in black and white, with hats, dames, and five o’ clock shadow.Directed by noir and crime movie specialist Phil Karlson (best known for 1972’s vigilante hit Walking Tall), this is a snappy and fast-based thriller, with John Payne (an all-purpose type most fondly recalled from the original Miracle on 34th Street) as a floral delivery man wrongly accused of a million dollar bank heist; when he investigates, it’s not long before the perps, manipulated by a mastermind, are pushing up daisies. There’s a slow-lane romantic angle, with Coleen Gray (later in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing), but most of the fun comes from the plug-ugly bad guys, a dream team of villainy: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand. (Elements from the storyline turned up in The Thomas Crown Affair and Reservoir Dogs.) The film has bounced around in the public domain, with a decent DVD available; this is the second attempt at a Blu-ray from pretty much the same outfit, and it, too, is in good shape, with modest DNR sharpening and more of a film-like appearance.
The World of Kanako is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Scratch that–it’s an awful place to hang out in, too horrible for even Jack Elam. It is, however, weirdly, morbidly fascinating, if you have the stomach for it, and can stand being in the dark for long stretches as the editing hops, skips, and jumps around. This much I can tell you: in Japan, an ill-tempered former detective, an alcoholic no one likes, searches for his teenage daughter, who (as we see in flashbacks that are well and truly flashed at us) has fallen down a rabbit hole of drugs, prostitution, and other horrors. Worse, her estranged father (played by Koji Yakusho, from Babel and 13 Assassins) doesn’t much like her, either, and for us, there’s not much in the way of a “redemptive narrative,” or any narrative at all, as brutal beatings are given and received. Visually, it’s a stunning achievement, with animation and graphic novel frames threaded into the mix; sonically, too, with all those fisticuffs and a lot of noisily crashed cars besides, in 5.1 audio. If this intrigues you, I strongly advise you to go for it–there are a number of fine extras, including a poster, a detailed making-of, and interviews with actress Nana Komatsu (Kanako’s fine, just a movie, folks) and the author of the source material, Akio Fukamachi. If it doesn’t intrigue you, blame him, and move on…
Relax, Breathe: Adapting a YA novel, Inglourious Basterds co-star Melanie Laurent has co-written and directed a tender, yet piercing, drama about more ordinary teenage girls. Withdrawn Charlie (Josephine Japy), an asthmatic, is delighted by the arrival of the brash, cigarette-smoking Sarah (Lou de Laage) at her school. Sarah flaunts the rules and is a relief from Charlie’s oppressive home life, but her narcissistic new friend has her own issues, and Charlie is confused by her personality shifts. What could be played glibly, or for cheap, stalker-ish thrills, is observed very delicately by Laurent, who has real empathy for both girls and gets fine performances from the actresses as their mutual admiration becomes obsession and gets out of hand. All three women participate in an interview segment, and a like-minded short film about the rewards and troubles of making connection, Bonne Esperance, is also included as a bonus.
Assuming you’ve watched Beasts of No Nation, it’s time to get your Idris Elba on again with an offbeat little movie, Second Coming. British playwright debbie Tucker Green directs Elba and Nadine Marshall as a couple who’s marriage has gone stale and sexless. “With Idris Elba? That’s hard to believe,” said a friend when I told her about the movie, but it gets stranger–the wife is pregnant, not by him, not by anyone. Is a modern miracle at hand? Green teases the possibilities in an absorbing kitchen sink fable, given substance by the two performers, that’s also on VOD. A bonus short, the Detroit-set Wait ‘Til the Wolves Make Nice, is included on the DVD.