This week in home video, we have some great foreign releases, a Truffaut film on Blu-ray, an early Tony Scott movie, and something beautiful from the old Disney factory. To kick things off, we have Asghar Farhadi’s psychological drama “About Elly.” The film follows a group of friends who travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea for a three-day vacation. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), plans the vacation in part to set up Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorced friend of hers from Germany, with Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher. Though the vacation initially begins well, a cataclysmic event occurs that shakes the group to their core, and forces them into moral and ethical quandaries they had never anticipated. Released two years before Farhadi’s global breakthrough “A Separation,” “About Elly” solidifies Farhadi’s status as one of the best filmmakers working today. As a writer, he infuses Chekovian dramatic techniques with modern day middle-class Iranian anxieties, and ultimately taps into the universal realities of human motivation and behavior; as a director, he’s adept at visually conveying the psychological tension laden in the script through careful staging and precise camera movements, ultimately adopting a naturalist style that derives its suspense from grounded actions. Though “About Elly” was released in Iran in 2009, it was only distributed in the United States this year and it has rightfully become one of the most acclaimed releases of 2015.
Other new releases this week include James D. Cooper’s documentary “Lambert & Stamp” about Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, two young aspiring filmmakers working in 1960’s London who wound up discovering and co-managing The Who. Next, we have French auteur Eugene Green’s “La Sapienza,” about an architect who travels on a life-changing journey to Italy to study the work of Francesco Borromini. Finally, Zeitgeist films in conjunction with Christopher Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas’ Syncopy Films Inc. is releasing Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” for the first time on Blu-ray in the United States. In “Elena,” Zvyagintsev stages a gripping thriller about a dutiful housewife who hatches a desperate plan after her potential inheritance from her rich husband has been threatened.
On the classic front, Criterion is releasing one of Francois Truffaut’s greatest films “Day for Night,” about the production of a fictional melodrama and the lives and romances of those in front of and behind the camera. (It should be noted that Criterion was originally going to release Brian DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill” today, but it has been pushed back to September 8th to correct issues with the transfer.) Shout! Factory has “Hackers” on Blu-ray; a sci-fi thriller set in the early days of Internet culture, “Hackers” is best known for launching the careers of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller, but has become an underground hit all the same. Icarus Films has Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ raw documentary “Seventeen” about a group of seniors at Muncie’s Southside High School. Warner Bros. is releasing Tony Scott’s second film “The Hunger,” an erotic vampire horror film starring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. Finally, Walt Disney Animation Studios has a new short film collection on Blu-Ray, including “Frozen Fever,” and the Oscar-nominated “Lorenzo.”
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
Because of its seaside setting, its cast of well-off characters, and its focus on the disappearance of a young woman, “About Elly” has earned comparisons to that bewildering classic of art-cinema, “L’Avventura.” But while Michelangelo Antonioni perversely bypassed the dramatic possibilities of his missing-person premise, Farhadi uses his own as the catalyst for a chaotic study in blame deflection, crisis management, and lies by omission. Wracked with guilt, the remaining characters turn over the previous day’s events in their heads, clinging to the thin hope that maybe Elly just up and left. Social faux pas — a mistimed laugh, a comment that might have scanned as insensitive — become vital clues. Meanwhile, the only witnesses to what really happened on the beach are too young to hold up to sustained interrogation. Read more.
“Lambert & Stamp”
Criticwire Average: B
Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
A veteran cinematographer making his directorial debut, James D. Cooper treats “Lambert & Stamp” as the cinematic equivalent of a rich oral history, letting the principal players talk, often at length, about their experiences. It’s a fine approach hampered less than might be expected by the absence of key participants, namely Lambert and two late members of The Who: Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Those still alive at the time of filming more than pick up the slack, and everyone seems to be in the mood to be frank. Joined by other veterans of The Who’s heyday, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend offer extended reminiscences that don’t undersell the conflicts that led The Who to split from Lambert and Stamp in the early ’70s. Stamp, who looks and (especially) sounds eerily like his more famous older brother, almost makes everyone else unnecessary, however: Recounting the role he and Lambert played in The Who’s ascent, and their eventual exile, Stamp speaks with honesty, good humor, and more than a twinge of regret. Read more.
Criticwire Average: A-
Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com
A dazzling if unabashedly eccentric work of art, “La Sapienza” has a style that’s immediately striking but so anti-realistic that some viewers may be tempted to laugh at first. Green’s compositions are exceedingly formal and often symmetrical; there’s no clutter anywhere; the lighting recalls old studio movies; characters move in very controlled ways and speak directly to each other or (in p.o.v. shots) the camera. In some ways, there’s a resemblance to the minimalist mannerisms (and spiritual concerns) of Robert Bresson, yet with a kind of theatrical ebullience that also recalls Jacques Rivette and late Jean Renoir. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B+
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
Rarely do movies — never mind foreign ones, of any nationality — explore an honest-to-God ethical quandary. “Elena,” in its concentrated austerity, often resembles a lost chapter of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments–themed “Decalogue.” Zvyagintsev (whose 2003’s feature debut, “The Return,” unspooled with magnificent tension) could have benefitted from the Polish director’s self-imposed hour-long running time: “Elena” feels a touch repetitive right when it should be tightening the screws. But its fatalism is contagious. Climactically, the electricity cuts out and we all look upward, guiltily. Read more.