For the first week of the new year, this week in home video is filled with a lot of interesting new releases and few classics to boot. There’s a drug war thriller, a dramatization of a daring art piece, a biopic of a radical social psychologist, and much, much more.
Let’s kick things off with Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” about a young FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a special CIA operation to take down a Mexican cartel only to find out that their actions compromise her ethical and moral values. Though Villeneuve’s direction and Roger Deakins’ sun-soaked, dread-filled photography have been roundly praised, the film itself has garnered some divisive reviews in film circles. Many critics find Taylor Sheridan’s script to be lacking in perspective, especially its nihilistic take on the war on drugs as well as rendering his female protagonist a passive observer. However, other critics find the film to be about how it’s impossible to combat institutional corruption and rendering a Strong Female Character passive in the face of abstract forces is a part of that. Nevertheless, “Sicario” is an intriguing thriller that will certainly keep you at the edge of your seat, but depending on who you are, it may not provide you much else.
Other new releases this week include Robert Zemeckis’ new film “The Walk” about high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his attempt to cross the Twin Towers in 1974, a film that was praised for its visual effects and not much else. Then, there’s Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” about Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and his experiment that tested people’s willingness to obey authority using electric shocks, which has been widely praised as one of the best biopics of the year. Next, there’s M. Night Shyamalan’s found footage horror film “The Visit,” about two children’s creepy visit to their grandparents, which garnered Shyamalan’s best reviews in years. After that, there’s the delightful indie rom-com “Sleeping With Other People,” about two people with intimacy issues (Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie) trying to be friends (Note: This is not a Blu-ray release). Finally, to cap things off, there’s Eli Roth’s horrifying “Cannibal Holocaust”-inspired horror film “The Great Inferno,” Maya Forbes’ indie drama “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and finally the release of the widely-panned second season of “True Detective.”
There isn’t much going on the classic front this week, except for a few key releases. First, Criterion has “The Complete Lady Snowblood,” about a young woman (Meiko Kaji) trained from childhood as an assassin to avenge the murder of her father and brother and the rape of her mother; the film was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Finally, Kino has two releases this week: The first is Ken Russell’s “Valentino” about the life and death of silent film actor Rudolph Valentino, and second, the “Fantomas: 5-Film Collection” box-set that collects all five silent crime serials directed by Louis Feuillade.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Criticwire Average: B+
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
Like a lot of movies that use unfamiliar or foreign words as titles, “Sicario” provides a definition right at the outset: It’s the Spanish word for “hit man,” we’re informed. On the surface level, that refers to a particular character in the film, whose mission involves summarily executing a cartel kingpin; every twist and turn of the narrative is expressly designed to bring this assassin one step closer to his target. And a white-knuckle journey it is, too — so relentlessly stressful that some viewers may require a deep massage afterward, having spent two solid hours with their muscles tensed. Yet the true victim in (and of) “Sicario” is its protagonist, who attempts to do the right thing at every turn and is rewarded by being systematically squeezed out of her own story. It’s an uncommonly bold gambit, expressly designed to frustrate people who want to see a strong woman deliver a righteous ass kicking. The progressivism here is instead rooted in futility and despair, which provides much more of a valuable shock to the system. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
It’s a lot of fun, with darker implications falling across the story like early morning shadows on a sunny day. There are tensions among Philippe and his comrades, including Annie. There is the danger of the coup itself. And, of course, for the audience, there is the inevitable premonition of grief. But Mr. Zemeckis, who wrote the script with Christopher Browne, spares us heavy-handed portents of destruction. Instead, he acknowledges the loss of the towers by lovingly and meticulously resurrecting them at the moment of their birth. The film becomes a poem of metal and concrete, a symphony composed in glass and rebar, light and air, and brought alive by an antic, crazy inspiration. It has often been said that Mr. Petit taught New Yorkers to love the twin monoliths that were initially viewed as bland, arrogant interlopers on a cherished skyline. His coup, recounted in his book “To Reach the Clouds” and in James Marsh’s excellent documentary “Man on Wire,” is a cherished and bittersweet part of local history, and Mr. Zemeckis, astonishingly, brings it back into the present tense. Even though the outcome is never in doubt — this may be the most spoiler-proof movie ever made — you can’t help holding your breath and clutching the armrests when Philippe steps out into the sky. The reality of the moment is so vivid that you may reflexively recoil, as if you risked plunging onto the sidewalk below. And the moment lasts. I had forgotten just how long Mr. Petit stayed up there, stretching a daredevil act into an astonishing and durable work of art. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B+
Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com
The thread that unifies all this, one might venture, has to do with the issue of free will. The upside of Milgram’s experiments (as one of his mentors attempts to point out) was to show that at least a significant minority of people can resist unwarranted social controls. What about trying to construct an educational system and a society that grow that number? Likewise, though many people love to be manipulated by movies, how about asserting the value of works like “Experimenter,” which, in keeping the emotional temperature low and presenting us with a collage of evidence on related subjects, allows us the interpretive freedom to construct its meanings for ourselves? No doubt, that kind of freedom is only offered us by a certain type of artist, of which Almeredya is a prime and invaluable example. From early in his career, it was clearly that he was an unusually gifted director, yet rather than allowing himself to be sucked into the mainstream moviemaking system, he has deliberately stayed on the intelligent margins, making a range of films from docs to shorts to modern Shakespeare adaptations to works that deserve the designation experimental. In so doing, he has allowed himself a creative freedom that suffuses his latest like a constant stream of mountain air. “Experimenter,” he might say, “c’est moi.” Read more.
Criticwire Average: B-
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
Alas, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, working on a strict limited budget following a string of critical and financial blunders (stretching provocatively as long as Paula’s separation from her parents), proves understandably eager to deliver audience-reassuring horror-movie set pieces. And so it’s one scant sundown before offbeat eccentricities turn into disturbances, cheap shocks, and psycho-biddy tropes. Given most viewers’ biggest issue with Shyamalan in the past has been his aura of pomposity, it’s a relief that for once he seems to be reveling in the ridiculousness of it all (e.g. Grandma Doris’s repeated requests for Rebecca to climb into the oven to clean it thoroughly). But when the (non-spoiler alert) trademark Shyamalan twist finally arrives, it doesn’t synthesize anything other than the director’s devotion to his signature gimmick. Say what you will about “The Village” or “The Happening,” at least the left turns in those films widened the scope of Shyamalan’s thematic concerns. The secret of “The Visit” reduces everything to a campfire story. Read more.
“Sleeping with Other People”
Criticwire Average: B+
Amy Nicholson, Village Voice
With no conflict except their vow to stay chaste — at least, with each other — Headland’s film might have been more engaging if it were about its supporting characters: Lyonne’s brassy lesbian, a terrific turn by Amanda Peet as a hard-to-seduce CEO, and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage as Jake’s married friends who close the film with a riff that steals the movie at the buzzer. Read more.