The risk of repeating oneself too frequently in a weekly column is one to be carefully considered, though sometimes the vagaries of the release schedule make it unavoidable: for the second week running, a Netflix premiere handily trumps any new offerings on the DVD shelf. The streaming giant’s intelligent taste in documentary cinema has been known for some time now, but in grabbing Casting JonBenet straight from the festival circuit – it premiered in Sundance only three months ago – the company has outdone itself.
Notwithstanding its absence from cinemas, Kitty Green’s film is the most brilliantly singular nonfiction achievement we’ve seen on any screen this year: a sinuous, multi-mirrored meditation on tragedy, exploitation and personal and communal grief, as explored through complex layers of confession and artifice.
Countless lurid true crime specials have been dedicated to the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, revelling in the grotesque details of the crime and of her unsettling upbringing while harder facts continue to elude us. Australian film-maker Green wisely has no interest in cinematic detective work; instead, this is a study of a haunting, examining the child’s eerie, absent presence in a community still discombobulated by her death.
Rather than rounding up those directly involved, Green stages her inquiry as a performance piece, auditioning a wealth of local Colorado actors to play JonBenét and her family members, drawing out their individual reflections in the process. The resulting film has a thematic wingspan far broader than a simple anatomy of a murder, as unrelated participants fold their own experiences of loss, heartbreak and abuse into the discussion, as well as their eventual dramatic interpretation of events. That makes Casting JonBenet sound more arduous than it is. Green assembles this many-headed conversation with exhilarating wit, nerve and visual grace, playfully racing through ideas even as it presses heavily on the viewer’s heart. Like Kate Plays Christine or The Arbor, it’s a provocation that demonstrates just how head-spinningly fast the language of documentary cinema is changing.
Don’t look for any comparably fresh ideas in the week’s new DVDs, however. The spectacle of the eternally ironic James Franco sending up his smarmy new age bro image as an unhinged millennial tech billionaire is good for a thin-lipped smile or two in the limp meet the parents comedy Why Him? (Fox, 15). Opposite Franco, director John Hamburg casts Bryan Cranston as his square, midwestern father-in-law-to-be, and waits for the culture clash jokes to write themselves. They don’t. You’ll find more laughs, none of them intended, in the thoroughly dated clanger I.T. (Signature, 15), starring Pierce Brosnan as a business mogul plunged into techno chaos by a lowly, vengeful IT expert. Not a great PR week for computer whiz-kids, then.
Two sleek documentaries offer classier rewards: Diving Into the Unknown (Signature, 15) claustrophobically chronicles a cave diving recovery mission, while Reset (Studiocanal, 15) is an attractive gloss on former Paris Opera Ballet director Benjamin Millepied. But the Criterion Collection earns DVD of the week status with two lush new rereleases. Slowly unwinding the life story of a star-crossed concubine, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 stunner The Life of Oharu (Criterion, PG) shimmers in pristinely restored black and white, though not at any cost to its heart and gut impact. At the opposite aesthetic end of Japanese cinema, Jûzô Itami’s raucous 1985 “ramen western” Tampopo (Criterion, 15) was a revelation to me. A steaming jumble of gangster film, romantic melodrama and pure food porn, it bounces cheerfully between opposing genre tropes and stray observations on sex, crime and the art of noodles. Expect to be left a bit baffled, a bit thrilled and very, very hungry.