View from the Couch: The Farewell, Spirited Away, Winter Kills, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Winter Kills (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (2019). The Angry Birds Movie arrived in 2016, and the realization that even social apps were now being turned into films made the prospect of Internet Meme: The Movie seem like an inevitability. (Instead, Hollywood foisted The Emoji Movie onto an unsuspecting world.) The film stormed its way to a decent gross, but, aside from your 8-year-old nephew, does anyone even remember the specifics of the story? And aside from your cousin’s 6-year-old daughter, was anyone even clamoring for a sequel? Apparently not, considering that The Angry Birds Movie 2 made less than half of what its predecessor earned. The previous picture followed the dictates of the game, as Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (Danny McBride) had to prevent Leonard (Bill Hader) and his fellow pigs from taking over their island of flightless fowl. Freed from following the game template, this cluttered continuation finds the birds and the pigs teaming up to stop a gawky eagle named Zeta (Leslie Jones) from destroying their respective island homes by firing ice bombs at them. While most of the players believe they should work as a team to combat this threat, Red, still dealing with issues of insecurity and uncertainty (as in the first film), tries to position himself as the leader of the outfit and as the hero of the saga. It’s not a particularly gripping narrative — I preferred the minor subplot involving three chicks trying to retrieve some wayward eggs — and watching Red continue to deal with his inadequacies plays more like a sad sop to adults and less like entertainment value for kids who will be more interested in colorful slapstick antics.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; the new animated short Live Stream; and six mini-movies starring the Hatchlings.
THE FAREWELL (2019). A satisfying seriocomedy that’s based on a true story (one already featured on a 2016 episode of the radio show This American Life, “In Defense of Ignorance: What You Don’t Know”), The Farewell finds writer-director Lulu Wang drawing from her own experiences to relate the tale of an Asian-American family coming to grips with the potential loss of a loved one. Struggling NYC resident Billi (an excellent Awkwafina) has learned from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) back in China, whom she affectionately calls Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months to live. The family has determined that they won’t break the bad news to the elderly woman, thus allowing her to spend her last days in blissful ignorance. The act of not informing someone about their own health — particularly when a fatal diagnosis is involved — is a hot-button issue, and the strength of The Farewell is how it patiently explores both sides of the divide, pitting Billi’s attitude that it’s unfair to harbor such a secret against a revered Chinese tradition of the family keeping the emotional burden to themselves. There are also other dynamics at play, including but not limited to a look at East vs. West, the strains between parent and offspring, and matters of immigration and assimilation. If the film ultimately runs out of time to tackle all of these issues in the manner they deserve, Wang at least acknowledges their importance as she weaves her way toward an ending that might feel rushed but nevertheless allows the picture to bow out with grace, dignity, and, for some viewers, a final jolt.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano; deleted scenes; and interviews with Wang and Awkwafina.
GOOD BOYS (2019). Frequently raunchy and rude, Good Boys focuses on the awkward exploits of three best friends who call themselves The Bean Bag Boys (because, as they needlessly explain to everyone, they once all owned bean bags). Sixth grade chums Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) do everything together, so when Max gets invited to a party being held by the cool kids, he manages to obtain permission to bring along his decidedly less mature buddies. Max wants to attend this so-called “kissing party” since the cute Brixlee (Millie Davis) will be there; however, first things first, so Max has to learn how to properly smooch a girl. An attempt on a CPR dummy doesn’t quite work out, so Max et al decide to spy on teenage girls Hannah (Molly Gordon) and Lily (Midori Francis) via the use of a drone owned by Max’s dad (Will Forte). When said drone gets damaged, the boys set out on a journey to replace it; along the way, they’re forced to contend with doofus frat boys, an overworked cop (Sam Robinson), and the realization that the bonds that once held them together might now be fraying. Like Booksmart, Good Boys follows its protagonists as they embark on a journey (both mentally and physically) whose ultimate destination isn’t the promised fun time as much as it’s self-awareness. Good Boys may not dig as deep as Booksmart, but there’s still sincerity to be found in its life lessons involving growing up and growing apart. Of course, such sobering reflections are reserved for late in the game; for the most part, the picture is happy to remain focused on its ribald gags, many of which are uproarious.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Gene Stupnitsky and writer-producer Lee Eisenberg; an alternate ending; deleted scenes; a piece on the casting; and a gag reel.
MADIGAN (1968) / CHARLEY VARRICK (1973). Here’s a tough-minded twofer from Don Siegel, the director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as five films with Clint Eastwood (including Dirty Harry).
Madigan is named after the reckless detective played by Richard Widmark, although Richard Dougherty’s source novel, The Commissioner, was named after the character portrayed by Henry Fonda. Either title would have worked for the film, since it’s a two-hander that follows both characters over the course of a couple of days. While Dan Madigan and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) attempt to track down the killer (Steve Ihnat) who stole their revolvers, by-the-book police commissioner Anthony X. Russell must cope with problems both personal (his affair with a married woman played by Susan Clark) and professional (the knowledge that his best friend on the force, played by James Whitmore, is on the take). Siegel’s approach — gritty and low-key — works for this slice-of-life style of cop flick. Widmark reprised his role in a 1972-73 TV series (also titled Madigan) that played as part of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie; it lasted all of six episodes.
Walter Matthau reportedly wasn’t too impressed with Charley Varrick, but his would be the minority opinion. Despite his misgivings, the actor is excellent as the title character, a thief who discovers that the money he and his gang stole from a hole-in-the-wall bank actually belongs to the Mafia. As Varrick attempts to slowly plot his way out of an impossible situation, his hot-headed associate (Andy Robinson, Scorpio in Siegel’s Dirty Harry) is eager to start spending the money; meanwhile, the mob has sent its most cold-blooded assassin (Joe Don Baker) to handle the matter. Baker makes for a truly hissable villain, and the film is peppered with fine supporting performances in distinct roles, particularly Sheree North as an apathetic counterfeiter and John Vernon as a shady bank executive.
Blu-ray extras on Madigan consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; a TV spot; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Charley Varrick consist of audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan; a making-of documentary; a video essay; a Trailers from Hell vignette; TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
Charley Varrick: ★★★½
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019). Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome, wanted to be an actor. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who met Gottsagen at a film camp, were so impressed with his self-confidence that, at his prodding, they decided to write a movie for him. Gottsagen plays Zak, who’s forced to live in a retirement home since there’s no other place in the vicinity where he can be boarded. A caretaker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is particularly sympathetic toward him, and she’s also the one most upset after he escapes. Zak’s destination? The wrestling school owned by his all-time favorite wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Figuring he’s alone and unable to fend for himself, Eleanor sets out after him, but Zak has managed to strike up an unlikely friendship with the troubled Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, never better). Nilson and Schwartz have stated that they took their inspiration from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, yet even if the movie hints at the same type of folksy Americana and examines a person who (like the novel’s Jim) will invariably be looked down upon by myopic members of society, the characters are very much the filmmakers’ own. Neither condescending nor cloying, the film is nevertheless so intent on fulfilling every “feel-good” scenario that it loses its way in the final stretch: There’s a late-blooming romance that’s barely believable, as well as a fantastical moment that would seem more at home in one of those “magical realism” movies. And the final scenes are inexcusably rushed, with little time to absorb the last-minute developments. Overall, though, the film does justice to its title. It frequently soars, and Gottsagen’s irresistible performance will stick with viewers.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016). When setting one’s sights on a large and easy target that lends itself to ridicule — say, sleazy evangelists or Tea Party nutjobs or flash-in-the-pan boy bands — the satire has to be particularly sharp and the commentary especially astute; otherwise, it’s all too unchallenging, all too facile, and all too forgettable. This mockumentary immediately falls victim to the obviousness and thereafter only works in small bursts of wit and wisdom. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (all three also sharing scripting credit) play the members of Style Boyz, a promising boy band that almost immediately gets derailed due to internal squabbles. Conner (Samberg), the group leader, is able to advance and become a superstar known as Conner4Real. Coming off a smash debut album, Conner expects equally great things from his sophomore effort; alas, it proves to be a critical and commercial bomb, and every p.r. stunt he performs in an effort to boost sales backfires spectacularly. A handful of bright spots are sprinkled throughout Popstar, but few have sticking power, and certainly nothing compares to the knowing laughs offered in Christopher Guest’s string of celebrated mockumentaries. Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer are all earnest if not especially funny, but Tim Meadows has some nice moments as the lads’ manager. Some susceptible scribes described Popstar as “the new This is Spinal Tap,” but don’t believe it for one second. Spinal Tap was able to turn the knob up to 11 — with Popstar, 4 on the dial is the best one can reasonably expect.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has been reissued on Blu-ray in a limited edition Steelbook. Extras include audio commentary by Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
ROAD GAMES (1981). An Ozploitation favorite, Road Games (alternately spelled as Roadgames) nevertheless required the hiring of two American leads to increase its marketability in the U.S. The tactic didn’t work — the film didn’t make much of a dent stateside — although its popularity has increased over the ensuing decades (Quentin Tarantino, for one, has occasionally raved about it). Stacey Keach delivers an exemplary performance as Quid, a philosophical man who drives his truck across the Australian highways and backroads delivering large quantities of meat (“Just because I drive a truck doesn’t make me a truck driver,” he tells everyone he encounters). Quid suspects that the person behind the wheel of an omnipresent green van might be the psychopath who’s been murdering young women, and he shares his suspicions with the hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) he picks up en route to Perth. The first hour of Road Games is so expertly assembled — tense, tightly scripted, and full of eccentric characters and engaging asides — that it’s downright tragic when the picture spins out of control during the second half. The suspense dissipates, characters begin behaving in illogical and obnoxious ways, and the climax is overblown and idiotic (ditto the epilogue). Writer-director Richard Franklin (scripting with Everett De Roche) clearly wanted his film to be compared favorably to those of his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, but a better tribute to The Master came with his next picture: 1983’s surprisingly sturdy Psycho II.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Franklin; a making-of featurette; an interview with Keach; extended interviews from Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!; a profile on Franklin; and the theatrical trailer.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001). If there’s a film genre that qualifies as an open invitation for moviemakers to let it all artistically hang out, it would be the animated field, where writers and directors don’t have to worry about special effects proving too costly or stars turning too temperamental. In the animated kingdom, the imagination is truly king, and it’s depressing to note just how small-minded many of its products have turned out over the years. A wonderful exception is Spirited Away, a deserving winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar and still Japan’s all-time top moneymaker. Creative beyond all reason or expectation, this effort from the revered Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is a phenomenal achievement, a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema that stirs memories of everything from Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to Where the Wild Things Are and Yellow Submarine. Featuring visions more suited to a hallucinatory dream than a TV screen, this masterpiece, about a young girl who’s forced to work in a bathhouse that caters to spirits, takes particular delight in confounding our expectations every step of the way. And perhaps only the Cantina in Star Wars can match this film’s bathhouse as a sight for soaring eyes unable to believe the sheer number of unusual creatures sauntering through the place. Yet while Spirited Away would be worthwhile simply as an ocular treat, the story’s also solid, concerning itself with timeless issues like honor, sacrifice, responsibility and respect.
Spirited Away has been re-released on Blu-ray by Studio Ghibli, GKIDS and Shout! Factory in a lavish edition that also contains the soundtrack CD and a 40-page booklet. Extras include feature-length storyboards; TV spots; and theatrical trailers.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974). The story goes that Clint Eastwood was so impressed with Michael Cimino’s work on the script for the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force that he gave the up-and-comer the opportunity to both write and direct his next picture. The result was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a satisfying mix of a buddy picture and a heist yarn. Eastwood stars as a bank robber known as “The Thunderbolt,” who finds himself hooking up with a sidekick of sorts, a brash kid named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). The pair eventually cross paths with two of Thunderbolt’s former associates, the profane and volatile Red Leary (George Kennedy) and the sweet but dim-witted Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), and it’s decided the quartet will attempt a bank job. But the wild card is Lightfoot: In addition to possibly being too green to pull off such an elaborate crime, his habit of ceaselessly annoying Red with his wisecracks adds uncomfortable tension to an already precarious situation. Bridges earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for this film — he’s terrific, with his funny, freewheeling turn effectively loosening up Eastwood and allowing the superstar to appear more relaxed and less tight-lipped than usual. Kennedy is memorable as a raging bull, while Lewis makes Eddie wholly sympathetic despite the limitations of the part (Lewis would end up appearing in seven pictures with Eastwood). Following this film, Cimino made 1978’s The Deer Hunter, winning Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and then for all intents and purposes ended his career with the infamous 1980 megabomb Heaven’s Gate.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton; TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
WINTER KILLS (1979). The backstory behind Winter Kills is too lengthy to explain here (some of it is covered in the documentary included on this Kino Blu-ray edition), but since it involves a frightened and potentially compromised studio, the Kennedy dynasty, a Mafia slaying, and marijuana kingpins, it’s no wonder many folks find it more fascinating than what’s actually on the screen. A troubled picture from almost the moment that writer-director William Richert opted to adapt Richard Condon’s novel, this combination of paranoia thriller and pitch-black comedy stars Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan, the underachieving brother of a U.S. President who was assassinated two decades earlier. When evidence emerges that there was a second gunman involved in the murder, Nick begins his own investigation; unfortunately for our hapless hero, practically everyone who gets involved in any way quickly ends up dead. The satiric edge qualifies the film as a sick joke, which helps explain why the studio was reluctant to support it and why the public was even more reluctant to watch it. It isn’t always on point (the ending is particularly weak), but it is audacious, and it’s easy to see why it has developed a modest cult following. John Huston is a riot as Nick’s all-powerful father, and the gargantuan cast also includes Anthony Perkins as the Kegan empire’s surveillance expert, Richard Boone as a loyal family friend, Eli Wallach as this story’s version of Jack Ruby, and an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor as a powerful madam who provides politicians with prostitutes.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Richert; the 2003 documentary short Who Killed Winter Kills?; a discussion with Richert and Bridges; and the theatrical trailer.
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