Pick of the Week
Ricki and the Flash (Sony)
Did you catch Ricki and the Flash in theaters? Based on its box-office returns, chances are the answer is “no.” There’s also a good chance you weren’t enticed by posters and trailers that made it look like a by-the-numbers heartwarming story of a family that learns to love each other. It’s not. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) and directed by Jonathan Demme, it’s a film about the messiness of relationships — between mothers and daughters, between exes, between old wives and new wives, between politics and emotions — that’s not afraid to get messy in the telling. Meryl Streep plays a woman who’s never given up on her rock-star dreams, even though she’s now playing for the same crowd at the same bar and working a day job at a Whole Foods-inspired grocery. When a crisis reunites her with her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) and her troubled daughter (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), old resentments surface as everyone tries to work through the trouble at hand.
That sounds like a predictable set-up, but this is a film in which characters take two steps forward and one step back. Progress gets made as new problems rise. Nobody gets fixed. There are no group hugs. The movie’s informed by the not-always-pretty ways families really work and it’s all the more moving for it. What’s more, it’s filled with great performances and the sort of loose, intimate filmmaking that Demme does so well. If any of this year’s financial disappointments deserves as a second chance at home, it’s this one.
Don’t Look Back (Criterion)
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which follows Bob Dylan during a 1965 tour of England, would be groundbreaking no matter who Pennebaker trained his camera on. Pennebaker’s verité approach, enabled by breakthroughs in technology that made camera and sound equipment lighter and easier to carry, helped redefine the language of documentary films — and of films in general. But it is a film about Dylan, and one that captures the singer/songwriter at the height of his early fame. He’s testy, cutting, and getting ready to throw it all out and try new approaches. Don’t Look Back has been on DVD and Blu-ray before, but, predictably, this new Criterion edition trumps its previous incarnations with a new, Pennebaker-approved transfer and a combination of an old audio commentary, and new features, including versions of songs that didn’t make it into the film.
If you will, please indulge your humble home-video correspondent a personal note: Years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru introduced by Roger Ebert at the Chicago International Film Festival. This was before illness robbed Ebert of his voice when he could often be found genially holding court before screenings, both those for the general public and critics-only screenings. (Ebert remained a friendly, approachable presence even after losing his ability to speak, but his ability to interact with others changed, of course.) Of Ikiru, Ebert said it was one of the few movies he knew that might actually make those who watched it a better person. That’s a lofty claim to make of a movie, but if any movie can support it, it’s Ikiru, in which Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura plays a middle-aged bureaucrat who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, starts to question what he’s done with his life. I doubt anyone who watched Ikiru with Ebert that night disagreed. It’s a rich, moving film, and one I’ll now forever associate with Ebert, whose humane, curious approach to film — whether masterpieces like Ikiru or dreck — improved the lives of others in ways he probably didn’t even imagine. End anecdote. Ikiru‘s out on Blu-ray. You should see it.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate)
Another movie not enough people saw, this big-screen version of Aardman’s delightful kids’ series Shaun the Sheep is also delightful. The wordless film is filled with clever sight gags and enough witty references to keep grown-ups engaged.
Ghost Story (Scream Factory)
This 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub’s bestselling horror novel doesn’t skimp on the atmosphere, featuring spooky interiors and skeletons galore. It also features a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Hollywood greats — Melvyn Douglas, Fred Astaire, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. — as old men with a dark secret, revealed in flashback. (It was also the last time Astaire, Douglas, or Fairbanks appeared on film.) At once old-fashioned and of its time — with a 1981-level of gore and nudity — it’s worth revisiting for the cast alone.
Eight Men Out (Olive Films)
Making Mr. Right (Olive Films)
Smooth Talk (Olive Films)
Olive Films continues to be a great source for films that might have otherwise fallen through the Blu-ray cracks, as this trio of smaller-scale ’80s indies proves. Making Mr. Right was Susan Seidelman’s follow-up to Desperately Seeking Susan and features John Malkovich as an android dreamboat. Smooth Talk adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ classic short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and casts a young Laura Dern as a teen imperiled by a seductive stranger (Treat Williams). 1988’s first-rate Eight Men Out, pretty much the closest John Sayles ever got to the mainstream as a director, retells the story of the disgraced 1919 World Champion White Sox and features an all-star cast that includes John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd and others.
Writer/actor/director Onur Tukel has been quietly making a name for himself as maker of dark, funny films like Summer of Blood. Applesauce, his latest, co-stars Dylan Baker and Max Casella and looks like a fine place to start catching up.
American Ultra (Lionsgate)
No Escape (Anchor Bay)
It’s like late-summer 2015 all over again thanks to the simultaneous release of these August films, neither of which connected much with critics or audiences. Could they be hidden gems? Here’s your chance to find out.