Welcome back, everybody – and 2018 is off to a helluva start, home viewing-wise, with three big new disc releases, as well as two new docs, two old faves, and a more personal recommendation than usual. Let’s get to it.
Apollo 13: It seems counter-intuitive that a film based on a true event, with a known outcome, could generate suspense. Yet that’s what somehow happens in Ron Howard’s dramatization of the aborted 1970 mission, in which a moon-bound NASA craft was disabled en route, and the lives of the three astronauts on board were barely saved by their own calm under pressure and the ingenuity of mission control. Howard turns a TV-movie premise into a gripping piece of visceral cinema, masterfully marshaling the tension of the situation and the lived-in performances of Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon in orbit, and Ed Harris and Gary Sinise back on the ground.
Gilbert: Neil Berkeley’s documentary profile of Gilbert Gottfried is a funny movie about a funny person, which is more of a rarity than it should be. He offers up a peek at the real guy behind the screeching persona/character, a guy the comic has purposefully kept walled off (and still seem reluctant to reveal). So we get scenes of him interacting with wife Dara and their two kids (and not interacting; it’s not explicitly stated, but Gottfried definitely seems to fall somewhere on the spectrum), and plenty of life on the road, working clubs, giving interviews, even doing a “comedy cruise.” Serious subject matters reveals itself organically, as in life, but with Gottfried, a big laugh is never long in coming. An appealing, amusing look at a true original.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Lost and Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International: I’ll be brief, promise – this is a film that this very writer was involved in, as a co-writer, co-director, and co-star, so take the recommendation with a grain of salt. But you might enjoy it, and the story behind it is semi-interesting; eleven teams of filmmakers from all over the country each created a fake grindhouse movie trailer, which we then bridged together into a fake documentary with commentary from real film historians and exploitation movie experts. Here’s the trailer, and if you’re a Prime member, it won’t cost you a dime.
ON INVESTIGATION DISCOVERY
The Family I Had: No story that starts with cheery home movies is headed anywhere good, and true to form, Katie Green and Carlye Rubin’s stunning family crime documentary takes a quick turn after the jolly Christmas morning, to the 911 call two years later, in which a sobbing 13-year-old boy called to report he’d stabbed his four-year-old sister to death. It’s impossible to imagine that kind of grief (and guilt), as mother Charity attempts to put her life back together while navigating how to be a mother to this kind of son. Meanwhile, the film keeps uncovering stunning revelations, details buried deep in the story and dug out only under duress, as this broken family struggles to find some kind of emotional peace. The result is a haunting and powerful piece of work, though its emotional weight is almost too much to bear.
ON DVD / VOD
Lucky: “Those things are gonna kill you,” the diner owner tells Lucky as he lights up a cigarette, and the response is quick and reasonable: “If they could’ve, they would’ve.” Few actors could pull that line off with the grizzled grace of the late, great Harry Dean Stanton, whose final performance (and one of his few leads) comes in something of a Senior Slacker, a series of loose two-scenes with terrific partners. He hangs out and hashes out with Tom Skerritt as a fellow vet; he first tries to fight (“Outside. Five minutes. Fisticuffs!”) and then makes an unexpected connection with Ron Livingston and his perfectly realized mustache; he shares the grief of a lost pet with a dandyish David Lynch (“There are some things in this universe that are bigger than all of us. And a tortoise is one of ‘em!”). Writer/director John Carroll Lynch – himself an accomplished, Stanton-style character actor – is deeply attuned to the rhythms of small-town bar chatter, all good-natured jabs and stories everyone’s already heard (but are willing to hear again). But it’s mostly a tribute to Stanton’s unique gifts: watch the way he says “fisticuffs,” or how he smokes mournfully to late-period Johnny Cash, or his lovely bit of business with the mariachi band. Most of all, watch his last scene, and the way he looks around the room, smiles a bit, and shares an answer attained over a lifetime of hard living. It’s a lovely send-off, that scene, and Lucky is a fitting tribute to a sui generis performer. (Includes featurettes, interviews, and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
American Made: Here’s how weird 2017 was: there was a big, new Tom Cruise movie in theaters this fall, and you probably barely heard about it. The real shame of the matter is that – like his previous collaboration with director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow – it’s far better than most of his recent output. Cruise plays Barry Seal, a real life airline pilot-turned-CIA-flyer-turned-drug-runner-turned-DEA-informant in the 1980s, and Liman directs with thrillingly manic, coked-up energy, all the while questioning how much we should buy from this highly unreliable narrator. Cruise is a good twenty years too old for the role, but the cultural baggage he brings to it is invaluable – it plays like an answer record to his string of grinning, cocky, Best There Is movies of the period (Days of Thunder, Cocktail, The Color of Money, and especially Top Gun), taking a good, hard look at what happens when a confident grin will no longer save your hide. (Includes deleted scenes, featurettes, and director/actor conversation.)
Brad’s Status: “Isn’t that your friend from college?” on of Brad and Melanie’s friends ask, as he peruses the latest issue of Architectural Digest, and it is; that magazine cover, and the sight of one of his other friends on television, is “like a ghost I conjured to haunt me.” Brad is a character who, in his words, spends all his time “in my mind, puffing myself up and tearing myself down,” and Ben Stiller is marvelous in the role, capturing both his interior ranting and his exterior apologetic modesty. Brad’s Status is a mid-life crisis movie, but only in the particulars; the wider subject is the challenge, to people of all ages, of coming to accept who you are and what your life is – or, at the very least, trying to be. It’s a movie of both big laughs and stinging truths. (Includes featurettes.)
The Breakfast Club: Newly (and rather controversially) added to the Criterion Collection, John Hughes’s 1985 comedy/drama remains one of the most vivid cinematic depictions of teen angst. In a movie written like a play (and reportedly rehearsed like one), Hughes uses his single set to create a theatrical intimacy; this far on, the iconographic imagery (sliding down the hallway, dancing down the banister) can overshadow the elegance of the construction and the delicacy with which he threads in the laughs. Sure, some of it hasn’t aged so well — let’s not even get started on Emilio’s Footloose-esque angry dance — and it has moments of almost painful self-importance. But it’s the kind of youth-oriented movie where viewing is cyclical; you see it as a teenager and it rings totally true, you see it a decade later and it’s embarrassingly earnest, and then you see it in another decade and that earnestness, that closeness to that moment, is what gives it such value. These days, I watch it through the third lens; maybe you’re due to as well. (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, production notes, featurette, deleted and extended scenes, excerpts from Hughes’ AFI seminar, This American Life segment, and trailer.)