It’s a sparse, but nonetheless fascinating week for this Thanksgiving edition of this week in home video. We have new releases by Jonathan Demme and “Wallace and Gromit” creator Nick Park, as well as classics from Akira Kurosawa, D.A. Pennebaker, Peter Greenaway, and John Cassavetes.
Let’s start with Jonathan Demme’s new small-scale domestic dramedy “Ricki and the Flash,” about a middle-aged rocker (Meryl Streep) who abandoned her family for her dream but then returns to them once she learns her estranged daughter (Mamie Gummer) is going through a messy divorce. When Ricki sees her family, she’s forced to confront harsh truths about her own life and the choices she’s made over the years. “Ricki and the Flash” is Demme’s first feature film since 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married,” and it features plenty of Demme’s signature trademarks, such as beautifully-staged live performances, nuanced depictions of Americana, as well as a general focus on the difficulties of trust and reconciliation. Written by Diablo Cody, the film is filled with her characteristically arch dialogue and aims for broad emotions, but it’s also a fairly empathetic portrait of lives gone astray, roads not taken, and emotions largely ignored. Plus, Meryl Streep is predictably fantastic as the titular Ricki, especially at deepening the character beyond her caricatured surface. “Ricki and the Flash” is far from great, but it’s a type of movie that hardly gets made anymore and one worth seeking out (especially since it’s directed by an American master).
Other new releases include “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” a stop-motion animated comedy based on the British TV show “Shaun the Sheep.” Directed by Nick Park, who created the “Shaun the Sheep” series, itself a spinoff of his universally-acclaimed “Wallace and Gromit” franchise, the film follows Shaun and the flock as they head into the big city to rescue their farmer. Completely dialogue free with a digestible story, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” will enchant children and adults with its silent film-style slapstick and clever humor. The other major release is “No Escape,” the xenophobic thriller featuring Owen Wilson and Lake Bell as American parents with two young children who have to escape Southeast Asia after they get caught in the middle of a violent political coup. Mostly dull and unimaginative, “No Escape” doesn’t accomplish anything more than even the most modest escape thrillers, apart from its negative depiction of Asians as savages.
On the classic front, Criterion has Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” a film once described by Roger Ebert as “one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.” About an aging bureaucrat dying of cancer determined to find solace and meaning in his final days, “Ikiru” is one of Kurosawa’s finest achievements, showcasing his humanity and grace, as well as featuring a powerful performance by Kanji Watanabe. They also have D.A. Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back,” a documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour through England, and one of the most influential vérité docs ever made. Then, Henstooth Video has Peter Greenaway’s “Drowning By Numbers,” the film before his breakout “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” about three women who each successively drown their husbands. Next, Olive Films has two Blu-rays this week: John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out,” about the 1919 World Series scandal, and Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk,” about a thrill-seeking girl (Laura Dern) who meets a mysterious, dangerous man (Treat Williams), based on the Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Kino Lorber has three films out this week: John Cassavetes’ “A Child is Waiting,” Seong-hoon Kim’s “A Hard Day,” and Julian Roffman’s “The Mask 3-D.” Finally, Zeitgeist Films has a Blu-ray edition of “The Short Films of the Quay Brothers,” a collection of their unique work with puppetry and animation.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
“Ricki and the Flash”
Criticwire Average: B
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
Given that Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” represents the high-water mark of the concert film as a genre, it should come as no surprise that “Ricki And The Flash’s” musical numbers — filmed live, with Streep singing and playing rhythm guitar — are uniformly superb. (Bernie Worrell, who played keyboards in “Stop Making Sense,” is one of several veteran musicians cast as Ricki’s backing band, The Flash; Rick Springfield plays her sweet, slightly dopey guitarist-slash-boyfriend.) But as in much of the prolific director’s later work, one can’t help but miss the creative contributions of Tak Fujimoto, the cinematographer of most of Demme’s best and best-known films, including “Melvin & Howard,” “Something Wild,” “Silence Of The Lambs,” and “Beloved.” Fujimoto’s shadowy visual sensibility was a unifying factor, and without it, “Ricki And The Flash” — which was shot by Declan Quinn, Demme’s go-to cinematographer in recent years — swings wildly between different conventional camera styles, turning into a small-club concert doc for The Flash’s regular gigs at The Salt Well or into stagey, locked-down farce during the restaurant scene that introduces Ricki and Pete’s sons, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate). What keeps the movie together, instead, are some complicated serio-comic performances, especially from Kline and Streep, the latter for once seemingly out of her comfort zone as a self-styled free spirit whose Tea Party leanings set her liberal Midwestern family on edge. Read more.
“Shaun the Sheep Movie”
Criticwire Average: B+
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
Aardman Animations’ “Shaun the Sheep” is both a winning kids’ film and a sly artistic manifesto. Much like the the popular BBC animated show (itself a spinoff from Aardman’s “Wallace and Gromit” shorts) that inspired it, the stop-motion feature unfolds without any spoken dialogue, primarily using images to tell its zany story — a throwback of sorts to classic silent slapstick. (Keaton and Chaplin are the obvious touchpoints; one may also be reminded of Laurel and Hardy at times.) But the storytelling here is also so delicate that plenty of bigger, more grown-up movies could learn a thing or two from its humanity. Read more.
Criticwire Average: C-
Jake Cole, Slant Magazine
The only way that this film could be any more racist is if the Dwyer family holed up with Lillian Gish and waited for the Klan to save them. And, in its own way, the film approximates even this, valorizing Pierce Brosnan’s semi-retired government operative Hammond, whose sinister past in the region is forgiven for the knowledge it provides him in aiding the Dwyers whenever doom seems upon them. Hammond gets a speech near the end meant as a sop to any objections one might have with the rampant xenophobia, ambivalently explaining that people like him destabilized these countries in order for people like Jack to come make money off of them. Were the film not so resolutely ahistorical, Hammond’s confession might have had bite. Instead, it’s the final straw, an empty, smug gesture to assign meaning to an insipid provocation, something Banksy might have dreamed up while painting a mural of Mickey Mouse doing blow with Angela Merkel. “No Escape” posits a scenario in which the entire world around its characters becomes unintelligible and nightmarish, yet the scariest proposition of all is that we’re no closer to ridding ourselves of movies like these in the 21st century. Read more.