It’s an exciting week for new releases with a long sought-after film finally coming to Blu-ray, along with one of the greatest TV shows ever produced, a mesmerizing Chilean documentary, and an incisive, claustrophobic indie film (only on DVD).
Let’s start with Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day,” a singular masterpiece of Taiwanese cinema, and one of the most praised films in contemporary history. The sprawling epic follows a young teenager (Chen Chang) as he moves through adolescence, falls in with street gangs, and endure identity crises all against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960’s in Taiwan. At four hours, the film covers quite a bit of thematic and emotional territory; it’s not just a coming-of-age story filtered through blue-collar fury, but also an exploration of Western culture’s influence on Taiwan, the difficulties of post-immigration life, and the struggle to find community in a foreign environment. It’s one of the very best films of the modern era, and it’s finally available to own in a stunning Blu-ray set from Criterion.
Next on the docket we have a Blu-ray release of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks,” one of the very best television shows of this wondrous new Golden Age. Cancelled way before its time, the series only lasted 18 episodes but tracked the divergent lives of the Weir siblings (Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley) as they struggle with the social anxiety and the complex hierarchical nature of high school. The series takes an anti-nostalgic look at adolescence, focusing its sights on the types of people not usually covered by teen dramas: loners, losers, burnouts, and social misfits. It perfectly captures the painful loneliness of youth and how the brief moments of mediated victory that can only occur when one spends an entire life losing. The Blu-ray set also contains its original aspect ratio, a huge plus in this era of spiffing up shows from a pre-widescreen era.
Other new releases this week include Patricio Guzman’s “The Pearl Button,” his mesmerizing, lyrical meditation on the mysteries of water in Chile; Josh Mond’s indie drama “James White,” about an entitled young man (Christopher Abbott) dealing with his mother (Cynthia Nixon) succumbing to cancer (only on DVD); “The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 2,” the final film in the “Hunger Games” series; and “Daddy’s Home,” a middling Will Ferrel-Mark Wahlberg comedy about a father and stepfather competing for their children’s affection.
There are a few worthwhile releases on the classic front: Kino Lorber has Vittoria De Sica’s “After the Fox,” a Peter Sellers comedy written by Neil Simon; Olive Films has David Gordon Green’s “Undertow,” Barry Levinson’s “Bandits,” Roger Corman’s “The Trip,” written by Jack Nicholson, and John Dahl’s “Kill Me Again”; finally, Arrow Films has the Pam Grier vehicle “Black Mama, White Mama.”
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
“A Brighter Summer Day”
Criticwire Average: A
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
The English title of “A Brighter Summer Day,” Edward Yang’s chronicle of disaffected youth in Taiwan in 1960, comes from “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” which was a hit for Elvis Presley that year. One of the teenagers in this sprawling, melancholy and surpassingly beautiful film sings in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and he tries, phonetically and with the help of a friend’s sister who studies English, to decode the song’s haunting, enigmatic lyrics. American pop music is a tendril from the outside world that has penetrated this claustrophobic, hectic island, and it expresses the universal longings and the specific frustrations that dominate the lives of Mr. Yang’s characters. The film, at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early ’60s, like “East of Eden” or “Rebel Without a Cause.” Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, “A Brighter Summer Day” also belongs to a tradition that stretches from “I Vitelloni” to “Mean Streets” and beyond. But this film, completed in 1991 and only now receiving a proper American release (thanks to restoration efforts by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and the adventurous programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center), is much more than the sum of its references and associations. Colored by Mr. Yang’s memories of the world he grew up in, it is one of those movies that, by slow accretion of detail and bold dramatic vision, disclose the structure and feeling of an entire world. Read more.
“The Pearl Button”
Criticwire Average: A-
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
For anyone who’s seen “Nostalgia for the Light,” “The Pearl Button” may not seem that revelatory. Guzmán’s making some of the same observations, just with a different starting point, and the subjects he’s touching on aren’t as varied this time out. For a solid half-hour or so, “The Pearl Button” more or less ceases to be a digressive art project and becomes just a straightforward documentary about the Patagonians, flanking the story of England’s favorite South American “savage,” Jemmy Button. And the film’s framing device — about the search for water and life on other planets — comes off a little forced, especially in contrast to the way “Nostalgia for the Light” so elegantly used the cosmos as a metaphor for a past that we can see but not interpret. But any comparative weaknesses in “The Pearl Button” seem minor when Guzmán is lingering over shots of hail pelting seawater, in the shadow of cobalt-blue icebergs. This film sells some top-shelf eye-candy — and not all of it was gathered on Chile’s chilly southern shores. Just as pretty are Guzmán’s slow camera moves across a room-sized outline of his home country, which captures the unwieldy hugeness of a historically complicated nation. Over his half-century behind a camera and in editing bays, Guzmán has developed a real sense for the different ways that he can convey reality. Sometimes in “The Pearl Button,” he interviews the surviving natives of a vanishing society. And sometimes he just tells a story about a boyhood friend who had an accident and was washed out to sea. He keeps sifting through all of this seemingly disconnected evidence, looking for answers to questions he’s been asking all his life. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B+
Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (Vulture)
“James White” looks like a simple film on its surface. As noted, we remain tightly, almost exclusively, focused on Abbott, whose tense lips and watchful eyes often have to carry the drama. (The young “Girls” actor is asked to do a surreal amount of heavy lifting here; it’s a wonderful showcase for his range and talent.) But despite the vérité-influenced stylization, writer-director Mond (whose own struggle with loss likely inspired some of this story) doesn’t seem too interested in realism or grit. The film is regularly punctuated with shots of James waking up, often to find his world slightly different, as if each new day were a different layer in this unending dream. The shifting reality of what we’re experiencing is betrayed by the ruthless march of time. Late in the film, holding his very sick mother very tightly, James describes to her a future world that will never exist, a trip that she will never take with him and his happy nonexistent family to Paris. She will show his kids the Louvre and the Rodin Garden, he tells her, gently. She will “see me happy…see me as a father…see me as a kind, loving man.” She will never see these things, but maybe, in the soft, vapory reverie of this sublime film, she already has. Read more.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2”
Criticwire Average: B-
Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune
In “Mockingjay 2,” which takes its time in the telling because there’s not a lot of story to tell, Katniss shakes the numb funk of “Mockingjay 1” and resolves to end this thing. It’s peculiar and sad to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman appear in abbreviated handfuls of scenes as the games designer turned revolutionary. Stanley Tucci, meantime, comes back for a single bit, seconds in length. Yet he manages to end his brief appearance with the single most insincere smile his toady of a character has ever smiled. Bravo, maestro Tucci. And you know what? Two-and-a-half-cheers to this franchise. “The Hunger Games” has completed its tasks well and met fan expectations. Now Lawrence can move on to the next stage of a career made financially possible by that three-fingered salute to the Mockingjay and all for which it stands. “Mockingjay 2” ends with a coda so fraudulent-looking and sticky-sweet you wait for the moment when Katniss wakes up from her Lasse Hallstrom nightmare. But that sort of cynicism has no place in Panem, or in dystopian Young Adult literature as a whole. The more unstable the real world grows, the more young readers and their unashamed elders lap up stories, at once dour and stirring, about life after the apocalypse. Read more.
Criticwire Average: C-
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
The setup is familiar, predictable; Ferrell plays a simpering, good-hearted wimp and square, Brad Whitaker, stepfather to two adorable moppets who is soon obliged to compete with their ultra-cool biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), who’s more aggressive in his passive aggressiveness than is customary. He’s got a leg up on Brad already in that the kids make no attempts to conceal their contempt for by-the-parenting book Brad. Although Brad isn’t the only one here who’s by-the-book. From the automatic nostalgia-inducing college-rock opening-credits song (The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”) to the part when we’re expected to laugh at a seven-year-old-girl saying “I think it’s sweet that he’s crying like a bitch,” the movie is entirely rote in its opportunistic cynicism. Director Anders, who takes a co-writing credit here with John Morris and Brian Burns, is also a brain behind such fare as “We’re The Millers” and “Horrible Bosses 2.” What he brings to the table is neither particularly pleasant nor funny. For instance, there’s a scene in the film’s last third, after Brad determines to turn the tables on Dusty, who’s previously been undermining Brad by showing off his handyman skills and saddling him with a “pet” for the kids, a junkyard dog named “Tumor.” Brad scores tickets to a Lakers game (this movie takes place in a universe in which Kobe Bryant, who cameos, is still the idol of millions rather than a sad reminder of the ego-over-substance state of contemporary professional basketball), gets drunk, and gets picked to shoot from the free-throw line at half time. The setup for the joke that follows is that there’s a group of children in wheelchairs sitting at courtside. Yes, “Daddy’s Home” goes there. No, it’s not funny. Read more.