After last week’s new release marathon, we’re thankfully back to more manageable levels of new release intake. So this week we’ve got an energetic new documentary on Netflix, a couple of prestige dramas from the fall, an above-average popcorn movie, and a documentary about one of the legends of New Hollywood.
The Legend of Cocaine Island : It’s the ultimate “Florida Man” tale, in which a fellow named Rodney Hyden decided he could dig his way out of his recession-era debt by chasing down the bag of buried cocaine at the center of a local urban legend. Director Theo Love’s good-humored, fast-paced documentary account is stylish and entertaining, with an ingenious central conceit: the opening credits announce “Introducing Rodney Hyden as Rodney Hyden,” and Love creates aesthetic incongruity by placing his very unconventional antihero into his snazzy reenactments of heists, car chases, and double-crosses. The characters surrounding him are colorful — his sidekick “Andy” is like Brad Pitt’s True Romance character made flesh — and Cocaine Island wisely resists the urge to take itself too seriously.
ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Bumblebee : When this Transformers spin-off hit theaters back in December, reviews insisted it was better than that pedigree would infer – and you’ll have to be patient, because it does not get off to a promising start. And it turns back into a Transformers movie at the end. But in between those bookends, this is an enjoyable coming-of-age movie, thanks to the winning performances by Hailee Steinfeld and Pamela Adlon, and the graceful direction by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings). And there’s a bit of sly subversion happening too; John Cena’s character, for example, is frequently framed as a satire of the kind of jingoistic militarism that plagues these movies.There are a few too many cutesy period winks (“I gotta see what happens to ALF this week!”), and whenever they have to circle back and check the franchise boxes, this viewer tuned out. But Bumblebee is reasonably fun and surprisingly heartfelt, which is certainly a new approach for this series. (Includes deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, and featurettes.)
The Mule : Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking instincts have been a little dodgy over his past few pictures, and there are certainly glaring flaws in his latest (I wouldn’t wish poor Dianne Wiest’s wedding day exposition dump on the worst of actors). And his complicated personal politics make this story of an octogenarian who becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel more than a little muddled. But there’s nevertheless much to recommend here, starting with Eastwood’s own leading performance; he’s been doing this so long that being onscreen is just second nature anymore, and there’s something about the simplicity and straightforward emotion of his work (particularly in his last scene with Bradley Cooper’s DEA agent) that’s overwhelming. And it’s impossible not to read between the lines of these scenes, whether he’s telling recent movie-star-turned-filmmaker Cooper, “Don’t do what I did, don’t follow in my footsteps,” or confessing to his onscreen daughter (played by real-life daughter Alison Eastwood), “I was a terrible father, and a terrible husband.” As storytelling, The Mule is shaky. But when viewed as Eastwood’s consideration of himself – as a performer, and as a man – it’s invaluable. (Includes featurette and music video)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Hal : Few filmmakers in Hollywood history were subjected to a rise and fall as dramatic as that of Hal Ashby, who produced seven straight masterpieces in the 1970s (including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Being There), and proceeded to make nearly as many misfires in the 1980s. Director Amy Scott hits most of them, and covers them well – but more importantly, she filters all of them through the overarching story of his love for the work. That love is conveyed not only via the usual talking head interviews and clips, but his personal letters (read here by Ben Foster, they’re often charming and lovely, often funny in their ferocity) and inspiring archival audio clips. “The film will tell you what to do,” he insists, and his advice is worth heeding; he made all those great movies all those years ago, and now, indirectly, he’s given us another one. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, and trailer.)
Vice : Writer/director Adam McKay returns to Big Short territory with this combination of history, satire, and explainer, focusing on the life and legacy of Vice President Dick Cheney. The hit-to-miss ratio is much more even this time around, but there are things Vice does very well – it makes complex history clear, reminds us of some genuinely horrifying moments in our recent past, engagingly explores the change in power dynamic between Cheney and once-mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, in the film’s best performance), and finds a first-rate running gag in the heart woes of its protagonist. As Cheney, Christian Bale rarely crosses over from imitation to performance, and McKay’s bursts of contempt for his audience and on-the-nose dialogue are a bit much. Even when the experiments don’t work, at least he’s trying things – and his inclination towards experimentation (innovation, even) is more than welcome in this season of dreary, rote biopics. (Includes deleted scenes and featurettes.)