We’ve seen some bleak weeks on home video, but this one is hard to top: we’ve got the WWII-era romance The Aftermath (pass), the Tim Burton Dumbo remake (HARD pass), and something called The Poison Rose starring John Travolta and Morgan Freeman (always a good sign when name actors are in a direct-to-video movie you’ve never heard of). The only good news comes from Criterion, which is giving us a welcome Blu-ray edition of Hedwig, as well as the mammoth mid-‘60s film adaptation of War and Peace (its 422 minute running time was unfortunately not in the cards for this critic this week, but it’s supposed to be great!). But the good news is, some genuinely excellent movies have quietly landed on your streaming services in the past week or so, and we’re happy to send you in their direction.
Cop Car: Kevin Bacon moves effortlessly into grizzled character-actor mode with an effective turn in this tense little potboiler. He’s a dirty deputy whose squad car gets lifted while he’s doing dirt — by two preteen boys, no less, who see it as the ultimate good-time play-toy. But that good time comes to a quick end when the ruthless cop picks up their scent, and the cat-and-mouse game gets ugly fast. Co-writer/director Jon Watts (who went on to take over the Spider-Man franchise) not only has a way with atmosphere and suspense; he’s got a good ear for how these kids talk, and how they — and their antagonist — might actually react to this rather extraordinary situation.
ON AMAZON PRIME
Gia: Angelina Jolie officially went from “progeny to keep your eye on” to “full-on undeniable movie star” with this 1998 HBO biopic from director Michael Cristofer. As Gia Marie Carangi, a bisexual model and drug addict who died of AIDS at 26, Jolie found the perfect role for her tortured bad-girl sexiness; she’s fierce and unforgettable in the role, which nabbed her a Golden Globe and SAG award. Elizabeth Mitchell (later of Lost) is just as memorable in the complicated role of the woman who loves her. And, side trivia note: young Gia is portrayed by Mila Kunis. Of course.
James White: Late in Josh Mond’s searing drama, there’s an extraordinary scene where the title character (Christopher Abbott) tells his mother (Cynthia Nixon) about the wonderful lives they’ll live, a few years from now. It’s a fiction; she’s dying in his arms. But it’s a powerful moment, a reminder that the troubled young man we’ve seen living out the worst moments of his life for the past 80 minutes is capable of warmth, humor, and love — the final layer of a remarkable performance by Abbott, plumbing emotional depths and bleary-eyed intensity barely hinted at on Girls. Mond keeps his camera up close, his masterful compositions deceptively casual, his jump-cuts nearly invisible yet undeniably effective. And his script is admirably complex — we understand the character’s pain and are still exasperated by him. It helps if you’ve known someone like him. Most of us have. Some of us are that someone.
ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL
The Decline of Western Civilization: Penelope Spheeris’ documentary trilogy of life on the fringes in Los Angeles used to be impossible to track down except on used VHS or bootlegs; it finally hit Blu-ray back in 2015, and now, miracle of miracles, you can stream it on the Criterion Channel. Part I was Spheeris’ first completed film – and it pulses with not only the raw energy of its subjects, but the enthusiasm of its director. It’s easy to file the film away as a music doc about punk rock at the turn of the decade, but Spheeris has more on her mind than just the musicians; it’s also about the scene (the zines, the clubs, the fashion, the tattoos), and the loose, sometimes rambling, admirably candid interviews with the musicians are as much about their attitude as their sound.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years: The bands in Spheeris’ 1988 follow-up don’t long to express themselves, or even survive; they’re defined by their desperation for sex and stardom (in negotiable order of priority). Whether it was Spheeris’ attitude towards those performers, the spirit of the era, or the people she found, it’s a far funnier experience. Her decision to let her subjects choose their interview setting is ingenious; it renders each a commentary (on iconography, on fame, on sexuality) before it even begins. Some of these metal rockers aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, which lends the picture an irresistible Spinal Tap vibe — indeed, there seem to be specific echoes of that satire in the compositions of concert scenes and the editing of the interviews, wherein Spheeris injects her own commentary by the sheer force of her juxtapositions. But at the end of the day, the filmmaker comes away with a portrait of hedonism and emptiness that’s as sad as it is funny.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III: Her final, 1998 chapter spotlights four underground punk bands, but the performers aren’t the focus this time around — it’s their audience, with the music serving as interludes to underscore the frustrations of those who hear them. Spheeris spends most of the film with the “gutter punks” of the LA streets, delving deep into the logistics of their day-to-day and moment-to-moment existence. Throughout the series, she’s never seen, but only heard, asking questions off-camera; she’s more vocally present this time around, because it’s more work with these kids. They’re not musicians prone (hell, rehearsed) to make statements. She has to draw them out, and what they have to tell her is often heartbreaking.
ON BLU-RAY / THE CRITERION CHANNEL
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 rock musical extravaganza (adapted from his stage play) joins the Criterion Collection, and with each passing year, it seems like more of a miracle: a hip, funny, edgy work that’s sassy and smart-edged, but whose considerable power comes from its unapologetic earnestness and melancholy. Mitchell is an openhearted performer and innovative filmmaker, the songs burn as brightly as ever, and the supporting performances (especially Michael Pitt’s dopey rocker and Andrea Martin’s wry manager) are all gems. (Also streaming on the Criterion Channel.) (Includes audio commentary, new interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailer.)