Burning Cane: Writer/director Phillip Youmans was all of 17 years old when he made this haunting, disturbing, and unforgettable story of lives in disarray in the contemporary South. He tells a trio of stories simultaneously, their connections seeming tenuous, but pulls the threads together in the closing passages with unexpected force. Until then, he fills his film with evocative landscapes and vernacular speech, and scene of quiet intensity and oh-no anticipation. As the country preacher at the film’s shaky moral center, Wendell Pierce is soulful and sweaty and absolutely believable; I feel like he’s been in that church for decades. But the whole movie is like that – entrenched in its specific time and place, and afire with that authenticity.
One Child Nation: China’s One-Child Policy, a 35-year decree that families were only allowed a single offspring, was pushed by amusing propaganda and reiterated in terrifying, threatening banners. But it wasn’t a simple family planning issue, as this eye-opening first person documentary from directors Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparow) and Zhang Lynn. It left a legacy of abduction, human trafficking, forced sterilization and abortion, and on and on; the horror stories and images they capture are hard to hear. But they’re vital and necessary; this is an upsetting film, but a must-see.
Good Boys: Universal’s advertising for this summer comedy leaned hard on the presence of producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and for good reason; it is, beat for beat, a tween remix of their Superbad script. The horny buddies at the center are, this time, heading into middle school, invited to their first “kissing party,” and unsure what to do with that information; their one long night of misadventures culminates with that big party, and with some realizations about who they are. To their credit, screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (the latter directed) go a step further, and the epilogue is surprisingly affecting. It’s lightweight fare – not a moment too short at 89 minutes – and Eisenberg and Stupnitsky pull off the impressive balancing act of creating a comedy that’s somehow both absolutely filthy and totally innocent. (Includes audio commentary, alternate ending, deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, and featurettes.)
The Farewell: This seriocomic drama from writer/director Lulu Wang is, the opening credits assure us, “based on an actual lie.” The lie: that rather than tell aging grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that she had stage four cancer, her family will all come home to China for a wedding, and that’s when they’ll say their goodbyes. “It’s a good lie,” the doctor insists, but a tough one for Billi (Akwafina), the only granddaughter, who’s always had a relationship of closeness and candor with Nai Nai. The expected familial tensions and personal heartaches rear their heads, but thanks to Wang’s naturalistic approach and terrific eye (her compositions are stirking and summoning), it never feels like formula. And Awka crafts a marvelous, restrained performance, finding just the right notes for this woman who comes to understand that this journey isn’t just about her grandmother. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurette.)
Winter Kills: The 1970s were a golden age for conspiracy thrillers, thanks to classics like The Conversation, The Parallax View, Klute, and Blow-Out (a little late in 1981, but in the spirit nevertheless). But the wildest of the bunch may well have been this 1979 adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel, riffing on the Kennedy assassination and the legends surrounding it; Jeff Bridges (playing the curious half-brother of the JFK surrogate) leads a giant, gonzo ensemble that includes John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, and an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor. It doesn’t have the tautness of its conspiracy picture brethren, but that’s part of its charm; it’s an unruly piece of work, ruled by dream logic and urban legends. (Also streaming on Prime Video.) (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, radio spot, and trailer.)
The Daytrippers: Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) made his feature debut with this micro-budget indie comedy/drama – new to the Criterion Collection - in which a suburban wife (the marvelous Hope Davis) discovers what she thinks is a love letter to her husband (Stanley Tucci, perfection) and heads off into “the city” to confront him, with her entire family in tow. These are the makings of a broad comedy, and it sometimes tiptoes in that direction (particularly in Anne Meara’s performance, though she’s awfully funny). But Mottola’s working in a melancholy key here, telling a subtler story about the inevitability of change, and the simultaneous reliability and irritation of family. Every performance works, though Parker Posey is especially good in perhaps the film’s trickiest role. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and short film.)
Spirited Away: Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 fantasy classic gets the deluxe edition treatment from GKids and Shout! Factory, and it remains a marvel – an Alice in Wonderland riff that takes its young heroine down a rabbit hole of surrealist situations and grotesque characters. The imagery is inventive and nightmarish, the storytelling rapturous, the voice work compelling. But if anything has grown with the passage of time, it’s the effectiveness of the hand-drawn animation; each cell is like a painting, each sequence a snapshot of a wondrous world. (Includes featurettes, storyboards, trailers, and soundtrack CD.)
Charley Varrick: There was a wonderful moment in the early 1970s where the star system was so wide open that Walter Matthau, the master of hangdog comedy, was able to reposition himself as a leading man in action movies. KL Studio Classics has already released the first (The Laughing Policeman) and last (The Taking of Pelham 123) of those films; now, thankfully, they’re completing the trilogy with the film that came between them, this 1973 thriller from the great Don Siegel (Dirty Harry). Matthau plays a small-time bank robber who inadvertently hits a Mafia drop-off – and he’s our hero, which means the villains (including John Vernon’s bank president and Joe Don Baker’s mob enforcer) have to be especially sleazy. It’s a nasty piece of work, directed with Siegel’s customary ruthless efficiency. (Includes audio commentary, documentary, featurette, and trailers.)
Madigan: Siegel also helmed this New York cop movie, released in 1968 but dealing in issues that haven’t exactly left the NPYD (corruption, police brutality, the works). It shakes out about as you’d expect, considering the time period, though the screenplay (by Howard Rodman and Hollywood Ten member Abe Polonsky, whose Force of Evil was an influential NYC noir) handles its story with admirable complexity. And Siegel nicely captures the look and feel of the New York locations; this was among the first batch of movies shot under the city’s mid-1960s initiative to streamline film production in Gotham. Richard Windmark is as sturdy as ever in the title role, though Henry Fonda makes the deepest impression as the city’s conflicted police commissioner. (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)