Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.

Lionsgate

Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.

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Blu-ray / DVD: Sicario

SicarioSicario (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a violent, chaotic, adrenaline-fueled thriller set in the brutal violence of the drug war on the American border with Mexico, is a film that constantly seems to be spinning out of control. That’s not entirely by design, I fear, but it is purposeful. From the opening scene, where a missing persons rescue operation headed by FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) sends the team into a Mexican drug cartel safehouse, a sinister mausoleum hidden behind the chalkboard the walls, and a booby trap that takes the life of one of her men, we are thrown into a world where the rules no longer apply.

We are suddenly tossed along with Macer, a driven but idealistic veteran of an FBI strike force, into what appears to be a black ops campaign driven by the CIA. She is requested by a cagey company man named Matt (Josh Brolin, who tosses off his evasions with an amiable grin that hides his endgame), ostensibly an “advisor from the DOD,” and like her we are racing to keep up with the events. Borders are crossed (both physical and moral), information is withheld, and she suspects something bigger (and likely illegal) under the official cover of the operation. The American team has apparently chosen to fight the Mexican cartels with their own tactics, acting on information and advice from a former cartel man with a score to settle with the Mexican mob. Benicio Del Toro plays the advisor, Alejandro, holding his cards close to his chest but never lying to Macer.

This is a world of sudden violence and brutal retaliation, yet apart from the opening scene, Macer is a frustratingly passive character in the midst of the action. She’s a proven warrior yet mostly serves as witness to the events, a point of view character and the moral high ground in a war where the rules of engagement are at best ambiguous.

Director Denis Villeneuve, a Québécois filmmaker who came stateside to direct Prisoners and Enemy in 2013, tends to ignore the holes and inconsistencies in the screenplay and focuses on the combustible atmosphere. This is a film built on a foundation soaked in nitroglycerine; every situation seems pitched on the verge of combustion. Early in the film, as they drive a recently captured suspect back over the border to the American side, the caravan gets blocked in the traffic crunch at the checkpoint. Every car around them carries a potential cartel soldier and Villeneuve brilliantly orchestrates the tension as all eyes rake the freeway for threats.

It’s that tension, enhanced by Villeneuve’s constant surveillance of every space these characters inhabit, as if viewing the world through their military vigilance, that keeps the film walking the knife’s edge and keeps the audience riveted to every scene. You never know when things will explode. You just know they will.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the desert-baked digital cinematography by Roger Deakins beautifully preserved in the HD transfer. There are four featurettes, all presented in HD, that add up to just over 50 minutes of supplementary material. “Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario” focuses on crafting the film’s look and defining cinematography, “Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario” features interviews with the three leads, “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario” researches the brutal history of drug violence along the border (it features graphic imagery so beware), and “A Pulse from the Desert: The Score of Sicario,” which runs about 6 minutes, profiles composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

TV on disc: ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Peaky Blinders,’ the end of ‘Hannibal,’ the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more TV on disc

BetterCallSaulS1Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.

Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.

PeakyBlindersPeaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.

The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.

HomeFiresMasterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.

Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.

There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.

Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

CodeS1The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.

It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.

HannibalS3Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).

InsideAmyS3Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.

Gift IdeasGameThronesS1Steel

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.

Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.

GameThronesS2SteelSeason Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.

The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.

Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.

 

The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.

And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).

GreatAmericanThe Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).

Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.

On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.

The Whole Story

McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.

McHaleBeauty

Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.

In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.

JusticeLeagueUnJustice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.

It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.

39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.

Also new and notableFearWalkS1

Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.

Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.

LegendsMystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.

From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).

And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Mississippi Grind’ – an American original, plus ‘American Ultra’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’

MissGrind
Lionsgate

Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.

These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).

It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).

AmericaUltra
Lionsgate

American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as a convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.

Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.

Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.

GoodnightMom
Anchor Bay

Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.

Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.

There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.

On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.

Blu-ray / DVD: The raunch of ‘Trainwreck’ and the melancholy of ‘Mr. Holmes’

TrainwreckTrainwreck (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – I don’t think I laughed as hard at any movie comedy this year as I did with Amy Schumer’s big screen debut feature as writer / star. Abetted by the direction of Judd Apatow, who has been moving from male-centric comedies to more inclusive stories, she brings her raunchy style of social commentary and self-effacing humor to the big screen in film that plays with familiar conventions while Apatow gives it that loose, easy-going quality that brings the chemistry.

Schumer plays a version of her stand-up persona so no surprise she keeps her name. Amy is a commitment-phobic magazine editor and writer with a policy of one-night stands and a habit of binge-drinking. Her philosophy of dating—pretty much her entire life, in fact—is the unfortunate product of a misanthropic, irresponsible father (Colin Quinn), who had her and sister chant his motto “Monogamy isn’t realistic” from an impressionable age. Thanks dad. Her sister (Brie Larson in an underwritten role) apparently overcame the conditioning but Amy is living the dream, looking out for her own pleasure and cutting off any possibility of messy emotional complications by sneaking out once she’s sated her sexual needs.

She’s assigned to profile of sports surgeon Bill Hader, a sweetly nerdish guy who asks her out despite all the red flags her unfiltered interview sends out. They make a strangely cute couple, which creates a crisis for Amy, who has managed to keep commitment and emotional entanglement out of her life. Commitment is scary and that calls for another drink.

You could say Schumer upends the expectations of the traditional sex comedy, taking the role usually reserved for the crude, sex-obsessed guy whose cruel wit and pose of brutal honesty is just an excuse for self-absorbed insensitivity, but that undervalues her work. It’s not simply a matter of showing us that women can be just as glib and shallow and raunchy as men. She’s confident and brazen, a power professional with an unapologetic sexual appetite and an arrested emotional development, perhaps not an original but certainly someone we haven’t seen quite like this on the screen.

Schumer is the center of it all but she’s generous with the laughs, spreading it around the entire cast, and Apatow brings the chemistry out of the cast, from the guy talks between Hader’s doc and friend and former patient LeBron James to the strained date between Amy and boy toy John Cena, a personal trainer who fails hilariously when asked to talk dirty during sex and manages to make trash talk threats sound weirdly homoerotic. I credit Apatow and Schumer for making Cena authentically funny. It’s a little too generous at times, by which I mean overlong, a common issue with Apatow’s films, but on home video that’s less of an issue. And Schumer also makes the film’s one serious tearjerker of a scene completely authentic, a nakedly honest display of unconditional love for someone who never earned it. Mostly though it’s funny, a mix of filthy and sweet that makes it all work.

The film was released in an R-rated version to the theaters but there’s also a longer unrated version (about four minutes longer) for home video. Both versions are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with commentary by Apatow and Schumer with associate producer Kim Caramele, the usual collection of deleted scenes, a gage reel, and the Apatow disc staple “Line-O-Rama,” which offers montages of improvisations from select scenes.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a “Behind the scenes” collection of a dozen short featurettes, the featurette “Directing Athletes: A Blood Sport” featuring the athletes who appear in the film, all the clips from the unbearably pretentious fake film within the film “The Dogwalker,” video and audio clips from the film’s promotional tour, extended scenes, and more deleted scenes, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of film.

MrHolmesMr. Holmes (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Behind a beak of a nose and a face dotted with liver spots, Ian McKellen doesn’t just look old. His 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes quavers with tremors, his face droops like melted wax, and at times the glint in his eyes glazes over like he’s momentarily checked out, dull and absent. As he forgets even the names of his closest companions, the worst fears of a man defined by his mental acuity are realized.

Directed by Bill Condon (who first collaborated with McKellan on Gods and Monsters), this post-Doyle Holmes mystery is ostensibly the secret of the forgotten last case that prompted the great detective’s retirement, but it’s really about all those human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, human connection, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s fitting that his best friend is a spirited and curious schoolboy (Milo Parker), the son of his widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, whose light Scottish lilt comes and goes), and he’s most alive while they’re up to mischief.

McKellan is touching as Holmes at 93, a man losing his memories and at times his ability to focus, and his frustration with his own fragility is all too real. He also plays the middle-aged Holmes in flashbacks, piecing together a case that he doesn’t recognize from Watson’s description and tries to reconstruct from clues found in an old cabinet. It’s all very low key and understated, refreshing after Condon’s time in the Twilight universe, and rooted in the complications of character and the culture of post-war England (an field growing green over the fading wreckage of a downed war plane and a visit to the ashen hillside of Hiroshima are reminders of both how close and how far away the war is in 1947). And it rather neatly plays with the idea of Holmes as both a real person and a fictional creation adored by readers of the stories, with the real Holmes bemusedly ticking off the fictional flourishes that Watson provided.

It’s all a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’s belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but I guess even Holmes deserves a happy ending.

Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and bonus Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.

Videophiled TVD: ‘Manhattan: Season One’

ManhattanS1
Lionsgate

Manhattan: Season One (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) isn’t about the city. It’s about the project. Set on the Los Alamos, New Mexico, military base in the early 1940s, it is about the development of the atomic bomb and the uneasy society in this gated community guarded by MPs who, like everyone else not directly involved with the project, don’t actually know what the brain trust of physicists and engineers are working on.

The real-life Manhattan Project was developed across multiple sites spread around the country (the series even visits one of those sites) but Los Alamos was at the center of it. This is where the device was to be designed and built and Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the program, had two teams working in competition on separate approaches. That’s where we come into the story with young physics wunderkind Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who arrives with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) to a high-security base that is not on any map (it’s simply identified as PO Box 1663) feels like a cross between a cheaply-built gated community and an internment camp. Charlie is assigned to the favored team led by Reed Akley (David Harbour) but he’s obsessed with impressing Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), the brilliant leader of the misfit B-team who has a habit of bucking the chain of command. Olivia Williams is Frank’s wife Liza, a botany professor in her own right who is dismissed as simply another base wife by the military command even as she discovers the radiation accumulating around the camp (it’s killing the bees).

The tension between the military structure and civilian scientists and families is just part of the drama. Much of the story is caught up in the politics of the base: who gets to work on projects, how the money and equipment is used as leverage, how the culture of secrecy and suspicion undermines a sense of community and shared commitment. Hovering over it all is are representatives of the security services (notably West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) tracking every possible intelligence leak and possible sabotage attempt, especially after their mole in Germany is captured. At this point in the war, the focus is on the war in Europe and they are racing Hitler’s team to the bomb. Those stakes are more than simply a dramatic device. The fear of the Axis beating them to them bomb is a very real possibility.

This is the second original drama from the Chicago cable superstation and aspiring cable player WGN and it reaches for the level of human drama, social commentary, and historical perspective of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex. It largely succeeds. Thomas Schlamme, who visualized Aaron Sorkin’s ideas on The West Wing, is an executive producer and directs the pilot, setting the tone of the show. The Spartan setting helps stretch the budget, which uses the dusty streets, shabby shack housing, and forlorn isolation in the middle of nowhere to define the atmosphere of this community, and the personal dramas and challenges define the culture of suspicion and the social world of wartime America, with all its prejudices and anxieties. Some of the storylines stumble a bit and the personal betrayals at times come off as dramatic contrivances, but at its best the series dramatizes the stakes of the project—and the cost in lives—in human terms, and it casts its gaze on a culture that has not been explored on the screen in any depth.

The second season begins on WGN later this year.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary tracks on select episodes and four featurettes. Both also include Ultraviolent Digital copies (the Blu-ray edition has Digital HD).

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘A Most Violent Year’

MostViolent
Lionsgate

A Most Violent Year (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) should have been an Oscar contender. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and set in the crime-ridden culture of early 1980s New York City (which was the most violent year on record in the city’s history), smart, shadowy tribute to the crime dramas of the seventies and early eighties, when the culture of crime and corruption was treated as a systemic issue rather than an outlier problem solved in the final reel. Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious businessman in the oil heating market determined to succeed without mob ties and Jessica Chastain is his fierce, fearless wife, the daughter of a mobster who is convinced that he needs to mob up when his trucks and his salesmen are targeted and the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is looking into his books (yes, he’s been paying off officials, which is business as usual in that culture). She’s got a bit of Lady Macbeth to her Brooklyn character but Isaac is determined to remain (relatively) honest even when his entire business teeters on collapse as he scrambles to raise money for a deal that will either make him rich or leave him broke. Isaac and Chastain are excellent (though Chastain is left to fill in what the script fails to provide in terms of dimension) and Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as Isaac’s pragmatic (and loyal) lawyer

Chandor expertly takes us through gray area between the culture of official corruption and the criminal underworld (organized and unorganized crime both) and favors the human drama over gangster spectacle. It is a violent world, and a shadowy one (the New York winter setting is beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who has a way of suggesting that even daylight is a shadow cast by something wicked), but the violence is all in personal, intimate terms, inflicted on real people who are not equipped for this kind of warfare. His direction is both gritty and graceful, if perhaps a little studied and removed. Though not exactly glorified, the film portrays this business battlefield as a historical set piece, seen from a distance and elevated to Shakespearean dimensions. There is a cost to every decision, including the choice not to fight criminals on their own terms. Isaac’s performance clarifies that conflict beautifully.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, three featurettes, and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also feature a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on digital and cable VOD and at Redbox.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Tommy Lee Jones is ‘The Homesman’

Homesman
Lionsgate

The Homesman (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), one of my favorite films of the year, was overlooked by critics in the rush to praise more conventional and less resonant films. It deserves a second look. Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and stars in the film as George Briggs, a drifter saved from a lynching by Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a tough, capable settler who has tamed her harsh Nebraska homestead and now sets out on an odyssey. She trades his life for help in transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) driven mad by life on the frontier to a town hundreds of miles away, where they have been offered care and sanctuary. It’s a western, sure, but certainly not in any traditional way. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote, among others, “The Shootist”), this story presents the West as a hard place that creates hard people and destroys the rest.

Jones is marvelous as the no-account whose word is secured through his greed but also rises to the occasion when necessary, but Hilary Swank dominates the film as Mary. She has carved out a successful spread but remains single and terribly lonely; she’s “too bossy,” says one of the few bachelors available on this vast sea of grass, scrub, and rolling hills. Her performance as a tough, driven, commanding woman cuts through the film like a knife. She was robbed of an Oscar nomination.

The film offers a landscape to match the emotional isolation; this land is as empty and lonely and unforgiving as it is lovely. There have been a lot of films about the costs and hardships faced by the first American settlers of the West, but they’ve all focused on the physical—violence, weather, shelter, food, the hardships of carving a home out of the wilderness. The Homesman looks at the toll on the heart and the soul and the psyche in a homestead miles from the nearest neighbor. It is a powerful film of elemental emotions and instincts, filled with eccentric and unusual episodes that straddle the fine line between humor and tragedy.

Blu-ray and DVD with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Blu-ray also features a bonus UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Also available on cable and digital VOD (through iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and others).

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Blu-rays for the Week: Lionsgate’s StudioCanal Collection and GoodFellas repackaged

Lionsgate releases the inaugural Blu-ray releases of international classics in its “StudioCanal Collection” and it goes for the gold standard with definitive editions of Ran, Contempt and the original The Ladykillers.

The pageant of Ran
The pageantry of Ran

I’m no expert in the technical details of converting European digital masters to American standards, but it appears than many of the problems that crop up in adapting PAL masters to NTSC DVDs are not an issue for Blu-ray. The frame rate is different but the lines of resolution are standard for high-definition across borders and, thanks to the technological advances in high-def TVs and Blu-ray players, region-free discs from Europe will play on American machines, which have the ability to adjust for frame rate. That’s prologue to acknowledging that these Lionsgate discs are in fact struck from StudioCanal’s digital masters (the folks at DVD Beaver, who are relentless about these things, have compared the Lionsgate Blu-ray editions to the European pressings and found them to be, with one exception, exactly the same) and StudioCanal has made an effort to create definitive editions for these films. Which means, not only are they freshly, beautifully remastered for Blu-ray with great care, but they are filled with substantial supplements worthy of the films. StudioCanal seem to be emulating Criterion’s commitment to fidelity and respectful tribute to their cinema classics and even the engineering of simple, uncluttered, quickly-loading menus. They don’t bother with flashy graphics on the screen. It’s all about the movies, and they are great.

Continue reading “Blu-rays for the Week: Lionsgate’s StudioCanal Collection and GoodFellas repackaged”

Total Recall: Lionsgate recalls “The Dead”

The Lionsgate DVD
The Lionsgate DVD

Word of the The Dead fiasco has apparently reached Lionsgate HQ.

Lionsgate has just issued a recall of all copies of The Dead, the John Huston film that was released on DVD this week in an incomplete version. I’ve not been able to get any details beyond their hope to have replacement copies in the next couple of weeks.

More updates as I receive them.

(And no, I haven’t heard if they will replace that awful cover art with the beautiful poster art the original theatrical release .)

My initial review of the DVD is here.

UPDATE: Here’s the press release  from Lionsgate and instructions for consumers to get a replacement for their disc:

It has come to our attention that due to a technical malfunction, the initial DVD shipment of John Huston’s THE DEAD contained an incomplete version of the film. We deeply apologize to all our consumers for this unfortunate error and want to offer them an opportunity to replace their current copies with the complete version as soon as it is available to ship the week of November 23rd.  We regret this inconvenience, as Lionsgate is committed to providing our consumers the highest quality home entertainment experience.

All consumers who purchased a copy and wish to receive the new complete version should do one of the following:

– EMAIL lionsgatecs@orderassistance.com with their address and a scan/attachment of their receipt
– FAX (310) 222-5562 with their address and copy of their receipt
-MAIL their receipt along with a note including their address to: 20102 S Vermont Ave Torrance, CA  90502

Or please call (800) 650-7099 directly if you have any further questions.