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Pick of the Week
What is it? Two old college friends cross paths as adults and beat the ever-loving crap out of each other.
Why see it? Onur Tukel’s latest is also his best thanks in part to the lead performances by Sandra Oh and Anne Heche. They do a good job of manipulating our sympathies and concerns ensuring that our loyalties shift from act to act. Themes of female friendships, class distinctions, and redemption run through alongside a satirical look at modern life, and there’s a terrifically wicked streak throughout. Funny, smart, and brutal are all apt descriptors for this cynical look at our violent selves.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentaries, featurette, deleted scenes]
What is it? A dozen Japanese soldiers stranded on a small island descend into chaos after discovering a young woman living there.
Why see it? Josef von Sternberg’s early ’50s feature offers an intriguing exploration of the conflict between structure and disorder, and while the simplicity of its thesis – a woman is enough to turn men into animals – seems trite these days it’s presented with a raw awareness and intelligence. The film itself is oddly crafted as narration details the events and translates the Japanese soldiers words, but the beauty of it all, both stark and in the form of Akemi Negishi, makes for a compelling experience. Sternberg’s preferred cut features nudity which has been restored here, and it adds far more than pure salaciousness as the femininity, purity, and freedom she displays is at odds with the men’s behaviors.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: New 2k restoration, alternate version, featurettes, interview]
What is it? A young couple vacationing in Iceland awake to discover the rest of humankind has disappeared.
Why see it? Writers/directors Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan deliver a feature debut that’s one part Icelandic tourism video, one part extended Twilight Zone episode, and one part existential exploration of our core beliefs and truths. It’s a beautifully-filmed look at personal themes both important and uncomfortable, and the end result is a film that resembles an engaging dream every bit as much as it does a harrowing nightmare. Maika Monroe and Matt O’Leary are the film’s sole performers for most of its running time, and they do equally strong work convincing viewers of both their love for each other and their fight to resist falling apart. We’re with them every step of the way, from the joyous freedom of vacation through the pained reality that becomes their new normal. The film moves at a very deliberate pace, and its interest in human revelations over narrative ones might test some viewers, but the journey is well worth the patience required.
[DVD extras: None?]
What is it? A photographer dreams about killing his models then wonders if he’s responsible when they end up murdered in real life.
Why see it? I’m legitimately unclear why this film isn’t better known. It’s no classic, but it’s far better than most late-night thrillers produced over the decades that played endlessly on cable TV. Michael Callan’s lead performance is an intense and engaging one channeling a grittier yet every bit as playful Christopher George, and the inclusion of a second lead character – one played by a double amputee – feels both ahead of its time and long overdue. Violence and T&A are plentiful, but the core of the film’s pull is in its twisty narrative, solid performances, and atmospheric visuals. Vinegar Syndrome rescues a lot of entertaining gems from obscurity, but this is one that deserves a much wider audience.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: New 2k restoration, commentary, interviews]
What is it? Soldiers and civilians attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse by understanding a group of children only partially affected by the disease.
Why see it? Too many zombie films fail to find a fresh, exciting angle or to even do the bare minimum all that well. There are exceptions though, and the latest to deliver thrills with an original voice is this UK import which delivers solid zombie thrills both horrific and action-oriented, but the heart and soul of the film is young Melanie. She’s Day of the Dead’s Bub after a proper education, but the threat within her is always present just beneath the surface. She learns from those around her, for better and worse, and as her awareness grows so does the scope of the film. This is very much a sibling of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (and its subsequent sequel) as the starkly colored world contains immediate and visceral threats in the form of fast-moving, homicidal munchers. Their appearances lend feelings of suspense, terror, and loneliness to much of the film, and while a third-act story turn infuses some goofy imagery into the mix the film remains a dramatically engaging thriller through to the end.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
La La Land
What is it? A struggling actress meets a wannabe jazz club owner, and together they fall in love and pursue their dreams.
Why see it? There are those among you who claim to hate Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up, but I really don’t see how that’s possible. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both terrifically charismatic and very funny, and the film’s production design is filled with beautiful sets and cinematography. The story offers an honest tale of love, heartbreak, ambition, and desire, and it sticks a landing that satisfies even as it eschews Hollywood convention. It is a musical of course with characters breaking out in song and dance on a regular basis, but even for someone who’s not much of a musical fan it’s harmless and occasionally catchy in its execution.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, commentary]
What is it? Teenagers in Tulsa deal with their angst.
Why see it? Francis Ford Coppola’s second adaptation of an S.E. Hinton novel after The Outsiders takes a far more stylistic approach to become something of a YA art film. That’s not a knock as the result is an experience that goes beyond the narrative. Black & white cinematography, Stewart Copeland’s percussive score, and a bevy of familiar faces including Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Cage, and more all make for an at-times mesmerizing approach to teenage rumblings and fumblings. Criterion’s new release offers up a gorgeous transfer of this b&w beauty highlighting the art in Coppola’s film.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: New 4k restoration, commentary, interviews, featurettes, music video, deleted scenes]
What is it? A documentary exploring the ups and downs of the band X Japan.
Why see it? X Japan has been huge in Japan since the ’80s and found big success elsewhere in the world too, and the film counts down the days to their big Madison Square Garden show while looking back on a career marked by big hits, suicides, brain washing, and more. The band’s leader, Yoshiki, is also their drummer, keyboardist, and composer, and his story is the focus here even as time is given to the band’s other members. It’s an engaging and affecting story at times, and even better, their music is legitimately good.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurette, concert performances]
What is it? A teen finds crime, violence, and adventure after being sent to live with extended family.
Why see it? David Michod’s acclaimed 2010 film gets the series treatment here with mixed results. The drama and conflict remain as do the aggressively engaging characters, but the impact lessens stretched across multiple episodes. It trades the immediacy of the film for longer, denser looks at these people and their relationships. Happily the characters and their respective performers (Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman, Shawn Hatosy) all work hard to hold viewer attention.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes]
What is it? A medieval nobleman suspects his young bride has wandering eyes.
Why see it? Walerian Borowczyk is probably best known for his adult fairy tale rendition, The Beast, but his fascination with period tales goes well beyond that one. This one sets the stage for a morally secure kingdom to be rocked by infidelity both real and accused, and the character dynamics and hierarchies all play out against some attractive locales and settings.
What is it? Scientists meddling in ancient realms disturb something beyond their knowledge.
Why see it? This late ’50s horror thriller is familiar in a lot of ways – ego, curiosity, and ambition lead to disaster – but the film remains an enjoyable romp. The knowledge that the film’s cinematographer, Mario Bava, also co-directed makes it something of a curiosity for Bava’s many fans. Arrow’s new release offers a gorgeous black & white transfer of the film along with a full-frame presentation to show more of Bava’s visuals. Even better, the disc comes loaded with new supplements including commentaries with Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth that delve into immense amount of detail on the film and its talents.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: New 2k restoration, commentaries, interviews]
Dark Waters [Severin Films]
What is it? A woman arrives at a mysterious island convent to explore her dead father’s connection with the place, and she finds the answer.
Why see it? Mariano Baino’s horror thriller blends Italian inspirations from Bava to Fulci into a tale of demonic awakening. Script and performances are sketchy at best, but Baino delivers an attractively-shot feature in both landscape and interior set-pieces. There’s an odd sense of restraint though in that the film never shifts into areas you fully expect are coming including naughty nuns and elaborate perversions. Or maybe that’s just me? Instead it’s a slow build as somewhat strange events occur without ever finding the suspense, tension, or terror to accompany it.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, featurettes, intro, deleted scenes, short films]
What is it? A drunken request for homicidal help leaves a young man in a very bad situation.
Why see it? Writer/director Christopher Smith is no stranger to twisty plots – see his sharply-written Triangle – and he pairs that shifty agenda with a desert noir here. Familiar genre character types are thrust together with ever-changing motivations and a narrative that teases a Sliding Doors-meets-murder aesthetic. Smith’s script doesn’t keep a tight enough grip on it though tipping his hand too early and deflating some of the effect. The big issue here exists in the casting of the leads. Tye Sheridan is fine as he brings a bewildered innocence to a young man in way over his head, but both Emory Cohen and Bel Powley feel somewhat out of place. Cohen, so terrific in Brooklyn, can’t quite fill the shoes of an unpredictably violent and threatening criminal. The promise of danger is never felt in his presence or performance even if the dialogue is trying to tell us otherwise. Powley gave a tremendous turn in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but as with Cohen’s not-quite-there heavy her portrayal of a dive-bar stripper lacks weight. The character traits are there, but they rarely feel convincing as instead she too frequently feels lost in her surroundings. It’s ultimately a fun-enough diversion that takes some wrong turns along the way but still brings you to a satisfying enough end.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes]
What is it? A drifter seeks revenge against the land baron who had his wife murdered.
Why see it? Of the many Django films produced over the years this is neither the best nor the worst, but it is the first to star Super Fuzz’s Terence Hill. It follows some familiar beats, but awareness of what’s in Django’s coffin doesn’t diminish the joy of seeing it unleashed in the film’s third act. Gunfights, bad behavior, and worse attitudes are plentiful throughout. Arrow’s new release is light on extras, but the included primer on the Django films offers a great introduction to the character.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
Goto, Isle of Love
What is it? An early 20th century dictator suspects his young bride has wandering eyes.
Why see it? Walerian Borowczyk continues his affair with affairs and delivers another dramatic breakdown in relations between lovers and strangers alike. Small bursts of absurdity and even shorter ones of color are peppered throughout this black & white period piece charting the rise and fall of those attempting to win the hand of the man’s wife. Far from comical though, the film heads towards a climax befitting of the self-centered darkness behind their agendas.
What is it? A pair of medics find themselves targeted by gang members after attempting to help their latest victim.
Why see it? It’s The Marine 5, so you already know if you’re the target audience. For those unfamiliar though the franchise has morphed away from its theatrical beginning with John Cena to feature other WWE “stars” in the lead role as US Marines who return home only to find more violence awaiting them. It’s direct to DVD action, and the budgetary restraints tied with the talents of those involved make for a fairly mediocre action picture. Fights include hands, knives, guns, and more, but it never rises above the level of competent.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes]
What is it? Bugs!
Why see it? Amazing nature documentaries have become something of the norm these days, but one of the earliest to offer truly impressive looks at the natural world around us was this mid ’90s exploration of insects. Close-up photography catches the tiny beasts in all manner of action from rest to “play” to war. This new release adds little to the mix, but households fond of the beauty and educational nature of documentaries like these will want to add it to their home video collection.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, interview]
The Other Hell [Severin Films]
What is it? Nuns are dying at the hands of a a murderer, and that’s not cool.
Why see it? Like this week’s other nunsploitation release (also from Severin Films) this early ’80s feature from Bruno Mattei never really reaches the level of perverse or disturbing that should easily be within reach. Worse, unlike Dark Waters this one doesn’t even have attractive cinematography to fall back on. It’s no surprise of course as Mattei is a pretty terrible filmmaker, but it’s disappointing as the tale sets up a minor interest as to what’s happening and who’s behind the mysterious deaths.
[Blu-ray extras: Commentary, interviews]
What is it? A psycho cop returns.
Why see it? Adam Rifkin’s early ’90s slasher/comedy may be a sequel to a film I’ve never heard of, but that’s okay as I’d never heard of the sequel either. The laughs are a bit slight as most fall flat, but the film delivers on the gore front with plenty of bloody bits and kills. Rifkin, who would go on to make the more mainstream Detroit Rock City, spends a bit too much time in the shadows (and on scenes with the strippers) but keeps things moving with an energetic nuttiness. There’s a good variety to the kills, and while the script is dumb – women find the glass front doors of an office building locked, so instead of smashing or even shooting out the glass they head back upstairs to where the killer is – it’s never at risk of feeling dull. Vinegar Syndrome’s new release should delight fans
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: 2k restoration, commentary, making of, featurette]
What is it? A saucy vampire lady seeks to end the feud between her kind and the hairy ones.
Why see it? The initial appeal of the Underworld films was a combination of factors – they’re a genre mash-up of action and horror, there’s a female ass-kicker front and center, and Len Wiseman’s style was a slick appropriation of fight scenes straight out of The Matrix. All three of these strengths have seen diminishing returns over the years leading to a fifth film that lacks much in the way of entertainment value. Underworld: Blood Wars is a dull, jumbled film that fails to excite with either its characters’ plights or its action sequences. The action troubles continue with amateurish choreography, coverage, and writing as it feels throughout as if characters on both sides almost want to lose. There’s no urgency or drama to the fights, and characters seem lackluster in their effort until it’s apparently time for them to win. Director Anna Foerster fails to generate thrills or suspense from any of the sequences leaving us with monochromatic characters and sets that seem to all blend together.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Graphic novel, featurettes]
The Witness for the Prosecution
What is it? A man is accused of murdering his wealthy mistress, but there’s something amiss with the key witnesses against him.
Why see it? Agatha Christie’s novel gets a new adaptation capturing setting, character, and plot twists with equal skill. The mystery feels at times more than a little predictable, but as was often her skill the denouement proves Christie remains one step ahead of the readers/watchers. Toby Jones and Andrea Riseborough headline a tale that grows increasingly engaging as new details come to life.
Also Out This Week:
Blanche, From Hell it Came [Warner Archive], Goto, Hot Flashes, The Levelling, Ophelia, Peekarama, Tampopo [Criterion], Three Brothers [Arrow Academy], The Wheeler Dealers [Warner Archive], Witness for the Prosecution
Related Topics: Home Video