The Best Blu-ray & DVD Releases of the Week: ‘What Maisie Knew,’ ‘A Band Called Death’ and More

discs header what maisie knew

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Discs Section: Pick of the Week

disc what maisie knewWhat Maisie Knew

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is stuck in an all too familiar place as her parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), fight their way through a bitter divorce and custody battle. She’s shuttled between the two, often left in the care of her mom’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) or dad’s girlfriend (Joanna Vanderham), but when she does get time with her parents it’s too frequently as a prop or tool in their ongoing fight. The future does not look bright from Maisie’s knee-high perspective.

There’s a beautiful simplicity in Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s fifth feature that sneaks in unobtrusively between the bouts of yelling, laughter, small victories and near-constant disappointment, and the result is a movie that compels you to watch and root for the little girl at the center of a terrible situation well outside her control.

Viewers are privy only to what Maisie knows, we never see what happens behind closed doors or in lawyers’ offices, and while this forced perspective could have easily turned into a gimmick, it instead feels perfectly natural and necessary here. Acting is fantastic across the board, with newcomer Aprile being a true standout, and you really shouldn’t let the fact that Rex Reed is quoted on both the front and back of the Blu/DVD turn you away from this amazing little movie. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, commentary]


disc band called deathA Band Called Death

Pitch: I’ve already bought my tickets for the Death and Sugar Man Tour…

The Hackney brothers were known around their Detroit neighborhood as fun-loving boys with an interest in music, but when they started a band in the early ’70s no one knew what to make of them. Eschewing what was expected of black musicians at the time, that being a Motown sound, the brothers rocked out with a powerful punk aesthetic. And they promptly went nowhere. But decades later Death was rediscovered in a most amazing way.

There are similarities to last year’s Searching for Sugar Man in this new doc, but while both films feature a tale of long-delayed recognition for a forgotten musical talent this one is just as interested in telling a story about family and brotherhood. The Hackneys are a special breed, and anyone with siblings of their own will recognize the love on display and feel the emotional ups and downs the brothers endure as if they were happening to their own family member.

The music element and the band’s subsequent rediscovery is a fascinating look at what’s possible when the internet, time and real talent combine. That Death’s music is actually pretty kick ass is just icing on the cake. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, music video, trailer, booklet]

disc secondsSeconds (Criterion)

Pitch: A Face/Off of the ‘60s, except with Rock Hudson battling his diminishing sense of self…

John Frankenheimer is known for his political thrillers, namely classics like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, but it was his last paranoid suspense film of the ‘60s that found the Hollywood director challenging audiences to the point of alienation. Veteran TV actor John Randolph plays Arthur Hamilton, who finds existential despair everywhere he turns. He enrolls in a strange “seconds” program that allows him to stage his own death and reconstruct his body anew for a different life, this time as “Tony Wilson” (played by Rock Hudson). The result is a pitch-black dystopian investigation of life’s many facades and false promises during the era of Mad Men and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and one of the best science-fiction think pieces ever funded by a Hollywood studio.

Aside from James Wong Howe’s masterful black-and-white cinematography, recognized with an Oscar nomination, Frankenheimer’s film was largely dismissed and overlooked during its release in 1966. But years later, it developed a reputation as one of the most subversive and overlooked films of its era, and rightly so. Nearly fifty years later, Seconds is still shockingly unrelenting and experimental, exploring Cold War-era male existential crisis with two parts Twilight Zone and one part Sartre. It’s a film that never quite goes where you expect it, up until and including its shocking, pull-no-punches ending. And it also features perhaps the best performance ever by Rock Hudson.

The exceptionality of Seconds is probably to credit for its initial failure, but equally to credit for how masterful and insightful the film comes across today. And, having seen the film in multiple formats, I can attest that Criterion’s restored 4K transfer is the best way to experience Seconds, especially for the first time. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: video essay, archival interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson, a new documentary on the making of the film, interview with Alec Baldwin (?!), illustrated booklet with an essay] – Landon Palmer

disc tv junkieTV Junkie

Pitch: What happens when you have 3000 hours of video.

Rick Kirkham received a video camera when he was a teenager and quickly became addicted to documenting his life for a non-existent audience. He pursued a job in television journalism and found success on Inside Edition, but he also found a drug addiction and a daredevil mentality that threatened his life and marriage on an ongoing basis. Consisting almost entirely of footage from the thousands of hours of video he shot of himself, this doc reveals a man whose addictions became a danger not only to himself but possibly to his family as well.

First off, this is a bit of a cheat as the movie isn’t actually hitting Blu-ray or DVD today. Instead it’s coming to VOD roughly six years after premiering on HBO only to disappear into festival obscurity. Time’s loss is your gain though as this is quite probably the most harrowing found footage film I’ve ever seen. The less you know going in the better as Kirkham’s triumphs and defeats carry a continual weight of what comes next resulting in some truly suspenseful, awkward, humorous, painful and frightening moments. Do yourself two favors. See the movie, and do it without reading another word about it or Kirkham. [VOD only via iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Playstation, Xbox, SundanceNow, Google, Youtube]


disc big weddingThe Big Wedding

Pitch: “De Niro’s gotta eat.” – Will Goss, cunning linguist…

Don and Ellie Griffin (Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton) have been divorced for years, but when their adopted son’s birth mother visits from South America for his wedding the two are forced to pretend they’re still together for some stupid, poorly developed reason. Several other actors who’ve clearly given up join them for the wedding fiasco including Susan Sarandon, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, Robin Williams (playing essentially the same character from License to Wed) and Katherine Heigl.

The plan here was clearly to create an appealing ensemble comedy filled with laughs and sentiment, but the actual film bears no resemblance to that pipe dream. Instead the jokes and storylines announce themselves well in advance, the characters are across the board uninteresting and unappealing, and we’re once again stuck with Keaton playing a wealthy woman facing minor relationship troubles in hijinx form. The fact that Garry Marshall’s name didn’t appear in the credits as director made me double check to confirm he was actually still alive. He is. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]

Skip it and watch My Best Friend’s Wedding instead.

disc company you keepThe Company You Keep

Pitch: There’s a lot of company to keep in this film…

When a woman (Susan Sarandon) is arrested for her involvement in crime committed by a radical antiwar group decades prior attention turns to a lawyer (Robert Redford) whose own past contains some similar secrets. A journalist (Shia LaBeouf) digs into the story and soon a chase is on not only for the lawyer but for the long-buried truth as well.

Redford also directs this competent thriller, and while it has some liberal leanings it’s miles away from the partisan (albeit mildly engaging) drama Lions For Lambs. It’s not a film you’ll need to watch again, but the cast list makes it worthwhile for one viewing at least. In addition to the three names above the film also features Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper. So yeah, lots of company here. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes]

disc drive in sexualistDrive-In Collection: The Sexualist/Wendy’s Palace

Pitch: Psst. Wanna see a gorilla and a fat man doing it doggy style? Of course you do…

In The Sexualist, Monica (Jennifer Welles) is an actress just hanging on to the slightly sleazy side of the business, but after she helps show a new girl the ropes of the job her apprentice begins to outshine her. Desperate to reclaim the spotlight, Monica tries to step up her own game before it’s too late. Wendy’s Palace meanwhile explores the ease with which a “good girl” can be sucked into the sordid world of prostitution.

Vinegar Syndrome is doing a fantastic and through job of digging up movies few people ever knew existed, but the end results of these double features have been pretty hit or miss. Unfortunately this latest release just barely falls into the latter category. Both films are a mix of softcore and hardcore scenes, but while last month’s Vixens of Kung-Fu/Oriental Blue double featured some legitimately sexy shenanigans, much of the sex here fails to excite. Worse (for those of us equally interested in script and comedy), the non-sex bits fall equally flat. [DVD extras: Trailers, outtakes]

Skip it and watch The Telephone Book instead.

disc emperorEmperor

Pitch: Pete Hammond said something nice about this one…

The end of World War II didn’t mean the end of troubles between Japan and the United States, but before we helped build their economy back up again the US government tried to clean up some loose ends. The biggest one was what to do with the country’s deposed emperor. He could either be charged with war crimes and hung or given a pass to appease the Japanese citizens. The decision came down to Generals Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox).

As war dramas go this one is pretty okay, and while I realize that’s not much of an endorsement there are enough pluses here to make it worthwhile. Jones is fine in the showier supporting role, but Fox does good work as the officer tasked with the mission while also struggling with his own personal story. The film’s occasional efforts at a bigger scale don’t quite pan out, but it’s an otherwise engaging character piece. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, photo galleries, trailer]

disc errors of human bodyErrors of the Human Body

Pitch: Watch it with someone you’d like to mutate…

Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund) is a geneticist who’s come to a lab in Germany to pursue the cure for a rare and deadly disorder. He has a personal stake in the project as he lost his infant son to the physical ravages of the illness. His quest is made that much more difficult by the presence of an ex-lover, jealous colleagues and a secret that could threaten it all.

This dark little sci-fi thriller makes a good companion to Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral for more than a few reasons. Both films mix sci-fi with body horror and in doing so feel at least in part an homage to early David Cronenberg. To that end both films also feature some particularly nasty biological effects that look as good as they do disgusting. Of course, both movies also suffer from minor pacing problems too, but thankfully the story unspooling before viewers is enough to stick with it. [DVD extras: Q&A, behind the scenes, photo gallery, trailer]

disc adeleThe Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Pitch: Say hello to Tintin’s curvier cousin…

Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is a novelist and adventurer who proves on a daily basis that being a woman is no disadvantage when it comes to skirting danger, but her greatest challenge is attempting to help her dying sister. Her quest sends her to Egyptian tombs in search of a long dead physician, but she’s interrupted by a Parisian museum’s famed pterodactyl egg which hatches and unleashes a flying monster into the skies above the city.

Writer/director Luc Besson had a brief run in the ’90s as a known entity here in the States thanks to films like The Professional and The Fifth Element, but the past fourteen years have seen him on US screens as producer and story guy only. That doesn’t mean he’s stopped directing, though, as he’s actually made six or so films since then. This comic adaptation came out in 2010 overseas, but it took Shout! Factory to bring it to our shores. Fans of the director should give it a watch as his creativity and visual mastery are on full display here along with a very playful and far from serious sensibility. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, deleted scenes, featurette]

disc good luck missGood Luck Miss Wyckoff

Pitch: Harsh cold open or the harshest cold open of any movie you’ve ever seen…

The town of Freedom, Kansas wasn’t the warmest place for minorities in 1954, but it wasn’t all that much better for white sympathizers. Miss Wyckoff (Anne Heywood) finds this out the hard way thanks in part to her decision to stand up for civil rights but mostly because she’s having sex with a young black man. Complicating things further is the fact that their first encounter is not consensual, and what follows is far from healthy.

This little seen, late ’70s drama offers up a searing indictment of racism, hatred and self-loathing, and it does it in a way that’s incredibly difficult to watch. Terrible things come Miss Wyckoff’s way, and the extremes to which the film goes may come as a surprise upon learning that director Marvin Chomsky also made the far more palatable Roots. Vinegar Syndrome’s fantastic new three-disc release offers both the edited cut known as The Sin as well as the fully uncut version that’s not for the squeamish. Hell, it’s barely even for me. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Film soundtrack cd, re-issue cut, interview]

disc guillotinesThe Guillotines

Pitch: Guillotines! Come out and play…

China’s Qing Dynasty was home to all types of action and intrigue, but one group of assassins has gone undocumented until now. The Guillotines were an elite team of killers at the emperor’s disposal whose preferred method of fighting involved deadly flying contraptions that encircled their victims’ necks before separating their heads from their bodies. The gang now acts as a tool of terror, but their latest assignment involving a man named Wolf with a messiah complex may be their last.

The past several years have seen China/Hong Kong transition from pure martial arts films to period films filled with CGI spectacle, and while some of them succeed despite the effects overload others seem to lose their way. Andrew Lau‘s latest opens well enough with an action/effects-filled battle between two groups, but it quickly slows to a far less engaging crawl that leaves viewers wanting more action which never really comes. What fighting there is is populated with CGI and wire work that feels more flashy than impressive. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, interviews, trailer]

Skip it and watch Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen instead.

disc hot spot doubleThe Hot Spot/Killing Me Softly

Pitch: Double dose of dirty fun…

In The Hot Spot, Harry Madox (Don Johnson) is a drifter always on the lookout for fresh and fleshy fields to plow. His latest stop brings him to the attention of two women, the sweet Gloria (Jennifer Connelly) and the sultry Dolly (Virginia Madsen), but their mingling goes beyond the bedroom to a world of devious and deadly dealings. Killing Me Softly sees a young couple (Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes) who meet in a clash of passion, but their relationship takes a dark turn when secrets from his past come back to roost.

Shout! Factory’s double feature is a fine pairing of sweaty, occasionally sleazy fun mixed with murder and mystery. Neither film is a classic by any means, but the appealing casts and twisty, sexy shenanigans make for two entertaining watches. Both films also feature odd choices in the directors’ chair with Dennis Hopper helming the first and Chen Kaige (Sacrifice, The Promise) holding the reins on the latter. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]

disc house of seven corpsesThe House of Seven Corpses

Pitch: It’s like Ghost Hunters except it’s fiction…

A large home that was once home to an unspecified number of grisly murders now welcomes in a film crew crafting a feature on all of the past tragedy. The production runs into trouble though when the cast and crew starts getting picked off in horrific ways.

Between its great tagline (“Eight graves! Seven bodies!”) and a cast that includes horror heavyweight John Carradine this probably should have been better than it is. There’s a somewhat effective creepiness here, but the horror in general is muted with special effects that approach cheesy territory. Like when the undead killer reaches his arms out and we can see where the makeup caked to his hands stopped at his wrists. The tone teases comedy that never really appears, but while my preference is for a film like The House of Long Shadows this one still manages some fun for genre fans. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Interview, commentary, trailer]

disc ocean menOcean Men: Extreme Dive

Pitch: It’s like Luc Besson’s The Big Blue except true and 1/4th as long…

Pipin Ferreras and Umberto Pelizzari have been in a tug of war of sorts for over a decade now for the right to call themselves the world record holder in the extreme sport of free-diving. The two men, one from Cuba and the other from Italy, pass that mantle back and forth on a seemingly continual basis as they take turns beating each other’s record. This IMAX production documents one such encounter with stunning underwater cinematography.

IMAX productions can usually guarantee two things with certainty. They will be gorgeous, and they will be short. This look at two free-diving champions continues that trend with a film that’s a must watch for fans of the sport or lovers of incredible ocean-set visuals. Of course, while it’s definitely worth a rental its short run-time makes it difficult to imagine as a purchase. [Blu-ray extras: None]

disc odd angry shotThe Odd Angry Shot

Pitch: It’s Australian for Platoon

The Vietnam War is thought of as a conflict fought strictly between the United States and North Vietnam, but soldiers from other countries took part too. Here an Australian squad takes center stage as a disparate group of young men come together prepared for battle. Reality is a bit different though as much of their time is spent talking, playing games and sweating in the heat, but when the fighting starts all hell breaks loose.

This 1979 Australian film is revered as a bit of classic, and part of its appeal is found in writer/director Tom Jeffrey‘s effort to find the normality and drama in a time and place known more for chaos and death. The payoff comes when the violence does, and it’s made more powerful by what came before. While it’s primarily a character drama the action elements are still well done and effective too. [Blu-ray extras: Commentary, featurette, trailer]

disc olympus has fallenOlympus Has Fallen

Pitch: For folks who thought White House Down was too funny…

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) was tasked with protecting the president’s life, but when a winter accident leads to him doing his job at the expense of the First Lady’s life he’s demoted and moved to the Treasury building. The doldrums don’t last long, though, as a terrorist attack on Washington DC and the White House forces him back into action as the only man standing between the president and a maniacal Korean intent on mass destruction.

Antoine Fuqua‘s film beat Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down to theaters but no one expected it to beat the bigger, heavier star-powered film at the box office, too. It did though, and it’s not hard to see why. Godawful CGI aside the film is a ton of bloody fun thanks to seemingly hundreds of head shots, some loud and frenetic gunplay and several well choreographed fight scenes. Butler excels in the simplicity of the wisecracking ruffian, and the script makes excellent use of his presence. It’s not a smart movie, and again, the CGI is terrible, but it’s a ton of fun for fans of R-rated violence and terrorists getting their asses handed to them by way of a head shot. [Blu-ray extras: Bloopers, featurettes]

disc schoolgirl 10Schoolgirl Report Volume #10: Sexy Schoolwork

Pitch: My mom would be so proud if she knew I got paid to watch stuff like this…

Five stories come to the screen about young German women, ostensibly high schoolers, and their various sexual escapades. One girl reports being assaulted by her teacher only to be outed as a dirty little liar. Another discovers that excessive masturbation leads down some sketchy paths. A third finds herself in a suggestive triangle with a boy and her own mother. Yet another concocts an elaborate plan to get laid involving satanic possession, an exorcist, and some extremely gullible parents. And finally, a young woman learns that married men are easy but dangerous targets for seduction.

Well the first question here is obvious… why haven’t I seen the previous nine volumes? Alternately, there are nine previous volumes of this?

Produced in Germany in the ’70s the series is first and foremost a collection of softcore romps with college-age actresses, but what helps them stand out is a slightly askew sense of humor. Some of it goes beyond bawdy into the realm of bad taste, but a “fun” Benny Hill-like attitude pervades enough of it to create and maintain a light atmosphere. The fourth segment here, the one involving the exorcist, is probably the best example of its mix of nudity, sex and pure ridiculousness. [DVD extras: None]

disc super stormSuper Storm

Pitch: “The Breakfast Club meets The Day After Tomorrow,” says FilmCriticsUnited.com…

Life in America’s Midwest gets a severe shake-up when oddly localized electrical storms accompanied by earth shaking vibrations begin to destroy the landscape. The weird events start claiming human lives, and it’s not long before a group of survivors find themselves holed up in the local high school. Luckily one of them is working on a science project that may save the world and maybe, just maybe, get her an A+, too.

Originally titled Mega Cyclone before being re-titled for obvious reasons (?), this low budget disaster pic almost sails by on the strength of Luisa D’Oliveira‘s beauty, but I’m a professional dammit. The acting and script are passable here, but the film is hurt most by the element that should be strongest, that being the disaster/storm visuals. But instead of being impressive, cool, or scary-looking, the special effects seem recycled from the 1980s when bolts of electricity were often hand-drawn onto the film. That and poor man’s CGI do little to nothing to make this a compelling watch. Those of you not bothered by no budget effects may enjoy it though. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]

Skip it and watch My Science Project instead.

Discs Section: Also

Also out this week, but I haven’t seen the movie/TV show and review material was unavailable:

The Captains Close Up
Enlightened: The Complete Second Season
Girls: The Complete Second Season
Hatchet III
I Killed My Mother
The Mindy Project: Season One
The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition
Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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