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Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has worked at city hall for three decades, and he has the plaque to prove it. What he doesn’t have is happiness or real satisfaction, and that doesn’t look to be changing after he’s diagnosed with stomach cancer. Bereft at the realization of a wasted life, Kanji searches aimlessly for a purpose, and finds it in part in a young co-worker named Toyo. Her zest for life and ability to remain joyous in the face of adversity ignites a newfound passion in him, but finding a way and a place to make a difference seems out of reach in his final days.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film is an incredibly affecting look at one man’s life against the backdrop of what it means to truly live. Its observations on the things in life that matter most were as true then as they are today, and watching it for the first time reveals it to be an immensely beautiful tale about the underrated importance of kindness. There’s sadness here ‐ Kanji’s impromptu song devastates ‐ but the tears viewers shed come mostly from scenes featuring genuine warmth and an awareness of the power of good. Criterion presents the film with a newly restored 4K transfer and a wealth of informative extras.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, documentaries, booklet]
A Hard Day
Detective Ko Gun-soo is not having a good day. He’s forced to race back and forth between his own mother’s funeral and the police station where internal affairs investigators are tearing apart his desk, but on a dark stretch of road along the way things go from very bad to much worse. He hits and kills a pedestrian, and as a car approaches the scene ‐ and knowing he was drinking at the funeral ‐ he panics and conceals the body in his trunk. When he gets word that the IA officers are coming to search his car he panics again and moves the corpse someplace even cozier. And then the threatening phone calls start from someone claiming to have witnessed the whole thing.
It’s a minor miracle for a nearly two-hour film to maintain the pace present here, but the combination of action, plot turns, and morbid humor work together like a well-oiled machine whose only job is to keep viewers tense, smiling and excited for whatever comes next. Like the tight and grounded action set-pieces, the film never finds it necessary to inflate the narrative conflict beyond necessity. The situation grows and changes in some smart and fun directions, but the core remains simple and straight-forward. Lee Sun-gyun brings just the right amount of humanity to the character too. His ambition and culpability are recognizable, and we’re able to enjoy both his missteps and victories in equal measure. He deftly manages Gun-soo’s cockiness, fear, and sense of humor, and when the time comes to react with intense seriousness he delivers there too. This is smart, exciting film-making that can’t help but be massively entertaining.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette, deleted scenes, making of]
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Shaun the sheep is bored. Each day on the farm is like the one before with feeding times, exercise, shearing, and sleep, so when he sees the opportunity for something different he takes it. The rest of the flock joins in for a day of fun, but things take a turn when they wind up in the big city on an adventure to rescue the farmer and avoid a devious animal control employee.
The Aardman folks are well-versed in the ways of stop-motion animation and have delivered films of varying value, but their latest is the purest pleasure of the bunch. Visual gags run the gamut from the simplistic to the craftily constructed, and the humor is a near constant companion to the narrative. The story is essentially dialogue-free, but it manages to easily deliver a sweet tale about friendship through characters who are every bit as expressive as their talking cousins. The disc’s behind the scenes features offer a glimpse into the magic of (what amounts to) claymation, and the film itself celebrates it as an art-form worth cherishing.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, featurettes, parody posters]
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) works a dead-end job, spends his off hours getting high and has panic attacks whenever he even thinks about leaving his small town, and the only bright spot in his life is his long-suffering girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Their existence is jolted one night when a stranger whispers some gibberish triggering a surge of past abilities he acquired as a top secret CIA assassin. The not-so total recall of those memories comes at the perfect time too as a team of far less capable agents swarms into town intent on terminating the former asset. Mike and Phoebe are forced on the run, pawns in a power play between two agency higher-ups (Connie Britton and Topher Grace), and as more truths come to light Mike realizes that this might finally be the thing that breaks he and Phoebe apart. With the exception of one specific action beat, the parts that succeed do so almost exclusively on the talents of the two leads. The rest of the film feels like an idea that never made it beyond the one-sentence pitch of “stoner/slacker discovers he’s actually a trained killer, hilarity ensues!” The fight choreography and action beats are fun enough even if they too frequently fall into a jumble of quick cuts, but the script can’t keep up as it fails to find much of a focus beyond the one-note setup. It’s not very memorable, but it’s an entertaining one-time watch made all the more engaging by a heartfelt turn from Stewart.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, gag reel, commentary]
Ron (writer/director Onur Tukel) is in a happy marriage until the day he reveals a secret from his past. It sets in motion a dangerous chain of events featuring disembodied body parts, infidelity, and a controversial radio host. Suddenly his relationship is in shambles and he’s under threat by a mysterious stalker, but he’s not about to let any of that get in the way of a sarcastic good time. Tukel continues the tone he explored in his previous film, SOB, and finds laughs in traditionally dark situations. He’s not exactly the greatest actor, but his dry wit and delivery goes a long way in holding the attention for viewers in the mood for non-pc comedy and relationship commentary.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers]
Blood and Lace (Scream Factory)
Ellie is a young woman forced into a remote orphanage after the bloody murder of her mother, but this brief respite is revealed to hold dangers of its own. Some of the other teens look a bit unhappy, underfed, and in one or two cases they look pretty dead. As bad as things are ‐ abuse, murder, attempted rape ‐ they get worse when a masked man shows up wielding a hammer like the one that killer Ellie’s mom. Scream Factory’s new release is actually the film’s first appearance on home video, and it looks pretty impressive for a forgotten forty-four year-old slasher. The movie itself is a bit goofy at times, but there are solid sequences throughout that work well to build the terror. The script is also somewhat more impressive than you’d expect ‐ in the plotting more than the dialogue ‐ as the characters and their motivations are deeper than the genre usually gets.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary]
A Christmas Horror Story
A family heads to a relative’s home in search of a holiday hand-out but discover a monstrous and muscle-bound Krampus instead. Teenagers sneak into a school where a bloody murder occurred one year prior. A couple and their young son trespass into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, but something evil finds them first. Workplace violence strikes Santa’s workshop when an infection turns cheerful elves into flesh-craving zombies. The connective tissue holding the stories in place features the town of Bailey Downs’ own DJ Dan (William Shatner) sharing his holiday thoughts and merry tunes with anyone in earshot, and as we move back and forth between tales his hopeful, eggnog-filled banter remains a constant. It follows the Trick ‘r Treat-style of telling its stories simultaneously instead of sequentially. It works best later on as each tale is hitting its final groove, but the early going is made difficult by having to see multiple slight setups before anything of interest happens. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s ultimately worth seeing for the Santa vs zombie elves segment alone.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Behind the scenes]
Williams is looking for a shortcut on the road to financial success, but he makes a wrong turn when he gets in bed with some shady souls. His other bed mates ‐ set before him as a sequence of colorful rooms in a carnal fun house ‐ are more pleasure-based than pain but no just as emotionally detached. Roger Watkins’ early ’80s adult film features all the sexual interactions you’d expect from the genre (plus some of that sweet, sweet simulated necrophilia action), but it also goes more than a few steps beyond the porn norm. Comparisons to some of David Lynch’s trippier outings aren’t wrong as Watkins slowly and methodically moves his protagonist through a nightmare of molasses and semen. The film is shot with an artistic eye for composition and style, and Vinegar Syndrome’s new 2K restoration captures it better than the film has probably ever looked before.
[Blu-ray extras: Interview]
Ghost Story (Scream Factory)
Four old friends met each week to share drinks and tales of terror, but their most recent meeting finds the horror intruding upon their reality. Someone from their past is stalking their nightmares and claiming victims in the present. One of the men’s son (Craig Wasson) thinks he knows what’s happening, but it’s not until he sits in for a fire-lit tale that he discovers the dark truth behind the haunting. Peter Straub’s bestselling novel comes to life with an exciting quartet of leading men in Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman. They’re the main draw here, but there are also some strong visuals of the horror variety thanks to makeup legend Dick Smith and Alice Krige’s coldly vengeful performance. The film does suffer though from some terribly ineffective optical effects, but more damaging is a jumpy script that doesn’t quite allow for character depth or relationship weight.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, interviews]
Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow
Ron Emmerson has little to be thankful for this Thanksgiving as he struggles to make ends meet following a nasty divorce. Sure he has custody of his son and daughter, but he can barely support them, so he decides to spend the holiday with an aunt in the remote town of Turkey Hollow. The family gets more than they bargained for though when they discover the woods hold a magical secret and mischievous creatures beyond imagination. Well, Jim Henson imagined them, and while he never got around to bringing the tale to life in his own lifetime the company he left behind has followed through on his dream. The resulting film is a mixed bag ‐ the creatures are terrifically designed, but the script keeps things too simple and light. Henson’s own films were always for children but still managed a darker sensibility that he knew they could handle. That’s absent here.
[DVD extras: None]
Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) moves his family to a foreign country (unnamed, but it’s pretty much Indonesia) for his job, and he promises it won’t be as bad as his wife (Lake Bell) and kids expect. Unfortunately, the day they arrive is also the beginning of a violent coup that builds to chaos and murder-filled days and nights. Forced on the run in an unfamiliar land, the Dwyer family finds aid in the mysterious new friend named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan). The premise is simple and offers up yet another “whites under attack by dark-skinned savages” plot-line, but the execution (from the cast and writers/director the Dowdle Brothers) is pretty damn entertaining. The characters are engaging, and the set-pieces are constructed with genuine suspense and excitement. And yes, the scene from the trailer where Jack tosses his daughter off a rooftop is as ridiculous and fun as you hope.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes]
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films
Stephen and Timothy Quay have been making animated short films for decades, and while they’re not the only ones to do so via stop-motion techniques their style is incredibly unique. There’s a darkly fantastic atmosphere to them, and the stories are told through imagery and action rather than dialogue. This Blu-ray release features fifteen of their shorts ‐ including “Street of Crocodiles” and more ‐ presented in HD for the first time, but for many the big draw is a new short from Christopher Nolan. “Quay” offers a behind the scenes look at the brothers’ workshop complete with random musings and detailed glimpses of their materials and methods.
[Blu-ray extras: Short doc by Christopher Nolan, commentaries, booklet]
Ricki and the Flash
Ricki (Meryl Streep) headlines her own band but lives the life of a barely successful musician. Her career choice isn’t the only thing in her life that didn’t quite work out as planned though ‐ she’s also estranged from her three now-grown children. When her daughter’s (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) husband leaves and she attempts suicide Ricki finds her desire to help flummoxed by her decade-long absence. Streep and Gummer do strong work here, but just as enjoyable is Rick Springfield as Ricki’s band-mate boyfriend. The story follows the expected arcs, but those performances and several live performances make for a fun ride.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes]
Wake Up and Kill (Arrow Video)
Luciano Lutring is a happy go lucky robber who became the bane of Italy’s justice system even as he was celebrated as a Robin Hood-like hero by the commoners. This first film about the real-life criminal and his crimes pairs his endeavors with a doomed romance, and while it runs a bit too long for the material being dramatized it remains an interesting look into the celebrity culture surrounding “bad” guys. Fans of Italian cinema will do themselves a favor by picking up Arrow’s beautiful new release.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Alternate cuts, booklet]
Almost an Angel, At First Sight, Cut Snake, Don’t Look Back (Criterion), Eight Men Out, Heartbreakers, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, It Runs in the Family, The Kid From Cleveland, Larger Than Life, The Last House, Making Mr. Right, Mr. Saturday Night, Of Mice and Men, Romance & Cigarettes, Smooth Talk, Undercover Blues, Voodoo Man