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Black Coal, Thin Ice
Body parts are being discovered across a wide province of China in 1999, and Zhang, the detective assigned to case fails in finding the culprit. Disgraced and dishonored by actions that result in the death of two fellow cops, Zhang is suspended and fades into the bottle. Five years later similar murders begin again, and Zhang is brought back to assist leading to an entirely different outcome.
Writer/director Yi’nan Diao’s latest is one of the most beautifully-photographed noirs you’ve ever seen, Chinese or otherwise, as it captures a cold world lit with neon and the dying embers of once happy people. Action sequences are brief and without glamour, but their blunt effect still finds power as death happens quickly, brutally, and usually without remorse. Its pacing won’t be for everyone, but the characters, revelations, and cinematography will satisfy fans of finely crafted genre cinema.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) is quite the nerd among his peers, but his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) makes it all okay. He finds something even better though in the broken down shell of a ’58 Plymouth Fury he restores and names Christine. The car changes him for the worse, and as his obsession grows those who stand against him quickly discover that they can’t outrun evil on four wheels.
Stephen King’s novel got a fantastic adaptation from director John Carpenter that delivers the author’s wholly American tale with Carpenter’s sharp eye and synth sounds. It’s a thrilling story of obsession and possession, filled with striking visuals that look better than they ever have on this new Blu-ray. Chistine, driving through the night while on fire is a stunner. Sony’s new Blu comes loaded with extra features too meaning many of us can finally stop trying to find a reasonably-priced copy of Twilight Time’s limited edition release.
[Blu-ray extras: Deleted scenes, commentary, featurettes]
The Connection (Drafthouse Films)
Marseilles is in the middle of a mob war, and one prong of the authorities’ response is to move Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) from his successful tenure as a Juvenile Magistrate over to the Organized Crime division. He immediately dives in with the team as they track extorted funds, drug shipments and the various players at every level. Top of the heroin-fueled food chain is Gaetan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a tough businessman whose business is drugs. He’s an ethical, tough love kind of guy, but his main goal is to keep his wife and family in the luxury they’ve become accustomed to. The two men wage war from their posts above the fray, but the ongoing battle pulls them ever downwards threatening their positions, relationships and lives.
This is an old school crime film exploring both sides of the heroin-dipped coin with equal dramatic flair with Dujardin and Lellouche well-paired as heavyweights who share more than just a slight physical resemblance. They both convince as men who value family above all else but who still can’t walk away from their increasingly dangerous day jobs. The intensity they display during the film’s heightened moments is balanced by a softness waiting in the wings for their family. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film too with sun-drenched landscapes and impossibly cool-looking characters captured like veteran models vacationing in the past. The sea frequently fills the frame and our senses, and it’s not difficult to imagine that we’re there among the finely dressed and morally corrupt. Music, including both the score and various tracks, add to the luxurious atmosphere.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, deleted scenes, booklet]
It’s the early ’80s, and the divide between East and West couldn’t be any greater. The two halves of the once majestic city of Berlin are divided physically and ideologically, and it’s quickly becoming Ground Zero for the looming Cold War. As the U.S. makes plans to move missiles into West Berlin the East sends over a spy, Martin (Jonas Nay), who didn’t exactly volunteer for the job. He has no choice, but he does have a mission.
Anyone’s who’s seen FX’s The Americans will know what to expect here, but that similarity doesn’t diminish this show’s effect or entertainment value. Martin’s challenge is the same yet entirely different as he tries to blend in and do his job just across the border from his home. The difference between the East and the West of the same country aren’t as obvious as the ones between Americans and Soviets, but the show still makes subtle observations for us and Martin. Nay gives a strongly conflicted performance as his time undercover increases, and those around him are equally compelling, and the show does a fantastic job crafting a world and creating suspenseful beats throughout.
[DVD extras: Interviews, Q&A]
Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a C.I.A. agent whose spy adventures are limited to being a voice in the ear of the agency’s superstar, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She assists his actions in the field from the safety of her desk in the office’s basement where she provides intel, satellite data and allergy advice, but that changes when a devious villainous named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) kills Fine and makes plans to sell a nuclear weapon. With all of their field agents compromised it falls to Cooper to track down Boyanov and her cohorts, gather evidence and then step back while the real heroes save the day. Again though, it should surprise no one that Cooper might just be a real hero too.
Gender be damned, Spy is one of the funniest spy comedies yet as writer/director Paul Feig’s script and the cast’s rapid delivery promises a near steady stream of jokes, gags and razor-sharp barbs from beginning to end. Not only does it spread the comedic wealth across multiple characters, but it gives us two hours of laughter without ever sinking to the level of jokes based in any way on McCarthy’s size. She gets as good as she gives, but none of the digs aimed her direction are fat jokes. Sounds simple, but go watch any comedy with a bigger than “average” star at its center and those jokes become standard fare. Comedy remains the focus here, but action fans will not be disappointed either as Spy takes a route similar to the likes of the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service with deliriously fun, beautifully choreographed fight scenes. They’re visually sharp and inventive, and McCarthy gets her hands dirty on more than one occasion.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Alternate cuts, deleted scenes, gag reel, featurettes, commentary]
Two boys stumble across a cop car on a back road with no actual cop in sight. After eventually working up the nerve to approach the car it’s not long before they’re inside, and keys in hand they take the cruiser out for a test drive. What they don’t know is that the owner of the car, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), is just a short distance away burying a body he removed from the trunk. When he returns to find his car gone he’s forced to think fast in order to track down the thieves without drawing the attention of the more civil-minded officers on the force. Director/co-writer Jon Watts’s film is a comedy for much of its run time as we move between the boys’ free-spirited adventure and the sheriff’s increasingly flustered efforts to find them. The final act takes a more dramatic turn, but until then the film coasts by on the playful bliss of youth and Bacon’s reveling in playing a vile character who’s not quite as put together and coordinated as he thinks. It’s a slight affair ‐ fitting for its 87 minute duration ‐ but the performances and humor make it an affair worth having.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of]
The Duke of Burgundy
Two women share a relationship of peculiar tastes. They role play a scenario between an employer and an employee, the former a cruel task-master and the latter a fragile spirit in need of punishment, but as they grow more comfortable in the roles the line between their real life and the pretend one grows hazy. Writer/director Peter Strickland’s follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio is every bit as methodically-paced and sharply-photographed, and while atmosphere takes precedence over narrative the result it finds engagement through the developing relationship.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, interview, deleted scenes, short film]
Entourage: The Movie
Vinnie Chase is, inexplicably, still a movie star. His latest project is an over-budget, sci-fi/action film starring Chase as a magical DJ or something, but his first time in the director’s chair might also be his last. Look, the story is irrelevant here. Like far too many of the series’ episodes, the movie is an unfunny, un-engaging, tone-deaf “comedy” about Hollywood life. The cameos are endless and flat, the drama is empty, and you just won’t care about anything or anyone. Woof. Woof I say.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel]
Fresh Off the Boat: The Complete First Season
Eddie Huang isn’t even a teenager yet, but his life is about to get a major shake-up. His family moves from the D.C.’s Chinatown district to the pure Americana of Orlando, FL, and things will never be the same. The real-life Huang’s biography of growing up in the ’90s with immigrant parents makes for fun fodder in this sitcom, and while many of the laughs are played far too broadly the insightful and sly comedy hits just as frequently. It’s a rarity seeing Asians in lead roles on network TV, and here we get a whole family. It’s refreshingly unfamiliar on its face, but hopefully it’s not news to anyone that families are the same world round ‐ weird, embarrassing, funny, sweet, and endlessly frustrating.
[DVD extras: Trivia, gag reel]
iZombie: The Complete First Season
Liv is engaged and on her way to becoming a doctor, but that ideal life comes crashing down when she’s killed in an accident. Her new life begins though when she wakes back up as a zombie who craves human brains but still has her personality, smarts, and a moral code. Veronica Mars fans have taken well to this freshman series, but that may also explain why it just never connects for me. The zombie angle is fun, to a point, but serious plot turns and events rarely get the serious response they deserve. It’s all just too light for the material ‐ like a softer Castle, and that show’s constantly swimming in goofiness and murder. Still, tonal issues aside, it’s a well-shot and acted series ideal for CW’s audience.
[DVD extras: Comic-Con panel, deleted scenes]
Jane the Virgin: The Complete First Season
Jane is a virgin, having made a vow to herself to remain so until her wedding day. But as that day approaches a routine visit to the doctor leads to a startling development. A mistake leaves her pregnant, by a man who isn’t her fiance, and her simple little life quickly becomes a grandly comedic melodrama. There are laughs here amid the banter, but the real highlight is Gina Rodriguez in the title role. She balances Jane’s wit and warmth with a performance that leaves viewers laughing with her crazy predicament instead of at it.
[DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel]
Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t help but always be thinking and tinkering, but his latest project gets away from him to become the Avengers’ most menacing adversary yet, Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Here’s the thing. This is the worst of the Marvel Universe films. Like, by a wide margin. The humor, warmth, and sharp action of the first Avengers is almost utterly absent here, and they’re replaced with a story so jam-packed with characters that no one gets the time necessary to make an impact. The weight of New York and the issues with SHIELD are just recently behind them, but the plot turns and character motivations are all lackluster at best.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes, gag reel, commentary]
Outlander: Season One, Volume Two
Claire’s time-bending journey from 1945 to two hundred years into the past continues, but just when she thinks she’s settled into a peaceful existence the violence of the land and its people returns. Abductions, witch trials, and copious amounts of sex follow. This continues to be an attractively-shot series appealing mostly to fans of historical romance, violent clashes, and TV nudity. The collector’s edition in particular is a beautifully-packaged release, but the biggest issue remains its incomplete nature ‐ stop releasing seasons in different parts! It’s a money grab, pure and simple.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, gag reel, podcasts, extended episode, featurettes, deleted scenes]
The Bowen family is in the middle of a transition as they arrive at their new home ‐ Eric (Sam Rockwell) is recently unemployed, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is suffering from writer’s block and their three kids each bring their own baggage to this quiet little pocket of suburbia. Financial concerns meant they had to settle for a home in a less desirable neighborhood, but it’s not like it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground or anything. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) is so busy rushing to exceed the original’s iconic beats that it neglects to create any of its own. Worse, it actually fails to even match the effectiveness of those classic moments. The film’s hurry to move forward leaves us with an absence of atmosphere and character depth, and even the house itself ‐ arguably the most important “character” in a haunted house film ‐ is dull and unmemorable. The script’s bigger failure is in forming its own identity. Hooper’s film explored the idea of suburban crawl, the slow spread of cookie-cutter neighborhoods pushing ever outward, but here the geographical explanation for the haunting feels like the simple checking of a box.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Alternate cuts, alternate ending]
Return to Sender
Miranda (Rosamund Pike) is a young nurse determined to make the move into becoming a surgical assistant, but when she mistakes a stranger for her blind date tragedy strikes. William (Shiloh Fernandez) rapes and beats her before running off and leaving her battered body behind, and while he’s caught, convicted and sentenced Miranda ends up in a prison of her own. Stuck in place and unable to move forward, she begins writing letters to William in jail only to see them returned unopened. Persistence pays off though leading to a series of prison visits between Miranda and the man who assaulted her. Her smile grows bigger with each visit, her clothes grow skimpier and her eyes grow, well they really can’t grow any wider as Pike is already a master of the wide-eyed look, but she stretches them to the limit. Miranda shuts out her family and friends and awaits William’s eventual release by focusing on her house and garden. Because sometimes subtle symbolism needs repeating… she waits for a return visit from her rapist by tending her front garden. This is a rape/revenge tale of sorts that wants viewers to suspect it’s something far more dramatic, empowering and edgy. Of course if simply wanting something was enough to make it true then I’d be playing doubles tennis with Melanie Lynskey, Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd right now instead of writing about this tripe. Sadly, I am not. Almost as sadly, this film achieves none of its intended goals and instead ends up as little more than a despicable, weak-kneed stab at merging drama and exploitation that manages neither. (Blu-ray is currently a Best Buy exclusive and will be available everywhere on December 1st.)
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
SWAT: Unit 887
A madman (Tom Sizemore) takes members of a fancy party hostage unaware that two SWAT team members are stationed inside. Michael Pare, Mischa Barton, and Jeremy London co-star, but like Sizemore their contributions are minimal. Instead it’s the no-name actors who get most of the screen time. That’s not a bad thing on the face of it, but the dialogue they’re spewing and the cheap action sequences they’re engaged in are never enough to make the film worthwhile.
[DVD extras: None]
Sam (Cobie Smulders) is a teacher facing the profession’s usual challenges, but life grows that much more complicated when she discovers she’s unintentionally pregnant. She befriends a student in the same fetus-shaped boat, and together they make their way through a difficult, glorious part of their lives. Smulders is quite good here, and the character relationships find dramatic beats, but its attempts at humor never quite land as well as the film itself thinks it is. It’s ultimately a casual drama but still worth a watch for Smulders.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
- 9 Full Moons
- Grimm: Season Four
- The Honeymoon Killers (Criterion)
- A Room With a View (Criterion)
- When Animals Dream
- White Shadow