Welcome back to This Week In Discs where we check out tomorrow’s new releases today!
Death Becomes Her (Scream Factory)
What is it? Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn) have been rivals for years, but their biggest face-off comes after a desperate Madeline takes a potion in a bid to look and feel young again. It makes her immortal — right before she falls down the stairs and breaks her neck. She can’t die, but her body can take a beating, and even in her undead state she once again finds herself in competition with Helen.
Why buy it? Director Robert Zemeckis is clearly at home with this blackly comic, Tales from the Crypt-like feature that deftly mixes laughs, gruesome deeds, and cutting edge (for 1992) special effects. Streep and Hawn are both terrific, but Bruce Willis more than holds his own (and delivers one of his best performances) as a beleaguered husband with a talent for making the dead look presentable. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray looks good — it’s in HD but doesn’t appear to be a new transfer of any kind — but new interviews with Zemeckis and other behind the scenes talents (including cinematographer Dean Cundey) add some fun anecdotal value.
[Blu-ray extras: Making ofs]
Brief Encounter (Criterion Collection)
What is it? Laura (Celia Johnson) is a housewife whose chance meeting with a married doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) leads to something unexpected. Friendly chatter leads to an affection that shines a light on the humdrum reality waiting for her back home with her husband and two children. The pair meet at the railway station each week to spend innocent time together, but either the time or the innocence is destined to end.
Why buy it? Director David Lean, known for capturing the expansive beauty of the colorful desert in Lawrence of Arabia, delivers an equally beautiful, albeit far smaller-scaled film here. Idyllic parks and fog-shrouded streets share the screen with a bustling coffee shop, but all serve as backdrop to a tenderly explored romance of words between to strongly talented performers. There’s heartbreak here and sadness, but the story refuses to pass judgement on the events or behaviors on display.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, interview, making of, documentary]
What is it? Max still clings to a belief in Santa Claus and the idea that wishes will be answered on Christmas day, but when one of his cousins embarrasses him by reading his letter to Santa aloud Max tears up the note and throws it to the wind. It doesn’t reach Santa, but the letter finds an unintended recipient all the same and immediately Max’s house and neighborhood lose power and fall victim to an intense snow storm. Krampus, a giant, horned and humpbacked creature straight out of Germanic folklore arrives not to give presents but to take lives, and he’s brought an army of hideous holiday helpers to aid in the task.
Why buy it? Less of a gift that keeps on giving, Krampus finds joy in fits and starts — when it works the monstrous holiday mayhem teases Gremlins-like levels of greatness, but when it doesn’t it reveals a film that ultimately feels rushed and not fully conceived. Terrifying snowmen that appear motionless but seem closer each time we look outside, gingerbread men cookies with opposable thumbs, and the nightmarish contents of a jack-in-the-box are just a few of the terrors on Krampus’ payroll, and with few exceptions they’re practical creations as opposed to all CG ones. The human characters are less engaging, but there’s fun to be had throughout, and the special features offer a fun look behind the scenes at the monster mayhem
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, alternate ending, gag reel, commentary, featurettes*] (*Blu-ray only)
Phoenix (Criterion Collection)
What is it? Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a Jewish woman who survives Auschwitz and the war even as her face isn’t as fortunate. Reconstructive surgery repairs the disfigurement, but it leaves her with the appearance of a different person. She returns home in search of her husband and uses her new visage in an attempt to determine if the rumors are true — that he was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis resulting in her internment nightmare.
Why buy it? Criterion doesn’t typically add films to their collection on their home video debut, so when a new title does appear it’s worth your attention. This recent German gem is a terrific tale of identity and culpability that teases a fine line between revenge and redemption, and its much-discussed final scene is a powerful stunner. The movie is more than just a stellar ending though as Hoss gives a powerfully affecting performance against a beautifully-captured backdrop. The included documentary is loaded with informative interviews for fans of behind the scenes matters.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Conversation between director and star, interview, making of]
What is it? Peter (Adrien Brody) is a psychiatrist who lost his daughter to an accident a few years ago, and he and his wife still suffer emotionally from the tragedy. When a string of new patients exhibit odd behaviors an event from his youth becomes the unexpected connective tissue between them.
Why skip it? Brody gives his typically haunted performance her, fitting for a tale of ghosts and such, but the story never really gels into an engaging whole. It all feels far too familiar even if the details are new — there are ghosts, they’ve been wronged somehow, and they need atonement. A brief appearance from Sam Neill is a plus, but he’s not around long enough to compensate for the truly terrible CG effects. Skip it and watch In the Mouth of Madness instead.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
Crypt of the Living Dead / House of the Living Dead (Vinegar Syndrome)
What is it? Scientists exploring an archaeological site unknowingly bring a vampire queen back to life and unleash her on an unsuspecting town in Crypt of the Living Dead. A more morally questionable scientist brings hell to rural South Africa in House of the Living Dead.
Why rent it? Vinegar Syndrome’s double feature leads with the superior Crypt — a competent, occasionally bloody tale of vampires, transformations, and sibling incompetence — and closes out with the fairly terrible House. That latter film is sloppy and woefully cheap, and it accomplishes nothing it sets out to do. The former is definitely worth a watch though for fans of ’70s horror. Fans of this double feature should seek out Vinegar Syndrome’s previously released Blu-ray, but that said the 2k restoration presents just as fine on DVD.
[DVD extras: None]
Dillinger (Arrow Video)
What is it? John Dillinger (Warren Oates) is a legendary American gangster, and nobody knows that better than Dillinger himself. Together with his gang stays a step ahead of the law while robbing banks, terrorizing locals, and forcing himself upon a young woman (Michelle Phillips) in an effort to make her his moll. As his infamy grows, a persistent FBI agent (Ben Johnson) grows closer.
Why rent it? Writer/director John Milius’ debut takes its lead from the success of Bonnie & Clyde and fills the screen with big, graphic shootouts and untimely demises. Oates has his gritty charms, but he’s no Warren Beatty in the leading man department — and even if he was the relationship here is impossible to categorize as romantic, doomed or otherwise. It remains a solid watch though as Milius mixes some exciting action beats with a documentary-like feel. Arrow Video’s new 2k restoration looks sharp, and the red blood pops off the screen.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, interviews]
Dolemite (Vinegar Syndrome)
What is it? Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) is a legendary pimp whose recent release from prison comes with the caveat that he goes to war with the man who’s taken over his territory, but Willie Green won’t go down easy. Aided by a way with words and some ass-kicking lady friends Dolemite takes to the streets with both legs kicking.
Why rent it? Long considered a classic of the blaxploitation subgenre, this is a film that survives more on its reputation than its content. The promise of “Kung Fu fighting vixens” never really comes to fruition as the ladies are given so little screen time. Instead, we’re forced to endure what feels like hours of Dolemite’s rambling rhymes, both on the street and on the stage. Fans of Black Dynamite will spot several of the beats that film spoofs so beautifully, but they don’t carry much weight here as they’re overshadowed by the dull in-between. As underwhelming as the film itself is Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu-ray is a stunner — the new 2k restoration gives it a new life, and the abundant extras offer plenty of historical relevance to the feature.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Making of, featurettes, commentary]
The Driftless Area
What is it? Pierre (Anton Yelchin) has led a simple life since his parents died, but he finds himself caught up in something mysterious when a young woman (Zooey Deschanel) rescues him from a well and a low-rent criminal (John Hawkes) targets him over a bag of stolen cash.
Why rent it? The cast — Yelchin, Deschanel, Hawkes, Ciarán Hinds, Frank Langella, Aubrey Plaza, and Alia Shawkat — is enough to make this one worth a watch, but the narrative is challenging. It rambles a bit and isn’t wholly successful in crossing genres — both the supernatural and criminal elements are low-key and somewhat lacking in vitality — but the individual characters and performances are frequently appealing. Hawkes in particular is the stand out.
[DVD extras: Making of]
Jane Got a Gun
What is it? Jane (Natalie Portman) is surprised when her husband (Noah Emmerich) returns to their remote ranch with bullets in his back and a dozen bad guys on his heels led by the evil John Bishop (Ewan McGregor). Her only chance at protecting her family is with the assistance of a man from her past (Joel Edgerton).
Why rent it? The film’s production was a litany of woes as at least one director and a handful of cast members left the project behind, and its current incarnation suffers from an over-reliance on flashbacks to tell what amounts to a fairly simple narrative. Forgiving that structure though leaves you free to enjoy what amounts to a solid little western with good characters and a strong third-act siege.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Ride Along 2
What is it? Ben (Kevin Hart) has only recently graduated from the police academy, but he already has his sights set on becoming a detective. The quickest route he sees to that goal entails partnering up with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, James (Ice Cube), on a case that takes them to Miami.
Why skip it? The target audience for this mostly unfunny comedy are those of you who enjoyed the first one — but this sequel is half as humorous and twice as loud. Cube is pretty much giving the same performance, but Hart cranks the volume and the antics up something fierce. The script isn’t helping as it tries to squeeze laughs out of situations that mix Ben’s ineptness with violence — ha, he accidentally shot someone! Again! And don’t get me started on the Grand Theft Auto V gag that feels five years too late. Skip it and watch a Shane Black-scripted buddy comedy instead.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, gag reel, featurettes]
Son of Saul
What is it? Saul is a prisoner in Auschwitz who survives each day by working for his captors as one of the men who helps burn his fellow Jews and collect their belongings. His routine is interrupted by what becomes his sole focus — withholding his son’s body from the pyre and finding a rabbi to bury the child properly.
Why rent it? This critically acclaimed drama tackles the familiar — a Holocaust drama — from a different angle by making it a far more intimate affair than usual. The camera stays close to Saul throughout, often just over his shoulder, and shows us only what’s in his immediate vicinity. The horrors of Auschwitz are all around him, but in his single-minded haze only his goal remains clear. I’m of the minority opinion that this makes the film less emotionally powerful as dramas (and subplots) are ignored in favor of this one man’s efforts — one man whose pain is no substitute for compelling or engaging character. It’s definitely worth a watch for its unique take though.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, Q&A, deleted scene]
Sssssss (Scream Factory)
What is it? Dr. Stoner (Strother Martin) is a respected herpetologist whose knowledge about snakes far exceeds that of anyone else, but his ambitions are a bit beyond the acceptable. He’s trying to create new life from the combined materials of a human man and a king cobra, and his unassuming lab assistant (Dirk Benedict) quickly becomes his latest specimen.
Why rent it? This is an odd little thriller that finds its most effective moments in seemingly innocuous scenes of people handling live snakes of various types. The king cobra is especially frightening in its presence and power, and we get to see it in action with both people and a scrappy mongoose. Less engaging or dramatic is the main story line following Benedict’s transformation — it’s slow, and the final beats are just silly.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Interviews]
The Zero Boys (Arrow Video)
What is it? The Zero Boys are a trio of friends who’ve honed their skills on the paintball field to become feared champions, but they find a new challenge when they take lady friends and live ammunition on a weekend getaway in the woods. A killer has targeted them for death, and now they’re forced to use their game-winning tactics in the most important battle of their lives.
Why rent it? The premise here is great fun as a Friday the 13th-like killer unwisely targets a group of heavily armed and competent young people — imagine the fun of protagonists capable of bringing the fight to the typically unstoppable villain — but that cool setup goes to waste as the movie moves forward. They suddenly become utter fools lacking even the simplest skills or tactics, and the weaponry becomes superfluous. Still, there’s some ’80s-style fun to be had here, and the affection Arrow Video pours onto the film deserves to be seen and enjoyed by fans new and old. Kelli Maroney, most well-known from Night of the Comet, offers some entertaining behind the scenes glimpses in her commentary and interview here too.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, interviews]
All Night at the Po-No, The Beverly Hillbillies: The Official First Season, The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew and Associates (Criterion Collection), Trashy Lady, Unveiled
Related Topics: Home Video