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Sam (Billy Crudup) is an advertising executive whose life comes to a halt when his son dies unexpectedly. Unable to face what happened he leaves his world behind and retreats to a blue collar job on a tranquil lake, but when his son’s belongings make their way to him he discovers several recordings of the teen’s own music. Slowly, Sam begins to find a connection with his dead son by playing the music at a local bar, but the lyrics attract the attention of another lost young man (Anton Yelchin) and soon Sam finds himself a popular part of the local music scene.
William H. Macy’s feature directorial debut is a fantastically affecting look at grief, redemption and the willingness to admit when you don’t have all the answers. Crudup is wonderful as a man whose detached restraint slowly crumbles, and the songs they perform are beautifully crafted and supremely catchy. Yelchin is okay and an out of place Caddyshack-like scene late in the film distracts briefly, but the film rarely drops the ball when it comes to maintaining a heartfelt and honest look at recovering from tragedy.
[DVD extras: Featurette, music video, deleted scenes]
The small town of Cheesebridge is filled with small-minded people and an infestation of boxtrolls ‐ creatures that wear boxes and live beneath the streets ‐ and when a local businessman with eyes on attaining a position of prominence promises he can clean up the vermin the townspeople happily say yes. What they don’t know is that living among the trolls is a young boy named Eggs, raised by the creatures after the murder of his father, who together with a girl named Winnie sets out to prove the trolls’ worth in a world of categorized acceptance.
Laika’s latest is another visual delight of stop-motion magic, and its theme ‐ about how people put themselves and others into neat little boxes to determine their value ‐ is presented in a clever, amusing and exciting way. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of ParaNorman, but it’s fun nonetheless. One of its biggest highlights comes in the end credits as we get a peek behind the curtain in a remarkably creative way.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Behind the scenes, featurettes, commentary]
Eight friends ‐ a mix of acquaintances and ex-lovers ‐ get together for dinner on the night of a rare comet passing in the skies overhead. As the evening progresses odd events begin affecting the group and individuals. The world outside the house becomes especially strange as the power goes out, and when they see a house in the distance with its lights on they set off towards it only to discover that the nightmare is far from over.
Hollywood’s version of sci-fi typically involves heavy effects sequences designed to justify budget more than narrative, but writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s feature eschews the flash in favor of real smarts and substance. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone the film interweaves a smart sci-fi plot with an equally intelligent commentary on relationships. There are numerous thrills here, small and witty sometimes and mind-bending at others, and as the mystery unfolds it holds your attention through to the end.
[DVD extras: Commentary, behind the scenes, test footage]
Little House on the Prairie: Season Four
The Ingalls family continues to forge ahead with their frontier adventure leading to all manner of triumphs and tribulations for the residents of Walnut Grove. Big city corruption, blindness, wild dogs, Jesse James and aggression towards Indians all play a part in this season’s run. We also get to see Laura and Mary expanding their romantic horizons and the town facing trouble from a railroad conflict.
The series’ fourth season grew a little gimmicky for some viewers, but I remain a fan of both its entertainingly wholesome style and those occasional “Sweeps week” episodes. Let’s not forget that this is the season that gave us the most memorable episode of the entire series ‐ the one featuring skinny dipping, drowning, kidnapping and mob mentality aimed at a mentally challenged man. Lionsgate’s remastered Blu-rays continue to look and sound amazing, and while the show loses steam from here on out (to its ninth and final season) there remains a lot to love here.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
The Palm Beach Story (Criterion)
Whoever said that Classical Hollywood is full of economic storytelling, clear narrative closure, and unobtrusive visual styles is ignoring the spectacular, one-of-a-kind career of Preston Sturges. And The Palm Beach Story presents Sturges at his most madcap and hilarious. After one of the more manic and befuddling opening sequences in early Hollywood history (that only sort-of makes sense by the end), The Palm Beach Story follows a money-starved couple (Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea) on the brink of divorce as Colbert’s character escapes claustrophobic New York for sunny Florida. Along the way, the couple meets a bevy of quirky (but never one-note) characters, including a generous millionaire (Rudy Valee), a rowdy band of drunken hunters, and a saintly sausage pioneer.
Even within an era of brilliant romantic comedies, Sturges’s films stand out by virtue of their fearless (if sometimes problematic and dated) approach to an at-times avant-garde sense of humor, regularly mixing broad comedy with absurd characters and sly topical digs. The Palm Beach Story is a prime example of his singular sensibility. ‐ Landon Palmer
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: New interviews with Bill Hader and film historian James Harvey; Safeguarding Military Information, a propaganda short by Sturges; a 1943 radio adaptation of the film; an illustrated booklet with essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek]
Woman They Almost Lynched
Sally arrives in the small Ozark town of Border City towards the end of the Civil War in the hopes of reuniting with her brother after a decade apart. She discovers something of a lawless town when she gets there, and she’s barely had time to say hello before her brother is shot dead leaving her the new owner of his saloon. Her attempts to make a go of it are thwarted by a local gang, an upstart Jesse James, a possible love interest, a mayor with a penchant for lynchings and and impending clash between soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy.
Part western, part battle of the sexes, this is a fantastic watch with a highly quotable script ‐ “No male alive can even think of being as mean as a woman.” The story and characters are atypical for the genre with Sally taking the lead in both wit and, when pressed, physical shenanigans like girl fights, gunplay and smooching. The film has a few action sequences too, and they’re remarkably well crafted for a release from 1953. Fans of sharp writing and dialogue will be satisfied with this little seen and even less frequently discussed gem.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Lisa (Amy Hathaway) was once an agent with Homeland Security, but after a case goes bad resulting in the death of her partner (John Savage) she retreats to the safety of teaching ballet. That’s as far as I made it, but per the description Lisa is subsequently captured and forced to help the authorities unravel the science behind alien technology. It’s entirely possible the film improves past the point where I stopped watching, but that opening act is so relentlessly cheap-looking and filled with cue card narration and laughably bad action.
[DVD extras: Making of]
A young couple starts a family and makes the mistake of inviting a collectible but creepy-looking doll into their home. This is a prequel of sorts to The Conjuring but only to that film’s bookend scenes that introduced the world to this ugly ass creation. By all accounts this should have been something of a dud, but while the story hits familiar beats the film manages some truly fun and creative scares along the way. It’s not the kind of film that leaves a lasting impression, but horror fans will have little to complain about during its fast-moving run time.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes]
The Atticus Institute
Dr. Henry West (William Mapother) runs a research facility studying the possible existence of psychic abilities, but again and again his research comes up empty. That all changes when a disturbed young woman named Judith comes to their attention, and soon they’re getting all the proof they need. The film is presented like a faux documentary about the recently declassified case and marketed like a straight horror film, but it’s not really all that frightening. That’s not necessarily a bad thing ‐ it’s an okay movie ‐ but it’s slight as a horror film. The bigger issue though occurs in the final minutes as a scene with heavy intended effect is flattened by the use of incredibly shoddy CGI.
[Blu-ray/ DVD extras: Making of, deleted scenes]
La Belle Captive
Walter meets a mysterious young woman at a bar only to find her unconscious and injured in the middle of the road a short time later, but after spending the night together in an equally mysterious mansion he awakes to the even more mysterious mystery of her disappearance. Mmmm, mystery. This is an acclaimed slice of surreal filmmaking from Alain Robbe-Grillet, but there’s very little here to connect or engage with aside from the attractive, dreamy and frequently sexy visuals.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
By the Gun
Nick (Ben Barnes) is a low level thug with higher aspirations, and while his father has essentially disowned him it’s worth the loss when he finally becomes a “made” man. It’s not quite all it’s cracked up to be though, and when he falls in love with a bad man’s daughter a chain of events is set in motion that threatens the very little he holds dear in this world. Harvey Keitel and Toby Jones make brief appearances, but it’s actually Slaine who delivers a performance with the most weight here. The story follows a familiar path meaning it struggles to stand apart from the crowd, but’s watchable enough.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, deleted scenes]
Life’s a Breeze
Nan (Fionnula Flanagan) is matriarch to a big family, and while she spends her days relaxing in a home filled with things she could never throw away her adult kids spend theirs complaining about money. They surprise her one day by cleaning up her house and throwing away her junk only to be surprised when she tells them her life savings went out with the trash. Now the family (and soon a town full of strangers) are on the hunt for a million dollar mattress. This is an alternately sweet and frustrating little comedy from Ireland, but while the adults drag it down the relationship between Nan and her granddaughter Emma (Kelly Thornton) is filled with heart.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
The Roman empire is fading, and one power couple’s efforts to reclaim a superior position in society leads to schemes, murder and sexy shenanigans. Imagine if some guy set out to emulate the success of Game of Thrones and Spartacus with a budget of $5 and having only seen video clips of the shows on Mr. Skin. Got it? Now you too have seen Lost Legion.
[DVD extras: None]
An unfortunate woman (Scarlett Johansson) is forced to act as a drug mule, but when the experimental and toxic material inside her leaks it triggers a change at the cellular level that begins encouraging brain growth at an exponential rate. Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense as Morgan Freeman is also on hand to explain it all in a lengthy speech. This is a ridiculous movie from beginning to end, but it’s also Luc Besson’s best directorial effort in decades. And yes, it’s also a ton of action/effect oriented fun as Lucy kicks ass and takes names on her way towards using 100% of her brain. Because we only use 10% right now apparently. Not sure if you knew that already, but again, Freeman can explain it better than I can.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes]
May in the Summer
May (Cherien Dabis) returns to her home country of Jordan a month before her planned wedding with the intention of spending time with her family. Her mother is refusing to attend as May’s fiance is not a Muslim, her sisters are going through dramas of their own and now May is starting to have doubts. Dabis also wrote and directed this pleasant little comedy/drama, and it’s there where she shows greater strength. The relationship drama wavers between the obvious and less so with the latter getting a fresh spin thanks to the geography, but it never feels overly serious thanks to a light and humorous tone.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
Ray (Angus Sampson) isn’t the brightest bulb in the drawer, but his luck may have run out when he accepts a job smuggling plastic-wrapped drug bundles somewhere in his digestive tract. Picked up by the police, he decides to wait them out ‐ meaning he has to avoid passing these bundles out his behind until after they’re obligated to release him. The film is based on a true story but feels just ridiculous enough to make that claim suspect. There are laughs here alongside a fun cast (Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell, John Noble), but the ensuing plot turns feel standard after the initial setup.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurette]
Track the Man Down
A group of thieves rob a dog track, but after a guard dies during their getaway the gang splinters and goes into hiding. One man has the loot, and his attempt to abscond with all of it ultimately entangles a busload of strangers and the rest of his gang in a life or death ordeal. Petula Clark plays an innocent caught up in the action alongside a reporter (Kent Taylor) unaware at first of how big of a story he’s gotten himself into. There are some solid set pieces here, both action-wise and suspense-based, and at 75 minutes it’s a fast tale too.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
When a young boy finds a gun in the rubble of a bombed-out building and accidentally shoots a playmate he sets in motion a frantic search for him and the weapon. That same gun was used in an unsolved murder ten years prior, and now his mother, the police and the murderer himself are hot on his trail. This is a competent thriller that delivers some fine-looking shots of dark, fog-shrouded London streets, and while only the villain comes across with any memorable personality the others still manage an energy that aids the film’s momentum.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
White Bird in a Blizzard
Kat (Shailene Woodley) is a typical teenager more interested in sex than the lives of her parents, but when her mom (Eva Green) disappears she discovers there’s more to life then bumping uglies. Not much more mind you, but more all the same. Writer/director Gregg Araki’s latest is a dreamy ode to late ’80s suburbia complete with a feeling of listless ennui, but it never quite comes together as an engaging tale. Woodley is is solid and frequently clothed, and it’s fun seeing Christopher Meloni and Thomas Jane slightly outside their element. Surprisingly, one of the big weaknesses here is Green. Her antics all feel forced and overly aggressive ‐ granted, part of that is simply Green’s style, but it just doesn’t work here.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, featurette]
Cayden is a teen who wakes from a bad dream only to discover that he’s murdered his own parents. He retreats to the conspicuously named town of Lupine Ridge in search of answers, which he finds, along with a sexy new love interest and a dangerous new enemy (Jason Momoa). Writer/director David Hayter‘s movie is a YA film in, well, wolf’s clothing. Just about every aspect, from story arc to character types, feel shaped like any number of YA films in recent years, but the film’s ‘R’ rating appears to remove it from the grasp of teen viewers. But the promise of that rating ‐ basically gory werewolf carnage and shaggy coupling ‐ never actually comes to fruition resulting instead in a slight, mildly goofy and toothless werewolf movie suitable for just about anyone interested in hormonal journeys.
[DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurette]
Also out this week, but I haven’t seen the movie/TV show and/or review material was unavailable:
Adua and Her Friends, A Bet’s a Bet, Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman, The Drop, Gnome Alone, The Green Prince, In the House of Flies, The Internet’s Own Boy, A Little Game, My Winnipeg (Criterion), On Golden Pond, The Pirates, Winter in the Blood, World for Ransom, The Zero Theorem
Related Topics: Home Video