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Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman new to New York City and away from home for the first time, and the loneliness is creeping up on her. It’s tough making friends, but when it’s suggested she meet up with her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) she hesitantly agrees. A simple lunch date becomes a life-saving friendship as the two share adventures highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.
Noah Baumbach’s latest is a too-brief burst of delight guaranteed to leave you madly in love with both Kirke and Gerwig. The latter in particular embodies nothing less than the rebirth of a screwball comedy star with a performance that could power a city on smile wattage alone. Her every mannerism and line delivery exists as a mad concoction of zany wit and raw honesty, and together with Kirke’s playful innocence works to create a world you’ll wish was your own. Baumbach’s work apart from Wes Anderson has failed to grab me — at least until last year’s While We’re Young — but Mistress America is an absolute joy-filled blast of smart, rapid-fire comedy.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes]
Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century left a high death toll, but as cruel as the oppressors got the nation’s resistance fighters refused to abandon their efforts. A mission is planned to take out a Japanese commander and the high-ranking Korean sympathizer who’s been working with the invading force to further his own life and wealth. A failed attempt a year prior in Shanghai leads the rebels to put together a three-person team for a second effort in Seoul. Leading the trio is Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun), a sniper known for her precision and persistence, while the two men under her command bring their own specialties to the table. Chu is a tough gunfighter, and Hwang is an expert in making things go boom. Unbeknownst to them though, a traitor in their midst has set a pair of mercenaries on their trail with orders to kill.
Director Choi Dong-hoon has found something of a niche for himself best summed up as sprawling action/adventures stuffed to the seams with characters, subplots and action beats. His three prior films — Tazza: The High Rollers, Woochi, The Thieves — cover a wide array of topics ranging from gambling to magic to heists, but they share in their highly energetic entertainment, and his latest follows that trend to deliver beautifully crafted action sequences, a colorful gallery of characters, and more story than it needs. It risks losing its engagement with the audience thanks to a somewhat silly subplot and a potentially overlong running time, but the central characters, war-time intrigue, and exhilarating action succeed at holding our attention until the final shot is fired.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Clint (Elijah Wood) is starting his first day as a substitute teacher, but in his mind it’s only a temporary way station on the way to the bestseller lists. Sure he’s living back at home and drives a beaten up Prius with “Eat my cock” scrawled into the dusty grime, but if he can just nail his horror novel’s opening line (“The boat was evil…”) he’ll be on his way. But when an outbreak infects the kids and turns them into little carnivorous bastards, Clint and a gaggle of other teachers are forced into the second biggest fight of their lives (after trying to survive on teacher salary and lack of respect).
The film features a wonderfully motley crew including Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia, and Leigh Whannell. This isn’t Wood’s first schoolyard battle against evil, but instead of fighting against The Faculty this time he is the faculty. The film’s most reliable character for laughs though is Whannell’s Doug the science teacher. He offers up a steady stream of one-liners, non-sequiturs, and throw away comments that consistently bring the laughs. It’s a bright, highly energetic movie that manages to find the sweet spot of films featuring kids and extreme violence. It’s absurd but has fun with the killer kids and their grisly demises.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette, deleted scenes, gag reel, interviews, commentary]
Elias and Lukas are twins who spend their days playing and testing each other’s strength with slaps and punches, but their fun comes to an end when their mother returns from the hospital. Their first glimpse of her in the shadows teases a Joker-like grin that reveals itself to be bandages as she steps into the light. She’s had facial surgery, her face is obscured by gauze and bruising around the eyes, and the boys aren’t entirely convinced it’s their mother. She’s acting colder, crueler, and treats Lukas as if he isn’t even worth acknowledging, and the siblings soon decide to find out what happened to their real mother. They dig through photo albums for evidence having noticed that pictures have gone missing from the walls and even attempt to reach outside help, but it’s only when they bring their inquiries directly to the woman in the bandages that the truth is revealed.
It’s no exaggeration to say this is a film capable of preventing pregnancies. Show this in high schools, and more than a few young ladies will walk away determined to lock up their vaginas for good. More than just a feature-length infomercial on abstinence though, the filmmakers have crafted a cringe-inducing suspense thriller that delights in keeping viewers unsure where to rest their allegiance. All three leads do strong work here immeasurably aiding the script’s tightrope act between the opposing parties. We alternately fear and feel for the boys and their mom as the physical and emotional tug of war plays on, and the performances go a long way towards making our loyalty so indecisive.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Interview]
The Hunting Ground
Proud parents, excited teenagers, and college administrators thrilled to welcome new students to campus — this is the story unfolding at thousands of universities across the country every Fall. A new chapter has been unfolding in recent years though, one that’s always existed but is only now coming to light. Public awareness of sexual assaults on college campuses is increasing, and with it is the realization that the colleges that should be protecting our kids are far more interested in their reputation and their bottom line.
Kirby Dick (This Film Not Yet Rated) is no stranger to documentaries on important issues, but his latest targets a far more intimate and insidious topic than he’s touched on before. The existence of assaults shouldn’t surprise anyone — the world is full of pricks, and they had to get their college degree somewhere — but what’s disheartening and potentially shocking is the lack of concern by administrators for the alleged victims. Fraternities, sports-focused school boards, disinterested law enforcement, and an utter lack of understanding as to the meaning of “no means no” are all targeted here.
[DVD extras: Additional stories, Q&A]
A high-tech team of slick-looking bank robbers are midway through their heist when mistakes and bad attitudes get the better of them. One of their number is killed, and another is unmasked in front of the hostages. With her face all over the news, Alex (Olga Kurylenko) is forced to lay low, but a double cross leaves her on the run and low on options. A man named Washington (James Purefoy) is on her trail, but the bigger threat might just be the U.S. Senator (Morgan Freeman, playing against type as a character who wants to be president but isn’t yet) pulling his strings.
The action sequences are strong starting with the opening heist and continuing on through shoot-outs, fist fights, and pretty stellar car chase. An early hotel fracas showcases both Alex’s capabilities and Washington’s malicious ways — along with Kurylenko’s action chops and the pure joy of an evil Purefoy. The fight choreography feels right for Kurylenko’s frame meaning we’re never in doubt of her abilities, and the bigger action is well-crafted to the various environments. This is a fun, sleek movie that’s far better than most straight-to-DVD/VOD action films, and while I’m not as confident as the film’s ending is that it’s the start of a possible franchise I’m certainly hopeful.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Behind the scenes]
90 Minutes In Heaven
Pastor Don Piper (Hayden Christensen) is in a car accident that leaves him “dead” for ninety minutes before a passerby prays over his “dead” body only to discover that Piper has miraculously returned from the “dead.” His body is mangled in the crash, and doctors predict he’ll never walk again. But he does. Because god. Look, I’m all for people celebrating their faith, but let’s not celebrate ignorance under the guise of god’s miracles. Worse, let’s not go around pretending tripe like this has any basis in reality. Piper was declared dead by an EMT via a carotid pulse check — a highly unreliable place to check for a pulse under even the best circumstances, but with Piper still trapped in the car and bleeding out it’s ridiculous to assume that it was definitive. Did he dream about heaven while stuck there? Sure, why not, we all dream while we’re unconscious, but his writings (and this resulting film) have more to do with a New Age cash-grab than an honest peek behind the curtain. Of course, even if you buy the story being sold here the film is a poorly written and lazily acted dud that fails to convince regarding the family or the faith. The saddest element at play here though is seeing director Michael Polish continue his downward slide from his masterful debut, Twin Falls, Idaho.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, making of]
The turbulent and too-short life of Amy Winehouse is highlighted through personal recollections, home videos, and public performances, all of which combine to tell an intimate tale of a very public figure. The film captures her rise to fame and the subsequent troubles that followed — drink, drugs, and an unhealthy relationship — but is also sure to point out both the people in her life that failed her and those who who worked like hell to keep her afloat. With only a couple exceptions her music isn’t for me, but most of you will appreciate the film’s multiple musical performances recorded both before she became a star and after. Winehouse succumbed to her addictions, and the film captures it with the tragic authenticity of a real life.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Deleted scenes, commentary, interviews, performances, featurette]
Downhill Racer (Criterion)
David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is a champion downhill skier whose focus on the sport leaves him little time to consider other people or distractions. He has no need of friends, little patience for authority (including instruction from his coach (Gene Hackman), and a firm conviction that he’s going to win a gold medal at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Michael Ritchie’s (Fletch, The Candidate) debut feature plays at times like a documentary — as intended — capturing snippets of conversation or glimpses of downhill action like a chilly fly on the icy wall, and the result is a film that feels as enamored of story and character as Chappellet does of other people. The narrative here is instead a barebones one and instead far more of a character piece about arrogance. Redford mutes his natural charisma for the role, and it plays in contrast to some exciting and attractive cinematography during the competitions. Criterion’s new release offers a new HD transfer alongside interviews from 2009 recounting the film’s production. It’s hardly an essential title, but it is an interesting one. It’s also worth seeing for Hackman and an early turn by the wonderful Dabney Coleman.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Interviews, audio excerpts from Michael Ritchie, featurette]
Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season
A virus is slowly making its way through the population of Los Angeles — people get sick, they die, they rise again to eat human flesh — and the only thing moving slower is the response to the epidemic. Miscommunication, disbelief, and confusion leaves the populace vulnerable as families and strangers alike are forced into a nightmare they never could have expected. This prequel to The Walking Dead explores the actual breakdown of society and relationships as the madness grows, and it takes its time with the disintegration. Life goes on in some ways as people are being eaten around town and the authorities work to contain things, but that also means we’re stuck with whiny teens complaining about things that really shouldn’t matter in a world falling prey to zombies. There are some solid suspense beats here to balance the lesser character ones, but it could be a challenge keeping it going seeing as we know the world it’s ultimately heading towards.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes]
Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is the dictionary definition of down-on-his-luck gambler — he owes everyone, but every time he gets ahead he can’t help but make just one more bet. He thinks he sees his luck changing when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), and soon the two new friends are heading to New Orleans for a big score. Much of the film plays with an expected series of outcomes, but even the mundane moments are elevated by two strong lead performances. Mendelsohn in particular is better here than his previous best as he’s able to bring a real character to life instead of the usual parade of villains he inhabits. The ending feels a bit off, but again, Mendelsohn makes it worthwhile.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
Roger Waters The Wall
Pink Floyd secured their place in music history long ago, but the legacy of The Wall continues on today. Its latest incarnation comes in the form of a concert film consisting of show footage alongside more personalized sequences. Waters lost both his father and grandfather to war, and he uses these offstage moments to honor them and others like them who gave their lives to the never-ending cycle of violence around the world. The concert is the focus though, and it is an incredible experience to watch in HD — I can only imagine the sensation live and in person. It’s an impressive multimedia display used to enhance the album’s already cinematic narrative, and the added layer of a social conscience elevates the effect. The home video release would have benefited though from an option to watch just the concert, removed from the personal narrative. Seamless branching exists, so why not use it? As it stands you can’t even jump around via the chapter stops as they don’t all align with the concert itself.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurettes, additional performances]
Some Kind of Beautiful
An English college professor (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with his American student (Jessica Alba), and when he discovers she’s pregnant the pair move to Los Angeles to make a new life. It’s not long before things are unsurprisingly complicated by further infidelity. Salma Hayek stars as Alba’s older sister which is a nice bit of casting — the cast in general is the film’s biggest strength — but it wants to have a lot of casual fun with some fairly serious and dickish behaviors. Everyone’s cheating on someone, but we’re meant to still have fun with the characters and care about their emotional ups and downs. Instead that element is flat, and we’re left with a few laughs, some sexy shenanigans, and a charismatic cast.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: Featurette]
The Tokyo of tomorrow is a city divided into factions and gangs of varying degrees of maliciousness, but the one constant is a truce that has kept each group apart from the next. It’s all about the turf. But everything changes when one of the gang leaders decides it’s time for a shake-up. Now the streets are erupting in all-out war, blood is spilled on every block, and the song lyrics are growing more intense. Oh, did I not mention this was also a hip-hop-flavored musical? The only thing predictable about director Sion Sono is his unpredictability — well, that and his love for upskirt panty shots — and this entry is definitely one of his odder ones. It’s overflowing with violence and rampant abuse of women, and while the former is good fun the latter is immediately tiring. It’s one thing to tease misogyny if there’s a point — something Sono accomplishes beautifully in his more recent film Tag — but here the mistreatment of women is for exploitation only. On the bright side though we do get to spend time with Seino Nana who kicks ass and shows again why she’s deserving of bigger and better things. (See also the last 20 minutes of Nowhere Girl.) Lady parts and repetitive manly grumblings aside, the film is a visual feast as Sono’s camera glides through the giant set with long takes and swooping shots. Vibrant colors compete with “songs” about thug life versus peace, and ultimately the film leaves viewers entertained.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Captain Jack Wosick (Luke Goss) has lost the faith of his commanders above and men below, but he’s given a second chance when he’s assigned a unit of similarly questionable soldiers and a mission that others have deemed unlikely to succeed. His team is aided by two unlikely veterans including a Nazi-hating German (Dolph Lundgren) and an American hero (Mickey Rourke), and together they set out to win the war or die trying. This action romp has direct-to-DVD written all over it from the cast to the production design to the effects, and while that’s not automatically a negative here it adds up to very little. Lundgren and Rourke are minor players leaving Goss to carry most of the film.
[Blu-ray/DVD extras: None]
Kageyama is a young, industrious member of the yakuza who happens to work for an undead boss named Kamiura. He’s a vampire who uses his powers to run his clan while keeping the civilians in the area safe, happy, and protected from gentrification and unfair business practices. Kamiura is finally defeated though leaving Kageyama to inherit his bloodthirsty talents, but the younger yakuza lacks a certain something required for the job — namely self control. Takashi Miike is clearly having fun here, and there are more than a few glimpses of his insane, pop brilliance. There are a couple fun fights, and the script skewers the yakuza more often than it highlights them as the cool character types so many films have settled for. Unfortunately though, for every inspired minute there’s another one of dullness or absurdity for absurdity’s sake. The uneven nature of it all makes it difficult to get fully on board with our leads, and an attempt at infusing a love story into the mix fares no better.
[DVD extras: None]
Steven (Scott Adkins) makes his living dealing in illegal merchandise, but his moral code reaches its breaking point when the woman he loves is murdered by business partners. The girl, Angel, has a long lost father (Dustin Nguyen) equally familiar with life’s darker side, and together with a cop friend — and occasionally at odds with each other — they work to find Angel’s killer and make him pay. You’d be forgiven for giving no mind to a new film from the director of Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, but there’s actually some fun to be had here. The story is dark, and the action is brutal. Adkins gets some solid fight time — although it’s something of a crime to put him in a film also starring Gary Daniels without including a scene of the two fighting — and that alone makes it worthwhile. Script and acting aren’t up to the same level, but Adkins’ blistering beat-downs make up for it.
[DVD extras: None]
Zoolander – Blue Steelbook
Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is the world’s top male model, but two new challenges have entered his life. First up is Hansel (Owen Wilson), a new model sensation threatening Derek’s spot on top, and second is an evil fashion designer (Will Ferrell) who brainwashes Derek into becoming an assassin. You already know if the movie is for you — it’s an absurd comedy that milks laughs from visual gags and character extremes, some of which land far better than others. The sequel hits theaters early next year, and this new Blu-ray steelbook features a sneak peek along with two new featurettes and your own personal Zoolander hair/headband. It’s not really enough to warrant a double-dip, but if you’re a fan and don’t already own the film this is the way to go. *Walmart Exclusive*
[Blu-ray extras: Commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes]
Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo, Grace of Monaco, The Guardsman, L.A. Slasher, Lost In the Sun, Shark Lake, Zoo: Season One