Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
The July 1st update to everyone's favorite streaming service was a fantastic one, loaded with classic films that range from "From Here to Eternity" to the franchise that made Sylvester Stallone a household name (just in time for the excellent "Creed" trailer to drop no less). Netflix continues to impress with the diversity of its catalog. This is a great, varied group of ten films that hit the service in just the last five days. Pick a few to watch this weekend.
3 NEW TO VOD
Again this week Fox On Demand makes the interesting move of offering a hit release weeks before it's available on DVD or even for digital rental. The fact is that kids movies are always going to be one of the biggest sellers, physically or digitally, because kids like to watch their favorite movies over and over again. The latest early Fox On Demand release purchasable through services like Vudu, Amazon and iTunes is "Home," starring the voices of Jim Parsons and Rihanna. My kids dig it, but I have to admit to being pretty annoyed by the character design and voice work. Still, I find this new trend one of the most interesting stories in how we watch movies, especially with the recent news that Paramount is going to shorten the window between theatrical and home release. How long until they're the same day for all studios? Probably still a ways off, but watch "Home" until then. (Or one of the art movies opening tomorrow and hitting VOD day and date. We'll have reviews of both in the morning.)
8 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
"The Killers" (Criterion)
The coolest thing about the Criterion package for "The Killers" is its comprehensiveness. Not only does it include restored versions of the most well-known adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's short story—Robert Siodmak's 1946 version and Don Siegel's 1964 version—but it also includes Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 student short film adaptation (the legendary director's first work), a radio adaptation from 1949 with Burt Lancaster, and even an audio recording from 2002 of Stacy Keach reading the short story. It is, shall we say, definitive. And what's great about it is that all versions have something to offer. Look at Tarkovsky's visual confidence even as a student. Watch Lancaster own the screen in his debut in the 1946 version. Admire the pure energy of Siegel's version (believe it or not, my favorite) with great performances from Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan. "The Killers" has never gotten the same degree of attention as some of its noir colleagues, but this set makes a convincing argument that it should.
Andrei Tarkovsky's short film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," made when he was a student in 1956
Interview from 2002 with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky about both films
Piece from 2002 in which actor Stacy Keach reads Hemingway's short story
"Screen Directors'" Playhouse radio adaptation from 1949 of the 1946 film, starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters
Interview from 2002 with actor Clu Gulager
Audio excerpt from director Don Siegel's autobiography, "A Siegel Film," read by actor and director Hampton Fancher
PLUS: Essays by novelist Jonathan Lethem and critic Geoffrey O'Brien
This was my biggest Blu-ray surprise of the last couple weeks, having generally written off Al Pacino's bad career choices of late and hearing little about it in theaters other than our positive review. I should have trusted our review. Yes, the loosely-true story of an aging rocker who seeks redemption after discovering John Lennon wrote him a personal letter four decades earlier is undeniably melodramatic and manipulative, but the cast carries it. Pacino hasn't been this loose and engaging in a long time. Watch his flirtation with Annette Bening or the way he handles the emotional minefield scenes with his estranged son, played perfectly by the always-great Bobby Cannavale. I wish the script didn't get quite so soapy in the final act but it had generally won me over by then. Trust me, no one was more surprised.
Behind the Scenes of "Danny Collins"
Danny Collins - Album Covers Through the Years
This 2014 Sundance drama was one of the most talked about films of that year's fest but took over a year to come out and I feel like a lot of the buzz had died down. It's a quality piece of work that I hope viewers find now that it's on Blu-ray and DVD, if just for the striking performance at its center from Rinko Kikuchi. Inspired by a true story, Kikuchi plays a mentally unstable woman who becomes convinced that the "true story" of "Fargo" can lead her to a buried fortune. The film by the Zellner brothers is initially just an odd character study but it becomes something darker and more philosophical as it progresses, ending on a surprisingly resonant note.
A film about a Scotsman coming to the Old West shot in New Zealand and told in a fairy tale style—it's no wonder "Slow West" divided audiences when it was released a couple months ago. Already on Blu-ray, I expect its fan base to grow. With all due respect to our critic (who disliked the inaccuracies of the script), this fable of the West worked completely for me when I saw it at Sundance and even more when I programmed it for the Chicago Critics Film Festival. It is a film that opens with the words "Once Upon a Time..." and plays with archetypes of the genre from there. The lost kid, the bounty hunter with a soul, the posse of villains, the one who got away, etc. It is a lyrical, absorbing film, one that is hard to shake when it's over, like a great campfire story passed down through the generations.
On Strange Land: Making Slow West
I must admit to something that makes me different from a lot of my colleagues: I'm hit and miss on Noah Baumbach. I find much of his work misanthropic ("Margot at the Wedding" is particularly loathsome), but I've always recognized that he's a smart writer and talented filmmaker, even in the films that didn't really work for me. "While We're Young," at least until the final act, works for me. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are charming as a couple who kickstart their mid-life crisis when they befriend a younger pair played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Stiller hasn't been this realistically enjoyable in a long time, and Watts makes every film better by her involvement. There's a nice energy, clever commentary on generation gaps, and buoyant filmmaking for the first hour of "Young." And the wheels don't come completely off in the final act, it just doesn't quite stick the landing.
6 Behind-the-Scenes Vignettes:
"Working with Filmmaker Noah Baumbach"
"Working with Charles Grodin"
Speaking of films that don't stick the landing, the final scenes of "Maggie" feel like a bit of a cop-out given the set-up of what comes before. Without spoiling it, the film denies its protagonist a real ending. Up to that point, what most people will take away from this "Zombama" (Zombie Drama) is a reminder that Arnold Schwarzeneger can act. He's great here as a father preparing himself for the inevitable after his daughter (Abigail Breslin) becomes a victim of a zombifying disease that has ravaged the planet. Henry Hobson's film is a visually confident examination of a world gone to ruin and the ultimate pain of the loss of a child. Arnie really delivers, nearly justifying a rental on his own, even if I found Hobson's endlessly bleak tone a bit much to take at times.
"Making 'Maggie'" Featurette
"The Town That Dreaded Sundown"
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's divisive "Me & Earl & the Dying Girl" has been one of the arthouse hits of the Summer, making it the right time to release his previous work, a meta-adaptation of the '70s slasher pic produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum. In Gomez-Rejon's film, the original movie exists and serves as the impetus for a new round of killings in Texarkana. Gomez-Rejon, who cut his teeth on episodes of "Glee" and "American Horror Story," has a notable style that elevates "Town" above your standard straight-to-DVD horror fare. There's a brutal, direct approach to the murder scenes in "Sundown" that allows them to resonate. Like the first film, the kills here are ugly and violent. And supporting roles like the ones filled by Gary Cole and Anthony Anderson are engaging. I don't think the film completely works but it's worth a look, especially for fans of the genre. It's exclusively at Best Buy for now but will be at Amazon in September and you can pre-order below. Sadly, it doesn't come with Special Features now and probably won't then either.
I'm disturbed by a recent trend of art movies not getting Blu-ray releases. There's a big one next week (that won a Cesar Award!) and this week there's this excellent action thriller that Lionsgate decided didn't deserve the HD treatment. Nonsense. Maybe when Jack O'Connell's star reaches its apex, they'll go back and give this the Blu-ray release it deserves. The great O'Connell ("Unbroken," "Starred Up") star as Gary Hook, a British soldier stranded behind enemy lines in his own country in the streets of Belfast in 1971. He has to find his way home or be killed by his own countrymen. Director Jann Demange employs a Paul Greengrass approach with tight close-ups and shaky, intense camerawork. It's a solid drama. Clearly a better film than Lionsgate thinks it is, pouring salt in the wound by not even including a single special feature on the DVD-only release.
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