Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
We took a week off because of TIFF, but we're back with our biweekly column about the latest and greatest offerings on Netflix, Video On Demand and Blu-ray/DVD. Of course, the extra seven days means that this is an even heartier portion of HECG than usual. Dig in.
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
A diverse array of new streaming offerings hit the world's most popular service in the last few weeks, including a few films into which we'll go in more detail in the Blu-ray section below. That's an interesting trend lately—films hitting Netflix almost in conjunction with their DVD and Blu-ray releases instead of months later. It makes you wonder how much longer physical media can survive if it doesn't even have exclusivity.
3 NEW TO VOD
Want to see something currently in theaters instead of currently on Blu-ray and DVD? Check out three movies now playing in New York and Los Angeles but not in many cities, but available on Demand services like Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. You might like one of them.
14 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
Adding an extra week to our time between guides has created an unusual amount of releases worth considering, including one of the best films of 2015, an array of fantastic Criterion releases, a gigantic blockbuster that works, a few kids' movies, and much more. I know we say this a lot, but there really IS something for everyone in this week's Guide, with links to buy what intrigues you most of all.
Asghar Farhadi is one of the most essential filmmakers working today. He broke through with "A Separation," the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and increased his reputation with "The Past" two years later. He actually made "About Elly" before "A Separation," and it won the Silver Bear for Best Director in 2009, but rights issues kept it from being released stateside until 2015, and it recently hit Blu-ray. It's a phenomenal film that some have compared to "L'Avventura," but it's almost more interesting to watch it as a precursor to what Farhadi would go on to accomplish in his next two films. In many ways, it lays the thematic foundation of the dischord that erupts from lies and kept secrets. A group of friends travel to the shore of the Caspian Sea for a vacation. One of them (the phenomenal Golshifteh Farahani) brings along the titular character, the kindergarten teacher of her daughter, to meet a single male friend on the trip as well. After one of the children nearly drowns, Elly goes missing. Did she drown as well? The mystery element of "About Elly" isn't of as much interest to Farhadi as the impact of her disappearance and the secrets she was hiding. This is a fascinating, character-driven drama that has all the tension of a thriller, and unfolds in such a way that it doesn't even completely register until the next day. It's on Netflix now as well, but serious film fans will want to own this one.
Press Conference with director Asghar Farhadi and actors Golshifteh Farahani, Peyman Moadi, Rana Azadiver and Merila Zarei at the 59th Berlin Film Festival
"From Iran, A Separation"
Booklet Featuring Essay by Tina Hassannia, Author of "Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema"
"Blind Chance" (Criterion)
It's funny how recent, unrelated Blu-ray releases can often feel like companions. Just as "About Elly" is interesting as a thematic precursor to "A Separation," it's impossible to watch Krzystof Kieslowski's 1981 drama without considering how it plays with themes similar to "The Double Life of Veronique" and the "Three Colours" trilogy. Kieslowski is a master, one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, and "Blind Chance," which, again like "Elly," wasn't seen by many until 6 years after it was made (although this one was due to Polish censorship) is a fascinating play on fate, possibility and his country's political climate. The great Boguslaw Linda plays Witek, a man who we see in three separate realities (not unlike "Sliding Doors" or "Run Lola Run," two films clearly influenced by this one). In each, he becomes involved in the Communist Party in Poland, although in distinctly different ways, and all on the happenstance of an interaction on a train platform. Kieslowski was already operating at the top of his game in 1981. Look at the fluid camerawork, challenging dialogue and deep thematic concerns. This is one of those excellent films that I don't think I would have seen without the Criterion Collection, and further proves their essential value to the form.
New interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski
Interview with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland from 2003
Nine sections from the film originally censored in Poland
Plus: An essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a 1993 interview about the film with director Krzysztof Kieslowski
"Moonrise Kingdom" (Criterion)
Of course, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" is a very well-known film, and its addition to the Criterion Collection is not so much to bring it to a wider audience as with something like "Blind Chance," but to really elevate its place in recent film history with a perfect transfer and interesting special features. To that end, Criterion delivers one of the most entertaining audio commentaries that I've ever heard, spearheaded by Anderson and child star Jake Ryan (one of the kids from the movie), and featuring appearances by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. It is a commentary that is both interesting to film lovers (which cameras they used, miniature design, location, etc.) and totally random and hilarious. They take questions from a mailbag, Ryan does impressions of Billy Crystal playing Fernando on "Saturday Night Live," someone falls asleep, Anderson starts talking about "Grand Budapest Hotel" instead of "Moonrise," and Bill Murray admits to having never seen "Bottle Rocket." It's hilarious and truly insightful as to Anderson's entire career, especially when Roman comments that most Wes films are about how "you don't always get the family that you want, so you craft the family that you need." The other special features are fun and interesting, but the commentary alone justifies the Criterion pricetag. Well, that and the movie already feels like a classic.
Audio commentary featuring Anderson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola
Selected-scene storyboard animatics
Interviews with cast and crew
Exploring the Set of "Moonrise Kingdom," an original documentary about the film
Norton's home movies from the set
Behind-the-scenes, special effects, and test footage
Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a selection of commentary from young writers, along with a map of New Penzance Island and other ephemera
"Love & Mercy"
John Cusack and Paul Dano star as Brian Wilson in this strong drama about the musical genius that avoids many of the biopic trappings by focusing so intently on two separate periods of Wilson's life. Dano plays a young Wilson, struggling with mental illness and crippling insecurity brought on by his abusive father and unsupportive brothers. Out of this environment, he creates "Pet Sounds," and Dano expertly captures the combination of fragility and genius within Wilson. Later in life, Cusack plays a struggling Wilson, who meets the love of his life (played by Elizabeth Banks), and breaks from an abusive manager (Paul Giamatti). Both halves of "Love & Mercy" feature versions of Brian Wilson escaping people who would bring them down and finding some semblance of happiness, first through music and then through domestic bliss. The performances here are strong throughout, and the music couldn't be better. It's gorgeously transferred to the Blu-ray, which really captures the most important element of "Love & Mercy": Brian Wilson's music.
"A California Story: Creating the Look of 'Love & Mercy'" Featurette
"A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson" Featurette
Speaking of Blu-rays that you should turn up loud, it's the only way to watch "Furious 7," the latest and arguably greatest in the "Fast & Furious" series. With "Fast Five," this franchise tossed all semblance of logic out the window, essentially becoming vehicular superhero movies. The result is a series that has become more inspired in its cartoonish action insanity with every installment. "Furious 7" has made over $1.5 BILLION worldwide, currently ranking as the fifth highest grossing film worldwide of all time (more than the last "Avengers" movie, more than any "Lord of the Rings" movie, more than any "Harry Potter" movie). "Furious 7" isn't just a blockbuster, it's a phenomenon, and anyone who thinks they can just ignore something like this and still understand the current film landscape is delusional. There's something about these movies (at least the last three) that is striking a nerve with viewers around the world. They're passionate, tongue-in-cheek, fun, and never boring. They are high-octane diversions for an increasingly troubled world, and that's not something critics should dismiss.
The Cars of Furious
Inside The Fight
"See You Again" Official Music Video
"Back To The Starting Line"
"Snatch and Grab"
"Making Of" Fast & Furious "Supercharged Ride"
"Crystal Lake Memories"
Only devoted, hardcore horror movie fans would commit themselves to watching 400 minutes of behind-the-scenes documentary footage that covers all twelve "Friday the 13th" movies in more extensive detail than you could probably imagine. I am one such fan. And I was stunned at the overall quality Daniel Farrands' epic undertaking, which details the production of each film, one by one, including interviews with most of the major players, deleted scenes, storyboards, etc. While the proceedings are, understandably, a bit self-serving (you might be led to believe that all twelve films are "good"), they also allow for dissenting voices to point out the silliness of "Jason X" and offer ways that "Freddy vs. Jason" could have been better (especially if it had been done earlier). I really loved the behind the scenes details about production issues that derailed films like "Jason Lives" and censorship problems that really changed part 3. While I think over half of the "Friday the 13th" films are subjectively "bad," I still found production details about them fascinating. That's the sign of a good movie doc. This is extensive in such ridiculous ways that it's easy to say it's for the hockey mask-wearing nuts only, but it's also well-done enough to create new fans as well.
Commentary with Daniel Farrands, Peter Bracke and Luke Rafalowski
Making my horror nut bona fides clear in the previous entry, you might expect me to lavish praise on Wes Craven's 1989 wacko flick recently given the Scream Factory treatment, but you'd be wrong. In fact, watching "Shocker" again this week was a bit depressing, especially given the horror master's recent passing. I forgot how clearly this film was designed to be a new "Nightmare on Elm Street," complete with its own Freddy Krueger, a serial killer (played by Mitch Pileggi) who can possess people and travel through electrical currents. Peter Berg is just horrible here, and Craven's skill, while evident, can't save the choppy, inconsistent screenplay, nor justify its near two-hour running time. Scream Factory does everything they can to polish it up, and I found some of the new interviews great, just don't get your hopes up that the movie itself has improved over time as I did.
Audio Commentary with director of photography Jacques Haitkin, co-producer Robert Engelman, and composer William Goldstein
All-new interviews with actor Mitch Pileggi, actress Cami Cooper and executive producer Shep Gordon
No More Mr. Nice Guy - The Music of "Shocker"
TV and Radio Spots
Radio Spots and Storyboard Gallery
Lee Toland Krieger's romantic fantasy film comes much closer to working than I expected when it played in theaters, thanks largely to strong production values and a great supporting turn by Harrison Ford. Sadly, it's not quite committed to the lunacy of its concept enough, and that's coming from a romantic at heart who likes a tale of magical love every now and then in films like "The Lake House" and even "The Time Traveler's Wife" (yes, I know, I'm not supposed to admit that). Blake Lively stars as the title character, a woman who stops aging after a car accident when she was 28. She's had to spend most of her life on the run, as she cannot explain her lack of natural progression. She meets a man (Michiel Huisman) with whom she falls in love, but she's scared to tell him her secret. Sadly, Lively plays her role a bit too straight and dull, and she lacks chemistry with Huisman. Still, "Age" works as a visual piece, with its falling snow, moon-lit roads, and luscious costume design. It's a film that LOOKS romantic, even if it isn't quite.
Audio Commentary with director Lee Toland Krieger
A Love Story for the Ages
Style Throughout the Ages
Discovering Young Harrison Ford: Anthony Ingruber, an Online Sensation
Three live-action kids movies based on hit books were recently released by Sony, including two from 1995 and one from exactly ten years later. The biggest hit of the bunch, and arguably the best film of the three, is "Jumanji," one of Robin Williams' biggest hits from that period of his career when he was inexplicably a gigantic family movie star (in films like this, "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Flubber"). "Jumanji" gets a bit too hectic and manic for its own good, but Williams' fans will want to own it at a discounted price with a digital HD copy for good measure. Advertised as a quasi-sequel to "Jumanji" (the books were written by the same author), "Zathura" is a mediocre family film that's kind of interesting as the bridge between Favreau's early films ("Swingers," "Elf") and the action stuff he would do later ("Iron Man," "Cowboys vs. Aliens"). Finally, "Indian in the Cupboard" comes from the best source material of the three, but always felt a little flat to me as a film. People who adore the book should be happy that the film is finally on Blu-ray, and if this release brings more people to the source material then it's done some good.
Kenneth Branagh delivers a surprisingly straightforward and visually sumptuous take on the classic character made famous by Disney, and now a part of the company's new trend of reimagining their animated icons in live-action form (2014's "Maleficent," "Jungle Book" forthcoming in 2016, and they're making a Cruella de Vil project as well). Again, it's a film with top-notch production values (the costume design is particularly notable), but it doesn't quite have the magic of the original. It almost looks TOO good, especially the somewhat flat performance from Lily James as the title character. It doesn't really help that Cate Blanchett steals the piece as the Wicked Stepmother. As usual, she can do no wrong. Theatrical short "Frozen Fever" is pretty wonderful for fans of the Oscar-winning hit "Frozen." Elsa tries to throw Anna a birthday party but has a cold that creates little snowmen every time she sneezes. Mostly a musical number, it's cute, and arguably better than "Cinderella".
Buy it here
"Frozen Fever" Theatrical Short
A Fairy Tale Comes To Life: Filmmakers and stars reflect on Cinderella's enduring power.
Staging The ball: Experience the making of the lavish Palace Ball sequence.
Alternative Opening: Ella's Childhood - View added moments from Ella's childhood.
Ella's Furry Friends: See how the animal stars honed their memorable performances.
"Breaker Morant" (Criterion)
"Mister Johnson" (Criterion)
Finally, Bruce Beresford sees two of his films inducted into the Criterion Collection that serve almost as bookends, all the way down to their similar cover design from the company so well-known for its art that there's a coffee table of its best work. 1980's "Breaker Morant" is the better of the two, based on the play by Kenneth G. Ross and Beresford. Edward Woodward stars as the title character, a man on trial for war crimes in 1902 with two of his fellow soldiers. Based on real events, "Breaker Morant" is a visually striking film (one wouldn't guess it was based on a play given how much Beresford opens it up) with great performances by Woodward and Bryan Brown. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay (as well as winning TEN Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film) and really put Beresford on the map. Ten years later, and a year after his "Driving Miss Daisy" won Best Picture, Bruce Beresford would release "Mister Johnson," based on the novel by Joyce Cary. It's nowhere near the film that "Breaker Morant" is, but it does display Beresford's delicate skill with historical drama; his ability to transport viewers without painting history in melodramatic tones.
"Breaker Morant" Special Features
Audio commentary featuring Beresford from 2004
New interviews with Beresford, cinematographer Donald McAlpine, and actor Bryan Brown
Interview with actor Edward Woodward from 2004
New piece about the Boer War with historian Stephen Miller
"The Breaker," a 1973 documentary profiling the real Harry "Breaker" Morant, with a 2010 statement by its director, Frank Shields
Plus: An essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard
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A classic thriller that moves with a sense of purpose.