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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week: Beauty and the Beast, John Wick 2, Lego Batman Movie and more

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Beauty and the Beast – Obviously, Beauty and the Beast was a massive, massive worldwide hit. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie. So what’s the verdict? Honestly, I really enjoyed the film. It looks terrific, it captures the spirit of the original film, the new songs fit in well, and it has a stellar cast. Is it quite as good as the 1992 animated classic? No, but that’s not surprising. Is it pretty darn good in its own right? Absolutely. Emma Watson does Belle justice and Dan Stevens turns in a terrific motion-capture performance as the Beast, which couldn’t have been an easy task. And while the film is filled with special effects, there’s a nice feel to them that gives it a dreamy feeling without feeling fake, if that makes sense. If you love the original film, you should be a fan of this one; it’s got a lot to offer.

The Lego Batman Movie – Good lord, this is a funny movie. It’s almost a little too funny at times, as the action and the jokes are so rapid-fire that sometimes it’s hard to take them all in. That said, however, that’s really my only complaint. Not only does the film look great, but it’s filled to bursting with really funny jokes, some of which are aimed directly at the Batman character as well as the franchise as a whole (although all done with a lot of love.) There’s a solid story, and – as with the LEGO movie – the extra franchises that guest appear are a lot of fun to watch. This new Blu-ray edition includes four Batman LEGO animated shorts as well, giving you more Batbang for your Batbuck.

John Wick: Chapter 2 – I loved the original John Wick, but I have to admit to being a little disappointed in John Wick 2. For the most part, despite some neat additions to the mythos of John Wick’s world (expanding on the hotel concept from the first film), it sadly resorts to nothing but endless gun battles to carry the major part of the action. It’s so much so that not only does it get repetitive (there’s one major gun battle that feels exactly like one that happened an hour earlier), but it gets kind of boring: head shot after head shot after head shot. There’s even a part of the film where John Wick has to get across the city with just one gun with seven bullets in it, and you think: Oh man, this is gonna be good! Until he shoots a bad guy picks up his gun, and just carries on with seemingly unlimited ammo. Sigh. It’s not a bad movie, but it does cause fatigue and I was a little disappointed in it.

Bambi – Okay, Disney, I love ya, but the re-releases are getting out of hand. Celebrating some anniversary of Bambi, this newest version of the classic film is part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection, which sees the film (restored and remastered, but I believe that was done for a previous re-release) repacked with new and archival features, a digital copy, and even a mini-lithograph inside the packaging. I’ll say this: it’s easily the best version of the film on home video to date, but there’s a good chance you already own Bambi on Blu-ray, and if you do, you don’t really need this version. If you don’t have it already, well, then what are you waiting for? It’s one of the true Disney classics and this is a really nice release.

A United Kingdom – If you’re familiar with Loving, the Oscar-nominated film about a man white man and a black woman in love during a time when such a thing was literally illegal in the US, then you probably want to also check out A United Kingdom, which sees a white woman (the always excellent Rosamund Pike) falling in love with not just a Black man, but royalty (played by the also always excellent David Oyelowo.) This moving film tells a story of love, racism, acceptance, and people overcoming great odds. It’s a beautiful film with searing performances, and while it was largely ignored here in the US, it made more of a splash in the UK – and deservedly so.

Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire – I’m a huge fan of the original Dragonheart from 1996. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite movies. And I was always bummed that it wasn’t a bigger hit at theaters. Unfortunately, it seems to have made just enough money to spawn a sporadic series of direct-to-video spin-off/sequel films. And while I had high hopes that this one might capture SOME of the magic of the original (Patrick Stewart as the voice of the dragon? Yes, please!), sadly, it’s pretty bad. The dragon effects are pretty good, but the story focuses on two siblings fighting for the crown while bonded to the dragon, Drago. The problem is that you never care about a single character in the film, and, well, it’s kind of boring. I really wanted to like this one and maybe see some greatness return to this franchise, but it wasn’t meant to be. I’ll stick with the original, thanks.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Eighth and Final Season – Going into Season Eight, The Vampire Diaries concludes after a pretty damn successful run. And while I’m sure there are fans who are sad to see it go, I think the show had run its course and it was time to shut it down. As usual, a few story threads from season seven carried over, while new stories developed. Through to the end, the show remained a soapy slice of genre fun, filled with romance, bloodletting, and even werewolves on occasion. The extra features aren’t overly heavy on this set, but there is a nice retrospective documentary that fans will enjoy.
  • Enter the Warriors Gate – This film was co-written – but not directed – by Luc Besson, he of The Fifth Element and Leon the Professional. It’s a fun if slightly cheesy movie about a video game-obsessed teenager who ends up protecting an ancient Chinese princess in modern-day America, before finding himself transported back to ancient China on a quest to save her. So a little bit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but with more video games, swordplay, tattoos, and Dave Bautista. While it’s not a great film, it’s a surprising amount of fun if you can get past a few cringeworthy moments here and there. Worth a look if you’re looking for something to kill some time with.
  • Mine – Armie Hammer stars in this tense (if occasionally a bit esoteric) thriller about a soldier in the middle of the desert who is cut off from his squad and finds himself with his foot on a mine. If he moves, he dies. While it’s easy for movies like these to become boring, I love this genre, with one character stuck in one situation and trying to survive. Armie Hammer is terrific in the lead role, and Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy, Annabelle) has a supporting role as his wife, and the film offers enough in the way of story set-up and flashbacks to keep this from just being one guy stuck in the sand for 90 minutes. I really enjoyed this one and it’s worth a watch.
  • 3 Generations – Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon, and Elle Fanning, makes a cast that is probably worth watching. And not surprisingly, the performances are the highlight of the film, here. The movie focuses on a family that spans – you guessed it – three generations. The twist here? The youngest one is transgendered. Obviously, this is a very topical movie, and while it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly is a well-put together movie. Like I said, the performances are great, which helps balance out some of the movie’s slightly uneven moments.
  • Kill ‘Em All – Jean Claude Van Damme stars in this direct-to-video actioner that forgets some of the action and instead tries to deliver an engaging mystery/thriller. I say tries because while it does try, it doesn’t really succeed. This is as solidly a three-star film if I’ve ever seen one. Van Damme plays the requisite mysterious stranger who wakes up in a hospital and instantly finds that men are trying to kill him. And sure, that’s a solid premise for an action film, but there’s just not as much action as you want, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot for Van Damme to do. I mean, I’ve seen worse, but it’s really just a filler movie from the word go.
  • Don’t Knock Twice – I don’t really expect much from horror movies these days. By and large, the genre is filled with pretty bad movies, so I’ve just found that it’s better if I don’t get too excited about anything. So you get a movie like Don’t Knock Twice, which is ultimately nothing special, and it seems pretty damn good by comparison. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s a pretty solid horror flick overall, mostly due to the strong performances by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, my favorite film of 2016). Check it out if you want a decent horror flick.
  • Bitter Harvest – Based on the true story of Stalin’s starvation genocide of Ukrainians during World War II, this film stars Max Irons, Samantha Barks, and Terence Stamp. It’s one of those movies that tackles a real subject but it’s one of the lesser-known episodes of the second World War. The film itself is fairly bleak, but there is a central story that tries to draw viewers in. Of course, it’s painted through the lens of a young couple in love who are torn apart by these events, which anchors the story. The film isn’t terrible, but it’s not great, either, and I’d recommend it mostly for war buffs or fans of romance movies against bleak backgrounds.
  • Alone in Berlin – Also a World War II tale, but a much more effective one, Alone in Berlin tells the true story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a couple who lose their young son on the front lines. Ravaged by grief, they begin spreading anti-Nazi propaganda through the use of postcards, risking their lives to speak the truth. Based on a true story, the film stars Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, and Daniel Bruhl, which is a trio of incredibly talented actors. The story is gripping, the film is a brisk 95 minutes, and the cast makes it electrifying to watch. Track this one down.
  • Son of Joseph – I’ll be honest, I have no idea what to really make of Son of Joseph. As crafted by Eugene Green (American born, although the film is in French), the film takes the story of a teen in search of his father, but it’s anything but a straightforward narrative. Sort of a drama, sort of a comedy, sort of a surreal story, the film seems to fit with what I’ve read of Green’s other films. While I haven’t seen any of them, it seems like he makes movies that are challenging to say the least, and that’s what I found this movie to be: challenging. I can guarantee there’s an audience for this film, but I’m not a part of it.
  • Frantz – Admittedly, a black-and-white two-hour-long French and German-language drama about widows and other people left behind in the aftermath of war might not be everyone’s cup of tea. This story of a widow whose husband died in the trenches and the mysterious man she meets at his grave is not an action film, a comedy or a genre film. It’s a character study with excellent performances by two actors who are pretty much complete unknowns in the US. And while it might be just a touch long for my tastes, it’s still a terrific film that’s worth watching if you want something a little more challenging.
  • PBS Documentaries – PBS has four new documentaries out this week. Secrets of the Dead – Leonardo: The Man Who Saved Science is my favorite of the quartet, but admittedly I’ve always been fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci. This special focuses on his scientific achievements and how some of them might have been created centuries before him. It’s pretty interesting overall. The next three, American Masters – Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft, American Masters: James Beard, and American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution all focus on food. Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft follows the man who brought us 13 different TV series and over 30 cookbooks, becoming a cooking celebrity in the process. Meanwhile, American Masters: James Beard focuses on the multihyphenate Beard, who was a cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity and teacher long before most of those were viable careers for many people. Finally, Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution follows the esteemed “food revolutionary” and chef who fought for (and continues to fight for) better food, healthier food, better feeding of our children, and more. It’s a great three-course meal of food documentaries.
  • Decoy: The Complete Series – Although it only ran for 39 episodes, the little-seen Decoy was a pretty groundbreaking show in its day. It was the first TV show to film on location in New York City, the first show to feature a female police officer in the lead role, and one of the first shows to tackle some pretty heady subject matter that was rarely seen on TV back in the day (or 1957, to be exact.) Starring Beverly Garland, the show is a pretty entertaining police procedural, but I really like the endings of the episodes where Garland addresses the audience directly. It’s such a different feel than so many shows of that era. While it has some slow moments here and there, I found this show – that I’d never even heard of before – a pretty neat discovery. Bonus – it’s available at a bargain price, giving you more bang for your buck than you find very often these days.
  • Strike a Pose – What happened to the back-up dancers from Madonna’s Truth or Dare tour, the one that was famously chronicled in a film in which she deep throated a soda bottle? I don’t know about you, but not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself that same question. But seriously, this interesting documentary follows up on said dancers from that tour some two decades ago and follows up with their lives and careers after the tour. With six gay and one straight male dancer profiled, the film offers up some pretty different experiences and personalities, and it’s a pretty engaging watch overall.
  • Shaun the Sheep: Animal Antics – This disc is the latest release in there popular Shaun the Sheep franchise from the creators of Wallace & Gromit. You might have seen these clever cartoons (all done in claymation) as interstitials (and later a regular series and movie) on Disney Junior, and they really are a lot of fun. What I especially like about the show is that my kids think they’re hysterical, but as an adult I also really enjoy the humor as they’re very smartly written. Of course, this disc has an animal theme to it, so kids will enjoy the heck out of it.
  • The Iron Ivan – This big-budget Russian-language biopic tells the story of Ivan Poddubniy who may be largely unknown in the US, but is a hero in his homeland of Russia. With a wrestling career that spanned 45 years and six World Championship and Olympic titles. This film follows his rise to fame, the challenges he endured, and the woman he loved. It’d a surprisingly good film considering that I’d never heard of the movie (which was actually released in 2014) or the wrestler it’s based on. Ignore the fact that it’s subtitled and check it out if you like a good biopic.

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