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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week: Tomb Raider, A Wrinkle In Time, The Strangers: Prey At Night, and more

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Tomb Raider – There’s so much to like about the new Tomb Raider movie, it’s a shame it isn’t a better film. Things I like: Alicia Vikander is fantastic in the lead role, giving us everything we want Lara Croft to be. The film is miles ahead of the Angelina Jolie 2001 film. There are some great action sequences, especially the shipwreck scene and the waterfall scene. All that said, there’s just something missing from the film. It’s entertaining enough, but there’s no real heart to it. As much as I like Vikander in the lead role (and I really, really do), she just isn’t enough to carry the entire film on her shoulders. I really wish they could have found a way to make this film a home run, because it has some great moments. Tomb Raider comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray & DVD) and the film looks and sounds great in the premium 4K format. Colors are at a premium, and the imagery is razor sharp, with a booming soundtrack to bolster the action. It’s a great-looking disc.

A Wrinkle in Time – Disney had high hopes for this film to be a franchise starter, seeing as how Madeleine L’engle’s source novels spanned several books. Unfortunately, it didn’t do very well at the box office, and I can kind of see why. Before I go into that, I should say that my 11-year-old kids really enjoyed it. But as an adult, the film feels… well, weird. It’s just a story that’s kind of disjointed and very odd (much like the books, to be fair), and despite some impressive visuals and a script that tries to shoehorn in the concept of love being a powerful force in the universe, the film seems to lack heart. It’s not a bad movie at all, but it’s a bit like an acid trip that I suggest you be in the right mindset for.

The Strangers: Prey at Night – While this sequel to the now-ten-years-old The Strangers didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, I actually really enjoyed it. Instead of a couple, this time around a family (mom, dad, teenage brother and sister) are tormented by three mysterious strangers who simply want to hunt and kill them. Like the first film, this one uses suspense more than gore to give you a nice thrill ride filled with really intense moments. There’s also some cool scenes where a different character than you expect takes center stage for a while, keeping it from being overly predictable. With some creative deaths and some great chase/action sequences, this is a really fun way to kill 90 minutes.

Sherlock GnomesGnomeo and Juliet is a real favorite in our house. I love it, my wife absolutely adores it, and my kids love it. We’ve watched it dozens of times. So I was excited when they announced a sequel. Unfortunately, this time around Johnny Depp’s Sherlock Gnomes takes center stage, and while that has its entertainment value, it means that most of the characters who made the first film so lovable largely take a back seat to new characters, which is disappointing to say the least. The film isn’t bad, but it’s missing a lot of the humor and heart that made the first film so great. Shame.

The Hurricane Heist – I’m going to be completely honest here: I am absolutely the target audience for this film. 100% all in, even though it tanked at the box office. I love heist films, I’m obsessed with disaster films, and this movie combines both and throws in three actors I like (Maggie Grace, Toby Kebbell, and Ryan Kwanten) for good measure. I’m even a fan of the director, Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). So by all accounting, I should LOVE this movie. Which is what makes it so disappointing that it’s largely really bad. While the last 20 minutes or so is really fun and has some good special effects, the rest of the film is a mess, with barely-there logic, a terrible script, and no energy. The Hurricane Heist comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray & DVD) and I sill say that the film looks and sounds very good in the premium 4K format. The film isn’t particularly colorful (a lot of greys and browns steamroll the color palate) but the imagery is crystal clear, with a soundtrack that really brings the storm to life.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Complete Series – I’ve never really gotten to watch as much of Avatar: The Last Airbender as I’ve wanted to, but now the entire series has been released on Blu-ray for the first time. The Last Airbender is a cartoon that’s perfectly acceptable for kids, but is clearly not just for kids. I knew that this animated series took itself just a bit more seriously than your average cartoon when they mentioned a dead mother and used the word “sexist,” all in the first five minutes of the first episode. The show manages to really balance out a sense of drama with some fun and silly humor, and then it mixes it some great action and fantasy spectacle as well. The result is a cartoon that’s fun, exciting, engaging, and really fascinating to watch. This show has a mythology all its own, and it’s coupled with an amazing design sense that makes it a real pleasure to watch from a visual standpoint. The story is better watched than read, but it involves four warring factions and the “last airbender” or avatar, who may be the key to ending the war peacefully. It doesn’t sound all that interesting on paper, but trust me when I tell you it’s extremely cool on screen.

Jericho: The Complete Series – Even though it only lasted two seasons, Jericho amassed a sizable cult following. And while it’s been a while since the show has gotten any real attention, it’s now been re-released in a Complete Series box set. And I think the reason for it is pretty clear: The Walking Dead. (Bear with me, here.) See, the lead actor in the series was Skeet Ulrich. But one of the main supporting actors on the show was Lennie James, who plays Morgan in The Walking Dead (and now Fear the Walking Dead). And guess who all of a sudden gets the most prominent placement on the cover of the box set? Yep, Lennie James. Hey, I’m all for good marketing, and I like Jericho, so this is a fun way to get the show back out there a bit. This set includes every episode of the show, as well as all of the extra features that have been previously released. There’s no new material (save for the new cover art), but if you don’t own the show yet, now’s a good chance to get it for a low price.

Will & Grace (The Revival): Season One – I always enjoyed Will & Grace, so I thought it would be fun to revisit it when the show was relaunched. And, frankly, it doesn’t miss a beat, as the new episodes feel pretty much exactly like the old episodes. Which is both good and bad. On the plus side, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll enjoy this new relaunch. On the negative side, it kind of serves as a stark reminder that this is a pretty vapid and hollow sitcom. Yes, it’s funny, but there’s really very little substance to it, aside from the usual one or two scenes per episode where some character shows a little bit of heart. Fun, but lightweight.

The Death of Stalin – Critics love Armando Iannuci (VEEP, The Alan Partridge Show), but I’ll be honest, most of his productions just don’t do it for me. And sadly, The Death of Stalin is one of those films. Despite a great ensemble cast (Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine), the film really didn’t make me laugh. Then again, I find VEEP an incredibly unfunny show, and people absolutely love that. So I guess if you love VEEP, you’ll probably think this movie is great, too.

Devil’s Gate – Man, I really wanted to love this movie. A sci-fi thriller starring Milo Ventimiglia, Shawn Ashmore, and even Jonathan Frakes? Sign me up! And while the film is certainly watchable, its just kind of… meh. Frakes literally shows up for two scenes that are about two minutes long each, and while I love Shawn Ashmore, he doesn’t have a lot to do here. I will say that Milo Ventimiglia gives a searing performance as an obsessed man with a dark secret in his basement. He really goes to some dark places and he outshines everyone else in the film. But the movie is just never really that exciting or thrilling. It’s an easy way to kill 90 minutes, but there’s nothing memorable about it at all.

The Great Silence – Supposedly Quentin Tarantino’s favorite western (and it is directed y the same person who directed the original Django, so that tracks), this hard-hitting film stars Klaus Kinski as a violent bounty hunter who runs afoul of a mute gunslinger protecting the hunted group of men. With a score by Ennio Morricone and a tone and aesthetic that seems surprisingly modern you’d be hard-pressed to know that this film is 50 years old. This new anniversary edition Blu-ray gives the film new life on home video, and I have to say, it’s a pretty intense ride. Worth a watch!

Also available this week on Home Video:

  • Orange Is the New Black: Season 5 – I don’t think Netflix ever expected Orange is the New Black to be the huge it that it became, but it remains one of the most talked-about comedies on the internet video provider. It’s easy to see why, too. The show has a great cast, and the creators have wisely cast actors who fit the roles, not all beautiful super-models, so it feels a lot like what you imagine real prison to be like. It’s a fun show with some great dramatic moments, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit so far. Now those of you who don’t have Netflix can get caught up on the latest season.
  • Ancient Aliens: 10th Anniversary Giftset – For my money, Ancient Aliens is an interesting but flawed show. I’ve been fascinated by UFO’s, aliens, and unsolved mysteries of that variety since I was a kid, so this was naturally of interest to me. This newest release collects every single episode so far, on 31 discs, in a massive box set collection. If you’re not familiar with the show and its theory of Ancient Aliens, it’s a theory first posited in a book in the 1970s called Chariots of the Gods that theorizes that aliens visited earth in the distant past, building the pyramids and creating the Nazca lines, and things like that. This show explores everything surrounding the possibility of aliens visiting earth in the past, and while some of it comes off as the theories of crazy people, most of it is approached from an academic point of view. Ancient Aliens is interesting stuff, but as always, the lack of concrete answers can get frustrating, keeping this from being a show I can really enjoy. Still, if you’re a die-hard fan, this is the set you’ve been waiting for, all at a relatively low price.
  • The Invaders: The Complete Series – Imagine The Fugitive TV series, but instead of running from the police, the main character is running from aliens. That’s The Invaders, which stars Roy Thinnes as a man who discovers that aliens are invading the earth, and then goes on the run to try and expose their plot. Despite the fact that it’s from the 60’s, the show is surprisingly cool, and the color cinematography gives it a neat feel. Sure, there are some cheesy moments here or there, but the show takes itself seriously and is quite good. This nice (and affordable) box set includes both seasons of the show in one slim package. Recommended!!
  • 4K Releases: Terminator Genisys, Forrest Gump, Escape Plan, Dirty Grandpa – There are four new catalog releases this week making their debuts in the 4K Ultra HD premium format. Three of them even make sense! I’ll be honest, I have no idea why Dirty Grandpa warranted a 4K release. It wasn’t a big hit, and it certainly wasn’t a good film. It is extremely bright and colorful, though, which shines in 4K. The best release of the bunch (in A/V terms) is the special effects-heavy Terminator Genisys. Personally, I like the film (even though many people didn’t), but it looks and sounds extremely sharp in 4K. The special effects sequences especially look fantastic. Forrest Gump sees a nice upgrade in 4K, but the film’s age is evident and it’s not exactly a video revolution. Finally, Escape Plan is an extremely fun film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s not the most visually inventive film ever, but the 4K treatment lets the many dark scenes become more visible and improves the overall video quality, as well as giving the surround sound a little extra oomph.
  • Trading Places & Coming to America – While not on 4K Ultra HD, these two comedy stalwarts have new Anniversary Edition releases out on Blu-ray t his week. Which is great, I guess, even if they’ve each had a half dozen home video releases each. The big new addition this time is that both Coming to America and Trading Places include digital copies, so if you’re building a digital library, that’s a bonus. If you already own the films on Blu-ray though, it’s hard to make the case for an upgrade based solely on that. Still, they’re both great comedies that are worth revisiting!
  • Ninja III: The Domination – What do you do with your storyline after two successful low-budget ninja films? Well, you have a female character get possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, obviously! Ninja III: The Domination is as cult-y a cult classic as it gets, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s cheesy, cheap, and silly… and lots of fun. Now it makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout Factory, purveyors of the best cult classics in cinema. This isn’t a movie for people looking for high art or cinema greatness, but for a fun way to kill 90 minutes, it’ll fit the bill.
  • The Midnight Man – Robert Englund stars in this new horror flick that unfortunately doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. I mean, teenagers find a game that unleashes a monstrous force in their world? Been there, done that. Now I know there aren’t really new ideas in horror these days, so I can overlook that if the resulting film is fantastic, but this one is just average. It’s fun to see Englund in a supporting role, but the film is pretty average in every way.
  • An Ordinary Man – Ben Kingsley stars in this film about a Serbian war criminal in hiding who develops a sort of relationship with a cleaning woman. Ostensibly a thriller, the film is really much more of a drama, with a heavy dose of character study. Kingsley turns in a pretty good performance, although it ranges between under- and overstated (which is fairly typical for him), but the film is a slow burn and it doesn’t get anywhere quickly.
  • Power: Season 4 – I’ve watched sporadic episodes of this urban ganglord drama series on Starz, and while it’s not a bad show, for the most part. I have kind of a fundamental problem with it; the main character — the charismatic leader of a huge drug operation who wants to go straight while everyone else in his life pressures him not to — is just not a good guy. Which makes it kind of hard to root for the character to have a happy ending when he’s, at heart, not really all that worthy. Still, it is a solid drama and a compelling show, with great performances and seemingly every episode a cliffhanger ending, so fans of things like The Wire and The Shield will probably enjoy it quite a bit.
  • Freak Show – Sometimes you have to rely on the official copy to describe parts of a film. This movie is about a “fabulous, glitter-bedecked, gender-bending teenager whose razor-sharp wit is matched only his by his outrageous, anything-goes fashion sense” who gets sent to live with his father in an ultra-conservative townscape and sets out to become prom queen. This charming little film stars Alex Lawther in the lead role, and admittedly I am not familiar with him as an actor, although his performance is fantastic. The supporting cast includes Bette Midler, Abigail Breslin, Laverne Cox, and Annasophia Robb, all of whom add to the bottom line. Sure, it might not be a film for everyone, but it could be, and that’s the best thing about it.
  • King of Hearts – Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold star in this quirky dramedy that’s celebrating its 50th The film follows a Scottish soldier in World War I who discovers a town populated by people who were previously interred in a psychiatric hospital that was deserted during the war. Now, this small town has adopted a sort of fiefdom, which Bates’ soldier begins to fall for the oddity of. It’s a fun little film, not one I had ever encountered before, and it’s both classic and quirky at the same time.
  • Edward II – Tilda Swinton (and Annie Lennox) co-star in this period drama, but they take a slight back seat to Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan, who play King Edward and his gay lover. As you can imagine, that doesn’t go over so well in medieval times, and the film offers a new take on the story which sees Edward facing persecution and hatred. Directed by Derek Jarman, the film has been called “a landmark of gay cinema.”
  • The Steam Engine of Oz – Ron Perlman, William Shatner, and Julianne Hough lend their voices to this new Oz-inspired animated film. Now, obviously, there’s no shortage of Wizard of Oz adaptations, but this one at least tries to do something interesting. The film is set a hundred years after the events of the original, and Emerald City has become kind of an industrialized steampunk city. Enter young Victoria, who becomes the ersatz Dorothy this time around (although she’s a very different character.) The animation is nothing special, but it’s easily watchable and a little different from just another Wizard of Oz
  • Nickelodeon Favorites: Great Summer Campout! – This latest compilation of Nick Jr. cartoons includes summer-themed episodes of some of the network’s biggest hits, including Bubble Guppies, Shimmer and Shine, Blaze and the Monster Machines, Sunny Day and Nella the Princess Knight. There’s a lot of summer goodness here: campouts, sleepovers, sunshine, and fun, so little kids should have a lot of fun with it.
  • Hamlet – This filmed stage show features Maxine Peake playing Hamlet, one of the first women to take on the title role in a major production in over half a century. This Royal Exchange Theater production updates the setting to modern times, which gives the play a very different feel than your traditional Hamlet. Peake is fantastic in the lead role, and proves that there’s no right or wrong way to interpret Shakespeare. My biggest gripe with the production is just that it’s Shakespeare, whom I have never been a fan of. But people who appreciate the Bard should track this one down.
  • Loveless – From director Andrey Zvyagintsev, the auteur behind the critically acclaimed 2012 film Leviathan, comes another deep and dark movie. This time around, we meet a family with a 12-year-old son that is splintering under the weight of an impending divorce. When their son disappears, the couple must put aside their differences to search for him. It’s not an easy film to watch; not only do you have a missing child, but you also have a couple falling apart that feels entirely too real. But the performances, despite being in Russian, are outstanding, and if you don’t mind the heavier subject matter, it’s a rewarding film.
  • Tormentero – Speaking of dark films, this Spanish-language film about a retired schizophrenic alcoholic is bleak and depressing, and not necessarily in a good way. It’s a quiet and subdued film at times, and despite a good performance by Jose Carlos Ruiz, it’s not an easy film to watch. It’s not quite my type of tea, but people who like character portraits and tough circumstances might enjoy it.
  • Inflame – Another dark and disturbing foreign film, Inflame comes from Turkey and follows a young woman who may or may not be suffering from PTSD in the wake of the log-ago death of her parents. There is a central mystery at work here, but the film doesn’t have much of a thriller vibe to it. It’s more of a dark drama, and while there are some interesting moments in it, it didn’t really engage me very much.
  • The Cage Fighter – You don’t usually see a documentary about a fortysomething man who is working long hours working in a boiler room, going through a custody battle, dealing with his wife’s chronic illness, and the raising four girls… unless they’re also trying to make it as a mixed martial arts fighter. Here we meet Joe Carman, who is dealing with everything I just mentioned, and who is trying to break out of his life’s cycle by finding success in the octagon. It’s an interesting film, if not overly cheerful, and it helps if you are already an MMA fan.
  • Hostages – This Israeli tv show was adapted into an American series starring Toni Collette, but it was quickly canceled on CBS. This original show first aired in 2013, and now we have the first 10 episodes. While it is in Hebrew, there’s no denying that it’s an intense and dramatic show that is at times quite thrilling. The premise sees a surgeon being instructed to kill the prime minister during a routine surgery or her family will be killed. I mean, how can you not be interested to see how that will play out?
  • In Syria – This Syrian drama that sees a mother and her family dealing with a war right outside their walls is a drama that is punctuated by moments of action and suspense. Acclaimed actress Hiam Abbass (The Visitor, Blade Runner 2049) is terrific in the lead role, and while most people don’t know much about what’s happening in Syria, this film will give a glimpse into the situation there, even if its dramatized. Powerful stuff.
  • West of the Jordan River – This documentary looks at the Israel/Palestine conflict through the eyes of the people living it. Filmmaker Amos Gitai shares his interviews with Yitzhak Rabin from the 1990s as well as with regular people and everyday citizens – both Israeli and Palestinian. It’s an interesting-enough film, but I’d be lying if I said I was really looking to watch yet another program about this never-ending conflict.
  • Our Blood is Wine – Did you know they’ve made wine in Georgia for over 8,000 years? No, not the Georgi that the Atlanta Falcons hail from, but rather the Georgia that is part of the Russian landscape. Here, Filmmaker Emily Railsback and sommelier Jeremy Quinn look at the rebirth of the winemaking industry in a country where the art form almost died under Soviet rule. I’m not a wine drinker, but this is a relatively entertaining and informative doc.
  • PBS Releases – PBS brings us four new releases this week. First up is Frontline: Bitter Rivals – Iran and Saudi Arabia, which brings us a look at a different middle eastern conflict, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I mean, at least it’s not another Israel/Palestine exploration, but I might be a little Middle East-ed out right now. Then we have three new The Real Story releases: True Grit, Live Free or Die Hard, and Braveheart. These documentary-styled specials look at the real-life events behind popular movies. This time around, we learn about the dangers of the real wild west that inspired True Grit, the danger of hackers devoted to destruction that inspired Live Free or Die Hard, and the real story of William Wallace, the basis for Braveheart. I enjoy these programs that give us both real life and movies, and they’re quick, easy watches that are priced affordably.

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