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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Escape Room, Miss Bala, Mary Poppins Returns, Serenity and more

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Escape Room – While it was a modest hit at the box office, I hope it did well enough to warrant a sequel, because I really enjoyed Escape Room. Not only is it a great concept for a horror film (an escape room attraction that kills people who don’t solve the puzzles in time), but it also has an ending that sets up the franchise to play out along the lines of a Final Destination or Saw series, with a throughline that carries from film to film. What I especially liked about this film, though, was unlike the aforementioned franchises, there was absolutely no gore in this film. Yes, people die in exotic and clever ways, but there is barely even an ounce of blood on screen. I appreciate a film that uses brains and good writing rather than just relying on blood and guts to be scary. This is a fun, smart film that I liked a lot more than I expected to.

Mary Poppins Returns – Emily Blunt shines in this long-awaited sequel/follow-up to the original classic Disney film. And, well, I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a solid enough film, yes, but there’s something missing for me. The songs didn’t grab me all that much, and while it aims to do everything the original film did (animated sequences, bad British accents from the male lead, etc.) I just… didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it either, but it certainly wasn’t a film that I think is destined to be a classic. I like some of the nods to the original in the film, but I wish they’d actually tied it in more and used some of the songs from the original. Still, if you’re a die hard Mary Poppins fan, I suspect you’ll enjoy it a lot more than me.

Miss Bala – Catherine Hardwicke (director of Twilight, among other films) turns her eye towards the action genre with this film that seems like it was at least partly chosen so she could get as far away from anything that even resembled Twilight. In this movie, Gina Rodriguez plays a woman who gets caught in a war between a violent cartel, the CIA, and the DEA. The film flamed out at the box office and was savaged by critics, but honestly, I didn’t think it was bad. Gina Rodriguez is more than capable in the lead role, and there are some good action set pieces. The film isn’t a home run, but it certainly isn’t the train wreck some people would have you believe.

Serenity – Speaking of movies that flamed out at the box office and were savaged by critics, the Matthew McConaughey/Anne Hathaway thriller Serenity makes Miss Bala look like a well-loved film by comparison. And there’s a reason for that: it’s absolutely terrible. The film spends a lot of time setting itself up as a booze-drenched neo-noir film, only to throw in a twist halfway through that is absolutely ridiculous and somehow manages to completely ruin an already bad movie. How on earth the filmmakers got McConaughey and Hathaway to star in this film is beyond me, but this is one of the rare cases where everyone panning this movie got it absolutely right. It’s dreadful.

Dragged Across Concrete – Director S. Craig Zahler is making quite a name for himself by making dark, gritty action/drama/thrillers that utilize familiar actors to great effect. He first got a lot of critical acclaim for Bone Tomahawk starring Kurt Russell, and then he made Brawl in Cell Block 99, which I really liked. Now we have Dragged Across Concrete, which sees Vince Vaughn (his leading man in Brawl) and Mel Gibson as two cops who get suspended for assaulting a suspect who then dive deep into the criminal underworld. It’s a dark and sometimes violent film, but it does have Zahler’s characteristic intensity. My biggest problem with the film, however, is its running time, which clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, which is way too long for a film like this in my opinion. Still, as long as Zahler keeps giving us quality crime-dramas, I’ll keep watching.

The Witch (4K Ultra HD) – One of the best-reviewed horror films of there past several years, I’m not a huge fan of this movie. On the one hand, critics seemed to proclaim it the second coming of horror. However, it pretty much fizzled out at the box office, I think largely because the advertising was so vague that people didn’t really know what to expect from it. And while I can appreciate the fact that it has high production values and strong performances, I just found the film really slow and boring. Really, with the exception of an interesting last few minutes, I just wasn’t impressed with the film. But I know it has its many fans, and those fans will be happy to see it make its debut on 4K Ultra HD, which gives the film a little bit of an audiovisual boost. I mean, the film is nearly monochromatic as it is, with a muted and earthy color palette. This new format gives the film a little bit more color, but where it really helps is in seeing the on-screen action in the darker scenes. The audio is quite good as well, delivering a nice, atmospheric surround sound experience.

My Brilliant Career – The latest Criterion Collection release sees a film from director Gillian Armstrong that stars Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with Armstrong’s oeuvre, but I was curious to see what this 1979 film had to offer. And what it gives us is a pair of strong performances from Davis and Neill wrapped in a coming-of-age story based on the book by author Miles Franklin. It’s a solid movie, but I’d be lying if I said it was the kind of movie that I get really excited about. This new Criterion Collection Blu-ray sees the film completely restored and remastered, and it includes a number of good extra features, including a new interview with Gillian Armstrong and an archival interview with Judy Davis. Not my favorite Criterion release, but a high-quality purchase if you’re a fan of the film.

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki – Hayao Miyazaki is the animation equivalent of comic books’ Jack Kirby for me. I can absolutely respect him and his contributions to the world of filmmaking and animation, but I generally don’t like his movies (which is the same way I feel about Kirby’s artwork.) The man behind the venerated Studio Ghibli is the center of this new film, which is not a biography, but rather a look at the 72-year-old artist attempting to master digital animation for the first time. Interestingly, this release contains two different versions: a 70-minute version in Japanese with English subtitles, and an alternate cut, which features a 48-minute broadcast version with English narration but also includes footage not included in the 70-minute version. So it’s kind of like getting two films (or at least one and a half) for the price of one.

Also Available This Week on Home Video –

  • Tarantula – I’m super excited to see this 1950s B-Movie creature feature make its debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream, Factory. This is one of those movies I loved to watch on TV as a kid and it’s a real treat to be able to revisit it. The film features — what else — a giant tarantula wreaking havoc on mankind, and it’s definitely one of the better creature flicks from this era, with solid special effects and decent action. The film was directed by Jack Arnold who also helmed genre classics such as Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. The marketing materials are quick to point out that Clint Eastwood makes a “cameo” as a fighter pilot, but it’s not really a cameo (because he wasn’t famous yet), it’s just a really small role. Still, fun to see him fly by!
  • Hannibal – I’m not entirely sure of the impetus behind this Blu-ray release of Hannibal. It’s from Kino Lorber, who usually specializes in releasing cult classic films from various decades on Blu-ray that haven’t been available in the format before or are out of print. Hannibal is neither of those, as it’s still readily available on Blu-ray in its original release form. Go figure. Regardless, if you don’t already have Hannibal, this new release includes the film in all it’s gory (pun intended), and it includes all of the main extra features from the original release, of which there’s a significant amount. With Thomas Harris having a new book out next month, I’m sure interest will be high in this release, at least among people who don’t already own it.
  • The Brain – I love most of Scream Factory’s releases, but once in a while they do put out a Blu-ray that isn’t quite to my tastes. The Brain is a low-grade, low-budget horror flick about an alien brain trying to take over humanity through television, and it’s pretty silly. The acting isn’t great, the cast is mostly unknowns or B-movie stalwarts, the effects are dated, and the movie is just not all that great. I’m sure there are fans who have been waiting years to get this film on Blu-ray and they’ll be very happy, but it’s not my favorite release of theirs, that’s for sure.
  • Wire in the Blood: The Complete Collection – I was fairly unfamiliar with this series based on the books by Val McDermid, but this six-season collection was a terrific way to get introduced to a really intense series. Robson Green stars (and gives a masterful performance) as a psychologist who gets called in to help the police deal with serial killers, and the result is the prototypical thriller series. Over the course of 13 discs, you get 24 feature-length mysteries, and I guarantee you there isn’t one of them that won’t leave you shocked, moved, or enthralled. Now, I find serial killer procedurals pretty fascinating to begin with, but Greene’s performance coupled with some sharp writing, terrific supporting actors, and good production values make this one a cut above your usual police procedural. Plus, you can find the set for about $60 pretty easily online, which works out to just $10 a season, and that’s a fantastic bargain!
  • Finding Joy: Series 1 – There are things I loved about Finding Joy, and there are things that made me cringe. And I suspect that’s exactly how creator, writer, and star Amy Huberman wants it. She plays the titular Joy, a neatly-ordered woman who just had a messy break-up and now finds herself unwillingly promoted to star video blogger at her job. As she travels the Irish countryside, she keeps running into her ex and his new girlfriend. There are some really funny moments, but Joy also brings a lot of the pain upon herself, and there are a lot of awkwardly painful moments as well. If you like awkward comedy like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, this might be a new show for you.
  • Hole In The Ground – For a horror movie made with an unknown cast by an unknown writer-director, Hole in the Ground is surprisingly good. That’s not to say it isn’t without its flaws, but it is a sight better than so many of the blood-and-guts-drenched horror movies that get churned out nowadays. The story follows a mother and her young son who disappears for a night, and then returns home a little… different. I don’t want to say more as I don’t want to spoil anything, but the film does have some solid performances, some tense moments, and some interesting scenes. It also has some predictable moments and some pacing issues, but like I said, it’s a pretty good effort overall.
  • Independent Spotlight – There are several more indie or arthouse releases out this week. First up is Hagazussa, a German horror film that’s described as “a haunting pagan death trip and a startling vision of psychedelic horror.” I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s pretty accurate, but what it leaves out is how there’s not really much to the film except for the atmosphere and mood. It’s light on plot, and ultimately wasn’t my cup of tea. Fans of movies like The Witch and Hereditary (neither of which I liked) might do well here. The Dr. Andrew Weil Collection presents five programs by the acclaimed health and nutrition expert in one nice package. Here you can learn about maximizing your potential, your body’s ability to heal, good dietary choices, growing old gracefully, and the ideal diet for long-term health. Good stuff if you’re looking for some health and nutrition tips. Mantra: Sounds into Silence is a documentary about chanting, and particularly people who use chanting for healing purposes. I’m going to go ahead and say that this isn’t the kind of documentary that’s going to win over people who are sceptical or uninterested, but if you’re into mindfulness and the power of your body, this might be for you. A huge hit in its native Finland (and also the most expensive movie ever made there) Unknown Soldier is an impressive war epic that offers up a different perspective on World War II, the Finnish one. It has good characters and some strong action scenes, but at three hours long it could have been a little shorter for my money. Still, an impressive film overall.
  • PBS Releases – We have several new PBS releases out on DVD this week. Homo Spatius is an interesting hour-long science documentary on the effects of space travel on the human body. While it’s obviously not something most of us will ever have to worry about, it’s a neat look at a different side of the science that NASA focuses on. Nova: Decoding the Great Pyramid is a deep dive into the building of the Pyramid of Giza, and exactly what an architectural marvel it was with the resources of the time. This special looks at how exactly it was built and uncovers some new clues along the way. (Hint: it probably wasn’t aliens.) Pretty cool stuff. Nova: Einstein’s Quantum Riddle is a look at Quantum Entanglement, but don’t ask me to explain what that is to you, because I’m still mot entirely sure. That’s not a dig on the program, this type of stuff just goes over my head. If you’re a science-minded type, you’ll enjoy this I’m sure. Nature: Living Volcanoes is my favorite release of the week because I find volcanoes utterly fascinating. This hour-long special explores volcanoes and the ecosystems they both destroy and create, and there’s lots of cool footage of volcanoes as well as a scientific view of what happens around volcanoes besides just lava and ash. Very cool. Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People is a feature-length documentary episode of American Masters, giving us a biography of the man whose name adorns one of the most prestigious awards in journalism. Adam Driver narrates this terrific program about a man who changed the landscape of journalism forever. Finally, Charley Pride: I’m Just Me is another American Masters episode about the first African-American to break through and find success in the country and western music scene. I knew almost nothing about Charley Pride, and this documentary (narrated by Tanya Tucker) illuminates his life, career, and the impact he made in the music world.

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