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Out This Week (In the US): Suicide Squad, Phantasm, Ben-Hur and more

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Suicide Squad – Okay, I think we can all agree that DC’s forays into the movie world have been… less than excellent. I always really WANT to like DC’s movies, but I have issues with all of them. I’m not a huge fan of Watchmen; I loved the first half of Man of Steel but hated the second half; Batman Vs. Superman is a travesty. And I know that Suicide Squad divided audiences almost as much as the rest of their films, but I actually really liked it. Yes, it has major flaws, such as the least interesting villain in a superhero movie since, well… ever. And I’m not an overly huge fan of Jared Leto’s take on The Joker. But the cast (which includes Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Viola Davis, and Jay Hernandez) works really well, and each one takes these characters and makes them their own. So yes, plot holes galore and issues left and right, but the hyperkinetic editing and masterful soundtrack actually work in this movie’s favor. And above everything else, it’s fun, which is something that has been sorely lacking in DC movies thus far. This one’s a winner in my book.

Kubo and the Two Strings – When I first saw the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings, I was blown away by it. I thought it looked epic and magical and filled with heart and character and humor, and I thought the computer generated animation looked amazing. Well, it turns out I was completely wrong: the animation isn’t computer generated. But on every other front I was dead on. The film is epic and magical and filled with heart and character and humor. And even more amazing, it’s done through stop-motion animation, but it looks so incredible that you’ll think it’s CGI the entire time. Unbelievable. But besides the technical aspects, what really makes the movie work is just how alive all the characters are. You get wrapped up in the story and the characters from the very start and it doesn’t let up until the very end. This is a family movie that needs to be seen by all families; it’s terrific. While it might be a bit much for younger viewers, older kids and adults will love it.

Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep is terrif—Wait, wait. I can’t start a review by telling you how good Meryl Streep is in a movie. Because, really, when is she not? I mean, reporting that Meryl Streep’s performance is fantastic would be like reporting that the sky is blue. How about if we skip that part? The performance that will actually take you the most by surprise is Simon Helberg’s. While you probably (well, definitely) know him best as Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, here he plays a completely different kind of role, and it’s a revelation. You wouldn’t necessarily think that he could hold his own opposite Meryl Streep, but he absolutely does. The film itself is a warm, touching drama with some nice moments of humor, and I think people will enjoy it quite a bit.

Phantasm: Remastered – I love Phantasm, but I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the hell happens in this movie. Apparently, there’s this tall old man and a bunch of Jawas in this funeral home that’s really a portal to another planet, and there’s this glowing silver ball that flies around and kills exactly one guy, and at the end, the funeral home seems to disappear for no reason I can discern. Oh yeah, and there’s the naked chick who shows up twice who may or may not be the old tall dude. And it might have all been a dream caused by the grief of a child. Or not. Maybe. I dunno. How this film spawned three sequels is almost a mystery to me. I say almost because, despite the sheer oddity of it all, the film is entertaining. The flying silver ball bits are cool, if too short, and clearly they became a much bigger focus in the sequels. I don’t know why the dwarves were here or where they came from (I mean, they come from that planet, but where is that?) Still, I have to wonder what the heck Don Coscarelli was on when he sat down to write the script for this masterpiece. While I can’t quite wrap my brain around what exactly this movie is about, I can see the appeal in a very strange sort of way. This new collector’s edition boasts beautiful packaging, new extra features, and sees the film looking and sounding the best it has in years. A treat for fans of this oddball franchise.

Ben-Hur – Did Ben-Hur need to be remade? Well, honestly, I don’t have a real problem with it. After the all, the original will always be the original, and no amount of remakes will change that. However, the fact that is was that sort of semi-high-budget, poorly marketed, half-hearted studio cash-in is the real problem here. Is it a terrible film? Actually, no; no it’s not. But would it fit right in alongside such similar fare as Pompeii, The Legend of Hercules, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s really shiny and frenetic, and it’s not un-entertaining, but it’s all glitz and gloss and little heart. The chariot scene is a fury of action, and it is exciting, but it still will never replace the original. And that’s okay, it didn’t need to. But I wish the film as a whole had been more engaging.

The Exterminating Angel – The Criterion Collection brings us the first ever release of surrealism master Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Less surreal than some of his other works, this is still a unique fil. The concept is very intriguing: at a dinner party in the upper crust of society, the guests find themselves unable to leave the house. But unlike Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, this isn’t a murder mystery. Rather, it’s a more ethereal look at the upper class and the rich, as Bunuel’s opinion of people in money is clearly a complex one. As usual with The Criterion Collection, this release features restored and remastered picture and sound, as well as a nice collection of extra features.

Black Christmas – Although Black Christmas predates the original Halloween by four years (it came out in 1974 whereas Halloween hit in 1978), it’s also not quite as good as John Carpenter’s film. Even sitting alone and watching this film in the dark, I just didn’t get all that scared; at least until the end. I will admit that the last 15 minutes of the film has a nice intensity that did give me butterflies in my stomach. I’ll also give the film credit for having a pretty black sense of humor that ensures it doesn’t take itself too seriously. With a pre-Superman Margot Kidder as well as Olivia Hussey and John Saxon in the cast, Black Christmas isn’t bad at all for a 1970’s horror flick. Now it’s been released as a new Special Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, and it includes a bunch of great extra features and nice new packaging.

Zoo: Season Two – For the past two seasons, Zoo has been one of my favorite television experiences. The story of a team of scientists trying to stave off a mysterious change in the wildlife world that sees all the animals in the world turning against humans, Zoo is popcorn television at its finest. And here’s the thing: it’s riddled with flaws, and I absolutely don’t care. For example, the science in the show seems about as authentic as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. And problems get solved way too easily. But the show is campy fun, and it also takes way more chances than you would expect a major network show to take. I was actually surprised when a major character was killed off in Season 2, and the season finale, which literally rewrites the status quo, was a real gut punch. I love what they do with this show; for all its flaws, it keeps things interesting from week to week, and that’s really all I want.

The Legend of Korra: The Complete SeriesThe Legend of Korra is a sequel show (taking place many years later) to the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon. The show looks gorgeous: amazing designs, beautiful animation that combines traditional hand-drawn with CG!, and stunning color work. It helps if you’ve watched Avatar. While this is sort of a stand-alone show, there are definite connections to the original series. There is a lot of humor, and a lot of action, both of which are good things. I’d say the show is more for older kids, not the kindergarten-age set. Now the entire series has been collected on Blu-ray and it looks and sounds fantastic. The animation in this show is terrific, and the transfer really lets it shine. The show’s opening sequence in particular is a real stand-out. Overall, I like this show quite a bit. I don’t know if it’s quite as good as Avatar, but fans of that show will definitely enjoy this one.

Scream Queens: The Complete First Season – I was excited when Scream Queens hit airwaves last year. Besides the fact that it was from TV wunderkind Rob Murphy, I liked a lot of people in the cast and I’m a sucker for any kind of horror-themed television, especially a show that mixed horror with humor and high school drama. I love MTV’s Scream, for example. But I really hate Scream Queens. Maybe I should have been less enthused about Ryan Murphy’s involvement, as I’m not actually a huge fan of most of his shows. And unfortunately, I’m not a fan of this one either. The characters are unlikable, the pacing slow, and the overarching mystery just not that interesting. I do like the twist the show takes at the end of the season finale, but by then I had completely lost interest. Too bad.

The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series – There were pros and cons to the previously released Twilight Zone: Complete Series set, which hit streets in October but came out on DVD only. On the plus side, obviously, it included every single episode of the classic television anthology and at a lower price than ever before. On the minus side, the set was only released on DVD, and it was completely devoid of extra features. Now, this might not be so bad if Image Entertainment hadn’t released the entire series season by season a few years ago on Blu-ray, and each release came with a copious amount of extra features. Well, this Blu-ray set corrects that mistake. Once again, it collects all five seasons of the iconic show, but this time not only is it in high definition, but it also includes tons of extra features, which is what you’d want. Featurettes, commentaries, you name it, this set is loaded. It’s a real treat for fans, and it’s definitely the best version of this show to own.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • Family Guy: Season Fourteen – While I’m not a fan of the show, a lot of people out there will be happy to add Family Guy: Volume 14 to their collections of animated humor. Or what passes for humor these days, anyway. I’ve always found Family guy lacking. Generally I don’t find it funny, but every episode has at least one joke that makes me seriously laugh out loud. It’s kind of frustrating, actually; it would be so much easier if I could just outright hate the show. This latest collection brings 20 episodes together into one set, earning a place on fans’ shelves.
  • American Gothic: Season One – This interesting 13-episode series had a lot of potential to be great, but ends up more… good, but wildly uneven. 14 years ago, a serial killer struck, and then got away with all of their murders. Now, the case has been reopened, and one family in particular is rocked by the potential that the killer might be among them. I like the concept, and the show certainly works hard to fit in suspense, twists and turns, and a healthy need for some willing suspension of disbelief. And while I will say that I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, there are some weak writing moments and some sketchy performances mixed in with some strong performances and some moments of brilliance on the page. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s enjoyable enough for what it is.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show Live – I heard a lot of people complaining about Fox’s live broadcast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Aired in the wake of NBC’s successful live musicals such as Peter Pan and Grease, RHPS seemed like a good idea to someone at Fox, I’m sure. But the difference here is that RHPS is a bona fide cult classic, and fans are extremely protective of those. Now, me personally, I don’t really like the original film that much, so I didn’t see this as the travesty that a lot of fans did. But I also wasn’t overly impressed by it, so I can’t say that I can lavish praise on it, either. It’s a curiosity, and nothing more.
  • Braindead: Season One – I always like when television shows take chances, but frankly I’m amazed Braindead ever made it onto network TV. It’s basically a cross between House of Cards and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except it has a serious humorous bent to it and it stars Tony Shalhoub and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Yep. Politicians, exploding heads, mystery, intrigue, comedy, and Monk. What more could you ask for? It’s an offbeat show for sure, but I really liked it. I have no idea if it’s coming back or not, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was too weird for mainstream television, but I hope it gets picked up on one of the online networks or something like that if it doesn’t return to CBS.
  • Equity – I like the fact that this Wall Street movie is about a female power player in the financial world. I think, well, pretty much every other movie about Wall Street ever has focused on male protagonists. I wish I could say I loved the movie itself as much as I loved the concept, but I wasn’t quite there with it. I did like the film; don’t take this as a negative review. It’s a slow-burning suspenseful drama about strong women in a male-driven world, and their path to success isn’t the same one we usually see in these movies. Great performances by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn and also Sara Megan Thomas give the movie an edge, and overall it’s a sloid drama. If you like Wall Street movies but want something a little different, this one is worth checking out.
  • Sudden Fear – I’m not sure why this movie isn’t more well remembered, but it’s a real treat of the film noir genre. Joan Crawford plays a playwright who marries a struggling actor (Jack Palance), who plans to kill her for her money and run off with his lover (Gloria Grahame.) With three great actors from Classic Hollywood and nominated for four Academy Awards (including for Crawford and Palance), the film is a film noir gem. As much as I love classic Hollywood, somehow I haven’t seen many of Crawford’s film, and this was an excellent way to reintroduce myself to her. This one is worth tracking down.
  • Greenleaf: Season One – This is a pretty great show. Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of it before this disc crossed my desk, and that’s probably because it airs on Oprah’s OWN Network, which admittedly I don’t think I’ve ever watched. I’m not exactly the target demo for OWN, after all. But this show takes a look behind the scenes of a powerful television evangelical family (Joel Osteen), where we learn that things aren’t as pious as they seem. I’ve always found these Megachurch founders and their mansions rather deplorable, so this show exploring a dramatic version of one is quite fascinating. Definitely check this out for something a little different – and probably more true than many people may want to think.
  • The Wild Life – This is yet another movie that wants to be Madagascar, although this time Robinson Crusoe is along for the ride. What I don’t get is why so many movies try to be Madagascar; the Madagascar films aren’t very good at all. (I know, I know, it’s because they’re uber-successful, but still.) This movie did actually appear in theaters for about a week, but it was largely ignored by audiences. With largely unknown voice cast members, the film’s cheerful take on the Robinson Crusoe will probably be okay for kids, and it’s not like it’s a bad movie per se. It just doesn’t feel fresh or original at all, although again, kids might not care about that.
  • Harley and the Davidsons – This television miniseries tells the story of the men behind the creation of the world’s most famous motorcycle. This isn’t some Detroit-set story of factories and hawgs, though, but rather a period biopic about the three brothers that started the Harley Davidson company over a century ago. As with most miniseries, Harley and the Davidsons is a pretty good story that occasionally meanders a bit and fills the time more than moving the story forward, simply because they need to fit the running time. That said, it does tell an interesting story, and while much of the cast is largely unknown, they all do a pretty good job. Worth a look.
  • Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story – Trace Adkins, Kim Coates, and Judd Nelson star in this western, which treads extremely familiar ground, as we see a retired outlaw set out on a mission of revenge when his family falls victim to an old nemesis. Adkins isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he fits so well in the world of westerns that it makes you wonder if he wasn’t born in the wrong era. The film isn’t bad, nor is it great, but if you like the western genre, it’s at least entertaining enough to enjoyable kill your time.
  • End of a Gun – Steven Seagal returns for yet another direct-to-video actioner. This time around he plays – wait for it – a steely, highly skilled, man of few words (shocker!) who helps a beautiful (didn’t see that coming!) woman steal millions of dollars from generic action-movie bad guys. As with Seagal’s more recent films, this is another one in which he seems to forget to even try to act, but luckily there are a few action sequences to help move things along. Of course, the low budget nature of the film keeps it from getting too spectacular, but by now, you kind of know what to expect from these movies.
  • Elena of Avalor: Ready to Rule – This 90-minute DVD serves to launch the Elena of Avalor animated series, a new show from Disney that expands the Disney Princess line for younger viewers. The show exists in the same universe as Disney’s popular Sofia the First In it, young Princess Elena learns how to rule the kingdom on her way to becoming Queen. Along the way, she is joined by her friends (which include a wizard and magical flying creatures called Jaquins) and has to face some bad guys who aren’t threatening enough to be scary to little kids. Perfect for young children looking for a new show.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Earth’s Last Stand – I’ve been a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since their early days as a black-and-white comic book aimed at adults, and I’ve never let go of that fandom. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the current Nickelodeon show is the best version of the Turtles I’ve seen in over 20 years. It manages to find inspiration in the original comic books, infuse some flavor of the original cartoon, capture some of the feel of the movies, and even give it a bit of a video game flavor. It takes all of the best and various versions of the Turtles and mashes them up into one utterly terrific show, packed with action and filled with humor. This newest release sees the turtles still in space and journeying across the cosmos, which hearkens back to the earliest days of the black and white comic. It’s pretty fun, even though I prefer my Turtles on the streets of New York.
  • 800 Words – This charming Australian television drama doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but that doesn’t stop it from being highly enjoyable. When a newspaper columnist’s wife dies unexpectedly, he packs up his teenage kids, leaves Sydney, and relocates to a picturesque small town in New Zealand. Honestly, we’ve seen this show a hundred time before, but that doesn’t stop it from being a winner. The cast is terrific, the quirky characters are endearing, and the show gets the tone right. Sometimes familiarity isn’t a bad thing, and this show is a perfect example of that.
  • 19-2: Season 3 – A Canadian series about a police precinct (and two partners in particular) in Montreal Canada, 19-2 is exceptional television. It’s not entirely different from something like Chicago Fire (except obviously about cops and not firemen) in that it focuses more on the lives and loves of the policemen and women than just on the crimes, but that’s a good thing in my opinion. It’s more soap opera and less Law & Order, but not in a way that leaves you wincing. There’s still a good amount of police action, it just never overshadows what’s going on in the lives of the characters. Great stuff for someone looking for a new show to binge watch.
  • Never Open the Door – This a pretty cool for a low-budget horror film. While the movie has its flaws, Never Open the Door proves that small fare indie horror can still be effective despite budgetary limitations. Filmed in black-and-white and wisely only an hour long, the film has some suspect acting and dialogue, but it’s nothing worse than what you see in most horror films. The movie starts in a cabin in the woods, jumpstarts when a dying stranger shows up, and kicks into gear when one of the friends disappears. Like I said, it’s nothing all that new, but it’s a quick watch and I found it intriguing.
  • Girls Lost – This is an odd film about a trio of girls who are bullied in high school who end up magically transformed (temporarily) into boys. Yep, you read that right. Of course, once they have the chance to experience life as the opposite sex, things get a little… weird. The film is certainly an interesting treatise on high school life and gender exploration, and while I can’t say it’s the kind of thing you need to rush right out and see, it does offer up a unique viewing experience if you like things that are a little off the beaten path.
  • Knucklehead – This film starring Alfre Woodard is a heavy, heavy drama about a mentally challenged man whose guardianship comes into flux, and he has to try and set out on his own path. It’s a stark, emotional film, and while that usually is not my cup of tea, I can recognize a well-made film. The performances here are uniformly excellent, and the film is well-crafted with a sure hand behind the camera. You really have to be in the mood to watch, but if you are, you’ll be rewarded with a complex, challenging film.
  • Little Men – Greg Kinnear gets top billing here, but it’s the two 13-year-old boys at the heart of Little Men are the real stars of this film. As two friends whose parents are in a feud stemming from rent prices, young Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are both extremely talented, especially since a large part of the film includes them taking an oath of silence against their parents to protest the arguments. I’ve heard of director Ira Sachs but haven’t seen any of his films, but this one certainly makes the case for why he’s a filmmaker people are paying attention to.
  • Britain’s Bloody Crown – Historian Dan Jones (who hosted the previous series, Britain’s Bloody Dynasty) returns, this time around to give us a four-episode documentary series about one of the most turbulent times in England’s history, the period known as The War of the Roses. It mixes the usual interview information and narration with scripted reenactments, giving the show a different feel from some standard documentary shows. This was a particularly bloody period in time, and this show doesn’t shy away from telling you exactly what happened, yet it never revels in the gory details. If you’re a fan of history, this one is worth watching.
  • Brother NatureSaturday Night Live alums Tarran Killam and Bobby Moynihan land themselves some surprisingly good co-stars in this fish-out-of-water comedy that is neither as bad as it could be or as funny as it wants to be. Bill Pullman, Rita Wilson, Gillian Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani, and Kenan Thompson all share in the acting duties, making this a pretty fun cast to watch. It’s kind of like Meet the Parents crossed with any number of comedies that see a city boy trapped out in the country. I can’t say it’s a bad movie; it’s relatively fun to watch and I got a few chuckles out of it. But it’s not the kind of laugh-out-loud comedy that would earn it a rave review, either. Worth a look on one of those nights when you can’t find anything else to watch.
  • America by the Numbers – This timely documentary special looks at populations and politics and how one affects the other. And in a country where a presidential candidate just got 2 million more votes than her opponent yet still lost the election, there’s a lot of good information here on how the demography of politics works. (And yes, demography is a word I just learned from watching this show!) It has some dry moments, but it is also an interesting show overall, especially if you find politics and policies interesting.
  • Star Paws – There will never be a shortage of films with animals as the main characters, but Star Paws may be the most blatant cash-in I’ve seen yet. While the story is completely different, it’s very clear that the attempt here was to create a sort of Star Wars-with-cats-and-dogs movie for kids, and you can imagine exactly what you’re in for. Or maybe you can’t, considering the fact that the film sees our intrepid animal heroes traveling back to the time of the dinosaurs. I don’t remember THAT in Star Wars. Adult viewers won’t find much here beyond some cute animals, but with dogs and cats, dinosaurs, and Star Wars-lite in play, kids will eat it up.
  • Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs – This is an interesting documentary about a real life guy who plays out like a movie character. You know how in every alien movie, there’s that one guy who lives in a trailer, hosts a conspiracy radio show, and is generally considered a nutball for believing in UFOs? Well, this movie is about that guy, a man named Christo Roppolo He’s not really a nutball, but he certainly is a bit of a character, and there’s no doubt he believes in some offbeat stuff. It’s an interesting film, more of a character study than anything else.

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