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Out This Week (In The US): Blair Witch, In A Valley Of Violence, Denial & more


In A Valley Of Violence

Blair Witch – There’s been a cultural backlash of sorts against the original The Blair Witch Project. People who didn’t see it in theaters have decided that it’s not that scary of a film, and I can understand that. Having seen the original in theaters and on home video, I agree that it’s just not as intense in your living room as it was in theaters. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a great movie experience with a brilliant marketing plan back in 1999. So I was more excited than many people to see the franchise relaunch, especially with the filmmakers behind the excellent You’re Next and The Sacrament behind it. Unfortunately, this new film just can’t overcome everything about found footage films that annoys the hell out of me. Apparently somebody decided that in this version, the Blair Witch is a bear/tornado, because for 90% of the film, our young protagonists are just fighting a really loud roaring/howling noise. It’s not a terrible movie, but I just wanted it to be so much better than it was. Sigh. File under “Disappointing.”

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – Based on the middle-graders humor book by James Patterson, Middle School: TWYOML falls squarely in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Fun Size mold of humor for tweens, which I personally think is a good thing. That 11-14-year-old age range is a hard one to satisfy; they’re too mature for kids’ movies in many cases, but not quite ready for your typical teenage comedies. Middle School: TWYOML, then, is a fun, slightly naughty but relatively clean story about kids getting in trouble at school and battling a principal who’s trying to keep the peace. I enjoyed the book the film is based on, and while there are obvious differences, the film captures the spirit of the book quite well. This one is enjoyable for the whole family.

When the Bough Breaks – I am fascinated that this movie keeps getting made. I mean, sure, this time around it’s called When the Bough Breaks and features a surrogate mom instead of a babysitter or jilted ex-lover, but really this is the exact same movie we’ve seen a thousand times. Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Obsessed, The Perfect Guy… the list goes on and on. And while the cast in this film (which includes Regina King and, of course, Morris Chestnut – who also starred in The Perfect Guy) is perfectly good, the story is just more of the same. It’s a perfectly watchable 90 minutes, but there’s really nothing special here at all.

In a Valley of Violence – When this film crossed my desk, I looked at it and thought, “Well, another western. Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, okay. Ho hum.” But then I realized that this was the latest film from auteur Ti West, the man behind such intriguing and cult-favorite films as The Innkeepers and The Sacrament (the latter of which I’m a huge fan of) and I realized I needed to give it a chance. And the end result? It’s a pretty decent film. I’m excited to see that West has decided to branch out from horror, and I did like this film overall, but I can’t say it was a revelation of any sort. Instead, it’s a solid revenge-based western, with Travolta and Hawke in fine form and Karen Gillan along in a supporting role (which is never a bad thing.) It’s worth a look, especially if you’re a West fan, but it’s not enough to make you a Western fan if you’re not already one.

The Disappointments Room – Speaking of surprises in filmmaking, I was equally set to pay little attention to The Disappointments Room, seeing as how it looks like just another watered-down horror film (albeit one starring Kate Beckinsale.) However, it turns out it’s the newest film by director DJ Caruso, who helmed such films as Disturbia, Eagle Eye, The Salton Sea, and I Am Number Four. While Caruso isn’t a master craftsman or anything, I do tend to enjoy his films more often than not. Unfortunately, The Disappointments Room lives up to its title (they should have known better), ultimately falling into the trap of being a serviceable-at-best haunted house thriller that doesn’t really do anything all that interesting.

Denial – It seems beyond comprehension that there was once a trial to prove that the holocaust actually happened, but there was. In real life. No, I’m not kidding. People actually had to enter a court of law to prove that 6 million people were murdered in Nazi Germany. This film starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, and Tom Wilkinson recounts the events of that trial, and it’s a heavy but often engaging film. Boiling a month-long trial and judgment down to a two-hour film is no easy task, but this movie successfully captures the essence of the events and gets the story across in strong fashion. It’s not exactly Friday-night-popcorn fare, but it’s worth watching.

Maximum Ride – James Patterson makes his second appearance on the list this week with Maximum Ride, a direct-to-video adaptation of Patterson’s hit sci-fi/action series about genetically-gifted teenagers who possess the power of flight. The cast of kids is largely unknown but all are pretty good in their roles, and while the film doesn’t quite work 100%, it’s not the cast’s fault. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not sure how accurate the movie is or how well it captures the spirit of them, but I found this film to be enjoyable if flawed. There are some dodgy special effects at times and the script is hit-or-miss, but it’s clearly meant to appeal to a teenage audience and is a fun if disposable romp.

Hairspray LiveHairspray. I guess you either love it or you don’t. I’m not an overly huge fan of musicals to begin with but I had never seen Hairspray, so I figured I should probably watch it and this seemed like as good a way to experience it as any, as NBC’s live stage musicals have been both pretty popular and relatively well-regarded. I can’t say I’m suddenly a huge fan of Hairspray, but I guess it’s fun enough for what it is. The cast is fun and the show is bright and lively. If you’re a fan of Hairspray in whatever version you’re used to seeing it, I don’t think this version will offend you.

  • Girls: The Complete Fifth Season – Despite the fact that I really don’t like Lena Dunham, I keep reviewing Girls, just in case it gets better. After all, the show has been such a hit and gotten such good reviews, eventually, I’d have to figure out why, right? Umm… no. In fact, not only is Girls: Season Five more of the same, but it’s basically the exact same thing as the first four seasons. A self-absorbed and obnoxious New York twentysomething and her self-absorbed and obnoxious friends live their lives and ruminate on boys, work, and life, but they do so in completely annoying, unlikable, and narcissistic ways. Dunham’s brand of “comedy” does nothing for me, and I still find it unbelievably annoying. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I really, really, REALLY don’t like this show. Why this series is getting so much acclaim, I honestly have no idea. This show’s appeal is a mystery to me. I don’t think I could enjoy it less.
  • Operation Avalanche – The packaging for this DVD makes it unclear as to whether the film is a documentary or a narrative film, but it is most definitely not a documentary. The story follows two young filmmakers co-opted by the government to find out if Stanley Kubrick is a spy. Through a series of events, they end up finding themselves faking the moon landing – using Kubrick’s 2001 film sets. The plotline ties into several conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing (that some people think was faked) and turns those ideas into a fun sort of comedy-thriller mash-up. The film is made up of unknown cast members (the director is the lead actor) but that doesn’t take away from the charm of the movie. Worth a look if you like something a little different.
  • The Monkey King 2 – Despite being a sequel to a hit Donnie Yen film, this movie has little to do with the original, including a lack of Donnie Yen himself. The movie takes place 500 years after the first one, and once again it features gods, monks, epic quests, and – of course – martial arts. I’ve said many times before that these aren’t my favorite kinds of films, however, there are some nice visuals, some strong special effects, and moments of non-stop action. If you like a good martial arts movie and don’t mind the number after the title (which is mostly arbitrary anyway), this one might be up your alley.
  • Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia – Speaking of martial arts films missing their original lead actors… Jackie Chan Presents Amnesia sees a new remake of one of Jackie Chan’s early films. This time, Chan is simply a producer and not the star. The story follows a bike messenger who gets amnesia and can’t remember who’s trying to kill him to get the package in his possession. While it’s missing the madcap energy that Chan brings to his films, it’s a pretty action-packed outing and features a healthy dose of suspense and thrills.
  • The Ultimate Legacy – Doug Jones, Brian Dennehy, and Raquel Welch all have supporting roles in this Dove-approved family film. Based on a book by Jim Stovall and a sequel of sorts to the film The Ultimate Gift. Similarly heavy-handed and overly sentimental, this time around we see a young man have to learn to change his character (and learn Lessons About Himself) in order to receive an inheritance. The Dove Family Seal of Approval will give you some idea of what you’re in for here, but there’s obviously an audience for treacly films like this. If you’re in that audience, you should enjoy this just fine.
  • The Red Skelton Hour in Color: Unreleased Sessions – Don’t let the title fool you; there is much more than just one hour of Red Skelton comedy in this release. In fact, there are nine hours of total material comprising 12 episodes of the classic Red Skelton Show. Supposedly, these episodes have never been released on DVD (and haven’t even been seen in 50 years), so fans should be excited to see this. I always loved Red Skelton, as my dad was a fan and I remember watching this show a lot in reruns as a kid. I haven’t seen any episodes in a long time, so I’m not sure how these stack up against the rest of them, but there’s a lot of really funny stuff in this classic sketch comedy series. Definitely worth the bargain price for the set.
  • Graveyard of the Giant Beasts – This Secrets of the Dead special is one of the more fascinating entries in this series. In fact, it almost seems like a SyFy channel movie of the week, as we learn about real creatures like the Titanoboa, a 40-foot –long snake, which may have been arch enemies with a giant crocodile. Obviously, some of this is scientific speculation, but the show makes a case for some pretty exciting creature battles in prehistoric times. Skip the cheesy cable movies and check this documentary special out instead.
  • Confronting ISIS – Also from PBS, we have Frontline: Confronting Isis. As opposed to a couple of previous Frontline specials that explore the origins of ISIS, this one focuses more on life in a post-ISIS world, exploring the US’s efforts to undermine and defeat the organization. I’ll say this: it’s a perfectly fine program, and it will make for good viewing in high school classrooms or for political/war aficionados. For me, I’m a little tired of watching programs about ISIS. I’ve seen three or four of them now in the last year and it’s just not a subject I really want to keep delving into. Still, it’s a quality program for sure.
  • Projections of America – So this is both an amazing and a frustrating documentary at the same time. The special focuses on a series of some 25 short propaganda films created during World War II to show liberated countries what life in America was like. It’s an utterly fascinating subject, and learning about these films and the talent behind them (including many Hollywood luminaries) is really interesting. However, despite the fact that the short films are all preserved in the National Archive, none of them are included in their entirety here. I would have loved to have seen a release that included the films on a second disc, or at least a couple of them as a bonus feature. Unfortunately, you don’t get a single film in its entirety. It’s still worth watching, but I can’t help but think of what could have been.

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