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Out This Week (In The US): Inferno, Birth of a Nation, The Light Between Oceans & more


Inferno – I don’t mind the Da Vinci Code movies as much as some people. I don’t think they compare to Dan Brown’s books (which I love simply as potboiler page-turners), but they’re not completely terrible like some people make them out to be. The first film is a bit turgid, sure, but I actually think Angels & Demons is a lot of fun. Then we come to Inferno, which I wanted to like, but man does it have a lot of problems. Despite the addition of Felicity Jones (whom I’ve liked for quite some time) and Irfan Khan (who’s the best part of the movie), the film just feels way below what Ron Howard can do as a director. Never mind the fact that there were about 750 more shots of fever-induced end-of-the-world visions than there needed to be; the film just never feels very exciting or interesting. I think this is a franchise that has sung its swan song, sadly.

The Birth of a Nation – Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (named after D. W. Griffith’s historically important but oh-so-politically-incorrect 1922 film) got a lot of critical acclaim, but it also came under fire for an event in Nate Parker’s past. But I’m not really here to talk about that. I’m here to watch a movie and let you know what I thought about it. So on that front, is it a good movie? And the answer is, yes it is. It’s a slave drama, so it’s not exactly light viewing, but it’s also not the kind of movie that makes you feel overcome with despair. The ensemble cast is terrific, and Parker is strong both in front of and behind the camera. I know some people can’t see beyond what happened in Parker’s past, but I really try my best to separate the artist from the art, and on that front, the movie is a success.

The Light Between Oceans – Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz turn in searing performances in this movie based on the hit book. The story deals with a man and his spirited wife who find out they are unable to have children. Then one day, a baby washes up on their island home in a small boat. What ensues is… well, pretty dramatic. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also helmed The Place Beyond the Pines, the film is a beautiful and challenging experience. It’s a bit long at slightly over two hours, but it also manages to keep you engaged, largely due to the powerful performances by Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz. While not the kind of movie I usually get into, it’s hard to deny that there’s a reason this one has gotten such good reviews. It’s definitely worth watching.

Queen of Katwe – Director Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) returns to her favorite space with The Queen of Katwe, a terrific new film that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, and featuring newcomer Madina Nalwanga in a breakout role, the film tells the true story of a young girl in Uganda whose life is changed when she learns how to play chess and discovers that she’s a prodigy at the game. I haven’t seen a lot of Nair’s films, but this one makes me want to see more of them. It’s warm and winning, charming and moving. The cast is uniformly excellent, the story is terrific, and the film is shot beautifully as well. This is one of those under-the-radar movies that you will (hopefully) be hearing about for a long time to come.

Resident Evil: Afterlife – Making its 4K Ultra HD debut, the best of the Resident Evil movies looks and sounds spectacular in Ultra HD. Now, I love the Resident Evil franchise. To me, it’s kind of like the Fast & The Furious of the horror genre. The Resident Evil movies are light on plot, heavy on action, and they have an innate sense of exactly what they are. They’re bombastic and over-the-top and each one keeps trying to get bigger and bigger than the one before it. For my money, Afterlife is the best film in the entire franchise. With a terrific prison sequence and those super cool giant ships in the ocean, it’s the one film in the franchise that gets the balance between bombast and coherence exactly right. Now it looks and sounds even better thanks to the new Ultra HD release, which sees the film’s awesome visuals shine in an all-new light. If you’re an Ultra HD consumer, this one is a must-have for your collection.

xXx – With the new xXx film in theaters, of course there was going to be a re-release of the original xXx film, Vin Diesel’s first big action vehicle after The Fast and The Furious. I didn’t realize that it had never been released on Blu-ray, so I was excited to go watch it again and see it in high def for the first time. And doing so, I was reminded of exactly how I felt about the film in the first place: it’s pretty stupid. Now, that isn’t meant to necessarily be a bad thing. I like stupid action movies. And I like xXx. I wish it were better; some of the dialogue is painful and cringe-worthy. But the action sequences are fun to watch, and Vin Diesel does his particular steely thing really well. It’s a fun movie to revisit, even though it’s far from an action classic.

Ali – Speaking of movies getting re-released on home video, Michael Mann’s Ali sees a new special edition released on Blu-ray, with yet another new director’s cut of the film. This is the first cut of the film (there are four according to most sources) to actually have a reduced running time (about six minutes shorter than the theatrical version) thanks to a fight scene having been removed (although it has been replaced by some other non-fight scenes.) And while I’m glad to see the film get shortened, it’s still 2 ½ hours long, which is a half hour too long by half. And it’s still a Michael Mann film, which means it’s overly serious yet beautifully shot. If you’re a fan of the film, this might be a better cut than the earlier ones, although it’s been a long time since I’d seen the film so I can’t say for sure, and there are some nice extra features to boot.

Pinocchio – While I wouldn’t rank Pinocchio as one of my favorite Disney movies, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most memorable films from the Disney canon. Who can forget imagery like the giant whale that swallows Pinocchio whole or Pinocchio turning into a donkey? Or for that matter, who can forget the joyful moment when Pinocchio finally turns into a real boy and he and Gepetto dance with joy? (Oh, um, spoiler alert.) It’s a movie made up of a series of indelible moments, and it’s a very big part of why Disney movies are revered the way they are today.
 The restoration process used for Pinocchio has done wonders for the film, ands it’s even more evident on the Blu-ray than it could be on standard DVD. Pinocchio is a somewhat dark movie for a kids’ film, but it’s never so much so that it’s inappropriate or unenjoyable for children. Adults will marvel at the beautiful animation and the solid storytelling techniques, while kids will be able to get caught up in this film the way have been doing for generations.

The Man Who Fell to Earth – The late David Bowie is memorialized in this new Limited Collector’s Edition release of the musician’s film acting debut, the beloved sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. With both the Blu-ray and DVD as well as a 72-page collector’s booklet, this release also includes a number of new special features, making it the complete package for fans of Bowie or of Nicholas Roeg’s 1972 film. Now, I had never seen the film before, and while it definitely feels very ‘70s now, I can see why people like it. Bowie is the perfect casting choice to play this alien on earth, especially with his whole Ziggy Stardust persona and everything. The film is a bit long and arty at times, especially for a science fiction film, but overall it’s a really interesting project and a great chance to see Bowie in his prime.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • The Monster – I love these kinds of movies. A mom and a daughter; a deserted road; a broken down car; and a monster. I’m sold. And the trailer for this film is absolutely fantastic. So I was super excited to sit down and watch it. And then… a major let down. To be fair, once the monster action starts, the film is pretty tense, and the monster effects are quite good. The main issue with the film is Zoe Kazan. I love Zoe Kazan, she’s a great actress, and it’s nice to see her break out of her quirky/adorkable mode that she’s made into a career so far. The problem is that she veered way too far outside of her sweet spot here. It’s not that her performance is bad; it’s her character. She plays basically an abusive mom who treats her daughter like crap. And I get that it’s meant to highlight how she tries to protect her daughter once the monster shows up, but she’s a completely deplorable character. And I don’t know that I really buy Zoe Kazan as a woman who’s such a complete waste of oxygen. Add to that a major problem in the third act where a completely feasible way to defeat the monster presents itself but is completely ignored because it wouldn’t make for an exciting climax. It’s not a terrible film and it has some good moments, but I wanted to like it so much more than I did.
  • USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage – Nicolas Cage leads a cast of B-movie all-stars that includes Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane, and James Remar in this retelling of the infamous USS Indianapolis incident during World War II. While the story of the ship has been well known to war/history buffs and shark enthusiasts for many years, it’s most famous for being told as part of Quint’s soliloquy in Jaws. Sunk by enemy missiles, some 1500 men were stranded in the ocean when their warship goes down. However, during the next few days, that number was whittled down by the hundreds thanks to relentless shark attacks. Unfortunately, while the story is intense, the special effects are pretty low-budget. While Cage is pretty decent and the rest of the cast is good as well, the movie never overcomes its low-budget origins. That said, it is relatively entertaining overall and worth watching if you like this kind of thing.
  • Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania – Some ten years after the original Surf’s Up came out in theaters, Sony decided we needed a sequel. To be fair, it’s pretty clear that they’re trying to turn this into a new direct-to-video franchise a la what Warner Brothers is doing with Scooby Doo these days. I liked the first Surf’s Up film quite a bit, and this new movie brings in a bunch of WWE superstars to lend their voices to help juice up interest in a franchise most kids weren’t even around for the first installment of. The end result is a perfectly fine, somewhat fun film. It’s not as good as the original but it does its job well and kids will probably like it.
  • Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite – Liam Neeson cashes a paycheck by showing up in this Asian action film as General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. He’s got enough of a role to make it worth showing up for, but it really does seem like that he was just cashing in for this role, which I guess is okay, but it seems like a bit of a waste. There are some decent war action sequences, but it never quite gels into a really must-watch war movie.
  • Victoria: Season One – My main interest in watching Victoria was for the fact that Victoria herself (as in Queen Victoria) is portrayed by Jenna Coleman, better known as Clara Osgood Oswald from Doctor Who, and of whom I’m a massive fan. She’s so fun and cute and effervescent that I’ll watch her in just about anything. And while she’s excellent in this new period drama TV series, she also feels very restrained. Of course, I understand that that’s her character and the arc that she goes through, and while she has moments of personality, it’s not the same as watching her in something like Doctor Who. I’m not the biggest fan of period dramas, and while I found Victoria to be a bit dull at times, it looks absolutely stunning, with amazing production values and top-notch cinematography. Worth a look if you like this genre.
  • The Lion Guard: Life in the Pride Lands – The second sequel to the first Lion Guard movie that came out last year is very similar in terms of tone and quality. The film is perfectly fine in the way that so many of the other Disney sequels were. This time around we have a new adventure featuring Kion, Simba’s youngest son, as he leads the Lion Guard with a cast of returning characters from the previous film: Bunga the honey badger, Fuli the cheetah, Beshte the hippo and Ono the egret. This new franchise doesn’t sully the memory of The Lion King, but it’s nowhere in the same league as it, either.
  • Peanuts: Snoopy Tales – Wait… there’s a brand new Peanuts cartoon? Apparently, yes, as evidenced by this new collection of 32 Snoopy cartoons (almost four hours’ worth.) As these debuted on Boomerang (a TV station like Cartoon Network) in summer of 2016, I have to imagine they came about as a result of the success of the Peanuts Movie. Each short is a few minutes long and is based on a classic Charles Schulz comic strip, which I love since I’m a big fan of the original strip. The cartoons really capture the look and feel of classic Peanuts, and I think they’re a lot of fun. Kids should love them.
  • Another Man Will – While the plot of Another Man Will is nothing new (man forgets how great his wife is until his hunky gardener takes an interest in her), what really stands out about Another Man Will is the fact that it’s a stage play presented on DVD as a recorded theater experience. Similar to what some of Tyler Perry’s DVD releases from Lionsgate have presented, this stage play mark’s auteur playwright David. E Talbert’s 15th or 16th And like I said, the plot is nothing special, but the live energy from being on stage carries through and gives the film a unique experiential vibe.
  • Guardians of Oz – Despite the fact that this movie was co-written by Jorge Gutierrez (who directed and co-wrote The Book of Life, one of my favorite films of 2014), this animated movie works – in effect – as a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, with dueling Queens, the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man as new leaders, and a scrappy young girl as the protagonist. Said girl is played by Jenn McAllister, who is apparently a Twitter superstar who goes by @jennxpenn. I don’t know h ow that parlays into a voice over gig, but it’s certainly interesting. She’s not bad in the lead role, and the film itself isn’t bad either, but there’s nothing about this that really lives up to the greatness of the original Oz film or books. Better for younger kids.
  • Antarctica: Ice and Sky – Both documentary and memoir, Ice and Sky traces the journey of Claude Lorius who journeyed to Antarctica in 1955, the first of over 20 missions to the world’s most inhospitable continent. Through a mix of archival footage and new drone footage, Lorius recounts his story while also showing us the world that is Antarctica. It’s a fascinating look at the literal bottom of the world, and rather than just being a more prototypical PBS-style doc, this one mixes in a lot of personal experience from Lorius to make this feel like a more complete film.
  • 16 for 16: The Contenders – This an interesting program, looking back on the most impactful presidential candidates of the past 50 years, and that includes both winners and losers. So Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan are represented, but so are John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney. Not just focusing on recent candidates, however, there are also notable candidates from all the way back to the 60s. This two-disc set includes eight hours of programming, ensuring that each candidate gets their fair share of screen time, regardless of whether they won or lost. Interesting stuff for political junkies.
  • Odd Squad: The MovieOdd Squad is a fun little show for kids that my own children enjoy. It reminds me (more in a nostalgic way than because of any actual similarities) of shows I watched when I was a kid like 3-2-1 Contact and the like. It’s a group of kid sleuths who solve mysteries and teach kids about real life math applications, although in a subtle way. This slightly-over-an-hour-long special “movie” features what is essentially an extended special episode that sees the team having to retire when another team comes along and invents a machine that solves all the problems the Odd Squad usually tackles. Or do they? Hmmm…? It’s a lot of fun, and kids should love it.

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