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Out This Week (In The US): Arrival, Trolls, Edge of Seventeen and more

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Arrival – Sometimes it’s hard to review highly critically acclaimed movies. Take Arrival for example. Is it as good as all of the rave reviews have made it out to be? Well, yes. I mean, it’s a pretty terrific film. Sure I have a few niggling complaints (Why is everything lit so poorly? It’s the darkest film I’ve ever seen!), but by and large, the film is fantastic. The performances are top-notch, the story is intriguing, the special effects are gorgeous, and the central mystery is both enthralling and rewarding. It’s not a big action film, so be aware that you are going into a sci-fi drama that deals heavily with language, but the film has a real heart to it and it’s a really neat idea. This one is definitely a winner.

Trolls – Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake star in this animated movie based on the ubiquitous toys. Did the world need a movie based on Troll dolls? I don’t really think so. But now that it’s here, how is it? Not too bad, actually. In fact, it’s a pretty good amount of fun. The story isn’t too complicated (although there’s more to it than some animated films these days) and the songs and visuals are bright and lively. And while it might seem like the kind of film that parents should dread, it’s actually got a lot of humor in it that will keep you engaged. Kids will really love it, and parents will be glad they sat through it with their kids. What more can you ask for from a children’s movie?

Edge of Seventeen – Hailee Steinfeld stars in this 2016-era version of the classic ‘80s teen comedy. Echoes of John Hughes abound in this terrific film about a high-schooler whose world turns upside down when her best friend starts dating her brother. It’s not a complicated plot, but the film is overflowing with charm, humor, intelligence, and heart. The film feels very modern but also has a nice throwback feel that evokes the best of John Hughes and other great ‘80s comedies. It’s a funny film, but it also isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Check this one out for sure.

John Wick (4K Ultra HD) – Just in time for the sequel, John Wick makes its debut on 4K Ultra HD. Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a former mob legend/hitman who goes straight for the love of a woman. When his wife dies and his dog is murdered by a gang of mobbed-up thugs, he unleashes hell on the underworld. With gunfights, explosions, fisticuffs, martial arts, and car chases, this film is down and dirty action the way it used to be, not overly laden with CGI or wire work. It’s brutal and bloody, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s also a great supporting cast that included Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Nyqvist. The film looks and sounds better than ever with the upgrade to 4K Ultra HD. The contrasts are sharper than ever, which really works to make sure that the numerous darker scenes never obscure the on-screen action, and the soundtrack is like a living thing. Worth the upgrade.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – I was going to say that Ang Lee films tend to be hit or miss for me, but upon reflection, I realized that they’re actually much more often misses for me. It’s not that I think that Lee isn’t a talented filmmaker, I just think he tends to make a kind of film that isn’t really my cup of tea. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (and longer movie title) is a combination war movie/sappy drama in which a celebrated hero revisits the memories of a military action and what actually happened versus what the world thinks happened. There are some good performances from a talented cast, and the film certainly isn’t bad, but it’s a bit more of what I’d consider typically Ang Lee-esque.

Beavis & Butthead: The Complete Collection – Collecting pretty much every episode of Beavis & Butthead (and the movie!) into one big set, this release offers just about everything a fan could want. The show is just as wonderfully dumb as I remember, and it’s a fun way to go back and remember how funny this series could be. It could also be amazingly stupid. Let’s be honest; for every episode that is gut-bustingly funny, there is another episode that is equally as dumb. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get more than a few chuckles out of the set as a whole. It’s also available at a pretty low price, so if you don’t already have the show and the movie on DVD, now is the time to snag it. Lots of fun!

Quarry: Season One – Cinemax returns to the television landscape it seems to be creating with shows like Strikeback, Banshee, and The Knick with Quarry: Season One. Set in the Vietnam War era, the show follows Vietnam vet Mac Conway, a man who was involved in a high profile incident that people in America aren’t thrilled about. Back at home, Mac gets sucked into a crime syndicate and of course, things escalate from there. The show is well-made, with top-notch production values and strong performances from both main cast members and supporting players. However, I just don’t like the show that much. I feel like the lead character isn’t terribly sympathetic, and the story just isn’t engaging enough to keep me interested. It’s not a bad show, it’s just not quite my thing.

Priceless – I hadn’t even heard of this film before I saw the trailer for it just a week or two again on another DVD. And while I don’t know any of the stars (aside from David Koechner, in a dramatic rather than comedic role for a change) I thought the film looked like it could be a decent action thriller. And it turns out to be more of a drama than an action film, but even more noteworthy, it turns out it’s a faith-based drama. Now, that said, I will say that it’s a good hour into the film before any talk of god even shows up, and the film works pretty well o its own, but it does get a little religious at the very end. Aside from that, it’s really only a small part of a larger story about human trafficking. Honestly, it’s not a bad movie at all, but it’s not quite the movie the trailer sells, either.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • Two Lovers and a Bear – Dane DeHaan (always excellent) and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany (also excellent) star in this dense drama about two lovers (and a bear, I guess) trying to work through their personal demons together in an out-of-the-way locale. Honestly, this is one of those movies that you watch for the passion of the performances, and DeHaan and Maslany are terrific together. And despite some nice cinematography, I couldn’t really get wrapped up in the story. Arthouse fans and acting aficionados will enjoy it, but I think it has limited mainstream appeal.
  • Twilight Zone: The Complete ‘80s Series – I was beyond excited to see this set come across my desk. Collecting all three seasons of the 1980s revival of the Twilight Zone, this multi-disc box set is a welcome treat. I watched this show religiously as a kid, and it’s been little seen since then. And yes, it feels VERY eighties, but that’s part of the charm. More of the charm, however, comes from the guest stars who populated the series, with notables like Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and more soon-to-be-famous stars than I could even name here. Plus, you get that classic Twilight Zone storytelling style, with a killer twist at the end of each episode. Sure, the show is dated, but it’s still a lot of fun to revisit.
  • Killing Reagan – Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon star as Ronald and Nancy Reagan in this National Geographic original movie that follows the events leading up to and including John Hinckley’s assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan. The film follows both principals and details what led to the attempt in narrative fashion, playing out as part biopic and part thriller. Matheson does a very good job of portraying Ronald Reagan (a president I think most people are pretty familiar with what he looks and sounds like) and Cynthia Nixon is utterly fantastic. What’s nice, too, is that this isn’t a political movie at all, it’s simply a retelling of a historic event. Worth a look.
  • Mercy Street: Season 2 – Apparently meant to rival the UK’s smash success with Downton Abbey, this Civil War-era drama focuses on the people working at a hospital that used to be a luxury hotel. The show does the Downton thing well, focusing on multiple overlapping story lines, different groups of characters, and featuring sharp writing and a top-notch cast. While I don’t generally go for either Civil War stuff or medical shows, this one is pretty good.
  • Deep Water – Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) and Noah Taylor (Game of Thrones) star in this Australian miniseries about a pair of cops trying to solve a murder. When the murder links to a series of deaths in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the cops begin to suspect there is something more at play than just a single murder. Not surprisingly, this is a pretty good series. The first episode is a bit confusing and takes a while to get going but pretty soon the show becomes quite engrossing. Both lead actors give great performances and the mystery is both dark and plays out at the right pacing. Mystery fans will want to watch this one.
  • Five Nights in Maine – David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest star in this moving drama bout coping, relationships, and grief. After Sherman’s wife dies in a car accident, he’s called to the home of his mother-in-law to deal with her terminal illness. The problem is, they’ve never gotten along, so what will this visit bring? Can they bond over their shared grief when they’ve never liked each other before? The answer to that isn’t simple, and both Oyelowo and Wiest turn in searing performances which mark the highlight of the film. It’s heavy material, and you’ll want to have your tissues handy, but the acting is top-notch. So if you don’t mind some hard drama, you will likely enjoy this film.
  • Battleground – Available exclusively from Warner Brothers’ print-on-demand service, The Warner Archive, Battleground makes its Blu-ray debut. Nominated for Six Academy Awards (including Best Picture), the film stars James Whitmore and Van Johnson and was directed by William A. Wellman, and it tells the story of airborne troops fighting Hitler’s soldiers in World War II. The film isn’t quite a classic in the true sense of the word, but it certainly represents what classic Hollywood has to offer, and it looks great on Blu-ray. Admittedly this isn’t a film that is well-remembered overall in Hollywood history, but it’s a pretty good war tale and is worth watching.
  • London Town – This is a fun film that captures what it was like to be a punk music film in the 1970s. When 15-year-old Shay hears the Clash for the first time, he has a musical epiphany. As he enters the punk underground he both falls in love with a girl and meets the Clash’s frontman, Joe Strummer (an excellent performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.) I like movies like this that take real people and events and give us fictionalized versions of them, and London Town does a great job of recreating a real scene and making it visceral and exciting. The film has charm, great performances, and a killer soundtrack. What more can you ask for?
  • The Real Wolfman/Frankenstein: The Real Story – This nice collection from the History Channel collects two previously released specials that focus on the real-life legends and histories between the stories of Frankenstein and the Wolfman. With a mix of human stories, science-based theories, and conveyance of legendary stories to add up to a fun look at the history behind these enduring characters.
  • The Crooked Man – The cover art doesn’t do this direct-to-DVD horror film any favors, and I didn’t really see any hope that it might be any good, but then I saw that the cast included Michael Jai White, Dina Meyer, and Amber Benson, so I thought maybe it would have something to offer. Unfortunately, it turns out it’s a SyFy production, and while they do some great television, their original movie productions are rarely very good. And sadly, this one doesn’t buck the trend. A sort of mash-up of Candyman and Lights Out, the film has a few minorly creepy moments, but honestly it’s just cookie-cutter characters, poor writing, and bad special effects. Sigh.
  • Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Sondheim – I’m not really familiar with Judy Collins (although at least I know who Stephen Sondheim is!), but it turns out she’s an eclectic singer/songwriter who’s been around since the 60s. Here, she takes viewers through Stephen Sondheim’s songbook in a series of beautiful performances. Rather than just a straight up music video collection, however, this live music performance from Colorado has a Storytellers vibe to it, with Collins sharing stories about the music and herself as well. It’s a nice treat for fans of either Collins or Sondheim.
  • Blaze and the Monster Machines: Race Into Velocityville – In case you were worried that your pre-schooler didn’t have enough vehicle-based shows to watch, now we have a new Blaze & The Monster Machines DVD. This is one of Nick Jr.’s most popular shows, which follows a young Monster Truck and his friends in the world of Monster Truck racing. Of course, there are learning components as well. This show is perfectly fine for the youngsters, if a bit redundant.
  • Down on the Farm – The cover for the animated film Down on the Farm boasts at the bottom that it is “A Film by Kostas MacFarlane.” What’s interesting about that is that the font for the word MacFarlane is almost twice as big as the rest of the words. Hmmm… it’s almost as if the studio might want to fool people into thinking this is by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane. Nah… I’m sure that couldn’t be it. Anyway, this is another in the long line of low-budget animated movies that typically come from other countries and are re-dubbed into English for young audiences. This one doesn’t feature any celebrity voice actors and it’s a pretty simple movie without much in the way of originality or cleverness, but young kids will probably find it a good way to kill an hour or so.
  • Look At Us Now Mother – Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum set out to make a film that would document her family’s transformation from one with a mother/daughter relationship filled with enmity to one filled with love. It’s maybe not the kind of movie a lot of people would seek out, but it is an interesting look at mother/daughter dynamics. As someone who remembers what it was like in a house with a teenage sister and a mom who didn’t get a long, there’s a lot to relate to in the film. It also approaches the subject matter with both heart and humor, and the end result is a surprisingly engrossing film.

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