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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week – Doctor Strange, Moonlight, The Gate & more

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Moonlight

Doctor Strange – Admittedly, I’m a pretty huge fan of Marvel, both in the comics and in movies. I’m also a pretty big Benedict Cumberbatch fan. But for some reason – maybe because I’ve never loved the character in the comics — the trailers for Doctor Strange never got me all that excited. I thought it looked cool enough, but I just never got all that hyped about it. So color me surprised that not only did I absolutely love it, but it ended up in my Top 5 films of 2016. Cumberbatch is terrific, and the movie captures the feel of the character perfectly while also making him accessible to a non-comics-reading mainstream audience. With the perfect mix of humor, mysticism, and terrific special effects, Doctor Strange is a hit from start to finish. One of the better Marvel movies of the past few years.

Moonlight – Garnering a number of Academy Award nominations (and winning big for Best Picture), Moonlight certainly had its fair share of critical acclaim. And I’ve been a big fan of award-winner Mahershala Ali for over a decade now, so I was happy to see all the acclaim he’s received. But I really wasn’t all that impressed by Moonlight. I recognize that it’s a well-made film, and the performances are all terrific. But I found the pacing slow and the characters hard to engage with (which admittedly, was maybe the point of the film.) It’s not that I disliked the film, but I think maybe my expectations were too high from all the buzz the film has received.

Allied – Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star in this World War II era thriller that (maybe?) led to the breakup of Brangelina. Unfortunately, the tabloid headlines overpowered any buzz this film might have received. Also unfortunately, the film probably wouldn’t have received much buzz because it wasn’t all that good. Despite Robert Zemeckis being behind the camera, the film is just turgid. There’s no life to it, no spark, and it never really gets interesting until the last half hour or so. Plus, I’ve never seen a movie that wants to be Casablanca quite so bad. It’s not out-and-out terrible, but I think the only word that really fits this film is “disappointing.”

Fuller House: Season One – Full disclosure: I was never a huge Full House fan. Don’t take that the wrong way; I liked the show just fine when it was on. But I was a casual watcher at best, never catching more than a few episodes a season. I never watched it religiously or regularly, so I come at Fuller House without the haze of nostalgia that many fans might have. Standing on its own merits, then, Fuller House is a perfectly acceptable family sitcom, but it’s nothing special. It’s fun to see the cast all grown up (and the guest appearances by some of the original adult cast members are nice as well), and the show does manage to keep the feel of the original series (this isn’t borderline R-rated comedy like Two Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men.) Fans will probably enjoy it, everyone else can easily ignore it.

Doctor Who: Return of Dr. Mysterio – I’ve come to realize in recent years that I’m not as big a Doctor Who fan as I’ve always thought I was. I like Doctor Who, but I just don’t get all that passionate about it. But I’ll generally watch it if I have the chance, and I ended up really enjoying Doctor Who: The Return of Dr. Mysterio. I believe it’s technically a Christmas Special (although it has almost nothing to do with Christmas), but what it really is is a Doctor Who take on Superman, with the Doctor helping a young man with super powers throughout parts of his life, culminating in a threat to the entire planet involving, of course, aliens. It’s a lot of fun, and I didn’t mind Peter Capaldi as much as I have in previous episodes. If you are a big fan – bigger than me at least – you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

The Gate – I was really excited to see this movie released on Blu-ray. It was one of those cult-favorite 80s horror movies (for kids) that I’d never seen, but that I’d always wanted to and that I know a lot of people have a real love for. And sitting down to watch it, I was rewarded with a surprisingly good flick. There aren’t a lot of horror movies geared for kids, and The Gate manages to pull off being scary enough to creep kids out but not so scary as to keep them up at night (well, maybe) or be inappropriate for young viewers. With a young Stephen Dorff in one of the lead roles, the film holds up really well, and while the fashion and special effects are a little dated, the film works really well. It’s nice to discover something that could have been a disaster and is instead a really good time.

Bright Lights – This semi-documentary film was long in the works before the untimely deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in December of last year. As opposed to being a talking-heads-style retrospective, this movie was filmed inside their homes, and is really captures the relationship and the interaction between the two, giving a much more intimate portrait of the two than you would get in a typical doc. It’s got all sorts of moments: humor, heart, and conflict, and I think it should be required viewing for any fans of classic Hollywood, Star Wars, or actors in general.

Also available on Blu-ray & DVD this week:

  • Deadtime StoriesDeadtime Stories is another cult classic ‘80s horror movie, this one does not hold up so well. An anthology of fairy tales-turned-horror stories such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, etc., the film is unfortunately long on cheese and short on charm. While it’s fun to see a young Melissa Leo in one of her first roles and a pre-Family Ties Nick Valentine in an early role (which is a nice throwback for us ‘80s fans), the movie just isn’t very good. Nostalgic fans will enjoy seeing it on Blu-ray (and will like the new interviews with Leo and Valentine, which are a real treat), but if you’ve never seen the film before, consider yourself forewarned.
  • Wait Until Dark – This suspense thriller starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin is a real classic. While not one of Hepburn’s more remembered films (although it did earn her a fifth Oscar nomination), it’s a real gem in the suspense genre. Hepburn plays a newly-blind woman who is being hunted by a psychopathic killer who wants something he thinks she has. To say more would be to ruin the fun, but suffice it to say that both Hepburn and Arkin are terrific, and the film itself is so much better than you’d expect a genre thriller from 1967. While Hepburn only made something like 17 movies, it’s telling that even one of her “lesser” works like Wait Until Dark is something of a masterpiece.
  • Chronic – The always-excellent Tim Roth stars in this hard drama about a man who cares for terminally ill patients and gets attached to them, only to see them die and move on to another one. Roth gives an amazing performance, but this is the kind of movie that you watch for the acting, and not because it’s an enjoyable viewing experience. It’s a solid movie overall, but it’s hard to watch because of the subject matter. If you don’t mind a film that will really hit you in the gut, then this one makes for a good endurance test. But it’s hard to recommend as a movie you can watch to get away from real life for 90 minutes when it’s so immediate and difficult. Great performance, though.
  • A Place to Call Home: Season 4 – The sweeping Australian drama continues with A Place to Call Home: Season 4. Imagine an Australian version of Downton Abbey set in the 1950s and you have some idea what this show is like. While that’s not a perfect comparison, it does set the tone. The acting is uniformly terrific, the characters are engaging, and the show is — like Downton — more addictive than you would think.
  • Love in the Afternoon – One of the original May-December romance films, Love in the Afternoon stars a young and vibrant Audrey Hepburn (always a favorite) and a mature and worldly Gary Cooper, and it’s wonderful. Hepburn plays the innocent young ingénue who falls for Cooper’s rich womanizer, and while the outcome is somewhat predictable, it doesn’t matter. The film is charming and does everything right. If I have any complaints at all, it’s that – at two hours and twenty minutes – the film does drag just a bit in some places. But by and large, it’s still utterly charming, and I have no problem watching Audrey Hepburn any time at all. This one makes its Blu-ray review courtesy of Warner Brothers’ print-on-demand service, the Warner Archive. And it’s worth watching in high def, for sure.
  • Contract to Kill – Another month, another direct-to-video Steven Seagal film. The puffy former-action-star is in rough shape in this film, and he can barely be bothered to stand up. (He actually does a fight scene while sitting down at one point.) The story is pretty unimportant (Seagal versus terrorists versus drug dealers) but it does make time to reinforce ethnic stereotypes that are rampant in movies and give us a tired-looking Seagal who can only pull off action sequences (when they even bother to have them) thanks to extremely overwrought editing that basically tries to mask the fact that he’s too fat now to actually do the movies. Skip this one.
  • Elite – Speaking od direct-to-video actioners, Elite is another new one that features unknown actors in a low-budget flick about a Naval cold case and the investigators that reopen it. Now, I try not to hold things like being low-budget or direct-to-video against a film, and instead look at the output as its own entity. And on that basis, Elite isn’t a bad flick. It’s not a great flick, but it’s not actually bad, either. Obviously there are limitations, but the script is decent and the acting is solid enough to not embarrass anyone. It’s not the kind of movie I can recommend as being worth tracking down, but if you come across it, there are worse ways you can spend 90 minutes.
  • 227: Season One – Amazingly enough, it’s been years since 227 – the hit sitcom starring Marla Gibbs and Jackee – has been available on DVD. Now re-released through Mill Creek Entertainment – the patron saints of low-priced TV and movie re-releases – Season 1 is once again available on DVD and at a low, low price. I used to watch 227 way back in the day, and it was certainly interesting to revisit it. It’s clear that it’s aged quite a bit, but Marla Gibbs is terrific, and Jackee is the kind of actress/personality that could only become a celebrity through American television. It’s not a true classic, but it’s a fun show and it’s nice to see it available again for fans.
  • It’s Ernest: 13 Episodes – I was lucky enough to meet Jim Varney once when I was an extra on the set of one of the Ernest movies, so I’ve always had a soft spot for his Ernest character. And while I remember this short-lived kids’ TV show existing, I can’t say I remember having actually seen any episodes of it. A live action sketch-comedy-slash-educational show for kids, this collection gives us 13 episodes of Ernest in all his earnest glory (see what I did there?) Sure, it’s a bit dated and I don’t know how much today’s kids will take to it, but I bet more than a few will like it. For me, it’s a nice nostalgia trip and I enjoyed seeing Ernest on screen again.
  • Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise – I think it’s fair to say that Maya Angelou is probably the 20th Century’s most famous poet. In an era where poetry has largely disappeared from the mainstream, she remained relevant and famous throughout the past several decades. This two-hour documentary combines the typical documentary archival footage and photos with the words of Angelou, allowing you to understand both her impact on the world and the power of her works. Now, I’m not a huge poetry guy, but of course I do have a lot of respect for Angelou, and this is a terrific documentary whether you’re a fan or not.
  • Dino Train: What’s at the Center of the Earth – Dinosaur Train is a fun little cartoon on PBS that my kids really enjoyed when they were younger. It follows a family of dinosaurs (mostly Pteranodons, but with one young adopted T-Rex thrown in for good measure) in prehistoric times, with a dinosaur train that takes them all overt the land for new adventures. As with most PBS kids shows, the series mixes positive lessons about family, friends, sharing, behavior, etc. with a good dose of humor and adventure. There are also real lessons on dinosaurs as interstitials between halves of episodes, which feature real life palaeontologist Dr. Scott Sampson. You get four episodes; there are no real extra features, but the DVD is priced pretty affordably, so it’s hard to complain.
  • Air Bound – Jon Lovitz is the only real name in this animated children’s film, the latest lower-budget animated flick that I believe originated in another country and was redubbed in English. There are also some YouTube stars playing major voice roles, which I guess is a thing nowadays. The story follows two city mice who end up going on an adventure to save a mouse island from the evil weasels trying to overtake it. It’s certainly not up to the standards of Disney or Pixar, and older kids won’t find it all that exciting, but younger viewers will likely enjoy the friendship between the main characters and the mouse vs. weasel action.

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