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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week: Their Finest, Species, The Fifth Element and more


Species – While it went on to launch a series of direct-to-video sequels that have kept the franchise alive, there’s no doubt that the original Species film remains the best. The film has a pretty solid pedigree: it was directed by Goldeneye’s Roger Donaldson, featured creature designs by Alien’s H.R. Giger, and it featured an ensemble cast that included Forest Whitaker, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger, and Michael Madsen. Rewatching the film for the first time in several years, I have to say it holds up quite well. Not so much in terms of special effects, which have dates a little, but in terms of pretty good acting, direction and script across the board. This new two-disc Blu-ray release from Scream Factory includes a TON of new extra features. It’s really a great collection for any fan of the film.

Their Finest – Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy star in this winning film based on true events about the small group of people who created propaganda films for Britain in the second World War. Largely credited for keeping British spirits afloat, the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division created short films to boost morale at a time when London was being regularly bombed. Not surprisingly, the charming cast is a big part of what males the film work, but it’s an interesting story and a well-made film. Definitely worth checking out, even if you have no interest in war films (because it isn’t one.)

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – Richard Gere turns in a terrific performance (albeit of a slightly annoying character) in this film about Norm Oppenheimer, the real-life man who became friends with the man who would become Israel’s Prime Minister (and would try to leverage that relationship.) Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar helmed this English-language film and while the story is a bit convoluted at time, the cast and the sure direction keeps it moving and engaging. Not an out-and-out slam dunk but an enjoyable film overall.

The Fifth Element/Leon The Professional 4K Ultra HD – Luc Besson fans can rejoice as his two most popular (and arguable best) films come to the 4K Ultra HD format. I think at this point, everything has already been said about The Fifth Element and Leon the Professional as films. They’re both terrific, and they are pretty much universally accepted as Besson’s best. Now, they look and sound better than ever, especially The Fifth Element, which is the kind of movie that really benefits from new formats in digital film distribution. Leon the Professional is a more earthbound film, and while it certainly looks clear and sounds exceptionally strong, it’s not the kind of film that necessarily needs an upgrade to 4K. Still, for Besson fans, these are must haves.

Absolutely Anything – Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale star in this oddball comedy from director Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who calls in his friends (mainly the other four surviving Python cast members and the late Robin Williams) to craft a comedy that isn’t as funny as it wants to be, but also not as bad as many people have said it is. The story borrows from the Bruce Almighty playbook, with Simon Pegg as earth’s everyman given unlimited power by a group of aliens who want to, well, to see what happens. At just 85 minutes, the film moves along quickly enough, and while it certainly doesn’t fire on all cylinders, there are a few chuckles to be found. Plus, Pegg is always fun to watch. But I wouldn’t say you should rush out and watch it; maybe check it out if you can’t find anything else to watch.

Correspondence – Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko star in this drama from acclaimed Writer/Director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900.) I don’t want to get into the story too much, as I feel like this is a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible about it beforehand. Suffice it to say, there is a romance at work, a mystery of sorts, and a family drama. Both Irons and Kurylenko are terrific, and while the story has a bit of an unconventional structure (large portions of the film are delivered via video chats and the like), it never feels like a gimmick (it is NOT a found footage film, it should be said.) The movie might be a bit longer than I wanted it to be, but overall, it’s pretty good.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • Bitcoin Heist – This Vietnamese heist film takes things in a slightly different direction by tracking down a criminal hacker out to steal money electronically, by targeting the virtual currency known as bitcoin. Luckily, the film explains the currency a bit at the start, making the rest of the movie a more traditional heist film, with a group of pickpockets and thieves recruited by the police to stop a hacker known as The Ghost. It’s a pretty good flick overall, with some good action sequences, a few tense heist-y moments, and an engaging story, even if it’s one we’ve seen before. Worth a look.
  • The Missing: Season 2The Missing was a brilliant TV miniseries from Starz that I binge-watched a year or two again and was completely sucked into. This second season is a related series that isn’t a direct sequel, but will satisfy fans of Season One. It sees the return of the always-fantastic Tchecky Karyo as detective Julien Baptiste, and the cast this time around includes the likes of Keely Hawes and David Morrissey. While it might not have the pure emotional gut punch of the first season (for which I’m grateful), this season is every bit as compelling, sucking you in from the opening minutes and not letting go until the very end. Track down season one first, and then dive right into season two if you have any fingernails left.
  • Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers have found a sort of second life for a lot of their cartoon staples like Scooby-Doo and The Jetsons by teaming them up with existing pop culture properties like the WWE or even the rock group KISS. Tom & Jerry have been getting in on the act, and their latest effort sees the iconic duo in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It’s an interesting film, because it kind of plays out like a straight adaption of Roald Dahl’s book (or at least the original film), but with Tom &Jerry thrown in for good measure. It has some charming moments, but it’s also a bit weird at times, and Tom & Jerry don’t always fit in. Still, it’s kind of a cool mash-up of two beloved fictional properties.
  • Underground: Season 2 – I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Underground. Mostly just because I find so many fictional works about slavery to be dreary and depressing. But Underground tells us a story of slavery in the US without presenting it like a history lesson; it treats it as a cinematic event. With terrific performances from a mostly unknown cast (although Christopher Meloni is a known quantity, always great) I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed the show. Check it out.
  • Spark: A Space Tail – While young Jace Norman (who I’d never heard of before) has the lead role in this new animated film, he’s surrounded by some real big-name voice talent, including Jessica Biel, Susan Sarandon, Patrick Stewart, and Hilary Swank. It turns out that Jace Norman is a Nickelodeon star (and apparently quite a popular one.) This film doesn’t have much to do with Nickelodeon except that it might appeal to some of the same age group. Despite the talent at play here, the film is utterly simple and unexciting. It’s the kind of movie where a monkey-based planet is called Bana the hero’s boar-like friend is named Chunk, and the fox-like girl is named Vix. I mean, it’s just not clever or interesting at all. Kids might like it, but adults will be left wanting.
  • Prime Suspect: Tennison – Did Helen Mirren’s perennially popular crime mystery series Prime Suspect really need a prequel? Absolutely not. But it got one anyway, and the result is Prime Suspect: Tennison. Stefanie Martini has big shoes to fill in trying to portray a young Jane Tennison (played expertly by Helen Mirren), and she does an admirable job. The show itself is solid. It’s not a slam-dunk, and it probably won’t get die-hard Prime Suspect fans to accept it as canon, but it’s at least an entertaining way to kill a few hours.
  • My Mother and Other Strangers – Also from the BBC (although this time it’s BBC Ireland), this moving and intriguing five-episode series is a little something different. It’s set in 1943, and it sees the character of Rose Coyn as the only Londoner in a small Irish town. That is, until a few thousand American soldiers arrive. Rose then becomes something of a go-between between the townies and the soldiers, and her role changes instantly. It’s a charming series with a good dose of drama and a few story points that will keep you guessing. It’s not a mystery, but as with any drama, there are things to be revealed that help bring the story full circle. This is a really rewarding watch.
  • London Heist – Craig Fairbrass isn’t a great actor, but he does make a decent leading man in a direct-to-video action flick, which is exactly what London Heist is. We’re in familiar territory here, as this heist flick starts off with One Final Job. Which tells you right away that something’s going to go wrong. And go wrong it does, with Fairbrass at the center of it all. I’ll say this: it might not be a terrific film, but it is watchable, and with these types of movies, that’s usually all I ask for.
  • Alive and Kicking – This a pretty nuts-and-bolts documentary about the world of swing dancing, but you also don’t need a lot of filmmaker tricks when the subject matter is so flashy and visceral. From students to teachers to grand masters, this film lets us into the world of the people who keep swing dancing not only – ahem – alive and kicking, but who also are passionate about it as an art form. It’s a contagious feeling, and watching the film will put a smile on your face.
  • The Gospel According to Al Green – Renowned music documentarian Robert Mugge turned his lens to Al Green in 1984, and the resultant feature-length film is pretty fantastic. It’s largely made up just of interviews with Green, who often noodles around on his guitar while talking, often playing snippets of the songs he’s talking about. And while it might sound less than exciting as a film, it’s actually quite fascinating in its simplicity. Green holds little back and tells some amazing stories along the way. A must-have for fans, and a recommended watch even if you’re not a fan already.
  • Caillou: Things that Go! – This is the latest DVD release of the popular cartoon, with a good handful of episodes. This show is kind of your basic kids’ show. A young boy has adventures in parks and playgrounds and such, and learns lessons about everything from friendship and helping to winning and losing. Of course, this time around, the playgrounds and parks share screen time with cars and trucks and planes (oh my!), hence the name Things That Go! It’s pretty typical kids fare for the younger set, but that’s not a bad thing. Plus, the low price point is a bonus looking for kids’ entertainment. You get an hour’s worth of episodes, and young kids will enjoy it.

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