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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week: LBJ, Victor Crowley, Night of the Living Dead, Roman J. Israel, Esq and more

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Denzel Washington in Columbia Pictures’ ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. – Probably my favorite release this week, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a really terrific legal drama/thriller with a fantastic performance by Denzel Washington. Directed by Dan Gilroy – who also delivered the utterly hypnotizing Nightcrawler – the film is hard to define, so I’m going to skip the plot synopsis. In fact, one of the things I liked about the film was that halfway through it, I still wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going. When it finally gets where it’s going, it’s not where you expect. With Colin Farrell also turning in a really great performance, I found myself captivated by this film from start to finish. I highly recommend tracking it down.

LBJ – Woody Harrelson delivers a terrific performance in the title role of this biopic of Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s surrounded by a terrific supporting cast that includes Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, Richard Jenkins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Despite all the stellar talent on screen, the film is solid but unspectacular. The performances are great, but the film focuses mostly on a few of the biggest moments of LBJ’s career, and doesn’t really delve deeply at all into any of the more controversial moments of his presidency. Still, it’s an entertaining enough watch to be worth the running time.

Victor Crowley – I love the Hatchet movies. Writer/director Adam Green has been one of the few filmmakers in recent years to make a successful franchise in the slasher genre, and his films are like love letters to all the great ‘80s Jason and Freddy and Michael Myers movies. This latest effort (which could just as easily have been called Hatchet IV) sees a return to the swamps where the monstrous Crowley claims his victims. The resultant 90 minutes is filled with gore, mayhem, and black humor, exactly what you’d want from a great slasher flick. If you liked the first three Hatchet films, you should like this one just as much.

Night of the Living Dead – The Criterion Collection doesn’t venture into horror all that often, but when they do, they do it right. This new Blu-ray edition of George Romero’s original zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead, is worth every penny. Obviously, the film is a classic; I shouldn’t need to tell anyone that. But this new special edition not only features restored and remastered sound and picture, but also a TON of extra features. There are documentaries, two audio commentaries, a workprint version of the film, interview, newsreels, and so much more. Sure, the film is in the public domain and there are plenty of other editions of the movie available, but this is THE definitive version without a doubt. Highly recommended!

Drag Me to Hell – It’s been ten years since Sam Raimi’s first post-Spider-Man movie came out, and this new Collector’s Edition from Scream Factory celebrates that anniversary in style. Somehow or another, I never got around to seeing this film until now, so I was excited to sit down and see why people like it so much. And… I’m baffled. I really, truly did not enjoy this film. I’ll give it credit for a great ending, but the last three minutes of the film can’t make up for the first 90 minutes. And it’s a shame, because it could have been good, but Raimi was way too interested in making a Raimi-esque film, which mostly involves our heroine getting her mouth vomited in every five minutes. Seriously, I don’t think Raimi left a single bodily fluid on the cutting room floor, and every single one of them ended up all over poor Alison Lohman. Ugh. Still, if you are a fan of this film, this new edition includes a commentary track, new interviews and featurettes, and more. So that’s something.

Blade of the Immortal – Acclaimed director Takashi Miike marks his 100th film with Blade of the Immortal, an over-the-top action film with supernatural overtones. The story is fairly simple, following a samurai who is cursed with immortality who pledges to protect a young girl. However, that does very little to tell you what kind of crazy ride you’re in for with this flick. Soaked with blood and swordplay, the film is visceral, kinetic, often hyperactive, and yet somehow artistic (at times, at least.) It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a lot of fun.

Benji: The Original Classic – Mill Creek typically specializes in low-budget catalogue releases, often putting out movies that have been on Blu-ray before but are selling fewer copies, making for the perfect budget release. But I’m impressed with their Blu-ray release of Benji. Not only is it a beloved family classic (and a favorite from my childhood), but rather than the usual barebones budget release, this disc includes nice packaging and extra features, including a commentary track with the director. It was fun to revisit this film, but it’s also nice to see that Mill Creek isn’t afraid to branch out into some higher quality products to bolster their budget releases.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown – While I’m not a huge western fan, when you make one with Bill Pullman, Jim Caviezel, Peter Fonda, and Kathy Baker in it, well, then you’ve caught my interest. And while The Ballad of Lefty Brown doesn’t tread any new ground, it is a perfectly serviceable film that even veers into enjoyable territory. It’s a time-honored revenge tale, but that’s part of what makes it entertaining. Worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.

Elevator to the Gallows – Louis Malle was one of the architects of French New Wave cinema, and – as with most of the French New Wave – I’ve seen very little of his oeuvre. So I was excited to get a chance to see his debut film with the new Criterion Collection edition of Elevator to the Gallows, which tells the story of a crime gone wrong and the emanating ramifications that come from it. However, a simple story synopsis doesn’t do the film justice, because it’s about so much more than that. With a jazz soundtrack by Miles Davis and black-and-white cinematography that would influence a generation of filmmakers, the film was the birth of a career and a style of filmmaking. With restored and remastered sound and picture plus a bevvy of extra features, this is an A+ release.

Also available this week on Blu-ray & DVD:

  • The Deuce: The Complete First Season, The Sinner: Season One, Animal Kingdom: The Complete Second Season – Three new critically acclaimed TV series come to home video this week. First up, we have The Deuce from HBO. I hadn’t even heard of this show before I got my review copy, so I’m guessing that maybe the buzz isn’t as great as some of the network’s other shows, like Game of Westworlds. Still, the show has all the ingredients to become a hit: sex, sex, and more sex. Oh yeah, plus big-name stars, a showrunner with a proven track record, and some pretty good characters. Set in the early ‘70s, the show delves into the sex industry – prostitutes, porn stars, etc. With Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco in the cast and created by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), the show feels very HBO (which isn’t always a good thing), but overall it’s worth watching. Next up is The Sinner: Season One, which sees Jessica Biel take the spotlight once again as a mom who commits an extreme act of violence – with seemingly no motive. The show then follows the legal aftermath of the event as people try to figure out what made this seemingly normal mom do something so shocking. It’s interesting stuff, and I really liked both Biel and Bill Pullman in a supporting role. Finally, Animal Kingdom: Season Two continues the story based on terrific drama film about a criminal family in Australia that starred Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, and Jackie Weaver. Two seasons into its life as a TV series, and I’m not really sure it needed to be. To be fair, it’s a well-made show with terrific performances (Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman, and Shawn Hatosy star), but it’s awfully serious stuff, and I don’t know that it’s the kind of thing I want to watch week-to-week. I think it’s trying to capture the Breaking Bad audience, but it’s a bit too dark for my tastes. I’m sure a lot of people will like it, though.
  • Kids in The Hall: The Complete Collection – This top-notch box set is the complete series of the original Kids in the Hall series (all five seasons worth) for a really sweet price point. It doesn’t add any new extra features, but it does include the Death Comes to Town reunion miniseries, which wasn’t included in the previous (and much more expensive) version of this box set. This set from Mill Creek includes all of the above on both DVD and as a digital copy, and it offers up hours and hours of great comedy sketches starring Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney. I wasn’t a fan of KITH when it originally aired, but I have become one over the years, and this is the best complete collection DVD release yet.
  • Matinee – A good chunk of Matinee was shot in my hometown, so I have an affinity for this film from before it was even released. That said, though, I’ve always really loved this movie on its own merits, and I was ecstatic to revisit it thanks to the excellent new Blu-ray from Shout Selects, Shout Factory’s label that releases cult and classic (and cult classic) films that they’ve curated for discerning viewers. This film somehow manages to combine a coming-of-age story with 1950s nuclear war fears and B-movie parody/homage, and the result is a sweet, funny, and charming film. With a nice collection of extra features, this is a terrific release that I was thrilled to watch.
  • Brotherhood of Blades II – Another week, another Asian action epic. This time around, it’s a film that has been hugely popular in its native China, Brotherhood of Blades II, which actually serves as a prequel to the original Brotherhood of Blades. As usual, at two hours long, the film feels just a bit bloated, but this mystery/action mash-up does offer up some spectacular visuals, some kick-ass fight sequences, and a decent story. I haven’t seen the original film, so I don’t know if you need to watch it to understand this one, but since it’s a prequel, I would assume so. I can’t say there were any points as to where I was unclear as to what was happening. Fans of the genre should enjoy this one.
  • Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection – Mill Creek delivers another budget box set t his week with the Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection, which gives you six discs’ worth of the great comic duo. You’ll find here five feature films (three Jerry Lewis and two Dean Martin, none with the two of them together) as well as some 20 hours of episodes of the Colgate Comedy Hour, a television program where you do get to see both of them doing comedy. The five films included are Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, Hook Line and Sinker, 3 on a Couch, Who Was That Lady? and How to Save A Marriage and Ruin Your Life. There are no really huge stand-outs in this set, and most of the material has been available before, but for a low price point, its not a bad purchase.
  • Broad City: Season Four – Originally a web series and now a Comedy Central Show, Broad City: Season 4 stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (who also created it) as they try to muscle in on the territory pioneered by shows like Workaholics or Girls. Basically, if you like pot smoking and lowest-common-denominator humor, you’ll like this show. Me, not so much.
  • Hollywood Profile: Lucille Ball & Hollywood Profile: Shirley Temple, The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color, Daddy and the Muscle Academy, Tom of Finland, Culture Club: Live at Wembley – There are a number of new entertainment collections and documentaries out this week. Mill Creek brings us two celebrity collections in the Hollywood Profile: Lucille Ball & Hollywood Profile: Shirley Temple budget sets, each of which includes a half dozen lesser-known movies as well as TV episodes and guest appearances and the like. It’s a neat way to get exposure to two of Hollywood’s greats without spending a ton of money. They also have The Jackie Gleason Show in Color, which offers up a one-disc, four-episode sampling of Gleason’s show which ran in the late 60s. Guest stars included Milton Berle, Red Buttons, George Carlin, Phil Silvers, Florence Henderson and Frankie Avalon. Next up are a duo of documentaries from Kino Lorber. Tom of Finland is a two-hour exploration of the life and career of gay artist icon Touko Laaksonen, known to the world as Tom of Finland. What’s odd is that the corresponding release, Daddy and the Muscle Academy, covers similar ground, and it runs under an hour. Honestly, it would have made a better special feature on the Tom of Finland disc than its own release. But both films are available on Blu-ray for the fist time, and fans of his art should be excited. Finally, Culture Club: Live at Wembley is a three-disc Blu-ray/CD/DVD combo that sees a live performance from Boy George and the gang in any format you want to experience it. You get 15 tracks of the band’s biggest hits, all performed just a few years ago, giving them a unique modern vibe.
  • Slavery and the Making of America, Finding Your Roots: Season 4, Smithsonian: The Real Mad Men of Advertising, Smithsonian: Black Wings, American Experience: The Gilded Age, American Experience: The Bombing of Wall Street, Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service – We have a number of PBS documentary releases to look at. Slavery and the Making of America is a powerful three-hour documentary about the roots of slavery, it’s place in American history, and the effects it had on American society. It can be a heavy watch, but it’s very worthwhile. Finding Your Roots: Season 4 sees a number of popular celebrities researching their family trees and coming up with some genuinely interesting results. This season has Scarlett Johansson, Ted Danson, Larry David, Paul Rudd, Amy Schumer, Carmelo Anthony, Téa Leoni, Bernie Sanders, and Christopher Walken, and a ton of other famous faces, and it’s fascinating stuff. Admittedly I find genealogy very interesting, but this show also has some emotional moments and some “detective” work that’s a lot of fun to watch. Smithsonian: Black Wings is an hourlong documentary about the advent of black pilots in the 20th century and their place in history. American Experience: The Gilded Age is a deep look at the explosion of the American population in the end of the 19th century, leading to the class divide. It’s heady stuff and occasionally a bit dense, but still interesting. One of my favorite releases this week is American Experience: The Bombing of Wall Street, an hour-long documentary about the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, which I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know about. It’s a fascinating dive into an event that had a huge impact on America but has been largely forgotten. Finally, Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service is a three-hour exploration of the team that protected Queen Elizabeth and kept her safe over the course of four decades. I don’t know that it needed three hours, but there’s a lot of great info here, and I enjoyed it.

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