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US Blu-ray & DVD releases this week: Early Man, I Kill Giants, Return of the Swamp Thing, The 15:17 to Paris and more


The 15:17 To Paris – Clint Eastwood’s latest film (as director, not actor) details a terrorist attack on a train to Paris that was stopped by three unarmed Americans (two of whom were off-duty soldiers) on the train. It’s an important and inspiring story to be sure, but Eastwood has to stretch what was essentially a three-minute event into a feature-length film. I can appreciate the experiment of filming the story using the actual people who stopped the attack playing themselves, and they’re actually not bad, but Eastwood tries to give us their backstory with realistic dialogue that these non-actors can feel comfortable with. The result is a lot of low-key conversations and mumbly interactions that feel real, but largely uninteresting. That said, the film itself is still somewhat enjoyable, and the climactic action scene is pretty gripping. Overall, though, the whole thing feels like what could have been a gripping thriller that is instead oddly off-kilter.

Early Man – I had absolutely no interest in watching this film from Aardman Animation, the studio behind the Wallace & Gromit films (of which I’m a big fan). Honestly, I just thought the trailer was absolutely awful. But a film critic I really respect gave the film a glowing review, and I figured I’d give it a chance. And so this story of cavemen, bronze age people, and soccer (or football, if you’re British) went into the player, and I sat back to take it all in. And while I still think that Aardman’s feature films don’t compare to their early Wallace & Gromit shorts, there’s no denying that Early Man was a better film than I expected it to be. It’s charming at times, funny in places, and cleverer than it looks. It’s not a home run, but it’s a fun film that kids should enjoy and adults most likely will, too.

I Kill Giants – Based on the hit graphic novel by Joe Casey (who also delivers the script for the film), I Kill Giants is an interesting that I really wanted to love. I didn’t dislike it, let me be clear, but it didn’t quite work for me. While the trailer sells more of the action and fantasy than is really in the film, I didn’t mind the fact that it’s much more of a drama than anything else. And while the young cast are all quite good, there was just something missing for me. The film is slow in many places, punctuated by a few more interesting moments. And what is – I think? – supposed to be a twist, isn’t really much of one. I wish I knew how to explain the film better; it’s okay, but I wish I liked it more.

Return of the Swamp Thing – New from the MVD Rewind Collection, which is bringing us a number of great cult classic films (largely from the ‘80s), Return of the Swamp Thing makes its Blu-ray debut. The original Swamp Thing film is something of a cult classic that was directed by Wes Craven. This sequel has much less of a pedigree, but it does have Heather Locklear in a lead role, so that’s something. Ultimately, if you enjoyed the original film, you’ll probably like this sequel as well; it’s a similar level of cheese and prosthetic creatures. If you don’t like the original, this film isn’t much of an improvement. This new edition comes packed with extra features, which fans of the films should really enjoy. It’s a fun flashback film, but this isn’t exactly great cinema.

Also available this week on home video:

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles CollectionMystery Science Theater 3000 is a big favorite of mine, but some of their earliest releases on DVD can be quite hard to find nowadays. This new set helps to rectify that situation by taking a bunch of the earliest releases that were sold as single movie DVDs and collecting them into one nice, big set. The films included in the set are: The Crawling Hand, The Hellcats, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Eegah, I Accuse My Parents, and Shorts: Volume 3. That’s about eight hours’ worth of movies, all in that inimitable MST3K These are all from the first five seasons, meaning they all feature Joel Hodgson, which most fans will appreciate. You also get a few extra features, making this set a real treat for fans, especially those who have been missing these rare MST3K releases.
  • Gunsmoke: The Thirteenth Season, Volume One & Two – It’s been almost two years since the last Gunsmoke DVD release, which is kind of disheartening for fans, but we finally have a new season on DVD. I have to imagine that the reason for the delay is that sales aren’t quite as gangbusters as CBS wants them to be. Which is funny, because Gunsmoke is one of the most successful TV shows of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. It had a little of everything: drama, action, romance. This truly is a hard-hitting show, a drama that wasn’t afraid to get dirty – and this was in the 60’s during prime-time TV. Before shows like Gunsmoke, these shows were mostly considered stuff for kids of the stereotypical “Cowboys & Indians” variety. While I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns in general, you can’t deny the quality of this historic series. Gunsmoke: The Thirteenth Season is presented in two volumes (as the previous few sets have been) so it’s not a cheap set, but if you’ve been collecting up until now, there’s no reason to stop. Especially considering how long it’s been since the last one.
  • Desolation – Running a lean 76 minutes, Desolation is a pretty taut thriller about a mourning mom and her teenage son (along with a friend) who find themselves being preyed upon by a man in the woods on a camping trip. That’s pretty much all I need to say about the plot because, A) it’s not a plot-heavy film, and B) going into detail wouldn’t really tell you much more than I already have. Even with it’s short running time, it takes about a half an hour before anything remotely scary happens, but somehow the film works regardless. Credit goes to a script that creates characters who are actually real and relatable and also to the cast of exactly four people (one of which, the killer, never says a word) who are all actually good actors. If you’re looking for a killer with a tangible motivation, avoid this film, but if you just want a good, taut, suspense thriller, this one is a quick and easy – and enjoyable – watch.
  • Of Unknown Origin – Peter Weller and Shannon Tweed star in this little-seen thriller that sees the Robocop actor going up against a giant rat. Like, the size of a dog, giant. Now, with a description like that, you kind of know what type of film you’re getting into, but this is a surprisingly fun thriller. Weller gives it his all and the film escalates the tension as it goes, and the result is the best kind of creature feature B-movie. Shout Factory brings the film to Blu-ray for the first time, and if you’re a fan of B-movie fright flicks, I recommend tracking this one down.
  • Savannah Smiles – Also from MVD’s Rewind Collection, this family comedy makes its Blu-ray debut as well. The film’s main cast is largely unknown (or forgotten), but there are some nice supporting turns from Pat Morita, Michael Parks, and Peter Graves. In the film, the young Savannah, daughter of a prominent politician, runs away and ends up in the charge of a couple of crooks, who fall for her precocious charms. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of this film before, but I can see why MVD has adopted it. It’s cute and has some fun moments, with a solid emotional core to it. This new Blu-ray comes with a number of new extra features, so people who are already fans have a lot to look forward to.
  • Masterpiece: Little Women – My wife and daughter are huge fans of the original novel, but I’ve never read it, so my opinions of Little Women come directly from movie adaptations of it. This latest take on the classic comes from BBC’s Masterpiece, and it has an all-star cast that includes Emily Watson, Angela Lansbury, Michael Gambon, Willa Fitzgerald, and Maya Hawke. Over the course of three hour-long episodes, Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is brought to life with lush detail, excellent performances, and high production values. I may not be an expert on the book, but I can appreciate a good adaptation when it comes along, and this one definitely is.
  • Vazante – Sometimes, movies are smarter than me. This may be one of those cases. This Portuguese black-and-white drama is about a farmer, his slaves, and his child bride, and as cheerful as THAT sounds, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that this isn’t exactly a fun film. There are a lot of characters, an overwhelming atmosphere of dread and solemnity, and I’m ultimately not sure what the film is trying to tell me. Or why it takes almost two full hours to tell it to me. Bonus points from some excellent cinematography, though. If you’re into deep arthouse dramas, this film might appeal to you, but it’s not my cup of tea.
  • Swung – This Scottish drama has been out for two-and-a-half years, and we’re just seeing it get released on US shores now, which might be indicative of the quality of the film. I can’t say that I’m overly familiar with lead actors Owen McDonnell and Elena Anaya, but at least Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern shows up to spice things up a bit. The film explores the contemporary world of swinging, and it’s not particularly subtle. Or even all that good. The dialogue isn’t great, the performances are okay at best, and the whole proceeding is – despite the spectre of sex that permeates the film – rather dull. Too bad.
  • The Loud House: It Gets Louder – Season 1, Volume 2 – I’d only just recently even heard of this Nickelodeon cartoon and suddenly I’ve got Volume 2 on DVD in front of me. This two-disc, five-hour DVD follows an unusual family with eleven kids: ten girls and one boy. The boy, Lincoln Loud, is the focus of the show as he navigates his way through a house with ten sisters. The show didn’t really sound like something I would like, but I have to admit it’s pretty clever and written with a good mix of intelligence and heart, and it won me over. Which is pretty high praise for a kids’ show these days. Plus, I really dig the throwback animation style. Fun!
  • Sunny Day – This newest Nickelodeon animated series is aimed squarely at little girls, and I’m sure they’ll like it. This is one of those shows that’s tough for a middle-aged male to review because there’s literally nothing for me here. But that’s okay because I don’t need to be a fan to see that preschool girls will enjoy it. It’s sparkly, full of bright colors (largely pink, purple, and yellow), features a cute dog, and sees a multi-ethnic crew of a hairstylist and her friends learning lessons about friendship, cooperation, and the usual preschool fare. It’s cute and fun and has positive life lessons, and this DVD collection gives you four episodes of it. Nothing wrong with that.
  • Warner Archive Releases – The Warner Archive print-on-demand service has three new releases this week: The Prime Minister, The Gay Bride, and MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy. The Prime Minister (1941) sees Sir John Gielgud playing Benjamin Disraeli, in a heavily fictionalized portrayal of the British Prime Minister. The film isn’t a barn burner, but Gielgud’s performance is terrific and the film is sharply paced at 94 minutes, so it’s worth a watch. The Gay Bride (1933) stars Carole Lombard in a screwball comedy about a gold-digging woman and the mobster she’s trying to marry. It’s a slight film and it hasn’t aged particularly well, but Lombard is radiant and the film has some fun moments. Finally, MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy is a terrific documentary from 1964 that covers MGM’s period of comedies from 1920 through the end of the 1940s. Focusing on big-name acts like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, W.C. Fields, and Lucille Ball, the film has a bit of a promo reel feel to it, but it’s also a worthwhile documentary in its own way.

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