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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Ad Astra, Angel Has Fallen, IT: Chapter 2, Rambo: Last Blood, Judy, Freaks and more


This week’s column wraps up the year’s releases. There’ are only a few actual titles out on Christmas Eve (12/24), and there are no major releases on New Year’s Eve (12/31). So here I’m reviewing everything that comes out this week, plus a handful of titles released over the past couple of weeks that I received a little late and am now reviewing. I’ll be back with a new column in the first release week of the New Year! Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

IT: Chapter 2 – The first It was a – pardon the pun – monster hit, so of course the sequel was inevitable. Whereas the first film was pretty well-liked, with a few people who didn’t like it sprinkled amongst the masses, opinions on the second film were much more split, with a large contingent of people complaining that it was awful. Personally, I don’t get the hate. Is it as good as the first movie? No, but I also think a bunch of adults facing off against a monster isn’t quite as scary as a bunch of kids doing so. But I found the film perfectly enjoyable. I guess what’s weird to me is that it feels very much like a continuation of the first film. If you liked the first movie, I don’t see what there was a bout this one that would make you not like it. For the fans out there, the release also comes with an entire disc’s worth of bonus features, so it is a really great package for It fans.

Ad Astra – Brad Pitt’s big-budget sci-fi drama failed to light the box office on fire, and I feel like that’s kind of a shame and also kind of expected. On the one hand, the film is pretty good. Pitt’s performance is very strong, the film looks great, and there is a strong dramatic heart beating at the center of it. On the n the other hand, it’s an incredibly esoteric film, concerned much less with space action and conflict and more with introspection, deep thinking, and quiet moments. So I liked the film, but I also feel like I could have loved it if it could have gotten out of its own head a bit. It’s more Solaris than Interstellar, if that tells you anything. Ad Astra comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray and DVD), and let me tell you, this is the kind of movie that really benefits from the premium format. Image clarity and contrasts are impeccable, and while it’s not an overly colorful film, the colors there are shine brightly and vibrantly. The soundtrack, similarly, isn’t overly active, but it has nice subtleties and depth to it that fit the film. It’s an impeccable presentation.

Angel Has Fallen – How Olympus Has Fallen has spawned not one but two sequels (when White House Down was clearly the better “attack on the White House” film) is beyond me, but I do believe they’ve actually gotten better with each outing. I found Olympus has Fallen mediocre at best, but London Has Fallen was more enjoyable, with better action sequences and stronger special effects. Now we have Angel Has Fallen, in which Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning is framed for attempting to kill the president and has to go on the run and prove his innocence. There’s not an original bone in its body, but that doesn’t change that it’s an effective, entertaining action film that is a fun way to kill 90 minutes.

Rambo: Last Blood – I’m a huge fan of the Rambo franchise, so I was excited to see Rambo: Last Blood, but I was also cautiously optimistic about it. There’s been a trend in action movies lately (especially Stallone-style films) in which the action has been over-the-top in a way that veers into the category of brutal, which I’m not a fan of. And Rambo: Last Blood started off in a way that focuses on character and gave me hope that we would get a film that wouldn’t shy away from violence, but also wouldn’t revel in inhumanity. Then the second half of the film came along, and all hopes of any kind of restraint went right out the window. This is a brutal movie, and the last half is filled with people exploding in a variety of gruesome ways. I think the story and concept behind the film actually works pretty well, I just wish the film didn’t feel the need to make me want to turn away from the screen as much as I did.Rambo: Last Blood comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray and DVD), and it’s a very nice presentation. Imagery is razor sharp, colors are vibrant (all that blood really shines!) and the surround soundtrack is constantly active with the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and city nightlife. I didn’t love the movie, but there’s no complaints about the technical aspect of the home video release.

Annabelle Comes Home – I wish I could get as excited about the ConjuringUniverse films as many people seem to, judging by the box office receipts. While the more recent efforts haven’t grossed as much as the first film or two in the series, not one yet has failed to make a profit, and no matter how many they churn out, people seem to keep coming. The latest entry is Annabelle Comes Home, which sees Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) return to the forefront, this time placing Annabelle (the haunted doll) in their “artifacts room.” Of course, if you think the creepy doll is going to stay locked up, you’ve obviously never seen a horror movie. I’ll say this: while I’m not a huge fan of this series overall, I don’t hate the films either, and I think this is one of the better entries of late. The Annabelle doll makes a creepy foil, and I like the acting chops that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring to the film. Worth a watch if you like the series.

Judy – Renee Zellweger gives a critically acclaimed and inevitably award-worthy performance as Judy Garland in this biopic that sees a later-in-life Garland reminiscing about her life. The film mixes in musical numbers (but not to a distracting degree) and utilizes a strong supporting cast (including Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, and Jessie Buckley) to bring her story to life. The focus is on her last year as well as her younger life, and the story is interesting enough, but the real spotlight here (both literally and figuratively) is on Renee Zellweger, whose performance is utterly outstanding and will surely earn an Oscar Nomination. The film itself is solidly decent; I can’t say I loved it, but I it’s entertaining enough and Zellweger alone made it worth watching.

The Kitchen – Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss might not be the first cast that comes to mind when you think of a hard-hitting mob drama, but the concept for this story makes it work. The three actresses play the wives of mobsters who are sent up the river and suddenly find themselves with nothing. Rather than roll over and give up, they basically take over the operation and become the new queens of the mafia. Based on the DC comic book, the film is a bit of an odd finished product. On the one hand, the story is interesting and the performances are strong. Plus, there’s a fantastic supporting cast ion recognizable faces. On the other hand, the film is a little disjointed, with occasional tonal shifts that don’t really fit together and a story that occasionally jumps around a bit too much. It’s an entertaining enough watch, but it’s not quite a home run.

Blinded by the Light – Gurinder Chadha, who directed the charming ‘90s hitBend it Like Beckham, helms this not-dissimilar story of an outsider who finds inspiration from an unlikely source. In this case, the music of Bruce Springsteen. In this case, we follow 18 year old Javed, a young Pakistani man living in England with a traditional family. While he wants to write poetry, his family life and the racism present in the time (the film is set in the late ‘80s) make it difficult. Until he discovers the music of The Boss, of course. The film is a solidly dramatic, nicely uplifting movie that I think people will like. My biggest problem with it, personally, is the music. Honestly, I’ve never liked Bruce Springsteen’s music, even a little bit. And so while I can appreciate how the lyrics fit the story having to listen to a bunch of his songs throughout the film didn’t really do a whole lot for me. Fans of Bruce’s, though, will probably love this movie, as it is charming and effective.

Silver Bullet – Corey Haim (a very young Corey Haim, I should point out) and Gary Busey star in this adaptation of Stephen King’s slightly tongue-in-cheek werewolf story. This is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to see but had just never gotten around to, even though I read the book back in the late ‘80s. It turns out it’s a slightly silly but awfully fun movie, which is a rarity in the world of werewolf flicks, which are bad way more often than they are good. The film has been released as a special edition Blu-ray from Shout Factory’s excellent Scream Factory imprint, which means you get terrific new cover art and a slew of extra features; literally hours of new extras will make any fan howl at the moon. It’s an outstanding release for a pretty good movie.

The Cotton Club: Encore – The 1984 Richard Gere musical about a famous jazz night club in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was a famous box office misfire, and it’s easily one of Francis Ford Coppola’s leaf-liked films. And of course, being Coppola, what do you do about that? Why, you go back and “fix” it, of course. Seriously, what is it with the great 70’s filmmakers (Coppola, Lucas, even Spielberg to a lesser extent) that won’t let them just leave their old movies alone? Well, here, he’s gone back and recut The Cotton Club and added in nearly 20 minutes of unseen footage, including dance numbers. But in doing so, he also excised over 13 minutes of existing scenes, which seems to have pissed the people who DO love this movie right off. Now, I’d never seen the film before this, so I can’t directly compare the two, and I found the movie overall to be just okay, but I would have been a lot happier if Lions Gate had chosen to releases this a two-disc set that occluded the original cut. I can’t say for sure, but word on the street is that the original cut is much better. A missed opportunity, for sure.

Slaughterhouse-Five – This 1970s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel has been released on home video before, but never like this. Arrow Video continues their push to become the Criterion Collection of genre films with another outstanding release of a classic cult favorite. The film, which follows the unstuck-in-time Billy Pilgrim, was never a huge box office hit, but as directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and praised by Vonnegut himself for the film’s adherence to the novel, it’s a really impressive adaptation of a novel that is far from easy to adapt. But the film is (almost) secondary to the Blu-ray release itself, which comes packed with several new featurettes and interviews, restored and remastered sound and picture, and terrific new packaging featuring great new cover art. I love what Arrow Video is doing with cult classic and genre films, and this is yet another fantastic release from one of the best companies doing home video right now.

Freaks – Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern star in this intriguing new sci-fi thriller that is hard to talk about without giving away the surprises. So here’s the official description to help me out: The film “portrays the story of 7-year-old Chloe, who lives in fear under her father’s protective and paranoid control, and fascination of the outside world, where Abnormals create a constant threat – or so she believes. When a mysterious stranger offers her a glimpse of what’s really happening outside, Chloe soon finds that while the truth isn’t so simple, the danger is very real.” See what I mean?. Honestly, if I tell you any more, it’ll ruin the twists and turns, and there are some good ones here. Both Hirsch and Dern turn in excellent performances, and young Lexy Kolker is a terrific child actor that impresses in most every scene. I liked this film and I found it unique and engaging, but I think the less you know about it, the more you’ll like it.

Also Available This Week on Home Video:

  • Overcomer – The latest faith-based film from the creators of the hit movieWar Room sees director Alex Kendrick also taking on the starring role. This time around, he plays a basketball coach who loses his team and is forced to take on a new sport that he hates: running. Of course, being the kind of movie this is, what that means is that he has to Learn a Lesson and Change People’s Lives for the Better. And of course, that’s what you want from a movie like this and that’s what you get. It’s an uplifting movie, but the faith element means it might not be everyone’s cup of tea; fans of the genre will find a lot to like, though.
  • The Kill Team – Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard star in this dramatic military thriller, based on a documentary made by the same director. Loosely based on the killing of civilians in Afghanistan by American soldiers, the film follows a platoon of soldiers who are doing bad things. When one soldier in the group is opposed to the killings, he has to survive even as the soldiers begin to suspect that someone is working against them. The story has some incredibly tense moments, and the film is made even better thanks to the searing lead performances by Wolff and Skarsgard. The film is a little uneven at times and the pacing could use a little help, but overall it’s a taut watch that will keep you engaged.
  • Santa Fake – Lead actor Damian McGinty may be largely unknown, but Santa Fake does pad the proceedings by putting together a cast of well-known supporting actors (in mostly small roles) including Judd Nelson, John Rhys Davies, Jeff Fahey, and Tony Amendola. The film follows a young man who ends up hiding from both the mob and the cops by posing as a mall Santa, which gives him a terrific disguise. Of course, you can’t dress up as Santa Claus without being changed by it, so of course there’s a good message in here was well. McGinty is a surprisingly affable lead, and the film is pretty charming. It’s not exactly subtle, nor is it overly polished filmmaking, but it’s rather enjoyable.
  • The Gallows: Act IIThe Gallows was a little horror film that came out about three or four years ago about a ghost taking out high school kids, usually by hanging them. It was a taut little thriller and I found it pretty enjoyable. Well, I guess it did well enough to garner a sequel, so now we have The Gallows: Act II, which ups the ante by adding a viral challenge into the story to kick things off. From there, we get some of the same traits that made the first movie enjoyable: decent acting, solid scares, and a good, creepy atmosphere throughout. The fact that it’s made by the same directors as the first film (Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing) makes it better, so it’s worth a watch, even if ultimately it’s nothing all that groundbreaking.
  • Gunsmoke: Season 16 & 17 – After typical long wait since the previous release, we now get not one but TWO new seasons of Gunsmoke on DVD. 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: Season 16 and Gunsmoke: Season 17 are each presented in a single volume, which is a switch from the past several seasons which all came out in two volumes each. If you’ve been collecting up until now, this is a nice break from a budget point of view! I’m glad that CBS is committing to finishing this series on DVD, even if their release strategy and schedule has been erratic at best.
  • Bonanza: Season 10, Volumes 1 & 2 – It took four years after Season 8 was released on DVD to get Season 9 on DVD, and now just seven months after Season 9 was released, we get a new two-volume set that continues the release of this popular western. These two volumes collect the entire tenth season, and even includes a few beat extra features. As always, you can once again watch Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe help Ben Cartwright battle cattle thieves and old west injustice in all of its original glory. If you’re a fan, this is a terrific release as usual. I’m hoping that the quick turnaround time on this set (and Gunsmoke above) means that CBS is finally knuckling down and wrapping up both of these historically popular shows in a way that the fans deserve, but for now, at least you’ve got another season in the books.
  • Where’s My Roy Cohn? – If you’re looking for something different form the usual holiday fare, how about a dark documentary about a notoriously evil political influence? If that sounds good, let me recommend Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a portrait of the lawyer and political fixer who famously favored corruption and winning over ethics, morals, or decency. He’s famous for mentoring Donald Trump (which is touched on a little), and in fact, the title of the film is based on a quote by Trump. I don’t usually love documentaries, but this expose is necessary viewing for anyone concerned about the future of our country, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on.
  • The Returned: The Complete Second Season – This French drama series is one of several recent genre dramas that has its feet in the genre world but is a character drama at heart. Dealing with what happens when the dead come back to life — but as themselves, not zombies — the show has some compelling moments, but it can also be a bit slow at times. With French language video and English subtitles, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is also the kind of show I could see garnering a hardcore fan base. But for me, ultimately it ranks as a solid but unspectacular show.
  • Bernie the Dolphin 2 – Kevin Sorbo stars in this direct-to-video sequel to a direct-to-video dolphin movie, and this one has two times the dolphins. This time around, our two young protagonists are excited to see the titular dolphin return to their locale, this time with a friend in tow. But of course, you have Kevin Sorbo’s bad guy, who wants to capture Bernie. What follows is exactly what you’d expect out of this kind of movie: it’s a sweet, harmless, slightly cheesy film that kids will enjoy but parents will probably turn to their phones while watching. Solidly inoffensive family fare.
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