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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Underwater, The Current War, Army of Shadows, Criminal Minds, and more

Underwater – Kristen Stewart stars in this take on Aliens that is set… wait for it… underwater. I’ll give the film credit for doing some things well. First and foremost, the action starts less than a minute into the film. There’s no waiting through 20 minutes of character development before things get rolling. And the characters manage to be at least somewhat interesting even without that. There are also some pretty intense action and suspense scenes, and some solid creature designs and special effects. That said, the film could have benefited from some better cinematography. It uses hyper-kinetic editing and the shaky camera-style a bit too much, and there are definitely times where it’s incredibly difficult to follow along with the on-screen action. Also, I’m not really sure why people still put Kristen Stewart in lead roles, but I would have liked someone more dynamic to anchor this film. Sigourney Weaver she ain’t. Overall, Underwater isn’t a great film or a bad film; it’s an easy way to kill 90 minutes and it’s enjoyable enough, it’s just nothing special. NOTE: This was supposed to be available on Blu-ray and DVD this week, but to my understanding it is currently only available via streaming.

The Current War – An all-star cast — including Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult — star in this drama based on the battle between Thomas Edison (played with verve by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his competitors George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Nicola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). It’s one of those stories that are sort of a little well-known but also buried in history, about how Edison was a man possessed, wanting to bring his DC Current technology to the world at all costs, while Tesla and Westinghouse supported AC Current. It might not seem that big of a deal to us now, but it was a huge matter at the turn of the century, and it probably shaped more of this country’s history than we realize. The film is a solid effort, filled with good performances, even if its not always as riveting as I think it wants to be.

Criminal Minds: The Complete Series and The Complete Fifteenth Season – While at times it seemed like the show that couldn’t die, I always really liked Criminal Minds. Despite falling squarely into CBS’s typical procedural formula, it always seemed a little edgier, a little darker, and a little more interesting than the CSI and NCIS franchises. I think it’s the fact that it focuses on serial killers that really takes it up a notch. It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it is extremely addictive. Now the show has officially come to an end after 15 seasons, so this week we have Criminal Minds: The Complete Fifteenth Season, which is the perfect endcap for your collection if you’ve been buying the seasons dutifully every year. If you haven’t however, now you can also own Criminal Minds: The Complete Series, a massive brick of a box set that includes all 15 seasons in three chunky cases, all wrapped up into one giant slipcover. It’s a massive 85-disc collection, and it includes every episode, a bunch of extra features, and nice packaging that’s as compact as you can get with 85 discs. For fans of the show, this is a great way to binge it again from the beginning!

Madam Secretary: The Complete Series and The Complete Sixth Season – I always thought it was a bit surprising that Madam Secretary became a hit, but it lasted a very respectable six seasons, so it’s clear people really liked this show. For me, it was never must-see TV; I watched a few episodes every season to review the DVDs and I always found it a capable and relatively enjoyable show; but honestly, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s like a CBS crime procedural, only it’s a show about politics instead of crime (although some could argue they’re the same thing). Still, Tea Leoni is great in the lead role and I can get why people took to it. It fills a hole left by The West Wing, even if it never reaches the quality level of that show. This week we have Madame Secretary: The Complete Sixth Season available for your collection if you’re going season-by-season. If you want to jump in fresh, however, we also have out this week Madam Secretary: The Complete Series, a 33-disc box set that collects the entire series along with bonus features, all in a nice, compact case. Shows like this play very well in the binging format, so it’s a nice purchase for fans of the show or people who want to try it out from the start.

Army of Shadows – Jean Pierre Melville’s (perhaps) most influential film comes to Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection, who does their usual bang-up job with this release. The 1967 film comes to new life thanks to remastered and restored sound and picture. This thriller features French stars Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, none of whom are well known in the US but all offer very strong performances. The film is minimal in nature, largely relying on mood, atmosphere, and acting to convey the drama of the French resistance fighters in World War II fighting against the nazis. But this isn’t a traditional war film, nor is it filled with exciting action and derring-do; rather, it’s a dark, somber reflection on what the people who resisted the nazis went through internally and externally. It’s easy to see why the film is so acclaimed by critics and scholars. This new Criterion edition also includes a number of terrific extra features including an audio commentary, interviews with Melville, and much more. A terrific presentation of a seminal film.

The Last Full Measure – Sometimes movies come along with a huge cast that you’ve just never heard of, and this is one of them. A lot of times, the reason you’ve never heard of said movie is because it’s not very good, but that isn’t the case with The Last Full Measure. Instead, this sort-of war drama stars Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, and Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s really quite good. Sebastian Stan (best known as Bucky from the Captain America movies) stars as a military lawyer going through the motions to move a Vietnam War soldier’s medal up to a medal of Honor. But as he investigates the case and learns the truth of the man’s heroism, he discovers a true hero who’s actions were never celebrated. While this isn’t an action movie, there are some intense scenes, and the true story of an American hero is both moving and engaging. This is a great movie with a great cast, and while it’s flown under the radar, it’s worth tracking down.

Also Available This Week on Home Video:

  • Police Squad! The Complete Series – I still have never figured out how a TV show that lasted only six episodes spurred a trilogy of movies that went on to become huge box office hits, but that’s what happened with Police Squad, a short-lived TV series with Leslie Nielsen that went on to become the Naked Gun movies. The show has been released on home video before, bu this newest release marks its first release on Blu-ray, which is a welcome way to watch the show. Now, I won’t say that the Blu-ray transfer suddenly turns this into a high-definition masterpiece, but the show certainly looks clearer and more colorful than it ever has before. Plus, while the set includes a number of great extra features, the real bonus here is that the show is very funny. It’s only six episodes, but it packs a lot of laughs into its short running time.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Eleventh Season – I used to dislike Spongebob Squarepants, but then my kids started watching the show and I’ve grudgingly come to like it — at least sort of. It’s still far from my favorite kids’ show, but I can at least now see the appeal. I even find it funny sometimes. This newest collection was a particularly big hit with my kids, as it collects all of the episodes featured in Season Eleven, rather than being a release with just a few episodes on it. It’s a much more rewarding viewing experience to be able to tackle a whole season versus just chunks of it every few months. This three-disc set contains 27 episodes, giving Spongebob fans enough material to binge for a good long while!
  • The Heart Guy: Series 4 – This popular drama feels both familiar and different all at the same time. An Australian show, the series follows an arrogant but gifted heart surgeon who ends up working as a general practitioner in his rural hometown after an incident fueled by drugs and alcohol brings him down. Now, a lot of that stuff happened in the early episodes, but we still get to enjoy a fish-out-of-water, Doc Hollywood-type story that manages to carve out its own unique take on a story we’ve seen before. For example, this season we see Doc Knight finish his probation, so he’s feeling good. But when you’re dealing with an ex-addict, is feeling good really the best thing? Admittedly, I don’t tend to watch very many medically-based shows so I might not be a regular viewer, but overall The Heart Guy is a well done series.
  • Balthazar: Series 1 – Acorn Media brings us a new series with Balthazar: Series 1, a French crime-drama procedural set in Paris. In this first season, we meet forensic pathologist Raphael Balthazar, a gifted scientist who can decipher deadly events like no one else. Of course, we get the usual procedural episode-by-episode mysteries but there is also a tantalizing overarching mystery involving the unsolved murder of Balthazar’s wife over a decade earlier, which gets more interesting when it seems like maybe a new clue to the killer’s identity may have come to light. Yes, this show is in French with English subtitles, but if you’re looking for a new crime procedural to binge, this one offers up a different flavor than the rest.
  • Indie Spotlight – We have a handful of notable indie releases this week. First up is The Cat and the Moon, starring Nat Wolff, who actually wrote and directed the film as well. Wolff plays a teenager whose mom is in rehab, so he goes to stay with a friend of his late father’s in New York City. The rest of the film features Wolff’s character falling in love with the city and looking inside himself, and while it doesn’t sound like an exciting film, it’s really worth noting what an amazing job Wolff does. He turns in a terrific performance, he wrote, produced and directed the film, and he even performs his own music. It’s an impressive debut that film fans will want to check out. Next up is Raiga: God Of The Monsters, and the best thing I can say about this film is that it’s a complete and total Godzilla rip-off. Basically, a bunch of monsters attack Japan, including Raiga, who looks suspiciously familiar. I’m not sure who the filmmakers behind their movie are, but it seems to me that a bunch of Godzilla fans got enough of a budget together to make a Godzilla movie, only they couldn’t get approval from Toho to make an official Godzilla movie. So we get Raiga instead. I guess it works while you’re awaiting for the next Godzilla film. Finally, we have Unintended, a suspense drama starring Elizabeth Lail, who’s probably best known for playing the lead role in the hit horror film Countdown. Here, Lail has to put her acting skills to work in a much more impressive way, playing a young woman who has repressed a traumatic memory since she was a young girl but that seems to be resurfacing. Lail gives an ambitious performance, but it gets a little lost in a film that is dreary and slow-moving. You really have to be interested in these characters to want to stick with the movie the whole way through, and unfortunately I just didn’t find them that interesting.
  • Mill Creek Spotlight – Mill Creek continues to bring us affordably priced catalogue releases and this week sees a nice mix of releases from the studio. A lot of the movies they’re releasing on Blu-ray this week have been on home video before but not on Blu-ray before this. First up is Trapped, a solid thriller starring Kevin Bacon and Charlize Theron from the early 2000s. This is a smaller film, but it’s taut, tense, and will have you chewing your fingernails from start to finish. This one that was never available on Blu-ray, making this a welcome addition to Mill Creek’s line-up. Next is All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, and directed by Billy Bob Thornton based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. This is another one that’s making its Blu-ray debut, and between the scenery and the all-star cast (there’s a LOT of recognizable faces in this one), it’s worth revisiting (or visiting for the first time.) From there, we travel back in time a little further to the late 1970s with Heroes, starring Henry Winkler, Sally Field, and a young Harrison Ford (the movie actually came out the same year as Star Wars, so this was filmed before Ford was a mega-star.) The film sees Winkler and Field as an offbeat couple, with Ford as a supporting character, and it’s an intriguing dramedy. It definitely shows its age, but it has some moments that shine. Finally, we have Eddie Macon’s Run, a 1980s actioner starring John Schneider and Kirk Douglas. Schneider plays an escaped convict who was sentenced harshly for minor infractions and is now on the run to reunite with his wife and young son in Mexico, while Douglas plays the hard-nosed truant officer out to track him down. It’s not a perfect film — it’s bogged down by flashbacks and it isn’t exactly hard to predict — but I’ve always liked John Schneider, Kirk Douglas is a legend, and I’m a sucker for man-on-the-run films, making this one of the more interesting Mill Creek releases this week.
  • PBS Spotlight – Wrapping up this week’s releases we have a number of new outings from PBS, both of the fictional and the non-fictional variety. First up, we have Masterpiece: Sandition, a sprawling character drama based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. Since the novel was unfinished, that gives the showrunners free rein to go in any direction they want with the story and characters, and boy, do they. The cast isn’t filled with household names, but recognizable actors like Theo James, Kate Ashfield, and Rose Williams make the show a good watch. Following that, we have Vienna Blood, the first season of which gives us a crime procedural set in 1900s Vienna, which means we get the usual crime solving formula but in an artsy, highbrow setting. The show comes from one of the writers of Sherlock, so it’s a fair bit more clever than many others of its ilk. Moving into the non-fiction realm, we have Nature: The Whale Detective, an interesting hour-long documentary that takes a different tack than most animal docs. In this one, a filmmaker was almost killed by a whale breaching that almost landed on him while he was kayaking. Unable to stop thinking about the incident, he sets out to learn more about whales and their relationships with people to — in effect — determine whether the whale was trying to harm him or was trying to prevent him from being smashed when it breached too close. It’s kind of cool for a one-hour doc. Next up is Animal Espionage, which is pretty fascinating. At first I expected it to be about animals who possess camouflage, but instead it’s about how humans study animals that they can’t even get close to. Well, this film will explain to you some of the methods of camouflage, cameras and drones to help them get close to otherwise unapproachable animals. Pretty cool stuff. Meanwhile, American Experience: The Poison Squad is a two-hour documentary about Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist who worked for the US Government and paved the way for the creation of the FDA. Wiley was instrumental in creating consumer protection laws and wasn’t afraid to take on big corporations, and while I generally don’t love documentaries or find most of them to be too long, this one grabbed my attention and kept it from start to finish. Finally this week, we have Summoned: Frances Perkins And The General Welfare. Personally, I think Frances Perkins and the General Welfare sounds like a great name for an alt-rock indie band, but this is actually a great one-hour documentary about women in politics and the legacy of Frances Perkins, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor and was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. It features some pretty impressive luminaries in its interviewees, including Nancy Pelosi and Amy Klobuchar, among others. Students of politics and fans of history will find this one worthwhile.

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