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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Jaws 4K, Watchmen, The Way Back, Vivarium, We Summon The Darkness and more

Jaws: 45th Anniversary Edition – One of the greatest movies of all time makes its debut on the premium 4K Ultra HD format, and I for one couldn’t be happier. While the 45th Anniversary isn’t exactly one of the bigger milestones (like, say, a 25th or 50th), I’m glad that Universal used the opportunity to not just quietly drop Jaws on the marketplace as a regular disc. This special edition release comes with a cool lenticular cover, a full-color book, a digital copy (yay!), and enough extra features to choke a… well, a shark. The only downside is that none of the special features (or even the book) are new, all being from the previous release. When reading the book, there are numerous references to things like “up until 2011,” so you know exactly when the material was first published. But the star of the show here is the film, which is not only one of the greatest movies ever made but has now been restored and remastered for the 4K format. Usually, when you get older catalogue titles on 4K they get a slight upgrade from their last Blu-ray transfer. But Jaws has new life breathed into it. Not just in the deeper color saturation, which is vibrant and plucky while still natural, but in the image clarity which gives everything from the sand on the beach to the clothes people were added crispness, texture, and depth. Then add to that a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which offers new nuances in the surround channels. It’s not a perfect mix; there are occasional scenes where the action sounds a little flat, but by and large, it really fills the room nicely, and John Williams’ legendary score has never sounded better. Simply put, for a movie that has no shortage of home video releases, this is hands down the best version of it yet.

Watchmen: The Limited Series – Where to start, where to start. I have so many thoughts and things to say about Watchmen, I literally don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll start by saying that if you’re a fan of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel, it will really help you to understand that this is in no way, shape, or form an adaptation of it. If anything, the show serves as a 30-years-later sequel to Zack Snyder’s movie. Which leads to the question: why call it Watchmen at all? Honestly, in the first couple of episodes, you’ll find yourself asking — aside from the odd reference here or there — what the hell does any of this have to do with Watchmen? If anything, it’s a show about the police and racism, which makes the timing of its release either questionable or brilliant. However, around the fifth episode or so, things start to click and you start to see more and more connections to the original story being drawn. That said, it also took until about the fifth episode before I started to even remotely like the show, and I’d still say I’m far from a big fan. I think the main problem is Damon Lindelof, one of the show’s creators and writers (also a show runner on Lost and The Leftovers) who never met a story he couldn’t turn into a confusing narrative that’s told in a disjointed way, rather than simply telling the story. I’m all for creativity in media, so there’s some merit to Lindelof’s approach, but there are many scenes in Watchmen where you want to yell at the screen. “What is happening? Why are you doing that? This doesn’t make sense!” only to have it explained to you an episode or two later. It’s not my favorite style of storytelling, personally. Overall, Watchmen is an interesting experiment and I can’t say I disliked it entirely, but I certainly won’t say I loved it, either.

The Way Back – One of the first casualties of the Coronavirus-move-theater shutdown, Ben Affleck’s The Way Back was probably never going to be a huge box office hit, just because it lacks superheroes or exploding race cars or Dwayne Johnson, but it is nonetheless a very good film. Affleck plays an alcoholic who becomes a coach to a ragtag basketball team at a small catholic school. Now, I hate to draw parallels between a role and real life, but it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of an alcoholic I’ve seen in a long time. Affleck eschews the overt-the-top, falling down, slurred speech tropes and instead makes you feel the weight of his disease in every scene. There’s a striking scene early on where we see him go through a case of beer in one night, repeatedly taking a beer out of the freezer, putting a new one in the freezer from out of the fridge, then tapping on the top of the can and opening it. It’s striking because it feels so real. But of course, this wouldn’t be sports film without a redemptive arc, and while what follows isn’t the most unpredictable story ever told, it is moving and engaging, and Affleck gives a great performance while surrounded by a great group of young unknown actors. This film is definitely worth a watch if you like a good overcoming-adversity tale.

Vivarium – This oddball film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poohs starts off very promising. A young couple is driven into a sub development where all the houses look exactly the same, only when they go to leave, they find that every road leads right back to the house they were looking at. Escape becomes impossible, and then mysterious boxes of food start showing up. Then a box shows up with a baby in it, and a message that says, “Raise the child and be released.” (That’s not a spoiler by the way, it all happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.) And at that point, I was very intrigued. The problem is that the film gets a little repetitive from there, and it also gets weirder as it goes a long. What starts off as a seemingly quirky little sci-fi flick quickly veers into trippy George P. Cosmatos territory. That’s a good thing if you like that particular filmmaker, but I’m not a fan, and the longer Vivarium went on, the less I liked it. Eisenberg and Poots give fine performances, but the film ultimately didn’t go anywhere and I didn’t care for the ending. This one wasn’t for me, but I suspect there are people who will love the surreal nature of it.

We Summon the Darkness – On the flip side of the spectrum, we have a new thriller starring Alexandra Daddario, Maddy Hasson, and Amy Forsyth that is a great deal of fun. The three actresses play teenage girls on their way to a heavy metal concert who meet up with three young guys at the same concert. Now, there happens to be a spate of satanic killings going on at the same time, and when these six young people get together for a party… well, I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but I will say there are some definite surprises that keep this from being a typical slasher film. In fact, it isn’t a slasher film at all; the movie has a good dose of humor in it, the gore is minimal, and the tone is really refreshing. Like, it’s suspenseful, but it’s not the kind of movie that has your heart in your throat the entire time, and in a way, I liked that about it. It’s a fun thriller that won’t tax your emotions or your adrenaline too much, but I found that I really enjoyed it. Worth a look if you want a sort-of horror film that’s different from much of what’s out there.

Eye See You – Mill Creek specializes in low-retail-priced catalogue rereleases, and one of their big releases this month is Eye See You, a thriller starring Sylvester Stallone from the early 2000s. This ice-cold riff on Ten Little Indians sees Stallone playing a cop who ends up in a rehab facility in the arctic-like mountains of Montana, at a special facility for law enforcement officers. When a serial killer infiltrates and starts taking people out, it’s a race for Stallone to catch the killer before they’re all dead. Now, I’m a huge Stallone fan, but this movie is not one of his best, and it’s a shame. It starts out pretty promising, with a pretty taut first 20 minutes or so. Once we move to the rehab facility, however, the film just turns grey. Visually, everything is grey, but the movie also slows down and seems to lose a lot of its energy Despite a terrific supporting cast that includes Tom Berenger, Dina Meyer, Sean Patrick Flanery, Kris Kristofferson, Polly Walker, Charles S. Dutton, Robert Patrick, and Courtney B. Vance (wow!), the film just lacks energy. This one should have been a hit, but it ended up sitting on the shelf for a few years before it was released, and sadly I can see why.

Narcos: Mexico – I’m not sure that I would have pegged Narcos as a show that was big enough to get a spin-off, but I guess it makes sense in that you can tell a drug cartel/law enforcement story set anywhere, so why not attach it to a brand that’s already existing? While the original show followed Pablo Escobar and drug cartels in Colombia, this series moves the setting to, well, Mexico, obviously. We meet Mexico’s first drug kingpin, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, played by Diego Luna, who is fantastic. There are ten episodes that detail Luna’s battle with DEA agent Kiki Camarena, played by Michael Pena, returning to his dramatic roots after several years as the comic relief in the Marvel Universe’s Ant-Man films. The show debuted on Netflix in 2018, but it now makes its home video debut, and it’s pretty engrossing stuff. If you like stories about the drug war, this is a pretty quick 10-episode binge, and it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the mood for something a little darker.

Also Available This Week on Home Video:

  • Wuthering Heights – I wasn’t familiar with a movie version of Wuthering Heights starring Richard Burton when this came across my desk, and then I figured out why: it was never a movie to begin with. It was a TV movie that aired on CBS in 1958, back when things like Insert-Network-Name-Here-Playhouse-Showcase were a staple on network TV and they gave us things like this. Burton is in fine form, but people expecting a pristine movie-watching experience should be aware of what they’re getting here. This is presented exactly as it aired, meaning you get some awesome vintage TV commercials. But the sound and picture quality are also from 1958, meaning if you’re looking for a beautiful visual and impeccable sound, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a budget release, meaning it’s a fun curiosity for Burton fans, but it’s far from a high-quality A/V presentation.
  • Blood: Series 2 – Another British crime drama, the first season of Blood followed a woman named Cat Hogan who returns to the small town she came from in the wake of her mother’s death. Of course, as these things tend to go, some things don’t add up and Cat begins to suspect her father, a well-respected physician, of murder. The second season takes a new focus, giving the spotlight to another member of the family and a new mystery of sorts, while still continuing the drama that was started in Season 1. I don’t want to say too much about the events of season two as I don’t want to spoil season one, but suffice it to say it’s just as sharp as season one was. The show has gotten a lot of comparisons to other hit crime thrillers, but one I haven’t seen made is to Sharp Objects, the excellent Gillian Flynn novel (and somewhat less excellent HBO miniseries), which I feel has a spiritual connection to Blood. Available on Blu-ray and DVD, this new release from Acorn is worth checking out.
  • Bush: Live in Tampa – MVD specializes in music-related releases, but I’ll be honest, a lot of times they put out really nice concert DVD/CD combos for bands that either I’ve never heard of or I just am not into. This week, however, they gave me a nice treat with Bush: Live in Tampa. Not only is Bush a great ‘90s band that I was a huge fan of back in the day, but I grew up in Orlando and saw tons of concerts in Tampa, making the locale a nice nostalgic aspect of the show for me as well. This show is taken from their 2019 Altimate Tour, and you get a full 90 minute concert film shot in high def featuring 12 songs. It’s a fun and energetic set, with my only complaint being that we only get a dozen songs (although that is complemented by interview clips in between songs.) This 3-disc release gives us both a Blu-ray and DVD version of the concert as well as an audio CD, making it a superb package for Bush fans.
  • Dynamo – I don’t know how many people are familiar with Bruce Li, but basically he was an actor that was thrown into a bunch of low-budget action films in the years after the real Bruce Lee’s death. A whole genre of Bruce Lee exploitation films are in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Bruce Li is probably the most well known performer. And Dynamo is probably one of his most loved films; whereas a lot of them were pretty bad, Dynamo has an actual fan following, which makes this new special edition Blu-ray a real treat for those fans. Not only do we get the film (which has a slightly meta feel to it) with a new transfer, but we also get new special features such as an audio commentary, featurettes, and a written essay. Keep in mind, this still isn’t a real Bruce Lee film, but for fans of cult cinema and people who have watched Bruce Lee’s handful of films over and over again, this is a fun little diversion that might feel a little more fresh.
  • Gutterballs – A slasher film set in a bowling alley? Sure, sign me up. I like slasher movies and I like bowling, so how wrong can things go? Well… it turns out this is a Ryan Nicholson film. For those of you unfamiliar with the filmmaker, Nicholson is sort of like the second coming of Ed Wood, just in the world of gory slasher flicks. Don’t get me wrong; there are some people who are huge fans of Nicholson’s low-budget, over-the-top, uber-bloody moviemaking, but I can’t say I’m one of them. Apparently this film has been out on home video for a few years, so I’m not sure why Unearthed Films is giving us a new Blu-ray version now, although there is a Special Collector’s Edition available. I only received the regular Blu-ray, so I’m not sure what that entails, but fans might want to be on the lookout for it.
  • What the Waters Left Behind – A great premise and locale for a horror movie becomes a wasted opportunity with this new horror film. The story comes from a real event: in 1985 the Argentinean town of Villa Epecuén was lost to a flood. Literally, the entire town was submerged under 30 feet of water and everyone who didn’t die had to relocate. Over the years, the waters receded, leaving behind a literal ghost town. So, enter WTWLB, which sees a group of pretty young people venture into the devastated area to film a documentary. Well, you can guess what happens from there. The film is basically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre mixed with The Hills Have Eyes mixed with Wrong Turn, with a dash of The Chernobyl Diaries thrown in for good measure, only it leaves behind any shred of talent, enjoyment, or skill that those movies had. It’s over-the-top gory, with cookie cutter characters, unnecessary brutality, and a sense of unpleasantness that permeates every scene. Real hardcore horror fans might like the excessive blood in this film, although I suspect that even they will be turned off by the shoddy script and filmmaking. This one was definitely not for me.
  • PBS Spotlight – Finally this week, we have a number of new science-based PBS releases. First up is The Gene: An Intimate History. Presented by Ken Burns, this two-disc set is a four hour look at genetic science, especially the use of genetics to try and eradicate disease. Now, I’ll be honest and say that some of this stuff is over my head, but as usual, Burns’s team does a good job of presenting dense material in a way that isn’t too hard to understand. Four hours is a lot of science for me, but for those of you who want to learn more about cutting edge genetic sciences, it’s hard to argue with this one. Next up is Nova: Polar Extremes, a fascinating two hour exploration of the North and South Poles through fossils. There’s a sense of a mystery unraveling here as paleontologist Kirk Johnson first looks at fossils that were discovered in places that don’t make historical sense. Form there, we’re led to the poles, which reveal some fascinating discoveries. This is the kind of programming I really love from PBS, with cool science and an intriguing narrative, plus a likable host. Worth a watch! Next we have H2O: The Molecules That Made Us, which is a fascinating multi-chapter three-hour program about, yep, water. Not just water, though, but water and how important it is to human life. As someone who’s had no small amount of concern over water conservation and cleanliness issues, this one was essential viewing for me. Finally, Nova: Mysteries of Sleep is a one-hour episode of Nova that explores sleep. Why do we need it? How does it affect us? What do our brains do while we’re sleeping? How can it help us? Turns out, there’s more to sleep than I realized, and as someone who’s always been pretty bad at it, I was surprised by some of what I learned. Not essential viewing, but interesting enough.

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