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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Lovecraft Country, Smooth Talk, Archenemy, Helter Skelter, Random Acts of Violence, A Call To Spy and more

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country: Season One – Give HBO Max and Warner Bros. credit; when they create a hit show for their network and/or streaming platform, they don’t waste too much time making sure people who don’t subscribe to the channel have a chance to watch it. By now you’ve probably heard some of the buzz about Lovecraft Country, HBO’s newest series that mixes horror and dark fantasy. It’s also a social drama, using the story to share the experience of Jim Crow-era America in the 1950s. The show focuses on African American characters and lets us see the world through their eyes; at least, when we’re seeing the real world as it is, not one with monstrous creatures or creeping dread from the supernatural. It’s a largely effective show, but as with everything HBO does these days, it has that “HBO” feel to it; like sometimes it’s trying to present mature material just for the sake of being edgy. Still, with top-notch performances and some good atmosphere, the show gets a lot right.

Smooth Talk – I never question the films Criterion decides to put in its collection, but I was at least a little bit surprised to see Smooth Talk emerge as one of their latest entries. I feel like 1980s American cinema is the era that Criterion skips over the most, so this 1985 drama was unexpected, to say the least. Starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams, the film sees Dern as a free-spirited teenager who befriends an older man and may end up regretting that decision. It’s based on a story by Joyce Carol Oats, and watching it, it’s clear to see that this isn’t a typical eighties film, filled with loud music, louder fashion choices, and a lack of substance. Instead, it’s a purposeful, suspenseful film that has a darker touch to it. As usual with Criterion, the film has been completely restored and remastered, and it features a nice collection of extra features that include three short films, interviews, multiple featurettes, and much more.

Helter Skelter: An American Myth – I doubt the fascination with Charles Manson will ever end, and EPIX certainly seems to agree, based on their newest miniseries, Helter Skelter: An American Myth. Now, at the end of the day, this is ultimately just another documentary about Charles Manson and his followers, just spread over six episodes. But that’s like saying that caviar is ultimately just an hors d’ouvre; this is as in-depth a show as I’ve ever seen about Manson. It’s filled with interviews I’ve never seen before, including ones with some of his followers as well as journalists who followed the story at the time. There are pictures and videos I’ve never seen before, either, and the end result is both fascinating and disturbing. EPIX has started branching out into some fantastic true crime material, and this one is a real standout.

Random Acts of Violence – Written and directed by Jay Baruchel (admittedly best known for his more comedic roles or for voicing Toothless the dragon’s best friend), Random Acts of Violence is a new horror flick that takes a familiar plot and updates it in a different way. The film focuses on a comic book writer and artist whose character Slasherman (a slasher killer) has become extremely popular. Cue a series of grisly events that make it seem like someone has gotten a little too excited by Slasherman and maybe bringing him to life. That’s about where the creativity stops, though, as the film then heads straight into slasher territory, but if you’re someone who likes a good slasher flick — which I do — it’s a decent enough watch. The gore is a bit much on occasion, but for the most part, it’s right in line with most of its contemporaries. Maybe not as clever as it wants to be, but still a solid way to kill a couple of hours.

A Call to Spy – Based on real events, this World War II spy drama has a lot going for it. Taking place after the fall of France to nazi Germany, the film focuses on the efforts to create a female spy ring for the Allies — something almost unheard of back in the day. We then follow three women: Vera Atkins, who recruits the spies (and is an immigrant to Britain); Virginia Hall, an American woman with a prosthetic leg; and Noor Khan, and Indian woman of royal descent. The film follows the women in the early days of their spying efforts, and the disorganization of this new effort in spying is a large part of what drives the danger these women face. It leads to some harrowing circumstances, and the multiple story threads are all equally engaging. Sarah Megan Thomas (who also wrote the script) and Radhika Apte are relatively unknown but deliver excellent performances, while Castle’s Stana Katic rounds out the cast and is also excellent. I was surprised by many things about this film; not just the real events that I knew nothing about and how good the movie itself is.

Six by Sondheim – This new HBO documentary focuses on the acclaimed and award-winning composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim. The film has a neat central device, in that it looks at the creation of six of his best-loved songs in order to tell the story of his life and career. What makes the film even better is that it is derived largely from interviews with Sondheim himself, so you get to hear his story from the source, rather than just from other people talking about him. I don’t know if the film is so compelling as to draw in people who have no interest in the subject matter, but if you like musicals, songs, or composing in any way, you’ll want to check this one out.

The Swordsman – I hesitate to boil films down into a snarky tagline, but I feel like if I didn’t call The Swordsman, “Taken, but with a blind swordsman instead of Liam Neeson,” I’d be missing out on a real opportunity. This period action film sees a royal warrior go into exile after being blinded during a coup against the king, but when his daughter gets kidnapped by human traffickers (which I guess has been a thing for a very long time, sadly) he has to go into action to rescue her. I mean, come on, the parallels are kind fo hard to miss! Of course, that said, this film is nothing like Taken in style, tone, setting, time period, or aesthetic. It is, however, a gritty action film that features some dazzling displays of sword fighting, which is something I really dig. It’s not really breaking any new ground, but if you want a cool action flick with plenty of dueling blades, you’ve come to the right place.

Archenemy – Joe Manganiello stars as the bluntly named Max Fist in this odd sci-fi/superhero film that will probably be liked a lot by some people and liked a lot less by others. In the film, Max tells us that he was a superhero in another dimension, but he ended up on Earth and found himself powerless, and now he’s basically a homeless drunk guy. And that’s the central conceit fo the film: is this guy nuts, or is he really a superhero? What makes the film interesting is a number of animated sequences that explore his past, which is a clever way to get around obvious budget limitations, but is also somewhat jarring at times. The film has its charms — Manganiello’s performance among them — but the script feels like it needed about three more passes by experienced script doctors; there is some truly painful dialogue at times. At the end of the day, Archenemy has its charms, but I can definitely sense it as a kind of love-it-or-hate-it cult classic in the making.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s – I’ll admit that I’m not as familiar with Alastair Sim as many of our UK readers probably are, but fans of classic comedies will be interested in this nice new Blu-ray edition of one of his most well-known films. In The Belles Of St. Trinian’s, Sim plays both the headmistress and her brother(!) at a school for girls, and these particular girls are more interested in wagering and causing trouble than studying. It’s a very particular style of humor, but I have to admit the film has its laughs. I’m sure that it’s the kind of movie that was probably on in reruns every summer in the UK for most of the same time when I was growing up watching movies on American TV like Some Like it Hot, so I bet it has a lot of fans. This new Blu-ray version of the film features a few new extra features, and while I’m not sure if it’s been remastered for Blu-ray, I know a remastering was done a couple of years ago for the DVD release, so the picture quality is still pretty good for a movie this old.

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