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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: Raya and the Last Dragon, Big Fish, Land, The Alienist, Son, Pixie, Drive, A Ghost Waits and more

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Raya and the Last Dragon – Disney’s latest animated offering debuted as a Disney+ exclusive (although you had to pay an extra fee to watch it) and now comes to home video. The film is a fun fantasy-based story about a young woman on the search for a mythical dragon and a stone that once helped save the kingdom. Honestly, it’s hard to explain in a sentence or two, but the main thing you need to know is that it’s basically an ensemble comedy-slash-adventure movie, and it’s a lot of fun. A terrific cast is headlined by Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico in the latest Star Wars trilogy), Daniel Dad Kim, and Awkwafina, and they do a great job bringing the characters to life. Which is important considering that Raya is one of the most gorgeous animated films I’ve laid eyes on in recent memory. Raya and the Last Dragon comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray and DVD), and that gorgeous aesthetic looks even better in the premium format. This is an extremely colorful film, and the High Dynamic Range sees the colors almost pop off the screen. Imagery is razor sharp, and the surround soundtrack delivers a subtle, nuanced, and effective surround soundtrack. This one is a winner all around!

Big Fish (4K Ultra HD) -Tim Burton is — quite obviously, I think — kind of an odd guy. He’s also a bit odd of a director, in that if you think about it, the large majority of his films are adaptations of existing properties (BatmanPlanet of the ApesDark ShadowsWilly Wonka… the list goes on and on.) His 2003 drama Big Fish, while requisitely Burtonesque, is one of his more traditional films (I mean, sort of), although even it is adapted from a novel. The film sees Billy Crudup (and a terrific supporting cast) trying to find out some of the truth of his late father’s life after a lifetime of listening to his endless stories, many of which seemed like fantastical tall tales. Ewan McGregor plays the father as a young man, and we relieve some of these stories in a typically Burton fashion, so the film still has its expected weirdness, but there’s also a heart to it that can sometimes be lacking from some of Burton’s other movies. The film has now been released in 4K Ultra HD, and the premium format offers a nice audiovisual upgrade. The color saturation is deeper and more vibrant, and the film definitely has scenes that are imbued with certain hues, so the film’s atmosphere becomes even more palpable. The surround soundtrack isn’t working with huge explosions and action scenes, but it delivers a nice surround output with clear dialogue and nice enhancement from the rear channels. This is a terrific film, and this is the best it’s looked and sounded on home video so far.

Land – Robin Wright — an acclaimed actress for years and years — makes her directorial debut with the drama Land. The film also stars Demian Bechir and Kim Dickens, two actors I’m a huge fan of, but honestly, this is the kind of film I hate to review. Because while it is a well-made film with terrific performances, it’s just not my cup of tea. I don’t want to give it a negative review because there’s a lot to like about the movie, I just don’t go for these kinds of films in general. The story sees Wright’s Edee as a woman beset upon by tragedy who retreats to a remote cabin to get away from the world, seemingly uncaring as to whether she lives or dies. And she almost does die, save for some intervention by Demian Bechir’s hunter Miguel. There are long stretches of silence in the film, and it works best if you watch it as an exercise in acting. But as an engaging story, it lagged in places for me. Again, it’s a solid film with a lot of talent and quality on display, it just wasn’t for me.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness – I’ve been a Daniel Bruhl fan for quite a while, and for a long time he was still relatively unknown. Of course, his role as Baron Zemo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has made him much more recognizable to US audiences. Every single thing I’ve seen him in, he’s been terrific. So at this point, I’ll watch pretty much anything he’s in. Even though the first season of The Alienist wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, I decided to dive back in for Season Two (titled The Angel of Darkness). With Bruhl in the lead role (and the always-awesome Luke Evans and Dakota fanning co-starring), this second season might actually be better than the first. With only eight episodes this time, I found the story pacing better, and Fanning’s Sara Foster takes over some of the focus of the show, giving it a fresh feel from Season One. The second season is based on Caleb Carr’s second novel, so fans of the book series this show is based on should be satisfied as well. It is a dark show, and occasionally a little grim for my tastes, but I love the cast and I enjoyed this tighter, more concise season more than the first one.

Son – How far would you go to protect your child? For most parents, the question needs no answer, because there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for your kids. Well, that idea gets taken to the extreme in Son, a new horror thriller starring Andi Matichak and Emile Hirsch. Matichak plays Laura, a woman who escaped from a cult eight years ago, right around the time her son David was born. David, well, now, he’s not your usual kid. He’s got some… issues, involving his health and his blood. (I’m trying to keep it spoiler free here.) Now Laura and David are on the run from people who may want to kill him, all while trying to deal with his condition plus the fact that Laura may or may not be a little unhinged from her past trauma. It’s a lot to squeeze into a psychological horror film, and it doesn’t always work. There are some nice tense moments and some creepy scenes here and there, but the film glosses over a lot of story elements and never quite seems to settle on a consistent tone. It’s not a bad film per se, but it feels somehow both over-convoluted and underdeveloped at the same time.

Pixie – If you’re waiting for the next In Bruges or Boondock Saints or Snatch, it would be easy to see Pixie as a stopgap to keep you sated until then. After all, the film — which stars Olivia Cooke, Alec Baldwin, and Colm Meaney — is a crime comedy that clearly draws inspiration from the films I just listed (as well as a definite lust for Quentin Tarantino’s films). However, where Pixie falters is in the very inspirations it draws from: the film feels familiar, unoriginal, and not as good as its forebears. The film sees the daughter of an Irish mobster run a bank robbery in order to fund her escape from the life she hates, but of course, things go wrong and before you know it we’ve got Alec Baldwin playing a gun-wielding Irish priest, replete with an accent and all. It’s serviceable as a distraction, and fans of the films I mentioned might find it worth watching, but it just feels a little bit trapped in the past for my tastes.

A Ghost Waits – What happens when a ghost who’s trying to keep a house vacant meets a handyman with nowhere else to go — and they start talking to each other? That’s the premise behind A Ghost Waits, a unique new take on the haunted house genre. It’s a low-budget black & white film that doesn’t have any known actors in it and is by a new director named Adam Stovall, who delivers a surprisingly refreshing film for his feature debut. Marking the film as noteworthy is the fact that it’s been released by Arrow Video as one of their high-quality Special Editions. Arrow Video really has become the Criterion Collection of genre and cult classic films over the past few years, and I get excited any time I see a new Arrow Special Edition release cross my desk. This Blu-ray comes with a nice collection of extra features, including three audio commentaries, multiple interview features, outtakes, and an illustrated booklet. This one was a nice surprise, and I’m glad that Arrow picked up on it.

Drive: Special Collector’s Edition – Not to be confused with the overrated Ryan Gosling vehicle from 2011, this Drive is a 1997 sci-fi actioner starring Mark Dacascos, Brittany Murphy and — of all people — Kadeem Hardison. The film is basically Rush Hour if Jackie Chan’s character was an enhanced super soldier and Chris Tucker’s character was a dreadlocked average joe. In this case, Dacascos is the super-soldier, who goes on the run from the corporation that created him and meets up with Hardison’s Malik, giving the film a frenetic, action-never-lets-up aesthetic with a dose of buddy film humor. Now, I love chase films and I love ‘90s action movies, so this chase-film action movie from the ‘90s was a lot of fun for me. It’s a direct-to-video offering and it gets a little silly at times, but I have to say, it’s fun in a way that a lot of action movies today aren’t. MVD has wisely given this the MVD Marquee Collection treatment, meaning the film gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, with new high def scans of the film itself, plus a terrific collection of extra features including an audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and more. For any ‘90s action junkies like me, this one is definitely worth tracking down!

Also Available This Week on Home Video:
 
  • Sh!%house – Here’s a suggestion for budding filmmakers: don’t name your movie Sh!%house. It just limits your marketing, your audience, and your web-searchability in so many ways. That said, Sh!%house is actually a solid little film, giving us a glimpse of college life through the eyes of a forlorn student named Alex. He meets up with another student named Maggie at a party at a farmhouse known as the titular Sh!%house, and the two spend the night talking, walking, and eventually, getting amorous. But the next day is a new thing, and Maggie might not be as invested in the new friendship as Alex is. It’s a relatively simple film, but the dynamic between Alex and Maggie (play with aplomb by writer-director Cooper Raiff and Dylan Gelula) is endearing and realistic, so it’s easy to relate to. The film meanders a bit occasionally and could have been a little tighter, but by and large, it’s an easy enough watch that will win over more viewers than not. 
  • Acorn Spotlight – Acorn Media specializes in British (and Australian/New Zealand) television shows and movies, and they have several new releases out over the last few weeks. First up is The Salisbury Poisonings, a three-part miniseries based on true events in 2018. Rafe Spall leads a cast in the story of former spy Sergei Skripal, who in 2018 was found poisoned along with his daughter (colloquially known as The Novichok Attack.) With a strong supporting cast including Mark Addy and Myanna Buring, the three episodes follow the investigation into the poisonings, the unintended side effects of the poison, and the impact of this devastating attack. It’s quite gripping in the beginning, although the intensity lessens with each additional episode. Next up is Shadow Lines: Season 1. This ten-episode season is a complex Cold War drama about Finland, and the efforts the US and Russia made to sway the government in Helsinki to their cause. The show features espionage, female protagonists, shadowy government figures, and no less than four major languages (Finnish, English, Russian, and Swedish). My understanding is that these events are now well known in Finland, but to other audiences, a lot of the story is new — and occasionally hard to follow. Still, if you like involved multi-character political intrigue, Shadow Lines will fit the bill.  Finally, we have Finding Joy: Series 2. There are things I love about Finding Joy, and there are things that make me cringe. And I suspect that’s exactly how creator, writer, and star Amy Huberman wants it. She plays the titular Joy, a neatly-ordered woman who had a messy break-up and finds herself unwillingly promoted to star video blogger at her job. As she travels the Irish countryside, she keeps running into her ex and his new girlfriend. Now, in Season 2, things have changed a bit: Joy has now launched her own video channel and taken on a new employee. There are some really funny moments, but Joy also brings a lot of the pain upon herself, and there are a lot of awkwardly painful moments as well. If you like awkward comedy like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, this might be a new show for you. 
  • PBS Spotlight – We have three new PBS documentary programs this week. First up is the science-based Beyond the Elements, a three-part Nova episode that looks at the elements that make up the world around us. We dive into the elements that brought earth to life, elements that cause chemical reactions, and even elements that lead to the creation of “indestructible” materials. I was expecting dry science programming here (and to be fair, it does occasionally veer into that territory), but for the most part, these three hour-long episodes are pretty engaging.  Next up is Pumas: Legends of the Ice Mountains, an hour-long Nature episode focusing on Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and the wildlife that lives there, with special focus on — obviously — the Pumas that live there. I like big cats, and these pumas that survive in some truly hostile environs are pretty fascinating. With some stunning footage, this is one of those animal programs you’ll be glad you watched. Finally, we have Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas, another terrific Nature episode, this time narrated by none other than Thomas Haden Church. This special takes us to Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande River, where we meet a wide range of wildlife: black bears, snakes, birds, insects, and more. Beautiful scenery and interesting animals is always a potent combination, and this one is top-notch. 
  • Indie Spotlight – Wrapping up the week, we have a number of new independent releases this week. We start off with a Dutch-language thriller from The Netherlands, The Columnist. In the film, Femke is a feminism columnist who is constantly under attack by internet trolls and haters. As things escalate, she finally takes matters into her own hands, going after her worst harassers and killing them. You might expect some social commentary in a film that deals with a very real topic like women being harassed on the internet simply for stating their opinions, but the movie really focuses more on the killings and the film as a revenge thriller. In that area, it’s successful enough, even if that leaves it being pretty forgettable as soon as you’re done watching it. Next up is Scavenger, a film so unrepentantly vile that I actually stopped watching it. It’s a post-apocalyptic revenge thriller, but I’s really just an excuse for violence, torture, and all sorts of horrible acts being committed against people. It’s poorly made and I wanted to shower after enduring the little bit that I did. I’ll say one positive thing about it: if you like the film, the Blu-ray release comes with the soundtrack CD as an extra, so that’s neat. Quickly moving on, we have Nina Wu, a new Mandarin-language thriller co-written by and starring Ke-Xi Wu, who loosely based the story on her own experiences as an actress. In the film, Nina Wu is a young actress who gets a part in a spy movie that requires her to be naked on camera. Suffering at the hands of an abusive director, she nonetheless becomes a star, and then starts to glimpse visions of a haunting young woman following her. Is this woman real? A figment of her imagination? A guilty conscience? Well, if you figure it out, let me know, because I found the whole thing a little confusing. This is one of those films that relies heavily on atmosphere and doesn’t like to give concrete answers, which isn’t my favorite kind of movie. It’s got strong visuals and is well-acted, but I prefer a more coherent narrative, personally. Wrapping up, we have two new films from IndiePix. Peace Piece: The Immersive Poems of Mandy Kahn is an interesting documentary about, well, Mandy Kahn, a poet based in Los Angeles who does more than put words on a page. Her poems are performed by casts of actors, singers, even the audience themselves sometimes, and there are often props involved. It’s performance art in a way that makes sense. This 75-minute film looks at Kahn as a person and her style of work, which is quite unique. Then there’s Last Days, a sobering drama from Nigeria about a widow and mother who discovers she has cancer. I’ll be honest, a two-and-a-half-hour drama in another language that could qualify as a faith-based film is really ticking off all the boxes of movies that are not my thing. If you like foreign films and heavy dramas, check it out, but it wasn’t really for me. 

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