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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: City of Lies, Flashback, Happily, MacGyver and more

City of Lies

This week is kind of a smaller week for big-name titles, with some well-known TV shows taking the main spotlight and a few interesting movies hitting video as well. Here’s the line-up:

City of Lies – Even with a pandemic in play, it’s never a good thing when your movie sits on the shelf in Hollywood for three years. Such is the case for the based-on-true-events drama City of Lies, starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker, which was made in 2018 (and doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago now?) Depp plays real-life detective Russell Poole, the police officer investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls, better known as the Notorious B.I.G. Whitaker plays Jack Jackson, a journalist who begins to believe the conspiracy around Biggie’s death heavily involves the LAPD. The film itself is uneven; at times it’s quite gripping, while sometimes the energy flags and things feel a bit aimless. However, Depp turns in an outstanding performance, and the story is interesting for those of us with only a cursory knowledge of the case. Worth a watch, but sadly not as good as it could have been.

Flashback – Okay, I don’t know how to describe the plot of Flashback to you, largely because I’m unsure if I really understood it at all. Basically, you’ve got a gloomy high school kid, a missing girl from her past, a new kind of drug, multiple flashbacks, and hallucinogenic imagery that all supposedly ties together. Personally, I found the narrative disjointed and confusing. It’s clear that the filmmakers spent a lot of nights in college watching and rewatching Donnie Darko, as the film shares a very similar tone and atmosphere and imagery, but what Donnie Darko excelled at, Flashback simply… doesn’t. I like Dylan O’Brien quite a bit, but even he can’t make his sad-sack character interesting, and the film falls flat as a result. If you want something weird and trippy, check this movie out, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Happily – I love Joel McHale and Kerry Bishe, so I was eager to watch Happily, although I’ll admit I didn’t know much about it. Described as a “dark comedy” and with a great supporting cast that includes Stephen Root, Natalie Zea, Breckin Meyer, and Paul Scheer, I was definitely intrigued. The film focuses on Tom & Janet, a couple who have been married for 14 years and are still ridiculously into each other, which annoys the rest of their friends. Then, a stranger shows up and introduces an idea that throws their happiness into question. As they head off to a weekend away with their circle of friends, things get more and more intense. It’s a black comedy, sure, but it’s also more of a thriller. And the film works… mostly. The first half is definitely where all the best stuff happens, but the payoff might not live up to the set-up. Also, the other characters besides Tom and Janet, despite being played by great actors, are all a little thin and some are downright unlikeable. It’s an interesting film that’s worth watching, and I like what it’s aiming for, but it doesn’t 100% get there. Still, I like that it tried.

MacGyver: Season 4 – “A MacGyver reboot? That will never work!” That was me about four years ago. Well, it worked well enough to get at least a fourth (and presumably an upcoming fifth) season, so I guess I was wrong in my initial assessment of the show. And while Lucas Till is no Richard Dean Anderson, he does have a certain likability that carrels him here. I guess my biggest problem with it is that it ultimately feels like yet another CBS show. There’s a homogeny to all CBS procedural shows these days that’s bled into other shows, like the network’s Magnum reboot and even MacGyver. Yes, it’s a little different from a regular procedural, with modern technology giving MacGyver’s craftiness a new spin, but it still has that CBS kind of blandness to it. That said, while it doesn’t live up to the classic series for me, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is.

Also Available This Week on Home Video:
  • Fuller House: The Fifth and Final Season – Full (House) disclosure: I was never a huge Full House fan. Don’t take that the wrong way; I liked the show just fine when it was on. But I was a casual watcher at best, never catching more than a few episodes a season. I didn’t watch it religiously or regularly, so I come at Fuller House without the haze of nostalgia that many fans might have. Standing on its own merits, then, Fuller House is a perfectly acceptable family sitcom, but it’s nothing special. It’s fun to see the cast all grown up (and the guest appearances by some of the original adult cast members are nice as well), and the show does manage to keep the feel of the original series (this isn’t borderline R-rated comedy like Two Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men.) And while this fifth season DVD set does mark the end of the show’s run, it’s hard to complain about getting five full seasons of a show that originally ended 25 years ago or so, even if it’s in a modified form.
  • Power Book II: Ghost – The Complete First Season – I watched sporadic episodes of Power, the popular Starz urban ganglord drama series. While I found it to be a solid enough show, I was never really able to get all that into it. Drug lord storylines have just never resonated with me all that much, so while it was a solid drama and a compelling show with great performances, I never became a rabid fan. And while the show came to a close last year, now Starz has launched a “sequel show” of sorts, with Power Book II: Ghost. The show focuses on Tariq St. Patrick, the son of the first show’s main character. Now he’s going to college and trying to be a regular college student, but also dealing with his mother’s legal proceedings and his inclination to become a powerful drug lord like his father. I’ll say this, the show does a good job of tying into the original series and acting as basically a continuation of it, while still having its own story, characters, and feel, which is no small feat. Fans of the original series should like it quite a bit, but new viewers will be able to jump right in and follow along.
  • Undercover: Punch & Gun – Remember back in the early 2000s when there was an action movie called Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever with Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu? No? Well, that’s okay. Honestly, it’s a completely forgettable movie except for having one of the worst titles in cinema history. Well, apparently Undercover: Punch & Gun wanted to give that movie a run for its money, because it too suffers from an incredibly terrible title. Apparently in its native China it was called Undercover Vs. Undercover, and while that’s not much better, it’s still a step up from Undercover: Punch & Gun. Anyway, all this talk of the title is probably me just stalling my discussion of the film itself, mostly because I just don’t have much to say about it. It’s an incredibly by-the-numbers undercover crime thriller that borrows from many other (better) crime thrillers and doesn’t feel like it has an original bone in its body. Yeah, there are a few decent action scenes or intense moments, but it’s really just not very interesting overall.
  • Embattled – I’ve always felt like Stephen Dorff should have been a bigger star than he is. I’ve been a fan of his for decades and I’ve watched him make some really great films that nobody saw (as well as some not-so-great films that nobody saw.) So I’m generally predisposed to watching anything he appears in. In the new sports action/drama Embattled, Dorff plays a tough-as-nails MMA fighter who abandons his family after his youngest child is born with a serious illness. Eventually, he has to take on a new fighter in the ring: his oldest son, who’s become the de facto man of the family and is not afraid to take his dad down. Will they reconcile? Well, I won’t spoil it, but I’ll say that the film is solidly watchable if eminently cliched. We’ve seen almost every scene in the film in some movie or other. Where this one differs is that Dorff’s character is absolutely 100% an unlikable a-hole. That’s a brave choice, and Dorff plays the part with relish. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to Dorff’s energy, but if you like tough sports dramas, this one might hold you over.
  • American Fighter – In our second fighting-themed film of the week, we get another sports action/drama starring another actor that I feel should have been a bigger star: Sean Patrick Flanery. Always a welcome presence on screen, Flanery (who is a real life martial arts expert) takes on the mentor role this time around, training young Iranian refugee Ali as an underground fighter while he tries to raise money to help free his mother from abduction. Again, it’s not the most original film in the world (although the hostage twist is different!), but the film does bring some interesting ideas to the fore, with the main character being Iranian and dealing with a stressful situation while also fighting racist fellow students and the like. Lead actor George Kosturos is instantly likable, and he pulls off the physical parts of the film as well as the dramatic. All in all, it’s an enjoyable if familiar film.
  • The Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango (aka ‘Dance With the Devil’) 4K Ultra HD – You don’t see a lot of low-budget movies getting the 4K treatment, but this new pair of films from writer/director Álex de la Iglesia comes to us in the premium format. Despite not being big-budgeted outings, Iglesia’s films have developed a devoted following, so I understand why they’re getting the star treatment. The Day of the Beast is a horror comedy that sees a priest, a record store clerk, and a television psychic teaming up to stop the antichrist when the day of his birth is discovered. Meanwhile Perdita Durango stars Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem and Demián Bichir and is an exceptionally violent crime thriller that would fit right at home next to a Quentin Tarantino collection. Apparently it was released in the US as Dance With the Devil but had about ten minutes of violence excised (see what I did there?), and this new release is the original, uncut Director’s version. Both films are highly stylized, over the top, and intense, and while I enjoyed them both to some extent, I think I definitely lean more towards The Day of the Beast. Both 4K releases come with a nice collection of extra features, and while the A/V presentations only have a limited amount to work with, both films look and sound pretty good overall. Fans of cult cinema will want to track these down.
  • Sesame Street: Cool Counting Collection – The latest Sesame Street DVD collection delivers two hours of learning to your pre-schoolers, with a focus on numbers and learning to count. With a lot of appearances by Elmo, Abby, The Count, and Cookie Monster, this one sees a lot of favorite characters get screen time. Real-life celebrity guests include musicians Elvis Costello and Feist as well as actor Liam Neeson. This DVD give you two hours of Sesame Street content, which should keep your little ones happy for a good chunk of time. 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 5 ah ha ha! 5 Stars for this great kids DVD.
  • Indie Spotlight – Wrapping up the week, we have a huge number of new indie releases this week. First up is Kinky Boots, on Blu-ray from MVD. Now, Kinky Boots was a movie, and then it was also a stage musical by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, and this newest release is actually a filmed taping of that live musical show on stage. Now, I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but I do like them live, and if you can’t get to see Kinky Boots on stage, this release is the next best thing. You get as close to the full theater experience as possible, and it looks and sounds great on home video and is extremely enjoyable. Next up is Mackintosh and T.J., which is noteworthy for being Roy Rogers’ last film. It makes its debut on Blu-ray this week from MVD. The film came out in 1975, so while it is old, it’s still odd to see Roy Rogers driving a pick-up truck instead of riding a horse. In the film, he plays a past-his-prime cowboy who strikes up a friendship with a runaway teenage boy. It’s actually a pretty good film, and Andrew Robinson, who so memorably played Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, also has a starring role. The Blu-ray includes a good number of extra features for a film that isn’t all that well-known, so I was suitably impressed with this release. Following that, we have Center Stage, a biopic of Chinese movie star Ruan Lingyu, a silent-era actress who was apparently known as the “Greta Garbo of China.” Directed by Stanley Kwan, the film features Maggie Cheung delivering a terrific performance as the trouble young star whose life ended when she was only 24. The film came out in 1991, so it’s not new, but it was new to me, and this restored and remastered Blu-ray presentation give the film a nice visual sheen. Next is True Mothers, a moving Japanese drama about a family with an adopted son who live together in happiness for six years. When a woman shows up claiming to be the boy’s birth mother and demanding him back, it threatens to shatter their perfect family life. I have to admit that I found the film a bit slow for my tastes, but there’s no denying it has a real emotional core and some exceptional performances. If you don’t mind slow burning, character-centric dramas, you might find a lot to like about this one. Finally, switching gears a bit, we have a documentary, the terrific Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?). It’s funny, I don’t know a lot about Harry Nilsson or his music, but as a huge Beatles and Monkees fan, his name seems to always come up. This 2010 documentary does a good job of introducing viewers to the musician. With interviews with John Lennon (archival, obviously), Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Micky Dolenz, Brian Wilson and many, many others, we get to hear some interesting and fascinating anecdotes while we learn about Nilsson’s music and career. The film’s poor editing doesn’t do it any favors, but the people involved keep it interesting.

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