A number of significant movies hit shelves today, with a number of leading Oscar contenders. There are also some horror and sci-fi movies out for fans of more genre-oriented fare. Have a look!
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – Loosely based on the true story of a White House butler who served under eight different presidents, The Butler is a solid film with a good cast and some great performances. It’s not a truly great film, though. It gets a bit saccharine at times, and some of the completely made up storylines distract from the real story. However, Forrest Whitaker is very good, and Oprah Winfrey surprises by reminding us that she can be a powerhouse of an actress when she wants to. The various actors playing the presidents (Robin Williams, John Cusack, etc.) are a bit hit or miss, but overall, the movie does end up being enjoyable, if a bit treacly at times.
Riddick – Like a lot of people, I love the original Pitch Black. Unlike a lot of people, I also love The Chroinicles of Riddick. As a film, it’s a complete mess, but I love the action, special effects, and spectacle of it all. So I was pretty excited to watch Riddick, as it looked like it might be a return to the stripped down approach of the first film. If it kept the franchise alive, it seemed like a good thing. What it ends up being is a movie that wants to be a cross between the first film and the second film, and ends up being as good as neither of them. To be fair, it’s not a terrible film, but it’s just not that great either. It doesn’t match the grandeur and scope of the second film, and it has none of the heart of the first film. It’s an effective sci-fi action film, but not much more. Riddick is a decent sci-fi/action film, but it lacks the heart of Pitch Black and the sheer spectacle of The Chronicles of Riddick.
Fruitvale Station – This based-on-real-events movie recounts the last hours in the life of a young African-American man who was fatally shot by police in a subway station. The film is moving, gripping, melancholy, and thought provoking, and Michael B. Jordan shines in the lead role. This is a movie that could have easily played like a TV movie-of-the-week, but instead it has a true cinematic feel to it, and it’s extremely good. People will be talking about this movie in the future, especially when the Oscars come around, so see it now.
You’re Next – An exceptional entry in the horror genre, You’re Next had the misfortune of being the second home invasion thriller of the year featuring killers wearing animal masks (after The Purge.) While it didn’t do as well at the box office, You’re Next is a much better film. It owes a strong debt to The Strangers and Funny Games, but it works extremely well on its own. The story is simple: a family at a remote estate is terrorized by a group of mask-wielding killers. With an unknown cast, what sets this movie apart is the excellent pacing and measured direction. While not afraid to show blood and guts, it doesn’t overly revel in the gore, nor does it rely on jump scares as its sole method of thrills. Instead, it ups the tension slowly until things explode, and it manages to mix in some humor at the same time. I really enjoyed this one.
Carrie – Carrie didn’t do too much at the box office, and it wasn’t a critical hit, either, but here’s the thing: it’s a perfectly fine film. In fact, it’s also a pretty well-acted film. The problem really is that the original Carrie holds up just fine. There’s really nothing that sets this film apart from the original, aside from pretty heavy CGI effects at the end. But Chloe Grace Moretz is quite good in the lead role and Julianne Moore is typically excellent as her damaged mother. Overall, I have to say that the film is enjoyable, it just doesn’t really do anything new or different with the classic story.
The Spectacular Now – Shailene Woodly and Miles Teller star in this sweet dramedy about a couple of at-odds teenagers who begin a relationship. It’s not a high concept film; he’s a wild child, she’s a nice girl, yet somehow they begin to fall for each other. But that’s besides the point. It’s a great reflection on the days of youth, marked by love and uncertainty and romance and confusion. Anchoring it all are Woodley and Teller, both of whom I already like, and both of whom are absolutely terrific. This is one of those quiet films that sneaks up on you, but it’s worth watching.
20 Feet from Stardom – I’m not a huge fan of documentaries overall, but 20 Feet from Stardom is a pretty amazing film. This movie looks at back-up singers, one of the most ignored careers in music. We hear from people who make their living standing 20 feet from stardom, and we hear from the stars who sing their praises. It’s a really interesting look at an integral part of the live music experience that most people take completely for granted.
Thief – The first feature film from director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider), Thief has actually been readily found in most DVD bargain bins for years. Now, The Criterion Collection has gotten ahold of it and offer up a new presentation of the film. All of the Mann trademarks are there: steely characters, serious tone, strong visuals, and some tense action scenes. James Caan is terrific in the lead role, and the film is a somewhat visceral effort from a director who may have become over-polished in more recent years. The Criterion edition offers up the film with restored and remastered picture and a number of cool extra features.
Enough Said – James Gandolfini’s final role was in this well-received romantic comedy with Julia Louis Dreyfus. Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to see the film yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.
Also available on Blu-ray and DVD this week:
- The classic racially-charged drama In the Heat of the Night makes its Blu-ray debut, and it’s about time. Sidney Poitier is electric, and Rod Steiger is great as well. And who in their life has never said, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!!”? Classic.
- A.C.O.D. stands for Adult Children of Divorce, and it’s also the name of this ensemble comedy starring Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clark Duke, and Amy Poehler. The film is a bit uneven, but overall it’s quite enjoyable, and the cast is terrific.
- Brie Larson stars in Short Term 12, a sort of mumbly dramedy about caregivers, their charges, and their lives. It’s a well acted if meandering film, but Larson shines in the lead role. This is the kind of movie I can see boring some people while blowing away others. I think I fell in between.
- Award-winning French heist film Rififi is released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection. Considered one of the greatest crime films of all time, Rififi shines in high def, and the extra features are a terrific bonus.
- A very young Colin Firth stars in Pride & Prejudice: Keepsake Edition, a new version of the BBC hit miniseries that started his road to stardom. The show has been released many times before, but this new version on Blu-ray sports some new extra features.
- With Ultimate Wolverine & Sabretooth, Marvel continues their line of motion comics released on DVD with this retelling of a story by Jeph Loeb and Simone Bianchi. The painted artwork still dazzles, but the motion comic format continues to be a novelty rather than a necessity for comics fans.
- Michael Douglas stars in A Chorus Line, which tries to translate the broadway musical for the big screen. Many people feel that it failed, but it’s still an interesting effort overall.
- Bruce Willis’s first movie hit makes its Blu-ray debut with Blind Date. It’s great to see Willis in a comedy again, as this was back in his Moonlighting heyday, and the film still holds up as a pretty funny flick overall.
- Trippy time travel film Plus One (+1) is a bit odd and a bit all over the place, but it’s also pretty cool. I can see inevitable comparisons to Donnie Darko and Chronicle (even though it’s different from both of them), but I think there’s definitely an audience for this movie.
- A blockbuster of the silent era, Sunrise was one of the first films ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, and it took home three awards overall. This is one of those movies that belongs in any true cinephile or film history buff’s collection.
- The newest collection of episodes of the hit cartoon, SpongeBob & Friends: Patrick SquarePants includes a whopping 14 episodes, for over three hours of running time. And now that my kids are starting to really get into SpongeBob, that’s a welcome addition in my house.
- Power Rangers Megaforce: The Mysterious Robo Knight is the latest DVD collection of super-powered mayhem, and this time around it comes packaged with a Lego-style figure of one of the Power Rangers. Bonus!
- The popular British car series returns to DVD with Top Gear 20. I’ve never been a huge car fan, but even I can find this show interesting on occasion. I know a lot of people who think this is the greatest show on TV, though, so they’ll be happy to see this release.
- Disney Junior’s hit pre-schooler’s cartoon Henry Hugglemonster gets his first DVD release with Meet the Hugglemonsters. This is a fun little show with cool animation that I think little kids will really enjoy.
- Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas, Stana Katic, and Anthony Edwards star in Big Sur, an accounting of young Jack Kerouac’s life.
- Blue Caprice is the first dramatization of the DC sniper shootings from a few years back. Joey Lauren Adams and Isaiah Washington star.
- A Single Shot is an interesting movie with Sam Rockwell. A survival/crime thriller that also stars Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs, this is a pretty intense film in a genre I love.
- The BBC’s long-running comedy returns to DVD with Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2001.
- Not to be confused with the 1980s’ Patrick Dempsey flick, Run is a Parkour-based thriller. It’s also available in 3D, and it’s a pretty decent flick if you like that kind of all-adrenaline, no-plot movie.
- Another great kids show that’s popular in my house, Dinosaur Train: I Love Dinosaurs offers up new-to-DVD episodes of the hit series.
- The Universe 3D: A Whole New Dimension is a 3D release of The History Channel’s hit show that explores the origins of the cosmos. This is always an interesting show, even if the 3D isn’t really necessary.
- Remember VHS tapes? Rewind This is a great documentary about the rise and fall of the once-ubiquitous format and the sort of cult appeal that’s popped up around it in recent years.
- Danny Trejo stars in Voodoo Possession, a low-budget zombie movie. Trejo’s the only good part of it, really, but fans of the genre looking for a quick fix may want to check it out.
- As a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, I was excited to see the new documentary collection Frankenstein: The Real Story, which looks at the science behind the Frankenstein legend as well as the history of Shelley’s storied tale.
- Absolutely Fabulous’s Joanna Lumley takes us on a three hour tour of the island of Greece in Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey. Lots of great footage and an amiable host make for easy viewing.
- Ja Rule stars in I’m in Love With a Church Girl, which also — oddly enough — features Stephen Baldwin, Michael Madsen, and Vincent Pastore. I wasn’t expecting Ja Rule to make a faith-based movie, but audiences for that kind of film will probably enjoy it.
- Nova: Making Stuff 2 takes us into the world of how things are made and improved. This is a pretty interesting show that gives you a glimpse into how the world works.
- The Valentine’s Day movie onslaught begins with William Baldwin’s romantic comedy, Be My Valentine.
- Getting That Girl attempts to reinvent the high school romantic drama. The results are mixed.
- American Masters: Marvin Hamlisch – What He Did takes a look at the prolific songwriter. A good biography.
- Our Nixon is a new documentary on Richard Nixon that takes an interesting approach. It’s comprised all of home video footage from White House aides, who recorded everything with Super 8 cameras.
- Terraferma is a foreign drama about people from different classes on a tropical island getaway. It sounds like it could have the makings of a slasher film, but it explores ideas of class and morality.
- It’s escaped prisoners versus cannibals in the new horror/comedy hybrid Fresh Meat. What more can I really say?
- The popular telenovela comes to DVD with the new release of El Senor de los Cielos: Volumen 1 y 2. Entirely in Spanish (but with English subtitles available), this show is packed with everything you expect from soap operas, but with a solidly dramatic flair.
- Red Metal: Copper Country Strike of 1913 takes an in-depth look at a major strike from the early 20th century that affected all copper mining in the U.S.
- Raw to Ready is a four hour program that teas us through the process of turning raw materials into the objects we use in our every day lives, including cars and trucks.