We have a solid slate of releases this week, with a few medium-sized box office hits along with a big crop of indie films. Here’s the full breakdown:
Dracula Untold – This is one of those movies where, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what to expect. It’s an overly-serious but not bad vampire epic that purports to tell the origins of Dracula as a man who’s just trying to protect his family and his kingdom. What makes the film work is Luke Evans (whom I’m a huge fan of) in the lead role. Even though the film takes itself awfully seriously, Evans is terrific here and it’s his presence that makes the film worth watching. Sure, the effects are good and there’s some good action scenes as well, but at the end of the day it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Still, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t.
John Wick – The best action film you haven’t seen yet is out on home video this week, and it has the innocuous name of John Wick. Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a former mob legend/hitman who goes straight for the love of a woman. When his wife dies and his dog is murdered by a gang of mobbed-up thugs, he unleashes hell on the underworld. With gunfights, explosions, fisticuffs, martial arts, and car chases, this film is down and dirty action the way it used to be, not overly laden with CGI or wire work. It’s brutal and bloody, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s also a great supporting cast that included Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Nyqvist. Definitely track this one down.
Ouija – If you use a ouija board to contact dead people, things are probably going to go wrong. That’s not only the premise of this movie, it’s also just good common sense. Ouija takes this concept and then applies every horror movie cliche you’ve seen in the past ten years and piles them on top of it. That said, it’s a perfectly serviceable horror film for people who enjoy what passes for horror these days, full of creepy music, too-dark rooms, and loud banging noises designed to make you jump. It’s an easily digestible 90-minute romp, but you’ll forget it the minute it’s over.
ABCs of Death 2 – Another horror anthology film, this sequel to the cult first movie sees another 26 short tales of horror, murder, and mayhem squeezed into a little under two hours. Featuring no name actors and 26 different horror directors, the film is a mixed bag of results, just like the first film was. Despite a few directors that horror fans will recognize (Larry Fessenden, Vincenzo Natali, The Soska Sisters), the series blew its load in the first film, which had much more recognizable talent. Not that big names necessarily equal good films, but there seems to be a little less actual talent at work this time around. Still, there are some fun entries and horror fans will probably get a kick out of it, even if there are a few duds mixed in.
Dear White People – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dear White People, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what I got. I’d heard some good buzz about this topical comedy about racism, but I don’t think I could have enjoyed the movie less. While I know some of the points made in the film are supposed to be satirical, it’s also no fun to watch a movie that tries to tell me all the different reasons I’m a racist. Regardless of the politics, the film suffers because it’s not funny, the characters are all unlikable, the cliches are rampant, and it’s too long. I really wanted to like this film, but I found it to be completely and utterly unenjoyable.
Tales From Earthsea/Porco Rosso/Pom Poko – I’ve never been a Studio Ghibli fan, despite the critical acclaim they’ve received for movies such as Princess Mononoke, The Wind Rises, Spirited Away, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Yet every time I get new discs from the studio, I always try them out, because I keep hoping that someday I’ll see what fans find so enticing about their movies. Sadly, today is not that day. Disney releases three of their lesser known films on Blu-ray this week, and while I can appreciate the gorgeous visuals in each (a Hallmark of Studio Ghibli movies), I just can’t get into them. I had hoped Tales from Earthsea might have been the stand-out because it’s based on the popular novels by Ursula LeGuin, but it was as dull and boring as the rest. Admittedly there is some charm to Pom Poko, but not enough for me to declare myself a fan, while Porco Rosso is just an average film at best. At this point, I’ve worked my way through most of the studio’s catalog and I guess their films just aren’t for me.
Aviators – This animated film is supposedly “based on a true story,” but when your movie involves talking birds and mice, maybe that’s not the marketing tactic you want to take. Still, I’ve seen worse animated movies than Aviators, which is about carrier pigeons during World War II. The film owes a serious debt to classic Disney films from a certain era, such as The Rescuers and Oliver & Company. It really has kind of a cool retro feel to it, which I enjoy. That doesn’t make it a great film, but it’s a definite step above the current trend of taking cheap CGI films from Latin American countries and revoiceing them with a B-list cast, as has been a huge trend in home video lately. Kids might enjoy this one, and parents will find some value in the nostalgic feel.
Also available on Blu-ray and DVD tis week:
- Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden star in The Best of Me, a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. You know what that means… romance, heartbreak, handsome men filmed in amber light, lots of kissing, some crying. You know, the usual. Okay, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse Sparks adaptations, so I’ll just say that fans of his movies should know what they’re in for.
- It’s hard to empathize with Simon Pegg’s perfect life in Hector and the Search for Happiness, wherein he plays a psychologist with a seemingly perfect life who claims he isn’t happy and leaves his beautiful, awesome girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) to travel the world and search for his own happiness. Now, it would be dismissive of depression to say that just because he has a “great” life, he can’t be depressed, but the film squanders its concept and its leads and just never makes you care about the characters enough to go on this journey with them. It drowned at the box office, and Fox isn’t even putting it out on Blu-ray, which tells you something.
- The second Richard Pryor documentary in the past few months, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic features a number of luminaries talking about Pryor’s impact on the cultural landscape. I can appreciate Pryor, but I wouldn’t consider myself a big fan. Still, there’s no denying the impact he had and it’s interesting to hear people’s perspective on him.
- Well, at least you have to give credit to Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard for having a somewhat unique title in an overcrowded genre. As for the film itself, I wish I had more to say about it. I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. It’s typical zombie genre fare, but it’s not terrible. If you’re a zombie junkie, check it out, just don’t expect anything special.
- The Bob Newhart Show: Season Five and The Final Season are two new DVD sets that wrap up the iconic sitcom’s run on DVD. I think that which Bob Newhart sitcom is your favorite really depends on when you grew up. I know for my parents and most people their age, The Bob Newhart Show is the best of Bob Newhart’s TV series. For myself, nothing beats Dick Loudon and the gang (including Larry, Daryl, and Daryl) of Newhart. That said, The Bob Newhart Show is a classic slice of sitcom nostalgia, but the show is good enough to overcome being a simple memory-sparker and is actually still quite funny. Having grown up on Newhart, I had never really spent much time watching the classic Bob Newhart Show, but now that I’ve been able to go back and watch it, I can see why it’s so well-loved.
- Video games are bigger then ever, so what better time for Video Games: The Movie? Don’t worry, it’s not some cheesy travesty like the 1990s Super Mario Brother or Street Fighter movies. Instead, this is a documentary on the rise of video games and their place in pop culture. Produced by Zach Braff, it’s a fun and ambitious look at an industry that has moved beyond the console and created iconic characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong, and so many others.
- Doc Mcstuffins: Cuddle Me Lambie is the latest collection of the popular Disney Junior show for the pre-school set that’s really cute. My daughter enjoys it quite a bit, even if it skews a little younger than her. Doc McStuffins is a little girl who interacts with her stuffed animals that basically come alive in a Toy Story fashion. Every episode, one of them is ailed by something like a missing button, a tear, or fear of the dark, which Doc McStuffins quickly fixes. Mostly she fixes them by singing to them, but the musical numbers are cute and not too frequent, so it’s not too bad.
- Demon’s Rook is a new horror film that looks and feels like it was made in the 1980s, and that is clearly done on purpose. I mean, this is a movie that features a character named Roscoe, the pupil of a wizard monk from an ancient race of demons. It’s low budget and cheesy, but there’s a certain type of horror fan out there who will absolutely love this movie.
- Before he took the lead role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Jack O’Connell shined in the prison drama Starred Up. While it treads familiar ground, there’s a family dynamic storyline at play here that gives it a fresh feel. And O’Connell is terrific here as well, so it’s definitely a film worth watching.
- Starry Eyes is an odd and creepy new psychological horror film that I liked mostly because it was something different. The plot follows an actress who auditions for a role and gets it, but the production is anything but normal. But this isn’t some haunted set or movie monster movie. It’s an atmospheric tale that will appeal to people who like horror that’s just a bit different.
- One of the most beloved shows of the 80s/90s, The Wonder Years continues its run on DVD, with the The Wonder Years: Season Two on DVD. There is also a limited edition set of the entire series available through StarVista online, but this set includes just the entire second season. One of the best things about this release is that the distributor went through and secured the rights to ALL of the music in the set, so the show’s indelible soundtrack is intact. What better time to welcome Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper back into your home?
- While far from the first documentary on Ronald Reagan, The Reagans: The Legacy Endures focuses less on the politics of the man and more on his life. From his childhood to his time as an actor and his relationship with Nancy, this film (produced with the cooperation of the Reagan family) is an interesting look at an interesting man.
- I’m kind of a sucker for bigfoot-themed films, so of course I was going to watch Exists, the latest group-of-friends-in-the-woods-hunted-by-a-mysterious-creature flick.
- Care Bears: Share Your Care sees the popular ’80s mainstays’ resurgence continue. This CGI series isn’t the same as the ’80s cartoon or the more recent hand-drawn series, but it keeps the Care Bears spirit alive. In fact, I think kids today will enjoy it, because the CGI look of the cartoon keeps it feeling fresh and current, and the general messages of the Care Bears remain positive messages about friendship, sharing, caring, and the like. And with four episodes running a total of almost 90 minutes, this affordably-priced disc is worth the purchase for parents.
- Pound Puppies: Homeward Pound is the newest DVD in a new series of kids cartoons that focuses on a lovable group of dogs. This is not the Pound Puppies I remember from my childhood, but my memories of them are hazy at best, so that’s okay.This Hub Network show is a fun cartoon with a message; in each episode the puppies of Shelter 17 work to place a dog with a home. There’s obviously a pro-animal adoption message here, but it’s never heavy handed and the show is cute, so I’m not complaining.
- The dutch film Boys is a heartfelt drama about two teenager boys and track team members who discover and develop their feelings for each other. Obviously, a foreign film about gay romance isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who like artier fare, it’s a well-acted and moving dramatic film.
- It’s amazing the tales of nature and disaster that aren’t part of the American lexicon yet. Everyone knows about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, but I had never heard about this massive wildfire until now. American Experience: The Big Burn recounts the 1910 fire that destroyed more than three million acres in 36 hours and changed the face of the U.S Forest Service. Fascinating stuff.
- In Frontline: Firestone and the Warlord we learn about the interesting relationship between the Firestone company and Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in the late ’80s and ’90s. Once again, this is a subject matter I knew nothing about, but it makes for some interesting viewing.