It’s not the biggest week we’ve seen in a while, but there are some great films out this week, including one of my favorites of the year so far. Here’s the full breakdown:
It Follows – You might have heard some of the buzz about this year’s horror movie It Follows. You might not have heard of the film at all. Either way, it doesn’t matter. You need to see this movie. It’s not only the single best horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time, it’s easily one of the best films of any genre I’ve seen this year. It’s not a plot-heavy film. Basically, there’s a curse of sorts that is passed along through sex, and when we meet Jay, she’s just gotten it passed along to her. And now, something is following her. Relentlessly. That pretty much sums it up, but this isn’t a movie about story. It’s about atmosphere. This is a movie that’s all about mood, tension, and atmosphere. It’s filled with quiet, lonely, forlorn scenes, and it oozes with intensity in every single frame. And when the horrific parts do come around, they’ll scare the hell out of you. There’s hardly any blood in the film. Zero CGI. No quiet-quiet-quiet-bang! moments that are design solely to make you jump. Instead, what you get is creeping dread that increases by the minute. In a year filled with some exceptional horror entries so far (The Babadook, Muck), It Follows manages to somehow stand head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s no small feat. Track this film down and watch it now; you won’t forget it for a long time to come.
Ex Machina – For all intents and purposes, I should have loved Ex Machina. It is, after all, an intelligent, interesting sci-fi thriller with its deepest roots in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a work of which I am a huge fan. Ultimately, though, I liked the film, but I didn’t love it. And the worst part is, I can’t put my finger on exactly why not. I will say that the performances on the part of all three leads (the only characters in the film, actually) are utterly fantastic. Oscar Isaac is at the top of my list of most exciting actors right now, Domnhall Gleeson does what he does best, and Alicia Vikander (who wowed me in the crime thriller Son of a Gun) is terrific. But the film is a bit… cold. It’s hard to warm up to. And I get that that’s intentional, because we’re dealing with artificial intelligence and robots and such, but as much as I wanted to really get invested in these characters, I couldn’t, at least not as much as I wanted to. I did really like the very last scene of the film. And ultimately, I’d say Ex Machina is worth watching. It just wasn’t the sci-fi revelation I wanted it to be.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 – I didn’t really like the first Paul Blart: Mall Cop. As much as I wanted to, and despite a funny trailer, I thought the film was ultimately pretty stupid. And worse, not funny. But I went into Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 with an open mind. After all, I found the trailer amusing, and I do really like Kevin James. Unfortunately, it’s just as stupid as the first film, if not more so. And once again, it suffers the cardinal sin of just not being funny. Kevin James is a likable enough screen personality even here, but his blowhard character gets a bit old after a while, and I kept waiting for something to happen that would just make me laugh. Unfortunately, it never happened. I guess if you like the first one, you’ll like this one too, but otherwise, it’s pretty skippable.
The Black Stallion – I remember seeing The Black Stallion when I was a young kid, but I haven’t seen it since then. I was a little surprised at first when I heard that The Criterion Collection was rereleasing it as one of their lauded special editions. After all, I thought of it more as just another family film about a horse than anything else. But watching it again, it’s easy to see why Criterion selected it. The film is a mix of everything: drama, adventure, racing movie, family film; it’s got it all. And although Francis Ford Coppola only produced it and didn’t direct it, his fingerprints are clearly stamped on the film. Restored and remastered and loaded with extra features, this is a Criterion edition I’m really glad to own.
The Legend Of The Lone Ranger – I don’t know why The Lone Ranger keeps bombing in theaters. Last year’s Gore Verbinski update with Johnny Depp was a huge miss at the box office, and this early 1980s take on the legend was also a critical and commercial failure. Personally, I loved them both. This is another movie I saw as a kid and haven’t seen since, but I really enjoyed it. Yes, it’s a bit campy and it certainly shows its age, but again we have a terrific family adventure film. It’s got a great origin story, plenty of action, and good old-fashioned shoot-outs galore. And I don’t know why Klinton Spilsbury only ever made the one film. I think he was perfectly fine, even likable, in the lead role, certainly good enough to have made at least a minor career in acting. Regardless, if you like the character of The Lone Ranger or you enjoyed the latest reboot, check out this forgotten cult classic.
Also available on Blu-ray & DVD this week:
- The Howling II – I couldn’t have been more disappointed in The Howling II. Whereas the origin The Howling, which I just watched for the first time a year or two ago, is a terrific werewolf movie that really holds up as the best of the genre, The Howling II has no real relation to the first film and is instead a cheesy, silly mess. Embracing the early 80s disco/new wave scene, the film doesn’t feel classic like the original, it feels dated and — worse — outdated. What a waste of great franchise potential.
- The Outing/The Godsend and Cellar Dwellar/Catacombs – Also from Shout Factory’s Scream Factory imprint, we have two new double features, The Outing/The Godsend and Cellar Dwellar/Catacombs. I’ve learned that with Scream Factory releases, you can usually tell what kind of movie you’re going to get by how many come in each release. Most of their single film releases are cult classics of the best kind. When you see two films included in one release, things get a little bit dicey. The Outing and The Godsend gives you a tale of a killer genie (yep, a genie) and a murderous child, while Cellar Dwellar and Catacombs give you a comic book killer come to life and a demonic curse. Of them all, my favorite was Cellar Dweller, and these are overall fun releases to feed a budget horror fan’s fix.
- Clouds of Sils Maria – Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz star in this critically acclaimed drama about an aging movie star and her personal assistant, and the complicated relationship between them. Juliette Binoche is radiant as always, and Kristen Stewart decided to prove that shoe could act once again by turning in a really strong and surprising performance, much more personable than we’ve seen her on camera before. The film won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC – I’m a huge, unabashed fan of Nickelodeon’s current incarnate of the Ninja Turtles, and that’s coming from someone who’s been a fan since the very early black-and-white comic book days. The show is funny and action packed, yet stays true to the characters and sometimes (such as with this DVD’s story arc) pays tribute to some of the great story lines from the original comics. This is a great show for both kids and adults who grew up with the Turtles.
- All Quiet On The Western Front – Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Ian Holm, and Patricia Neal star in this 1979 remake of one of the original and most revered war films of all time. While it’s been released on DVD before, this is the Uncut Edition, which adds some six minutes of footage back into the film. Having never seen the original before, I can’t tell you if it adds or detracts from the movie, but this is still a solid war drama, if a bit overlong.
- Black Beauty – Luke Perry stars in this remake of Black Beauty, the 47th time the original story has been retold on film. I don’t know how closely this modern update hews to the original, but it’s a solids-enough family film aimed at the tween market. It’s a bit overly earnest, but Perry is always a welcome screen presence and Bruce Davison is good as always. If you need a good drama for your tweens or have someone in the family who loves horses, this film will do.
- Freedom – Cuba Gooding Jr. and William Sadler star in this inspirational story of hope and freedom handout two men — separated by 100 years — who have to deal with slavery and freedom and whose lives are intertwined by family. It’s an interesting take on a genre we’ve seen plenty of times before, and both Gooding and the always-excellent William Sadler turn in terrific performances.
- The Crimson Field – A drama set in the medical tents on the front lines of battle in World War I France, The Crimson Field is a strong, well-shot, and terrifically-acted character piece. While a bit heavy with the melodrama, this show will appeal to fans of period pieces such as Downton Abbey (although it’s lacking some of that show’s signature humor.) Though it’s only six episodes long, that’s plenty of time for you to get engrossed in these character’s lives and leave you wanting more.
- WKRP In Cincinnati: Season 3 – Maybe I’m dating myself, but I loved WKRP in Cincinnati when I was a kid. Watching it now, I’m pretty sure that half the jokes went right over my head (although I do remember being in love with Loni Anderson just like everyone else, so I must have gotten at least a few of them.) WKRP In Cincinnati is a great example of a real ensemble comedy; from Loni Anderson’s Jennifer to uber-nerd Les Nessman to Dr. Fever and Venus Flytrap, WKRP featured a core of eccentric and interesting characters. Sadly, the humor on WKRP definitely shows its age. That’s not to say it’s a bad show, but it has lost some of the shine that made the show so appealing in its heyday.
- I Want My Hat Back & More Happy Stories – The latest release in the excellent Scholastic animated line includes four cartoons: I Want My Hat Back, The Lucky Ducklings, The Happy Lion, and The Happy Owls. Obviously, there’s an animal theme to these stories, but these discs are great fun for anyone with young kids, as they bring popular and lesser known kids books to life through great animation and excellent voice overs.
- Cedar Cove: Season 2 – Andie McDowell stars in Cedar Cove: Season 2. Based on the books by bestselling author Debbie Macomber, this is a pretty standard relationship drama show, the type that would fit right at home on Lifetime. Still, there are some good performances, and I suspect for the target audiences, this show will be well-loved.
- American Masters: American Ballet Theatre at 75 – Yet another Burns steps behind the camera as Ric Burns presents this documentary about one of the most famed ballet companies in the world. Filled with interviews and rare footage (including dance luminaries Mikhail Baryshnikov and George Balanchine), it’s a pretty interesting documentary, more so if you happen to be a fan of ballet.
- Magic School Bus: Season 3 – After last year’s Magic School Bus: The Complete Series collected the entire series into one massive box set, Scholastic has now started releasing single seasons of the show, which is great for parents on a budget who can’t swing a big box set. This latest release features the entire third season. This is a fun little show that teaches kids about all kinds of things, and my kids certainly enjoy it.
- Pound Puppies: Pick Of The Litter – Pound Puppies is a cute kids’ cartoon 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.
- Borderline – Charles Bronson and a very young Ed Harris star in this made-for-TV movie about a tough border patrol officer going up against a criminal kingpin who smuggles illegal aliens into the country. The film is some 30-odd years old, and it looks like you’re watching an old VHS tape, but it’s fascinating to see Ed Harris looking so young and Charles Bronson does what he does best here. A fun throwback.
- Dawn Patrol – Clint Eastwood’s son Scott Eastwood stars in this revenge-based surfer movie. Yes, it’s the second surfer movie he’s appeared in this year, after The Perfect Wave. But here, instead of finding god, he seeks revenge for the death of his brother and ends up killing the wrong man. Eastwood is a solid screen presence (although he’s got a ways to go to catch up to his dad), but the film itself is pretty unremarkable.
- Unwanted – Apparently, Unwanted is a “Southern gothic retelling of Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla,” which means a whole lot of nothing to me as I have no idea who or what that is. The film is ultimately a somewhat slow-moving but good thriller about a family with dark secrets and the drifter who threatens to unearth them. Decent acting and a good amount of suspense keep you interested, even if the film is nothing special at the end of the day.