The Divergent Series: Insurgent – Not quite the hit that The Hunger Games movies have been, the first Divergent was nonetheless a solid hit at the box office. The story of a girl in a dystopic future who has to choose her faction in society, only to break from the norm, was an interesting sci-fi flick. It never quite escapes its teen origins, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I like this kind of movie to begin with, so it’s not a giant stretch to get me to like it. Plus, solid performances from the lead actors elevate this above schlock teen drama. This second installment starts off a little slow but builds to a very satisfying climax, one that can easily be an end to the series — or a new beginning. Once again, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The Casual Vacancy – Based on JK Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy is an odd one. The book itself wasn’t particularly well-received (and I have not myself read it), but I can say that if this HBO miniseries is any indication, I can see why that is. While well acted, I found the overall story just not that interesting. I’m not saying I wanted wizards and goblins, but this sort of small-town-secrets and parents-versus-teenagers drama has been done better elsewhere.
How to Get Away with Murder: Season 1 – The advertising for this show makes a big deal about the fact that it’s from the producer of Scandal. And that handprint is everywhere to be seen all over this show. It’s over-the-top, ridiculous, chaotic, and requires no small amount of suspension of disbelief. And I loved every minute of it. This is one of those shows where you just go along for the ride, and the central mystery will keep you guessing right up to the very end. This is as addictive as television gets.
A Little Chaos – Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman (who also directs and co-writes), and Matthias Schoenarts star in this delightful little period romance. When a female gardener is hired by the King’s master gardener to build a grove in Versailles, forbidden romance ensues. However, don’t think this is some stuffy melodrama. It’s filled with light moments of humor, smart character touches, and excellent performances. While this is the kind of movie I tend to avoid, I really enjoyed this one. Don’t be turned off by its period trappings, it’s a charming movie from start to finish.
The Last Survivors – Young Haley Lu Richardson turns in an incredible performance in this post-apocalyptic action/drama. As a teenager trying to survive in a world where all the water has just about disappeared, she carried the entire film by appearing in virtually ever scene. The film ratchets up in intensity scene by scene until it culminates in a riveting action climax. The desert landscape of the film becomes a character in and of itself, but it’s Richardson who is the star. This is one of those films that is definitely worth seeking out.
Every Secret Thing – Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane and Dakota Fanning star in this mystery/drama about a police detective who begins to suspect that two girls who murdered a baby when they were just kids have done the same thing again after they’re released from juvenile detention at age 18. This is one of those slow-burn films that’s as much about atmosphere as it is plot, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s not an action thriller and it won’t win any awards, but for a good, solid crime drama, this one definitely fits the bill.
The Comeback: The Series – Lisa Kudrow stars in this terrific HBO comedy about an out-of-the-spotlight TV star trying to make her professional comeback. Part satire of reality shows and part cringeworthy awkward comedy (think anything Ricky Gervais is involved in), the show is extremely funny. This new set collects the original one-season run from a decade ago, and also the new season that was just produced for HBO last year. People who like reality television and are familiar with the inner workings of Hollywood will get the most out of this show, but anyone can enjoy it, and probably will.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E: Season 1 – Just in time for the new movie to hit theaters, we now have The Man from U.N.C.L.E: Season 1. This show is a favorite of mine from my youth. Sort of a weekly dose of James Bond (something I could never get enough of), the show focused on two intrepid secret agents: Napoleon Solo, the suave ladies man, and Illya Kuryakin, the cool yet dangerous uber-spy. The show might be considered a tad slow for an action-spy series by today’s standards, but lead actors Robert Vaughn and David Soul had enough charisma and chemistry to carry the show even in the dry moments. For my money, U.N.C.L.E. is still highly enjoyable.
Into the Grizzly Maze – I never quite understand how movies get casts like this and then end up going direct to video. Billy Bob Thornton, James Marsden, Thomas Jane, and Piper Perabo star in this thriller about a group of people hunting (or being hunted) by a rogue grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness. I love man-versus-nature movies, and this one fit right into my wheelhouse. With great performances, terrific animal “effects” (and there are real bears in this film), and edge-of-your seat action, this is a great movie for fans of the genre.
Also available on Blu-ray & DVD this week:
- Child 44 – Tom Hardy slips on a thick Russian accent for this slow-burning thriller based on the acclaimed novel. Hardy is all intensity and brusqueness (as he so often is) as he tries to track down a serial killer he believes is murdering people. I liked the film, but it takes a while to get going, and the Russian accents can get a bit tiring after a while. Still, Hardy fans will enjoy watching him as always.
- The Affair: Season 1 – I’m not sure why this Showtime TV series wasn’t released on Blu-ray, but now you can catch up with the acclaimed show on DVD. Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson star as the two main couple involved, and the show presents an affair that occurs between two of the characters from both their points of view. It’s a complex and layered drama, and it’s the acting and the sharp writing that really carries it. For fans of deep relationship dramas, this show will be right up your alley.
- The Salvation – Mads Mikkelsen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in this western that presents a pretty gritty and straightforward tale of revenge. When Mads Mikkelsen kills one of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s men, it sets of a chain reaction of killing and vengeance. The film doesn’t really tread any new ground, but it’s tough and visceral, and I enjoy just about anything Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in, so I enjoyed it quite a bit.
- Burying The Ex – Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, and Alexandra Daddario star in this comedy from director Joe Dante. I’ve always felt Dante was an underrated director, but this is far from his strongest work. The concept is fun; a girlfriend-from-hell dies — letting her boyfriend off the hook of dumping her — but then comes back to life and refuses to leave him alone, interfering with his new romance. The film has some small charms, but the humor never quite hits the mark.
- Looney Tunes: Rabbits Run – A new Looney Tunes movie? Where did that come from? Regardless, I’m not complaining. It’s fun to see the old gang back in action, even if this new film feels very modern. Which I guess isn’t a bad thing (it’s worked for the Scooby-Doo franchise), but it does take some getting used to. Still, they managed to fit Marvin the Martian in, so I have no complaints.
- Adult Beginners – Nick Kroll stars with Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, and Joel McHale in this comedy about a man-child forced to become a man when he has to take care of a child. Kroll takes some getting used to as a lead actor (admittedly, I don’t watch The Kroll Show), but with Byrne, Cannavale, and McHale along for the ride, the film works as the cast gels. This isn;t comedy gold, but it’s enjoyable enough.
- I Love Lucy: The Ultimate Season Two – CBS has released of of the most iconic and classic sitcoms in history on Blu-ray for the second time, and they’ve pulled out all the stops. I Love Lucy: Ultimate Season Two is brand new to high def, and this set shows that CBS has put a lot of time and care into it. The set is loaded with extra features, and the picture and sound quality is the best Lucy has ever looked on home video. If any show deserves to be preserved in the highest possible quality, this one definitely qualifies.
- Barely Lethal – Hailee Steinfeld stars in this film that’s like a mash-up of Agent Cody Banks and Never Been Kissed, about a high school age super-spy who abandons her spy life for a much more dangerous one: high school. Samuel Jackson and Jessica Alba co-star and the film is silly but ultimately kind of fun. It’s not great, and it’s probably geared more for a teenage audience than for someone like me, but it’s fun.
- Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead – This Australian zombie flick is being touted as a “zombie Mad Max” and that is a pretty accurate description. It’s balls-to-the-wall action, complete with crazy vehicles, handmade weapons, and tough-as-nails characters. It’s also wildly over the top, and tons of fun. I haven’t enjoyed anything with zombies in it this much in quite some time. This is one to pop in the player, crank up the volume, and just go along for the ride.
- Strike Back: The Complete Third Season – Cinemax’s first foray into scripted television is a lot like your watching a big-budget action film, with definite flavors of 24 and British hit show MI-5 in the mix. The show’s two lead actors are tough as nails and strongly charismatic, and the action sequences are real, big-budget affairs, and not the cheapie action you sometimes get from shows that can’t afford to do the things they actually want to do. What also works well is that the show isn’t all dark and gritty. There are moments of humor sprinkled throughout. There’s also a military conspiracy storyline that goes beyond just the action side of things and ensures a narrative throughline that is compelling. Plus, alongside all of the violence, there is a little bit of nudity as well, which will satisfy the Skinemax crowd. I like it.
- Blackbird – This story of a young black man in the south who is a closeted gay man depicts a struggle between sexuality and faith. With supporting turns by Mo’nique and Isaiah Washington, the film works hard to present all sides of the story, but I suspect this one will be of interest to a limited target audience. At times it plays out like a solid drama, at other times like a hallmark movie, but it tries and least partially succeeds at telling its story.
- Black Box – I honestly have no idea what this movie is about at all. It comes across at an attempt to make something like Cloud Atlas, but on a budget of about twenty dollars. The story follows a few groups of people that eventually intertwine due to a mysterious black box, but then people end up floating in space, or something like that. Despite a fun cast that includes Kevin Sorbo, Ray Park, Jeremy London, and Nastassia Malthe, the film is just a mess.
- Appetites – This thriller is about a brother/sister team who hunt young men for sport — and food. But when she meets a mysterious man and falls in love, things go even more haywire. It’s low-budget horror fare, but there’s a visceral thrill to it and the lead actors do well enough in their roles to be convincing. It’s not mainstream fare I’d recommend for everyone, but fans of the genre will get a kick out of it.
- Madame Bovary – Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans and Paul Giamatti star in this most recent adaptation of the classic literary work about a young woman trapped in a staid marriage who seeks out extramarital affairs. Quite scandalous in its time, the story is a classic and this adaptation does it justice. Mia Wasikowska is excellent in the lead role, and the rest of the cast turns in strong performances as well.
- Murdoch Mysteries: Season 8 – Murdoch Mysteries is a forensic procedural (think CSI or Bones), but it’s set in 1890’s Toronto, right on the cusp of the age of scientific discovery. Detective Murdoch is basically the Fox Mulder/Gus Grissom of the show, and he’s a charming, intelligent fellow. Of course, he has a semi-romantic counterpart in Dr. Ogden, and as is so popular with these shows, there’s unrequited sexual/romantic tension between them. It’s a bit cliched, but it works so well, it’s a welcome cliche. The show is fun and endearing, filled with good mysteries, excellent acting, great guest stars, and amazing period-era production values.
- The Wild West with Ray Mears – This two-disc set provides almost four hours worth of documentary programming about the real wild west. Not cowboys and indians, but settlers and pioneers. Host Ray Mears retraces the steps of the people who expanded our country and shows us how they survived, what they faced, and what the country was like back then. It’s interesting stuff, with some gorgeous scenery.
- Rick Sebak’s Summer Fun – A similar yet opposite program, Rick Sebak’s Summer Fun presents four documentaries about places and things that are all summer like beaches, snack food, and theme parks. You get four separate episodes here: Shore Things, An Ice Cream Show, Great Old Amusement Parks, and A Hot Dog Program. This is alight, frothy show, and it’s quite fun to watch.
- When Calls The Heart: Heart Of The Family – How many books has Janette Oke written? Because I can count at least ten TV movies based on them. When Calls The Heart: Heart of the Family is the latest, and it stars Lori Loughlin and Jack Wagner. I’ll say this, you don’t see a lot of romances where one of the main characters is a Canadian Mounty, but in this case you do. It’s pretty typical Hallmark fare, but I imagine the target audience will enjoy it.
- Sgt. Bilko – The Phil Silvers Show: Season 3 – One of television’s earliest comedy blockbusters, Sgt. Bilko was a spotlight for Phil Silvers’ signature character, and he clearly steals the show. Sgt. Bilko is 1950s humor at its best; rather than feeling dated, it feels timeless. Unlike so many other comedies from the past that age poorly, Sgt. Bilko comes across as a classic, and it’s funny stuff. The joke-telling is from another era, but it works because the writing is strong and the actors understand how to be funny.
- Dora & Friends: Doggie Day & Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures – We have two new Dora releases this week, one for the younger kids and one for the slightly older set. Dora & Friends features the retooled, more grown-up Dora and her friends; think more Bratz than Dora (although much less bratty) and you get the idea. Meanwhile, Dora’s Double Length Adventures collects a number of 45-minute episodes (as opposed to the usual 22-minute format) for some extra fun.
- Alpha & Omega: Family Vacation – The inexplicably popular wolf franchise continues with Alpha And Omega: Family Vacation. Unfortunately, this seems to be a case of diminishing returns, as the animation is poor, the sound is weak, and the film is barely an hour long. Young kids will like it, but it seems like the franchise is trending towards the really young kids now.
- Frontline: The Trouble With Chicken – With a name like that, how can you not watch this hour-long documentary special? Well, if you’re interested in the war on salmonella — and how we’re apparently losing it — then this will be right up your alley. I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t want to eat chicken for a few days after watching this!
- Peppa Pig: School Bus Trip w/Scholastic Mini Book Gift Set – The popular British pig family returns in the Springtime-themed Peppa Pig: School Bus Trip. Not my favorite kids show, but good enough for the younger ones. It’s cute enough to be endearing, I guess. This one comes packaged with a cute little Peppa Pig book, so that’s a nice bonus.