Mad Max: Fury Road – For years, I’ve been lamenting the dearth of good action movies. The action genre has been in the doldrums for the past decade or so, and at times it seems like there’s little hope for the future. But it’s the future that has brought us hope in the form of Mad Max: Fury Road. Brought to us by George Miller, the man who directed the original films, Mad Max is not just a film: it’s a force of nature. Choose any hyperbolic movie-poster sound bite and it applies to this movie: “High octane action!” “Insane visuals!” “Over-the-top fun!” “Post apocalyptic mayhem!” They all apply. This is two hours of some of the most mind-blowing stunts and action sequences you’ve ever seen, all done with as little CGI as possible. Add to that the fact that Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is one of the most kick-ass female characters since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and you have pretty much the perfect action movie. Let’s hope it’s the start of a renaissance in action moviemaking.
Good Kill – Every time writer/director Andrew Niccol puts out a new film, I eagerly watch it and hope for it to be even a little bit close to being as good as Gattaca, his debut film and one of my favorite movies of all time. And every time he puts out a new film, I end up disappointed. Good Kill, which stars Ethan Hawke as a former pilot now controlling drones over the mid-east, is yet another disappointment. It’s not a bad film per se, as the concept and the moral dilemmas the film presents are interesting, but Hawke’s character is far from likable and the film’s pace is extremely slow. I’d heard some good reviews of this film and had high hopes, but ultimately it’s just another mediocre film in a string of mediocre films from a once-promising director. Sigh.
I’ll See You in My Dreams – Blythe Danner shines in this new dramedy about an aging widow who rediscovers life, friendship, and romance. Storywise, it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s not the story that will win you over. It’s the cast, the performances, the writing, and the utter charm this film possesses. Far from cynical, the film is one of those that makes you feel just a little bit lighter after watching it. Sam Shepard is also terrific and the duo’s chemistry on screen is a large part of what makes the film so fun to watch. This is one of those smaller films that will probably gain a wider audience, much like its spiritual counterpart The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Extinction – A superb horror/drama film, Extinction will probably get wrongly categorized as a zombie film, but it’s not. While it starts out with a truly intense zombie-filled opening, the rest of the film plays out nine years after the apocalypse, when two once-friends and one of their daughters have survived in isolation in a snowbound northern town. When one of the zombies shows up — evolved, mutated into something completely different — things go from tense to hair-raisingly terrifying. Matthew Fox and Jeffrey Donavan star in this Spanish-production film, and it’s about ten times better than any zombie flick I’ve seen lately. With strong characters, great scares, and truly creepy creatures, it’s much more along the lines of Neil Marshall’s masterpiece The Descent than it is any zombie movie. I highly recommend tracking this one down!
Texas Rising – The History Channel’s star-studded miniseries about the formation of Texas is a fictional recounting that apparently has drawn some ire for being anything but historical. While I don’t know much about the history of Texas so I can’t comment on that, I do know about good filmmaking and, sadly, this isn’t it. Despite a terrific cast that includes Bill Paxton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chad Michael Murray, Thomas Jane, and Ray Liotta, the script really sinks things here. The writing is pretty dismal, and even the best actors can’t save it. I mean, I’ve seen worse, and it is watchable, but it definitely isn’t the big blockbuster mini-series I was hoping for.
Vampire Diaries: Season 6 and The Originals: Season 2 – Going into Season Six, The Vampire Diaries continues its run into interesting territory. A few story threads from season five carry over, while new stories develop. New characters are added (or changed) and a few characters are killed, and the show manages to remain somewhat unpredictable as ever, even if it’s lost a little of its luster by now. Despite a few story elements that feel like they’ve been “borrowed” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, the show remains a soapy slice of genre fun, filled with romance, bloodletting, and even werewolves on occasion. Meanwhile, we also have The Originals: Season 2, a spin-off of TVD. What I like about this show is that it feels like part of the Vampire Diaries universe, yet it has its own distinctive flavor as well. You also don’t need to watch TVD in order to watch this show. Obviously there’s some thematic carry-over, but once you’re enmeshed in the world of The Originals, you can watch it as a stand-alone show or as a companion to TVD. Get caught up now before Season Three starts.
Chicago P.D.: Season 2 and Chicago Fire: Season 3 – Chicago Fire: Season Three is very much a typical Dick Wolf show, but I can see why it’s so popular. Compelling story lines, lots of soap opera plots, solid action sequences, an attractive cast… it’s got a little something for everyone. In fact, it’s so popular, there’s already a spin-off. Chicago P.D.: Season Two hews even closer to Dick Wolf’s typical territory, but I do like this show, mostly because elf the cast. Jason Beghe has been a favorite character actor of mine for a while now, and it’s good to see Sophia Bush back in a hit show. Plus, Elias Koteas is always awesome, so I’m in. These are both solid shows. Neither one of them is must see TV for me, but I like binging on them when the DVD sets drop.
Hawaii Five-O: Season Five – Remaking iconic television rarely goes well, but in this case, CBS has done a bang-up job, largely thanks to the show’s casting, solid action sequences, and the interplay between Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. The show has lots of humor, solid mysteries, and doesn’t shy away from an expensive action sequence when it’s needed. The Hawaiian scenery adds to the show’s visual charms, and I understand the ladies don’t mind looking at Alex O’Loughlin all that much, either (at least my wife doesn’t seem to.) It’s not a perfect show, and the product placement is a bit out of control, but overall it’s a lot of fun. Season Five of Hawaii Five-O continued to present some great cop-action-stories of the week, while actually developing a bit of an underlying mythology, kind of like a genre show. It’s fun and has some substance to it, too. Cool.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1 – Some of the earliest MST3K DVDs are long out of print, now fetching premium prices in online marketplaces, so Shout Factory has wisely gone back and started to re-issue those hard to find gems. Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1 brings us four films from the vaults, all given the MST3K treatment: Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust, and The Skydivers. With everything from low-budget horror to a beach musical, this is a great set that offers up a variety of film genres and some of the MST3K crew’s finest work. Plus, Shout Factory has added extra features that weren’t on the original release, making this a must-have for fans of the show.
Also available on Blu-ray & DVD this week:
- The D Train – Jack Black and James Marsden star in this odd-couple comedy about a straight-laced guy and his wild friend who wreaks havoc on his life. The twist here is that Jack Black lays the straight role while James Marsden plays the chaotic bro. I really like James Marsden, so it was fun to see him and Black switch their typical roles, and while the film is easily digestible, it’s nothing great.
- Backcountry – File this one under “Raging Disappointment.” I’m a hardcore fan of any kind of man vs. nature survival movies, and Backcountry has been getting some solid reviews. So I eagerly sat down to watch this tale of two hikers who end up lost in bear territory. Unfortunately, it’s just not a very good film at all. I’m going to sum it up for you real quickly: (SPOILER ALERT) We get an hour of not-very-good character development, largely unlikable characters, and a poor lead actor, followed by a five minute bear attack with a stuffed bear head, followed by a person wandering through the forest for half an hour. That’s it. There, I just saved you 90 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.
- Scorpion: Season 1 – CBS’s hit new procedural about a bunch of societally-challenged genius saving the world looked pretty terrible to me when I first saw the promos for it, so I skipped it when it aired. Now that I’ve sat down to watch it on DVD, I can say that it’s not terrible… but it’s not great either. Ultimately it falls in line with a lot of other CBS procedurals. Take NCIS and cross it with Numbers, add in a little extra quirkiness, and you have Scorpion. If you can’t get enough of crime procedurals, this will fit into your schedule just fine, but it’s nothing special.
- Madam Secretary: Season 1 – Much more The Good Wife than Scandal, Madam Secretary sees a long-absent Tea Leoni return to the small screen. She plays a former CIA analyst who suddenly becomes the Secretary of State, and she has to learn to navigate the world of politics while doing her best to protect the country. It’s a well-done series that skips a lot of the shock and over-the-top story elements of a show like Scandal. This is much more of a West Wing-styled show, and I can see why people like it.
- Boulevard – What is being billed as Robin Williams’ final performance on screen is a mediocre film that benefits from another terrific performance by Williams. In this case, he plays an everyday guy, a married bank employee who is just an average joe. But he’s been keeping his repressed homesexuality a secret, and one night he meets a young man who makes him think about revealing himself. It’s hard not to see parallels between this story and Williams’ own struggles with depression, and it’s wonderful to see him on screen again, even if the film itself is just okay.
- Lost After Dark – This 80’s-themed horror movie is a lot of fun, and it’s aimed squarely at people who grew up during the heyday of the slasher film. Not only is the film modeled after the 1980s slasher flicks, it also set in the ’80s, giving this one a really fun feel. I’ve seen a lot of films try to capture that decade’s slasher aesthetic and fail, but this one succeeds. It feels like it takes place in the ’80s, but more importantly, it feels like it was made in the ’80s. A lot of fun for horror fans.
- 7 Minutes – Jason Ritter, Luke Mitchell, and Kris Kristofferson star in this interesting heist thriller, which takes on an unusual conceit by setting almost the entire film within a seven-minute time frame. Of course, it’s not just seven minutes long, so the rest of the running time is filled with flashbacks that tell us how our characters came to be robbing a bank. It’s got some nicely tense moments, a good cast, and an interesting story, and while it’s not a slam dunk, it’s pretty interesting overall.
- Bessie – Queen Latifah turns in an excellent performance as blues singer Bessie Smith, a real life legend who may not be a household name today but became quite a celebrity in her own time. Spanning the early 1900s to the 1930s, this biopic benefits from the high production values that HBO brings to the game, as well as some terrific performances. Queen Latifah is terrific, and Mo’Nique turns in another stellar performance as Ma Rainey. Even if you’re not a blues music fan, this film is worth watching.
- Broken Horses – Anton Yelchin and Vincent D’Onofrio star in this uneven thriller about a young man setting out to save his childlike brother from the mob gang that has manipulated him into becoming a killer. I like Yelchin quite a bit, and he turns in another great performance here, and the film as a whole is pretty good. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. There are some moments where the pacing flags, but I found the story solid and the drama engaging.
- Army Of Frankensteins – I’m a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I’ll generally watch or read anything inspired by it. Army of Frankensteins is about as far from the original work as possible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. A low-budget sci-fi horror romp, the film involves an army of different Frankenstein creatures being pulled from various alternate realities and transported back in time to end up fighting in the Civil War! Well, sort of. I mean, how can you not have fun with that?
- Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – This moving documentary follows Glen Campbell as he set out on his presumably-final tour after the announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Rather than a typical life-of doc, this one focuses on the elder Campbell’s family, concerts, and battle with the diease, and it makes for quite an enjoyable and uplifting viewing experience. And with interviews with Bruce Springsteen, The Edge, Paul McCartney, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Steve Martin and Chad Smith, there’s a lot for more current music fans to enjoy as well.
- The Surface – Sean Astin and Hey-I-Know-That-Guy! actor Chris Mulkey star in this small, engaging suspense drama about two men trapped in a small boat and lost at sea. Or in this case, lost at lake, but since it’s the 80-mile wide Lake Michigan, it’s kind of the same thing. The film is largely dialogue, there are no sharks or anything like that, but it’s a solid drama with some suspenseful moments. My biggest problem with it was an ending that I found a little unsatisfying, but overall this is worth watching.
- The Harvest – Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon star in this film from Robert McNaughton, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, in his first film in nearly 15 years. With shades of Misery and The House at the End of the Street, this thriller slowly doles out its mystery and lets you try to piece together just what’s so off about this family. I like that the film isn’t really a horror movie, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t dripping with tension at times. If you like a good, creepy thriller, check it out.
- Redeemer – Like a foreign version of b-movie martial arts mainstay Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror (who’s apparently quite famous in martial arts circles) stars as an ex-hitman seeking vengeance. And… that’s pretty much it for the story. But you don’t come to a film like Redeemer for a plot, you come for bone-crunching action, which this film has in spades. I’ve heard comparisons to the original The Raid, and while it doesn’t quite reach that level, it isn’t too far off in terms of sheer spectacle.
- Run Hide Die – When a low-budget horror film is made in 2012 and then sits on the shelf for three years, you know you’re in trouble. It’s not like horror films hold themselves to particularly high standards. This Last House on the Left-inspired frightfest is filled with bad acting, worse writing, and even worse production values. Skip it.
- The Curse of Downer’s Grove – You can tell Halloween is coming because all the horror films start to hit home video. In a week with some strong entries, The Curse of Downer’s Grove fails to stand above the rest. An interesting premise (a high school senior believes she will be the next victim of a curse that has seen one senior die every year for the past eight years) becomes instead just another typical girl-being-chased-by-psycho thriller. It’s not completely terrible, but it’s not great and it sure as heck doesn’t live up to the intriguing premise.
- Alpha & Omega: The Legend of the Saw Tooth Cave – This isnt quite a new releasee in the surprisingly-popular Alpha and Omega franchise. The Legend of the Saw Tooth Cave has already appeared on Blu-ray, but now we get it on DVD as well. The Legend of Saw Tooth Cave is a perfect entry for the Halloween season.
- Paw Patrol: Meet Everest! – This is the newest DVD release of the popular new series for pre-schoolers. The show features six dogs and their 10-year-old friend who use cool vehicles to save the day and teach lessons about “good citizenship.” Its a fun show, and the young ones will love it.