Review Roundup: THE SHRINE, Ken Burns' The WAR Blu-ray, SHERLOCK Series 2 Blu, and Indie Horror Drama DEAD WEIGHT
Typing just as fast as I can. May brought some films I seriously loved. Some are classics you and I have seen often, some newer films that will fall into that category. Nothing to warn you about this month. Didn't feel like wasting the energy. Might be some typos near the end but by gum here is what May had to offer and it's still May. Will wonders never cease.
The Shrine DVD
This is better than average to be sure. In fact, at times, it's downright creepy. Borrowing an effectively gruesome bit of imagery from Mario Bava's masterpiece Black Sunday (1960) this occult thriller manages some nicely entertaining twists and turns as well. The Shrine doesn't quite live up to the level of other recent occult themed films like Black Death (2010) or Wakewood (2011) but it does have solid performances from all involved. This couldn't be more different from Jon Knautz excellent debut Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2007) but it is almost as good and there isn't a laugh to be had. This is grim unrelenting stuff. Look for a slow start. The plot involves a a pair of tenacious female reporters and a boyfriend investigating a disappearance in a remote wooded area but once the cliches are established they get milked for everything they're worth. The DVD contains an audio commentary with Knautz, Trevor Matthews and composer Ryan Shore, behind the scenes featurette and theatrical trailer.
Dead Weight 2 Disc Special Edition DVD
Okay confession time. This is a movie by some friends of mine. One friend in particular acts in the film and to be honest I was terrified, as I always am when watching a friends work. Would I like it? Son of gun I did. This subdued little post apocalyptic horror/drama is surprisingly well written even if the dialogue seems a tad unnatural at times. What the film gets right is the sense of ordinary people caught up in survival mode. What is essential to you to survive? What would you be willing to do? What is the ultimate dead weight in that fight? Soul? Conscience? Good? Evil? The film takes a hard look at why these are the baselines that must be successfully navigated for real survival. I love the fact that though the film mentions the undead coming to life we hardly see any zombies at all. I love that the violence in the film is genuinely disturbing. The gruesome moments in Dead Weight mean something and are never shoe-horned in as a nod to the genre. So a nice loud shout out to cast and crew.
This two disc set rocks three separate audio commentaries from cast and crew, and an impossibly long gag reel, tons of behind the scenes footage etc. In fact that there are so many extras here that it would take almost as much time to list them as to write the rest of the review. This is solid and deserves a look from fans. Here's a link to the official site.
Gremlins (25th Anniversary Edition) BluRay
Gremlins 2: The New Batch BluRay
I've long ago lost count of how many times I've seen these two films. They are visual shorthand for my lifelong love affair with the fantastic. I do know I saw Gremlins four times in it's original theatrical run. There had simply never been anything like it. It was glorious, excessively gross, creepy, hysterically funny and even heart-warming. Of course the success of that film spawned Critters (1986), Ghoulies (1985), and a host of other tiny terrors. But more importantly Gremlins spawned a genuinely funny, very clever sequel and helped advance the career of the legendary Joe Dante. The excellent and extensive extras from the previous SE DVD's are all included here and the there is a noticeable upgrade in audio and video. These aren't definitive transfers by any stretch of the imagination but the average consumer will likely feel it was worth it. Gremlins is one of the films that caused the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, a rating it most assuredly would receive today. But it's exactly the kind of film a good dad picks to watch with that too young kid when mom's not around. Mwah-hahahahahahaha.
The War BluRay
Ken Burns on a bad day is better than any of the many filmmaker's who've adopted his signature style. But that said a little Ken Burns can go a long way. That's not a dig. I just recommend one episode, maybe two at a time, unless you want your brain to explode. Burns is an expert at taking huge subjects and finding a solid approach to mining them for compelling stories. It's a losing proposition of course.
This project earned the ire of groups that felt they weren't well presented (or presented at all) in terms of their contribution to the US war effort. But in Burns defense he was after bigger fish and largely nailed it. This offers an upgrade in pic and sound that's pretty palpable, especially considering the age of a lot of the material presented. You get the entire series and audio commentary from Burns and Novick on episodes one and four. You also get about 45 minutes of deleted scenes, an hour of unused footage, and a making of doc that clocks in at just over half an hour. All the extras are in standard definition. Some extra material meant to address some of the above concerns is not up to par with the rest of the show but it wouldn't be the reason to upgrade anyway. This looks fantastic on large screen TVs. I can't imagine any collection of war related docs, or general history docs being complete without it.
The Grey (Two-Disc Combo Pack: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy + UltraViolet)
Director Joe Carnahan burst out of the gate with Narc (2002) a few years ago offering street level muscular drama with an excellent cast and solid direction. The man has an eye for how to tell that kind of story. Nothing he has done since lived up to it, until now. The Grey is about men facing down death, and finding out who they are in the process. It easily ranks as one of the great fight-for-survival stories. Besides the stunning cinematography, the biggest virtue is the expert use of Liam Neeson.
Ottway(Neeson) is the lone camp hunter who must lead his Alaskan crash survivors through the wilderness after the plane carrying them home at the end of the work season crashes. Already facing impossible odds the men find themselves stalked by wolves. Neeson doesn't just flex his muscles here. While he almost always elevates material The Grey gives him plenty of chances to make it soar. Ottway is a man with a death-wish who's too much of a leader to let others pay his way into the next life. The action sequences and wolf attacks are genuinely harrowing and worthy of the big screen but the stories of the men are told all in their eyes. Yes we get types, but they are types that are offered here by a fine cast and full of life underneath dialogue that might mark them as cliches. As good as Neeson is The Grey is an ensemble effort.
The picture and sound are stunning here. I mean absolutely stunning. For a film that has a lot of white on the screen the look here is dynamic, intense. You also get an audio commentary with Carnahan, and his editor Roger Barton and Hellman. There are some surprisingly harsh comments offered at the end of the track reserved for studio brass. Deleted scenes clock in at about 20 minutes.
Shakespeare set in modern times reached it's apex for me with Richard III (1995). I'm also a big fan of the recent PBS version of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. But this is strong stuff, well adapted to current concerns about the nature of honor in a time of increasingly pointless war efforts. Equally impressive is Ralph Fiennes ability to move from in front of the camera to behind it as he both stars and directs. Coriolanus isn't the most lauded of Shakespeare's works by any means but what it says to us in our time is indispensable.
War hero Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) believes only in himself despising the people he serves. As anger against him grows during civil unrest a riot ensues forcing him out of Rome. In anger he forges an alliance with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) that he may have revenge on the city.
A host of rich characters here are brought to life by the likes of Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave and a strong supporting cast. This is a tale of complexity's that will challenge soldier and non-soldier alike. Extras here include an insightful rich commentary by Fiennes and a 5 minute featurette.
We Need To Talk About Kevin BluRay
This is not a film anyone should dismiss. But I can understand why someone would. The latest film from Lynne Ramsey, We Need To Talk About Kevin probably seems pretentious for those looking for a more straightforward treatment of narrative and character. In fact, I'[d go so far as to say the characters (particularly that of Kevin himself) could be taken as being far too thin to support. But We Need To Talk About Kevin is a ultimately too visually ambitious and metaphorically rich for easy dismissal.
From the opening scenes in La Tomatina in Bunol, Valencia where thousands of tourists throw tomatoes at one another to the suburban environments the tragedy here plays out with an unflinching gaze. Violence isn't always onscreen but the human heart is. Ramsey is exploring the idea of mother love on a physical, emotional and psychological level. The performance of Ezra Miller as the troubled son in this film just doesn't ring true for me. Sociopaths aren't unable to feel anything, they only feel for themselves. He's too flatline. But he represents evil or maybe even the wall that all parents feel they throw themselves against in their best efforts to raise children. The trick is not to stop loving when love has no effect.
The extras included here are a half hour behind the scenes doc offering interviews with cast and crew, a too short interview with the author of the source novel, a roughly twenty minute audience Q and A with Swinton and some footage from the tomato fight.
Sherlock Season Two BluRay
No spoilers here. Just get this immediately if you have any affinity for Sherlock Holmes at all. The best thing about this series is the way it manages to be funny without being condescending. This really is a credible updating. It embraces the characters made famous by Doyle, constantly nods to Sherlockania in general but is utterly new. The rethink of The Hound of the Baskervilles is absolutely marvelous. Haunting, scary, funny and like every episode of the show, surprising. Just when you think you know everything.... It's good to see audio commentaries offered here as well. Can I complain that each series only offers three measly episodes? Sigh...., they are feature length. When was the last time three feature films in a franchise were this good? Sound and audio are stunning.
Chronicle (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo +Digital Copy)
Finally saw this last night and was very impressed by it. Chronicl had been described to me by one critic as just a simplified take on Akira and I can see that. But I would argue that Akira could stand some simplification. This is less overwrought and as much as I love Akira's apocalyptic imagery, I do find myself standing outside the story a little too often, ven giggling as one character yells "TetsuoOOOOOOOO" over and over again." This more stripped down tale which deals less in apocalypse than in the simple truth that absolute power tends to corrupt and that the teen years really are a miserable period in most of our lives. Chronicle also takes a new spin on the idea of found footage by upping the ante on what can be accomplished special effects wise in that format. Cloverfield is still the standard but this film offers a singular vision that I would be excited to explore if the filmmakers made other films of this type.
There aren't enough extras on here for my taste. For instance the lack of a commentary is kind of disheartening but there is a really cool screen test that (?I think?) that seems to be a demo of how finished scenes would look for potential investors.
The Woman in Black (+ UltraViolet Digital Copy) BluRay
The newly revamped Hammer Studios has yet to produce a film that lives up to fans expectations. But, think what you will, Let Me In (2010), is a solid monster movie remake of the original Let The Right One In (2008), and Wakewood (2011) is a startlingly effective occult thriller. To those achievements add this atmospheric and surprisingly disturbing ghost story that is itself a remake of one of the best made for TV horror's ever The Woman in Black (1989). You really should see the original if you ever get a chance. t is a masterpiece of dread and sudden chills. But this moody-ier than thou minor gem features endless suspense and a disquietingly quiet ending along with one of the best end shots in recent memory. Radcliffe does just fin in his first post-Potter role playing a grieving widower who must investigate the papers at a remote
The film does look and sound dynamite on Blu. The extras here are spare. You get a good audio commentary from director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman, but the two featurettes don't amount to more than fifteen minutes. There's also a code that can be used to stream an UltraViolet digital copy.
Some will argue that the end of this film has less of bite than the original. I found it more and more haunting the more I thought about it. A good comparison might be made with Ti West's The Innkeepers. Like one and you'll probably get something worthwhile out of the other.
Lethal Weapon Collection BluRay
Like a lot of people I've soured pretty hard on the whole Mel Gibson thing. I continue to revere Mad Max (1979), Hamlet (1990) and like a lot of his other films just fine. But the machinery of stardom and a host of inner demons appear to have eaten him alive. Looking at this box of Lethal Weapon films I can't help but be distracted. if you want the first four films on BluRay this is probably the most cost effective way to go about it. I would guess single releases might not come out for a while. Sorry completists but Lethal Weapon 5 is nowhere to be seen here. The extras are comprised mainly of deleted scenes and other flotsam and jetsam with a fifth disc containing a couple of hours worth of featurettes.