It’s one of the more eclectic weeks in recent memory this week, with a couple of huge family films, some superhero action, a well-received “horror” movie, and one of the weirdest films I’ve seen in a long time. Dig in to find out more!
Encanto – Disney’s latest hit leans a little more towards the “family” side of things, in more ways than one. First of all, it’s definitely a film that will appeal to all ages, but it’s a little friendlier towards the younger kids than some of the slightly more mature fare they create, like maybe Onward or Coco. But the film also features family as a major theme of the film, with a great ensemble of characters from a large Colombian family driving the action. The focus is on Mirabel, the one member of a magical family who doesn’t have powers, and her quest to save the magic of the family house. It’s a bright and colorful film, filled with some great characters and a few top-notch songs (Lin-Manuel Miranda had a hand in crafting some of them, much like he did in Moana), and I think little children will enjoy it, but older kids and parents will have a great time with it too. The animation is terrific, it has a great sense of humor, and it’s just one of those movies you can put on and smile through, Hard to argue with that!
Clifford The Big Red Dog – There are two things you need to know about Clifford the Big Red Dog, the big screen live-action adaptation of the classic children’s book series. One, it’s actually quite a bit of fun and younger viewers should enjoy it quite a bit. And two, you need to forget everything you’ve ever known about Clifford in order to enjoy it. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t think Clifford’s origin story was cinematic enough, so now we have young Emily Elizabeth as the daughter of a single mom who gets Clifford at a sort of magical animal bazaar and sees him become gigantic when she wishes they were big and strong. Then her slacker uncle helps her navigate a series of misadventures while they try to avoid an evil businessman who wants the secrets of Clifford’s DNA for his own pursuits. I mean… yeeeaaah. That’s not the Clifford we all grew up with. But that said, if you can get over the completely different story, the film itself is a lot of fun. There’s some funny humor, pretty solid special effects, good performances… honestly, I enjoyed watching it, whenever I wasn’t thinking, “Wait… what? THAT’S not how Clifford goes!!” Let go of the Clifford canon, and you and your kids should have a blast with this one.
Saint Maud – There are two quotes on the cover for the Saint Maud Blu-ray exclaiming what a great horror movie it is, to which I really have to ask… “Ummm… what?” Not just because I didn’t like the film all that much, but because it’s really not a horror movie at all. And I don’t mean that because I’m like, “Oh, I’m not scared, I’m a big man!” It’s just really not a horror movie. There are two slightly shocking moments in the film towards the very end, but it’s at best a psychological thriller and even that’s a stretch. What it really is is a drama that deals with mental health that maybe veers into horror territory by about one percent. So I’m not really sure where that denomination comes from. The film follows a young woman who’s working in hospice care who has become obsessed with god after some traumatic event that’s never fully explained. She becomes convinced that the woman she’s assisting needs to be “saved,” and the film basically follows her personal journey as she deals with a more and more unhinged view of god’s role in her life. The film was produced by A24, which means it has that A24 aesthetic, although not as much so as some of their other films like The Lighthouse and Midsommar. But if you like films that are really slow, exist in a world where no one turns on lights or likes a well-lit room, occasionally has shots framed upside down for no reason, and has an almost non-existent soundtrack, then you’re in the right place. I will say that the performances in the film are terrific and the ending is pretty cool (if a bit predictable, ultimately), but overall, this is just another classic example of why I don’t like A24-produced films.
Catwoman: Hunted – The DC Animated Universe rolls on with the newest offering, Catwoman: Hunted. I’m a little surprised DC didn’t go with a full-on Batman movie to promote the upcoming The Batman live action film in theaters next month, but I guess they figured this was close enough. I generally find the DC animated movies to be hit or miss, trending about 65% hit and 35% miss. I wouldn’t say this one is a full-on miss, but it’s certainly one of the less interesting animated offerings of late. The film sees Catwoman (along with Batwoman) going against Black Mask and a group of villains that are more powerful than they appear at first. Elizabeth Gillies does a great job voicing Catwoman and Stephanie Beatriz brings Batwoman to life, although I can’t say I cared for the film’s jazz-heavy soundtrack. It’s also a little light on extra features (where’s our usual DC short animated film?), but DC die-hards will likely enjoy it. Catwoman: Hunted comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray and DVD) and the 4K format works really well for the animation here. Colors are bright and vibrant while blacks are rich and deep, giving the film a real sheen. The surround soundtrack is nothing earth shattering, but it does a good job of utilizing all your speakers to bring the action to life. It’s a solid A/V representation of a decent animated movie.
La Dolce Vita – Federico Fellini is easily the most famous Italian filmmaker of all time, and I’d say he’s probably one of the most famous filmmakers of all time, period. Even if you’re not familiar with his work, I’d say that most people who have studied even a little bit of film in one way or another in their lifetimes have come across the name Fellini. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, then look no further than La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s magnum opus and most famous film. Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, the film is a three hour tour of a week in the life of a gossip journalist seeing the highs and lows of Italy. It’s also filled with metaphor and symbolism, ideas that are probably way above my head. I’ve never been great at analyzing the meanings behind films, I just like watching them. But even with all of the subtext I’m sure I’m missing, it’s hard to deny the power of Fellini’s imagery and storytelling. The film is sumptuous and engrossing and exciting; you don’t watch it so much as you experience it. While I can’t say for sure it’s never been available on Blu-ray before, this new Blu-ray edition of the film from Paramount marks a terrific way to experience it for the first time or revisit it for the hundredth time.
Stargirl: The Complete Second Season – So, I never got Season One of Stargirl to review, and by the time I realized I was reviewing Season Two, I didn’t have time to go back and watch Season One. Luckily, I was able to jump into things pretty easily, as the show is relatively new-viewer friendly. The series follows teenager Courtney Whitmore, who takes on the mantle of Starman, a superhero who’s something of a legend. She joins forces with a few other young heroes (Wildcat, Dr. Mid-Nite, and Hourman) to form a new Justice Society of America. As a longtime comics reader, I found myself enjoying this new take on some of DC’s original classic Golden Age heroes. It’s not what you’re used to if you’re a classic comics aficionado, but if you don’t mind some updating, it’s a lot of fun. Even better, this season sees Stargirl and the JSA take on two pretty cool DC villains, Eclipso and The Shade. The Shade was such a great character in the ‘90s Starman comic series that I was happy to see him brought to life on screen. The show has some cheesy moments (as I think every DC show eventually does) but by and large it’s a fun take on some lesser-known DC heroes.
Apex – Bruce Willis continues adding his name to direct-to-video movies while spending about four days filming. In this movie, he’s the main character but has surprisingly little screen time. He plays an ex-cop (in the movie’s best scene, they break down his bio and it’s a greatest hits of Willis’s film career) who is sent to an island in the near future to be hunted by obnoxious rich people, led by Neal McDonough’s ruthless Dr. Rainsford. So, while Willis is being hunted, the film works around him by focusing on the hunters that Willis character has turned against each other. I’ll say this: Apex is perfectly enjoyable in that direct-to-video action flick way, and some of the hunter-vs-hunter scenes work pretty well. But — and I say this as a huge Bruce Willis fan — I’m not sure if Willis knew what movie he was making. His performance — what there is of it — is so offbeat and bizarre, it made me wonder what state of mind he was in while filming the parts of the movie he’s actually in. All told, it’s entertaining enough, but this is a late-night, killing-time kind of flick at best.
The Spine of Night – If you’ve watched movies like Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy or Beyond the Black Rainbow, or even the original Heavy Metal animated movie, and then thought to yourself, “Man, I wish this could be even MORE bats%#t crazy…” well, then I have good news for you. The Spine of Night is here. This new animated fantasy epic opens with a naked warrior woman climbing up a snowy mountain, and that’s probably the least unusual thing about the film. I’d explain the story to you if I had any idea what the story was, but I don’t. It’s basically a lot of magic and warriors and blood and guts and naked people, all animated in rotoscope fashion (like was used in A Scanner Darkly, if you remember that film.) It’s really out there, and you find yourself wondering how the film landed Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, and Richard E. Grant as voice talent. (Joe Manganiello makes perfect sense, however.) The rotoscoping animated style is interesting; the backgrounds are lushly painted and look amazing. The main figures (which are based on real actors’ movements) are kind of off-putting; the ultra realistic movement feels weird, and I don’t think anyone realizes how strange it is to see an animated character’s gums every time they talk. I think this film has a huge audience waiting to find it, I am just not one of them. Bonus, though, the 4K Ultra HD version was released in a Steelbook case, so if you pick this release up, you’ll be pleased with the both the packaging and the excellent visual quality and surround soundtrack. And if you like incredibly over-the-top animated fantasy violence, you’ll probably like the movie a lot, too.
Also Available This Week on Home Video –
- Ultraman Zero: The Chronicle – After a couple of DVD-only Ultraman releases, Mill Creek brings us back to the Blu-ray realm with the release of Ultraman Zero: The Chronicle – The Complete Series. This 2017 series, one of the most recent in the Ultraman franchise, was created two celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ultra Seven, which the show ties into rather closely. In this show, we see Ultra Seven’s son, Ultraman Zero, go through the rigors of becoming the new hero on the block. The show has lots of Ultraman action, including appearances by Ultraman Leo, Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Cosmos. As with most shows in the franchise, this one is a little bit silly, a little bit fun, a little bit action-packed, and a little-bit cheesy, but fans of the franchise will dig this newer take on a decades-old series. This entry doesn’t include digital copies, which many of the earlier releases from Mill Creek did, and I’m not sure why, but aside from that, it’s another high quality release. Ultrafans, make sure to add this one to your collection!
- Finding Alice: Series 1 – Keeley Hawes stars as the titular character in this new British dramedy series that’s… well, it’s a little hard to describe. So often, a new British TV series means a procedural mystery, but Finding Alice is not that, although there is a little mystery floating throughout this six-episode first season. In the first episode, Alice and her husband Harry and daughter Charlotte move into a new smart home that Harry designed. But when he quickly dies in an accident, Alice is stuck navigating her new life and a house she doesn’t understand. There’s more to the show, plot-wise, but I don’t want to get into too many specifics and ruin the fun. The show is a drama for sure, but it has a nice vein of comedy and lighter moments that runs through it, giving it a unique feel all its own. Hawes is terrific in the lead role, and supporting and guest stars like Gemma Jones and Joanna Lumley make it even better. Its a cool little show that I didn’t know what to expect from and I found it quite enjoyable.
- Surf Nazis Must Die – There’s a million independent/underground/cult classic films from the ‘80s, but one of the most infamous or notorious of them has to be Surf Nazis Must Die. I’m not sure how many people have actually seen the film, but anybody who grew up in the ‘80s and was into movies has probably at least heard of it. So it was only a matter of time before a special edition home video release was created, and Troma has done the honors with the film’s inaugural Blu-ray release. The film itself is typical Troma schlock: after an earthquake leaves California in ruins, a surf nazi gang beats up all the other surf gangs to control the beaches, but they didn’t count on the geriatric mother of one of their victims coming for vengeance with a capital V! It’s a low-budget, cheesy affair, but it’s also a lot of fun if you like that kind of movie. This new special edition Blu-ray comes loaded with extra features celebrating the film, including an Intro by Troma’s B-movie king, Lloyd Kaufman, an interview with the director, deleted scenes, additional interview featurettes, and more. You can’t come to Surf Nazis Must Die looking for great filmmaking, but if you just want to have some mindless fun, this one will definitely fit the bill.
- The Last Shootout – A largely unknown cast anchors this new western action flick, although Bruce Dern and Cam Gigandet show up in smaller roles to add a little star power to the proceedings. The film sees a woman who discovers that her husband is A Bad Guy (who had her father killed), so she flees from him and ends up under the protection of another man. Of course, Bad Guy Husband isn’t okay with that, which leads to several shootouts, one of which I guess is eventually The Last Shootout. I’ve actually been on kind of a westerns kick lately, so I was looking forward to watching this one, but unfortunately it’s not particularly good. The script is pretty mediocre, the performances are okay, and the action is uninspiring. It’s a low-budget western, and those limitations unfortunately translate to the screen. I wish I could recommend this one but it’s just not very good.
- Gintama: The Very Final – Sometimes I come into things with a little less knowledge than I’d like, and this film is definitely one of those situations. Apparently, Gintama is a popular anime franchise that started back in 2005 or so. Now, it’s seemingly coming to an end with a new movie aptly called Gintama: The Very Final. The film does start with a recap of the story so far, but from there it’s action and chaos and craziness, so there’s not a lot of time to get acclimated before you’re thrown right into the mayhem. Basically, we follow three warriors from the Odd Jobs as they fight some huge bad guys and try to save the earth. But story is secondary to the action here, and of that there is plenty. I can’t really say if I liked the film that much or not, although I suppose it was entertaining enough, but I can imagine fans of the franchise will want to see how the whole saga wraps up.
- A Walk In The Sun: The Definitive Restoration – I think just about everyone has heard of the 1930 Oscar-wining classic All Quiet on the Western Front, but I would bet most people are less familiar with this 1945 war film by the same director. Shifting the action from World War I to World War II, this movie follows a group of American soldiers in the middle of the action in Italy in 1943. The film bounces between intense action scenes and moments featuring the soldiers in the humdrum of soldier life when the bullets aren’t flying, giving us a real sense of the characters as real people, as brought to life by a terrific cast that includes Lloyd Bridges, Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, John Ireland, and Norman Lloyd. I had never seen this film before, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s well-made and well-acted, and it feels different from many war films of the time. This new special edition Blu-ray features restored picture quality as well as a number of extra features including an audio commentary, two featurettes, and uncut sequence, and more. This isn’t a particularly well-known film, but it’s worth tracking down if you like classic war movies.
- Legendary Weapons of China and The Flag of Iron – 88 Films brings us brand new Blu-ray special editions of two martial arts cult classics this week. First up is Legendary Weapons of China, a 1982 film that saw the kung fu genre in a time of flux, from the super serious films of the ‘70s to the more fun and humorous films of the ‘80s. The story sees a band of assassins out to kill a former member of a martial arts group, which leads to numerous confrontations and fight scenes. There’s a little more plot to it than that, but the focus here is solely on the kung fu, and there are some terrific sequences to be found here. Written and directed by star Chia-Liang Liu, the film is dated but it’s a pretty good time overall. This new Blu-ray special edition from 88 Films comes loaded with special features, including two audio commentaries, three featurettes, and the film’s trailer, making it a nice package for fans. Meanwhile, The Flag of Iron is a 1980 film from the legendary Shaw Brothers, who are probably responsible for more martial arts film fans than anyone besides Bruce Lee. This entry added acrobatics (the main actors were almost all trained acrobats) and exotic weapons to the martial arts action, and the result is a really fun film that is both a classic throwback and a uniquely original film. This special edition Blu-ray is lighter on extra features, but you do get an audio commentary so it’s not entirely a bare bones release. Both of these are a great way to discover or re-discover two action cult classics.