THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
Is Jeff Nichols a modern-day filmic Mark Twain? Based on this film and his previous outing, “Take Shelter,” the young director is a storyteller — and creator — par excel lance of the American myth. In this tall tale set in the South, best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey in another incredible, Oscar worthy performance) hiding out on a deserted island in the Mississippi River. Mud tells the boys fantastic stories about his life, including how he once killed a man in Texas and now vengeful bounty hunters are after him. He tells them he’s planning to meet and escape with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who’s waiting for him in town. Skeptical but intrigued, Ellis and Neckbone agree to help him. But it isn’t long until Mud’s tall-tales come to life and their small town is besieged by bounty hunters out for blood. Welcome back, Huck and Tom. Co-stars Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson. Extras include commentary with writer-director Nichols, “A Very Personal Tale: Writing and Directing Mud” featurette, “The Arkansas Ensemble: The Distinctive Characters and Cast of Mud” featurette, “Southern Authenticity: Shooting the Real Arkansas” featurette, “The Snake Pit: The Slithering Co-stars of Mud” featurette. From Lionsgate.
A well-wrought, exciting sci-fi adventure that has all the hallmarks of a Philip K. Dick story: androids, manipulated memories, the weak fabric of reality, the nature of personal identity, alternate existencess and simulacra. On a cybernetic “Planet of the Apes”-type Earth long-ago devastated by an alien race, all that remains of civilization are gigantic ocean-borne power stations that extract vital resources for the energy needed by the dispossed human race, now living in peace on Titan. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last few drone repairmen stationed on Earth. Living in and patrolling the skies from thousands of feet above, his soaring existence is brought crashing down when he rescues a beautiful stranger from a downed spacecraft. Her arrival triggers a chain of events that forces him to question everything he knows and puts the fate of humanity in his hands. Based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski, who directed. Co-stars Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo and Zoe Bell. Extras include commentary with Cruise and Kosinski, deleted scenes, M83 isolated score (watch the entire film accompanied by the evocative music track) and “Promise of a New World: The Making of Oblivion” multi-part featurette. From Universal.
“The Place Beyond the Pines”
Based on just two features (this and “Blue Valentine”), director Derek Cianfrance has become a master of chronicling the damaged psyches of ordinary people. In “Blue Valentine,” he mapped the rise and fall of the personal relationship of a young married couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams); here he charts the evil, corruption and the hunger for power that dogs two men whose actions irrepably damage their children. Dividing the film into three parts, Cianfrance follows the downward spiral of high-wire motorcycle stunt performer Luke (Gosling), who forsakes his wild life on the road to live with the mother (Eva Mendes) of his son, Jason. He gets involved in a string of spectacular bank robberies, but eventually runs up against the law in the form of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious rookie cop whose meeting with Luke — and the manipulation of power and people — propels him into a political career in the district attorney’s office. Fifteen years later, Luke’s son, Jason, and Cross’ son, AJ, serendipitiously meet in high school, dredging up the horrors of the past. A little slow at times but, like a good novel, the film needs the breadth of screen time to buiild its characters and situations. Well worth the investment. Co-stars Rose Byrne, Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan, Gabe Fazio, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn and Harris Yulin. Extras incldue deleted scenes and extended scenes, and commentary with director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance. From Universal.
“West of Memphis”:
Directed by Academy Award-nominee Amy Berg, this documentary tells the powerful story of the 18-year fight to free the “West Memphis 3,” three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin) wrongfully convicted of the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. With revealing interviews from key figures in the case, testimony from experts hired to re-examine the original evidence, and appearances by celebrity advocates Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder, this documentary retells the story behind the extraordinary and desperate fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man (Echols) and exposes the wrongful conviction of the three teenagers, who lost 18 years of their lives imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Bankrolled by Jackson and Walsh, the campaign hired forensics experts and a battery of lawyers to dig into the facts, revealing an iron-clad alibi for one of the boys that was totally ignored by the corrupt police and district attorney’s office, trumped up witneses who perjored their testimonies, and new DNA evidence that actually pointed to the father of one of the boys. Add that to the bogus, forced confession from one of the boys, shoddy police work, inexperienced defense lawyers, and a lying prosecutor who sacrified three lives to advance his political career, and you have quite a tale of injustice and inequity. Previously, HBO produced three incisive and sympathetic documentaries that helped raise doubts about the guilt of the three teens and certainly contributed greatly to their release from prison before this docu was made: “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000) and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (2011). This docu, however, marshalled facts and evidence not available by the time the last HBO film was made. Extras include deleted scenes and commentary with director Amy Berg, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife). From Sony.
Also due this week: “On the Road,” which arrived too late for review, and “The Sapphires” and “To the Wonder,” both of which were unavailable for review.
There’s five very interesting Blu-ray debuts this week. First up is The Criterion Collections’ high-definition digital film transfer of French master Max Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame de …” (1953), a profoundly emotional, cinematographically adventurous tale of deceptive opulence and tragic romance. When an aristocratic woman known only as Madame de (Danielle Darrieux) sells a pair of earrings given to her by her husband (Charles Boyer) in order to pay a debt, she sets off a chain reaction of financial and carnal consequences that can end only in despair. Ophuls’s adaptation of Louise de Vilmorin’s fin de siecle novel employs the elegant and precise camera work for which the director is so justly renowned.
Next up is the long-awaited Blu-ray debut of Elaine May’s abortive comedy “Ishtar” (1987), a film mired in production and creative woes and cost-overruns that became one of the biggest bombs of the 1980s. Although there had been a VHS release many years ago, a DVD version was never on the books until Sony announced a director’s cut for 2011; that was delayed until this week. “Ishtar’s” bad reputation proceeds it, a reputation not entirely deserved — I saw it when it was released on the big screen in ’87 and thought it was a dog, but it has aged better than I suspected. The film stars Warren Beatty (playing against character as an insecure man awkward with women) and Dustin Hoffman (playing a comedic imitation of Lenny Bruce) as down-and-out singer-songwriters who refuse to believe they’re anything but undiscovered musical geniuses — in fact, they are terrible. With no job prospects in New York, they get a gig in the Middle East to play in a Moroccan hotel, but end up in the middle of international intrigue in the fictional state of Ishtar involving the country’s despotic government, the CIA, and left-wing revolutionary rebels. It’s kind of a cross between Laurel and Hardy and the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies in which clueless, hapless heroes get mired in misunderstandings and miscommunications, with a fair amount of silliness and slapstick thrown in. This director’s cut is actually two minutes shorter than the theatrical version, but it still needs a heck of a lot of editing. To set the stage for the boys’ bad act, May presents them rehearsing and performing — interminably so. Instead of setting context with one or two short scenes, May presents four, five and more of the same, boring shticks. Later, Beatty and Hoffman are stranded in the desert for what seems an overdone eternity (but, thankfully, there is a very funny scene with Hoffman and a vulture). And, even at the end of the film, May overplays the closing concert. “Ishtar” is worth a look as a self-indulgent relic of 1980s silly comedies — but it’s not a keeper. Co-stars the luminous Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper and Carol Kane.
Martial arts and Bruce Lee fans need to rejoice: Shout! Factory has released “The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection,” an 11-disc Blu-ray/DVD box set in book-style packaging with the first-ever Blu-ray presentations of “The Big Boss,” “Fist Of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and “Game of Death.” In addition there’s three documentaries on two discs, “Bruce Lee: The Legend” (and the original version “Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend”), the critically acclaimed “I Am Bruce Lee” and “The Grandmaster and the Dragon: William Cheung and Bruce Lee”; DVD versions of “The Big Boss,” “Fist Of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and “Game of Death”; and a bonus disc with hours of extra content. The deluxe book-style packaging includes 68 pages of archival materials, rare and never-before-released photos, a new essay on Lee’s amazing career, and much more. $119.99. From Shout! Factory.
Next is “A Boy and His Dog” (1975), L.Q. Jones adaptation of the award-winning novella by acclaimed science-fiction author Harlan Ellison. The film is a dark and often wickedly funny trip through a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a world where the friendship between a boy and his dog (who telepathically communicate with each other) is the only thing that matters. The film stars Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Jason Robards, Alvy Moore and Charles McGraw. Extras include a 2013 conversation with Ellison and Jones. In a newly restored high-definition transfer from Shout! Factory.
Finishing off this week’s quintet is the Blu-ray debut of “Smiley’s People” (1982), the gripping sequel to the television masterpiece of John le Carre’s Cold War spy drama “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Alec Guinness reprises the role of British spymaster George Smiley in the five-hour miniseries, filmed on location in London, Paris, Hamburg and Bern. Co-stars Eileen Atkins, Anthony Bate, Bernard Hepton, Michael Lonsdale, Beryl Reid, Patrick Stewart and Bill Paterson. Two-disc set, $59.99, with deleted and extended scenes, from Acorn Media.
Other notable releases this week: The “Charlie Chan Collection,” with four remastered films making their DVD debut: “Shadows Over Chinatown” (1946), starring Sidney Toler in one of his last Chan films; “Docks of New Orleans” (1948), “Shanghai Chest” (1948) and “The Golden Eye” (1948) starring Roland Winters, the last actor to play the detective on film. $39.92 from Warner … the Blu-ray debut of “Cavalcade” (1933), the acclaimed screen epic based on Noel Coward’s popular play that earned three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Lloyd. Nostalgic and atmospheric, “Cavalcade” traces the lives of two different families over three decades, from the Boer War at the close of the 19th century through World War I and the early 1930s; from Fox … the Blu-ray debut of “The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Complete Fifth Season” (1965-1966) a three-disc set with 31 episodes, $59.98 from Image Entertainment … the Blu-ray debuts of the animated Disney adventures “Oliver & Company” (1988), “Robin Hood” (1973) and “The Sword in the Stone” (1963) … and “Battlestar Galactica — 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray Debut” (1978), a theatrical feature culled from the first and fourth episodes of the fondly remembered TV show that — two decades later — launched the Battlestar Galactica phenomenon. Stars Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Lorne Greene, Jr. Herb Jefferson and Maren Jensen; from Universal.