THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
What do you think about watching a film about a 77-year-old man wordlessly floundering around on a foundering boat for 106 minutes? Well if that man is Robert Redford, the director is young hotshot J.C. Chandor, and the film is “All Is Lost,” then you’re talking about an hour and a half of gripping, enthralling moviewatching. The plot: On a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man (Redford) wakes to find his 39-foot yacht taking on water after a collision with a shipping container. His navigation equipment and radio are disabled and, without a motor, he works hard and cleverly to repair his boat and create a plan of action to save himself. But things get worse: he sails into a violent storm, which all but destroys the ship and his rations, and he’s left to float aimlessly under an unrelenting sun, circling sharks and dwindling supplies. Now the ever-resourceful sailor finds himself staring his mortality in the face. Redford gives a tour-de-force performance — indeed, this 77-year-old can handle himself well on the open seas. Extras include commentary with writer-director-producer Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, and a half-dozen featurettes on making the film which, despite Redford’s participation, was shot on a rather low-budget. From Lionsgate.
“Ender’s Game” has so many things wrong with it I don’t know where to begin: a weak story line, unlikable characters that aren’t fleshed out and are one-dimensional cardboard figures (there’s a weak-kneed genius who will save the world, the bully, the hard-nosed drill sergeant with a heart of gold, the leaders with ulterior motives, the understanding girlfriend, etc.), sloppy direction, a couple of top-name actors telephoning in their performances, and even a muddled message about the sanctity of life, whether human or alien. The plot: In the future, a hostile alien race called the Formics attacked the Earth but were repelled and, in preparation for another attack, years later, the International Military begin training the best young children to be the military leaders of the future. Among them is Ender Wiggin, a shy, but strategically brilliant wunderkind who is trained to be the military strategist to combat the Formics. As part of his training, he’s enlisted to play a computer simulation — a game — that involves attacking the Formics and wiping them out. But all is not as it seems. Based on the award-winning bestseller by Orson Scott Card (who, one should note, caused quite a stir with some moviegoers because of his history of anti-gay outbursts and articles). Stars Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. Extras include deleted/extended scenes and commentary; the Blu-ray adds an eight-part making-of featurette. From Lionsgate.
Also due this week:
“The Best Man Holiday,” a sequel to 1999’s ensemble comedy “The Best Man;” here the college friends reunite after 15 years for the Christmas holidays, where they discover just how easy it is for long-forgotten rivalries and romances to be ignited. Stars Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa, Eddie Cibrian, John Michael Higgins. From Universal.
“The Counselor,” director Ridley Scott’s thriller about a talented lawyer who gets involved in a nightmarish world of drug deals and deceit. Stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. From Fox.
“Austenland,” a weak comedy about a young woman with a fixation on all things Jane Austen who spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland in England, an eccentric resort where guests experience complete immersion in the Regency era. It’s an interesting idea squandered with dumb sex jokes, slapstick shticks, and sloppy acting and directing. Stars Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour. From Sony.
Sometimes a TV series arrives on the scene that just overturns your idea of what TV is all about by offering thought-provoking dramatic slices of life, alternate takes on reality, philosophical perambulations or just plain outrageous story-telling — shows that stand heads and tails above the run-of-the-mill fare that populates the tube (especially in today’s “reality”-driven TV economy). We’re thinking “The Twilight Zone,” “I Spy,” “All in the Family,” “Twin Peaks,” “Hill Street Blues,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and the Swedish “Wallander.” Add to that list the international hit French series “The Returned,” which aired in its home country in 2012, then in Sweden, Belgium and the U.K., and began airing on Sundance in the U.S. in October (“The Returned” just won an International Emmy for Best Drama, and a second series is currently in production for airing in November of this year). The series is based on 2004’s feature film “Les revenants,” and follows the lives of the residents of an idyllic French alpine village whose world is turned upside down when a seemingly random collection of people who have been dead for several years (anywhere from 30 to four years in the past) inexplicably come back to life and try to integrate themselves into their former lives … not as rotting, flesh-eating zombies but as full-bodied humans who return as they were the day they died. Not only is there cognitive dissonance for the living and the now-living dead, but other weird things coincide with the returned: there’s a gruesome attack on a waitress that bears a chilling resemblance to the work of a serial killer from the past; there’s recurring power outages; the water level of the reservoir mysteriously lowers, revealing the presence of dead animals and a church steeple; strange marks appear on the bodies of the living and the dead. Surprisingly, there’s very little in the way of special effects; the show hinges on almost-existential human interactions and drama, the development of characters and characterizations, and a bizarre and involving story line. It’s a gripping, stylish mix of real and surreal, an intimate portrait of people dealing with their guilt over the death of their loved ones and questions about our desire for eternal life. And add in an incredible music score/ soundscape by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai. Music Box Films has packaged the eight episodes of the first series in a beautifully-designed box with lush, soft graphics featuring a collector’s booklet with an interview with director Fabrice Gobert and critical essay by film critic Scott Tobias. Three-disc DVD, $29.95; two-disc Blu-ray, $34.95. Don’t miss this.
With the emphasis this week on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and their monumental take-over of pop music in 1964, it’s also important to note some American contributions to the mid-60s revolution in rock ‘n’ roll: the birth of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the rise of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. So, music fans rejoice:
“Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — Fifty By Four” (2013) is a fabulous documentary that takes a look at the career of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, that group of singer-songwriters who helped usher in a new era of rock music in the late-1960s and 1970s with its emphasis on folk rock, vocal harmonies, confessional balladry, and political activism. David Crosby (who helped found The Byrds in 1964), Stephen Stills (from The Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (of the Hollies), alongside occasional collaborator Neil Young (also late of Buffalo Springfield), refused to be labelled “a band,” describing themselves as a loose collective of musical friends free from the inhibiting confines of the music business. This documentary follows the careers of the groups each man played in before and after CSN&Y as well as their solo adventures … it’s a journey of breakthroughs, breakdowns, break-ups and incredible music. Features archival and exclusive interviews, seldom-seen footage, classic and rare performances and contributions from those who worked closely with CSNY across the years, including Dallas Taylor, Greg Reeves, Danny Kortchmar, George Chocolate Perry, Joe Lala, Chad Cromwell, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels, Joe Vitale, The Albert Brothers, Bill Halverson, and many others. It’s a great document of a bygone era in rock … Another important document in the history of rock ‘n’ roll is the “Lou Reed Tribute” (2014), a video tribute to one of the true legends of rock music, who died October 27, 2013. This genius maverick not only co-founded The Velvet Underground in 1964 — the band rock critic Lester Bangs inarguably claimed was the start of all new music — he also composed the lion’s share of their near perfect catalogue. After the Velvet disbanded, he went on to establish a solo career that was as dynamic, controversial and genuinely enthralling as that of any rock performer before and since. This three-disc set features three separate films that pay tribute to New York’s favorite son: “The Velvet Underground – Under Review,” a 75-minute retrospective of the music and career of one of rock music’s most influential groups; “Punk Revolution NYC: The Velvet Underground, The NY Dolls & The CBGBs Set” traces the entire history of New York’s punk scene, showing how the Velvet were instrumental in shaping the city’s unique brand of rock; and “The Sacred Triangle — Bowie, Iggy & Lou — 1971-1973,” which tells the story of how these three musical pioneers influenced each other at the beginning of their solo careers, forming an association that made for some of the finest music in the 1970s. Both releases are must-haves from Chrome Dreams/MVD Entertainment.
And there’s more to jog your rock, folk, hippie and psychedelic memories, by way of “Festival Express” (2003): In the summer of 1970, some of the era’s biggest rock stars took to the rails for Festival Express, a multi-artist, multi-day, multi-city Canadian concert tour that captured the spirit and imagination of a generation. What made it unique was that it was portable; for five days, the bands and performers lived, slept, rehearsed and let loose aboard a customized train that traveled from Toronto, to Winnipeg, to Calgary, with each stop culminating in a mega-concert. “Festival Express” captures some of rock’s most iconic artists in an extraordinary setting, during an incredible time in music history. These were some of Janis Joplin’s final performances, as she would tragically die just three months later. The Band were at the height of their time together, and the Grateful Dead were in the midst of releasing future classics “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” Also on board were the Buddy Guy Blues Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, Mashmakhan and Sha Na Na. This is the Blu-ray debut of the concert documentary, which is pretty much a virtual video diary of the tour. Also available in a two-DVD set. Another must-have, from Shout! Factory.
There’s a trio of great Blu-ray releases this week:
“Chicago: Diamond Edition” (2002), directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs and Colm Feore, is the big-screen version of Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s musical take on the 1926 play “Chicago,” based on the trial of real-life murderesses in corrupt Chicago during Prohibition. At a time when crimes of passion result in celebrity headlines, nightclub sensation Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) and spotlight seeking Roxie Hart (Zellweger) both find themselves sharing space on Chicago’s famed Murderess Row. They also share Billy Flynn (Gere), the town’s slickest lawyer with a talent for turning notorious defendants into local legends. But in Chicago, there’s only room for one legend. Winner of six Academy Awards, “Chicago” is a dazzling spectacle, both on stage and the big screen. Remastered in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo. From Miramax/Lionsgate … “Rocky Heavyweight Collection Blu-ray” features all six knockout “Rocky” films including the first film with a stunning new master. $59.99 from Fox … Disney has on hand “The Jungle Book Diamond Edition” (1967), a restored and remastered edition of the film that features the voices of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Bruce Reitherman, George Sanders, Sterling Halloway, J. Pat O’Malley, Louis Prima. Extras include introductions by Diane Disney Miller and Richard M. Sherman; an alternate ending: Mowgli and the hunter; more, in a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo.