Dear White People (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the feature debut of director / writer Justin Simien, is a sharp, smart, ambitious satire of race, racism, privilege, prejudice, and power at an Ivy League college that has drawn comparisons to Spike Lee. Which is fitting; Simien uses humor and provocation to explore issues of race and race relationships in the so-called post-racial era, he spreads ideas and perspectives around a large array of characters and creates debate through criss-crossing stories, and uses the crucible of college (as Spike did in School Daze) as both microcosm and as a specific culture where young people develop their identities as adults. Simien is his own filmmaker, however, with his own style and sensibility.
The title comes from the sarcastic punctuations of a radio program from campus activist Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), who punctures the hypocrisies of political correctness with bull’s-eye stingers that are the buzz of the campus. She’s the rabble rouser who finds herself, against her own expectations, elected as head of her house, but she’s just one of a number of characters in the lumpy melting pot of a busy ensemble piece. Tyler James Williams, once the cute kid of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, is Lionel, the subject of savage harassment as a gay black nerd trying to find his voice as a journalist in a fringe paper. He’s promised a feature in the award-winning campus paper if he wades into the controversies getting fanned by Sam. Or at least that’s how the all-white staff of the officially-sanctioned paper sees it, and if this film is about anything it is how the meaning of issues and events shift according to perspective, experience, and expectations. I can only guess that black audiences will nod in agreement at some of these observations. As one of the white people addressed by the film, I appreciate the change in perspective. That’s one of the things movies can (and American movies all too rarely) do with such immediacy and vitality.
Justin Simien suffers no lack of ambition. Most of the criticisms you can lob at the film are due to overreach. There are hypocrites on both sides of the battle lines and everyone projects a persona that they carefully cultivate. Their real selves are protected behind the social mask and contradictions abound between aspiration and reality. The white characters, however, have far less dimension and less interesting contradictions than the black characters. It’s a weakness in the debate Simien stirs up but it is also a matter of perspective. This experience is seen almost completely from the black student community, a diverse collection of individuals who both evoke and defy stereotypes. They’re a campus minority that occupies a majority of the film (the film tagline is “A satire about being a black face in a white place”).
Simien is a smart storyteller who delivers both a well-articulated sense of outrage and a resigned frustration at a system that is more concerned with maintaining appearances than acknowledging and addressing problems. And he has an unexpectedly sharp satirical wit and uses humor to pare away the familiar understanding of its issues and offer a different perspective. His ambition is ultimately more Do the Right Thing than School Daze, complete with a climax inspired by a real-life event that brings the issues to a flashpoint and a denouement that denies easy solutions.
Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one with director / writer Justin Simien alone, the other with Simien joined by cast members Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, and Brandon Bell), the featurette “The Making of Dear White People,” skits and satirical “The More You Know About Black People” PSAs, and deleted scenes and outtakes, plus a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also available as a Digital HD purchase (with featurettes but no commentary).
The Retrieval (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) is a moving, heartfelt drama centered on a thirteen-year-old black boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), who serves as a kind of Judas Goat to a band of bounty hunters tracking escaped slaves in the midst of the American Civil. Will’s mercenary uncle Marcus (Keston John) tries to sell him to the head bounty hunter and bullies him when they set out to lure one last target into the arms of the gang. Nate (Tishuan Scott), a free man with a bounty on his head, is suspicious of Marcus but slowly warms to Will. As he becomes something of a father figure to the scared, brow-beaten boy, Will struggles with his conscience while leading Nate from freedom back to the slave states of the South. The high stakes of this situation—Will is an African-American boy in the south during the Civil War and an orphan under the control of an outlaw who threatens to kill him if he tries to escape—frame an intimate coming of age story on a vast canvas.
Filmmaker Chris Eska shoots the film against the alternately lovely and desolate landscapes of state parks and national forests in Eastern Texas, standing in for blurred lines of battle around Virginia. He hints at the broader war with a single battle scene, which is more of a chaotic skirmish in the brush that sends Will fleeing in panic. Sanders, whose open face and wide, nervous eyes communicate his vulnerability, gives Will a yearning for connection and a sincerity in conflict with his fear, and Scott brings a dignity and a sureness to Nate, a man who had to abandon everyone he loved to live free in the North. It’s quite powerful and very rewarding.
Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a 48-minute cast and filmmaker Q&A, featurettes, and deleted scenes among the supplements.
John Wick (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the kind of action movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore: simple, streamlined, with action scenes that rely on physical rather than computer generated elements. Keanu Reeves plays the titular character, a former assassin for the Russian mob (led by Michael Nyqvist) who is roused from retirement when a group of thugs (led by his old boss’s sadistic son) go after him while he’s mourning the death of his wife. It’s a revenge film, pure and simple, built on elements right out of pulp fiction and crime soap operas and an elaborate criminal underworld that could have been thought up in a comic book. And it is non-stop action of the old-fashioned kind. Digital effects are used to stylize the imagery and frame the set pieces, but the action scenes themselves are all about human bodies in motion, creative choreography, and impressive stunts, punctuated by bullets and explosions.
Chad Stahelski gets sole screen credit as director but it’s understood that David Leitch (credited as a producer) co-directed. Both are veteran stuntmen and stunt coordinators and they build the film with minimal dialogue, basic motivations, and elaborately designed action scenes, often in close quarters, the better to show off the fighters. Reeves is an accomplished martial artist in his own right and he looks great in action. Not to make too much of this, it’s an updated version of a 70s drive-in revenge movie with the look of a graphic novel. You go with the anger of a wronged man with killer skills and enjoy the ride. Adrian Palicki (currently playing action hero on Agents of SHIELD) is a rival assassin and Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe carve out their defining presence in small roles.
Blu-ray and DVD with six featurettes, including a look at the stunt choreography and preparation and a featurette on the second unit. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is commentary by the two directors and a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also available on VOD.
The films of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, continue their Blu-ray rollout in the U.S. with three more debuts. Only one of this set, however, is directed by the animation legend himself. All three discs feature both English language and original Japanese soundtracks (with optional English subtitles), the complete film in storyboard form set to the soundtrack, and Japanese trailer, plus a bonus DVD copy of the film.
Porco Rosso (Disney, Blu-ray) is Miyazaki’s fantasy of a loner flying ace, a World War I hero who lives in isolation on an island in the Adriatic Sea and patrols the skies on a personal mission to keep them safe from high-flying sky pirates in an imaginary post-World War I Italy. There’s something else about this aerial knight: he has the face of pig, the result of a magical spell that is referenced but never fully explained. It simply is, and it marks this chivalrous romantic as a tortured hero cursed to be alone (even though there are two women in love him). The title is Italian for “red pig,” perhaps Miyazaki’s fanciful answer to the Red Baron.
The 1992 feature was a huge hit in Japan and a personal project for Miyazaki, whose love of aviation and Italy can also be seen in his more serious final feature The Wind Rises. He fills the film with beautifully-executed aerial dogfights set against the blue Mediterranean skies and seas and constructs a sentimental vision of Italy between the wars as lovingly detailed as his European village in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are flamboyantly caricatured figures and slapstick sequences to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler but also a wistful sense of loss for the honor and chivalry for the past. Michael Keaton voices Porco for the English language version and Cary Elwes is his nemesis, an American pilot hired by the sky pirates to shoot him down. Also features the voices of Susan Egan, Kimberly Williams, and David Ogden Stiers.
Includes a “Behind the Microphone” featurette with the English language voice cast and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki (in Japanese with simultaneous English audio translation).
Tales from Earthsea (Disney, Blu-ray), a 2006 production based on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet Goro lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy. Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways. The American voice cast includes Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.
Features the hour-long documentary “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack,” which is in Japanese with English subtitles, and the brief featurette “Behind the Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea.”
Pom Poko (Disney, Blu-ray), directed by Isao Takahata, is an environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat. This is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters and environmental message. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. The voice cast of the English language version includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Olivia d’Abo, Clancy Brown, and Maurice LaMarche.
Also new and notable:
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (plus bonus Him and Her versions) (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is actually three films about the same story. Director / writer Ned Benson originally conceived the project as two films offering different perspectives on a marriage in crisis, one from the husband (James McAvoy) titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, the other from the wife (Jessica Chastain) called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her. A third film combining the two perspectives, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, was eventually released to theaters. All three films are presented on Blu-ray and DVD, along with a Q&A with the two stars.
Starred Up (Cinedigm, DVD), a gritty British prison drama directed by David Mackenzie, is the film that brought Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) to the attention of American directors. Ben Mendelsohn co-stars as his volatile career-criminal father, who is locked up in the same facility. With a featurette.
Once Upon a Time Veronica (Big World Pictures, DVD), from Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes, follows the emotionally turbulent life of a young woman fresh out of medical school and suddenly at a crossroads. Portuguese with English subtitles.
The documentary The Overnighters (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD), the profile of a small town pastor in North Dakota who opens the doors of his church to itinerate workers in search of work in the oil fields and the controversy that erupted from his outreach, won a special Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
The Homesman, the second big screen feature directed by Tommy Lee Jones, is a western with a particularly brutal look at life as a pioneer. Not necessarily in terms of violence, but simply the toll it took on the people at the edge of nowhere. Jones directs Hilary Swank to a heartbreaking (and Oscar-worthy) performance. Available on Cable VOD before disc.
The Drop (VOD), a crime drama with Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and James Gandolfini in his final role, arrives a couple of weeks after disc and Home Sweet Hell (VOD), a comedy with Katherine Heigl and Patrick Wilson, is available on Cable VOD before theaters.
Available on VOD on Friday, February 6, same days as theaters, is the romantic comedy Love, Rosie with Lily Collins and Sam Caflin and the horror film The Voices with Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick.
Available for digital purchase in advance of disc release:
The Homesman (Lionsgate, Digital HD, VOD)
Dumb and Dumber To (Universal, Digital HD)
Big Hero 6 (Disney, Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere)
St. Vincent (Anchor Bay, Digital) (Friday, February 6)
Classics and Cult:
Every Man For Himself (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
About Schmidt (Warner, Blu-ray)
Love & Basketball (Warner, Blu-ray)
Diner (Warner, Blu-ray)
Lust For Life (Warner, Blu-ray)
TV on disc:
Anzac Girls (Acorn, DVD)
Atlantis: Season 2 Part 1 (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Saint: Set 2 (Acorn, DVD)
The Wonder Years: The Complete Second Season (StarVista, DVD)
Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2003 (BBC, DVD)
The Bob Newhart Show: Season Five (Shout Factory, DVD)
The Bob Newhart Show: The Final Season (Shout Factory, DVD)
American Experience: The Big Burn (PBD, DVD)
Dracula Untold (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
The Best of Me (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Hector and the Search for Happiness (Fox, DVD, VOD)
Ouija (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
The New Public (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Video Games: The Movie (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Nas: Time is Illmatic (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Exposed (Zeitgeist, DVD)
Tricked (First Run, DVD)
ABCs of Death 2 (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Reagans: The Legacy Endures (RLJ/Image, DVD)
Coffee Town (Shout Factory, DVD)
The Aviators (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Starry Eyes (MPI, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
Exists (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD)
The Demon’s Rook (Cinedigm, DVD)
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boys (Wolfe, DVD, Digital)