Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), Sion Sono’s filmmaking freakout about making a movie in the midst of a Yakuza war, is actually far more insane than that description suggests. For one thing, it takes almost 90 minutes to get to that filmmaking part and the sheer absurdity of the plotting twists and motivations that get us there are beyond rational explanation, which is part of the fun. The scenes leading up to it are a mad collision of gang war, teen runaway tale, revenge movie, star-crossed romance, wrong man nightmare, and movie club dream come true for a spirited, tunnel-visioned filmmaking collective. By the time the warring sides are ready for their close-ups, it has become a quest where the gang fight is less about territory than choreography and the sword-wielding soldiers on both sides (because katanas are much cooler than guns) are more conscious of their image than their tactics. It’s all about looking good for the camera.
Sono channels the yakuza madness of Seijun Suzuki and the driving energy and chaotic creativity of Miike Takashi at the height of his powers. The characters are driven by obsession and emotion, not logic, and Sono stirs it with a hearty dark humor and a juvenile, morality-free passion for moviemaking. Even the flashbacks and narrative detours are the equivalent of production numbers and set pieces, small scale bloodbaths as imagined by Busby Berkeley for the Yakuza Follies. Blood spurts in geysers (some of them fountains of liquid, others spattered across the image with CGI, and one scene of candy colored streams of cartoon rainbows) and limbs fly, and in the middle of it scurries a Bruce Lee knock-off in a “Game of Death” yellow tracksuit swinging a sword or windmilling his nunchucks like it’s a playground game.
This is pure midnight movie, all energy and whimsy and cartoonish displays of violence with yakuza soldiers dressed as samurai swordsmen. It’s hard to tell if this is an attempt at commentary on the slippery ethics of representing violence on film and blurring the lines between reality and representation, or simply Sono giving in to the same unchecked enthusiasm of his absurd filmmaking crew. Their amateur zeal is played for laughs, yes, but Sono’s appreciation for such passion is clear. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? has its own cracked logic but is largely free from any discipline that would focus its wild energy. That could be a warning to some viewers and an invitation to others. Follow your instincts accordingly.
In Japanese with English subtitles, with a 22-minute press conference with Sion Sono conducted at a Tower Records in Japan plus a 24-page booklet and 11×17 foldout poster. The Blu-ray also features a bomus Digital HD copy for download.
Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) continues the reinvention of the DC Universe in the Animated Original Movies line, adapting the graphic novel of the same name written by Geoff Johns for “The New 52” comic book reboot. Ostensibly the origin story of Aquaman, it also offers the origins of this incarnation of the Justice League as Aquaman’s half-brother declares war on the surface world and Arthur Curry (veteran voice artist Matt Lanter), a man whose ability to talk to fish creates an identity crisis, discovers his Atlantian heritage and joins forces to Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop him. Don’t skip the post-credits tag.
This direct-to-disc animated feature continues to develop a distinctive chemistry for its DC heroes, with Jason O’Mara’s grim, humorless Batman and Jerry O’Connell’s Superman, a gentle god of a hero who embraces the mortality of his adopted human home, as the two foundations of the new team. (Superman is dating Wonder Woman in human guise, which is a novel concept for the imperious Amazon queen voiced by Rosario Dawson.) The team is filled out by Green Lantern (a jesting Nathan Fillion), The Flash (upbeat Christopher Gorham), Shazam (Sean Astin as boyish Billy Batson in a demi-god’s body), and Cyborg (a very serious Shemar Moore). It’s a different kind of sensibility from the Bruce Timm-influenced films that began the series and I appreciate the alternative interpretation. Like the comic book universe it draws from, these animated features remind us that there are other approaches to the iconic heroes and stories. It’s also closer to the source material than the live action DC films which are more interested in reinventing and replicating the original stories.
Features a sneak peak at the upcoming Batman vs. Robin, the featurette “Villains of the Deep,” and four bonus episodes from Cartoon Network shows The Brave and the Bold, Aquaman, and Justice League Unlimited (all featuring Aquaman). Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the Throne of Atlantis panel at New York Comic-Con, a bonus sequence, and featurettes on the soundtrack, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies.
Fury (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) was the second film released by filmmaker David Ayer in 2014 and it almost makes up for disappointing Sabotage. Leaving the familiar urban crime environs of Los Angeles, Ayer drops us into an American tank crew assigned to stop a German division while the Allies advance on Berlin in the final days of World War II in Europe. Brad Pitt is the crew commander Wardaddy, a man devoted to keeping his men alive, and Logan Lerman is the new kid, pulled out of the typing pool, handed a gun, and dropped into a crew that has bonded through three years of battles. Ayer is all about conflict and collisions, between and within groups of violent men, and has consistently made the violence in his cinema very visceral, showing us the destructive power of bullets and knives and explosions in fleshy, bloody terms. Between battles the tensions within the crew (which includes Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal) rise with an odd volatility but that internal conflict and anxiety is set aside under fire, where they are unconditionally devoted to one another. It’s an old-fashioned war tale with 21st century violence.
The Blu-ray edition includes four featurettes and close to an hour of deleted and extended scenes, plus a bonus Digital HD copy of the film.
Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – The two films of Claude Berri’s two-part adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s epic tragedy stand separately well enough but are best seen as one epic story. Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil star as the greedy villains, a weathered old man and his gnomish nephew, whose murder a local farmer to take his land, only to find it inherited by a hunchbacked city-man Gerard Depardieu (Jean of the first film), who hopes to start a new life for him and his family. Their dastardly plot to rob him his land turns him into a tortured beast of burden. In Manon Jean’s beautiful daughter (the earthy and ethereal Emmanuelle Beart) plots her vengeance. Set and shot in the green hills of Provence, a beautiful, lush background for the blackest deeds of despicable thievery, it’s a vivid tale simply and elegantly told and etched with heartbreaking performances.
In French with English subtitles.
Downton Abbey: Season 5 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) embraces everything I enjoy about the show, and everything that frustrates me to distraction. It’s 1924 and the times they are a changin’, much to the consternation of Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the old guard of traditional values who despair of a Labour government in power. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), meanwhile, rather daringly agrees to an unchaperoned holiday with a beau to try out an intimate arrangement (kicking the tires, so to speak, before it was socially accepted), and her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) decides she cannot live without the son she had out of wedlock. The latter tale unfolds with reassuring affirmations of family acceptance but Mary’s journey is a little more interesting and the show even flirts with the social judgments directed toward a woman (even a married woman, as Mary delegates to purchase to a servant) purchasing birth control from a pharmacist. And family matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) gets her own romantic journey when she runs into a Russian aristocrat (Rade Sherbedgia) she once romanced.
Even more interesting is the evolution of footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the schemer of the servant class who undergoes aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality (a doomed endeavor) and applies his particular skill set to protect his fellow servants and even his employers from less savory types. And the concept of “bettering oneself” and class mobility perks up this season, especially as kitchen made Daisy starts educating herself and gets involved politically when the new Labour government wins the 1924 election.
The end of the season focuses on bubbly cousin Rose (Lily James) and her marriage to the son of a Jewish businessman who is as snooty toward them as Rose’s mother is toward her new Jewish in-laws. Most of these social conflicts and class collisions are too easily solved to have any dramatic weight and the pillars of old-world tradition are eased into the modern world with a smile and a warm embrace, which is my frustration with the show. It seems no one here is too old or too entrenched to learn a lesson and get a happy ending, and no situation is so difficult that it would call the tradition of inherited wealth and aristocratic class divisions into question.
9 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, including the season finale special “A Moorland Holiday,” available before the season is even half over in the U.S. (it ran in late 2014 in the U.K.). These is the uncut British version of the show (the episodes are trimmed slightly for the American run) and it includes three featurettes.
Also new and notable:
The Judge (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) picked up an Academy Award nomination for Robert Duvall (the judge of the title). His performance, and that of propducer and leading man Robert Downey Jr. (playing his lawyer son), are the main selling points of this Grisham-lite courtroom drama.
The Book of Life (Fox, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is an animated fantasy produced by Guillermo Del Toro and featuring the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, and of course Ron Perlman.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Cinedigm, DVD, VOD) profiles animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and observes a year at Studio Ghibli as they work to complete their final two features: Miyazaki The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Art and Craft (Oscilloscope, DVD) is a documentary about the unconventional art forger Mark Landis, who spent years posing as a philanthropist donating his pieces to museums around the world.
Henry V (1989) (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – Kenneth Branagh adapted his successful stage production of the Shakespeare history play to the big screen for his filmmaking debut.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
The most cause celebre of 2014, the comedy The Interview with James Franco and Seth Rogan attempting to assassinate Kim Jong-un, arrived on Netflix over the weekend, not too long after its successful VOD run. If you don’t watch it, then the North Koreans win. Or something like that.
Gone Girl, the screen version of Gillian Flynn’s novel directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, come to cable VOD a week after its disc debut. Pike earned an Oscar nomination and Flynn’s screenplay should have scored a nomination.
Sundance 2014 winner Low Down stars John Hawkes as a drug-addicted jazz pianist and Elle Fanning as his teenage daughter watching his spiral of self-destruction. It arrives on Cable VOD months ahead of disc.
Available on Friday, January 30, same day as theaters, are the romantic drama Amira & Sam with Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi and the action film Wild Card with Jason Statham and Michael Angarano.
Available for purchase on Digital HD in advance of disc and VOD are Nightcrawler (Universal) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Addicted (Lionsgate) with Sharon Leal and Boris Kodjoe.
Classics and Cult:
La Ciénaga (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Pork Chop Hill (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Hole in the Head (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Amazing Grace (1974) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
King: The Martin Luther King Story (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Return to Me (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Replacements (Warner, Blu-ray)
Going Under (Blue Underground, Blu-Ray)
My Little Pony: The Movie (Shout Factory, DVD)
Sanctimony (Olive, DVD)
Backwoods (Olive, DVD)
TV on disc:
Crime Scene Cleaner (MHz, DVD)
Marie’s Mind for Murder: Set 1 (MHz, DVD)
Nicolas le Floch: Vol. 2 (MHz, DVD)
The Story of Women and Art (Acorn, DVD)
Open Windows (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD)
Days and Nights (IFC, DVD)
Winter in the Blood (Alive Mind, DVD)
The Color of Time (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Big Driver (Lionsgate, DVD)
My Old Lady (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Addicted (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
Before I Go to Sleep (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Winter in the Blood (Kino, DVD)
The Remaining (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Feed the Gods (XLrator, DVD)