Another week off, this time for Thanksgiving, so I’m catching up on two weeks of New Releases.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and dice and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.
Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).
American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.
Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.
Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.
Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.
Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.
Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.
There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.
On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.
A Hard Day (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a sneaky, sly crime thriller from South Korea, is an understatement as titles go. It opens on a hit-and-run on a dark night while our frazzled antihero (Lee Sun-kyun) tries to manage his mother’s funeral from the road and filmmaker Kim Seong-hoon just keeps piling the shit higher with every twist. It turns out he’s a police detective under investigation for embezzelment. He dumps the body in his trunk and then hides it in his mother’s casket (a veritable caper of an ordeal in itself) and then finds himself blackmailed by a nameless voice who uses the criminal tip line to make his threats. And that’s just the first act.
Call it a modern Korean cop noir with a wicked sense of humor and an absurdly busy catalog of disasters. Detective Choi is hardly hero material but as every action is met with an even greater narrative reaction that threatens to bury him alive, you can’t help but root for the guy, especially when his nemesis turns out to be so ruthlessly corrupt and all-seeing that he threatens to become a comic book supervillain. The body count rises and Kim just keeps wrenching up the tension until it seems ready to snap at any moment, resorting to a every cinematic trick in the book to create the perfect nightmare scenario for our compromised anti-hero, played with increasingly breathless desperation by Lee. He’s clearly learned a few lessons from the Coen Brothers, at least when it comes to the mechanics of suspense and narrative plotting, and he drives the film at such a clip you don’t have time to catch your breath or ponder the improbabilities of the twists. It’s clever rather than smart, but so shamelessly entertaining that such distinctions hardly matter in the heat of the moment.
On Blu-ray and DVD, in Korean with English subtitles, with two featurettes and deleted scenes. Also on Netflix.
Assassination (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), also from Korea, is a sprawling, complicated guerrilla caper thriller set during the Japanese occupation. A leader in the underground resistance (Lee Jung-jae) leads a jailbreak to free a sharpshooter (Jun Ji-hyun) and sends her with two wanted men to kill a high-ranking Japanese officer. There’s a traitorous double agent, a pair of assassins for hire sent to sabotage the mission, cruel Japanese officers, a brutal massacre that sets the stage for it all, a whole web of betrayals, and a somewhat confusing timeline that jumps into flashbacks and flashforwards that don’t always announce themselves. Director Choi Dong-hoon is no John Woo but he stages efficiently entertaining action scenes and fills the film with colorful set-pieces. South Korea has become the center for slick action cinema in Asia and Assassination is an entertaining costume piece and period action film that is more impressive for the scope of its action than the impact of its story.
On Blu-ray and DVD, in Korean with English subtitles, no supplements.
Also new and notable:
Amy (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) profiles Amy Winehouse, the British singer / songwriter whose life was cut short by addiction. Director Asif Kapadia offers an intimate and enlightening portrait of the performer and the person with rare video and audio footage of Winehouse. Expect this to be a favorite in the documentary category of the Academy Awards.
The Hunting Ground (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick’s look at rape on college campuses and the resistance from campus officials to investigate and prosecute these cases. There’s no explicit imagery but the PG-13 film features graphic descriptions of sexual assaults.
Tokyo Tribe (XLrator, Blu-ray, DVD), from Japan’s wildman rebel Sion Sono (of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? fame), is a hip-hop science fiction musical about streets gangs who band together to fight a power-crazed Yakuza. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Meryl Streep stars in Ricki and the Flash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) as a mom who ran off to live out her rock and roll dreams and returns for her daughter’s wedding. Kevin Kline and Rick Springfield co-star in the comic drama written by Diablo Cody (Juno).
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), an animated comedy from the Aardman (the folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit), is a playful little film likely to get an Oscar nomination.
Grace of Monaco (Anchor Bay, DVD, Digital, VOD), starring Nicole Kidman, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but made its American debut on the Lifetime Network after disappointing reviews.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Available same day as select theaters nationwide is Life with Robert Pattinson as a magazine photographer assigned to cover James Dean, the drama Every Thing Will Be Fine with Rachel McAdams and James Franco, the Israeli zombie horror JeruZalem, the family-friendly biopic Walt Before Mickey with Thomas Ian Nicholas and Jon Heder, MI-5, the big screen version of the British TV spy series, and the holiday comedy Christmas Eve with Jon Heder and Patrick Stewart.
Available for digital purchase in advance of disc:
Minions (Universal, Digital HD)
Ted 2 (Universal, Digital HD)
Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo (HBO, Digital HD)
The Look of Silence (Drafthouse, Digital HD)
The Transporter Refueled (Fox, Digital HD)
Classics and Cult:
Ikiru (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Don’t Look Back (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Downhill Racer (Criterion, Blu-ray)
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray)
Wake Up and Kill (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD)
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD)
Ghost Story (Scream Factory, Blu-ray)
Blood and Lace (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray+DVD)
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD)
Welcome to L.A. (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray)
Love at Large (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Queen of Blood (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray)
Twice Told Tales (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Gunfight in Dodge City (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fort Massacre (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray)
Robbers Roost (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray)
Romance & Cigarettes (Olive, Blu-ray)
Heartbreakers (Olive, Blu-ray)
Mr. Saturday Night (Olive, Blu-ray)
Making Mr. Right (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Smooth Talk (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
At First Sight (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Undercover Blues (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Hurricane (1937) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Child is Waiting (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Devil’s Disciple (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Incredible 2 Headed Transplant (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Mask 3D (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Voodoo Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Drowning By Numbers (Hen’s Tooth, DVD)
TV on disc:
Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season – Limited Edition (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray)
The Bold Ones – The Lawyers: The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD)
Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount, DVD)
Doctor Who: Christmas Specials Gift Set (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow (Lionsgate, DVD)
Shaun the Sheep: Season 1 (Lionsgate, DVD)
American Masters: Althea (PBS, DVD)
Frontline: My Brother’s Bomber (PBS, DVD)
Legends: The Complete Season 1 (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, DVD-R)
Kingdom: The Complete Season 1 (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, DVD-R)
The Comedians: The Complete Series (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, DVD-R)
Weird Loners: The Complete Series (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, DVD-R)
Cristella: The Complete Season 1 (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, DVD-R)
More new releases:
The Guardsman (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
No Escape (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Cooties (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Some Kind of Beautiful (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
90 Minutes in Heaven (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Guidance (Strand, DVD)
Momentum (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Olvidados (Forgotten) (Cinema Libre, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
War Pigs (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD)
Jerusalem (MPI, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Last House (Wild Eye, DVD)
The Badger Game (Intervision, Blu-ray, DVD)
White Panther (Sisu, DVD)
Chasing a Star (Sisu, DVD)
The Dinner (Film Movement, DVD)
One Rogue Reporter (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Natural Resistance (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Red Lines (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Square (City Drive / MVD, DVD)
The New Rijksmuseum (First Run, DVD)
1971 (First Run, DVD)
The Storm Makers (First Run, DVD)
Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo (HBO, DVD)
Roger Waters: The Wall (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Zero Tolerance (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
A Christmas Horror Story (RLJ, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Christmas Detour (Cinedigm, DVD)
Crown for Christmas (Cinedigm, DVD)
Where Children Play (RLJ, DVD)
Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD