The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2015, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.
By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.
Extending the final book across two films is a commercial decision rather than an artistic choice and it shows. The film takes us into strategy sessions and explores the efforts to shape Katniss into a packaged symbol with telling detail that, while interesting, slows the momentum of the story, even with battle scenes and action set pieces spaced through the film. It’s not enough to smother the fire of the film, however, and Lawrence glows in the role of the reluctant Joan of Arc of the rebellion. She makes us feel that anxious turmoil of a teenage girl thrown into a battle she didn’t choose, both in her heartfelt response to the brutal repression and reprisals of the Capitol and in the private horror of the psychological warfare waged by President Snow to break her spirit and resolve. As the film keeps reminding us, she’s used by both sides and she knows it. But she also understands the stakes of the war. That’s a lot for one person, let alone a teenage girl, and Lawrence doesn’t let us forget it. And her haunting rendition of the song “The Hanging Tree” will linger in your mind long after the film is over.
Like the disc releases of previous Hunger Games installments and all the Harry Potter films, this disc has taken a Friday release to set it apart from the rest of the week’s releases. So on Friday, March 6, the number one box office hit of 2015 arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.
Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, and a sneak peek at the second chapter of the other Lionsgate young adult action / rebellion franchise: The Divergent Series: Insurgent. The Blu-ray Combo Pack also features the eight-part documentary “The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay: Part 1,” an in-depth, feature-length piece, and the featurettes “Straight from the Heart: A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman” and “Songs of Rebellion: Lorde on Curating the Soundtrack,” plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
I confess that I’m not a fan of Foxcatcher (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), which was the only major Academy Award nominee to come away from the Oscars empty-handed, but I respect the craft behind it. A stylized dramatization of the true story of multimillionaire John du Pont, played by Steve Carrell in a performance both unsettling and unsatisfying (the prosthetic nose and false teeth tend to carry his portrayal), it is both oddly intimate and creepily voyeuristic in the way it explores the relationship between du Pont and Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Du Pont is unbalanced and willfully deluded and fancies himself a wrestling coach as he funds a training camp for America’s Olympic wrestling team with Mark as his star pupil. Tatum plays Mark as an earnest athlete so dedicated to his training that he lives in near-poverty. He only wants to be the best and he thinks he has found a new father figure in du Pont, to the point of rebelling against his older brother and coach David (Mark Ruffalo), a family man and a natural leader. It’s a true story that ends in violence, but the mania and neediness and ego that drives du Pont is a kind of violence all its own.
Carrell and Ruffalo both earned Oscar nominations but Tatum is just as good as the inarticulate Mark, expressing his loyalty and devotion, and his fury at the betrayal and failure of du Pont as a leader and a mentor, through his eyes (he dutifully gives du Pont all his attention at first, then can barely even look at him in his anger) and his physical demeanor. It’s not a pleasant film, to be sure, and the script is a little too on-the-nose as it guides us through du Pont’s damaged life, but it earned Oscar nominations for actors Carell and Ruffalo, director Bennett Miller, screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and the make-up team. Miller earned the Best Director award at Cannes and the AFI named it Movie of the Year for 2014.
Blu-ray and DVD with the 16-minute featurette “The Story of Foxcatcher” and two featurettes. The Blu-ray also includes a bonus Ultraviolet HD copy of the film.
Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), a mix of historical drama, romantic melodrama, and time-travel tale based on the novels of Diane Gabron, shows that Starz is starting to figure out this original cable series thing. That’s not to say they haven’t had their successes—Spartacus did just fine for them, thank you very much—but Outlander manages to combine serialized storytelling, budget-minded historical spectacle, and pay-cable nudity in a compelling story that never feels contrived or exploitative. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and build on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world.
Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, who spent World War II as a combat nurse and, with war’s end, is finally reunited with her husband (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. That’s where (and when), after witnessing a ceremony at an ancient Druid shrine, she’s cast back 200 years, landing in the midst of war between the occupying British army and the rogue Highland clans who are considered savages by the British. Both sides believe she’s a spy (especially a cold-blooded British officer who happens to be her husband’s ancestor and is played by the same actor) but she is slowly accepted into the MacKenzie clan and married to the handsome young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), cousin to the clan laird and a man with a price on his head. It’s her protection from the British soldiers, if only in legal terms. But this sympathetic Brit in a Scottish land is still an outsider, much more than even they realize, and she keeps her wits about her in the hopes of returning to the shrine and hopefully getting back to her world and her husband. Her first husband. Needless to say, it gets complicated, and not just the timelines. She starts to fall for the romantic young Scot and it seems that Dougal (Graham McTavish), the clan laird, is falling for her.
Ronald D. Moore, the Star Trek TV veteran who rebooted Battlestar Galactica for SyFy, developed the show for Starz and scripts the key episodes of the first eight episodes, which ran on Starz in 2014 to strong ratings and reviews. Balfe gives Claire a courage and strength of character that makes her drama matter to us. No wonder everyone in this world is so fascinated with this woman who speaks her mind and has the courage of her convictions.
Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “An Epic Adaptation” and “the Dresses and Kilts of Outlander.” The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, 21 deleted scenes, and a bonus Ultraviolent HD copy of all eight episodes. The second half of the first season begins in April and a second season is already in production.
Longmire: The Complete Third Season (Warner, DVD, Blu-ray), the rural mystery series based on the novels by Craig Johnson and starring Australian actor Robert Taylor as laconic Sheriff Walt Longmire, was almost the final season. It was the top-rated scripted drama on A&E when they cancelled it (because it skewed to older viewers) and the fan outrage was swift. We can rest easy for at least another season, however, as Netflix has picked up the show, and that means the startling cliffhanger will very likely jump start a very dynamic fourth season.
But that’s still to come. The ten episodes of this season revolve around fall-out from the ongoing investigation into the murder of Longmire’s wife, which gets his best friend Henry (Lou Diamond Philips) arrested, and a vicious attack on Longmire’s deputy Branch (Bailey Chase) by the mysterious “white warrior,” ostensibly the spirit of a dead man from the nearby reservation back for vengeance. It leaves lingering doubts in his mind and drives him to go rogue on his own investigation. Katee Sackhoff is his loyal (and adoring) deputy Vic, a former Philadelphia homicide cop, and her marriage continues to crumble and past continues to haunt her this season, which takes an unexpected when she’s taken prisoner by a survivalist with a grudge against anyone connected with the government. The landscape dominates the series and the show has a pace and tone to match. It moves deliberately, with a calm but steady pace of strong strides, through a world that is beautiful but dangerous. Ten episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurette “Longmire: The Ghost in the Storm.”
Also new and notable:
The Better Angels (Anchor Bay, DVD), produced by Terrence Malick, is the directorial debut of Malick collaborator and protégé A. J. Edwards. Shot in black and white, the impressionistic film surveys the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in Indiana. This is very young Mr. Lincoln, growing up under the stern discipline of his father (Jason Clarke) and the gentle compassion of two mothers (Brit Marling and Diane Kruger). Braydon Denney plays the boy Lincoln. On DVD with no supplements, and it’s also on VOD.
The Humbling (Alchemy. Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel from screenwriter Buck Henry and director Berry Levinson, stars Al Pacino as an aging actor attempting to reclaim his past glory and Greta Gerwig as his much younger girlfriend. Blu-ray and DVD, with a making-of featurette.
Blacula / Scream, Blacula, Scream – Double Feature (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) presents the cult movies starring William Marshall as an African prince turned into a vampire by Count Dracula in the 18th century and released into 1972 Los Angeles. In the seventies, producers would often just drop the word “black” in front of a title and recycle old genres with an African American cast and this was no exception, but Marshall was a Shakespearean actor with gravitas, which helped make this film a hit in 1972 and a cult movie for later generations of horror fans. Filmmaker and film historian David F. Walker provides commentary for Blacula and there’s a new video interview with Scream, Blacula, Scream co-star Richard Lawson.
If you think that Exterminators of the Year 3000 (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) looks like a shameless rip-off of The Road Warrior, you’d be spot on. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where water (not gas) is the currency so precious that people will kill for it, this Italian action thriller from the eighties takes its cues from the cult action thriller. There’s a mercenary loner (Robert Iannucci) in a fast car, a predatory gang of futuristic jayhawkers in post-punk fashions on souped-up cars, trucks, and motorcycles, and an innocent community in need of salvation. Jules Harrison is a pseudonym for Italian director Giuliano Carnimeo. The Blu-ray debut features commentary by and an interview with actor Robert Iannucci.
Massacre Mafia Style (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD), the blood-drenched knock-off of the Godfather from actor / director Duke Mitchell, has variously been released under the titles Like Father, Like Son and The Executioner. This edition features a newly remastered version of the full director’s cut for its Blu-ray debut (a major upgrade from the earlier DVD release) plus supplements carried over from the previous release, including the hour-long documentary “Life Father, Like Son,” close to an hour of Duke Mitchell home movies, and Mitchell’s TV special “An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante,” plus additional interviews, galleries of stills, and the 1952 film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla with young Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo doing their Dean Martin / Jerry Lewis act.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Son of a Gun, starring Ewan McGregor and Brenton Thwaites as prison escapees who team up for a bank robbery, is available on cable VOD two weeks before its disc release.
Coming to cable VOD on Friday, March 6, same day as theaters, is Faults, a thriller starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jon Gries, and Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, the true-life crime drama starring Sam Worthington, Jim Sturges, and Anthony Hopkins.
Chris Rock’s Top Five (Paramount, Digital HD) is available as a digital purchase two weeks before its disc release.
Classics and Cult:
Musical: 4-Movie Collection (The Band Wagon, Calamity Jane, Kiss Me Kate 2D and 3D, Singin’ in the Rain) (Warner, Blu-ray)
The Band Wagon (Warner, Blu-ray)
Calamity Jane (Warner, Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Warner, Blu-ray 2D+3D)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 10th Anniversary Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)
The Fan (Mondo Macabro, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
TV on disc:
Transporter: The Series – The Complete First Season (Fox, DVD)
A Place to Call Home: Season One (Acorn, DVD)
Adventure Time: Frost & Fire (Warner, DVD)
Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Second Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Hill Street Blues: Season Four (Shout! Factory, DVD)
CHiPs: The Complete Third Season (Warner, DVD)
Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 2 (PBS, DVD)
Understanding Art: Baroque and Rococo (Athena, DVD)
The Last of Robin Hood (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Life Partners (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
The Captive (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
Captive (Isabelle Huppert) (First Run, DVD, VOD)
Innocence (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD)
Victori: The Truth Just Can’t Be One Thing (Garden Thieves, DVD, VOD)
Big Muddy (Monterey, DVD, Digital, VOD)
Algorithms (First Run, DVD, VOD)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here (First Run, DVD, VOD)
Web Junkie (Alive Mind, DVD)
The Bridge (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Blood Car (Horizon, DVD)
Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere)
Believe Me (Virgil, Blu-ray, DVD)
Drumline: A New Beat (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Angels of Darkness (Cinema Epoch, DVD)
To Write Love on Her Arms (Sony, DVD, Digital HD)
The Dog Who Saved Easter (Lionsgate, DVD)