It’s a pretty big week, with a number of high-profile titles hitting shelves this week. I think there’s a little something for everyone this week, including a magical kangaroo movie!
Note for regular readers: I’m going on vacation and so I’m reviewing all the titles I have in hand before I go, so any that aren’t actually out this week are denoted as such by their release date after their name. There will be no columns for the weeks of July 27th or August 3rd, but I will be back the following week with any releases that have come out in that time along with the current week’s releases.
Mortal Kombat – I’ve always been a pretty big fan of the Mortal Kombat video games, although never the kind of person who delved really deeply into their characters and storylines. I liked the original cheesy ‘90s movies for what they were, and I definitely spent some hours as a younger man than I am today playing MK in arcades (if you remember those) and on my home console. So I was looking forward to Warner Brothers’ relaunch of the franchise when it debuted a few months ago, although my expectations were reasonably mild. And yet, somehow, I was still utterly disappointed. While certainly better than the previous films, the new Mortal Kombat is just missing something. It has a few good action and special effects sequences, but I never felt invested in any of them. The characters are completely bland and one note (except for Josh Lawson’s Kano, who’s a standout), the story seems more like a prequel than an actual main story, and it all just feels completely soulless. I know I shouldn’t necessarily look for those things in a movie based on a video game, but if I had cared even a little about what happened to any of these characters, the film would have been much better. Mortal Kombat comes to home video in the 4K Ultra HD format (as well as Blu-ray and DVD) and I will say that it looks and sounds excellent. Image clarity is razor sharp, shadow delineation is terrific, and the surround soundtrack is robust and active. I wish the film lived up to the excellent A/V presentation.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw – Don’t be fooled by the “From the book of Saw” subtitle to this movie. It’s pretty much exactly another Saw movie. Which is a shame. See, personally I was never a fan of what the Saw franchise became. After a terrific first movie, the series became just a downward spiral of movies about bigger and gorier deathtraps, with nothing interesting to them. I thought Spiral, as a spin-off with cast-against-type Chris Rock in the lead role and Samuel L. Jackson alongside him, was a chance to reboot the franchise. Instead, while the story takes place 12 years after the Saw killings, it basically picks up thematically as if Jigsaw never left. Only this time we get a maybe-copycat killer targeting police with his or her deathtraps, which gives the filmmakers carte blanche to return to the world of over-the-top gore and sadistic killing machines. I was hoping they would tone down the blood and guts and give us more of a mystery-thriller horror flick. But instead, it’s simply a gorefest. Chris Rock is good in the lead role as a police detective under fire and Max Minghella shines as his new partner, and the film is solid when people aren’t having their fingers ripped off or being mutilated by hot wax. I just don’t know why filmmakers keep thinking the general public wants movies this gory, when most people don’t really. Sigh. Spiral comes to home video on 4K Ultra HD (as well as Blu-ray and DVD), and while it doesn’t add much to the proceedings in the way of color saturation (it’s not a particularly colorful film), it does an excellent job with letting us see into the dark shadows and make out the onscreen action in even the darkest of scenes. The surround soundtrack doesn’t have a ton to work with, but it does a nice job of creating a surround soundfield. It’s a solid audiovisual presentation of a film that could easily have been much better.
Wrath of Man – Guy Ritchie’s movies can be hit or miss for me. I’m not a huge fan of some of his “geezer gangster” crime movies, but I do enjoy his occasional big-budget outing, like the Sherlock Holmes films. Of course, you add Jason Statham to the mix and I’m in, because I NEVER miss a Stath film. Their latest collaboration is Wrath of Man, a violent new heist/revenge thriller. Statham plays a rookie armored truck security man in a company that’s been hit by armed robbers, leading to a couple of guards being killed. But we soon figure out that he’s not just a regular guy, and he has reasons for being there. What those reasons are slowly unfold as the film jumps back and forth in time, and that’s part of what makes it so intriguing. Let me say this plainly: I absolutely loved Wrath of Man. The action sequences are visceral and exciting, the story is interesting, the editing and cinematography are terrific, and the whole thing feels like the kind of action movie you don’t see nearly enough of these days. Statham is in ultimate bad-ass mode (although he’s gun-toting Stath, not karate-action Stath), and the supporting cast (including an electrifying Josh Hartnett, of all people) is fantastic. This film didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, but it is absolutely worth giving a watch ASAP. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Star Trek Discovery: Season Three – I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek: Discovery in the beginning, but I have since become a huge fan of the show. Season Two was terrific and Season Three just continues that trend. After the events of Season 2 (minor spoiler ahead) the show jumps 900+ years into the future, which gives the show a whole new vibe. We get a new character, Book, who’s absolutely terrific, all-new technology, and we see a bigger spotlight on the top-notch supporting cast members like Lieutenant Detmer, Lieutenant Owosekun, and Commander Nhan, which is terrific. The season focuses on a central mystery, much like it did in the previous seasons, while also exploring this new century the crew finds themselves in, and I found the entire thing exciting and captivating, just like I want my Star Trek to be. This new collection features all 13 episodes of Season Three plus a nice collection of extra features, so whether you’ve been watching the show on Paramount+ (or Netflix in Europe) or not, it’s worth picking up. RECOMMENDED!
The Dead Zone: Collector’s Edition (July 27) – One of the earlier Stephen King adaptations to hit the big screen, The Dead Zone is a terrific thriller about a man who falls into a coma, only to wake years later with the power of precognition. When he touches people he can see things about them, often their future. When he meets a presidential candidate… well, let’s just say that’s when things get interesting. I know this movie is 40 years old, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t seen it yet. For years, Stephen King adaptations were considered second-rate films (and fairly so, because so many of them were bad), but The Dead Zone always seemed to be unfairly lumped in with that summation. Christopher Walken is terrific in the lead role, and Martin Sheen shines as presidential hopeful Stillson. The film is taut and fascinating, and Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition does it justice, with a collection of new extra features, a new transfer, and shiny new cover artwork. A terrific release that comes RECOMMENDED!
Snatch (4K Ultra HD) – Guy Ritchie shows up again on this week’s list with the 4K Ultra HD debut of his well-loved 2000 crime-caper-comedy Snatch. With an all-star cast including Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Farina, and Lennie James, the film is a hyper-stylized ensemble piece about a bunch of various criminal-types all getting caught up in the chance to snatch a massive diamond away from other people who have it. It starts out with multiple disparate stories (such as a boxing promoter trying to buy a new caravan/camper) and eventually all the various characters cross paths thanks to this 86-carat diamond. The film is fast-paced, edited to within an inch of it’s life, and occasionally over-the-top, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m not as reverential of the film as some people I know are, but it’s an awfully enjoyable romp. The film debuts on 4K Ultra HD this week, and while it does offer up some nice upgrades, it’s still two decades old. The biggest improvement is the color saturation; the film always looked like a gray, rainy London day to me, and now it has a little more life and pop to it. The surround soundtrack isn’t vastly different, but it does the best it can with what is largely a dialogue driven movie. The release does include a digital copy and some extra features, so if you’re a fan and want to add it to your collection, now is the time.
Shameless: The Eleventh and Final Season – Eleven seasons?!? I mean, I know Shameless has a very devoted following, but it floored me when I realized the show lasted eleven seasons. William H. Macy’s hit Showtime series has finally come to an end, though, and this week it’s on DVD in the form of Shameless: The Eleventh and Final Season. I never became a die-hard fan of this show like some people are, but maybe that’s because I missed the first few seasons and had to jump in halfway. For me personally, the show just never quite hit the level of something like, say, Schitt’s Creek. Again, I might be missing something because I came into the show so late, so I’m sure fans of the show will be happy to have this final season in their collections.
Deep Cover – It’s fairly rare for the Criterion Collection to delve into what I consider mainstream movies, as their focus is — rightly so — usually on more arthouse or foreign fare. Which makes sense, because that’s sort of their raison d’être. But I do like when they give us more mainstream films, such as with this week’s release of Deep Cover. This 1992 crime thriller stars Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum, and is directed by actor Bill Duke, and Criterion has touted it as a pioneering film of black cinema from a decade that didn’t see a lot of gains in that area. The film follows a cop who goes undercover in a drug smuggling ring, and it’s a taut, tense film that benefits from a terrific performance by Fishburne, who largely carries the film on his shoulders. The film has been restored and remastered and includes a number of extra features, and I really enjoyed this trip into the mainstream.
Pennyworth: The Complete Second Season – With Gotham off the air, how do you make another Batman TV show without Batman in it? Well, you go back in time. Luckliy, the comic books have well established that Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, was a British special forces soldier in his past, and that story is brought to the small screen with this premium channel show. Now in its second season, Pennyworth mines that and gives us the adventures of young Alfred Pennyworth, now out of the army and working as a “security consultant” who comes across Thomas Wayne (as yet unmarried and without children.) The show is set in the 1960s, and it has sort of a James-Bond-set-in-the-Batman-Universe feel to it. While it eschews costumes and gadgets for the most part, the villains are colorful and the solitary-soldier vibe are reminiscent of Batman in just the right way. This new set includes all 10 episodes of Season 2 and it’s a good watch. Fans of Batman and people who just want something James Bond-esque will probably both enjoy this rousing action show.
- C.B. Strike: Lethal White – When the C.B. Strike shows started airing on HBO, I couldn’t figure out why it sounded so familiar until I realized that C.B. Strike is the detective from the novels of Robert Galbraith, also known as J.K. Rowling. After an initial limited series based on the first three Galbraith novels (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil), we now get a new 4-episode series called Lethal White. Starring Tom Burke (War & Peace, The Musketeers) and Holliday Grainger (Cinderella, Bonnie & Clyde), the show follows Strike as he now tries to solve murder a murder that a man claims he witnessed as a child, all with the help of his lovely assistant. These are a far cry from the world of Harry Potter, but the storytelling skill is just as evident. I wish the show had been released on Blu-ray, but I still enjoyed it, even on DVD.
- Working Girls – Returning to their usual M.O. a little bit more, The Criterion Collection also brings us their release of Working Girls (not to be confused with the 1980s’ Melanie Griffith comedy). This 1986 drama was directed by Lizzie Borden (who seems to have disappeared from filmmaking and is definitely not the axe murderer from the 1800s), and it focuses on one day in the life of several working girls in an upscale Manhattan prostitution house. We follow several girls as they interact with their johns and their madams, and we get a glimpse into what drives them as well as their customers. It’s much more a “day in the life” office drama than a titillating sex-based film, although of course, there are a lot of sexual situations involved. I wasn’t familiar with this film before this release came across my desk, but it’s a raw and effective film. Working Girls has been restored and remastered and includes a nice collection of extra features, and if you’ve never seen the film — while it’s not for everyone — it’s worth tracking down.
- Jakob’s Wife – Horror regulars Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden star in this new thriller from Travis Stevens, who has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time but makes his directing debut here. And it’s a pretty impressive debut. Crampton plays a repressed pastor’s wife, while Fessenden plays her controlling husband, who preaches fire and brimstone while ignoring and subjugating his wife. So when she becomes a vampire and transforms her personality completely, well, it upends their marriage completely. The film is part horror, part comedy, and it manages to walk that line pretty well, which is incredibly hard to pull off. It works well largely thanks to Crampton and Fessenden’s performances. While neither are typically what I think of as great actors, they really embrace these roles and have fun with them, and it’s their onscreen relationship and their commitment to the characters that make the film work. It’s a great debut from a director with some obvious talent.
- Lucky (August 3) – If you take the Groundhog Day formula and apply it to a home invasion thriller, and then throw in a couple of extra twists, you get Lucky. The film stars Brea Grant (who also wrote the film) as a woman who wakes her husband up when sees an intruder trying to break into her house. We then learn that this happens every night, and from there things get twisty. Now, I like a good Groundhog Day-style movie, and it works in multiple genres. We saw a super-fun version of it in the slasher genre with Happy Death Day, and Lucky manages to pull it off with a smaller budget and no well-known actors. The film has some flaws, and you do have to put up with the repetitive nature of the story, but the payoff is interesting and I could the film worth watching, even if it wasn’t a complete home run. Worth a look.
- Gangs of London: Season One – This new series from the Sky network is a British crime drama about, well, the gangs of London, but more importantly, about what happens when one of the most powerful mobsters in England is killed and nobody knows why or by who. This sets up the drama that runs through the nine episodes that make up this first season (I believe the show has been renewed for a second season already.) The show doesn’t have any familiar names to me as a US-based TV viewer, but the cast is uniformly excellent. I can’t say I was utterly captivated by the show, but I certainly did find things to like about it. Some of the storylines sucked me in, others I found a bit wanting, so the end result is a little bit of a mixed bag, but in the end I liked it more than I disliked it.
- Seance (August 3) – I mean, nothing good ever happens in movies when you hold a seance, and I think you can probably guess that when a movie is actually called Seance, you know there’s gonna be trouble. This new horror thriller is set at an all-girls school, and the seance that kicks off the film leads to a death, weird goings-on, and other mysteries. The film has some recognizable-but-not-quite-big-name faces in the cast such as Suki Waterhouse and Sharni Vinson, but they’re not enough to save the movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s wildly uneven and it feels like the filmmakers were still trying to make up their minds as to what kind of movie they were making even as they were filming it. It’s a curiosity, but it’s not a terrific film.
- Room 9 – Sometimes you have to wonder why people bother making certain movies, and Room 9 is one of them. The cover art proudly proclaims three horror veterans in the cast, Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Scout Taylor Compton (Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies) and Kane Hodder (Jason in several Friday the 13th movies), but each one’s part is severely underdeveloped and it feels like they barely have anything to do. Hell, Scout Taylor Compton is completely absent from the first half of the film. This would all be okay if the film was any good, but honestly, it’s low-budget fare with a story that has no story and never becomes scary or interesting. This one’s a dud, I’m sorry to say.
- Hydra – This is the latest Hi-Yah original film, and you may find yourself wondering “What is Hi-Yah?” Well, it’s a new action and Asian martial arts channel, and they’ve been putting out new films to home video over the past year or so. At the heart of the film is the story of a retired assassin working as a chef at a sushi bar who gets wrapped back up in things. And while that part of the film is interesting, it tries to take on too much and shoehorn in bigger subplots about police and corruption that take away from the central character. There are a couple of fight scenes that are utterly astounding, but they are few and far between, leaving you waiting for the action to return to the screen. It’s not a great film overall, but it’s a quick watch and the fight scenes do stand out, so it might be worth checking out if you need an action fix.
- Code 3 L.A. Sheriff’s Case Files: The Complete Series – In the late 1950s, Code 3 was a crime procedural based on real life case files. I know this thanks to handy internet research, and not because I remember the show. In fact, I’d never heard of the show before this DVD came across my desk. Digging into the show now, some 50+ years later, it’s interesting. I wasn’t expecting the real-life L.A. sheriff to show up at the ends of the episodes to talk about the cases, so that was kind of cool. The show only lasted one season, but that gave us 39 episodes, and while the cast isn’t made up of big names, with Richard Travis in the lead role, but it did have some good guys stars, including Stacy Keach, Sr., Dick Sargent, Russell Johnson, DeForest Kelley, Mike Connors, Claude Akins, Guy Williams, and James Best, so a lot of TV favorites of the time popped up. I don’t know that this show is going to blow away today’s audiences, but it’s a solid slice of classic Hollywood TV.
- Royal Deceit – What if Christian Bale, Helen Mirren, and Kate Beckinsale made a movie in 1994 and no-one remembered it? Well, I’ve got news for you: they did, and no one does. Honestly, I don’t remember this film even existing, but now we have a new Blu-ray edition of it thanks to Blieberg Entertainment. The film seems like an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it’s actually based on the original Danish legend that inspired the famous play. Now, I’m not a Shakespeare fan to begin with, so maybe I’m a little biased here, but despite the great cast (which also includes Gabriel Byrne), the film isn’t really that good. (And maybe that’s why nobody remembers it.) It’s just… slow. Nothing much seems to happen. There are some battles that largely occur off screen, and the film has a sense of quiet gloom that seems to permeate it. The performances are strong but the film is just underwhelming.
- An American In Paris: The Musical – Okay, so this gets a little convoluted, but this new Blu-ray release is a video of a play based on a movie, if that makes sense. The 1951 film An American in Paris won six Oscars and was turned into a Tony-winning Broadway play. Now, the London version of that play has been captured on film and released on home video. Now, I’ve said many times before that Im not a huge fan of musicals, but that doesn’t mean I blankly dislike them. I find them much more enjoyable in theater settings than as straight films, so this one won me over. The stage play is quite impressive, with simple sets enhanced by a sort of video backdrop, and the musical numbers are really energetic. The cast is unknown to me but they all do a great job with both the singing and dancing and the acting side of things, and although it’s a little long (which I understand since it’s a theatrical production), I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.
- Close Range + Savage Dog (Scott Adkins Double Feature) – Scott Adkins is kind of the perfect guy to be the B-movie action king that he is. I always find his screen presence a little lacking and his acting chops a little subpar… but when the action gets going, he just nails it. He looks great in a fight, he’s got the skills with martial arts and guns, and you just buy him as a bad ass every time he’s not trying to get through dialogue. This new double feature from Bleiberg Entertainment gives us two Adkins films for the price of one. Savage Dog sees Adkins play a boxer in a Vietnamese prison camp who dreams of freedom while being forced to fight in an illegal boxing ring. Close Range, meanwhile, is a siege film, with Adkins and his family trapped on his ranch while fighting off a criminal cartel and corrupt local authorities. For my money, I quite enjoyed Close Range, while Savage Dog is a more mediocre effort, but since you can probably find this budget release for about ten bucks pretty easily, it’s hard to argue with it.
- Women Composers – Quick, name three famous female composers. Okay, name one. Can’t do it? Well, that’s no big surprise, as it’s been one of the most male-dominated professions for hundreds of years. In this film, pianist (and now filmmaker) Kyra Steckeweh went in search of female composers and found three from history who are largely unknown to the world: Mel Bonis, Lili Boulanger and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, who all lived in the 1800s and early 1900s. We learn about the women, their lives and their music, and Steckeweh even performs some of the music for the film. It’s an interesting movie, and while I usually applaud short running times, the movie’s 53-minute running time actually feels like there was room for more. Still, an educational an interesting exploration of some historically important and underappreciated women.
- Joey & Ella: A Kangaroo Tail (July 27) – I’m just gonna tell you about this film and decide if it’s your kids’ kind of thing or not. The film starts with a couple of jewel thieves losing a famous diamond than ends up in the pouch of a baby kangaroo, who makes her way to a local family’s barn and is befriended by a teenage girl named Ella. So far, so good for a kids’ film. Then the gem’s magical powers cause the kangaroo to start growing and being able to speak to Ella. Okaaaay… that’s new. From there, you get pretty typical kids’ fare, with the thieves trying to recapture the jewel and of course, Joey and Ella becoming fast friends, and all sorts of hijinks that you’d expect with a talking kangaroo and a magic crystal. Kids will probably enjoy it, parents might find themselves rolling their eyes one or twice or twelve times.
- WB Archives Spotlight – Finally, this week, we have several new releases from Warner Bros. print-on-demand service, the Warner Archive (www.warnerwrchive.com). Each of these films is making it’s Blu-ray debut here and can be ordered directly from the Archive or through online retailers such as Amazon. First up is Guns of San Sebastian, a western flavored actioner from 1968 starring Anthony Quinn and Charles Bronson. The film takes place in 1743 but sees an outlaw being hunted by the army and finding refuge with Indians, so out has a definite western feel to it. It’s a solid film but not a home run. Much more effective is the 1945 war picture Operation Burma, starring Errol Flynn. The film follows a squad of paratroopers dropped into the Burmese jungle to take out a Japanese radar station, but then and that getting out of Dodge with their livers intact is no easy feat. It’s a great adventure/war movie, and Flynn is always fun to watch. Switching gears a bit, we have Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the real standout of the bunch. This 1949 film sees two baseball players (who are also vaudeville performers) dealing with a new female team owner. With Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams in the cats, you know it’s got some great musical numbers, and it’s just a lively and entertaining film. Continuing on, we have There Was a Crooked Man, one of the last films by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This western stars Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Hume Cronyn, and Burgess Meredith. Douglas plays a hard-nosed yet charming criminal locked up in a prison in the middle of the Arizona desert, who enlists the other prisoners around him to help engineer an escape. It’s a fun film with a couple of darker moments, but Douglas is terrific and I have a fondness for prison movies, so I really enjoyed this one. Changing genres, we have a spy thriller starring Lawrence Tierney and Anne Jeffreys called Step By Step from 1945. This is one of the more pedestrian offerings of this bunch. It’s not a bad film by any stretch, I just didn’t find it particularly engaging. It fits into that sort of “typical old Hollywood” category: solid enough film but nothing special. Finally, we have I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, a crime thriller starring Don Castle and Elyse Knox. The film doesn’t really have any big names attached to it, but this story of a dancer framed for murder whose wife sets out to find the evidence to free him, is surprisingly interesting. It’s a nice gender role reversal for a movie from 1948, with the woman playing detective instead of the man. It’s obviously a studio B-picture, but I found it surprisingly entertaining