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Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Queue: Netflix has a winner with sweet, kooky Tina Fey creation Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Posted by on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 at 11:38 AM

Ellie Kemper plays recently liberated doomsday cultist Kimmy Schmidt in a new Netflix original series. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • courtesy of Netflix
  • Ellie Kemper plays recently liberated doomsday cultist Kimmy Schmidt in a new Netflix original series.
Fans of NBC's late, great 30 Rock will want to check out the new Netflix series from Tina Fey and her creative partner, Robert Carlock. Like the earlier series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a style of joke-writing that's fast, loose and literate. It's the kind of series you can simply enjoy on one level, and also study on another. It's like a masterclass in the craft of TV comedy writing.

Kimmy is headlined by the very funny writer and actress Ellie Kemper—a performer whose likability is so natural it must exist on the cellular level somehow. Kemper plays a 29-year-old survivor of a Midwestern doomsday cult, recently liberated from her underground bunker and set loose in the wilds of New York City. The central premise is simple and inspired—Kimmy's indefatigable sunniness versus the onslaught of contemporary urban life.

The series' other lead role belongs to Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess, who also starred on 30 Rock as the flamboyant hairdresser D'Fwan—one of that show's most reliably funny bit players in the later seasons. (You may remember D'Fwan's boutique winery venture: "D'Fwine: Please D'Fwink Responsibly.")

The two leads have an instant and potent comic chemistry, and the cast is rounded out by some other reliable comedy vets, including Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane. Later episodes continue the 30 Rock tradition of casting high-octane guest stars, including Jon Hamm, Amy Sedaris, Tim Blake Nelson and Martin Short as a deeply disturbing plastic surgeon.

Kimmy's charm and kookiness depend largely on Kemper's performance—Tina Fey created the role with her in mind—but also on the top-shelf comedy craftsmanship of the writing team. The usual setup-punchline combo of traditional sitcoms is almost entirely absent. Instead, dialogue loops and swirls, creating crazy rhythms and rapid-fire joke runs that occasionally require use of the pause button.

There's also an inherent sweetness in the characters and the comic setups. Kimmy's unbreakable spirit grabs the attention of the various NYC cynics and weirdoes that she meets, and bounces off them in interesting ways. Kimmy's relationship with her boss, Karakowski's Manhattan aristocrat, gets more complex as the season progresses. But it also gets funnier, as the writers mine deeper strains of comedy that are rooted in character.

With its initial season run of 13 episodes, Kimmy is the first major launch on Netflix's original programming slate this year. It's already one of the best new shows on any platform—network, cable or streaming. Let the binge-watching begin.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now available on Netflix Instant.

Other recommended releases this week, now available on digital and disc:

Steve Carell goes darkside in the biographical true-crime drama Foxcatcher, with Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce headline the literary indie drama Listen Up Philip.

The latest installment in the popular dystopian sci-fi franchise, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 is enjoyably dark and effective, considering it's just half a story.
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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Queue: Jake Gyllenhaal gets his sociopath on in creepy thriller Nightcrawler

Posted by on Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 11:40 AM

Jake Gyllenhaal dropped 20 pounds to play a crime-scene paparazzo in Nightcrawler. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OPEN ROAD FILMS
  • photo courtesy of Open Road Films
  • Jake Gyllenhaal dropped 20 pounds to play a crime-scene paparazzo in Nightcrawler.
Nighttime in Los Angeles is a busy and sinister place in Nightcrawler, an unsettling thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a freelance TV news cameraman. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, part of a ghoulish, nocturnal mutation of paparazzi—nightcrawlers—who follow cops and first responders to crime scenes and accidents. The movie makes many depressing observations about the media, particularly the cutthroat world of local TV news and that industry's enduring motto: "If it bleeds, it leads."

But the real reason to track this one down, on digital or disc, is to watch Gyllenhaal's supremely menacing performance. As revealed in the behind-the-scenes bonus materials, the actor undertook a radical diet-and-exercise regimen to portray Bloom as a kind of starving urban coyote. He's a scavenger and a predator, feeding on the misery of others. Gyllenhaal dropped 20 pounds for the role—and the guy's skinny to begin with. He looks like death warmed over, which is just right for this story.

Director Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the Oscar-nominated script, does an interesting thing with the character arc. When we first meet Bloom, he's appears to be a reluctant small-time thief, stealing scrap metal to make rent. He's earnest, and even sympathetic—until we see him savagely mug a security guard on a whim.

Gradually, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal color in a portrait of a modern sociopath, raised on bad TV and the instant gratification of the Internet. Bloom stumbles into the nightcrawler racket, but he instantly recognizes it as his calling in life. He's fascinated with the power of the images he captures on video—bloodied crash survivors and crime victims.

Bloom even spooks his own nightcrawler colleagues. These guys don't have many ethical boundaries, but they have a few. Bloom doesn't scoff at the rules; he simply doesn't acknowledge them. He doesn't even see them. When he starts selling his footage to a cynical TV news director, played by Rene Russo, Bloom smells further opportunity for his brand of can-do initiative.

The dialogue in Nightcrawler is something to be savored. Bloom talks with the aggressive hucksterism of scary self-help knuckleheads from late-night TV and the darker corners of the Internet. Dealing with the local news stations, his competitors and his accomplices, Bloom circles back to the same empty buzzwords to obscure his simple, feral avarice. At one point, another character observes that Bloom just doesn't understand other people. His reply: "It's not that I don't understand other people. It's that I don't like them."

Tonally, Nightcrawler is restless and jittery in a way that recalls a famous earlier film about death, decay and nighttime in the city—Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. There's a bit of Travis Bickle in Bloom. But Bloom's pathology, as Hannibal Lecter might say, is more savage and more terrifying. Bickle was driven by pain, and a revulsion toward the city at night. Bloom doesn't feel any pain. And he likes the city at night.

Nightcrawler is available now on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, DVD and Blu-ray.

Other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc (Academy Awards Edition!):
  • Academy Award-winner for Best Picture Birdman teams the invaluable Michael Keaton with Best Director-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

  • Best Actor-winner Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

  • Academy Award-winner for Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 is a fun and funny option for family movie night.

  • J.K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for his work in the crazy-good indie drama Whiplash.

  • Not nominated but should have been: Filmmaker Steve James relays a surprisingly great life story in the excellent Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.

  • Also: Horrible Bosses 2, St. Vincent, The Homesman and—binge-watching alert—Game of Thrones: Season 4.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

The Queue: Binge-watch on the dark side with astonishing tech-horror series Black Mirror

Posted by on Fri, Feb 6, 2015 at 11:29 AM

  • courtesy of Endemol UK
  • Black Mirror
When more than one person suggests that I get on board with a particular Netflix binge-watching opportunity, I try to pay attention and put it in the queue. Alan Partridge, say, or Patton Oswalt's new special.

When a dozen different people insist I watch something immediately—well, that's when the magic usually happens.

And so it is with the deep, dark and disturbing U.K. series Black Mirror, which practices the kind of savage satire we haven't seen since Jonathan Swift made his modest proposal concerning babies.

Launched in 2012 by series creator Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is like a Twilight Zone for the digital age. Each episode is a self-contained story, presented anthology-style, that examines a worrying aspect of modern technology—particularly social media and our brave new world of constant, insistent connectivity. The series was a critical sensation in Britain, and hit a nerve on this side of the pond when Netflix picked it up in December for its instant streaming service.

The pilot episode, "The National Anthem," concerns a plot to extort the British government. An apparent psychopath has kidnapped one of Royal Family, and in exchange for her return insists that the Prime Minister perform an appalling sex act on live TV.

Well, there's no point in being coy, I suppose: The PM is ordered to fuck a pig. Without spoiling too much, what happens next—and how it's depicted—is one of the most uncompromising and audacious social critiques to ever smack popular culture upside the head.

It's a brutal shotgun takedown of modern politics and media, but the really awful part is how familiar it all is. This isn't a far-future story; this is five minutes away. And the underlying question—do you like to watch?—will leave you squirming.

As hardcore as that pilot episode is, the series’ second installment—“Fifteen Million Merits”—is an even rougher ride. It tackles social media and reality TV more directly, but with surprising storytelling sophistication and emotional depth.

The stories in Black Mirror initially present themselves as sci-fi, but tonally, they're much closer to that other disreputable speculative fiction genre—they're horror all the way. Forget ghost stories or splatter-porn. You really want to scare yourself silly, gaze into this mirror. You won’t be able to look away, though you might wish that you could.

Black Mirror is available now on Netflix Instant, DVD and Blu-ray.

Other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc:

Keanu Reeves plays a hardcase hitman in the surprisingly well-reviewed John Wick.

Brad Pitt leads a tank crew in the bleak WWII drama Fury.

The Book of Life is a solid family movie-night choice for the kids, concerning true love, Mexican folklore and the lighter side of underworld afterlife.

Games interested in the thinkier aspects of the medium may want to track down the new documentary Video Games: The Movie.

Also: The Judge, Open Windows, The Best of Me, My Old Lady, The Color of Time and, for you poor hopeless addicts, Downton Abbey: Season 5.
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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Queue: Class conflict and Victorian grotesques—you know, for the kids—in The Boxtrolls

Posted by on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM

The Boxtrolls is different, dark, a little Marxist and fucking amazing. - COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
  • courtesy of Focus Features
  • The Boxtrolls is different, dark, a little Marxist and fucking amazing.
Watching the stop-motion animated film THE BOXTROLLS at home over the weekend, I went through three distinct phases of reaction:

1. Wow, this is different.

2. Wow, this is dark.

3. Wow, this is fucking amazing.

I kept the f-bomb in my internal monologue—I was watching with the kids—but the rest I literally said out loud at various points. In a very strong year for smart and funny family films, The Boxtrolls was 2014’s best animated feature. It’s got my vote, anyway, and is one of five Oscar nominees in the category this year.

The story: In the surreal Victorian-era town of Cheesebridge, subterranean tinkerers known as boxtrolls emerge to scavenge the streets at night, building ornate contraptions in their caves beneath the city. The boxtrolls are peaceful, but have been vilified by a sort of allegorical corporatocracy of effete lords and corrupt industrialists.

Our hero is a teenage boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), raised by the boxtrolls and unaware of his human heritage. Through an inventive and tightly constructed story, Eggs endeavors to bring peace between the humans and the critters. Also on board in voiceover roles: Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan (!) and Simon Pegg.

Painstakingly assembled by the stop-motion animation studio Laika—the same team behind Coraline and ParaNormanThe Boxtrolls is never less than rich and fascinating, visually. (If you’ve seen those films, you know the style.) But this time, it’s the story that really sells the enterprise as a whole. Based on the novel Here Be Monsters!, the film is delightfully dark and sophisticated in tone, with a subversive edge that recalls the wily social satire of vintage Monty Python.

At the same time, the movie is broad and kinetic enough to engage kids on a whole ‘nother level. The characterizations veer toward the sort of old-timey grotesques (think Punch and Judy) that have been effective at entertaining children for centuries. I can report that my first-grade daughter, typically devoted to rainbows and ponies, absolutely loved The Boxtrolls.

The film just rotated onto DVD and Blu-ray, but it’s actually been available via digital distribution for a few weeks. You can get to it on iTunes or Amazon, on-demand through cable/satellite (AT&T U-verse has it locally in the Triangle area), or via the various set-top box and game console networks.

This is another example of the abiding weirdness that is digital distribution right now. All these great movies are out there, in the same price range as in the old video store days, available at the touch of a button. But because there’s no one-stop shopping solution for digital purchases, people get confused and wait for Redbox.

Anyway, with kids or without, The Boxtrolls is worth tracking down. Some other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc:

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike headline the twisty thriller GONE GIRL.

Scarlett Johansson plays a sci-fi super-soldier in director Luc Besson’s LUCY.

One seriously creepy porcelain doll makes trouble in the retro-horror ANNABELLE.

And some picks for new January releases on Netflix:

Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Chinatown (1974)
Footloose (1984)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Marathon Man (1976)
Swingers (1996)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Oh, and a little international incident called THE INTERVIEW will start streaming on Netflix this Saturday:

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year in review: You have to see theatrical releases to rank them

Posted by on Wed, Dec 31, 2014 at 10:21 AM

Zack would have liked to see Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Boyhood ... but who's got three hours to spare these days? - COURTESY MATT LANKES / IFC FILMS
  • courtesy Matt Lankes / IFC Films
  • Zack would have liked to see Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Boyhood ... but who's got three hours to spare these days?
Recently, the INDY asked me if I’d provide a list of the top 10 films I saw in the past year.

The request threw me, because it made me realize something: There’s a lot less pressure to see a film in the theater than there used to be.

Understand, I’ve never been a primary part of the skilled crew of film critics for the paper—my wheelhouse includes plays, bookstore events and comic books. Often, the films I write about are revival screenings at local theaters. But the gaps in my moviegoing this year are shameful, and the worst part is, I know exactly why I didn’t see many of the most talked-about films. For example, Boyhood is nearly three hours long. Factor in travel time to and from the theater, and that’s nearly four hours. Every time I tried to block out that four hours, I found myself thinking, “Well, I could go to the gym, or to a bookstore, or could finish binge-watching The Shield TV series on DVD… .”

The “I can put it off” mentality led to complicated scheduling. If I visited, I could see exactly when the indie films they were showing would be leaving the rotation. “ENDS THURSDAY!” was a red flag. I usually work a part-time job until 8 on Thursday, and if a film was splitting theater space with another film, it might only have a screening at 7. And, of course, Wednesdays often meant regular film showings were preempted for a revival screening, such as Cinema Overdrive. A few times, I’d spontaneously decide to catch a film on Wednesday, only to find I’d forgotten to check for a special event. Viewing window gone.

Cinema Overdrive and other events created a reverse pressure—if I knew a movie would only play one night or a single weekend, I felt more compelled to see it than a major Hollywood production. My work schedule keeps me from seeing many of the wonderful films at the North Carolina Museum of Art, but with Cinema Inc., the aforementioned Overdrive and Cool Classics at the Colony, and the many Retrofantasma and related features at the Carolina Theatre of Durham, there was plenty to fill the gap.

When I did make it to theaters, I put smaller independent films at the top of my list, films I knew wouldn’t have a wide theatrical release in the Triangle. I’m still glad I caught the likes of Snowpiercer and the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself at the Colony (if you missed it, it was recently announced that CNN will show it Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9 p.m.).

Hollywood films were easier to miss. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were limited screens and a wait of about a year before a film became available on VHS for rental. Now, there’s only a three-month delay or so between a film's wide theatrical release and it becoming a $2.25 ticket at the second-run Carmike near my house. Wait a little longer and you can outright own a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, or enjoy it on Netflix Instant, Amazon Streaming, iTunes, HBOGo (which most people “borrow” the password for anyway) or assorted other options.

It all reminds me of what I read about television becoming popular in the 1950s. You could experience for free at home what once required a movie ticket, so how did movies compete? Some got larger, like Roman epics in “Cinemascope.” The smaller films, such as horror movies, went for gimmicks like 3-D and exploitation to draw in curious audiences.

You can still see patterns like this in modern cinema. Go to a larger theater, and you’ll get an ad before a film where a big action scene shrinks down to the size of a computer screen, with an admonition that it really deserves to be seen at full size. Many big studio releases use (often unnecessary) digital 3-D as an added incentive to see a film in a theater. And one of the most lively revival screenings I caught this year was a presentation of gimmick-king William Castle’s The Tingler at the Carolina Theatre, where fans packed Fletcher Hall to experience flashlights being shined in their eyes, a skeleton on a bungee cord and onscreen cues telling them when to scream. There was a sense of community you couldn’t get from watching the same movie at home on a DVD.

As guilty as I feel for cutting back my theater-going experiences in 2014, I recognize that I still made it to the movies more frequently than many less-cinema-obsessed people. Revivals included, I probably saw 30, 40 movies in a theater this year. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Moviegoing Report, the average person saw 7.3 films in a theater in 2014, down from 7.7 in 2013. The drive downward was blamed on “Digitals,” those aged 12-24, who preferred a streamed (and, in some cases, pirated) experience.

So. What does this mean?

The logical answer would seem to be that studio films are going to keep getting bigger, and keep relying on countless sequels, remakes and adaptations to lure audiences back. Indeed, a recent piece by the excellent writer Mark Harris at Grantland offers a truly intimidating compilation of what we’ll see over the next several years. Even as a hardcore comic book fan, I’m expecting to get burned out on the various linked-and-semi-linked Marvel Comics-based movies, or Warner Bros.’ efforts to compete with their build-up to a Justice League film. And every time a multi-film plan for some novel adaptation comes up, I die a little inside. When I was a kid, The Hobbit was an 80-minute cartoon on TV, not a nine-hour trilogy that takes longer to watch than to read the original book (yes, I know they delved into other Tolkien material to pad it out. Still don’t care).

But I’ve got a strange optimism. I’m teaching a course at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center in January based on another Harris work, his book Pictures at a Revolution, detailing the Best Picture nominees of 1967. Those five films were Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle, a crossroads of the dying studio system’s bloated, out-of-touch productions and the edgier, more relevant “New Hollywood” that resulted in the creative renaissance of the 1970s—the decade of Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Hal Ashby and some of the best American movies ever made.

What’s most intriguing about the times to come is how filmmaking might adapt. Are more small films going to bypass theaters altogether for streaming and on-demand services? Are studios going to try to find a way to enjoy lower risks and higher rewards like Universal Studios, who enjoyed record profits this year by not relying on tentpole projects? Are big-budget superhero movies and young adult novel adaptations going to backfire the same way overblown studio musicals and epics did in the 1960s, leading to a resurgence in mid-level films? And how will movie theaters, particularly the smaller, independent-film-based ones, continue to compete with services such as streaming?

On my end, I recognize the challenge for moviegoers is the same as in other areas of life—the willingness to get up and make an effort when every form of entertainment is almost literally at your fingertips in this technology-based age. Not all films are worth the trouble, but there is still value in that large, projected image that gives you the filmmakers’ intended vision.

So, that’s why I don’t have a Top 10 list for this year. I will try harder in 2015. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to work this weekend and need to figure out when the hell I have time to catch The Babadook.
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    It's becoming more challenging to get to the theater (and easier to skip it), but it's still worth it—sometimes.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween special: Bonus Materials picks view-on-demand films for a scary movie night at home

Posted by on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 2:19 PM

Watching scary movies at home is a time-honored Halloween tradition, but needing to plan ahead at Blockbuster is a thing of the past. Now, if you're a Netflix subscriber, hundreds of horror movies are instantly available online. Here are 10 recommendations for streaming Halloween chills, focusing on relatively under-the-radar selections that are worth digging up from the vault—or, if you will, the grave.

The Awakening (2011)
An old-school haunted-manor-on-the-moors-type ghost story, this moody mystery stars Rebecca Hall as a 1920s scientific investigator whose skepticism is challenged by paranormal happenings at an old boarding school. Nice and creepy.

Devil (2010)
Strange things happen when five people get trapped in a broken elevator, and one of them may be the Devil. A slight but clever indie thriller from producer and writer M. Night Shamalayan.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
John Malkovich plays silent film director F.W. Murnau, who goes to disturbing lengths to ensure authenticity in his famous vampire film Nosferatu. Willem Dafoe is perfect as Murnau's decidedly freaky lead actor, Max Schreck.

Nosferatu (1929)
Perfect for a double feature, Netflix also has the original Nosferatu on instant streaming, cut together from several prints in the 2006 restoration edition. The story of the menacing Count Orlock is considered a masterpiece of German Expressionist film, and some say it’s the best vampire movie ever made.

Let the Right One In (2008)
My vote for the best vampire movie ever goes to this 2008 horror film out of Sweden. It tells the story of an ancient vampire who appears to be a 12-year-old girl and the subsequent weirdness that transpires. Part art-film horror, part pre-adolescent Gothic romance, it transcends the horror genre to become something genuinely beautiful and disturbing.

The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny Depp plays a rare book collector who stumbles across a cult of wealthy Satanists trying to conjure the Devil. Nothing particularly scary happens, but director Roman Polanski creates a nice atmosphere of chilly dread.

Stake Land (2010)
Desperate survivors try to outrun feral vampire hordes in this fun indie thriller, which finds new things to do in the well-worn zombie apocalypse genre. Hey, is that Kelly "Top Gun" McGillis as a nun on the run? Yes! Yes, it is!

Monsters (2010)
A truly impressive ultra-low-budget indie, Monsters imagines a future in which skyscraper-sized aliens have been walled off in a Mexican quarantine zone. Director Gareth Edwards generated the remarkable visual effects with two PCs and some Adobe software, and went on to make this year's creature feature Godzilla.

Re-Animator (1985)
Like Monsters, the immortal cult classic Re-Animator is based in part on the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and his pantheon of cosmic nightmare personages. Campy and exuberant, it's a riff on the Frankenstein story packed with black humor and excessive, goofy gore.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
From producer Joss Whedon, Cabin is both a satire and celebration of the slasher genre, with horny young people making poor decisions about basement stairs, knives, forbidden tomes—those sorts of things. The movie's final act goes full-tilt bananas, making this is a great choice for a rowdier Halloween movie party.

Also recommended: The House of the Devil, The Host, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, From Dusk Till Dawn, Evil Dead 2, Children of the Corn, You're Next, The Grudge and director Barry Levinson's surprisingly great found-footage eco-horror freak-out, The Bay.

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    From 1929's Nosferatu to 2011's The Cabin in the Woods, a bounty of Halloween movie treats is just a mouse click away

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bonus Materials: David Lynch, nightmare membranes and Eraserhead

Posted by on Wed, Sep 17, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Thirty-seven years after its initial theatrical release, David Lynch's debut feature film Eraserhead has been reissued and upgraded to U.S. Blu-ray format in a gorgeous package from the stalwart archivists at the Criterion Collection. The reissue includes a full 4K digital restoration, six additional short films and the usual generous assortment of new and archival bonus materials.

Several years in the making, Eraserhead remains a masterpiece of American independent film, albeit one shelved back in the darker aisles—where the spiders and the molds grow. It defies synopsis. The story, so far as it goes, follows a fearful man named Henry (Jack Nance), caring for his deformed infant child in an industrial wasteland. Abstract sounds and visuals float about, and nothing is as it seems. ("They're still not sure it's a baby," his girlfriend proclaims.) It's dedicated Surrealist art all the way, teeming with personal and archetypal anxieties. Like much of Lynch's later work, it's also frequently funny.

In the years since its release, the film has been particularly lauded for its intricate sound design. The incessant industrial noises move beyond ambient audio into a soundscape that screams and moans like some parallel narrative. If you've got a good home theater setup, crank up the volume.

Also included in the package is the 2001 documentary Eraserhead Stories, assembled by Lynch himself. This is pure, weird gold for anyone interested in the excruciating minutiae of the filmmaking process—which in this case stretched over five years. Lynch, chain smoking and framed with an old-school radio microphone, free associates about the making of the movie with archival photos, "home movies" and audio clips woven in. Lynch even calls collaborator Catherine Coulson on the phone for some extemporaneous reminiscence.

Like most Criterion reissues, the Eraserhead package also comes with a booklet of printed material—a detailed Q&A with Lynch by Chris Rodley from his book Lynch on Lynch, and some details on the painstaking digital transfer.

It's a lot of fun to double back to Eraserhead, and even more fascinating to watch the film again in context of the bonus materials. Lynch's films and stories often squirm about on the surface of that thin membrane that separates nightmares from our waking life. This is where it all began, and if you're feeling intrepid, here's an option for the kind of scary movie night at home that will seep into your dreams.

Also new on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital:

  • Monster movie fans should enjoy the skyscraper-smashing mayhem in Godzilla, which crosses state-of -the-art FX with old Japanese kaiju movie in-jokes. 
  • Shailene Woodley plays a 16-year-old cancer patient in the YA weepie The Fault in Our Stars
  • The hardscrabble Philly neighborhood drama God's Pocket stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final performances. 
  • Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play an art teacher and a writing teacher, respectively, in the romantic drama Words and Pictures

Notable New Titles on Netflix in September:

All is Lost (2013)
A Simple Plan (2009)
The Double (2014)
Girlfight (2000)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Le Week-End (2014)
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Your Sister's Sister (2011)

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    Criterion Collection reissues Lynch's debut feature in a gorgeous package

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bonus Materials: Bullet trains and class rage in Snowpiercer

Posted by on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 1:47 PM

Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer - COURTESY OF RADIUS-TWC
  • courtesy of Radius-TWC
  • Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer
The brutal and visionary South Korean science fiction thriller Snowpiercer made a splash a few weeks back when it finally got a wide release in U.S. theaters after an extended tussle with distributor Harvey Weinstein. That dispute almost kept it out of theaters here.

Details are too complicated to go into, but the upshot is that Snowpiercer is now available via video on demand at your friendly neighborhood cable provider or online retailer. If you didn't catch it in the theater, I highly recommend it for a movie night at home. It'll mess you up. But, you know, in a good way.

Best approached as a sort of wigged-out allegory, the film stars Chris "Captain America" Evans and an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Korean headliners Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung.

It's the year 2031, and the world has been plunged into a lethal ice age, thanks to some ill-advised atmospheric processing. The film's first grim joke is that mankind froze itself trying to compensate for global warming. The world's last survivors, human and animal, live aboard the massive bullet train Snowpiercer, which ceaselessly circles the planet, thanks to a futuristic perpetual motion engine and a dozen other mad-scientist conceits. It's the film's second grim joke that mankind's Ark is a train.

Our hero Curtis Everett (Evans) leads a rebellion from the train's rear cars—where mankind's dregs are kept prisoner—to the front cars, where the elite meet. The film is structured as an old-fashioned A-to-B quest, with the rebels fighting their way forward to the train's engine and its mysterious engineer.

The form of the story may be old school, but everything else is cutting-edge sci-fi weirdness. Director Bong Joon-ho conjures startling, hallucinatory images within the train, including an impossible aquarium, a drug-fueled rave and a deeply disturbing kitchen car. You may spot visual echoes of Blade Runner, Brazil and even The Shining, but the film has a nightmare aesthetic all its own.

It's class warfare made hellishly literal, and the film's heavy gore factor might be a legitimate concern for the squeamish. (This isn't a family-night movie.) But the audacious storytelling is something to savor. We get plenty of big-budget, Hollywood-crafted, sci-fi adventures each summer, but few leave a lasting impression. Snowpiercer is a jolt of adrenalin. We're reminded: "Oh, yeah, that's what great science fiction movies can achieve."

Extras: As an early-release VOD title, the version of Snowpiercer you get online or on cable is the same as you get in theaters. If the typical distribution patterns hold, we'll get a DVD/Blu-ray release in a few months with the usual suite of bonus materials.

Also new this week:
  • Director Jim Jarmusch takes a stab at the modern vampire romance with the hipster fable Only Lovers Left Alive, also starring Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. The cast also includes Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska.  
  • Tom Hardy headlines the British drama Locke, which manages to be dramatic and suspenseful despite almost everything taking place with Hardy inside a car alone. How'd they do that? Find out with the behind-the-scenes doc and director commentary track on the DVD and Blu-ray editions. 
  • HBO's excellent and addictive Prohibition-era crime drama continues with Boardwalk Empire: Season 4. The fifth and final season debuts in September, so now's the time to get your binge-watching on. 

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    Also new on DVD/digital: Only Lovers Left Alive, Locke, Boardwalk Empire season 4

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Materials: man, machine and Transcendence

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Johnny Depp in Transcendence - COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Hollywood has yet to make an adaptation of William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. And it's not for lack of trying—probably a dozen projects have started and stalled in the last 30 years. 

But if you've read the book and followed science fiction movies in the years since, it's astounding how many of Gibson's ideas have percolated into the pop culture consciousness. What's more, dozens of tossed-off details from his early books have proven prescient in recent years—stealth wear, corporate personhood and our current surveillance state concerns. It's freaky. Get a couple of coffees in me and I can go on about this for hours.

Science fiction thriller Transcendencenew this week to DVD, Blu-ray and download—is the latest property to revisit Gibson's 30-year-old ideas. Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a specialist in Artificial Intelligence, who uploads his consciousness to a networked supercomputer.

These days, the concept of merging man and machine consciousness is sometimes called the Singularity, a term popularized by author and futurist Ray Kurzweil. It involves a lot of current and emerging science about quantum computing, biotechnology and nanotech breakthroughs.

When Gibson dug into these ideas in the late 1980s, he was interested in the human, existential aspects of the scenario. The immortal "personality constructs" in his books want nothing more than to be unplugged; free to die the old-fashion way.

Transcendence goes a different direction. There's some fascinating material in the beginning and middle sections about the feasibility of "mind uploading" and the exponential growth of man-machine super-intelligence. Depp, along with fellow researchers played by Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall, deliver the pseudo-scientific dialogue with reasonable aplomb. Director and veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister provides the visuals, including a digitized virtual Depp whose appearance recalls—on purpose, I assume—1980s cult sensation Max Headroom.

The third act devolves into low-rent ridiculousness involving Army jeeps and guns, but Transcendence is worth checking out for a couple of reasons. One is British actress Hall, who elevates every movie she's in. She seems to be the only participant interested in the story's human dimensions. Also, the film carries on the rich science-fiction tradition of taking our cultural anxieties and bouncing them back at us in narrative form. Our machines are getting awfully smart, and it's clearly freaking us out.

Transcendence is fun on a popcorn-movie level, with its detours into Luddite terrorism and networked pod people. It's slick, glossy and more than a little ditzy. If you're looking for something more nutritious, Spike Jonze's superior A.I. drama Heralso available on disc and digitally—tackles similar themes with more insight.

Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray retail edition includes four featurettes on the the science behind the movie, which play like infomercials crossed with a big-budget Discovery Channel special.

Also New This Week:
  • Michael Peña headlines the biopic Cesar Chavez, profiling the famous labor leader and civil rights activist, directed by Diego Luna. 
  • Ron Howard directs the combination concert film and music documentary Made in America, with performances from Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Dirty Projectors, Odd Future, Run-DMC, Skrillex and Kanye West. 
  • The NBC miniseries Shogun, with Richard Chamberlain, has been reissued on Blu-ray with new bonus materials. 

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    Plus Jay-Z and Cesar Chavez, all out now on DVD and digital

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Friday, July 12, 2013

DVD+Digital: Aging, apocalypse and After People

Posted by on Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 2:47 PM

  • courtesy of History channel

Ever since aging through the sad end of the 18-35 demographic, I find my television tastes have drifted. When clicking around these days, I tend to linger on the pop scholarship offered by basic cable stations like History, Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet.

My conclusion is that I like reality TV, I just don't like reality TV about people. As such, the three-disc collection After People — new to DVD from the History channel — is right up my misanthropic alley.

After People trades in that brand of speculation and imagery sometimes called apocalypse porn. The collection gathers four different specials aimed at the pessimist market — Life After People, After Armageddon, Mega Drought and Mega Freeze.

End-of-the-world scenarios are endlessly fascinating to those of us prone to worrying about such things. Life After People — which ran as a series from 2008-2010 — uses the usual blend of talking head interviews and passable CGI to depict the gradual decay of our man-made world when humans are removed from the picture.

The program begins where most apocalypse stories end. It's not concerned with how or why humanity dies off. It simply wonders aloud what would happen to the planet afterward. It's structured sensibly enough: We begin with what would happen one day after people, and proceed from there to one week after, one month, one year, etc.

Continue reading…

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    A new three-disc DVD set from the History channel provides delightful pop scholarship about the end of the world.


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