Editor’s Notes: Ex Machina, Bambi: The Anniversary Edition, The Man in the Glass Booth, Sky On Fire, Aftermath, The Assignment, Dredd, Operation Mekong & A United Kingdom are out on their respective formats June 6th.
Ex Machina (Lionsgate) focuses on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at internet search giant BlueBook, who wins a competition to spend a week at the mountain estate of his company’s brilliant CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). When he arrives, he discovers that he’s been chosen to take part in a study of artificial intelligence. Sworn to secrecy and cut off from the outside world, Caleb meets his subject, a seductive android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and is plunged into an unconventional A.I. experiment.
This is intelligent science fiction, a genre that has been taken over in the movies by outer space shoot ‘em ups and alien invasion. This is a film of ideas, with a lot more dialogue than one usually encounters in a sci-fi picture. The movie has a creepy tone, helped greatly by Ms. Vikander’s performance. We’re told she’s a smartly designed robot, but is she more? That enigmatic concern drives a good part of the film as we get to decipher the complex personality of Bateman and his agenda, which might not exactly follow moral guidelines.
Mr. Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) portrays the quintessential tech genius/innovator, out to introduce the latest, newest Big Thing. He has a magnetic personality which sort of hypnotizes Caleb, who is not only grateful, but awed to be in his presence. A variation of the mad scientist, Bateman combines obsession with intellect as he straddles the parameters of ethical research. All three actors are excellent, providing a thrilling journey into unexplored territory.
Quality of the image on the 4K Ultra HD edition is quite impressive, though the production design and limited exteriors don’t exploit fully the potential of 4K. However, colors are vibrant, and there is admirable detailing and texturing of scenes.
Bonus extras on the R-rated 2-disc 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray edition include the 5-part featurette, “Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina;” 8 behind-the-scenes vignettes; and Q & A with cast and crew. A digital HD copy is also enclosed.
Bambi: The Anniversary Edition
Bambi: The Anniversary Edition (Disney Home Entertainment). Based on the Felix Salter story, Bambi follows the male dear Bambi from birth through his early childhood experiences with his animal friends, Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk, the sudden traumatic death of his mother at the hands of hunters, his courtship of the doe Faline, and his rescue of his pals during a raging forest fire.
Bambi, released in 1942, was the Disney Studio’s fifth animated feature. There’s less of a traditional narrative here than in Snow White or Pinocchio, but the cute anthropomorphic critters Disney made its trademark are present, with Thumper and Flower providing most of the film’s lighter moments. The death of Bambi’s mother is quite an unsettling moment for a movie directed to children, and has had a lasting effect on those who saw it first as a child. The tone is happy and carefree up to that point, and movie audiences had become so accustomed to things turning out OK in kids’ films, that the sequence, which occurs off-screen, comes as a shock.
The animation is spectacularly lush and beautiful, particularly in light of today’s computer animation. There is the illusion of depth, achieved through the multi-plane camera, and backgrounds that can be lush and vibrant or gloomy and foreboding, depending on the tone of each scene. What’s missing is focus on character. The second half of the movie is essentially comprised of impressionistic portrayals of wildlife and the devastation of fire to living creatures who call the forest their home.
Though not among Disney’s very best, Bambi is still well worth watching for the exquisite animation and attention to detail — a mouse washes his face with a single drop of water from a leaf, a rabbit scratches his back on the bark of a tree, Bambi has difficulty standing up on a frozen pond, and Thumper’s left foot never seems to stop thumping. The musical score is lovely, highlighted by the main title number, “Love Is a Song.”
Bonus features on the 75th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack Edition include deleted scenes; a look at how today’s animated films were inspired by the artistry and technology of Bambi; a feature showing Walt Disney’s story meetings; “Bambi Fawn Facts;” and the vintage cartoon “Africa Before Dark,” starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. A digital HD copy is also included.
The Man in the Glass Booth
The Man in the Glass Booth (Kino Classics) is one of the films adapted from prominent plays as part of the early 1970s subscription series, The American Film Theatre. Based on Robert Shaw’s play and directed by Arthur Hiller “The Americanization of Emily,” “Silver Streak”, the story concerns manic Jewish millionaire Arthur Goldman (Maximilian Schell), already teetering on the verge of insanity, who becomes diabolical when he is abducted from his Manhattan penthouse by Israeli agents and put on trial for war crimes committed while serving as a colonel in a Nazi concentration camp.
Testifying within a soundproof, bullet-proof glass enclosure, he unleashes a torrent of vitriol against his accusers, and exposes a secret that is both tragic and terrifying. The film, through Schell’s mesmerizing performance, explores the ongoing horrors of the Holocaust on one deeply troubled individual 30 years after the end of World War II. His performance is frequently theatrical, rather than cinematic, as he shouts, gestures, and overemphasizes his lines, yet is nonetheless enthralling because of Shaw’s dialogue and the riveting subject matter. With little variation in terms of locations, the movie has a decidedly stage-bound look, which may have been the purpose of executive producer Eli Landau. The play’s the thing here, not cinematic pizzazz and fancy photography.
Bonus extras on the newly restored widescreen Blu-ray release include interviews with director Arthur Hiller and producer Ely Landau, a promotional film for The American Film Theatre, and a gallery of trailers for The American Film Theatre. The Man in the Glass Booth is rated PG.
Sky On Fire
Sky On Fire (Well Go USA) is a crime drama directed by Ringo Lam (City On Fire, Full Alert). A security officer at a top-secret medical facility (Daniel Wu) finds himself caught in a battle when a young thief and his accomplices steal a groundbreaking curative medicine. After discovering the true origins of the medicine, the officer must decide whom he can trust to prevent the cure from falling into the wrong hands and avoid an all-out war from devastating the city.
The film is fairly slow getting started, but around 50 minutes in, the tempo accelerates with a terrific chase on foot through an apartment building and across rooftops. After that, there are shoot-outs, car crashes, fatal falls, fistfights, explosions and a lethal conflagration. The movie is action packed, so fans of Hong Kong action flicks will be happy. The plot is fairly generic — just a means to initiate lots of on-screen mayhem. The real stars of the picture are the stunt choreographers and stunt team.
The only bonus features on the unrated, widescreen Blu-ray release is a trailer. Sky On Fire is in Mandarin, with English subtitles.
Aftermath (Lionsgate) stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Roman Melnyk, who lives in Columbus, Ohio and works in construction. One evening, he heads to the airport to meet his wife and their pregnant daughter. But the plane is involved in a mid-air collision. All 271 people on board are killed. The film goes back in time, retelling the story of that fateful night from the point-of-view of Jake (Scoot McNair), the air-traffic controller whose error contributed to the crash.
The movie is based on actual events that occurred in Germany in 2002 when a passenger plane from Moscow collided with a cargo plane in mid-air. Director Elliot Lester gets our attention immediately with a story about terrible loss and its aftermath, but as it moves forward, it loses, rather than gains dramatic steam.
Schwarzenegger is very different from his Terminator days. He actually gives a nuanced performance, although the movie itself needs considerable tweaking. What looks as if it’s going to be a solid vengeance tale never lives up to viewer expectations. It would have helped if we had seen Roman with his family early in the film. Because we don’t, we can appreciate the loss he feels, but it never becomes the tragedy it is intended to be.
As director switches back and forth between Roman and Jake and their respective reactions to the tragedy, their stories are unbalanced. The Jake sequences are better scripted and the character of Jake is more detailed. Roman is larger than life because he’s played by Schwarzenegger, but it seems the screenplay wants to get him in old-Arnold mode as soon as possible, failing to show clearly how he transitions from deep grief to a fierce desire for revenge.
Bonus features on the R-rated, widescreen Blu-ray release include audio commentary with director Elliott Lester and producer Eric Watson; interviews with director Lester and Director of Photography Pieter Vermeer; and trailer gallery. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
The Assignment (Lionsgate) stars Michelle Rodriguez as killer-for-hire Frank Kitchen, whose life is thrown into a tailspin when he’s captured and knocked out by a gang of thugs. When he awakens wrapped in bandages, he discovers he has been surgically altered into a woman. The surgeon who performed the operation is Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), channeling the icy stares made famous by Hannibal Lecter. Through flashbacks and flash forwards, the film explains why Dr. Kay performed the radical surgery.
The Assignment is a variation on the mad scientist thriller, drawing on gender reassignment as its focus. Unfortunately, Ms. Rodriguez isn’t very convincing as a male, even behind a phony beard, which diminishes credibility significantly. Her reaction, when he/she awakens from surgery is more confusion than indignation, as she attempts to grasp her new identity. The best part of the movie is Ms. Weaver, who plays crazy effectively and makes her Dr. Kay a creepy, insane villain.
Director Walter Hill (48 Hrs., The Warriors) suggests low-budget B movies with his film nourish cynicism about the world. He also explores the role of labels. Is Frank actually a woman? And is Dr. Kay merely a lunatic? Hill isn’t content with easy answers, and underscores the lurid plot with philosophical and moral questions without sacrificing basic thriller elements of suspense and action.
The only bonus feature on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack is “Filmmaking Portraits,” a photo montage. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
The Assignment is rated R for graphic nudity, violence, language, and drug use.
Dredd (Lionsgate) takes place in a post-apocalypse world. The planet has been destroyed by nuclear war and people live in massive cities called blocks. Dredd (Kark Urban) is a judge who serves as every branch of the criminal justice system all rolled into one. Judges patrol the urban landscape on super-fast motorcycles, dispensing swift justice. They are empowered to arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals.
Dredd is assigned a rookie partner, Anderson (Olivia Thereby), who failed the judge training system, but a nuclear mutation has given her the ability to read minds, a helpful tool in policing and seeing through bad guys’ lies and deceptions.
Dispatched by the central authority, the Judges’ target is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless boss bent on expanding her criminal empire through sales of Slo-Mo, a dangerous reality-altering drug. Set over the course of a single day, the film follows Dredd and his psychic rookie partner as they investigate a triple homicide in a skyscraper slum run by sadistic Ma-Ma.
Dredd revels in choreographed action sequences and killings meted out in assorted, bloody ways. The film never really ponders the morality of instant justice, and there are some lapses in logic in the screenplay. Whatever its shortcomings, Dredd is far superior to the awful Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd of 1995. This one is played straight.
The character of Judge Dredd was created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, and first appeared in 2000 AD (1977), a weekly science-fiction anthology comic.
Though Dredd was originally released in 3D, the 4K Ultra HD version is in standard 2D, though visually impressive. The picture is sharp, with vibrant color as well as deep blacks, providing a rich, inky look. Details are amazing. You can see clearly individual shards of shattered glass, detailed features of buildings, gruesome make-up enhancements, dirt, dust and scratches on helmets, and some cool specifics in debris flying around in action sequences. The CGI still looks good, but not as believable as in the theatrical version. In this case, the enhanced 4K detail shows off the computer work a little too much.
Bonus extras on the 2-disc 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray Combo Pack include 7 behind-the-scenes featurettes and the theatrical trailer. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Operation Mekong (Well Go USA) is a Hong Kong action thriller about the real-life hunt for a murderous kingpin in the wilds of the Golden Triangle — a “No Man’s Land” territory on the borders of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Laos. Experienced narcotics officers from different jurisdictions join forces to thwart notorious drug lord and pirate captain Naw Kham, whose operatives have been spreading violence and constructing trade from Thailand to mainland China.
In October, 2011, the Mekong River massacre took place. Chinese cargo ships were attacked in the Golden Triangle. The 13 crew members of those cargo ships were murdered and their corpses thrown into the Mekong River. Shipping on the river was temporarily shut down by China as a joint task force consisting of Chinese, Burmese, Thai, and Laotian officers investigated the deaths of those 13 men.
Director Dante Lam has based Operation Mekong on that event, focusing on elaborate action sequences to tell the story. With extreme camera angles, daring stunts, and practically non-stop action, the film is exciting to watch. A scene set in a mall, for instance, features a car racing through at top speed, destroying everything in its path. There’s a excitingly filmed boat chase and, of course, the obligatory car chase.
Violence is intense and even includes scenes of children getting shot and killed. Director Lam often incorporates slow motion during the action sequences to prolong the mayhem. Blood spurts freely in this movie, so if graphic images upset you, steer clear. Those who enjoy films with lots of action and a minimum of talky exposition will love it.
A 6-part, behind-the-scenes documentary is included on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. Operation Mekong, in Mandarin with English subtitles, is unrated.
A United Kingdom
A United Kingdom (20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment) is based on a true story. In 1947, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white London office worker. They fall in love, but their proposed marriage is challenged not only by their families but by the British and South African governments. The latter has recently instituted the policy of apartheid and finds the idea of a biracial couple ruling a neighboring country intolerable.
Educated in England, Seretse understands his royal legacy is to put his people first and to conduct himself in a manner that will make them proud. After he and Ruth are married, there is a great deal of pushback from Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), who regards Ruth as an improper bride for an African prince, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst), who can’t accept a black man as his son-in-law.
Essentially a tale of love against all odds, A United Kingdom portrays political as well as familial turmoil. Director Amma Asante spans several years as one obstacle after another rears its head, including the couple’s separation during Ruth’s pregnancy, Seretse’s exile from his homeland, and ongoing pressure from outsiders to dissolve the marriage. Asante balances these impediments with the romantic story that bonds the couple. They are willing to face hardship, as long as they do it together.
The story is interesting and is worth being told, but the film never achieves a sense that it is a major event in history. At the time of this supposed controversy, the world was recovering from World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were post-war adversaries, the atomic bomb showed that another full-scale had the ability to devastate mankind, and the United Nations was in its infancy. In light of these events, the difficulties of the leader of a small African nation and his wife pale in comparison. But the performances by Oyelowo and Pike are effective, which makes the viewing experience worthwhile.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack include featurettes on the making of the film, filming in Botswana, and the legacy of Seretse and Ruth. There is also footage of the London Film Festival opening night gala premiere. A digital HD copy is enclosed.