Editor’s Notes: Underground: Season Two, La Vie de Jean Marie, The Fate of the Furious, The Lost City of Z, Star Crystal, American Fable, London Heist, Smurfs: The Lost Village, Pulse, Shalako, & Game Changers are out on their respective home entertainment formats July 11th.
Underground: Season Two
Underground: Season Two (Sony Home Entertainment) continues to draw upon America’s historical roots, bringing pioneering hero and infamous conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), to life along with abolitionist Frederick Douglas (John Legend). The Macon 7 face several challenges in their dangerous escape to freedom within a divided America on the brink of civil war. As tensions escalate and risks are taken, their plans may lead to safety or disintegrate.
In Season 2, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is working under Tubman’s tutelage to deliver escaped slaves to freedom, while also strategizing with abolitionists John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas, Jessica de Gouw) to figure out how to free Noah (Aldis Hodge) from a prison stint that could lead either back into bondage or hanging.
Rosalee’s mother Ernestine (Amirah Vann) has gone from the big house at the Macon plantation to a more tenuous position at a coastal South Carolina farm. The rest of the surviving members of the Macon 7 as well as one determined bounty hunter are scattered in various locations, being drawn into the main narrative gradually across 10 episodes.
One of the primary themes of the series is the difficulty women of the period had to take to find power. Female-driven, the show often dramatizes events, punching them up with scenes that may or may not have occurred in actuality. A scene of Harriet Tubman holding two slave traders at bay with a rifle in each hand, for example, probably never happened, but it makes for a rousing moment. The acting — mostly by actresses of color — is above average and features many new faces. The show is unapologetically political, echoing modern feminism and Black Lives Matter activism.
Special features on the unrated, widescreen 3-disc DVD set include deleted scenes and a gag reel.
La Vie de Jean Marie
La Vie de Jean Marie (IndiePix Films) is a cinema verite character study of an elderly Dutch pastor who watches over the spiritual life of 25 villages in the French Pyrenees. For six years, director Peter Van Houten followed his subject, capturing the unique, cheerful pastor/farmer as he tended to his daily duties.
Probably the last of the area’s parish priests, Jean-Marie conducts himself with disarming honesty and spontaneity, making him a colorful, fascinating subject. The eldest son of a large Dutch family who purchased a mountain in the Pyrenees in 1948, the 75-year-old Jean-Marie speaks of the rejection by the great love of his life, which tuned him to the cloth, though he still fantasizes about love.
At 2 hours, 46 minutes, the documentary often has a rambling feel, and some judicious editing would definitely improve the pace, which suggests the laid-back existence of Jean-Marie and the mountain people he visits. There’s a sense that the elderly priest is often preening for the camera and is enjoying being the “star” of his own movie, yet what emerges is a touching portrait of a dedicated man.
Documentarians frequently chose a celebrated individual or a famous event in order to attract a wide audience. Van Houten has taken a different route, shedding light on a kind of unsung hero of his community. A bonus is spectacular photography of the Pyrenees.
The unrated DVD is in French, with English subtitles.
The Fate of the Furious
The Fate of the Furious (Universal Home Entertainment) is the eighth feature film in the Fast & Furious franchise. Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are in Cuba following their wedding. After winning a street race, Dom is recruited by the mysterious Cipher (Charlize Theron) to work for her. Later, on a mission with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and the rest of the team, Dom appears to turn against his friends. His betrayal perplexes and hurts everyone. Hobbs winds up in prison where he’s reunited with old enemy Deckard (Jason Statham). Eventually, Cipher and Dom confront everyone else as Cipher reveals the one thing that gets Dom to betray his pals and endanger the safety of the world.
The primary problem with this installment of the series is it’s need to amp up the action to top previous films in the franchise. As with earlier movies, the action sequences are staged elaborately and involve lots of vehicle mayhem and shootouts as only Hollywood can create. This is all fine for folks who enjoy car stunts and non-stop action, but the plot seems merely a secondary concern. I’m convinced the filmmakers contrived the big action scenes first and then wrote a narrative to incorporate them. But success is success, and the writers don’t strive for depth and nuance.
Diesel and Johnson are both well-suited to their roles, looking like living action figures. Their acting, however, is half-hearted, almost as if they’re waiting for the director (F. Gary Gray) to call “Lunch!” Also in the cast are Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, Luke Evans, Scott Eastwood and, uncredited, Helen Mirren.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital HD release include feature commentary with director F. Gary Gray; extended fight scenes; and the featurettes “The Cuban Spirit,” “In the Family,” “Car Culture,” and “All About the Stunts.” The Extended Director’s Cut is enclosed on digital only. A 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD edition is also available with the same bonus features.
The Lost City of Z
The Lost City of Z (Broadgreen), an adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name, is the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who searches in the Amazon for a mysterious city. Journeying into the jungle in the early 20th century, he discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization. Supported by his devoted wife Nina (Sienna Miller), son Jack (Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), and aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett returns time and again to his beloved jungle in search of the lost city.
The film is both an adventure and a character study, touching on themes of civilization’s corrupting influence, colonialism, and the idea that primitive societies have little to offer to modern society. Fawcett’s original 11 trips to the Amazon have been consolidated into three for the movie. The more time he spends in the dense jungle, the more Fawcett longs to separate himself from a world grown ugly with greed and a pervasive sense of European supremacy. His experiences in World War I highlight the brutality of mankind.
It’s curious that Fawcett is preoccupied with South American peoples and the possibility of a huge discovery over the nurture and happiness family provides. His absences are resented by oldest son Jack who longs to connect with his father, which he finally does on Fawcett’s final expedition.
Writer-director James Gray presents the Fawcett family home and the Amazon jungle as two markedly different locations that provide different forms of an ideal isolated existence. Scenes in congested, industrial England and the unspoiled rain forest offer dramatic contrast.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include commentary by director James Gray, and the featurettes “From Novel to Screen,” “Adventure in the Jungle,” and “Expedition Journal.”
Star Crystal (Kino Lorber) focuses on a group of astronauts in the 2030s stranded in a drifting spaceship. What they don’t know is that there is an alien life form on board. Clearly ripping off the far-better Alien movies, Star Crystal features a bad-tempered monster that takes a decided dislike to the human crew. Attempting to outdo Alien, the monster spends the first half of the movie killing assorted crew members in graphic, violent ways, leaving dismembered bodies and tons of blood in its wake.
The pace of the film is odd. It starts slowly and fails to engage the viewer until the action begins. It’s confusing because of its inconsistent tone and peculiar plot twists, courtesy of writer-director Lance Lindsay. The special effects are pretty good and represent the lion’s share of the budget, but the acting is abysmal. Characters are generic types rather than people, and many are on hand solely to be brutally dispatched by the monster, the only exception to the above-average effects.
This monster harks back to those sad creatures from low-budget sci-fi films of the 50s. The final 15 minutes are nearly beyond belief. They provide a twist, but the kind that will have you scratching your head in disbelief and make you hate yourself for wasting an hour and a half you’ll never get back.
Since this is easily one of the worst science fiction movies ever, it might be fun to set up a Bad Movie Night, provide popcorn, and invite friends to marvel at the overall ineptness of cast and crew. It’s amazing that such a terrible film was actually financed and released theatrically.
There are no special features on the R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release.
American Fable (IFC Films) is a thriller featuring a dark, dreamlike mystery that plays out amid the wide open spaces of the American Midwest. With her family’s livelihood imperiled by the farm crisis of the 1980s, 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) loses herself in a world of fantasy and make-believe. But she encounters her own fairytale when she makes a startling discovery: a well-dressed mystery man (Richard Schiff, The West Wing) in her family’s silo.
The man turns out to be Jonathan, who tells Gitty he is being held prisoner. She agrees to bring him food and books and begins spending time with him. He turns out to be a real-estate developer who’s been taking advantage of the locals’ financial situation to buy up farms at a cheap price. Gitty’s family is likely involved in the kidnapping, though the specifics are purposely left murky.
Writer-director Anne Hamilton and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield provide the film with a strange, otherworldly surreal look, blending it into the day-to-day life of Gitty. There is a sense of tension from the outset, a foreboding of things to come. The “fable” in the movie’s title is significant, for this is a child’s version of confronting intimidating forces as a sense of dread surrounds her. A mysterious figure on a black horse is shown on the horizon, crossing the fields and circling the house, a symbol signifying that something bad will descend upon this family.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its strong visual style. Director Hamilton presents a way of life that has nearly disappeared and portrays what a real-life crisis looks and feels like to a bright child.
Special features on the unrated widescreen DVD release include deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes still galleries, and trailer.
London Heist (Lionsgate) spotlights Jack Cregan (Craig Fairbrass), a career criminal, family man, and violent armed robber who’s on a mission of revenge. When Jack’s father, Alfie Cregan (Steven Berkoff), is brutally murdered, and the money from their Heathrow airport heist is stolen, Jack, his cousin Sammy, and gang members Eddie and Frank realize there is more to the stolen money and Alfie’s murder than meets the eye. Once Jack starts digging, he knows that his life will never be the same again. The revelations that follow force Jack, with the clock ticking, to pull off one last dangerous robbery and exact vengeance on all those involved.
London Heist incorporates most elements of the heist thriller — the last Big Job, unforeseen complications, violent confrontation, and action. Mr. Fairbrass tries to make his Cregan a combination of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Al Pacino, never really establishing a distinctive portrayal. His Cregan is merely a device to move the plot along. We get just enough information about him to allow for more action. Heist flicks are often more intriguing for the detailed planning of the robbery than for the characters, and that’s the case here. Everyone, including Fairbrass, is out of the caper thriller playbook.
There are no bonus materials on the R-rated, widescreen DVD release.
Smurfs: The Lost Village
Smurfs: The Lost Village (Sony Home Entertainment) is the third motion picture featuring the little blue people, and the first to abandon human co-stars in favor of total animation. Smurfette (voice of Demi Lovato) is the central character who has an identity crisis. While other Surfs know their functions by their very names — Brainy is smart, Hefty is strong, Clumsy is forever tripping and bumping into things — Smurfette doesn’t know what her function is in the Smurf community.
Originally, Smurfette was made from clay by Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) to destroy the Smurf’s village. His original version had black hair and an ever-present sinister grin, but Papa (Mandy Patinkin) magically transformed her into a sweet, blonde Smurfette who has lived with the rest of the Smurfs ever since. Gargamel still poses a danger to the little blue folks as he’s determined to capture them, drain their magic, and become the most powerful wizard in the world.
Kids will probably enjoy this movie, but be aware that, artistically, it doesn’t come up to Pixar and Disney animated films. The scenes never do more than move the story forward. In the best animation, the viewer should also be impressed by the artful touches. The movie is more TV than big-screen caliber. As a group, the Smurfs are kind of bland and lack the distinction of, say, the Peanuts ensemble. The script’s attempts at humor are hit and miss, and often fail to engage the viewer.
The Smurfs was first created and introduced as a series of comic characters by the Belgian artist Peyo (pen name of Pierre Culliford) in 1958. There are more than 100 Smurf characters, their names based on adjectives that emphasize their character traits. Smurfette was the first female Smurf introduced in the series. The Smurfs franchise began as a comic and expanded into advertising, films, TV series, ice shows, video games, theme parks, and dolls.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray release include filmmaker commentary; Meghan Trainor “I’m a Lady” music video; deleted scenes; “The Lost Auditions;” and 12 behind-the-scenes featurettes. A digital HD copy is enclosed. “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is also available in single-disc Blu-ray and DVD editions.
Pulse (Arrow Video), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, contains two related storylines. The first involves a young woman who works at a plant nursery in a high-rise building. Her investigation of a colleague’s suicide leads her to some dark and perilous places. The second plot line follows a computer-illiterate student who teams with a female tech geek who’s researching paranormal phenomena on the Internet.
These characters encounter terrifying images on their computer screens and TVs. The images are connected to various disappearances with victims hiding themselves in rooms sealed with red tape, melting into walls, and leaving only an ashen residue.
Director Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) creates tremendous atmosphere without resorting to excessive gore and violence. He builds his horror gradually, getting under the skin as he immerses the characters into a nightmarish world. The film has elements of Poltergeist and the more recent Arrival. The question posed is “What is the more horrifying, a massive cataclysmic conflagration to end mankind or the gradual wasting away of humanity?” Few horror movies take the time to pose existential questions, more content to take the easier route of visceral gut-wrenching visuals. Kurosawa works hard to achieve a level of terror, and his efforts pay off handsomely.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include premiere footage from the Cannes Film Festival; cast and crew introductions from opening day screenings in Tokyo; making-of documentary; 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes; new interviews with writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi; trailers and TV spots; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork. The unrated widescreen film is in Japanese, with English subtitles.
Shalako (Kino Lorber), based on a Louis L’Amour story, is a British-made Western set in 1870s New Mexico and shot in Spain by American director Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County). A group of European aristocrats is on a hunting trip, hoping to bag wild sheep. They’re led by German Baron Frederick Von Hallstaff (Peter van Eyck), who is accompanied by his fiancee, Countess Irina Lazaar (Brigitte Bardot). Shalako (Sean Connery) is a loner who looks out only for himself, until he finds himself falling for the beautiful Countess.
When Shalako discovers that the Countess is part of the European hunting party on an Indian reservation, he informs them of a treaty banning white men from the land. Apache chief Chato (Woody Strode) will attack in the morning if they’re not gone. But the arrogant Europeans refuse to heed Shalako’s warning, and he must fight the Indians to save the woman he loves.
The 1968 film is certainly an odd Western, with a miscast Connery in a role that should have gone to Clint Eastwood. He looks uncomfortable in both his cowboy get-up and his role. There are some scenes that might play as camp if the movie didn’t veer into violence and spaghetti-Western territory. An especially dumb scene features the aristocrats, dressed to the nines, dining elegantly in the vast desert while served by a butler, using fancy dinnerware and dining on fancy food. Ms. Bardot is lovely, but isn’t much of an actress. The supporting cast includes Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Honor Blackman, and Alexander Knox.
Special features on the widescreen Blu-ray release include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox, and a trailer gallery.
Game Changers (Candy Factory Films) is about two 28-year-old guys who were professional gamers as teenagers. Back then, Bryan and Scott got really good at a game called Halo and, with the support of their parents, made a huge amount of money showing their prowess and proving to the gaming community that they were the best.
It was inevitable that at a certain point, it had to end. Now, a decade later, they’ve turned their tech savvy into IT careers. Scott (Jake Albarella) is the responsible shy one while Bryan (Brian Bernys) has retained a charismatic personality and air of superiority that placed him on numerous magazine covers during his youthful celebrity.
The two friends undergo a personal crisis when a team of consultants arrive to evaluate their work. Though they are good at what they do, the imminent evaluation puts Bryan on edge, causing him to ask himself whether he wants to be at the firm or go back to what he loves best — gaming.
Director Robert Imbs examines the question of whether playing video games, however proficient the player, is appropriate for a grown-up. As Bryan and Scott chose diverse paths, the movie feels like a coming-of-age tale, even though the central characters are in their late 20s. Perhaps the point is that society has entertained their teenage fantasy of being famous for game-playing skill and rewarded them financially, but now expects them to act like adults.
The script is often funny, yet touches on themes of commitment, societal pressure, pursuing one’s dream, and shedding conformity to find happiness.
Game Changers is unrated and available on DVD and video on demand.