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article imageReview: War comes in many forms in this week’s releases Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Jul 9, 2015 in Entertainment
This week’s releases include a charming Al Pacino; a new take on a cult classic; varying degrees of war, from Civil to street gang to robot; an eye-opening documentary; and a man who discovers his dream is more of a nightmare.
’71 (Blu-ray & DVD)
Elevation Pictures
Belfast, 1971: a young, rookie soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is sent on his first field operation as the British military deploy emergency troops to try to suppress the increasing violence. When the mission sparks a riot, Gary is accidentally abandoned by his unit in the frenzy. Unable to tell friend from foe, the raw recruit must survive the night and find his way back to base through a disorienting, alien and deadly landscape.
Not much is explained in terms of the conflict that serves as a backdrop for the story. However it’s safe to say that in 1971, Belfast was a war zone. With no distinct landmarks or street signs, the viewer is as lost among the dark alleys and ominous buildings as the young recruit. Each person he encounters is a potential friend or foe, sometimes masquerading as one only to reveal himself to be the other. Hook doesn’t speak much throughout his ordeal as he spends most of it alone, so O'Connell must rely on his facial expressions to convey his character’s thoughts and emotions — an act that’s becoming a trend for the young actor who displayed similar talents in Unbroken. The actor is also quickly building a career of serious roles, having captured moviegoers’ attention in the Irish prison movie, Starred Up.
There are no special features. (Elevation Pictures)
Awaken (DVD)
Arc Entertainment
Billie (Natalie Burn), a skilled martial arts expert, was searching for her missing sister when she was attacked and dumped on an island. She finds others like her — fit healthy adults in the prime of life, with no idea why they’ve been kidnapped, then let go, only to be hunted down like animals. Billie searches for a way off the island and finds the horrifying answers to some of her questions. It’s a human organ harvesting operation that picks and chooses from the strongest and most fit survivors.
When the cast includes Jason London, Vinnie Jones, Daryl Hannah and Michael Paré, it’s pretty easy to dub the island the place where formerly popular actors go to die (literally). The movie is constantly trying to build in twists regarding characters’ identities or their relationships to each other, which soon becomes less of a surprise and more of a desperate attempt to make the simple plot more interesting. This narrative really comes down to the fight sequences for which Burn was recruited. She proves quite competent in her butt-kicking abilities, establishing that she’s the only hostage capable of being the film’s hero.
There are no special features. (Arc Entertainment)
Danny Collins (DVD)
Elevation Pictures
Aging 1970s rocker Danny Collins (Al Pacino) can’t give up his hard-living ways. But when his manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon, he decides to change course and embarks on a heartfelt journey to rediscover his family, find true love and begin a second act.
The aging icon is becoming a popular theme as many of Hollywood’s greatest contributors grow older. In fact, Pacino already played a washed up stage performer trying to recapture his former glory in The Humbling. In comparison, this film is funnier and considerably lighter. Pacino turns on the charm and combined with Danny’s heartthrob status, he can pretty much get anything he wants from almost anyone — except Mary (Annette Bening), the hotel manager, who he spends much of his time trying woo. The pair’s chemistry is unquestionable whether they’re exchanging teasing remarks or commiserating together over drinks. Dan Fogelman has written several star-studded dramedies, but this is his first time in the director’s chair. This style of narrative is undoubtedly one in which he’s comfortable and he’s casted a group of exceptional actors, which together make his debut behind the camera enjoyable but straightforward.
Special features include: behind-the-scenes featurette; and “Danny Collins — Album Covers Through the Years.” (Elevation Pictures)
Echoes of War (DVD)
Arc Entertainment
The cattle-ranching McCluskeys have lost both a son and their entire herd to the war. The Rileys, mourning the loss of wife and mother Mary to illness, eke out a living trapping animals and selling their pelts. When Wade Riley (James Badge Dale) returns from fighting for the Confederacy, he discovers that Randolph McCluskey (William Forsythe) and family have been stealing animals from his family’s traps. He decides to take matters into his own hands, sparking yet another tragic and senseless war.
This is a pretty gritty Western centred on an injustice for which the so-called hero demands reparations. But like many heroes of the genre, Wade’s status is not certain. His take-action attitude is up against a religious doctrine that demands they simply turn the other cheek. The latter is represented by a very solemn Ethan Embry, who hides his displeasure behind a big, bushy beard. Wade may have survived the war, but it’s clearly left its mark on him. He begins to redirect his aggressive allegiance to his country to protecting his family. However there’s no strategy in his actions and they have consequences for which he is unprepared. Dale is convincing as the well-meaning alpha returned, while Forsythe persuasively portrays the villain.
There are no special features. (Arc Entertainment)
For the Emperor (Blu-ray)
Well Go USA
A disgraced pro baseball player goes to work for a mob-connected loan shark, rising through the ranks of money and power. But when his love interest disappears, he finds himself in a deadly battle of wits against his bloodthirsty mentor.
This is a Korean crime thriller that gets a little lost in its own story. Beginning at a point midway through the overall narrative, the protagonist recounts how he came to lead a small army into a bloody battle in an apartment building (though it’s not as intricate as the fight choreography in The Raid). His origin story, however, is rather simplistic and lacks any significant hook into his character. He’s just smart and agile. Unsurprisingly the story skips three years of his rise to the top, cutting back in when it’s all about to coming falling down around him. He’s most interesting when backed into a corner, but no one can sustain that existence. The most appealing part of the movie is no one ever uses a gun; they are only armed with blades and baseball bats.
There are no special features. (Well Go USA)
House of Cards: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray & Digital copy)
HBO Home Entertainment
President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fights to secure his legacy and Claire (Robin Wright) wants more than being the first lady. The biggest threat they face is contending with each other.
After two seasons of being each other’s most loyal ally, the Underwoods are beginning to crack under the pressure. Francis finally achieved his goal, but he quickly realizes staying at the top is as hard as getting there. In the meantime, Claire wants her piece of the pie before it has a chance to spoil. With all this power at their fingertips, it’s not surprising it would cause a rift between them as it exposes an imbalance that has always been present. As Claire and Francis focus on White House duties, the only other significant storyline centres on Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). However, his story is often more interesting as he struggles to cope after his near-death experience. The season’s concluding episode is characteristically striking and establishes palpable anticipation for next season.
Special features include: “A Death in New Mexico”; “Backstage Politics: On the Set of House of Cards.” (HBO Home Entertainment)
Merchants of Doubt (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities — yet contrarily are aiming to spread maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to pharmaceuticals to climate change.
While there have been a number of documentaries made recently set to expose various threats to our health and the Earth, this film builds one of the most convincing arguments to at least begin to question the information being regularly disseminated in the media. Rather than focus on uncovering the falsities of the other side’s arguments, it shows the illegitimacy of their so-called experts. While the existence of unqualified, smooth-talkers may not be surprising, the widespread acceptance and promotion of their incompetence is worse. News organizations position them as experts just because they are associated with certain organizations, rather than basing their decisions on genuine credentials. A sidebar about a magician’s talents serves to make the film more entertaining, but the subject itself is more than stimulating enough.
Special features include: commentary by director Robert Kenner; deleted scenes; and “An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival with Robert Kenner.” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Robot Jox (Blu-ray)
Scream Factory
In a future world where war has been outlawed, international disputes are settled in a single winner-takes-all fight between two of the ultimate killing machines. Massive, menacing and made-to-destroy, these human-piloted combat 'bots square off to determine global supremacy. But when tragedy strikes during a crucial battle and treacherous espionage raises the stakes, will veteran robowarrior Achilles (Gary Graham) walk away from the game for good or take his revenge against his rival pilot, the homicidal Alexander (Paul Koslo)?
The desire to make a movie about giant fighting robots appears to have overridden the need for a better script in this picture. Though it is strongly rooted in science fiction, much of the story is meant to be taken at face value, such as how this agreement was formed or how the pilots are recruited. Nonetheless, one can see how this 1989 picture influenced movies and TV shows that followed, from Pacific Rim to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as well as the inspiration it found in Japanese monster movies. It is more action-oriented than director Stuart Gordon’s better known film, Re-Animator, which may not have been the filmmaker’s strength. In addition, the uneven script makes it difficult to become fully immersed in the robot wars, which is the primary reason to watch this film.
Special features include: two new commentaries; behind-the-scenes featurette; and new and archival interviews. (Scream Factory)
The Town that Dreaded Sundown (DVD)
RLJ Entertainment
Picking up 65 years after a masked serial killer terrorized the small town of Texarkana, the brutal “Moonlight Murders” suddenly begin again. While on a trip to Lovers’ Lane, 17-year-old Jami (Addison Timlin) watches as her date is brutally slain by a masked serial killer. Barely escaping with her life, Jami becomes obsessed with finding the killer referred to as "The Phantom." As the body count mounts and the carnage comes closer, Jami delves deeper into the mystery with the help of the town archivist Nick (Travis Tope), following clues that point her toward the killer’s true identity.
Though it bares the same name as the 1976 movie, this is less of a remake than it is a sequel. Rather than recreate the film from the original script, it uses it as an inspiration for the new story. Because the killer is paying homage to his predecessor, there is an attempt to reconstruct some of the original murders; but since the imitation is built into the script rather than a gimmick or a sign of a lack of creativity, it works more effectively. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s approach to his picture is both an homage and a revival. His artful style produces an attractive film that demonstrates ingenuity even though it borrows from another source.
There are no special features. (RLJ Entertainment)
More about '71, Danny Collins, House of Cards, merchants of doubt, The Town that Dreaded Sundown
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