Review: Our past is our future in this week’s releases Special

Posted Mar 7, 2018 by Sarah Gopaul
This week’s releases include a stunning series on Earth’s largest resource; a deserving Oscar nominee; an incredibly entertaining Marvel picture; and the anniversary edition of an extraordinary movie.
A scene from  Thor: Ragnarok
A scene from 'Thor: Ragnarok'
Marvel Studios
Aliens Ate My Homework (DVD & Digital copy)
Universal 1440 Entertainment
When a tiny spaceship flies through his window and lands on his science project, sixth-grader Rod Allbright (Jayden Greig) and his cousin Elspeth (Lauren McNamara) meet a group of friendly aliens, including Phil, a talking plant (voiced by William Shatner). The earthlings quickly join the aliens’ adventurous mission to help defeat an evil alien criminal. After discovering the evil alien is disguised as a human — someone he knows all too well — Rod and Elspeth race to save the world from total planetary disaster.
Based on the first in a series of books for kids, this story has some fun with the alien invasion idea by making them the size of action figures. Rod isn’t exactly the smartest kid in his class — as his cousin enjoys to frequently point out — but he has a lot of imagination and, thanks to his dad, he’s a believer. Unfortunately, his dad left on important business a while ago and has yet to return so Rod, Elspeth and his two younger siblings is all that’s available to help the extraterrestrials save Earth and get back to their planet. The aliens are pretty entertaining, making this a relatively amusing kid adventure in spite of its predictability.
Special features include: “Not of This World: Creating Alien Life Forms”; “Aliens Ate My Homework: From Page to Screen”; “On the Set with Bruce Coville”; and “The Galactic Patrol Wants You!” (Universal 1440 Entertainment)
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Gotham City, at the turn of the century, is experiencing a golden era of discovery and industry as showcased by affluent Bruce Wayne’s World’s Fair. Down in the darkest alleys, however, there is a killer on the loose. Preying on the city’s women, this killer is as precise as he is cruel. As Police Commissioner James Gordon (Scott Patterson) tries to calm the fears of Gotham’s citizens over the butcher named Jack the Ripper, masked vigilante Batman (Bruce Greenwood) does some detective work of his own, with the help of the sultry and surefooted Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter).
This animated movie has some fun with history by transporting modern-day comic book characters into the past so they can face a historical figure. While parts of the Jack the Ripper story are retained, it’s gradually altered to fit Batman’s universe and create a more interesting tale of good vs. evil. Though Selina never dons the cat suit, she does have her bullwhip as added protection against the serial killer as the showgirl-by-day attempts to stand up for the city’s vulnerable at night. In the meantime, Wayne is having some difficulty keeping his double lives in order as one consistently seems to get in the way of the other — and then he’s arrested for murder. Though a fairly different plot from a typical Batman narrative, the subtle steampunk influences and historical setting make it an enjoyable watch.
Special features include: commentary by executive producer Bruce Timm, writer Jim Krieg and director Sam Liu; “Caped Fear: The First Elseworld”; sneak peek at Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay; and bonus cartoons. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
Birdman of Alcatraz (Blu-ray)
Olive Films
As the film begins, Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), the “birdman” of the title, is incarcerated at Leavenworth Prison for murder, a sentence that will eventually lead him to Alcatraz. Seeing his days stretch out to life without parole for the murder of a prison guard, Stroud will pass his days in solitary confinement caring for a baby sparrow, an act which eventually blossoms into caring for an array of birds sent as gifts to fellow inmates.
Based on the real life of a man who spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement, this story is more reaffirming than one would’ve expected. Stroud begins as a hardened prisoner who scowls at the guards and wants nothing to do with anyone but his mother. However, rescuing a baby sparrow from certain death slowly changes him and gives him a reason to wake up each day. Still, there are a number of setbacks in his aviary; but even more surprising is his determination to overcome them, including becoming a “bird doctor” of sorts. The two-man escape attempt that resulted in a military response at Alcatraz is also intensely recreated for this picture. Lancaster portrays the primarily glum Stroud with perfection, balancing his sullenness with the delicate way he handles his birds.
Special features include: commentary by Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. (Olive Films)
Blue Planet II (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)
BBC America
During more than four years of filming, the crew mounted 125 expeditions, visited 39 countries, spent over 6,000 hours diving, and filmed on every continent and across every ocean. The series travels through an exquisitely beautiful world — from remote island shores to the depths of our oceans — bringing viewers face to face with unexpected new landscapes. It also witnesses the great changes and threats to the health of our ocean. Never before has there been a more crucial time to explore our remotest seas and examine what the future might hold for our blue planet.
The series opens with slow-motion footage of large waves forming and breaking; it’s one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever see — and the show hasn’t even started yet. David Attenborough is such an engaging narrator as he explains all the fascinating creatures and their habits, nurturing the audience’s connection to the wonders of nature they’re able to witness for the first time in several instances. Viewers are permitted and encouraged to be mesmerized by these remarkable images, which are doubly impressive in 4K as the natural vibrancy of the world jumps off the screen. The amount of wildlife in the oceans is astonishing, as is their surprising ability to work together for common causes. From fish that change sex to others that use tools to get to their food to whales herding and stunning their prey, every minute of this series is enthralling and informative.
There are no special features. (BBC America)
The Dark Crystal (Blu-ray & Digital copy)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
In another time, The Dark Crystal was the balance and truth in the universe but it was destroyed, dividing the world into two factions: the wicked Skeksis and the peaceful Mystics. Now as the convergence of the three suns approaches, the Crystal must be healed or darkness will reign forever. It is up to Jen, the last of his race, to carry out the prophecy that a Gelfing will return the missing chard of crystal and destroy the Skeksis’ evil Empire. But will Jen be up to the challenge of battling the unknown?
Based on the illustrations of fantasy artist Brian Froud, it’s possible this movie is more impressive now than when it was first released 36 years ago by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Without CGI to make the fairylike forests or construct the unique creatures, every aspect of the picture was produced and controlled practically. This gives the film an added sense of magic as everything on the screen appears to move of its own will. The story is relatively basic as Jen, the protagonist/hero, goes on a mission to save the world, while encountering a series of other distinct creatures on his journey. However, it’s the combined talents of Froud, Henson and Oz that make this movie a timeless and endearing classic.
Special features include: commentary by Brian Froud; deleted scenes; “The Myth, Magic and Henson Legacy”; “The World of The Dark Crystal” documentary; “Light on the Path of Creation”; “Shard of Illusion”; picture-in-picture storyboard track; original Skeksis language scenes with introduction by screenwriter David Odell; photo galleries; and theatrical trailer. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Gintama (Blu-ray & DVD)
Well Go USA
Based on the best-selling action comedy manga by Hideaki Sorachi, the film takes place in an alternate Edo-period Japan, where an alien race has taken control, forcing Samurai to lay down their swords. Once feared as the "White Demon," former samurai Gintoki Sakata (Shun Oguri) now works as an everyday handyman — until a master swordsman tasks Gintoki and his friends with finding the cursed sword Benizakura to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
This is a fantasy picture in which the characters occasionally acknowledge they’re in a movie and that certain elements worked better on the page, such as the large penguin-like creature named Elizabeth. Though their alien overlords are often present, the serial killer attacking former samurai is a greater worry since Gintoki could be next on his hit list. The humour is quirky like its characters, though not everyone may get it all of the time. The movie is unquestionably geared towards fans of the manga, but even the unfamiliar can find enjoyment in this strange universe of sword-fighting and science fiction.
There are no special features. (Well Go USA)
Great Balls of Fire! (Blu-ray)
Olive Films
The film traces rock ‘n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis’ (Dennis Quaid) rise to fame and scandalous personal life, including his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder).
Lewis certainly had a way about him on stage, but as this biopic demonstrates that swagger wasn’t just a part of his stage persona. He was always fully on; whether he was trying to charm the pants off someone or becoming violent in a fit of rage, there was no halfway with him. Quaid is outstanding in this role, losing himself in Lewis’ mannerisms and vernacular. They don’t hide the fact Lewis was inspired by the music he heard in the black Southern clubs, though this movie was made before much attention was being given to cultural appropriation. Of course, even though it’s true, Lewis’ relationship with Myra is still pretty appalling (even if Ryder was 18 at the time of filming). Still, this is a captivating picture that highlights the singer’s best and worst attributes.
There are no special features. (Olive Films)
The Hallelujah Trail (Blu-ray)
Olive Films
Under the watchful eye of its owner, Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith), the Wallingham Freighting Company is bound for Denver with forty wagons of whiskey to quench the town’s thirst. But there are others who have plans of their own for the load of libations, including temperance leader Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick), who wants it destroyed, the Sioux Indians who want it for themselves, ditto the Denver citizens’ militia, as well as the Irish teamsters hired as wagon drivers. Fearing that the shipment may not reach its destination, Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) assigns Captain Paul Slater (Jim Hutton) to safeguard the cargo, unaware that Slater’s fiancée, Louise (Pamela Tiffin) — who also happens to be the Colonel’s daughter — has fallen under the powerful spell of Cora’s temperance message.
This is one of those amusing comedies in which everyone has their own agendas and the man in charge is having trouble keeping them all straight. After being married and widowed twice, Cora seems to know exactly how to get what she wants from a man, so even when Gearhart thinks he’s gotten ahead of her it turns out he’s played right into her hands. The aboriginals speak their native tongue, which is translated by the film’s narrator; however, the humour is often in what is conveyed by the on-screen interpreter. The movie is also a little risqué for 1965 as Gearhart and Cora have flirtatious conversations while one of them is in the bath. It’s difficult to believe it all comes down to a race in the end, but there’s no shortage of comedy even then.
There are no special features. (Olive Films)
Lady Bird (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) fights against, but is exactly like, her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird's father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.
Set in 2002 in writer/director Greta Gerwig’s hometown of Sacremento, this film is a classic yet untraditional coming-of-age story. Lady Bird is a typically rebellious teen who hates everything about her town and family, and can’t wait to go to a faraway college. In the meantime, she tries out for the school play and rotates friends depending on whether she wants to feel loved or popular. There are two relationships at the forefront of Lady Bird’s existence — the first is with her mother, which is a complex love-hate bond that is often tested but never broken; and the other is with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), which is caring and wonderful… until it isn’t. Every aspect of this picture comes together to tell an engaging story about a young woman who will stick with audiences long after the movie’s end.
Special features include: commentary by writer-director Greta Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy; and “Realizing Lady Bird.” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
The Strangers [Collector’s Edition] (Blu-ray)
Scream Factory
After a 4 a.m. knock at the door and a haunting voice, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) find their remote getaway has turned into a night of psychological terror as three masked strangers (Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis) invade. Faced with inscrutable tormentors, Kristen and James must go beyond what they think they’re able to endure if they have any hope to survive.
Ten years ago this horror movie frightened audiences because it wasn’t about the supernatural — it could really happen. One of the most terrifying elements of this story is the randomness of the violence. There is nothing personal about the attack; the couple is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s method of telling the story is very effective and affecting. Once introduced, the Strangers are always lurking but not acting so the audience never knows if and when something is going to happen. There are also several long takes as opposed to a lot of short cuts, allowing the intensity of the scene to build. The masks add to the overall effect of fear because you cannot see the intruders’ facial expressions or emotions nor are their identities ever revealed. Bernito creates a successful throwback to horror films of the ‘70s, resulting in a movie that still stands apart from many other horror attempts.
Special features include: unrated and theatrical versions of the film; deleted scenes; “The Element of Terror”; “Strangers at the Door”; “Defining Moments”; “All the Right Moves”; “Brains and Brawn”; “Deep Cuts”; still gallery; TV spots; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)
Thor: Ragnarok (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)
Marvel Studios
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer and finds himself in a race against time to get back to Asgard to stop Ragnarok — the destruction of his home world and the end of Asgardian civilization — at the hands of an all-powerful new threat, the ruthless Hela (Cate Blanchett). But first he must survive a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against his former ally and fellow Avenger, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and grapple with his silver-tongued adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the fierce warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
While Tony Stark has always been a witty character and the Avengers have a good rapport, this is the first Marvel film to be genuinely clever from start to finish. It starts with what appears to be Thor breaking the fourth wall and continues with an endless stream of narrative-appropriate jokes that will have audiences laughing out loud. Yet in a strange way, it feels like there is a lot and almost nothing going on in this movie at the same time. Thor is dealing with family issues regarding his dad and brother, a catastrophic threat to his planet and being beaten to a pulp by a guy he thought was his work friend. Yet the crux of the story is simple: save the Asgardian people. Thus, even though a lot of stuff takes place, which is highly entertaining, only the final stand holds actual significance. Nonetheless, director Taika Waititi’s sense of humour combined with an obvious appreciation for the material pushes this picture over the top. The acting is spot-on as usual and everyone appears to be delighting in the opportunity to pair comedy and action while playing these incredibly engaging characters.
Special features include: introduction by director Taika Waititi; commentary by Waititi; deleted and extended scenes; “Marvel Studios: The First Ten Years — The Evolution of Heroes”; “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Thor”; “Unstoppable Women: Hela & Valkyrie”; “Finding Korg”; “Sakaar: On the Edge of the Known and Unknown”; “Journey into Mystery”; 8bit scenes; “Team Darryl” short; and gag reel. (Marvel Studios)