Blu Tuesday: Blair Witch, Girls and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Blair Witch”

WHAT: After uncovering new evidence that suggests his missing sister Heather may still be alive, James (James Allen McCune) and his friends venture into the Black Hills Forest – the site of her mysterious disappearance – and come face to face with the legendary Blair Witch.

WHY: When it was revealed that Adam Wingard’s latest movie, originally titled “The Woods,” was actually a direct sequel to the 1999 hit indie film, “The Blair Witch Project,” horror fans were excited to see if Wingard and frequent collaborator Simon Barrett (“The Guest,” “You’re Next”) could revive the would-be franchise. Unfortunately, it turns out that the best thing about “Blair Witch” was the secrecy of its production. The movie itself is pretty unspectacular, filled with many of the same beats as the original, albeit with a much larger budget. Though there are a handful of good moments scattered throughout (including a gruesome death scene involving the iconic stick figures), and it addresses a couple longstanding problems with the found footage genre, “Blair Witch” is unable to recapture the magic of its predecessor. Wingard and Barrett are clearly big fans of the first movie, but despite their attempts at expanding the mythology, the final product is almost as disappointing as the ill-conceived 2000 meta-sequel “Book of Shadows.”

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, there’s a six-part making-of featurette and a tour of the set.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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2016 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end_movies

2016 will likely go down as one of the most depressing years in recent history, but that has more to do with a certain reality TV host being elected President of the United States, not to mention some particularly hard-hitting celebrity deaths, than the movies we watched along the way. In fact, despite the usual collection of flops, disappointments and general mediocrity, there were a number of great films throughout the year spanning a wide range of genres, which is evident in my own Top 10. Though I stand behind every choice on this list, it should in no way be considered definitive due to some elements out of my control (for instance, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” not being screened in time) and an extraordinarily busy holiday season.

Best Films of 2016

1. “HELL OR HIGH WATER

For as old-fashioned as “Hell or High Water” feels at times, it’s a movie that deals with some incredibly timely themes, especially in a post-election America still reeling from the last economic depression. Following his little-seen 2013 gem “Starred Up,” director David Mackenzie delivers yet another engaging family-centric story (based on a script by “Sicario” writer Taylor Sheridan) that excels in its simplicity. It’s gorgeously shot, displaying both the beauty and sadness of its picturesque landscape, and features a trio of excellent performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges. Nobody does unhinged quite like Foster, and this is easily Pine’s best work in years, but the movie ultimately belongs to Bridges as the devilishly funny, veteran Texas Ranger who would rather go down in a hail of bullets than be forced into retirement. Though the film follows a pretty standard cops-and-robbers formula, it does so with such razor-sharp proficiency and well-drawn characters that it succeeds not only as a terrific genre flick but a modern American classic in the same vein as “No Country for Old Men.”

hell_or_high_water

2. “MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

An incredibly moving, intimate and authentic story about a broken man who’s forced to confront his demons, “Manchester by the Sea” is the most devastating, heart-wrenching drama of the year. Casey Affleck is phenomenal in the lead role, delivering a subtle but powerful performance that showcases an actor at the top of his game, while Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges all deliver outstanding work in supporting roles. Though the movie is sprinkled with quite a bit of humor (much more than you’d expect for the subject matter), “Manchester by the Sea” is primarily a portrait of grief and how it affects everyone differently. There’s no guidebook or one-size-fits-all remedy to mending a broken heart, and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan conveys that point beautifully amid the wintry, gloomy backdrop of his New England setting. “Manchester by the Sea” is heavy stuff, but for a film that deals mainly in misery, it never feels exploitative, and that goes a long way in earning your attention and respect.

manchester_by_the_sea

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to January

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January tends to be a bit of a cinematic wasteland every year, as studios dump a bunch of films they didn’t like or couldn’t market properly. Meanwhile, most people are catching up on awards contenders that have finally expanded beyond their limited runs. This January is a mixed bag of new installments in old series, a few original movies and a couple of promising new flicks. But even amid those installments of rusty franchises comes some films that may just be weird enough to last beyond the January wasteland.

“Amityville: The Awakening”

Who: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne, Cameron Monaghan and Kurtwood Smith
What: A single mother moves her three children into a haunted house, unaware of its bloody history.
When: January 6th
Why: The story of the Amityville haunting has been pretty well documented in movies, including last year’s “The Conjuring 2,” but this film looks like it’s using the original case as a jumping off point for a new source of terror. The trailer features lots of jump scares and cross-cutting but also some genuinely gross moments and cool visuals. While this could just be a cash-in on an established property, the addition of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurtwood Smith in front of the camera and writer/director Franck Khalfoun (who helmed the exceptional “Maniac” remake) behind it suggests that there could be something more to this movie.

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Blu Tuesday: Snowden and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Snowden”

WHAT: The true story of controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the former NSA employee who leaked thousands of classified documents regarding the agency’s illegal surveillance activities to the public.

WHY: It’s been years (decades, really) since Oliver Stone made a great film, and although “Snowden” sadly continues that trend, it’s still a solid biopic that fits nicely into the director’s oeuvre. Cutting back and forth between Snowden’s rise through the ranks of the intelligence community and his 2013 covert meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, the movie loses a bit of suspense as a result of its nonlinear structure, but it holds your interest throughout thanks to some good performances from Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Shailene Woodley and Rhys Ifans. Though the film goes too far out of its way to paint Snowden as a loyal patriot, it wisely takes its time in revealing how he became disillusioned with his government (After all, this wasn’t an overnight decision but something that troubled him for years.) Whether or not you agree with what Snowden did, he clearly believed that he was doing the right thing, and if nothing else, Stone’s movie conveys that message effectively.

EXTRAS: In addition to a Q&A panel with Edward Snowden (via satellite), director Oliver Stone, and actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, there’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Live by Night”

Starring
Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Scott Eastwood
Director
Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel “Live by Night” is apparently getting savaged by the coastal press. “Makes ‘Black Mass’ look like ‘The Godfather’” is a quote that my colleague Jason repeated (but the source of said insult won’t be credited here). To be fair, the final 10 minutes are kind of awful (though faithful to the source material), but everything that comes before it is handled competently enough that putting it beneath “Black Mass” feels like the kind of thing an angry lover says. “You’re dumping me? Well, you’re nowhere near as good as ‘Black Mass’!” “You take that back!” “Never!” Silly, silly, silly.

As Ben Affleck directorial efforts go, though, “Live by Night” is easily his weakest. It’s stylish but a bit too familiar, lacking the intensity of Affleck’s best work. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a Prohibition-era film that takes place mostly in Florida, inviting comparisons to “The Untouchables” and “Scarface” whether Affleck wants them or not.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a Boston-bred, disillusioned soldier from the Great War and son of a proud Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is a petty thief who runs under the protection of a local crime boss but doesn’t think of himself as a gangster. He draws the ire of his boss’ rival when he is caught having an affair with the rival’s mistress Emma (Sienna Miller), so when Joe is popped in a bank robbery, he and his father seek the protection of Italian boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to make sure Joe isn’t killed while in jail. Upon his release, Joe agrees to work as Maso’s point man in Tampa, overseeing the rum shipments. He encounters a whole new set of problems (racism of a different stripe, mainly), but does a great job expanding the Pescatore business down south. And for his efforts, he is still treated like a second-class citizen, because he’s the son of an Irish man working for Italians.

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