Monday, March 3, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

12 Years a Slave ****½ Directed by Steve McQueen. In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. McQueen's film is a tough, soul-sickening, uncompromising work of art that makes certain that when viewers talk about the evils of slavery, they know its full dimension. Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish.

The Grandmaster **** Directed by Kar Wai Wong. The story of martial-arts master Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung), the man who trained Bruce Lee. Intermittently action-packed and lethargic, the movie dances around formula. By delivering an expressionistic character study with bursts of intensity unlike anything else in his oeuvre and yet stylistically representative of its entirety, Wong practically has it both ways.

Hours ***½ Directed by Eric Heisserer. A father (Paul Walker) struggles to keep his infant daughter alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The film stirs richer, truer feelings once it becomes a one-man show. This is due both to Heisserer's and Walker's skill — the tension is strong, the scenario elemental, and Walker's harried, urgent hero is compelling — but also the fact that the movies are really good at dudes doing things, especially when those things are scrappy, desperate, and heroic.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire *** Directed by Francis Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem. Catching Fire suffers from the movie equivalent of middle-book syndrome: The story is wayward and rangy, on its way to being something, maybe, but not adding up to much by itself. Still, it’s entertaining as civics lessons go, and it’s a more polished, assured picture than its predecessor.

Girl Rising **½ Directed by Richard Robbins. A documentary that tells the stories of nine girls from different parts of the world who face arranged marriages, child slavery, and other injustices. The stories, shaped by anecdotal brevity, are often charmingly modest. Only an insistence on blandly inspirational rhetoric and a series of didactic interludes threaten to reduce the film to a PSA about the plight of young women in developing countries.

The Last Days on Mars **½ Directed by Ruairi Robinson. A group of astronaut explorers succumb one by one to a mysterious and terrifying force while collecting specimens on Mars. This unapologetically derivative sci-fi outing doesn’t have the scripting muscle to deliver on its early promise. But the solid cast keeps it reasonably gripping nonetheless.

Oldboy Directed by Spike Lee. Obsessed with vengeance, a man (Josh Brolin) sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason. The feel-bad movie of the season, Lee’s often-repellent Americanized reimagining of Korean director Chan-Wook Park’s twisty 2004 revenge thriller is relentlessly gruesome, self-consciously shocking and pretty much pointless.

Cold Comes the Night *½ Directed by Tze Chun. A struggling motel owner (Alice Eve) and her daughter are taken hostage by a nearly blind career criminal (Bryan Cranston) to be his eyes as he attempts to retrieve his cash package from a crooked cop. It’s hard not to be impatient with a movie as openly lazy as this one, which is redeemed only by its performances.

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