On this edition of this week in home video, there’s one release that has a bad feeling about this. The force is strong with this one and it finds your lack of faith in it disturbing, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder. You know where I’m going with this even if you’re not well-versed in one of the most popular film franchises of the last half-century: The latest “Star Wars” film, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” finally comes to Blu-ray.
The first film in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, “The Force Awakens” follows a new trio of characters – Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger abandoned as a child destined for greatness; Finn (John Boyega), a reformed First Order storm trooper who wants to fight for the Resistance; and Poe (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance X-Wing fighter pilot – as they search for the last Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), fight against the First Order led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) alongside reliable stalwarts Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). In other words, it’s a “Star Wars” movie through and through, and essentially a reformatted “A New Hope.” The result is a fairly fun, if not inherently derivative romp featuring fresh young faces mixed with old favorites going through predictable, but nonetheless affecting motions. Some critics found it captured the joyous experience of the original trilogy, other founds it to be a soulless corporate product disguised as an artistic text, and there were plenty who refused to engage with the text and instead provided strange, non-criticisms, like Rey being a Mary Sue or listing plot holes that don’t exist. Anyway, if you’re compelled to buy the Blu-ray, you’ll be sure to re-experience the joy you felt in the theater, at least until Disney sells the new, updated release of the film.
There are only a couple “newish” releases this week, both of which are available only on DVD: Laurent Bécue-Renard’s documentary “Of Men and War,” which explores the psychological trauma of American Iraq War veterans when they return to the front, and Matías Piñeiro’s “The Princess of France” about a radio production of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Buenos Aires.
On the classic front, there are some notable releases. First, Milestone Films has a Blu-ray/DVD release of Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground,” one of the first features directed by an African-American woman, about a marriage between two people at their own set of crossroads. Kino Lorber has three films on Blu-ray: Robert Parrish’s “The Purple Plain,” about a Canadian pilot (Gregory Peck) suffering from depression after having lost his wife; Robert Montgomery’s “The Gallant Hours,” a docudrama about Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. (James Cagney) during the crucial five-week period when he took over the beleaguered American forces in the South Pacific during World War II; and Sidney W. Pink’s “Journey to the Seventh Planet,” about a five-man international space team sent to check out the planet Uranus and discover a dangerous form of mind control. Finally, Arrow Films has a few releases: “Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli,” which contains “Death Walks on High Heels” and “Death Walks at Midnight”; Sergio Martino’s “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key”; and finally Lucio Fulci’s “The Black Cat.”
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
“Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”
Criticwire Average: B+
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
Not only expert homage for the fans but a first-rate, energized piece of mega-Hollywood adventure, the hugely anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” stirs more to life than just the Force. The rollicking, space-opera spirit of George Lucas’s original trilogy (you can safely forget the second trio of cynical, tricked-up prequels) emanates from every frame of J.J. Abrams’s euphoric sequel. It’s also got an infusion of modern-day humor that sometimes steers the movie this close to self-parody — but never sarcastically, nor at the expense of a terrific time. The wheel need not be reinvented: Virtually every plot point and action beat comes from 1977’s “Star Wars” or 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” (you even get a dormant lightsaber shivering in the snow), yet that’s perfectly fine when the vigor is this electric. Life is still a drag on arid desert planets like Jakku, where scrappy Rey (Daisy Ridley, a strong-jawed find) sells scavenged parts of old battle destroyers. Crash-landing onto her world is Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper shocked out of his violent path serving the evil First Order by an impulse to do the right thing. On the run, they hijack the decrepit Millennium Falcon — “The garbage will do,” says Rey in the first of many exhilarating reveals — and take off toward a radicalizing destiny in the Resistance. Abrams (“Star Trek,” “Super 8”), a master mimic unafraid to revive Lucas’s old-school wipes and frame-gobbling spaceships, brings a light touch to the performances: There’s better acting in “The Force Awakens” than in all the “Star Wars” movies combined. BB-8, a whirling soccer-ball-like droid that plays like WALL-E’s mouthier cousin, might be best of the bunch — he’s a new high for cinema’s expressive machines (and a nod to Lucas’s love for gearhead invention). Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher bring unexpected pathos to roles they sometimes used to drift through. The graying hair helps. Read more.
“Of Men and War”
Criticwire Average: A-
Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (Vulture)
“Of Men and War’s” compassion is matched only by its relentlessness. Laurent Bécue-Renard’s observant documentary was shot from 2008 to 2013 in and around the Pathway House, a “transition home for combat veterans” in the Napa Valley. That right there is actually more context than the film itself initially offers: With little ornamentation or artifice, it gives us the words and faces of Iraq and Afghanistan vets struggling with post-traumatic stress; we don’t know these guys’ names, or the specific circumstances of their service. Bécue-Renard doesn’t so much follow as drift, from person to person, sometimes from family to family. What emerges is a tapestry of despair, one defined by its persistence. Much of the film is built around group therapy sessions in which the veterans relay the experiences that haunt them. Bécue-Renard’s camera is unflinching as these men tell tales of unthinkable horror. One speaks of shooting a guy who was running, and of how the man’s brain fell out as they picked his body up. (He remembers trying to close the dead man’s eyes. “That shit doesn’t always work,” he recalls. “So you tried to close his eyes?” the therapist asks. “Well, the one eye he had,” the soldier responds, before breaking down.) Another remembers an 8-year-old girl who was instantly killed when he kicked open a door, and of how he then took out his anger and frustration on the girl’s mother. Another recalls how an unused round accidentally left in his rifle wound up blowing his friend’s face off while they were just sitting around. These men are not cavalier or cool about these experiences; these memories won’t let them go — won’t ever let them go, we suspect. Read more.
“The Princess of France”
Criticwire Average: B+
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
After a brief introduction from a radio announcer, “The Princess of France” opens with a burst of Schumann — the first movement of his “spring” symphony — that sets a mood of high emotional drama. The music accompanies, and almost overwhelms, an aerial view, shot from a rooftop, of a pickup soccer game. It starts out five on five, but the members of one team switch sides, leaving an overwhelmed goalie facing nine opponents. The connection between this arresting sequence and the rest of the film — a swift, compact feature from the Argentine writer-director Matías Piñeiro — is one of several puzzles “The Princess of France” leaves in its wake. A curlicued tale of romantic miscommunication set, as is Mr. Piñeiro’s habit, among the young theater nerds of Buenos Aires, the movie is a homage to and an annotation of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The male protagonist, an actor named Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), is obsessed with that comedy of shifting affection and ambiguous identities, and two copies of a Spanish-language edition play a decisive role in his own love life. Read more.