Quality reigns over quantity for this week in home video. Though there may be few notable releases this week, some of them include two of the best films of 2015 a Hitchcock film, a classic film noir, and a Jack The Ripper-inspired horror film from the director of “Road House.”
Let’s kick things off with Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” the controversial, divisive new satire from the veteran director that focuses the prevalent gang violence on Chicago’s South Side using the framework of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” Though “Chi-Raq” disappointed more than a few critics with its awkward execution, uneven storytelling, and general inconsistencies, it also impressed just as many who found it to be a passionate, necessary work of political art that gets to the heart of the culture in only the way Spike Lee can. Regardless of where you stand, “Chi-Raq” is one of the most relevant and most discussed works of last year, and is certainly worth the public’s attention.
Other important new releases this week include Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s meditative martial arts film “The Assassin.” Hou’s first film in eight years, “The Assassin” follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a trained assassin appointed to kill government officials by the nun who raised her, but Nie’s resolve is put to the test when she is sent to kill her cousin she had once been betrothed to. Enigmatic and stunning, “The Assassin” stands as one of the most purely beautiful films of 2015 as Hou creates poetry out of artfully choreographed fight scenes and an intoxicating mood. Other new releases this week include the pleasant, excessive “Goosebumps,” the arrogant, half-baked Bradley Cooper vehicle “Burnt,” and Francois Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend.”
On the classic front, Warner Bros. has Alfred Hitchcock’s docudrama “The Wrong Man” starring Henry Fonda as a man wrongly accused of robbing an insurance company; “The Wrong Man” influenced Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and produced Jean-Luc Godard’s longest piece of written criticism. Next, Film Detective has Phil Karlson’s “Kansas City Confidential,” the first of three collaborations between Karlson and actor John Payne. Finally, Shout Factory has Rowdy Herrington’s “Jack’s Back,” starring James Spader as a doctor who is suspected of committing a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Criticwire Average: B+
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
The flag, the statistics, the guns make for a powerful, unsettling opener, perhaps especially because the movie opens in a week of high-profile mass shootings — and not in Chicago. By virtue of the heaviness of their documentary truth, though, which grows weightier with each number and word, these elements almost torpedo the movie before it begins. Like many filmmakers who draw on the historical record to shore up their fictions, Mr. Lee has to work hard to rise to the challenge of the real world. That he pulls off “Chi-Raq” is a testament to his cinematic imagination, which he cuts loose with split screens, direct address, surreal fillips and outsize performances. With the composer Terence Blanchard, who wrote the wall-to-wall score, and the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Mr. Lee creates a “Lysistrata” that entertains, engages and, at times, enrages as it takes on violence, ogles lady parts and expounds on greed and democracy. He stumbles plenty, including in an awkward, didactic scene in which John Cusack, as a priest, delivers a sermon for a dead child. (Jennifer Hudson plays the mother.) Yet while you can argue with Mr. Lee’s ideas, cinematic and political, few directors shake you up this hard, creating laughter that is as bitter as tears. Read more.
Criticwire Average: A-
Justin Chang, Variety
In the seven years since Hou Hsiao-hsien began working on a ninth-century wuxia epic, his admirers have been madly curious about how the Taiwanese auteur known for such refined historical panoramas as “Flowers of Shanghai” and minor-key urban portraits like “Cafe Lumiere” would handle his rite of passage into one of China’s most storied and vigorous popular genres. We have the answer at long last in “The Assassin,” a mesmerizing slow burn of a martial-arts movie that boldly merges stasis and kinesis, turns momentum into abstraction, and achieves breathtaking new heights of compositional elegance: Shot for shot, it’s perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful film Hou has ever made, and certainly one of his most deeply transporting. Centered around a quietly riveting performance from Shu Qi, the film is destined for a limited audience to which gore-seekers with short attention need not apply. Still, with a Stateside release already secured and passionate critical response assured, it should emerge as one of Hou’s more commercially successful and internationally well-traveled efforts. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
In any event, all the creatures, which range from the tiny robots to looming freeze-gun toting aliens to a giant mantis, are rendered very nicely in realistic computer animation, while the live-action cast is always engaging and often very funny. Stine’s character frequently refers to the all-important “twist” he builds into each story, and this movie has a twist of its own, a pretty daring one that expands on the initial reflexivity of the plot itself, while also making a convincingly heartfelt statement about the power of imagination and its earnest exercise. Lest I make this sound too heavy, it’s really not; the movie is breezy and fun, offering thrills for kids and a nicely nostalgic matinee vibe for adults. Read more.
Criticwire Average: C
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
Like a few other movies scripted by Knight, “Burnt” feels like two acts missing a third, and its small pothole of a dramatic arc isn’t done any favors by Wells’ rushed and minimally personal approach, which allows just two small flourishes (one involving the “Donnie Darko” score, the other involving rack focus) between all the quick-cut back-and-forths and montages of modern London architecture, fancy kitchenware, and fancier food. Cooper’s charm, imposing post-“American Sniper” physique, and proficient French carry the movie, propped up by a very strong supporting cast (which includes Omar Sy, Emma Thompson, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, and Matthew Rhys) whose roles mostly consist of fascinated or exasperated reaction shots. It just doesn’t carry the movie anywhere interesting. Gourmet restaurant kitchens — in which competitive, obsessive personalities are locked in a room full of knives and open flames — are spaces of innate tension and high drama. But “Burnt” seems reluctant to push things too far, perhaps recognizing that monsters like Adam are at their funniest and most intriguing when they have no reason to change. At the same time, “Burnt” doesn’t have the guts to just let Adam Jones be. Though its soft-hearted ending doesn’t reach the “Steve Jobs” level of sentimental insincerity, it still feels like a big, wet fizzle: a life lesson about teamwork, learned by a character whose defining trait is the fact that he’s hit rock bottom over and over and always clambered out on the strength of his own ego. Perhaps Adam is just too good an asshole to be believable as anything else. Read more.