Sound of Freedom


Angel Studios;
Box Office $184.18 million;
$29.96 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic content involving sex trafficking, violence, language, sexual references, some drug references and smoking throughout.
Stars Jim Caviezel, Mira Sorvino, Bill Camp, Javier Godino, Jose Zuñiga, Cristal Aparicio, Lucás Ávila, Yessica Borroto, Manny Perez, Eduardo Verástegui.

A surprise box office success over the summer, Sound of Freedom curried a bit of controversy over its subject matter and unconventional release strategy.

Inspired by actual events, the film tackles the uncomfortable subject of child sex slavery, and one man’s personal crusade to fight back against the trade.

Jim Caviezel stars as Tim Ballard, a homeland security agent whose job tracking down pedophiles and sex traffickers on U.S. soil with little hope of recovering the children involved wears down his soul. With his latest arrest, he’s given some leeway to pursue a lead that results in the recovery of Miguel, a boy who at the beginning of the film is shown being kidnapped with his sister by a bogus talent scout in Honduras whose agency is a front for slavers.

After meeting Miguel’s father, Ballard becomes determined to recover the girl as well. To do that, he must go undercover in Colombia. When his bureaucratic bosses deem this mission too risky to sanction, Ballard resigns and pursues his own operation with the help of some local allies to set up an island paradise for child predators, luring the cartels into selling him as many kidnapped children as he can.

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Following years of development, Sound of Freedom was slated for release by Fox until its studio assets were acquired by Disney, which decided to shelve it. The filmmakers purchased the rights back and forged a new distribution agreement with crowdfunding specialist Angel Studios, a company whose commitment to wholesome family entertainment has led to its association with a number of faith-based projects, including the TV series “The Chosen” about the life of Jesus.

By using a unique “pay it forward” system of donations that gifted tickets to faith-based audiences who were encouraged to see it, Sound of Freedom found itself at odds with the sensibilities of traditional Hollywood. This resulted in the film being subjected to any number of criticisms that seemed more aimed at the political inclinations of the filmmakers than the merits of the film itself, most of which aren’t worth getting into here.

One would be hard-pressed to label Sound of Freedom as faith-based per se. Though Ballard’s motivating message is that “God’s children are not for sale,” any overt spirituality is kept to a minimum. The story could be likened to a sex slave version of the last half of Argo, minus the humor. Caviezel’s performance is deadly serious, delivered behind the searing eyes of a man pushed to the brink of tolerating the world’s injustices.

The film itself is a competently made crime thriller, though the storytelling is a bit simplistic in depicting the various characters maneuvering through the differing phases of their mission. Mira Sorvino plays Ballard’s wife, who is credited with inspiring the real Ballard to do all he can for the cause, but she’s given just enough screen time to establish Ballard as a dedicated family man who can’t bear the weight of seeing another family suffer from his inaction. The film takes an optimistic approach to its protagonist’s actions, and viewers looking for an emotionally satisfying cinematic experience will likely be rewarded.

The Blu-ray contains no bonus materials aside from the film’s trailer and promos for other Angel Studios content. The combo pack, facilitated by Lionsgate, contains access to a digital copy of the film.

News of the World


Box Office $12.6 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $44.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language.
Stars Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp, Thomas Francis Murphy, Fred Hechinger.

British director Paul Greengrass takes a step back from his political thriller comfort zone with a foray into an iconic American genre, the Western, with News of the World, adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles.

In his Blu-ray commentary, Greengrass, who co-wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, reveals he was attracted to the project because he wanted to make something with a happier outcome than his usual fare.

The result is a relatively quiet, contemplative journey through an uncertain period of American history.

Tom Hanks delivers his usual solid performance as Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate soldier in the Civil War who, in the film’s setting of 1870, makes a meager living traveling from town to town throughout Texas to inform the residents of world events by reading from the latest newspapers. Kidd injects the readings with a dash of showmanship to hold the attention of the rapt audiences, though occasionally encounters some hostility when he broaches topics the locals aren’t too keen to hear about (not unlike modern cable news).

On one journey through the back roads, he encounters the remnants of an attack on a wagon that has left as the lone survivor a young blond girl named Johanna (newcomer Helena Zengel), whom he learns was the child of German settlers who had been seized years earlier by Kiowa Indians and raised as one of their own, but had been recently re-captured and was being returned to her family. A local Army officer washes his hands of the matter, suggesting Kidd either wait three months to turn her over to a liaison officer, or accompany her himself — a perilous journey back toward Kidd’s hometown of San Antonia through dangerous terrain that has vastly changed since Kidd last made his way through there.

Compounding Kidd’s task is that Johanna knows nothing of white man’s customs and seems prone to run away any chance she gets.

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The premise plays a bit like an inverse of “The Searchers,” in which John Wayne’s objective was to track down the white girl raised by Indians. As Kidd tries to teach Johanna about her true heritage, she helps him confront some of the demons of his past that led him to a life on the road, and in their bonding they begin to rediscover their purpose. It’s a bit like the Old West version of “Punky Brewster” (the original 1980s version, not the sappy revival).

News of the World is beautifully shot, the Oscar-nominated cinematography showcasing sprawling landscapes of gorgeous but gritty Texas wilderness. This isn’t the romanticized glamorous Wild West of yore, and the hardships of those trying to tame the land come blaring through the screen.

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The News of the World 4K Ultra HD combo pack includes the film on both a 4K and a regular Blu-ray disc, with the same extras on each; the 4K disc offers them in UHD resolution.

In addition to a solo Greengrass commentary that is a good mix of recap and analysis, the disc includes seven deleted scenes running a total of 11 minutes. These offer some interesting character moments, including some backstory about Kidd’s horses.

Also included are four behind-the-scenes featurettes that run about a half-hour in total. The seven-minute “Partners: Tom Hanks & Helena Zengel” focuses on the two main characters, while the seven-and-a-half-minute “Western Action” deals with the challenges of shooting the genre on location. The 11-minute “Paul Greengrass Makes News of the World” is a more generalized look a the making of the movie, covering some of the same ground Greengrass discusses in his commentary. Finally, there’s the four-minute “The Kiowa” featurette that details how modern members of the Kiowa tribe served as consultants on the film to aid the authenticity of the portrayal of the time period and their ancestors.




Street Date 1/7/20;
Box Office $333.5 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.
Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Leigh Gill.

In DC Comics, the Joker has been Batman’s primary nemesis for 80 years, and part of the reason he remains such a fascinating character is the mystery surrounding his origins and motivations.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been versions of a Joker origin story over the years, most often tailored to a specific story being told. There just hasn’t been a definitive one as clean as his counterpart’s, the boy who grew up to fight crime after the murder of his parents. The tale of the Joker is often messy and contradictory, which only adds to his intrigue and popularity.

With the movie aptly named Joker, director Todd Phillips brings a new interpretation of the character. The script by Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver is mostly a gritty, disturbing character study about what could push a man to reject society and embrace chaos; calling it Joker, as Phillips admits in the bonus materials, just gives comic book fans an excuse to see it.

But that’s not quite a fair assessment, as the story, while not directly adapting any of the myriad source material available, does touch upon several classic elements associated with Joker and Batman from the comics, particularly the notion that all it takes is “one bad day” to push a man over the edge.

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The film is anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s immersive performance as Arthur Fleck, an anti-social, mentally ill loner and aspiring stand-up comedian who fantasizes about being accepted by a society that has little use for him. The film is set in 1981 in a moody version of Gotham City that threatens to burst at the seams at any moment, as corrupt bureaucrats leave public services underfunded while the wealthiest citizens, including Thomas Wayne, seem to have no interest in alleviating the tension.

While the story takes some violent turns and the film has courted controversy with its disturbing tone and sympathetic portrayal of a homicidal iconoclast, it nonetheless became a massive it. The film’s version of its title character has struck a nerve, becoming something of an anti-establishment champion of the downtrodden.

Phillips himself as even hinted that maybe Fleck isn’t the villain who ultimately confronts Batman, but is more of an inspiration for whomever that may be. But that’s a debate for fans and potentially a sequel that was never intended but may become a reality due to the film’s success.

Even so, there’s no requirement that this version of Joker be tied to any of the other versions of DC characters being displayed on the big screen at the moment. The look and style of the film is heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese crime dramas of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which is perfectly in line with graphic novels that reimagine characters in different settings, something DC’s Elseworlds imprint did all the time. So, this movie is basically just what if the Joker were a Scorsese antihero.

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The bonus materials for his initial home video release of Joker are somewhat sparse given its impact. The primary extra is “Joker: Vision & Fury,” a pretty good 22-and-a-half-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with many of the filmmakers and cast discussing how they sought to present their distinct vision of the character and his circumstances.

The other three featurettes are short highlight reels. “Becoming Joker” is a minute-and-a-half montage of Phoenix test footage; “Please Welcome … Joker!” is a nearly three-minute compilation of alternate takes of Joker’s entrance onto the late-night talk show that plays a central role in the story; and “Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos” is little more than a three-minute slideshow of photos from the movie.

A commentary with Phillips is available exclusively through copies of the film on iTunes, which owners of the Blu-ray can access as a result of the Movies Anywhere redemption code included with the disc.

Molly’s Game


Street 4/10/18;
Box Office $28.78 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, drug content and some violence.
Stars Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp.

With its exploration of the tawdry world of underground gambling, not to mention a tour of the criminal justice system after its protagonist gets caught, Molly’s Game seems like the perfect subject matter for the Aaron Sorkin treatment.

The film is based on the same-titled memoir by Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier who ended up running a series of illegal, high-stakes poker rooms in Los Angeles and New York.

In making his directorial debut as well as writing the screenplay, Sorkin must have had a field day with the material, as the story allows him to indulge himself with the kind of expositional flourishes that often populate his trademark witty banter, as he gets to have the characters explain to each other (and the audience) all the intricacies of poker, gambling, shady business dealings and legal minutiae.

The film is structured a bit like The Social Network, in that the main story is told through a series of flashbacks in discussions with lawyers in preparation for court. Chastain shines as Bloom, front and center and in command of the proceedings as she refuses to be bullied or outmaneuvered, even in the face of pure physical brutality.

Molly’s Game clocks in at 141 minutes, but despite its wordiness it doesn’t feel like a chore to sit through thanks to a brisk pace and good performances from the rest of the likeable cast as well, particularly Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney, and Kevin Costner as her father.

Unfortunately, the disc is rather barren of bonus material, featuring just a single three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that appears to have been culled from the promotional campaign.