Knives Out

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 2/25/20;
Lionsgate;
Mystery Comedy;
Box Office $163.71 million;
$29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $42.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.
Stars Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Noah Segan, K Callan, M. Emmet Walsh, Frank Oz.

Director Rian Johnson’s penchant for subverting expectations has manifested itself in the delightful Knives Out, a modernized take on the classic murder mystery format.

The set-up is familiar. In a quirky mansion in the countryside of New England, the maid discovers the body of her wealthy employer — crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) — dead from seemingly cutting his own throat.

As Harlan’s family comes out of the woodwork for the funeral and reading of the will, the police initially rule it a suicide. Yet the case remains open at the behest of private sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Johnson’s southern-flavored homage to the likes of Columbo and Hercule Peroit. Hired by an anonymous party to ensure all aspects of Harlan’s death are explored, Blanc quickly uncovers dissension within the family, several members of which having had loud arguments with Harlan in the day leading up to his death.

The expertly-crafted, Oscar-nominated screenplay toys with the conventions of the genre, revealing what actually happened within the first 30 minutes or so, then uses the next hour-and-a-half to clue the audience in the fuller context of the events viewers have already seen, thus providing the true focus of the mystery.

Blanc recruits Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), to aid in his investigation, though she is more aware of what happened than she lets on. A unique physical tic causes her to puke whenever she lies, providing one of the film’s central running gags but also lending a fair amount of tension to the proceedings as Marta has a fair number of secrets she’d rather not help expose either. The pairing of Craig and de Armas must have been agreeable enough for them, as she’s slated to appear in his next James Bond movie. And for Craig, tapped to reprise Blanc investigating new cases in future sequels, the role offers a nice new franchise once he wraps up his tenure as the super spy.

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This is the kind of film that not only invites multiple viewings, but practically demands them. Luckily, the Blu-ray offers a couple of nice options for the rewatch in the form of audio commentaries that dissect the story structure and reveal many of the details layered into the film’s intricate construction. Both are well worth a listen. One is a solo commentary by Johnson, originally released online while the film was still in theaters so fans could listen to it through headphones when they returned to their local cinema to partake in a fresh viewing. The second commentary, recorded for the home video release, features Johnson, cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and actor Noah Segan, who plays one of the cops investigating the murder.

Visually, Knives Out is gorgeous, shot digitally yet rendered to evoke the feeling of classic film, bringing forth textures and color that immerse the viewer in the story’s uneasy atmosphere while making one wish they too could be crawling around that quirky old mansion searching for clues.

The Blu-ray includes the outstanding “Making a Murder,” an eight-part, feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary that provides in-depth details on all aspects of the production, from writing it, to casting it, to making the costumes and sets, and recording the music. It runs a shade under two hours in total.

The “Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder” featurette supplements this a bit, with a six-minute video on how Johnson created the story to be, as he describes it, a Hitchcock thriller within a whodunit. There’s also a 42-minute Q&A from a SAG screening in November that gives the massive cast a chance to sing their own praises while recounting their joy in making the movie.

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The Blu-ray also includes two deleted scenes comprising about five total minutes, with optional commentary by Johnson. These add some interesting subtext to some of the film’s subplots, but it’s easy to understand the decision to omit them from the final cut.

Finally, the disc offers a trove of marketing materials, including trailers and viral ads starring several of the characters in the film.

All-in-all, it’s an impressive package that harkens back to the glory days of DVDs that really gave fans a lot of bang for their buck.

‘Knives Out’ Coming Home on Digital Feb. 7, Disc — Including 4K — Feb. 25

The murder mystery Knives Out, which earned writer-director Rian Johnson an Oscar nom for Best Original screenplay, is heading home.

Lionsgate will release the whodunnit on digital Feb. 7 and 4K Ultra HD combo pack, Blu-ray combo pack, DVD and on demand Feb. 25.

The film, which has earned $278 million at the global box office, also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy (Ana de Armas) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy (Daniel Craig). Written, produced, and directed by Johnson (Star Wars: The Last JediLooper), Knives Out also has received awards from AFI, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics, Philadelphia Film Festival, The Hollywood Critics Association and Rotten Tomatoes’ Golden Tomatoes Awards.

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In addition to Craig and de Armas, the film’s ensemble cast includes Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell and Christopher Plummer. It follows the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Plummer). There’s one thing that renowned Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) knows for sure — everyone in the wildly dysfunctional Thrombey family is a suspect. Blanc must sift through a web of lies and red herrings to uncover the truth.

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Special features include an audio commentary and in-theater commentary by filmmaker Rian Johnson, two deleted scenes, the eight-part “Making a Murder” documentary, the “Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder” featurette, and a Q&A with the director and cast.

Avengers: Endgame

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 8/13/19;
Disney/Marvel;
Action;
Box Office $857 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Letitia Wright, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rene Russo, John Slattery, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Taika Waititi, Angela Bassett, Michael Douglass, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Josh Brolin.

A satisfying ending is a beautiful thing.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe began as one of the boldest gambits in movie history: a comic book company financing its own movies, based on relatively unknown characters, with the hope of someday uniting them in a crossover.

While no one could have predicted that 2008’s Iron Man would be as big a hit as it was, the other early films of the MCU were much more modestly received, and it wasn’t until the first Avengers film in 2012, the sixth in the MCU canon, that the true potential of what they were trying to pull off came into focus.

With Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film in the MCU, that effort has resulted in the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide. Say what you will about the corporate structure of Hollywood and the surging dominance of all things Disney, which owns Marvel, but the industry-shattering creative forces of producer Kevin Feige and his team simply have to be admired for their shear audicity.

Avengers: Endgame brings together just about every notable character to play a role in the previous 21 MCU films to close out a number of storylines that have been weaving through the films for 11 years.

Foremost among them was the aftermath of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, which ended with one of the biggest cliffhangers in the history of cinema, as the villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin) assembled all six Infinity Stones and caused half of all life in the universe to disappear with a snap of his fingers.

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Like the best series finales, Endgame manages to capture the essential elements of what fans love most about these films, providing both a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of how far things progressed from the beginning to now, all while giving the characters a sense of closure that honors who they are and what they’ve fought for.

And yet, Endgame is not the end of the MCU. The currently in theaters Spider-Man: Far From Home provides a nice little epilogue to it, and Feige at Comic-Con showed off a roadmap of the MCU’s next phase. However, Endgame is certainly a well-earned conclusion for several chapters of it.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Endgame is a testament to narrative efficiency despite its three-hour running length.

The Marvel movies have hit upon a winning formula of consistency, and Endgame is really no different. There are certain things the audience expects of it, but that’s not to say it approaches these goals in expected ways. The screenplay manages to defy expectations in its plot twists but remains true to the characters and provides a number of emotional payoffs that will particularly hit home for fans who have managed to follow the story arcs through all the films. This is simply a level of catharsis that stems from a 20-film journey that simply cannot be matched by most other cinematic achievements.

Endgame perfectly balances its sense of seriousness and tension with appropriate levels of humor and fun, resulting in a brisk pace that keeps the viewer eager to see what comes next. The film also warrants multiple viewings just to absorb the level of detail layered into the film.

The story is something of a love letter to the fans in the way it ingeniously re-visits some of the previous MCU films from a new perspective, deepening those films in small ways retroactively. Yet it wouldn’t be an “Avengers” film if it didn’t also culminate in what has to be the ultimate big-screen superhero battle.

The Russos have become masters of visual storytelling, which is a rather important quality to have when the goal is to adapt a comic book. Endgame is perhaps the biggest comic book movie ever made in terms of its scope, and the Russos are especially adept at framing their shots for maximum impact. It comes as no surprise that the film looks great on Blu-ray, with bright colors and sharp visual effects.

Another challenge brushed off with aplomb is balancing the sheer number of characters involved in a story of this magnitude, especially given the assemblage of performers of the magnitude the MCU has the clout to get. The closing credits of Endgame include the names of at least eight Oscar winners, and five of them appeared together in one of the film’s key scenes. Needless to say, the performances all around do not disappoint.

The film’s effectiveness is also given a huge boost by a phenomenal musical score by Alan Silvestri, who is perhaps the greatest living film composer who has yet to win an Oscar. Unlike Infinity War, in which the primary musical identities were Thanos and the Avengers as a group, Endgame revisits several character themes from the previous films, resulting in a deeply satisfying musical narrative. This approach only heightens the emotional connection between the audience and the characters, particularly when it comes to Captain America (unsurprising, since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger was Silvestri’s first MCU effort).

These are details that, when combined, make it easy to overlook those parts of the film (and the MCU) in general that probably shouldn’t be thought about too much, and instead appreciate what the film has managed to accomplish.

The Blu-ray provides a great feature-length commentary from the Russos and the screenwriters as they reflect on their long MCU careers, analyze the various moving parts of the franchise, and provide some great insights on the making of the film and the challenges of cleanly telling a story that is complicated by its nature. The Russos also offer a short introduction to the film.

There are also 36 minutes of featurettes, many of which shine a light more on the history of the MCU and how things evolved into this particular film. There are spotlights on the story arcs of Captain America, Black Widow, Thor and Iron Man (the latter also including Robert Downey Jr.’s screen test for the role). The Russos and their impact on the MCU is the subject of another featurette.

There’s a vignette that celebrates the many female heroes of the MCU. Also, the disc includes a seven-minute tribute to Stan Lee and a look back at his many cameos in the MCU movies.

Other extras on the Blu-ray include a funny two-minute gag reel and six deleted scenes, which offer a mix of fun and poignancy, especially the ones that make light of perceived plot holes from earlier movies. The excised footage features unfinished visual effects and runs about five minutes.

Digital versions available at Movies Anywhere and many digital retailers, such as Vudu, offer these extras as well as a six-minute featurette about the relationship between Captain America and his true love, Peggy Carter.

Avengers: Infinity War

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 8/14/18;
Disney/Marvel;
Action;
Box Office $678.11 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references.
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, William Hurt, Winston Duke.

If the first “Avengers” film was the superhero movie equivalent of an all-star game, then Avengers: Infinity War has got to be the genre’s Super Bowl. This isn’t just a few heroes uniting for a fight to save the Earth from the megalomaniacal villain of the moment. This is a massive intergalactic brawl with nothing less than the fate of the entire universe at stake.

Though nominally the third film of the “Avengers” brand, Infinity War is really a sequel to the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with the original Iron Man in 2008. Infinity War is the 19th film in the mega-franchise, while the 20th is the recent Ant-Man and the Wasp, whose characters are mentioned but aren’t directly involved here.

What makes Infinity War stand out, however, is how much it deconstructs the traditional “hero’s journey” arc of a typical fantasy adventure to wring suspense from the audience’s expectations of how the story will play out.

The film pits the Avengers against the alien warlord Thanos, who has made minor appearances in previous films as the mastermind behind a quest to collect the six Infinity Stones, gems of immense power that when combined can give the holder nearly godlike abilities.

Thanos is motivated by a desire to wipe out half the population of the universe in order to preserve resources and improve the quality of life for those who remain. Tired from untold years of pursuing his agenda planet-by-planet and earning countless enemies along the way, Thanos realizes that obtaining the Infinity Stones will allow him to complete his goals with the snap of his fingers. It’s not every day a comic book movie can inspire debate over the morality of Malthusian ethics.

The Avengers, on the other hand, are scattered across the cosmos and not much of a threat to Thanos following the events of Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok. While Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) can organize their own factions on Earth, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is able to bring the Guardians of the Galaxy into the fight, which pretty much finally connects all the quadrants of the MCU.

One of the strengths of directors Joe and Anthony Russo in their previous MCU films has been their ability to tell bold, complex stories with efficiency without sacrificing exciting action or engaging character dynamics. As if finding a way to involve a dozen heroes in Civil War without it feeling overstuffed weren’t enough of an achievement, with Infinity War they pull off one of the greatest balancing acts in cinematic history. Each character serves a function without seeming extraneous, while adding enough to the story to satisfy fans of each particular sub-franchise.

The plot weaves between action and quieter character moments to heighten the emotional impact of a powerful conclusion that unsurprisingly had fans lauding the film as the MCU equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back.

While it may be technically possible to follow along without having seen the previous films, one of the great joys of Infinity War is the chance to see so many of these characters that were established in earlier movies interact with each other for the first time. New viewers who want something of a primer without fully committing to the MCU should at least check out the “Avengers” movies, the “Captain America” movies, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and Thor: Ragnarok.

Infinity War’s visual style offers an eye-popping array of color that really looks spectacular on an HD screen. It should be noted that the entirety of the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio that doesn’t shift for the scenes that were specifically engineered for the film’s Imax theatrical presentation.

The visual effects are well rendered without overwhelming the senses, even though there is often a lot to take in, especially in the battle sequences (compared with, say, the stretched-to-the-screen’s-edge details of Ready Player One). Infinity War is as much of a science-fiction epic as anything, but in keeping with previous Marvel films, the presentation veers toward the hyper-real, fittingly evoking the feeling of fun comic book art rather than something more true-to-life.

The Blu-ray includes a nice smattering of extras that give a good sense of the scope of making the film but don’t really dive too deeply into specifics aside from a few key scenes.

The five-minute “Strange Alchemy” looks at the fun of uniting the various characters and why some were grouped together the way they were. The six-minute “The Mad Titan” focuses on Thanos and how his history in the films has led to his actions here.

Two “Beyond the Battle” featurettes explore the making of two key sequences, with nearly 10 minutes devoted to team Iron Man and the Guardians fighting Thanos on the planet Titan, and 11 minutes looking at Captain America’s and Black Panther’s squads joining forces to battle the armies of Thanos in Wakanda.

There are four deleted scenes that run a total of about 10 minutes each. Each contain unfinished visual effects but for the most part serve as fun little short films that provide some additional insights about the characters. “Happy Knows Best” features the hilarious cameo by Jon Favreau that was cut from the film. “Hunt for the Mind Stone” is an extension of the fight between Vision, Scarlet Witch and Thanos’ goons. “A Father’s Choice” offers some more Thanos backstory. And “The Guardians Get Their Groove Back” pokes a little fun at the “Guardians” films’ penchant for classic rock soundtracks. These are accompanied by an amusing two-minute gag reel.

Finally, the Blu-ray includes a feature-length commentary from the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This is a great discussion as they share all sorts of tidbits about the construction of the film, from pulling together many of the loose threads of the MCU to organizing the screenplay in a way to effectively tell the story while still giving all the characters their due.

Digital editions of the film, which can be accessed through Movies Anywhere and participating retailers using the code provided with the Blu-ray, have an exclusive half-hour roundtable discussion with eight directors of several of the MCU films. This is a great discussion about the art of collaboration on a massive franchise such as this, and how the various directors were able to evolve various characters’ storylines to the point where Infinity War could pay of so much of them. The participation of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn in the discussion does make the featurette a bit of a victim of some awkward timing, considering how recent revelations over his past Twitter postings have clouded his role role within the MCU.

The Ultra HD edition includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack but none of the bonus features, which are on the regular Blu-ray Disc included with the combo pack.