A Haunting in Venice

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 11/28/23;
20th Century;
Mystery;
Box Office $42.45 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.
Stars Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Dornan, Kyle Allen, Jude Hill, Camille Cottin, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Riccardo Scamarcio.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s third film based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective stories blends a bit of horror into the proceedings for an effective Halloween-themed mystery.

The sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2022’s Death on the Nile is loosely based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, retaining elements of the basic premise and some of the character names, but relocating the story from England to Italy and reworking much of the plot.  

The film takes place in 1947, 10 years following the events of Nile. Jaded from the events of that film, Poirot (Branagh) has sheltered himself away from the world in Venice, but is coaxed out of retirement by his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an author who is basically a stand-in for Christie herself.

Oliver wants help in exposing as a fraud a psychic named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) who will be conducting a séance at a Halloween party being held at a former orphanage that is rumored to be haunted. The palazzo is now owned by a former opera singer (Kelly Reilly) who has hired Reynolds to contact her daughter, who allegedly committed suicide a year earlier.

After an unnerving sequence of apparent demonic possession, Reynolds begins channeling the daughter’s spirit, claiming she was murdered. With almost everyone in the room on the verge of believing in the supernatural, Poirot vows to uncover Reynolds’ methods. In short order, however, an attempt is made on Poirot’s life, while Reynolds is thrown off a balcony and impaled on a statue.

With a storm preventing the police from arriving until morning, the elements are now in place for a classic murder mystery, as an annoyed Poirot locks everyone inside and vows to solve the case. This in turn rouses the amusement of Ariadne, who is portrayed by Fey as the perfect sassy foil to Poirot’s stuffiness.

As usual, almost everyone involved has a labyrinth of secrets to navigate for Poirot to reach the truth, though his efforts are seemingly complicated by the unsettled spirits of this most creepy of locales.

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The primary extra offered on the Blu-ray and digital versions of A Haunting in Venice is a 26-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that while focusing on the production of the third film also looks back at the first two.

Also included are 11 short but superfluous deleted scenes that run a total of about nine minutes.

Screen Media Acquires Rights to Thriller ‘Maggie Moore(s)’

Screen Media, a Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment company, has announced the acquisition of all North American rights to the true-crime-inspired thriller Maggie Moore(s).

Screen Media is planning a theatrical release in June, followed by a digital release later that month.

Directed by John Slattery and written by Paul Bernbaum, the film reunites Slattery with his Emmy-winning “Mad Men” co-star Jon Hamm (Top Gun: Maverick, Confess, Fletch). Maggie Moore(s) also stars Emmy winner Tina Fey (Date Night, “30 Rock”), Emmy nominee Nick Mohammed (“Ted Lasso”), Micah Stock (Kindred), Mary Holland (Happiest Season) and Happy Anderson (“Mindhunter”).

In the film, when two women with the same name are murdered days apart, small-town police chief Jordan Sanders (Hamm) finds himself wading through an unlikely collection of cheating husbands, lonely hearts, nosy neighbors and contract killers in an effort to put the pieces of the case, and his life, together. The film is inspired by actual events.

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“I’m so proud of Maggie Moore(s) and the entire cast and filmmaking team,” director and producer Slattery said in a statement. “After reading this script, I knew we had the potential for a unique story to be told. The result is a film that captures a lot of today’s true-crime, stranger-than-fiction culture, buoyed by excellent performances. I’m excited to bring this to audiences later this year, and to be working with Screen Media to do so.”  

“We’re excited to work with John and all the immense talent involved with the film,” David Fannon, chief acquisitions and distribution officer at Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, said in a statement. “With an incredible ensemble cast led by Jon Hamm and Tina Fey, the film is a wild, true crime-inspired ride that will keep audiences guessing until the end. It’s exactly the type of original content that Screen Media aspires to bring to our audiences.”

Maggie Moore(s) was produced by Slattery, Vincent Newman, Dan Reardon, Santosh Govindaraju, Nancy Leopardi and Ross Kohn. The film was executive produced by Jim Valdez, Kyle Hayes, Jared Underwood, Slava Vladimirov, Boden Anderson, Andrew C. Robinson, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri and Viviana Zarragoitia of Three Point Capital, David Fannon, Seth Needle, Conor McAdam, David A. Stern, David Nagelberg, Daniel Grodnik, Jonathan Taylor, Clay Floren, Ryan Fine and Bernbaum.

Slattery made his feature film directorial debut in 2014 with God’s Pocket, starring Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emmy winner John Turturro. He can currently be seen in Confess Fletch, also starring Hamm, and TV’s “The Good Fight.”

Hamm, best known for his Emmy-winning role on “Mad Men,” can currently be seen in Confess Fletch, Good Omens and Top Gun: Maverick. He is also currently in pre-production on the animated series “Grimsburg.”

Fey, best known for her Emmy-winning role as Liz Lemon on TV’s “30 Rock,” is currently in pre-production for the feature film adaptation of Mean Girls the Musical.

The deal was negotiated by Seth Needle, EVP of global acquisitions and co-productions, on behalf of Screen Media, with CAA Media Finance, The Gersh Agency and WME Independent, on behalf of the filmmakers.

Screen Media recently acquired Tom DeLonge’s directorial debut Monsters of California, Renny Harlin’s action film The Bricklayer starring Aaron Eckhart and Nina Dobrev from Millennium Films, Devil’s Peak starring Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton and Emmy winner Robin Wright, and the Bella Thorne-led thriller Saint Clare also starring Ryan Phillippe and Rebecca DeMornay. Recent film releases include The Locksmith starring Ryan Phillippe, Kate Bosworth, and Ving Rhames; Poker Face directed by and starring Academy Award winner Russell Crowe; Kevin Lewis’ follow-up to Willy’s Wonderland, The Accursed starring Alexis Knapp and Mena Suvari; The Enforcer starring Antonio Banderas and Kate Bosworth; The Immaculate Room starring Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth and Ashley Greene Khoury; Code Name Banshee starring Antonio Banderas, Jaime King and Tommy Flanagan; and the psychological horror film Monstrous starring Christina Ricci.

Soul

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Disney;
Animated;
$29.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $43.99 UHD BD.
Rated ‘PG’ for thematic elements and some language.
Voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett.

A music teacher with dreams of jazz glory nearly unlocks the secrets of the universe in Soul, which is about as profound a rumination on the nature of existence as one is likely to find in an animated movie.

Soul is another film from Pixar, like Inside Out and Monsters, Inc., before it, that explores mysterious aspects of how reality works by breaking ontological concepts down into cute and cuddly characters children can relate to, framed in a story their parents are more likely to appreciate.

Jamie Foxx voices Joe, a middle-aged jazz pianist whose stagnant music career has been supplanted by the routines of a middle school band teacher, leaving him artistically unsatisfied. One day, a former student offers him a gig in the quartet of a well-known jazz performer, which Joe sees as his big break. In his excitement over the opportunity, however, Joe slips into an open manhole, and before he realizes what has happened he finds himself a disembodied soul in a black void floating toward the bright light of the Great Beyond.

Unwilling to accept death just as he’s on the verge of realizing what he considers his purpose in life, Joe runs from the light and winds up in a different part of the spiritual realm, the Great Before, where young souls are nurtured until ready to experience life on Earth. The powers that be mistake Joe for a mentor for the new souls, and assign him a troublesome student named 22 (Tina Fey), who for thousands of years has shown little interest in proceeding to Earth. Learning of Joe’s situation, however, 22 agrees to help him return to his body.

And this is pretty much what the film’s marketing materials made the story out to be. But things get a bit more complicated than a trip through the afterlife. The pair journey to an astral plane where 22 knows a meditating guru who specializes in saving lost souls, but a mishap sends both of them to Earth. When 22 awakes in the hospital in Joe’s body, and Joe in a nearby cat, Soul quickly turns into Pixar’s version of a body-swap movie. As they work to correct the mistake, Joe the cat instructs 22 on getting ready for the gig, while 22 as Joe begins to experience true life and its simple pleasures for the first time.

Here it becomes clear that the film’s integration of jazz into the plot is more than a stylistic choice, but a clever narrative shorthand that builds upon the improvisational nature of the musical form to symbolize and express many of the motifs the film is exploring.

Soul is one of those movies that uses big ideas to teach simple lessons. The way the film depicts the relationship between the real and spiritual worlds might open the door to quite a few questions about just what is going on with Joe’s body, and may even prompt a few frank discussions between parents and children — but as a plot device it’s best not to delve into the mechanics of it too deeply. The film itself knows this, which is why the spiritual constructs are always described as an “illusion” and “hypothetical.”

However, the realm of the Great Before provides a great excuse to depict the kind of colorful setting Pixar excels at. It’s a beautiful, ethereal place of calming blues, serene golden light and soothing new age music. Pixar is no stranger to wistful films, but this is certainly one of its most beautiful, and a terrific reminder to slow down and appreciate the simple pleasures life has to offer.

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The Blu-ray presentation offers a bevy of bonus materials typical of a Pixar release.

Included with the film on the standard-Blu-ray Disc is an informative commentary with director Pete Docter, producer Dina Murray, and co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers. Also included on this disc are a couple of featurettes: the eight minute “Astral Taffy,” about designing the soul world; and the 10-minute “Not Your Average Joe,” about crafting Pixar’s first black lead character.

The 4K disc includes just the film presentation without any extras.

A dedicated standard-Blu-ray bonus disc includes a number of interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes that delve into the challenges of crafting the film’s complex subject matter into a digestible narrative. These include the six-and-a-half-minute “Pretty Deep for a Cartoon,” about the film’s heady themes; the eight-minute “Into the Zone,” about finding the film’s musical identity with Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and John Batiste, the latter helping incorporate jazz into the film’s visual style; the three-minute “Jazz Greats,” in which a number of jazz musicians discuss what music means to them; and the seven-minute “Soul, Improvised,” which chronicles the creative team’s challenges of working from home to finish the film during the pandemic. (The same featurettes are included with the movie on Disney+ as well.)

Also included on the bonus disc are 22 minutes of deleted sequences showcasing earlier, different concepts for telling the story, providing some good insights into the story process, plus several of the film’s trailers in various languages.

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Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Coming to Disc and Digital Sellthrough March 23

Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution will release the animated movie Soul on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and through digital retailers March 23.

Directed by Academy Award winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award nominee Dana Murray, Soul tells the story of Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who lands the gig of his life at the best jazz club in town. But one misstep lands Joe in a fantastical place: The Great Before. There, he teams up with soul 22 (Tina Fey), and together they find the answers to some of life’s biggest questions.

The voice cast also includes Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angela Bassett, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff, Donnell Rawlings and June Squibb.

The latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios was held back from its planned domestic theatrical release as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and instead was made available to subscribers of the Disney+ streaming service on Christmas for no additional charge. In limited release internationally it made $85.2 million at the global box office.

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Extras on the disc and digital versions (subject to retailer) include filmmaker commentary; deleted scenes with introduction; and several featurettes:

  • “Not Your Average Joe” — About how filmmakers crafted the story of Joe, Pixar’s first black leading character;
  • “Astral Taffy” — A look at the artistry and technical innovation that went into creating the sets and characters in the world of Soul;
  • “Pretty Deep for a Cartoon” — An examination of the philosophical questions posed by the film;
  • “Into the Zone: The Music and Sound of Soul” — An exploration of how the film uses music to enhance Joe’s journey;
  • Soul, Improvised” — A look at how the filmmakers finished the film during the pandemic;
  • “Jazz Greats” — Giants of the jazz world who consulted on Soul share their passion and wisdom about what music is and does for us all.

 

Soul will also be available as a collectible Steelbook at Best Buy, and packaged with a limited-edition gallery booklet at Target.

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Complete Series Set of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Due on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 4 From Mill Creek

The complete series set of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” will come out on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 4 from Mill Creek Entertainment.

All 51 episodes from the show’s four-season run will be available for the first time together on DVD at $54.98 and Blu-ray at $74.98.

The series follows Kimmy Schmidt, rescued after 15 years in a cult, who decides to reclaim her life by venturing to New York, where she experiences everyday life with wide-eyed enthusiasm. On a whim, she rents a room from Titus, a gay wannabe Broadway actor and the unlikely pair find they’re well-suited to help each other out. Titus reintroduces Kimmy to modern life, and she provides him with the inspiration to follow his dreams.

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Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (“30 Rock”), the comedy series earned 18 Primetime Emmy nominations including Outstanding Comedy Series for each of its seasons. The cast includes Ellie Kemper (“The Office”), Tituss Burgess (Dolemite Is My Name), Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock”) and Carol Kane (The Princess Bride) with guest appearances from Amy Sedaris, Jon Hamm, Josh Charles, Fred Armisen, David Cross and Tina Fey.

Netflix will be premiering an “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” interactive special in early 2020, the first interactive comedy event for the service.

Beer League

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/14/19
MVD/FilmRise;
Comedy, B.O. $0.5 million, $14.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for nonstop language, including strong sexual references, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
Stars Artie Lange, Ralph Macchio, Anthony De Sando, Cara Buono, Jimmy Palumbo, Jerry Minor, Joe Lo Truglio, Seymour Cassel, Laurie Metcalf, Louis Lombardi.

I love this movie. It’s the perfect tonic for the Al Bundy in us all — an ode to camaraderie, teamwork and the art of the great insult.

That description belies a certain temperament, of course, but how one not eyeball a movie headlined by Artie Lange about a softball squad of New Jersey drunks and not expect to find something potentially offensive to ponder? If it was un-PC when it first premiered in 2006, and it most certainly was, it would be hard pressed to even get made in the Twitter-fueled outrage culture of today. And that’s aside from how years of cocaine use have turned Lange’s nose into silly putty.

Co-written by Lange and director Frank Sebastiano (and based on Shakespeare’s Ale League, Sebastiano quips in the commentary), Beer League is the Bad News Bears if the entire team were Buttermakers — a portrait of drunken thirtysomethings whose last shot at glory rests with success in one of those community rec-center slow-pitch softball leagues where the teams consist of bar buddies.

Lange basically plays himself, a guy named Artie whose team is so bad they always end up picking a fight with their main rivals rather than admit defeat. A local cop (a great cameo by Louis Lombardi of “24”) is so fed up with the fights he orders the team that finishes with the worst record to leave the league.

Artie has a personal motivation for winning, as the other team is led by his oldest rival, who has held the upper hand in their feud since high school.

All seems lost until Artie realizes that if his team can stay sober in a league of drunks, they might actually have an advantage.

But Artie can’t seem to get out of the way of his own personal problems, particularly when it comes to his new girlfriend, played by Cara Buono, who later had a prominent role in season four of “Mad Men” as the love interest of Don Draper who gets dumped so he can marry his secretary; most recently she’s been on “Stranger Things” as Mike’s mom.

A few other plot machinations conspire to bring the team to their lowest point just before the championship, leading to a final game one must see to believe. There’s just something special about seeing a batter throw up in mid-swing, a feat Joe Lo Truglio (of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) pulls off with aplomb.

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The late Seymour Cassel, who just died in April, gets some of the film’s best lines and steals nearly every scene he’s in as the crotchety old-timer who pitches for Artie’s team.

Also notable is Jimmy Palumbo as Johnny, who constantly refers to his quest to finish the season with a .700 batting average (“It’s so unfair … it’s like pitching to a healthy Lou Gehrig”).

Artie’s best friend is played by Ralph Macchio, who at the time was basically at the tail end of his Karate Kid fame before a guest appearance on HBO’s “Entourage” led to his casting in this movie and sparked a bit of a career renaissance that brought him full circle with “Cobra Kai.”

Even Tina Fey gets in on the action with a one-line cameo as a gym receptionist. Fey was wrapping up her stint on “Saturday Night Live” at the time and about to debut “30 Rock,” and shows up here visibly pregnant with her first daughter.

This is one of those films that critics are prone to dismiss, and most did at the time, but for the audience in the target demographic, which I suppose would be middle-aged Johnny Six-Packs, it hits the sweet spot. It’s crude, extremely funny and eminently watchable in the vein of The Hangover or Major League, and rife with quotability. My brother and I still toss off zingers from the film to this day.

With its flair for crudeness and apathy toward the human condition, Beer League is a perfect companion piece for 1998’s Dirty Work, which was co-written by Sebastiano and also starred Lange.

The new FilmRise Blu-ray edition of the film is basically an updated pressing of the Echo Bridge Blu-ray from 2008, with a new menu and the same previously released trove of bonus material.

The Lange-Sebastiano commentary ends up being surprisingly serious compared with the tone of the film itself, mainly because in-between Lange laughing about his various drug habits they actually focus on how the film was made.

We get a glimpse of Sebastiano’s directing style in the 19-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which shows him calling the shots in a Yankee cap and bath robe.

The Blu-ray also includes the minute-long faux “Beer Goggles” commercial that went on to inspire the production of Beer League.

Additional extras include the film’s trailers; a photo gallery; four minutes of Lange recording jokes for the film’s promotional campaign; footage of Lange behind the scenes at “Best Damn Sports Show,” “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” and Cine Vegas (3-4 minutes each); and 19 minutes of cast junket interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Netflix Plans ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Interactive Special

Netflix has ordered an “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” interactive special, according to the SVOD service.

The Universal comedy series, created and executive produced by Tina Fey, stars Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane.

“We’re thrilled to announce that we’re about to start production on an all-new interactive ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ special, set to debut on Netflix in 2020,” said Fey at the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” FYSEE panel in New York City May 8. “’Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ was one of the first original comedy series on Netflix, and now it will be its first interactive comedy event. Fans will be able to make choices on behalf of our characters, taking different story paths with, of course, different jokes. I think it’s a great fit for our show and will be a great way to officially complete the series.”

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“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has earned 18 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series for each of its seasons.