Don't Breathe (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 88 min.). First, director/co-writer Fede Alvarez brought us the twisty, re-imagined "Evil Dead" in 2013. Now, in his second feature film, again co-written with Rodo Sayagues, Alvarez intensifies the home invasion thriller to a visceral level. In the film, three young thieves invade the home of a blind war veteran, looking to score the $300,000 insurance payout he got after his daughter was killed in an accident. The film is a perhaps too-lean 88 minutes -- at least two of the deleted scenes should have been in the film -- and nary a moment is wasted, as bad guys become good guys and the good are found to be bad.
The three thieves are Rocky (Jane Levy of "Evil Dead" and TV's "Suburgatory"), who is trying to raise enough money so she and her much younger sister can leave their abusive mother for California; Money (Daniel Zovatto of "Beneath," "It Follows"), Rocky's boyfriend who seems to be into the game for the excitement as much of the money;' and Alex (Dylan Minnette of "Goosebumps"), who is trying to raise money for law school and has a crush on Rocky. They raid homes in the Detroit area that have Alex's father's firm for home security. Alex makes the invasions easier, as he has access to the security codes from his father's files.
Money thinks there will be a big score in the home of a war veteran, who got the large insurance payout and lives in a bit run-down neighborhood. When they arrive to case the home, they learn the homeowner is blind and has a mean dog. The Blind Man is played by Stephen Lang (the four "Avatar" films; TV's "Into the Badlands"). Nonetheless, they go back and break in that night, only to be caught by the Blind Man, who has a gun and immediately begins securing his doors and windows. What follows is a harrowing experience of the robbers trying to escape the unexpected trap. One huge surprise in the house sort of flips good and evil, and it later turns out to have a sick twist to it. The only real misstep in the film is when Alvarez opens the film with a slice of the ending. It has been suggested viewers close their eyes for the first two minutes.
The claustrophobic action in the film adds to the building horror. In one sequence, the Blind Man shuts off the lights to even things between he and the robbers. The screen goes gray instead of completely black, so the audience can see what is going on, but when the Blind Man shoots, the gun flashes reveal short bursts of color. Bonus features include audio commentary by Alvarez and Sayagues, and brief looks at Lang as the Blind Man (3:17), the film's look (2:56) with Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque, the cast (4:04), the sound (1:49) with items in the house contributing to it, and creating the house (3:51), which is the most interesting one. There also are eight deleted scenes (15:17), with optional commentary by Alvarez. One deleted scene explains why Alex reluctantly agrees to invade the Blind Man's home because of his trying to get into law school, instead of becoming a policeman, as his father wants, while another scene has Alex making what he believes is his last phone call and leaving his father a message. Both scenes contain some of Minnette's best acting. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Kubo and the Two Strings (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 101 min.). This stop-motion animated film from LAIKA studio, which has brought us "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls," is very entertaining and highly imaginative. Its target audience is both children and adults, with some scenes, such as the giant attacking skeleton, probably too intense for younger children. The story, inspired by Japanese tales, is of a young boy, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of HBO's "Game of Thrones"), who mesmerizes the people in his village with his gift of spinning fantastical tales that come to life through origami via Kubo's magic and his musical instrument.
Kubo has only one eye, as his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), took his other for its magical powers. The Moon King is abetted by his two daughters (Rooney Mara as The Sisters), sisters to Kubo's Mother (Charlize Theron). Kubo's father is dead, so one day Kubo disobeys his Mother, stays out after dark and tries to commune with his father's spirit. Instead, he grabs the attention of The Sisters, and the chase is on. Kubo's Mother transfers her spirit into a monkey talisman (Theron as Monkey), which comes to life and is to guide Kubo as he seeks the protection of the three pieces of his father's magical armor: an unbreakable sword, a breast plate and a helmet. Shortly into their journey, they come across a cursed samurai, who has been turned into a beetle (Matthew McConaughey as Beetle). Beetle decides to help Kubo and Monkey. In addition to battling the skeleton, who has a couple dozen swords imbedded in his skull, Kubo has to fight a giant serpent.
Extras include a very worthwhile audio commentary by director/producer Travis Knight, who was the lead animator on both "The Boxtrolls" and "ParaNorman"; a discussion of the inspirations for the story (6:04); a look at how the various locations posed challenges for the filmmakers (3:12); and a discussion of the film's story and themes (2:33). Exclusive to the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D combo versions are four more making-of featurettes, including an introduction by Knight (56 secs.), a look at the film's three monsters (9:25), the problems and solutions for filming animation under water (4:35) and how the film's music by Dario Marianelli combines traditional and contemporary styles (5:55). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 121 min.). The unorthodox Western by director/co-writer Robert Altman stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as two newcomers to the raw Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church. They join forces to provide the miners with a superior kind of whorehouse, but are threatened by representatives of the powerful mining company.
Beatty plays gambling gunslinger John McCabe, who comes to town and opens a typical brothel, that is until classy whore Constance Miller (Christie in a role that earned her an Oscar nomination) arrives in town and offers to bring in a better class of women workers if she is made a partner in the business. The hook is the business will make more money with the improvements. Altman presents a West that is dark and gloomy, although filled wacky characters. With a rather thin plot, the film centers on the flaws and weaknesses of the settlers. The film also has a wicked sense of humor and beautiful cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (nominated for a BAFTA Award). The film features songs by Leonard Cohen, who sadly passed away earlier this month., as well as Altman's innovative use of overlapping dialogue (also see his "Nashville").
Extras include 2002 audio commentary by Altman and producer David Foster; a new making-of documentary (55 min.), featuring members of the cast and crew and covering the socio-cultural environment in which it was made; a new conversation about the film and Altman's career by film historians Carl Beauchamp and Rick Jewell (37 min.); a 1970 featurette about the film's making (10 min.); a Q&A at the Art Directors Guild Film Society with production designer Leon Ericksen from 1999 (38 min.); excerpts from archival interviews with Zsigmond (12 min.); a gallery of stills by photographer Steve Shapiro; and excerpts from two 1971 episodes of "The Dick Cavett Show" with Altman and film critic Pauline Kael (23 min. total). The leaflet contains an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich. Grade: film and extras 4 stars
Boyhood (2014, Criterion, 2 Blu-ray discs, R, 165 min.). Another innovative film, director Richard Linklater shot the movie in segments over 12 years so that he could capture the real-life physical growth of actor Ellar Coltrane, who plays a child named Mason, as well as the character's emotional growth. Mason's divorced parents are played by Patricia Arquette, who won an Oscar for her role, and Ethan Hawke. Lorelei Linklater plays Mason's older sister. The concept of the film is simple, even though a bit complex to carry out. Certainly, a lot of commitment was required on everyone's part. As for plot, there really is not one; the movie is simply slices of three lives. That said, an emotional bond is quickly established between the actors and the audience.
Bonus features include a new audio commentary by director Linklater, producer Cathleen Sutherland, editor Sandra Adair, co-producer and first assistant director Vince Palmo Jr., production designer Rodney Becker, costume designer Kari Perkins, casting director Beth Sepko-Lindsey, and actors Marco Perella, Libby Villari and Andrew Villarreal. The participants discuss the unusual production history, how and where parts of the film were shot (including comments about the various film stocks used), and some political trends and events that the film also covers. The second Blu-ray disc includes a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film; a conversation with Linklater and actors Arquette and Coltrane (58 min.); another conversation, this one between actors Coltrane and Hawke (31 min.); a video essay by critic Michael Koresky about time in Linklater's films and narrated by Coltrane (13 min.); and portraits of the cast and crew by photographer Matt Lankes, narrated with personal thoughts by Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane and Sutherland (24 min.). The booklet has photos and an essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.75 stars
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (Japan, 1990, Criterion Blu-ray, PG, 120 min.). Kurosawa was another of film's most creative geniuses. His great samurai films, including "Seven Samurai" (1954) and "Yojimbo" (1961), and particularly "The Hidden Fortress" (1958), influenced the first "Star Wars" movie and reflections of his work can be seen in the "Indiana Jones" franchise as well. For this magic realism film, the director based the eight vignettes on his own personal recurring dreams and stories from Japanese folklore. The film is presented in a new, restored 4k digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Shoji Ueda. The film was the 28th of Kurosawa's 30-film career.
The stories are: "Sunshine Through the Rain," in which a boy, against the wishes of his mother, goes out in the rain and witnesses a wedding procession of kitsune (foxes); "The Peach Orchard," in which the dolls of a boy's sister comes to life during Hina Matsuri, the Peach Festival; "The Blizzard," about a group of four mountaineers; "The Tunnel," in which a discharged WWII Japanese company commander encounters an anti-tank dog and the ghost of one of his soldiers in an interminable tunnel; "Crows," which features director Martin Scorsese as artist Vincent van Gogh; "Mount Fuji in Red," in which the six reactors of a nuclear plant near Mt. Fuji explode one by one; "The Weeping Demon," in which a man encounters a demon that is a mutated human with one horn, the result of radioactive poisoning; and "Village of the Windmills," in which villagers have forsaken the polluting influence of modern technology in favor of a healthier life. Overall, the film is a personal lament for a world at the mercy of human ignorance.
The cinematography is the real star of the film, which is not for everybody, particularly those used to the heavier plot elements of his early films. This release features new audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince and a new English subtitle translation. Additionally, there is the "Making of 'Dreams'" documentary (1990, 150 min.), shot on set by director Nobuhiko Obayashi. Another documentary, "Kurosawa's Way" (2011, 50 min.), was made by Kurosawa's longtime translator, Catherine Cadou, and features interviews with filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki and others. There are new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi. The booklet includes an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri and Kurosawa's script for a never-filmed ninth dream. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 4 stars
New TV releases include:
Better Call Saul: Season Two (Sony, 3 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 459 min.). This is the second season of the prequel series to "Breaking Bad," setting the groundwork for Jimmy McGill's (Bob Odenkirk) metamorphosis from small-time, hustling attorney into legendary criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, his alter ego. During the 10 episodes, McGill leaves shortcuts behind due to his budding romance with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). However, his upstanding brother Chuck (Michael McKean of "This Is Spinal Tap") is keeping watch and disgraced policeman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, also from "Breaking Bad") is drawn into a menacing cartel web. The season received seven Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actor (Odenkirk) and Supporting Actor (Banks), as well as two nominations for Single-Camera Editing and one apiece for Sound Mixing and Visual Effects in a Supporting Role.
Extras include cast and crew commentaries on every episode, a gag reel, a table read with the cast of the episode, "Switch," a look at composer Dave Porter's score and a breakdown of the single-shot border crossing in the episode, "Fifi." Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition are a look at Jimmy and Kim's complicated relationship; a deconstruction of the fight scene between Ehrmantrout and a pair of home invaders in the episode, "Bali Ha'i"; a conversation between Banks and Mark Margolis (Hector) discussing their careers; a tour of the new Davis & Main set with production designer Anthony T. Fanning and set decorator Elaine O'Donnell; and a look at how the crew teamed up with the Commemorative Air Force to bring the last airworthy B-29 Superfortress to Albuquerque. Additionally, the Blu-ray features the full-length versions of all four legal commercials created for the show, and a hilarious new bonus scene, "HSC: Beaches 'n' Peaches."
Game of Thrones: The Complete Sixth Season (HBO, 4 Blu-ray or 5 standard DVDs, NR, 558 min.). The sixth season of the HBO series based of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series earned 23 Emmy Award nominations this year and brought home 12 statuettes, including Outstanding Writing and Directing for the episode, "Battle of the Bastards," and Outstanding Drama Series. Going into the season, the big question was whether Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) really had perished in the season five finale. Without going into any spoilers, the season saw some new alliances by familiar faces and the emergence of new characters to challenge the balance of power in the four lands.
Both editions include audio commentaries for each of the 10 episodes, with three episodes having two commentaries; a look at all three shooting units in a day-in-the-life feature; an in-depth look at creating the "Battle of the Bastards," including visual effects and interviews with cast and crew; a look at the creation of Vaes Dothrak and its importance to Dany's evolution; and four deleted scenes. Exclusive to Blu-ray is the continuing in-episode guide to characters, locations and relevant histories; and 18 historical featurettes on such things as the Old Way, the Kingsmoot, the Sunset Sea, and children of the forest vs. the first men.
Hell of Wheels: The Complete Series (2011-16, eOne, 17 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, TV-14, 2,466 min.). Released the same time as Season 5 Vol. Two: The Final Episodes, this is the complete series inaa slipcover box that contains the six individual releases and more than 40 hours of gritty entertainment. The series, which ran five seasons on AMC, won three consecutive Western Heritage Awards for Outstanding Fictional Drama. The stunning landscapes surrounding Calgary stand in for the epic sweep of the West, a hardscrabble American frontier after the Civil War. The series focuses on a Confederate soldier (Anson Mount) who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife. His quest brings him to the dangerous, lawless town of Hell of Wheels, which travels with and services the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, an engineering feat that was a marvel of its time. The series covers the railroad's institutionalized greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, the history of the Chinese workers and the plight of the newly-emancipated African Americans during the Reconstruction.
Bonus features include a making-of featurette; inside-the-episode featurettes; character featurettes; behind-the-scenes footage; and a set tour with actor Mount.