For the week of January 29th, Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment brings Paranormal Activity 4 to Blu-ray. Since the release of the first Paranormal Activity in 2009, the franchise has cemented its position as horror cinema's most dependable fright distributor, and this latest entry is no exception. Building off the mythology established in Paranormal Activities2 and 3, the new film finds the series' vicious supernatural demon terrorizing a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) with predictably exciting results. Nothing here is as fresh as, say, Ti West's brilliant The Innkeepers, but it's still admirable how the Paranormal Activities eschew graphic gore and violence for more suggestive scares, the most effective of which here make thrilling use of an XBox Kinect and a Skype camera (in a bit that owes more than a little to the "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" segment of V/H/S).
January 29th also finds Sony Pictures Home Entertainment offering Seven Psychopaths to retailers. On the surface, this comedy-thriller looks like a Tarantino wannabe, and a bad one at that, the kind of faux-quirky caper released every other month in the mid-1990s as a means of capitalizing on the Pulp Fiction buzz; the film centers on a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) struggling to write a film called...Seven Psychopaths, though his efforts quickly grow unsettled by the criminal shenanigans surrounding a mob boss (Woody Harrelson) and two dog-nappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken). That setup is disgustingly precious on a number of levels, yet the end result plays like gangbusters, due to the cast's spirited performances - Farrell is a great straight man to Rockwell's manic wild card, and Walken brings genuine pathos to his low-rent hoodlum - and writer/director Martin McDonagh's brilliant command of the material. An acclaimed playwright in both Europe and North America (he wrote, among others, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman), McDonagh's first feature-film was 2008's wonderful crime-comedy In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths shares that earlier film's madcap plotting and love of language.
Martin Liebman's Blu-ray review notes, "Seven Psychopaths earns big points for its novel concept, intriguing character roster, and award-worthy script. The film twists around the boundaries of fiction and reality, good and bad, normal and psychotic, and all sorts of other contrasting elements in a film that never settles down, never stays on the straight path, never gives in to convenience or cliché. It's a fascinating spectacle that doesn't always hit the mark but more often than not wins over audiences with exceptional all-around workmanship."
Next up, courtesy of Shout Factory, is The Duellists. This Napoleon-era drama is the first full-length film from Ridley Scott, the visionary filmmaker behind Alien and Gladiator, and The Duellists highlights many of the qualities that would make Scott so revered within the cinema community. Adapted from a Joseph Conrad short story, the film is a gorgeously shot examination of masculinity and violence; it focuses on two French army officers (Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) locked in a pointless - and increasingly bloody - series of duels that span from Napoleon's rise to his fall. Within the constraints of its under-$1-million micro-budget, Scott and his cinematographer Frank Tidy create images of striking depth and power - visually, The Duellists looks as good as Stanley Kubrick's far more pricey Barry Lyndon.
In his Blu-ray review, Svet Atanasov praises the picture for its "visual style [which] clearly confirms the existence of a grand vision and ultimately a desire to impress without imitating someone else's work...The cast is [also] very convincing. Keitel is spectacular as the obsessed with his opponent officer who can't find peace throughout the years... Carradine is equally impressive as D'Hubert. His facial expressions repeatedly reveal how difficult it is for him to control his emotions each time Feraud's name is mentioned."
Another vintage HD release is Kino's White Zombie Blu-ray. Director Victor Halperin's moody chiller did not receive much critical or commercial support when it premiered in 1932, but it actually helped lay the groundwork for one of the horror genre's most enduring tropes: by most accounts, White Zombie stands as the first zombie picture. It's nowhere near as graphic as Dawn of the Dead or even the television hit The Walking Dead, and many of the supporting performances are stilted and unconvincing, but Halperin's maintains a dreamy, genuinely unnerving tonal atmosphere, and he gets a delightfully hammy turn from Dracula star Bela Lugosi.
Casey Broadwater uses his Blu-ray review to discuss why White Zombie has resonated with film buffs; he writes that "as film historian Frank Thompson points out in his audio commentary...White Zombie seems to exist in some weird parallel universe not entirely attached to our own. Its reputation has increased in light of its status as 'first zombie film,' and it's probably easier today to overlook the film's faults - including one or two plot holes and some general confusion about the characters' motivations - and celebrate its merits. The mouldering [sic] set design, borrowed from other films shot on the Universal Studios lot. Arthur Martinelli's eerie black and white cinematography. The ghostly special effects work. And, of course, the legendary Bela Lugosi, perfectly devilish with a fu-manchu mustache and twirled up eyebrows, gazing out of the screen in tight closeup, hypnotizing us even now."
Finally, TV-on-Blu-ray gets another addition through the release of Downton Abbey: Season 3. For many viewers, this season represents the beloved PBS television program at its most divisive; Downton Abbey sees its characters going through ever more radical and dramatic changes, and this escalation stretches, at times, the believability of of the series past the confines of its relatively modest first season. That said, the program continues to maintain the soapy appeal of its first two years, and it gets a great boost from the addition of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham's mother.
Through his Blu-ray review, Brian Orndorf writes the following: "Outsiders will politicize the program, endlessly debating its meaning and impact as a series observing privilege and detailing class warfare. I don't begrudge the public any opportunity for debate, but I choose to view Downton Abbey as a soap opera...It's high drama with exemplary textures and period details, with luminescent performers and razor-sharp dialogue, all funneled into a frothy, furious ocean of disasters and tight-lipped joy. It's a mercilessly entertaining show that almost feigns regality and subtextual profundity to cover for its true desire: to provide an emotional roller coaster of chest-seizing reactions."