The first “Paranormal Activity,” from director Oren Peli, was smartly marketed, and made a bundle of money for distributor Paramount in 2009, even though it was shot on a shoestring budget two years earlier. At the forefront of the recent surge of “found footage” genre flicks, it wrung deliciously nervous reactions from audiences while detailing the story of a young couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) whose new house seems haunted by supernatural phenomena. The story of the hit film’s sequel unfolded in roughly parallel time, largely detailing the story of Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), but “Paranormal Activity 3,” which finds “Catfish” co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman take over the franchise reins, goes back in time, to 1988.
Focusing on Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and Katie (Chloe Csengary) as young children living with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her live-in boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith), “Paranormal Activity 3” pulls the same familiar levers of slow-burn tension as its predecessors, but does so with enough skill and savvy to more than hold an audience’s attention. Joost, Schulman and writer Christopher Landon come up with imaginative ways to transport the concept to the VHS era but open it up from mere static shots, as with the true-to-character manner in which some of its home security footage is accrued (Dennis attaches his camera to the base of an oscillating fan). The performances here are engaging and naturalistic, and the film both builds to an unnerving climax while also setting the table for the inevitable future installment in the franchise.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of “Paranormal Activity 3” comes housed in a Blu-ray case, presented in 1080p high definition with an English language 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track on the former format, and widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions with an English language 5.1 surround sound track on DVD. By way of extras, there’s a three-minute collection of “lost tapes”/extra material (some in-character monkeying around with the camera, and an amusing commercial for Dennis’ wedding videography that will make first-generation Atari fans proud), but the big bonus is that the original version of the movie is included as well as an unrated cut, which runs 10 minutes longer and re-inserts some worthwhile material (one of the girls plunging downstairs from their loft bedroom) into the movie. A digital copy of the unrated version is also included, too.
Nepotism may have played a role in Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael Mann, getting “Texas Killing Fields” made, but the pungent crime drama, based loosely on true events, certainly gets all of its character detail and surrounding color right. Thunder rolls, rain falls, and the smell of sweat almost hangs in the air. It’s a shame, then, that the story takes turns that render it so jumbled and chaotic, like a batshit-crazy nonsensical cousin of “Zodiac.”
Homicide detective Jim Souder (Sam Worthington) and his partner, transplanted New Yorker Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), are working one missing persons case when Jim’s ex-wife, Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), solicits their assistance on a body found in the nearby marshland out of their jurisdiction. Unable to turn his back on helping solve this string of gruesome killings, Heigh becomes obsessed, especially as it seems that the unsolved murders might intersect with the fate of Anne (Chloe Moretz), the neglected young daughter of a strung-out druggie prostitute, Lucie (Sheryl Lee).
The acting here is committed work, and consequently the movie achieves a solid hold early on, based largely on the level of identification with its questing leads. The developments of its criminal and investigation strands, however, bog down in a manner that defies logic. (Why, for instance, if there are “30 federal officers” working Stall’s case, is there 1] a need for Heigh and Souder, and 2] no breaks?) Killers and other criminals also behave strangely and eventually out themselves, in convenient fashion, as the movie devolves into a bewildering blizzard of contrivances. Mann obviously has a great touch for detail and mood, but “Texas Killing Fields” isn’t quite up to snuff on the script level.
Housed in a complementary cardboard slipcover, the film comes to DVD presented in 2.40:1 widescreen, split into 12 chapters, with a Dolby digital 5.1 soundtrack and optional English and Spanish subtitles. “Texas Killing Fields”‘s transfer is solid, and free of edge enhancement or any artifacting, but the sound mix seems awfully low at times, especially with respect to its dialogue mix and deeper registers. Bonus features consist of the movie’s original theatrical trailer and a feature-length audio commentary track from Mann and writer Donald Ferraone.
I didn’t have much familiarity with the Adult Swim animated program “Archer” before firing up its second season DVD release, but creator Adam Reed’s show — which in less talented hands could just be a retread of bumbling spy cliches served up much fresher in the earlier “Austin Powers” movies, the delirious “OSS” flicks, and other spoofs — is a manic romp that’s part workplace comedy and part unapologetically inappropriate secret agent farce. Its 20-minute episodes center on Sterling Archer (voiced by Jon Benjamin), a preening, self-centered clandestine operative who works for ISIS, a not-particularly-well-funded spy organization. (The rest of its voice cast, including Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash and Judy Greer, is also top-notch.) The show — already a nice blend of the absurd and raunchy — also does a good job of incorporating its characters’ massive flaws and attitudinal difficulties into its plotting, building on itself in a manner that few sitcoms do. The stories are outlandish, absolutely, but the underpinnings true and consistent. Fans of other Adult Swim programming (especially “The Venture Bros.”) and shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” will definitely enjoy “Archer,” and it’s not difficult at all to leap into the series in mid-run.
Housed in a regular, clear plastic Amaray case with a snap-in tray, “Archer: The Complete Season Two” comes to DVD presented on a pair of dual layer discs, in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with English Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound. Bonus features consist of a two-minute promo bit and five-minute, quite amusing animated riff/outtake in which Archer is given the face of his star Benjamin, after reconstructive surgery gone awry. There’s also another five-minute segment, “Ask Archer,” in which the star ostensibly responds to fan mail, and opines that he should be played in a movie by Burt Reynolds, “but with Ed Harris’ eyes.” Finally, there’s a 13-minute panel from this past year’s ComiCon, in which Reed and the aforementioned voice cast all participate, and the latter talk about their abject delight in getting to lend voice to such terrible, filthy things.
Co-written and directed by Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, “Tanner Hall” is one of those “sheltered New England boarding school” movies — think of it as a kind of coming-of-age blend of “Mona Lisa Smile” and a female version of “Dead Poets Society,” minus (unfortunately) any of the Sapphic canoodling of 2001’s “Lost and Delirious.” Rising senior Fernanda (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”‘s Rooney Mara) finds her prep school existence upended when Victoria (Georgia King), a manipulative troublemaker from her childhood and new enrollee at the eponymous private academy, becomes jealous of Fernanda’s relationship with an older family friend, Gio (Tom Everett Scott), and then sets out to woo over her friends — adventurous Kate (Brie Larson) and mousy tomboy Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) — and publicly humiliate Fernanda.
The film is warmly captured, for sure; it realistically conveys its leafy setting, and at least an outlying sense of its characters’ hormonal confusion and budding sexuality. But the script doesn’t much delve into its characters beyond a few pat distinguishing characteristics, and ergo any sense of crisp ensemble engagement never really takes shape. One mainly wants to wander off with Fernanda and her brother-in-law Gio, and delve further into their narrative. Some sense of disproportionate interest in a movie like this is to be expected, but “Tanner Hall” isn’t built for the long haul.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional Spanish subtitles, “Tanner Hall” comes to DVD with an audio commentary track featuring Gregorini and von Furstenberg, in which they weigh in on casting and generally talk in glowing terms about just how great everyone involved in the movie was.
Writer-director Danny Buday’s “5 Star Day” is a romantic melodrama starring squint-happy Cam Gigandet as Jake Gibson, a student who — after losing his job, getting his car stolen, discovering his girlfriend (Julianna Guill) cheating on him and having his apartment flooded on the same day — sets out on a road trip to complete a school assignment, “disproving astrology” by tracking down three people born at the exact same time and place as himself, and presumably contrasting their birthday experiences with his own. Loosely slotting as one of these movies in which strangers come together and learn Something Important from one another, Buday’s maudlin effort veers between grandiose self-importance and odd exuberance.
Not many details ring true, however. The imagination on display seems nipped from insipid, lazy, seventh season small screen serials, after characters are so established that they need only be shown looking moderately forlorn under the soundtrack of some mopey new alt-rock ballad. (When Jake walks in on his girlfriend mid-thrust with another dude, he repairs to a rooftop perch, where he takes long drags from a cigarette and puts his feet in a small tub of sand.) Even more damning is the acting. Emotionally defensive bartender and single mother Sarah (Jena Malone), the first of Jake’s visits, is meant to provide “5 Star Day” with a new love interest, and a renewed spirit of romantic uplift. There’s not much by way of chemistry between she and Gigandet, however, especially since he is such an unconvincing vessel for sympathy, looking like he’s never much suffered a day without hair gel, much less deep pain and regret.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “5 Star Day” comes to DVD presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 audio track. Nicely, there is also a solid collection of supplemental bonus material, anchored by a previous short film from Buday, the gritty, 23-minute “Dependency.” Cinematographer Jason Oldak also joins Buday for a feature-length audio commentary track, which touches on both production anecdotes and the themes the movie explores. A photo gallery, a collection of trailers, and a collection of deleted scenes are also included, while a 25-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is mostly interesting for hardcore production hounds, since it eschews EPK-style chats for slated material, half-captured chats between Buday and his cast, and on-set noodling. For more information, visit www.5StarDayTheMovie.com.
“Ice Quake” is best described as the type of man-versus-nature movie which would be enjoyed by those who hear the title “Ice Quake” and immediately think, “Suh-weet, that sounds awesome!” Written by David Ray and directed by Paul Ziller, the movie (do not mistake this for a film) unfolds on Christmas Eve day, in and around Mt. Phaeton. There, Alaskan geologist Michael (Brendan Fehr) has his eye on the recent collapse of a Russian ice shelf, which seems to have some sort of possible link to mysterious methane leaks his colleague, Col. Bill Hughes (Victor Garber), has observed on the outskirts of town. With his wife Emily (Holly Dignard) and family in tow, Michael swings by the office and then heads out to cut down a Christmas tree, only to get caught up in a bunch of natural-disaster drama.
This imperiled-family drama is all very “Dante’s Peak,” and as long as one doesn’t expect much in the way of utterly amazing special effects or utterly amazing action, it’s a decent enough way to while away some time. Some sequences (think Santa on a snowmobile) come across as a bit kitschy and forced, but Garber gives “Ice Quake” a solid emotional mooring, and director Paul Ziller at least keeps things moving at a decent clip. “Ice Quake” comes to Blu-ray presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, in a fairly solid 1080 transfer. Motion menus give way to a variety of chapter stops, but the only supplemental feature, apart from a copy of the trailer, is a 27-minute making-of featurette in which EPK chats are interspersed with on-set footage.
Written by: Brent Simon