The 5 Best New DVD / Blu-ray and Streaming Titles of the Week (December 31st, 2013)

PHYSICAL MEDIA

1. “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” (Millennium Entertainment)

The film: Isaac Florentine’s “Ninja” was one of the better hidden gems of the current direct-to-video generation, an agreeably goofy throwback elevated by the camera’s fluid, carefully synched relationship to star Scott Adkins. The sequel takes Adkins’ Casey into darker, more superficially “gritty” areas to bring it into the modern action era, but any cries of Nolanization fail to account for how exceptionally directed the film is, and how credibly it pushes Casey into darker behavior that actually forces the audience to consider how justified he is in his inchoate thirst for revenge. But let’s not get too heady: the pleasures of “Ninja II” are in seeing Adkins only further cement himself as DTV’s reigning star, capable of pulling off intricate choreography and make each move look like a spontaneous, reactive strike, all without the cheat of dizzyingly edited POV close-ups to suggest his quick-time responses.

The disc: Unsurprisingly short on extras—the included cast and crew interviews contain material that is reused for a general making-of—but who could expect a DTV movie to be saddled with bonus content? What’s there is breezy but passingly informative, especially when the director mentions studying martial arts for the bulk of his life; whether or not he’s a skilled fighter, his practice has clearly helped him figure out how to shoot martial arts.

Available on DVD & Blu-Ray.

2. “Himalaya” (Kino)

The film: The first Nepalese film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, “Himalaya” is far more interesting for its casting of actual Nepalese locals, people who make their lives in the harsh mountain conditions around them. There is a plot—an old village chief sparks a feud between rival factions when his heir dies—but the real point of interest is the chance to see Nepalese language and culture on the screen without the romanticization that comes with any Hollywood film about Tibetan people.

The disc: Standard EPK material is augmented by a commentary from director Éric Valli and a half-hour making-of doc.

Available on Blu-Ray.

3. “Don Jon” (20th Century Fox)

The film: Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to present himself as the anti-rom-com protagonist, matching his subversion of the sensitive, lovelorn indie type in “(500) Days of Summer” with an equally critical look at meatheaded lotharios.  “Don Jon” isn’t about whether the guy gets the girl but about how pornography can affect conservative, traditional movie relationships through both its one-sidedness and the stigmatization it still carries. Once again, Gordon-Levitt is interested in movie romances about the fantasy that movie romance instills in people. If nothing else, watch it for Scarlett Johansson, who had a hell of a 2013 with this and several other performances.

The disc: If you’re wanting extras, stick to the Blu-Ray, as all of the behind-the-scenes and making-of material is exclusive to the hi-def release. Both DVD and Blu-Ray come with a handful of short films from Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord project.

Available on DVD & Blu-Ray.

4. “Sanitarium” (Image Entertainment)

The film: DVD releases just after Christmas are akin to theatrical bookings for January, a kind of dumping ground and No Man’s Land where any number of motley, occasionally intriguing titles rise to the surface. One such release is “Sanitarium,” an anthology horror film centered on the patients of a mental institution. This is the sort of film for which the plot synopsis is less of a hook than its cast, which captivates for its randomness: horror bonafides like Robert Englund and Malcolm McDowell rubbing shoulders with Lacey Chabert and Lou Diamond Phillips. Truth be told, I’d watch that cast if the whole movie were just them meeting each other and fumbling for conversation topics.

The disc: No special features come on the disc.

Available on DVD.

5. “Dragonball Z: Season 1” (FUNimation Entertainment)

The film: I’ve lost count of how many times FUNimation has bilked DBZ fans out of their hard-earned money with set after aborted set of repackaged material. Even this set is basically a do-over of their first attempt to restore the series for high-definition and release it uncut, a plan that stalled after tepid sales thanks to understandable gun-shyness on behalf of those sick of triple- and quadruple-dipping, and the main difference between this set and those old ones is that these have been inexplicably cropped from their original 4:3 ratio to 16:9. If you’re a fan of the show, you likely already have the episodes within on at least one format, but those looking to get into the show may as well start here; the show’s background animation is so blasé that you won’t miss much from the cropping, and at least you can get all the episodes again, not just the most action-packed moments spliced together.

The disc: Hardly anything comes with this set, only a trailer and the series’ opening and closing songs in isolation.

Available on Blu-Ray.

 

STREAMING/ON-DEMAND

1. “Riddick: Unrated Director’s Cut” (David Twohy)

David Twohy is one of the more competent thriller filmmakers in America today (his best film to date, “A Perfect Getaway,” is damn near the Platonic ideal for smart but digestible entertainment), and somehow enough enthusiasm lingered for his and Vin Diesel’s Riddick series to greenlight a third film in the franchise. A step back from the too-epic “The Chronicles of Riddick,” “Riddick” makes its simplicity evident in its very title: it’s a bottle episode of a film, one in which the title character is absent during the film’s middle third but is felt in every frame as an outpost of bounty hunters he targets go insane from his unseen but unshakeable presence. It may not match “A Perfect Getaway” or even the first Riddick movie, “Pitch Black,” but “Riddick” was a relievingly intimate, nasty thriller unloaded during the year’s bloated blockbuster season, and as fleeting as some of its pleasures are, it sticks in the mind far better than its more epic competition.

Buy on iTunes.

2. “The Spectacular Now” (James Ponsoldt)

Teenage romance is such a clichéd, over-covered topic in film that even films that try to break out of that mold have become clichéd. “The Spectacular Now” struck a nerve, though, racking up heaps of critical praise for its naturalistic portrait of two high-school seniors falling in love. Penned by the writers of “(500) Days of Summer,” a film that more pointedly deconstructed romantic tropes and their harmful connotations, “The Spectacular Now” allows them to put their money where their mouth is, not simply tearing down decades of entrenched types but to provide an alternative.

Buy on iTunes.

3.  Martin Scorsese: 6-Film Collection

If “The Wolf of Wall Street” sufficiently whetted your whistle for more Scorsese, you could do worse for a refresher (or a first-time exposure) to the six films in this bundle. Big names like “The Departed” and “GoodFellas” are here, but of deeper interest is “After Hours,” until “Wolf” the director’s last comedy, and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” to date Scorsese’s only woman-centric film and one that cries out to have more kin in the director’s filmography. These picks add an eclectic touch to what otherwise feels like a starter pack, though even Scorsese’s hits are stranger and more idiosyncratic than most mainstream filmmakers could ever dream of being.

Buy on iTunes.

4. “We Are What We Are” (Jim Mickle)

A remake of the Mexican film of the same name, “We Are What We Are” concerns an isolated family tyrannically ruled by a patriarch who demands his daughters obey even the most twisted commands. When the film played at Sundance at the start of the year, it was singled out for its patience and pacing, indulging in gore but doing so only after firmly establishing its parameters. Such consideration is becoming all too rare in the genre, and for those of us who hate relentless jump scares, “We Are What We Are” sounds like manna from horror heaven.

Buy and Rent on iTunes.

5. “Four” (Joshua Sanchez)

VOD may be a great convenience for people who would rather not gamble a full-ticket price and deal with theater crowds to see a movie, but it is best as a means of giving wider exposure to films that would otherwise never be booked on more than a handful of screens. “Four” is such a film, a small character drama about four people who intersect in various relations in a muted, human search for connection and happiness. Smaller films can approach this kind of material without the inevitable self-righteousness that plagues Hollywoodized attempts to do the subject matter justice, not to mention the idea of seeing the great Wendell Pierce step outside of type as a closeted middle-aged man belatedly trying to find his sexual identity is too good to pass up.

Buy and Rent on iTunes.