I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Sometimes we just want to lose ourselves in a big, meaty narrative full of complex characters grappling with the meaning of life. From BEN-HUR to DANCES WITH WOLVES, tales of discovery and adventure can be soul cleansing.
Ironically, THE LOST CITY OF Z was lost to the blockbuster season shuffle. It was released to theaters in April, when audiences were craving something less thought provoking. While the film would have benefitted from a later release — say during awards season — I hope more people seek it out and enjoy its old-school narrative structure.
Starring a never-better Charlie Hunnam (SONS OF ANARCHY) as 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett, this true story recounts an expedition to the imposing jungles of the unexplored Amazon. It’s there he discovers evidence of an advanced civilization that predates England. Despite being ridiculed by the Royal Geographical Society, which views indigenous populations as “savages,” Fawcett — through the support of his wife (a great Sienna Miller), son (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING’s Tom Holland) and subordinates (including a barely recognizable Robert Pattinson) — is determined to return to the jungle until he finds this lost city.
THE LOST CITY OF Z marks one of the year’s finest. It manages to surface moments that are both breathtakingly bold and spiritual. Director James Gray (THE IMMIGRANT) does wonders by portraying a grand story of adventure and the hardships of what we leave behind when we set out to make something of ourselves. It’s a combination punch of quiet storytelling and technical wizardry.
Extras: The Broad Green Pictures release includes an audio commentary with the director and three featurettes (“Adventure in the Jungle,” “From Novel to Screen” and “Expedition Journal”).
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
Rated PG-13, 136 minutes (extended cut is 146 minutes).
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Vin Diesel, Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson
Available Tuesday on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra HD and Digital HD.
With THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS, the gang is doing more special-ops missions. However, this time, our bald-headed action hero, Dom (Vin Diesel), is blackmailed into being the latest recruit for cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron sporting Angelina Jolie’s wig from GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS). He betrays his lead-footed family and leads them on a wild goose chase around the globe, from Berlin to New York City to the ice-covered Russia.
The true brains of FAST & FURIOUS series mostly lie on the streets. It’s shocking how much thought the filmmakers put into the action sequences. Whether the characters are cruising the streets of the Big Apple with hundreds of self-driven cars in tow (they aptly call them “zombie cars”) or are riding on thin ice while a submarine plows through their course, this film has an energy that’s only comparable to a feral feline hyped up on catnip. There’s so much fun to be had that no matter how many times Dom cheats death by ducking and rolling out of high-speed cars, the smirk of delight the film paints on your face forgives all.
Extras: The Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release includes an audio commentary with Director F. Gary Gray, extended fight sequences, four featurettes (stunts, family ties, car culture and shooting in Cuba) and a digital code that unlocks the extended director’s cut.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1994) / LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1997)
Rated PG-13, 126 minutes / Rated R, 109 minutes (extended cut is 133 minutes).
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman / Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and Natalie Portman
Available Tuesday on 4K Ultra HD.
Though sold separately, Luc Besson’s great films of the ’90s — 1997’s Bruce Willis-starring space opera THE FIFTH ELEMENT and 1994’s heartfelt hit-man drama LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL, are getting a crisp, new finish just in time before his next popcorn feature, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, hits theaters. Both films are being released on 4K Ultra HD, where its larger-than-life cityscapes feel more lived-in and the characters are closer to walking right off your TV screen.
Like many previously released movies shot before today’s technological peak, there are some fuzzy frames every now and then, but this is the best these movies have ever looked. Scenes such as Leeloo’s great escape from THE FIFTH ELEMENT and the hostage exchange sequence from LÉON are all the more riveting to behold. So if you have yet to own these titles, or make the jump to 4K, now is as good a time as any.
Extras: Both Sony Pictures releases come with the 4K and Blu-ray discs. THE FIFTH ELEMENT includes five featurettes (visual, stars, digital, alien and fashion, which focus on different “elements” from the film), a making-of, fact track, a special on the opera aspect and an all-new interview with Besson, with director’s notes. LÉON includes several behind the scenes (cast and crew reflection, Jean Reno’s road to becoming the title character and Natalie Portman’s first feature role), fact track and a theatrical trailer.
This 1995 sci-fi/horror film is one that I can remember seeing in Blockbuster and Payless Video back in the day. However, I never got around to seeing it, despite being a genre I greatly admire and featuring a strong cast (Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen and Forest Whitaker, among others). Thanks to Scream Factory and their well-packaged collector’s editions, I finally got to open Pandora’s box of sci-fi goodies, and it’s a delicious good-time.
SPECIES doesn’t break down any genre barriers, but it did reach cult status through its familiar creature-on-the-loose storyline and HR Giger’s creepy design work. (Note: He’s the brain behind the look of the space monsters from ALIEN.) There’s some truly great early CGI here, especially for being over two decades old. Some of the story beats may be laughable, intentionally so, but it’s enjoyable if you go in expecting some fun B-horror.
Extras: The Scream Factory release includes two audio commentaries with the cast and crew, new interviews with the filmmakers, a making-of, alternate ending, still gallery, Giger’s workshop featurette and other behind-the-scene specials.
Emily Dickinson (colorfully portrayed by Cynthia Nixon) didn’t live the most cinematic life, but her work has made a profound impact and inspired the lives of many. Patient filmmaker Terence Davies (THE DEEP BLUE SEA) directs an appropriately titled story about the quiet but triumphant life of one of America’s greatest poets. A QUIET PASSION is a well-drawn biopic elevated by its subtle beauty and strong central performance.
Extras: The Music Box Films release, a.k.a. the prettiest DVDs around, includes a Q&A with Davies and Nixon, a behind-the-scenes and a collector’s booklet.
Also available this week: FOLK HERO & FUNNY GUY; KING KONG in 4K; L’ARGENT (1983): The Criterion Collection; ROBERTO ROSSELLINI’S WAR TRILOGY (1945-1948): The Criterion Collection; ROME, OPEN CITY (1945): The Criterion Collection; SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT: 40th Anniversary Edition; SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE; SPARK: A SPACE TAIL and THEIR FINEST.