On DVD This Week:

Earth to Echo

50%

Rating: PG, for some action and peril, and mild language.

This is essentially a remake of E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial for the mobile phone age. Three lifelong friends (Brian “Astro” Bradley, Teo Halm and Reese Hartwig) suddenly start receiving strange, encrypted messages on their cell phones. Upon heading out to the desert to investigate their origin, they find the signals are coming from an adorable alien with big, blue eyes who’s been stranded on our planet. The trio teams up with a female friend (Ella Wahlestedt) to help this cute creature phone home. Some slightly violent stuff befalls the alien, but

nothing terrible happens to the kids beyond the threat of slight danger. They lie to their parents, attend a high school party and talk about “hot” girls. Overall, Earth to Echo is pretty tame for all ages.

This week on home video, we’ve got a well-received sci-fi action tale and the first half of the final season of a beloved TV drama, as well as a decent thriller, an okay sci-fi kids’ movie, and a subpar sex comedy. Then, of course, we’ve got a number of indie films, and two more from the Criterion Collection. Read on for details:

Snowpiercer

94%

Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) was the last of three celebrated South Korean directors to make his English-language debut this year (the other two were Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook, who also serves as producer here), but he most certainly was not the least. Set entirely aboard a train that perpetually circumnavigates a frozen, post-apocalyptic Earth, Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans as the would-be leader of a rebellion of lower-class passengers who attempt to battle their way to the engine. Critics found the film a welcome surprise during the blockbuster-heavy summer; thanks to its boldly stylized mayhem, off kilter narrative, and twisty satirical edge, Snowpiercer was Certified Fresh at 95 percent. The Blu-ray release comes with an extra disc full of bonus features, including an almost hourlong doc on the adaptation of its source material, more general featurettes on the making of the film and its characters, an animated prologue, and more.

Mad Men: The Final Season – Part 1

After six seasons, the hit drama that put AMC on the map is finally coming to a close, and appropriately enough for Mad Men, audiences will have to sit in suspense until next year to see the second half of the final season. In the meantime, you can pick up Part 1 of season seven, which aired earlier this year, on DVD or Blu-ray — assuming you don’t have all the episodes saved on your DVR. So far, the first seven episodes have garnered a Certified Fresh 87 percent on the Tomatometer from critics, who found comfort in the show’s subtle, steady pacing and superb writing and performances. The Blu-ray includes bonuses like commentary tracks, two featurettes on the era’s gay rights progress, cast interviews, and more. Hopefully, that’ll hold you over until the series comes back for its final hurrah.

The Purge: Anarchy

57%

It’s recently been announced that a third installment of The Purge will find its way to theaters next year, so it’s moving full steam ahead into franchise mode. Though the first film didn’t fare particularly well with critics, The Purge: Anarchy scored decent reviews, and all without the star power of Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. This time around, young couple Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford) are on their way to Shane’s sister’s house to barricade themselves inside during the annual Purge, but their car dies en route. As they flee a murderous gang, they meet up with a few strangers and attempt to survive the night. Critics were split on Anarchy, but most conceded it was an improvement over its predecessor, even if its ambitions far outweighed its impact, and rewarded its efforts with a 57 percent Tomatometer. The home release only carries one behind-the-scenes featurette.

Earth to Echo

50%

Mix E.T. with *batteries not included and Super 8, and you might end up with something like Earth to Echo. In Dave Green’s debut feature, a cast of mostly unknown young actors play a group of friends who discover a small, robotic, owl-shaped alien in their neighborhood after receiving a number of unidentified signals on their phones. Naturally, the gang bands together to help “Echo” to return home. Though many critics rolled their eyes at the multiple allusions to E.T. (even the poster mimics the pointing finger in the earlier film), some thought Earth to Echo served as a pleasant enough diversion for the kids, and the result was a 48 percent Tomatometer score. A handful of special features on the Blu-ray release cover various aspects of the creation of the film.

Sex Tape

16%

In light of the recent hacked celebrity photo leaks, Sex Tape might seem particularly timely (or mistimed, rather); unfortunately, most critics simply weren’t impressed by much of it. Likable stars Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz play married couple Jay and Annie who, in a desperate bid to rekindle their sex lives, decide to film themselves attempting multiple sexual positions. When they inadvertently distribute the video to all their friends, they set out on a crazy overnight adventure to try and minimize the fallout. Unfortunately, most critics agreed that Sex Tape had neither enough bite as a raunchy sex comedy nor enough heart to work as a rom-com, rendering a half-baked mix of both. At 18 percent, it probably isn’t one of the better R-rated comedies to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Bonus features include, of course, a gag reel, deleted an extended scenes, and a line-o-rama — standard stuff for a comedy these days — as well as an interview with a real psychotherapist who offers her observations on modern sex.

Also available this week:

  • A Letter to Momo (77 percent), an animated film coming-of-age film from Japan about a girl learning to cope with her father’s death with the help of three mischievous spirits.
  • German comedy A Coffee in Berlin (72 percent), about a twentysomething slacker who attempts to right his life after a series of misfortunes.
  • The Fluffy Movie (54 percent), a comedy concert film starring Gabriel Iglesias.
  • Life After Beth (46 percent), starring Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan in a comedy about a young man whose girlfriend dies and slowly transforms into a zombie.
  • The Scribbler (33 percent), starring Katie Cassidy in a graphic novel-based thriller about an institutionalized woman with multiple personalities who is subjected to an experimental new treatment.
  • And lastly, two rereleases from the Criterion Collection: Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita (96 percent) is available in a new DVD and Blu-ray; and Orson Welles’s clever documentary F for Fake (88 percent).

This week on streaming video, we’ve got a sequel to a popular thriller, a feelgood sports drama, a Certified Fresh sci-fi movie, a not so Fresh sci-fi movie, and the Sharknado sequel. In addition, Netflix has also added a couple of Woody Allen films, a beloved sci-fi spoof, an iconic romance from the 1980s, and more. Read on for details:

The Congress

73%

Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel star in this half-animated, half-live-action, all Certified Fresh fantasy about the movie business.

Available now on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

Million Dollar Arm

64%

Jon Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent whose clientele is short on major league stars. So he travels to India and holds a contest to find two strong-armed cricket bowlers who have the stuff to become big league pitchers.

Available now on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

The Purge: Anarchy

57%

Like its predecessor, The Purge takes place during a 12-hour stretch during which all laws are suspended and criminals run wild; this time, a grizzled cop (Frank Grillo) defends several law-abiding citizens while seeking to avenge the death of his son.

Available now on: iTunes, Vudu

Sharknado 2: The Second One

61%

Yep, they made a sequel to Sharknado. Nope, it’s not quite as good.

Available now on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

Earth to Echo

50%

A group of kids discover a small, adorable, owl-like robot from another planet; together, our heroes embark on a coming-of-age journey to return Echo to his home planet and save their hometown in the process.

Available now on: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

Galaxy Quest

90%

Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver star in this loving homage to classic sci-fi films; when they’re mistaken by aliens for real heroes, the cast of a popular space TV show is forced to contend with a cosmic threat.

Available now on: Netflix

Bananas

83%

In this early comedy from Woody Allen, a neurotic New Yorker inadvertently becomes the leader of a South American country, and hilarity ensues.

Available now on: Netflix

Big Ass Spider!

78%

This throwback to creature features of old is the story of two guys trying to stop a huge arachnid from destroying Los Angeles.

Available now on: Netflix

Alice

71%

Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, William Hurt, June Squibb, and a whole bunch of other notable thespians team up for this magical realist dramedy from Woody Allen.

Available now on: Netflix

Dirty Dancing

70%

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey star in this dance-tastic drama that ushered several mini-generations of teen girls into adulthood.

Available now on: Netflix

Documented

75%

This documentary chronicles the tale of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who admitted to being an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine essay in 2011.

Available now on: Netflix

14 Blades

69%

Donnie Yen stars in this period martial arts film about an assassin who goes on the run after being betrayed by his men.

Available now on: Netflix

Carrie

50%

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as the title character, a teenage outcast with a demanding mom and telekinetic powers. Will the snobby kids at Carrie’s school learn not to mess with her?

Available now on: Netflix

The Originals: Season One

Joseph Morgan, Daniel Gilles, and Claire Holt star in this Vampire Diaries spinoff, about New Orleans’ original vampire family.

Available now on: Netflix

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Ep. 026 – New movies, Joel McHale, Susan Sarandon, Chaz Ebert

A big show for Independence Day! RT Editor in Chief Matt Atchity, Grae Drake and Sarah Ricard share critics’ reactions to Tammy, Earth to Echo, and Deliver Us from Evil. Grae shares interviews she held with Tammy stars Susan Sarandon, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass and writer/director Ben Falcone, plus another round of interviews with Deliver Us from Evil stars Joel McHale and Olivia Munn. Then Matt has an extended interview with Chaz Ebert and director Steve James where they discuss Roger Ebert and the new documentary about him Life Itself.

Found Footage

It took a surprisingly long time for it to happen, but with this weekend’s Earth to Echo, found footage comes home to roost in the family film genre — and in honor of this adorably Amblinesque blend of 1980s all-ages fun and 21st-century technique, we decided to take a look at some of the more well-reviewed examples of a filmmaking style that’s definitely taken its share of critical lumps over the years. Naturally, there’s plenty of horror in here, but just like a group of kids heading off into the woods to debunk an urban legend, you might find a few surprises too. Power up that handheld camera, because it’s time for Total Recall!


The Bay

76%

A found footage horror movie from the guy who gave us Rain Man and The Natural? It sounds like a disaster, but in Barry Levinson’s The Bay, the only disaster is what we’re doing to our water supply — specifically in Chesapeake Bay, where the refusal of one town’s mayor to heed researchers’ warnings of lethal toxicity lead to a horrific outbreak of a mutant breed of tongue-eating louse. Freaky stuff, and well-handled by Levinson, who rebounded from a string of wretched stinkers like Envy and Man of the Year by using the inherent raw immediacy implied by found footage in pursuit of a timely (and obviously deeply felt) message. “Levinson’s film proves something pretty unequivocally,” argued Jason Gorber for Twitch. “Any conceit, any style, be it found footage or shakycam or haunted house or whatever, can be great in the hands of a good filmmaker.”

The Blair Witch Project

86%

No surprises here — The Blair Witch Project spawned the current found-footage craze, and there’s no way we were leaving it off this list, even if it has become a sort of whipping boy for the many inferior knockoffs inspired by its runaway success. And although, looking back, it really only has a few truly potent scares, it strings them out so patiently — and uses its then-novel narrative gimmick so well — that it’s easy to understand how Blair Witch scared the dickens out of so many filmgoers, particularly during the days of its early release, when it was still rumored to be culled from actual footage left behind by the Witch’s real-life victims. “The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen,” decreed Lloyd Rose for the Washington Post. “Not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest, the eeriest, the sickest, the creepiest or the slimiest… Just flat out the scariest.”

Chronicle

85%

Before 2012, the superhero and found-footage genres might not have seemed like the most natural of companions — but as Chronicle demonstrated, under the right circumstances, they can go together as deliciously as peanut butter and chocolate. Following the adventures of troubled teen Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and their school acquaintance Steve (Michael B. Jordan) after they discover an unknown object that leaves them with telekinetic powers, the Josh Trank-directed drama imagines the giddy thrill that might come from developing adolescent superhuman abilities — as well as the struggle to come to terms with the responsibility all those cool new gifts entail. Of course, that’s a struggle familiar to anyone who’s ever read early Spider-Man, but Max Landis’ screenplay delves a bit deeper into the darkness — and the cast imbues his characters with easily relatable anguish. “It’s a testament to Trank’s capable direction that the movie feels so grounded in reality,” wrote USA Today’s Claudia Puig. “There is no sense of the magical in the goings-on, even though what the boys are doing defies logic and gravity.”

Cloverfield

78%

Hyped with a fairly brilliant “viral” ad campaign that made it seem like producer J.J. Abrams was brewing up some truly next-level cinema, Cloverfield couldn’t help but disappoint a little when it stomped into theaters in 2008 and filmgoers realized it was really just a monster movie with a(n occasionally nauseating) found-footage twist. Still, taken on its own terms, this is a better-than-average entry in this week’s subgenre, boasting some energetic work from director Matt Reeves and a solid script from Drew Goddard. Basically, if you’re going to watch one movie about a monster running amok in New York City while handicam-toting twentysomethings try to make sense of the destruction, this is the one to choose. “There’s nothing to Cloverfield, really, but stripped-down chaos shot in a faux-verite Blair Witch Project fashion,” shrugged the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who then admitted, “But I have to say, I was with it.”

End of Watch

85%

Most critics — and more than a few filmgoers — would agree that the found-footage gimmick has been more than played out since rising to prominence with The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s. Still, it’s a powerful tool when used in the right way, as demonstrated by writer/director David Ayer’s End of Watch, which follows a cop/film student (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner (Michael Pena) on patrol in the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. While Ayer’s use of the found footage technique proved divisive among critics, End of Watch earned a healthy $51 million at the box office, picked up a pair of Independent Spirit Award nominations, and enjoyed the respect of scribes such as Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, “The best scenes are filmed inside the cruiser, dashboard shots that face inward instead of out, catching Gyllenhaal and Peña in moments so playful and true they make all other buddy cops look bogus by comparison.”

Europa Report

81%

Having apparently never seen the end of 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a group of astronauts (played by Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley and Michael Nyqvist) board a deep space flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa, intent on probing the surface to try and find forms of life. The result is director Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report, sort of a more intelligent cousin to the disastrous Apollo 18; rather than cheap scares and ill-conceived characters, Report tries to wring real human drama out of a dangerous situation that slowly goes from hopeful to horrifying — and, to many critics’ immense satisfaction, also grounds its story in intelligent dialogue that at least sounds like the kind of stuff scientists might say. “Finally,” crowed Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News. “A found-footage thriller that merits, and expands on, this irrationally popular format.”

Lake Mungo

96%

An eminently creepy low-budget ghost story barbed with scary videotapes, cell phone footage, and mockumentary interviews, Lake Mungo took the spirit of unsettling real-life documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans and used it as the chilling springboard for a grueling question: how do families carry on after the death of a loved one? In most cases, one hopes the answer includes fewer moments of blood-curdling horror than Mungo, but that undercurrent of real-world sadness helps anchor the fear with genuine poignancy. Calling it “a sophisticated, adult tale that blends complex, compelling emotions with reflexive commentary on film as a ‘medium’ of memory, manipulation and magic,” Little White Lies’ Anton Bitel deemed it “a classic supernatural enigma, once seen never forgotten.”

Paranormal Activity

83%

For a lot of found footage horror movies, the device is used largely as a narrative and/or editing gimmick in order to obfuscate details and amp up jump scares. But with 2009’s Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli rocked it Blair Witch style, using the characters’ handheld cameras to slowly ratchet up an overall feeling of dread that finally yields to a payoff rendered all the more haunting by its refusal to rely on gore or over-the-top special effects. Your mileage may vary with the growing list of Paranormal spinoffs and sequels, but the original is as simple as it is effective. “It illustrates one of my favorite points, that silence and waiting can be more entertaining than frantic fast-cutting and berserk f/x,” wrote an appreciative Roger Ebert. “For extended periods here, nothing at all is happening, and believe me, you won’t be bored.”

[Rec]

90%

You’ve no doubt noticed that quite a few of the movies on our list have fallen under the horror umbrella, but precious few are as lethally effective as [Rec], the 2007 sensation helmed by Spanish writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Plunging viewers into the nightmarish hellscape of an apartment complex that might be ground zero for a quickly spreading virus that turns its hosts into homicidal savages, it proved that no matter how played out found footage might have seemed even then, it could still be used as an effective delivery mechanism for sparse, economic horror. The inevitable sequels fell victim to the laws of diminishing returns, but the original remains a classic of the genre; as Jason Morgan put it for Filmcritic.com, “Not since John Carpenter’s one-shot intro to Halloween has POV horror been this good.”

Trollhunter

82%

Found footage is so pervasive these days that it’s spread all the way to Norway, where director André Øvredal used it for his international cult hit Trollhunter. One of those movies whose plot is rather brilliantly summed up in its title, it follows the occasionally scary, often hilarious adventures of a group of college students whose pursuit of a suspected bear poacher takes a surprising turn when they discover that he’s actually after a much, much bigger quarry. With uniformly strong performances and more of a cinematic aesthetic than your average found-footage film, Trollhunter elicited applause from the majority of critics, including the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who called it “An enjoyably off-kilter hybrid of The Blair Witch Project and Where the Wild Things Are.” There’s a presumably bigger-budget Hollywood remake in the works, but you don’t need to wait for that; the original is streaming via Netflix right now.

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out Earth to Echo.