This week on DVD and Blu-Ray, we’ve got a lot of new releases – some of them more worthy of mention than others – and a couple of new editions of familiar titles. In addition, we have one very important boxset of Italian cinema that Criterion saw fit to release, much to the joy of film aficionados everywhere. The other notable thing about this week’s releases is that many of them are quite Fresh, if not Certified Fresh, with the exception of one or two flops, and one that is sure to divide viewers quite dramatically. So, buckle up your seat belts and dive into our ten picks this week to see which will make it onto your DVD rack, and which will be left to collect dust on the shelves of your nearest retailers.
Smack dab in the middle of last year, the world lost one of its most recognizable and beloved pop icons when Michael Jackson fell victim to cardiac arrest. The eccentric singer had been in the midst of planning his comeback tour, rumored to be his last before retirement, and ticket sales were already through the roof. When news of Jackson’s death went viral, cynics began to speculate how long it would be before someone would attempt to cash in on the tragedy, and sure enough, just months later, Michael Jackson’s This Is It hit movie theaters everywhere. Only, This Is It didn’t turn out to be the thoughtless money grab everyone assumed it would be. Quilted together from backstage rehearsal footage from the planned comeback tour, This Is It was a documentary-styled tribute to the man’s performance routine, depicting the star preparing for specific numbers and directing his crew, as well as a few other elements behind the show. The footage was never intended to be made public, but director Kenny Ortega believed it was an appropriate tribute, and most critics agreed, bestowing upon the film an 80% Tomatometer rating and Certified Fresh status. You can pick it up this week on DVD and Blu-Ray.
My, how the little girl from E.T. has grown. Actress Drew Barrymore survived a troubling childhood and adolescence following her role in the Spielberg-directed sci-fi family film, making a comeback as one of America’s favorite sweethearts in films like Charlie’s Angels and 50 First Dates. 2009 in particular was a successful year for her; she very recently came away with a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Edith Bouvier Beale in the HBO film Grey Gardens, but before that, she made her directorial debut with a snappy girl-power film by the name of Whip It. Somewhat of a coming-of-age tale, Whip It stars Ellen Page as an aimless teen who discovers her inner strength when she’s suddenly tossed into the world of roller derbies. Critics largely praised the film (Certified Fresh at 82%), citing its wit, charm, and high energy as the ingredients for a good time at the movies. This week, you can bring it home and see for yourself.
2009 was a huge year for sci-fi, full of films that appealed not only to the geek in all of us but also to mainstream audiences as well. Unfortunately, the Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3)-helmed, Bruce Willis-powered Surrogates failed to make much of an impression. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the story centers around an FBI agent (Willis) and his partner (Radha Mitchell), who live in a world where a technological breakthrough has allowed citizens to live their lives vicariously through “surrogates,” superior robotic versions of themselves. When a college student with close ties to the technology is murdered, the agents must wade through a society of surrogates to solve the mystery. Critics mostly felt that while the presentation was clean and slick, the intriguing premise was wasted on mindless action and a poorly constructed script. Still, if you’re looking for a paranoid sci-fi actioner, this might do the trick for you.
At this point, it almost seems moot to bring up any Tomatometer scores or plot summaries for installments in the Saw franchise. The films follow a fairly distinct formula, after all. But the sequels keep coming precisely because the formula works (or, at least, it has in the past), and according to some critics, this latest entry actually marks a step up for the series, earning the highest Tomatometer of any of the films since the original that started it all. Maybe that’s not saying much, but in this day and age of gory horror and “torture porn,” it certainly helps when the acting is actually passable and the plot isn’t absolutely recycled and hackneyed. In any case, the Saw films seem critic proof, and as long as moviegoers continue to flock to them on Halloween, there will always be an audience for them.
English poet John Keats published some of the most widely loved and studied poems of the Romantic movement, and he completed these masterpieces all before the age of 25, when he succumbed to tuberculosis. In Bright Star, up and coming British actor Ben Whishaw (I’m Not There, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) takes on the role of the legendary Keats, focusing on the love affair between him and Fanny Brawne. Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano) and co-starring such talent as Abbie Cornish, Kerry Fox, and Paul Schneider, Bright Star managed to earn high marks for its direction, writing, and superb acting. At 83%, the film is Certified Fresh, and it comes to DVD this week.
In another small film about artists of the past, 2009’s Little Ashes centers around the friendship between three key icons of early 20th Century Spain, namely Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca. The three become friends while attending the same university, and while Bunuel (Matthew McNulty) eventually leaves for Paris to pursue his passion in film, Dali (Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson) and Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran) find that they share something deeper than friendship. Unfortunately, director Paul Morrison seems to have faltered a bit in his efforts, as many critics found several moments to be unintentionally silly and the tone to be somewhat uneven. The general sentiment was that this could have been so much more than it was, but it might still interest those curious about the three artists in question. You can pick it up on DVD this week.
Sometime in the early- to mid-2000s, a young man named Tucker Max rose to internet fame with a blog in which he chronicled the lurid details of his private life, retelling stories of sexual conquest and drunken binges. In 2006, he published a book titled I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which proved to be a massively popular bestseller, so it only came naturally that a film version would follow. In 2009, that film became a reality, and an appropriately raunchy story in which Max travels to attend a friend’s bachelor party and embroils said friend in so much trouble that it jeopardizes the wedding. Unfortunately, the big screen adaptation fared much poorer than its paper counterpart, compelling critics to call out Max on his outrageous behavior and unlikely redemption at the end of the film. It’s possibly a case of one’s 15 minutes of fame extending far beyond its acceptable lifespan, but judging from the book’s popularity, there’s certainly an audience for this type of film. If you are part of that audience, well, you know where to find it.
Accomplished German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club) receives his second Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-Ray with Paris, Texas. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, and Dean Stockwell, the film relates the story of a man named Travis (Stanton), who has lost his memory and attempts to piece his life back together. Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, buoyed by its strong performances, evocative cinematography, and distinctive soundtrack, and it has earned a cult following since its release. This new Criterion edition includes special features like interviews with Claire Denis and Wenders himself, deleted scenes with commentary, and Travis’s vacation footage (shot on super 8) set to music. If you’re curious to know why this film inspired everyone from U2 to Elliot Smith, pick up this classic and find out.
There are a handful of updated Blu-Ray transfers of older films that are releasing this week, but with I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell on our list, we thought we might go ahead and temper that with something classy, something sophisticated, something Victorian. 2005’s version of the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice is not the first to be made, but something has to be said for the fact that, even after so many interpretations have found their way to the big screen, director Joe Wright (Atonement) found success in his own vision. With star power like Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, and Matthew Macfayden, the film featured strong performances, and Wright proved he knew a thing or two about crafting a period drama. At 85% on the Tomatometer, this Certified Fresh film is the real deal. For those interested in the special features, they include everything found on the regular DVD, as well as a look at The Politics of 18th Century Dating, The Stately Homes of Pride & Prejudice, and conversations with the cast.
Italian director Roberto Rossellini began his career in 1937, and his first handful of films was produced under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. When the regime came down in 1943, Rossellini began work on his War Trilogy, also known as his Neorealistic Trilogy, which consisted of 1945’s Rome, Open City, 1946’s Paisan, and 1948’s Germany Year Zero. These films have been long out of print, so kudos must go to Criterion for bringing them to the forefront once again, and with restored prints and soundtracks, they’ll appear better than they ever have before. In addition, the box set includes a slew of special features, including video introductions to all three films by Rossellini himself, making-of documentaries, commentary tracks, interviews, visual and illustrated essays, and much more. It’s a must have for any cinephile familiar with Rossellini’s work, or for anyone interested in historically important cinema, period.