Ready those Oscar ballots! With the Academy Awards around the corner, it’s time to start catching up on what you missed in theaters. Snap up this week’s offerings for award-nominated performances (George Clooney and Co. in Michael Clayton, Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah) and a handful more notable titles of 2007 (American Gangster, Lust, Caution, Margot at the Wedding, Redacted).
There are seven reasons to pick up Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton on DVD this week: Academy Awards nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Directing, Score, Screenplay, and Best Picture. The taut corporate thriller, about a legal “fixer” (George Clooney) who uncovers sinister goings-on in a case he’s working, is marked by excellent contributions all around. With the exception of deleted scenes and a commentary by director Gilroy and his brother/editor John Gilroy, the bonus menu is sparse, but the real value in picking Michael Clayton up on DVD is the film itself — and the chance to watch two of the best supporting performances in recent memory (by Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, both Oscar-nominated).
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe face off in Ridley Scott’s tale of real-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Washington) and detective Richie Roberts (Crowe), from a Steven Zaillian script. Critics praised the pic for capturing a gritty sense of place and time — New York City’s seedy underbelly, circa 1970 — and for dazzling performances from its two leading men. Rapper Jay-Z, after an early screening, penned an entire album of songs inspired by the film. And while conspicuously omitted from Oscar honors, American Gangster made numerous Top Ten lists last year. In turn, Universal Studios is releasing the film in not one, but two substantial releases: a 2-disc Unrated edition with 18 additional minutes of footage, and a 3-disc version containing a 32-page collector’s production booklet, music videos by Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah, and a digital copy of the film.
Tommy Lee Jones has twice before been nominated for an Oscar (earning the honor in 1992 for JFK and winning 1994’s award for The Fugitive), but his latest nomination, for his role as the father of a missing soldier in In the Valley of Elah, is his first as a leading man. Elah is written and directed by Paul Haggis and, like Haggis’ Oscar-winning Crash, unapologetically tackles the ground of social commentary: namely, the adverse psychological toll the Iraq war is exacting on soldiers and their loved ones. Two bonus featurettes add texture with a peek at the film’s production and interviews with filmmakers, actors, and the real-life parents of the man whose story inspired the film.
Ang Lee’s WWII thriller is, as expected, a lush and steamy affair. In 1942 Shanghai, wealthy housewife Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) partakes in gossip and mah-jongg with other well-to-do ladies while seducing a married man; but Mak is not what she seems — her identity and the affair are staged, part of an elaborate plan by radical students to assassinate a traitorous official. Sexy, NC-17 love scenes mark Lee’s erotic follow-up to Brokeback Mountain in this powerful, beautiful, and tragic love story.
Noah Baumbach caught Hollywood’s attention with 2005’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale (after making an acclaimed debut ten years earlier with Kicking & Screaming and co-scripting Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), so the heat was on to see if his next film, Margot at the Wedding, would measure up. The verdict? Mixed. Critics note Baumbach’s spot-on, incisive observations of well-heeled East Coasters, but found his characters — including Nicole Kidman and Baumbach’s wife Jennifer Jason Leigh as frictional sisters — overwhelmingly unlikeable.
Culling its title from the controversial CIA practice of transporting detainees to areas of borderline-torturous interrogation facilities, Rendition is a muddled, if well-intention, entry into the current subgenre of politically-relevant think pieces. Director Gavin Hood, coming off of his Oscar win for the South African drama Tsotsi, submits a rather disappointing Hollywood debut. Rendition stars Reese Witherspoon as a pregnant American woman struggling to learn why her Egyptian-born husband has disappeared, and her off-screen S.O. Jake Gyllenhaal as a conflicted government suit who is witness to the acts of torture.
Arguably the most divisive of 2007’s Iraq-themed films, Brian de Palma’s Redacted is not only an anti-war missive but is also an experiment in mixed media filmmaking — double the chance to alienate movie goers simply looking to be entertained, but a thought-provoking experience for those up for a challenge. De Palma uses a variety of faux-documentary formats to paint a picture of U.S.-occupied Iraq (soldiers’ home videos, European documentary crews, local news reports) and the precarious balance of clashing cultures and violence that threatens to explode with deadly consequences.
‘Til next week, happy renting!