This week, we’ve got a few hotly ancitipated releases, ranging from widespread destruction to arthouse children’s film to the work of an animation master. On top of that, we’ve got a few indie gems and a couple of films that are making the jump to Blu-Ray for the very first time. Whether you’re a martial arts nut, a child of the 80s, or a mainstream consumer who gobbles down the “popcorn” flicks one right after another, there’s probably something here this week that’ll suit your fancy. Continue reading below to see what’s coming out this week.
If there can be such a thing called “disaster porn” in contemporary cinema, then Roland Emmerich would probably be considered its master. The man has found more ways to destroy the world’s foremost monuments than anyone else, including demolition by aliens (Independence Day), giant lizard (the 1998 Godzilla “remake”), and an unexpected ice age (The Day After Tomorrow). Emmerich’s latest entry once again witnesses the destruction of the Earth, this time by intense global warming. The film follows a varied cast of characters, all of whom are trying desperately to avoid the cataclysmic weather and reach the Himalayas, where a number of “arks” are stationed to harbor a segment of the human population until conditions on the planet are livable again. As with his other films, Emmerich made heavy use of CGI to provide eye-popping visuals, but according to the critics, he did so at the expense of a more solid script. If anything, the spectacle of seeing famous landmarks reduced to rubble on screen may be enough for many; considering the movie’s worldwide box office gross (over $750 million), that would be a lot of people.
It’s a daunting task to take a universally adored piece of fiction and adapt it for the big screen, but it’s even more challenging when said piece of fiction is a children’s book containing all of just ten sentences. In fact, one might consider such an undertaking foolhardy at best, if not impossible, and the production history of Where the Wild Things Are reflects this: the idea of doing a feature film version has floated around the industry since the 1980s, changing hands and passing through different iterations several times. Ultimately, Spike Jonze took up the helm, writing a feature length screenplay with novelist (and screenwriter) Dave Eggers, and the rest is history. The film is a visual wonder, a seamless combination of live action, animatronics, and CGI that, by all accounts, succeeds in capturing the look and feel of the book’s unique illustrations. Though some found the story to be a bit thin (not entirely surprising, considering the length of the source material) and the film’s tone potentially off-putting particularly for children, critcs were still largely enamored with the film, awarding it a 73% on the Tomatometer. Fans of the book and of Spike Jonze will surely find it a treat to see the pages spring to life on screen so beautifully, and for many, that may be enough, especially if seen in Blu-Ray. Also, for those who can’t get enough, there’s also a documentary titled Tell Them Anything You Want releasing this week; its subject is Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, and it’s co-directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze.
The best animation director you might know of now was a relative unknown to the mainstream world outside of Japan not too long ago. Hayao Miyazaki crafted such unique classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service before 1997’s Princess Mononoke was picked up by US distributors and introduced Stateside, and his follow-up feature Spirited Away actually went home with the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2002, the first “anime” film to do so. Fast forward to 2009, which saw Miyazaki releasing his latest film, Ponyo, a loose interpretation of the Little Mermaid storyline in which a goldfish befriends a human boy and wishes to become human herself. With bits of Miyazaki’s trademark surrealism and elements of the magical, Ponyo went on to earn a Certified Fresh 92% on the Tomatometer (all of Miyazaki’s films are, in fact, rated 86% or higher), and though it isn’t one of the animated films nominated for an Oscar this year, fans of his work and students of the craft will find plenty to enjoy. As an added bonus, there is a 2-disc Special Edition DVD pack that comes with a plush Ponyo toy, and there are similar 2-disc Special Editions of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky also releasing this week, so be on the lookout for those.
After scoring modern cult classic status with his understated debut, 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess followed with Nacho Libre, which paired him with a bankable star (Jack Black) and made more money, but failed to impress critics. Unfortunately, the downward trend continued with Hess’ latest film, Gentlemen Broncos, starring Michael Angarano (The Forbidden Kingdom) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), which managed a mere 16% on the Tomatometer. The film centers around Angarano’s character, a young fantasy writer whose work is plagiarized and repurposed by an established sci-fi writer (Clement). Unfortunately for all involved, critics felt that the film was juvenile and overly quirky, relying too much on potty humor that fails to register many genuine laughs. But for better or for worse, Gentlemen Broncos hits home video shelves this week, and if Hess’ previous films did the trick for you, you might just fine more of the same here.
In a scene in her cinematic memoir/valentine Beaches of Agnes, Agnes Varda (known as the “Grand Dame of the French New Wave”) goes to a flea market where she rifles through the random objects discarded by others, gleaning, as she did in her 2000 doc The Gleaners and I. She stops at a booth with film memorabilia. On the table is a box of collectors cards: the equivalent of baseball cards with the faces of French directors and screenwriters. She collects the cards of her friends (Chirs Marker, Alain Resnais and her deceased husband, Jacques Demy). This is one of many metaphors for her film, which is a collection of tokens in the same way that a flea market is: just as random as sweetly affirming. In the vein of other New Wave classics, Beaches shows visually all those things that lose their poignancy spoken, making it essential viewing for the cinephile and film student, but providing enough fan-boy warmth to keep everyone feeling the sun. In French with English subtitles.
Bordering on the kind of self-referential, “meta” films that Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has made a career out of, Cold Souls stars Paul Giamatti as himself, albeit somewhat of a caricature of himself. In the somewhat surreal comedy, Giamatti has his soul extracted for storage, but when it (his soul) is illegally transported to Russia and adopted by another person, he must travel to get it back. Critics were fond of Cold Souls‘ existential comedy, and most felt that it was a promising debut for fledgling director Sophie Barthes. This is one of those understated independent films that didn’t get very wide exposure despite boasting a cast that included David Strathairn, Emily Watson, and of course, Giamatti himself. Sure, they’re not big box office draws, but in terms of acting pedigree, that’s a pretty solid cast. In any case, the film earned a Certified Fresh 75% on the Tomatometer, and it’ll be available for you beginning tomorrow.
Directed by Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) and based on her novel of the same name, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee opened in limited release late last year and largely flew under the radar. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves, Monica Bellucci, and Robin Wright Penn in the titular role, Pippa Lee tells the story of its troubled heroine as she runs away from her broken family, experiments with drugs and promiscuity, and is eventually rescued by a publisher 30 years her senior (Arkin), who weds her and provides a comfortable, stable new life. When her husband is forced by medical problems to move into a retirement community, Pippa finds herself growing weary and restless, leading her on a road to self-discovery. Critics largely had kind things to say about Wright-Penn’s performance in the lead role, as well as the film’s acting in general, but they also felt that the story meandered a bit, introducing storylines and characters that wander through the movie without significant impact. All things considered, Pippa Lee still carries a respectable 67% on the Tomatometer, so there are definitely worse ways to spend an evening.
Sometime between making Das Boot and Troy, Wolfgang Petersen made his contribution to the influx of children’s fantasy films in the 1980s, and he succeeded in crafting one of the most memorable of its kind. The Neverending Story came during a decade that also brought us Labyrinth, Legend, and the arguably ill-advised Wizard of Oz sequel, Return to Oz, so it’s somewhat telling that it has the highest Tomatometer of all mentioned, and it’s the only one of them that’s Fresh. The film uses the story-within-a-story structure to show how a bullied boy, Bastian, retreats to his school’s attic on a rainy day and becomes engulfed in a fantastical book he finds there. Whether or not the movie holds up after all these years is up to individual interpretation, but its amazing visuals have always been a testament to the strength of well-crafted production design, from the sets right on down to puppetry. Unfortunately, this hi-def transfer comes without a single extra feature, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking of picking this up.
As many of you know, an updated reimagining of Clash of the Titans hits theaters later this month, with Avatar‘s Sam Worthington in the lead. However, presumably with that in mind, the original 1981 film of the same name, Clash of the Titans, will hit your home video shelves tomorrow. Starring Harry Hamlin, Sir Laurence Olivier, Ursula Andress, and Maggie Smith, 1981’s Clash retold the story of Perseus, the half mortal son of Zeus. After being cast out from his home by his father, King Acrisius, who is fearful of a prophecy that predicts his death, Perseus must navigate his way through all the familiar stories we read about in grammar school, from facing down Medusa to rescuing Pegasus. At 72% on the Tomatometer, the original Clash of the Titans is no slouch, and if you want to get geared up in preparation for the remake, watching this one on Blu-Ray isn’t a bad way to brush up on some fun mythology.
There are a handful of classic Shaw Bros. kung fu flicks that have found their way into the mainstream consciousness through one avenue or another, and the recent rise to popularity of action stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have helped to boost interest in these older films. One of these unabashed classics is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, alternately known as Shaolin Master Killer or just The Master Killer, a movie that inspired not only one of the classic hip-hop albums of all time, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers, but also one of its members, namely Masta Killa (natch). As far as story is concerned, there isn’t anything particularly new about this one: a young man’s family and friends are murdered by a corrupt government, so he seeks refuge at the shaolin temple, where he speeds through the “36 chambers” of training in preparation for his eventual righteous rampage. However, the training sequences themselves are a sight to see, the action is fast-paced and explosive, and with Gordon Liu in the starring role (you might remember him as both Pai Mei and the leader of the Crazy 88 from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films), you’ll quickly see why those old flicks were great. For the first time, it’s available on Blu-Ray this week, and while it may not seem like an obvious choice for hi-def, it’s still nice to have in your collection.
Written by Sara Schieron and Ryan Fujitani