Coming out this week on home video, we have a couple of multiple-Oscar nominated films (one featuring the winner of the Best Actress award), as well as the usual list of new releases. Luckily, while some of them are Rotten, we don’t have any outright stinkers in this week’s roundup, which is a refreshing change. Then, we’ve also got a couple of little-seen films from the international market, as well as a few Blu-Ray reissues of classics, ranging from a couple of Kurosawa essentials to Pixar’s perhaps best-loved franchise. So dig in, make your list, and pick these up for your next Friday night.
If you’ve been paying attention to Hollywood news at all lately, then you’re probably already aware of Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar-winning turn in the inspirational sports biopic, The Blind Side. Playing the adoptive guardian of formerly homeless real-life NFL player Michael Oher, Bullock won praise for her strong performance, helping to elevate what could have easily been just another typical feelgood sports flick. As it turned out, not only did Bullock receive her nomination, but The Blind Side was also thrown into the running for Best Picture as one of the newly expanded group of ten nominees. Critics didn’t seem to think it was a bad film either, rewarding it with a Tomatometer just shy of 70%. What makes this even more interesting is that Bullock also managed to net a Razzie this year for her role in almost universally panned All About Steve – she’s the first actress to do so, and most assuredly the first actress actually to show up to receive both awards. In any case, if you need a light pick-me-up with an Oscar caliber performance, you could do much worse than The Blind Side, which you can pick up this week on DVD or blu-Ray.
Stop-motion animation was never a wildly popular genre, though a few films have managed to tap into its potential successfully (e.g. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline). But with so many winning elements coming together 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film not only won widespread critical acclaim (93% on the Tomatometer) but also garnered Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. First off, there’s the source material, a Roald Dahl novel of the same name about a fox who helps to organize an underground network of tunnels spanning three farms when their lives are put at risk by the resident farmers. Then, there’s director Wes Anderson, a longtime indie darling whose fingerprints are all over the filmed adaptation of the novel. And lastly, there’s the accomplished cast of voices, ranging from George Clooney to Meryl Streep to frequent Anderson collaborators Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. While many similarly talent-heavy productions often fail to take advantage of their individual elements, Fantastic Mr. Fox is one case where everything seems to have gone right. If you missed it in the theaters, now’s your chance to catch it.
If Fantastic Mr. Fox was an example of a film making the most of its elements, then The Men Who Stare at Goats might serve as an example of what can happen despite the caliber of its contributors. Like Fox, Goats is based on a book — not one as beloved as the Roald Dahl classic, but which nevertheless covers a supremely intriguing topic: the use of psychics and paranormal theories by US Military Intelligence. The director, Grant Heslov, was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Night, and Good Luck, which received five other nominations, and Goats also happens to feature Good Night‘s star, George Clooney, as well as the likes of Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, among others. Unfortunately, critics felt that the film’s satirical edge and dark humor weren’t quite edgy or funny enough, resulting in a mediocre 53% Tomatometer rating. The consolation here is that most felt it was at least relatively entertaining, so there’s a chance this farcical comedy might strike the right tone for you.
Discriminating moviegoers tend to look with a bit of suspicion upon remakes these days, and with good reason: they’re often dreadful, painfully blatant money grabs. What, then, do we make of remakes of films that few have seen or even heard of? Such is the case with 2009’s Brothers, a US remake of the 2007 Danish film of the same title. The story was kept relatively intact: a soldier and family man is presumed dead when his chopper crashes in action, and his younger brother steps in to help out at home with the soldier’s wife. The brother and wife develop a bond in the meantime, before the soldier is ultimately rescued and returned home, where drama ensues. Whereas the Danish original was well-received (89% Tomatometer) for its exploration of social ethics, the remake was hurt by its tendency to veer into melodrama, despite strong performances from its leads (Toby Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal). It still managed a 59% Tomatometer, which isn’t dismal by any means, but most felt that the original was much more effective. Still, if you’re looking for a bit of serious family drama, this might be worth checking out this week.
Director John Woo isn’t as well known for his historical epics as some of his contemporaries — such as Zhang Yimou (Hero) — are, but he’s done more than prove his mettle in the action realm. In 2008, he brought his distinct eye for explosive set pieces to one of the most influential periods in Chinese history: the end of the Han Dynasty. Basing his film on the historical “Records of Three Kingdoms,” Woo focuses on the Battle of Red Cliffs, in which two allied southern warlords successfully turned back the armies of a northern warlord who boasted far superior numbers — this was the battle that ultimately led to the creation of the two southern kingdoms in China. Though the original incarnation of the film was a four hour epic released in two parts in Asia, an abridged 2.5 hour version was released to the rest of the world, and that version managed to earn a Certified Fresh 88% Tomatometer, with many critics citing the exciting battle sequences and Woo’s attention to historic detail as strengths. You can pick this up this week in its full-length, two-part international version or its shortened theatrical version.
Studied in cinematography classes on endless college campuses and idolized by legions of literate fanboys, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a title destined for a reverent Blu-Ray DVD. Stoic direction by Mallick and a look designed to reference both pre-WWI photography and the “magic hour” sheen that this, among other American Renaissance films, made famous, this is the best transfer of Malick’s masterpiece you’ll find outside of an untouched 70mm print. Commentary by the editor, art director, costume designer and casting agent, along with an audio interview with Richard Gere and video interviews with camera operator John Bailey, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and star Sam Shepard are included. Additionally, there’s a booklet with an essay by Criterion regular critic Adrian Martin. It’s said that the scene with Linda Manz in the kitchen, plucking a chicken, was done under duress, that Malick was making Manz do something she didn’t want to and that’s why everything about her expresses sullenness and resentment. “Why” is never really within reach in Days of Heaven, but “what” the film reveals and overturns ad infinitum.
It’s ironic the film is named after a boat that takes a couple of bullheaded strong-wills floating (mostly) freely down a River during WWI because while they cascade along the Congo, their character chemistry moves at the speed of 80-lb, townhall-clock-sized gears. With a degree of gravitas youd be hardpressed to find elsewhere, Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (awarded his only Oscar for this performance) convert The African Queen into a makeshift torpedo to sink a German gunboat and find harrowing shotgun-style surprises of all sort. Behind-the-scenes and production history sound as fraught and death defying as the film, but with more juicy interpersonal bits included. Everyone on set — Bogart (always with wife, Lauren Bacall), Hepburn and director John Huston — were strong personalities on an epic scale. The enormity of the group’s characters is reportedly the topic of Hepburn’s long out-of-print memoir “The Making of The African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind,” which incidentally comes with the Commemorative double disk edition (reason enough for purchase, if you ask me). An hour long making-of featurette is included with never-before-seen images and commentary as well.
Akira Kurosawa is arguably the most renowned director to emerge from Japan, and his groundbreaking films have influenced countless others. Many modern classics, such as the Star Wars films and the Clint Eastwood-powered spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, owe at least some part of their success to Kurosawa and his work, including 1961’s Yojimbo and its 1962 sequel Sanjuro. In both films, 16-time Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays an unnamed rogue samurai who comes to the aid of helpless innocents (a village beset by crime lords in Yojimbo, young samurai beset by corrupt leadership in Sanjuro), leading to duplicitous intrigue and dramatic battles. As Kurosawa himself was inspired by the westerns of John Ford, it’s fitting that Mifune’s character and the plot of Yojimbo in particular were re-appropriated by the genre in films like A Fistful of Dollars (which also spurred a series of similar Sergio Leone films starring Clint Eastwood as “the Man with No Name”), 1996’s Last Man Standing, and even 2007’s Sukiyaki Western Django. While the Criterion editions for both films (and their paired box set) are currently available, they are being offered in Blu-Ray for the first time this week. You can pick either of them up separately, or grab them together in one set.
This week in “films you’ve probably never heard of:” The Black Balloon. This small family drama from Australia actually opened back in late December of ’08, but chances are, unless you live Down Under, you probably didn’t even know about it. Starring Toni Collette, Luke Ford, and Rhys Wakefield, the film focuses on an Army family whose younger son Thomas (Wakefield) is charged with caring for his autistic brother Charlie (Ford) when their mother is forced by pregnancy to take life slow. The coming-of-age tale was well-received by critics, who gave it a Certified Fresh 90% Tomatometer for its ability to tackle its material in a tender, heartfelt way without being schmaltzy or moralizing. The film also won several awards at various film festivals, including the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The good news is, you too can check out this hidden gem and see what the critics were talking about.
It’s finally here, folks. The film that began the Pixar legacy and its even more successful sequel have finally come to Blu-Ray, and they’re both available this week. Unless you’ve been living without electricity for the past decade and a half, you’re probably at least familiar with Toy Story and its iconic animated characters, so we won’t bother to go into plot details here. Suffice it to say that Toy Story 2 was, for quite some time, the highest Tomatometer-rated film on RT, and as of this moment, both of these films still maintain a perfect 100% score. This week’s releases feature both films in Special Edition two-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo sets, and both come with loads of extras. Pixar revolutionized computer-animated features, allowing for greater and greater innovation over the years, but seeing these two classics in Blu-Ray, one is still left with a sense of awe and wonder at the studio’s accomplishments. If you’ve been waiting to pick either or both of these up in hi-def, it’s finally time to snatch them up!
Written by Sara Schieron and Ryan Fujitani