This year so far seems like it’s been a bit of a letdown for many people; while there have been some excellent standout films, the feelings seems to be that everyone was hoping for more than we’ve gotten so far. With that in mind, a lot of the brand new DVD releases are, of course, going to follow suit. So brace yourselves for the likes of The Back-Up Plan and Survival of the Dead, both of which were poorly reviewed. But once you move past those, we’ve actually got some decent choices, like a couple of indie hits that went unnoticed, a couple of highly acclaimed TV shows in their entirety, a sci-fi cult classic, a grindhouse cult classic, and even some plain old classics. Have yourself a gander:
It’s already been pointed out that this seems to be the year for movies centered around “alternative” pregnancy, what with the unintentional coupling performed in The Switch, which just opened a couple days ago, and the dual insemination antics of The Kids Are All Right. But earlier still this year, a certain fly girl-turned-actress went down the same path in the romantic comedy The Back-Up Plan. Jennifer Lopez plays Zoe, a single New Yorker who’s experienced her share of dating woes and ultimately decides to take matters into her own hands by having a child via artificial insemination. As fate would have it, of course, she runs into the charming Stan (Alex O’Loughlin) on the same day of her insemination and the two begin a romance… but when will Zoe tell Stan about her pregnancy, and how will he react? Unfortunately, critics didn’t much care to find out, saying that while Lopez is as endearing as ever, the plot is a mish-mash of rom-com clichés (what’s new?) and hardly anyone in the cast is relatable. The Back-Up Plan earned a paltry 21% on the Tomatometer, but you know, these types of films don’t pretend to be anything more than feelgood fluff, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then this one’s for you.
George Romero seems to resurface with a new film every few years or so, just to remind us he’s still around. And, appropriately, his last three directorial efforts have all been within the zombie franchise he created and which went on to inspire countless other zombie movies of the same ilk. The bad news is that critics seem to be tiring of Romero’s take on the undead, claiming that he’s beginning to run out of tricks and that his biting wit and social commentary just aren’t as potent as they once were. While 2005’s Land of the Dead is Certified Fresh at 74%, 2007’s Diary of the Dead sits on the cusp of Freshness at 60%, and his most recent effort, Survival of the Dead, fell down to 31%. Survival immediately follows the events of Diary, focusing instead on a pair of feuding families on an island off the coast of Delaware. While one family dedicates themselves to the eradication of the undead on the island, the other family chooses to harbor their infected loved ones in hopes that a cure will be found. The popular criticism of the film is that Romero fails to break any new ground with Survival, and the film feels too much like the director is simply going through the motions. Still, hardcore Romero fans might find it worth a watch, so you can pick it up this week.
Earlier this year, a small indie film hit theaters quietly, made a little bit of money, and disappeared just as quietly. It was an ensemble dramedy written and directed by Raymond De Felitta and starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, who had previously worked together on The Man from Elysian Fields. In City Island, Garcia and Margulies again play a husband and wife, Vince and Joyce Rizzo, whose relationship is slowly deteriorating. When Vince, a correctional officer, discovers that one of his inmates (Steven Strait)eligible for release is actually an illegitimate son of his, he offers to take the young man in, and the ex-con ends up affecting the family in ways none of them ever could have imagined. Throw in a couple of fine performances from people like Emily Mortimer and Alan Arkin, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide charmer of a movie, one that flew under the radar for most folks. Critics mostly enjoyed City Island, calling it an effective combination of warmth, humanity, and natural humor that’s helped quite a bit by its outstanding cast, and the film accordingly earned a Certified Fresh 81% Tomatometer score. If you’re looking for something a bit quirky, a bit dry, and a bit uplifting, feel free to pick it up this week.
Australian Joel Edgerton is known more for his acting, but in 2008 he made the leap to writing. Along with Matthew Dabner, Edgerton penned the script for The Square, an Australian crime film that was also directed by Edgerton’s brother, Nash, who himself had only directed short films before. The end result was a taut, twisty thriller that made quite an impression on critics, who saw fit to grant it Certified Fresh status at 86% on the Tomatometer. The story revolves around two lovers, Raymond (played by David Roberts) and Carla (Clair van der Boom), who are both married to other people and who are planning to leave their spouses and run away. In order to do this, however, Ray wants to make sure he’s got enough money to start afresh, because Carla’s husband happens to be a dangerous man. As the two plot their eventual departure and take steps to make it happen, murder and arson soon enter the picture, and before long, the starcrossed couple find themselves in more hot water than they bargained for. Though The Square opened down under in 2008, it only saw its US release earlier this year, and now it finds its way onto home video. By most accounts, this is an impressive debut for the brotherly writer-director team, and the Edgertons may be a force to watch in the future.
Whimsical both visually and philosophically,Time Bandits is like a British Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure without the grossness of stoners or the Circle K. Kevin (Craig Warnock) is an imaginative boy who’s wardrobe contains a hole in time. En route to misadventure, a group of little people fall through his wardrobe fleeing their manager, The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), on an only slightly organized looting spree through space and time. They all figure they’re good to go because they got the Boss’ map. The visuals on Time Bandits aren’t as romantic and gauzy as those from say Baron Munchausen (sp) but they’re similarly baroque. This is one of director Terry Gilliams’ greatest hits and established his reputation for inspiring adventure and awe, which, of course, made other works, like Tidelands and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus possible. Blu-Ray should be a good buy, as the director’s style involves amped up production design, so seeing all the deliberate and grubby grandeur clearly should be a treat! DVD includes director commentary, a production photo gallery, dream facts, interviews with Gilliam and collaborator/Monty Python collegue Michael Palin and a hidden Spiderwoman Story Board with script!
Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement have steadily built up their reputation over the past decade, beginning with their stints performing back home in New Zealand, where they had a small following. Their Grammy-winning comedy act soon found a place on BBC radio, which was then followed up by a TV show that began airing on HBO in 2007, appropriately titled Flight of the Conchords. The show followed the duo as they played somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves, searching for fame and love as transplants to New York City. Their adventures are often absurd, and shows are peppered with tangential performances of the comedic songs they had become famous for. This week, the full 22-episode run of the show is available on home video as a complete set, which also includes a slew of extras like a never-before released 30-minute special, a documentary feature, commercials for Dave’s pawn shop, outtakes, and deleted scenes. Flight of the Conchords has amassed a huge following, helping to jumpstart further projects for both McKenzie and Clement. You can pick up the complete set this week.
To talk about the next DVD entry, we’re going to take it back to 1970, when the very first Lone Wolf and Cub manga was published in Japan. The story, set during feudal times, focused on a disgraced samurai named Ogami Itto whose wife is murdered and who sets out with his young son to exact vengeance. An epic story, Lone Wolf and Cub was eventually turned into a six-film franchise in Japan, famous for its violence, and in 1980, the first two films of this series were combined to create Shogun Assassin, a chopped up US version that was shopped to the grindhouse circuit by none other than Roger Corman. Though purists may look upon the film as a bastardization of the original series, others prefer to remember
As bitter as a shot of vodka and bleaker than a foggy day in London-town, Withnail & I isn’t exactly a laff-riot. However, if you’re in the mood for razor-sharp dialogue, vinegary chuckles, and some of the best acting that late 1980s British cinema has to offer, you’ve come to the right place. Unemployed actors Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann), fed up with the big city, decide to head for the countryside cottage of Withnail’s horny uncle. Along the way, the pair court disappointment and disillusion but, given the strength of the performances (particularly Grant), you can expect plenty of acid humor. The shiny new Blu-Ray release features a ton of featurettes and commentary tracks, making it the ideal choice for those in a bad mood looking for entertainment on a rainy night.
Austrian director Josef Von Sternberg is most known for his early sound film collaborations with Marlene Dietrich (Morocco, Blonde Venus and the starmakinger The Blue Angel). The actress who famously travelled with her own cinematographer worked well with Von Sternberg because he was as much DP as director, and we can see his skill with light very provocatively wielded in his dramas about men and corruptibility. Three of said dramas are coming out in a box set with high-def digital transfers and new scores via Criterion. Underworld, a crime drama that predates the Hollywood boom of Gangster films in the early ’30s, stars George Bancroft as criminal kingpin “Bull Weed,” a man whose crazy/scary love for his lady, Feathers (Evelyn Brent) is… bad for business. Screenwriter Ben Hecht (most famous for His Girl Friday) won the first Oscar for best script for Underworld. DVD comes with two Alloy Orchestra scores and a new visual essay by UCLA Professor Janet Bergstrom. The Last Command stars German Sternberg favorite, Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel) who won the first Best Actor Oscar for his performance here. Playing an exiled Russian Czar who’s only job opportunity is to perform the role of a stripped down Czar in a movie, Janning’s Big Man ultimately can’t stand his reversal of fortune. DVD comes with a score by Robert Israel and another by Alloy Orchestra, and a visual essay by scholar Tag Gallagher. In The Docks of New York, George Bancroft plays Bill, a roughneck who’s work-a-day-life is thanklessly upright, until he falls for Mae (Betty Compston), a dance-hall girl with a fog-shrouded, waterfront apartment-cum-naughty nest. DVD has two scores (one by Robert Israel and another by Donald Sosin & Joanna Seton) and an interview with Sternberg originally made in 1968 for Swedish TV.
Back in 2004, a commercial airliner crashed on a mysterious island in the South Pacific Ocean, stranding a number of its passengers and forcing them to survive while they waited for help to arrive, and so began the saga of one of the most popular television shows in recent history, namely JJ Abrams’s LOST. Though the show had its ups and downs, LOST succeeded in keeping its viewers glued to the TV every week as questions were raised and mythologies were established, and despite the fact that several of the earlier seasons’ subplots were never fully explored or explained, when all was said and done and the final credits rolled, most viewers seemed satisfied enough. Not only did the show demonstrate top-notch storytelling, exotic locales, and impressive special effects (for a television program), it also left a lot of room for its cast to work its magic. LOST‘s formula was so effective, in fact, that several shows attempted to duplicate its success with similarly mysterious premises and multiple story arcs converging via coincidence, but none seemed to be able to pick up where LOST left off. This week, the entire series is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray in an impressive collector’s edition jampacked with goodies like over 30 hours of bonus material to sift through, featurettes galore, tons of footage from special events like Comic-Con, a replica of the island, a replica of the Senet game played in Season 6, and more. A lot more. It’s a must-have for any die-hard fans who followed the show from beginning to end and still can’t get enough.
Written by Ryan Fujitani, Sara Vizcarrondo, and Tim Ryan