There are a lot of new releases this week, but only a few of them managed to impress critics or audiences. The biggest one coming out is Ruben Fleischer’s debut zombie comedy, Zombieland, which actually did manage to please both the pundits and the moviegoers. Aside from that, the other major releases (Amelia, Love Happens) didn’t gain much traction, and instead, a couple of the smaller indies (More Than a Game, House of the Devil) are what shone. Also, if you’re into sports, we’ve got an inspiring hoops doc, and there are a few reissues of classics as well. So dive in and check out the most interesting of this week’s releases on home video.
2009 was a big year for impressive directorial debuts, which helped to remind us that first-time efforts aren’t necessarily always rife with flaws. One of the surprise hits of the year was a stylized zom-com (that’s zombie-comedy for you laypeople) about a merry band of road-trippers in search of the last zombie-free haven in the US, appropriately titled Zombieland. The fledgling director here is Ruben Fleischer, who hadn’t done a whole lot before helming Zombieland, but who managed to craft a zombie film (which are a dime a dozen these days) for the masses with impeccable comic timing (including a famously hilarious cameo). That’s quite a feat, and it didn’t go unnoticed by critics who helped it to an impressive 89% on the Tomatometer and Certified Fresh status. The film also performed relatively well at the box office, earning itself an opportunity for a sequel. Until all of that’s finalized, however, you can pick this one up on DVD or Blu-Ray and indulge in some harmless fun.
Biopics and Oscar-winning actors go together like flip-flops and socks; that is to say, the pairing can work if the circumstances are right, but it’s usually a big gamble that often fails to pay off. In the case of two-time Best Actress Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and the story of American aviator Amelia Earhart, simply imagine a well-groomed man in a designer suit sporting pink toe-socks and Adidas slippers. Unfortunately for all involved, Amelia failed to capitalize on what should have been a compelling story, opting instead to recount Earhart”s life in what many thought was the blandest fashion possible. By all accounts, Swank does what she can to elevate the role, but there is so little dramatic heft that the film left viewers unimpressed. Count the fact that established director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) was behind the camera, and it makes the result even more puzzling. Still, for the curious, you can pick it up this week.
Jennifer Aniston has been banking on her “Rachel from Friends” persona ever since the hit show came to an end, but by critical standards, she hasn’t done very well on the big screen. Every once in a while, she’ll sign on for something with a little meat to it, like The Good Girl, but mostly she seems content to play the slightly daffy but attractive girl-next-door type in romance-themed films. The latest of these is Love Happens, in which she takes on the role of a florist who fortuitously runs into (and subsequently falls for) self-help guru Burke (Aaron Eckhart) and helps him to, well, help himself. Aniston has a certain undeniable appeal and Eckhart is no slouch, but most critics were completely unconvinced by the couple, wishing instead that the movie would have replaced some of its sentimentality with a bit more humor. In this day and age, it’s tough to try to come up with something new, particularly within this genre, but if you’re not out for any surprises, and a run-of-the-mill love story is what you’re looking for, you can head to your local stores for this one.
Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa surprised everyone when he came out of nowhere in 2005 and wowed audiences with his daring acrobatics in Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. Noted for its electric fight sequences and breathtaking stuntwork, Ong Bak managed to net an impressive 85% on the Tomatometer, paving the way for 2005’s The Protector, which many mistakenly labeled as “Ong Bak 2.” In truth, 2009’s actual Ong Bak 2: The Beginning shares just about as much story with the first Ong Bak as The Protector did, which is to say virtually none. This time around, the film takes place a couple hundred years in the past, as Jaa stars as Tien, a young man whose family is murdered by a warlord. Taken in by a rogue group of guerillas, Tien is trained in several fighting styles and released to exact his revenge up on the man who wronged him. Pretty typical martial arts plot? Maybe. But it’s an excuse to see Jaa kick tail in a variety of ways and while performing mind-boggling stunts, and this time he’s also taken up directorial duties. As far as movies like this go, story is secondary to the action, so this might be worth checking out.
Horror has taken an interesting turn in the past several years, focusing more on gore, shock factor, and cheap scares at the expense of effective atmosphere, genuine tension, and lasting psychological terror. But it’s nice to see that there are still filmmakers out there who know how to craft a creepy fright flick that sticks with you, like The House of the Devil, which was written, directed, and edited by Ti West. The House of the Devil is a throwback to the horror films of the 70s and 80s, right down to the film quality, telling the story of a coed (Samantha, played by Jocelin Donahue) who accepts a babysitting job for a couple who, as it turns out, instead asks her to “babysit” the wife’s mother. The film combines elements of the haunted house and slasher pics of the referenced decades, building the tension slowly and pulling viewers along. Critics praised the film for its authentic sensibilities and effective rejection of current horror clichés, helping it achieve Certified Fresh status at 86%. It opened in limited release, so if you weren’t afforded the opportunity to catch it in theaters, you can snag it off DVD and Blu-Ray shelves this week.
The big marketing draw for this documentary on high school basketball was the opportunity to see NBA superstar LeBron James in his early stages of development, the years that shaped him into the player whose jersey aspiring hoopsters the world over now sport. However, More Than a Game is, in fact, “more than LeBron James.” The doc follows the players on an Ohio high school basketball team as they mature from young hopefuls to potential state champions, including rare footage, home videos, and interviews with key figures. James’s emerging star status does come into play, but it’s not the focal point of the film, and the story won points with critics for its uplifting message and likable personalities. It’s not quite Hoop Dreams, but critics still felt it was a worthwhile look at the sport, giving it a 73% on the Tomatometer. If you’re a fan of basketball or of inspirational underdog stories, you could definitely do worse than More Than a Game.
After 2007’s omnibus film Paris, Je T’aime opened to widely positive reviews (85% Tomatometer, Certified Fresh), it seemed natural to extend the theme to other “important” cities of the world. One of the most logical choices, of course, was New York City, and so we got 2009’s New York, I Love You, another compilation of shorts by some notable and some not-so-recognizable directors, including the likes of Mira Nair, Allan Hughes, Faith Akin, and Brett Ratner. The acting pedigree goes even deeper, featuring everyone from Shia LaBeouf and Bradley Cooper to James Caan and Julie Christie. Typically, anthologies like this tend to suffer from inconsistent tone, but here, some critics felt that the styles and themes varied not enough, with an overabundance of telegraphed ironic twists. As a result, though many thought New York had its moments, it was overall less charming and original than Paris, and it only managed a 41% Tomatometer. However, whether for its sheer novelty, or for those moments the critics deemed worth watching, this could still be a decent pickup.
Since the first Blu-Ray release of Martin Scorsese’s sweeping historical epic was discontinued, Miramax is releasing Gangs of New York in a Remastered edition that will hopefully look a little cleaner than its predecessor. The 2002 film was a moderate success, largely because of the period design and Daniel Day-Lewis’s powerful, Oscar-nominated performance (does that guy ever NOT get nominated?), and it was Certified Fresh at 76%. In truth, Day-Lewis’s performance is really reason enough to watch this film, as he simply becomes Bill the Butcher in all his eccentric glory and steals the show from co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. Many critics ultimately felt the film was a little bit messy, but the spectacle remains intact. If you’re anticipating Shutter Island and want to brush up on some Scorsese, this is one place to start.
In light of the less than stellar biopic coming out on home video this week, we thought we’d go ahead and feature the Blu-Ray re-release of one that recently garnered a good amount of praise. 2005’s Walk the Line starred Joaquin Phoenix as the late Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as Cash’s sometime love interest June Carter, chronicling the singer-songwriter’s early life, rise to stardom, and subsequent battles with personal demons. The film was a success, earning not only an 82% on the Tomatometer and Certified Fresh status, but also netting multiple Best Actress awards for Witherspoon from several organizations. Though the film neglects to really delve into Cash’s later life, by all accounts it was an effective portrayal of the man’s career and worthy of the praise it received. Pick it up this week and you can see for yourself.
By now, you’ve already seen our article chronicling the evolution of the classic Universal monsters, from Dracula to The Invisible Man. We know you’ve seen it, because you’re all loyal RT readers who froth at the mouth in anticipation of every new article we publish… No? In any case, you are then also aware that Universal is rebooting (remaking?) one of those monsters this year, namely the Wolf Man. Presumably in anticipation of this, the studio is releasing on home video a Special Edition of the 1941 original from their Universal Legacy Series. This new edition will come with a commentary track from film historian Tom Weaver as well as several featurettes, including an exploration of the Wolf Man myth, a look at actor Lon Chaney Jr.’s life, and a Universal Horror documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Whether or not the updated version will live up to its classic name is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, you can always pick this up and see where it all started.