DVD Reviews For 3/25: "It Is Accomplished!"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/26/12 11:01:19
Yes, I am admittedly running a bit behind schedule with this latest round-up of titles that have recently hit DVD and Blu-Ray but when you check out the number of strong entries this time around--including at least one masterpiece and several of last year's very best films (along with the occasional clunker or two to boot)--I hope that you will be a little forgiving.
NEW AND NOTABLETHE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): The notion of Steven Spielberg bringing the adventures of the world-renowned creation of Belgian cartoonist Herge is one of those things that sounds like it cannot possibly miss. And yet, this noisy and increasingly tiresome motion-capture animation epic, in which the erstwhile boy reporter and his faithful dog Snowy trot across the globe in search of hidden treasure with the aid of the drunken Captain Haddock, is one of those Spielberg concoctions that tries so hard to pummel you into submission with its relentless array of wild set-pieces--possibly thrown together in an effort to disguise the fact that Tintin himself is kind of a drag (at least as depicted here) that most viewers will come away from it feeling more exhausted than entertained. There are a few moments here and there that are entertaining--mostly involving the delightful Snowy--but for the most part, viewers young and old (especially those with no prior working knowledge of the character or his history) will find themselves untied in a sense of vague disinterest and an urge to put on something else.
BATTLE ROYALE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $24.98): In this infamously violent 2001 cult favorite from famed Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku, a near-future Japan deals with a cratering economy and rise in juvenile crime by staging an annual televised event in which a 9th grade classroom is chosen at random, sent to a remote island and forced to hunt and kill each other until only one of them is left standing. Sound familiar? Yes, both this film and the 1999 book that it was based on were produced long before "The Hunger Games" game along and while author Suzanne Collins has claimed that she never heard of the property before, there are enough parallels between the two to raise more than a few eyebrows regarding that assertion. Due to a number of reasons (the chief ones being an unwillingness to release a film about kids killing kids in the wake of Columbine, a level of bloodshed that would almost guarantee the dreaded NC-17 rating and the huge amount of money that the producers wanted for the distribution rights), the film has never officially appeared in America outside of the grey market until now (I wonder why. . .) and it can finally be revealed to one and all as. . .an okay movie with an audacious premise, some creative bloodshed and charismatic performances from Beat Takashi as the guy charged with advising the contestants on how to survive and Chiaki Kuriyama (who would be hired by Quentin Tarantino on the basis of this film to play the demonic Go-Go Yubari in "Kill Bill") as one of the kids that nevertheless runs on a little too long without having much of anything to say after a while.
However, there are plenty of people out there who feel otherwise and for them, Anchor Bay is also releasing "Battle Royale" The Complete Collection" (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $49.99), a four-disc set that includes both the director's cut and the original theatrical versions of the film, the less-celebrated 2003 sequel "Battle Royale 2" and the usual array of documentaries, featurettes, trailers and the like. If that still doesn't slake your desire for high-definition cinematic slaughter, Asian-style, you can also pick up "Triad Trilogy" (Palisades Tartan. $39.95), the Blu-Ray debuts of the populr Johnnie To HK thrillers "Election," "Triad Election" and the otherwise unrelated but still solid "Triad Underworld."
CARNAGE (Sony Home Entertainment. $30.99): Under normal circumstances, the combination of one award-winning play (Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage"), four exceptional actors (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly) and one of the world's greatest filmmakers (Roman Polanski) would theoretically result in a can't-miss masterpiece but if there is one thing that this utter disaster, in which the parents of two children involved in a playground scuffle meet to discuss the matter and devolve into sub--"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" hysterics, does, it is miss in virtually every way possible. The screenplay is so woefully thin that most viewers will wonder why the original play was so highly valued in the first place, the quartet of actors, lacking any genuine characters to play, quickly lapse into one-dimensional hysterics and even the normally sure-footed Polanski is uncharacteristically off his game here--he kicks the proceedings off on exactly the wrong note and continues to stumble throughout and the result is one of the very worst films to date from one of our very best filmmakers.
THE DESCENDANTS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): For his first film since 2004's "Sideways," Alexander Payne goes to Hawaii with another compelling mixture of comedy and drama, this time featuring George Clooney as an admittedly distant father and inadvertent land baron who struggles to reconnect with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife goes into a terminal coma following a boating accident. He is further stunned to discover that his wife was having an affair and takes the girls along with him on a search to track down the lover. Although the premise may sound a little implausible, Payne pulls it off beautifully thanks to intelligent and empathic screenwriting and directing that deftly juggles the tricky shifts in tone and an array of great performances across the board--Clooney has never been better, Woodley is a standout in her breakthrough role and even the usually cartoonish Matthew Lillard scores in a key dramatic scene--and the result was generally acclaimed as one of the best films of 2012, even winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Alas, thanks to a certain pose struck by co-writer Jim Rash during the acceptance speeches, it appears unlikely that Angelina Jolie will be doing a guest shot on "Community" anytime soon.)
GAINSBOURG-A HEROIC LIFE (Music Box Films. $19.95): This is French filmmaker Joann Sfar's admittedly singular examination of the life and work of Serge Gainsbourg, who rose from a childhood spent as a Jewish kid living in Nazi-occupied Paris with self-esteem issues regarding his droopy looks to become one of France's most popular singer-songwriters with the kind of outwardly self-confident personality that alternately outraged and entranced his countrymen and allowed him to become the lover of some of the most legendary beauties of his time, including singer Juliette Greco, actress Jane Birkin and the one and only Brigitte Bardot. Those expecting a straightforward biopic along the lines of "La Vie en Rose" or "Walk the Line" will be surprised to discover that Sfar, apparently forbidden by Gainsbourg's family from delving too deeply into the more controversial aspects of his life (sorry kids but nothing about the infamous "Lemon Incest" song that he recorded with daughter Charlotte, now a highly regarded actress and singer in her own right), has instead chosen a more surrealistic approach to the material in which he is followed throughout his life by a giant puppet-like figure inspired by an anti-semitic drawing he saw as a child meant to serve as a sort of alter-ego. It sounds ridiculous but it somehow works and Eric Elmosnino is quite convincing in the lead role with his heavy-lidded eyes and almost effortless charisma. Of course, even if you can't quite swallow the concept, it is still two hours chock-full of inescapably catchy Europop classics to listen to and a bevy of beautiful women (with no less a figure, in more ways than one, than supermodel Laetitia Casta filling in the role of Bardot) to look at--somehow, I suspect Gainsbourg (who passed away in 1991) would approve.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Sony Home Entertainment. $30.99): For the most part, David Fincher's adaptation of the first novel in the ridiculously popular "Millennium Trilogy"--I am going to assume that you know the particulars of the story by now, if only by osmosis--follows the parameters set by both the book and the previous 2009 Swedish-language version seemingly as closely as possible. However, Fincher and his army of technicians handle the now-familiar material with such style and precision that it somehow manages to reinvigorate the narrative and make it seem both exciting and borderline plausible. However, while Rooney Mara gives a strong and self-assured performance as the eternally resilient and heavily pierced genius hacker and all-around badass bitch Lisbeth Salander, she lacks the jolt of pure and undeniable star charisma that the then-unknown Noomi Rapace brought to the part in the Swedish version. When all is said and done, this may go down as the least necessary entry in David Fincher's filmography but as essentially unnecessary films go, this one is pretty much a knockout that deserves to be seen by all save for the exceptionally squeamish.
HAPPY FEET TWO (Warner Home Video $28.98): In the follow-up to the hit 2006 animated film, the musically-averse Mumbles (Elijah Wood), his dancing averse son Erik and a couple of other young penguins must band together to save the day when a seismic event caused by global warning trap their entire tribe in a canyon without any chance of reaching food or safety. Although director George Miller does not hit the heights here that he did with the original film--let along his 1998 family masterpiece "Babe: Pig in the City"--he still manages to transform an otherwise unnecessary sequel into a perfectly serviceable entertainment filled with music, color and humor (with the latter being supplied by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in the roles of a couple of crustaceans who yearn to break free of their humdrum existence and see the world). Alas, the film was released right in the middle of a glut of family-oriented entertainment last fall (opening within a couple of days of "Hugo" and "The Muppets") and it bombed at the box-office but I suspect that it will wind up doing pretty well in the home market both with fans of the original and newcomers alike.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (Kino Video. $14.95): Two words. "Dog flashback." That is all.
HOUSE OF PLEASURES (IFC Films. $24.98): If one were going simply by the information provided by the DVD cover, one might assume that this is just another example of the kind of soft-core silliness that can be found late at night on Skinemax. However, those checking this out for just a cheap thrill will be disturbed that rather than simply giving viewers an eyeful (though the mission is more than accomplished in that regard), French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello is more interested in examining the lives of the women employed at a turn-of-the-century Parisian bordello ranging from a veteran coming to the end of her employment to a sweet young girl who runs afoul of a brutally violent client. At times, Bonello flirts with outright pretentiousness and it is never quite as engrossing as Louis Malle's slightly similar 1978 masterpiece "Pretty Baby" but for those who like their ultra-arty observations of the human to be accompanied by a little skin, this should get the job done.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Still arguably the best Biblical-themed film ever made, not to mention the most sincere in its exploration of questions of faith, this controversial 1988 adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel (and not the actual Bible, a fact that critics tend to overlook) remains one of the great achievements in the career of director Martin Scorsese (who labored for nearly two decades to bring it to screen and who even saw an earlier version collapse a few years earlier only a couple of week before production was to begin) and a fascinating examination of Christ (an intense performance by Willem Dafoe) as a person in the unique position of being both human and divine and trying to figure out which way to go--a notion made all the more powerful during the much-discussed final scenes in which he is tempted on the cross by Satan with visions of the happy, normal life that he could have if he simply rejected his divinity and became just another man. Yes, some have quibbled over the jarring notion of having Jesus and his associates talking as if the road to Calvary had a rest stop near Coney Island (although this is no different from having everyone speaking in equally inauthentic British accents as they did in earlier Biblical epics) and it does lack the kind of gaudy spectacle that is usually associated with the genre. That said, the film is beautifully constructed, filled with great performances from a cast including Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton and, perhaps inevitably, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate and presented with a haunting and evocative score from Peter Gabriel--all of which contribute to a work that is a genuine masterpiece. Previously released by Criterion in 2000, the film makes its Blu-Ray debut with a gorgeous transfer that belies the fact that it was produced on a fairly low budget and contains all of the bonus features from that initial edition--an audio commentary featuring Scorsese, Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks, behind-the-scenes production footage shot by Scorsese, galleries of production stills and costume designs and an interview with Peter Gabriel about his contributions. Absolutely essential.
A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (MPI Home Entertainment. $24.98): A quartet of dopey friends (with "Alias" refugee Melissa George being the most familiar face of the bunch) have their weekend mountaineering in a remote area of the Scottish highlands interrupted and find themselves plunged into wholly unexpected levels of danger when they stumble across a young girl who has been mysteriously buried alive and try to bring her along to safety. For a while, director Julian Gibney blatantly tries to evoke a "Wicker Man" feel to the proceedings in an attempt to create an air of menace and dread but to whatever degree he succeeds at that (which is to say, not very much), he pretty much flushes the rest of it away with a second half that just grows stupider and stupider until its blood-soaked and unintentionally hilarious conclusion.
MELANCHOLIA (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98) Over the years, I have not exactly been a fan of the films of controversial Dutch director Lars von Trier--while supremely talented and with a gift for getting strong performances from actresses ranging from Nicole Kidman to Bjork, his work as a whole has generally struck me as a series of pretentious wanks more concerned with artificially shocking audiences with graphic content or overly mannered stylistic gimmicks. That said, I was stunned to watch his latest work, in which Kirsten Dunst plays a young woman whose crippling depression--which destroys her seemingly picture-perfect marriage on her wedding day--leaves her oddly suited to dealing with the inescapable fact that everything is about to be destroyed by a rogue planet straight for Earth, and discover that it is by far the best thing that he has ever done, a towering and ambitious work that nails everything from the tiniest emotional hiccups to the apocalypse (which figures in the equally jaw-dropping opening and closing sequences) in a surprisingly graceful manner considering the subject. Yes, this is the film that inspired von Trier's instantly infamous press conference at this year's Cannes Film Festival (where it was looked upon as a front-runner until he opened his mouth) but as idiotic as those comments might have been (and I must admit that the jab at Susanne Bier was kinda funny), they should not take away from the amazing accomplishments on display here from him and his actors, including the likes of Dunst (who did win Best Actress at Cannes and who has never been better), Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling (whose embittered wedding toast needs to be seen to be believed).
THE MUPPETS (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99): In what is far and away the best Muppet movie to come along since the 1979 original, a new Muppet named Walter discovers a diabolical scheme to destroy the Muppets' old theater in order to drill for oil and, with the aid of his human brother (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the film) and his girlfriend (eternal good sport Amy Adams), reunites the gang in order to put on a telethon in order to save the place from destruction. Filled with inspired jokes, funny cameos (of which I will spoil none), catchy songs and more genuine pathos and emotion than most straightforward adult-oriented films I could mention, this is an absolute delight for viewers of all ages and is one of the few heavily hyped items to come along in recent memory that more than lived up to all expectations.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.98): Like "The Prince and the Showgirl," the 1957 film whose tumultuous production it chronicles, this is a film featuring B-level material elevated by the performances of its A-list actors. Based on two published diaries by Colin Clark (played here by Eddie Redmayne), the film recounts his adventures as working as a third assistant to actor/director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) on his screen adaptation of the Terrence Rattigan play "The Sleeping Prince" when what begins as a simple gofer gig turns into something much more when he unexpectedly becomes the friend and confidant to the project's real star, the one and only Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). The basic material is not especially fascinating or revelatory--Colin is little more than a colorless dweeb at best who only serves to drag things down when the focus is on him--and director Simon Curtis handles it in a flat and pedestrian manner that betrays his television roots. However, as bland as the proceedings are for the most part, the film is still worth seeing because of the amazing performance by Williams that is just as good, if not better, as all of the advance hype has been suggesting. Playing any well-known personality, let alone one like Monroe who continue to loom large over the cultural firmament nearly a half-century after her death, is a daunting task for any actor--make one tiny slip or false move and the entire illusion will be destroyed in an instant--but Williams does here is more than just a mere impression; she gives a complex and multi-layered presentation of Monroe that deftly presents her as the glamorous superstar and the increasingly frazzled and unhappy young woman beginning to crumble from the combined pressures of that adulation and her own deep-seated psychological problems.
NEVERLAND (Vivendi Entertainment. $19.97): Although most people have gone to extensive lengths to forget that "Hook," Steven Spielberg's garish and virtually unwatchable 1991 take on the classic tale "Peter Pan," ever existed in the first place, Bob Hoskins apparently felt secure enough with his sanity to reprise the role of Smee, Captain Hook's right-hand man (so to speak) in this otherwise unrelated made-for-television prequel that offers up an origin story explaining the eventual rift between young Peter (Charlie Rowe) and his onetime mentor James Hook (Rhys Ifans). Featuring Anna Friel as an adorable pirate queen, a jumbo-sized eight-legged crocodile straight out of a Roger Corman cheapie) and, in what may be my favorite credit of the year to date, "Keira Knightley as the voice of Tinker Bell," the film doesn't really make much of a case for its existence (who cares about the early relationship of Pan and Hook anyway?) and it certainly doesn't beat either the 1953 Disney version or the vastly underrated 2003 live-action take. However, it is nowhere near as bad as it sounds and actually has enough charm to make it worth at least a look or two. Other TV-related releases now available include "The Adventures of Tintin: Season 2" (Shout! Factory. $19.93), "Jane By Design: Volume 1" (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99), "The Killing: Season One" (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $39.95), "Kojak: Season 3" (Shout! Factory. $44.99), "Scarecrow & Mrs. King: the Complete 3rd Season" (Warner Home Video. $39.98) and Xena--Warrior Princess: Season Three (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.99).
THE SITTER (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): The good news about the latest effort from the once-celebrated David Gordon Green, the director of such indie masterpieces as "George Washington" and "Snow Angels" and the blockbuster breakthrough "Pineapple Express," is that it is nowhere near as unspeakably awful as his other 2010 effort, the astonishingly witless, tasteless and pointless "Your Highness." The bad news is that this aggressively foul-mouthed riff on "Adventures in Babysitting"--in which temporary babysitter Jonah Hill takes off to the big city with his young charges in tow for a booty call and becomes embroiled with crazed drug dealers, fearsome African-Americans and the like--is a crudely made and indifferently executed mess that throws out one self-consciously "outrageous" bit after another but forgets to make them either funny or creatively disgusting. The best thing that can be said about this mess is that it is so pointlessly awful and undistinguished (at least "Your Highness" had a conception so bizarre that it juiced things up for a couple of moments before crashing and burning) that it suggests that perhaps Green has finally gotten all of this nonsense out of his system and is finally ready to go back to the kind of singular filmmaking that he is capable of doing.
THE SWELL SEASON (Docurama. $29.95): Have you been sitting around eagerly anticipating a sequel to "Once," that delightful 2007 indie musical about the sweet relationship that develops between an Irish street musician and a Czech-born singer that became an international sensation and won its two stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, both an enormous fan base and the Best Original Song Oscar for the hit "Falling Slowly"? Well, that will probably never happen (although "Once" has just hit Broadway in a stage incarnation) but you can get the next best thing with this engrossing documentary that follows Hansard and Irglova (who became a couple during the filming of "Once") as they grapple with the pressures of sudden fame on both their personal and professional lives. While this is a film that will be best appreciate by fans of "Once," this is still an interesting look at the artistic process and how it can been affected by the fickle finger of fate and is, of course, jam-packed with plenty of wonderful music to boot.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Summit Entertainment. $22.99): On the bright side, PAul W.A. Anderson's take on the often-filmed Alexandre Dumas swashbuckling classic benefits from a couple of arresting steampunk-inspired visuals (not that they make a hell of a lot of sense in the context) and deliciously scenery-chewing turns from Milla Jovovich and Christophe Waltz as the main bad guys, M'Lady and Cardinal Richelieu. The trouble is that virtually nothing else in this expensive clunker quite works--as young D'Artagnan, Logan Lerman is a drip for all seasons, the guys playing the actual musketeers are so dull as to be entirely forgettable (so much so that you wonder why Anderson didn't just go all the way and make Jovovich and Waltz into the central characters) and the fight scenes are all done in that dopey stutter-stop method that makes sense in the context of the "Resident Evil" movies but which does nothing to help convey the excitement of a sword fight. Granted, this is not the worst Three Musketeer movie ever made but let it be said that neither Tom & Jerry nor the Ritz Brothers have anything to worry about.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Under normal circumstances, the idea of telescoping John le Carre's sprawlingly complex spy thriller into the confines of a single two-hour feature film framework would seem to be the height of insanity--even the celebrated 1979 television version required more than five hours to tell the story and even it felt a bit rushed at certain points. However, this adaptation by Tomas Alfredson (his long-awaited follow-up to the international hit "Let the Right One In") is pretty damn brilliant and engrossing thanks to a smart and literate screenplay that does an excellent job of boiling the story down to its essentials without losing anything important, Alfredson's deft touch with the complex and potentially confusing narrative and a collection of impressive performances delivered by the cream of England's acting crop and led by Gary Oldman, whose performance as the aging spymaster charged with ferreting out the double-agent in his midst is arguably the high point in a career not exactly hurting for such things. Astonishingly, before this film, Oldman had somehow never been nominated for an Oscar and while he may have lost in the end, his work here is so powerful (all the more amazing and mesmerizing because of the total lack of histrionics) that most viewers may find themselves calling for a recount.
THE WAR ROOM (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): When Bill Clinton went from being a slightly obscure Southern governor best known on the national political stage for his windbag speech at the 1988 Democratic convention to being elected president four years later, much of the credit for that transformation went to chief strategist James Carville and George Stephanapoulis, both of whom became well-known figures, even outside of the Beltway, and whose influence continues to loom large even today. Their efforts on Clinton's behalf during that 1992 election were captured in this fascinating 1993 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hedges and even though the events depicted are now tow decades old and the political game has changed in countless ways during that period (making some of the then-radical notions seen here seem almost quaint nowadays), the final film is still as engrossing as ever and a must-see for political junkies from all points of the spectrum. Long unavailable on home video, the film becomes part of the Criterion Collection in a set that includes a new digital transfer, the 2008 documentary "Return of the War Room" (in which the key players from the original film analyze how the lessons taught in that earlier campaign were still being used successfully), featurettes on the challenges of shooting a film in the middle of a presidential campaign and a panel discussion including contributions from Carville, Vernon Jordan and Bill Clinton himself.
WIZARDS: 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.95): Although I am not a person who normally goes for barely coherent fantasy extravaganzas involving elves, fairies, dragons and other such stuff, I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Ralph Bakshi's trippy 1977 spectacular, set in a bleak post-apocalyptic Earth where all technology has been banned as being evil, in which a benign sorcerer is forced to do battle against his black sheep brother after the latter declares war on the former. Most of this is the usual fantasy nonsense but Bakshi's hallucinatory visual style (which combines traditional animation with rotoscoping, a process in which live-action footage is shot and then drawn over that Bakshi would utilize again in his next film, his misbegotten, though intriguing, take on the first half of "The Lord of the Rings") and and oddball sense of humor help prevent it from becoming just another lumbering bore. that said, it is probably best experienced late at night and in a slightly altered state of consciousness.
YOUNG ADULT (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose previous collaboration was a little thing called "Juno," reteamed for this nervy comedy-drama about a self-centered monster (Charlize Theron) who never quite developed past her years as the high school queen bee and tries to reclaim them by returning to her hometown to rescue her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) from his presumed life of quiet desperation--ignoring such minor details as the fact that he is happily married to one of the girls she used to sneer upon back in the day, they have a newborn child and he is perfectly happy and satisfied with his life. Watching as the film's anti-heroine spins further and further out of control is indeed a discomfiting sight and it, along with the film's refusal to make her "likable," is presumably why the film has failed to even come close to approximating the critical and popular success of "Juno" but it is this unapologetically corrosive look at a person whose sense of entitlement has far outstripped her modest achievements--not to mention incredible performances from Theron (forget "Monster"--this is her best and bravest work to date by far) and Patton Oswalt (who is hilarious and touching as the once and future outcast who is both appalled by his former classmate's actions and secretly thrilled that his one-time crush is actually associating with him)--that makes is such a valuable work in the end.
AMERICAN PIE (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)
AMERICAN PIE 2 (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)
AMERICAN WEDDING (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)
LETTER NEVER SENT (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)