This week’s got some huge titles. HUGE titles. Let’s try to prioritize, getting the heavy hitters, the featured events, out of the way up front, then moving on to the less obvious but also worthy things being released. And I’m going to throw on another in the titles from the last item we’ll discuss today as I write the column. It’ll give me something to discuss when we actually get to that last big thing.
There is no title today that is more exciting to me both as an audience and as a film geek than Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” on BluRay. It’s been on DVD before, and I’m sure this new edition will be great on DVD if that’s what you’re buying. But after seeing the amazing work they did on the “Sleeping Beauty” BluRay, I think Disney’s classic animation release series is, once again, the gold standard in home video right now. This is how you treat a classic. This is how you take advantage of new technology to re-introduce these historic animated movies to new viewers. It’s preservation. It’s not reinvention… it’s just putting the films in the best light possible given where we are technically. I have not watched “Pinocchio” yet, but it’s a priority, and given the level of excitement Toshi has when he sees the “Nokio” billboards, I’m guessing I’ll be seeing a lot of this film in the next month.
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Some of last year’s most celebrated movies arrive on DVD and BluRay today. Honestly, all three of these are movies I want to own, movies that I think will be worth returning to in the future. I really love what Gus Van Sant did with “Milk,” and it’s a hard film to write about from an analytical place. It’s an embrace of a movie. Van Sant is lionizing this guy, and why not? Why shouldn’t he make a film about what a hero he feels like this guy is? I think his portrait of Harvey is complex enough to withstand any criticism of “fairness,” and I think there’s something unshakable, something spiritual about certain people making certain biopics at certain times. I think they are called to it. It’s an artist getting a sort of mania regarding another person, and creating something that hopefully honors and captures and represents them. At their best, I think biopics can be really special and distinct, because each movie should have a different voice, trying to capture the essence of an individual. The truth is, of course, most biopics fall into a sort of formulaic sameness, and that’s why people think of the movies as banal Oscar bait. For the most part, they are. Not “Milk,” though. This is a movie brimming over with affection for a person, reverence for a symbol, and love for a time and place. I was pleasantly surprised by “Rachel Getting Married.” No… the word I’d use is “blindsided.” I was pleasantly blindsided by the new film from director Jonathan Demme, and that is something I’ve been waiting to type for yeeeeears now. I’m a huge fan of Demme’s early work, and I miss that sort of warm shaggy humanity that was such a feature of who he was as a filmmaker. I know people love “Silence of the Lambs,” but that movie’s success really ruined him as the quirky individual he was before that. This film, with a sad and lovely script by Jenny Lumet, gives him ample opportunity to work with his favorite oddball supporting actors, shoot in a style that reminds me of his early work, and keep things small, allowing him to make it personal. The result is wonderful and wrenching and beautifully acted by the entire ensemble. I thought it was easily the best work Anne Hathaway’s ever done. So good that it changes my definition of her as a performer. And no discussion of last year’s best films is complete without mention of “Let The Right One In,” the sensational Swedish film that established Tomas Alfredson as an international presence. This is a case of a film where anyone who loves movies owes it to themselves to pick up the BluRay, the best presentation possible, because such obvious care has gone into the making of the film. Alfredson’s got a deadly eye, and this disc is probably the best-looking new release of the week. If you somehow still don’t know what this film is, try to read nothing. Just know that it’s an unconventional take on a typical horror idea, and a really sad and strange coming of age story on par with “My Life As A Dog” or “The 400 Blows.” It’s a film that captures the feeling of disconnected childhood perfectly, and Alfredson’s got a real knack for directing children. If you’ve seen it, you’re most likely a fan, and if you haven’t, make sure you seek it out.
Okay… remember when I said I was going to throw on one of the titles from the box set that will close today’s column? Well, I didn’t even make it through an hour of the movie. Blame the Governator.
Even when a film isn’t perfect, I can find a lot to admire in some films, and I’m amazed how binary people are sometimes. I would happily accept nothing but mixed bags, interesting messes, instead of a world where it’s all home runs or total disasters. I like Mike Leigh’s films in general, but I don’t think his working style lends itself to neat, complete packages that would make for what we typicall think of as a satisfying movie. Sometimes he puts it all together and makes a “Topsy Turvy” or a “Naked,” and “Happy-Go-Lucky” comes close to working as a whole. It benefits enormously from the lead performance by Sally Hawkins and the main supporting performance from Eddie Marsan. It’s a very slight narrative, carried along mainly on the force of these characters and their various collisions. You may hate Hawkins and her force-of-nature good cheer, but that’s the point… it’s a persona she’s chosen, that she uses as her armor against the world, and how you react to it is your business. “Cadillac Records” is better than I expected, and Darnell Martin makes a welcome return to the feature world. He made his debut at the tail end of the sort of black cinema explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s with the little-seen “I Like It Like That.” It’s a promising small first film, with an emphasis on performance and an intimate scope that makes him a very easy sell for television. That’s where he’s worked ever since, on shows like “Oz” and “ER” and “Homicide” and various “Law and Order” franchises. “Cadillac Records” tells the story of the rise and fall of Chess Records and its line-up of artists like Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), and Howling Wolf (Eamonn Walker). The film shows how Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) went from club owner to record mogul, and how his relationships with all those artists changed his life. It’s not a great film, but it’s a solid one, and everyone does nice work. Knowles in particular is a surprise, playing Etta at the depths of her self-destructive addiction with a real smacked-out abandon. Finally, there’s Charlie Kaufman’s fascinating, layered, tortured “Synechdoche, New York,” which I just gave a second look last night. It’s such a sad, awful ride, a film which lacks the “big idea” of the first few Charlie Kaufman films. That’s not a criticism… just an observation. With “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine” or “Adaptation,” you’ve got an immediate hook, a big idea that gets the audience into the film. Something they can hold onto as they watch these surreal rollercoasters. Here, everything’s gradual. And since Kaufman’s playing his big game from the opening frame, it’s a much less immediate thing for many viewers. I liked it more a second time, but I still feel like it’s a collection of awful more than a film, and I don’t think it’s totally successful. What is worth seeing is the amazing scene-to-scene work by the cast and the brain-bending design of the city-in-a-warehouse world of the film.
I’m pretty excited about getting my hands on “South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season” on BluRay. I love looking at animation in high-definition because it reveals a lot about the process of putting that animation together. That’s what makes the “Pinocchio” disc so exciting, and the same is true here. They’re totally different technical ends of the spectrum, but that’s part of why I love animation… hand-drawn, Flash-based, it doesn’t matter… it’s about the storytelling, the style, the way they use the strengths or weaknesses of the medium. “South Park” continues to matter because they use the speed of their type of animation to satirize things seemingly as they happen, and also because the freedom of animation lets them make fun of anything, and go from a conversation between two characters in a living room to an epic battle for the fate of the world between thousands of characters. Not a lot of TV shows take full advantage of the medium the way this one does, and has been since the very start. I love that these DVD releases have stayed current with the show’s production schedule, something I wish “The Simpsons” could do. This collection includes such already-infamous moments as the Indiana Jones rape episode and their take on the night of Obama’s election. Great stuff.
One of the few of the new releases today that I haven’t seen yet is “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas,” a family-oriented film about the Holocaust based on a well-liked book. I didn’t see this one, but I heard reactions ranging from great to terrible, which always interests me. When something causes that sort of extreme reaction in audiences, I figure something’s going on. It sounds like this might make an interesting double-feature with “Let The Right One In.” This is the story of a young boy named Bruno whose family moves to the country for his father’s work. Bruno meets a boy who lives on a nearby farm, and he goes to see the boy often. What the audience knows that Bruno doesn’t is that the “farm” is actually a Jewish prison camp, and Bruno’s father works for the SS at that “farm.” The boy, Bruno’s new friend, is a prisoner, and their friendship is eventually going to cost both of them. Since this is aimed at family audiences, I’m curious how the material about the camps is handled. It looks like a good cast, and it got some solid reviews, so I’ll definitely make it a priority.
I can’t make the argument that either “Transporter 3” or “Role Models” are great films; they’re not. But they’re both solid examples of a film being what it is supposed to be, without pretense. I think the problem with “Transporter 3” is that it will please neither the fans of the first film’s stripped-down action movie aesthetic or those who delighted in the second film’s daffy excess. It’s sort of a half-hearted middle-ground, and the female lead is wretched. Still, there’s enough action staged stylishly enough that it’s a pleasant afternoon action programmer, a fun two hours you’ll forget immediately. “Role Models” is one of those films where the cast and even the director, David Wain, all seem to recognize that the premise is sort of lame, a sitcom-standard set-up that shouldn’t work. But Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott both click perfectly in their roles, and Chris Mintz-Plasse and Bobb’e J. Thompson are great as the kids who need some guidance. Jane Lynch shows up and brings some serious weird to the table, and there’s solid, funny supporting work from familiar faces like Kerri Kenney, Matt Walsh, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, and Ken Leong.
Oh, boy. I guess it had to happen eventually. “Howard The Duck” makes its DVD debut this week, and I took the opportunity to watch the film for the first time since its original theatrical release. And guess what? It’s just as awful as it was in 1986. It’s absolutely devoid of charm, and the duck suit is singularly unappealing, a grotesque little dead-faced troll that is just disturbing as a lead in a movie. When I put the film in, Toshi wandered into the office, and he saw the cover. “Hey, Daddy, I’m pretty sure I like that movie,” he said, which is his way of telling me he wants to watch something. I told him it wasn’t good, but he was determined, and I’ll take any excuse to hang out with him while I’m working, so we sat together and discussed the fine points of alien possession, topless birds, and massage parlors as this absolute violation of the original Steve Gerber comic book played. Afterwards, Toshi told me he’d like to see the movie again, and he asked for it several times in the following week. I’d like to point out that he’s three years old and has seen less than 40 movies in his lifetime, so everything must seem pretty amazing to him right about now. He’s got to be the only audience who would be able to find something to like in this lifeless and visually-offensive mess. For extra comedy gold, check out the extra features on the disc where they talk about the film like it was a cultural phenomenon, beloved by all.
There are all sorts of odds and ends I’m interested to check out at some point this week. Visconti’s “L’Innocente” was his last film, a period drama starring Giancarlo Giannini and Laura Antonelli. I’ve never seen this one, but I will now that it’s here in the house. His films are always demanding and richly detailed. I grew up watching Michael J. Fox every week, so “Family Ties: The Fifth Season” will end up in the player a bit. I find myself very sad when I watch Fox these days, thinking about where he’s ended up. There are very few performers I’ve ever seen with the natural confidence and camera-awareness that Fox had. Heartbreaking. Finally, I’m curious about “Battle In Seattle,” an independent film about the riots that broke out during the WTO Summit in Seattle a few years back. I think it’s ambitious to try a “Medium Cool” style film about urban unrest and political protest these days, and Stewart Townsend, best known as an actor, makes a big attempt with this effort as both writer and director. He’s got a cast of familiar faces like Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Andre Benjamin, Ray Liotta and more, telling intercutting stories set over several days as the riots and the WTO Summit both play out.
Two recent vintage titles hit BluRay today. “Brokeback Mountain” will probably sell better than ever because of renewed interest in Heath Ledger, but I’m sure this was already a steady-selling catalog title for Universal. I have a feeling “Brokeback” is one of those movies that gets bought over and over again, given away, loaned out, a movie that is, for certain audiences, essential. It’s not my favorite Ang Lee film, but it’s damn good, and I’m sure it’ll be beautiful in high definition. I’m going to try to pick up “Primal Fear” as well… that’s a performance that I’d like to revisit. I used to be fascinated by multiple-personality disorders of all types, and I always watch movies that deal with the subject with a highly-critical eye. Well, Norton’s performance gets it right, everything you’ve ever read about in terms of clinical study, all brought to twitchy, vibrant life in his work as a young man who is either hiding behind a faked illness to avoid responsibility for murder, or deeply disturbed because of a lifetime of abuse. He goes head to head with Richard Gere in the film, who does solid work. It’s all about Norton, though, and I’m actually eager to see this for the first time in over a decade.
Disney, always working the absolute cutting edge of marketing, has got both of the classic ’70s films back in stores this week, so you can pick up “Escape To Witch Mountain” and “Return From Witch Mountain” for your kids. Or, if we’re being honest, for yourself. I saw both of these films first-run in the theater, and I remember when Disney ran the two of them together as a double-feature, one of several Disney double-features that ran on Saturday afternoons at the end of the summer. I loved these films as a kid, and watching them again a few years ago, the last time they were issued on DVD, I think they stand up as uncomplicated family adventure movies. In the first one, Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) are on the run, trying to go home, space orphans who are being chased by Ray Milland, a scheming millionaire. I love kid’s movies featuring scheming millionaire bad guys in general… they make me laugh, just like watching movies that were set in a year that was the future when the film was made, but is now the past, like “In the future, the year 1998…” That kills me. “Return From Witch Mountain” features Bette Davis and Christopher Lee as bad guys. Take a moment. Let that sink in. Bette Davis… and Christopher Lee… together… as bad guys… so, yeah, you should probably own that, right?
Animation nerds should pay attention to two titles today. I’ve got both of them here at the house, and I think they may get a spin tomorrow morning. First up is the DVD and BluRay release of “Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels.” I was sent the DVD version. I was really happy to get all the Fleischer “Superman” shorts in that box set a few years ago, and now this film, one of the biggest things they ever did, is a welcome addition to my animation collection. And the latest “Woody Woodpecker Favorites” is a winner. I’ve watched a few of these with Toshi, and he finds Woody to be really alarming as a character. He doesn’t have the same sort of instant empathy he does for the various Warner Bros. characters. Woody makes him recoil a bit, almost like he’s afraid of him, but when I ask if he wants me to shut the cartoon off, he waves me away. I like the weird aggressive vibe of the Universal cartoons… that’s what makes them different.
And that brings us to the last item in today’s column, that thing I mentioned earlier, when I was trying to watch “Batman And Robin,” the fourth film in “The Batman Anthology” BluRay release. I hadn’t seen the film in a while, and I try not to just make fun of things on a knee-jerk level. I remember not liking anything about the film, but I didn’t remember why. Watching the first forty-five minutes of the film was ample reminder. I had to shut off the rest. For my own peace of mind. It’s just… so… terrible. I try to imagine the executives who were working on the Batman films, sitting in a screening room at Warner Bros., as the lights come up after they’ve just screened any random action sequence from “Batman and Robin” for the first time. The way no one can look anyone else in the eye, like they all just jerked off to a snuff film or something. Because there is NO WAY anyone with any brain sat in a room looking at any finished sequence of this film without feeling genuine crushing despair at the public’s reaction. What reality is the film trying to create? What audience is the film playing to? It’s so over the top awful that there’s an almost hypnotic gravity to it. You stay fixed to the screen, amazed at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire performance, at his costuming, his make-up, the string of feeble one-liners his character is forced to say. It’s Uma Thurman, playing a character who needs obvious medication before her “big transformation,” and it’s Bane, a ridiculous bodybuilder in silly arm make-up created in a wicked-goofy origin sequence. It’s just wrong. Completely, totally, unrelentingly wrong. I gave “Batman Forever” another chance as well, and I lasted just as long with that one. An hour was enough time to get totally worn down by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones and the invisible charisma of Val Kilmer. Both movies are terrible… they’re just different kinds of terrible. I watched the 1989 Burton original all the way through, and again… it was the first time in a while. I still think the film is stiff and constructed poorly, and Nicholson is a slice of ham on a hamsteak served on a bed of ham in a rich ham gravy. But the BluRay is amazing. Even on the two awful films, the sound and picture is top-notch. The only one I haven’t seen yet is my favorite of the four, the weird and wonderful “Batman Returns.” I will definitely rectify that soon.
Good week. Plenty to pick up or to add to your Netflix list. I’ll be back with more BluRay talk later this week.
Coming next week: “Twilight”! “Bolt”! “Punisher: War Zone”! And more from The Three Stooges!
On The Shelf appears here every Monday. Except when it doesn’t.
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