The year has barely begun and there’s already an embarrassment of rich cinema coming out on DVD, so many that I had to leave a few choice releases unexplored. I begin with the best film of 2009, now available for everyone to see before the Oscars.
The Hurt Locker (Summit) – Kathryn Bigelow has been making great cinema in a career that has given her far too few opportunities. This film, a low-budget, high-impact drama that follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit, should change all that. After a startling opening scene, the team gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a real maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms. He doesn’t follow the rules and he treats every bomb like a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad. In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help out some the private soldiers (led by guest star Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs. So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death. Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to do their jobs and stay vigilant, and team leader James, up now seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.
This may be the same sun-bleached Iraq of dusty dirt streets and open deserts we’ve seen in other Iraq war films, but it’s a different kind of movie. Bigelow’s handheld camerawork roams like a spotter’s eyes, always surveying, always getting another look, and the cuts are shifts of perspective that both to keep you off-balance and give a sense of how vigilant they are. Bigelow shows up how they see the world out of necessity. She also shows us that the quote by Chris Hedges that opens the film, “… war is a drug,” is not all about thrill. It’s about the need, not to kill, but to what you do. Jeremy Renner is remarkably effective as James, a man of action in the manner of a Howard Hawks hero: he’s defined by what he does and how he does it, not what he says. James is the best at what he does, and when he does it he is in control. When he’s not, he’s just another guy looking for his place in the world. There’s no political message here, nobody questioning their mission or arguing policy. These are just men doing their jobs in an unforgiving workplace, and Bigelow, more than anything, is interested in how they do it, because the how is the difference between going home at the end of the rotation in one piece or not. You can read my feature review on my blog here.
The commentary by director/producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal is top notch, not exciting but quite thorough and in-depth. Bigelow is articulate and clear about her research, her devotion to accuracy and the physical reality of shooting to get the film and Boal, a veteran journalist and a first-time producer, makes a fine counterpoint filling in background of the stories that inspired the film and the challenges of bringing his observations to the screen. It’s quite engaging as they bat ideas and observations back and forth, each offering their own perspective on the what and why of each scene. “The Hurt Locker: Behind the Scenes,” by contrast, is pretty standard stuff.
The Brothers Bloom (Summit) – The second feature from writer/director Rian Johnson is a con artist comedy as living theater. After the almost color-leached images of his high-school noir Brick, Johnson puts more brightness in his palette and more spring his step for this fantasy about stories and storytelling. In a way, each con is a little play mounted by elder brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), who “writes cons like Russians write novels, full of story arcs and symbolism,” to give his younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) the role of the romantic leading man, a part he’s is too paralyzed to play in real life. Not that there is much real life in this bright little comedy, from the bouncy backstory of orphan brothers perfecting their craft as mischievous kids with brimming imaginations to the globe-trotting con that sweeps their current mark, madcap but lonely New Jersey heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz), into some very improbable scrapes and escapes. Oh yes, there is also their “fifth Beatle,” Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), an explosives expert who lets her nitro do the talking for her (her silent comedy performance is hilarious).
It’s a charming fantasy of a con movie that is less interested in the well played con than the colorfully executed idea of a con, among other things. It’s a film with more ideas than it can successfully juggle and it doesn’t really make sense but it does have a good time playing out its stories. Weisz plays Penelope as a real screwball heroine, all gumption and impulse and eager abandon, another dream girl to fall into Bloom’s arms and a romance with an expirations date: when the con is over, so is the stage romance. Stephen scripts Bloom as a tragic anti-hero, but Penelope, as much a storyteller as Stephen and a playactor as Bloom, does some improvising of her own (in true screwball fashion), and she just may be the rewrite he’s been waiting for. The film was previously available as a rental-only title. It’s officially available for consumer purchase this week. Features commentary by director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman, two making-of featurettes and over 35 minutes of deleted scenes.
Spike Lee has always interspersed making movies with other passion projects, from documentaries to filming theatrical productions. For Passing Strange (IFC), Lee is less director than respectful and admiring chronicler, bringing his cameras to record the last show of the Tony Award-winning musical at the Belasco Theater on Broadway: as a production, as an event, and as a live, ephemeral experience. The semi-autobiographical show by performer and writer Stew (in collaboration with composing partner Heidi Rodewald) is not a traditional rock musical. It’s more like rock and roll cabaret theater, with Stew as a combination narrator, commentator and musical headliner, singing the story of his coming of age as a black kid from the L.A. suburbs (called only “The Youth” in the show) whose journey begins at church (where he’s introduced to both the power of music and the mind-expanding glories of marijuana by an enthusiastic choir leader) and takes him beyond the borders of his city and country and into the similarly mind-expanding cultures of Amsterdam and Berlin.
It’s a joyous production – the music is alive and dynamic, the skits are clever and funny and self-effacing and the show crackles with energy – and Lee’s direction reminds us that it’s as much a theatrical experience as a drama, a musical performance and a piece of live theater that comments on its own conventions with good natured humor. Stew is a welcoming tour guide and a lively storyteller. He uses humor generously and perceptively to show youth stumbling through new experiences with eyes wide open but not always comprehending, but without minimizing the hard emotional lessons he leaves with. It’s the education of an artist, a musician, and a young man finding his place in the world, and realizing what he sacrifices in the process. The DVD also includes interviews with the creators conducted by Lee the day after the last show.
Like Stars on Earth (Taare Zameen Par) (Disney), India’s official submission to the Foreign-Language Film category of the 2009 Academy Awards, is a Bollywood musical version of the inspirational teacher / underdog student drama. The seven-year-old tyke at the center of this tale, an imaginative boy named Inu (Ishaan Awasthi, with bright eyes and teeth outgrowing his mouth), see magic all around him but can’t make sense of schoolwork. “The letters are dancing,” he tries to explain to his teacher, who merely ridicules him, while at home his success-driven father merely berates him for poor grades, hopeless spelling and unreadable penmanship, and sends him to boarding school out of desperation and exasperation. It takes the dedicated efforts of a passionate art teacher (Indian movie superstar Aamir Khan, who also directs) to see the symptoms for what they are. Yes, this is a musical about overcoming dyslexia, but it’s also about nurturing creativity and the pressure that the culture of success has put on children who do not excel scholastically.
Awasthi is excellent as the young boy whose dazed, dopey grin is psychically beaten into a glum pout until his teacher takes up his cause and Kahn’s gentle smile and intense sincerity makes him a likable champion. It’s a real tearjerker of a tale of triumph, brightly directed with an eye toward international audiences. Unlike the classic Bollywood production style, the cast doesn’t break out in song and dance; rather, the songs play out as commentary and counterpoint to wordless scenes and montage sequences. Even at its length of 165 minutes (normal for Indian films) it doesn’t drag on, thanks to the energy of Kahn’s direction and the playfulness of animated interludes that convey both Inu’s imagination and jumbled perception of words and numbers. The American DVD release includes both original Hindi and English dub soundtracks (the songs are in Hindi only) and English-language commentary by director/producer/star Aamir Khan, plus a bonus disc with Hindi-language supplements, including a panel discussion with educators and doctors about dyslexia and childhood learning problems hosted by Aamir Khan and an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, and a CD soundtrack.
Moon (Sony) – Sam Rockwell is the lone operator of a moonbase operation mining counting down the days until his three-year contract is up as his sanity starts to teeter. After years with a computerized robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) as his only companion, he starts having conversations with himself, and he’s keeping up both ends. What starts as a one-man, two character piece morphs into a corporate conspiracy with undertones of identity theft on a metaphysical scale. A low-budget feature that privileges ingenuity over effects, the directorial debut of Duncan Jones is the kind of science-fiction so rarely produced today: smart, cerebral, emotional and human. You can read my feature review on my blog here. The DVD and Blu-ray include two commentary tracks with Duncan Jones (one with producer Stuart Fenegan and a lively track with his production crew) and two production featurettes that are less slick but far more informative than the usual “making of” pieces. Equally engaging is a 20-minute Q&A sessions with Duncan Jones at the Science Center, where he fields plenty of conceptual questions by folks who are obviously both scientists and science fiction fans. The spoken introduction alone tells you more about Jones background than all the supplements. Sure, he’s the son of David Bowie, but it’s far more illuminating to learn that he got a degree in philosophy before turning to film and he apprenticed as a camera operator for Tony Scott, among others, before making his feature debut. There’s also a shorter, less essential Q&A with Jones, Sam Rockwell and members of the production staff at the Sundance Film Festival premiere.
Politics is no place for idealists and amateurs if In The Loop (IFC), a fiercely funny satire of British party politics and international diplomacy, is to be believed. And for all the raucous chaos and foul dialogue, it’s believable, a simultaneously hilariously and terrifyingly convincing model of how modern statesmanship must work. Tom Hollander’s Simon Foster, the diplomatically naive Minister of International Development, looks to be the film’s ostensible hero, but it’s Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and the administration’s internal strong arm, who commands attention. Where some rule through terror, Malcolm has learned control through verbal intimidation. His invective-laced tirades are as mesmerizing as they are funny, almost hypnotic in their reach for creatively foul threats and insults, and his tactics know no boundaries. You can read my feature review on my blog here. The disc includes a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
Also new this week: Departures (E1) won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Big Fan (Vivendi) is the well-received directorial debut of The Wrestler screenwriter Robert D. Seigel, and The Burning Plain (Sony) is the less well-received directorial debut of Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself (Lionsgate) will also be hitting stores this week but no review copies were sent out in advance.
And the Blu-ray of the week, no question, is Federico Fellini’s 8½ (Criterion). The timing couldn’t be better: after the dispiriting clichés on display in Nine, audiences should really slip back into Fellini’s original and discover what it really is to play in the sandbox of creativity and imagination. Forget western clichés of what it is to “Be Italian,” just immerse yourself in it. Read my review at MSN here.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.