It’s Oscar week DVD releases and this batch includes one film that went home with two statues and an honorable runner-up that went home empty handed and deserved better. But, to quote an Oscar winner (albeit in a radically different context), “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” (That mantra is how I watch the Oscars without getting aggravated.)
Precious came away with two wins but Up In The Air (Paramount) is, in my opinion, the superior film (it is certainly the more subtle and nuanced film) and should have taken the Adapted Screenplay award. It’s also a refreshingly mature movie about grown-up characters and serious issues, handled with a light touch with a depth of character and great intelligence behind it. George Clooney stars as a 21st century traveling man who has trimmed his existence down to what can be packed into carry-on luggage and turned business class seating and airport lounges into his comfort zone. He’s spent so much passing through life that he treats relationships like layovers: a brief, impermanent stop on a never-ending journey. Which makes it easier to do his job: he’s the man that companies bring to fire employees that they don’t want to face themselves, and he’s just been assigned to show the ropes to an ambitious young professional (Anna Kendrick) fresh from business school who finds that the human equation can be a tricky factor in putting theory into practice.
Clooney uses his trademark charm and easy confidence to create a character who skates along the surface until a connection with a sexy and smart fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga) starts him thinking that “Everyone needs a co-pilot” (a revelation as sales pitches). He’s perfect, smoothly amiable yet utterly impersonal behind his easy smile and unreadable eyes. And beneath his existential odyssey, the film simmers with the anxieties of working folks suddenly downsized out of their jobs and their identities: a cultural snapshot that is funny, bittersweet and ultimately painfully, tenderly human. I also wrote on the film for MSN’s “Best of the 2009″ wrap here.
It’s only Jason Reitman’s third feature but he really knows how to deliver a superior commentary track: he’s proud of his work, eager to share stories behind the scenes and generous in celebrating the contributions of his collaborators. He invites director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld to share the track and makes a point of drawing them in to elucidate their contributions and share their stories. Most importantly, he fills the track with observations and inspirations and explanations that interest me because they get to the heart of both the creative process and the production process. Also includes a featurette on the credits sequence and five deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Jason Reitman). The Blu-ray edition presents the deleted scenes in HD and includes eight more deleted scenes, a brief piece that juxtaposes video storyboards to the finished film and a little outtake titled “American Airlines Prank.”
Who would have thought that this independent drama would become the most polarizing film of the year? Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire (Lionsgate) was embraced by critics and audiences alike and took home a pair of Oscars (for Adapted Screenplay and Mo’Nique’s performance as a venomously angry mother who grinds her daughter’s spirit into the ground), it has also been criticized by many commentators and critics as being a gross caricature of slum life and a shamelessly manipulative melodrama. They have a point, but Gabourey Sidibe’s performance is no caricature and this film has gotten under the skin of a lot of viewers. My review of the DVD is on MSN here.
In Capitalism: A Love Story (Anchor Bay), America’s rabble rouser everyman activist of a documentary filmmaker Michael Moore takes on nothing less than the entire foundation of our economy, the business culture of profit at any price and government complicity with corporate interests that has transformed it into a giant casino. He’s cheeky, he’s outrageous and he can get awfully full of himself (“For 20 years I tried to tell GM this day was coming. Maybe now they’ll listen to me.”), but he does have a way of getting your blood up with his mix of real stories, sly commentary, exasperating revelations and street theater. But for all that, he has a point that isn’t being addressed (at least to my satisfaction) in the public discussion: the American Dream of the 1950s, where a working man could afford a home and college tuition for a house full of kids on a single income job that provided health insurance, is long gone in an era of two-income families, contract positions and rising housing and health care prices. His point is simple: if this is capitalism at work, then something is wrong. And along with his checklist of offenses and offenders, he offers stories of activism, community response and reaction, ground-level defiance and populist triumphs. People still can make a difference and take charge if they have a big enough voice and a strong enough resolve. The DVD features 80 minutes of bonus material, not simply deleted scenes and interviews but entire topics shaped into ten featurettes by Moore, and the Blu-ray includes an eleventh featurette plus a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (Sony) – I guess a sequel was inevitable, but what a weird trip it took. The original 1999 The Boondock Saints was a high-profile script bought by the Weinsteins, who shut done production in a notorious clash with its director/writer Troy Duffy, who wound up making it with another company on a fraction of the original budget. It still turned into a massive theatrical flop before becoming a cult hit on home video. In the meantime, Duffy became a notorious figure of ego run amuck (the tale is told in the documentary Overnight, which offers plenty of cringe-worthy arrogance and crowing by the anointed Duffy before he shot a frame of film) and it took him ten years to get another film off the ground. Sure enough it was a sequel in the same vein: the MacManus Brothers (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) return from their exile in Ireland to continue their work as the psychotic choir boys blasting their way through Boston’s underworld armed with a small arsenal and righteous vengeance. Reedus pretty much captures the entire film with his signature line: “Let’s do some gratuitous violence.” This time through Clifton Collins Jr. teams up with the boys, Julie Benz plays a sassy FBI agent with her own endgame, Judd Nelson tortures a Boston accent with a mob snarl and Peter Fonda assassinates an even worse Italian accent as the Italian capo pulling the strings of this absurdly convoluted plot. Duffy scripts like a wannabe Tarantino and directs like a guy who has seen too many John Woo gangster movies and ends up with a cartoon posing as an action movie.
This one scored a major release but not much profit so Troy Duffy milks the DVD release for all its worth, helming not one but two commentary tracks. The first with stars Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and Billy Connolly is largely a jokey party track but he gets to indulge his auteur fantasy in the second (largely solo) track and, my God, is he insufferable and full of himself. But, as he likes to say, “The fan-base gets it.” Also includes deleted scenes, the 25-minute “Unprecedented Access: Behind the Scenes” and a hotel-room conversation between “Billy Connolly and Troy Duffy: Unedited.” Exclusive to the Blu-ray releases are three additional featurettes and the standard BD-Live features.
The title of Gigante (Film Movement), Adrian Biniez’s affectionate character piece, refers to Jara (Horacio Camandule), a big but gentle security guard who works the night shift of a supermarket, moonlights as a bar bouncer (who would rather talk out a conflict than get physical) and spends the rest of day watching TV and playing video games with his young nephew. This lonely guy kind of sleepwalks through life until he notices Julia (Leonor Svarcas), a young woman fresh from the countryside working on the overnight cleaning crew. Too shy to face her, he monitors her via security camera and starts following her outside work: to the movies, to a karate class, window shopping on streets packed with vendors and market stalls. What could be an uncomfortable edge of stalker obsession is softened by his innate protectiveness, which he extends to everyone: other cleaners, fellow guards, even a rival for Julia’s affections that he saves from a mugging. Camandule brings a gentle giant quality to Jara while Svarcas suggests a complete character without us ever hearing her utter a word, simply through a friendly smile, happy eyes and a body language that shows her happy to be alive. This is a small film with a big heart, filled with quirky details and likable characters. There’s no earth-shaking drama or little narrative complication, just a sunny slice of in a little suburb on the outskirts of city Uruguay that, language aside, isn’t that different from suburbs on this side of the equator. In Spanish with English subtitles. Also features the bonus short film “Dennis” from Denmark (directed by Mads Matthiesen), another film about a big, shy guy, this one a bodybuilder preparing for a first date.
The famed lore of the brothers who created and ran Warner Bros. through Hollywood’s great studio era pretty much come down to Jack Warner. “The last man standing” of the founding brothers, he rewrote the studio story after they passed and left them out of it. The Brothers Warner (Warner), directed by Cass Warner Sperling and based on her book by the same name, is an attempt to set the record straight. As the granddaughter of Warner Bros. studio founder Harry Warner, she has a vested interest, but she also has an interesting story, if not exactly an interesting documentary. There’s plenty of Warner Bros. studio history here, but the focus is on the men themselves—eldest brother and guiding hand Harry Warner, Albert, Sam and Jack, the ambitious youngest brother who took over the studio in a play everyone still considers “the betrayal to end all betrayals”—and how their personalities and passions shaped the studio. It’s also a reminder of the era when studio heads could and did make policy based on their beliefs and passions and egos, even if it cost them at the box-office. When the Nazis rode a wave of anti-Semitism to power in Germany and turned prejudice into policy, Warner Bros. was the sole Hollywood studio to cut business ties with Germany and make films that exposed the realities of Nazi Fascism in their movies (or at least try to; the censors refused to allow them to mention the concentration camps in films). The rest of Hollywood pressured them to stop endangering their profits in Europe and even the American government got involved to stop them from stirring things up… until December 7, 1941, of course, and then Warner was encouraged to do exactly what they’d been forbidden to do. It arrives on DVD a day after its premier showing on Turner Classic Movies.
Also new this week: The Stoning of Soraya M. (Lionsgate), which I reviewed previously on my blog here, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (Sony) from Lasse Hallstrom, The Wedding Song (Strand) from director Karin Albou., Service (Serbis) (E1) from Brillante Mendoza, Old Dogs (Disney) with Robin Williams and John Travolta and the animated Planet 51 (Sony).