I resist the temptation to call this a “historic” week for DVD releases, but the simple fact is that three historic and essential American films all debut on DVD this week (two of them simultaneously on Blu-ray). Elsewhere on my blog I review The African Queen (Paramount), one of the most beloved films of all time, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (Criterion), an often overlooked masterpiece of American cinema making its belated debut on any home video format, and The T.A.M.I. Show: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory), the original rock and roll concert film.
While that will keep cineastes and movie buffs busy, the big money—and the big attention—is still focused on what we still call the New Releases, the big Hollywood films making their expected and inevitable home video release in the second tier of the traditional release pattern. You can’t dismiss them and I wouldn’t want to, not with one of my favorite films of 2009 coming out.
Wes Anderson, director of offbeat tales of dysfunctional families, absent fathers and characters lost in ambition and obsession, turns to stop motion animation for Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox), his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, and it’s a delight, a playful storybook comedy filled with fabulous characters and a classic Anderson tale of family anxiety and eccentric personalities. I reviewed the film for The Stranger in 2009 here. The DVD has a light “From Script to Screen” featurette (see Wes Anderson act out the characters for the animators) and a piece on the stop-motion animation process (did you know that an overnight rain or a change in the barometric pressure can affect the relationship between the camera and the models?), plus the whimsical “Beginner’s Guide to Whack Bat.” The Blu-ray has more featurettes on the production and the cast, plus a bonus DVD copy and a digital copy. I reviewed the film for The Stranger here.
Let’s face it, Hollywood likes Sandra Bullock, it really, really likes her, and this is the film that finally gave them reason to show her just how much with an Academy Award for Best Actress. The Blind Side (Warner) has been called her Erin Brockovich, in part because she gets to be sassy and southern and dominate the film with a big personality. In the process, this adaptation of the story of NFL star Michael Oher becomes less about Oher (played by Quinton Aaron as a quiet but fiercely protective and deeply loyal young man) and more about the rich white lady whose (genuine) generosity gave this young man a chance. I review the DVD and Blu-ray, including all the supplements, for MSN here.
Séraphine (Music Box) stars Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis, the small town housekeeper and laundress in early 20th Century France driven to spend her wages on paints and brushes and paint her nights away (her hand is guided by her guardian angel, she claims). She signed her bright, bold visions Séraphine de Senlis, but while the townsfolk dismiss her “naïve” paintings as childlike, an influential art critic and collector encourages and promotes her work. A lovely film with an impressionist sensibility (all those scenes of Séraphine walking through the woods, feelings the life and texture of the trees and flowers and collecting the natural materials she uses to mix her own colors) and a vivid central personality, but also a fairly conventional portrait of the artist savant unappreciated in her own time. The DVD has a making-of featurette and a gallery of Séraphine’s paintings.
“More of this is true than you would believe.” So promises the opening seconds of The Men Who Stare At Goats (Anchor Bay), a comic take on the story of America’s fringe military program as shaped by this film’s answer “The Dude” Lebowski (played as a Vietnam vet turned new age guru by Jeff Bridges). George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey co-star in this dryly funny and offbeat satire. I review it for MSN here.
Jim Sheridan directs Brothers (2009) (Lionsgate), an adaptation of Susanne Bier’s Danish drama of brothers whose bond is broken and dynamics turned inside out by war and guilt. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent as the brother in this American chamber drama, but for all the intensity of their ordeal, I never got pulled into t heir lives or their story. I reviewed the film for The Stranger here. The DVD and Blu-ray include Sheridan and two featurettes.
After Dark Horrorfest 4: 8 Films to Die For (Lionsgate) – Lionsgate’s After Dark Horrorfest is an annual event, presenting a handful of horror films from the film festival circuit that have not secured a theatrical release (but are usually more interesting than many horror films that do) in cities across the nation, followed by a DVD release that brings them to the rest of the country. The review discs from the fourth edition arrived just ahead of street date so I only had time to dip into a couple of them. I have to cast a spotlight on Zombies of Mass Destruction, an indie horror farce shot in my own backyard (Port Gamble, a short ferry ride away from my home) from a local filmmaker (Kevin Hamedini) and Seattle-based producer (John Sinno, Oscar nominated for producing the documentary Iraq in Fragments). It’s a very funny zombie gore farce with pointed social satire and punctured political rhetoric. The undead invasion of a small coastal town brings out the worst anti-Islamic paranoia and religious hysteria in the victims, and inevitably distract them from the real threat. This low-budget film has a polished look and impressive effects and Hamedini is smart enough not to dwell on the spectacle as he drives the film ahead. I previously reviewed the film on my blog here.
New to me is Lake Mungo, an Australian ghost story told as a (fictional) documentary in the pitch-perfect style of contemporary American non-fiction filmmaking. The ostensible story is the investigation of a family haunted by the unsettled spirit of the teenage daughter who drowned on a family outing and the tension between the media sensation of the story and the effect on the parents and brother trying to cope with the loss. Director Joel Anderson gets all the textures right and creates an impressive feeling of authenticity through the interviews and the “archival footage” of home movies and news clips interspersed through the piece. It’s not so much scary as spooky (except for one really creepy moment) but this ghost story is less about supernatural hauntings than human secrets and lies. The narrative twists and turns reveal more about the lives of the people left behind and the (sad) secret life of the daughter they never knew about, a powerful character drama about loss and healing hidden in the conventions of a ghost story.
The other films in the eight-film collection are Dread, Anthony DiBlasi’s screen adaptation of the Clive Barker short story, Hidden a haunted house tale from Norway, The Graves, The Final, Kill Theory and The Reeds. Each film available separately or together in an 8-volume collection.
Also new this week: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit), John Woo’s Red Cliff (I only received a review copy of the drastically edited American theatrical version, not the two-part International Release, so I skipped it completely—hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it in the next couple of weeks) and Aleksander Ford’s 1954 Polish drama (and an rare color feature for fifties Poland) Five from Barska Street (Facets)