Blu-ray: ‘E.T.’ at 35 from Universal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies, turns 35 with a new E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary Limited Edition (Universal) plus additional Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD editions.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.

It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Bridge of Spies,’ ‘Our Brand is Crisis,’ ‘Suffragette’

BridgeSpiesBridge of Spies (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama, stars Tom Hanks as insurance attorney James B. Donovan, an American idealist asked to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy captured by the CIA in 1957 and given a public trial. He’s prize casting in a legal pageant that he’s supposed to lose but Donovan takes his oath—and the American values that the government and the CIA agents are quick to discard in the heat of the Cold War—seriously and defends his client to the best of abilities, ultimately taking the case to the Supreme Court. It makes him suspect in the anti-communist fervor of the late 1950s, but that commitment makes him the perfect emissary for back-channel negotiations for a prisoner swap for Gary Powers, the captured pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet airspace. It also makes him, at least in this take on history, the only hope for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student on the wrong side of the border when the East German troops put up the wall.

The film features a period-perfect recreation of late-1950s America and a gloomily oppressive portrait of East Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall, a sharp screenplay co-written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, and the directorial signatures that remind us again that Spielberg is one of the great directors. But it’s all a little too neat, more nostalgic than thrilling, without a palpable sense of urgency or danger, and lacking the nuance of Lincoln. Thomas Newman’s score hits the uplifting, string-heavy Americana hard and even the brilliant filmmaking of the opening scene, with a camera weaving through the border between East and West Berlin and cutting through the panic and chaos of a political upheaval in action, is so controlled it feels more like a showcase than a dramatic experience.

It’s Hanks who carries the film as a kind of Cold War Atticus Finch, a husband and father and an American idealist who refuses to betray his client simply because he’s a Soviet spy, and he portrays Donovan’s essential integrity and loyalty without sentiment. Hanks makes it look so effortless it’s easy to take that accomplishment for granted and Mark Rylance—one of the great actors of the British stage making a rare big screen appearance—is equally good as Abel, betraying almost no emotion behind his tired, resigned expression yet expressing both trust in and admiration for Donovan, who never abandons him. The most powerful moment of the prisoner swap—on a snowy Berlin checkpoint in the dead of winter—is neither the anxious wait nor the tension of distrust between the sides but the trust and friendship between the two men, enemies by nationality but friends by chance, in their last meeting.

Bridge of Spies is nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Rylance.

On Blu-ray and DVD with four featurettes: “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane,” “Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide,” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.” The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, Amazon Video, Vudu, DirecTV, and other services.

OurBrandOur Brand is Crisis (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), inspired by the 2005 documentary of the same name, is a political satire with an engaging cast but a dull bite. Set in the 2002, it stars Sandra Bullock as Jane, an American political consultant lured out of retirement to work on a campaign to re-elect a former Bolivian President (Joaquim de Almeida) who is unliked by the public (and for good reason). She’s a reluctant player until she finds her nemesis (Billy Bob Thornton) working for the charismatic frontrunner and declares war. There’s no commitment to a candidate or political ideals here, only the sense of politics as a game she’s determined to win.

Director David Gordon Green plays it for comedy, a multi-national satire that frames its cynicism within slapstick antics and tit-for-tat gags, and Bullock and Thornton are marvelous together, pros who treat competition as flirtation. The Americans are little better than mercenaries in a foreign war, this one waged at the ballot box, and the lightweight tone can’t support the serious issues of globalization, exploitation, and corruption of the election process behind the snappy humor and Bullock’s marvelous mess of a character. Still, it is admirable that it even bothered to carry a real message behind the character comedy

On Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Sandra Bullock: A Role Like No Other.” The Blu-ray also features an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, iTunes, Amazon Video, DirecTV, and other services.

SuffrageteSuffragette (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), starring Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, dramatizes the often violent struggle for women’s voting rights in Britain in the early 20th century. It’s interesting history— they became radicalized, turning to vandalism and acts of civil disobedience after 50 years of peaceful activism, and were treated like a terrorist organization by the government, which unleashed a campaign of intimidation and violence that recalls the American Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s—but filmmaker Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan fail to make compelling drama from the history lesson. Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff co-star, Brendan Gleeson is quietly commanding as a police inspector sent to put down the movement with similar tactics used against the IRA, and Meryl Streep gets prime billing for a few minutes of screen time as the firebrand movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

On Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary and three featurettes. The Blu-ray also features an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, iTunes, Amazon Video, DirecTV, and other services.

Also new and notable:batmanbad

Batman: Bad Blood (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), the latest DC Universe Animated Original Movie, is a sequel to Son of Batman. Based on the comics written by Grank Morrison, it’s a real Bat-team up, with Batwoman, Robin, Nightwing, and Batwoman uniting after Batman goes missing. With featurettes and bonus cartoons.

Rock the Kasbah (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Bill Murray as a once-famous rock and roll manager who finds teenage Pashtu girl (Leem Lubany) with a great voice in Kabul and sets out to make her a star, is inspired by a true story. Barry Levinson directs and Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, and Bruce Willis co-star. Blu-ray and DVD with featurettes, deleted scenes, and bonus digital copy.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), adapts the revered book as an animated feature. Salma Hayek produced and stars in a voice cast that includes Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, and Quvenzhane Wallis, and Roger Allers directs.

The Beauty Inside (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is a Korean romantic drama that about a man wakes up every day in a different body. Korean with English subtitles.

Blu-ray: ‘E.T.: The Extraterrestrial’

E.T.: The Extraterrestrial – Anniversary Edition (Universal) – Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies debuts on Blu-ray in its original, uncut, untampered form.

Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.

It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.

Steven Spielberg is a technical wizard without a doubt and he seamlessly brings actors and effects together, but none of the special effects have the charge of Henry Thomas laughing in joy as his bicycle takes flight over the forest and across the full moon. That image has since become the corporate logo for Amblin Entertainment and it’s a little tainted for it, but the excited, spontaneous shouts of pleasure are as genuine as ever.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Collectible: The Complete “Indiana Jones” on Blu-ray

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Paramount) is just the kind of set that folks buy Blu-ray players for.

Sure, the cinephiles are waiting on “Lawrence of Arabia” and the “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection,” but their sales pale next to “Harry Potter” and “James Bond 50” and “Indiana Jones.” Popcorn memories and genre escape is what defines most of home video libraries, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and its sequels, inconsistent though  they may be, stand out a pop culture landmarks that bring out the giddy kid inside us all, children and adults alike

Harrison Ford, fresh from the first two “Star Wars” films, stepped into the battered fedora and leather jacket of the archeologist adventurer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981, renamed “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” for disc), the rip-roaring tribute to the cliffhanger adventures of the 1930s and 1940s from producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg. These movie brats were feeding their fondness for the pulp action movies of their youth, from the B-movies and cheap serials of kid matinees to the swashbuckling Errol Flynn adventures and the Technicolor splendor of “King Solomon’s Mines,” and their affection was infectious. The nostalgic trip through yesteryear thrills of non-stop action and skin of the teeth escapes, executed with Spielberg’s filmmaking sophistication and a contemporary tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and driven with runaway momentum, was a blockbuster.

A new franchise was born. Lucas had originally envisioned three films (what is it with Lucas and his trilogies?) and Spielberg helped him see his dream through, beginning with the slapstick romp “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). Spielberg misjudges the material a little, bouncing from lighthearted action to (at least for kids) disturbing scenes of human sacrifice that he shoots like searing gothic horror. But if the script is negligible, Spielberg opens the film on one of the most delightful set pieces of his career: a screwball musical number executed with all the energy of a classic madcap thirties comedy.

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Blu-ray: ‘Jaws’ – We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Disc

Jaws (Universal), Steven Spielberg’s meticulously-directe​d, tension-filled, career-redefining thrill machine, has been pegged as the original modern summer blockbuster. And while that is true, this pop-culture masterpiece is more than simply a well-tooled thriller. Spielberg brings a sense of community, family, and humanity to the supermarket thriller from Peter Benchley, a book more designed than written.

Roy Scheider stars as the New England seaside vacation town police chief who is afraid of the water, Richard Dreyfus is the hippy oceanographer with a weak stomach, and Robert Shaw showboats shamelessly and superbly as the crusty old salt who leads the shark hunt with a snarl.

Visually, Spielberg’s work is brilliant. Lazy shark fins, water ripples, snapping fishing lines, and buoys racing across the surf hint at something monstrous trolling beneath the surface. As the tension mounts, every shot of the ocean reminds us that a primal killer awaits under the placid surf. Though frankly phony when it finally bobs up for sharko-a-mano combat, the film is brilliant when the shark is a barely glimpsed force of nature. Today horror movies erupt in any and every situation, but in 1975 Spielberg shook up American audiences by making one of our comfort zones unsafe. He created an elemental monster movie in the bright daylight of suburban America’s summer beach vacation.

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New Release: ‘War Horse’ – A Horse’s-Eye View of World War I

War Horse (Fox), Steven Spielberg’s World War I drama seen through the journey of a horse conscripted for labor on the front lines, features some of the most powerful and beautiful moments seen on the screen in 2011.

It also features some of the most maudlin and unsubtle scenes of year, which is such a disappointment coming from a director I still consider one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last few decades.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s book (which also spawned a successful stage production), and adapted for the screen by British writers Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), it melds the boy-and-his-horse drama (with Jeremy Irvine as the country lad who loves his horse) with a panoramic view of the horrors of warfare in the first modern war from both sides of the trench.

In some moments along the journey, the harmony of Spielberg’s storytelling (from the delicacy of his imagery to his palpable empathy for the characters onscreen) is so moving and expressive that the rest of the film (even the rest of the world) melts away for that duration. In others, the film stumbles over hamfisted melodrama and insistent, overworked imagery.

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“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” debuts on Blu-ray

Spielberg meets Kubrick

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Paramount)

Steven Spielberg meets Stanley Kubrick in this dark, visionary fairy tale, something like a cyber-punk “Pinocchio” with a robot boy who wants to be human despite the cruelty and hate he finds on his odyssey. It makes for a fascinating melding of sensibilities: the cold pessimism of Kubrick’s view of humanity’s self destruction warmed by Spielberg’s passionate belief in the power of love and faith in the human soul.

Haley Joel Osmet, so preternaturally removed from himself in “The Sixth Sense,” is the robot boy David, and he proves his abilities in a performance so controlled and so genuine that it’s been unfairly overlooked by many critics. Jude Law is the “love robot” Gigolo Joe, gliding on confidence and charm as he dances and traipses through the movie with a song in his neck. He’s a clockwork recreation of a Hollywood Lothario without a scheming circuit in his body: sex and innocence with a seductive sheen. Spielberg’s craft is impeccable and the challenge of meeting Kubrick’s story with his own sensibility (Spielberg wrote the script from Kubrick’s treatment and notes) has pushed him into new, somewhat scary territory: more cerebral, less hopeful, yet just as passionate. If the film seems to fall short of his ambition, perhaps it’s because he’s never set himself such an ambitious goal.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

Saving Private Ryan on TCM

I profile the origins and making of Saving Private Ryan for the film’s showing on TCM this month.

Tom Hanks and his men
Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Edward Burns

After years of revisiting the national shame of Vietnam in the war films of the seventies and eighties, Steven Spielberg steered Hollywood back to the pride and accomplishment of “the greatest generation” with Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was the first major World War II film in decades and the timing was right. The 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994 brought the cultural conversation back to the sacrifice of American soldiers. The World War II histories by Stephen Ambrose (notably Band of Brothers and D-Day) were major non-fiction best-sellers. In addition, Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation was released in 1998, the same year as Saving Private Ryan, signaling that America was once again ready to eulogize the good war.

“I’ve had an obsession with World War II,” confessed Spielberg in an interview conducted during the production of the film. His father fought in the Burma campaign in World War II as a radio man in a fighter plane. As a young teen, Spielberg and his friends created World War II adventures on super 8 film. He’d previously touched on the war in such films as 1941 (a homefront comedy, 1979), Empire of the Sun (a child’s-eye view of survival in an internment camp, 1987) and his acclaimed Holocaust drama Schindler’s List [1993], but Saving Private Ryan was his first classical war film, a platoon drama about the experience of American soldiers in combat.

Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies in Friday, June 5.

Moments of Spielberg: Defining Scenes of a Filmmaker

A few years ago I wrote a celebration of Steven Spielberg for MSN. This year, Spielberg is the recipient of the Golden Globes’s Cecil B. DeMille Award and the piece has been revived to celebrate his accomplishment. Here are a few choice “Moments of Spielberg” from the feature.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind"
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind"

Jaws” (1975)

The Moment: Robert Shaw mesmerizes fellow shark hunters Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss — and the audience — with his chilling story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII.

Why it’s great: As the tension mounts and every shot of the ocean reminds us that a primal killer awaits under the gentle surface, Spielberg gives the audience a reprieve and then takes it away with something as simple as a campfire tale from a grizzled Captain Ahab.

Why it has lasted: Without a single special effect, Spielberg holds the audience rapt with the horror of the bloodiest shark attack ever recorded, and then punctuates the scene with an ominous, almost taunting thump against the boat. The shark has come for the trio.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

The Moment: A darkened family home is invaded by intense blasts of light: the aliens have come for the boy.

Why it’s great: The child (Cary Guffrey) giggles in delight, running to the light with a naïve, innocent trust, while his mother (Melinda Dillon) sees only a threat in the searing violation of her house.

Why it has lasted: While “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is ultimately a benevolent vision of hope, the scene is a troubling mix of innocent wonder and the adult horror of a parent’s worst nightmare come to life with an almost supernatural force. Spielberg plays on the mystery of the unseen invaders with a brilliant ambiguity. We have to wait for the climax to bridge the communication gap and discover their real intentions.

I go on to spotlight iconic and defining scenes, some lasting a few seconds, some going on for minutes, in the films Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.

Read the entire piece here.