Please note: films released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray or Blu-ray only releases are italicized and in bold font.
Most moviegoers took a pass on Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo (Fox) during its theatrical release in late 2011, which is unfortunate, as the film, about a widower (Matt Damon) who purchases a zoo in the wake of his wife’s death, is a likable comedy anchored by solid performances by its leads, which include Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church. It’s not at the high-water mark of Almost Famous, but certainly no Elizabethtown, either, and there’s a typically fine, far-reaching soundtrack featuring sigur ros, Wilco, Bon Iver, Neil Young and others. Extras include deleted scenes, making-of featurettes and commentary by Crowe and co-star J.B. Smoove.
A film festival favorite in 2011, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (New Video Group) is a fascinating documentary about Kevin Clash, the African-American puppeteer who voices and operates the cultural phenomenon known as Sesame Street‘s Elmo. Present-day footage of Clash at work is mixed with archival clips of his early work with puppets as a teenager in Baltimore to trace his rise to a sort of stardom through the sponsorship of Muppet legend Jim Henson, among others. For those whose lives often orbit around Elmo viewings (namely, toddler parents like myself), it provides a rare glimpse behind the stage door into the Sesame Street universe, as well as a profile of the oversized but quiet man behind what is arguably its most popular character. Be forewarned, though, that the narration by Whoopi Goldberg strikes a “magical” tone that is thankfully missing from Clash’s talents.
Too lightweight for your tastes? You can take the Tyrannosaur (Strand) route and follow actor Paddy Considine’s challenging story of a relationship between violence-prone, rage-filled Peter Mullen and Oliva Colman, a charity-shop employee emotionally hobbled by her abusive husband (Eddie Marsan). It’s not a pretty film – a scene with Mullen and his dog will send some viewers out of the room – but its story of redemption and common ground between two figures worn by time and emotion is ultimately rewarding and moving.
An equally tough if decidedly less effective picture is Angels Crest (Magnolia), which is elevated beyond its low-wattage treatment of a negligent small town father’s (Thomas Dekker) redemption by solid supporting turns by Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Piven, Kate Walsh and Elizabeth McGovern. However, there’s a pleasant palate changer in The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook (Hip-O), a CD/DVD package documenting Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ two-night stand at the Wiltern, featuring the roulette-esque Spinning Songbook, which allowed audience members to pick the songs in the evening’s set. The sound lacks some fidelity, but Costello and the band are full of puckish energy, whether playing catalog staples like “Clubland” or “Watching the Detectives” or go-go dancing with the Bangles.
For Los Angeles viewers, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (Paramount) is more than one of the best films of the 1970s, as well as a terrific homage to Hollywood noir. Its story of a detective (Jack Nicholson) investigating an adultery case that intersects with dark dealings at the L.A. Department of Power and Water is based on the California Water Wars of the 1920s, which saw William Mulholland drain away the livelihood of Owens Valley farmers (and later, Mono Lake) to provide water to the city via the Aqueduct. You don’t have to be familiar with the story to enjoy the Oscar-winning film, which features Faye Dunaway, John Huston as the monstrous Noah Cross, and a script by Robert Towne that has been studied in screenwriting classes for decades. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Towne, who’s joined by David (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Fincher, as well as features on the Water Wars case and the film’s production.
Elsewhere, there’s the 1941 film version of The Corsican Brothers (Hen’s Tooth), which is driven largely by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s vigorous turn as Alexandre Dumas’ famous story of twins separated at birth who fall for the same woman (this is also where the “twins share the same feelings” trope came from); look very closely and you might see that Fairbanks’ double is none other than Peter Cushing. Or you can take a complete 360-degree turn with Snow White and the Three Stooges/Soup to Nuts (Fox); the former is a baffling 1961 comedy teaming the aged trio (abetted at that time by Curly Joe De Rita) with Olympic skater Carol Heisse (!), while the latter is a pre-Columbia stardom short with Moe (billed as Harry Howard) playing second fiddle to brother Shemp and Larry, all of whom work for Ted Healy, whom Stooge-philes know was the act’s original “leader.” Both have their oddball merits: Snow White features voice work by Mel Blanc and the great Paul Frees, while Rube Goldberg (as in Goldberg-ian device) wrote and appears briefly in Soup.
The Grindhouse is closed this week for screen and seat renovation, and to finally clean out those bathrooms.
Torchwood: May Day (BBC Warner) marks a bit of a misstep for the British science fiction show, which reached a high water mark with 2009’s Children of Earth; this 10-episode adventure, which brings time-traveling Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) to the States in search of an answer to a worldwide outbreak of immortality. The increased production and effects budget (which also paid for guest turns by Hollywood actors like Bill Pullman, Lauren Ambrose and Mekhi Phifer) for the joint US-UK production has the expected dampening effect, muting the show’s key selling points – dialogue and performance – beneath so much unnecessary spectacle. Torchwood completists will undoubtedly want the Blu-ray for its commentary tracks and Web of Lies motion comic.
Somewhat easier on the eyes is Eagleheart: Season One (Cartoon Network), a often amusing parody of TV action (especially Walker: Texas Ranger) that benefits greatly from Chris Elliott’s presence as a hapless but indestructible U.S. Marshal. Cartoon Network also offers The Regular Show: Slack Pack, a collection of episodes from the offbeat meta-cartoon about a group of work-adverse creatures at a city park. The single-disc collection works best as an introduction to the show, as the 15 episodes presented here appear to have been randomly selected, rather than in broadcast order.