Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while those in Blu-ray/DVD or Blu-ray only format are listed in both italics and bold font.
Liam Neeson’s unlikely but highly successful transformation from earnest arthouse performer to action star continues with The Grey (Open Road), an entirely effective outdoors thriller with Neeson as a world-weary sharpshooter stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a pack of hungry and highly organized wolves on his trail. Director Joe Carnahan (The A Team, Smokin’ Aces) wisely avoids the big-budget histrionics and big-bang set pieces in favor of slow mounting tension and developed characters (though that plane crash is a jaw-dropping special effect); the end result is an thoughtful balance of violent action and old-fashioned (but not overdone) man-vs-nature drama, driven largely by Neeson’s exceptional gravitas in a part that might’ve been played by William Holden or Joel McCrea half a century ago. Extras include commentary by Carnahan and his editors and deleted scenes.
The very clever Chronicle (Fox), about a trio of teens who develop amazing powers after being exposed to a strange, possibly extraterrestrial object, suffers from just two things: the “found footage” format, which has truly run its course as a stylistic choice, and an uninspired third act which abandons its thoughtful examination of how young lives can be affected by sudden and dramatic change for a standard-issue CGI battle in the skies above Seattle. I suppose that moviegoers also didn’t care for a “superhero” picture (however nominal its association to that moniker may be) that didn’t unfold in mythic terms, but rather in very ordinary, human ways. So it goes; a second chance to enjoy the film’s stronger moments comes with the Blu-ray/DVD combo, which includes director Max (son of John) Landis’ unrated cut.
Most moviegoers also gave a pass to Rampart (Millennium), an exceptionally dark cop drama starring Woody Harrelson as a time bomb in LAPD black caught at the center of a brutality scandal. I assume that the ugliness of Harrelson’s Dave “Date Rape” Brown, who infects every person and thing around him with his sociopathy, probably viewers hoping for another charismatic turn from the actor somewhat cold. The picture, is not for everyone, despite a terrific cast that includes Robin Wright Penn, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi and Ice Cube and a script co-written by director Oren Moverman (who helmed Harrelson’s great turn in The Messenger) and feverish noir legend James Ellroy, but those who prefer their crime on the darker side of the street will appreciate the intensity of Harrelson’s turn.
Equally intense, but on an entirely smaller, quieter scale, is Albert Nobbs (Lionsgate), featuring Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated turn in the title role, a 19th English butler whose polished but withdrawn exterior hides the fact that he is actually a woman who has adopted a male persona to escape a ghastly upbringing. Close’s exceptional performance as Nobbs, who finds herself unable to break free of her assumed identity after three decades, is well matched by fellow Oscar nominee Janet McTeer as a housepainter who shares his secret.
Not a lot of light at the Arthouse this week – you have your choice of melancholia with Norwegian Wood (New Video Group), Oscar-nominated director Tran Anh (The Scent of Green Papaya) Hung’s thumbnail sketch of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel about a young man weighed down by unrelenting depression cause by his friend’s suicide and a disastrous relationship with said friend’s mentally fragile girlfriend (set to the tune of Jonny Greenwood’s score), or the coal-black vacuum of Michael (Strand), an antiseptic account of a faceless pedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy in his basement. Both are challenging, imperfect efforts, showing sides of humanity that are not exactly cinematic (or pleasant), but both have their merit for viewers looking for something far outside the boundaries of the movie norm.
There also aren’t a lot of laughs in First Run Features’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a crushingly sad documentary about a much-vaunted public housing project in St. Louis meant to provide affordable housing to low-income families which ended in disaster, demolition and a black eye for the project’s planners and urban renewal in general. But director Chris Friedrich devotes as much of the film’s running time to detailing the miserable fate of Pruitt-Igoe to debunking the “myth” about the project, spun largely by the media and locals, that its failure was due to the (largely minority) people it housed, and not the nationwide dismantling of American cities by economic and political means during the 1960s and early ’70s. For those who note the gentrification efforts within our own fair city with a skeptical eye, Pruitt-Igoe is a cautionary tale about issues of class and wealth that play into every city restructuring effort.
First Run also offers Windfall, which documents the deleterious effect of wind turbines as an alternative energy source on the small New York town of Meredith, as well as the corporate forces behind this seemingly innocuous “green” energy source. On a somewhat lighter note is Man on a Mission (also First Run), an amusing doc about video game creator Richard Garriott’s eccentric vanity project-cum-quest to travel into space, and the frequently grueling opportunity afforded by the Russian cosmonaut program.
I’m in the minority about Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, which arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion this week. The comedy, with John Cusack as a hapless puppeteer who finds a pathway into actor John Malkovich’s brain through a hidden floor in an office building, feels like a great short expanded needlessly to feature length, and filled with grating characters who hew to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s leading conceit that the more unpleasant a person is, the more the audience will want to see them engage in that unpleasantry. Not me. Jonze is a clever director in short form, and Malkovich is very funny, but the movie goes nowhere for a long time. I know I’m among the few who feel this way about the picture, so fans will want to know that the Blu-ray features new commentary by Michel Gondry, conversations with Malkovich and John Hodgman and a documentary by Lance Bang.
You ask me, I’d rather spend time with The Odessa File (Image), Ronald Neame’s exciting 1973 thriller with Jon Voight as a German journalist on the trail of a Nazi camp commandant (Maximillian Schell) who may be part of a secret organization run by former SS officers with plans to attack Israel. I’d also be okay with either S.O.B. or Victor/Victoria, two of Blake Edwards’ best late career efforts, though I’m bewildered why these are coming out as MOD titles from Warner Archives and not directly from Warner Bros. itself – didn’t Victor/Victoria earn seven Oscar nominations? Regardless, S.O.B. is a ruthless show business satire with Richard Mulligan as a director who attempts to rescue his latest failure by turning into a softcore musical with a nude scene featuring his wife, a famously goody-two-shoes actress (played by Edwards’ own wife, the famously goody-two-shoes Julie Andrews), while Victor/Victoria stars Andrews as an out-of-work singer who poses as a female impersonator (yes, a woman posing as a man posing as a woman) to break into the Paris cabaret circuit. Both pictures are anchored by exceptional casts, including William Holden, Shelley Winters, Stuart Margolin and Sally Kellerman in S.O.B. and James Garner and Lesley-Anne Warren in Victor. Old pro Robert Preston also turns up in both films, and handily steals them both.
Finally, the anthology feature New York Stories (Mill Creek) offers three separate shorts by Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, but only one is really worth the effort: Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” in which he also stars as a lawyer plagued by his mother (Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop), who vanishes during a magic act, only to reappear in the skies above Manhattan, revealing his most embarrassing moments to the entire city. The picture is probably best enjoyed for spotting a cast of current stars in the early stage of their careers, including Kirsten Dunst, Larry David, Adrien Brody, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, and a promising young musician named Peter Gabriel, who plays himself.
Descendents (Lionsgate) is an ambitious and fairly successful attempt to inject an original idea into the zombie film. Made in Chile by director Jorge Olguin (Eternal Blood) for less than you might pay for a decent used car, it views the end of the world at the hands of the hungry undead from the perspective of a group of children, who have united on the strength of a shared dream of the ocean as salvation. The age of its protagonists, which face threats not only from zombies but from trigger-happy adults, ratchets up the tension considerably while making oblique references to Chile’s sordid history of youthful protesters murdered by the Pinochet regime during the 1970s. Not everything works in Descendents, and zombie fans who prefer their fare with heavy shoot-em-up action probably won’t care for it, but if you’re tired of the endless Dawn of the Dead/Walking Dead clones, the picture offers a welcome and stylish alternative.
The Walking Tall trilogy, which arrives on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory this week, always reminds me of Ian Holm, who as Napoleon in Time Bandits, expresses his fondness for entertainment based on “little things… hitting other little things.” In the case of Walking Tall, it’s big things hitting other things – specifically, beefy Joe Don Baker and granite-jawed Swede Bo Svenson (Inglourious Basterds) as real-life Southern sheriff Buford Pusser, who applied a literal understanding of the axiom “speak softly and carry a big stick” to his efforts to wipe out corruption in his small Tennessee town. The first Walking Tall (1973), with Baker as Pusser, has the grit and sweat of low-budget noir (of which director Phil Karlson was a specialist) in its depiction of Pusser’s doomed crusade against small town crooks. The sequels, Walking Tall Part 2 (1975) and Walking Tall: Final Chapter (1977) are lesser carbons enlivened only by Svenson’s towering presence. The real Pusser’s life and struggle are covered in a featurette included with the two-disc set.
Also on Blu-ray: a Spaghetti Western double feature from Mill Creek pairing The Grand Duel (1972), a watchable Lee Van Cleef actioner with a title theme borrowed by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol. 1, and the thoroughly bizarre Keoma (1976), with Franco Nero as a half-breed gunfighter who returns to his home town – a crumbling, smog-drenched, plague-ridden hellhole straight out of a Mario Bava film – to settle a score with his adoptive brothers, who have sided with an outlaw. Of the picture’s many offbeat touches, the score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis is perhaps the most unusual, an over-amped collection of electrified dirges featuring Nero as Keoma offering a gravely, spoke-sung commentary on the action. Even those dead-set against Westerns should expose themselves to this feature from Italian action specialist Enzo Castellari (the original Inglorious Bastards).
Otherwise, your Saturday night thing can be completed with one of two releases from budget label Alpha Video: Look in Any Window (1961), an astonishingly tawdry thriller-drama with Paul Anka (!) as a wigged-out teen who numbs his frustrations over his alcoholic, deadbeat parents by peeping in his neighbor’s windows! Alpha also has Hollywood After Dark (1968), a no-rent faux noir with Rue McClanahan (!!) as a burlesque dancer whose dreams of stardom are flushed down the Tinseltown toilet when she takes up with a junkyard dealer pressed into an armored car heist.
TV’s still in the shop. Check back next week.