Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray combos and/or Blu-ray only releases are listed in both italics and bold font.
Well, there’s Safe House, which provided at least a week of laughs for my wife and I via an exchange of dialogue in the trailer (Ryan Reynolds: “You’re not going to get into my head!” Denzel Washington: “I’M ALREADY IN YOUR HEAD!”) or Act of Valor. Or maybe you can give John Carter a shot, as so many critics who rushed to add their pull quote to its dogpile of critical brickbats are now doing. Or, perhaps you could devote some of your hard-fought free time to one of the following:
Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death of Patty Schemel (Well Go USA), which depicts the rise, fall and redemption of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, tries hard to keep all of its subjects in focus, but its scope is so broad that on occasion, one or more of its players fades into the background. Unfortunately, that tends to be Schemel herself, who is often overshadowed by the presence of Courteney Love and Kurt Cobain in archival footage shot by Schemel herself. As a document of a life in the grip of fame and misfortune, Hit So Hard benefits from its subject’s friendship with its director, P. David Ebersol, who brings palpable warmth to the conversations with Schemel. Where the picture struggles is its attempt to connect Schemel’s experience with the larger picture of the ’90s alternative music scene and how other female musicians, including her band mate Melissa Auf der Mar, Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt) and Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson), rode out their own respective trials and tribulations. All three topics are worth their own feature-length documentary, but covering each within a single picture blunts the impact of their stories. Still, there is much to be gained from Schemel herself when she is front and center, and for her, the picture is worth a look.
One does not expect to be uplifted by a story about a child with a dreadful illness, but Valerie Donzelli’s Lust for Life (Sundance) manages to achieve that minor miracle while also refusing to shy away from the genuine terror and sadness experienced by parents of such children. The initial sugary aftertaste of the picture’s set-up – Juliette (Donzelli) and Romeo (co-writer Jeremie Elkaim) meet cute and have a child – grows grave with the revelation that their son is suffering from a brain tumor. Donzelli details the tides of emotion that sweep over the couple with each diagnosis and decision with choices that at first, seem shocking – Juliette and Romeo react with absurd, childish joy at the good news, and crash miserably at bad turns – which actually hew a lot closer to real life than the stoicism and heavy-handed pathos seen in most Hollywood efforts on this subject. Part of the reason for this verite feel is undoubtedly due to the fact that Donzelli and Elkaim went through a similar experience with their own child in real life. What results is a far messier but more honest depiction of an unlikely family in crisis, and how they contended with it in their own way. As such, it may not deliver the catharsis of more polished fare, but the emotions felt along the way ring with genuine experience.
Lastly, there is the amusing if one-sided Monsters from the Id (Passion River), an amusing if lightweight look at the popular image of science and scientists as seen through the prism of the movies. Using a wealth of clips from ’50s-era science fiction, director Dave Gargani traces the evolution of Screen Science from mankind’s savior in the wake of World War II to the more sinister depiction of the mad doctor conjuring up radioactive horrors during the dawn of the atomic age. The production’s breezy tone makes the barrage of clips watchable, but Gargani’s central idea – that America needs more brave men of science to improve its fortunes – is a little shaky, and doesn’t take into account the real problems caused by scientific tinkering (faulty drugs, ecological devastation) that ran concurrent to its successes. Still, Gargani’s enthusiasm, filtered through the charming naivete of the clips, as well as narration by scientist Homer Hickam (whose life was detailed in October Sky), does much to sell his patriotic point.
To celebrate its centennial anniversary, Universal is releasing a staggering number of its back library of titles on Blu-ray, many of which street this week. It’s a pretty broad selection, ranging from The Sting and Spartacus to Smokey and the Bandit and Animal House. Most have extras ported over from their last DVD releases, as well as three new self-promotional featurettes concerning the studio’s past glories. These releases aren’t part of their major Blu-ray restoration campaign, which offers new, remastered versions of some of their greatest titles, like Jaws and To Kill a Mockingbird. I guess you can call it a sort of clearing-house sale, so shop accordingly.
More substantive is the Blu-ray for Yellow Submarine (EMI), which served as an introduction to the Beatles, Op (and Pop) Art and recreational psychedelics for a generation of children via Sunday afternoon TV screenings. The Blu-ray has been digitally restored by hand, frame by frame, as well as a photochemical process that preserves the bold color scheme of the designer Heinz Edelmann’s barrage of animation styles. Edelmann is also featured, along with production supervisor John Coates, on a commentary track that details their labors on the picture, while extras include storyboards for three sequences, including a concluding sequence that differs dramatically from the finished film. Interviews with the actors who voiced John and Ringo (and the Chief Blue Meanie!) and co-writer Erich Segal (who later penned Love Story) also buffet this deluxe release.
Elsewhere, there’s the 1963 version of Thirteen Assassins (Animego), which was recently remade to little or no fanfare by Takashi Miike; the original is an effective, often dark drama that begins as a political scandal involving the cover-up of a rape and murder by a shogun’s vicious brother, and ends as a action pic with the title group sent to dispatch said cad. Meanwhile, VCI has Blu-rays of Flame Over India, a fast-paced if hopelessly dated 1959 actioner shot on location in India with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall among a group of colonists fleeing a fort city by train while pursued by hordes of wild-eyed Hollywood interpretations of Muslim rebels; and Rome Express (1932), a British-made railway intrigue with a swell cast led by Conrad Veidt and Cedric Hardwicke.
Only modest returns this week, including The Collapsed (Anchor Bay) an ambitious end-of-the-world thriller hamstrung by a poverty-struck budget and a left-field twist that is not as clever as its filmmakers believe it to be, and Rogue River (Lionsgate) a standard-issue backwoods creepshow with all the unsavory trimmings, enlivened only by the presence of Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), whose bug-eyed lunacy is obvious to all save the hapless heroine. On the retro front is The Awakening (Warner Archives), a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s thoroughly addled The Jewel of Seven Stars, with Charlton Heston imbuing this polished but sluggish mummy picture with his signature uber-gravitas while his daughter (Stephanie Zimbalist) becomes the reincarnation of a long-dead Egyptian queen. An old-fashioned chiller with sheepish nods towards the rising tide of gory horror, it’s perhaps best enjoyed for its pedigree, which includes Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) in his feature directorial debut and legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus) behind the camera. Oh, and yes, that’s Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in the supporting cast.
There isn’t a lot I can add to the chorus of praise for Breaking Bad‘s fourth season; if you saw it, you know how terrific it was, and if you haven’t… well, you have a few more weeks to catch up until the fifth season kicks off on July 15. Of the season’s many highlights, none may be worth the hyperbole more than Giancarlo Esposito as the icy meth lab chieftain Gus, who remains one of television’s most unsettling but watchable villains. In doing so, I’d hate to ignore the uneasy partnership between Aaron Paul’s increasingly unstable Jesse and Gus’s enforcer, Mike (played by the great Jonathan Banks), or the return of Bob Odenkirk as lawyer Saul Goodman. All are top-notch, and the show itself continues to top its previous achievements with each successive season. Like I said: July 15. You should probably stop reading this now.