This week, we encounter a familiar problem in the world of home video, namely a lack of quality choices. While there are a few standouts, to be sure, the majority of new releases are either television box sets or direct-to-dvd movies. However, we’ve done our best to weed out a few of the good choices this week, so have a look at what’s out, and let’s keep our fingers crossed for a better selection as more of the summer blockbusters slowly find their way to the home video market.
Dreamworks Animation had a surprise hit earlier this year with How to Train Your Dragon, which opened back in March during that sketchy period of time that comes after awards season and before the summer blockbuster season. You know, that time of the year when studios are pumping out the stuff they don’t necessarily think are going to be their biggest earners or their awards hopefuls. But every year, there are a handful of films that come out during this time that surprise everyone, and How to Train Your Dragon certainly did that and more. Boasting some gorgeous visuals and eye-popping 3D, Dragon features the voice work of Jay Baruchel (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, She’s Out of My League), Gerard Butler (300), and America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) among others in the story of a Viking boy named Hiccup (Baruchel) who befriends an injured dragon and ultimately proves the creature and its ilk are not the natural enemies the rest of the Vikings think they are. Dragon was the first major critical hit of the year, earning an astonishing Certified Fresh 98% Tomatometer score, over $200 million at the box office, and a shot at revisiting this success with a sequel. If you missed this fun little gem when it was in theaters, you can pick it up this week on DVD or Blu-Ray.
Comics and graphic novels are often visually striking, and the medium has afforded some writers and illustrators the opportunity to bring some of their most creative ideas to fruition, resulting in printed volumes that look rather like intricate storyboards. It certainly makes sense, then, that Hollywood would tap into this seemingly tailor-made-for-cinema material for some original content. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen too many times, a well-liked and well-made graphic novel does not always translate to a well-made film. One of the more recent glaring examples of this is Jonah Hex, the Josh Brolin-powered adaptation based on the DC Comics character of the same name that opened in June of this year. Brolin stars as the titular anti-hero, a badly scarred, gunslinging US Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who is brutally tortured and left for dead, only to be resurrected by Native Americans, a process that results in his ability to communicate with and raise the dead. When Jonah realizes the man who killed his family and assaulted him is still alive and up to no good, he sets out to exact his revenge. Unfortunately, despite the film’s notable cast, which includes not only Brolin but John Malkovich, Michael Fassbender, Michael Shannon, and Megan Fox as eye candy (naturally), critics felt that the film was completely unfocused, relying heavily on style over substance and failing to put together a coherent story to follow. At 13% on the Tomatometer, it’s not the absolute worst movie of the year, but it comes close. And if you’re curious exactly how the film went wrong, you’re free to discover for yourself when it comes out tomorrow.
Opening during the same weekend as the ill-fated Jonah Hex (and the not-so-ill-fated Toy Story 3) was this small Italian film about the downfall of an elite family in Milan. The drama centers on the relationships between various members of the Recchi family, beginning with a birthday dinner for the family’s patriarch, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti). Tilda Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the Russian wife of one of Edoardo Sr.’s sons, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who begins an affair with one of her son’s friends just as Edoardo Sr. is set to pass his family’s textile business on to him and his father Tancredi. Sound a bit melodramatic? Well, critics do say that I Am Love does get a little heavy in that department at times, but they also say that the tremendous visual style with which the film was made and Tilda Swinton’s central performance make this film wholly worth watching. It’s currently Certified Fresh at 81% on the Tomatometer, and if complex family dramas are your bag, then you’ll more than likely enjoy the story being told here. You can pick it up this week on home video.
The only film that Wes Anderson has directed that didn’t earn a Fresh Tomatometer rating was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, so he’s done alright for himself, from his 1996 cult classic debut Bottle Rocket to last year’s stop-motion animated winner Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Darjeeling Limited, according to the critics, is more of the same; it’s got plenty of Anderson’s trademark quirkiness, a handful of interesting peripheral characters, that unshakeable lingering sense of ennui, and, like many of his films, a journey full of soul-searching, so fans of his should find something to like here. The story revolves around three brothers (played by Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who together take a train trip through India one year after their father’s death. The eldest, Francis (Wilson), has planned the whole shebang in hopes of reconnecting with his estranged brothers, ultimately leading them to an abbey in India where their mother currently lives. Eventually, they find themselves stranded in the desert, and the trio are forced to face up to their differences. This week, The Criterion Collection releases a brand new director-approved edition of the film with a ton of special features, which include all the regular bonuses, as well as audition footage, a discussion on the music used in the film, on-set film footage, and more. For any fan of the film, or of Wes Anderson’s work in general, this could be a worthy pickup.
One of the best war movies of the 1990s, David O. Russell’s Three Kings is the rare film that manages to be both patriotic and profoundly ambivalent about US involvement in the Middle East. George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg star as soldiers who, in the last days of Operation Desert Storm, stumble across map that leads them to a gigantic stash of stolen gold. But they’re faced with a dilemma – do they plunder the riches or help a group of refugees? The new blu-ray edition comes with a bunch of documentary featurettes, two commentary tracks, and a wealth of deleted scenes.
If you’re a newbie to Ingmar Bergman’s monumental oeuvre, you should probably start with The Seventh Seal, Persona, or Wild Strawberries. However, with a filmography as rich as Bergman’s, it’s hard to go wrong with virtually any of his movies. Case in point: The Magician, a 1958 masterpiece starring several of the master’s regular players: Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Bibi Andersson. The Magician is the story of a the leader of a traveling performance troupe who arrives in a small town – only to find the citizens don’t believe in magic; like many of Bergman’s films, it’s philosophical and enigmatic, but casts quite a spell. A brand-new Criterion edition boasts a sparkling new digital transfer of the movie, along with rare interviews with the director.
Here is a bona fide old school classic, awkward title and all, that you should most definitely see if you’re any kind of fan of old fashioned kung fu combat. 1984’s 8 Diagram Pole Fighter stars a young Gordon Liu (probably now best known to audiences as the leader of the Crazy 88 in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I and as the brutally strict Pai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2) as Yang Wu-lang, one of seven sons well-schooled in the art of fighting with staffs and spears. When his father and five of his brothers are killed in an act of betrayal, Yang flees to the Shaolin temple, where he butts heads with the peace-loving monks. Eventually, one of his sisters is taken hostage and… Well, let’s be honest here. You came for the fighting, and there’s plenty of it in Pole Fighter. In fact, this might be some of the most stunning fight choreography with staffs ever filmed, and the movie is chock full of it. This week, Dragon Dynasty releases a new print of the Shaw Bros. classic, now unavailable elsewhere, and though there aren’t any special features to speak of, it makes up for it by simply being awesome. Cheesy soundstages made to look like expansive landscapese? Check. Tons of gratuitous fight scenes and bodies laid to waste? Check. Offbeat but charming dubbing (which you can turn off, even though that ruins half the fun)? Check. A fight with a fully posable wooden replica of a wolf? Check. Scores of teeth being graphically knocked and pulled out of bad guys? Check. This is an all-around good time if titles like 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms, and Legendary Weapons of China mean anything to you. If “8 Diagram Pole Fighter” rolled off the tongue a little more nicely, there’d be a Wu-Tang Clan member named after it.
Written by Ryan Fujitani and Tim Ryan