Last week, we featured a list of new home video releases that only included one Rotten film, which was pretty remarkable. This week, we have another unique situation in that all of the featured releases, except for one, are brand new (i.e. they all came out in 2009). Unfortunately, while a couple of them received high marks, there are a few niche movies that failed to garner very high Tomatometers. That said, if horror-comedy is a favorite genre of yours, you’ll find a couple items of interest, and if you’re looking to check out a few movies that never made it to your city, well, we’ve got a few highly regarded smaller flicks on tap as well. Check out the full list below.
Director Steven Soderbergh has been busy over the past decade, though not all of his films have gotten the exposure that his work in the Ocean’s series has. Last year, his biggest release was The Informant!, a satirical tongue-in-cheek retelling of the story of corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon). As an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, an influential agribusiness corporation, Whitacre comes to the FBI with information on an internal price-fixing conspiracy, and in the process of essentially spying on his company, it’s revealed that the lies don’t stop with the corporate bigwigs. Critics felt that Damon was strong as the titular character and that the film held its ironic tone effectively enough to award it Certified Fresh status at 77%. If you missed it in theaters, you can pick it up on DVD or Blu-Ray this week.
Richard Kelly’s first film, Donnie Darko, which he made when he was just 26 years old, is something of a cult classic, and it established him as a director to watch. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent three films he went on to direct have been very well received, including last year’s The Box, which only netted a 44% on the Tomatometer. Starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a young couple presented with an unusual, potentially evil, and certainly profitable choice, The Box takes a familiar moral riddle — would you push a button to earn a million dollars, even if doing so meant one random person would be killed? — and expands it into a giant conspiracy. Critics felt that while the film was imaginative and had a few genuine thrills, it was often too preposterous and fragmented to deliver on its premise. Still, if you’re in the mood for a thriller with lots of twists and turns, pick this one up.
Michael Sheen has been around since the early 90s, but only recently has he been receiving the attention he rightly deserves, with roles in films like The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Aside from reprising his role as Lucian in last year’s Underworld sequel, Sheen also starred in a small British biopic about Brian Clough, former manager of the Leeds United football (that is, soccer in “American”) team. Based on a bestselling novel, The Damned United paired Sheen with screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also penned The Queen and Frost/Nixon, for the fourth time, and as the critics noted, it’s apparent that Morgan and Sheen make a formidable combination. Certified Fresh at a whopping 94%, The Damned United is one of those indie gems that more people should have had the chance to see, but since that wasn’t the case, now’s your opportunity.
Robert De Niro has successfully made the transition from drama to comedy with films like the Meet the Parents franchise. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made many films lately that have gotten the high praise his earlier work used to receive, and such is the case with his latest, Everybody’s Fine. It’s a shame, too, considering the pedigree of those involved: Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell in supporting roles, with direction from Kirk Jones, whose two previous efforts (Nanny McPhee and Waking Ned Devine) are both Certified Fresh. A remake of the 1990 Italian film of the same name, Everybody’s Fine tells the story of an aging man who travels around the country at Christmastime to visit his children, who have all canceled their holiday plans with him, only to discover that there are deeper issues to be dealt with. Though critics largely thought De Niro’s charismatic performance was impressive, they felt the movie as a whole carried too many of the typical conventions found in Christmas dramedies. It might be a bit early in the year (or late, perhaps?) for a holiday flick, but if somewhat light family drama is what floats your boat, then you can check this one out.
As has been the case for many of the past several weeks, the best-reviewed films are not the big wide releases but the smaller, independent movies. The September Issue, a documentary chronicling the publication of 2007’s September issue of Vogue magazine, the largest ever, is one of those smaller movies. The film follows the behind-the-scenes goings on of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour (widely regarded as the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada), and her working relationship with the magazine’s creative director, Grace Coddington. Critics found the doc eye-opening, fascinating, and highly watchable, earning it a Certified Fresh 84% on the Tomatometer. Even if high fashion isn’t your bag, word on the street is that this is still a rare and entertaining glimpse at the industry with larger-than-life personalities. It’s available on DVD this week.
Horror-comedy is one genre that’s more difficult to get right than one might assume; not everyone can be Sam Raimi. While last year’s Zombieland stood out as an example of how to make it work, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant probably could have used a rewrite or two to make it more effective, at least according to the critics. Briefly, the story is about a teen (Chris Massoglia) who inadvertently becomes entwined in an age-old feud between two factions of vampires, which he must learn to navigate with the help of his bloodsucking mentor (John C. Reilly). Despite the presence of some big names (Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek), most felt that the film was inconsistent in tone and that its characters suffered from poor writing. Interestingly enough, while the film was only rated a 37% by the critics, the Community Tomatometer sits at a Fresh 64%, so who knows? You may just end up liking this little flick.
With so many genuinely frightening things in the world today, it continues to baffle us why horror filmmakers continue to turn to scarefests of the past for ideas (oh, we know: the answer is always in the money). Sorority Row is a loose remake of 1983’s low-budget cult classic The House on Sorority Row, with a similar story at its core. When a sorority girl discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her, she plots with five of her Theta Pi sisters to play a prank on him by pretending to die during a make-out session. The boyfriend falls for the trick, but during the elaborate scheme, he ends up actually killing his girlfriend, and after everyone involved promises never to mention the incident to anyone, each of the sorority sisters begins disappearing one by one. Unfortunately for all involved, though critics felt the movie looked good, it failed in its attempts at both humor and thrills, earning it no higher than a 22% on the Tomatometer. But if you’re into movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, then this should be right up your alley.
Another very small film that received a lot of praise last year was a stop-motion animated feature called $9.99. A debut feature from animator Tatia Rosenthal, $9.99 is based on the short stories of Israeli author Etgar Keret and features the voices of Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, and Samuel Johnson, among others. The story centers around Dave Peck (Johnson), a listless 28-year-old living with his parents, who discovers a life-changing booklet of wisdom and seeks to share it with the others in his neighborhood, setting off a series of surreal, interconnected stories about hope. Certified Fresh at 78%, the movie was widely enjoyed by critics, who praised the striking visuals and sophisticated charm of the film. This is another one that never made it to many cities outside the major markets, so it’s something worth checking out if you enjoy Fantastic Mr. Fox or animation in general.
It would seem that one way to put a new spin on the zombie movie genre would be to find an interesting group of people to turn into said zombies. Enter Dead Snow, a campy Norwegian horror flick that does just that by introducing zombie Nazis. Yeah, you read that right: zombie Nazis. With plenty of gore and self-aware dialogue, Dead Snow recounts the story of five friends who head off for a ski vacation, only to be threatened by a band of recently reanimated WWII-era German soldiers. What more do you need to know? Unlike the other horror-comedy on this week’s list, Dead Snow actually earned a Fresh 66% Tomatometer, ensuring that, while the movie doesn’t cover any new ground, it still carries enough laughs, scares, and blood to satisfy those already familiar with the genre. Could be a fun weekend movie, if you choose to check it out.
With the remake of The Crazies opening in theaters this week, we thought this was an appropriate choice to highlight among the new releases on home video. Back in 1973, about halfway between the time he made Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, George Romero dropped this underrated low-budget gem on us. The film chronicles the struggles of one couple who attempt to escape Pennsylvania after a biotoxin has found its way into the water supply and the government has quarantined the state. Not quite a zombie movie, but similar in theme and tone, The Crazies was more a social commentary on the nature of big government and the general population’s distrust of it, particularly during those tense political times (Vietnam, Watergate). Whether or not the new version improves upon its predecessor remains to be seen, but in the meantime, you can prep for the update by watching the original this week on DVD or Blu-Ray.