First things first: I was in Austin last week for the SXSW film festival and was unable to put together a column in advance of my trip. But there were so many great Blu-rays released that it didn’t feel right to completely ignore them, so be sure to check out “The Descendants,” “Young Adult,” and if you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg, “The Adventures of Tintin” if you haven’t already. With that said, however, this week’s offerings are even better, including several Oscar nominees and one of the coolest cult films ever made.
If you’ve never seen Kinji Fukasaku’s Japanese cult hit “Battle Royale,” then it’s something you should remedy as soon as possible, preferably before heading to theaters this weekend to check out “The Hunger Games.” Originally deemed too controversial to be released in the U.S. (partially due to the Columbine killings that occurred the same year), the movie is finally getting an official Blu-ray release through Anchor Bay in a blatant attempt at cashing in on the “Hunger Games” media frenzy. And why not? Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy may not be a total rip-off, but there are still a number of similarities that can’t be ignored. Though the books aren’t nearly as brutal in their depiction of violence as it is in Fukasaku’s movie, that’s what makes “Battle Royale” so effective. It’s more twisted, more exploitative and much bloodier, but it’s also a great commentary on how desensitized society has become to violence. Plus, it features one of the most entertaining Beat Takishi roles of his career, and that alone makes it worth watching.
Blu-ray Highlight: Although all of the extras are incredibly dated (ported over from the numerous DVD editions), they’re still worth flipping through if you haven’t seen them before. The real highlight, though, is the four-disc box set itself, which includes two versions of “Battle Royale” (the theatrical cut and a director’s cut with additional scenes that were filmed after the movie’s initial release), a copy of the subpar sequel, and an entire disc of bonus material (albeit on DVD). Additionally, it comes housed in some killer packaging that resembles a hardcover book. In other words, it was worth the wait.
It’s hard to believe that it took this long for Kermit the Frog and Co. to make their return to the big screen, because although the Muppets property had been clearly suffering creatively by the time “Muppets from Space” was released, all it needed was someone from the outside to remind everyone why they fell in love with these characters in the first place. Kudos to Disney, then, for having the prudence to hire Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller to write a movie that would introduce The Muppets to a whole other generation of fans while still preserving what makes them so timeless. The movie has just about everything you could want, including jokes that appeal to both kids and adults, some fantastic original music (courtesy of Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie), and a brand new Muppet that fits right in with the rest of the colorful cast. The human cast isn’t too shabby either, but it’s called “The Muppets” for a reason: they’re the real stars, and let’s hope no one forgets it this time around.
Blu-ray Highlight: There are a number of great extras to choose from (including one of the funnier blooper reels and a cool feature called Disney Intermission where the Muppets perform short gags and tease other bonus material whenever you pause the movie), but the commentary with director James Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller is too much fun to ignore. Though they stray off topic a little too often, it’s a thoroughly entertaining commentary track that adult Muppet fans will really enjoy.
If I hadn’t already experienced two other renditions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel and the original Swedish film) before seeing David Fincher’s U.S. adaptation, there’s a good chance it would have had more of a lasting effect on me. With that said, however, Fincher’s version is easily the best of the trio, smartly trimming the fat from Larsson’s overly detailed novel and making great use of his wintry locale to create a sense of dread and atmosphere. Though Daniel Craig isn’t quite as miscast as I originally feared, he doesn’t really do anything to stand out either. Then again, it’s probably for the best, because despite Noomi Rapace’s fantastic performance as cyberpunk hacker Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation, Rooney Mara outshines her in nearly every way, committing to the role so completely that you forget she’s acting at times. It’s far from Fincher’s finest work, but without him at the helm, it wouldn’t have been as good either.
Blu-ray Highlight: A review copy didn’t arrive in time, but David Fincher’s movies rarely disappoint when it comes to bonus material. Among the extras provided is an audio commentary with the director, featurettes on the film’s main characters and location shooting, and a behind-the-scenes look at the post-production process, including the making of that awesome opening title sequence that became such a big talking point.
Any time you bring together a group of actors like the ones featured in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” you can expect something really special. Comprised of some of the best British screen veterans and rising stars in the industry, the cast is so fantastic (no one more so than star Gary Oldman, who received his first Oscar nomination for playing iconic spy George Smiley) that they’d be entertaining to watch even if they just stood around and talked for two hours; which, as it happens, is basically “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in a nutshell. Though the movie is admittedly a bit difficult to follow early on, it’s not because the story is particularly complex, but rather because it crams so much information into such a short period of time. Those who’ve seen the TV miniseries based on John le Carré’s novel will probably tell you that it makes for a stronger adaptation, but the movie version is still a smart and well-acted throwback to classic 1970s spy thrillers that grows on you with repeat viewings.
Blu-ray Highlight: Regrettably, there’s nothing here that demands your attention (the audio commentary by director Tomas Alfredson and star Gary Oldman is particularly disappointing), but Universal has included a series of junket-style interviews with the cast and crew that, although not great by any means, may be of interest to some fans.
Roman Polanski’s big screen adaptation of the stage play “God of Carnage” is one of the funniest movies that I saw last year, and yet it was completely ignored by every major award show except the Golden Globes. The story certainly has its share of problems – namely due to the ridiculous lengths that it goes to in order to keep its four characters in the same location – but the actors are so great that you’re willing to forgive some of its shortcomings. Polanski does a good job of making the film as cinematic as possible, but it’s clear from the start that this was tailor-made for the stage. As a result, the performances become that much more important, and though Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet are certainly deserving of the critical praise they received, it’s their male co-stars, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz, that make “Carnage” such a darkly comical delight.
Blu-ray Highlight: “Actors’ Notes” is a nice collection of interviews with the cast on a variety of topics, including the story’s key themes and working with Roman Polanski. It’s just a shame that the Q&A with John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz is such a disaster, because it’s the one extra that a lot of fans were probably looking forward to the most.