With the holidays just around the corner, many studios are making one final push to earn your Christmas dollars with the release of several new Blu-rays over the course of the next four days. Though I’m not really sure what the strategy is behind releasing some titles today and others on the 21st (especially since most people have already finished a lot of their holiday shopping), there are so many great movies to choose from that I’ve decided to expand this week’s column into a special supersized edition.
Most stand-up comics probably only dream about being involved in a movie as funny and refreshingly honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show of the same name (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), the film is a witty human comedy about the fear of commitment and finding one’s place in the world, and it’s hands-down one of my favorite movies of the year. Much like Birbiglia’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so incredibly personal (something that’s missing from most Hollywood productions), and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie via segments where he speaks directly to the audience a la Ferris Bueller. “Sleepwalk with Me” actually fared pretty well in theaters during its platform release this past fall, but if you didn’t get a chance to catch it then, be sure to add it to your must-see list for the new year, because the film is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you almost certainly will be afterwards.
Blu-ray Highlight: There are some good extras on the disc, but the audio commentary with star/co-writer/co-director Mike Birbiglia and producer/co-writer Ira Glass is the best of the bunch, with the duo discussing the making of the movie in detail, including some behind-the-scenes anecdotes and things they learned on set as first-time filmmakers.
William Friedkin hasn’t made a great film in a very long time, and while “Killer Joe” doesn’t exactly remedy that, it’s the best movie that he’s made in a while. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, the self-described “totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck trailer park murder story” is one of the most intense and polarizing moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Although the strange series of events that transpire during the course of the movie has already divided audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets pretty weird and perverse), it’s as oddly fascinating to watch unravel as it is repulsive. Every single performance is great – from Gina Gerson’s devious stepmom, to Emile Hirsch’s pathetic bottom-feeder, to Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father, to Juno Temple’s trailer park princess – but it’s star Matthew McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor finally showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.
Blu-ray Highlight: The making-of featurette “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” is definitely worth checking out for the interviews with the various cast and crew, but it’s director William Friedkin’s audio commentary that is the real highlight. Friedkin is one of those filmmakers that’s just a lot of fun to listen to speak, and his commentary track for “Killer Joe” is an excellent discussion about making the movie and, in talking about the infamous NC-17 rating, the politics of the business as well.
It was only inevitable that “Pitch Perfect” would draw some comparisons to “Glee,” but while the show’s success certainly helped pave the way for making organized singing groups cool again, that would be like comparing Adele to Katy Perry. The film actually feels more like the a cappella cousin of the “Step Up” movies, and although that may not inspire a whole lot of confidence, it’s a really charming comedy filled with great performances (both acting and musical) that’s only slightly hindered by its conventional formula. In fact, one of movie’s biggest draws is the musical performances, and while there’s no denying that they’re fun to watch, “Pitch Perfect” would be just as shallow as the “Step Up” series without such a great cast, including the always reliable Anna Kendrick and Australian up-and-comer Rebel Wilson in a breakout role. Written by Kay Cannon, whose experience as a writer for “30 Rock” tells you all you need to know about the movie’s offbeat sense of humor, “Pitch Perfect” is the kind of film that many people would normally overlook based on its premise, but that would be a mistake.
Blu-ray Highlight: Though Universal hasn’t exactly skimped on bonus material – which includes a pair of audio commentaries, alternate takes and deleted scenes – there’s nothing here that really stands out. At least there’s always the movie to watch again.
Hollywood has released some pretty pointless remakes over the years, but some films are actually worth remaking if there’s room for improvement, and although Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi cult classic “Total Recall” has its share of admirers, the movie isn’t exactly bulletproof. With that said, however, Len Wiseman’s slicker, darker update isn’t any better. Though the film shares quite a bit in common with Verhoeven’s original movie, following many of the same story beats until its drastically different third act, it feels bland by comparison. Colin Farrell makes for a more believable Everyman than Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he lacks the charisma that the iconic action hero brought to the role, while Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston don’t fare much better. Kate Beckinsale’s Lori is the only character who feels like an improvement, and that’s mostly due to the economical decision to combine the Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside roles into one villain. Wiseman does his best to freshen things up, but you can never quite shake that feeling of déjà vu while watching the film, and that only begs the question, why bother remaking it at all?
Blu-ray Highlight: A review copy didn’t arrive in time, but a quick look at the disc’s extras is promising, including a director commentary and a full-length behind-the-scenes feature called Insight Mode that sounds a lot like Warner Bros.’ Maximum Movie Mode.
You’d be hard pressed to find anything more quintessentially American than baseball and Clint Eastwood, so it’s a little surprising that it took this long for someone to think of combining the two. Though “Trouble with the Curve” isn’t exactly the kind of project that you’d expect would lure Eastwood out of semi-retirement from acting, the fact that the movie is directed by longtime producer Robert Lorenz clearly played a big part in his decision. Eastwood’s involvement was a real coup for the first-time helmer, because if it weren’t for the film’s excellent cast, “Trouble with the Curve” would have been pretty forgettable. It’s hard to imagine the movie being any good with other actors in the roles, because although it runs a bit long for such a simple story, and Lorenz lays on the drama pretty thick at times, the cast (which also includes Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman) adds just enough class to save the film from its own undoing. It won’t be remembered as a great baseball movie, but there are much worse ways to spend your afternoon.
Blu-ray Highlight: Warner Bros. has put together a pair of generic behind-the-scenes featurettes – one focusing on director Robert Lorenz and the other on his cast – for the movie’s Blu-ray release, but neither could hardly be considered a highlight of any kind.