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.
Looking back at this year’s slate of films, it would be easy to label it a disappointment. But while 2011 may not have been very memorable, it wasn’t exactly forgettable either. In fact, the biggest problem I came across while compiling my year-end list was that while there were a lot of movies I really enjoyed, there weren’t very many that I loved. That might not be the most encouraging statement to make before announcing one’s Top 10, but it’s the honest truth, and it doesn’t make the movies listed below any less deserving of my praise, even if there are some films missing that you believe should have made the final cut. But that’s why critics love writing year-end reviews; each one is unique to their specific taste, and mine is nothing if not unique. Well, except for maybe my worst-of list, which is filled with movies that I think we can all agree sucked big time.
Though I wasn’t that impressed by Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous films, they have an undeniable visual flair and originality that you don’t see very often. “Drive” took those qualities and applied them to a conventional Hollywood thriller, resulting in a movie that feels much more mainstream without abandoning Refn’s art house sensibilities. The film is as beautifully poetic as it is strikingly violent, while Ryan Gosling (who’s had a banner year between this, “The Ides of March” and “Crazy Stupid Love”) has never been better as the soft-spoken yet brutally intense protagonist. But for as much attention as the film’s graphic violence has received, it’s the opening sequence – an edge-of-your-seat car chase packed with tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – that is without a doubt the biggest highlight. And when a movie can start so brightly and continue to build on it like “Drive” does (thanks in part to fine supporting turns from Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks), it’s no wonder why so many people love this film.
It’s not every day that you get to see a film before the rest of the world, so I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being among the lucky few in attendance at the SXSW premiere of Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” played a part in my overall enjoyment of the movie. A genre hybrid film with influences ranging from “The Warriors” to “Critters,” Cornish’s directorial debut is a lean, mean sci-fi action thriller that, although it boasts a mostly unknown cast and was made for a fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood movie, is the most fun I’ve had at a theater all year. The young actors are great, the creature effects are even better, and the film is fueled by a relentless, infectious energy that keeps the action moving at a rapid clip. There might have been several alien invasion movies in theaters this year, but “Attack the Block” was the best of the bunch – a fun slice of nostalgic geek cinema that blended action, comedy, horror and sci-fi to create an instant cult classic.
It’s no secret that Diablo Cody has her share of critics, but “Young Adult” proves that she’s more than just a vending machine for the kind of quirky one-liners that initially earned her notice back in 2008 with “Juno.” Thematically darker and more mature than her first feature, the film also feels more personal in its examination of what it means to grow up, providing the perfect platform for Cody’s voice to shine. Blisteringly funny and surprisingly poignant at times, “Young Adult” is so daringly original that its somewhat contentious ending has even divided audiences. But while Cody deserves a lot of credit for taking these risks, it’s Charlize Theron’s performance that brings out the comedy and emotion of the situation, delivering some of her best work as the beautiful but bitchy Mavis. It’s not very easy to make a character like that sympathetic, but Theron pulls it off so effortlessly that it would be criminal to see her name absent from any award ballot.
The end of every movie year can usually be summed up in a few words: blockbusters and Oscar bait. With all of the holiday-themed films already in theaters, Christmas time is reserved for some of the studio’s biggest movies and their final push before awards season. Though it’s always a bit hot-and-cold in terms of what you can expect, this year’s slate offers an enticing mix of popcorn and prestige films. (And in the case of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” both.) Though some of the more interesting award contenders won’t actually reach your hometown until January (if at all) due to a silly rule that only requires a movie open in a very limited engagement before December 31st, there’s enough good stuff here to keep you suitably entertained well into the new year.
“TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY”
Who: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds and Mark Strong What: In the bleak days of the Cold War, veteran spy George Smiley is lured out of retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6’s ranks. When: December 9th Why: I would pay to see just about anything starring Gary Oldman, but his new film from director Tomas Alfredson (who’s already proven himself as a master of suspense with the vampire cult hit, “Let the Right One In”) has gotten me particularly excited. Based on the bestselling novel by former spy turned author John le Carré, the movie looks like a throwback to those great, low-key political thrillers from the 1970s, and if that’s not enough to pique your interest, then a brief glance at the cast list – a veritable who’s who of the best British actors working today, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock” fame – will almost certainly change your mind.
Who: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons What: A fiction writer returns to her hometown in Minnesota looking to rekindle a romance with her high school flame, who is now married with kids. When: December 9th Why: “Juno” was one of my favorite films of 2007. In addition to an excellent star-making performance by Ellen Page, the movie marked the arrival of writer Diablo Cody onto the scene and cemented Jason Reitman’s status as one of Hollywood’s most promising young directors. Fast-forward four years later and you can understand why Reitman and Cody’s latest collaboration, “Young Adult,” is already garnering awards buzz. Charlize Theron is perfect for the role of the former mean girl (she has the looks and attitude to pull it off without being completely unlikeable), while Patton Oswalt is an inspired choice to play her unlikely confidant. Cody’s snarky dark humor is also on full display here, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she nabs another Oscar nomination come February.
Who: Jonah Hill, Ari Graynor, Sam Rockwell, Max Records and J.B. Smoove What: A slacker college student gets caught up in a night of crazy hijinks involving a pair of vindictive drug dealers after he takes a job babysitting his neighbor’s kids. When: December 9th Why: Though its generic title makes the film sound like another family comedy starring an out-of-work action star, “The Sitter” actually appears to be a raunchier, R-rated version of the 1987 classic, “Adventures in Babysitting.” While the concept may be teeming with potential, however, I’m not entirely sold by the trailer. Jonah Hill (in his final pre-weight loss role) can be really annoying when he’s not kept on a short leash, and director David Gordon Green is notorious for doing the complete opposite. Sam Rockwell and J.B. Smoove make for an intriguing comedic pair as the film’s “villains,” but I have a feeling that the movie’s success is going to depend on the child actors. And if Elizabeth Shue doesn’t pop in for a cameo, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.