Blu Tuesday: Supersized Holiday Edition

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.

“Sleepwalk with Me”

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.

“Killer Joe”

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.

“Pitch Perfect”

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.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to July

You’ll probably notice that there aren’t very many movies receiving wide releases this month, and that partly has to do with the return of a certain wise-cracking web-slinger to the big screen, but it’s mostly because every studio is terrified of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and they should be. Christopher Nolan’s last Batman film absolutely dominated the box office, eventually grossing just over a billion dollars worldwide, and if the business that “The Avengers” has been doing is any indication, the third installment is going to easily exceed that. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other movies worth checking out, because just about every title on this list should be considered must-see.

“THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN”

Who: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen and Sally Field
What: Peter Parker finds a clue that might help explain why his parents disappeared years earlier, leading him to his father’s former partner, Dr. Curt Connors.
When: July 3rd
Why: Sony’s decision to reboot the Spider-Man series only a decade after Sam Raimi’s first movie was released has earned its share of naysayers, but having already seen director Marc Webb’s new version, most people are going to be happy with the direction the series is headed. Though it’s a bit of a pain to have to sit through Peter Parker’s origin story all over again, Webb makes it just different enough that it’s never boring. The action scenes are also well-staged, and Spider-Man’s wise-cracking humor remains intact, but the best part about the movie is the characters themselves. Not only are the actors perfectly cast in their respective roles (especially Andrew Garfield, who embodies everything that’s great about Spider-Man), but the relationships are actually interesting, and you can’t say that about every superhero film, Raimi’s trilogy included.

“SAVAGES”

Who: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro
What: Marijuana growers Ben and Chon face off against the Mexican drug cartel that kidnapped their shared girlfriend.
When: July 6th
Why: It’s been awhile since Oliver Stone made a movie worth caring about, but this big screen adaptation of Don Wilson’s bestseller has certainly piqued my interest. A drug-fueled crime thriller that looks like something the director would have made back in the 90s, “Savages” has a cool premise and a great cast to boot. Okay, so maybe Taylor Kitsch hasn’t had the best year between “John Carter” flopping and “Battleship” failing to find its sea legs at the domestic box office, but Aaron Johnson has impressed with his career choices lately, and the idea of Salma Hayek playing the big bad is oozing with potential. Though it’s unclear whether the film is supposed to have that grindhouse feel on purpose, if Stone can pull it off, he might just have another cult hit on his hands.

“EASY MONEY”

Who: Joel Kinnaman, Matias Varela, Dragomir Mrsic and Mahmut Suvacki
What: A three-tiered story centered on drugs and organized crime, focusing on a young man who becomes a runner for a cocaine dealer.
When: July 13th
Why: I don’t know a whole lot about Daniel Espinosa’s “Easy Money” (originally titled “Snabba Cash” in its native country) other than it stars Joel Kinnaman of AMC’s “The Killing” and was a near-universal hit on the festival circuit, but quite frankly, that’s enough for me. The Swedish film industry has gotten a huge boost thanks to the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series in recent years, and “Easy Money” reportedly follows in the same footsteps. Though I wasn’t crazy about Espinosa’s U.S. debut, “Safe House,” it had enough good moments (especially the fight scenes) to suggest he’s a promising talent. Plus, I’d see anything Kinnaman does these days, because his work on “The Killing” is so amazing that it’s no wonder he’s been tapped as Hollywood’s new It guy.

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SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Two

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Nature Calls”

I never got the chance to see director Todd Rohal’s “The Catechism Cataclysm” when it played at SXSW last year, but after watching his new comedy “Nature Calls,” I’m kind of glad that I didn’t. The film stars Patton Oswalt as Randy, an assistant scoutmaster desperately trying to help his father’s deteriorating Boy Scout troop regain its former glory. When the few remaining members ditch their upcoming camping trip in favor of going to a sleepover for the adopted son of Randy’s brother, Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), however, he crashes the party and convinces the kids to go camping with him. What follows is an incredible mess of a movie that tries to pass juvenile stupidity off as comedy, but instead barely registers a laugh due to Knoxville and Rob Riggle’s annoyingly over-the-top performances as idiot man-children. There’s actually a good message straining to be heard amongst all the stupidity, but despite its attempt at balancing vulgarity with heart, “Nature Calls” fails on nearly every level imaginable. It’s a shame that this will go down as Patrice O’Neal’s final film performance, because although it got a good reception from the SXSW crowd, this would never make it onto a theater screen through more conventional means.

“Safety Not Guaranteed”

Colin Trevorrow’s feature film debut is exactly the kind of movie that you go to a film festival hoping to see. Based on a real-life classified ad that was posted by a man seeking a partner to go back in time with, the movie stars Audrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni as a trio of Seattle magazine employees who track down the mystery author hoping it will lead them to a good story. What they don’t realize is that although Kenneth (indie go-to guy Mark Duplass) may be a little eccentric, he honestly believes that he’s solved the riddle to time travel. A character-driven dramedy with equal parts humor and heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a beautiful film about the human spirit that is impossible to ignore. All four actors deliver some incredibly honest and funny performances, but it’s Plaza who shows that she can do a lot more than spit out a witty one-liner and mug for the camera. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope. And in a cinematic landscape fueled by cynicism, it’s nice to see a movie that hasn’t given up on the human race, no matter how strange we may be.

“Killer Joe”

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. Matthew McConaughey stars as the title character, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. When he’s hired by a young man (Emile Hirsch) in debt to a crime lord to kill his mother and collect on her $50,000 life insurance, Joe takes his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral until he’s paid for his services. But as is usually the case with movies like this, things go horribly wrong, and although the events that transpire will likely divide audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets a bit 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 Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father – but it’s McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.

  

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