Blu Tuesday: Oscar Gold, Greek Tragedies and More

This past month has been pretty spectacular for Blu-ray enthusiasts, as it’s given us a number of reasons to stay out of the heat and relax inside our air-conditioned homes. (Honestly, it’s been unreasonably hot for June, at least here in Ohio.) Though today’s new releases aren’t as great as previous weeks, there’s still quite a bit to choose from, including arguably the week’s two biggest releases – “21 Jump Street” and “Wrath of the Titans” – which sadly weren’t provided for review. Of course, that just made room for a few titles that probably wouldn’t have been featured otherwise, so no harm done.

“The Artist”

Celebrating “The Artist” for its originality may seem a tad contradictory – after all, silent movies have been around longer than any other form of cinema – but when compared to today’s crop of films, it certainly feels fitting. The big winner at last year’s Academy Awards, “The Artist” plays like a loving homage to an era of filmmaking that many people have either forgotten about or never knew. For as purely entertaining as “The Artist” can be at times, however, it doesn’t do nearly enough to make you fall in love with the film so much as the idea of it. Though the movie’s first 30 minutes are an absolute delight thanks to the charming screen presence of Jean Dujardin, the abrupt change in tone from light-hearted comedy to somber melodrama is a bit disappointing. Still, “The Artist” makes great use of its various stylistic devices, and French actors Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo deliver star-making performances. Although the film often favors the gimmick over the story, it serves as a great reminder that while not every off-the-wall idea is guaranteed to be a success like “The Artist,” it’s the willingness to take those risks that making movies is all about.

Blu-ray Highlight: While I had high hopes for the 45-minute Q&A with the filmmakers and cast, it’s spoiled by a terrible moderator and Jean Dujardin’s language barrier. Still, “The Making of an American Romance” is a pretty entertaining featurette that, in addition to focusing on the two French leads and their supporting cast, also covers many of the movie’s finest moments, including the big tap dance number at the end.

“Bullhead”

Though it was a bit of a surprise nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, writer/director Michael R. Roskam’s “Bullhead” definitely deserved the attention it earned as a result. It’s not exactly in Drafthouse Films’ wheelhouse of bizarre midnight movies (see: “The FP”), but it’s the kind of film that I’d like to see the startup label distribute more often in the future. A unique, character-driven crime drama with one of the most memorable protagonists in recent years, “Bullhead” is worth seeing just for the amazing transformative performance by star Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s virtually unrecognizable under the facial prosthetics and 60 pounds of weight that he reportedly gained for the role. Schoenaerts is a physically intimidating beast of a man who looks like he might snap at any moment, but the brilliance of his performance is the vulnerability and innocence that he brings to the character. Unfortunately, “Bullhead” is yet another case of a sensational performance in an otherwise average movie, and though that doesn’t make it any less worth your time, it does prevent it from becoming the masterpiece it could have been.

Blu-ray Highlight: The guys at Drafthouse have done an excellent job with this release, so there’s quite a bit of good material to choose from. In addition to a pair of insightful interviews by director Michael Roskam and star Matthias Schoenaerts (who talks about becoming obsessed with his physical preparation for the movie), there’s also a cool making-of featurette that delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process.

“A Thousand Words”

Director Brian Robbins’ third collaboration with Eddie Murphy isn’t nearly as terrible as their previous projects (“Norbit” and “Meet Dave”), but it’s not exactly an instance of “third time’s a charm” either. Although taking away Murphy’s best asset – his voice – is troublesome from the very start, the movie’s biggest problem is that it’s played as a silly comedy when it would have made for a much better drama. The basic premise is a pretty high concept idea, but instead of exploring the figurative relationship between Murphy’s character and the leaves on the tree that fall with every word he speaks, Robbins and screenwriter Steve Koren (who’s also responsible for last year’s incredibly awful “Jack and Jill”) take the broader route by making the bond much more literal. So when anything happens to the tree (whether it’s squirrels running around the trunk or the gardener spraying it with toxic gas), it also has a physical effect on Murphy, which only spoils the deeper philosophical and spiritual connotations that are briefly alluded to. “A Thousand Words” is still better than a lot of the crap the comedian has been doing in recent years, but not by very much.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are only two extras included on the disc – a subpar collection of deleted scenes and an inferior alternate ending – and neither one is very worthwhile.

  

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Friday Video, Academy Awards Edition – Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence”

Click here to listen to The Best of Depeche Mode Vol. I on Spotify

If you’re wondering what Depeche Mode has to do with the Academy Awards, the answer is: they don’t. Ah, but silence, that is another matter.

If you haven’t filled out your Oscar pools yet, take this to the bank: “The Artist” is going to win Best Picture. Not because it’s particularly the best film of the year – truth be told, the movies of 2011 are as weak a batch as we’ve seen in ages – but because it has a lot of things working in its favor, namely two captivating performances by the two leads Jean Dujardin (he’s this writer’s pick for Best Actor) and the lovely Berenice Bejo, but that’s not all. It has the advantage of being the one movie that is truly like no other nominee in any category – seriously, a black and white silent film in 2011, that takes balls of steel to make – and most importantly, it’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company, and if anyone can turn a film like this into an Oscar winner, it’s Harvey Scissorhands.

There is a great story surrounding the arrangement for “Enjoy the Silence,” which serves as the best argument anyone will ever need for why Alan Wilder was the most significant contributor to Depeche Mode’s success. (We even told him as much when we interviewed him in 2010.) As they were recording the tracks for their then-new album Violator – in a studio housed in rural Denmark – principal songwriter Martin Gore had turned in a tender ballad called “Enjoy the Silence” But they couldn’t get it off the ground; each time they tackled the track, it didn’t work. Finally, Wilder and producer Flood told the rest of the band to get out, hit the town and have some fun. We’ll figure this out. When the rest of the band came back, Wilder and Flood had taken Gore’s demo – which consisted of a vocal and a harmonium – and transformed it into a dance track. Immediately, the band realized that this was going to be massive. Flood got Gore to play that signature guitar line, and the rest was history, as “Enjoy the Silence” became the band’s biggest hit to date, hitting the Top 10 in eight countries.

For those who are curious to hear what Gore’s original version sounded like, check this out. Pretty, but holy cow, Gore should give Wilder a co-writing credit for his contributions.

  

2011 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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.

Best Movies of 2011

1. “DRIVE

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.

2. “ATTACK THE BLOCK

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.

3. “YOUNG ADULT

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.

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2011 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

A funny thing happened at the movies this year: absolutely nothing blew me away.

There were things I really liked, but my list of favorite movies is kind of a joke, really. They’re not bad movies (not in my mind, anyway), but there are few, if any, Best Picture candidates in the bunch. Compare that to last year, where six of my top 10 movies were nominated for Best Picture. This time around, that’s just not happening. Just want to lay that out up front.

Worse, there isn’t one movie that stands above the others. I liked my favorite movies equally, more or less. That might sound like a copout, but it’s true. Of the movies I’ve seen so far, this was the year where movies were just sort of…there. Maybe we’ll have better luck next year.

My Favorite Movies of 2011


Margin Call
Selling one’s soul is a popular subject in movies, since no two people are willing to settle for the same amount. “Margin Call” explores the subject on a massive scale, since the ripple effect of the actions of a few will be felt around the world. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but it’s absolutely gripping. Kevin Spacey shines here, as does the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci.


Super 8
It probably helped that I grew up in a small Ohio town not terribly unlike the one in “Super 8″ (though no one used the word ‘mint’ the way Riley Griffiths’ character does here), but “Super 8″ wasn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia; the movie delivered top-notch thrills, well-drawn characters, and the most spectacular sequence of the year with that jaw-dropping train crash. Elle Fanning, meanwhile, put on an acting clinic, and she’s only 13. Wow.


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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to November

Can you smell that? No, not the pumpkin pie-scented potpourri that your grandmother bought you last Christmas – it’s the smell of awards season starting to heat up. Though November is typically a pretty eclectic month for movies, you can always expect a fair share of family films and Oscar hopefuls competing for the attention of your box office dollars, and this year is no exception. You also might notice that a few major releases – like the Adam Sandler-in-drag comedy “Jack and Jill” and the latest installment in the “Twilight” saga – have been left out of this preview. That’s no mistake. I wanted to save myself the trouble of writing about them and you the embarrassment of reading about them. After all, there are more than enough good options this month that no one should have to damage any more brain cells by seeing one of those movies.

“A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS”

Who: John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Thomas Lennon and Neil Patrick Harris
What: After Harold and Kumar accidentally set fire to Harold’s father-in-law’s prize Christmas tree, the duo embark on yet another weed-fueled adventure to replace it.
When: November 4th
Why: Though I refuse to believe that the 3D revolution is going to stick around for much longer, this is one of those times where I actually don’t completely hate the idea. That’s probably because director Todd Strauss-Schulson is really embracing the gimmicky nature of the technology, but who doesn’t love making fun of 3D? Though Harold and Kumar’s last adventure was a bit ridiculous for its own good, writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg appear to have reined things in for the third (and likely final) installment in the stoner bud series. Toss in some Claymation and the return of Neil Patrick Harris and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a fun theater experience.

“TOWER HEIST”

Who: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck and Téa Leoni
What: A group of employees at a luxury condominium enlist the aid of a career criminal to help them steal $20 million from the investor that emptied out their pension plans.
When: November 4th
Why: When I first heard that Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy were teaming up with director Brett Ratner for what can be best described as a blue-collar “Ocean’s 11,” I responded accordingly, with a witty comment and a cynical roll of the eyes. But something strange happened between then and now – I saw the trailer for the film, and amazingly, it doesn’t look half-bad. Perhaps it’s just because my expectations are so low for those involved in the movie, but this actually looks like it could be pretty enjoyable, and even somewhat of a return to form for Murphy, who hasn’t been funny in a really long time.

“J. EDGAR”

Who: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench
What: A biopic about the founder of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, whose 50-year reign as the face of law enforcement was threatened by the many secrets in his personal life.
When: November 9th
Why: Everything about this film has “future Oscar nominee” written all over it, including star Leonardo DiCaprio, director Clint Eastwood and co-star Armie Hammer, who’s landed the plum role of Hoover’s lifelong friend and rumored lover Clyde Tolson. It’ll be interesting to see how a mild conservative like Eastwood handles the mysterious relationship between the two men, especially with gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black behind the script, because dodging the issue completely won’t sit well with the usually liberal-minded Academy. The person that stands the most to gain from all of this, of course, is Hammer, who is pretty much a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination after just barely missing out last year for his incredible work in “The Social Network.”

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