Blu Tuesday: Teenage Violence, Muppets and More

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.

“Battle Royale”

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.

“The Muppets”

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.

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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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A Roundtable Chat with Colin Firth (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

When Focus Features drops you a line and asks you if you’d like to head to New York City for an overnight stay at the Waldorf Astoria in order to attend a screening and press junket for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the novel by John le Carré, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Yes.” And so I did. After catching a screening of the film on a Friday night, I got up on Saturday morning to begin the interviews of the day. After a roundtable with director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter Peter Straughan, the two gentlemen left the room, to be replaced a few minutes later by one of the stars of the film, Colin Firth.

One word of warning: the potential for spoilers exists within the piece…like, to the point where Firth asks during one of his answers “not to turn this into spoilers when you write about it.” But, look, if you don’t want to know, then don’t read it. But given that the original novel was published in 1974, followed by the TV miniseries in 1979, it’s not as if you haven’t had plenty of time to absorb this information already…

Journalist: Are you a fan of the espionage and spy films?

Colin Firth: I like the good ones, yeah.

J: Do you have any favorites?

CF: No, not really. [Gesturing toward the journalist sitting next to him.] We talked about this, actually, him and I. He had to help me out. [Laughs.] No, I’m one of those people where, if you say, “Tell me what your favorite music is,” I can’t think of any music in the world. So that’s a difficult question. You throw something at me, I’ll tell you whether I like it or not. But, yeah, I’m a fan.

J: Well, we’re all like that. You ask me, and I’d do the same thing.

CF: Yeah, I know. Nothing is more guaranteed to draw a blank, I’m afraid.

J: In the film, we were trying to figure out exactly who the people up in that big office were.

CF: [Uncertainly] Oh, I hope I can help…

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A Roundtable Chat with Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

When Focus Features drops you a line and asks you if you’d like to head to New York City for an overnight stay at the Waldorf Astoria in order to attend a screening and press junket for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the novel by John le Carré, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Yes.” And so I did. After catching a screening of the film on a Friday night, I got up on Saturday morning to begin the interviews of the day. First up: director Tomas Alfredson and one of the film’s screenwriters, Peter Straughan. (Alas, Straughan’s co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, who was also his wife, died of cancer in September 2010.)

One word of warning: the potential for spoilers exists within the piece. But, look, given that the original novel was published in 1974, followed by the TV miniseries in 1979, it’s not as if you haven’t had plenty of time to absorb this information already…

Journalist: How liberating was it for you to be told (by John le Carré), “Don’t reshoot the book?”

Peter Straughan: Very. [Laughs.]

Tomas Alfredson: Yes, very. I was much more so, I think. Peter wasn’t too worried, but I was very reverential about the book and was very nervous about taking a foot off the path. So it was just very good that John le Carré was there to push us off the path and tell us to do something different.

J: Can you each tell us about your first encounter with the book, if you had read it a long time ago? Did either of you?

PS: I’d read it, yeah. And Bridget had read it years earlier and loved it. In the UK, it’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, let alone spy novels. And then we read it again when we were asked to come in to discuss adapting it. Which made us quite nervous. [Laughs.] You read it, and…it’s quite a difficult book to adapt!

J: Because it’s so well known, or because of the complexity…?

PS: Because of the complexity. Because it’s quite an interior story. So much of it takes place in Smiley’s mind and Smiley’s memory. And also because, in the UK, it’s a holy cow. As is the TV series. So there was a sense of…I think we were maybe the only writers who rushed in and said, “Okay, we’ll do it!” Everyone else would say, “No, we don’t want to do it!” [Laughs.] Fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

TA: I think it’s…very much about not deciding, “Okay, I want to do this,” but it’s about, “I want to start working on this, to start the process.” And early on, it was…I remembered the old TV series and the reading of the book, but also meeting with the actual persons, with Peter and Bridget and le Carré and the producers, who are very nice people. To do a scary thing like this, you need to be encouraged, and if you’re surrounded by encouraging people who you trust, it’s much easier.

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They Were Spies: Famous Folks Who Played the Espionage Game

Spy /spī/ noun: A person who secretly collects and reports information about an enemy or competitor.

Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception. – John le Carré, aka David Cornwell

If you should learn one thing from watching the Oscar-touted new film version of John le Carré’s classic of realistic Cold War-era cloak and dagger, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it’s that people in the espionage business should not be show-offs. If everyone knows you’re a spy, you’re not doing it right.

Nevertheless, documents get released over time, old stories get told, and the end result is that we now know of a surprisingly large number of world-renowned writers, actor, and others who have worked pretty high up, and sometimes rather low down, in the field of intelligence. On the other hand, whether or not some of them were actual spies is a matter of how you define spying. That’s why we like the rather inclusive definition we’ve placed up top. On his website, John le Carré, who worked for several years at England’s MI-6 and whose real name is David Cornwell, at first tells us he was not a spy at all, but then jauntily describes himself as a “spook” four paragraphs later. By any name, spies are cagey.

While a lot of these people were probably mainly bureaucrats, we’d add that the same thing could be said for le Carré’s most famed protagonist. Whether portrayed by Alec Guinness in the 1979 television adaptation or newly embodied for the big screen by Gary Oldman, the seemingly gentle and harmless George Smiley is a man one underestimates at one’s extreme peril.

In any case, some of the notables below were pretty deep in the trenches of the spy game, and some probably even killed people. Some may not really have been involved with intelligence at all, we can’t be sure. That’s one thing about dealing with espionage – it’s like it’s all supposed to be a big secret or something.

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