By all rights, Thomas Vinterberg’s fine adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, which opened just as the summer movie season started, should stlll be playing in theaters. You should have seen it twice, once for yourself and once with that special someone, as it is a love story for the ages. But, like the Thomas Hardy novel on which it’s based, things don’t always work out the way we wish, and you decided to forgo an indie-ish treat and see Jurassic World instead. I hope you’re happy.
Like this Thomas Hardy novel, however, there is a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over the market for smaller-scale movies–and that is a first-rate Blu-ray of the film, which brings a shiningly independent Carey Mulligan, her carefully (and carelessly) expressed communications with three very different suitors, and the scenic beauties of the novelist’s Wessex right into your living room. This is a feast of a movie, topped off with a bevy of behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Disney had concluded its Blu-ing of Studio Ghibli movies with terrific hi-def upgrades of Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar winner, Spirited Away (2001), and a lesser but quite delightful film for feline lovers, The Cat Returns (2002). Bizarrely, not a single Ghibli film made this recent list of essential children’s films, a real blunder, as my kids adored these classics some time before they dove into the Disney and Pixar catalogs. (They will never see The Goonies.) Then again, they’re too good to simply relegate to “children’s movies,” and I’d say Spirited Away, resplendent with sorcery and thematically rich besides, is one of the best fantasy films ever. (Based on a sliver of 1995’s Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns is a lightweight, but, cats.) Retaining all the features of the prior DVDs, the Blu-rays up the ante with exquisite transfers. But Disney’s not yet done with Miyazaki: Look for this box set, with exclusive new content, sometime in the fall.
I reviewed a DVD of Elena two years ago. A Blu-ray is now available, and it’s worth obtaining, if you don’t have the older disc, or became an admirer of filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev through his most recent film, the Oscar-nominated Leviathan. They’re both mightily impressive, and the Blu-ray includes a 40-minute making-of that is exclusive to this disc, so you get something in addition to a much-improved transfer. Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas’ production company Syncopy helped bring this disc to market, and if you’re looking for a movie as cold and noir-ish as Nolan’s Insomnia, look no further.
Amy is this year’s documentary hit. If you still have an appetite for musical docs after that depressing saga there’s Lambert and Stamp, a sharply etched portrait of Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, would-be underground filmmakers who in researching England’s Mod scene came up with The Who. Rock history was made, and unmade, as hard drugs entered the scene and the two vastly different producer-promoters (“the fifth and sixth members of The Who,” Roger Daltrey said) were cut loose in the mid-70s, to vastly different fates. (Stamp was the brother of Terence Stamp, who’s one of the interviewees, along with Daltrey and Pete Townshend.) It’s quite a story, and director James D. Cooper has more to say about it, in a commentary track and in conversation with Henry Rollins. Plus, there’s great archival footage of the band in its hellraising prime.
New from Hong Kong and the folks at Well Go USA is Z Storm, which, alas, is a Zzzz storm, a plodding account of anti-corruption officials on the trail of a fat cat lawyer as assassins lurk in the shadows. The action does pick up after a lot of financial-ese and handwringing about globalization, but not enough to differentiate it from the pack of similarly themed thrillers set in high places. A not-too-special movie does come with added value, however: a trailer, a brief making of, and interviews with stars Louis Koo and Michael Wong.
What else is out there? Let’s see:
How will Jennifer Aniston earn our respect? She has it, with a string of pleasant comedy appearances. That string is running out, however, so with Oscar, etc., frowning on funny ladies she’s obliged to do maudlin addiction and bad behavior melodramas like this one, where she acts and acts to get our attention and no one pays attention, the effort being so transparent. Difficult–but your best rom-coms make me chuckle when they’re playing on the TV at my gym, so, there’s that, Jen. And, marriage. (Are you doing the whole baby thing again?)
Combining the slam-bang, semi-literate action stylistics of the director of Taken with the mopey liberal messaging of star Sean Penn was never going to work, so this is a predictable slog, briefly enlivened by the co-stars Penn attracted, including Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance. Going the Liam Neeson route, Penn is an ex-soldier, a one-time assasssin in the Congo, whose past trips him up, leading to bullets, bloodshed, and recrimination on the fly. I suspect Penn had in mind something leaner and more elegant, like George Clooney’s turn in The American. Didn’t happen, though the Blu-ray has a first-rate picture and awesome Dolby Atmos sound to mask the letdown.
What’s Alfred Hitchcock’s lousiest movie? According to The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, a seminal text in my cine-obsessed youth, it’s this pirate adventure, which he made in England shortly before going Hollywood. Hitchcock might agree: he had a hard time wrangling star and co-producer Charles Laughton, and there’s not much of him in it as he wrestles with the source novel’s convoluted plot. (He would find more to his liking in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and The Birds.) That said, the Cohen Film Collection’s restoration of the film is breathtaking, with inky blacks and rich whites, and a video essay by Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto and a commentary by historian Jeremy Arnold do their share to make a stiff costume picture more palatable. Credit a hammy Laughton, too, for discovering co-star Maureen O’Hara; they would have better luck with their next film together, the 1939 remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So maybe Under Capricorn really ia the worst Hitchcock movie.
I enjoy so much of the Asian genre cinema that Well Go USA brings to our shores, but they do release the occasional bummer, like Z Storm and this one, a serial killer opus that unfolds in Japan and Indonesia as two sociopaths, a wack job and an investigative journalist, cross paths on the web. It’s not that the film is badly made or without interest, it’s just that serial murder and “torture porn” have been done to death here and abroad, and you wonder how many pretty women have to die violently onscreen to make the same points about our collapsing morals and fungible ethics.
What do all three of my one-star flicks have in common? Yup–sorry sequels. I don’t think anyone wanted a followup to RZA’s martial arts smackdown except RZA, and I can see him Redboxing the thing, which, minus star names like Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, went straight to video. His heart is in the right place; the execution is something else entirely, as if the chopsocky movies you watched on TV as a kid, dubbed and chopped up, really were made that way to begin with.
There weren’t that many monsters in Monsters–but there were enough to land its director, Gareth Edwards, last year’s Godzilla remake, which was duly criticized for not having enough monsters. This poor sequel, for which Edwards served as executive producer, has even less monster footage, none of the mood or suspense of the original, and a hoary antiwar theme to boot (the setting is the Mideast). It put me in mind of lousy alien attack movies like Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline, which is not a good place to return to.
No one gets taken, except the audience, paying for Liam Neeson’s transitioning into Charles Bronson. His movies, however, had more of a pulse than this one; watch this Fugitive knockoff, then Death Wish III, and see who gets your heart started. A worldwide gross of $326 million ensures Neeson’s return to mediocre action flicks in some guise or another. Be glad The Gunman closed off this option for you, Sean Penn.