Greetings from my new hut, which is why it’s been a while since I cracked open the old DVD vault and filed a report.
But I’m back and ready to bring you reviews, previews and a look at some of the latest and greatest flicks on the market.
Let’s dive into the most recent big release first.
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, starring Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner is an enjoyable home theatre experience, especially on Blu-ray, which showcases some of the absolutely gorgeous locations director Brad Bird and crew chose for this action-spy flick.
MI is one of those rare franchises that seem to be getting better with each movie. Like The Bourne Trilogy that gave us Matt Damon: Action Star, Mission: Impossible has become more accessible, interesting and entertaining with each installment. And No. 4, Ghost Protocol, is by far the best of the bunch to date.
Maybe that’s because Cruise needed a bit of a career makeover after some recent PR stumbles. His image took a beating because of his religious-political views and he became a little too toxic for a while. But Ghost Protocol showcases that Cruise, the actor, is still likeable, watchable and engaging. Throw in his appearance in the upcoming musical Rock of Ages, based on ’80s hair bands and music and I think Tommy boy is going to find himself back in the pop culture good books so long as he keeps his wacko views to himself.
OK, enough of that stuff.
Bird is a remarkable director and this marks his first non-animated film. It’s one heck of a live-action debut. Ghost Protocol, which sees the Mission: Impossible team going rogue after being disavowed for their supposed participation in a terror-style bombing attack on the Kremlin, showcases some truly eye-popping stunts and solid character work.
Let’s start with the stunts. Cruise, in one of the real set pieces, dangles outside Dubai’s largest building, the Burj Kahlifa, having to move between several floors by using special spy gloves that stick to the glass. It is a breathtaking sequence, extremely well shot and taut. Cruise proves he still has great action chops and Bird, who is best known for directing The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, shows that he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand with real flesh and blood actors and images.
There’s also an amazing showdown in an automated parking garage in which Cruise takes an absolute beating while chasing down the villain, trying to secure proof that will exonerate him and his team. Between bouncing off cars, falling multiple storeys and a physically brutal fight between the two main characters, it’s another great action set piece.
Pegg, Paula Patton, Renner and Cruise form a great crew of spies. They have real chemistry between them. Pegg’s comedic chops as the gadget geek, Renner’s quiet intensity as a character whose allegiances and motivations seem suspect, Patton’s beauty and intelligence sparkle, while Cruise leads the way with his confident, take-charge demeanor. Characters in action-driven movies are often paper thin and their arcs usually play second or even third fiddle to the plot. Not so here. These characters are front and centre and make Ghost Protocol a much more personal journey than a typical action flick. Credit to Bird, producer JJ Abrams and writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec. They have crafted a really spectacular movie from start to finish – one that was amazing on the big screen, but still packs plenty of punch in the home theatre arena.
I cannot recommend this DVD highly enough.
Extras include a look at the filming of the movie, the gadgets, special effects and stunts, as well as deleted scenes and an alternate opening.
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Here’s a quick look at other DVDs currently on the market:
* The Descendants: Director Alexander Payne’s brilliant tale of a family in crisis, starring George Clooney as a man dealing with an accident that has left his wife brain dead, as well the knowledge that she has been having an affair that even his children were aware of, is deeply moving.
And yet, rather than being maudlin, Payne and Clooney inject bits of comedic genius here and there to keep the mood a little bit light while exploring a deeply upsetting plot.
Complicating things for Clooney’s character is the fact he has to come to grips with the idea of raising two daughters on his own, plus dealing with a family that wants him to sell off the last and largest remaining piece of pristine land on one of Hawaii’s islands – a deal that would give the family members vast sums of money.
This film was more than deserving of its multiple Oscar nominations as Clooney and Payne deliver a truly powerful movie that works on so many levels.
Extras include some great behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of them reveals why I love watching the extras and listening to commentary tracks. The last image of the movie always confused me. Clooney is sitting on a couch, surrounded by both daughters. One by one, as they are watching TV, they begin to share a colourful blanket, tucking themselves beneath it. When the movie faded to black, with none of the characters speaking in the scene, I thought that was a truly bizarre and, let’s be honest, stupid way to end a really smart film.
But in the extras, you learn that in Hawaiian tradition, they have a version of a healing blanket and that people give these blankets as gifts to help soothe the soul. So by seeing each character get under the blanket, it’s a statement that they have begun the healing process and, we presume, will be ok going forward. That gives the final scene so much more impact. Payne is a truly gifted filmmaker who lives by the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule and it’s obvious that one should always delve deeper into his movies because nothing gets in without having a reason for it.
* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Director David Fincher is a man with a dark vision, as his previous films such as Se7en, Fight Club and even Alien 3 have shown. Given the nearly impossible task of turning the Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy into a Hollywood production, Fincher dives in and proves adept at crafting a dark thriller that, while different in several ways than the original foreign film and novels, gets so much right that I’m ready to sign on for another two flicks if he’s at the helm.
Daniel Craig plays disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who is hired by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer’s dying industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to unravel the mystery of who killed his beloved niece decades earlier.
The suspects are his family members, a twisted group that includes child abusers, wife beaters, former Nazis and truly psychopathic sickos.
Craig is outstanding as Blomkvist, which surprised me greatly as I’m a huge fan of the original foreign films.
But Rooney Mara is an absolute revelation as punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a woman who has been subjected to one of the most disturbing on-camera rape scenes in film history. Mara, who is unrecognizable when you consider her most prominent role prior to this was as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in The Social Network, sparkles. That’s no mean feat given how much love film fans have for Noomi Rapace, the original actress in the Swedish trilogy.
Fincher actually manages to bring out more of the richness and pathos of his main characters, which for a story nut like myself, actually elevates the film above the Swedish original – something I thought would be impossible when I first popped it into my Blu-ray player.
Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, Robin Wright and Goran Visnjic round out the superb supporting cast.
Extras include a great look at the making of the movie and some of the differences between the original and the Hollywood version.
* Chinatown: Director Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 classic crime story, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, gets the Blu-ray treatment and the studio has gone all out to give film fans a truly great disc.
Nicholson’s Jake Gittes is hired to investigate a California Water and Power engineer’s death, Gittes is drawn into a darker world of politics, sexual deviance and corruption as he tries to figure out the motivation of the woman who hired him, as well as solve the murder of Hollis Mulwray.
The film is gorgeous in high-def, with a cleaned up transfer that brings the crisp images to life in a new way. There’s also a whole bunch of extras that add tremendously to the enjoyment of this true classic, which was voted one of the top 100 movies of all-time.
A commentary track featuring screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher is a must-listen, as he reveals great bits about the plot and the characters. There’s a complete 90-minute documentary that looks at the history and the politics of bringing water to California’s big city, which has taken a huge environmental toll to this day. It’s fascinating viewing in its own right.
There are also extras looking at the film’s cultural impact and the shooting of the film.
Due to politics and legal issues, Polanski isn’t involved in the updated extras, which is a shame. I know he should face the music in the U.S. so that he can become a member of the Hollywood film elite once again, because he’s a remarkable artist and we’re missing out on so much because of his cowardice.
But there’s no denying the skill he has as a filmmaker because it’s on full display in this beautiful Blu-ray release that should be a must-buy for any true film lover.
* Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The British comedy troupe’s classic gets the Blu-ray treatment and while it’s not exactly enhanced by going high-def, there are some fun elements to explore on the disc.
There are outtakes and extended scenes, some lost animations, the priceless Holy Book of Days Second Screen Experience, as well as commentary tracks featuring the Python boys (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones), a Lego Knights of the Round Table short, a special Japanese version of the film, as well as an ‘educational film’ on how to properly use coconuts.
* Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season: This two-disc set features 13 episodes from the animated comedy’s first TV season. The family-run restaurant is one I’d never eat at and this dysfunction family continues Fox’s long traditional of messed up parents and kids smart-mouthing one another through funny, but often distasteful situations.
Extras include commentary tracks on all episodes, audio outtakes and more uncensored material.
* Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour: The 20-year vet of stand-up comedy delivers his unique view on life and work in this funny 67-minute performance. A geek blessed with a cutting wit and snarky delivery, Oswalt is truly a joy to watch work over an audience.
Extras include his encore KFC bit, as well as a look at his pre-show superstitions.
* Alvin and Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: The boys and girls are back. It’s a family flick. I hate talking animal movies for the most part, but there are a few cute scenes in this family comedy, which sees Dave, Alvin and the rest of the group working a cruise ship.
* Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials: These five 1961 specials, featuring the soon-to-be-deceased 42-year-old comedian, are a real revelation about someone who was trying to push the boundaries of broadcasting while it was still in its infancy. The set features only five of the eight specials he made, but you can see how his work influenced others who followed, such as David Letterman and early Saturday Night Live comedians.
* And finally, something for the kids: Four sets of animated TV shows they can watch. Real Monsters: Season Two, The Wild Thornberrys: Season Two, Part Two, Hey Arnold: Season Two, Part One and Danny Phantom: Season Two, Part One, bring some smart, entertaining work to the home theatre environment, where your kids can enjoy these series.
Real Monsters aired back in 1995 and featured the voices of Charlie Adler and James Belushi, focusing on the upbringing of three young monsters. Lacey Chabert and Tim Curry starred in Thornberrys, which was a brilliant series about a family of wild life documentarians, their two daughters, an adopted jungle boy and a monkey. The hook was that daughter Eliza could talk to the animals, unbeknownst to everyone else, allowing her to converse with their chimp, Darwin, who has some great lines.
Hey Arnold was an underappreciated series, best known for the boy with the football-shaped head. This 1997 series features the voice work of Dan Castellaneta and Jamil Walker Smith.And Danny Phantom, which was on the air in 2005, tells the tale of a boy who can turn himself into a crime-fighting apparition.