Welcome to the first column of what we hope becomes a weekly feature here at Inside Pulse Movies. While the title designator may read “In Stores Now” it may just as well be “This Week on DVD and Blu-ray.” The week of April 3rd was fairly calm when it came to new releases but it had a few notable titles including the debut of Chinatown on Blu-ray, Steven Spielberg’s ode to John Ford and 1950s cinema, War Horse, and the perfect companion to the recent Muppets release, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.
As a friendly reminder, if you see anything in this article you like, click on the image and purchase it.
Title of the Week
Okay, we all know Roman Polanski is a controversial director. Not in the arena of filmmaking, but because he has managed to continue his profession overseas having fled to France to avoid imprisonment and deportation for his rape of a 13-year-old girl. While he may have won an Oscar for his direction of The Pianist (2002), you could probably count on one hand how many of works are truly exemplary. And it just so happens that this week saw one of his greatest films make its arrival to Blu-ray. Chinatown was a neo-noir released back in 1974 starring Jack Nicholson as private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes. When his assignment of tailing a husband for a suspicious wife (Diane Ladd) who thinks he’s having affair turns out to be a ruse, a bigger mystery takes shape when the husband is found dead and the real wife (Faye Dunaway) enters the picture and hires Gittes to solve the crime.
The first time I saw Chinatown was late at night on TNT some years back, when the network got tired of showing some special-effects train wreck in favor of something different – maybe it was to drum up anticipation of Southland. Even with commercials I didn’t want to change the channel for fear that I would miss some important detail or clue. Chinatown reinforces everything that is great about the film noir genre, with jaded characters (antiheroes and femme fatales) and hard-boiled prose with cryptic lines (what the hell does “It’s just Chinatown, Jake” really mean?). When you hear that it was nominated for eleven Oscars but Robert Towne’s screenplay was the only winner, you have to double check and see why. Then you see that it was up against The Godfather Part II in the Best Picture race – Paramount was on fire that year with three of the five Best Picture nominees (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was the other one).
Why You Should Own It: Besides the fact that Chinatown is a great film, the Blu-ray has incredible audio and visuals along with a bevy of extras ported over from the original 2007 and 2009 DVD releases. Of particular interest is a commentary track that has screenwriter Towne and filmmaker David Fincher tag-teaming it, discussing the entire production, from the direction and acting performances to what distinguishes it from others in the film noir genre. I’m a sucker for documentaries and/or commentaries featuring other filmmakers commenting on a film, because regardless of what you think about the film personally, it’s always interesting to hear the opinions of your favorite filmmakers. So you can see it in a different light.
Title(s) Worth Purchasing
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Who could have imagined that the most annoying Muppetcharacter – some would attest – would provide cinematic fodder for an endearing story about one man’s love of puppetry.
Remember when the Tickle Me Elmo dolls took the toy stores by storm back in 1996? You had parents fighting other parents to purchase the doll for Christmas. The aisles were awash in boxes strewn on the ground, with mangled Barbie dolls (will Ken still love me with my disfigured face?) and yet above the yelling and hair-pulling was this red doll chortling thinking the entire situation was a laugh riot. But enough about Tickle Me Elmo – this is about the man behind the famous TV character. Kevin Clash, while still a young boy growing up in Baltimore, discovered a love of puppetry that has yet to diminish. Having taken that love of puppets to heart, going as far as making his own, Clash would find himself in Jim Henson’s workshop. And you can see his genuine appreciation of the artistry and joy when he meets Henson in person and begins working on projects like Labyrinth. But it is the reintroduction of the Elmo character on Sesame Street that would change his life. Imbuing him with a sense of personality and speaking with a falsetto, Clash’s Elmo is one the public knows and loves (loathes?). Whatever your opinion of Elmo, it is Clash’s dedication to the character and his workhorse schedule – from public appearances to overseeing how Elmo is handled in foreign productions of Sesame Street – that is to be admired.
Title(s) Worth Renting
Spielberg. Everybody knows the name. The director of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and that shark movie. But the new millennium hasn’t been too kind to the director who instilled in us to always call home. Aside from Minority Report and Munich, he hasn’t had many films you could lump in with his classics from the late-‘70s through mid-‘90s. Sadly, War Horse is another case of it looks good, but doesn’t leave a lasting impression.
The film, based on the award-winning play and book, is about a young man in pre-World War I England who raises a horse, Joey, but sees it off to war at the behest of his father who needs the money to save the family farm. From there we follow the Joey’s journey to be reunited with the boy, where he finds peril and solace in the form of the people it encounters – some good, some bad. Steven Spielberg, no stranger to including saccharine sweet moments in his films, paints a beautiful, if broad canvas that beguiles our eyes with Janusz Kaminski’s luscious visuals – a piece of art it is – that do their best to keep everything light-hearted. War Horse is overly sentimental, but that’s sort of the idea – to observe how this horse impacts the lives of those it encounters, especially in the wake of the War to End All Wars.
If you do decide to buy, go for the 4-disc combo release that contains a Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy along with some strong high-def exclusives. The biggest extra is the making-of feature “A Filmmaking Journey” which runs a little over an hour in length and gives a complete overview of the production including locations, special effects, to even the horses used.
We Bought a Zoo
The initial impression of Cameron Crowe’s return to directing was that 20th Century Fox showed him the money to make We Bought a Zoo. It looked cheesy. A father uproots the family from the city to move to a zoo in the country. Surely, this is something dreamt up by a screenwriter who got caught up watching a Bourne Identity–Green Acres marathon. Then you discover that We Bought a Zoo is inspired by a true story.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a recently-widowed single father who feels a fresh start is what the family needs to few anew. So he quits his newspaper job and buys a rural farmhouse outside the smog and cacophony of Los Angeles. And it just so happens the house includes a special add-on: a zoo.
With no formal experience in operating a zoo or tending animals, time constraints and a small budget, Mee and his family, along with a tries-to-be-homely-but-can’t Scarlett Johansson (as the head zookeeper Kelly Foster) look to restore the zoo to its former glory.
We Bought a Zoo is a film that took me by surprise when I reviewed it initially in theaters. I may have been a little strong with my initial score, but it was hard to resist Matt Damon’s strong performance. One of the year’s best, I tell ya. The story is mostly the emotional journey he goes through, still grieving the loss of his wife. But it is also about first love. Both are on opposite ends from one another, but are paired well here in the form of Ben’s eldest son and the googly eyes he shares with Kelly’s niece, Lilly (Elle Fanning).
While it should have been a bigger box office smash than its earnings indicate (only $75 million), 20th Century Fox gave it the type of Blu-ray release that is usually reserved to the works of David Fincher. The DVD side of the Blu-ray combo is mostly light (just an audio commentary and a featurette). But pop in the Blu-ray and you have more than two hours of material to sift through. More than a half hour of deleted and deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a photo gallery for starters. Add some features on Jónsi’s musical score and thirty minutes with the real Benjamin Mee, then top it off with a five-part, 75-minute documentary on the making of the film, which includes such Did You Knows like it took three months to build the zoo set from scratch. Yeah, this is a packed release, offering plenty for fans and non-fans alike.
That does it for this week. Join us next time as we look at some of the titles arriving the week of April 10th.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!