Top 10 DVD Movies for April 2012
1. War Horse
The sheer physical beauty of the horse and the magnificent landscape of rural Devon, England, makes the first section of War Horse a feast for the eyes, as stalwart young lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine, in his film debut) struggles to channel the high-strung energy of newly bought horse Joey into plowing a rocky field. A destructive rainstorm forces Albert’s father (Peter Mullan, Boy A) to sell Joey to an army captain (Tom Hiddleston, Thor) who takes the horse into the battlefields of World War I. From there, turns of fortune lead Joey into the hands of a German private, a French girl and her grandfather, and then into the cratered no man’s land between the warring armies. War Horse is jarringly uneven. Some moments are over-the-top while others are elegantly understated; the tone ranges from the broad comedy of a mid-1970s Disney live-action flick to the raw majesty of a John Ford western. The episodic storytelling doesn’t help–the characters don’t have time to fully establish themselves in the audience’s hearts, despite some excellent performances. The greatest weakness is that director Steven Spielberg doesn’t connect us to Joey himself; though it’s impossible not to have moments of empathy with the trials of this beautiful animal, at other times the horse is no more than a narrative device, carrying us from one micro-story to another. Still, some episodes are unquestionably compelling (a sequence in which a British and a German soldier collaborate to rescue Joey is particularly good) and, though stylistically all over the place, War Horse is never less than visually stunning.
Though adapted from a memoir by a British journalist, We Bought a Zoo feels entirely like a Cameron Crowe film, with clear parallels to previous crowd-pleasers like Jerry Maguire. Crowe introduces Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon in a role that recalls his Contagion character) six months after the death of his wife. Since everything reminds him of her, the California columnist decides to make a change, starting with a new location. His realtor (Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s J.B. Smoove), brother (Sideways‘ Thomas Haden Church), and sullen teenage son (Colin Ford) try to talk him out of it, but Mee falls in love with a country manor that comes with a strange stipulation: the tenant must manage the zoo that accompanies the property. With his daughter’s blessing, Mee takes the plunge. Fortunately, he inherits an experienced staff, including MacCready (Angus MacFadyen), Robin (Patrick Fugit), Lily (Elle Fanning), and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, lovely as ever in her least glamorous role to date). Mee’s road to reinvention offers few surprises, but Damon makes him a sympathetic figure who finds the same kind of support system among the park personnel that Fugit’s Almost Famous writer found in the rock world, except Mee’s relationships have more staying power. If his detractors–a skeptical employee and an unctuous inspector–feel like screenwriter constructs, Zoo represents a return to form for Crowe after a series of missteps, including Elizabethtown. Better yet, the real-life park that Mee acquired continues to lead by example as a humane habitat for endangered species.
3. The Muppets
Movies attempting to retrieve cherished nuggets of pop culture often stumble, either by appealing solely to the die-hard minutia enthusiasts or clunking up the batter with unnecessary additions to the base material. (Enough with the human love triangles, get to the giant robots fighting.) Thankfully, this revival of Jim Henson’s beloved characters gets the formula delightfully right, providing a googly-eyed nostalgia trip for adults while also retaining the original’s sense of bright (and mildly subversive) wonder. All that’s missing is a cameo from Shields and Yarnell, really. Kicking off with a boffo musical number, the story follows Walter (voice of Peter Linz), a small-town boy with a uniquely personal affection for the long-retired Muppets. (OK, he’s made of felt.) Teaming up with his brother (Jason Segel, who also co-scripted) and the local schoolteacher (Amy Adams), they attempt to get Kermit, Fozzie, and the gang back together in order to save their studio from an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper, going all in). Director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords) does a marvelous job of updating and honoring his material, weaving sly references to days gone by (the contents of Kermit’s rolodex are a particular delight) into the mix of songs, celebrity cameos, and barn-broad puns that gave the original show its bubbly kick. (Fans of Animal and the Chickens will not go home disappointed.) Even the moments that don’t quite work land with a cornball brio that feels wholly of a piece with Henson’s universe. The result is a true family movie that still brings on the blissful, uncomplicated grins days after viewing. No matter what Statler and/or Waldorf might say, the show goes on.
A murder mystery rife with suspense, scandal, sexual abuse, and some supremely intriguing characters, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an excellently crafted film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s equally fascinating book of the same name. Larsson’s book was also the basis of a 2009 Swedish film (also with the same title), and while the Swedish film was good, this American version is far superior, thanks to fantastic cinematography and livelier pacing that results in a constant, electric tension that drives every second of the movie. The breathtaking footage of a snowy, remote island in Sweden thoroughly exudes bitter cold, and the attention to the smallest details, like the whistling of the wind through a door left ajar, makes the hairs on the back of viewers’ necks absolutely prickle. Like the book, the film is long (158 minutes), there’s an abundance of dialogue that is never awkward and always efficient, and there are plenty of false endings. The suspense and the intricacy of the mystery are stellar, and even viewers who know the story well will find themselves sucked into the riddle being investigated by journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). The casting is great, as are the performances of all the key actors, but by far the best thing about this film is Rooney Mara, who is utterly believable as the incredibly strong, extremely disturbed Lisbeth Salander, Blomkvist’s unlikely assistant. Mara’s performance is chillingly real and completely riveting. Yorick van Wageningen is perfectly despicable as Nils Bjurman (though his scene with Salander is sure to prove highly disturbing to some viewers), Christopher Plummer is an effective Henrik Vanger, and Stellen Skarsgård is eerily frightening as Martin Vanger. Viewers can only hope that director David Fincher, screenplay writer Steven Zaillian, and actors Craig and Mara will continue their collaboration to produce films based on the final two books of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close touches the viewer to the very core. In the way that Titanic and The Sweet Hereafter depicted tragedy by pulling back at the pivotal moment, only increasing the heartache portrayed, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close shows the massive losses experienced in New York on September 11, 2001, through the lens of one young boy. Thomas Horn plays Oskar, a boy devoted to his dad (played by Tom Hanks, in flashbacks), who is lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The devastation of that day shudders through Oskar’s family, including his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock, in a subdued and affecting turn). Young Oskar is lost in the broken new world, but suddenly finds a purpose: a key left by his father. As Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close progresses, Oskar focuses on the key as a way to connect to his lost father–but finds, instead, connections in the unlikeliest of places. Horn is a wonder in his leading role, and commands attention even as his emotions are scattered. Hanks and Bullock are excellent, as always, though they are more incidental to the film than the viewer might have hoped. Standing out in the cast is Max von Sydow, a mysterious mute whom Oskar meets on the New York subway, and who becomes the most unlikely of guardian angels. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel, which was able to depict a bit more wry humor to leaven the heartbreak and history lessons, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nonetheless faces human tragedy straight on, and shows how a broken family can be rebuilt, one small key, one subway ride, one awkward hug at a time.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 delivers strongly for the rabid fan base who have catapulted the young adult novel series and subsequent movie adaptations to the worldwide phenomenon that it’s become, but it alienates a broader audience with a lack of any real action. Similar to the tone of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the first film of the two-part Twilight conclusion is heavy on romance, love, and turmoil but light on fight scenes and gruesome battles. The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the goods and opens with Bella and Edward’s much-hyped wedding scene. It works–the vows are efficient and first-time franchise director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) moves the party along quickly and amusingly with a well-edited toast scene and some surprisingly moving moments between Bella and her father, cast standout Billy Burke. The honeymoon plays as a slightly awkward soft-focus made-for-TV movie, with a lot of long moments spent staring in the mirror and some love scenes that feel at once overly intimate and completely passionless. It’s a relief when Bella retches on a bite of chicken she’s cooked herself and quickly concludes she’s pregnant with a potentially demonic baby. From bliss to horror, the Cullens return to Forks, where Bella spends the second half of the movie wasting away and Edward and Jacob are aligned in their anger and frustration over her decision. Throw in some over-the-top scenes with Jacob and his pack–including a strange showdown where the wolves communicate in their canine form by having a passionate nonverbal fight in their minds (a plot point that works much better in print, it’s portrayed in the film via aggressive voice-over)–and the film overshoots intensity and goes straight to silly. The birth scene is horrific, but not as gruesome as in the book, and by the end, Bella has of course survived, though is much altered. The final scene features a delightfully campy Michael Sheen as Volturi leader Aro and makes it clear that the action and fun in Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is ready to start. Fans will just have to wait until Part 2 to get it.
Only Oscar-winning writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways) would think to cast the famously handsome George Clooney as a disheveled dad in his outstanding adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s tragicomic novel. Clooney dials down the glamour to play Matt King, a Hawaii real-estate attorney with a propensity for unflattering shirts and ill-fitting trousers. When Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, ends up in a coma after a water-skiing accident, Matt must learn to balance the parenting of his resentful daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), with the sale of a pristine plot of Kauai land that stands to make the King cousins, including scruffy Hugh (Beau Bridges), a fortune. As Elizabeth’s condition worsens, Matt contacts friends and relatives, like her fiercely protective father (Robert Forster), so that they’ll have the chance to say goodbye. In the process, he finds out she was having an affair with realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, effectively cast against type), so he and the girls, including Alex’s hilariously mellow friend, Sid (Nick Krause), go on an island-hopping trip, ostensibly to add Brian to the mix, but Matt really wants to find out what his wife saw in the guy. His journey from naiveté to knowledge brings out Clooney’s soulful side, creating a believably flawed, deeply sympathetic figure. If Payne leans too heavily on the slack-key soundtrack, his love for his characters, including Judy Greer as Matt’s female counterpart, results in his most emotionally satisfying movie to date.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Jude Law returns as his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” Sherlock Holmes has always been the smartest man in the room…until now. There is a new criminal mastermind at large—Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris)—and not only is he Holmes’ intellectual equal, but his capacity for evil, coupled with a equal, but his capacity for evil, coupled with a complete lack of conscience, may give him an advantage over the renowned detective.Around the globe, headlines break the news: a scandal takes down an Indian cotton tycoon; a Chinese opium trader dies of an apparent overdose; bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna; the death of an American steel magnate… No one sees the connective thread between these seemingly random events—no one, that is, except the great Sherlock Holmes, who has discerned a deliberate web of death and destruction. At its center sits a singularly sinister spider: Moriarty. Holmes’ investigation into Moriarty’s plot becomes more dangerous as it leads him and Watson out of London to France, Germany and finally Switzerland. But the cunning Moriarty is always one step ahead, and moving perilously close to completing his ominous plan. If he succeeds, it will not only bring him immense wealth and power but alter the course of history.
The second half of the first decade of the 21st century has been kind of tough for Tom Cruise. That’s tough in a way over and above the hardship of living the legacy of one of history’s top movie stars–a job more demanding than any mere mortal could imagine. But after two fruitful collaborations with Steven Spielberg (Minority Report and War of the Worlds), his stature took a beating from the one-two hits of those wacky PR gaffes and that string of relative box-office disappointments (Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie, Knight and Day), which seemed to start with the third installment of his Mission: Impossible franchise in 2006. It’s hard to say with a straight face that taking in only $398 million worldwide is a disappointment, but it was a low for the series, which some later saw as a prelude to his potentially dimming stardom. But on the cusp of turning 50, it looks like Tom Cruise has put the licking behind him and entered a new phase of self-conception with an upcoming array of roles, starting with a more maturely controlled version of superspy Ethan Hunt in the sleek and supercharged Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The things Cruise has done right in M: I part four include toning down his youthful, arrogant preening and letting his castmates share more of the spotlight (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg all have some terrifically shiny moments). He also lets the unique creative vision of director Brad Bird shine through in a first live-action outing for the acclaimed helmer of Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Still looking much younger than his years (that hair! those pecs! those abs!), Cruise is playing more age-appropriately, letting a little wisdom and grace seep into his charisma so the wattage of his mere presence smolders a little deeper. It’s a nice nod to a graying generation that says you can get older and still be cool. All that is not to say he doesn’t play up his action-star chops to the max. In a mostly inconsequential narrative arc that has something to do with purloined nuclear launch codes, an important metal briefcase, satellite uplinks, and global annihilation that leaps from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, Cruise is as dangerously nimble as he has ever been. He dangles one-handed from the tallest building in the world, bounds off ledges, springs out of speeding vehicles, tumbles and careens up and down the levels of an automated parking garage, and generally sprints and jumps his way across the movie with only a scratch or bruise to show for it. Also on the outlandish upside is a happily stereotypical villain straight out of Connery-era Bond and as many bleeding-edge gadgets as the art department techno-geeks could dream up. A running gag is that many of these electronic fantasy tools fail at just the wrong moment, which is part of a larger wink acknowledging how utterly preposterous yet ingeniously conceived this behemoth of a movie really is. The gadgetry is not limited just to the miraculous props. Ghost Protocol employs CGI fakery of the highest order from the sub-industry of effects contractors that ratchet up the standard of computing power and software design, one-upping each successive action-adventure extravaganza. The loving detail that goes into blowing up the Kremlin or rendering a photo-realistic sandstorm erupting across the enhanced skyline of an Oz-like desert city is nothing short of miraculous. What’s more astonishing is that Tom Cruise closes the deal with a selling power that’s as new and improved as the laminates on his multi-million-dollar teeth.
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In resourceful orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, an Oliver Twist-like charmer), Martin Scorsese finds the perfect vessel for his silver-screen passion: this is a movie about movies (fittingly, the 3-D effects are spectacular). After his clockmaker father (Jude Law) perishes in a museum fire, Hugo goes to live with his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunkard who maintains the clocks at a Paris train station. When Claude disappears, Hugo carries on his work and fends for himself by stealing food from area merchants. In his free time, he attempts to repair an automaton his father rescued from the museum, while trying to evade the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a World War I veteran with no sympathy for lawbreakers. When Georges (Ben Kingsley), a toymaker, catches Hugo stealing parts for his mechanical man, he recruits him as an assistant to repay his debt. If Georges is guarded, his open-hearted ward, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), introduces Hugo to a kindly bookseller (Christopher Lee), who directs them to a motion-picture museum, where they meet film scholar René (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg). In helping unlock the secret of the automaton, they learn about the roots of cinema, starting with the Lumière brothers, and give a forgotten movie pioneer his due, thus illustrating the importance of film preservation, a cause to which the director has dedicated his life. If Scorsese’s adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret isn’t his most autobiographical work, it just may be his most personal.
Copyright David Masters 2012