With the Oscars coming next week, three of the big nominees are coming to disc in advance of the ceremony: Birdman (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), The Theory of Everything (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD). But first, here’s a film shut out of the Oscar party that is, in my opinion, better than many of those that received multiple nominations.
The Homesman (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), one of my favorite films of the year, was overlooked by critics in the rush to praise more conventional and less resonant films. It deserves a second look. Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and stars in the film as George Briggs, a drifter saved from a lynching by Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a tough, capable settler who has tamed her harsh Nebraska homestead and now sets out on an odyssey. She trades his life for help in transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) driven mad by life on the frontier to a town hundreds of miles away, where they have been offered care and sanctuary. It’s a western, sure, but certainly not in any traditional way. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote, among others, “The Shootist”), this story presents the West as a hard place that creates hard people and destroys the rest.
Jones is marvelous as the no-account whose word is secured through his greed but also rises to the occasion when necessary, but Hilary Swank dominates the film as Mary. She has carved out a successful spread but remains single and terribly lonely; she’s “too bossy,” says one of the few bachelors available on this vast sea of grass, scrub, and rolling hills. Her performance as a tough, driven, commanding woman cuts through the film like a knife. She was robbed of an Oscar nomination.
The film offers a landscape to match the emotional isolation; this land is as empty and lonely and unforgiving as it is lovely. There have been a lot of films about the costs and hardships faced by the first American settlers of the West, but they’ve all focused on the physical—violence, weather, shelter, food, the hardships of carving a home out of the wilderness. The Homesman looks at the toll on the heart and the soul and the psyche in a homestead miles from the nearest neighbor. It is a powerful film of elemental emotions and instincts, filled with eccentric and unusual episodes that straddle the fine line between humor and tragedy.
Blu-ray and DVD with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Blu-ray also features a bonus UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Also available on cable and digital VOD (through iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and others).
Birdman (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), up for nine Academy Awards (including Best Film, Director, Actor, Screenplay, and Cinematography), stars Michael Keaton as an actor once famous for playing a movie superhero attempting a comeback through a serious Broadway play. It’s famous for being presented in a simulated single long take that traverses not just space but time, travelling through scenes that span the course of a week in a film the runs just under two hours. The energy never flags through the sustained action, thanks to acrobatic camerawork, adrenaline-spiked performances, and a percussion-heavy soundtrack. Along with Keaton, who indeed seems to have engineered his own comeback with the film, supporting actor Edward Norton and supporting actress Emma Stone received Oscar nominations, as did director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Also available for digital purchase.
The Theory of Everything (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), up for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor and Actress for Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones), stars Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Jones as his wife and follows their relationship over the course of decades and the physically debilitating ravages of ALS, which struck him when he was a graduate student at Cambridge. In addition to disc, the film is available via cable and digital VOD (through Amazon, Vudu, and Xbox).
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, is probably not considered a “major” nominee by the mainstream press but this production by Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave of the Fireflies” filmmaker Isao Takahata takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a 10th-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society.
Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the watercolor and ink artworks of ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of storybook illustrations and Joe Hisashi’s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us through the air with a thrilling rush. With Studio Ghibli ceasing operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is their final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.
Blu-ray and DVD, with original Japanese language and English dub versions (Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Lucy Liu are among the voice performers of the English language cast) and the feature-length documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya, plus a news clip of the announcement of the completion of the film and Japanese and U.S. trailers. Also available via cable VOD.
Life Itself (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert (and based in part on Ebert’s autobiography), was begun in collaboration with Ebert, who died before the film was completed. It now stands in tribute the film critic who arguably had the greatest impact on American moviegoers in his time, thanks to an approach to writing about films that invited readers into his process, his early adoption of blogging and social media to communicate with readers, and the encouragement and support he gave to young filmmakers and aspiring film critics alike. The acclaimed portrait won a number of awards from film festivals and critics groups but was surprisingly not one of the final nominees at the Oscars.
Blu-ray and DVD, with more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes, an interview with director Steve James, a Roger Ebert tribute produced for Sundance, and a promotional featurette. It’s also available on VOD through Amazon.
Of greater interest to many people—it is, after all, one of the top-selling titles on disc—is Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) of HBO’s sprawling fantasy epic, faithfully adapted from the cycle of novels by George R.R. Martin (who is also collaborator on the show).
It plays like an alternate reality take on Europe in the middle ages, a brutal world where life is cheap, power is taken by brute force, and magic, monsters, and other inexplicable dark forces exist in the periphery. The season begins with yet another murder that changes the course of power and puts Tyrion (Emmy award-winning actor Peter Dinklage) on trial for a crime he’s clearly been framed for, while the surviving Stark girls—court-trained princess Sansa (Sophie Turner) and scrappy young warrior Arya (Maisie Williams)—learn how power works in hard lessons as they navigate wars and conspiracies and the capriciousness of life in Westeros. Across the sea, barbarian queen and Mother of Dragons Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) frees the slaves of the desert kingdoms on her march to retake the throne only to get bogged down by the responsibilities of power and her own sense of justice.
The show is currently HBO’s signature series and most popular show, both in the U.S. and internationally, and a bestseller on disc, and it brings in more viewers every season, thanks to the show’s lavishly realized canvas (the series is shot in Ireland, Iceland, Morocco, Malta, and Croatia), massive cast of vividly drawn characters, and dense storyline. This isn’t quite as exciting as past seasons, as so much of the story is about characters simply holding things together in crisis, but it is just as compelling and involving and once again the ninth episode delivers the spectacle of the season. This time it’s a massive battle with literal giants attacking the Night Watch on the Wall where Jon Stark leads the defense (and faces the woman he betrayed).
Blu-ray and DVD, with eleven commentary tracks across the ten episode season, a roundtable discussion with some of the actors whose characters are killed off this season (best seen after finishing the season), an introduction to new characters and locations, the half-hour featurette “Behind the Battle for the Wall” plus additional featurettes “The Politics of Power: A Look Back at Season 3” and “Bastards of Westeros,” and two deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition are two interactive features: “In-Episode Guide” and “Histories and Lore.”
Super Sentai Zyuranger: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD) is the 1992 Japanese TV series that spawned the American show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Five ancient warriors are roused from suspended animation and don colorful outfits to summon mechanical beasts to battle an evil witch. The fighting sequences were used extensively in the first season of the American Power Rangers with new stories written around them for the American cast to play out. 50 episodes on ten discs on DVD, all in Japanese with English subtitles.
Also new and notable:
Bill Murray stars in St. Vincent (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a familiar comedy of a crotchety old man who bonds with an eccentric, lonely child (Jaeden Lieberher) sustained largely by Murray. Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, and Chris O’Dowd co-star.
Dumb and Dumber To (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reunites Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels twenty years after the original comedy became a huge hit and helped elevate Carrey to superstardom. This one wasn’t quite so successful.
No Tears for the Dead (CJ Entertainment, Blu-ray, DVD) is a South Korean crime thriller about a Korean hitman (Jang Don-gun), raised in the U.S. by a mafia family, who returns home to face the mother of a child he accidentally killed in the course of a mission. Director Lee Jeong-beom previously made the hit action thriller The Man From Nowhere. Korean and English language versions.
The Interview (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), currently available through Netflix streaming, comes to disc less than two months after its simultaneous theatrical and VOD release.
The Phantom of the Opera (1989) (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), the 1989 remake of classic horror film from producers Harry Alan Towers and Menahem Golan, cast Robert Englund in the role of the disfigured phantom and Jill Schoelen as the ingénue, with Bill Nighy in a supporting role. Shout! Factory offers a new retrospective featurette along with commentary by director Dwight H. Little and star Robert Englund.
Le Pont du Nord (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1981 film of fantasy, conspiracy, and games played across the map of Paris, makes it America home video debut. I reviewed it for Cinephiled here.
And a new batch of releases for Olive Films will be covered in an upcoming review, including five films from the sixties: from the teenage innocence of Beach Blanket Bingo (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) and Muscle Beach Party (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) to the counterculture rebellion of The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) and Psych-Out (restored) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), with the adult sex farce a la Billy Wilder Kiss Me Stupid (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) in between.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Hulu Plus hosts the streaming side of the Criterion Collection, best known as the premiere American label for superb editions of foreign and American films classics on Blu-ray and DVD, but every week it puts a number of titles available for free through regular Hulu for a limited time. They are uncut but shown with limited commercial interruption. This week it presents nine film by Jacques Demy: six titles released in a box set last year plus three films otherwise unavailable on disc— The Pied Piper (1972, previously on DVD from Legend), A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), and Parking (1985)—and two documentaries about his work by his widow, Agnes Varda. Hulu Plus subscribers can view them without interruption.
The Better Angels (VOD), a drama about the childhood of Abraham Lincoln starring Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, and Brit Marling, debuts on Cable VOD a month before disc. Terrence Malick produces and “presents” the directorial debut by A.J. Edwards (who worked on Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life, and Knight of Cups).
On Friday, February 19, same days as theaters, comes All the Wilderness (VOD) starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as a teenager dealing with the loss of his father. Virginia Madsen and Danny DeVito co-star.
Available for digital purchase in advance of disc is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Digital HD).
Classics and Cult:
An Autumn Afternoon (Criterion, Blu-ray)
How to Murder Your Wife (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Caveman (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Road to Hong Kong (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
1969 (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Cult of the Damned (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
TV on disc:
The Chair (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Batman: The Second Season, Part One (Warner, DVD)
Wahlburgers: The Complete Second Season (A&E, DVD)
American Experience: Klansville USA (PBS, DVD)
The Sixties (PBS, DVD)
Tales from the Royal Bedchamber (PBS, DVD)
V/H/S: Viral (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (Revolver, DVD, iTunes)
On Any Sunday, The Next Chapter (Red Bull Media House, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD)
Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border (Kino Lorber, DVD)
Dying of the Light (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Skating to New York (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD)
The World Made Straight (Alchemy, Blu-ray, DVD)
Altar (Cinedigm, DVD, Digital HD)
Survivor (XLrator, DVD)
House of Last Things (Revolver, DVD, iTunes)
Motivational Growth (MVD, Blu-ray, DVD)
Animal (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gladiators of Rome (Paramount, DVD)
Scooby-Doo! Moon Monster Madness (Warner, DVD, Digital HD)