This week's new spotlight DVDs:
No Country for Old Men (Miramax Films & Paramount Vantage)
The Oscar for Best Picture. The Coen Brothers. Javier Bardem's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Javier Bardem's haircut. Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar for Best Director. Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cormac McCarthy. Josh Brolin. Tommy Lee Jones. The coin. That final act (which is perfect, in my opinion; let's chat about it in person sometime). Best Screenplay (Golden Globes, National Board of Review, NY Film Critics Circle). Best Ensemble Cast (National Board of Review). Roger Deakins' way with a camera and a wide screen to fill. Glaswegian lassie Kelly Macdonald's freaky facility with a West Texas accent. More critics' top ten lists than any other film of 2007. And once more because I like saying it: the Coen Brothers.
The most discussed and written-about film in a year rich with good ones, No Country for Old Men is an elegiac lamentation that mixes violence, subtlety, and poetry with such skill that doing it looks easy. Both brutal and snowflake delicate all at once, this meditative neo-noir bears rewatching as layers and insights reveal themselves with subsequent viewings. So it's ideal for home video, and if you need an excuse to buy that bigger screen, here you go. Available on DVD and Blu-ray HD (with no substantive difference beyond the image quality), No Country for Old Men arrives with the expected pristine 2.35:1 enhanced widescreen image and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Longtime Coen collectors won't be surprised by the absence of a commentary track. We do, though, get three interesting featurettes for behind-the-scenes interviews during the production: "The Making of No Country for Old Men" (24 minutes), "Working with the Coens" (8 minutes), and "Diary of a Country Sheriff" (7 minutes). "Making of" opens with a bull's eye -- as Tommy Lee Jones and others try to classify the film as a road movie or a horror movie or a chase movie or a horror-comedy-chase, it's up to Kelly Macdonald to pin it down (her Scottish brogue sweet as Drambuie) by saying "It's a Coen Brothers film. They're their own genre." Yup.
Dan in Real Life (Touchstone)
Let's give a heartfelt oh-hell-yeah for Steve Carell, who has had some good years lately. (Okay, yes, Evan Almighty, moving on....) This undersold but good-looking and warmly felt romantic comedy is arguably his best role so far. Pleasing chemistry, Peter Hedges' light directorial touch, and original music by Norwegian guitarist Sondre Lerche add to the satisfying pleasures here. The DVD and Blu-ray HD come with a commentary by Hedges, some "making of" featurettes, 11 deleted scenes (totaling 20 minutes) with optional director commentary, and brief outtakes. An Easter egg on the bonus features menu yields a Carell blooper reel. And even the audio commentary includes the options of French and Spanish subtitles.
Director Lou Ye risked his career to tell this politically and sexually ambitious romantic epic about a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl (Hao Lei, riveting and stirringly emotional) swept up by passion and the wind of rebellion she feels while a university student in Beijing -- until the protests in Tiananmen Square bring the Chinese state against the personal and revolutionary upheaval of a now-lost generation. The first Chinese film to feature full-frontal male and female nudity, Summer Palace's explicit sex scenes and political undertones led to the filmmakers being censured and the movie itself banned in its homeland after it screened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival without government approval. It's a gripping, provocative, and nearly hypnotic historical drama told with lush camera work and Lou Ye's intimate understanding of these people and that time. About the DVD, Film.com's Cole Drumb said here that the "characters, the film, and the Chinese government's response to it are further explored in the two special features of the DVD -- 'The Making of Summer Palace' and 'Summer Palace & Chinese Censorship' -- which are both worth watching for added layers to an already impressive film."
August Rush (Warner)
Overall a well-made film that hasn't a mean-spirited bone in its sentimental, melodramatic body (and that counts for a lot with me), this musical/fable/love story more or less gives Oliver Twist a modern Manhattan update. While doing so it practically drowns itself and us in its own dewy earnestness. Freddie Highmore stars in the title role, playing an orphaned music prodigy on a magical quest to New York City in search of the parents (Keri Russell as a classically trained cellist and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an Irish rocker) who he senses are still out there somewhere. Too often coincidence turns the script, and the cloying elements do clot the cream. But if you suspend both your disbelief and your cynicism a notch more than usual, there's plenty to like here. Among them are strong-enough performances from Russell (along with Waitress, it was good to see her back on big screens in '07), young Highmore, and Rhys Meyers. (On the other hand, casting Robin "Patch Adams" Williams in a movie that draws its syrup straight from the tree was a potentially fatal miscalculation.) Recommended for families with budding young musicians too young to call bullshit on the whole thing. The DVD doesn't offer much besides the film (in both anamorphic widescreen and -- ack! -- full-screen versions), the only extras being a few additional scenes that fill out the story a bit further.
Housewife, 49 (Guardian telecast review blog) (Acorn Media)
Offering a moving glimpse into life on the home front through the eyes of a resolute woman gradually awakening to life, this 2006 British television drama was based on the wartime diaries of Nella Last, an ordinary housewife and mother in the Northern English town of Barrow-in-Furness during World War II. Soon after England declared war on Germany in 1939, Nella began writing a diary as part of a government-sponsored public project. Housewife, 49 depicts the hardships and terror of wartime as well as its liberating effects. Amid the hardships of food rations and air raids, Nella's volunteer work for the war effort fills her with an exhilarating sense of purpose. She also gains the confidence to confront her domineering husband (David Threlfall) for the first time, and to handle her changing relationships with her elder son (Ben Crompton), and her younger son (Christopher Harper), who is changed by his experiences of combat. As Nella, Victoria Wood brings pathos and wit to a role that won her BAFTAs for both her acting and writing, a rare double. Housewife, 49 also won the BAFTA award for Best Single Drama. Special Features: An insert with background on the U.K.'s Mass-Observation project, the source of Nella's diaries; a text interview with Victoria Wood; and cast filmographies.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law, this near-future biopunk drama from 1997 is thoughtful, subdued, and -- with genetic diagnosis, discrimination, and information privacy issues now ringing our doorbell -- lately more relevant. Hawke is a determined young man who dreams of going to space but happens to have a congenital heart condition, and is thus genetically and socially inferior. The genetically sound but emotionally unstable Jerome (Law) helps him mask his identity and enter the elite astronaut corps. The supporting cast includes Alan Arkin, author Gore Vidal (!), future SNL cast member Maya Rudolph as Delivery Nurse, Tony Shalhoub as German, and Ernest Borgnine as Caesar. Despite its low box-office and water-cooler profile, Gattaca is one of the best science fiction films of recent decades. Re-released on DVD and Blu-ray HD, Gattaca comes with a refurbished image, featurettes, a documentary, deleted scenes, and an outtake.
13: Game of Death (Official site) (Dimension Extreme: Weinstein/Genius Products)
This 2006 Thai psychological thriller and black comedy -- directed by Chukiat Sakveerakul and starring Krissada Sukosol Clapp -- was previously known as 13 Beloved. The story, about a dept-ridden man who is led through 13 progressively challenging, degrading, and dangerous stunts by mysterious callers from an underground reality game show, is adapted from a manga graphic novel. This unrated film comes with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Thai DD 5.1 audio options, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish. The extras are a "making of" featurette, the trailer, and the teaser.
Unwatchably dull, this sidewalk vendor knockoff of a John Woo/Jason Bourne actioner is based on a video game series. If you really like Timothy Olyphant (the film's genetically engineered X-Box first-person shooter, "Agent 47"), rent Deadwood again. It also stars Ukrainian lingerie model Olga Kurylenko, who'll hopefully be able to hold her head up again in this fall's next James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Hitman is available in single-disc releases with the R-rated theatrical movie or an unrated edition, or in two-disc DVD and Blu-ray sets with the unrated version. The "never-before-seen explosive action" on the unrated version amounts to about one extra minute of running time. The extras are your basic pre-fab "making of" press kit featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, an alternate ending, and a "Portable Digital Copy of Hitman" you can transfer to a portable media device.
Crave: Film Series (Official site) (Lionsgate)
Here are three short films (between 10 and 14 minutes and none including Anton Chigurh) based on the teachings of Erwin McManus, author and pastor of Mosaic Church in downtown Los Angeles. Each film features an intro from McManus and a short message on the theme of the film. A "film companion guide" accompanies the disc.