Going back a few years, the arrival of high definition in general and Blu-ray specifically signaled a new era of entertainment. While home theater has long promised a movie-watching experience that we could enjoy in our pajamas—without getting arrested—the reign of the 1080p optical disc promised us DVD convenience combined with superior cinematic quality. Delivering on that promise wasn’t always so easy, however. Owing to a variety of variables, such as poor film storage, tight budgets, and the simple fact that some studios are more dedicated to the preservation of their libraries than others, many of the most anticipated Blu-ray debuts have been lackluster, frequently mere ports of existing standard-def masters.
1971’s Harold and Maude, a cult classic before there was such a thing, undoubtedly remains the weirdest rom-com of all times (classifying this movie as such has me laughing out loud as I type!). Harold (Bud Cort) is an odd young man who lives with his wealthy, high-society widow of a mother and gets his kicks (and much-needed attention) from elaborately acting out his own death. Over and over. While Harold’s mom’s ideas for straightening him out are to put him in the military or marry him off, another of Harold’s hobbies, attending strangers’ funerals, leads him to Maude (Ruth Gordon), a daring older woman and the freest spirit you’ve ever seen. She lives in a renovated boxcar, fights the system in her own inimitable ways, ruffles a lot of feathers, and steals a hell of a lot of cars. She’s a gas and is absolutely as obsessed with life as weird Harold is with death. They fall in love.
Last year’s Best Picture, The Artist, embodies a simple enough idea: a silent movie about silent movies, told in the classic style. Set in the waning days of the era, the story introduces us to aging matinee idol George Valentin (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin) who meets the wide-eyed ingénue Peppy Miller (nominee Bérénice Bejo) outside one of his premieres. Seldom does the screen see such an intoxicatingly attractive couple, and yet their relationship is a complicated smolder of admiration and respect that has its share of ups and downs across years of drastic change.
Adaptations of old TV shows are a mixed bag, especially when filmmakers take the risky step of amping up the comedy factor of the original. The new gold standard of this bawdy-yet-reverent approach is 21 Jump Street, with much of the credit belonging to star/executive producer/co-writer Jonah Hill. He plays a brainy high school loser who, years later, winds up enrolling in the police academy at the same time as his brawny erstwhile tormentor (Channing Tatum).
Zeus, king of the gods, enlists the help of his half-human son Perseus in defeating Perseus’ brother Ares, who has allied with Hades in an effort to release Kronos, the leader of the Titans and the father of Zeus and the other gods. But Perseus just wants to be left alone to live as a human with his son.
The old adage “trust no one” is dramatically reinforced in the adrenaline-pumping thriller Safe House. Government-run safe houses are supposedly secure areas where people of interest can be kept in quarantine for purposes of questioning or until safe transport can be arranged. Ryan Reynolds is a “housekeeper” stationed at a CIA safe house in Capetown, South Africa. His daily regimen consists of total isolation and staring at the walls. One night, however, covert operatives arrive with a high-profile renegade agent to be interrogated. Shortly after his arrival, all hell breaks loose and pretty much stays on the loose until the end of the movie. Denzel Washington stars as the rogue agent carrying some extremely volatile and valuable information.
The buddy movie has been a staple in Hollywood going back to the days of Abbott and Costello. The 1980s revived it with films such as 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon, and there have been quite a few copycats over the years that have made their mark. Like most successful films, sequels are a surety, and this is where the Mel Gibson–fueled franchise proved its worth with nearly $500 million in box-office receipts for the four films.
As Marvel’s comic characters go, Ghost Rider is hellishly hard to categorize. From what I can gather from the character’s two films, 2007’s Ghost Rider and this sequel (I’m not a fan of the comics), Johnny Blaze is a motorcycle stunt rider who sells his soul to the devil to save his father’s life. In exchange, he periodically turns into an ancient, fiery demon that searches out evil to suck out its soul. A bummer for sure, but everybody needs a hobby. His motorcycle has apparently sold its carburetor and tires to Beelzebub as well, since whenever Johnny goes all flames and stuff, he’s also treated to one hell of a ride. Talk about sitting on the hot seat.
Long before Batman had the Joker, the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, had an evil nemesis who was every bit his equal in intelligence and powers of perception; the yin to his yang, so to speak. Professor James Moriarty was a precursor to the Bond villain and a blueprint for every criminal mastermind to come. In the previous Sherlock Holmes film, he was a mysterious and sinister presence concealed in darkness. For A Game of Shadows, he comes to the forefront to challenge the master detective to a game to the death and is played with relish by Jared Harris.
An old adage (OK, I just made it up) says that if you’re going to make a movie in 3D, you’d better give the audience something interesting to look at. The Mysterious Island does just that, dazzling the eyes with nonstop wonders held together by a wholly adequate plot. Young Sean (Josh Hutcherson) is having trouble living the suburban life of a normal teen after the excitement of his journey to the center of the earth. And soon enough, a cryptic message from his missing grandfather sets him off on a new adventure halfway around the globe, this time chaperoned by his supercool stepdad (Dwayne Johnson).
Chinatown is an impossibly perfect movie from the glory years of the 1970s, when great filmmakers were routinely working within the Hollywood system. Consider that Chinatown’s 1974 Oscar competition was Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation, and you get the idea. Robert Towne’s complex but tightly woven screenplay, set amid L.A.’s 1930s water wars, is a clinic on screenwriting. Every detail is of great consequence as the misdirection peels away and the baser, more painful truths are revealed, culminating in a haunting, unforgettable ending that starkly reveals the cynicism of the film’s title.
There are few more enduring classics of American theater than Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, an over-the-top, sweaty steam bath of a play that straddles Greek tragedy and Gothic camp yet still commands attention, even astonishes, 65 years after its creation. The show ran on Broadway for two years; the film adaptation was shot two years after that; both were directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando. This was only Brando’s second film. He was 27 years old. And despite all the subsequent parodies of his sultry pout and his mumblecore rage (“Stella! Stel-l-l-laaa!”), he was a blazing-hot actor. It’s a natural heat that he radiates, and he modulates it seamlessly, from simmer to boil and all shades in between. Brando’s amazing to watch: The acting is all there on the surface, yet he’s so immersed in his character, it seems completely uncontrived. You see the moves and attitude that countless actors later copied, but none of them ever matched this. (That said, his performance in Kazan’s On the Waterfront three years later was even better, subtler.)
When I was a wee lad, I was taken to a movie about a boy and his dog. It was a Lassie movie, I believe, although I was too young for that to mean anything. According to my mother, however, I cried so hard they could hear me in the back of the balcony. (All theaters had balconies in olden times.)
Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt for this fourth film in his big-screen Mission: Impossible franchise, and this might just be the best one yet. Hunt is the sort of fellow I secretly hope we have on the federal payroll: fearless, cool under pressure, and a quick study in almost everything. He’s a good man to have on our side when the going gets rough because he simply will not quit as long as he has a pulse.
During World War II, Casablanca served as an exit point for many Europeans seeking to escape the gripping hand of the Nazis. American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), owner of Rick’s Café Américain, isn’t what you would call a people person. When Rick’s ex-lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), arrives in town with European resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, they seek out Rick’s help in obtaining papers to escape Casablanca. Can the man who refuses to “stick his neck out for nobody” set his cynicism aside and do the right thing?