DVD Traffic Report: February 19 – February 26, 2008

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The Darjeeling Limited (Fox)

Is there some hope that Wes Anderson is ready to stop making

the same movie over and over? The Darjeeling Limited is charming and wise —

but so indulgent. Its sibling protagonists (Anderson stalwarts Jason Schwarzman and Owen

Wilson, plus newcomer Adrien Brody), lost boys whose fractious relationship was

highlighted by the unexpected death of their father, are overgrown children

gamboling across the Indian countryside in search of themselves and each other.

Anderson is

definitely operating at a high level of craft: the low-key screenplay (by

Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola) has a few explosively funny

one-liners, and his trademark slow-motion shots remain gorgeous — especially as

they highlight the lanky frame of Brody, in a sinuous full-body performance

that borders on genius. And Wilson’s

performance beneath bandages is a moving exercise in sadness, made unavoidably

resonant by the actor’s recent suicide attempt. (Schwartzman, rocking a

ridiculous mustache, makes less of an impression.) Too much of it plays like an

in-joke for Anderson

groupies and an ode to the idle rich. But when these three are stopped dead by

an unplanned visit to a tiny village, the film jumps to life, breaking into a

larger universe outside Anderson’s

comfort zone. As far as the DVD goes, there’s good news and bad news. Importantly, the DVD includes “Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman and a (nude, but not extremely so) Natalie Portman and designed to be seen before the feature. It was stupidly missing from prints distributed in the film’s original, post-festival but pre-platform release — though you could download it via iTunes for home-computer viewing — so it’s a very welcome feature here. Unfortunately, it’s from Fox, which means a Blu-ray version doing justice to Robert Yeoman’s location cinematography is not in the cards. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Darjeeling Limited

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Michael Clayton (Warner)

Your mileage may vary, depending in large part on how much tolerance you have for the climactic Clooney-Swinton smackdown, in which writer/director Tony Gilroy goes for the conventionally audience-satisfying climax against what had to have been his better judgment. Yes, Clooney and Swinton are giving career-high performances, but the resolution is almost hilariously pat — in a corporate world as roughly cynical and amoral as the one Gilroy illustrates for most of Michael Clayton‘s running time, Clayton’s do-the-right-thing shenanigans come impossibly easy. Redeemed somewhat by a terrific final shot detailing Clayton’s taxi ride to some kind of dark side; he may have claimed the moral high ground, but that ironclad non-disclosure agreement says he’s moving away from the light for sure. And Robert Elswit’s cinematography (supple camerawork, gorgeous colors, a classic yet wholly contemporary photographic style) is fast becoming the stuff of legend — this and There Will Be Blood in the same year? Phenomenal. My original capsule review, plus some more thoughts, is here.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Michael Clayton (Widescreen Edition) or Michael Clayton [Blu-ray]

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Margot at the Wedding (Paramount)

Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) goes Woody Allen one better with this dysfunctional-family dramedy that manages

to be psychologically astute as well as wickedly funny. Margot (Nicole Kidman)

and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are estranged sisters reunited on the

occasion of Pauline’s marriage at their childhood home somewhere in New England. (Jack Black plays the bridegroom as a rotund

little ball of insecurity.) The needy, scattered Pauline doesn’t have her life

together, but Margot is a real piece of work, lashing out at her sister, her

brother-in-law-to-be, and even Pauline’s redneck neighbors. The story

occasionally embraces cliché and stretches credulity, but Baumbach’s incisive writing

and direction tease out the character notes that underlie Margot’s cruelty,

adding depth to a woman who becomes less and less sympathetic, spinning her

wheels desperately in an effort to find traction in the failings of those

around her. You feel for the gawky but sweet son she keeps in tow (even as she

cuckolds his father), but not for Margot herself — it’s a rare American film

that revolves around such an unlikable character. Evocative cinematography — no

shadows, only shades of gray — by Harris Savides rounds out a unique and unsettling

package. (Review originally published in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Margot at the Wedding


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In the Valley of Elah (Warner)

Another in a series of Iraq War-themed dramas scheduled

during the run-up to Oscar season, In the Valley of Elah is about the

investigation conducted by the father of a soldier who was killed, stateside,

upon his return to the U.S. Tommy Lee Jones, all focus and intensity,

dominates the film as a man struggling to remain imperturbable in

the face of despair. Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon are both fine in

significantly less-demanding roles. (The film’s defining supporting performance

may come from the 55-year-old Frances Fisher, playing a topless bartender!) The murder-mystery storyline is meaningful

enough, delivering an ultimate point that’s well taken, about the effects of

sending impressionable boys off to fight a war that may skew their moral

compasses. But Jones’ performance by itself is moving enough that Haggis could

have gotten his message across more subtly — the ham-fisted closing scene feels

especially phony, which goes some distance toward undermining the rest of the

film — and the details of the investigation are too superficial (and ring too

false) to sustain its lengthy second and third acts. Still, it’s a big

improvement on director Paul Haggis’ risible Oscar-winner Crash, and Jones deserved his Academy Award nomination. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: In the Valley of Elah or In the Valley of Elah [Blu-ray]

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Lust, Caution (Universal)

Tony Leung? Wei Tang? Joan Chen? Explicit sex? What’s not to like? I’m not sure exactly how I ended up missing the theatrical run of the new Ang Lee film, but, you know, shame on me. That’s not to say reviews have been unanimously kind — Stephanie Zacharek calls it “frustratingly limp” (ha ha) and Manohla Dargis declares, “a truer title would be Caution: Lust.” Mick LaSalle says it’s “stylized and visually arresting.” Uh-oh.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Lust, Caution (Widescreen, NC-17- Rated Edition)

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Beowulf [Unrated Director’s Cut] (Paramount)

As I wrote back in November, “The good news is,

the last 20 minutes of Beowulf contains maybe the best, most

spectacular action scene of the year — it must be the most excitingly realized

man-on-dragon beatdown in the history of fantasy filmmaking. The bad news is

you have to sit through the rest of Beowulf to get to it.” There you go. DVDtalk.com says the “unrated” material is more cartoon violence, not — as the TV spots subtly suggest — more cartoon nudity.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Beowulf (Unrated Director’s Cut)

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Redacted (Magnolia)

I was going to type something about what a shame it is when a visual stylist at the level of Brian De Palma is reduced to monkeying around with Handycams and imitation YouTube in order to try and make points about the inhumanity of war and the objectifying, dehumanizing effects of photography (one of his great subjects), but then I remembered the failure that was Black Dahlia — a parody of itself despite lots of chops behind the camera plus the best source material a director could hope for — and I just hope that a movie this mediocre serves as a low-budget reboot that channels some necessary energy back into the man’s career. More thoughts in my original review.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Redacted

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