Movies on DVD

Box-Office Alternatives: Passion

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Child 44 (2015) opens Friday and features one of the darkest plots of any Spring release opening wide in recent memory. Focusing on a string of unsolved child murders in soviet Russia, the grim mystery features the always-watchable Noomi Rapace as the film's female lead.

Since hitting it big with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), Rapace has deservedly enjoyed a steady career in a variety of complex film roles. It's never anything but a pleasure seeing an actress of Rapace's talent at work, yet I can't help but notice that in so many of her projects, including Child 44, she is usually second fiddle to her male co-stars.

One of the few exceptions is Rapace's work alongside Rachel McAdams in Brian De Palma's sexually charged thriller, Passion (2012). After advertising executive Christine (McAdams) takes credit for an idea from her associate Isabel (Rapace), a personal and professional tug of war between the two women begins, leading to mind-bending consequences.

Adapted by De Palma from a 2010 French film (Crime d'amour), Passion is one of the few De Palma films to feature two female leads as central characters. While they might not have been the focus of his films in the past, the filmmaker has always had a knack for portraying strong and confident women onscreen. Michelle Pfeiffer's ice queen in Scarface (1983), Nancy Allen's streetwise call girl in Dressed to Kill (1980) and even Melanie Griffith's ditzy socialite in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) each mixed strength and sexuality in a way which suggested they were not merely an object in a man's world, but rather an equal player.

Box-Office Alternatives: The Four Seasons

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It seems the time is upon us once more for another Nicholas Sparks adaptation. The master of the sentimental once again sees another one of his novels featuring lovesick characters overcoming the complexities of life translated to the big screen with The Longest Ride (2015). The story depicts two different small-town romances (one from the past, the other from the present), which share life-altering links.

If there's one thing a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel does very well, it's giving seasoned pros plum roles to sink their teeth into and remind fans what exactly made them legends. Paul Newman, James Garner and Gena Rowlands all enjoyed scene-stealing parts in Sparks adaptations that earned them raves, even if the films themselves floundered.

Alan Alda fills that category this time around, playing a bedridden man with regrets over his past. With so few film appearances these days, Alda's performance just might be reason enough to catch The Longest Ride. In any case, it gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favorite Alan Alda movie, The Four Seasons (1981).

Box-Office Alternatives: Hitchcock

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Helen Mirren is perhaps the only actress of her generation who can come close to matching Meryl Streep in terms of still finding quality film roles and delivering spellbinding performances. This week, she takes on the role of a real-life Austrian immigrant, seeking justice for her family by reclaiming a lost piece of art stolen during WWII, in the drama Woman in Gold (2015). Early reviews have been mixed, yet Mirren, as usual, has been showered with praise for another stunning portrayal from the Oscar winner.

For all the nuance that Mirren no doubt brings to Woman in Gold, it surely won’t be able to hold a candle to her finest post-Queen role, as the wife of the master of suspense in Hitchcock (2012). Based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock chronicles Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) long journey in bringing the now-classic Psycho (1960) to the screen. The film depicts the legendary director’s battles with studio heads, censors and actors over the shocking content of the movie as well as the strain it put on the relationship between his wife/collaborator Alma Reville (Mirren).

Like many films based on the making of Hollywood movies and the people behind them, Hitchcock spent many years in development (with the two leads firmly attached) while producers decided which story they wanted to tell. In the end, they opted for both.

Box-Office Alternatives: Idiocracy

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If there's one thing a movie starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart guarantees, it's mixed-to-negative critical reception and decent-to-stellar audience reaction. Both seem like strong possibilities this Friday with the release of the duo's new comedy Get Hard (2015), in which a wealthy tycoon (Ferrell) insists that his employee (Hart) show him the ins-and-outs of how to survive in prison after he himself is sentenced. Early screenings of Get Hard have brought claims of homophobia and racial stereotyping, yet the popularity of the movie's two stars should be enough to potentially carry the comedy to a healthy run at the box office.

Should Get Hard succeed, it will be another victory for director and co-writer Etan Cohen, who has found success writing such hits as Tropic Thunder and Men In Black 3. Yet for a select few, his collaboration with Mike Judge on the hilarious and somewhat horrifying Idiocracy (2006) remains his best work.

Judge's second live-action film and Cohen's first, Idiocracy told the story of an average army officer named Joe (Texas Film Awards honoree Luke Wilson), who unwillingly becomes the guinea pig for a top-secret experiment. Joe and a local hooker named Rita (Maya Rudolph) are cryogenically frozen for what they believe is a full year. Yet when the pair awaken, they soon realize 500 years have gone by and the world they once knew has been replaced with a corporate-driven society where everyone is quite literally, an idiot. With the help of an "attorney" named Frito (Dax Shepard), Joe and Rita attempt to make sense of the new and mind-numbingly dumb world where they find themselves.

Box-Office Alternatives: I Am Sam

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This week sees the release of The Gunman, an actioner starring Sean Penn as a sniper on the run for his life after the assassination job he was hired for goes awry. The film will surely draw in the parents of teens seeking out Insurgent, thereby affording The Gunman a decent performance at the box office.

In looking back through Penn's filmography before writing this, it became evident to me that the incredibly fearless actor has only anchored a number of films throughout his many years in the movies. Moreover, his selectivity toward leading projects and the diversity of his choices make him one of the most chameleon-like actors in film.

Among all of Penn's leading turns, my favorite still remains his Oscar-nominated work in the drama I Am Sam (2001). Penn spent many hours studying the developmentally challenged (to compelling and magical effect) in order to play Sam Dawson, a man with the mind of a child who finds his young daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) taken from him after he is declared an unfit parent due to his disability. Through a series of events, Sam meets a high-powered attorney Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) who agrees to help Sam prove that, regardless of his limitations, he does indeed have the ability to be the father Lucy deserves.

Box-Office Alternatives: Dead Again

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I've always found Kenneth Branagh's directorial career to be one of the most wildly unpredictable and diverse of any filmmaker around. Each project he takes on yields impressive and fascinating results. Who else could successfully pull off the Shakespearean power of Henry V (1989), the heart and terror of Frankenstein (1994), the comedic charm of A Midwinter's Tale (1995) ... and the operatic comic-book action of Thor (2011)?

This week, Branagh adds yet another footnote to an already remarkable directing career with his live-action feature adaptation of the classic fairytale Cinderella (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter. Knowing Branagh's respectful approach to well-known material, not to mention a collection of positive reviews and solid audience interest, Cinderella will no doubt turn into another cinematic victory for the actor/director.

With the release of Cinderella this week, I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about my favorite Branagh film, Dead Again (1991). Made on the heels of his triumph with Henry V, and released at a time when the early nineties neo-noir genre was at its peak, Branagh directed and starred with then-wife Emma Thompson in this stylish thriller about romance and murder.

Box-Office Alternatives: California Suite

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When The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) was released to stellar reviews and major box-office in the superhero-heavy summer of 2012, it became inevitable that a sequel would follow. Nearly three years later, audiences are being treated to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), which journeys back to everyone's favorite hotel in India where the walls are crumbling and the residents are aging in ways both hilarious and heartfelt. The cast, which includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, all seem game for a second round with the material and their characters. This appears true in particular of Smith, who seems to be having more fun than ever playing the eternally sarcastic Muriel Donnelly.

Smith's turn in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel looks like definite fun, yet I wouldn't be surprised if it failed to reach the heights of her work in another hotel set comedy, California Suite (1978). Directed by Herbert Ross and adapted by Neil Simon from his play, California Suite takes a hilarious look at four sets of vacationers staying at the Beverly Hills hotel, each of whom arrive for different reasons and find themselves in different predicaments. An uptight East Coaster (Jane Fonda) has an tense yet comic reunion with her ex-husband (Alan Alda), two best friends (Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby) encounter every kind of mishap possible while exploring the golden state with their wives, and a man (Walter Matthau) must try to find a way to hide a drunken hooker from his befuddled wife (Elaine May).

Lost in the Awards Rush: Best Picture Edition

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This year's list of Best Picture Oscar nominees for me has been one of the most eclectic lineups in years. While some of the choices (not to mention some of the omissions) have caused some stirring, the fact remains that each film is a unique peek into areas of society and life that are never anything but true and compelling. Though I feel there were a couple noticeable snubs (Gone Girl, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler), this is one of the few years where it could be said that every film on the list has earned its place. In celebration of these movies' triumphs, I've compiled a list of additional viewing choices made by some of the actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers who were responsible for this year's nominated films.

The Words (2012)

Few films surprised this year in terms of both acclaim and box office impact the way American Sniper (2014) did. The ferocious true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was a testament to the passion and drive of director Clint Eastwood and producer/star Bradley Cooper. The film has earned Cooper his third consecutive Oscar nomination, furthering his profile both in front of and behind the camera. Yet his most unheralded work as both producer and actor comes with the highly involving drama The Words.

Equal parts mystery, romance and period piece, The Words (J.C.'s review) features Cooper as a struggling author who discovers a long-lost manuscript which he presents as his own; leading to instant success and an encounter with a haunting older gentleman (Jeremy Irons). Films such as The Words simply do not exist anymore, which is a shame because this intricately crafted tale about destiny features not only features stellar acting and an exquisite screenplay, but also reinforces the notion owning up to the choices each person makes in their life.

Lone Star Cinema: The Rookie

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Still from The Rookie

My alternate Super Bowl programming this year was a DVD of The Rookie I checked out from the library. I had first seen the baseball drama closer to its original theatrical release in 2002 and remembered enjoying the story, but hadn’t really thought of the Disney film in the past ten years.

Dennis Quaid (Frequency, The Day After Tomorrow) leads the movie based on the true story of Jimmy Morris, a Texas high-school baseball coach who makes a deal with his team that he will try out for the major leagues if they win district and go on to state. Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) plays his wife Lorri, the school counselor. I had forgotten that before he started the sitcom mega-hit Two and a Half Men, Angus T. Jones played the adorable son here. See how young he is in the still posted above.

We are shown the origins of the strained relationship between adult son Jimmy and his father Jim Morris Sr. (Brian Cox, only about seven years older than Quaid). It feels like this is something that might have been compounded more in the screenplay than in real life. Still, it is an interesting contrast to the relationship Jimmy has with his own young son, who helps in team practices and is almost a little shadow to his dad.

Lost in the Awards Rush: Two Lovers

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Many authors and their works have been deemed as unfilmable by Hollywood because of unorthodox plots and characters that defy conventionality to great extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than with the works of Thomas Pynchon. The revered author may be the godfather of the postmodern detective, yet due to a number of dizzying elements within his books, none of Pynchon's works ever received the big-screen treatment. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, who after securing Pynchon's blessing, brought Inherent Vice, one of the author's most acclaimed novels, to the screen. The 60s-set tale of a hippie private eye (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes on a bizarre missing persons case was heralded as one of the year's best comedies and earned Anderson a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

While it's certainly a marvel how a seemingly unfilmable novel made such a dynamic transition to the screen, its a true shame that Phoenix's work as Doc, the oftentimes stoned detective, has been all but forgotten this awards season. The three-time Oscar nominee can already claim a laundry list of performances that reach levels of characterization other actors can only dream of. Though its a definite 180 from his work in Inherent Vice, Phoenix's work in the small independent drama Two Lovers (2008) is probably his most complex and poetic turn to date.

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