War Horse - Steven Spielberg - Featured

This Week in DVD: 4/3/12

We Bought A Zoo

We Bought a Zoo (2011, Cameron Crowe) – Loosely based on the true story of British amateur zookeeper Benjamin Mee, director Cameron Crowe turns a potentially pleasing family comedy into a pandering, schmaltzy mess that serves as great evidence as to just how far the Say Anything, Almost Famous, and Jerry Maguire director has fallen in his career. The film isn’t particularly offensive in any way, but there’s no way this could’ve ever been remotely based on a true story, and the film seems to have been made on autopilot and not by a director with Crowe’s track record.

Matt Damon stars as Mee, now a widowed Southern California father of two annoyingly precocious children, the man who buys the titular zoo after his daughter falls immediately in love with the place after only a brief visit while house hunting. The former journalist takes on the responsibility of cleaning up the zoo, maintaining the staff (including Scarlett Johansson as the head zookeeper), and bringing his family back together following a great tragedy.

There’s a great story in here somewhere, and Damon and Johansson work their hardest to try and sell this drivel, but not once does anything in the film feel organic or realistic. Very basic questions about how Mee can afford to run the zoo or what happened before he got there are never answered because Crowe is far more content to cram as many tired life lessons and clichés into his film as possible. Also, aside from a few extremely forced references to music from the 60s to the 80s, there’s no personality to any of the proceedings. It might as well have been made by Patch Adams hack Tom Shadyac.

The Blu-ray looks and sounds as fine and special features include a largely uninformative audio commentary from Crowe and supporting actor JB Smoove (who has maybe 10 minutes of screen time in a 127 minute film as Mee’s realtor) and a handful of featurettes that all seem to be reiterating the same points over and over again. (Andrew Parker)

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War Horse - Steven Spielberg

War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg) -When Steven Spielberg released two movies at the tail end of 2011, both where mostly overlooked by North American audiences. War Horse went on to receive a number of Oscar nominations, but they seemed like those were token nods to an established filmmaker for what was considered a lesser film. The film’s old-fashioned, melodramatic tone was simply too saccharine for most critical audiences to take seriously. Now, with the release of War Horse on Blu-ray and DVD, it’s time for the film’s re-appraisal to begin.

Adapted from both a children’s novel and a successful West End play, War Horse tells the story of a horse named Joey and a boy named Albert, who comes to own and love him. The film begins in Devon, England, showing how Albert’s family comes to own Joey and how they eventually train the stubborn horse to plow a field. Just when things are starting to settle in, World War I breaks out and Joey is sold to a cavalry officer. We then follow Joey as he gets passed along between the Brits, Germans and French sides, eventually bringing him back around to an emotional reunion with Albert as the war draws to a close.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that the two get reunited because that’s exactly the kind of film this is. War Horse makes no bones about its classical Hollywood inspirations or its melodramatic leanings. Spielberg goes for an older style of simple emotional satisfaction, but with the grand sweep of a WWI setting and a visual style reminiscent of John Ford, David Lean and Victor Fleming. It’s hard not to blame audiences for finding the film a little jarring, but there’s something pure and truly moving about the way War Horse wears its heart on its sleeve. War Horse is schmaltzy and manipulative, and neither of those are bad qualities. In fact, taken on its own terms, War Horse might very well be Spielberg’s best film in at least a decade, if not longer.

Disney is putting the film out on DVD/Blu-ray combo pack for those still hesitant to fully take the plunge into the next-generation format. What you get is the best of both worlds, but at a cheaper price than the 4-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy mega-set. This 2-disc affair brings a very solid looking and sounding DVD, along with a truly gorgeous looking Blu-ray. The picture quality is beautiful and really brings out the depth and colour range of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. The real treat, though, is the audio track. 7.1 lossless surround sound, and probably one of the best sound mixes currently available for home viewing.

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The 2-disc release comes with only a couple extras. War Horse: The Journey Home is approximately 20 minutes of edited round-table chats between Spielberg and his cast and crew. It’s a very nice featurette; though it does leave one wishing Spielberg would break down and do a full audio commentary for once. He’s just too interesting a guy, and you could listen to him for hours. An Extra’s Point of View is a very short featurette about Martin D. Drew, an extra who worked all through the film’s production, showing up in the background several times in several different armies. Not a substantive feature, but a charming one nonetheless. (Corey Atad)

Chasing Madoff

Chasing Madoff (2010, Jeff Prosserman) – As a documentary, Chasing Madoff isn’t so much about the historic rise and fall of infamous Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, but rather about one man’s inability to convince everyone that Madoff was a threat in the first place. The result is an admittedly stylish, but overall uninteresting look at one of this early century’s biggest economic catastrophes.

Harry Markopolos, a Boston fraud analyst for a brokerage company, first noticed the seeds of NASDAQ chairman Madoff’s dirty dealings back in 2009. Director Prosserman takes a look back with Harry and his team as they try to make the US Securities and Exchanges Comission take a look at a deception that reached further than they could’ve ever imagined.

While there are some interesting moments where Prosserman talks to actual victims of the scheme, it’s really hard to shake the feeling that Markopolos and his crew are just a tiny part of a much larger story. It doesn’t help that most of the time the film follows a circular pattern of “one guy knowing another guy who knew this other guy who turned out to not know anything”. Prosserman tries to tart things up a bit with some crazed Requiem for a Dream style montages to push the story along (including a really disturbing shot where Harry brandishes a shotgun for no reason), but they only serve to make the film look a bit silly and forced.

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On the DVD there’s four deleted scenes that don’t add anything of real value, and the commentary with Prosserman literally goes for full minutes where he doesn’t say anything before just saying what the film is already telling the audience. There is, however, a ten minute alternate ending that does send the film out on a higher note than the current conclusion does. (Andrew Parker)

Todd and the Book of Pure Evil

Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: Season Two (2011-12, Various) – Of all the new releases for this week, those looking simply to have a brainless good time should seriously consider picking up the most recent season of one of the best television shows currently being produced in Canada. Creator Craig David Wallace’s show about the strangest and scariest high school on the planet just finished up its second and vastly darker and funnier season.

Going into its second season, Crowley High School student Todd (Alex House) finds himself estranged from most of his close friends and the evil guidance counsellor Atticus (Chris Leavins) rising to even greater power. It sounds pretty innocuous, but for the uninitiated the school (which used to be home to a great number of Satanists who keep rearing their ugly heads) houses the titular book that leads to Todd and his friends getting into gory, often hilarious situations on a weekly basis.

Shot in Winnipeg and airing predominantly on Space, this show displays far gutsier fare than nearly any other Canadian production. Almost every episode shows the kind of gleeful disregard for societal norms that South Park does, only Todd has far more consistency. Whether he’s dealing with zombie retirees, corpse skinners, or getting stuck in a live action RPG, Todd always remains the most well rounded television stoner since the Trailer Park Boys. That might not be saying much, but for horror and comedy lovers the show might be just what the doctor ordered. It really does live up to comparisons to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. You know, if Buffy were permanently wasted and they were allowed to show buckets of gore and swear all the time.

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The two disc DVD set includes several cast commentaries, bloopers, extended and deleted scenes, a tribute reel to all the students who have died over the years, some behind the scenes footage and FX schematics, and extended musical numbers from their own Buffy-esque outing, “2 Girls, One Tongue”. (Andrew Parker)

The Son of No One

The Son of No One (2011, Dito Montiel) – Presumably finding a quiet release on DVD and Blu-ray following an almost non-existent theatrical run in the US only because star actor Channing Tatum can currently be seen on screens as a police officer in 21 Jump Street, this outing with his former Fighting and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints director Dito Montiel scrapes the bottom of the direct to video barrel with one of the dullest cop dramas ever to have celluloid wasted on it.

Tatum stars as Jonathan White, a Queens police officer in the year 2002, forced into looking into a double homicide from 1986 in the Queensboro Projects (currently slated to be razed and turned into condos in the film’s timeline) that he was involved with as a young fatherless child. The case puts him at odds with his wife (Katie Holmes), in direct opposition to his superior officer (Ray Liotta) and the original investigating officer (Al Pacino), and back in touch with his former best friend (Tracey Morgan) who is probably writing inflammatory anonymous letters to a reporter (Juliette Binoche) who’s pushing for a full inquiry.

Almost patently unwatchable, this film really shouldn’t be viewed by anyone, let alone their sons. None of the actors give good performances and they all appear to be falling asleep at the hands of Montiel’s ludicrously banal and nonsensical dialog. Nothing really makes logical sense, but perceptive viewers will see where the film is headed in the opening seconds. Devoid of any possible drama, this kind of material could’ve worked in the hands of someone like Abel Ferrara, but Montiel seems to have cut an even duller hour out of this film because of how choppy the whole thing is. I honestly almost couldn’t watch the entire thing.

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There are no special features on the Blu-ray, presumably because everyone involved wants to forget it ever existed, but even the technical credits on this disc are terrible. It doesn’t help that everyone in the film mumbles their lines so badly that I needed to turn the subtitles on, but the 5.1 sound listing has to be a joke. Also, if that’s 1080p, I’m going blind. (Andrew Parker)

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