Blu-rays of the Week
Disneynature: The Crimson Wing and Oceans (Disney) – After last year’s smash doc Earth, Disney is specializing: The Crimson Wing follows a million pink flamingoes who make Tanzania’s Lake Natron in East Africa their home; Oceans (narrated by Pierce Brosnan) explores the varied life forms on and under the waves. Both immaculately-shot films have imagery stunning enough to bring gasps from viewers, like the heartbreaking sequence of predators taking down defenseless flamingos, even when one brave parent fights back. The natural world looks glorious in both films, and on Blu-ray, it looks even more awe-inspiring. Extras include short making-ofs and filmmaker annotations.
Leaves of Grass (First Look) – Edward Norton plays two roles in Tim Blake Nelson’s scattershot comedy: Bill, a Brown University professor of classics, and his twin brother Brady, white trash drug dealer. Bill ends up back home when he hears that Brady was killed, which was premature. The rest of the movie finds the brothers confusing people, and getting mixed up in each other’s business. The movie is likeable despite obvious flaws, and Norton is always fun to watch, even when overdoing Brady’s yokel accent. There’s also nice support from Susan Sarandon and the always delightful Keri Russell. The Blu-ray transfer is crisp and clean; the extras are a Norton/Nelson commentary and a making-of featurette.
Paths of Glory (Criterion) – Stanley Kubrick’s still-potent 1957 antiwar drama concerns three French WWI soldiers scapegoated as cowards when an assault on German lines fails. Kirk Douglas is at his impassioned best as the lieutenant disgusted by the generals’ actions, but Kubrick is the star here, his trademark tracking shots in the trenches earmarking the futility and absurdity of war. Even the sentimental ending is presented so matter-of-factly that it remains powerfully revealing. Once again, Criterion has outdone itself on Blu-ray with a remarkably pristine, film-like transfer. Extras include new interviews with Kubrick’s wife Christianne (who shines in the aforementioned coda) and her brother and Kubrick’s assistant, Jan Harlan; vintage Kubrick and Douglas interview; and a commentary by critic Gary Giddins.
DVDs of the Week
Agora (LionsGate) – A serious film about the ancient world, Agora earns points for not dumbing itself down to the CGI lovers who’d rather watch a sequel to 300. Based on the true story of Hypatia, a 4th century Greek philosopher who lived in Alexandria and was known for her scientific studies, Agora is a thinly-disguised allegory about the ongoing debate between science and religion, even 17 centuries later. Rachel Weisz gives an authoritative portrayal of Hypatia, eschewing the pomposity that ruins most sand-and-sandal epics. Director Alejandro Amenabar nicely balances action sequences with dialogue-driven ones, and the result is an intelligent movie an adult can watch without embarrassment. Too bad there’s no Blu-ray release of this visually sumptuous recreation of ancient Alexandria; still, several very good extras include Amenabar’s commentary and introduction, deleted scenes and an engrossing hour-long on-set documentary.
The Girl Who Played with Fire (Music Box) – The middle movie in Stieg Larsson’s fast-paced, thrilling trilogy is the weakest; in two quick hours, we get the basic outline of Larsson’s convoluted but fascinating story of murder, spies and double-crossings in Sweden, but miss the gritty essence of his unsubtle but potent attack on a corrupt system. In fact, when the basic plot’s events are laid out onscreen, Larsson’s creaky mechanics are seen for what they are. Luckily, along with strong support from Michael Nykvist as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Lena Endre as Mikael’s editor/lover Erika Berger, once again there’s Noomi Rapace’s star-making presence as Lisbeth Salander: Larsson’s tattooed, pierced, almost autistic heroine has been transferred from page to screen with such extraordinary charisma that it will be impossible for an American actress to approach what she’s done in the upcoming remakes.