Blu-rays Worth Renting

Real Steel

The Pitch: Hugh Jackman teaches a robot to fight, the robot teaches Hugh Jackman how to be a good father.

Why Rent? Of all the action films that 2011 delivered, Real Steel might be the most surprising in just how much fun it was. Sure, it’s essentially Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie, but who ever said that had to be a bad idea? Hugh Jackman plays a washed-up boxer trying to make a few quick bucks in the new world of robot boxing when he is all of the sudden saddled with the responsibility of being a father, a job he relinquished some time ago. Now he and his precocious offspring must take a salvaged sparring bot all the way to the top. Seriously, that’s the entire story. The rest is big, beautifully rendered CGI robots beating the nuts and bolts out of each other. And there’s some dancing, which oddly feel out of place. It’s completely ridiculous but jammed with action beats that make the entire experience more than worth it. To its credit, the Blu-ray release also comes with plenty of extras — Disney has always been good like that. And did I mention there are robots boxing in a way that will make you believe in the potential of animatronic fights for our future?

Happy, Happy

The Pitch: An exploration of happiness, as told with black comedy.

Why Rent? Because not everything you see must be so straightforward as boxing robots or found footage frighteners. Sometimes a film that features strong character work in the exploration of one of life’s great mysteries — what is happiness, really? — is the right kind of movie to remind us that there are still great stories being told out there. Agness Kittelsen is Kaja, a warm-hearted woman with a cold husband and a joyless relationship with her less than friendly son. And when a new couple moves into her neighborhood, she is thrown into an emotional back-and-forth that may change the course of every important relationship in her life. It’s the dynamic between the characters that is so expertly crafted, giving us a reason to stick with Kaja’s story all the way to the end. And when it’s over, the Blu-ray offers us… trailers to watch. But alas, this Magnolia release of a Norwegian import was a lightly distributed indie — it’s hard to remember if it ever quite made it to theaters in the US. All the while, it’s a movie you should see if you enjoy watching dynamic characters and their quest to be happy.

Paranormal Activity 3

The Pitch: The found footage is coming from inside the house…

Why Rent? By now, there’s no question that the found footage franchise of demonic house guest films is a big hit with audiences. Three movies in and Paranormal Activity seems to be showing no signs of letting up on being a box office killer. One reason why they continue to have success? Even though they’re essentially still telling the same story, they find ways to creep us out with new, inspired ways of haunting CCTV footage. This time it’s back in time a few decades where it all began for two sisters whose lives would eventually see dramatic changes due to their family’s haunted curse. Paranormal 3 explores the origins of said curse, even if those origins don’t exactly make a whole lot of sense. In the end, we’re here to be creeped out with subtly moving objects in the stillness of night. And with those moments, this film works great. To the Blu-ray’s credit, the 1980s video tape aesthetic is maintained, for better or worse, and the sound is the star of the show. The extras are light, with only a 3 minute “Lost Tapes” segment that adds almost nothing to the story. And of course, there’s an Ultraviolet Digital copy, if you prefer to do your screaming on the train while watching your iPad. If that’s your thing, this one’s for you.

The Whistleblower

The Pitch: Rachel Weisz takes on human trafficking all by herself.

Why Rent? This week seems like the week of unsung heroes. Between the likes of 50/50 and now The Whistleblower, there are several films being released that very well should have gotten more attention. In this one, Rachel Weisz gives a strong performance as a woman who uncovers the role of a private contractor in the world of human trafficking and prostitution in post-war Bosnia. First time director Larysa Kondracki never gives the film’s characters much room to breath, ultimately delivering the film’s message with a weighted hand. But it does show promise and Weisz holds it together pretty well. As for the Blu-ray, it doesn’t have quite as much promise. A lone featurette is the only extra and while the film’s transfer is technically impressive, there’s nothing about the film itself that shows much in the way of technical ambition. It’s a straight-forward post-war drama that focuses on character, and only gets that right about two-thirds of the time. The story it tells, however, is one worth seeing.

The Apartment (1960)

The Pitch: You would have stood up to the man for Shirley MacLaine too, had you been around back then.

Why Rent? Here’s an example of what I was talking about above while reviewing Notorious and Spellbound. Neither of those Blus claim to be any sort of “special edition,” yet they deliver on the extras, the transfer and of course, the quality of their films. This edition of The Apartment is on the other end of the spectrum. It is labeled as the “Collector’s Edition,” but nothing about it feels like a collector’s item. It’s just the movie — one that deservedly earned a Best Picture award upon delivering one of Billy Wilder’s sharpest satirical efforts — a commentary track, one featurette and a trailer. And that’s about all. It’s a film I’m more than happy to say that I own, as I did not previously have a copy on DVD, but not a release that I’d urge you to run out and spend money on.

Blu-rays to Avoid

Restless

The Pitch: It’s this week’s other cancer movie.

Why Avoid? Gus Van Sant is hit or miss. There, I said it. Many of us have known it to be true for some time — mostly due to films like Las Days and Elephant – but it’s not easy to admit. The guy did direct Good Will Hunting and Milk, both of which are great films. He’s not without his merits as a filmmaker, nor is Restless not without some merits as a film, but it does manage to be one of the most morose, convoluted pieces of work in his filmography. It tells the story of a depressing loner (Henry Hopper) who is death obsessed and active about it, crashing funerals and memorial services. That is until he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a lovely young gal with terminal brain cancer. And guess what, he falls in love and realizes that he’s not such a big fan of death after all if it means he can’t have Annabel in his life anymore. That, and he’s got an invisible friend who was a Japanese fighter pilot in WWII. That last part is for those of you who didn’t believe me when I called this movie “convoluted.” For a story so filled with emotionally heavy circumstance, it never finds its emotional footing and ultimately feels flat. If you’re looking for honesty and humanity in your cancer movies, see 50/50 above.

Also on Blu-ray this week


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