CASABLANCA (1942). Rick and Ilsa. Laszlo and the letters of transit. Captain Renault and his charming corruptibility. "As Time Goes By." "Here's looking at you, kid." You know the routine. So round up the usual accolades for 1942's Casablanca, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in style. Generally cited along with Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather as one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made, this winner of three Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, adapting the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick's) — needs no plot synopsis, no cast breakdown, no further championing. True film enthusiasts know all about it; those who don't care a whit are merely film pretenders.
Casablanca is being re-issued in a 70th Anniversary 3-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Edition. This limited and numbered edition, featuring newly remastered versions of the film on both Blu-ray and DVD, will include a couple of new documentaries: Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic and Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of. That's in addition to the three feature-length documentaries carried over from previous editions: 2008's You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, the same year's The Brothers Warner, and 1993's Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul. Also carried over are a pair of audio commentaries — one by Roger Ebert, the other by film historian Rudy Behlmer — as well as tons of extras (the box copy promises over 13 hours of bonus material): an introduction by Lauren Bacall; deleted scenes and outtakes; the premiere episode of the short-lived 1955 Casablanca TV series (a yawner, though it's enjoyable to watch the General Electric commercial plugging the wonders of the electric iron); the cartoon Carrotblanca, starring Bugs Bunny (as Rick), Daffy Duck (as Sam) and an all-star Looney Tunes cast; and more. In addition to the discs, the oversized box includes a 60-page book containing photos and archival materials, a reproduction of a rather misleading French theatrical poster which makes it looks as if Sydney Greenstreet's Signor Ferrari is the protagonist (to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, of all the movie posters, in all the towns, in all the world, they pick this one), and, coolest of all, four drink coasters reading "Casablanca," "Rick's Café Americain," "Blue Parrot" and "La Belle Aurore."
THE DESCENDANTS (2011). The best picture of 2011, The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this earned Payne, Nat Faxon and Charlotte native Jim Rash the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; a discussion with Payne and Clooney; various behind-the-scenes featurettes; and three music videos.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011). Many viewers might find it easier to wade through quicksand while sporting cement blocks on their feet than understanding just what the heck is going on during the opening half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Author John le Carre's 1974 novel required a seven-part miniseries that ran over five hours when it premiered on the BBC back in 1979, yet here's an attempt to compress all this intel into a shade over two hours. The early stretch of this chilly Cold War drama will indeed be tough going for moviegoers acclimated to the comparative simplicity of the Bourne trilogy (to say nothing of the 007 oeuvre), but those willing to pay attention will be rewarded with a film of unexpected intricacy and various small pleasures. Tackling the role that Alec Guinness owned in the miniseries, Gary Oldman (in an Oscar-nominated performance) is quietly effective as George Smiley, a key member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6, aka "The Circus"). So taciturn that he's likely to be mistaken for a character in the silent film The Artist, Smiley initially remains on the sidelines as the SIS head, known only as Control (John Hurt), deduces that one of the organization's top men is actually a mole working for the Russians. But a sabotaged mission leads to the mandatory retirement of both Smiley and Control, and it's only after the latter passes away that Smiley is brought back to ferret out the leak. The central material concerning the four suspects (played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) actually proves to be the least compelling part of the picture, and the unmasking of the traitor is more apt to elicit shrugs than gasps. What makes the movie cling to our senses are the soulful transgressions of other key characters: the maverick agent (a wired Tom Hardy) who falls in love at the wrong time; the assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose personal life proves to be as dependent on secrets as his professional one; the bureau's discarded expert on Russia (Kathy Burke), wistfully drawing on nostalgia-tinged memories; and the field agent (Mark Strong) quietly shattered by betrayal. As far as le Carre screen adaptations go, I much prefer 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and 2005's The Constant Gardener, although it probably should be noted that the author himself considers this the best filmization of one of his works. Conversely, Bret Easton Ellis Tweeted about the awfulness of this movie. Le Carre vs. Ellis — considering that's the mental and literary equivalent of a brawl between Godzilla and Jar Jar Binks, I'd say it's safe for discerning viewers to give this a shot.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Tomas Alfredson and Oldman; deleted scenes; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and interviews with le Carre, Oldman, Firth, Hardy, Alfredson and co-scripter Peter Straughan.
WALLACE & GROMIT'S WORLD OF INVENTION (2010). The British dynamic duo of cheese-loving Gromit and his canine companion Gromit are already familiar to American audiences thanks to creator Nick Park's four W&G short films (all Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Short, with two winning) and the movie The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature). Now the lads return stateside in Wallace & Gromit's World of Invention, a BBC production that aired for six episodes in the U.K. and throughout Europe. Those expecting nonstop W&G action might be disappointed, since the pair only serve as intermittent hosts for this documentary series that focuses on unusual items being created all around the world, either by trained scientists or harmless eccentrics. Among those whose inventions we encounter are a Russian who's spent decades building his own submarine, a German who devises a flying bicycle, a Dutchman whose mobile contraption has to be seen to be believed, and even the late screen star Hedy Lamarr, who during WWII had created a torpedo-guiding system. It's all fascinating stuff, and the wraparound segments featuring Wallace and Gromit contain the usual good cheer and cheesy gags we've come to expect from the lovable duo.
Blu-ray extras include vignettes on building your own "cracking contraptions," such as a spy camera, a wind-powered sprinkler, and an upside-down-o-scope.