CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005). Forrest Gump's mama famously declared that "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get." You never know what you're going to get with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, either, given that director Tim Burton occasionally tends to fluctuate between enfant terrible and rank sentimentalist. In this second screen version of Roald Dahl's novel, Johnny Depp headlines as Willy Wonka, the eccentric candymaker who allows five children to take a tour through his gargantuan factory. Young Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp's Finding Neverland co-star) is a perfect angel, but the other four kids — Violet Beauregarde (AnnaSophia Robb), Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) and, of course, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) — prove to be such brats that they all eventually get their comeuppance within the walls of Wonka's candy-coated fortress. In some respects, this surpasses the previous screen incarnation, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: It's funnier, faster and more visually stimulating. But Burton's maudlin streak gets the best of him via a needless back story that explains Wonka's affinity for candy, and this plot strand leads to a soggy finale that's easily bested by the final act of the '71 model. Depp, whose Wonka seems to be a cross between Michael Jackson and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's somnambulist Cesare, delivers an engaging surface performance, though I prefer the more measured madness of Gene Wilder's excellent interpretation.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Burton; an interactive "in-movie experience" (picture-in-picture facts and behind-the-scenes footage); seven behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling 45 minutes and covering the casting, effects and other aspects of the production; an 18-minute piece on Dahl; and a wild 3-minute reel shown in clubs throughout Europe.
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999). A vanilla personality is rarely a desirable trait in an actor (see: Ethan Hawke; Chris O'Donnell), but for whatever odd reason, it has suited Tobey Maguire beautifully through these early decades of his career. In this satisfying drama, sympathetically directed by Lasse Hallstrom and adapted by John Irving from his own novel, Maguire is cast as Homer Wells, a decent young man who's raised from birth by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the humanitarian head of a Maine orphanage that also doubles as an abortion clinic. Anxious to explore the world around him, Homer leaves the orphanage and accepts a job as an apple picker; his decision does indeed allow him access to all manner of wondrous sights and sensations, but it also introduces him to an ugly world that forces him to apply all that he learned under the tutelage of Dr. Larch. Whereas lesser blank slates might simply fade from view over the course of the movie, Maguire proves his mettle by squaring off beautifully against Caine (all blustery wisdom as the good doc), Charlize Theron (a mix of radiance and insecurity as the, uh, apple of Homer's eye) and Delroy Lindo (alternating between cheerful folksiness and coiled tension as the head orchard worker). Nominated for seven Academy Awards, this earned Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Caine) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hallstrom, Irving and producer Richard N. Gladstein; a 22-minute making-of featurette; and nine minutes of deleted scenes.
CINEMA PARADISO (1988). An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this Italian import is a movie of extraordinary passion, capturing the synergy which exists between the starry-eyed moviegoer and the medium he or she comes to worship. Like Federico Fellini's Amarcord, this looks at the events which help shape a youth as he comes of age in his small hometown. Salvatore Cascio plays little Toto, whose best friend is Alfredo (Phillipe Noiret), the projectionist at the town's only movie house. In most regards, Alfredo's life is over: Poor and uneducated, he clings to his job as the only pleasure in what one feels was largely an unfulfilling existence. Toto, however, is young and full of promise, but he'll eventually need to take that step to break away. Alfredo pushes Toto to do just that, and it's the bond between this pair — as well as their love for the movies that grace their theater — that provides the picture with its emotional wallop. In 2002, this 125-minute was re-released in a 175-minute director's cut. This Blu-ray edition doesn't include that version, but it's no loss: Interestingly, the extra near-hour of material changes the entire intent of the movie, making it less a heartfelt ode to cinema itself and more a familiar meditation on the vagaries of love (the extra footage centers on Toto as an adult, pining away for his childhood sweetheart).
The only Blu-ray extras are theatrical trailers.
GREEN LANTERN (2011). Considering the advance negative buzz had been building with the steadiness and scariness of a Category 5 hurricane, it's probably no surprise that Green Lantern turned out to be one of the biggest turkeys of Summer Cinema 2011. Truth be told, it's not that bad, and it certainly isn't the catastrophe that apparently had been foretold as far back as the Book of Revelation. To compare this effort to such truly abysmal efforts as Catwoman and Batman & Robin would merely be an exercise in misguided grandstanding; at the same time, the middling results suggest that, the excellence of X-Men: First Class notwithstanding, Hollywood might consider cooling it on the super-sagas for a while (fat chance) and seek inspiration from other types of comic characters. Little Lulu or Andy Capp, anyone? When all is said and done, Green Lantern is really no different than the film which kicked off the summer season: As with Thor, this one also features slick special effects and a likable (if vanilla-flavored) leading man, but it likewise gets bogged down in protracted exposition and has trouble sorting out its cluttered screenplay. Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, a test pilot who becomes the first human to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic watchdog group tasked with protecting the universe. The preeminent threat at the moment is a fearsome entity known as Parallax; his agent of evil on earth is Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist who promptly becomes a telekinetic mutant with a bulbous, oozing head. Hal's battles with Parallax and Hector are ably handled by director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), and they allow the FX crew to show off their hard work. But whenever the movie isn't moving at a fast and furious speed, the banality of the script takes center stage, and we're left with another costume caper that doesn't quite know what to do with itself whenever its characters aren't playing dress-up.
The Blu-ray (out this Friday as a Combo Pack with UltraViolet Digital Copy) consists of both the theatrical version and an extended cut that's nine minutes longer. Extras include the maximum movie mode (picture-in-picture commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards and more); eight behind-the-scenes shorts totalling 47 minutes; a 20-minute look at the Green Lantern character in comic books; four deleted scenes; and a digital copy of Justice League #1.
JACKIE BROWN (1997). Pulp Fiction, the most influential film of its day (see review below), would be a tough act to follow, so that probably explains why Quentin Tarantino spent a few years putzing around (TV show appearances with friends, contributing to schlock projects like Four Rooms and From Dusk Till Dawn) before finally unveiling his feature-film follow-up. Even arriving three years after Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown couldn't quite step out of the shadow of that gangbusters effort, but now it can be seen as a solid effort that reinforces Tarantino's standing as one of the most exciting cinematic discoveries of the 1990s. This adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch stars two 70s survivors, blaxploitation star Pam Grier and Robert Forster (who, beyond his film work, I had fondly recalled from the short-lived cop series Banyon), as a stewardess who tries to bilk a murderous gunrunner (Samuel L. Jackson) out of a half-million dollars and the smitten bail bondsman who agrees to help her out. The cast also includes Robert De Niro (as a scuzzy bank robber), Michael Keaton (as an ATF agent) and Bridget Fonda (as Jackson's perpetually stoned "surfer girl"), but neither their performances nor their roles are as interesting as those of the three stars. Grier and Jackson are excellent, while Forster steals the entire picture with his understated turn — he earned the film's sole Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
Blu-ray extras include a trivia track; a 39-minute retrospective piece featuring interviews with Tarantino, Leonard and the actors; a 55-minute interview with Tarantino; a 44-minute roundtable discussion among critics about the film; six deleted and extended scenes; the Siskel & Ebert At the Movies review; and trailers from 12 Forster films and 16 Grier titles.
PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985). After helming a number of quirky shorts, Tim Burton made his feature-film directorial debut with Pee-wee's Big Adventure, a delightful film that, with the exception of Ed Wood, still ranks as his finest achievement. The picture also made a star of Pee-wee Herman (real name Paul Reubens), who would springboard to even greater success with the children's show Pee-wee's Playhouse, a hit (and not just with kids) that would run for five seasons. Written by Reubens, Michael Varhol and Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman, Pee-wee's Big Adventure finds the child-like character embarking on a cross-country search after his beloved bicycle is stolen. His trek puts him in contact with all sorts of memorable characters ("Tell them Large Marge sent you!"), yet the film's inventiveness is on display from the get-go. In short, this is a movie brimming with eye-popping set designs, innovative sight gags, and a sizable number of hearty laughs (the pet shop scene, featuring all those snakes, slays me every time). This also marked the beginning of an illustrious movie career for former Oingo Boingo member Danny Elfman, whose work for Burton (he's scored practically all of his films) as well as other directors have marked him as one of Hollywood's best composers.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Burton and Reubens; three deleted scenes and one extended scene totalling 11 minutes; 12 minutes of production sketches and storyboards, with audio commentary by production designer David L. Snyder; and a music-only track with audio commentary by Elfman.
PULP FICTION (1994). One of the crowning achievements of 90s cinema was also one of its most influential, spawning a decade's worth of shameless rip-offs, resuscitating John Travolta's dormant career, heralding the arrival of Samuel L. Jackson as a consummate actor, handing Bruce Willis one of his best parts ever, and providing enough subtext to choke Internet chat rooms and message boards for years to come (most prevalent question: What exactly is in that glowing briefcase?). Quentin Tarantino's cause celebre immediately became a direct challenge to creative complacency: Intoxicated on the heady fumes of its own art form, it employs a nontraditional, nonlinear form of filmmaking to interweave several vignettes all involving various members of a seedy underworld. This won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival before enjoying a successful stateside run that culminated with seven Academy Award nominations (including nods for Best Picture, Travolta, Jackson and Uma Thurman); in the year of Forrest Gump, however, it managed to only win a solitary statue for Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include a trivia track; 43 minutes of new interviews with cast members; a 21-minute roundtable discussion among critics about the film; six deleted and extended scenes; the Siskel & Ebert At the Movies episode titled "The Tarantino Generation"; footage from the film's triumphs at the Cannes Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards; and Tarantino's appearance on The Charlie Rose Show.
ZOOKEEPER (2011). Leave it to Zoolander to have the foresight to succinctly sum up Zookeeper. In that 2001 comedy, Owen Wilson's Hansel blares, "Taste my pain, bitch!" — a declaration that Kevin James was directing at me for the duration of this ghastly film's 100 minutes. I'm sure that taste will still be lingering in my mouth in December, when it's time to draw up the year-end "10 Worst" list. For now, I'm reduced to shedding a tear over our animal friends: Between this and Mr. Popper's Penguins, they had an especially bad summer. The screenplay cobbled together by five writers curiously spends a lot more time on the bland romantic woes of Kevin James's zookeeper than on the talking animals, although there is a protracted subplot in which Griffin bonds with a lonely gorilla named Bernie (Nick Nolte!) by taking him to TGI Friday's. James always projects a sincerity that's missing from too many of his lowbrow peers, but when all is said and done, he's still about as funny as head lice. Adam Sandler's monkey gets off a couple of good cracks, but otherwise, the animals (lions voiced by Sylvester Stallone and Cher, bears voiced by Jon Favreau and Faizon Love, etc.) prove to be even more dull than the humans, never doing anything remotely interesting or amusing. Replaying Zookeeper in my mind draws up another Zoolander quip: "I've got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories." Nothing wrong with my prostate, but, man, does my brain need a detox.
Blu-ray extras include eight deleted scenes totalling 12 minutes; a 6-minute gag reel; a 9-minute piece on the actors; a 7-minute piece on the animals; and a 9-minute piece on the visual effects.
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