BAD TEACHER (2011). It's no Bad Santa, but Bad Teacher brings just enough naughty behavior to the table to make it a decent watch for viewers tired of PG-13 timidity. In her best role since 2005's underrated In Her Shoes, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging middle-school teacher who, having just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé, sets her sights on substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Elizabeth is manipulative, deceitful, insensitive and lazy, and she's forced to use all her cunning to dislodge Scott from the grip of a perpetually peppy teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, nice-guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) hangs around, hoping to get past Elizabeth's obvious disinterest in him. Hollywood, which fashions itself as a bearer of moral messages, usually feels the need to take down its flawed characters before the closing credits, with the arrogant/narcissistic/self-centered protagonist miraculously transformed into a wellspring of small sacrifices and big embraces (e.g. half of Jim Carrey's canon). To its credit, Bad Teacher doesn't resort to such shameless pandering: Like Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey bends but doesn't break, and the film has no need to automatically punish the wicked for their indiscretions. On the downside, the combination of a short running time, often erratic pacing, and a number of red-band-trailer moments conspicuously missing from the finished piece suggests that the studio ultimately didn't have quite enough faith in the picture to let it all hang out. Yet as I wrote in my original theatrical review, "This Bad Teacher is amusing enough to earn a passing mark, but we'll have to hope for an unrated director's cut on DVD/Blu-ray in order to fully gauge this school project's merit." Sure enough, the Blu-ray includes an unrated version that adds five extra minutes, but while amusing, they aren't consequential enough to budge the star rating.
Blu-ray extras include six deleted scenes; a 5-minute gag reel; a jokey 6-minute interview with Segal and Timberlake; and an interactive yearbook.
CAPE FEAR (1991). The second screen adaptation of John D. MacDonald's The Executioners doesn't quite match its 1962 predecessor (also named Cape Fear), but with Martin Scorsese in the director's chair, it still qualifies as a gripping thriller ... albeit one that's marred by a silly denouement. The '62 version stars Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden, an upright lawyer who finds himself and his family terrorized by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a sadistic ex-con who blames Bowden for his incarceration. Here, Peck and Mitchum appear in cameos while Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro tackle the roles of, respectively, Bowden and Cady. De Niro's criminal is a leering, sneering menace: With Biblical quotes and striking imagery tattooed all over his body ("I don't know whether to look at him or read him," comments a detective), he unnerves both Bowden and his wife (Jessica Lange) and attempts to form a bond with their gullible teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis). Technically, the film is a dazzling achievement, from the opening-credits sequence designed by the great Saul and Elaine Bass to the co-opting of Bernard Herrmann's terrific score from the original. But De Niro's performance wavers uneasily between brutish commitment and shallow parody — it's a typical example of Academy shortsightedness that this Oscar darling received a Best Actor nomination while Mitchum, far superior (and truly scary) as 1962's Max Cady, probably wasn't even considered by most voters. More sensible than the De Niro nod was the Best Supporting Actress nomination for Lewis, who steals the film as the Bowdens' lonely daughter. For the most part, Wesley Strick's screenplay is nicely fleshed out, but the climax is not only interminable but also risible, with Cady's last stand bringing to mind that of the Wicked Witch (or Judge Doom).
Blu-ray extras include an 80-minute making-of documentary; nine minutes of deleted scenes; four minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; three photo montages; and, best of all, the opening-credits sequences of four films featuring Saul Bass' amazing work: Hitchcock's Vertigo and Psycho, Kubrick's Spartacus, and Scorsese's Casino.
THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939). A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel may not quite have the name recognition among the masses as such literary endeavors as Sense and Sensibility and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it's never been too far removed from the minds of moviemakers searching for their next cinematic venture. This venerable tale has been placed before the cameras on seven separate occasions, including thrice as a silent film, once under the title Storm Over the Nile (1955), once as a 1977 TV movie, and most recently as a 2002 adventure yarn starring Heath Ledger and a miscast Kate Hudson. Yet the definitive version remains this 1939 take on the tale, lavishly brought to the screen by the renowned sibling team of director Zoltan Korda and producer Alexander Korda. Set toward the close of the 19th century, this stars John Clements as Harry Faversham, a British officer who hails from a long line of military heroes. But just as his regiment is ready to be shipped off to the Sudan to engage in combat, Harry resigns his post, ostensibly for moral reasons. But those closest to him, including his fiancee Ethne (June Duprez) and his close friend John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), believe him to be a coward, thereby forcing him to seek redemption in their eyes. A movie that manages to indict arrogant English imperialism even as it celebrates the achievements of its individuals, The Four Feathers is rousing entertainment, bolstered by large-scale battle scenes, glorious Technicolor vistas, and a wonderful performance by C. Aubrey Smith as a salty, retired warhorse.
DVD extras include audio commentary by film historian Charles Drazin; a 23-minute interview with David Korda, Zoltan's son; and the 10-minute A Day at Denham (1939), a London Films studio tour that includes behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of The Four Feathers.
THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961). With The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare all in the mix, there's certainly compelling evidence to back any claims that the 1960s produced more quality World War II flicks than the 1950s or even the 1940s. The Guns of Navarone, the top moneymaking film of its year, ranks as one of the best of the bunch, with producer-writer Carl Foreman and director J. Lee Thompson managing in some ways to improve on Alistair MacLean's smash bestseller. The first of countless soldiers-on-a-mission movies that would appear in cinemas over the course of the next two decades, this one centers on a small team of Allied operatives tasked to destroy a pair of enormous German guns housed in a fortress overlooking the Aegean Sea. Among the members are Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), forced to take over when the expedition leader (Anthony Quayle) is severely injured; Corporal Miller (David Niven), the sardonic explosives expert; and Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), the pragmatic Greek patriot. Beautifully paced by Thompson, this 156-minute classic allows enough time for character development, plot complications (including the requisite double-cross by a member of the outfit) and several exciting set-pieces. A Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture — Drama, this earned seven Academy Award nominations (including nods for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay) and won the Oscar for Best Special Effects. An inferior sequel appeared 17 years later in the form of Force 10 from Navarone, starring Robert Shaw and Harrison Ford.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Thompson; separate audio commentary by film historian Stephen J. Rubin; three short documentaries totaling 70 minutes; six featurettes totaling 40 minutes (subjects include the film's restoration and Dimitri Tiomkin's score); a two-minute introduction by Foreman before the film's Australian premiere; and the interactive feature The Resistance Dossier of Navarone, featuring six historical pieces on WWII.
HORRIBLE BOSSES (2011). Two-thirds of a very funny movie, Horrible Bosses takes its irresistible premise an admirable distance before pulling a Wrong Way Corrigan and heading in an alternate direction, away from true comic inspiration and toward convention and compromise. Still, there are plenty of laughs to be mined, and in the genre of ribald male-bonding flicks, it won't cause a hangover like The Hangover Part II. The plot centers on three regular joes (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) who are sick of the abuse heaped on them by their evil employers (respectively, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell) and decide to murder them. They hire an ex-con named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) to do their dirty work, but he informs them that he'll only serve as a consultant and that they'll have to do the actual killing. His suggestion: Emulate Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (or, as one character amusingly notes, Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train) by having each fellow bump off another's boss, thereby reducing the risk of getting caught. Despite a few clunkers, the jokes are generally tight, and the five actors, especially Spacey and Farrell, are perfect for their roles; only Aniston's slutty dentist fails to convince, less a fault of the actress than the three screenwriters who don't know how to write this character so that she makes sense. At any rate, the film works up until the point when the bosses are linked up (no fair revealing how), but instead of using this sequence to expand with the intricate plotting, the writers reveal their limitations by allowing the picture to collapse like a house of cards, serving up a perfunctory final half-hour that's no match for the bright hour that preceded it. Horrible Bosses easily earns a commendation, but a bit of overtime on the part of its creative team might have resulted in higher praise.
The Blu-ray Combo Pack (with UltraViolet Digital Copy) contains both the theatrical cut and an unrated version that's eight minutes longer. Extras include 14 minutes of interviews with director Seth Gordon and the principal actors; 10 minutes of deleted scenes; and a 6-minute piece on the film's soundtrack.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011). If the first two sequels to 2003's highly entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were fairly agreeable examples of popcorn fare — tasty, a bit salty, not at all nutritious, and forgotten before long — then this latest entry represents the grimace-inducing alternative: the unpopped kernel that just sits there, bereft of almost all value. Directed by Rob Marshall in a spectacular free-fall that saw him go from the Oscar-winning Chicago to the indifferently received Memoirs of a Geisha to the thudding Nine to this round of sloppy seconds — Gore Verbinski, helmer of Pirates 1-3, wisely elected to continue his Johnny Depp partnership over at Rango — POTC: On Stranger Tides is too long (even though it's the shortest of the four!), too cluttered and too forgetful of the reason why we're here in the first place. That would be to watch Depp cut loose in the role that turned his career supernova: Jack Sparrow, the fey pirate whose greatest skill remains looking out for himself. Depp still seems interested in the part, but scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio let him down by frequently ignoring his character's ability to surprise us with his go-for-broke insanity in order to mire him in an ofttimes dull quest to locate the Fountain of Youth. The teaming of Depp and Penelope Cruz (as a sexy swashbuckler) doesn't quite produce the fireworks one expects, while Ian McShane seems unable to muster up much menace as the murderous Blackbeard. That leaves it to Geoffrey Rush, once again playing the unsavory Barbossa, to elicit any of that old-time Pirates magic — his saucy scenes with Depp are arguably the movie's best. In reviewing 2007's POTC: At World's End, I wrote that "it's a fine distraction, but woe to the viewer who elects to revisit it somewhere down the line." This latest effort can't even earn such guarded praise, meaning it's best to send On Stranger Tides to its watery grave.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca; 3-1/2 minutes of bloopers; and five minutes of animated shorts featuring a LEGO-created Captain Jack Sparrow.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). Terrence Malick's latest cinematic meditation, which took the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a movie that's probably easy to hate and almost impossible to defend. Detractors will be quick to label it pretentious, which seems unfair to me — pretentious denotes insincerity, and Malick is nothing if not genuine in his attempts to use the medium as a means with which to explore subjects that are important to him. Here, he's made his most elliptical film yet, a mood piece of a movie that grapples with such capital-letter issues as Life, Death, God and Nature. It's a movie that's both universal (literally, as in the creation of the universe) and personal (the birth of a child), and its neatest trick is that it feels like a Malick autobiography even as it directly speaks to receptive viewers on a one-to-one basis. It's cinema as a give-and-take relationship: The movie can only provide as much as the viewer is willing to put into it. Its primary plot centers on a family residing in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is the stern patriarch, a man who loves his family but nevertheless takes out all of life's frustrations on them. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the beatific mother, full of love, grace and charity. Jack, the oldest of their three sons (Hunter McCracken), is inevitably torn — and molded — by the conflicting behavior of his parents, and, as with any person, his childhood is carried with him into adulthood, where a grown Jack (Sean Penn) grapples with all sorts of memories, not least the painful thoughts of the brother who died too young. For those who can get on its wavelength, The Tree of Life will feel like a godsend; others will be bored by a slowly paced tale that allows the film to clock in at 140 minutes.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 30-minute making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
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