Clint Eastwood is having a very good year. He may not have been feted at the Oscars, but massive box office is the best revenge. He directed Angelina Jolie to an Oscar nomination in Changeling (Universal; $29.98), the period film about a mother whose son has gone missing, only to find the corrupt LA police have tried to settle media hysteria by saddling her with another little boy and claiming this strange kid is in fact her child. Then Clint directed and starred in Gran Torino, a modest movie about a cranky old racist who finds he has more in common with his "foreign" neighbors than his own children. Remarkably, this tiny film has become the biggest hit of Eastwood's career as both an actor and director, with box office at $139 in the US. Yes, the year would have been perfect if Eastwood could have gone to the Oscars and crooned "Gran Torino," the theme song he wrote and performed with Jamie Cullum. I'm not a fan of either movie, unfortunately. Changeling is still-born. Jolie has a fee good scenes when she has to deal with the seeming imposter that the police have forced her to take home. But John Malcovich is miscast as a crusading preacher who wants to help her, fight the cops and loves the spotlight. He seems so slippery I kept waiting for him to betray her in some way. And what is the film about? Corruption? It spends too much time with Jolie. A mother fighting for her child? We can't quite figure out why she takes this kid in, however few rights women had at the time. And then it veers off into serial killer territory, making the film seem like three unsatisfying movies in one. All it made me want to do was rewatch LA Confidential. Gran Torino doesn't have half the ambition of Changeling but isn't even half as (un)interesting. Clint growls so much throughout the film he almost seems to be parodying himself. And most of the unknown actors he is surrounded with simply aren't up to the task. Why this particular film should resonate with audiences is a mystery (his biggest hit adjusted for inflation is the godawful Every Which Way But Loose). But clearly Clint has hit icon status -- if Clint wants to make a movie about a cranky old man sitting alone on a porch, Warner Bros. would be foolish to say no. And hearing Clint speak-sing parts of the song "Gran Torino" sent me back to one of his less-appreciated gems, Honkeytonk Man, the moving story of a dying country and western singer who gets one final chance to record some music. That's not in Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection ($19.98; Universal), but four offbeat films are -- and at a bargain price. You get Eastwood's directorial debut Play Misty For Me, which made a respectable $10 million back in 1971 but which Clint told David Letterman he remembers as a box office flop which might have been his only time directing if the French hadn't championed it. You also get the so-so action film The Eiger Sanction, the fun Coogan's Bluff (which turned into the hit TV series McCloud and the very atypical Civil War flick The Beguiled, which has wounded Clint recuperating at an all girl's school. It's slowly paced and I hated it when I was a little boy in the hospital and that was the only thing on TV, but it has its fans and it's about time I gave it another shot.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK:
THE WILDCATS ARE BACK! -- Don't work, High School Musical 3 isn't the end of the story. High School Musical 4 (a West Side Story-type plot) returns to TV with a mostly new cast. But HSM3 is the finale for our current classmates. It was a marked improvement over HSM2, which somehow was a tad too calculated to recapture the innocent fizziness of the undemanding original. None of them are great art, not even close. But HSM3 has some good touches, including a gracious finale that echoes high school productions by letting the cast take a bow. And I definitely appreciated that they stayed true to the quietly gay Ryan (played charmingly by Lucas Grabeel, who was also good in a small role in Milk). His sexuality is never mentioned as such, but his message of being different but accepted comes through. But which format do you accept for watching the film at home? It comes in virtually every possible combination. You can get the basic theatrical version for $29.99. You can get the extended edition for $34.99. But the smartest buy of all is the BluRay High School Musical 3: Senior Year Deluxe Extended Edition for $39.99. Yes, studios better wise up and make Bluray the same price as regular DVDs. But on sale at Amazon, it's only $3 more than the Deluxe regular DVD. And you get the BluRay version, plus a second standard DVD in case the kids have a regular DVD player in their room or for road trips PLUS you get a free digital copy so you can watch it on a computer or iPhone or other portable device. Not to mention all the usual extras and some unique to BluRay. So no, it's not a special effects extravaganza but the multiple formats for the movie are the way to go. Why make people choose and why make stores carry three or four editions? If this version had been priced at $29.99, it would be the only one they had to provide, instead of three different editions cluttering up the shelves.
A TRUE GENIUS -- Dennis Potter is perhaps not a household name in the US, despite notable successes like his two landmark miniseries, namely Pennies From Heaven ($49.98; BBC Video) and The Singing Detective ($39.98; BBC Video). But he towered over the UK TV industry with the combined genius of, say, Steven Bochco, David Lynch and Joss Whedon. In fact, his last work was shown by both the BBC and Channel 4, which is like ABC and FOX airing the same TV movie, which is unimaginable. Despite overwhelming acclaim, far too few of his films have been seen here. So I'm chomping at the bit to watch Dennis Potter: 3 To Remember ($39.98; Koch), which contains three TV films shown on consecutive weekends in 1980. Stars include Donald Pleasance, Peggy Ashcroft and Denholm Elliott. But I doubt any of them will equal the extra included: the riveting final interview with Potter that aired on Channel 4 in 1994 just three months before his death, with the deeply ill Potter literally drinking a morphine cocktail while talking about his life and work and desire to finish one final teleplay before he died. Speaking of great TV, What Makes Sammy Run? ($24.98; Koch) is the latest gem to come out of the vaults of the Archives of American Television. Based on the classic Budd Schulberg novel about a ferocious ladder-climber in Hollywood, it's a live TV event that has been mentioned glowingly for years but also all but unseen. I wish it had been included as part of a boxed set of similar live TV at a bargain price, but it's great to have access to it in any form.
MAY DECEMBER ROMANCE? OR PERHAPS FEBRUARY DECEMBER IS MORE LIKE IT -- Chris & Don: A Love Story ($29.99; Zeitgeist) is a sweet-natured look at the 30+ years romance between writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. Not being Scandanavian, I found the idea of a 48 year old man meeting and falling for a 16 year old boy disconcerting to say the least. But my embarrassed "this-can't-be-right" initial reaction gave way ultimately as Isherwood waited two years before actually dating Bachardy (while sleeping with the kid's older but not quite as adorable brother, mind you) and then stayed together happily in love for the next three decades till Isherwood's death. Even some of Isherwood's liberal friends felt uncomfortable about the 19 or 20 year old lad (who looked about 16 even then) shacking up with Isherwood and let him know it. But an enduring romance can answer all sorts of cynical, suspicious questions. Still, the copious home movies show Bachardy bouncing around like an adorable puppy dog, forcing you to not simply brush past the issue of their age gap but deal with it squarely. The movie gains weight as they remain loyal and Isherwood encourages Bachardy's genuine talent as a painter. And the movie benefits very nicely from a wise choice to make use of one of their endearments: the two men often wrote notes to each other with Isherwood symbolized as a plodding old horse and Bachardy as a sweet little cat. Their illustrations come to life in animated segments that somehow capture the heart of this romance with a light touch. The back and forth between the horse and the cat as two best friends would make an adorable picture book if some smart publisher would just step in with an offer.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED A JERK -- Let's face it: Captain Paul Watson is a jerk. I don't care where you stand on the issue of whaling and animal rights. This attention-grabbing guy is shown on the TV series Whale Wars ($19.95; Animal Planet/Genius) unnecessarily risking lives, treating his committed crew of volunteers as disposable and basically doing whatever he can to promote the cause of ending whaling by any means necessary. (He found GreenPeace too wishy-washy, to give you an idea of his tunnel vision.) They throw themselves at any ships catching whales for any reason -- legal or not because they think it's wrong. I couldn't spend two minutes with the guy (who really is shameless in his zealotry) but it does make for some entertaining TV.
CRITERION -- Any movie been released by Criterion is an event. Luis Bunuel (not one of my favorites) gets the deluxe treatment his stature deserves with two new titles. The Exterminating Angel ($39.95; Criterion) is one of the surreal provocateur's most accessible works, the amusingly scathing (as opposed to tiresomely scathing, which is where I often find Bunuel resides) look at the upper class by showing a dinner party where the guests simply can't leave. It's like a Voltaire take on Twilight Zone, with this simple premise taken to its logical extreme. The film looks great and extras include a substantial documentary from 2008 featuring arguably the greatest screenwriter (and certainly the greatest adapter) of all time, Jean-Claude Carriere among others, plus some other new interviews. But that's one of his most famous titles. Who but Criterion would also put out Simon Of The Desert ($24.95; Criterion),a 45 minute short about a prophet who camps out on a pillar for six years, six months and six days to show his devotion to G-d only to be sorely tempted by the devil. Extras include interviews, essays and a 1997 documentary. Finally, spun off from that great John Cassavetes' boxed set is a two disc edition of Faces ($39.95; Criterion), with the raw story of a broken marriage paired with the usual top-notch extras.
KILLER OR KING? -- Josh Brolin was nominated for an Oscar this year...but for the wrong movie. He got nominated for Milk, when in fact I don't think that movie allowed him to get under the skin of the local politician who assassinated the mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk. But Brolin, who has really come into his own the last few years, was stellar in the overlooked W. ($29.95; Lionsgate), Oliver Stone's examination of George Bush that wasn't as satirical as some expected or as scathing and condemning as others expected and certainly wasn't the hagiography that the 20% of the population who thought Bush was doing a good job even at the bitter end would have wanted. Just as it will take years for historians to put that Presidency into perspective and see its impact on world affairs, it'll take years for us to watch W. as just a film and not a requiem or star chamber condemnation of Bush. But you can start reevaluating now by focusing on how Brolin creates a living breathing character so deftly.
HE'LL BURN IN HELL FOR THIS -- Bill Maher's documentary Religulous is a genuine attempt by Maher to find out what makes the fanatically religious tick. He never hides where he's coming from or lets a chance for a zinger to slide, but this movie works because wherever Maher goes (from a Senator who admits you don't have to be smart to get elected to a truck stop worship center where burly men don't take kindly to having their beliefs questioned) he asks pointed questions but is willing to listen. By the end, Maher hasn't changed one iota, really. He says in hilariously blunt fashion that if we don't all drop this ridiculous God stuff immediately the world is going to implode. (Bill, relax; we've survived religion for thousands of years and we'll survive the next thousand or so as well.) But you will: the sheer perverse diversity of religious belief (and Maher sticks mostly to the fringes) is somehow, in some way, just a little..inspirational. Sorry, Bill.
BLURAY RELEASES -- Hollywood, wake up! BluRay will fail unnecessarily if you don't lower the prices pronto. It definitely adds a lot of value (especially when you include a digital copy as well), but BluRay is not gonna get anyone (even fans) to rebuy their entire library of DVDs. But if it can keep people who ARE buying new DVDs happy with new improvements in picture and sound, then that will be a huge win for the studios. That said (again), here's a new crop of BluRay releases and my opinion on whether you should buy them. In every case, if it's a personal favorite of yours, it's worth plunking down for even at top dollar. But I'd save that for only the tip of the top, especially if you already own it on regular DVD.
The French Connection ($34.98; Fox) -- This is really a great and gritty film, about the only one by William Friedkin that I truly care about. It looks just smashing on BluRay and comes with a bevy of extras worthy of a classic. Heck, just the chance to see New York City in the early Seventies make this riveting, never mind the headlong chase after a drug smuggling operation by the incomparable Gene Hackman. But it's $20 more expensive than the regular DVD and on sale at Amazon the difference is even worse: $23 versus $8, which is almost three times as much. If you don't own it yet, it's so good this might be worth the extra cost. But boy that's a big price jump.
The French Connection II ($34.98; Fox) -- I've never seen this film (with Hackman getting addicted to heroin when he's captured by a drug kingpin) because making a sequel to The French Connection always seemed like such an absurd idea. Still, the reviews for it are ok and Hackman is always great. But the premium price of BluRay for it? I don't think so.
The Secret Life Of Bees ($39.99; Fox) -- This ensemble drama based on the book-club favorite novel has a stellar cast including Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys and will be appreciated probably more on DVD than it was in the theaters. It's $10 more than the regular DVD and $6 more on sale at Amazon, which is just a tad too much for anyone except fans who loved it and want to see it again and again.
Body Of Lies ($35.99; Warner Bros.) -- Another flick that should gain adherents on DVD, this is a slam-bang action flick with CIA operative Leonardo DiCaprio being told what to do by his contact Russell Crowe thousands of miles away. It's like those episodes of 24 where everone is talking on cell phones. But director almost Ridley Scott is incapable of making a dull action movie. The BluRay is $7 more than the standard DVD but only $5 more on sale at Amazon PLUS it comes with a free digital copy you can watch on your computer or iPhone or whatever and that makes it worthy of purchase despite the few extra bucks.
The Pink Panther ($34.98; MGM) -- A comic gem, the best part of rewatching the first adventure of Inspector Clouseau is not just Peter Sellers but the absolute mastery shown by director Blake Edwards. Very very few comedies can use widescreen competently much less with finesse the way Edwards does here. No wonder they're still making spinoffs and sequels to it even now. Since I'm an Edwards and Sellers fanatic, I'm willing to pay $35 instead of $15 but that's probably too much for most anyone. That's a shame because the film looks smashing.
The Miracle Of St. Anna ($34.99; Touchstone) -- Spike Lee's surprisingly old fashioned war film extends to its roadshow worthy length of 160 minutes. It features another outstanding score by Terence Blanchard and a great extra where Lee chats with WW II veterans. Take Lee's name off of it and a lot more people would have accepted this stolid film on its own terms. it's only $5 more on BluRay, though oddy when it goes on sale at Amazon the price difference is $6. For such an epic, fans of Lee will find it worthwhile.
My Name Is Bruce ($35.98; Image) -- The shameless Bruce Campbell (star of the Evil Dead movies, the cult gem Bubba Ho-Tep and all around B movie king) has a blast directing and starring in this comic romp where he protects a small mining town from the reawakened Chinese protector of the dead Guan-di. (I hate when that happens.) Best of all, on sale at Amazon this flick is only $1 more on BluRay! Now that's more like it.
CAN YOU HEAR ME? -- DVD is just stellar for music titles, thanks to the ability to jump to individual songs (not to mention the far superior sound quality). Three new top-notch releases demonstrate that with ease. The Who Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 ($24.98; Eagle Rock) is a thunderous pleasure. I can't speak to whether it might have been remastered even better (the filming of the concert seemed fairly haphazard) but when the band took the stage at 2 am they were in full rock star mode, each one wearing an outfit more ludicrous than the last and the band as tight as ever. It's not flashy but the immediacy is palpable and Keith Moon looks positively possessed as he flails away gleefully on the drums. Great fun and only $4 more than regular DVD on sale at Amazon. I don't have that edition to compare it to, but if you want it and haven't bought it yet, the BluRay is worth the extra few dollars. Just as vivid is From The Basement ($14.98; Eagle Rock), a music shown seen on the IFC channel which -- much like Live From Abbey Road -- lets you feel like you're getting to sit in on a private rehearsal with a band. The show has no host or audience and unlike Abbey Road there's not even a brief chat about their music. They just set up and perform. But it's wonderfully intimate with the bands ranging from radiohead to the White Stripes to Eels and Beck and other like-minded indies. Damien Rice is almost satirically mellow by kneeling on the floor to play his songs and why did I never notice before that Meg White sticks out her tongue when drumming? Great fun if you like these artists. Finally, one of my favorite bands -- the pure pop geniuses of Fountains of Wayne -- is captured in terrific form on No Better Place: Live In Chicago ($19.98; Shout Factory) as they power through one gem after another like "Stacey's Mom," "Valley Winter Song" and "Radiation Vibe." They can do no wrong as one great album after another will testify and this DVD contains a bonus acoustic set of five more songs. Fans will love it and if you're not one, you will be.
Australia ($29.99; Fox) -- Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are gamely giving it their all in this bit of nonsense about a cattle drive and the invading Japanese via Baz Luhrmann. Sure you can turn off your brain and sort of enjoy this overripe romp but please don't confuse that with being told that it's actually good.
What Just Happened ($29.98; Magnolia) -- Robert De NIro gives his most appealing, least mannered performance in years. Unfortunately, it's for this lifeless Hollywood satire (based on the fun memoirs of producer Art Linson) that has nothing new to say.
Wonderful Town ($29.95; Kino) -- A quiet romance set in the aftermath of the tsunami that ravaged so much of Thailand, which gives you an idea of the original tone of this acclaimed indie film about an architect who falls for an innkeeper in a sea resort town.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua ($29.99; Disney) -- It is indeed the greatest film ever made that starred chihahuas and who am I to argue with $94 million at the box office? Clearly, this is not a flick for critics to weigh in on. If your kids love dogs, you've already bought this anyway. Still, I'm sorry it wasn't as funny as the trailer.
Ashes Of Time Redux ($28.98; Sony) -- On principle, I object to filmmakers going back years later and re-editing and rethinking a movie they made. But if you're going to fiddle with the past, at least present the new cut side by side with the original, something this DVD fails to do. Not that it matters: director Wong kar Wai hasn't had any more luck creating a compelling drama out of this mannered action flick that prefigures the unique style of his that would flower on great films like Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love. But everything he attempts here -- basically trying to bring a depth of performance and genuine conflict to an action flick -- is done much better by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A mess, albeit a somewhat cleaned-up one.
I Served The King Of England ($28.96; Sony) -- I found this comic novel by Bohumil Hrabal in a bookstore in London and enjoyed it quite a bit, though clearly something of this Czech masterpiece was lost in translation. Perhaps the same is true for the film, which never quites move beyond comic romp to be a truly scathing satire wherein a waiter survives political turmoil before and after WW II thanks to an amiable willingness to adapt.
Flash Of Genius ($29.98; Universal) -- What might make a great magazine article does not of course necessarily make for a great movie. Greg Kinnear is blandly right as the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper and then fought the automakers who stole his ideas for years, refusing to take their money until they agreed to acknowledge they'd done him wrong. Despite a stellar cast including the delightful Lauren Graham (currently giving it a go on Broadway in the misbegotten revival of Guys & Dolls), it is just about as exciting as it sounds.
Back To Normandy ($29.95; Kino) -- Brace yourself. This is a documentary about the making of a 1976 French film about a 19th century murder that had been told of in a book by gay philosopher Michel Foucault. It's less confusing to watch than to explain.
Chocolate ($26.98; Magnolia) -- An autistic teenager learns how to be a master fighter by watching the boxers next door and watching TV and then sets out on a quest to get money from the deadbeats who owe her ailing grandmother money. Hey, you gotta pay the medical bills someway. It's from the Thai director of the over-praised Ong-Bak. The star Jeeja Yanin has presence but I hate how he shoots and edits his fights. Still, they're almost worth fastforwarding through the talking scenes to watch.
ON TV ON TV ON TV ON TV
Enemy At The Door Series 1 ($59.99; Acorn) -- One of my favorite TV shows of the last few years was Island At War ($59.99; Acorn), a terrific series about how the Nazis invaded and occupied an island with British subjects throughout much of the war. Sadly, the series ended far too soon when its creator died. So I'm delighted to discover an earlier version of the same story was told in 1978 (and featured a young Anthony Stewart Head of Buffy in a small role). It too was cut short, only running two seasons. But hey, that's twice as long as the new one ran. Can't wait to watch it.
Murder She Wrote: Complete Ninth Season ($49.98; Universal) -- Why do people always joke that they'd never invite Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury, coasting like a pro) for a visit? Murders will happen and who better than Jessica to make certain that the right person is punished? Plus, she's always polite, well-dressed and generally great fun to have around. Unless of course you're the murderer.
The Spy Collection ($99.95; A&E) -- Here is one of the dumbest boxed sets I've seen in ages. It contains pieces of four UK spy shows -- The Persuaders!, which starred Tony Curtis and Roger Moore; The Champions, which is vaguely sci-fi-ish; The Protectors, with Robert Vaughn; and The Prisoner, one of the most wonderfully odd TV shows ever made. You do get the premiere episode of each series but there the logic ends. You get three episodes of The Prisoner when of course anyone who loves the show will want them all, about half of the episodes of The Persuaders!, maybe a quarter of the 52 episodes of The Protectors and half of The Champions 30 episodes. Does that make any sense whatsoever? If someone actually knows and loves these shows, naturally they'd want them all. And three episodes of the widely available The Prisoner? Absurd, especially when no one could possibly enjoy just three episodes of such an intricate puzzle. If they'd given you a complete set of the three other series, bundled them together to make these little known shows more appealing and offered a very cheap price, it would have been nice. But this is neither fish nor fowl and won't satisfy anyone.
Breaking Bad Complete First Season ($39.95; Sony) -- I'm thrilled Bryan Cranston won an Emmy for Best Actor on this show since he deserved it ten times over for his work on the sitcom Malcolm In The Middle. But I can't be the only one who thought seeing him in his underwear and brandishing a gun wasn't the best way to promote a show about a meth-dealing dad that sounded like an angrier version of Weeds. But that's the beauty of DVD -- I missed the beginning of the show and didn't want to dive in but now I can watch it from start to finish and become a fan just as season two begins on Sunday.
My Wife & Kids Season 1 ($29.98; Lionsgate) -- I don't mind that this rather bland sitcom starring Damon Wayans is on DVD when I'm still waiting for the rest of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues and all of I'll Fly Away and on and on. This show undoubtedly has fans too and I'm glad they can watch it. I just wish the shows I loved were out there too.
The Lair Season 2 ($29.95; Here!)/On The Other Hand, Death ($24.95; Here!) -- The Lair is almost too silly to constitute a guilty pleasure because if you're eating bon-bons, why feel guilty about it? Are you surprised it has no nutritional value. But proving that gay channel Here! can deliver quality is Chad Allen as private dick Donald Strachey in the latest mystery movie, with Margot Kidder great fun as a ballsy lesbian who stands up to hate. (Did I work in enough innuendo in that one?)
Wildfire Season 3 ($29.98; Lionsgate) -- I have a soft spot for girls and their horses stories so this soapy melodrama had me at neigh. The storylines got awfully convoluted even though there was one more season to go. But it was definitely a piece of the puzzle that turned ABC Family from an anonymous basic cable channel to the home of Greek and The Secret Life Of The American Teenager.
East Of Eden ($59.99; Acorn) -- Finally, Jane Seymour is rightfully proud of her work on this 1981 miniseries, which tackles the entire John Steinbeck novel and not just the portion covered in the creaky film adaptation that featured a riveting James Dean.