This week’s DVD releases include two of the better films of 2009, and they target completely different audiences.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
More than any of the previous Harry Potter films, “Half-Blood Prince” expects audiences to know their stuff. That’s not to say viewers need to read each of J.K. Rowling’s novels, but it will certainly help if they’ve seen the previous five movies.
Director David Yates, who also directed 2007’s “Order of the Phoenix,” spends little time developing his characters, instead focusing on the plotting, which sees Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) — and other members of the wizarding community — being stalked by increasingly powerful dark forces. The fact that Yates doesn’t offer a primer for the uninitiated is not a criticism because he’s made a valid choice. The Potter movies are in many ways a serial, and this film rewards those who have stuck with them. It is a rich mix of action, dialogue and beautiful special effects that folds viewers into Potter’s fantastical world. And, although that world is exciting, it is also dangerous.
“Half-Blood Prince” is the bleakest Potter movie yet, as it leads Harry and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), to one of the deepest tragedies of their young lives. It also makes it clear that Harry’s run ins with the evil Lord Voldemort must one day come to a grave and terrifying head.
The movie ends with something of a cliffhanger, an open invitation begging viewers to see the final two Potter movies when they hit theaters beginning in late 2010. Although “Half-Blood Prince” won’t feel complete until those movies are tacked on, it is a rewarding experience in its own right. The film is two and a half hours long but feels considerably shorter thanks to Yates’ deft direction and fine performances by the young cast. It also moves Harry’s story ever-closer to the climax we’re all waiting for.
“Half-Blood Prince” is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a three-disc set that includes Blu-ray, DVD and electronic copies of the film. Extra features vary.
Julie & Julia
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Writer-director Nora Ephron has made her best film since 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle” thanks to a clever idea that merged two books into a single, endearing screenplay. To make “Julie & Julia,” Ephron borrowed both from celebrity chef Julia Child’s “My Life in France” autobiography and a memoir by Julie Powell, who chronicled her attempts to cook each of the 524 recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The result is a sweet film that cuts back and forth between Powell’s often comical cooking experiences and efforts to blog about them and Child’s cooking exploits while living in Paris in the 1950s.
Ephron, of course, draws parallels between the lives of the two women, and her screenplay is tight, bright and entertaining. The film wouldn’t have been nearly as successful, however, without the help of her two remarkable leading ladies. Meryl Streep turns in one of the finest performances of 2009 with her spot-on representation of Child, a personality who was so broad that a lesser actress might have turned the role into parody. Streep, on the other hand, demonstrates her remarkable artistic sensibilities by taking on Child’s voice and mannerisms while making sure she comes across as a fully formed human being.
Amy Adams had an easier task portraying Powell because the author isn’t an international celebrity. Still, it’s crucial that audiences invest in her cooking project, and Adams is just the actress to draw us in. Her reading of Powell is smart, sweet and even occasionally selfish, but that makes the performance all the more real.
Ultimately, Ephron has created a chick flick that breaks down the traditional constructs of the genre by straying from romantic comedy and presenting the story of two engaging women who set goals and insisted on meeting them. Of course, calling “Julie & Julia” a chick flick cheapens what Ephron has achieved. The story will appeal to women, yes, but men shouldn’t be afraid to give it a spin because it’s one of the best films of 2009 … period.
DVD extras include an audio commentary by writer-director Nora Ephron and a featurette on the making of the film.
Rated R for gangster violence and some language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
With a creative team including writer-director Michael Mann and the considerable acting talents of Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, “Public Enemies” seems like the closest thing Hollywood could find to a sure thing, and it is a good picture. Unfortunately, good is the strongest adjective it deserves.
Depp plays real-life gangster John Dillinger, a violent but charismatic bank robber whose exploits made him a celebrity during the Great Depression. Mann and Depp do a fine job painting him as a man willing to risk his future in order to live the high life in the present, and they also do solid work establishing his romantic relationship with Billie Frechette (Cotillard).
Although the film is primarily about Dillinger, Mann also spends a good deal of time looking at his FBI nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Bale), a no-nonsense lawman intent on bringing the gangster to justice. As he did with “Heat,” Mann cuts back and forth between the good guys and bad guys, leading viewers through a cat-and-mouse chase that is always interesting.
On the down side, Mann covers so much ground in “Public Enemies” that some important things get glossed over. For instance, audiences are shown some of Dillinger’s dealings with fellow gangster Baby Face Nelson, but the dynamic between the two men is never fully developed. The movie also allows FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) several short appearances, but not enough of them to get a real feel for the man.
As interesting as “Public Enemies” is, the project feels rushed, especially since Mann devotes a good portion of its 140 minute run to machine gun battles. There’s nothing wrong with the fight sequences, as they’re well staged and exciting, but the film might have been exraordinary — rather than good — if Mann expanded his scope and gave the supporting characters more time to develop.
“Public Enemies” is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a two-disc special edition. Extra features vary.
World’s Greatest Dad
2 ½ stars
Rated R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
During his lengthy entertainment career, Bobcat Goldthwait has established himself as a multi-talented artist capable of everything from standup comedy to voiceover work. Here he’s wearing his writing and directing hats to tell the story of a downtrodden English teacher named Lance Clayton (Robin Williams). Although an exceedingly decent man, Lance spends his days getting berated by his foul-mouthed and ill-tempered teen son (Daryl Sabara) and watching his girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) flirt with another man. A writer as well as a teacher, he’s also in the career dumps because he can’t get a word published.
Then, ironically, a horrifying tragedy turns Lance’s life around for the better. No longer unnoticed, he becomes wildly popular and watches his career blossom. Although he is taken by the good fortune, he has a difficult time accepting the fact that his success came at a terrible price.
The film deals with issues of sex, teen angst and the longing for respect in a frank and straightforward manner, and none of the movie’s characters are easily defined. Some of Lance’s actions, in fact, are so shocking that a poor performance could have created total contempt for the character. Fortunately, Williams is adept at making Lance likable, even when he’s doing the unthinkable.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is a fascinating film that is well paced and populated by interesting characters, but the material is so dark and bizarre that it is difficult to embrace. Williams does his best to draw us in and, for the most part, he’s successful. Still, a good portion of the plotting is just creepy enough to keep us on edge with an inner-voice that screams: “If you think this is funny, there’s something wrong with you.”
DVD extras include outtakes, deleted scenes, making-of features and a commentary by Goldthwait.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“The Cove”: Animal activist and dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry and filmmakers delve deep to report on the international dolphin capture trade in Japan. Rated PG-13 for disturbing content, this film was named best documentary of 2009 by the National Board of Review.
“Lost” — The Complete Fifth Season: You still have time to get caught up with this popular television drama before the sixth and final season begins airing in February. Season five brings the Oceanic 6 back to the island where many questions are answered and discoveries made about the fate of those left behind.
“Johnny Mercer — The Dream’s on Me”: Documentary about lyricist, singer and Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer, who was responsible for many hits, including “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Moon River.” The film features rare interviews and performances by Mercer along with movie and TV clips from other music legends.
“Knut & Friends”: The true-story of Knut, a polar bear cub born in captivity and rejected by his mother. The little cub sparked a wave of controversy with animal rights activists, and Berlin zookeeper Thomas Dorflein raised Knut, feeding him, sleeping with him and teaching him to swim.
“The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection”: Three of French actress Brigitte Bardo’s movies. Included is “The Night Heaven Fell,” “Plucking the Daisy” and “Don Juan.” The films are presented in French with English subtitles.
“Dhani Tackles the Globe Season 1”: In this Travel Channel series, Cincinatti Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones travels to different countries to soak up the culture and get challenged by new sports, including hurling in Ireland and dragon boat racing in Singapore.
“Lost Treasure of the Maya”: When a group of tomb raiders uncovers 800-year-old Mayan artifacts, they plan to grab the loot and run. They find trouble, though, after running into an ex-military man hired to find a missing archeologist. Michael Madsen, Heather Storm, Declan Joyce and Richard Tyson star.
Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at Forrest@ForrestHartman.com