This is an excellent week for home video, as the new releases include a top-notch animated movie, a solid biopic about director Alfred Hitchcock and a drama that won four Academy Awards.
Life of Pi
4 stars (out of four)
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and on demand
Ang Lee won his second best director Oscar last month for his exceptional work in bringing novelist Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” to the screen. The fanciful-yet-poignant story centers on an Indian boy named Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) whose family runs a zoo. When his father decides to move to Canada, he packs the family and all of their animals onto a freighter only to see it sink at sea. Pi manages to escape the foundering vessel but winds up trapped on a lifeboat with a massive Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Even when his situation grows dire, the spiritual Pi refuses to abandon hope; and the boy and tiger learn to survive together. Viewers have the satisfaction of knowing that Pi somehow lives through the adventure because the story is told in flashback. In fact, viewers are told that Pi’s story is powerful enough to make a person believe in God.
Lee tells his tale by mixing high-end special effects with live-action footage, giving the picture an ethereal, dream-like quality. He also makes fantastic use of 3D technology, so anyone with the home theater equipment should opt for the 3D experience.
Even in 2D, “Life of Pi” is wonderful because it drifts easily between genres, playing as an adventure film, a spiritual drama and a fantasy. The movie is able to walk these lines because much of the story is left to viewer interpretation. In fact, it is so cleverly structured that one person may read the film as a sprightly fantasy while another can interpret it as a sorrowful tale of human tragedy.
Sharma is a newcomer to the cinema, but he is asked to carry much of the weight of the picture because he is often the only person on screen. Remarkably, he comes off like a veteran, infusing Pi with so much heart and character that it would be difficult not to invest in the boy’s journey.
Along with Lee’s award for best director, “Life of Pi” won Oscars for cinematography, visual effects and original score; and it was nominated for seven additional honors, including best picture. The recognition is deserved, and it’s nice to see the movie make its way onto home video where it can gain an even wider audience.
The DVD version of the movie has no extras, but the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D releases contain a still gallery, storyboards and several making-of documentaries.
Rise of the Guardians
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and on demand
One of the most noteworthy snubs of the 2013 Academy Awards was the absence of “Rise of the Guardians” in the best animated film category. The clever, fantasy-based feature is arguably better written than the Oscar winner, “Brave,” and it deserved a nomination.
The story is based on novelist William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood book series, and it focuses on the exploits of characters we all grow up loving, most notably Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman. As depicted on screen, these magical beings not only delight children with gifts, they protect them by battling the forces of evil. Collectively, they are known as the Guardians.
The movie is set during troubling times because the dangerous Bogeyman, known as Pitch Black, is threatening to steal the innocence of every child. As they always have, the Guardians rise up against Pitch. But this time, they do so with the help of a newly selected member, the insecure and playful Jack Frost.
Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire approached “Rise of the Guardians” both as a standard adventure story and a coming-of-age tale from the perspective of Jack. Because it works on both levels, children can latch onto whichever storyline speaks most directly to them. Director Peter Ramsey keeps the plot moving at an ideal pace, and the visuals that he and his crew deliver are the most impressive of any 2012 animated film.
“Rise of the Guardians” also deserves praise for its well-crafted 3D sequences. Too often, 3D technology does little to better the movie experience, but Ramsey uses the added depth to draw viewers into the work. Because of that, the Blu-ray 3D version is recommended for anyone with the equipment to view it.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature, an interactive guide where Sandy the Sandman helps you interpret your dreams and a filmmakers’ audio commentary.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and on demand
Most classic movie lovers have a place in their hearts for Alfred Hitchcock, the director who earned the title Master of Suspense by producing a multitude of well-known thrillers. His list of film classics includes “The Birds,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Rear Window,” but he is probably best known for the 1960 serial killer film “Psycho.”
That movie features one of the most memorable murder sequences in film history, and it changed the way horror films were made. “Hitchcock” is a clever biopic that tells the story of “Psycho” while speculating about the director’s personal life, particularly his relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi depict Hitchcock, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, as an aging giant who refuses to believe that his best days are behind him. In an effort to prove that he is still able to shake the foundations of cinema, Hitchcock refuses to tackle the standard projects that Hollywood throws his way in favor of a graphic adaptation of a horror novel.
Despite Hitchcock’s stature in the film industry, the controversial project forces him to finance the feature on his own, putting he and his wife at financial risk. Although “Hitchcock” is ostensibly about “Psycho,” Gervasi spends a great deal of time with Hitchcock and Reville, making the film as much a love story as anything.
It would be difficult to make a movie about such an iconic director without a great actor in the lead role, and Hopkins was the perfect choice. He does a fine job with Hitchcock’s voice and mannerisms, and he even looks a good deal like the director. Mirren was an equally fine choice for Reville, and the scenes where she and Hopkins play across from one another are terrific. The film also benefits from appearances by Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as starlets Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively.
Biopics require creative license to succeed, and Gervasi takes liberties with his storytelling, but that’s not really a flaw because he also renews interest in Hitchcock’s life and cinematic legacy.
Blu-ray extras include a deleted scene, several behind-the-scenes features and a filmmaker’s audio commentary.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Cirque du Soleil – Worlds Away”: Director Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”) captures routines from a number of Cirque du Soleil shows, giving viewers a close-up look at the circus phenomenon. Although the movie is primarily built around individual acts, it also follows the story of a young woman drawn into the magical world of a circus aerialist.
“Smashed”: Independent film about an alcohol-loving couple (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) whose relationship is tested when the wife decides to get sober. Co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt.
“Ministry of Fear”: Freshly restored Criterion Collection release of director Fritz Lang’s 1944 thriller about a man (Ray Milland) who stumbles onto an international spy plot shortly after being released from a mental asylum.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” – 25th Anniversary Edition: Disney is bringing its landmark movie about a cartoon rabbit who is wrongly accused of murder to Blu-ray. The movie won four Academy Awards, including one for special achievement in animation direction, and it does a fine job mixing live-action and animated footage. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer, Christopher Lloyd and Kathleen Turner star. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
“Samson and Delilah”: Paramount is bringing director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Biblical story to DVD for the first time. Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, George Sanders and Angela Lansbury star.
Disney two-movie collections: The Mouse House is delivering three Blu-ray sets that collect movies from popular Disney franchises. Available are “Mulan”/“Mulan II,” “Brother Bear”/“Brother Bear 2” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”/“The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.”
“Curandero – Dawn of the Demon”: Robert Rodriguez-produced horror film about a federal agent (Gizeht Galatea) and a spiritual healer (Carlos Gallardo) who get drawn into the dealings of a satanic cult. Directed by Eduardo Rodriguez.
“The Father Dowling Mysteries” – The Final Season: Final 22 episodes of the television drama that aired on NBC and ABC from 1989 to 1991. Tom Bosley stars as a Catholic priest with a penchant for solving crimes.
“The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange Vol. 1 – Escape From the Kitchen”: Episodes from the Cartoon Network TV series detailing the adventures of an anthropomorphic orange and his supermarket pals.
“The Mob Doctor – The Complete Series”: All 13 episodes of the short-lived Fox drama about a surgical resident who provides medical services to a criminal organization in order to work off her brother’s debt. Jordana Spiro and William Forsythe star.
“Law & Order – Criminal Intent” – The Final Year: Tenth and final season of the law enforcement drama about investigators working in the Major Case Squad of the New York City Police Department. Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe star.
Alfred Hitchcock – The Classic Collection: The home video release of “Hitchcock” may get movie lovers in the mood for some of the director’s original movies, and this Blu-ray set contains “Notorious,” “Rebecca” and “Spellbound.”
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.