And now his game has ended.
It took three decades to bring Orson Scott Card's '80s sci-fi classic to the big screen and only two weekends for audiences to reject it. Granted, the big-budgeted would-be franchise starter did initially finish in the top slot, but by the following week, it had fallen to number five and finished it run with a mere $60 million gross. That makes the prospect of seeing another entry in the Ender cycle -- whether that's the first sequel Speaker for the Dead or one of the many parallel follow-ups Card has penned since -- highly unlikely and perhaps that's for the best. Because even though Gavin Hood's film version is perfectly fine sci-fi spectacle -- one that's more closely patterned after the original Ender's Game short story rather than the novel -- it lacks some of the book's most interesting elements (including a storyline involving Ender's older brother and sister, which is completely jettisoned here) and suffers from miscasting in a few keys roles (looking at you, Harrison Ford). Also, considering the author's unapologetic and frequently expressed bigotry, it's hard to feel too upset that he won't be seeing any more money from Hollywood. At the same time, don't hold Card's views against the filmmakers, who took great pains to distance themselves from him and made a feature that's in some ways more progressive than the original novel. If you see Ender's Game enjoy it for what it is: a one-off space adventure that honors the source material, without endorsing the views of the man who wrote it.
Extras: A commentary track with the film's producers, deleted scenes with commentary from Hood and an eight-part making-of documentary.
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Ignored by audiences and denounced by a majority of critics, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor is a deeply flawed film, but the flaws are precisely what make it so fascinating. Taking the all-too-familiar scenario of a good guy -- Michael Fassbender's ambitious lawyer -- who makes the bad choice of getting involved in a drug deal organized by Javier Bardem's flamboyant kingpin, McCarthy and Scott render it unfamiliar by tossing out much of the exposition and even the details of the deal itself. The Counselor is more interested in behavior, specifically the behavior of the prey (as represented by Fassbender and his onscreen girlfriend, played by Penélope Cruz) and the hunters (specifically Cameron Diaz, playing Bardem's sultry, sadistic girlfriend) who stalk them. Fact is, Scott isn't much of an actor's director, so the cast is mostly left alone to make what they can of McCarthy's blank verse poetry. On the other hand, the film's images are gorgeous -- as sharp and stark as the words on the page. The Counselor may have been a commercial failure. But a creative failure? Far from it.
Extras: The most significant bonus feature is an unrated director's cut of the film adds back in almost a half-hour's worth of material. Also included is a featurette and a handful of viral videos.
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All Is Lost
Robert Redford plays the Old Man -- and the sea plays itself -- in J.C. Chandor's self-penned variation on The Old Man and the Sea. Setting sail for reasons that are deliberately never explained, Redford's boat runs into a spot of trouble as the movie opens, courtesy of a collision with an empty cargo container, and proceeds to spend the rest of the runtime trying (and failing) to keep the damn thing afloat. In a bold creative choice, Chandor allows the film to unfold without dialogue (or even voiceover) and a minimum of music as well. He also restrains from cutting away to flashbacks or scenes of rescue crews searching for the rapidly sinking vessel. Instead, we're stranded along with a silent Redford as he fights for his life, making this about as pure and elemental survival story as you're likely to find. Whether that's ultimately enough to make the movie resonate on a deeper level is something you'll have to decide for yourself. But kudos to Chandor for committing to his particular vision and executing it so effectively.
Extras: A commentary track with Chandor, three featurettes and four vignettes.
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What happens when the ultimate Jane Austen fan gets to live in the world of Pride & Prejudice, complete with her own Mr. Darcy? And no, time travel and/or literally vanishing into a novel isn't involved. Instead, the appropriately named Jane (Keri Russell, typically charming) makes her way to a Colonial Williamsburg-style immersive recreation of Austen's world called Austenland. Once there, she drinks tea, does needlework, engages in witty banter and, of course, falls in love with two very different guys: rough-around-the-edges laborer Martin (Bret McKenzie, the more adorable half of Flight of the Conchords… sorry Jemaine) and stuck-up Mr. Nobley (JJ Field). But which of these love affairs are being scripted by management and which is the real thing? Though the movie struggles somewhat to distinguish between the fact and fiction of Jane's experience in Austenland, the cast (which also includes James Callis and Jennifer Coolidge) is a lot of fun to watch and director Jerusha Hess channels the good humor of Austen's works, if not necessarily their emotional potency. And it's certainly a better Valentine's Day date movie than any of the big-screen romances opening in theaters this Friday.
Extras: A commentary track with Hess and the film's producer (and Twilight author) Stephenie Meyer and a Q&A with the film's cast.
The Armstrong Lie
Like a healthy chunk of the American public, prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney believed that cyclist Lance Armstrong really did ride clean during his seven Tour de France victories. Gibney believed so strongly, in fact, that he took the job of directing the inspirational documentary that would accompany Armstrong's return to the Tour in 2009. We all know what happened next -- depositions, lawsuits and a public apology on Oprah -- and that original version of the film quickly went on the shelf. Four years later, Gibney reworked the material (along with fresh interviews with Armstrong and others) into The Armstrong Lie, which covers the cyclist's early years, the evolution of his vast doping operation and that circumstances that convinced him to come out of retirement for the 2009 Tour, which he still maintains he competed in without any artificial boosts. Gibney's documentary is at its weakest when he positions himself as an aggrieved party in his subject's deception, but he ably reconstructs the path that led Armstrong to start doping, as well as the way that the culture of the sport made his decision not only inevitable, but, in a way, necessary. If you need a behind-the-headlines tour of the Lance Armstrong fracas, The Armstrong Lie provides it.
Extras: A commentary track with Gibney, additional Q&A's and deleted scenes.
Notable for being the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia -- and, more importantly the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour -- Wadjda provides a compelling window into the challenges facing both young and mature women in one of the world's more restrictive countries. The title character is a precocious 10-year-old girl who has her heart set on purchasing her own bicycle -- a mode of transportation that's frowned upon for women of any age -- and decides to pursue that tradition-challenging goal by embracing tradition (to a certain extent anyway), entering a Koran competition organized by her ultra-strict school. Meanwhile, Wadjda's mother is growing increasingly estranged from her husband, who is being pressured to start another family with a second wife. Far from being a Saudi Arabian version of The Bicycle Thief, Wadjda is much more about the personal compromises these two women have to make on a daily basis in order to abide by societal norms. That makes it heartening to see that Al Mansour was not only able to defy convention, but make a good film in the process.
Extras: A commentary track and separate Q&A with Al Mansour and a making-of featurette.
Chicago: Diamond Edition
The Jungle Book
Rocky Heavyweight Collection
Twelve years ago, Rob Marshall's movie version of Chicago beat out a weak field of contenders to take the Best Picture Oscar, the first musical to claim that honor Oliver way back in 1968. I wasn't a fan of the movie at the time (though the stage version ranks as one of my all-time favorite shows), so I wasn't surprised to see just how badly it's aged over the past decade, done in by Marshall's flat-footed direction and a wealth of poor casting choices, leading off with Renée Zellweger's tone deaf Roxie Hart. The Best Picture win means a remake is probably out of the question, but if there was ever a movie musical that cried out for a do-over, it's Chicago. (Well… that and Kiss Me Kate, too.) On the other hand, Disney's The Jungle Book -- the last movie ol' Walt himself oversaw -- holds up fairly well as evidenced by this new Blu-ray "Diamond Edition." The slow, gentle rhythms of Disney's '60s and '70s output can be hard to adjust to given the rat-a-tat pacing of so much of today's kiddie entertainment, but the music is delightful and Baloo is one of the studio's all-time great creations. By now, the Rocky franchise has gone way past double-dipping into quadruple-dipping in the box set department, but the latest edition -- the so-called "Heavyweight Collection" -- is worth its weight as it makes room for Blu-ray versions of all six films and three hours of bonus features. Make sure to watch the entirety of Rocky, Rocky III and Rocky Balboa, while selectively chapter skipping through II, IV and V in order to get to the bouts, where the body grease glistens like diamonds in high-def.
Extras: Chicago offers an all-new retrospective documentary along with a batch of previously released features ranging from a deleted musical number to a commentary track with Marshall. The Jungle Book includes an alternate ending, a sing-a-long track and additional featurettes. And the Rocky Heavyweight Collection is mostly made up of previously released bonus features, though there is an all-new collection of 8mm home movies shot during the making of the original film, with accompanying narration by director John G. Avildsen.
Also on DVD:
Despite taking a fourteen-year break between installments, audiences turned up in droves for The Best Man Holiday, Malcolm D. Lee's follow-up to his 1999 hit, which reunited the entire cast (including Taye Diggs, Nia Long and Terrence Howard) and more than doubled the original's box office take. Kevin Macdonald sets off an atom bomb in the ambitious, but uneven post-apocalyptic coming-of-age YA tale How I Live Now, which at least finds Saoirse Ronan doing typically strong work. Cuba Gooding Jr. indulges his inner chess grand master in the inspirational drama Life of a King. Naomi Watts embarrassed herself and an entire nation when she played the dearly departed Princess of Wales in the lambasted, barely-released biopic Diana. A Christian teenager is tempted away from her faith when she enters the godless music biz in Grace Unplugged. Jack Huston and his uncle Danny Huston star alongside Sienna Miller in behind-the-veil of Hollywood comedy, 2 Jacks. And finally, Luc Besson taps Jean Reno to play another professional killer in the French import, 22 Bullets. Natalie Portman not included, though.
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