For the week of June 11th, Paramount Pictures is bringing Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to Blu-ray. Director Tommy Wirkola's bloody horror-comedy received no small amount of negative press in the months prior to its theatrical release; the previews promised a generic 3D splat-fest, and star Jeremy Renner seemed visibly unenthused to discuss the film during the Hansel & Gretel promotional events. As such, the big surprise is how enjoyable Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters actually is. While it's no Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness (Wirkola lifts elements whole-cloth from these two pictures), the movie is fleet, exciting, and unpretentious - it's nonsense, sure, but it's self-aware nonsense, and that distinction makes all the difference. Special mention must go to Spectral Motion's stunning animatronics work (with Derek Mears' Edward the Troll a particular delight), Wirkola's clean (and gory) action choreography, and a great, scenery-chewing Big Bad performance from Famke Janssen. Ultimately, even Renner has nothing to be ashamed about. His Hansel plays like an affectionate ode to Ash or Jack Burton: an über-confident dolt who isn't half as competent as he thinks he is.
Martin Liebman's writes that "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters plays just as expected. It's pure fantasy, over-the-top goofy, don't-take-me-seriously in action and dialogue both. It's also hugely predictable, largely unimaginative in execution, and a perfect example of everything that's wrong with modern mainstream cinema. But it's still technically well made and offers serviceable, albeit mindlessly serviceable, entertainment. Suffice it to say, the highbrow crowd should stay far away, but chances are audiences who expect only basic, time killing entertainment will find enough value to give it a watch."
June 11th also sees the Blu-ray debut of Snitch. Snitch is another picture that's far better than its surface appearance; that surface is preachy exploitation, a screed against drug sentencing's mandatory minimums that comes filtered through a pulpy action saga. However, the film has two secret weapons. The first is director Ric Roman Waugh. This former stuntman elevated the prison drama Felon far past its disreputable origins, and he works the same magic here, giving Snitch a palpable, understated realism that heightens the intensity of the drama. The second is star Dwayne Johnson, who is having a great year - between this, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast & Furious 6, and Pain & Gain, Johnson is a force to be reckoned with in the world of action cinema - and Snitch really lets him show his range. His John Matthews isn't an unstoppable superman: he's an all-too-flawed man who becomes an informant in order to atone for his sins as a husband and father. Johnson gives a human-scaled, vulnerable performance, and it ensures that we remain invested in the proceedings when Snitch switches gears and the bullets start flying.
In his Blu-ray review, Jeffrey Kauffman notes that, "While no one would accuse [Dwayne] Johnson of threatening Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of versatility, he has nonetheless shown a propensity toward easily handling both light comedy and action Snitch is a somewhat new genre for Johnson. While it has some action elements, Johnson isn't a strutting muscle head taking out a coterie of bad guys. He's a fairly typical father attempting to deal with a son who has made a disastrous mistake, and who himself becomes ensnared in an ever deepening miasma of problems when he attempts to extricate his son from those issues. This gives Johnson an opportunity to emote more than he has typically had, even in his non-action roles, and the good news is he acquits himself quite admirably."
In addition, Tuesday marks the street date of Walt Disney Home Entertainment's Oz: The Great and Powerful. Trying to update The Wizard of Oz, which is still one of cinema's crowning achievements, would be a tall order for any filmmaker, but that's exactly what Spider-Man collaborators Sam Raimi and James Franco are up to here; they're telling the story of the Wizard when he was a small-town conman who trips (almost literally) into his destiny. Yes, it's a prequel, and the big fear with those is that they'll explain away the magic of what made the original pictures so special. However, while Franco is miscast in the title role (Robert Downey Jr., Raimi's original choice, would have been a far more convincing huckster), the film acquits itself rather well. Raimi uses his kinetic, "spook-a-blast" eye to enliven an otherwise rote narrative - and the inventive 3D effects only bolster his work - and he gets terrific work from everyone else in his cast, including his three witches (Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis), Joey King's emotionally and physically fragile China Doll, and Zach Braff's long-suffering aid to Oz. As reboots go, it's no Alice in Wonderland (okay, so maybe that one was a stealth sequel hiding in a reboot), and that's a good thing, indeed.
Kenneth Brown's Blu-ray review ultimately praised the film "despite Oscar's cold open and even colder (but oh-so-colorful) arrival in Oz...The march towards the would-be wizard's confrontation with the true Wicked Witch slowly but surely gets better as it goes, culminating in a fun, surprisingly intense bit of third-act trickery bursting with, at long last, legitimate movie magic and narrative strength. It isn't hard to see what attracted Disney to the twisted mind that helmed the original Evil Dead films: Raimi's Spider-Man series, a wildly successful franchise that, failed third entry or no, made the director a promising prospect and something of a sure-thing when it came to rebooting as recognized and beloved a property as L. Frank Baum's Oz. And it's that same measured id that allows Oz: The Great and Powerful to gain and ultimately maintain momentum. Is Oscar wizard enough? Is the film? Not quite, but a sequel might just prove otherwise."
Finally, we end the week with Sony's House of Cards: The Complete First Season. An Americanized reworking of the popular BBC series, this serialized thriller made a big impression last February through its unique distribution method. The streaming service Netflix released all thirteen Season One episodes simultaneously, a decision that encouraged viewers to "binge-watch" the show in large chunks. While other streaming programs have used the same release strategy, few share House of Cards' impressive pedigree; The Ides of March scribe Beau Willimon and The Social Network director David Fincher developed House of Cards (Fincher also directed the first two episodes and set the template for the program's visual aesthetic), and Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey leads the cast as a beyond-Machiavellian political operator. It doesn't quite live up to the hype - as dramatically and formally accomplished as the proceedings are, House of Cards can't quite match the level of political intrigue established by shows like The West Wing or The Wire - but it's compelling, addictive viewing just the same.
Martin Liebman called House of Cards "a very fluid, organic tale, one fueled by all the Washington turmoil but solidified by some excellent performances. The program works as well as it does largely because it's infinitely believable; there's not a sight, sound, or syllable that feels manipulated or in any way something other than plausible at worst and realistic at best. The series travels through moral darkness with a strikingly believable rhythm to every step, offset by an almost gleeful cast of main characters who find a perverse pleasure in not just working the system, but taking advantage of it and using their own political skill to alter the landscape in their favor. Every character is in some way flawed - spiteful, manipulative, dishonest, addicted, naive, oblivious - and the program skillfully uses each and every one of those to fuel the drama and constantly shift the landscape for better or for worse, and usually the latter even if, on the individual level, it's for the former."
SG1Fan, there's a printable coupon from Scott for the Oz combo pack for $7.00 and the combo pack comes with a code to redeem for a 3D disc for $5.99 so you can get the Oz 3D combo pack you want for the price of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
Wow! All of the Disneys and the H&G digibook at Target. For anybody that doesn't know, the Target Debit Card gives you Free Shipping plus a 5% discount. The H&G disc was actually cheaper to buy online from Target than to get it in the store. Now I won't have to hunt it down (get it?) in Target.