CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011). At one point in this joyful documentary, Jack Nicholson discusses the countless cheapies produced by Roger Corman and cracks, "By mistake, he actually made a good picture every once in a while." This statement is said not with malice but with affection, as Nicholson is just one of the numerous Hollywood A-listers who received their first break under the tutelage of Corman, the legendary filmmaker with over 400 movies to his credit. Famous for making films as cheaply as humanly possible — his penny-pinching antics included shooting 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors in only two days and, upon completion of 1963's The Raven, having a script whipped out over a weekend so the sets could be used for another film (The Terror) — Corman subsequently became known for fostering formidable talents over the course of several decades; among those benefitting from his benevolence were Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, Francis Coppola, James Cameron, Pam Grier, William Shatner and many, many more. Some of these folks turn up in Corman's World, sharing their experiences while director Alex Stapleton also examines other facets of his career: his start as a script reader at Fox; his foresight during the 1960s to make biker and drug movies for young audiences, a demographic foolishly being ignored by the major studios; his commitment during the 1970s to importing award-winning films from the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini; and, at long last, the Academy finally getting around to awarding him an honorary Oscar in 2009. If there's a failing in the film, it's that Stapleton doesn't make it clear that Corman was a follower as much as he was a leader: While it's true that Hollywood often copied him, he was just as quick to steal from the majors. (The success of Jaws led directly to Piranha; Star Wars was ripped off as Battle Beyond the Stars; Alien led to both Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World; and so on.) Still, this is a minor quibble when held up against the wealth of information — and abundance of rental suggestions — included in this film.
Blu-ray extras include extended interviews; special messages from various celebrities, some of whom didn't make it into the finished film (e.g. Traci Lords); and the theatrical trailer.
THE IRON LADY (2011). Taking Meryl Streep out of The Iron Lady and replacing her with just about any other actress would be akin to removing the meat out of a beef Stroganoff dinner and replacing it with a Hostess Twinkie. The result would be a thoroughly indigestible mess, worthy only of being flung into the garbage bin. Yes, Streep delivers yet another note-perfect performance (even if it atypically seems as much surface mimicry as heartfelt emoting), but move beyond her work and what remains is a poor movie that does little to illuminate the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial British Prime Minister who held the position throughout the 1980s. Forget for a minute the movie's soft-pedaling of its central character. Since filmmakers usually desire to be as demographically friendly as possible in order to attract audiences of all stripes, it's no surprise that director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan fail to devote much time to Thatcher's ample failings, including her abhorrent attitudes toward the poor, the unemployed and even her fellow women. Yet even her few strengths (rising from modest origins, sticking it to the boys' club of British politics, reinstilling a sense of national pride much like her BFF Ronald Reagan was doing stateside) are treated in CliffsNotes fashion, since an oversized amount of the picture focuses on her waning years as a lonely woman suffering from mild dementia, believing she's being frequently visited by her deceased husband Denis (a wasted Jim Broadbent). With so much history and personality to draw upon, it's infuriating that so much of the running time is wasted on mere speculation involving an elderly person's flights of fancy (a problem that also plagued Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar); these sequences, popping up every few minutes, effectively destroy any sense of pacing or continuity and ineptly attempt to soften a world figure who didn't exactly earn her titular nickname by publicly surrounding herself with Paddington Bear dolls. This earned two Oscars: Best Actress for Streep (she finally snags her long-awaited third statue for this? and Best Makeup.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; a featurette on the costume designs; and a look at Denis Thatcher.
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958). Before James Cameron's Titanic sailed into view in 1997, the two most famous films about the doomed ship both appeared in the 1950s. The first was 1953's Titanic, a slick Hollywood production which earned an Academy Award for its screenplay (it's scheduled for Blu-ray release in the fall). The other was this expensive British effort, largely considered by film critics and scholars (if not by modern audiences) to be the best movie ever made about the disaster. With Walter Lord's acclaimed book of the same name as its inspiration, it's certainly the most factual, offering only brief vignettes concerning the passengers while spending most of its time with the officers as well as approaching the tragedy from a stance that almost qualifies as docudrama. Kenneth More essays the central role of Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, and he's the reassuring presence throughout a film that breaks down the incident in powerful fashion. Buffs will be interested in noting the appearances by future '60s superstars Honor Blackman (as passenger Liz Lucas) and David McCallum (as the assistant wireless operator): Blackman would become famous for playing Catherine Gale on TV's The Avengers and Pussy Galore in the 007 entry Goldfinger, while McCallum would strike gold as Illya Kuryakin on TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (and of course currently plays Dr. Mallard on the long-running NCIS).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, author and illustrator of Titanic: An Illustrated History; the hour-long documentary The Making of A Night to Remember (1993); the 50-minute BBC documentary The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic; and archival interviews with Titanic survivors.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). While I'm not one of the countless critics who would call Marlon Brando the greatest screen actor of all time — I've simply seen him deliver too many lazy or hammy performances to deserve such a lofty honor — I would never argue with anyone who opined that he was the greatest screen actor of the 1950s. In a decade full of astounding turns from this Method giant, his breakthrough performance in this adaptation of Tennessee Williams' stage triumph remains my favorite — simply put, it's one of the finest acting jobs ever committed to celluloid. As for the movie itself, it's an unqualified masterpiece, and certainly the definitive screen Williams. Brando, of course, plays the brutish lout Stanley Kowalski, married to simple Stella (Kim Hunter) but engaged in a particularly twisted battle of wills with her mentally fragile sister Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). Williams himself tackled the screenplay, with Elia Kazan in the director's chair and Alex North contributing a potent score. Nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won four: Best Actress (the tremendous Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hunter), Supporting Actor (Karl Malden as Blanche's suitor) and Black-and-White Art Direction-Set Decoration. Yet it's Brando who towers over the film with his magnetic, animalistic work. He lost Best Actor to sentimental favorite Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen; if the Academy had only already given Bogie the Oscars he deserved for Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then Streetcar might have become the only film in history to win all four acting categories. Incidentally, this cut of the picture, billed as The Original Restored Version, contains a couple of minutes of footage trimmed by the Legion of Decency right before the film's initial premiere.
Extras on the Blu-ray, itself housed inside a 40-page Digibook, include audio commentary by Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; the 75-minute documentary Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey (1995); a Brando screen test; a featurette on the film's censorship problems; and a pair of complementary pieces, A Streetcar on Broadway and A Streetcar in Hollywood.
A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902). Anyone who marveled at Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Hugo, which partly told the story of Georges Méliès, got to see recreations of — and snatches from — the silent-film pioneer's most famous work, A Trip to the Moon. Now here's an opportunity to see the genuine article, unedited. Working from the only hand-colored print known to exist — one that was found by chance in the mid-1990s — three outfits embarked on a painstaking restoration that premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Flicker Alley now offers the movie in a SteelBook Edition, and it's easily one of the most impressive — and important — home-entertainment releases of the year. Running a mere 15 minutes, A Trip to the Moon is a treat for cineastes and sci-fi fans alike, with Méliès borrowing from both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to relate his tale about six dapper gentlemen who climb into their rocketship and head to the moon, where they encounter hostile creatures who explode in a burst of smoke when walloped. Melies was the inventor of special effects, and he employs them liberally in this charming yarn, presented in this set not only in its color incarnation but also in the more familiar black-and-white rendition. The only debit is the new score by the French band AIR, which sounds more suited for a glitzy Milan runway show during Fashion Week than for a 110-year-old landmark — it proved so distracting that I finally had to hit the "mute" button (no problem for a silent film, right?). Incidentally, the AIR score only accompanies the color version; the black-and-white cut offers more traditional silent scores by Frederick Hodges and Robert Israel.
This limited edition, consisting of a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a 24-page booklet, also contains the 65-minute documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, which discusses A Trip to the Moon and includes interviews with celebrities (and Méliès fans) Tom Hanks, Costa-Gavras, The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, and others. Extras include two more Méliès shorts, 1898's The Astronomer's Dream and 1904's The Eclipse, and an interview with the members of AIR.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO (2011). Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James — whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson). Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Cameron Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost. Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Crowe, co-star J.B. Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi; 20 deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and a piece on the real Benjamin Mee.