ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011). Writer-director Joe Cornish's film opens with a gang of South London thugs robbing a woman before having a run-in with a nasty critter from outer space. Those of us empathic to the plights of victims (and, I'm guessing, those still reeling from the recent London riots) will hope the malevolent e.t. will make mincemeat of these U.K. "yoofs" and are a bit disappointed when they kill the creature and assert themselves as the film's protagonists. It's easy to get behind the squeaky-clean kids saving the world in Super 8, but these junior criminals? But sprint past those opening sequences and what emerges is a low-budget firecracker that's as adept at tackling social issues as it is at providing sci-fi thrills. Like District 9, Attack the Block employs its fantastical tale to wrestle with issues of race and class structure — the sort of deep thought lost on Hollywood kingpins like Michael Bay, whose idea of sensitive racial exploration was to create two Amos 'n' Andy robots for the second Transformers flick. After gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and his four friends take down the alien, they find that their neighborhood is suddenly the target of more of these marauding monsters (a cool design, they look like black furballs with glowing teeth). Sam (Jodie Whittaker), the victim of their mugging, tries to have them arrested but is soon forced to reluctantly join them to ward off the extraterrestrial intruders. But Sam's anger doesn't dissipate in the face of otherworldly evil, and the beauty of the movie is how she constantly reminds these street toughs that she's still pissed, that what they did was inexcusable, and that actions have consequences. As embodied by Whittaker, Sam is a wonderful female character: intelligent, tough, resourceful, and a far cry from Tinseltown's action bimbos du jour. Meanwhile, the five inner-city lads, invisible to the world, make their presence known in a positive manner: They mature, they accept responsibility, and they're doing it in a fantasy flick that's perpetually exciting, amusing and out of this world.
Blu-ray extras include "Junior" audio commentary by Boyega and the other four young actors; "Senior" audio commentary by Cornish, Whittaker and co-stars Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway; separate audio commentary by Cornish and executive producer Edgar Wright; an hour-long making-of feature; a 20-minute piece on the creation of the creatures; a 5-minute short in which Cornish discusses unfilmed sequences; and both the U.K. trailer and the U.S. red-band trailer.
THE CONVERSATION (1974). A pet project for writer-director-producer Francis Ford Coppola — both he and star Gene Hackman would later cite this as a personal favorite — The Conversation had the fortune of being released shortly after the Watergate break-in made the subject of wiretapping all the rage. This didn't exactly translate into potent box office, but it did mark the film as very much a piece of its time, snuggling up nicely to other paranoia thrillers like the same year's The Parallax View and 1975's Three Days of the Condor. It also provides a nice stepping stone between Antonioni's Blow-Up and De Palma's Blow Out, with Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired by a prominent businessman known only as "the director" (an unbilled Robert Duvall) to tape a clandestine meeting between two young people in love (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest). Harry carries out the assignment with the aid of his annoying assistant (John Cazale), but as he analyzes the recordings, he fails to follow his own advice of not getting personally involved and begins to worry that something awful is being planned for the lovebirds. Hackman is terrific as an alienated man unable to establish any meaningful connections in either his personal or professional lives, and look for Harrison Ford in a key supporting role as the director's sleazy assistant. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this also earned three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and, naturally, Best Sound. The film was shut out, but Coppola didn't exactly go home from the ceremony empty-handed: He personally nabbed three Oscars for his other 1974 release, The Godfather: Part II.
Blu-ray extras (many new for this release) include audio commentary by Coppola; separate audio commentary by sound editor Walter Murch; a vintage 9-minute behind-the-scenes piece; a brief discussion with Coppola about his 1956 short No Cigar, made while he was still a teenager; a 4-minute archival interview with Hackman; screen tests for Williams and Ford (the latter interestingly trying out for Forrest's role); and archival audio of Coppola dictating the original script, including an unused ending that completely changes the film's direction.
THE CROW (1994). This adaptation of James O'Barr's comic book often plays like Death Wish for the MTV generation. Brandon Lee, tragically killed on-set while making this movie in Wilmington, stars as Eric Draven, a musician who, exactly a year after his death, returns from the grave to take his revenge on the punks responsible for his murder as well as the rape and murder of his fiancee (Sofia Shinas). As he metes out his bloody justice, he discovers that he must also deal with the city's reigning crime lord, a vicious character named Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). Director Alex Proyas went on to helm Dark City, I, Robot and Knowing, but none of them benefitted from his background as a music-video director quite like this particular picture did with its slick visuals, edgy atmospherics, and superb, chart-topping soundtrack that included both new tunes and covers by the likes of The Cure, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails. Yet despite its hardcore demeanor, there's also a surprisingly sensitive streak weaving throughout the film, a haunting melancholy as we note that Eric's foremost emotion is not hatred for his killers but love for his slain girlfriend. Lee brings a delicate, almost balletic quality to his otherwise steely performance, and while it's undeniable that his senseless death — which (insert Twilight Zone music here) was predicted by his father Bruce Lee before the latter's own untimely demise — lends the finished product an eerie aura, it shouldn't obscure the fact that his work here is, on its own merits, wholly satisfying.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Proyas; a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (including an interview with Lee); a 34-minute interview with O'Barr; three extended scenes; and a 5-minute deleted-footage montage.
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Two weeks after releasing Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Blu-ray, Warner Bros. has seen fit to offer the first screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel in the same format. A box office bust that eventually developed a cult reputation before finally emerging as a popular favorite on home video, this finds eccentric candy magnate Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) taking five kids — Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) and Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) — and their adult guardians on a tour through his confectionary-producing plant, exposing them to both sweet sensations and sour experiences. As I noted in my recent review of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the difference between this acknowledged classic and Burton's less appreciated version isn't as sizable as assumed, since the 2005 model benefits from better pacing and brighter visuals. But where the '71 version reigns supreme is in its casting of the pivotal character of Willy Wonka: Johnny Depp's serviceable in the role, but he's no match for Gene Wilder, who more believably hits all the required notes (anger, tenderness and especially madness). This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Scoring Adaptation & Original Song Score, but truthfully, most of the tunes are forgettable — aside from "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do," of course. (The take-it-or-leave-it "The Candy Man" admittedly became a signature song for Sammy Davis Jr.)
The 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition, a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD box set, contains a 144-page book; a retro Wonka Bar tin with scratch-n-sniff pencils and a scented eraser; and 14 pieces of production correspondence. Extras on the discs include audio commentary with the five (now adult) Wonka kids; a 30-minute making-of documentary created in 2001 for the film's 30th anniversary; two vintage featurettes (13 minutes and 4 minutes) from 1971; a 14-minute interview with director Mel Stuart; and four sing-along songs.