ARTHUR (1981) / ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS (1988). With the theatrical release of Arthur this past weekend, it's not surprising that Warner Bros. has elected to release the 1981 original and its belated sequel as a two-movie set on Blu-ray.
A commercial smash, Arthur casts Dudley Moore in his career role as the irrepressible and irresponsible millionaire who's rarely spotted without a drink in his hand and a quip on his lips. Attended by his erudite butler Hobson (John Gielgud), Arthur views life as an endless party until he's presented with an ultimatum: Marry dull socialite Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry) or be cut off from the family fortune. This presents a problem, more so since our pickled protagonist has fallen for the working-class Linda (Liza Minnelli). Moore received a Best Actor Oscar nomination while writer-director Steve Gordon earned a bid for Best Original Screenplay (Gordon died of a heart attack at the age of 44 a year after the movie's release), but the two most memorable elements of this engaging picture are what actually won their respective categories: "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" for Best Original Song and Gielgud (terrific as the sarcastic manservant) for Best Supporting Actor.
Arthur grossed a hefty $95 million at the box office — among 1981 releases, only Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Superman II fared better — so it's not unreasonable that studio executives figured lightning could strike twice. But the release of Arthur 2: On the Rocks didn't produce even a spark, earning a paltry $14 million and quickly losing screens to more robust summer '88 outings like Die Hard and A Fish Called Wanda. In this desultory sequel, Arthur is bilked out of his easy-earned fortune, placing a strain on his marriage to Linda (Minnelli, even more annoying here than in the original) and forcing him to look for gainful employment. There are a few laughs in the early going, but the movie becomes more desperate as it proceeds — even Gielgud's Hobson is dragged back from the grave for a cameo appearance (presented as the drunken Arthur's equivalent of a pink elephant) — and the resolution is woeful. Look for Charlotte actor Danny Greene (most recently seen in Hall Pass) in an amusing bit as a peppy aerobics instructor.
Blu-ray extras consist of each film's theatrical trailer.
Arthur 2: On the Rocks: **
CASINO JACK (2010). Last year saw the release of an informative and entertaining movie about Jack Abramoff, the powerful right-wing lobbyist who ended up behind bars for bribing public officials and swindling Native American tribes. Unfortunately for the makers of the feature film Casino Jack, that would be Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Abramoff is a hideous human being, but with this Casino Jack, star Kevin Spacey, writer Norman Snider and the late director George Hickenlooper make the mistake of attempting to humanize this Washington weasel by adding self-righteous monologues, unconvincing moments of introspection and an it's-all-the-system's-fault! approach. Yet the film's biggest flub is that it tackles the whole sordid affair like a comedy. A surreal satire that accentuates the absurd might have worked (think Robert Altman or Blake Edwards), but Hickenlooper adopts a loud, jokey approach that often relies on buffoonish performances, a slapstick pace, and too much attention paid to Abramoff's fondness for mimicry. Yet given the real-life tragedies instigated by Abramoff and his Republican buddies like Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and George W. Bush (who claimed not to even know Abramoff after the scandals broke), I doubt many people will be laughing.
Blu-ray extras include Hickenlooper's photo diary; nine minutes of deleted scenes; and an eight-minute gag reel.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010). On the sliding scale of Narnia adaptations, 2008's Prince Caspian was slightly better than 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but any hope for continued ascendancy in this franchise ended with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A costly tentpole that switched studios midstream, the Narnia series (based, of course, on C.S. Lewis' books) has always come across as timid fantasy fare, squeezing out all the danger and intrigue inherent in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film cycles. Such an overly cautious approach especially nullifies the content of this torpid installment and renders it toothless — just the opposite of what we should expect from a series featuring a lion as its most powerful character. The protagonists — returning siblings Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) and obnoxious newcomer Eustace (Will Poulter) — are bruisingly boring (paging the Potter kids!), and their adventures aboard the title seafaring vessel are only slightly less moldy than their skirmishes on land. Forget the Titanic: The Dawn Treader is the real sinking ship.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Michael Apted and producer Mark Johnson; four deleted scenes; three making-of featurettes totaling 20 minutes; brief interviews with Apted, Henley, Poulter and Liam Neeson (who provides the voice of Aslan the lion); and the animated short The Untold Adventures of the Dawn Treader.
FAIR GAME (2010). By now, it's accepted by all but the most deluded right-wing zealots and Tea Party groupies that the Bush administration took this country to war under false pretenses. There was a point when the vessel of justice could have been righted and a course for a better tomorrow could have been charted, but instead, lies were upheld, misinformation was spread like so much manure, and the moment was gone. Fair Game is a film about that moment. Naomi Watts stars as Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA operative whose undercover status was blown in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) writing a New York Times op-ed piece in which he revealed that the justification for going to war with Iraq was a fabrication on the part of the war criminals in the White House. The film tracks the lives of the Wilsons professionally and personally, showing how the political fallout was placing a severe strain on their marriage. The most fascinating element of this important picture is the philosophical difference that exists between the couple. Joe is an idealist, honestly believing that he can take on the Republican thugs and win; Valerie is a realist, realizing the futility of any such efforts. It's an interesting dichotomy, because while our hearts side with Joe, our minds know — and our current history proves — that Valerie was right.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary with Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson, and a pair of theatrical trailers.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (2010). We won't know until this July 15 whether or not the final book in J.K. Rowling's franchise really needed to be divided into two movies. But until the release of Part 2 on that forthcoming day, the evidence based on Part 1 leads to an inconclusive verdict. This is the first picture in the series that actually drags — it's not a disastrous debit since the majority of the film is so strong, but it does suggest that some judicious trimming might have given us the final chapter in one fell swoop. The coasting comes in the middle, which is fortunate since it leaves the production with a vibrant opening act and a powerhouse final hour. Fans will immediately be swept up in this latest chapter, which begins by killing off one of the good guys and sending Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) on a crusade to locate specific items that might help them vanquish the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The movie spends an awful lot of time on the teens as they set up camp in an isolated area, and the romantic yearning between them, usually a highlight of the series, here settles into soap opera mundaneness. Yet once the story leaps past this narrative hurdle, it again gets back to the intriguing dynamics that have long defined this series.
Blu-ray extras include an interactive Maximum Movie Mode (featuring pop-up and picture-in-picture interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and more); eight deleted scenes; a six-part, 19-minute behind-the-scenes featurette looking at various aspects of the production; five additional making-of pieces totaling 32 minutes; and a six-minute promotional trailer of the cast at the grand opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando.
THE INCREDIBLES (2004). Since at least Y2K, the vigorous embrace of mediocrity has often become the norm in this country, and writer-director Brad Bird smartly works this national tragedy into an animated superhero tale that's, well, pretty incredible. The bulk of the comic relief comes from costume designer Edna Mode, an Edith Head caricature voiced by Bird himself; the drama comes from the Incredibles, presented as the modern American family that's expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e. blend with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by their suburban ennui give way to an acceptance of their individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members. It's emotional without being sticky-sweet, and just one of the reasons why this Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature nestles comfortably next to Pixar's other gems.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Bird and producer John Walker; separate audio commentary by 13 of the film's animators; a 27-minute making-of featurette; six deleted scenes; character interviews; a new, 22-minute roundtable discussion with Bird, Walker and other key crew members; the animated short Jack-Jack Attack; an interactive art gallery; and Easter Eggs.