ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930). Winner of two Academy Awards — Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) — All Quiet On the Western Front has for over 85 years remained one of the greatest war movies ever made. Or, more accurately, it's one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, since this sterling adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel (with a script by heavyweights Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott) steadfastly avoids romanticizing combat in any way. Lew Ayres plays the green World War I volunteer who, along with his buddies, marches off to fight for the German fatherland and instead gets disillusioned by the brutal senselessness of it all. Even today, this decidedly unsentimental film still carries a wallop, most notably in its stunning conclusion.
As part of Universal's ongoing 100th anniversary celebration, the studio has released the film in an exemplary Blu-ray package that also includes the rarely seen silent cut of the movie (made to accommodate those theaters that in 1930 were not yet equipped for the talkies). Other extras include an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne; the featurettes 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics and 100 Years of Universal: Academy Award Winners; and a theatrical trailer.
J. EDGAR (1992). As J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but director Clint Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot — make that scattershot. Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, but his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups — his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned — never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears — even crocodile tears — is an unfortunate decision. As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevii) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau.
The primary extra included in the Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack is the featurette J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011). Make all the Mary-Kate and Ashley jokes you want, but don't dis Elizabeth Olsen. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the younger sister of the Olsen twins delivers a breakthrough performance that will remind many of Jennifer Lawrence's excellent work in 2009's similarly unsettling (though clearly superior) Winter's Bone. Olsen stars as Martha, who's long been under the thumb of a cult leader (John Hawkes, even more menacing here than in the aforementioned Bone) but finally works up the nerve to escape. She goes to stay with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but since she's reluctant to talk about her experiences, the couple grow increasingly impatient with her odd behavior and violent outbursts. T. Sean Durkin, making his feature-film debut as both writer and director, establishes a chilling mood in the fascinating flashback scenes detailing Martha's life in the cult community, but it's the prickly turns by Olsen and Paulsen that save the family sequences, which make up the less interesting and more frustrating part of the film. The ambiguous ending will be loved by many, loathed by an equal amount; I feel there were better ways to conclude the story, but I understand that it comes with the art-house territory.
Blu-ray extras include Durkin's 2010 short film, Mary Last Seen; a making-of featurette; a spotlight piece on Olsen; a conversation with the filmmakers; and Hawke's music video for "Marcy's Song."
TINY FURNITURE (2010). If Woody Allen is allowed to work out his neuroses and anxieties on screen (there's a reason many of his characters see psychiatrists), then apparently so can writer-director-star Lena Dunham in this indie effort, a showcase for a newbie talent who has yet to fully blossom as a filmmaker. It's hard to say how much of this movie stems from fact, but considering that her real-life mom (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham) portray her screen mom and sister, and also taking into account the rawness of some of the more confrontational scenes, it's a good bet that there are some genuine issues being worked out here. Dunham stars as Aura, who has just graduated from college with no idea what she's going to do next. Moving back into her mom's swanky Tribeca home, she sleeps late, bickers with her sister and mother ("I'm still figuring things out!" she bellows more than once), and only helps minimally around the house until she finally decides to take a job as a restaurant hostess. She spends time with her self-confident British friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke, a lot of fun) but only when she's not mooning over the two guys (Alex Karpovsky and David Call) who have entered her life, neither of whom seem especially drawn to this insecure girl. As befits its modest origins, the quality of the production is all over the map, both in the varying skill levels of its performers and most specifically in Dunham's ability as a writer. The aforementioned spats, for instance, are a lot more convincing than those moments when the auteur is going for an obvious laugh via heavily accented dialogue or catchphrases. Tiny Furniture is certainly more lively than Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, but they share a common flaw in that they're both examples of intense navel-gazing, with fuzzy notions of identity and assertion only serving as so much belly-button lint.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Ratner, co-writers Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, and editor Mark Helfrich; deleted and extended scenes; two alternate endings; a making-of piece; and on-set video production diaries.
VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994). The creative team behind 1981's cult hit My Dinner with Andre — Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory — reunited for this absorbing experiment that proves to be a special treat for theater lovers. For several years, stage director Gregory and various actors assembled to perform Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in a dilapidated NYC theater, and one of their run-throughs was recorded by film director Malle. This is that document, a minimalist interpretation of Chekhov's play about wasted lives and unrequited love. Malle makes no pretenses about this being a "movie" — it's a "filmed stage performance" through and through — but the acting is so splendid and the staging so immediate that few will complain. Shawn stars as the tormented Vanya, filled with anger toward the pompous professor (George Gaynes) he has long served and bubbling with love for his employer's beautiful young wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore). The local doctor (Larry Pine) also has feelings for Yelena, so much that he barely acknowledges the existence of his greatest fan, the professor's plain-looking daughter, Sonya (Brooke Smith). Moore, Smith and Pine are the cast standouts; this was the esteemed Malle's final film before his death in 1995.
DVD extras include a new documentary featuring interviews with Gregory, Shawn, Moore, and others; and the theatrical trailer.