ANONYMOUS (2011). Call it the anti-Shakespeare in Love. Call it the more cultured cousin to Inglourious Basterds. Just don't call Anonymous a fact-based story. There have been many speculations advanced that William Shakespeare actually did not write the countless classic works attributed to him, but the conspiracy theorists can't quite agree on the true identity of the genius behind such works as Hamlet and Macbeth. Among the suspects are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Stephen King (well, OK, maybe not), but perhaps the most popular alternative is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Anonymous, directed by disaster-flick specialist Roland Emmerich (2012) and written by John Orloff, takes that ball and sprints with it. In this picture, the Earl (Rhys Ifans) yearns to take pen to paper, but his high standing prevents him from doing so. He asks accomplished playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to front for him, but when Jonson balks, an obnoxious and illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) jumps at the chance to take credit. More than simply focusing on these writers guild disputes, Anonymous also moves through the years to chart court intrigues, particularly the Earl's dealings with a lusty Queen Elizabeth who seemingly has more (illegitimate) children than Kate Gosselin and Octomom put together (Joely Richardson plays the young queen while her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave plays the elderly Elizabeth). Lively in most spots, draggy in others, Anonymous seeks to make a name for itself with its controversial stance but, Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design aside, ended up getting buried in a pauper's grave by last fall's more high-profile titles.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Emmerich and Orloff; deleted and extended scenes; and the featurette Who Is the Real William Shakespeare?
THE BIG YEAR (2011). After scoring back to back hits with The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, director David Frankel soiled his resume with one of last year's biggest box office busts. Made for $41 million, The Big Year earned a paltry $3 on its opening weekend and ended its lightning-quick run with only $7 million in the till. I wish I could say this low-key film plays better at home, but it proves to be equally anemic there. Its subject is birdwatching, with retired CEO Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), live-at-home Brad Harris (Jack Black) and arrogant Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) all attempting to break the record for the most birds spotted over the course of one year. Bostick, a legend in the field, is already the reigning champion, spurring Stu and Brad to join forces to topple him. Assigning a star rating to this film is almost a pointless exercise. It's neither good nor bad; instead, it's as light and airy and inconsequential as cotton candy, albeit nowhere near as tasty.
The Blu-ray includes the original theatrical cut as well as an extended version that's only a couple of minutes longer. Extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
MALCOLM X (1992). You can't turn around without hearing some critic gush about how so-and-so is out there delivering "the best performance of the year." Well, allow me the opportunity to gush a step further by flatly stating that, in the leading man category, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X managed to deliver the best performance of the decade. Washington's work is so monumental, it seems like an especially cruel twist of fate that the Academy chose that year to finally reward perennial nominee Al Pacino ... for the execrable Scent of a Woman. (In other words, the best performance of the 1990s loses to the worst Best Actor selection of all time. Go figure.) At any rate, Malcolm X is more than a one-man show: Writer-director Spike Lee is in complete control of this 200-minute epic, and he and Washington receive invaluable aid from a top-flight supporting cast and a crack team of behind-the-camera personnel (though the film deserved at least a half-dozen Oscar nods, its only citations were for Washington's performance and Ruth Carter's costume designs). Working from Malcolm's autobiography, Lee is careful to preserve the complete arc of the man's life, showing how he survived a troubled childhood and a prison stint to emerge as the powerful and feared spokesman for the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Washington's work here is amazing: He effortlessly adapts to the various canvases painted by Lee, swinging from deliriously reckless in the early scenes to passionate and incendiary in the middle ones and finally to pensive and worldly in the latter sequences.
The 20th Anniversary Blu-ray set also contains a DVD of the 1972 nonfiction film Malcolm X, an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature. Other extras include audio commentary by Lee, Carter, director of photography Ernest Dickerson and editor Barry Alexander Brown; deleted scenes; and a making-of piece.
TOWER HEIST (2011). Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as wanna-be Hollywood blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about several working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that studios would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis.
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.