ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010). Crime flicks are so commonplace, so been-there-done-that, that one trick isn't in avoiding the clichés and stereotypes but rather in mixing them up so that viewers are never sure which characters will exhibit the expected behavior. The Australian drama Animal Kingdom follows suit: It knows that boys will be boys and boys with guns will be dangerous, but its pleasures rest in tripping up our preconceived notions of its players. Newcomer James Frecheville stars as J, who moves in with his Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and his uncles after his mom ODs. All — even the matriarch — are involved in illegal activities, and J soon starts to follow down their path. But an honest cop (Guy Pearce) thinks that J can be turned, so he begins to mentally work on him. Pearce is such a fine actor that he keeps the script's dullest role interesting; luckily, nobody else has to contend with such a challenge. A seemingly wimpy character turns out to be the most dangerous of all; a major player primed to be around for the long haul gets blown away in the early going; a hair-trigger psycho doesn't fulfill his obligations as an evil antagonist; and so on. In Animal Kingdom, it isn't necessarily the strongest who survive, an example of writer-director David Michod's continuous efforts to goose the genre.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Michod; a 16-minute making-of piece; and a 34-minute Q&A session with Michod, Frecheville and Weaver.
THE A-TEAM (2010). "Overkill is underrated," opines group leader "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson) at one point during the course of The A-Team. Clearly, the man isn't talking about Hollywood action flicks, wherein the whole point of many of these heavily hyped efforts is to render everything louder, larger and more expensive. Still, as far as costly packages go, this is one of the better ones in recent memory. The film is of course based on the TV series that aired during the middle stretch of the 1980s. The series was crapola, a cheesy crash'n'smash rally that often played like The Dukes of Hazzard stripped of the hick accents. This film is occasionally cheesy in its own way, but it's also far smarter than the series ever was. As B.A., Quinton "Rampage" Jackson isn't nearly as memorable as Mr. T — the latter always looked like he could beat you to a pulp just by staring — but in the case of the other three actors (Neeson, Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley), they're improvements over their small-screen counterparts. They provide the human hook that draws us into the action, much of it more imaginative than what we usually encounter in CGI-heavy efforts: The cheerfully ridiculous sequence involving the "flying tank" rates a half-star all by itself. The A-Team is basically a B-movie writ large, and in that respect, it gets the job done.
The Blu-ray includes both the theatrical version as well an extended cut (15 minutes longer). Extras include audio commentary by writer-director Joe Carnahan, with optional interactive features; a 29-minute making-of piece; six deleted scenes; an 8-minute gag reel; and a 23-minute look at the central characters.
BURIED (2010). Buried's solitary honor during this award season has been an unexpected Best Original Screenplay citation from the National Board of Review, which is a crock when it's really the film's direction that deserves to be singled out. Chris Sparling's high-concept script admittedly has a crafty hook: A man wakes up in a coffin and spends the next 95 minutes of screen time trying to get out of it. The poor sap in question is Paul Conroy, a truck-driving contractor who just happened to be in the wrong place (Iraq) at the wrong time (an ambush on a convoy of trucks). Buried by Middle Eastern heavies demanding a ransom for his unearthing and safe return, Paul lays in the ground with only a cell phone, a lighter and a couple of other items at his disposal. The entire film takes place inside that box, and it's a testament to director Rodrigo Cortes' skill that he's able to keep the camera — and therefore the action — moving at all times. But his work is somewhat compromised by Sparling's extremely cynical plot points, most relating to the string of phone calls which Paul makes to people who either turn out to be unfeeling, imbecillic or incoherent (even a call to his mom ends badly). Sparling trowels on the misfortunes with a heavy hand, and his treatment of his central character as little more than a pawn doesn't jibe with Reynolds' heartfelt performance in the role. Buried is never less than interesting, but its full potential always remains just beneath the surface.
Blu-ray extras include an 18-minute making-of piece and theatrical trailers.