THE BOYS ARE BACK (2009). A low-key melodrama based on Simon Carr's memoir, The Boys Are Back features a star turn by Clive Owen that's not quite enough to compensate for either the uneven script by Allan Cubitt or the inert direction by Scott Hicks (Shine). Owen plays Joe Warr, a widowed British sportswriter living in Australia with his 6-year-old son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). Joe's son from his first marriage, the teenage Harry (George MacKay), comes to stay for a while, and Joe is lost when it comes to handling either of them. So he ends up adopting an "anything goes" style of child-rearing: setting no rules, doling out no punishment, and generally avoiding any semblance of responsible parenting. The film is so static that there are few emotional peaks or valleys; that's a shame, because Owen is just fine as the caring but clueless father, and he's especially potent when squabbling with other grownups who take issue with his chosen lifestyle. As long as Cubitt keeps his script grounded, it overcomes Hicks' lackadaisical direction, but beware of the awkward interludes in which Joe chats with his dead wife, or the stilted sequences that are interjected more for plot propulsion than anything else. The Boys Are Back is at its strongest when it keeps it real. Unfortunately, much like its lead character, it lacks the discipline to always do what's best.
DVD extras include a 16-minute moving photo gallery with optional commentary by Hicks, and a two-minute piece with Carr and his sons.
BRIGHT STAR (2009). Commencing in 1818 London, the story of Bright Star, with its key events based in fact but its smaller ones colored in by writer-director Jane Campion's poetic license, takes place over the course of a couple of years, as the forward and fashion-conscious Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) makes the acquaintance of two English poets trying to build names for themselves. One is Charles Brown (Asheville native Paul Schneider in a performance that deserves an Oscar nomination), who views Fanny as a bubble-headed flirt and frequently engages her in vicious verbal combat (she holds her own quite nicely, thank you). The other is John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who's initially preoccupied with tending to his dying brother but in time falls for the lovely Fanny. She's equally smitten, but since he's penniless and since the women of the day were expected to set their sights on men with money, their love seems doomed – even before he develops that bothersome cough. Bringing the creative process to life on screen is always an uphill battle – how does one turn thoughts into something tangible? – but Campion uses the characters' dialogue to provide reasonably sturdy stepping stones into often abstract territory. Fanny's strong desire to learn about poetry – to understand it, to appreciate it – stirs our own interest, and Keats responds with an absolutely lovely speech comparing poetry to a dive in the lake. A similar respect for the craft remains on view throughout the picture, thereby never reducing the art to a mere plot device but rather constantly working it into the very fabric of the film. Campion has made several films over the past 16 years, but all have been disappointments in the wake of her 1993 masterpiece The Piano. Bright Star isn't in the same ballpark as The Piano – heck, it's not even in the same time zone – but it's the first Campion movie since then to land on my year-end 10 Best list. It's that special.
DVD extras include one deleted scene and three Campion interviews totaling 7-1/2 minutes.
THIS IS IT (2009). A sadness permeates the opening sequence in the behind-the-scenes documentary This Is It, but it has nothing to do with Michael Jackson's death. Instead, the sequence – filmed, like the rest of the movie, while Jackson was very much alive – centers on the excited young dancers and singers chosen to be a part of the King of Pop's planned series of London concerts. It's a heartbreaking sequence, considering that Jackson's death meant that none would be able to live the dream that seemed within their collective grasp. It's a smart way to open the film, filling viewers with emotion before the man himself takes the stage to prepare for his mammoth undertaking. After all, many folks (myself included) turned away from Jackson once he made the complete transformation to tabloid freak, and, to be sure, certain audience members are sure to experience an initial wave of nausea as this physical grotesquerie with a dubious history gets ready for his close-up. But then an amazing thing happens. It starts with the music, those generation-spanning hits that have the power to produce instant bouts of affectionate nostalgia. Then there come the dance steps, not as fast and furious as before, but still deft enough to catch the eye. And finally, there's the sheer spectacle, the showmanship that was arguably as responsible for keeping MJ in the light as any other aspect of his carefully built persona. Combined, these element make resistance futile, and for two shimmering hours, all the ghosts of scandals past melt away, leaving in their wake a boy whose only desire is to dazzle. A word of warning, though: More than any movie I've seen in quite some time, this suffers the most from being moved from the theatrical screen, so the bigger the home entertainment center, the better.
DVD extras include two making-of featurettes totaling 40 minutes; a 15-minute look at the costumes created for the tour; a 16-minute piece in which crew members reminisce about MJ; and a 10-minute short focusing on the audition process for the dancers and singers.