A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009). Officially, the title is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which is acceptable since it sure as hell isn't Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While it might be true that this animated version retains more of the literary classic than might reasonably be expected, it's also accurate to state that a key ingredient of the novel — namely, its humanist spirit — is largely missing from this chilly interpretation. Director Robert Zemeckis, who used to make fun movies in which the spectacular special effects served the story and not the other way around (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), has become obsessed with the motion capture process (this is his third consecutive picture utilizing this technique, following The Polar Express and Beowulf), and one gets the sense that he chose the Dickens chestnut not because of a desire to revive its moral tale for a new generation but because it seemed like a suitable vehicle for his new techno-toys. But Zemeckis can't keep still, and rather than remain within the parameters of the meaty story, he fleshes out a story that didn't exactly cry out for extraneous material, padding the picture with such nonsense as Scrooge (Jim Carrey) being blasted into the stratosphere or dashing through the cobbled streets of London (a chase scene? Really?) while simultaneously turning into the incredible shrinking man. Carrey gives the role of the miserly Scrooge his all (he also voices a half-dozen other characters), but this holiday release is too diluted for adults, too intense for small children, and too tiresome for just about everybody.
DVD extras include a 15-minute making-of featurette and three deleted scenes.
EAT PRAY LOVE (2010). Not haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, it's entirely possible that, in comparison, this film version seems about as complicated as an episode of Dora the Explorer. But on its own, it's a richly rewarding experience, following one woman's journey both across the globe and within herself. Julia Roberts delivers her strongest performance since Erin Brockovich a full decade ago — as Liz Gilbert, she brings to the forefront the doubts, frustrations and longings inherent in a woman who realizes she's not content with her marriage or her surroundings and elects to set out on new adventures. Liz finds both spiritual and physical nourishment during her travels to Italy, India and Bali, but her lessons aren't conveyed to us in the usual cookie-cutter platitudes; instead, the dialogue is frequently lyrical and lovely, never cheapening the thoughts or feelings being revealed. In a DVD season dominated (as always) by male-skewering titles, Eat Pray Love might get dismissed in some quarters as Sex and the City 2's sister in failed counter programming. But with its themes of self-discovery and its impressive roster of award-caliber actors (Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis), it's actually an intelligent movie for discerning grownups who wouldn't be caught dead renting Grown Ups.
The DVD contains both the theatrical version and a slightly longer director's cut. Extras include a 4-minute interview with director-adapter Ryan Murphy and trailers.
THE EXPENDABLES (2010). The Truth In Advertising award for 2010 goes to The Expendables, which employs (however unintentionally) its own title to push the fact that this is a disposable action film that will dissipate from memory almost immediately. Its primary — make that only — selling point is its large cast of macho action stars ... but the truth only goes as far as the DVD box cover. As the leader of a group of mercenaries hired to take down a South American dictator, Sylvester Stallone is almost always front and center, but those expecting him to share significant screen time with fellow Big Boys Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be disappointed that the other two are only in one scene. And really, is it that big a deal to have a cast that includes Steve Austin, Randy Couture and Terry Crews? These guys would line up for a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel if asked. Nobody goes to this type of movie for the acting, but given the lack of excitement in most of the action scenes (more mano-a-mano skirmishes would have better served the film rather than the ceaseless gunfire and explosions), there's little else to discuss. Faring best are Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke; delivering the worst performance is Dolph Lundgren, who apparently hasn't learned a single thing after 25 years in the business.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Stallone; a 15-minute making-of featurette; one deleted scene; and a 5-minute gag reel.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010). Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as the fastidious Nic and the openhearted Jules, a married lesbian couple with two upstanding children, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The kids decide that they'd like to meet their biological father, the man who donated the sperm that led to both their conceptions. He turns out to be the laid-back Paul (Mark Ruffalo), whose scruffy demeanor and easygoing attitude eventually earn the affection of the kids and Jules but sets Nic on edge. Yet one more movie exploring family dysfunction might sound like a slog through well-trodden indie film terrain, yet director-cowriter Lisa Cholodenko's movie is written with such perception, directed with such sensitivity and acted with such brio that the result is not only a path paved with good intentions but also one lined with loving detail. Besides, while many films of this ilk focus more on the "dysfunction" — often with a trace of bemusement if not outright condescension — this one centers more on the "family," specifically how a true family is determined not by society-approved labels but by the hard work that molds all those involved, and how simply wanting to belong to a family doesn't mean that carte blanche will (or should) automatically be given.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Cholodenko and three making-of pieces totaling 10 minutes.
THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE (2010). The penchant for creating faux-excitement simply by making everything blaring and calamitous is a specialty of both producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub, who previously gave us two daft National Treasure movies. This is basically more of the same, although unlike that twofer, this at least has the decency to clock in at under two hours. Nicolas Cage is miscast as Balthazar Blake, one of Merlin's original disciples(!) who turns up in modern-day NYC searching for a novice wizard. He finds him in geeky college kid Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), and they team up to battle another Merlin disciple: treacherous Maxim Horvarth (Alfred Molina). Inspired in part by the delightful Mickey Mouse sequence from Disney's 1940 Fantasia (there's even a scene in which Dave battles dancing mops), The Sorcerer's Apprentice is strictly standard action-fantasy fare, not too bad as these Bruckheimer boom boxes go. There's some clever CGI trickery mixed in with the more lackluster effects, Baruchel is appealing in his limited way, and the jackhammer pace insures that there's no time to get bored. But is any of it memorable? Hardly. I remember the contours of the popcorn pieces I consumed on the couch better than I recall the particulars of this cinematic sleight of hand.
DVD extras include a 22-minute making-of featurette and one deleted scene.