True Grit (PG-13, 2010, Paramount)
Conventional wisdom would suggest it takes guts to dare remake a Hollywood classic, but considering how often it happens and how unapologetically horrible most attempts turn out, that can’t possibly be true. Sure enough, there’s nothing innately dangerous about “True Grit,” which quite comfortably adopts the plot, characters and overall disposition of the 1968 novel — and, to a lesser point, the 1969 John Wayne movie — without rocking any boats. But that’s precisely why this shines where others stain. “Grit” doesn’t take extreme liberty with its source material, but instead culls material from the book — in particular, giving 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) her complete due as the catalyst in this hunt for her father’s killer — the original movie sometimes marginalized. That, along with a reverence for the book’s sense of humor, give this “Grit” a voice of its own that never sets foot into the realm of alienation. Instead of changing the story, the movie lets its cast shine en route to giving old characters new life. Jeff Bridges was born to play Rooster Cogburn, but that doesn’t mean Mattie and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) can’t steal a scene or three as absolutely perfect foils. And when we finally meet the object of Mattie’s revenge (Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney), the moment is terrifically tense despite resembling what otherwise might be mistaken as a clever exchange of pleasantries. “Grit” continually toes the line between tribute and reinvention simply by staying true to its original reasons for being, and where most cowardly remakes are panned, ignored and deservedly forgotten, this one belongs right alongside all that paved its way.
Extras: Seven behind-the-scenes features.
American: The Bill Hicks Story (NR, 2011, BBC)
If you’ve merely heard of Bill Hicks but have never seen a firsthand demonstration of why so many consider him the best standup comedian ever to hold a microphone, put down this DVD and pick up “Sane Man” first. Once you’ve seen that, though, by all means return to this. “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is exactly what it purports to be — a look at the life of a spectacularly outspoken comedian who started young, found his following in a most unlikely place, and died way too young and while in the prime of a career that should still be thriving today. That’s all it needs to be, too, because Hicks’ short life is a hilarious, infuriating and extremely life-affirming tale that tells itself. “American” provides a complement of interviews with friends, family and contemporaries and mixes in a wild range of performance footage (along with some other surprising storytelling methods) to tell an extremely lively story. It’s an unconventional example of a life well-lived, but it’s an extremely powerful (and often very funny) one that — whether you’re a fan of Hicks or a complete stranger to his work — should not be missed.
Extras: Three hours’ worth of extended interviews, bonus footage of Hicks on stage, Hicks audio journal recordings, deleted/alternate scenes, outtakes, SXSW panel with Hicks’ friends, film festival footage with Hicks’ family and a handful of short features about or including Hicks.
In Her Skin (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
“In Her Skin,” the based-on-a-true-story dramatization of one jealous girl’s (Ruth Bradley as Caroline) abduction of a girl (Kate Bell as Rachel) who personifies the ideal she can never achieve, hits the melodramatic ground in a full sprint. It opens under such a heavy cloud, in fact, that for a fleeting moment, you might convince yourself that you accidentally started the film at the halfway point. But there’s a method to “Skin’s” madness, and once it becomes clear how uncomfortably intimate we’re about to get with Rachel and especially Caroline, the process — dueling timelines that focus on the who more than the what, how or why — easily justifies the unusual opening mood. With that said, come prepared, because “Skin” only gets crazier once it gets going. Caroline’s abduction of Rachel is stomach-turning in its own right — additionally so because it’s based on true events — but it’s her screeching hatred of herself that provides “Skin” with its most uncomfortable moments. Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.
The Big C: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, Sony Pictures)
“The Big C” isn’t just a cute title for a half-hour show about a woman (Laura Linney as Cathy) who discovers she has Stage 4 melanoma and has, until now, wasted too much of her life being a boring wife to Paul (Oliver Platt), a boring mom to Adam (Gabriel Basso) and a boring teacher, neighbor and sister to the rest of the show’s supporting cast (Gabourey Sidibe, Phyllis Somerville, John Benjamin Hickey). Rather, the name’s a harbinger. Most visibly, it’s a wink at Cathy’s refusal to break the news to anyone, family included, who doesn’t find out the hard way. But “C” adopts Cathy’s excessive discretion by regularly misplacing the subject of her illness amid a riptide of subplots involving her mid-life crisis, the adventures on which that crisis sends her, and a cavalcade of slightly to severely unhinged supporting characters. That adds up to a fun show that doesn’t need to preach to make its point about living life while you can. On the other hand, there’s a certain assumed responsibility when your show even implies cancer in its title, and if you walk away from “C” feeling alienated and frustrated by its sidestepping instead of entertained or lifted by its message, no explanation would be necessary.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes, cast interviews and a behind-the-scenes feature.
Rubber (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
Even if “Rubber’s” first scene isn’t its best scene — and one could make an effortlessly strong argument that it is — its value cannot be overstated. It’s during this scene in which Lieutenant Chadh (Stephen Spinella) addresses the audience — which, in addition to you, is a literal audience of people watching what they view as a live movie playing before them — and explains how many of history’s greatest movies hinge on events that happen for no reason. It’s something to keep in mind while witnessing “Rubber,” which is about a tire (named Robert!) who comes alive, discovers he has telekinetic powers, and uses them to destroy all who get between him and the woman (Roxane Mesquida) of his desire. “Rubber” plays this with something of a straight face, but as the first scene and weird semi-presence of a not-quite fourth wall imply, it simultaneously recognizes how silly the whole thing is. The upshot, though, is that the line between straight face and wink are blurred into oblivion. “Rubber” jumps freely between perspectives — so much so that its characters are sometimes as confused as viewers are likely to be — and it’s kind of up to you to fill those lines in. Some will happily play along just to see where “Rubber” goes, while others will (very understandably) see the whole thing as an incredibly stupid instance of what must be an inside joke-turned-feature film. The varying mileage makes “Rubber” impossible to flatly recommend or pan, but this much is clear: In a summer full of sequels and rehashes, nothing that awaits you is quite like this.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, camera test footage.
Nice Guy Johnny (NR, 2010, FilmBuff)
If you’ve ever been penalized for being too nice and can’t understand why, do yourself a favor and watch “Nice Guy Johnny.” “Johnny” is the story of Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush), an engaged 25-year-old who is plugging away as a small-time Oakland radio talk show host while dreaming of making it big as a broadcaster. His fiance (Anna Wood), however, would rather he give up the dream and take a better-paying but soul-draining job through her father. Johnny acquiesces and visits New York for an interview, but precedes that with a visit to Uncle Terry (Ed Burns), an aging playboy who wants to be the Emperor Palpatine to Johnny’s Anakin Skywalker. Does any of this sound familiar? It should: Between its characters, what happens next and what happens last, “Johnny” dives into the bowl of coming-of-age movie cliches like a puppy at dinnertime. That’s troubling, and it’s made worse by the presence of Terry, who isn’t even likable on a pitiful, ironic or devil’s advocate level. But “Johnny’s” killing blow is Johnny himself, whose calling is as a doormat instead of a broadcaster. And as the “aw shucks, come on guys” attitude hurtles from endearing to tolerable to grating at a neck-breaking pace, the perils of overdoing it — even in the area of agreeability — become powerfully clear.
Extras: Burns commentary (he also wrote and directed), deleted/extended scenes, casting footage, Burns interview.
Worth a Mention
— “The Superman Motion Picture Anthology: 1978-2006” (PG/PG-13, Warner Bros.): We’re knocking on the door of yet another crack at a “Superman” feature film, so here’s hoping the powers that be study this Blu-ray set, which includes both the highlights and lowlights of the Man of Steel’s film offerings to this point. In addition to theatrical cuts of the four Christopher Reeve films and the somewhat unfortunate 2006 reboot, this set includes the Richard Donner Cut of “Superman II” and the expanded edition of the first movie. Also included: Three documentaries (“Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman,” “The Science of Superman,” “You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman”), a “Superman” television pilot, the 1951 George Reeves theatrical feature “Superman and the Mole-Men,” eight 1940s Famous Studios “Superman” cartoons, and a metric ton of extras (commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes features and archival footage) that originally appeared on these films’ standalone DVD releases.
— “Handmade Films Collection: Michael Palin” and “Handmade Films Collection: Bob Hoskins” (NR, Image Entertainment): Why should the same old studios and the same old actors always get the same old anthologies? Handmade Studios — an outfit founded in the name of giving influential independent British films their proper due — has other ideas. Bob Hoskins’ collection includes four films (“The Long Good Friday,” “Mona Lisa,” “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” and “The Raggedy Rawney”), while “Monty Python” alum Michael Palin gets a trio (“Time Bandits,” “The Missionary” and “A Private Function”).