Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt’s prairie road trip begins with a long shot of settlers wading through a river in the Oregon desert in the mid-1800s. It goes on forever. Nothing happens at all. Get used to that. Some will find this exercise in micro plotting highly annoying, despite the presence of Michelle Williams as a stubborn wife. But there’s something charmingly fill-in-the-blank here, as if Reichardt has merely provided a backdrop and some characters and will leave it to the audience to give them back stories and motivation. Although the beautiful cinematography looks even more majestic on Blu-Ray, the paltry extras and that damned 1:37 aspect ratio that originally turned the theater screen into a TV box remains in the transfer, rendering the beautiful packaging – and, frankly, the “two-disc special edition” itself – useless. (available Sept. 13)
Man’s struggle with God knows no color or race, but as the first Korean film to make it into the Criterion Collection, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine is as tautly specific to small-town Korea as it is universal. The plot involves a recently widowed piano teacher whose son is kidnapped for ransom and subsequently murdered. A light, deft comic performance by Song Kang-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) perfectly balances the deep, dark pit of despair that The Housemaid’s Jeon Do-yeon’s character finds herself wading through as her life hurtles into the abyss. It’s a sober character study that deservedly won Jeon best actress at Cannes.
Special Features: Interviews, featurette, essay by Dennis Lim
X-Men: First Class
Critically and commercially, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn’s Cold War-revisionist take on the origins of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters was a smash this year. From the smoldering tension between James McAvoy’s MLK-esque Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Malcolm X-militant Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto) to the surprisingly touching (and refreshingly complicated) relationship between Xavier and the identity-seeking Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and the witty, high-stakes interplay between the Russian and U.S. military and the newly formed X-Men, First Class is chock full of suspense, emotion and action. Then there’s January Jones. At home, on repeat viewings, Jones’ vacant take on the seminal character Emma Frost is a blemish on the proceedings that has morphed into a horrific facial scar. Even the production values sink whenever she’s on screen. Every scene of hers devolves into nearly Batman and Robin levels of bad camp, cheesy effects and incomprehensible plotting. Luckily, she doesn’t sink the entire enterprise, but man, she comes close. (available now)
Special Features: Deleted scenes, featurettes