April 01, 2006

Oscar Nominated Films on DVD

In the world of entertainment, film is clearly at the head of the class. We care more about movies than any other form of media, as evidenced in part by our obsession with the Academy Awards. Not only do we look forward to a lengthy, tedious ceremony, but we endure weeks and weeks of speculation. Who will win? Who cares, right? Well, clearly a lot of people do, as the phenomenon continues year after year.

While the window between the theatrical and DVD releases of films is shorter than ever, there were still several Oscar nominated films pending home releases at the time of the Academy Awards ceremony. Via the awesome power of Netflix, I have viewed three of those films, and humbly submit my analysis and opinions below. While none of these films actually won an Oscar, all three are quality films and certainly deserve to be recognized as such.

“Good Night, and Good Luck”

George Clooney co-wrote, directed, and co-starts in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a bold, black-and-white film that succeeds in telling an old story with modern implications. The film takes place in the early 1950’s, during an era in which Senator Joseph McCarthy was accusing hundreds of Americans of being Communist sympathizers. David Strathairn plays Edward Murrow, a CBS news anchor during the era, and a man who was unwilling to let baseless fear dominate American life. Via his news program, “See It Now,” Murrow was able to call out McCarthy, planting the seed of doubt in American minds that the Senator was doing the right thing.

There are some very clear parallels between events in the film and what has happened in the last few years with the United States locking people up in Guantanamo Bay. Due process is an integral part of the American way of government, and in both situations, it was being denied to people. Clooney is a strong director, making the most of a small cast within a fairly limited setting (most of the film takes place in the news room). “Good Luck, and Good Night” was deemed the best reviewed movie of 2005 by Rotten Tomatoes, with 94% positive reviews. The DVD release has feature-length commentary from Clooney and producer/co-writer Grant Heslov, as well as a historical featurette and the theatrical trailer.

“Good Luck, and Good Night” garnered six Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It was also nominated for four Golden Globe awards and two Screen Actors Guild awards. It failed to win a single one of these awards. Perhaps it was the bold nature of the film, or perhaps the lack of color scared off the awards voters. As I see it, “Good Luck, and Good Night” is an important film in the vein of 1976’s “All the President’s Men:” both challenge complacency and show the immense difference that positive journalism can make in American society.

“The Squid and the Whale”

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “The Squid and the Whale” details the dissolution of a marriage and the resulting consequences in the mid 1980’s. The film’s tag line tells it all: “Joint Custody Blows.” Based on Baumbach’s own childhood, the film is uncompromising in the exploration of its subject matter. As such, it can often be a difficult film to watch, but strong performances and quirky characters make it a film worth seeing. All four of the lead roles were perfectly cast, especially Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as Bernard and Joan Berkman.

This film may appeal to fans of Wes Anderson (Rushmore), but there is a much heavier emphasis on drama over comedy. The similarities are fairly easy to explain: the two directors recently worked on Anderson’s 2004 film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which Baumbach co-wrote. Often, I felt as though the film was merely interesting instead of truly entertaining, but it’s not really the type of film you’re going to feel all warm about afterwards. There’s no happy ending here, only a realization of a forgotten truth. Fans of independent films should certainly make seeing this film a priority.

“The Squid and the Whale” was nominated for just one Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay (it lost to Best Picture winner “Crash”). It also garnered three Golden Globe nominations (no wins), for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, all in the category of “Musical or Comedy.” While there are certainly some funny scenes, I found the film to be more disturbing than hilarious. But compared to a film like “Crash,” I can see how there might be a difference. The DVD release of “The Squid and the Whale” has feature-length commentary by Baumbach, as well as a featurette, and a filmed conversation between Baumbach and film critic Philip Lopate.

“Howl’s Moving Castle

Japanese animated film “Howl’s Moving Castle” is probably the least known of this trio of films, grossing less than $5 million during its U.S. theatrical run. Yet, over in Japan, it is the third highest-grossing film of all time, with over $210 million in ticket sales. Directed by legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a vivid, visually stunning film that appeals equally to children and parents. Sophie, a young woman, is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into an elderly woman. Obviously disturbed by the situation, she leaves her city in hopes of finding a cure.

What she finds is a moving castle, run by Howl, a legendary magician. Posing as a cleaning lady, Sophie attempts to find the means to break her spell. Much of the film is spent with Sophie and auxiliary characters Markl, a young boy, and Calcifer, a grouchy fire demon. The final thirty minutes of the film prove the strongest, with epic action sequences and emotional revelations. The English voice-over work is surprisingly good, with a cast headed by Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, and Billy Crystal (who is excellent as Calcifer). Though not as masterful as Miyazaki’s other recent films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a wonderful adventure that is well worth seeking out.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but unfortunately lost. Miyazaki’s previous film, “Spirited Away,” won that award three years ago (and is the number one all-time highest-grossing film in Japan). Though “Howl’s Moving Castle” doesn’t have the greatest narrative of Miyazaki’s latest films, it is the most visually impressive, and stands as one of the most spectacular animated films produced to date. The two-disc DVD release features both the English and Japanese language tracks, as well as a handful of featurettes, trailers, and interviews.