Let's start with a gem that received only a limited theatrical release after playing on the film festival circuit. In all fairness, the premise may not sound promising: Three young people pursue their goal of winning a national championship in go-kart racing. So let's focus on what the film's really about: Three kids in their early teens try to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives while under tremendous pressure. That's something we can all relate to, and helps explain why the film has such wide appeal.
Annabeth, 11, understands the scientific principles and dynamics of racing but begins to question her devotion to the sport. Josh, 12, talks like a seasoned pro; he sounds like an old soul trapped inside a kid's body. Brandon, 13, has a "need for speed" but his impetuousness may bring his career to a screeching halt before it ever really begins. Director Marshall Curry captures the kids on and off the track as their families face their own challenges, financial and otherwise, in deciding how best to support their very competitive offspring. It's an entertaining, bracingly honest film that just happens to be a documentary.
Why own it: You'll want to share it with friends when they come over and want to watch something that's uplifting and real. And you'll definitely want your children to watch it, and they'll want to see it more than once.
'American Beauty': Sapphire Series
With its release on Blu-ray, it's time to reignite the debate. 'American Beauty' was hailed as an instant classic by some critics upon its release in 1999, eventually winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It launched the careers of director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball into the stratosphere, and showcased an immensely talented cast, led by Kevin Spacey. Its themes of generational conflict and suburban angst resonated broadly as the century came roaring to a close.
Yet the characters were more like "straw men" caricatures than realistic depictions of people who actually lived in the modern suburbs, and an unpleasant air of self-righteous smugness permeates the atmosphere. What the film lacks in empathy it makes up for with empty-headed pretension (e.g., the floating plastic bag) and creepy dream sequences that add to the air of unease. Like Ball's subsequent work for television ('Six Feet Under,' 'True Blood'), the material inspires applause or derision. Is it a classic or an over-baked ham?
The new Blu-ray does not add any new supplements, beyond what was included in the 2000 DVD release -- notably an audio commentary with Mendes and Ball -- but DVD Beaver describes the colors as "magnificent" and notes no major flaws or "digital tinkering."
Why own it: Whatever your original feelings about the film, it's worth multiple visits. It fuels discussions about "the American Dream," which means different things to different people, and is especially appropriate for viewing in an election year. See the varying reactions you'll get from watching it with dedicated cinephiles and more casual viewers. It's a gorgeous-looking movie -- you can watch it with the sound off.
Light entertainment rarely receives its proper due, so it's no wonder that Stanley Donen's 'Charade' has sometimes been tossed on the cinematic junk heap. In one of his last roles, Cary Grant stars as a mysterious figure who enters into the life of Audrey Hepburn after her husband is found dead. At the funeral and shortly thereafter, she receives veiled threats from a "Murderer's Row" of menacing men, including Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy.
Initially, Grant appears to be a knight in shining armor, but he keeps changing his name and acting suspiciously. Even as they're chased around Paris, she's never quite sure whether this supremely charming man is really to be trusted -- or turned over to the authorities.
It's a delightful and witty adventure, which is bolstered by the darkness at the edges of the picture; the criminal types are serious about getting what they want, and more than willing to play deadly hardball to achieve their aims. Hepburn is sweetly adorable and Grant is ageless in his appeal. Henry Mancini provides the snappy musical score. 'Charade' is far superior to the 2002 remake, re-titled 'The Truth About Charlie' and helmed by Jonathan Demme, proving that its heady mix of comedy and suspense isn't so easy to duplicate.
The new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection features a restored high-definition digital transfer and carries over the audio commentary by Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone from the DVD release. 'Charade' is highly recommended.
Why own it: It stands up to repeated viewings. And you might be surprised how many people have never seen it before -- and if they have, only via low-definition television broadcasts. The high-definition splendor definitely adds to the experience.