- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2011

New Releases


Paramount Home Entertainment


The superhero genre dominated much of the movie scene this summer, and while some of these films seemed more like life-size comic books than movies, some stood out from the pack. “Thor,” arriving Tuesday on a variety of formats, was one of those films.

Broadly entertaining and full of eye-popping special effects, “Thor” was adapted from the popular Marvel comic book about the Norse god of thunder who is cast out of the realm of the gods, Asgard, by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Arriving on Earth, Thor learns several important lessons about humility and service and pledges to defend his new home and its people against evil, particularly the schemes of his brother, the treacherous Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

One of “Thor’s” biggest assets is the direction of Kenneth Branagh. The skilled Shakespearean actor and director displays a surprisingly graceful touch with material that easily could lend itself to excess or self-mockery. The fact that Mr. Branagh grew up a Marvel fan in Scotland (which he reveals in one of the several commentaries on the Blu-ray edition) explains his deft handling of the story.

He also draws a solid lead performance from Chris Hemsworth as the thunder god. By turns bold, humorous and even a tad outrageous, Mr. Hemsworth crafts a portrait of a man who comes to understand it takes more than sheer bravery to make a true hero. Mr. Hemsworth also possess terrific screen chemistry with his leading lady, Natalie Portman (an Oscar winner for “Black Swan”), who portrays a scientist who finds Thor in the desert after his banishment from Asgard.

The Blu-ray edition of the film contains a ton of features and extras, including commentary tracks by Mr. Branagh about the making of the film and the mythological background of the characters, as well as their connections to the Bard. Short features include the cast members discussing their interaction with the director and a piece about the history of the Thor comic book that includes legendary Marvel publisher-editor Stan Lee, and a collection of deleted scenes.

In addition to the standard DVD combo pack with a digital copy and the Blu-ray edition, “Thor” also will be available in an IMAX Experience edition for viewers with big-screen home theater systems. No matter which you chose, be prepared to be quite entertained - and check out the “Avengers” feature about the next Marvel adaptation arriving on screens next summer.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense action scenes and mild profanity.

Meek’s Cutoff



The opening reel of this independently made Western not only sets the tone for the rest of the film, but it also may help you decide if you want to watch it.

For nearly 10 minutes, all we do is watch a wagon roll across the prairie. We hear the sound of a rushing river nearby and birds chirping - and nothing else. We see no people, hear no discussions, learn little or nothing about the story.

The background, meager as it is, is this: The time is 1845, and a group of settlers is traveling across the Oregon desert to a new homestead. They are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a rugged and single-minded guide with a somewhat dark reputation for honesty. The unofficial leaders of the settlers are Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) and his wife, Emily (Michelle Williams).

When it becomes clear the group is lost and running out of water, dissent grows until an unlikely source of help appears, forcing the settlers to make some difficult choices.

Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond seem more interested in examining the tedious nature of the settlers’ journey than exploring their identities as people and their reasons for traveling westward. Several scenes drag, sapping the film of storytelling energy.

To their credit, both Miss Williams (who worked with Miss Reichardt on “Wendy and Lucy”) and Mr. Greenwood manage to make their characters stand out. Miss Williams’ Emily proves to be a woman of quiet strength and resolve, while Mr. Greenwood makes Meek a fascinating, if not totally trustworthy, character.

The extras on the disc are minimal and include a making-of feature and an essay on the film by writer Richard Hell.

“Meek’s Cutoff” isn’t your typical Hollywood portrait of life on the prairie - and that may be both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense violence.


Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Magnolia Home Entertainment


In January 2010, less than eight months after taking his dream job as host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien left the program with a multimillion-dollar contract settlement and an agreement that he wouldn’t start another talk show for several months.

Left with lots of free time and more than a little bit of “creative anger” directed toward the network for the way he was treated, Mr. O’Brien planned and presented his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour. The comedy and music tour and his interactions with fans and fellow comics are the basis of this funny and often surprisingly poignant documentary from director Rodman Flender.

A number of top comic minds appear in the movie, offering support to Mr. OBrien, including Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Jack Black. Behind the laughs, however, is a moving portrait of a man who believed he had climbed to the top of his industry’s heap, only to find his future thrown into doubt by the very people he thought wanted him to succeed.

Extras on the Blu-ray edition include a music video, a question-and-answer session, commentary by “Conan and company” and deleted scenes.

Whether you’re an O’Brien fan or just interested in a compelling backstage story, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” should be on your “should see” list.

MPAA Rating: R for profanity.

Back of the Rack



Director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven” series, “Erin Brockovich”) delivered a true masterpiece in this layered, multistory epic about the war on drugs and its effects on a variety of people, from a conservative U.S. judge (Michael Douglas), who’s about to be appointed drug czar, to the wife of a drug importer (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is forced to become involved in the trade to save her family. A brilliant cast, including Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro (who won an Oscar for the film), Amy Irving and Dennis Quaid bring Stephen Gaghan’s taut, fascinating script to vivid life.

Nearly a dozen years after its initial release, “Traffic” remains a vibrant and thought-provoking portrait of a major personal, ethical and political problem. Give it another viewing soon.

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive profanity, violence, drug content, nudity and sexual situations.

• Joe Barber is the entertainment editor for WTOP-FM and a critic-panelist for WETA-TV’s “Around Town.”

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