The revenge thriller “Hanna” — which plays as sort of like a cross between “The Professional” and “Run Lola Run,” with a pinch of “The Bourne Identity” — courses with an unflagging, forward-leaning vigor. It’s a smart, stylish, interesting and fun piece of pop entertainment, powered by strong performances and all wrapped up in an offbeat but engaging fairytale motif that gives the material a little extra zesty kick.


Opening in the snowy wilds of Finland, the story centers on 16-year-old Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan), who has the intelligence, strength, stamina and lethal combat skill set of a soldier the opposite gender and twice her age, all thanks to her father Erik (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent. The reasons for their hermetic, extreme isolation come into focus slowly, when Hanna indicates her readiness to finally accept a long-planned quest of revenge against a seemingly ruthless operative from Erik’s past, the tightly wound Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Father and daughter split up, with plans to soon reunite in Berlin. After she thinks she completes her task, Hanna gets waylaid by a family traveling on holiday. As Marissa tries to track her down, dark secrets regarding the characters’ shared past soon leak out, informing and coloring a unique life-and-death struggle.

Trading in luxurious widescreen framing, director Joe Wright stages scenes with a slick, involving style, and the Chemical Brothers’ catchy score, which at times recalls a Madhatter’s rave, is one of the best of 2011, hands down. Bana is quite solid, and Blanchett’s steeliness gives “Hanna” a welcome edge and depth, as one feels her character’s inflexibility and doggedness is rooted in some moral reasoning, however warped it comes across. The supporting turns are also fantastic, especially Jessica Barden as Sophie, a young girl who comes to be Hanna’s first friend. “Hanna” is chiefly Ronan’s show, however. In case there were any remaining doubts after her superlative turns in “Atonement” and the unfortunately little-seen “The Way Back” (the former also directed by Wright), this film confirms her star-in-waiting status; she imbues her character with depth, and also handles the movie’s considerable physical demands with aplomb. “Hanna” runs on urgency, sharp-witted curiosity and wiry brawn, and Ronan supplies them all.

On Blu-ray, the film comes in a standard case housed in a blue-spined, complementary cardboard slipcover. The 1080p, high definition 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is gorgeous, giving cinematographer Alwin Kuchler’s compositions their full due. An English language DTS-HD master audio track anchors the aural offerings, along with a DVS 2.0 stereo track and Spanish and French DTS 5.1 surround sound tracks. Regular chapter stops can also be supplemented by special tags chosen by the viewer. Wright provides a feature-length audio commentary track which speaks to the fairytale allusion qualities of the film, and there’s also a 10-minute “anatomy of a scene” breakdown focusing on Hanna’s daring escape sequence. Along with a small collection of deleted scenes, there’s also an alternate ending that runs about 90 seconds, and would have served, one can easily assume, as a tag/bumper on the current/theatrical ending of the movie. It’s a ruminative glimpse forward, and not at all bad — totally in keeping with Hanna’s arc of self-actualization.

A clutch of other Blu-ray-specific exclusives include a nice “adapt or die” segment detailing Ronan’s physical training, interview snippets with cast and crew on their collaborations and creative experience in building the movie together, a look at the location filming, and a cool glimpse at the Chemical Brothers’ approach to writing and scoring “Hanna”‘s soundtrack. BD-Live allows a purchaser to access the BD-Live Center through your Internet-connected player, in order to watch the latest trailers and what not, while the new “pocket BLU” app (compatible with iPads, iPod touch, iPhones, Androids, PCs and Macs) lets one use their tablet or smartphone to control Blu-ray features and watch content on-the-go, at a time and place of their choosing. In this respect, the future “The Jetsons” promised us is getting closer. (Still no flying cars, alas.) Oh, and a digital copy of the movie is also included, though there is a cut-off date for registration (in late February of 2012, but still), so make sure you take action before then or your code will expire.

captain america 1992

For many filmgoers who never read comic books, the words “The First Avenger” were actually necessary as an appendage on the advertising and title card of this summer’s “Captain America.” After all, does anyone really have fond memories of director Albert Pyun’s early-’90s offering, starring Matt Salinger in the title role? They shouldn’t. Originally slated to be released in 1990, to coincide with said character’s 50th anniversary, “Captain America” ended up being released Stateside almost two years after its completion (after re-shoots, in an attempt to pump up the movie’s stunts and action), and then only on home video. A limp, narratively uninspired and not particularly visually thrilling or compelling affair, this movie illustrates the limits of making (putatively) larger-than-life action movies outside of the studio system, especially in the days before computer graphic design and special effects helped level the production playing field.

As with this summer’s “Captain America,” the villain is Red Skull (Scott Paulin), though this time the subject of a super-soldier experiment by the fascist Italian government. Over in the U.S.A., still in 1941, Steve Rogers receives the same special serum treatment, but without the pesky disfigurations. The two eventually do battle, and Rogers, as Captain America, gets his ass handed to him. Through a fluke, however, he ends up frozen for five decades. When he thaws out, a man that took his picture when he was a kid is now the president of the United States, and a kidnapping target of Red Skull, who heads up a criminal syndicate manipulating world events through the assassination of idealists and co-opting of governmental leaders. More shenanigans ensue.

The production design and costuming here is kind of chintzy, and the story not much better. Various gaps in logic (why is Red Skull set on kidnapping some leaders, and killing others) are never adequately closed, and there’s not even a kind of goofy, loose-limbed, throwback appeal for today’s generation. They’ll just be bored, and rightly so. Overall, MGM’s limited edition DVD-R, manufactured-on-demand release of “Captain America” is a win for completist collectors (one can see it slotted reverentially in some basement museum in Des Moines), but few others. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, the DVD comes with a copy of the movie’s original trailer, but otherwise no supplemental bonus features — which is just as well, actually, since sometimes it’s awkward and painful to watch filmmakers and actors try to defend the indefensible.

Bambi II

The idea of there even existing a “Bambi II” seems on many levels like little more than a cheap money-grab, a cynical ploy to separate cash from boomer-age Disney-philes whose most crippling addiction is nostalgia. With that in mind, one largely either plops down with “Bambi II” ready to forgive it all its sins and failings, or rather grimly, convinced that if there were grander reasons for its existence other than market forces upon which Adam Smith would smile favorably, then the film would be receiving a more thoughtful and considered Stateside theatrical release. The truth is more middle-ground grey, sure, but in the end the threadbare narrative conceived does the “Bambi” legacy no great favors; while old characters get new life, this title is worth a rental at most.

The story actually takes place during the middle portion of the original film, after Bambi loses his mother but before he grows into an adult. Bambi (voiced by Alexander Gould) reunites in the woods with his father, the somewhat reticent and aloof Great Prince (voiced by Patrick Stewart), and learns life lessons from him and friends like Thumper, all while imparting a few of his own as well. The animation is solid (and of a piece with the original) but certainly a notch or two below the visual bedazzlement many or most kids have experienced in Pixar films, and thus come to expect. This is a problem as it relates to the movie’s ambition (or relative lack thereof) and tone, which is overwhelmingly pitched at very young children. There’s not much risk or emotional depth to “Bambi II,” and its love triangle, in which Bambi learns to stand up to bully Ronno and battle his fellow fawn for the attention of Faline, feels yawningly generic and uninspired.

Under a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Bambi II” comes presented in a two-disc combo pack special edition which includes the movie’s Blu-ray and DVDs. Both are in 1.78: widescreen, and come with French and Spanish Dolby digital 5.1 sound tracks, plus English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles; the former also, and notably, comes in a 1080p transfer with a DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track, which is free of compression and any artifacting. Bonus material on both discs includes the deleted song “Sing the Day,” an interactive game called “Thumper’s Hurry and Scurry” and a fairly neat little “sketch pad” segment in which longtime Disney animator Andreas Deja shows viewers how to draw Thumper. The Blu-ray also includes an eight-minute making-of featurette, and a pop-up trivia track which spotlights fun facts about the movie.

A Horrible Way To Die

“A Horrible Way To Die” is a brutally effective title — blunt, and straight to the point. And yet while writer-director Adam Wingard’s movie is in some ways that, it’s also a sort of atmospheric mumblecore slasher flick — methodical, but rooted in awkwardness and what’s real. It’s not about gore or the vicarious thrills of its kills, but rather the uncomfortable pathologies that drive addictive (and in this case insane and psychopathic) behaviors. The movie centers on Sarah (Amy Seimetz) and Kevin (Joe Swanberg), two small town recovering alcoholics trying to put their lives back together. Eschewing AA’s dictum of no sexual relationships for a year, an awkward, fitful quasi-romance ensues. A bigger problem, though? Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Garrick (AJ Bowen) is a serial killer, it turns out. More bad things quickly start happening.

Housed in a regular case, “A Horrible Way To Die” comes to Blu-ray in 1.78:1 widescreen, with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track that doesn’t overplay the baroque touches of atmospheric accompaniment in the way that many horror film audio mixes typically do. Wingard and writer-producer Simon Barrett sit for a feature-length audio commentary track, and it’s an entertaining hoot, replete with production anecdotes that aren’t merely of the inside-joke or self-congratulating variety, but instead are often genuinely amusing or revelatory, and sometimes even a little instructive to boot. There’s also a seven-minute making-of featurette which includes on-set footage, make-up and effects material and more traditional EPK-type interview tidbits with cast and crew.

On the exact opposite end of the emotional spectrum are two titles from the Meridian Trust focusing on life lessons and the philosophies of the Dalai Lama. “Contentment, Joy & Living Well” discusses how our essential human nature is compassionate and affectionate, and how an embrace of this fact, combined with our intellect, can contribute to a better world for all beings. The basic personal calculus (focus on increasing one’s positive qualities while decreasing one’s negative qualities) is fairly simple, so at over two-and-a-half hours this title can certainly drag at times. Still, there’s a peacefulness and thoughtfulness herein that’s far from boring if one opens their mind’s eye. Similarly, “A Practical Way of Directing Love & Compassion” describes the benefits involved in possessing a sense of responsibility for the well being of others. Both titles come to DVD housed in clear plastic Amaray cases, on all-region discs and in full screen presentations. For more information, visit

BB King Live

Finally, for music fans casual and devoted alike, the concert documentary “B.B. King Live” offers up an excellent opportunity to enjoy the titular reigning king of blues, who has for more than six decades impressed and influenced music with his regal and velvety tone, powered by a left hand vibrato. While it runs under an hour, director Joe Thomas’ title is shot in a warm and intimate fashion, and features a nice cross-section of King’s hit tunes combined with between-song anecdotes from the affable star about his band and life. It also includes special guests like Terrence Howard, Solange and guitarist Richie Sambora. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, “B.B. King Live” features chapter selections but no additional bonus material. The full track listing is as follows: “Everyday I Have the Blues,” ” See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “How Many More Years,” “Downhearted,” “I Need You So,” “I Got Some Help I Don’t Need,” “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Key To the Highway” and two versions of “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Written by: Brent Simon

By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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