There are a trio of very good releases on DVD and Blu-ray this week; one is a top-flight re-imagining of a classic Western, while the other two are full-season sets of a pair of TV's most popular and acclaimed hour-long dramas. Any one of them would likely make an excellent choice for a Father's Day gift -- or even perhaps as a present to those gentlemen who are not yet fathers (hint, hint).
First up, Jeff Bridges saddles up as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the new version of "True Grit," adapted for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount. The original 1968 film (also available on both formats from Paramount), of course, starred John Wayne in the Cogburn role, and for his work in that movie he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. It's no wonder he did -- the part was tailor-made for him. Wayne's Cogburn remains one of his most recognizable and iconic characters, a colorful, brusque and resourceful figure. It's not easy to step into the shadow of that part, but to Bridges' credit, he doesn't try to build a similiar version. Instead, he crafts a Cogburn who is darker and creakier, both in body and spirit, but retains at his core a fundamental decency.
Matt Damon (as Texas Ranger LaBeouf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney) and Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper) all bring their A-games to the film as well, but the center of "True Grit" belongs to Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose performance as Mattie Ross is as revelatory as any I've seen in many years.
Few adult actors hold the audience's attention the way Steinfeld does in this movie. Her Mattie is bold, brash and smart -- indeed, she's perhaps too much of all those things for her own good -- but she's also someone that you can actually root for, even as you wonder if she's bitten off more than she can chew. Steinfeld, who is still in her teens, was among the five nominees for Best Supporting Actress at this year's Academy Awards, and it should comes as no surprise when I say that I wouldn't have been disappointed in the slightest if she had won. I do, however, have high hopes that this will not be the last time she will be gracing the screen.
"True Grit" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture, while also becoming a legitimate box-office hit to boot. If you haven't seen it yet (or even if you have), I highly recommend it. Four stars (out of four).
Next on the rundown of new DVD releases is the third season of AMC's highly-acclaimed series "Breaking Bad," from Sony. The dark (and often darkly comic) drama, which deals with the dangerous double life of Walter White, a cancer-stricken high-school chemistry teacher-turned-meth manufacturer, continues to document White's downward spiral as he finds himself increasingly unable to shield himself and those he cares about from newer and even more deadly enemies.
Due to some graphic violence and very strong language (nevermind the thematic element that makes up the show's premise), this is certainly not an easy show to watch sometimes -- and definitely not for younger viewers -- but that isn't to say it isn't a rewarding one. Bryan Cranston, as White, has almost completely erased the memory of his broadly comic "Malcolm in the Middle" character, winning multiple Emmys for his work, while Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse, his partner-in-crime) has turned in subtle and heartbreaking performances week after week. Other castmembers, including Anna Gunn and Dean Norris, also deliver turns both bracing and blistering.
"Breaking Bad" is tough stuff, no doubt, but it's also a rich, rewarding series. It returns for a fourth season on AMC this July, but if you haven't seen any of it yet, it's worth checking out on DVD. Four stars.
I'll conclude this week with one of my favorite hour-long TV shows now on the air, USA's "Burn Notice." It's coming back for a fifth season in a couple of weeks (June 23, to be exact); the fourth go-round for the retro-feeling action-adventure is available on DVD from Fox.
If you don't know, "Burn Notice," one of cable's most popular scripted series, is the story of a former CIA operative named Michael Westen (portrayed by Jeffrey Donovan), who wound up stranded in Miami after shadowy forces had him blacklisted. Over the last few seasons, while digging into the mystery of who did it (and why), he's bided his time taking on all manner of bad guys for all manner of good guys, usually with the help of a trusty ex-Navy Seal pal (played with gusto by Bruce Campbell), a sexy sort-of-but-not-really ex-girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar) and a fiercely loyal -- and sometimes just plain fierce -- mom (Sharon Gless).
In this latest season, Westen's drive to uncover who ruined his career accidentally burns someone else -- an operative named Jesse (played by Coby Bell). Westen brings Jesse on to his team in order to keep the agent from discovering the truth, ultimately creating another layer of deceit in an already tangled web. Admittedly, the fourth season has a few small storytelling bumps along the way; it's tough to keep any show fresh for more than a few years, especially one with as complex a mythos as this one. But that doesn't mean it's any less fun overall, particularly for fans, and the season finale has a suprisingly emotional heft, as well as being an action-packed ride. Three stars.