Anna Karenina (2012) PICK

Argo (2012) PICK

Hotel Transylvania (2012) PASS

It may be a lousy time of year for theatrical releases, but it’s a great season for home video. Another two of my 2012 "top 10" list picks are newly available, following The Kid With a Bike and Planet of Snail (see last issue).

Argo is an absorbing, entertaining thriller based on the true story of how Canadians, the CIA and Hollywood saved the day during the Iran hostage crisis, working together to extract six Americans from Tehran.

The film’s secret weapon is that it’s a Hollywood satire as well as a geopolitical thriller. To create cover identities, the CIA worked with Hollywood insiders to set up a fake movie project, a schlocky sci-fi spectacle.

Among the supporting cast, one figure has a tense scene indicating that not all Iranians or Muslims were the enemy. The nail-biting climax is Hollywood artifice — but the best moment comes down to a classic Hollywood pitch.

Then there’s Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Kiera Knightley as Tolstoy’s tragic heroine, Jude Law as her decent spouse in a tepid marriage and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, with whom Anna has a passionate, disastrous affair.

A strikingly countercultural story of love and infidelity, forgiveness and consequences, the great Russian novel has been adapted for its English cast as a semi-stagebound theatrical drama — an inspired conceit that serves the material well on many levels, thematic, narrative and visual.

It’s visually spectacular and helps compress the story, making room for Vronsky’s brief love interest Kitty, her suitor Kostya … and much more. It’s a sweeping film that’s morally serious without moralizing, that feels Anna’s pain without excusing her faults or scapegoating her flawed but noble and pious husband.

No joy for family audiences, alas, at least from the latest new releases (though see "Bonus Picks"). In particular, skip the computer-animated Hotel Transylvania, which did better business than either ParaNorman or Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, but doesn’t hold a candle to either (especially Frankenweenie).

The story — monsters living in fear of humans, an overprotective father sheltering his offspring — evokes Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. But it’s junk. Besides the tiresome theme that humans, who’ve persecuted monsters, are the real monsters, the characters never develop beyond stereotypes, and the frenetic Cartoon Network-style pacing is numbing.

Bonus Picks: Forget Hotel Transylvania: Pixar’s classic Monsters, Inc. is newly available in a bunch of Blu-ray/DVD combo editions, including 3-D (for those with 3-D TVs). Burton fans may also want to check out Frankenweenie, a loving homage to old monster movies. Oh, and Disney has hauled Peter Pan out of the vault, too.


Content Advisory: Anna Karenina: Some sexuality and fleeting rear nudity; a grisly train accident and a later similar incident; limited profanity and cursing. Mature viewing. Argo: Frequent, often comically intended obscene language; some profanity; a few violent images. Might be fine for older teens.