Friday, March 26, 2010

March '10 Blu-Ray Roundup


The Blind Side (Warners) - Repeat after me: Oscar winner Sandra Bullock. It does sound odd, but since Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Halle Berry have also won, why not Sandra? And if her performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, mother of two who mentors Michael Oher through high school and college as he becomes a football player coaches and scouts salivate over, isn’t emotionally deep, it has the showiness and movie-star charisma that pushed the others over the top. Bullock’s no-holds-barred portrayal overshadows a mainly mediocre cast, with the exception of Jae Head as Tuohy’s older-than-his-years son. Directed with a mallet by John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side is not a great film—Best Picture nomination notwithstanding—but it’s a pleasing feel-good melodrama. The movie has an adequate hi-def transfer; the extras give too-brief glimpses of the film’s making: more of the real-life Tuohy and Oher would have been nice.


Broken Embraces (Sony), Pedro Almodovar’s latest melodrama is a movie made by a buff for other buffs. The clumsy attempts at suspense are reminiscent of Hitchcock, Rossellini’s classic Voyage in Italy is shown on TV, and there are many in-jokes, including a fictional movie like Almodovar’s own early movies. Too bad nothing coheres or is made plausible; Almodovar shows off his cleverness instead of fleshing out his characters. The actors (led by Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar), considering what they’re up against, are good, as are the pacing, framing and editing. But the script drags Broken Embraces down to mediocrity. The stellar Blu-ray transfer showcases Almodovar’s distinctive visual style; the extras feature Cruz and her director at the New York Film Festival closing night, along with on-set interviews, deleted scenes and a new Almodovar short.


Clash of the Titans (Warners) - After 30 years, Ray Harryhausen’s groundbreaking stop-motion effects look fake in Desmond Davis’ mediocre mythological movie, which remains the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Watching Harry Hamlin’s Perseus fight the mythical Minotaur, two-headed wolf Dioskolis and the dreaded Medusa, and taming and riding the winged horse Pegasus remains a dopey thrill, and the dated special effects are part of the movie’s singular charm. It’s also fun watching eminent British thespians Laurence Olivier (Zeus) and Maggie Smith (Thetis) playing Greek gods and goddesses. Although the remake coming in April will have superior computerized effects, but I still have a soft spot for Harryhausen. The iffy Blu-ray transfer accentuates the fakery, unfortunately; brief interviews are the lone extras.


Fallen Angels (Kino), which put Hong Kong wunderkind Wong Kar-Wai on the cinematic map, is a gloriously-shot fever dream from a director who prizes visual brilliance over everything else. When he and cinematographer Christopher Doyle mesh, as in shot after shot of Fallen Angels, there’s rejoicing in heaven. The plot is secondary to the ravishment crammed into every frame, and on Blu-ray—which was made for his sensibility—the movie is a wonder to behold. There are images that are memorable even if they last fleetingly onscreen, making this a go-to disc in anyone’s “show-off” pile. Extras include interviews with Wong and Doyle and brief on-set featurette.


The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox) - Wes Anderson’s cartoonish films are filled with unrelieved feyness and affectations in performance, characterization and visual style. In that sense, then, his adaptation of Raoul Dahl’s faux-fable is the logical next step. He’s done away with humans entirely, making a stop-motion puppet film as unpretentiously entertaining as his earlier films strained for comedic and cosmic significance. With a superb voice cast led by George Clooney, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon, Fox also has the distinction of not actually showing Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script has its dud lines, situations and failed attempts at depth, but the visual flair more than compensates. Needless to say, this looks terrific on Blu-ray, with an astonishing amount of detail noticeable in the foreground and background. Extras include Making Mr. Fox Fantastic, a 45-minute making-of; and a too-brief glimpse (4 minutes!) at Dahl’s fantastical world.


Free Willy: Escape from Pirates Cove (Warners) - In this routine, straight-to-DVD adventure, Bindi Irwin plays a girl helping a killer whale return to the ocean. Although rambunctious and perky, Irwin is stuck in this by-the-numbers programmer. There’s little chance to display nature’s beauties, and co-star Beau Bridges is as dully stiff as his brother Jeff is a deserved Oscar winner. Kids may enjoy it, but at an overlong 102 minutes, they’ll get antsy too. The movie looks OK on Blu-ray, but the killer whale appears rubbery at times….could it be? Extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, and on-set interviews with Irwin.


IMAX Under the Sea (Warners) - This spectacularly photographed exploration of life at the bottom of the ocean is another mesmerizing IMAX film bursting with dazzlingly colorful images of varied life forms that, even if you won’t watch them on a huge IMAX screen, are still worth watching on TV on Blu-ray. Even Jim Carrey doesn’t over rely on his obnoxious mannerisms while narrating, and the result is an enlightening entertainment worth watching over and over. Extras include featurettes about the locations where the filming took place.


Old Dogs (Disney) – John Travolta and Robin Williams sleepwalk through this nearly laughless and sappy buddy flick, but even a disinterested Williams has a few funny ad-libs. The women—Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston, and Lori Laughlin—have even less to do than the nominal stars. Best about Old Dogs on Blu-ray for those who like it is that it’s one of those Disney multi-packs that includes a standard DVD and digital copy—the movie won’t look any worse in those formats. The usual commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, music videos and on-set interviews make up the extras.


Paris (IFC) – Writer-director Cedric Klapisch has a preference for large narrative canvases with several story strands running into and bouncing off each other, as in L‘Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls. But, as Paris shows, Klapisch is more interested in people than his own cleverness: hence this enormously affecting valentine to a beloved city is also a subtle exploration of the multicultural population that calls it home. Buoyed by a phenomenal cast led by Juliette Binoche, Francois Cluzet, Fabrice Luchini, Romain Duris, and Karin Viard, Klapisch’s visionary Paris has a soulful, even melancholy atmosphere. The city of lights looks absolutely ravishing in this Blu-Ray transfer; the numerous and solid extras include a 50-minute making-of feature and 53 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, along with featurettes on the music and set design and a brief table read among three actors and their director.


Ponyo (Disney) – The animated films of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki are like no-one else’s; his latest, Ponyo—from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid—is no exception. This heartwarming, never sentimental, frequently amusing tale of a female sea creature who becomes human to stay with the boy who rescued her is infinitely inventive in its storytelling, characterization and visuals. Miyazaki’s colorful palette is unique in animation; since his first exposure in the U.S., Princess Mononoke, he continually finds ways to create fresh, strangely familiar new worlds, and in Ponyo, the sea-world and real world are artful and lovely. On Blu-ray, the mélange of hues thrown onscreen are indescribably beautiful; this may be the movie to turn families on to the delights of hi-def. Extras include two making-of featurettes, The World of Ghibli, interviews and a glimpse at the American voiceover cast—happily, the original Japanese track is also available (and preferable).


Precious, Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (LionsGate) - This movie about a heavy-set, illiterate, pregnant 16-year-old with a special needs baby (both fathered by her dad) living with her angry, lazy mother in Harlem throws every melodramatic roadblock in front of its protagonist. Unfortunately, director Lee Daniels can’t elevate it above a Lifetime movie plus cursing, intercutting flat-footed fantasy sequences that hold back the story’s primitive power. Best is Gabourey Sidibe’s authentic Precious; other surprises are Mariah Carey’s strong, sympathetic social worker and Paula Patton’s touching teacher. Mo’Nique (mom) won all the awards for her scenery chewing. The hokey Precious is this year’s Slumdog Millionaire. Extras include a Daniels commentary, a deleted scene, Sidibe’s audition, and featurettes on the set, the actors and Sapphire’s original novel.


The Princess and the Frog (Disney) – I prefer the old-fashioned drawings of old-school Disney films to the computerized, soulless Pixar blockbusters. So as so-so as The Princess and the Frog is, at least it looks like classic Disney. This New Orleans-set fairy tale has gloriously-detailed animation—which pops off your TV screen on Blu-ray—but is lacking in drama, comedy and romance. Anika Noni Rose is a sweet-voiced heroine, but Keith David is stuck in a clichéd villain role from which he can’t escape. Disney has again fired up the three-disc Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack, and the extras include Magic In The Bayou: The Making of A Princess featurette, an audio commentary, deleted scenes, and a Ne-Yo music video.


Toy Story/Toy Story 2 (Disney) – Pixar’s peak came early with these two huge hits, still the blueprint for Pixar’s later mega-success: hilarious lines and sight gags that appeal to kids and adults; big-name voices; sappily good-natured characters (humans and non-humans); and a visual sense that surpasses the limitations—at least to these eyes—of computer-generated animation. Back then, it didn’t seem like a formula as much as it does now, and both movies remain at the top of the Pixar/Disney heap. On Blu-ray, the sharpness and clarity of both Toy Storys are exhilarating to watch. This Disney combo set comprises two discs each (no digital copy); most extras come from the original release—the few add-ons include sneak peeks of Toy Story 3.


2012 (Sony) – Director Roland Emmerich is back to destroy the world—again. This time, he’s hit on the marvelously twisted idea that the Mayan calendar, which points to 2012 as Armageddon, is indeed right: everything starts going off the rails so quickly that there’s no time to react…except for hero John Cusack, ex-wife Amanda Peet and their kids. The special effects of the world being annihilated are kind of neat for a few minutes, but how many collapsing buildings and highways can one watch for two-plus hours before it becomes tedious? And when our planet isn’t being destroyed, we have to put up with wooden acting and silly dialogue. Blu-ray makes everything look and sound so awesome (in both senses) that you might well believe 2012 is a documentary. Extras include Emmerich’s and co-writer Harold Kosner’s commentary; picture-in-picture feature of cast and crew discussing the shoot; and an alternate ending dopier than the one they used.


Twilight: New Moon (Summit) - Now helmed by director Chris Weitz, the Twilight franchise’s second installment is a humorless, self-serious “drama” that appeals only to teenage girls. Of course, that’s whom they’re aiming at, so anything resembling decent moviemaking is coincidental. The poor young stars walk around sullenly, as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders—if being a vampire is so depressing, why bother? There are skillful sequences, notably a computer-generated wolf pack, and Michael Sheen as the vampire world’s leader shakes the movie free of its torpor for a few minutes, but overall, New Moon is for no-one under 18. Blu-ray accentuates the dullness—punctuated by lush greens—of the color palette. Along with a Weitz audio commentary, the extras comprise an hour-long making-of documentary, in which we finally see Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, et al, smiling and happy.


Up in the Air (Paramount), director Jason Reitman’s follow-up to the wildly successful Juno (which owed its popularity to Ellen Page’s perfectly-pitched performance), is another iffy comedic proposition saved by another miraculous bit of casting. George Clooney, in what might be obvious typecasting, is the sharp, charismatic “firing guy” for downsizing companies; his work ethic and frequent travel let him concentrate on his career to the detriment of his personal life, which is non-existent. Clooney’s movie-star aura and droll, deadpan delivery carry him through a movie that’s little more than a series of vignettes that never quite hang together. There’s nice support from Vera Farmiga as the woman who breaks through his chinked armor and Anna Hendricks as his rookie sidekick. Reitman has mastered the art of succinct visuals sans flourishes; the impeccably understated Blu-ray transfer follows suit. Extras include 13 deleted scenes, making-of featurettes and a commentary by Reitman, cinematographer Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld.
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