Saturday, May 29, 2010

May '10 Blu-rays


Alice in Wonderland (Disney) -Tim Burton’s imaginative fantasy isn’t the most faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, but if any director can approximate the outlandish worlds Carroll created, it’s Burton. There's stunning shot after stunning shot, alongside a huge amount of CGI work, which slightly cramps its style: Burton's imagination seems less important now that anything can be created onscreen for a few hundred million. This Alice isn’t for the kiddies, which is a good sign, and if there’s too spectacular of a climax, Burton ensures that the spirit, if not the letter, of Alice survives. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, and Mia Wasikowska (Alice) battle blue screens, makeup and various effects, all rendered with incredible faithfulness by the Blu-ray transfer: but no 3-D glasses are included. Decent if not plentiful extras trace the film's making, makeup and effects.

An undeniable visual triumph, Avatar (Fox) is a culmination of the recent turn toward movies made for our eyes only, since its splendid set design and computer-generated effects hide its banal story, mediocre acting and laughable dialogue. James Cameron might have created a mythic world that many people around the world have bought into hook, line and sinker, but that doesn't avoid the inescapable fact that, regardless of its luster, Avatar is an old-fashioned adventure dressed up in big-budget, state-of-the-art camouflage. Although it won a puzzling Oscar for Best Cinematography (how can you tell what was shot with what was created on computers?), it’s easy to see what enticed its legions of fans; on Blu-ray, Avatar’s brilliantly varied use of color becomes addictive. But at more than 2-1/2 hours and without any characters even remotely worth rooting for (Stephen Lang did the crazed-general bit better on Broadway in A Few Good Men 20 years ago), Avatar becomes wearying, as viewers’ eyes glaze over from its mind-numbing sameness. No extras are included, and no 3-D glasses either.

Battleship Potemkin (Kino) - Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic will never be as jaw-droppingly unique 85 years later, as many of the director’s innovations have been co-opted by later filmmakers. Still, there’s no denying the visceral power of his recreation of the rebellion of Russian sailors in 1905 against the Czar’s men, prefiguring the successful revolution a dozen years later. Then there are the still-indelible images, from the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence (parodied by Woody Allen in Love and Death and aped by Brian DePalma in The Untouchables) to the stirring final shot. Kino’s Blu-ray looks as immaculate as any 85-year-old film can, with grain galore and only slight bad patches resulting from the source material. This is also the definitive version of Eisenstein’s vision, with cut sequences and original intertitles restored. Extras include a new recording of the score heard in 5.1 surround sound and a thorough German documentary, Tracing the Battleship Potemkin.

Daybreakers (LionsGate) – Although bloodsuckers are a dime a dozen on today's screens, Daybreakers tries something different in a world inhabited mainly by vampires, with mortal humans as outcasts. But this clever conceit can’t sustain an entire movie, which goes haywire long before its predictable ending. There are some juicy performances, topped by Willem Dafoe’s strangely sympathetic human resistance fighter and Sam Neill and Ethan Hawke as two very different kinds of vampire. The strange visuals of the directors, the Spierig Brothers, are miraculously recreated by the Blu-ray transfer, which looks simply outstanding. Extras include a comprehensive two-hour making-of documentary and a short film by the brothers, The Big Picture.

Extraordinary Measures (Sony) - An unabashedly sentimental tale based on a true story, Extraordinary Measures follows a couple with two children stricken by a debilitating disease with no cure: the father decides to hire a brilliant researcher to help them find one. Similar to Lorenzo’s Oil, but without that film’s emotional resonance, Extraordinary Measures is an easy-to-take melodrama that glides by on its lead performances: Brandon Fraser (dad), who has never been less annoying, the always-reliable Keri Russell (mom), and a stoic Harrison Ford as the brilliant doctor. No tear is left unjerked at the end. The solid Blu-ray transfer is par for the course from Sony; extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

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The New Daughter (Anchor Bay) - Kevin Costner’s star has fallen so low that he’s taken to starring in second-rate thrillers that go directly to DVD and Blu-ray. Actually, The New Daughter is a decently creepy haunted-house shocker, at least until it degenerates into pseudo-scary incoherence. A divorced dad moves with his two kids to a new country home—fools!—and soon his adolescent daughter is changing right before his eyes. Is it puberty, or something else? The occasional chills are mitigated by the “monsters,” so giggle-inducing to reduce the horror to laughter. And when will filmmakers learn that “shock” endings are no longer shocking? At least the movie looks excellent on Blu-ray; extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and commentary by director Luis Berdejo.

Steven Spielberg won a second Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan (Paramount), which alternates between taut, exciting battle sequences and sentimentality. With Janusz Kaminski's desaturated color photography and Michael Kahn's usual sharp editing, Spielberg creates a brutal opening montage of the D-Day carnage on Normandy's beaches. But after this much-lauded prologue, Saving Private Ryan becomes a standard-issue soldier's story. Despite its conventionality, the movie is saved by its conviction that Mom and apple pie are American ideals worth fighting for. On Blu-ray, the documentary-style technique looks more realistic than ever, with perfect amounts of grain. Unfortunately, the disc’s initial release was marred by an audio defect: the corrected version has a yellow UPC label to distinguish it. Special features include a Spielberg introduction, featurettes, and Shooting War, about combat photographers, hosted by Hanks.

Tetro (LionsGate) – Francis Ford Coppola's return to filmmaking—2007's Youth without Youth—was a gorgeous-looking, unmitigated disaster in color. Tetro, the follow-up, is the same, except in black and white. Starring vanity actor Vincent Gallo, Tetro follows two brothers in Buenos Aires through a series of ever-dull, clichéd situations climaxed when Gallo's character confronts and embarrasses a female critic. For Coppola, this might be personal—getting back at critics, celebrating his father's life—but it's too distant for anyone else to care. Maribel Verdu gives a strong performance as Gallo's girlfriend, and whatever life the movie has is only when she's onscreen. The sublime digital photography looks first-rate on Blu-ray, but since Coppola's estate is propped up by his hotel chain and vineyards, don't subsidize his cinematic debacles by staying in his rooms or drinking his vino. Extras include Coppola and actor Alden Ehrenreich's commentary, and featurettes on the film's music, cinematography and stunningly misconceived dance sequence.

Tooth Fairy (Fox) – He's no longer The Rock, but Dwayne Johnson still makes cutesy flicks for kids, following on his starring role in Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain. Here, he's a rough-and-tumble hockey player whose faux pas as a daddy—dissing the tooth fairy—forces him to become one. The rest of this not very funny comedy shows him trying to juggle his relationship with his daughter, his girlfriend and his teammates, all while trying not to be found out as a wing-sprouting tooth fairy. Johnson keeps his good humor, Julie Andrews as head fairy gives gravitas to the proceedings, but overall, Tooth Fairy is more like a root canal. The Blu-ray transfer is perfectly adequate, while extras include the featurettes, interviews and bloopers.

True Blood—Season 2 (HBO) – Although this small-town, white-trash vampire series has become another HBO cult hit, I find it unbearably coy in its insistence on being both hip and old-school in equal measure. Maybe it's that there's no rooting interest for these folks, no matter how hard the accomplished cast works (Anna Paquin in particular is a standout) or how much wit is embedded in the scripts. The Blu-ray transfer brings out the literal darkness outstandingly; special features include commentaries, character profiles and an interactive featurette that allows viewers to explore things further.

No one would mistake Valentine’s Day (Warners) as a great date movie: Garry Marshall’s tone-deaf would-be romantic epic suffers from a skewered kind of democracy, wherein each story is given equal weight even if many deserve the cutting room floor while others should be expanded to more than “cameo” status. They actually should have scorecards included with the disc to mark who should stay and who should go. Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper have an interesting chemistry as two strangers on a plane, while Jessica Biel looks properly embarrassed as an agent who realizes her perfect man (Jamie Foxx) has been right under her nose--he’s her client. Anne Hathaway is hilarious as a nice girl moonlighting as a phone-sex operator. I don’t remember whom Kathy Bates or Emma Roberts played; would that I had also forgotten the Taylors, Swift and Lautner, who have zero onscreen presence. Valentine’s Day is overstuffed with second-tier stars, but if you’re in the right mood, one of the stories might hit home. The Blu-ray transfer is solid if unspectacular; extras include 14 deleted scenes (so the movie could have been even longer!), a gag reel and other cutesy stuff from director Marshall.

War of the Worlds (Paramount) – Steven Spielberg's dark updating of HG Wells' classic about an invasion from Mars has many early moments that deliberately return us to September 11, from the indiscriminate pulverization of innocent people to Tom Cruise returning home caked in dust, shocked by what he's seen. This harshness, the toughest Spielberg has been since Schindler's List, is ruined by a standard second half culminating in a huge wimp-out ending. Still, there are sequences as dazzling as any Spielberg has ever done, and on Blu-ray, the terrifying intimacy of the carnage and its aftermath—when quiet and calm are harbingers of more violence—is rendered with such fine detail that it's breathtaking to watch. Extras include a Spielberg interview and featurettes about the making of the film and Wells' original vision.

Wild Things Foursome (Sony) – I didn't even realize there was a second and a third Wild Things, but here is number four, and you are hereby warned that there's nothing much to see here. The original is remembered for its steamy three-way with Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. So of course, WTF tries to top that with a ménage a quartre (or “Foursome” in the movie's parlance) that the lucky male lead has with three nubile young women. There's also a plot of sorts about murder and double-crossing, but it's all so lackluster that nothing registers, not even with shapely women and men wearing little or nothing. Unless you're a fan of those late-night Cinemax skin flicks, I doubt WTF will excite you. No extras.

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