Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June Blu-ray Roundup

The Book of Eli (Warners) – The Hughes Brothers' post-apocalyptic vision stars Denzel Washington as a Christ figure who may be holding the last copy of a very important book, for which uber-villain Gary Oldman is willing to destroy most of what’s left on earth. For much of its nearly two-hour running time, the movie basically shows an unsmiling, stoic Denzel killing bad guys with nary a scratch—until the twist ending, which reveals the book and puts to mind an extended, uninvolving Twilight Zone episode in which good actors like Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits and Frances de La Tour have little to do. The landscapes of the American West look stunning, even when they’re supposed to represent the last vestiges of life on earth, and on Blu-ray, the balance between grainy photography and CGI effects is well done. Extras include an interactive, behind-the-scenes feature with Washington and the Hughes Brothers and deleted scenes.


Caddyshack (Warners) – Although worshiped as a classic that gets better with age, Caddyshack is one creaky comedy. Sure, Rodney Dangerfield tosses off his insulting one-liners with ease, but everyone else seems uncomfortable: Chevy Chase coasts as a playboy; Ted Knight's eyes bulge in disgust when something goes wrong; and Bill Murray slums as the mental grounds keeper. Still, the movie pleases many people, who continue to parrot its jokes. Though nothing to write home about visually, the movie looks decent on Blu-ray; for fans, there’s a self-congratulatory 80-minute retrospective documentary—with Chase and Murray conspicuously absent—and an older 20-minute featurette that includes Chase (but not Murray).


Happy Together (Kino) – Wong Kar-Wai’s unclassifiable 1997 effort won the Best Director award at Cannes and is in many ways still the quintessential WKW movie: endlessly stylish with a surprisingly rich emotional tapestry. Shot in Buenos Aires by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Happy Together follows a pair of gay lovers living out the final days of their relationship, together and apart. It's less the characters themselves who are the focus here than the weight of the world on them, as the whirligig of images—shot in both full color and subtle black and white—indelibly shows. This superlative Blu-ray transfer finally presents the film as it originally shot, a visually expressive melange of rich details that add up to the most satisfying film the director has made to date. Extras are geared for the hard-core fan: an hour-long documentary that includes scenes and characters deleted from the original three-hour cut, and a 40-minute WKW interview.
Hung (HBO) - HBO’s original series take clichéd situations and ratchet them up further: the Mafiosi in The Sopranos,Six Feet Under, westerns in Deadwood, vampires in True Blood. In Hung, we watch a small-town high-school coach who, thanks to his large penis, becomes a gigolo for various women. Apparently, in the world of HBO and pornography, size does matter. That being said, Hung is worth watching for the actors, who overcome their cardboard characters: Thomas Jane as the protagonist, Jane Adams as his manger, Anne Heche as his ex and Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee as his children all give intriguing performances. The Blu-ray sports an excellent hi-def transfer, and extras include audio commentaries, a behind-the-scenes featurette and cast interviews.

The Illusionist (Fox) - Neil Burger’s sleight-of-hand drama conjures trickery to keep viewers on the edge of their seats while telling a convincing historical costume drama in an entertaining way. American actors who always seem contemporary (Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel) are interspersed among Brits (Rupert Everett, Eddie Marsan) with stylishness in this insubstantial but fun lark. On Blu-ray, the crisply-shot European exteriors and interiors look even more enticing, as does Biel, who's as beautiful as she is out of place in this milieu. The lone extras is the second disc holding the standard DVD and digital copy.

The Last Station (Sony) - The last days of Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s most famous writer, are presented in Michael Hoffman's uncertain drama, resulting in a stilted history/literary lesson and middling cinema. The credit for humanizing rather than deifying Tolstoy and his wife Sofya is due to the commanding performances of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who are in splendid form. Too bad Hoffman concentrates on the standard romance between a younger couple, even ending the film with their tearful reunion when Tolstoy's death has thrown the nation into mourning. This period film set in Russia was shot in Germany by ace cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, and the Blu-ray transfer retains the glowing, autumnal visual palette so integral to the film. Extras include audio commentaries by Hoffman and by Mirren with Plummer, deleted scenes and a Q&A with Plummer.

Not the Messiah (Sony) – Not content to sit on their Tony-winning laurels, the creators of Spamalot, Eric Idle and John Du Prez, concocted an oratorio based on Life of Brian. Spoofing Handel’s Messiah and religious epics in one fell swoop, Not the Messiah is an inspired parody that falls prey to the same problems as Spamalot: there’s too much predicated on the audience’s familiarity with the original, so the creators coast at times, knowing fans will explode into laughter at the mention of a famous line. Still, composer-conductor Du Prez and lyricist Idle have cleverly come up with hilarious music and lyrics, overcoming any resistance. For good measure, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, former Pythons Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam show up to good-humoredly make asses of themselves. But where’s John Cleese? Extras comprise a making-of featurette and an opening-night featurette.

Remember Me (Summit) - In order to escape Twilight, Robert Pattinson plays a New Yorker from a damaged family (older brother killed himself on his 22nd birthday) who falls for a young woman whose own family was hit by tragedy (she witnessed her mother’s murder on a Brooklyn subway platform 10 years earlier). It's earnestly sappy for the most part, but happily, Pattinson’s costar, Aussie actress Emilie de Ravin, brings a welcome lightness which keeps the story from becoming cloying—at least until the end, which occurs on September 11, and is as dramatically cheap as a finale could be. The Blu-ray transfer is decent; extras include director and cast commentaries and a making-of featurette.

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She’s Out of My League (Paramount) The nerd getting the hot girl around has been an onscreen staple, but the undeserved success of Knocked Up opened the floodgates for a movie like this, which meanders for 100 minutes with the notion that an impossibly beautiful and intelligent girl will fall for the most ordinary guy. Alice Eve is the blond bombshell who loves hockey and who falls for a TSA wimp played by Jay Baruchel in this forgettable example of Apatow-lite (although Judd Apatow's own movies aren't worth much). The Blu-ray transfer is quite good; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews and commentary.

Shutter Island (Paramount) – In his adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s inscrutable, overwrought mystery, Martin Scorsese makes his own homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: an unstable protagonist is at the mercy of a shadowy, haunted building that nudges him to do its bidding, all to a soundtrack of unsettling modernist music. The actors gleefully overdo it like Nicholson in The Shining, from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as federal agents, and Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the place’s head shrinks to Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson as femme fatales. Music supervisor Robbie Robertson selected Penderecki, Ligeti, Feldman and Reich to accompany the ridiculous story, another nod to Kubrick's classic. A stellar high-def transfer makes Shutter Island look incredible on Blu-ray, while the surround sound audio gives an added jolt. An hour’s worth of special features consists of two on-location featurettes.

A Star Is Born (Warners) George Cukor’s overlong, 1954 rags to riches epic is Judy Garland’s show, as she carries it on sheer personality alone as Esther Blodgett, the singer who becomes a superstar thanks to mentor-husband Norman Maine, an over the hill actor whose career spirals down as hers ascends. A fussily mannered James Mason is Norman, making the movie a chore whenever Garland’s offscreen. Warners' Blu-ray upgrade is a winner: the colors and clarity are so sharp that you don’t even mind the times when still photos substitute for missing scenes cut after opening. Miles ahead of Streisand’s 1977 remake, this seriously flawed Star has a new lease on life. Hours of extras are on a second disc—from essential vintage footage to padded glossy featurettes—and Warners has dressed up the package in a 40-page digibook containing color photos and a wealth of information.

Stolen (IFC) - This drama about a boy gone missing 50 years ago and a present-day detective (whose own son disappeared several years before) who pieces together what happened is effective without being particularly noteworthy. Although Josh Lucas is all wrong as a man living in the 1950s—he’s contemporary in every way—he does convey the sense of a father whose desperation led to his own son’s death; Josh Hamm is properly stoic as the detective unraveling the mystery. Solid support comes from the striking Morena Baccarin and James van Der Beek. The decent hi-def transfer for the most part captures the movie’s jockeying back and forth in time; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

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When in Rome (Disney) - Despite Kristen Bell’s appeal, When in Rome is a bargain-bin romantic comedy. Bell is a perennially single girl who meets the love of her life at her sister’s wedding in the Eternal City, but believes he's not for her. In a short but fluffy 90 minutes, she returns to her curator job at the Guggenheim Museum to realize how wrong she was, and returns to Rome for what may be a happy ending. At least we see the interior of the always-photogenic Guggenheim and fleet shots of Roman sights, but Bell is hampered by dull Josh Duhamel as her beau, creepily untalented Dax Shepard as a crazed New Yorker, and others like Danny DeVito, Angelica Huston, Peggy Lipton and Don Johnson, who do little with nothing roles. Pleasant enough to watch (on Blu-ray, the Guggenheim comes off best), When in Rome isn’t worth returning to, no matter how many coins you toss in the fountain. Extras include Blu exclusives (alternate opening and ending, extended scenes, off-the-set featurette), deleted scenes, bloopers and music videos.
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