Saturday, July 31, 2010

July Blu-ray Roundup

Accidents Happen (Image) – Geena Davis is forcefully funny as a mother who blames her daughter’s death and son’s breakdown on her husband in a movie that finds absurdist humor in tragedy but ends up forced and, finally, pointless. Director Andrew Lancaster opens the movie with a striking sequence that visualizes the title, but after setting up a premise of life and death as a series of accidents, Brian Carbee's screenplay spins its wheels until the downer ending. Young Aussie actor Harrison Gilbertson is thoroughly believable (and Americanized) as a surviving teenage son who makes his way through this difficult world. Image's disc includes a first-rate hi-def transfer, cast and crew interviews and deleted scenes.

The Bounty Hunter (Sony) – Jennifer Aniston can't get out of her script-choosing rut. Like her last few movies (He's Just Not That into You, Management, The Break Up), The Bounty Hunter is another high-concept comedy that goes nowhere fast. It's too bad that a game Aniston and Gerard Butler get few chances to show any chemistry, especially when he (the title character) tosses her (his ex-wife) into the trunk of his car (it’s his job to bring her in). They're supposed to hate each other cutely, then less insistently as they spend time together, but they end up irritating each other and us by the time the underwhelming movie ends. At least it all looks terrific on Blu-ray (especially Aniston); extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Brooklyn’s Finest (Image) – This familiar story of cops on the beat (and undercover) in Brooklyn's most dangerous precinct showcases a fine cast: Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Wesley Snipes and Brian F. O'Byrne, with kudos to Shannon Kane for a remarkable, scene-stealing performance as a high-class hooker with a heart of gold. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Michael C. Martin smartly use gritty locales but are tripped up by their by-the-numbers plot that resolves itself in unbelievable—and bloody—fashion. Shot entirely on location, Brooklyn's Finest rings true on Blu-ray, as the city streets give it authenticity it otherwise lacks. Extras include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, 30 minutes of on-set featurettes, along with Fuqua’s commentary.

Cop Out (Warners) – Kevin Smith's buddy-cop comedy is as adolescent as his other movies, but without the saving comic grace of Clerks and Dogma. Even Tracy Morgan's stream-of-consciousness lunacy can't save this misbegotten flick, which needs (but never gets) Jay and Silent Bob. Instead, we get crude, witless and dated attempts at “shocking” black humor. Smith's never been a visual stylist, and even if the movie looks splendid on Blu, it's never going to be a disc you show off to friends. Smith is, however, an engaging guy, and the extras—which include his commentary, on-set featurettes and many deleted scenes—come off best, as they always do on a Kevin Smith release.

The Eclipse (Magnolia) – Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s ghostly love story is similar to his ghostly plays in its reliance on well-worn and cheap shock effects. Otherwise, this elegantly photographed, beautifully scored and well-acted drama could stand on its own as a lovely miniature if McPherson’s bad habits didn’t keep cropping up. Take away the blatant horror-movie tropes and you’re left with first-rate performances by Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn and the always photographable landscapes of Ireland, rendered so attractively on Blu-ray that you’ll want to turn the film off and catch the first AerLingus flight across the pond. Extras comprise two making-of featurettes.

Home (Lorber) – Ursula Meier's unsettling character study shows a French family, happily living near a deserted highway, whose contented lifestyle is disrupted when the road once again carries a lot of traffic. Shrewdly, Meier develops the various relationships to show how they subtly shift in response to how the world around them has changed after remaining stagnant for so long. Agnes Godard’s customarily excellent cinematography retains its luster on the terrific Blu-ray transfer: Godard's luminous lighting and ingenious camera setups are themselves worth catching the movie. Extras include Meier’s half-hour short, Sleepless, and an interview with Meier and Godard.

Hot Tub Time Machine (Fox) – Rob Corddry—a comic genius, as anyone who saw him on The Daily Show can attest—is the sole reason to watch this monumentally goofy comedy about buddies who find themselves back in 1986. While the other guys deal with bad hair and worse music, Corddry's character looks to maximize his own time-traveling by inventing sure-fire things that didn't actually appear until years later, like a version of Google. But it's Corddry's persona of the annoying jerk-off that gets all the laughs, shaming the likes of costars John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke. Fox's disc showcases a sharp hi-def transfer and extras led by a selection of Corddry outtakes during the movie's raunchiest scene that are funnier than anything in the movie.

Insomnia (Warners) – Al Pacino's hangdog looks and unique drawl make him perfect as a celebrated detective from the lower 48 who comes to Alaska to solve a murder but falls victim to the notoriously endless summer nights. Christopher Nolan's least obnoxious movie builds a real sense of uncertainty and dread out of Alaska’s perpetual daylight (even though it was shot in Vancouver, with only 2nd-unit filming up north), and the cast, from Hilary Swank, Paul Dooley and Martin Donovan as fellow cops to Robin Williams as the probable suspect, provides sturdy support. The Blu-ray transfer preserves the movie's creatively desaturated lighting; extras include a discussion between Pacino and Nolan, featurettes, commentaries (including one by Nolan) and one deleted scene.

Jason and the Argonauts (Sony) – Even though Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation is woefully dated, in some ways his obviously fake miniatures and models are preferable to the over-hyped computerized effects of today’s bloated blockbusters. This 1963 fantasy epic based on Greek mythology brings more of Harryhausen's patented gods and monsters to the screen in a colorful but stiffly acted venture. Sony's Blu-ray not only enlivens the images in their bright colors and sharp detail, but it also shows off the bad effects shots in their not-quite-glory. A nice assortment of extras includes two tributes to Harryhausen's storied career, an interview with the effects wiz by John Landis and two commentaries (one with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson).

Multiple Sarcasms (Image) – This is another independent movie set in Manhattan about self-absorbed men and women (with a sympathetic young daughter, for good measure) trying to find meaning in life. There are good, solid actors at its core (Tom Hutton as the protagonist, Dana Delany as his wife, Stockard Channing as his agent, Mira Sorvino as his platonic best friend), but writer-director Brooks Branch too often subjects them to cutesy excesses, like retro musical interludes (“I Am Woman”??) that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Such moments intrude on the truths the cast pulls out of the unsubtle script. The Image disc’s hi-def image gives us a New York City that glows in winter; extras include a making-of featurette and director/cast interviews.

Our Family Wedding (Fox) – This unoriginal comedy is buoyed by the amusingly argumentative performances of Forrest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia, who play feuding fathers of two college students who are getting married. Lance Gross and America Ferrara are dull as the engaged couple, so luckily Whitaker and Mencia dominate the movie—although they have trouble breathing fun into what's basically a bad idea for a TV sitcom (not to mention a 100-minute movie). The Blu-ray transfer is good if unspectacular; making-of featurette, deleted/extended scenes and gag reel are the extras.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Fox) – Based on Rick Riordan’s best-selling book, this tween-friendly adventure might not be as popular as Harry Potter or Twilight, but with its reliance on Greek mythology for characters and plot twists, Percy Jackson comes out way ahead in the “reasonably intelligent adult entertainment” department. Even Chris Columbus—ham-fisted director of the first Harry Potter, among other DOA movies—seems semi-inspired by the material, and the result is enjoyable fluff. The Blu-ray’s superb hi-def transfer makes the movie even more fun to watch at home; relatively meager extras include featurettes, 10 deleted scenes and a quiz.

Predator (Fox) – A quarter-century hasn't been kind to John McTiernan's jungle monster movie: it's merely macho silliness dressed up with enough violent sequences and Ahnold one-liners to keep viewers awake. The actual dreadlocked monster, when it’s finally seen after killing off any number of victims, is giggle-inducing, and Schwarzenegger himself doesn't impress with either his brawn or (especially) his acting talent. That Jesse Ventura co-stars surely gives the movie its best reason to exist: as the answer to the trivia question, “Which 80s actioner starred two future governors?” The Blu-ray upgrade gives the movie more immediate visual impact, but that's probably not enough for anybody but the most fanatical Predator fans.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (Rounder/Zoe Vision) - Winner of the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, this is an engrossing portrait of the ultimate “fan's band”: Canadian power trio Rush, which has sold millions of albums, concert tickets and T-shirts but has never gotten critical respect over its 35-year career. Scot McFayden and Sam Dunn's film contains chatty interviews with Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, along with their parents and unabashed musician fans like Les Claypool (Primus), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Gene Simmons (Kiss) and Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne), but why we're subjected to talentless Sebastian Bach of Skid Row over and over again is one of the movie's flaws. As a 105-minute overview of the history of the band, Beyond the Lighted Stage never flags, mainly because of rare home-movie footage of the band's early gigs and the genuine humility of Lee, Lifeson and Peart. Still, much is glossed over or omitted completely—and that's where the 90 minutes of bonus features come in, where we're treated to deleted scenes and additional interviews, including a 12-minute distillation of a four-hour-long Rush dinner that's worth the price of the disc itself. The Blu-ray disc doesn't improve much on the vintage visuals, but the sound is punchier, which is what the fans want anyway.
The Secret of the Grain (Criterion) – One of the growing number of contemporary films that are part of the Criterion Collection, Abdellatif Kechiche's absorbing drama concerns an Arab family in France dealing with stricter government controls on immigrants while trying to keep its cherished cultural values in their new home. Kechiche’s writing and directing show an enormous empathy for people he obviously knows well, and his large, unknown cast astonishes with its authenticity, especially Hefsia Herzi as the daughter who takes over the film’s extraordinarily affecting final sequence. The always thorough extras include interviews with Kechiche, actresses Herzi and Bouraouïa Marzouk and the film's musicians, along with Sueur, a re-edited, 40-minute version of the finale.

Vengeance Trilogy (Palisades Tartan) – Park Chan-Wook's trio of dark dramas—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, OldboyLady Vengeance—finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Palisades Tartan. These wildly uneven films are distinguished by their offbeat characterizations and plotlines and undeniably dazzling visuals, which the hi-def upgrade accentuates beautifully. Extras on all three films include Park commentaries, interviews with director and actors, making-of documentaries and deleted scenes, and even an alternate version of Lady Vengeance.

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