Monday, August 30, 2010

August Blu-ray Roundup

After.Life (Anchor Bay)
This nasty little thriller cleverly plays (and preys) on fears about not being dead but only asleep but the lid is nailed down anyway. Anna (Christina Ricci), who awakes at the mortician’s, is told by Eliot (a creepy Liam Neeson) that she is really dead. It turns out to be a false statement, and poor Anna spends the movie trying to return to the living and escape his clutches. Too silly to take seriously, After.Life makes it difficult to suspend disbelief, even with convincing actors and director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s bluntly-visualized themes. A first-rate transfer brings the movie’s haunting visuals to vivid life; the extras include a director's commentary and interview.
The Backup Plan (Sony)
Do we need another movie in which a hot babe wants someone’s—anyone’s!—sperm so she can finally have a baby? The Backup Plan is tolerable enough to watch—even for husbands and boyfriends—mainly because Jennifer Lopez is so easy on the eyes. J. Lo could be a top-flight comedienne if she could find a decent script, but based on this, none is forthcoming. A superb HD transfer presents the movie in dazzling detail: there’s a shot of J. Lo’s feet and another of her toned tummy in which you can see things only Marc Anthony does. There are worse reasons to sit through mediocre comedies. Extras include a making-of featurette and four deleted scenes.
Black Orpheus (Criterion)
Brazil's most famous movie, Albert Camus’ Black Orpheus transposes the Orpheus myth to Rio during Carnival. Although the bossa nova rhythms, colorful costumes and shadowy darkness add up to a ravishing movie experience, the drama itself is less enthralling because the actors are not real tragedians. That limitation keeps Black Orpheus from its classic status, even if it’s exhilarating to watch in this new Blu-ray transfer, as the already bright colors pop out beautifully. As usual with Criterion, the extras are worth the price of admission alone, ranging from new interviews with film scholar Robert Stam, music historian Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro to Looking for Orpheus, a French documentary about the film's origins and legacy.
Death at a Funeral (Fox)
Remaking a 2007 British comedy seems foolhardy. Although this Americanized version has laughs, overall, it’s pretty tepid, not surprising considering director Neil LaBute is involved. Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan are at the top of their game and Zoe Saldana might be the movies' best eye-candy (that she can also act doesn’t hurt), and there’s some politically incorrect humor to divert us from the lame and repetitive gags, The HD transfer is good, and the amusing extras include a commentary by LaBute and Rock, deleted scenes, gag reel and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
$5 a Day (Image)
Only Christopher Walken keeps us watching a lousy movie about a dying con man hooking up with his estranged son for one last go. The premise is implausible, the character are uninteresting, and the cast (Alessandro Nivoli, Amanda Peet, Sharon Stone) phones in its parts, but Walken’s usual idiosyncratic approach to his role pays dividends. Director Nigel Cole's familiar by-play and clich├ęd shots, including a truly wretched ending, don't help. It goes down easily enough on Blu-ray thanks to a very good transfer. Extras comprise short interviews with Cole and his cast, with the conspicuous (and unfortunate) absence of Walken.
Hamlet (Warners)
Kenneth Branagh's four-hour, 1996 version of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy mitigates the impact of his own fine performance in the title role by giving this adaptation needless big-budget trappings like glamorous sets and costumes and stars even in the smallest roles (Charlton Heston as the Player King, Billy Crystal as the gravedigger, Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo). Kate Winslet makes a touching Ophelia, but it’s like Branagh wanted to make a David Lean super-spectacular out of Shakespeare, which even lean avoiding doing. On Blu-ray, the film—which was shot in 65 mm—looks and sounds extraordinary. There's a new Branagh introduction; other bonuses are a Branagh/Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson commentary and two featurettes.
Harry Brown (Sony)
I never thought I'd see Michael Caine, septuagenarian, as a vigilante, but that's we get in this Death Wish-type drama set in nasty England. Caine stoically plays a man fed up with thugs ruling the place, and after his best friend is killed, he goes on a bloody bloody rampage. There's a thrill watching Sir Michael blowing away people, and the final shoot-out—implausible as it is—is excitingly done, followed by satisfying shots of Caine walking through his newly-eradicated neighborhood. The movie looks first-rate on Blu-ray; extras include an audio commentary with Caine and director Daniel Barber and several deleted scenes.
James and the Giant Peach (Disney)
The combination of live-action, stop-motion animation and computer-generated animation is wondrously conceived and utilized in Henry Selick's imaginative 1996 version of Roald Dahl's children's book, the best of Selick's films to date—which also include Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick balances the moods of his hero's adventures with creatures of another world perfectly. This is also a hi-def transfer to treasure, as it grabs you and won't let go. The lone Blu-ray extra is an interactive game, while the included DVD version includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and Randy Newman music video.
The Joneses (Fox)
A promising premise nearly works in Derrick Borte's comic look at consumerism gone amok in our buy-now, pay-later century. A quartet of sales people poses as a new family in an affluent neighborhood that has the latest gadgetry of all kinds, leading to through-the-roof sales of luxury items. There’s nothing novel about the movie's conclusions about Americans living beyond their means, but it’s done decently until a soggy conclusion that tries to be upbeat. Nicely acted by David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Hollingsworth and Amber Heard as the happy “family,” The Joneses also works well on Blu-ray: the bright shining objects that are everyone's idea of nirvana on earth are shown in their newfangled glory. The lone extras are two deleted scenes.
The Last Song (Disney)
Whether you can stomach Miley Cyrus in this tear-jerker of a love story depends on your tolerance for the young pop star in a “serious” role. As the daughter of a father with whom she reconciles before finding out he's dying, Cyrus has an androgynous voice and not much personality—she does have spunk, but that’s not the same as acting. The movie that’s jerry-built around her is equally creaky but does the job of getting the tear ducts to work. Well-photographed (in Georgia), the movie looks decent on Blu-ray, and the extras include an audio commentary, alternate opening, deleted scenes, set tour, Miley music video (with an accompanying making-of!), and a second DVD disc of the film that has a few of these bonuses.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)
Director Albert Lewin's 1951 Technicolor fantasy stars Ava Gardner as a man-eater who has never fallen in love—until the Flying Dutchman (James Mason). Although the beautiful Gardner is perfectly cast as the woman to end all men, Lewin’s extravagantly silly but yearningly romantic film is another classic example of cinematographer Jack Cardiff's artistry. This HD restoration should be seen: some passages look less good than others, but Cardiff's breathtaking color palette remains intact. The extras comprise a comparison of original vs. restored footage, an alternate title sequence, and an 18-minute bullfighter featurette.
A Prophet (Sony)
Jacques Audiard’s French prison epic, though compelling and fascinating to watch, suffers from overkill: 150 minutes spent with violent criminals is too much for little payoff. Early on, A Prophet works as a psychological portrait of a loner able to survive by his wits. The inner workings of the jail’s community are efficiently mapped out, but a little goes a long way. Audiard loses control at the end when an ambush in which our hero takes part is shown in a most laughably implausible way. Audiard’s grainy visuals are recreated brilliantly on Blu-ray, and the extras include an Audiard commentary, deleted scenes and rehearsal footage.
Time Bandits (Anchor Bay)
Terry Gilliam’s first big-budget fantasy, this 1981 charmer shows that Gilliam’s penchant for bigness and ludicrousness came later. A bored young boy joins a bunch of time-bending dwarves as they stumble upon historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Gilliam’s eye-popping set design and visual sense are much in evidence throughout: too bad the Blu-ray transfer is not being up to standard, making the film less attractive than it should on HD. And the lone extra is an 18-minute interview with Gilliam. Why nothing more substantial like an audio commentary?
What's Up Doc? (Warners)
I’m not a Peter Bogdanovich fan, finding his feeble genre forays mainly forced. And his 1972 attempt at updating screwball comedy strains under the weight of its idiotic premise and unfunny comedy. Its game cast consists of Ryan O’Neal (an underrated comic actor), Madeleine Kahn (one of the great comediennes) and, in small roles, the delightful John Hillerman and Liam Dunn. If only Barbra Streisand didn’t bulldoze her way through what should be a soft-shoe. Always-photographable San Francisco of the early ‘70s gets resurrected in a movie that has a solid HD transfer. Extras include a Bogdanovich commentary, Streisand scene-specific commentary and vintage making-of featurette.
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