Blu-Ray Round-Up: 2/10/14

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Jeff Tremaine, 2013) – As delightfully puerile and offensive as the Jackass crew has been throughout their careers, there’s always been something sweet about their bonehead antics. As destructive as they can be to themselves, the gang always seemed to be involved in the game of mutual destruction purely for fun and friendship. Granted, most folks didn’t tend to see it this way, dismissing everything they’ve done as the nadir of pop culture. In a way, the critics are right, but miss the point. Yes, the Jackass crew can be seen as lowering the bar for comedy, but they’ve always found a way to both raise it and lower it at the same time (if that makes a lick of sense). This entirely unnecessary Jackass pontificating brings me to Bad Grandpa, a filthy comedy released under the Jackass banner last year that was surprisingly creative in how it scraped the bottom of the barrel. Were it not for the fact that most folks had written off the Jackass brand long before the film hit screens, they might have even gotten credit for it. Still, they still delivered one of the cripplingly funniest flicks of the year, ending up with one of the most profitable comedies of 2013 and an Oscar nomination for their troubles.

The film is an extension of the Bad Grandpa routine Johnny Knoxville has been toiling away on since the TV series. Essentially, the concept boils down to Knoxville in old age make up and doing horrible things to unsuspecting people on the street. It’s as simple as that and undeniably hilarious for the immature at heart. For the feature-length Bad Grandpa offering Knoxville, Jackass director Jeff Tremaine, and longtime series writer/producer Spike Jonze branched out on their own to create a buddy road comedy in which only four stars of the movie knew they taking part in filming. Knoxville plays his ancient Irving Zisman while miracle-find wunderkind Jackson Nicoll plays his grandson, and the two embark on a cross-country journey dedicated to being naughty.

The pranks come fast and furiously, from projectile shit farting contests to funerals gone wrong and an unfortunate, elderly ball-dangling strip show. It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from this crew of shock comedy veterans, but what’s unexpected is the heart. The plot might be threadbare, but there’s a more genuine connection between Knoxville and Nicholl here than makes it into most bonding road comedies. Tremaine and Jonze come up with brilliant ways to seamlessly mix their candid camera pranks and warm-hearted plot sequences so that it all feels like a cohesive movie. In the end, it may all only add up to filthy laughs, but there’s no denying the creativity and ingenuity it took to get there.

Without taking anything away from Tremaine, who is clearly the guiding directorial force, it’s pretty interesting to see Jonze’s name all over the credits in the same year that he’s up for Oscar glory with Her. Jonze has always had one foot in trash culture and high art throughout his career, and while most high minded film criticism folks like to forget he’s a member of the Jackass team, Jonze’s perverse sentimentality and prankster humor are all over Bad Grandpa, even more so than the previous Jackass flicks. What Jonze, Tremaine, and Knoxville whipped up could easily have been a Sundance indie had it all been scripted (the climax is ripped straight from Little Miss Sunshine after all, it just goes all the way). The mixture of sweetness and darkness (as well as the candy-colored cinematography that has “Sundance comedy” written all over it) shows that the only difference is in the filthy pranks. The gang clearly will never be recognized for that achievement in Bad Grandpa, but they delivered the first ever hidden camera prank movie (the Sacha Baron Cohen flicks did have their cameras out front and center), and it’s a pretty ingenious way to keep the Jackass brand alive and kicking as Knoxville and company age themselves out of penis-smashing bro-downs. Who knows, if they keep on this track and get better at it, the critics might even notice some day. Well, probably not. But it’s nice to dream.

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Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa hits Blu-Ray with a transfer that’s an expected mix bag. While Tremaine and Jonze did a great job of setting up hidden cameras for conventional movie coverage, some sequences are prettier than others and the movie doesn’t always pop off the screen. It’s not a movie designed for high-def scrutiny, but there are some pretty nice beauty shots snuck in, even if there’s normally a rubber penis at focal point. The special features are wonderfully entertaining, with about 45 minutes of alternate gags and marks for giggles as well as a solid 35 minute documentary showing how the gags were pulled off and how the marks reacted that’s both hilarious and fascinating. Sadly, the gang is clearly holding back on deleted footage for an inevitable Bad Grandpa 1.5 release down the road, so rumored deleted scenes with Spike Jonze and Catherine Keener are still hiding on a hard drive for now. It would have been nice for the Jackass team to give us all the good stuff now given that the fanbase for their stuff isn’t exactly known for their long attention spans. At least the movie is fucking hilarious and can now be enjoyed from the privacy of your home where you don’t have to face the guilt of asking for a ticket from a judgmental multiplex staffer. So that’s something. Go out and buy it already. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was undeniably the finest guilty pleasure of a year filled with great cinema. (Phil Brown)

 

Tom Hanks

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013) – Generally speaking, any movie that could be sold with a tagline like “Tom Hanks Vs. Pirates” should be watched under duress with a mixture of trepidation and contempt. However, there is one magic card Captain Phillips holds that transforms that concept from a pathetic blockbuster to one of the best films of the year: Paul Greengrass, the director is best known for taking over the Jason Bourne series and transforming it into one of the most critically hailed blockbuster franchises of all time. However, the Bourne movies were anomalies in Paul Greengrass’ career, which is defined by a very singular style. The former documentary filmmaker specializes in docudramas about real life tragedies presented with a mix of respectful recreation and arm-chewing tension that makes the films almost indescribably powerful. His masterpieces are Bloody Sunday and United 93 and while his latest feature Captain Phillips doesn’t quite reach those remarkable heights, it’s a terrifying and affecting true life tale that is thrilling to watch and impossible to easily shake off. Who’d have thought you could ever say that about a movie starring the guy from Big and a gang of pirates?

Of course, the key component to keep in mind is that the pirates in question aren’t of the fun swashbuckling Disneyland variety, but instead come from frighteningly contemporary world of Somali pirates. Based on the true account of Richard Phillips, the film closely follows a few terrifying days in 2009 in which Phillips’ routine cargo journey turned into a nightmare when his ship was taken over by desperate Somali pirates. It opens in New England where Tom Hanks’ workingman Phillips sets out on his latest captain gig with an unusual amount of trepidation for a lifelong skipper. We see Phillips and his crew go about their usual tasks while simultaneously following the day of a collection of desperately impoverished Somali civilians who sign up for a pirating mission with the same mundane work ethic as the Americans. Eventually the two plotlines converge and once they do the audience doesn’t get a chance to breath, Hanks is taken hostage, and (at least at first) it appears as though the event is taking place in far too remote a location for any hope of outside help.

Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray slowly and carefully pull their pieces into place preparing for a big payoff. The movie admirably gives equal screentime, sympathy, and emotional stakes to Hanks’s crew and the Somali pirates. The filmmakers establish both groups as blue collar workers of a certain sort who were born into dramatically different circumstances. It was inevitable a Hollywood thriller about Somali pirates would be made, but thanks to Greengrass getting his hands on the project, there’s nothing crass or exploitative about it. The film feels as real as a blockbuster can, with Greengrass shooting in a handheld documentary aesthetic that offers intense immediacy (but he mercifully never overdoes things like the occasionally nausea inducing shaky style of the Bourne movies). Aside from Hanks and the lead pirate, all supporting characters are equally weighted in the script and at its best the movie feels like a fly on the wall documentary of an actual tragedy. This being a big star-driven movie, there are of course brief instances of Hollywood cheese (a few speeches about the importance of being a sea captain and the parallels between the twin protagonists can go a little too far). However, for the most part Greengrass keeps it in check. His Bourne experience also comes through handily when staging the highjacking sequences with breath-holding intensity and also mounting the movie impressively massive scale with minimal use of CGI to enhance the realism.

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At the center of it all is of course Tom Hanks, and it has to be said that the man delivers arguably his finest dramatic performance since Philadelphia. Greengrass fills out the rest of the cast with unknowns in accordance with his realist aesthetic. A name like Hanks would have been required to headline the movie to secure the budget and also could have spoiled the delicate reality of the story. Thankfully, Hanks is the man for the job. The everyman charm that made him a star is put to good use here while playing an all American man shoved into the type of traumatic circumstances that tend to leave permanent mental, emotional, and physical scars. In the early going, Hanks’ man job is securing audience sympathy and he’s one of the best in the business at that. However, as the tale wears on Hanks is put through an emotional and physical rollercoaster and never wavers. By the time the remarkably potent final scene arrives, Hanks is stripped to a shell of a man and admirably brings the audience along with him. It’s a draining, difficult performance that Hanks pulls it off perfectly in a way that’s guaranteed to earn him an Oscar nomination. The entire rest of the cast are impressively naturalistic, but one performance does stick out that should earn a few gold statues as well. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead highjacker with a remarkable mix of menace and tragedy. He’s also a novice actor found driving limos in Minnesota who brings a unique look that instantly establishes the character. Abdi is incredible in the film in a performance that would usually be a star-maker. However, how an actor with such unconventional looks will fare in Hollywood regardless of talent remains to be seen.

The flick plops onto Blu-Ray in a prestige package suggesting everyone involved knew they were making an awards contender. The transfer is absolutely stunning, with Greengrass’ wobbly cinematography captured in pinpoint detail that looks wonderfully rich in HD. On the special features front, there are only two extras to enjoy, but they are doosies. First up is an audio commentary from Greengrass delivered in his usual thoughtful motor-mouth style, filled with details about every aspect of the true story, adaptation process, and production. Even better is an hour long documentary that explores Greengrass’ unique directorial style with greater intimacy and detail than any DVD feature has before. It’s an undeniably fascinating doc the likes of which are sadly rarely produced for discs anymore and even though the special features list ends there, that doesn’t really matter because the two features cover everything there was to cover.

Captain Philips is ultimately a simple movie. There are no grandiose themes being explored and when the screenplay reaches for subtext is when the film is at its worst. However, Paul Greengrass’ particular skill at crafting real life thrillers elevates the material. There’s something about the way his handheld cameras peer through doors and over shoulders to linger on faces that’s oddly voyeuristic and can create visceral tension. Even on a project of this scale, Greengrass makes you feel like an observer in the corner of the room and despite the unconventional shooting style, he is also a master of laying out locations and situations with the audience teasing talent of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Steven Spielberg. Captain Phillips is a true nail-baiter that doubles as a gut-wrenching drama. It might not have the vicious political commentary that made Greengrass’ finest works so memorable and the script might occasionally slip into melodramatics, but the film was still one of the most memorable and visceral to come along last year. (Phil Brown)

 

ACOD

A.C.O.D. (Stuart Zicherman, 2013)A.C.O.D. (Adult Children of Divorce) is an earnest ,yet still quite hilarious look at the pain and trauma that divorce and being in a part of a family can inflict on the human psyche, embracing the reality that the search for that perfect situation is rarely a reasonable one.

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Having survived the madness of his parents’ (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara) divorce, Carter (Adam Scott), a seemingly well-adjusted grown up, now has a successful career and a supportive girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, when his younger brother (Clark Duke) gets engaged, Carter is forced to reunite his bitterly divorced parents and their new spouses (Amy Poehler and Ken Howard) for the wedding. He looks to his childhood therapist (Jane Lynch) for guidance, only to discover a shocking secret that brings the chaos of his childhood rushing back.

An unexpectedly earnest film even when the laughs don’t necessarily hit the mark, the assembly genuinely works. It’s all very funny and relatable.  Co-writer and director Stuart Zicherman puts together a tale that doesn’t lean on overt gags or ridiculous moments but highlights the often comedic stresses that life in a family of divorce can produce.  It plays at an even tone that allows all the players to be well defined throughout.

Scott has developed an impeccable on screen charm that goes so easily with this pointed kind of comedy.  He plays the straight laced but quietly messed up adult quite well, but he can also nail comically hilarious spazz attacks while he deals with his parents and his brother trying to make everything go as perfectly as humanly possible.  Jenkins and O’Hara are inspired choices as former spouses who can barely stand to be in the same zip code, and they get the best lines of the film.  Not everything in A.C.O.D. (Adult Children of Divorce) lands with a resounding belly laugh, and with the exception of Lynch the rest of the supporting cast is kind of waster, but it earns enough smiles on good will alone.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are quite solid and the special features include Cast & Crew Discussions about A.C.O.D., a series of public service announcements about coping with A.C.O.D. and outtakes from Poehler. (Dave Voigt)

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Freezer

Freezer (Mikael Saloman, 2014) – With the mercury dropping outside there is nothing more terrifying then not being able to warm up.  While it’s a bare bones premise, Freezer is actually a pretty effective little thriller that makes use of its surroundings to maximum effect.

A New York City mechanic (Dylan McDermott) is knocked unconscious at his birthday dinner and wakes up to find himself locked inside the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. The reason why he’s there and how he’ll survive are a mystery that will reveal a chilling nightmare of mistaken identity, the Russian mob, a missing $8 million, and a wounded cop (Peter Facinelli) who may hold the key to it all. The temperature is dropping and his fear is growing, and for a man caught between frozen death and vicious thugs, getting cold blooded maybe his only way out.

It’s as sparse as you can get in terms of setting and plot, but Freezer works by effectively creating some legitimate tension inside the confines of a locked in thriller.  Director Mikael Salomon (who might be best known from the highly underrated Hard Rain back in 1998) comes from a solid background of cinematography and TV direction, which helps when you don’t necessarily need or have expensive sets and location shoots.  Salomon makes the small confines of a meat locker seem expansive and large, as our protagonist has to figure out what is going on and ultimately a way out to freedom.  The script from writers Tom Donganoglu and Shane Weisfeld moves the narrative along well enough, even though some clunky dialogue and logic holes from these relatively inexperienced writers provided a few bumps in the road.

McDermott is growing into his jaw and swarthy charisma quite well these days.  He gets enough room to maneuver and be an easily likeable antihero.  He has more than enough stage presence to carry a film, and has to call on every bit of it since the script doesn’t give him a great deal of support.  Yulina Snigir only has a handful of credits to her name and is OK as the prerequisite damsel in distress, while Peter Facinelli is simply there to move a plot point along, and he never makes any impact.

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At a crunched down 82 minutes, Freezer gets the job done as a decent, if unimpressive Saturday afternoon kind of thriller.  It’s too cold to set the world on fire, but there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are solid and the special features include a behind the scenes look at the film and interviews with Dylan McDermott, Peter Facinelli and director Mikael Salomon. (Dave Voigt)

 

Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) – Of all the east-meets-west masterpieces that make up the career of Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood might not be the best or most influential (that’s a three way race between Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo), but it’s always been my favorite. The reason is a simple one: I fucking love MacBeth. Again, it’s not the greatest or deepest play that was shaken out of Shakespeare’s quill, but it’s the one that’s translated best to film. Drenched in gothic horror, wrapped in tragedy, and relatively short, the play was always crying out to be a movie and got three flat out masterpiece adaptations. Orson Welles cranked out a cheapie version with gorgeous film noir lighting. Roman Polanski used his unsettling adaptation as a means of therapy following the murder of the woman he loved by the Manson Family. Kurosawa transformed MacBeth into a haunting Japanese folk tale. Kurosawa took great liberties with Shakespeare’s text for Throne of Blood and yet delivered an adaptation that ingeniously delivers on everything that makes MacBeth a masterpiece while still transforming the centuries old text into his own very personal and very Japanese vision. It’s one of Kurosawa’s true masterpieces and a film that must be seen by anyone who dares to call themselves a cinephile. Thankfully, the good folks at Criterion have delivered a gorgeous Blu-Ray to make that viewing experience more pleasurable than ever. So there’s officially no excuse to still have this flick on your “must watch” list.

Part of what makes Throne of Blood so intriguing is how Kurosawa told the very English story through distinctly Japanese techniques. Obviously the world gets a Feudal Japanese facelift, filled snarling emperors and samurai warriors in place of Scottish royalty. Lady MacBeth’s manipulative influence is toned down to suit the new cultural milieu, the witches are transformed into terrifying evil spirits, and the great Toshiro Mifune (the Eastwood to Kurosawa’s Leone) is given an suitably epic death scene via a rain of arrows that stands as easily one of Kurosawa’s finest set pieces. Perhaps most strikingly, the director also brought a traditional Noh theater influence to his staging, favoring rigidly composed frames and elaborate costumes that tell the story as much as the dialogue.

It’s a mixture of cultural sensibilities that makes Throne of Blood such a success, emerging as a film both true to the Shakespearian roots and distinctly Japanese in execution. At the center of the tragic storm is Mifune in one of his most delightfully unhinged performances. Mifune typically played a likable scallywag in his collaborations with Kurosawa, but here he’s a full on monstrous madman allowed to veer right off the edge of insanity for the joy of audiences. Behind the camera, Kurosawa is at his most ambitious and controlled, delivering iconic image after iconic image to make the film a masterpiece that’s fully understood even with the sound off. The genius filmmaker made few films this well conceived. Throne of Blood is one of those movies that yields new meanings and interpretations with every viewing while still functioning first and foremost as pure visceral entertainment. There’s really nothing bad to say about it and lord knows I would never dare to try.

Throne of Blood slides onto Blu-ray through the peerless work of the good folks at Criterion, who have been the finest dealers of Kurosawa goodness on home video since the laser disc days. Their HD transfer of Throne of Blood doesn’t disappoint for a second, yielding new depth and detail in the black and white photography that not even their stellar DVD treatment could match (and you’ll also get that DVD in the package since all Criterion releases are dual format now, which is perfect for definitive home video preservation). All the special features from the previous edition are ported over including the trailer, an excellent commentary from scholar Michael Jeck (who gets into some intriguing analysis of the film’s relationship to MacBeth for the Shakespeare-inclined) as well as a wonderful essay from Kurosawa expert Stephen Price. New to this disc is a 25-minute documentary about the making of Throne of Blood taken from the Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. Criterion has been slipping episodes from the series onto all Kurosawa releases for years now and they offer a fascinating in-depth discussion of the production of Kurosawa’s films that are indispensable.  There’s nothing else on the disc, but for a film this old that’s more still more than any other DVD/Bluray release would offer and every single feature is well worth a look for fans of the film (aka anyone who has seen it). (Phil Brown)

Coming later this week: Comedy Bang Bang – Season One, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp (The Complete Series), Bad Milo, Zombie Night, The Jungle Book

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