Blu-Ray Round-Up: 8/5/13

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Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013)Although quickly forgotten about in North America, Trance just might be the most purely enjoyable and compulsively watchable movie that Danny Boyle has made in years…well, at least for those folks who stumbled onto the director’s work during his Shallow Grave and Trainspotting days. Though he never stopped making movies he was personally invested in, there was a softening in Boyle throughout the 2000s that began with his religious children’s flick Millions and peaked with an Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire and directing the opening ceremonies at the London Olympics. However, Boyle’s darker sensibility never left him and in the midst of the ra-ra Britannia of the Olympics, Boyle made this nasty little thriller that offers filthy fun for grown-ups executed with style, dark humor, a talented cast, and of course, enough kinetic visuals to make your eyes explode all over your television.

Pitched somewhere between film noir and a trashy direct-to-video late 90s thriller, Trance FINALLY brings together art heists and hypnotism just like audiences have been demanding for generations. Ok, so the concept is a weird one, but that’s part of the fun. James McAvoy stars as a down-on-his-luck art dealer whose gambling debts lead him to enlisting Vincent Cassel’s French gangster (never a good partner if you like living) to help steal a $25 million painting. Unfortunately he gets knocked in the head mid-robbery and can’t remember where he left the pesky painting. So, Cassel brings in a hypnotherapist played by Rosario Dawson to help unlock McAvoy’s broken brain. Of course, in classic film noir fashion Dawson knows far more than she lets on and has her own motivation that complicates things. From there plot twists pile up, while reality and hypnotic trances mix for an unpredictable ulta-violent thriller. It’s all fairly meaningless and probably goes a step or seven too far over-the-top by the climax. But at least that’s all for the sake of high-end entertainment and Boyle serves up plenty. Sadly thrill-rides for adults aren’t easy to come by these days, so we should thank Boyle and co for giving all us trash-loving grown ups one more wild ride.

One of the biggest reasons for the film’s success was Boyle’s decision to re-team with Scottish screenwriter John Hodge. They made Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and A Life Less Ordinary together in the 90s before Hodge retired from filmmaking to return to medicine. Hodge has the acidic wit of a good ER doctor who develops gallows humor as a coping mechanism against the horror of his job. His writing style is dark and cynical, which mixes rather magically with Boyle’s candy-colored exuberance. Without Boyle Hodge’s scripts might be overwhelmingly harsh, but together they create subversive popcorn bliss. That’s certainly the case in Trance, a weird and vicious little tale that still goes well with soda. The cast is far better than required with McAvoy stretching his inherent likability to the limit, Cassel providing his finest English language villain, and Dawson delivering a femme fatale with surprising heart. Wrap it all up with gorgeously suggestive and manipulative imagery from digitally cinematography pioneer Anthony Dod Mantle and you’ve got yourself a cult movie in the making.

Its Mantle/Boyle’s images that hit hardest on Blu-ray. The kinetic movement and bright color palette explode off the screen for a beautiful home viewing experience. Combine that with one of Boyle’s patented pulsing pop scores and you’ve got yourself and Blu-ray experience to rival any blockbuster. Boyle’s a special feature supporter as well, so there’s a nice collection of supplements to add to the experience.

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First up is a multipart documentary that interviews all the major players and dives into everything you’d want to know about the movie. Even though it’s fairly short, the featurette offers more info than most 90 minute DVD docs and proves what a difference it makes to have filmmaking participants who actually care about letting viewers in on the behind the scenes stories. Next up is a brief 14-minute featurette of Boyle walking viewers through all of the films he’s made with Fox. It’s weird to see a Boyle retrospective that doesn’t touch on Trainspotting, but it’s still a great piece for fans filled with wonderful insights (simply hearing him speak about the motivations behind his much-mangled and underrated A Life Less Ordinary is almost worth the price of the disc alone). Finally there are a few deleted scenes that were cut out for a reason, a trailer, and for some reason a short film called Eugene that as far as I can tell has nothing to do with Trance. It’s a nice little short, but why it’s on this disc is a mystery. Overall, it’s a pretty fantastic package for a flick that didn’t deserve to bomb in the spring. If you’re one of those folks who prefers older Danny Boyle flicks or just enjoys R-rated thrillers, your prayers have been answered. Trance is a weird and imperfect little movie, but also an exquisitely entertaining one. That’ll do Boyle, that’ll do.

 To the Wonder

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2013) – We’re supposed to have to wait years for a Terrence Malick movie while he wanders around the world, possibly works as a Parisian hairdresser, and edits obsessively for months. Yet, somehow one short year after Tree of Life, the director returned with his almost impossibly earnest follow up To the Wonder. Since hitting the film festival circuit last fall the movie has been a bit of a whipping boy. Rather than being reviewed for its own merits, the flick was used a means for critics to lay out all of their old beef with the director. To the Wonder contains all of Malick’s usual stylistic tics hinting at profundity, but he uses them on his most lightweight subject matter to date. While, it’s undeniably true that the director has created his weakest movie, Malick at his worst is still better than most filmmakers in their prime.

Malick’s subject of choice this time is love, following Ben Affleck (who barely ever speaks) in a relationship with Olga Kurlenko. They meet in Paris and have the type of dreamy, magical courtship that it could only come when filtered through Emmanuel Lubezki’s flowing steadicam, Malick’s elliptical editing (apparently including some leftover footage from Tree of Life), and constant poetic narration. The duo return to the US and the relationship never fully forms (nor is their house ever fully unpacked, hint, hint). The courtship magic just can’t hold together through daily tedium. Meanwhile the film constantly cuts to Javier Bardem’s priest and his complex relationship with loving god and there is a brief segment (possibly a flashback) where Affleck has a quiet affair with Rachel McAdams’ farm girl that feels truncated…and presumably there were a few more of these interludes featuring those other famous actress’ who got cut from the movie. The film is about is the constant battle to maintain love following the ease of falling into it and Malick explores it well. The trouble is that people are accustomed to this guy popping up every few years to take on themes like the crime of war and the meaning of life, so this movie feels slight in comparison.

However, to less demanding viewers there is an undeniable beauty to this tossed off Terry Malick joint. Throughout the running time he removes nearly every dialogue scene so that the emotional arcs and meanings are expressed almost purely through visuals (with the whispering voiceovers offering little in the way of explanation). While some plot elements or characterization may slip away through this approach, the emotional pull is fully communicated through Malick’s unique style and there’s something undeniably moving and fascinating about the affect his work has on audiences. Had an unknown filmmaker released this exact movie, it would be hailed and praised beyond what it deserves. The harsh criticism it received more a result of how highly this filmmaker is regarded than anything else and should not be enough to make viewers dismiss this rather beautifully flawed visual tone poem.  

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Given that the To the Wonder is a film defined entirely visuals, the only way to watch it at home is on Blu-ray and this disc is a stunner. Malick’s floating cameras capture some remarkable soft-light beauty that is the emotional content of the movie and this exquisite Blu-ray captures those evocative images perfectly. It’s easy to get lost in the disc’s warm, deep images and it’s hard to imagine that isn’t the exact effect the director was going for. The lone special feature is a 10-minute documentary, which should in theory be disappointing, but it’s actually fairly fascinating. There obviously isn’t even a frame of the notoriously shy/eccentric Terrence Malick in the doc, but everyone else in the cast/crew spends the entire time talking about him. They discuss how the film was made entirely without a script. Instead, Malick provided a brief story outline and a long reading list of poetry and novels for his cast. They all seem equally confused and excited by the process, which rather amusingly mirrors exactly how most audiences felt about the finished product. Simply hearing how Malick works in detail (ex: he speaks to his actors and crew during takes and the cast interact with the cameras and light as much as each other) is absolutely fascinating and even though it would have been nice for the doc to go on for another hour, a surprising amount of insight is crammed into those ten minutes. Good thing too, because there isn’t even a trailer on the disc, that’s absolutely it. However, elliptical mystery is what Terence Malick movies and Blu-rays are all about, so anything else would almost be a disappointment. To the Wonder will never be remembered as Terence Malick’s finest film, if it’s even remembered at all. However, it is the latest effort by a mysterious, masterful filmmaker and is worth a look for any film fan for that reason alone. Particularly after the critical bashing the movie received, it could be quite some time before Malick decides to pick up a camera again, so enjoy this little glimpse into his mind while you can.

 Oblivion

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) – Poor Tom Cruise. After being the King of the World for decades, the international superstar finally seems to have lost his hypnotic appeal over audiences. First Jack Reacher and now Oblivion grossed less than $100 million in North America, which these days qualifies as a blockbuster bomb. Now, the egomaniacal production that was Jack Reacher deserved that fate, Oblivion on the other hand…well at least it wasn’t a disaster. It certainly looked pretty and offered and evocative world of rotting 20th century architecture as well as a slick techno future designed by Apple and Ikea in a nightmare. Unfortunately once the intriguing premise steps aside for a disappointing conclusion, it’s clear those pretty pictures are all the film has to offer. At a certain point all Tom Cruise movies must be about Tom Cruise chasing and shooting bad guys, so any ideas that Oblivion’s screenplay tries to offer up eventually take a back seat to that deteriorating pleasure.

Cruise stars as one of those “last man on earth” types, mining our destroyed planet for it’s last resources along with a complacent wife, an iChat connection to home, and a collection of alien scavengers to fight off. For about an hour or so, director John Kosinski (Tron Legacy), Cruise and co. get away with Oblivion, but as the story wears on, the film’s many sci-fi influences go from being name-checked to full on Xeroxed. Scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix Trilogy, Wall-E, Star Wars, and even The Road Warrior play out almost beat-by-beat without any variation. Kosinski wants to create a think-piece sci-fi blockbuster, but doesn’t know how to pull it off beyond stealing from previous examples of the genre. For a while that’s fairly minimal with Cruise’s sterile, manufactured world and mysterious origin offering enough genuine intrigue to succeed. Since he plays an idealized human chosen for a special mission, it’s not even distracting to see Cruise in the role (unlike…say…Jack Reacher). But soon enough you’re just watching the Phantom Menace pod chase again before a predicable climax comits the unforgivable sin of recasting Stanley Kubrick’s moonchild as Tom Cruise which guarantees any serious sci-fi or film fan will instantly fill with a venomous rage.

Unfortunately the Oblivion Blu-ray doesn’t offer a new director’s cut to erase all of the movie’s sins, so any praise for the disc is limited to the tech specs. The film was shot on high grade digital cameras so good that they actually blew up to IMAX without sacrificing quality, so the disc is certainly a high-end show piece for any home entertainment system, even if you’ll be showing off crap. Special features delve into all the technical aspects with minimum discussion to the story or meaning, which is for the best. There are featurettes on the stunts, sets, effects, and cinematography that are worth a peak for movie techheads. But the finest and most bizarre feature by far is an audio commentary by Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise. That’s right, Tom Cruise did an audio commentary and if you’ve ever wanted to hear just how riled up, rambunctious, and irritating it might be to get locked in a recording booth with Cruise, your prayers have finally been answered. There’s probably a thoughtful mid-budget sci-fi movie that Kosinski could have mined from this material that got piddled away once Cruise signed on and the action had to increase to justify the budget. Kosinski’s ideas that work and impressive visuals lead to huge chunk of an interesting movie that only serve to make the cop outs and rip offs hurt that much more deeply. Despite the director’s ambitions, Oblivion is ultimately a big dumb movie with delusions of grandeur. It could have been more, but bad writing and blockbuster expansion killed that dream. On the plus side, after a few more low-grossing flicks like this, Cruise might not be allowed to do that to a movie again and might even have to start acting again. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013) – In the great 2013 battle of the “Die Hard in the White House” action flicks, no one really emerged a winner. Both of the bloated blockbusters ended up being minor bombs, but the folks behind Olympus Has Fallen can at least be proud that they struck first and made slightly more money than White House Down. Neither movie was a masterpiece. Both succeeded on being sublimely stupid in an oddly nostalgic way. On that level, Olympus Has Fallen can at least be labeled the most amusingly stupid of the two movies. It might have been saddled with bad effects and the lesser of two action directors in Antoine Fuqua, yet it was also an incredibly hilarious movie in ways no one involved intended. When you’re going for dumb action movie bliss, I suppose that makes it a success.

Gerard Butler stars as the president’s (Aaron Eckhart) former bodyguard who was once vaguely responsible for the accidental death of the first lady and is desperate for a chance at redemption while working in a much less high pressure Washington security gig. Fortunately, good ol’ Gerard gets his chance when a group of radical North Korean terrorists suddenly invade the White House. They lock up the prez and his top advisors in an underground White House bunker, destroy the Washington monument and kill everyone in the White House who won’t help their blackmail game…well, everyone except for Butler of course. Big mistake. Morgan Freeman assumes the president’s power as the highest-ranking Washington hotshot still alive/not taken hostage. The terrorists want the US to pull out the military and plan to torture the president until they get the current nuclear launch codes. It seems like the start of WW until Gerry gets in touch with Freeman and co. and turns into a one man army out to save the US. He’s good at killing, plus he has machine guns and patriotism on his side. Hey, terrorists! Get ready to be kicked right in your butt…ler.

So, as you may have worked out by now, Olympus Has Fallen requires the intelligence of test tube brainstem and the attention span of an ADD gnat to follow. It’s silly, preposterous, violet, swear-filled, dumb, and filled with almost offensive levels of blind nationalism. That’s exactly what makes it awesome. Watching Olympus Has Fallen is like stepping back in time. Monuments are blown to bits like September 11th never happened, terrorists are played as comic book villains, and North Koreans are treated with the same aggressive xenophobia that Russians were offered during the Cold War. Most rational, intelligent viewers will dismiss it all as Hollywood fantasy trash. They aren’t wrong, but anyone who loves laughing their way through a garbage action movie will find themselves having a hell of a good time. Bad guys are beaten to death with a brass bust of Lincoln. Flags are waved almost as much literally as they are figuratively. And then just when it seems like the movie might get vaguely political when a the terrorists’ secret man-inside offers an explanation of betrayal, he yells, “Why? Because of globalization and fucking Wall Street.” That’s the character’s entire motivation. So much for political discourse. However, for trash lovers who enjoy watching Van Damme movies through eye-rolls, sarcastic commentary, and bursts of laughter, you just found yourself a new drunken Saturday night delight.

The Olympus Has Fallen Blu-ray disc is about as light as you’d expect a minor blockbuster failure to be. The HD transfer is crisply clean, which is nice during the scenes involving actors and stunt men, but whenever CGI action enters the movie things look even more fake than they did in theaters. I suppose that’s part of the film’s cheesey charm, but 1080p doesn’t do the cheap effects any favors. Special features are all of the brief featurette variety. There’s enough material here for a decent 30 minute making of doc, it’s just been divided up into tiny bite size docs made for the viral video era. There’s a 7-minute look and Fuqua’s direction, a 11-minute examination of the White House invasion that hilariously calls the popcorn fantasy “a cautionary tale,” a 7 minute doc at the special effects that doesn’t note how bad they are, two 3-minute pieces on the action scenes that go into very little detail, and a handful of outtakes that are probably hilarious for the cast (not so much the audience). It’s all nuts n’ bolts promotional stuff that skims the surface of the production, but it’s all fun and informative enough with the cast in crew in full salesman mode. Would it have been nice for a little more in depth info about the film? Well sure, but when blockbusters aren’t successful production tends to stop on Blu-ray special features so we’re stuck with what the home video team got during production.

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Make no mistake, Olympus Has Fallen is far from a masterpiece, but it is an absolutely hysterical slice of B-movie cheese that will get some big laughs out of anyone who enjoys giggling at dumb action movies. If you’re the type of person who owns a copy of Commando in 2013, say hello to a new favorite disc in your dumb movie collection.

 The Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo Del Toro) – After not quite having the resources to nail his debut Cronos and losing Mimic to the ancient Hollywood evil of studio interference, The Devil’s Backbone was essentially Guillermo Del Toro’s second debut feature. It was only here almost a decade into his career that Del Toro finally had complete control over a project and the means to bring his overactive imagination to life. It’s a ghost story, but like best and most traditional ghost stories is more about loss and regret that jump stories. It’s one of those rare haunted horror films where the ghost emerges as being arguably the most sympathetic character onscreen and start of Del Toro’s career long obsession with bringing heart and emotional resonance to supernatural phantasmagoria.

Much like its sister film Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone latches horror movie conventions onto a movie about the Spanish Civil War. In this case, the story takes place in the midst of the war at an orphanage for children whose parents died in the conflict. Located in the middle of the desert, it’s an evocative location to begin with, but unfortunately for the young boy protagonist there’s more than human horror on display. There’s a ghost wondering the orphanage at night, that of a little boy with blood creepily flowing vertically from his head. At first the boys fear only the ghost, but soon that takes a back seat to a human drama between the institutions one-legged headmistress, impotent elderly doctor/teacher, and a proto-fascist former orphan turned angry-young-man caretaker. The story between those characters plays as allegory for the war and political climate of the time, yet for viewers uninterested in politics, there’s also a deeply tragic tale in the ghost as emotionally gut-wrenching as it is creepy.

The most remarkable thing about The Devil’s Backbone is how many genres and tones Del Toro is able to juggle. The film works as well as tastefully lurid comic book horror as it does a delicately crafted gothic romance. The director shoots in high style with a carefully controlled color scheme and evocatively gothic design, yet never loses sight of the human drama at the core. Even if it weren’t so delightfully creepy, the flick would tantalize audiences with the lovingly crafted and classically romantic narrative. All these years later the film holds up because of all the layers that Del Toro weaved into the tale. Sure all of the effects, scares, and the beautiful ghost remain as stunning as they were at the turn of the century, yet it’s the deeply personal and political plot that reveals more meanings and resonances with every viewing. The film is particularly fascinating in relationship to Pan’s Labyrinth, which was designed to mirror, echo, and contradict this thematic prequel in countless ways. The two films are arguably Del Toro’s masterpieces and play together so well that hopefully there will never be part of a trilogy because it’s hard to imagine the filmmaker could create a third chapter that fits in so perfectly.

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The film comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion in a long rumored release. The delays were clearly worth the wait as the restoration is astounding. Few filmmakers are as in control of their color palate and design on the level of Del Toro, so a proper presentation is vital to appreciating his work. The folks at Criterion have done such an exquisite job of transferring the film to HD that all previous releases feel obsolete and this is officially the only way anyone should consider watching the movie. Aside from one commentary track, all of the special features from previous releases were ported over to this disc and since Del Toro is one of the best in the business at packaging his films for home video, you won’t want to miss any of them.

On top of that Criterion has produced a whole swell of new features that might be even more fascinating. First up is an interactive feature that shows stills from Del Toro’s detailed notes and sketchbooks along with pop-up interviews with the director that provide a fascinating glimpse into his creative process (hopefully Del Toro will publish these books some day, because they are works of art in themselves). Next are a series of interviews with the director discussing his relationship with his technical collaborators, an intriguing examination of how the design of the ghost evolved, and best of all a feature on the Spanish gothic genre in relationship to both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that hints at a few of the many connections between the films. Finally there’s a trailer, deleted scenes, and for those unfamiliar with the history of the Spanish civil war a wonderful interview a scholar in the subject explaining the symbolic significance of the film. Toss in a booklet featuring an essay from British horror guru Mark Kermode and wonderful artwork by BRPD artist Guy Davis and you’ve got one of the finest Criterion releases of the summer. If you’re a fan of Guillermo Del Toro, but have never seen Devil’s Backbone you need to hang your head in shame while sprinting to the store to pick this up. It remains one of his finest achievements and as underrated as Pacific Rim was, serves as a reminder that Del Toro is more than just a monster movie entertainer. He’s also a genuine genre artist and one who will hopefully soon get a chance to make a personal picture again because it’s been far too long since he opened that part of his brain/heart and let it spill out unfettered onto the big screen.  

 Lord of the Flies

 Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook 1963) – If you’ve taken a high school English class over the last 50 years, chances are you’ve read Lord of the Flies. There’s a simple reason for that: William Goldbing’s book is a masterpiece. It’s a simple story that’s terrifyingly relatable for anyone with even loose memory of childhood, yet filled with rich symbolism and allegory about the dark core of the human condition that’s easy ripped apart an analyzed by any reader. The book is timeless and was treated to a film adaptation rather quickly and perfectly in 1963 by director Peter Brook. With a background in experimental theater, most would have predicted that Brook would mount a bizarre and extravagant production but instead he went for a stripped down approach that literalized the material and allowed the symbolism to play without any visual exaggeration or emphasis. Even all these decades later, Brook’s direct approach holds up well as a disturbing and expertly crafted rendition of Lord of the Flies that will likely never be topped, simply because there’s no point to even try.

There’s no need to get into plot description given that if you’re literate enough to read this review, you’ve likely read the book by now. What’s perhaps most impressive is how naturally the film and performances still feel. Brook worked entirely with non-actors and treated the book as the script. Rather than rigidly rehearsing his child actors and forcing them to memorize lines, Brook instead took the children and a minimal crew out to an island and had them loosely improvise the scenes based on minimal plot descriptions and readings from the novel. He shot with multiple cameras like a documentary, emerging with 60 hours worth of footage that was whittled down to 90 minutes through editing. While some of the performances are somewhat stilted, for the most of part the young actors feel remarkably realistic, with the children having lived the material through play. Some sequences like the wild chant-turned-murder blur the line between fiction and documentary, achieving an immediacy that would be impossible through traditional filmmaking methods. It was a production as radically experimental as one of the New Wave movies going on across the ocean in France at the time, but often isn’t consider that way. The reason is that Brook stuck rigidly to the structure of the book and shot in classically composed, yet stark black and white photography that makes the movie seem more rigidly crafted that it ever was. The result is a film that can be described as beautiful, powerful, unsettling, deeply meaningful, frightfully British, and timeless.

Criterion has been championing Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies since their Laserdisc days and the new Blu-ray is the culmination of all the work they’ve done on the film for years. The transfer is astounding, with all of the grain and low lighting of the source material remaining, while still popping of the screen with rich depth and detail never visible before. Even better is the overflowing special feature section. It starts with an audio commentary from the 1993 with Brook, his cinematographer, editor, and producer delving into the unconventional production. Another audio track offers a truly unique feature of William Golding reading from his novel in sync with the movie that shows just what a deeply faithful adaptation it was. Then there’s a half hour interview with Brook that offers an even more detailed account of the film’s production and impact, an enlightening 1980 interview with Golding from the South Bank Show touching on Lord Of The Flies and his early career, a wonderful interview with cameraman and editor Gerald Feil discussing the technical challenges of the improvised production, a short documentary on the Brook’s experimental directing career in theater (including an appearance from a ridiculously young Helen Mirren), a single deleted scene, some fascinating 8mm behind-the-scenes footage, and, of course, the trailer. It’s an impressive set, particularly for a film with very few surviving participants (although it would have been nice to get some memories from the pint-sized cast as adults). But then, that’s what Criterion specializes in, so we should expect nothing less. If you’ve seen the film before, you’ll know why it’s worth owning. If not, that’s probably because you’re confusing it with the rather crappy 1990 film adaptation and should see the original and masterful version immediately to right that wrong.

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