The Secret World of Arrietty (2010, Hiromasa Yonebayashi) – Although it’s really just another retelling of Mary Norton’s famous children’s story The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty showcases the trademark stunning visuals one comes to expect from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Working from a screenplay by master animator Miyazaki, the film stays true to the story’s original roots despite stumbling slightly late in the film by adding tension and the appearance of a villain somewhat awkwardly.
Young Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) has recently moved to the country to live with his Aunt Jessica and her housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett). Shawn is there to kill time away from his work obsessed mother before a serious heart operation that he might not live through. In the walls of Jessica’s house live the Clock’s, a family of little people known as “borrowers” who sneak into people’s kitchens at night and take only what they need to survive and keep house. The daughter of the clan, Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), has just turned 14, meaning she’s old enough to start borrowing on her own. But when she’s spotted by Shawn on her first mission with her father (Will Arnett), it begins a series of events that put the small family in great danger. Shawn, desperate for a friend, looks to Arrietty for someone to talk to, much to the chagrin of Arrietty’s parents.
No dubbing of a Ghibli film will ever be equal to subtitled version of the same film (Amy Poehler seems pretty out of place as Arrietty’s histrionic mother), but here the script holds some of the film’s wonkier elements. While Miyazaki and co-writer Keiko Niwa (and translator/English dialog writer Karey Kirkpatrick) do a great job setting up both the world of Shawn and the background of the Clocks, the film’s pacing seems a bit off. While most adaptations of Norton’s original work make it known that the housekeeper character will turn out to be somewhat villainous, here the story turns almost on a dime and simply turns Hara into someone acting crazy just for the sake of having conflict. It creates a sense of disconnect in the film’s second half that’s a little hard to get past, but forgivable in the light of the film’s other strengths.
The Blu-ray looks phenomenal, bringing out every colour perfectly, and the film offers the viewer to watch the film subtitled with the original DTS-HD Japanese Master Audio, which sounds even crisper than the English language dub. There’s also another version of the film in the special features made entirely from storyboards as the English dub plays along that’s pretty neat for completists to follow along with. There’s also a couple of music videos and the original Japanese trailers, teasers, and TV spots included here. (Andrew Parker)
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The Grey (2012, Joe Carnahan) – If you had told me ten years ago that Liam Neeson would reinvent himself as a late-career action hero, I would have slapped you in the face and called you Mr. Sillypants (or perhaps a slightly more insulting name). Yet, somehow the actor has pulled it off, stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes as Hollywood’s go-to grumpy aging action star in over his head. The Grey reunites him with writer/director Joe Carnahan after the duo collaborated on a feature film version of The A-Team that was far better than it had any right to be. This time they are stripped of any ties to a campy 80s TV show and create a rough n tumble survivalist thriller. Despite some occasionally misplaced art film aspirations, The Grey is a thrilling R-rated mid-budget genre flick, the kind of movie that isn’t supposed to be made anymore.
Neeson stars as a damaged man (obviously) who works for an isolated Alaskan oil team. His job is to sit with a sniper rifle and kill any carnivorous wild life that threaten the other workers (in other words, he’s a professional bad ass). The whole gang piles onto an airplane to visit their families and it crashes, leaving them stranded in the artic in the middle of a wolf den, who slowly hunt them down one by one. It’s a classic guy movie survivalist set up executed by filmmakers who clearly love the genre. Neeson and his team of miscreants are all fantastic as they get worn down by the elements and bicker over alpha male status.
For Carnahan, it’s yet another rock solid B-movie following up the likes of Narc and Smokin’ Aces. He directs his team of dude’s dudes well and ratchets up suspense expertly, crafting a number of genuine shocks and thrills (including a spectacular POV plane crash and some surprisingly effective CGI wolves). Unfortunately, as the film wears on he becomes a little too enamored with the existential themes of the story, trying to awkwardly transform a solid genre flick into a thinkpiece with mixed results. Still, all of Carnahan’s efforts have been flawed in some way and The Grey is easily one of his most consistent outings. The guy has it in him to create a fantastic John Carpenter-esque B-movie with a brain and has shown enough signs of improvement over his career to suggest that will happen sooner rather than later. Carnahan is definitely a genre filmmaker to watch and hopefully this isn’t the last time he puts Liam Neeson through the ringer.
The Grey’s Blu-ray is unfortunately a mixed bag. The technical specs are fantastic and there’s no better way to see the movie. However, the special features are a little lacking. The featurettes are clearly promotional viral videos barely clocking in at 3-minutes a piece, while the cast and crew interviews are comprised of awkwardly edited B-roll from those viral clips with embarrassing sound-drops. Considering that those slapped together featurettes suggest someone had a collection of interviews and on set footage from the punishing artic shoot, it’s a mystery why a proper making-of documentary wasn’t cut together. The commentary with Carnahan and his editors is also a disappointment, too often turning into a self-congratulatory back slapping-session that takes the film way to seriously (at one point they call The Grey “a thinly veiled art film” and compare it to The King’s Speech) without offering much in the way of production details. Still, even if the special features disappoint, the film doesn’t. If you miss 80s/90s era of R-rated genre movies aimed at teens and regressed adolescents in age brackets that classify them as “adults,” The Grey is a must see. (Phil Brown)
The Woman in Black (2012, James Watkins) – While in no way a reinvention of the haunted house film, The Woman in Black offers genre fans a tightly crafted and loving throwback to Hammer horror films and sly nods to the works of genre veterans Sam Raimi and Wes Craven. Director Watkins and star Daniel Radcliffe work together to make this slight, but atmospheric chiller into something gripping and exciting.
At first, it might be a little surprising to see just how much Radcliffe has grown up in the role of Arthur Kipps. Radcliffe not only plays an adult here, but a young, widowed father of a young boy. Arthur is an early 1900s legal aide forced by his boss into getting back to work by sending him from London to the coastal countryside to go over the paperwork of an estate currently up for sale. Upon his arrival in the village where he intends to stay, the locals do everything in his power to send Arthur away before he even makes it to the secluded former estate of Alice Drablow. Driven by the desire to provide for his son and to keep his currently tenuous job, Arthur presses on and learns the hard way the tragedy that befell the residents of Marsh House.
Watkins uses his eye for detail to cleverly misdirect the audience at every turn, and Radcliffe makes the most of what’s essentially a one man show, including a wonderful extended sequence where there’s no dialogue and he’s the only person in the house. Things do get a bit amped up for the conclusion (which borrows a bit too much from Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) as it turns into a pretty standard film, but there’s surely a lot to like here.
The Blu-ray has great sound, amplifying the creaks and groans of Marsh House splendidly, but the picture quality doesn’t really bring out the darker tones of the film as nicely as they looked on screen. There’s a couple of small featurettes that don’t do much, and a commentary track from Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman, which is pretty mechanical when talking about filmmaking details, but oddly entertaining and candid to listen to. (Andrew Parker)
This Means War (2012, McG) – Great news everyone (and by great I mean terrible)! One of the most insufferable films thus far in 2012 is now available in an even longer version for added “value.” The woefully botched and amateurish Spy Vs. Spy styled romantic action caper This Means War isn’t helped by any sort of added content despite a stacked Blu-ray. It’s just as terribly acted and pointless as it was back in February.
The asininely named Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) are two best friend CIA operatives and wetworkers who fall for the same woman, a perky-but-not-exactly-quirky consumer rights advocate named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) who has been forced into the world of online dating by her married, alcoholic, quirky best friend (Chelsea Handler). Tuck meets Lauren through the dating site and is immediately smitten with her, while FDR meets her by chance in a video store (which I will get back to in a minute) and they have their own “meet cute” flirting session. Lauren doesn’t know that the two men are so close they’re practically brothers/lovers, so she dates the two men concurrently while the animosity between the besties grows to heights that find the men using company resources illegally to spy on and sabotage each other’s dates. Oh, and this all happens while a crazed criminal genius (Til Schweiger) looks for revenge on Tuck for accidentally killing his brother in the film’s opening sequence.
An absolute nadir in the career of the already much derided McG, this film is ugly, incoherent, illogical, and worst of all, lazy to the point where no one on screen seems to care about what’s going on. Witherspoon looks like she just got up from a nap. Hardy seems to be constantly looking around for direction, but at least makes the only effort from the cast. Pine suffers the worst with a performance so bad it nearly erases any good will he’s earned in recent years. Also, please don’t get me started on Chelsea “I only know one joke that I’m going to run into the ground until the day I die” Handler as Lauren’s married friend.
Every sequence is shot like a Honda commercial, with very little inventiveness outside of the occasional production design achievement. The action sequences are edited into incoherence, are relatively bloodless, and hold absolutely no dramatic tension. They are also marred by some of the worst and least convincing CGI outside of an Asylum release, especially in the first of the film’s three(!) endings, which thanks to the wonder of Blu-ray drags out even longer to an unconscionable 107 minutes. (Also in the special features there are 2 MORE alternate endings, serving as further proof that no one here had any clue what they were doing.)
The Blu-ray looks and sound fine, and McG delivers commentary on both the theatrical and extended cuts of the film (with little difference), some deleted scenes and a previz look at an alternate opening. There’s a halfway amusing gag reel that’s funnier than the actual movie, but it’s in no way worth buying just for that. (Andrew Parker)
Red Tails (2012, Anthony Hemmingway) – Corny as an Iowa field and oddly put together, Red Tails feels pretty slapdash despite being one of producer George Lucas’ passion projects. This tale of the formation of the famed all African American fighter pilot squad, The Tuskegee Airmen, never takes off thanks to some surprisingly cut rate production values, scenery chewing performances (especially from squadron higher-ups played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrance Howard), and a script that’s way too overstuffed with needless subplots.
The film starts in 1944 Italy where American pilots are vastly being outclassed and outmanoeuvred by German pilots with better technology and a better idea of their surroundings. In search of a new tactic that could help win the air war, the US government reluctantly begins using the underutilized squad of all African-American fighter pilots in the 332nd fighter squad. The film follows the exploits of a handful of the soldiers into battle after previously only being used for taking out trains and other forms of transportation.
Aside from the stunning dogfights and the massive attention to period detail (except for an insert wide shot of the Pentagon that was clearly shot in modern day), Red Tails has no structure or discipline whatsoever. This film feels unfinished and almost in unreleasable condition. No scenes actually transition between each other with some bleeding over or fading into the next one without rhyme or reason.
The Blu-ray can’t save all of the film’s problems, but it does come together in a nice package. The picture and sound have improved since the theatrical release, but there’s still quite a bit missing on screen. There is, however a pretty great hour long documentary (narrated by Gooding) that chronicles the history of the squad, as well as some great featurettes that show the effects guys at ILM working their tails off. There’s also talks with Hemmingway, Lucas, composer Terrance Blanchard, and the individual cast members. (Andrew Parker)