Sunday, September 29, 2013

Movie Review: 'Don Jon'

**** out of 5
90 minutes
Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Don Jon' on Blogcritics.

The public can’t help but keep a watchful eye on child actors, essentially watching a ticking clock counting down until the day they turn for the worst. With Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan being unable to keep themselves out of the news recently and Miley Cyrus twerking anything she can get her butt up next to, it’s a huge surprise to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt managing to keep upping his own ante.

DonJonPic2From 3rd Rock from the Sun to 10 Things I Hate About You to Looper and The Dark Knight Rises, JGL has certainly kept himself out of trouble. And with his new company hitRECord’s first theatrical release, Don Jon (after premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival), JGL looks like he’s about to kick off another new entry to his resume behind the camera.

Don Jon refers to Jon (JGL) who lives in New Jersey and only worries about a few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. That’s right, Jon loves porn more than hooking up with real ladies. While Jon certainly hooks up on a routine basis, he can’t help but slip out of bed and rub one out while his current conquest is asleep in the next room. On a night out with his best buds Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke), Jon meets the girl of his dreams, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Turns out, as hot as Barbara may be, she won’t give in to letting Jon go all the way.

While Jon lives in his own sexually detached online fantasy world, Barbara has allusions of her own with an obsession for romantic-comedies. When Barbara catches Jon watching porn after she finally gives it up, she makes him promise he won’t watch it anymore. Meanwhile, Jon is caught watching porn in class by Esther (Julianne Moore), who wants to befriend Jon whether he likes it or not. And in the end, Jon may learn far more about life from her than he ever could from Barbara, his friends, or his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly).

DonJonPic1JGL doesn’t really have anything new to say about men’s mentality towards porn, but he delivers his “message” with fantastic style. JGL originally started hitRECord as an outlet for artists to display their music. And he certainly stylizes a lot of Don Jon like a music video — even if it’s a mostly sex-infused 90-minute music video of hilarity. No one is wasted here with even Danza managing to be funnier here than in the entire eight season run of Who’s the Boss. Headly may be a little over the top at times, but the family is evened out with Brie Larson, who’s hilariously addicted to her phone in every scene, until she busts into a “Silent Bob” moment of truth.

When Don Jon made its premiere at Sundance, I remember hearing it was basically a 90-minute commercial for It’s clear that to get the R-rating, all JGL had to do was crop the pornographic footage to cut out the penetration. Even with the edited porn on display here there were at least five walkouts. But considering it consisted of what looked like a family of girls, I have a feeling they had no idea what they were walking into. There’s a lot of frank sexuality to swallow, but thankfully, Don Jon earns its own version of a happy ending, while still winding up being one of the year’s most bold, if not brash and brazen, comedies.

Photos courtesy Relativity

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Movie Review: 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2'

***** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG for mild rude humor
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2' on Blogcritics.

I arrived late in discovering one of the funniest, brightest, and most imaginative films of 2009, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. A colleague of mine swore by its brilliance and lent me his Blu-ray. And he was right. Packed with more jokes, heart, and inventiveness than most comedies, writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller adapted Judi and Ron Barrett’s children’s book into one of the best animated films of that year.

Cloudy2While Lord and Miller have moved into the world of live-action with the hilarious 21 Jump Street—but have gone back to their roots for next year’s The Lego Movie—they have returned to the Cloudy sequel, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, as executive producers, handing the reigns over to directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn. The latter duo’s credits may only include the straight-to-video Open Season 3, have no fear, they have once again delivered one of the best comedies—and best animated feature so far—of 2013.

Cloudy 2 picks up right where the first film left off: Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) and Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris) have just saved the island town of Swallow Falls from Flint’s out of control “Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator” (FLDSMDFR for short) eight minutes ago. Now, Flint’s childhood hero, Chester V (voiced by Will Forte) of The Live Corp Company, hires Flint to work for him as the town is evacuated to San Fran Jose, California, while Live Corp cleans up the island. Flint isn’t fond of his desk job, but takes every chance he can to submit every invention he can think of in order to be named Live Corp’s newest Thinquanaut.

Cloudy2Pic2After a malfunction of Flint’s latest invention—a party in a box called the “Celebratinator”—Chester V has his right-hand ape, Barb (voiced by Kristen Schaal), enlist Flint in his diabolical scheme to find Flint’s FLDSMDFR. The contraption has turned Swallow Falls into a version of Land of the Lost, featuring food-animals such as tacodile supremes, shrimpanzees, PB & Jellyfishes, and the most dangerous of all, cheese spiders. Now, Flint calls upon the help of Sam, his dad Tim (voiced by James Caan), Baby Brent (voiced by Andy Samberg), Manny (Benjamin Bratt), Officer Earl Devereaux (voiced by Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T), and of course, Steve (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris), to return to Swallow Falls with him.

Be sure to eat before seeing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, because there’s enough food on display to make anyone feel like they’re starving. Thankfully, the food jokes never get old, and there’s always something fresh around the corner. The sweet little Barry the Strawberry (voiced by co-director Cameron) makes a valiant effort to steal the show, with Steve continuing to give him a run for the money.

The sequel’s screenplay, by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein (of Horrible Bosses), and Erica Rivinoja (who has 72 episodes of South Park under her belt), certainly delivers a sequel that rivals the original. The voice cast keeps the one-liners flying fast and furious, with the directors throwing as many visual gags as possible on screen. This year hasn’t had too many fantastic animated features, but Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a surefire bet at the Oscars. And it’s the year’s most appetizing adventure.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Friday, September 27, 2013

Movie Review: ‘Rush’ (2013)

**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use\
Universal Pictures 

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Rush’ (2013) on Blogcritics.

The biopic is nothing new to director Ron Howard. Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13—the man certainly knows how to make some of the best. It seems when he’s out to direct for pure entertainment’s sake, things seem to get in the way. At least it’s been that way since the ’80s. In the last 10 years, his Hollywood pictures have fallen by the wayside with The Missing and his two Dan Brown adaptations: The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. And the less said about his live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the better.

RushPic1If there’s one thing the former Opie has always been open about, it’s his love for fast cars. His 1977 Grand Theft Auto was all about fast cars and fast women. While it never features any sort of car chases, he also directed the hilarious Michael Keaton vehicle Gung Ho, about an American transplanted to the world of the Japanese auto industry. Now, Howard has found the perfect opportunity to dive into the two things he seems best at: biographical filmmaking and fast cars. He brings the rivalry of Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to the big screen in Rush.

Rush begins in 1976 as the German Grand Prix is about to get underway. Voiceover from Niki takes us back six years earlier where we get to see him climbing his way up the race circuit food chain. The rivalry begins when Niki and Hunt are both Formula Three drivers. After walking away from his family fortune, Niki takes out a loan of $2 million Austrian schillings and buys his way into the BRM Formula One team, where he meets teammate Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino).

As Hunt and Niki climb their way to the top, we also see the rise and fall of Hunt’s marriage to Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), along with Niki’s meet-cute and eventual marriage to Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). Things reach a dramatic point when we get back to Germany in 1976, where we see Niki crash. He suffers third-degree burns to his head and lungs, but is determined to recover in order to return to finish the Formula One World Championship.

RushPic2The cars fly fast and furious, as you’d expect they would in a film based around Formula One racing, but the meat of the story isn’t even the rivalry between Niki and Hunt. The heart of the story is in the relationship between Niki and Marlene. Niki thinks that happiness is a weakness, which Marlene obviously isn’t too fond of, but they love each other. And you believe it in Brühl and Lara. The bickering between Niki and Hunt is as good as it is thanks to the screenplay, courtesy of Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon and The Queen), but you can totally tell that sometimes Howard just wanted some great character moments to squeeze between the big races. The racing sequences are where the action is and Howard does not disappoint. Rush may not be the best film of the year, but it isn’t trying to be either. It may not even be one of Howard’s best films either, but it’s certainly one of his best in recent memory.

Photos: Universal Pictures

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th on Blogcritics.

This past Friday the 13th was a little more eventful than most. Warner Bros. finally got their act together and delivered a box set of the complete Friday the 13th franchise, but something else was afoot on the home video front. From the makers of Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy came a new documentary of sorts — more fittingly called a retrospective/tribute in the audio commentary — Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. Running a whopping 400 minutes (or 6.66 hours), comes everything you never knew you wanted to know about Friday the 13th.

CrystalLakeMemoriesNarrated by Corey Feldman, it opens with him surrounded by a bunch of young folk, where Feldman re-enacts the campfire tale of Jason Vorhees from Part II. Packed with interviews from the cast and crew from the entire series, we get a loving look back at what the franchise means for fans and those involved in the production. Considering the documentary doesn’t have any kind of agenda, or try to convince you these are any kind of masterpieces, director/writer Daniel Farrands clearly loves these films as much as the rest of us. Everyone from Sean S. Cunningham, Noel Cunningham, Jeff Katz, and all of the Jasons, return to wax nostalgic.

The film is spread across two Blu-ray discs and two DVDs, broken up into 13 chapters, with the first 12 discussing each individual film from pre-production to its box office winnings and failures. “Chapter 1 – Long Night Camp Blood” tells us how the first film was made for under $500,000 with great insight from director Sean Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, and Jason’s mommy, Betsy Palmer. Palmer fills us in on the backlash created by her starring in the film, while composer Henry Manfredini also puts another nail in the coffin as to what exactly is heard in the famous theme and Adrienne King talks about her ordeal with a real-life stalker.

“Chapter II – The Body Count Continues” brings in showrunner Frank Mancuso, Jr. whose father was president of Paramount Pictures at the time. King returns and we find out that her opening scene was filmed in one night and that the filmmakers wanted her to come back, but her agent wanted too much money for her to return as the star. Phil Scuderi talks about being brought in to come up with the film’s more creative kills while Cunningham still defends that he had never seen Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood before making the film. The same can’t be said about Miller, but it doesn’t seem like he was ever asked.

“Chapter III – A New Dimension in Terror” gives us insight to where the film’s shooting titles came from — this one being “Crystal Japan” — while the filmmakers talk about how they wanted Jason to be “the living version of Jaws.” This is all too fitting as Part 3 was filmed in 3D and ushered in a new wave of 3D productions including Jaws 3-D. The cast and crew all take credit for coming up with Jason donning the iconic hockey mask in this installment, but everyone also admits that no one has a clue as to who really came up with it. This was also supposed to be the last film of the series, but we all know that wasn’t the case.

“Chapter IV – Jason’s Unlucky Day” dives into what was then the real end to Jason’s murderous rampage of revenge. Here, Feldman provides the most insight as he talks about how it was his big summer at the box office with the release of both Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter and Gremlins. The man behind the mask, Ted White, talks about his dislike of Feldman on set, which only made his scenes of terrorizing the poor child in the film ring all too real. The cast of teens all just wanted to know how they were going to die, and were more excited the more gruesome their death. Unfortunately, Crispin Glover is the one person who I wanted to see interviewed, but was not. This was also the first film released after E.T. in the summer of ’84 to finally knock it from the #1 spot at the box office.

“Chapter V – Repetition” is interesting to listen to the filmmakers try to explain that they were hoping to pass the torch from Jason to Feldman’s character of Tommy Jarvis and wanted Feldman to return. Unfortunately, Feldman was too busy filming The Goonies and he blames Spielberg for not being able to participate in anything more than a cameo. Here is where the MPAA also began to really start having its way with the series.

“Chapter VI – Resurrection” finds writer/director Tom McLoughlin being brought in to literally resurrect Jason and get the series back on track for Paramount. McLoughlin talks about how he wanted to infuse Jason Lives with his love of gothic horror and the Universal monsters. I feel like McLoughlin did just that. Now seen as a pre-Scream tongue-in-cheek approach — Kevin Williamson even admits that this film’s tone had an effect on his series — this entry had some amazing kills up its sleeve, but was butchered by the MPAA. The infamous triple beheading got the axe before it was even filmed, and it was supposed to end on a cliffhanger that would introduce a Mr. Vorhees. This was also never filmed. There’s a quick section called “Curious Goods: The Series” that discusses the television show that has nothing to do with the film series aside from the name.

Disc Two kicks off with “Chapter VII – Jason’s Destroyer” which was the film’s original title as it introduces the only character to ever have any kind of supernatural abilities to stand up to the series anti-hero. Director John Carl Buechler exclaims “The MPAA raped my movie!” and it couldn’t be more true. Featuring far more onscreen carnage than what wound up in the neutered theatrical release, we fans have to accept the fact that The New Blood will never be released in an uncut version as the footage was destroyed. Buechler also discusses his bouts with producer Barbara Sachs who had nothing but disdain for the genre, causing serious clashing on set. There’s also jokes about how talk began about having Part VIII feature a return of the women from the series to take Jason down and titling it Jason’s Devils.

“Chapter VIII – Terror in Times Square” dives headfirst into the flat-out worst film in the series. It doesn’t help that the cast referred to it as the “Disney version of Friday the 13th,” but that’s far from what was really wrong with the final film. Writer/director Rob Hedden appears to have nothing but love for his entry. He does let us know that Jason Takes Manhattan was supposed to contain more New York City mayhem. Due to budget restrictions they wound up on a cruise ship. Hedden also leaves it up to the audience to decide exactly how the boat wound up in the New York harbor when it left from Crystal Lake.

“The Nine Lives of Jason Vorhees” informs us that the ninth entry had to be titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday due to title rights between Paramount and New Line Cinema. Only the Jason character was handed over, which is why the full Friday the 13th title is not used. Director Adam Marcus loves the series and set out to make what he wanted to see in a Friday the 13th film. He always saw Jason as one of Hell’s assassins and that is how he came up with the idea of the body swapping. Jason’s body was just the one he liked the most. Marcus informs us that he filmed with a director’s cut already planned for home video, which is why that version is more grotesque.

“Chapter X – Evil Gets an Upgrade” jokes about how sending Jason to space wasn’t the best idea from the beginning. Someone says, “Space is where film series go to die.” While it wasn’t exactly true for Jason, it wrung true for the likes of Leprechaun and Critters. Here is where Friday the 13th started to bleed out into the mainstream, with even the TV show MythBusters attempting to find out if the frozen face smash could be done in real life. This also wound up being the cast and crews favorite kill, who all gathered on set when it was shot to watch Jason in action. It really is one of the whole series’ most imaginative kills. New Line also kept feeding director James Isaac notes that they wanted Jason X to be more like Scream which is why it’s more comical.

“Chapter XI – Winner Kills All” discusses the film that had been talked about since the final scene of Jason Goes to Hell, where we finally get the long-awaited showdown between Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger. Unfortunately for us fans, Kane Hodder was not asked to return as Jason. To this day, Hodder still can’t figure out why he wasn’t asked to come back, especially when we fans had taken to him as the quintessential Jason after having donned the hockey mask in the last four films. Up until then, Hodder had been the only person to play Jason more than once, but alas, Ken Kirzinger was brought on and still wound up doing a bang up job.

“Chapter XII – Reboot” sheds light on the reboot/reimagining/homage/greatest hits that was the 2009 version of Friday the 13th. It still remains the highest grossing entry, at least of the direct Friday the 13th films. Nispel jokingly calls it the “Reader’s Digest of the Friday the 13ths” and in a way it is. They didn’t want to totally remake the original because they knew audiences came to see Jason. Quickly dispatching his mother in the opening scene, Jason makes his way from the bag-over-the-head look of Part II and III to the hockey mask wearing, machete wielding butcher we all know and love, over the course of one film. “Chapter XIII – Reflections on the Water” is a nice wrap up to the series as we say farewell to everyone involved.

The video of Crystal Lake Memories hacks its way onto Blu-ray in a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Every video anomaly you can think of makes its way through the film. Banding, crush, DNR, aliasing, noise, flicker, you name it, you got it. However, it still looks really good for what it is and you would never expect something like this to look like a million bucks. The audio comes in a lackluster 5.1 Dolby Digital track, but considering the length of the documentary, it certainly makes due. The surrounds kick in appropriately, lending a creepy vibe here and there, but sometimes the voices sound a little muffled or as if the interviewee is talking into a tin can.

The only real special feature is a full-length audio commentary featuring writer/director Daniel Farrands, editor Luke Rafalowski, and author Peter Bracke. Bracke’s book of the same name is basis for this documentary. Usually, these commentaries don’t seem to be very recent, but they make mention that they are recording this the same weekend that The Conjuring was opening. And if you thought their knowledge of the series was limited to what’s in the film, the commentary makes for even better behind the scenes info. Hearing them talk about how these films were more of an event back before the internet, should conjure memories for anyone — myself included — who used to rely on information sources like Fangoria magazine to find out what was coming soon.

There are also trailers for the filmmakers’ other documentaries: Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead. As well as a commercial-esque piece promoting Adrienne King’s line of Crystal Lake Wines, the likes of which I am dying to try.

To really sum this up, Adam Marcus states: “For me, every time I see somebody blogging about Jason Goes to Hell – or quite frankly, about any of the Friday the 13ths – I feel really lucky that they care enough to spend the time and energy talking about this character”; which is exactly what I’m doing. I would never have asked to review this size of a documentary had I not loved the series. I still remember recording The New Blood on HBO late one night and it was my true introduction to the series. I used to also record the Friday the 13th marathons off USA or TBS and edit out all of the commercials to get as many of them to fit on one tape as I could. I think I still have this somewhere. Sure, they were all the television edits, but at the time, it was all I could get my hands. Now that they’re all readily available — and on Blu-ray no less — is a cause for celebration for all fans. And Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th is a no-brainer for any fan — or even for someone who simply wants to find out what why we love these films so much.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘Iron Man 3’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Iron Man 3’ on Blogcritics.

When Iron Man 3 kicked off the summer movie season back in May, a key plot twist got a whole lot of panties in a bunch. Whatever you think about how co-writer/director Shane Black handled his big twist for The Mandarin (hilariously played by Ben Kingsley), it didn’t stop it from becoming the first Marvel film to blast past the $1 billion mark at the box office. People may have cried foul, but they sure seemed to be eating it up regardless. I have complete faith in whatever Marvel has up their sleeve. You’re crazy if you think these things weren’t cleared with Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige. My full review from Iron Man 3’s theatrical release can be found here.

IM3BluCoverAnother thing people complained about was Black’s Christmas setting and giving Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) a pint-sized sidekick in Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) — both a Shane Black trademark. What Black also managed to do was keep Iron Man 3 from suffering of a case of “Post Traumatic Avengers Syndrome.” Packed with more one-liners, and heart, than either of the first two Iron Man films, 3 is a spectacular kick-off for “Phase Two” and with Thor: The Dark World opening in November, I can’t wait to see how things start to add up. We all know that events from each film will culminate in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. And even with the upcoming slate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including sequels to Thor and Captain America, and the interstellar shenanigans of the Guardians of the Galaxy — that wait is still going to be unbearable.

Iron Man 3 blasts onto Blu-ray in typical Disney fashion, with a nearly perfect transfer. Arriving on a 50GB disc in a MGEG-4 encode, the 2.40:1 aspect ratio pretty much writes its own review. Contrast is spot on with flesh tones amazingly accurate. Detail is precision sharp with no edge enhancement or artificial sharpening. DNR is never applied even if there’s no film grain on hand considering it was shot digitally with Arri Alexa and Phantom Flex cameras. A few elements seem almost out of place in 2D, such as some smoke elements that clearly come from the 3D conversion. But blacks are kept nice and inky with no crush on hand, resulting in some lighter shadows which only help with delineation. Does banding count if it only appears in the end credits? Because that’s the only place I found any. You’ll also find a complete lack of aliasing, ringing, or any other anomalies. Iron Man 3 looks as spectacular as a newly minted big budget transfer is expected to.

As good as the picture looks, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is one for the books. Featuring stellar LFE that’ll leave anything hanging on your walls shaking, you’ll swear Stark’s army of suits is rampaging right through whatever room you’re watching it in. Directionality is spot on as every explosion, clanking armor, piece of breaking wood, or smashing glass comes falling around you from every direction. Dialogue is delivered crystal clear, never drowned out — no matter how loud the action — with Tyler Brian’s score even making use of every speaker in your set up as well. This is one of the best Blu-ray sound mixes, which should come as no surprise.

IronMan3pic1The Special Features for Iron Man 3 are fun, if a little on the wayside, for anyone holding out hope for more extras upon the arrival of the “Phase Two” set, remember that there are actually fewer special features than were on the original Blu-ray releases. I have a feeling that the single disc I received will be one of two (the other being the 3D version of the film) included. First up is an audio commentary featuring Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce. The two have tremendous rapport which no doubt helped with the writing process. Black jokes that when he walked in a saw Pearce he threatened to quit, but the two work together very well. I was hoping for a little more insight into their decision of how to handle The Mandarin, but all we find out is that Pearce came up with the twist while using the toilet and Black told him to run with the idea.

A 15-minute “Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter” arrives just in time for the announcement of the new ABC show starting development. Here we find Hayley Atwell returning to her Captain America character Peggy Carter, under the scrutiny of her boss Tim Trobec (Bradley Whitford). Peggy heads off on a dangerous mission against orders, winding up taking down a formidable foe with only promotional consequences. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough) make a hilarious cameo. “Deleted and Extended Scenes” run 16 minutes full of improve, outtakes, and extended/alternate sequences. Some are hilarious, some are informative, but all are rather expendable, even if entertaining in this form; a 5-minute “Gag Reel” makes a great companion piece to these.

The 2-minute “Exclusive Look at Thor: The Dark World” featurette measures up to not much more than a truncated trailer, which is silly since the actual trailer plays before the main menu. There are also trailers for Lego Marvel Superheroes, The Lone Ranger, The Avengers Initiative, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, which coincidentally starts this Tuesday, September 24, day-and-date to this release. “Iron Man 3 Unmasked” runs 11 minutes and shows how much of the film was actually made with practical effects and sets. Even the interior of Stark’s house was built on a pivoting set; it’s very cool to see it in action. The most exciting featurette is “Deconstructing the Scene: Attack on Air Force One” which runs nine minutes. Here we get to see how they filmed the scene using the Red Bull skydiving team. Knowing that the scene was filmed with real skydivers just makes the scene even cooler to re-watch.

IronMan3Pic2The world has already made it clear that they think Iron Man 3 is the best Iron Man film as far as the box office is concerned and I wholeheartedly agree. The Blu-ray for Iron Man 3 features an impeccable transfer and a window blasting audio 7.1 audio track. The special features are scant but fun, especially the audio commentary and the skydiving featurette alone. Chances are you already know whether you’re adding this to your Blu-ray collection, but at least now you know you’re in for a blazing home theater experience.

Cover art and photos courtesy Marvel Studios

Friday, September 20, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘Arrow: The Complete First Season’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Arrow: The Complete First Season’ on Blogcritics.

For those who think that comic book movies center too much on action, they should start tuning into the CW’s Arrow. Armed with plenty of drama and the daily routine of the superhero life, you couldn’t ask for anything more. Considering movie theaters are jam packed with a superhero movie at every turn, you’d think there would be more of this programming on TV. But Arrow was the only TV show on, and the first since Smallville went off the air.

ArrowBluSure, Marvel has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starting next week with the return of the beloved Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Arrow showrunners Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg, will have to at least keep things at the same level as the first season, but I can’t see them wanting to do anything but step up their game, especially considering the season ending cliffhanger literally leaves viewers right in the middle of the action.

Arrow opens with young billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) being rescued off a deserted island. Oliver has been castaway for five years and declared dead after the yacht he was on sank. Now, Oliver returns home to the family and friends he left behind, to pick up the pieces. While stranded on the island, he makes a few new friends along the way. First, he’s saved by the mysterious Yao Fei (Byron Mann), who may or may not be a good guy, and runs across Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) and Fei’s daughter, Shado (Celina Jade), who will teach him everything he needs to keep himself alive. Back on the mainland, Oliver begins to cross names out of a book he discovered from his father Robert (Jamey Sheridan), who are all evildoers of Sterling City.

Turning himself into a hooded vigilante, armed with bow and arrows, and enough physical prowess to make Batman blush, Oliver must become the savior of his beloved city. What Oliver doesn’t know is that a few people who aren’t on the list will turn into his biggest enemies: his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson) and his best friend Tommy Merlyn’s (Colin Donnell) father Malcolm (John Barrowman). Oliver must also contend with the brokenhearted Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), while keeping the city safe — with the help of his righthand man John Diggle (David Ramsey) and his computer expert/double entendre extraordinaire Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) — from the likes of a swirling pool of bad guys, with Laurel’s father, Detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne), vowing to take him down.

ArrowPic1The best thing going for Arrow is its grounding in reality. Berlanti, Guggenheim, and Kreisberg continually mention their inspiration being Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and it certainly shows. Instead of maniacal super villains with over-the-top superpowers, we get characters such as Deathstroke (Jeffrey C. Robinson), Deadshot (Michael Rowe), China White (Kelly Hu), The Huntress (Jessica De Gouw), The Count (Seth Gabel), and Firefly (Andrew Dunbar), who are all killers with vendettas. The biggest baddie turns out to be Dark Arrow, whose identity I would never spoil, even though viewers are never left guessing. They also never refer to Oliver as “Green Arrow,” always using terms like “The Vigilante,” “The Hood,” or “Hoodguy.”

Arrow: The Complete First Season’s 23 episodes are brought to us from Warner Bros. in a combo pack, spread across four BD50 discs and five DVDs, along with a code to download via Ultraviolet. The first three Blu-ray discs hold six episodes each, with only a few unaired scenes keeping every episode looking as crisp as they should. Filmed with Arri ALEXA digital cameras and framed in a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, aside from some inherent noise, this is one of the best looking TV transfers out there. Sure, skin tones sometimes range a tad on the pink side, but with all the nighttime sequences, and neon lit club scenes, you’d be hard pressed to find anything wrong with most of the transfer.

The island scenes fare the “worst” with prevalent noise that is until a particular plot point rears its head, and from then on, the transfer is pretty impeccable. Unfortunately, that noise creeps in almost every episode, and is typically confined solely to the island flashbacks, but it always shows up at some point. With how much of the series takes place in darkened areas, the transfer could look way worse than it does, but thankfully, crush is never an issue. You can clearly see the lining of Arrow’s hood with his eyes (even though he’s wearing heavy eye makeup as the character’s “mask”) clearly visible. The lack of extras and the disc size also makes sure there are no real compression issues with aliasing happening twice in the whole series, while banding is non-existent.

ArrowPic2The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is one for the books as well. TV shows never fare well in the sound department when watching it over the air, but on Blu-ray, Arrow really packs a punch. The club and action scenes have spectacular space, directionality, and LFE, with dialogue never getting lost in the mix. You never question what a character said no matter how loud the music or the action gets. Warner Bros. used to release their TV series with Dolby Digital tracks that still sounded better than they ever could during broadcast, but lossless audio is expected these days, and they certainly deliver. It’s definitely on par with the best TV mixes, even if AMC’s Breaking Bad is still as good as it gets. But Arrow certainly has plenty of tricks up its sleeve in the sound department with plenty of shattering glass, breaking wood, or slinging arrows.

The real special features — except for the unaired scenes which are the disc of the episode they were cut from and run a collected 24 minutes — are all confined to the fourth Blu-ray and in HD. Arrow Comes Alive! is a 30-minute behind the scenes look at what it took to bring Arrow to the small screen. Talk of a five season arc is mentioned and how the show’s creators wanted to make sure this wasn’t the happy, sunny Green Arrow that people may have expected and again talk about how much they were influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and their decision to adapt Andy Diggle and Jock’s “Green Arrow: Year One.”

“Arrow: Fight School/Stunt School” is a really fun 19-minute behind the scenes peek at Simon Burnett (Amell’s stunt double), JJ Makaro, and James Bamford’s fight choreography. They all talk about how nice it is to have Amell able to perform a lot of his own fights; something that also surely helps with filming them. “Arrow: Cast and Creative Team at the 2013 PaleyFest” is a 27-minute panel with the cast and crew at what they consider to be an upscale Comic Con, mediated by DC Comics Chief Creative Officer, and one of the show’s writers, Geoff Johns. Things are rounded out with a quick 2-minute “Gag Reel.”

ArrowPic3While I didn’t catch Arrow in its initial run, I am going to make sure I set my DVR to record the second season. Everyone should be tuning in to one of the most fun shows on TV, even if some of the acting isn’t the greatest (Laurel being the worst offender here), and if the show can’t keep away from its CW roots (the song choices are pretty horrific at times). The show’s creators have promised they still have lots of surprises up their sleeves, and the first season features plenty of “holy crap I can’t believe they just did that” moments, including the season finale. It’s one of the biggest surprises of the entire series. Arrow: The Complete First Season features fantastic video and audio and fans, or anyone interested, is sound in picking up this set to catch up or refresh themselves before season two begins airing on October 9.

Cover art and photos courtesy Warner Bros.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘Space Junk’

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘Space Junk’ on Blogcritics.

Most films shown in IMAX deserve to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Even Hollywood directors are finding that IMAX is an even better — and definitely bigger — option than 3D. From Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, or Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the scope and magnitude of the screen’s size helps suck the viewer into their world better than just seeing things in the third dimension. However, when a film is made directly for IMAX and filmed in 3D, it can be an amazing visual experience. And Space Junk 3D, the new IMAX Blu-ray 3D being released on September 17, is no exception — even when viewed at home.

SpaceJunk3DCoverDirector Melissa R. Butts takes viewers on an amazing ride through the galaxies to show us the debris space exploration and technology has left behind. From a trip to Meteor Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona, to the outer reaches of the solar system, Don Kessler (“Father of Space Junk”), and narrator Tom Wilkinson, enlightens viewers to the vastly growing ring of debris orbiting Earth. While it may not seem like a huge deal, this debris is on course to collide with each other at some point. While not all of what’s adrift in space is literal garbage — it ranges from nuts and bolts to space satellites — what goes up doesn’t always come back down. Butts makes sure viewers will think about possible solutions to cleaning up our mess up there, while explaining just how infantile our planet really is.

The 3D 1080p picture is presented on a 25GB disc in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The image looks as amazing as you’d expect from a Blu-ray presentation of an IMAX feature, especially being on a smaller disc size that also includes the 2D version. The lack of special features, and the utilization of the IMAX Solido 3D Camera, makes sure that Butts fills every frame with immense depth. The CGI-rendered graphics, and live-action sequences, are as mesmerizing as you’d expect from the best 3D presentations. Along with Storm Surfers 3D, Space Junk is one of the best live-action 3D presentations on the market. From what I’ve read about the rest of the IMAX 3D Blu-rays, it appears they show no signs of slowing down with each presentation a complete knockout. I did spot one occasion of aliasing on an orbiting satellite, but aside from that, there was no crosstalk, ghosting, banding, crush, noise, nada.

SpaceJunk3DPic2The 5.1 DTS-MA track also is full of fun directional sounds with some surprisingly deep LFE when necessary. Considering most of the film is packed with Wilkinson’s voiceover, everything is delivered crystal clear with surrounds kicking in here and there to envelop the viewer. IMAX theaters are getting used more and more for Hollywood entertainment, but they’ve always been used for educational films first. Space Junk 3D runs a very quick 37 minutes and features the bare minimum of extras. Included are a “Making Of” featuring clips of Wilkinson and Butts; a very short 2-minute “Interview with Tom Wilkinson”; a Behind the Scenes photo gallery; and a long list of additional IMAX 3D trailers including Dinosaurs, The Ultimate Wave: Tahiti, Dinosaurs Alive!, Wild Ocean, and Rescue, to name a few.

Space Junk 3D is a film to give creationists a heart attack, but it’s considerably naïve to assume that Earth is as young as they believe. The solar system is ever expanding and that’s a scientific fact that can’t be denied. The 3D presentation is a definite go-to disc for anyone looking to show off their 3D TV with enough dimensionality to make you almost want to reach into your set and play with the stars on the screen. The audio does its job and the special features are limited enough to make sure the small disc size has ample room to properly display the 3D effects. Space Junk 3D is a welcome addition to the Blu-ray 3D family that will make anyone stop and think about just how miniscule we really are here on Earth, and it comes highly recommended.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ on Blogcritics.

The nostalgia of popping in a new Blu-ray for something you’ve seen numerous times can sometimes make you forgive even the slightest transfer blunders. In the case of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, there’s been massive debate about DNR, color correction, and framing issues. But does any of that really have an affect on the fact that the film still holds up as a true Disney classic? Of course not. Wandering back to the Hundred Acre Wood is always a pleasant escape. The five theatrical Pooh releases show there’s always a reason to revisit A. A. Milne’s anthropomorphic bear and his friends.

PoohBluThe Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was one of the last films Walt Disney was involved in before his death in 1966. Since the full length feature wasn’t released until 1977, it wasn’t the release itself he had a hand in, as much as the vignettes that made up the story. Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree from 1966, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day from 1968, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too from 1974, have been strung together anthology style, and effortlessly so. Keeping audiences of all ages entertained, it actually gets more amusing the older you get, because let’s face it, Pooh Bear is a horrific speller. But it’s all part of the fun as we follow along with Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Christopher Robbin, and Tigger too, on what could be called The Many MISadventures of Winnie the Pooh.

The heated debate will continue to rage on about the BD-50GB MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer framed in a peculiar 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to IMDB, the film was originally in 1.33:1 meaning that the image has been cropped to fill more of your TV screen, but it also means that part of the image is missing. There are many forums dedicated to this mishap and if Disney wanted to fill more of our screens, why didn’t they just go all the way to 1.78? Disney has also taken the time to scrub the image completely clean of any visible grain, taking with it a smidgen of fine detail.

WinnieThePoohPic1I’ve read about the abominable Sword in the Stone release that also washed out the color, but thankfully for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, they’ve gone the opposite route and pumped up the brightness and colors. Bleeding is never an issue, and there is no banding or aliasing present, which just leaves the DNR process for everyone to complain about. The print is also pristine with no nicks, scratches, white specks, or hairs. The all-new 5.1 DTS-HD surround track is even better. Voices are delivered crystal clear, even if nothing else really makes it feel as if a complete 5.1 remix was necessary, aside from most Blu-ray users having at least that kind of home theater equipment. Additionally, there is 2.0 English Dolby Digital, 5.1 French Dolby Digital, and 5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital tracks.

To see what the transfer could have looked like, check out the included transfer for the Pooh short, A Day for Eeyore. It looks better than you’d think, but should look far better considering they took the time to include it. Seeing how they also included some Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh — including If I Wasn’t So Small, Piglet’s Drawings, The Expedition, Geniuses, and The Honey Song — just because they were all released most recently (The Honey Song coming from the new full length Winnie the Pooh from 2011). Even those don’t look as good as they should, but all represent how much better the Eeyore short could be.

WinnieThePoohPicThe rest of the features are rather middling. To kick things off, there’s a 2-minute “Pooh Play-Along” designed to get kids off their butts and do some exercising with the Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, and Christopher Robbin. “The Story Behind the Masterpiece” runs 25-minutes, and is ported over from the original DVD release, and is self-explanatory. And finally, a music video from Carly Simon is included as she performs the Winnie the Pooh theme song — which has probably been running through your head this whole time. If you pick up the right copy, there’s a Winnie the Pooh kite inside, along with a DVD copy of the film and access to a digital copy.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, regardless of what one thinks about the video quality — let’s face it, it could have looked way worse, and my wife thinks it looks better than she’s ever seen, considering she remembers watching it countless times on a VHS tape — is a very welcomed addition to a growing Disney classic Blu-ray library. I asked a friend if their daughter would like the kite that was included and was told, “She knows who he is, but doesn’t really watch it. She would love anything that gets her outside though,” and I couldn’t help but find it disheartening to think that a new generation are starting to leave these things behind. Children’s programming today is a disaster, and the more classics like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh see a Blu-ray release, the better.