Thursday, October 31, 2013

Movie Review: 'Bad Grandpa'

**** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Bad Grandpa' on Blogcritics.

Few films are more difficult to review than those consisting of a string of sketches. In the case of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat, it was easy to point its humor and the amount of scathing satire contained within. When it comes to something like the Jackass movies, they are nothing more than pranks; not that there’s anything wrong that. So it was rather surprising to see the gang’s new film, Bad Grandpa, bearing an actual narrative to move the plot along.

BadGrandpaPic1Taking a huge note from Borat, Johnny Knoxville returns to the big screen as the titular character, 86-year-old Irving Zisman, heading cross country with his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll). Irving’s wife has just died and on top of that, his daughter has shown up late to the funeral, only to dump Billy in his lap and demand Irving return Billy to his father in North Carolina. Now, Irving must hit the road, stopping everywhere in between Nebraska and North Carolina to raise as much hell as possible along the way.

The full title of the film is Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and they definitely deliver more of the same. If you’re a fan of the Jackass hooligans then you’ll find plenty to laugh at here. Not every prank is a piece of comedy gold, and director Jeff Tremaine keeps the yuks and yucks arriving at high speed. Unfortunately, the so-called screenplay, credited to Tremaine, Knoxville, and Spike Jonze (yes, the same man behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are), almost comes to a complete halt anytime they veer away from whatever prank they have up their sleeve.

BadGrandpaPic2Thankfully, the pranks the Jackass crew did come up with are pretty much all hilarious, if not just from watching a poor innocent bystander’s reactions. They even saved the funniest for last involving a beauty pageant — but let’s just say they’ve elevated fart gags to a whole new level. Bad Grandpa is obviously not for everyone but if you’re looking for lewd, crude, and hilarious, Bad Grandpa is one for the books.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Movie Review: 'Escape Plan'

*** 1/2 out of 5
116 minutes
Rated R for violence and language throughout
Summit Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Escape Plan' on Blogcritics.

If two stars ever needed a second chance at a comeback this year, it is definitely Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone’s Bullet to the Head made a mere $9 million domestically while Arnie’s The Last Stand only made $37 million worldwide against its $45 million budget. Considering these two used to be two of the top stars in the ’80s and ’90s, they definitely needed something to get their juices flowing at the box office. Seeing how Arnie made appearances in both Expendables films, it should come as no surprise to see them joining forces yet again in this weekend’s Escape Plan.

EscapePlanPic1In Escape Plan, Ray Breslin (Stallone) makes his living escaping from federal prisons for the security firm he runs with his partner, Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio). After having just escaped from a Colorado prison, CIA lawyer Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe), offers Breslin $5 million to break out of a top-secret, privately funded prison. His associates Abigail Ross (Amy Ryan) and Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) don’t like the idea, but sure enough, Breslin is swept away to his new home inside “The Tomb,” run by Warden Willard Hobbs (Jim Caviezel). Now, Breslin must team up with fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) to figure out how to escape from the prison Hobbs designed based on the book that Breslin literally wrote.

Escape Plan just may wind up being one of the year’s most unnecessarily convoluted. Screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller spend so much time in the final scenes tying up loose ends that you forget where they came from. And for being marketed as an action film, there really isn’t too much action until we get to the end. It plays out more like a detective thriller with the Italian Stallion figuring out how to make his great escape. The “Governator” seems to be relishing another return to the big screen, making sure all of his one-liners are as hilarious as they used to be back in the golden days.

Stallone even makes Breslin one of his more likeable characters. He was never my favorite action star but he works very well playing off of Schwarzenegger. The only person who sticks out is Caviezel, who sucks the life out of every scene he’s in. Even Sam Neill, playing the doctor with a heart of gold, seems more natural to the story. Maybe if Caviezel had played Hobbs as more of an eccentric he would’ve worked, but I think we all know that kind of portrayal is out of his range. As it stands, director Mikael Håfström delivers the over-the-top action we want when the finale finally kicks in. With a running time of 116 minutes, I feared it would be way too long, but the pace manages to fly by. Escape Plan is a welcome return to form for both Stallone and Schwarzenegger.

Photo courtesy Summit Entertainment

Blu-ray Review: 'The Heat'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Heat' on Blogcritics.

Sometimes re-watching a film at home can make you wonder why you loved it in the first place. Good thing that isn’t the case with The Heat hitting home video on October 15. I stand by my word that Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy bring on the funny; the film is just as hilarious a second time around. Director Paul Feig rings every ounce of hilarity he can from Katie Dippold’s screenplay, and then some, with the special features showcasing just how much ad-libbing there was on set.

TheHeatCoverAvailable in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack featuring both the original theatrical version and an unrated cut (a Blu-ray exclusive, along with all the extras), you get way more funny for your money, especially with the truckload of extras on hand. My full review of the theatrical release can be found here.

The Heat fires onto Blu-ray in a nearly faultless MPEG-4 AVC encode. The 35mm cinematography from Kevin Yeoman is presented almost flawlessly. There is at least one instance of shimmer in an aerial shot of a bridge and in the yearbook inscription at the end of the film. Aside from that, detail is impeccable, rendering every piece of flaking paint and grime of each Boston location. Shadows are better resolved than when I saw the film theatrically, now you can actually see that it is Jane Curtin driving by flipping off her daughter as she drives by.

Sharpness is so well defined that everything from the various suit lapels to every ball chain of McCarthy’s dog tag are distinguished. Unfortunately, the spectacular resolution does make a warehouse explosion look even faker than it did in theaters. Aliasing, banding, and crush never make an appearance. As for the audio, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio may be front heavy, but what else would you expect from a comedy? Surrounds are used to create some fun ambience to the location shooting with some great sound mixing whenever one of the film’s songs kicks in. Dialogue is delivered with crystal clarity, making sure you hear every foul-mouthed diatribe spewed from McCarthy’s insanely hilarious mouth.

TheHeatPic2You want special features? You came to the right place. Considering how many are crammed onto the 50GB disc, it’s amazing it never took a toll on the picture quality. Although, you could just call the special features a smorgasbord of outtakes because that’s really all they are. On top of the extra three minutes of runtime in the unrated version of the film, you get five types of audio commentaries! “The Commentary Track In Which the Director of The Heat Talks Endlessly About The Heat” is only available on the unrated version, with director Paul Feig hilariously sharing his love for the film and its production. “The Commentary Track In Which Melissa McCarthy and Other Great People from The Heat Talk About The Heat” runs on the theatrical version and consists of McCarthy, Feig, writer Dippold, Mike McDonald, Adam Ray, and Jesse Henderson. This one sounds like they recorded it while having a cast party, and is chock full of all kinds of hilarious anecdotes.

The next three are all fun in their own way and all run over the theatrical release. “The Commentary Track In Which Some of the Mullins Family Discuss The Heat” features Paul Feig along with Gina (Jessica Chaffin), Beth (Jamie Denbo), and Mr. and Mrs. Mullins (Michael Tucci and Jane Curtin). “Attend the June 23, 2013 Premiere of The Heat at Ziegfeld Theater in the Comfort of Your Own Home!” is a surprisingly funny way of watching The Heat as a sitcom by adding a laugh track to the film. And finally, “The Original Lineup from Mystery Science Theater 3000 Comments on The Heat” comes off as a missed opportunity. While it’s great to hear them back together again, there’s not really much for them to play off on screen considering they’re trying to crack jokes about a film that’s already a comedy.

Like I said, the rest of the special features are basically a huge mass of outtakes; “Welcome to the Bonus Features” finds Feig hilariously welcoming you to the bonus features, from here on he introduces each of them as a different “director” such as “J.J. Abrams: director of Gone With the Wind.” “Mullins Family Fun” runs nine minutes and features the Mullins clan spew endlessly classless lines. “Acting Master Class” is an eight-minute excursion into the antics of Bullock, McCarthy, and scotch tape. “Let’s Get Physical” is a six-minute string of cut/flubbed physical gags. “Police Brutality” is six minutes of McCarthy’s altered lines. “Von Bloopers” is 15 minutes of bloopers. “Supporting Cast Cavalcade” is seven minutes of supporting cast bloopers. “Over and Out” is a 36-second outro featuring Feig.

TheHeatPic1As if that wasn’t enough, there is almost a half hour’s worth of deleted/extended/alternate scenes which are actually funnier than any of the aforementioned special features. “All the Stuff We Had to Take Out But Still Think is Funny” consists of the deleted scenes: “Advice,” “Jail Talk,” “Pimp Walk,” “Dogs & Cats,” “It’s a Code,” “Battle of the Minds,” “Make Some Pants,” “Darts,” “Hospital Visit,” “Nip it in the Bud,” and “Cur-tan.” The extended scenes include: “Let’s Go,” “Hot/Cold,” “Drop a Deuce,” “Target,” “Two Truths and a Lie,” “Strong Stream,” “Bad-minten,” “Scrotum,” “Clarice Starling,” “Bottom of the Bowl,” “Wink,” and “Toast.” The alternate scenes include: “Squeeze Out,” “You’re Leaving,” “In a Weird Place,” and “e.e. cummings.” A 19-minute behind the scenes featurette called “How The Heat Was Made” is self-explanatory, but really fun. There’s also a couple of “Live Extras” consisting of “Gina and Beth Welcome Reporters to the Press Junket” and “Sandra and Melissa Meet Gina and Beth.”

Phew! We made it through the listing of the extras, which by my count is more than enough to warrant a purchase. The film is still as hilarious as it was in theaters, even with only three extra minutes, the unrated version doesn’t offer much more. However, I think they left plenty more where that came from in the extras department, and an almost flawless presentation makes buying this fan-favorite a no brainer. With The Heat 2 still listed as “Rumored” on IMDB, I still welcome a further misadventure with FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn and Boston police detective Shannon Mullins, and can’t wait to see who the girls aim to take down next.

Blu-ray Review: 'Drug War'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Drug War' on Blogcritics.

If there’s any director working today hell-bent on becoming the next Martin Scorcese, it’s Hong Kong director Johnnie To. With the classic gangster films Election, Election 2, and Throw Down, To has a new notch on his belt with Drug War, available October 15 on Blu-ray from Well Go USA. Drug War also lends itself some resemblance to Infernal Affairs, and may seem reminiscent of Scorcese’s remake, The Departed.

DrugWarCoverArtDrug lord Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) has just been arrested after he crashes his car into the front of a restaurant. Choi runs a meth lab and after an explosion kills his wife and brothers, he wants to make a deal with police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei). Choi will help the police take down his partners to avoid the death penalty, but Zhang can’t help but be suspicious of Choi’s honesty as they move in on their bust.

To keeps Choi’s loyalties at bay for most of the film, until the final act where all hell finally breaks loose on the streets of Hong Kong. With four writers credited (Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, and Yu Xi), the script could have been a bullet-riddled mess, but To keeps the suspense boiling, with plenty of surprises throughout the runtime. Koo and Honglei play fantastically off each other, with a supporting cast having a lot of fun making you second guess Choi’s accomplices at every turn. The finale is one for the books and will definitely keep viewers on the edge of their couches.

Well Go USA throws Drug War onto a 25GB disc, which is more than enough room considering there are absolutely no special features. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film may have been photographed on 35mm, but grain is pretty absent. Maybe it was stripped during the 2K conversion, but it never takes a complete toll on sharpness. While it could look a tad sharper, detail never diminishes. Blacks could be a little more solid, but this manages to keep shadow delineation accurate.

DrugWarPic1A scratch shows up at the 45:42 mark and a slight shimmer is seen late in the film, otherwise, Drug War is another top notch transfer which is what’s come to be expected from Well Go USA releases. The film is presented in a Chinese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio which is extremely front heavy, but makes use of surrounds when the action finally kicks in, with directionality adding to the ambience, pitting you in the middle of whatever’s happening. English subtitles are also available.

Johnnie To’s Drug War isn’t out to change the rules of the genre, but To and his screenplay never stops raising its own stakes as the tension mounts to a boiling point. At first I thought maybe the film would bare more in common with Breaking Bad. But, as I said, it definitely sits alongside To’s previous gangster outings, the Infernal Affairs series, or any of Scorsese’s gangster features. It may not be a complete masterpiece, but for the 107 minute runtime, Drug War keeps you guessing right up until the very end and is more than worthy of a blind buy for suspense connoisseurs.

Cover art and photo courtesy Well Go USA

Blu-ray 3D Review: 'The Croods'

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: 'The Croods' on Blogcritics.

For a little while, it seemed as though DreamWorks Animation was really out to take down the powerhouse that is Pixar Animation Studios. As long as the title didn’t feature the words Shrek or Madagascar, they were really starting to do no wrong. But just when things seemed to be forever in their favor, the animation studio’s contract with Paramount Pictures came to an end and they moved to Twentieth Century Fox. With their final release through Paramount (Rise of the Guardians) it seemed to fizzle and fade from the box office. My full review of the film itself can be found here.

TheCroods3DNow, their first Fox title The Croods, is arriving on Blu-ray 3D in a combo pack with the 2D disc, DVD, and a Digital HD UltraViolet copy on October 1. Upon second viewing, it sure doesn’t seem as fun as it did back in March. Hopefully, the announced sequel can liven things up, but the direction DreamWorks seems to be heading with Fox doesn’t look great. While Turbo hasn’t been released on Blu-ray yet, I have a feeling that it won’t be as much fun the second time around either. With a slate of more original fare — and obligatory sequels — they should still keep themselves afloat. At least their days of Shrek the Third, Bee Movie, and Shark Tale are behind them.

The Croods arrives on Blu-ray 3D in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a MPEG-4 encode. The 2D transfer is quite a stunner featuring all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a brand new computer-animated feature. Everything is razor sharp; from hair to facial features, to clothing and creature skins. The 3D unfortunately, doesn’t offer up the kind of wow factor you’d expect. Too many early parts of the film take place in shadows or darkness, killing any chance of depth. The opening breakfast sequence is the only scene to deliver the kind of 3D you want.

There are a few scenes with dust particles or burning embers that seem to float out of the screen, but it’s not until after “the end” begins, and the loveable Croods venture into their new world that you get the kind of 3D imagery you paid for. On the other hand, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is exactly what you’d expect. Music and dialogue come through crystal clear while the surrounds take full advantage of sweeping you into the fictitious “Croodaceous” period. Rain effect fills your room with falling water, and a maze segment makes fantastic use of directionality. LFE is used appropriately, which you’d expect with their world coming to a booming end.

The special features are a little lacking, if only because they’re tailor made for kid viewers. “The Croodaceous Creatures of Croods” features 40-second segments centering on each creature found throughout the film including Belt, Bear Owl, Liyote, Piranhakeet, Punch Monkey, Turtle Dove, Turkeyfish, Girelephant, and Sharkodile. “Belt’s Cave Journal” is a 6-minute animated feature consisting of Belt’s drawings of his adventures with Guy, including their new pet, the Jackrobat.

Croods’ Cuts (Lost Scenes)” is 8 minutes of storyboard animated deleted scenes; there’s an introduction with co-directors/co-writers Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, and include “Crazy Grug,” “It’s Rain,” “It’s a Great Cave,” and “Termites.” “It’s a Great Cave” is the one exception that is completed animation. To round things out, there’s a theatrical trailer, as well as sneak peeks for Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, DreamWorks Holiday Classics Collection, Turbo, Shrek the Musical, and Epic. The “World of DreamWorks Animation” features segments highlighting Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, and the Kung Fu Pandas.

The Croods is far from a masterpiece, but it is definitely a step up from what passes for children’s entertainment from most studios. However, as the year marches on, family offerings keep improving. Unfortunately for The Croods, I had watched the Blu-ray 3D of Pacific Rim the day before and this just doesn’t have the same kind of wow factor as that did, and Pacific Rim is a live-action post-converted 3D. However, with a stellar 2D disc, and fantastic audio, The Croods is still a worthy addition to your ever expanding Blu-ray family films, and is available now.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review: 'Captain Phillips'

***** out of 5
134 minutes 
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
Columbia Pictures 

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Captain Phillips' on Blogcritics.

Since I’m not a news junkie, I don’t usually have to worry about spoilers regarding movies based on recent events. I was quite surprised to learn that Jay Moriarty had drowned in 2001 when watching Chasing Mavericks, and I knew even less about the events that take place in Captain Phillips. I knew Tom Hanks portrays the titular Captain Richard Phillips and at some point would be taken hostage by Somali pirates. Anyone who’s seen Greengrass’s United 93 knows the kind of authenticity he can bring to true-life events, and even with a PG-13 rating, Greengrass winds up delivering the year’s tightest thriller and the most suspenseful film since Argo.

CaptainPhillipsPic1Beginning the morning of March 28, 2009, Phillips has just received orders to report to the Port of Salalah in Oman to captain the Maersk Alabama cargo ship from Salalah to Mombasa. In Eyl, Somalia, Muse (Barkhard Abdi) has recruited three men to join him in hijacking the Maersk. Full of quick thinking, Phillips turns the raid into a game of cat and mouse after Muse refuses to accept an offer of $30,000 cash and a way off the ship in the lifeboat. Muse and his men take Phillips hostage aboard the lifeboat and soon the pirates are up against the Navy, while Phillips fears for his life.

To avoid spoilers, that’s all I will say about the plot. For anyone who knows what happens from this point should stay mum. Screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach, Shattered Glass) adapts Phillips’ true-life account A Captain’s Duty (co-written by Stephan Talty) and keeps the action streamlined, even if condensed for screen time. Hanks, as Phillips, gives one of his best performances in years. But when doesn’t he? To fill the Somali pirate roles, Greengrass put out a casting call and Abdi, along with his fellow Somali actors, provide the necessary menace, but also happen to lend a surprising amount of humanity to their characters.

CaptainPhillipsPic2For anyone worried about the typical Greengrass shaky-cam, Captain Phillips is his most visually coherent film yet. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse make sure you always know what’s going on, something especially worthy of applause considering how out of control the cinematography from Ackroyd was in Greengrass’s last film, Green Zone. It probably helps that Rouse has edited every Hollywood film Greengrass has directed. Admittedly, the beginning of the movie feels slightly padded, but once the pirates finally hijack the ship, it’s non-stop nail-biting tension. The Oscar race is officially underway.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 'The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition' on Blogcritics.

With The Exorcist celebrating its 40th anniversary, there isn’t much left that can be said about the film. I suppose the best thing to do is to share a few personal thoughts about my experience with the film. Warner Bros. uses the moniker “The scariest movie of all time” in just about all of its marketing for The Exorcist. How scary is it really? Just like every horror film, scary is completely objective. My not being a religious person keeps the film from its full potential I suppose, but I can see how it could scare the living daylights out of others.

ExorcistCoverI remember the first time I tried to watch The Exorcist. It was on late-night TV and way past my bedtime. I stayed up late hoping to get the bejesus scared out of me, only to find myself bored into a deep slumber. Years later, I rented the film on DVD because the marketing machine never stops on this and it continues to make the rounds every Halloween season.  I knew if it was going to make its correct impact, I couldn’t watch an edited for TV version. Popping in the disc, I watched the entire movie, still not finding it exactly scary. Again, I could see how it could have an effect on the religious viewer and I could also see why it was considered a classic.

Putting in the Blu-ray disc this past Sunday, I finally saw The Exorcist in a new light, being considerably older than either of my previous attempts with it. I finally see now, William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s attempts at infusing the film with a more scientific approach about poor atheist Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) battle with what could possibly be the Devil himself from taking control over her helpless daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) soul. While still not scaring the pants off of me, I finally see what all the fuss is about. And, the most surprising aspect is that now I see how the film feels more like a mystery, playing with the aspects of whether her innocent daughter really may be possessed by the Devil, or how it could be all in her head.

The Exorcist makes its 40th Anniversary on Blu-ray in nearly the exact same release previously available as a two-disc set featuring both the Director’s Extended Cut and the Original Theatrical Release. Both versions are on their own 50GB discs in an opened up 1.78:1 aspect ratio, still packed with extras, but they never take their toll on the picture quality. Long story short, aside from a sprinkling of noise in the darkest of shots, the transfer looks spectacular. I cannot confirm if this is the new 4K master that Friedkin has been talking about having just approved, but some of the defects seen on the previous release don’t seem to be found here.

ExorcistPic1Clarity is astounding, particularly in the dusty opening scenes in the Iraqi desert. A case could be made of some slight DNR imperfections if you look closely at the skies as the grain appears to be frozen in midair. However, the banding is gone, and there are no other anomalies to speak of aside from the faint noise. The same 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has been carried over and is as creepy as ever. (A 5.1 mix is on the Original Theatrical Cut.) LFE creates some unsettling booms while directionality makes scenes like Chris’s venture into the attic and any scene taking place in Regan’s room after she becomes possessed. It is suitably effective with sound effects and the dialogue is crisp and clean. If you haven’t seen or heard The Exorcist on Blu-ray, you haven’t seen or heard The Exorcist. I can imagine this is the best it will ever look or sound outside of a 35mm projection in a theater.

The only new special features sit on their own Blu-ray disc, but only add up to about 47 minutes of new material. While short and sweet, they are still interesting. “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist” consists of Blatty roaming around the cabin where he wrote 90% of the original novel. He spends most of the time talking about how he can’t believe he’s back where it all started, but does make mention of how the “Exorcist Steps” will always be the “Hitchcock Steps” to him because of their use in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. He also reads excerpts from his novel while scenes from the film play over it. The second, “Talk of the Devil,” runs 20 minutes and features interviews with Father Eugene Ghallager and Mike Siegel. Ghallager mentions how he knows Blatty took some of his classes while in attendance at Georgetown University, and encourages scientists to start looking into the factual realm of possession in the form of Parapsychological Phenomena.

The remaining special features are the same from the 2010 release. The Extended Director’s Cut includes the three-part documentary broken up into “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist,” “The Exorcist Locations: Then and Now,” and “Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist.” A set of trailers, and TV and radio spots round out the Extended disc, along with the commentary from Friedkin. The Original Theatrical Cut includes all the same features as well: an introduction by Friedkin; two commentaries featuring one from Friedkin and one from Blatty; “The Fear of God;” “Filmmaker Interviews;” “Sketches and Storyboards;” the “Original Ending;” and finally, “Trailers and TV Spots.” Also included is a hardcover excerpt from Friedkin’s recently published The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir.

ExorcistPic2If you already own any of the previously released editions of The Exorcist on Blu-ray, you already have nearly all of what’s included here. However, for anyone who’s been holding out, it appears that the 40th Anniversary Edition has a slight upgrade in video quality, while featuring the same stellar audio track, and all of the special features with two new noteworthy additions. With the inclusion of the book excerpt, this is a grand edition worth picking up if you don’t already have The Exorcist in your Blu-ray collection, and is available October 8, just in time for your Halloween viewing pleasure.

Cover art and photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Blu-ray Review: 'Curse of Chucky'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Curse of Chucky' on Blogcritics.

Twenty-five years later and it may come as a complete surprise to see the Child’s Play series still going strong. A fan from the start, I’ve always had a soft spot for little Chucky (played and voiced by Brad Dourif in every installment) and his murderous antics. While the sequels may have gotten sillier with each entry (culminating in self-referential status by the time Seed of Chucky rolled around) creator Don Mancini is taking Chucky back to his roots, with Curse of Chucky, the darkest entry in the series since the original on October 8, along with Chucky: The Complete Collection, bundling all six films (four for the first time) on Blu-ray.

CurseOfChuckyCoverCurse begins with the arrival of a mysterious package to the isolated home of paraplegic Nica (Fiona Dourif) and her mother, Sarah (Chantal Quesnelle). Inside the box is, of course, Chucky. Creeped out by the doll, Sarah dumps poor little Chucky into the garbage. Later that night, Nica is awoken by her mother’s scream and finds her dead in the foyer. Now, her sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti) comes calling to get their mother’s affairs in order and try to talk Nica into selling the house. Along for the trip is Barb’s husband Ian (Brennan Elliott), their daughter Alice (Summer H. Howell), her caretaker Jill (Maitland McConnell); and Father Frank (A Martinez). It’s not long before Chucky starts talking to Alice, and everyone starts dropping like flies.

Curse of Chucky comes in an absolute perfect, digitally filmed 1080p presentation. If you can find anything wrong with the transfer, you’re one up on me. There’s no aliasing, banding, color bleed, crush, not even noise to be found. Most shots deliver the requisite 3D pop Blu-ray owners want from their displays, even if it’s not exactly the kind of movie you’d pop in to show off your setup. Colors are nice and vibrant with razor sharp detail lending every crack and peel of the sets the gothic appearance necessary for this kind of production. It also helps make the practical effects, and animatronics, look even more lifelike, adding an extra layer to the “ew” factor. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track keeps things eerie as well. Dialogue is always clean, with a rainstorm keeping things active on the LFE front.

The special features are chock-full and leave no stone unturned. First is an audio commentary featuring Mancini, Fiona Dourif, and puppeteer Tony Gardner. Dourif and Gardner had not seen the final cut until this recording, but the trio keep things lively offering up all kinds of anecdotes, with even Gardner admitting that the Chucky dolls were the bane of the production. A rather lengthy “Storyboard Comparisons” runs 25-minutes and is introduced by Mancini, covering four scenes: “Electrocution,” “The Attic,” “Ian’s Death,” and “Nica vs. Chucky.”

CurseOfChuckyPic2A quick 87-second “Gag Reel” consists mostly of a surprise character flubbing lines and dropping a prop. Six minutes of “Deleted Scenes” include wisely excised material. “Playing with Dolls: The Making of Curse of Chucky” offers traditional behind the scenes interviews with cast and crew, but also delve into the special effects and stunt work, running 15 minutes. “Living Doll: Bringing Chucky to Life” is an 8-minute featurette showing the different stages of the Chucky doll, with the 7-minute “Voodoo Doll: The Chucky Legacy” showing cast and crew talking about the series’ longevity and their favorite kills throughout the franchise.

Curse may be the first direct-to-video release for Chucky, but it has even higher production values than Seed, the last theatrical release. The cast is clearly having a ball starring in the latest edition of the surprisingly still spry Chucky series, Brad Dourif in particular seems to still relish his pint-sized role. But Mancini must be given props for making it to a sixth installment, and some surprises in the final scenes clear the path for some new routes he can take, especially a bonus scenes after the end credits. It’s a nice touch to the fans, and all I’ll say is it’s something we’ve been waiting for since Child’s Play 2. I’m glad to see Universal continuing to bring us the further adventures of Chucky, even if straight-to-video; Curse of Chucky looks to be the beginning of a whole new era to the franchise, and I can’t wait to see where Mancini heads next.

Cover art and photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Blu-ray Review: 'Zombie Hunter'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Zombie Hunter' on Blogcritics.

While IMDB may be the best place to find information regarding a film and the people behind it, sometimes the information is a little vague. Turning to Wikipedia is usually the next best step. So when you can’t even find the film there — considering anyone and everyone can edit any page they want — it’s not a good sign. Especially when the film you’re trying to find features Danny Trejo in a bit part and is featured prominently on the Blu-ray cover. The most information I was able to figure out regarding co-writer/director Kevin King’s debut, Zombie Hunter, was from the film’s end credits; really not a good sign. Turning to Arrowstorm Entertainment’s Wiki page, I was finally able to find a link to the film, but still provided no info. Nevertheless, Zombie Hunter is headed to Blu-ray on October 8 from Well Go USA.

ZombieHunterCoverAlas, Zombie Hunter is the tale of Hunter (Martin Copping), who travels alone through a post-apocalyptic zombie plagued landscape. A drug called “Natas” has swept the land, turning anyone who uses it into rotting walking zombies. After Hunter is shot through the shoulder and crashes his beloved Camaro, he’s taken in by a group of survivors consisting of girl next door Alison (Clare Niederpruem), her brother Ricky (Jason K. Wixom), slutty Debbie (Jade Reiger), fat slob Lyle (Jake Suazo), handyman Jerry (Terry Guthrie), and one-man-zombie-slayer Jesus (Trejo). Soon enough, they’re under attack and must all band together to make it to an abandoned airstrip where their only hope for survival is Jerry’s piloting skills.

Zombie Hunter lurches onto Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Seemingly filmed digitally, I did not detect any aliasing, shimmer, or crush; the only anomalies stem from some intermittent banding and one shot with a slight judder as two characters race into frame. Other than that, the image is about as clean as you’d expect. Featuring a very active 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, the music makes good use of LFE levels, with the zombie action displayed across all speakers. Not much room for directionality to be put to good use, but the sound field is very spacious. The only special feature is a trailer; and a set of previews for future Well Go USA titles: A Single Shot, The Seasoning House, and Ip Man: The Final Fight.

ZombieHunterPic1King does have some decent visuals, but the action comes too little too late. Not to mention that the only character of interest (Trejo) barely has enough screentime to warrant his face featured so prominently on the Blu-ray cover. The rest of the cast is pretty horrible aside from Copping and Niederpruem. I was told by a colleague that Zombie Hunter had a booth set up at this year’s inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con, but I only recall noticing a standee of Trejo set up near the Press/VIP ticket booth, but nothing made me think it was related to any kind of zombie movie. While it may feature a few local Utah actors, Zombie Hunter is the kind of direct-to-video affair you’d expect to see piling up in the $5 Wal-Mart movie bin; but even then, Redbox is cheaper than that.

Cover art and photo courtesy Well Go USA

Monday, October 7, 2013

DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh’

Article first published as DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh’ on Blogcritics.

With zombies rising from dead at an alarming rate on TV and in theaters, it must be hard coming up with something new to add to the heap. Leave it to the BBC to conjure something rather brilliant with Dominic Mitchell’s In the Flesh. The showrunners for The Walking Dead could learn a thing or two from watching this show. While it may feature the undead walking amongst the living, In the Flesh feels far more… fleshed out. The first season only consists of three hour-long episodes, available on DVD October 8 from BBC Home Entertainment.

InTheFleshIn rural Roarton, Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) is a “Rotter,”  on his way home to his parents, Steve and Sue (Steve Cooper and Marie Critchley), and sister Jem (Harriet Cains). Recently rehabilitated — and medicated — Kieren finds new life but not without a few bumps along the way. The town is overrun with members of the HVF (Human Volunteer Force), led by Bill Macy (Steve Evets), including Jem. Meanwhile, Vicar Oddie (Kenneth Cranham) is busy convincing the town that anyone suffering from PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome), is merely a shell of their departed loved ones, and speaks of a second rising, in which only the good will rise again. Soon enough, tension comes to head after the arrival of Bill’s son Rick (David Walmsley), another sufferer of PDS, and Kieren’s best mate.

Director Jonny Campbell keeps things moving along at a clip, with just enough loose ends left open for the second series set to air in 2014. From the description of the second series on the Wikipedia page, it sounds like series creator Mitchell found plenty of room to enhance and broaden the scope of the second series. Anyone worried about the violence being dumbed down need not worry, there’s plenty of blood and brains to go around with the story. Speaking of which, In the Flesh also makes sure to pack plenty of emotion giving the actors more than enough to chew on. It was nice to see a particular plot point used naturally to further the characterization instead of using it as an allegorical crutch.

Unfortunately, there are no special features on the BBC DVD; just the three episode arc making up the first series. Having In the Flesh available stateside is enough of a treat — just in time for the Halloween season — and I can’t wait to see what tricks Mitchell has in store with the next season.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Movie Review: 'Gravity'

***** out of 5
90 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Gravity' (2013) on Blogcritics.

Warner Bros. sure has a bunch of the leading filmmakers working for them at the moment and they all seem to be performing at the top of their game. Zack Snyder has finally managed to reboot Superman with Man of Steel. Guillermo del Toro provided one of the best American kaiju movies with Pacific Rim (at least until Gareth Edwards delivers the new Godzilla next year). Now they’ve got Alfonso Cuarón making good on the mind-blowing feat of almost an entire film set in zero gravity and in one of the best uses of 3D possibly ever with his appropriately titled film, Gravity.

GravityPic1Medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are up above the world so high, working on a space station orbiting Earth. While another comrade is in the background floating around, Matt is making sure he keeps Ryan’s nerves under control. This is her first trip to space for NASA and she’s more than a little out of her element, while Matt is on his farewell mission. When Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris) informs them that the Russians have launched a missile strike against one of their own satellites, all hell breaks loose as debris wipes out their station and Ryan is sent spiraling out into the vast emptiness of space. Now, Matt must find her using his jet pack and rescue them both after they find the other astronaut with a hole through his head. With Ryan’s oxygen running out, it’s a race against time to find another station for safety.

The best way to describe Gravity would be to call it 127 Hours: A Space Odyssey. Cuaron’s visuals should get that Oscar now, along with the sound design. As characters float around the screen, their voices are heard hovering around the entire theater with nothing more than whatever they’re hearing inside their suit. Considering all of the action takes place literally in space, there’s also no real sound whenever something happens to be dismantling right around the terrified Bullock. Our only real source of sound is the spectacular score composed by Steven Price. While I may have declared Insidious: Chapter 2 the year’s hands down scariest film, Gravity is a whole different kind of scary. What’s not terrifying about being lost in space with an oxygen tank running low? Not to mention that having just reviewed the 3D Blu-ray Space Junk, the horror rings true because this is exactly the kind of danger the documentary warned of.

GravityPic2Gravity’s visuals are even better than Life of Pi and seeing how that film can be nominated for Best Picture, then Gravity is a guaranteed shoe-in. Running a scant 91 minutes, Gravity packs more visual gravitas, characterization, and emotion than most films could ever dream. This is the kind of film where Bullock reminds us why she deserves an Oscar—just not for The Blind Side. Be sure to take some Dramamine if you have any issues with motion sickness. What theaters should do is issue oxygen masks upon entry, because you’re going to need it. By the time Gravity is over, you won’t have much of an adrenal gland left. Also be sure to see it in IMAX 3D. My screening was not, but I intend to see it again on the biggest, brightest 3D screen imaginable. Gravity is one of the best films of the year, and it’s going to take a huge feat to knock this one out of orbit.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘Fright Night 2: New Blood’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Fright Night 2: New Blood’ on Blogcritics.

First things first: don’t let the title Fright Night 2 (subtitled New Blood) fool you. This film is not a straight-to-video sequel, it’s another remake. Yes, another Fright Night has somehow found its way to being made. Being from the producers (Michael J. Gaeta and Alison R. Rosenzweig) of the 2011 remake of the original 1985 classic, you would think that maybe they could have cobbled together an actual sequel seeing how they put the number “2” after the title, but all we have from screenwriter Matt Venne, is a change of setting and gender of a major character. Fright Night 2: New Blood is available now on Blu-ray, but fans of either of the other two Fright Nights will feel like they’ve been flipped the middle finger.

FrightNight2CoverIn this second remake of Fright Night, Charley Brewster (Will Payne) is studying abroad in Romania with his best friend ‘Evil’ Ed (Chris Waller), and his ex-girlfriend Amy (Sacha Parkinson). Amy is having trust issues with Charley after he kissed another girl, and ‘Evil’ Ed keeps reminding Charley that they live in a free-market and has plans to hook up with Amy while they’re split up. Meanwhile, their professor, Gerri Dandridge (Jaime Murray), seems to be up to something after Charley sees her making out with a girl in her open window, right across from his hotel room. Now, Charley must convince ‘Evil’ Ed and Amy that they have a vampire problem, while enlisting the help of ghost-hunting reality TV host, Peter Vincent (Sean Power), who believes more in showering strippers with dollar bills than real-life monsters.

If all this sounds familiar, then prepare yourself for the audio commentary featured as a Blu-ray exclusive. Director Eduardo Rodriguez, along with producers Gaeta and Rosenzweig, pat themselves on the back constantly for what they keep calling their “sequel.” Rodriguez even goes so far as to call this his version of the “Bond” franchise where it may be the same characters, but they can always be played by different actors. Maybe I’m wrong, but merely changing the setting does not make it a sequel. When all of the plot points are exactly the same, just because Venne squeezed in a new subplot that Gerri may be the original Dracula (aka Countess Elizabeth Bathory), again, does not make your film a sequel.

The trio also praises Venne for delivering a first draft to them in a week. Considering this is based off two pre-existing films, it couldn’t have been too hard. The only other special features are a group of “Fright Night Webisodes” featuring Peter Vincent prowling around Romanian castles running a combined 12 minutes; a 6-minute featurette called “Dracula Revealed” featuring author Rebecca Johns, along with the cast, discussing the real Countess Elizabeth Bathory; pre-menu trailers for “The Blu-ray Experience,” Carrie, Twixt, and Vikings. There’s also a “Sneak Peeks” section with more previews for 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded, Stoker, The East, and American Horror Story: Asylum.

FrightNight2Pic1If you’re going to bear witness to Fright Night 2, at least it looks good on the video side of things. Biting onto Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the commentary at least sheds light that it was filmed with RED digital cameras so the presentation is as shiny as you’d expect. There were some cases of slight crush with background detail getting swallowed up, but the blacks are nice and inky nevertheless, and crush never creeps in when you need to see what’s happening. Aliasing was non-existent, but banding cropped up here and there in some sky shots. There were a few instances of sporadic noise, but it was almost a blink and you’d miss it affair. It’s a pretty slick production and along with the excellent video, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is way more loud and aggressive than you’d expect for a movie that moves along so slowly. But the surrounds keep the listening field super-active, with dialogue crisp and clean, and directionality on-point. The LFE levels will also make sure you don’t fall asleep when things start to get creepy.

During the commentary, the producers claim that Fox has big plans for the franchise from here, but I can’t see how anyone will be picking up this supposed “sequel” considering the 2011 remake bombed at the box office. Home video viewers however, are more forgiving, and as I said in my House of Wax 3D review, we genre fans tend to be willing to give anything horror related a try when it only costs a buck at a Redbox. So, if you’re going to bother with Fright Night 2, that’s the only way to go.

Cover art and photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘House of Wax’

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘House of Wax’ on Blogcritics.

Studios know that if there’s one place they can really make some fast cash from the horror genre, it’s on home video. It seems like every October countless horror movies take over video shelves. Some of these — such as the new 35th Anniversary Edition of John Carpenter’s Halloween  — are better than others. Most are just for stores to bulk up knowing we will pick up whatever we didn’t last year. The most surprising may be how many of these are getting thrown onto Blu-ray. Many may question why so many horror films keep getting churned out while the classics keep getting the cold shoulder, but the fact is, fanboys will always pick up a new edition of their favorite — myself included.

HouseOfWaxCoverSome of these films actually stand on both lines of classic and horror. The aforementioned Halloween — featuring a fantastic new transfer — and the original 1958 version of The Fly, have been granted new life. And now Warner Bros. has reached into their vault to deliver a stunning upgrade to another Vincent Price-starring classic with House of Wax 3D. The first major motion picture to be delivered in the third dimension is finally available in its original format. Filmed using Natural Vision 3D lenses, it’s pretty amazing how much better an old film looks, compared to the endless list of post-converted 3D movies being made today. And now, you can add House of Wax to sit right alongside the also fantastic Universal 3D release of their Creature from the Black Lagoon.

House of Wax is the tale of revenge as poor Professor Henry Jarrod (Price) finds his beloved “friends” melted in a fire after his business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), sets the place ablaze to capitalize on the insurance money. Now, Jarrod has returned to build himself the wax museum he always wanted, but has now decided to include a “Chamber of Horrors.” Meanwhile, a string of missing persons is on the rise, and the suspicious deaths of both Burke and his fiancée Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), shedding new light on Jarrod’s new creations after Cathy’s friend, Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) visits the museum and can’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance between Joan of Arc and Cathy. Jarrod can’t keep from noticing himself, how much Sue looks like his beloved Marie Antoinette, and a mysterious killer may be lurking in the shadows, looking to make Sue one of Jarrod’s magnificent creations. Be on the look out for a young Charles Bronson as Jarrod’s assistant Igor.

The Warner Bros. press release states: “MPI’s work on House of Wax includes a 4K scan, and a full restoration of the two ‘eyes,’ as well as perfect 3D image alignment.” And thankfully, House of Wax 3D melts onto Blu-ray in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio on a 50GB disc with the 3D version a definitive presentation. Full of depth in every frame, director André De Toth gives a sterling example of how to effectively use the format — and only had one eye! I tried to nitpick the picture, but couldn’t spot any amount of banding, aliasing, or ringing. Detail is fantastic, with colors bright and cheery, without any case of bleeding. There are only a few in-your-face moments throughout House of Wax — particularly the paddle ball sequence — with most of the presentation being of the window-variety, allowing the viewer to look into the film’s world.

HouseOfWaxPic1There was one case of crush in the opening scene involving some capes worn by a couple of characters making them look more like apparitions wandering around the frames, but considering we’re watching a horror film, I can’t help but wonder if it was an intended effect. Aside from that, this is one mighty fine picture. A limited amount of DNR has been used, but film grain is still on display. The 2D transfer is another case altogether. There is no fine detail in any scenes and the picture looks soft and out of focus. Warner Bros. clearly wants you to watch the 3D version, but more care could have been put into the 2D for those wanting to pick up the release that have yet to purchase a 3DTV. But for those of us lucky enough, House of Wax is demo-worthy material.

But don’t expect to wow anyone with the sound. I had to crank my volume up a good 6 levels to get to an enjoyable listening level, which resulted in hearing non-stop white noise. All dialogue is crisp and clean, but the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sure could use a tune-up. There are some rather enjoyable uses of surrounds, but they’re kept to a minimum involving swelling music, some fire effects in the beginning, and a thrown chair.

Perhaps the reason for not sprucing up the audio was to leave room for the special features. In addition to both the 3D and 2D versions of House of Wax on the same disc, there’s also a third full length movie: Mystery of the Wax Museum; the 1933 film House of Wax is based on. Both of which are based on the story by Charles Belden. More of a comedy than horror film, Mystery is a really fun watch that feels like His Girl Friday taking on the crime genre. Full of every blemish imaginable, Mystery was slapped on the Blu-ray in the special features section with absolutely no restoration. It’s should come as no surprise the film is as fun as it is seeing how it was directed by Casablanca’s own Michael Curtiz. Considering it was the first one of the first 2-strip Technicolor films, it honestly could have been thrown on a separate Blu-ray with the 2D version of House of Wax and resulted in an even bigger reason to buy the set.

HouseOfWaxPic2Additional special features include the film’s theatrical trailer, vintage newsreel footage: “Round-the-Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax,” an audio commentary featuring Vincent Price friend David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr — Del Valle delivers a fun and engaging behind the scenes commentary while Nasr is dry and sounds like he’s reading cue cards. Listen strictly for Del Valle. Also included is an all new feature called “House of Wax: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before!” This feature runs a whopping 48 minutes and features interviews from the likes of Wes Craven, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Del Valle, Victoria Price (Vincent’s daughter), and Martin Scorsese, who still claims House of Wax to be “the greatest 3D film” and talks about making his crew watch it in the original dual-projection format before they started filming Hugo.

Considering how much content is packed onto the disc, it’s amazing how sturdy the 3D House of Wax holds up. House of Wax is strictly for the 3D fans only however, seeing how the 2D version doesn’t hold a candle to the film’s original display. The special features are fun, if limited, but House of Wax is definitely a worthy purchase for 3DTV owners only.

Cover art and photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures