Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Frozen’

***** out of 5
108 minutes
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Frozen’ on Blogcritics.

Just when it seemed like Pixar Animation Studios couldn’t go wrong, along came Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. While Brave and MU were nowhere near the critical fiasco that Cars 2 was, the glory days sure seem long gone. Meanwhile, Disney Animation Studios had a glimmer of hope with Tangled. Then, after the release of the fantastic Wreck-It Ralph — and its diss of Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars — it appeared another Mouse House renaissance was coming. Frozen proves that Disney is on their way to taking back that crown.

FrozenPic1In the land of Arendelle, little princesses Elsa (voiced Eva Bella) and younger sister Anna (voiced by Livvy Stubenrauch), spend their time playing in the snow in the foyer to the castle. Elsa has a special power to create snow and ice. After Elsa strikes Anna in the head with her cryokinetic powers, the king and queen rush Anna to seek out the help of the nearby trolls. The Troll King (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) manages to heal Anna, but at the price of removing her memory of Elsa’s powers.

Now Elsa must keep this secret from Anna, but in the meantime, their parents perish at sea leaving Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), who is of age, to take over the land of Arendelle as Queen. During Elsa’s coronation, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) meets Prince Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana), and asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. Elsa becomes infuriated by Anna’s willingness to leave, awakening her powers, casting an eternal freeze over the land. Elsa is cast out of the castle and vacates to the North Mountains. Now, Anna must find her sister to break the curse, with the help of Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), his trusty sidekick reindeer Sven, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad).

If only Disney had the same courage as their new princesses. Maybe then people would know that Frozen harkens back to the days of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. Yes, the glory days of Disney are definitely back. Even The Princess and the Frog, showed Disney had finally gotten their groove back, but it seems with every film they keep upping the ante. A new classic is born as director Chris Buck and co-writer/director Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) breathe much needed life back into the Princess genre with their adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen.

FrozenPic2Did I mention the songs? Yes, Frozen is a musical, even more so than Tangled. The songs come courtesy of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Tony Winners for Avenue Q and Book of Mormon), and will inevitably be stuck in your head — the way all classic Disney songs should. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell sing their hearts out, with two showstoppers in “Let it Go” and “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” (which harkens to Menzel’s own Wicked). And anyone who knows Josh Gad’s theater background (Broadway’s Book of Mormon) won’t be surprised to find he has a hilarious number called “In the Summer” as the snowman belts his heart out about how much he’d love to see the season. Surprisingly, Jonathan Groff is only given one pseudo-musical number considering his singing ability, but this is the Elsa and Anna show and their characters are always center stage.

Leave it to Disney to unleash the film surely to win Best Animated Feature. This year has been somewhat of a snowball effect in the animation department with each film being better than the last; Frozen comes out on top as the year’s best. Packed with stunning animation, memorable characters, hilarious hijinks, memorable songs, some absolutely zany plot twists, and the prerequisite touch of heartwarming, Frozen is the true Disney classic we’ve been waiting for.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Movie Review: 'Nebraska'

*** 1/2 out of 5
115 minutes
Rated R for some language
Paramount Vantage

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Nebraska' on Blogcritics.

There’s a time and a place for a film like acclaimed director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. It’s called Sundance. While character films are nothing new for Payne, Nebraska is certainly a change of pace—that of a crawling snail. While there are laughs to be found, especially when the two main actors are Will Forte and Bruce Dern, they’re pretty scattered throughout a slogging running time of nearly two hours. This is the kind of film that calls attention to itself being released in a limited run merely to try and scrounge up Oscar buzz. Ironically, the one person who actually succeeds here is June Squibb, playing Dern’s wife and Forte’s mother with one of the wickedest tongues this side of Kathy Bates.

NebraskaMainNebraska refers to the state’s capital city of Lincoln, which is where Woody Grant (Dern) is headed to on foot when he’s picked up by a police officer. Woody’s son Grant (Forte) retrieves him and takes him home to his wife Kate (Squibb). Woody explains that he was on his way to Lincoln to claim the $1 million he thinks he has won in a sweepstake. Kate and Grant know that it’s a marketing ploy, but after Woody takes off on his own again by foot, Grant decides to appease his father and drive him to claim his prize. Along the way, the two stop at Woody’s brother Ray’s (Rance Howard) house. Soon enough, the whole town is hearing about how a local boy makes good and wants a piece of the pie. Woody and Grant also meet up with Woody’s old buddy Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who feels like Woody owes him $10,000. Along the way, Grant comes to understand more about his poor father than he ever thought he would.

Another father/son film has come out this year that is superior to Payne’s efforts here: About Time. Both films have far different motives, but the biggest thing they have in common is that no one is going to see either of them—at least if About Time’s box office is any indication. Walking out of Nebraska, a colleague and I both felt like we’d walked out of a Press & Industry screening at Sundance. Thankfully, Payne’s cast makes up for the slog of a screenplay by Bob Nelson. Bruce Dern has already won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the film was nominated for the Cannes Best Picture prize, the Palme d’Or. But I doubt we’ll see Nebraska vying for Best Picture at the Oscars.

NebraskaPic2Forte shows he can do more than the silly characters we’ve come to expect after being on Saturday Night Live and MacGruber, but Squibb steals the show. Her barbs come fast and furious and the most unexpected things spill forth from her verbal diarrhea. If anyone really stands a chance of being recognized at the Oscars, it’s going to be Squibb and Dern. This is their show and they both perform admirably. The funniest bit involves Ed singing Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto.” The film features a deserved payoff but takes way too long to get to it. Had Nebraska been shaved down by about 20 minutes to a half hour, it could have zipped along into greatness. As it stands, Nebraska is the type of film where you’re glad you’ve seen it—and you should—but will probably never watch again.

Photos courtesy Paramount Vantage

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

**** 1/2 out of 5
146 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' on Blogcritics.

Earlier this month we saw the passing of reins in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Alan Taylor took over from Kenneth Branagh to deliver us Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that surpassed the original. Now, another series has gone the same route with Catching Fire — the second part of  Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games franchise — as Francis Lawrence takes over directing duties from the pedestrian Gary Ross. This also brings to mind the time Alfonso Cuarón picked up some major slack from Chris Columbus with Harry Potter. Sometimes it works — as in these cases — but sometimes things just keep getting worse (I’m looking at you Twilight). In the case of Catching Fire, here’s a part two that makes the first film look like child’s play.

CatchingFirePic1In Catching Fire, we catch up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returning home to District 12, along with fellow victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). She is visited by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who is not convinced of the love between the two Hunger Games winners. Snow is worried about a rebellion in the Districts and threatens Katniss to take away everything she loves — her mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister Prim (Willow Shields) — unless she can calm the districts during the Victory Tour. Upon the announcement of the 75th Hunger Games, it is declared that to celebrate the Quarter Quell (an event taking place every 25 years), the past victors will be reaped to compete against each other in a greatest hits-style battle royale. Snow replaces past head game maker Seneca Crane with the scheming Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who plans on introducing some new wrinkles to the games the winners think they know so well.

Francis Lawrence has finally delivered the movie the first film tried so hard to be. I have only read the first book and was not able to get into Catching Fire because it was so tedious and repetitive. Thankfully, Francis Lawrence and his Oscar-winning screenwriters — Simon Beufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) — keep the film moving at a breakneck pace. At least until they finally get to the games.

My friend joined me for the press screening and has read all three of the Suzanne Collins books. Heading in he was worried that this installment would be DOA as he feels it’s the “worst” of the books. Ironically, this may wind up being the best installment overall. Showing such a huge advancement for the series, I can only hope that Mockingjay (the two-part finale) can prove itself, seeing how yet another writer (Danny Strong) has been brought in. Until then, may the odds be ever in their favor, as Catching Fire really sets the stage for what could wind up being a brilliant franchise.

Photo courtesy Lionsgate

Blu-ray 3D Review: 'Jumper'

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

Sometimes a film can find new life either on home video or even when it makes its way to TV. One that was a waste of time in theaters could wind up being a decent time-waster at home. In the case of director Doug Liman’s Jumper, the film is every bit as bland as I remembered it. The most surprising thing is that this is from the same guy who directed The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Go. But if ever there was a case to be made against a post-conversion 3D attempt, it would have to be the recent crop of titles popping up from Twentieth Century Fox. First it was I, Robot and now Jumper crashes your 3DTV, available now. Hopefully the upcoming Predator can finally get it right.

Jumper3DCoverFeaturing the always-boring Hayden Christensen in the lead as David Rice, who discovers his teleporting powers at the age of 15 (played here by Max Thieriot). He leaves his abusive father and best friend Millie (played at age 15 by AnnaSophia Robb) behind. Just like the voiceover says, what else is a boy to do but start a life of crime? Teleporting in and out bank vaults and from one exotic locale to another, soon enough David is on the run from a group of Paladin’s led by Roland (Samuel L. Jackson). David must team up with fellow jumper Griffin (Jamie Bell) to save himself and Millie (Rachel Bilson) from the Paladin’s plans to take out the jumpers as Roland continually tells everyone, “Only God should have this power.”

Jumper makes the leap to 3D with the same blandness as the film itself. Both the 3D and 2D versions are available on one 50GB Blu-ray disc, along with no special features. The picture itself is still reference quality, but it appears as they attempted to strip away the film’s grain structure, which makes it seem odd at times because you can see it in a character’s face or on clothing, but nowhere in their surroundings. The 3D also features the storybook pop-up look, but mostly the image is as flat as you’d expect. Detail is still razor sharp, but the other strange thing about these titles is the cropping of their original aspect ratio. Just like they did with I,Robot, Jumper has also been blown up from 2.35:1 to a screen-filling 1.78. The 2D version is also cropped and falls prey to lots of noise.

While none of the special features have been ported over from the original Blu-ray release, at least the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track remains the same. Sometimes the sound comes across more three-dimensional than the image. Whenever an action sequence finally cues up, the sound space becomes as lively as you’d hope. Unfortunately, Jumper is a pretty quiet film, filled with lots of cheesy dialogue. But at least it’s delivered as crisp and clean as you’d expect from a newer film. Additional language tracks are available in Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and subtitles come in English and Spanish.

There’s not really a whole lot left to say about Jumper that wasn’t said five years ago. Had Doug Liman decided to go with a different lead—Chris Pine or Chris Evans, for example—he might have helped things along. Unfortunately, the proceedings are hampered with Christensen who just always looks bored, even when he’s supposed to be wooing Rachel Bilson. Jackson looks like the only one who knows how bad the film is, but even he doesn’t lift it above mediocre. Featuring a newly-cropped, barely 3D conversion, Jumper was clearly shoved onto home video due to its worldwide box office tally. There are rumors of a Jumper 2 somehow being made, and maybe next time they’ll replace Christensen with someone more likeable. As it stands, no one rushed out to see it in theaters and there’s absolutely no reason to rush out and double dip on this 3D re-release.

Blu-ray Review: 'All Is Bright'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'All Is Bright' on Blogcritics.

Some of my favorite Christmas films are probably what you wouldn’t call “Christmas” films. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, you know, movies that take place around the holiday season, but aren’t necessarily focused on it. Horror movies usually make the rounds this time of year as well. Scream, in fact, will always feel like a holiday film for me—just because it happened to open in December 1996 and felt like the best present a horror fan could get. The new quirky All Is Bright will not be making a repeat play next Christmas but it is available on Blu-ray November 19.

AllIsBrightCoverDark comedies, if done well enough, can work when revolved around the most wonderful time of the year. The Ref and The Ice Harvest are good examples, and I was hoping the same for All Is Bright. Even with Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd in the leads, the film is nowhere near funny enough, dramatic enough, or even dark enough to pull off any of its ambitions. I had higher hopes coming from director Phil Morrison, who made a huge splash with the indie-darling Junebug back in 2005. Thinking about Junebug now, I only watched it for Amy Adams Oscar-nominated performance. And I think it’s clear whose career took off after that film.

All Is Bright brings us the not-so-cheery tale of Dennis (Giamatti), just released on parole in Québec. He walks from the prison back to the small town from whence he came to visit his ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker). She won’t let him inside to see their daughter Michi (Tatyana Richaud) because Therese told her he died of a mysterious cancer. Now, Dennis must find work — not jut ripping off electronics stores — and hits up Rene (Rudd), who also happens to be seeing Therese. Rene lets Dennis tag along to work with him selling Christmas trees in New York — on the corner of Banker Street and Nassau Avenue in Brooklyn to be exact. Now, Dennis and Rene must keep from killing each other and sell enough trees to make it through the season. A subplot involving the friendship between Dennis and a periodontist’s maid Olga (Sally Hawkins) tries to make sure someone has a love interest as all film’s seem to require one.

The All Is Bright Blu-ray comes with the typical Anchor Bay treatment that looks more top-notch than you’d expect. Considering there are no special features, it’s no surprise the film is delivered on a 25GB disc. Detail is impeccable, with the early sequences in Québec showing every detail of snow and pine tree. Facial detail is strong, as is clothing textures. There was one shot featuring noise toward the end, otherwise, typical anomalies are nonexistent. Blacks could be a touch darker, but no banding, crush, or aliasing is to be found. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio also only comes alive whenever the score kicks in. Considering it’s so dialogue heavy, the center speaker delivers everything crisp and intelligible. No additional language tracks are included, but English and Spanish subtitles are.

AllIsBrightPicMorrison keeps the movie’s tone lighter than you’d think when it should have been either goofier or darker. A middling tone and pace make the film seem way longer than it is, and there’s a considerable amount of filler that could have easily trimmed down the runtime and make it at least fly by faster.

Giamatti and Rudd are as good as they always are, but Giamatti never gets the chance to really fly off his rocker and Rudd doesn’t seem to be as loose with his dialogue as you’d hope. Hawkins is rather annoying with a Russian accent, and is a rather unnecessary character until the last few scenes when Dennis figures out one last heist to steal a piano to give to Michi for Christmas. As it stands, All Is Bright is just another run-of-the-mill independent feature cast into the direct-to-video market hoping that the Christmas theme will catch shoppers’ eyes.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Movie Review: 'Dallas Buyers Club'

**** 1/2 out of 5
117 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Dallas Buyers Club' on Blogcritics.

Just when it looked like Matthew McConaughey had run his career into the ground after the abysmal Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, he took a break for a couple years and made a spectacular return in Lincoln Lawyer. From there on his films have been higher profile and his performances better than ever. Long gone are the days of Fools Gold, Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and The Wedding Planner.

DallasBuyersClubPic1Now McConaughey seems to be picking his roles more carefully and we are seeing him star in better films such as Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike. Granted, Magic Mike mostly falls under the category of his rom-com features, but his performance was almost like it came from another, even better, film. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey gives the best performance of his career yet.

In 1985, Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a party animal. He loves rodeos, drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex. Sometimes he even squeezes in a little threesome involving an extra man. After migraines and fainting spells, a work accident throws him in the hospital where Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) make his day go from bad to worse when they give him the news that he has tested positive for HIV with a T-cell count of 9—the average healthy person has over 500—and 30 days to live.

Ron refuses to accept his death sentence and paves his own path for glory after the trial drug AZT nearly kills him and gives him full-blown AIDS. Now, Ron joins forces with fellow patient Rayon (Jared Leto), to form the Dallas Buyers Club. Membership costs $400 and allows you all the scripts you can handle, smuggled in by Ron via Mexico from discredited Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), with Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) of the FDA declaring war against Ron and the health of his club members.

DallasBuyersClubMainIf Dallas Buyers Club sounds like typical Oscar bait, you’d be right. But that doesn’t stop the film from telling an important piece of history. It was a scary time in the ’80s with the newly spreading AIDS epidemic. The film has doctors wearing facemasks to meet with patients. Everyone is scared of touching anyone infected with the virus. Homosexual slurs are also slung with poison, most of which come from Ron, but of course he eventually changes his homophobic ways as he comes to terms with his own eventual demise.

The cast is a powerhouse with Leto stealing the show. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, it would be catastrophic. The same goes for McConaughey. Both give such powerful character transformations, you forget you’re even watching actors and it almost starts to feel like a documentary. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) delivers one of the year’s most heartbreaking films, but screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack keep an undercurrent of humor, making sure things never get too dour. Coincidentally, so did Philadelphia. Whether you see Dallas Buyers Club or not—and you absolutely should—you will see it at the next Oscar ceremony.

Photos courtesy Focus Features

Blu-ray Review: 'Ip Man: The Final Fight'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Ip Man: The Final Fight' on Blogcritics.

Sometimes it feels as if martial arts films are a dime a dozen. Just this year I have reviewed five that were hit or miss: Muay Thai Warrior, The Four, The Guillotines, Fists of Legend, and Tai Chi Hero. The best so far is now the sixth I’ve been assigned: Ip Man: The Final Fight, available from Well Go USA on Blu-ray November 12. Packed with high-flying action — this is what I’ve come to expect from the genre. Lots of action, mostly taking place in long takes with fluid editing. Director Herman Yau has unleashed one of the year’s best action films that most people probably won’t see. The plot for The Final Fight covers the later years of Ip Man (Anthony Wong in this entry), beginning with his arrival to Hong Kong in 1950.

IpManCoverLeaving his family behind, he takes up residence above a restaurant operated by Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung). He begins teaching Wing Chun on the rooftop. Among his students are Chan Sei-mui (Gillian Chung), fan of martial arts novels and local dim sum girl; Tang Shing (Jordan Chan), local cop; Lee King (Jiang Luxia), tough and outspoken; Wong Tung (Zhou Dingyu), a prison warden with a bull’s temper; Ng Chan (Donnyh Wu), Wong’s best friend and tram driver.

From there, the plot marches through the arrival of Ip Man’s wife Wing Sing (Anita Yuen) who returns to Foshan after disliking the Hong Kong lifestyle, strikes, and riots, to the arrival of Local Dragon (Xiong Xin-Xin) who takes control of the Walled City. Along the way, Ip Man also makes nice with fellow instructor Ng Chung (Eric Tsang) who opens his own facility right across the street. We also get a love interest in the way of Jenny (Zhou Chuchu), a street singer, and the appearance of Ip Man’s most famous student: Bruce Lee.

Ip Man: The Final Fight punches its way onto Blu-ray in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Well Go USA delivers some top notch titles and Final Fight doesn’t disappoint. In fact, were it not for the onslaught of shimmer and aliasing on everything from sides of buildings, metal fences, restaurant walls, a train, and a shirt and hat, the transfer would be spotless. Banding, crush, noise are nowhere to be seen. Detail is impeccable the rest of the time, but the amount of shimmer and aliasing can be quite distracting. Black levels are nice and inky with no loss of shadow detail while color pops without bleeding.

IpManPic1The same can be said for the 5.1 Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio track. There’s an English language track in both 5.1 DTS-HDMA and 2.0 Stereo, along with a Cantonese 2.0 track, but Cantonese is the way to watch the film. English subtitles are of course available. As for the audio, you’ll feel every punch, kick, or wind blast (see the finale) with music and surround ambiance lively and full. Dialogue never gets lost in the mix and is presented clear and crisp. This is a great mix delivering a full assault when the action kicks in.

The special features are what we’ve come to expect on a Well Go USA release: upon start up there are skippable previews for upcoming theatrical releases Iceman, Special ID, and Wrath of Vajra, as well as a vanity reel for Well Go USA on Blu-ray. A 9-minute “Making Of” featurette covers everything from the actors to the production. The set design team gets most of the kudos from the cast and crew for delivering a set so accurate they all felt like they had stepped back in time. “Cast & Crew Interviews” includes Checkley Sin (Producer), Marvel Chow (Wang Dong), Liu Kai-Chi (Lee Yiu-Wah), Eric Tsang, Li Chung-Chi (action choreographer), Xiong Xin-Xin, Wong Cho-Lam (Blind Chan), Anita Yuen, Gillian Chung, Jordan Chan, and of course, Anthony Wong. The film’s U.S. and International trailers round things out.

Ip Man: The Final Fight probably never got a full release stateside due to being overshadowed by Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, but director Yau delivers the goods for sure. Packed with amazing fight sequences full of jaw dropping choreography, and a superb performance from Anthony Wong, the legacy of Ip Man is surely preserved here as well as the bigger release. With The Final Fight hitting Blu-ray first, the great video and audio will make this one Blu-ray you’ll be glad to place next to the rest of the Ip Man films.

Blu-ray Review: 'Paradise' (2013)

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Paradise' (2013) on Blogcritics.

Winning an Academy Award for your debut screenplay certainly puts more pressure on the rest of your career. Diablo Cody made a smashing debut with Juno and has yet to receive the same kind of acclaim. Even with “Academy Award-winning writer” plastered on everything she’s involved with, Cody’s writing is sketchy at best. Bouncing from Juno to Jennifer’s Body to Young Adult and now (in her directing debut) Paradise on Blu-ray November 12.

ParadiseCoverWhatever Cody’s next film may be will probably receive the same kind of acclaim seen by Juno and Young Adult. However, anyone expecting her directing debut to be an all-out Diablo Cody film, prepare yourselves for her quietest film yet. Considering the story takes on religion, I thought she’d have more to say on the subject. Instead, she sets her sights on the easiest jokes possible but dispenses them all within the first 10 minutes. From there on, the film turns more to drama and a snail’s pace, deadening any kind of life lessons she may have had planned.

Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough) appears to be the quick-witted, quirky character one would expect in any kind of Cody screenplay. Having survived a plane explosion, and losing most of her skin in the process, the scarred Lamb has won a huge settlement and is expected to make a large donation to her local church. Instead, Lamb denounces her beliefs and declares there is no God. Lamb leaves her parents (Nick Offerman and Holly Hunter) behind and heads for Las Vegas where she can try out all the worldly pleasures she’s been kept away from. After checking into the Palms, she hits up a bar where she meets bartender William (Russell Brand) and Loray (Octavia Spencer) who join her on a night out of drinking and sight-seeing. But everything comes to a head after a breakdown in a restroom where she meets Amber “the magical prostitute,” and Lamb learns that she should probably venture down a different path.

Suffering from some huge tone issues and glacial pacing, Paradise does not bounce from start to finish with the huge laughs we were treated to from her Cody’s previous endeavors. Even Jennifer’s Body had more jokes and ideas skirting around to make them better than this. While the film may seem dead-on-arrival — it’s brief On-Demand debut was more of a heads up than we thought — at least Cody has learned how to shoot a picture. The 1.85:1 presentation is faultless, aside from some slight shimmer on the side of a taxi. No banding, aliasing, crush, or noise ever shows up, skintones are spot on and resolution is razor sharp. Obviously shot digitally, the film looks like a million bucks on Blu-ray. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is slightly reserved but still makes good use of surround whenever the soundtrack kicks in or bringing the streets of the Vegas strip to life. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.

ParadisePic2The special features are as reserved as the film. The highlight could have been the Diablo Cody audio commentary, but at the beginning she says she hopes this doesn’t wind up being featured on “Commentaries from Hell” but it’s likely to wind up being more of a commentary of the neglected. Most people don’t listen to them anyway and I expected more from Cody, instead it comes off as more of a play-by-play of what’s happening onscreen. There’s also the film’s theatrical trailer and 15 minutes of Behind the Scenes featurettes including Diablo Cody, Russell Brand, Julianne Hough, and Octavia Spencer. RLJ Entertainment previews for Goat Man, Last Love, and The Numbers Station play at startup before you get to the main menu.

Anyone who’s a fan of Diablo Cody may find something of interest within Paradise, but don’t expect the fun of any of her previous work. A 99.9% faultless presentation makes the film look more polished than most direct-to-video offerings, but with no real special features, Paradise feels as thrown to the wind as the film itself. Unfortunately, this Paradise is for Diablo Cody enthusiasts only.

Blu-ray Review: 'Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (Gift of Friendship Edtion)'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (Gift of Friendship Edtion)' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one studio known for shoveling heaps of direct-to-video releases, it’s Disney. Surprisingly, some of their new DTV offerings haven’t been too bad. It’s just a pain that they keep attaching unnecessary sequels that no one wanted in the first place onto their recent Blu-ray offerings. You can’t just buy Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, or Lilo & Stitch. You also get stuck with Mulan II, Kronk’s New Groove, L&S 2: Stitch Has a Glitch. They’ve also crammed both movies, along with their special features, on the same disc. Granted, this is the only way some of Disney’s lackluster sequels will ever get purchased, but it tends to take a toll on the video/audio.

PoohXmasNow we see the first home video release since VHS of 1991’s ABC special Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too! on Blu-ray for your holiday viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, it comes cramped within a 2002 television special that is far below the original short: Happy Pooh Year. Christmas Too is way better than the wraparound story that skips from Christmas to New Year’s and seems to take just as long to watch. In Happy Pooh Year, the Hundred Acre Wood friends are planning a New Year’s party. But to make sure we feel the Christmas spirit, Roo (voiced by Nikita Hopkins) gets told a story about Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and Piglet (voiced by John Fiedler) making a Christmas past right after the group’s gift list gets lost. There’s also a slightly amusing subplot involving personality swapping to keep Rabbit (voiced by Ken Samson) from moving away.

Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year hits Blu-ray with some big bumps along the way from Disney’s quality control department. This isn’t the first time one of their new BDs has come out of the gate with such dismal quality. Even their live-action films have had some issues (see Arachnophobia and Newsies). While there are plenty of Disney films that don’t deserve their Diamond Edition overhauls, we still deserve better than this. Ironically, the Christmas Too! section of  the film looks better than the Happy Pooh Year story. While nowhere near the disaster of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the film has still been subjected to some pretty heavy noise reduction. During Christmas Too there is a faint amount of film grain, but colors throughout the entire running time are muted and lack any kind of pop.

Pixelation, aliasing, ringing, and artifacting all creep in as well, and a few times it looks like the film is buffering, creating a stuttering effect to the animation about 37 minutes in. There are also some yellow and green scratches on the left side of the screen around the 11, 17, and 24-minute marks. You’ll also see plenty of smeared and blurry shots scattered throughout. It seems as though the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is the only thing left standing. As for the audio, it definitely sounds better than it looks which is surprising considering there’s no lossless audio. Presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital mix, music seems mixed pretty well throughout the speakers giving the film more audio depth than you’ll see in any second of the video presentation. There are also 2.0 French and Spanish Dolby Digital tracks along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The special features are pretty slight and make you suffer through the whole film again without simply just watching it. This is due to the “Disney Song Selection” feature where you can play the individual songs with optional on-screen lyrics. The songs included are “Winnie the Pooh,” “Trimming the Tree with Jingle Bells,” “Snow Snows,” “Jingle Bells in the Snow,” “Happy Pooh Year,” “Hunny, No Not For Me,” “One last round of Jingly Bells,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” You can also play the film with on-screen lyrics. “Enchanted Environment” is a 24-minute holiday themed screensaver that serves no purpose whatsoever. And finally, the inclusion of “Disney Intermission” that provides extremely kid-friendly games and activities whenever you pause the film. The special features are as lackluster as the film. The combo pack includes the Blu-ray version of the film, along with the DVD, and a downloadable digital copy.

Were it not for the inclusion of Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too!, this would be a completely forgettable addition to the grossly expanding landfill of DTV Disney BDs. A Very Merry Pooh Year is exactly the kind of television special you’d expect it to be and the video presentation leaves far too much to be desired. The only reason to buy this would be to have Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too! at your disposal, or if your children will sit through anything that’s animated. Considering Christmas Too! has never been available outside of VHS makes this one worth adding to your collection, but don’t say you weren’t warned about the rest of the package.

Movie Review: 'About Time'

***** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'About Time' on Blogcritics.

While my all-time favorite film will always be Jaws, there is one film that flies under the radar. It’s a movie no one who knows me would suspect to crack my favorite film list: Richard Curtis’ Love Actually. I love Christmas movies and I love Richard Curtis movies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and The Boat That Rocked). He is the only man who really knows the true ins and outs of the romantic-comedy. So it should come with no surprise to find Pacific Rim officially getting bumped as my favorite film of 2013. While I’m not sure if it’s the best film of 2013, it sure gives everything else a run for its money. This is the kind of film I could gush on and on about profusely, but will keep it short and to the point, for readers’ sake.

AboutTimeTim (Harry Potter’s own Bill Weasley, Domhnall Gleeson) has finally decided that the time has come to move to London, away for the first time from his loving mum (Lindsay Duncan), dad (Bill Nighy), and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). His decision comes about after a disastrous New Year’s Eve party and Dad has finally told him a family secret: that the men in their lineage can travel through time. Now, Tim is making his way as a lawyer, while trying to find true love, which comes in the form of Mary (Rachel McAdams), whom he met at a literal blind date bar. Soon enough, Tim is using his family powers to make everything in life as perfect as he can, but not without a few consequences along the way.

Curtis has really shown that he has the directing chops to bring his own screenplays to life, and has scored his biggest triumph yet in About Time. Along with his brilliant cast and amazing soundtrack, Curtis brings one of the year’s absolute best films to theaters. While some may possibly balk about it being just another message movie, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that in this case. For anyone interested to know, watching About Time is the first time my wife has ever seen me cry. Let that be a warning for all viewers! Gleeson may be a surprising lead, but he makes a fantastic one here, carrying the entire film on his shoulders with gusto. Curtis may fall on the trappings of shaky cam a little too much, but it never gets in the way of the story. As for the film itself, all that’s really left to say is that it’s about life, it’s about love, and it’s About Time 2013 started rolling out the masterpieces.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Movie Review: 'Thor: The Dark World'

**** 1/2 out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content
Marvel Studios
Article first published as Movie Review: 'Thor: The Dark World' on Blogcritics.

The best part about not being a comic book/superhero fanboy: taking all of the superhero films at face value. Not picking apart whichever new release just hit theaters is a lot more fun than complaining about what should have happened before the credits roll—especially when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With Phase One completed after last year’s Avengers, Iron Man 3 faced the wrath of the fanboys, all because of a big twist to one of Iron Man’s biggest arch nemesis: The Mandarin. While I won’t spoil what happened, I loved the twist and for those who didn’t, I hear Marvel is going to make up for “crying wolf.”

Thor2Pic1This week’s entry to the MCU sees the return of the God of Thunder himself in Thor: The Dark World. While Kenneth Branagh didn’t return to direct, Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor seems very comfortable directing the gods in their multiple realms. Gone are the annoying Dutch angles and Shakespearean inclinations, with Taylor ushering in a bigger sense of fun and far better-staged action sequences. Of course, as the MCU films continue to make more and more money, the special effects continue to get better and better, with this being the first of the MCU to have some sequences finally filmed in the third dimension.

So, what’s the story this time? Beginning eons before, Malekith and his Dark Elves are seen in battle with Bor (Tony Curran), father of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), when Malekith, Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and company escape to suspended animation, with Bor hiding the Aether (symbiote). In present day Asgard, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is sentenced to the dungeon by Odin, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) continues to pine over Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Jane and Darcy (Kat Dennings) are looking for a portal in an abandoned London factory. Here Jane is transported into a vortex where the Aether enters her body, awakening Malekith and his crew. Malekith transforms Algrim into Kurse to invade Asgard and find their precious Aether. Now, Thor must reteam with the treacherous Loki to stop them from invading Earth.

Thor2Pic2If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, everything is easier to understand as the film proceeds. Taylor keeps the pacing chugging along, knowing full well that now we expect a film with more plot, and less exposition—the first Thor film got the origin aspects of the story out of the way. The trio of screenwriters—Marvel Comics writer Christopher Yost and Captain America writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—manage to inject some much-needed humor. And rumor has it there was a lot of improv on set, which could be why Dennings is funnier in this installment.

The ladies in the audience need not fret, Hemsworth is shirtless in one scene, and his chemistry with Portman, and particularly Hiddleston, is better than ever. Hiddleston still manages to steal every scene. And the finale here is way better than in the first Thor. Yes, The Dark World feels far more Avengers­-esque than Iron Man 3 did. A few quick notes: make sure you get there early if you plan on seeing the film in 3D as there’s a five-minute Captain America: The Winter Soldier preview in these screenings. And it’s a must-see. Stay through the end credits for two pay-off scenes—one mid-credits, the second is after the credits end. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be on its eighth outing, but clearly Marvel Studios is just getting warmed up as they make their way to 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor: The Dark World is far from a blip on the radar and earns its place as another notch on the year’s belt of crowd-pleasing action-packed extravaganzas.

Photos courtesy Marvel Studios

Blu-ray Review: 'My Name is Nobody'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'My Name is Nobody' on Blogcritics.

Have you ever really wondered who was really in charge of a movie? Case in point: Poltergeist. Every frame of the film feels like a Steven Spielberg film. No one will ever convince me that Tobe Hooper actually directed it. In the case of 1973’s spaghetti western My Name is Nobody, the same case could be made between Tonino Valerii and Sergio Leone. Image Entertainment is proudly releasing the film on Blu-ray November 5 for its 40th anniversary. Now you can make your own case as to how much Leone was really involved.

MyNameIsNobodyCoverMy Name is Nobody is the tale of Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda), a gun-slinging bounty hunter on the brink of retirement. After taking out a trio at a barber shop, Jack catches up with “Nobody” (Terence Hill), a young gunslinger who just may be Jack’s biggest fan. Before retiring, Nobody wants Jack to go down in history by single-handedly taking down The Wild Bunch consisting of 150 men. The Wild Bunch, in this story, are a group of men laundering their gold with ore, under the leadership of Sullivan (Jean Martin). Now, Jack must face his own age and come face-to-face with two big showdowns before he’s able to settle down.

My Name is Nobody fires onto Blu-ray in a surprisingly spry 1080p presentation in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on a 25GB disc. Considering there are absolutely no special features, the presentation fits nicely on the single layer disc. Detail and resolution are extremely sharp considering the source print. However, the usual suspects come through. White specks, scratches, vertical lines, fluctuating grain, and the occasional soft shot never dampen the fun with the amount of detail. Flesh tones may take on a pinkish hue at times, but the rest of the colors look great.

Some crush rears its head during a scene inside a mirror house and a barn, but there’s never any banding or aliasing. The ugliest it gets are five huge tears at different moments. One of the fun things about the high-def presentation is being able to see the tape used to piece the frame together. But like I said, aside from the age-related issues, the print looks very nice. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio never even gets caught in any hiss or pop. I still find it funny that most of the film is obviously dubbed even though everyone is speaking English. This is probably as good as the film will look and sound for now. English subtitles for the hearing-impaired are also included.

One of the most interesting aspects of My Name is Nobody is that it is a parody. While it’s no Blazing Saddles, there are plenty of laughs and the film just leaves a big grin on your face. Let’s just say the more familiar you are with the genre — and of Leone’s films in particular — the more fun you’ll have. As with all of these films, it tends to run a little too long at 117 minutes, but it never gets in the way of a good time. Two of the funniest gags are even saved for last. Sam Peckinpah is name-dropped for good measure, and I’ve already mentioned The Wild Bunch. When I popped in the disc I said to my wife, “Why do I have a feeling something from Kill Bill will show up in this?” And I was right! One piece from Ennio Morricone’s score was cribbed by Quentin Tarantino.

My Name is Nobody may be one of the more surprising films to get the Blu-ray treatment, but it proves itself to be a wonderful addition to the growing number of classic westerns getting the high-def treatment. It really is a lot of fun, and featuring great video, it’s definitely a spaghetti western worth revisiting from time to time.

Blu-ray Review: 'Hanging for Django'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Hanging for Django' on Blogcritics.

Last year, right before Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released, four other Django titles were released on DVD. As with all films that are part of a series — a term used rather loosely here — it was a case of the good, bad, and ugly. The funny thing about some of the Django titles is that sometimes they don’t even feature a Django character. Such is the case with the release of Hanging for Django on Blu-ray from Raro Video, another offspring of Kino Lorber, on October 29.

HangingForDjangoWriter/director Sergio Garrone puts Anthony Steffen in the role of Johnny Brandon, a bounty hunter hot on the trail of Santana. Along the way, another bounty hunter, Everett Murdock (William Berger), joins forces with Brandon as they decide to fry a bigger fish in the form of Mr. Fargo (Riccardo Garrone). Fargo is smuggling illegal immigrants through the border in Nogales, including Maya’s (Nicoletta Machiavelli) brother Jose. After a string of dead immigrants puts the U.S. on Fargo’s trail, Brandon and Murdock must put aside their differences to take Fargo down.

Coming from the Kino family, you’d expect the video department to be a little sketchy, but in the case of Hanging for Django, it looks better than expected. Presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p, the image quality is extremely clean. It’s hard to tell if there’s any DNR on hand, even with film grain being rather faint. Detail could be a smidge sharper — beads of sweat and questionable makeup manage to stand out. The print itself is refreshingly clean, with no aliasing, banding, crush, or noise take its toll on the image. All things considered, this is one of the best looking Kino transfers this side of their Mario Bava Collection.

As for the audio, only two tracks are available, lossy Italian and English 2.0 Dolby Digital. Considering all sound came from the center speaker, dialogue is clean and crisp and never drowns amidst the music and gunfire. It could have been given some room to breathe if it had been upgraded to a lossless mix, but these types of films rarely receive that kind of treatment, outside of being a major studio catalogue title. There was no hiss or pops heard either. This is probably the best the film will ever sound outside of a full restoration. A set of Italian and English subtitles are also available.

The only special feature is the 14-minute “Video Documentary: Two Bounty Killers For a Massacre” presented in Italian with English subtitles. Manlio Gomarasca offers up a Wikipedia-worthy background on Sergio Garrone and features video clips that include spoilers. Be sure to watch the feature first. In the “Video Documentary,” Gomarasca notes Hanging for Django as an anomaly in the film resume of Garrone. Made as a tribute to the spaghetti western, whereas his Django the Bastard featured more of his love of gothic horror, Hanging certainly fits in with the likes of any film by Sergio Leone, even if just in style. Garrone and his cinematographer Franco Villa have some fun tricks up their sleeve, keeping your interest visually, even if the screenplay is the convoluted mess you’d expect from the genre’s lesser outings.

Hanging for Django may not feature an actual Django, or any kind of hanging for that matter, but fans of spaghetti-westerns can feel safe blind buying a new addition to a surprisingly expanding library of these films.