Saturday, May 31, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ - The Criterion Collection

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ on Blogcritics.

Every director is allowed a lull here or there when a couple of their films feel more like blips on the resume compared to the rest of their work. For Wes Anderson, it happened to be back-to-back. After the phenomenal success of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in some ways even more so, The Darjeeling Limited, found Anderson in a bit of a slump. Were it not for the casting of Bill Murray as Zissou, the film could have been even more of a letdown. It also helps that Murray is surrounded by the usual suspects of Anderson players to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, The Criterion CollectionOceanographer Zissou has just premiered his latest documentary where his best friend Esteband du Plantier (Seymour Cassell) gets eaten by what Zissou proclaims to be a jaguar shark. Vowing revenge, Zissou acquires funding from Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), but finds what he needs in his could-be son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson). Aboard Zissou’s research vessel “Belafonte,” the rest of the crew follow Zissou on his search for the shark that took his friend’s life. Along the way, they encounter pirates, mutiny, and pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), as they sail off into the wild blue yonder on Zissou’s quest.

Coming from Criterion, it’s no surprise to find that the picture quality is spectacular. Even though it was released in 2004, The Life Aquatic doesn’t look more than a day old. Placed on a 50GB disc it’s framed in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are almost over-saturated in every scene but never begin to bloom or bleed — the red of the crew’s caps are the biggest example. Detail is impeccable with only some inherited softer shots that are few and far between. Whether it’s the aforementioned crew caps, Angelica Huston’s blue streaks in her hair, suit lapels, Team Zissou gear, or Murray’s scraggly beard, every fine detail is outstanding.

A nice layer of grain permeates throughout keeping the filmic nature natural. I did notice one white speck pop up in a darkened hallway at the 26-minute mark and a few night sequences are darker than others, but for the most part, shadow detail is fantastic. This also may be the most contrast boosted of Anderson’s films, but not even facial detail gets overwhelmed. The only audio track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with English subtitles. While most of the film is rather front heavy — which is fitting considering the confined spaces most of the film takes place in — the music provides plenty of ambiance. Dialogue is always clean and clear, helping make even the most mumbled Murray line hilariously intelligible.

The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, The Criterion CollectionWhen it comes to Criterion, no one packs more special features into a release. An audio commentary kicks things off. Recorded in February 2005 by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach, the two reminisce about the production at the same tavern where they wrote the film. Full of background noise, this would be one of the more annoying commentary tracks if it hadn’t been done by Anderson. There are two behind the scenes documentaries: “This Is an Adventure” (51:23), from Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzig. Filmed during the 2003 production, it starts to feel very long in the tooth, but it is always fun to watch the cast goof around on set. The second is an “Intern Video Journal” (15:22) shot by Matthew Gray Gubler who also played Intern #1 in the film. This one is more entertaining and shows Gubler’s own mishaps during the filming including bad perms, emergency room visits, and having the time of this life. A third “Making-of-Featurette” (14:33) is an old “Starz on the Set,” here we learn that Anderson has actually been planning this film for 14 years.

A collection of “Deleted Scenes” are short and sweet, including: “Eleanor’s Writing Shed” (:58), “Albino Dolphin Cost Breakdown” (:23), “Additional Mutiny Scene” (:19), “Hydronieus Inverticus (Rat-Tail Envelope Fish)” (:21), “Let’s Just Keep It in the Moment” (:33), “Swamp Leeches” (:21), “You Lose Track of Time” (:24), “Klaus on Fire” (:15), and “Mai Tais/Blue Hawaiians” (:59). “Cast and Crew Interviews” is more in-depth and includes: June (3:29), Ned (2:57), Costumes (4:37), Aquatic Life (7:55), The Look Aquatic (5:30), Creating a Scene (4:42), and Esteban (7:10). The best part is the Aquatic Life feature showcasing Henry Selick’s stop-motion creature effects.

“Mondo Monda” (16:25) features Anderson and Baumbach on Antonio Monda’s Italian talkshow featuring hilarious language barrier issues and technical difficulties. “Mark Mothersbaugh” (19:06) is an interview with the film’s composer from 2004. It’s interesting to hear him talk about how he started writing the score while the film was being written and hear him reminisce about recording films onto 90 minute cassette tapes — something I also did a few times growing up in the ’80s. “Photos” is a collection from set photographer Philippe Antonello during the production. “Designs” consists of various drawings, sketches, and original art pieces used within the film and to create the film’s unique world.

“Seu Jorge Performs David Bowie” includes full versions of the film’s solo Greek chorus performing: “Starman” (3:57), “Oh! You Pretty Thing” (3:48), “Changes” (4:01), “Rebel Rebel” (3:14), “Lady Stardust” (3:51), “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” (4:12), “Five Years” (3:39), “Life on Mars” (4:14), “Suffragette City” (3:22), and “Quicksand” (5:19). And finally, the film’s theatrical trailer (2:28) and a leaflet insert featuring an interview with Anderson and his brother Eric, rounds things out.

The Life Aquatic may not reach the heights of Anderson’s best work, but even “good” Anderson is still better than most comedies these days. Filled with just as many eccentric and quirky characters and misadventures as you’d expect from any Anderson outing, Criterion has delivered another spectacular Blu-ray to add to the rest of the collection. If only Criterion would give Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel the same treatment; I’m personally holding out as it seems inevitable. Featuring the standard excellent audio/video presentation, and stuffed to the gills with special features, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a highly recommended Blu-ray release.

Cover art and photos courtesy Criterion and Touchstone Pictures

Movie Review: ‘Maleficent’

* out of five
97 minutes
Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Maleficent’ on Blogcritics.

After Disney’s billion dollar success of Alice in Wonderland, we were bound to see more live-action adaptations of their animated classics. On paper, the new Maleficent probably sounded like a sure-fire hit. Angelina Jolie perfectly inhabits the human form of the animated Sleeping Beauty villain, and Elle Fanning is an adorable Aurora, but director Robert Stromberg makes one of the worst kinds of debuts. With a production plagued with issues, what should be a brisk 97 minutes feels like eternity. Not even screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s attempts to add in some twists work, and there are times when all she’s doing is ripping off her own Beauty and the Beast.

Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty, Elle Fanning, Angelina Jolie, Sharlto CopleyIn this version of the story, we are introduced to Maleficent as a young fairy (Isobelle Molloy). Living in the moors amongst her fellow fairies and pixies, she comes across a young boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins). Caught stealing, she offers to take him to the edge of the moors where the two fall in love. Once grown, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is living in the castle under King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), who wants Maleficent destroyed. Stefan drugs Maleficent and takes her wings, granting him Kingship after Henry dies. Eventually, Stefan and the Queen give birth to baby Aurora causing Maleficent to crash the party and put a curse on the bouncing baby girl.

Stefan orders a trio of pixies — Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) — to keep his baby girl safe until the day after her 16th birthday to keep her from fulfilling her destiny. This is where the story begins to drift on to its own world as Maleficent employs the help of the shapeshifting Diaval (Sam Riley) and begins to watch over Aurora (eventually played by Fanning) as she grows up to become the sleeping beauty she’s meant to be. Maleficent begins to grow a heart and tries to revoke her own curse, but can even true love’s kiss save the day?

Maleficent plays out like a 90-minute prologue. It takes 30 minutes before Aurora is even born and another 20 before she becomes the Sleeping Beauty we all know is coming. Yes, I know the film is called Maleficent, but all we’re offered here is the world’s weirdest case of stalking and voyeurism. Jolie may make for a striking live-action version of our titular character, but she’s stuck in a movie where she’s given absolutely nothing to do. Let alone that giving her a change of heart actually makes her even less likeable. Not to mention Copley, who is actually the worst actor in the movie.

Stromberg may get some iconic visuals right from the original animated film, but the rest of his production design is one of the ugliest you’re likely to see all year. Probably too frightening for children and way too boring for adults, Maleficent was apparently made for nobody. A boring mess of a film from beginning to end — Lana Del Rey’s version of Once Upon a Dream should give you an idea to the film’s pace. This deserves to be an even bigger flop than last year’s The Lone Ranger. One of the worst films of the year so far.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Movie Review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’

116 minutes
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ on Blogcritics.

I think we were all a little worried about Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane venturing into live-action filmmaking. After proving he could withstand two cancellations on the Fox network, the surprising part of his venture was that it would be distributed by Universal Pictures. 2012’s Ted proved to be a smashing success with his trademark humor translating brilliantly and now with his second feature, A Million Ways to Die in the West, he proves that he can not only still deliver the brand of laughs we’ve come to expect, but can also make a full-blooded, rootin’ tootin’ Western to boot. It may not be as brazenly funny as Ted, but this is definitely the second funniest film of the year, beaten so far only by the no-holds-barred Neighbors.

A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam NeesonIn Old Stump, Arizona in 1882, sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) has just talked his way out of a duel. Due to his cowardice, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him. He’s not only a coward, but also the worst sheep farmer around. Meanwhile, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) has just arrived on the outskirts of town with his gang of outlaws in tow, including his wife Anna (Charlize Theron). Anna is sent into Old Stump to pose as the new girl in town and takes Albert under her wing after he challenges Louise’s new beau Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) to a duel. Anna teaches Albert how to shoot a gun and fall in love, but not before Clinch catches word that someone is making the moves on his wife. Now there’s a million and one ways to die in the West.

A Million Ways to Die in the West may not reach the heights of the classic Blazing Saddles, but MacFarlane isn’t trying to make that kind of comedy. This is the MacFarlane show through and through. With him cast center stage, it takes a strong love for the man’s comedic sensibilities to even find the film funny. It’s a love it or hate it kind of humor and I love it. Stretching his jokes beyond the breaking point, it’s exactly the kind of insanity we’ve come to expect from MacFarlane. There are far more chances to catch your breath this time, thanks to MacFarlane and his Ted co-writers (Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) giving the film an actual plot. While the 116-minute runtime may seem excessive, this is a full-blown Western and the genre is no stranger to epic runtimes.

One of the best things going for the film is that MacFarlane makes for a surprisingly handsome leading man. He has great chemistry with Theron. The rest of the cast is having a ball as well, even if Neeson is a tad underused as the main villain. Cameos are par for the course with some being funnier than others—the best one unfortunately being spoiled in the most recent trailer and TV spots—but MacFarlane’s pop culture jabbing also runs rampant, with jokes flying fast and furious covering everything from How I Met Your Mother to bringing back gags from TedA Million Ways to Die in the West won’t go down as the funniest movie of the year, but it is definitely one of the funniest movies of the year. MacFarlane makes sure that while everything in the West may be trying to kill you, that there are a million ways to laugh in a movie.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Blu-ray Review: ‘Special ID’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Special ID’ on Blogcritics.

While Jackie Chan is the most prominent Asian action star in the U.S., Donnie Yen is still turning out the hits in China and could easily make the transformation to Hollywood star. While everyone assumed Tony Jaa had what it took to become the next big thing, he never had the charisma of either Chan or Yen, but his most recent film, Special ID, would fit right into the kind of action films we expect from a police procedural, with Yen choreographing some fun fight scenes, and director Clarence Fok delivers the goods when the action finally kicks in at the end.

SpecialIDBluIn Special ID, Yen plays undercover cop Xilong Chen, sent underground to infiltrate China’s most ruthless gangs. Gang leader Xiong (Collin Chou) smells a rat, and wants to clean house. As Xiong deals with his mistrust, Chan must protect his identity, his mother, and his badge, from Xiong finding him out. Meanwhile, fellow cop Fang Jing (Jing Tian), is hot on Xiong’s trail, and may accidentally uproot Chan’s trust amidst the gang. Now, Chan must pull out all the stops to take down Xiong himself even while an elusive sniper keeps trying to take Xiong out.

Well Go USA makes a return to form with Special ID, presenting the film on 50GB disc in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Detail and clarity is what we’ve come to expect from this distributor, and Special ID is no exception. Aside from some blink and you’ll miss them instances of banding and noise, this is another stellar transfer. While not demo material, the Red One camera captures all of the action spectacularly. The Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track shines as well, with enough bass to make you feel every punch and kick while shattering glass, screeching tires, environmental ambiance, and the score, fly around the soundstage. Additional audio tracks include Cantonese 2.0 Dolby Digital, along with English DTS and DD, and English subtitles.

The special features are skimpy on this release featuring a two-part “Making Of” (4:06) broken into “Ultimate Combat — Criminal Underworld” where Yen talks about continuing the evolution of his choreographer from Kill Zone to Flashpoint to Special ID. “Extreme Driving” features behind the scenes footage of the chase sequences involving filming with real cars through real streets and Tian having to do a lot of her own stunts. The film’s theatrical trailer (1:35) and previews for Iceman, The Suspect, and Wrath of Vajra round things out.

Special ID is a lot of fun if you watch with friends who are familiar with the fighting styles Yen implements into the action scenes. A couple of friends joined me to watch and they both kept pointing out different techniques as they were employed onscreen. Special ID doesn’t come fully loaded with a ton of extras — and this isn’t Yen’s best film by any means — but for anyone looking for a good time, especially Yen fans, the technical presentation makes this a no-brainer and comes recommended for anyone interested in seeing what Yen is up to these days.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Movie Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’

***** out of 5
131 minutes
Rated PG- 13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ on Blogcritics.

Even though the X-Men franchise wasn’t necessarily in need of a reboot, it has now seen two. First in the form of First Class and now again in Days of Future Past. Director Bryan Singer has finally returned to the series he helped create. His first X-Men film proved studios could do comic book movies right — and for Days of Future Past, Singer has brought along his original cast, along with the main cast from First Class. A globetrotting, time traveling exercise in superhero brilliance, Days of Future Past further proves what a hack job Brett Ratner did when it came to the third entry: The Last Stand. The future of the franchise is back in safe hands and has one-upped an already fantastic summer start.

X-Men, Days of Future Past, Bryan SingerIn the future, we find our favorite mutants being eradicated by sentinels built by Trask Industries. Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X/Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Sunspot (Adan Canto), and Warpath (Booboo Stewart), are under attack and the only hope for survival is to send Logan back to 1973 to stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), sending her down a psychotic path, and stopping Trask from creating his sentinels which use mutant DNA he gathered from Mystique to create the ultimate mutant killing machines. Logan must find the younger version of Charles (James McAvoy), to rescue Erik (Michael Fassbender), imprisoned beneath the Pentagon for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with the help of Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters).

Yes, there is a lot of plot thrown at us in Days of Future Past, but Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) keep things streamlined enough that you’re never confused. It also helps that both the 1973 action and the future sequences feature core mutants. But, be on the lookout for additional mutants/future enemies along the way. And of course, stick through the end credits for your payoff scene.

When it comes to 3D, action movies are what the technology is made for, planting you right in the middle of it all. Filled with plenty of jaw-dropping set pieces, the Quicksilver/Pentagon scene is a true standout and completely checkmates Joss Whedon who’s now going to have to up his own game with Quicksilver also appearing in in his own The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

This summer seems to just keep getting better and better after the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, and now Days of Future Past. While 2015’s summer is looking jam-packed to be the biggest box office ever, this year is doing plenty fine on its own as far as quality movies go. Days of Future Past is one of the top two comic book movies of the summer — the other being Winter Soldier — and the only one that seems likely to surpass either will hopefully be Guardians of the Galaxy. With Singer back on board, the X-Men franchise is headed for new levels of greatness, and Days of Future Past is one of the best comic book movies yet.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Blended’

*** 1/2 out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, and language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Blended’ on Blogcritics.

It’s certainly faint praise when the new Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore rom-com is the funniest movie Sandler has made in years. Considering the dismal ones he’s released recently — Grown Ups 2 and the first, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill, Just Go with It, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry — it really wouldn’t take much to make a better movie than any of those. While Blended certainly doesn’t reach the level of charm as The Wedding Singer or 50 First Dates, Sandler and Barrymore still work well enough together to get us to the finish line without wanting to gouge our eyes out.

Blended, Adam Sandler, Drew BarrymoreWe first meet Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore) on a disastrous blind date at Hooters where Jim is treated like family. The two immediately hate each other, but Lauren winds up the bad guy after she finds out that Jim lost his wife to cancer. On the homefront, Lauren is dealing with her two sons Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein) after divorcing Mark (Joel McHale). Meanwhile, Jim is dealing with the passing of his wife while being the clueless father to three girls: Hilary (Bella Thorne), Espn (Emma Fuhrmann), and Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind). After Lauren’s best friend Jen (Wendi McLendon-Covey) ditches her boyfriend when he wants to take her on an African “familymoon,” Jim, Lauren, and all the kids wind up taking his place, with all the expected wacky hijinks in hot pursuit.

Considering all of the marketing for Blended features the African retreat so prominently, it’s surprising that they don’t even get there for 35 minutes. Director Frank Coraci — the man responsible for Here Comes the Boom, The Zookeeper, as well as Sandler’s Click, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singer — takes way too long to get to that section of the movie. Then there’s at least another 30 minutes left in the movie after they all go home. In the meantime, the families of course learn that they need each other and life lessons are learned. Sandler and Barrymore bring the screen appeal we expect, even if Sandler seems like he is trying to drag Barrymore to his level. Thankfully, she never stoops down keeping the film from turning into the typical Happy Madison Productions disaster Sandler has become synonymous for.

Blended, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Bella ThorneSandler still can’t find the best kid actors to fill his films, although his trio of girls fare far better than Lauren’s two brats. The best news, as I said, is that this is the most entertaining Sandler movie in years. Take that with a grain of salt. Be on the lookout for the usual suspects of cameos which are funnier than usual, probably because they work more like a greatest hits as most of them are playing characters from other Sandler movies. Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe play the world’s most obnoxious newlyweds, but keep things silly just wacky enough to come off as funny instead of well, obnoxious.

I admit I didn’t have much hope for Blended, and figured Warner Bros. was dumping this into the summer schedule since it comes just one week after their own Godzilla reboot proved a monstrous success and is up against X-Men: Days of Future Past. Considering Blended is the best Sandler movie in such a long time and how much his worst efforts have brought at the box office, he’s bound to have another surefire hit on his hands. So between Godzilla and Blended, Warner Bros. will basically be printing their own money all weekend long. Sandler fans will rejoice, everyone else should check expectations accordingly.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘McCanick’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘McCanick’ on Blogcritics.

A lot of films that play the festival crowd are run of the mill. Some scream independent although it’s painfully obvious that no studio would release it, But “independent” has an air of pretentiousness served with a side of a twist ending that’s both ridiculous and, as in the case of Josh Waller’s McCanick, offensive. Once you learn the big twist, it’s even more shameful to think that this was Cory Monteith’s final film. After years of starring on Glee, he should have known better than to star in a film that winds up being nothing more than homophobic, to say the least.

McCanick, David Morse, Cory MonteithDavid Morse plays our titular character Eugene “Mac” McCanick, a Philadelphia detective who is so disgruntled he forgets it’s his own birthday. Maybe he’s just distracted by the fact that Simon Weeks (Monteith) has been released from prison — his lead suspect in the death of a Congressman seven years ago. Mac begins a manhunt for Simon — who’s trying to get his life in order — along with his partner Floyd (Mike Vogel). After Mac accidentally shoots Floyd, he claims it was Simon in order to gain information into his whereabouts. Turns out, Simon knows a dirty little secret that Mack wants kept quiet, even if it means taking him out for good.

Well Go USA blunders McCanick on Blu-ray on a 25GB disc, and as bad as the movie is, the presentation is just as awful. Filled with banding in nearly every scene, you could dub this “Banding: The Movie!” Noise creeps in from time to time in darker scenes with crush taking its toll on shadows in one shot then disappearing in the same scene. Moiré shimmer shows up on windowsills and doorframes, but the biggest culprit continues to be banding. The image blooms continuously throughout when it’s not making walls appear to be rippling. One shot even makes Mac look like he has a black eye. It’s just awful.

The audio doesn’t fare any better with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track. But considering the film’s budget, I wouldn’t expect it to sound much livelier than the one helicopter passing overhead that sounds like it was right outside. There are a few instances of decent directionality as characters move across the screen. Unfortunately, the track is recorded lower than most films, making some dialogue unintelligible without cranking up the sound. A 2.0 Stereo track and English captioning are also available.

McCanick, David Morse, Cory MonteithThe special features are sparse, simply including a “Behind the Scenes” (10:13) where we learn that the screenplay was written back in 1994. “Deleted and Extended Scenes” (16:31) show just how much longer the film could have been dragged out including: “Mac & Robin — Don’t Cry,” “Outside Louie’s Apartment,” “Waiting for Louie,” “Mac and Floyd Follow Louie,” “Mac Calls the Restaurant,” “Mac & Jenny — “Why Are You Here?,” “Owen Visits Floyd in the Hospital,” “Mac & Simon — Chinatown Chase,” and “Simon in the Subway.” The film’s trailer (1:45) is also included, along with previews for I’ll Follow You Down, Kid Cannabis, and The Truth About Emanuel.

Just one of the storytelling debacles from screenwriter Daniel Noah is that the film takes a good 40 minutes to make it clear that about half of what you’ve watched is flashbacks. But Waller never takes the time to establish it either so they’re both to blame for that. As I said at the beginning, the end is truly offensive once Mack’s motive is revealed and a bad cop looks even worse when you find out he’s just trying to cover up a hate crime. Thankfully, most Glee fans probably won’t even know this has been released, let alone I’m sure the R-rating will keep most of them at bay anyway. For anyone curious to see if Monteith had the chops to branch out from his Finn Hudson persona, the answer is no. His work on Glee should be what he is remembered for, because there’s absolutely nothing memorable about McCanick.

Movie Review: ‘Million Dollar Arm’

 *** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Million Dollar Arm’ on Blogcritics.

It’s interesting to see how much the facts can change when adapting a real-life story into a movie. In the case of Million Dollar Arm it may have been done to add a more human element to the story by focusing on the reality TV contest creator J.B. Bernstein, but the real course of the story behind the first Indian pro-baseball players may have made for a far more interesting movie. J.B. doesn’t come across as the most likeable sort of character, no matter how many violins swell.

Poor director Craig Gillespie had two home runs prior to Million Dollar Arm with Lars and the Real Girl and the Fright Night remake, but this feels completely like a contract film. Something Gillespie was forced into directing, either so he could give us Fright Night or for whatever comes next. It’s not the first time a director has been forced into this situation, and it won’t be the last. Unfortunately, his ability to handle drama and comedy in equal measures does not cross over here.

Million Dollar Arm, Jon HammIn this version of the story, J.B. (Jon Hamm) has gone Jerry Maguire and opens Seven Figures Management, hoping to score one big client to get caught up on their office lease. Meanwhile, J.B. lives alone in a giant house, with his future-wife Brenda (Lake Bell), renting his guesthouse. One night, while flipping back and forth between a cricket game and Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent discovery, J.B. hatches a plan to find the world’s first Indian baseball player to open up the sports world to a billion new fans. Now, J.B. heads to India where he meets baseball fan Amit (Pitobash) and talent scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), to hold a pitching contest where the winners get to return with him to America for a chance to sign a million dollar MLB contract.

Anyone who even vaguely researches the real story already knows how Million Dollar Arm ends. I actually stumbled upon on last Sunday while Hamm was conducting interviews before the Pittsburgh Pirates game. But it’s not like you can’t figure out where the film is headed even if you don’t know. There are only two Indian characters with dialogue: Dinesh Patel (Life of Pi’s Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Slumdog Millionaire’s Suraj Sharma). Needless to say, Gillespie simply goes through the motions where life lessons are learned and the film wraps up its happy endings, while fish-out-of-water shenanigans ensue in what feels more like a TV pilot than a movie.

When your film features the likes of Hamm, Bell, and Arkin, yet has no charm to speak of, you’re doing it all wrong. Blame usually lies on the director, but some of it has to go to screenwriter Tom McCarthy which comes as a surprise considering he also wrote and directed The Station Agent and Win Win, along with being credited with the story for Up. Had the film featured any kind of adrenaline it could have been a rousing crowd-pleaser. As it stands, only the most patient viewers will be able to endure the padded two-hour runtime. Million Dollar Arm is a complete swing and a miss.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Godzilla’

***** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Godzilla’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

It’s hard not being biased walking into the Godzilla reboot. To say this is my most anticipated film of the year is an understatement. Growing up recording the old Toho films off cable on VHS and editing out commercials by hand, I have an unabashed love for the big green monster. Aside from my wishy-washy feelings toward Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film, the original is still the best of the Toho productions.

Now, Legendary Pictures (the same team behind last year’s kaiju-filled Pacific Rim) has unleashed the big screen epic we’ve been waiting for. Director Gareth Edwards showed how much he could do with a miniscule budget on his first feature (Monsters), and now he proves he has what it takes to tackle something monstrously bigger and Godzilla does not disappoint.

Godzilla, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Gareth EdwardsBeginning in the Philippines in 1999, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), discover an ancient skeletal remain they were hoping belonged to Godzilla. Along with the remains, they find two pods, one of which has hatched. Meanwhile, in Janjira, Japan, scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has been keeping tabs on seismic tremors happening beneath the island’s nuclear power plant. The plant malfunctions and Joe’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) doesn’t make it out alive.

Fifteen years later, Joe is still mourning Sandra’s death and has been arrested trying to get back to his quarantined home to retrieve his data from the first incident when the tremors begin again. Now, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns to Japan where he soon realizes that maybe his father isn’t as crazy as he thought after the giant M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is unleashed and only Godzilla can stop it.

While Godzilla may not feature the razzle dazzle of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, this is a different kind of creature feature. Screenwriter Max Borenstein (with story credited to Dave Callaham) treats Godzilla as a globe-trotting natural disaster film. An appreciable slow-burn keeps the monsters at bay, but once they’re on screen, Edwards isn’t scared to bring on the money shots. When Godzilla finally makes his appearance, make sure the theater you’re in is as big and loud as possible — his roar just may blow your hair back.

Featuring a surprising number of nods to Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park, and War of the Worlds), Edwards keeps the ball moving, making sure the two-hour runtime is never padded. The cast manages to stay grounded, with Cranston never coming across as too Doc Brown-ish, while Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen make a husband/wife team you can actually care about as the destruction rains down around them. Yes, Godzilla is still “King of the Monsters” and, I can’t wait to see where the franchise heads next.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Neighbors’

**** 1/2 out of 5
96 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Neighbors’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

As much as the summer movie season brings a glutton of big-budget action films, so too come the raunchy comedies. After the summer successes of the Judd Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, Pineapple Express, Step Brothers, Superbad, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Anchorman, it’s safe to say that we want to laugh as much as we want our explosions. While this weekend’s Neighbors may not have any direct influence from Apatow, it definitely feels like one in the same. After the monster success of last summer’s This Is the End, Rogen obviously realized that audiences like to party inside, as much as outside, during the summer months.

Neighbors, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose ByrneMac (Rogen) and wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are trying to get into the swing of being parents with their newborn Stella (the totally adorable Elise and Zoey Vargas), while their newly divorced friends, Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo), invite them to raves and get high on work breaks. And just as Mac and Kelly seem to be settling in, a fraternity moves in next door. The Delta Psi Beta have arrived lead by fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and vice president Pete (Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly introduce themselves and offer a token toke as a peace offering to hopefully keep the partying at a reasonable level, but soon enough, it’s a war develops involving 3D printers, choker necklaces, dildo nun-chucks, and Robert De Niro impressions.

If any other comedy has the chance to be funnier than Neighbors this year, it’ll be next month’s 22 Jump Street, but for now, fun is the name of the game. Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement) — oddly enough the man who helped resurrect the Muppets franchise — brings his A-game making sure that every scene plays to the hilt. Even a few life lessons are learned on both sides of the fence. But while there may be a few fleeting moments to catch your breath, prepare to be assaulted by the year’s funniest movie so far. Everyone gets a chance to shine, with Byrne admirably getting down and dirty, but the proceedings never take a turn for the gross. Sometimes a movie can go too far and it stops being funny. Neighbors makes Old School look old school. Don’t be the last one to this party.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary Edition’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary Edition’ on Blogcritics.

On its 40th anniversary, there really isn’t all that much more praise one can give to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Unleashed upon the public in 1974 by Warner Bros., Blazing Saddles paved the way not just for Brooks’ own brand of delirious hilarity, but possibly for all comedies. It was one of the first of the glutton of parodies to come out of the ’70s and ’80s. Brooks’ own Young Frankenstein even came out the same year. Hailed as one of the funniest movies ever made, there are plenty of jokes that you may not have caught — or in my case, as I grow older, become keener to the satire and mounting double entendre. Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the funniest movie ever made!  Get the Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray, available May 6.

Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Cleavon LittleIn the wild, wild west of 1874, Lyle (Burton Gilliam) is overseeing the construction of a new railroad and sends out Bart (Cleavon Little) to check for quicksand. The railroad now must be diverted through the town of Rock Ridge, where after assaulting Taggart (Slim Pickens), Bart is sent by State Attorney General Hedley Lamaar (Harvey Korman) as their new sheriff to try to drive the townsfolk out. Turns out the Johnsons of Rock Ridge have defeated tyranny before — after the Dicks tried to run them out — so now Bart and the townsfolk must team up with “The Waco Kid” Jim (Gene Wilder) and Lili von Schtupp, after Hedley and Governor William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) send in their best henchman Mongo (Alex Karras), along with a tirade of Klansmen, Nazis, and a host of various outlaws.

When Blazing Saddles was originally released on Blu-ray, back in 2006, the video quality was no slouch. Placed on a smaller 25GB disc, Warner Bros. has upgraded to a more spacious 50GB, along with replacing the original lossy Dolby Digital track with a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While some of the original source issues still stand, there are a few wide shots with an overwhelming amount of grain and the opening credits still shot will always have the vertical tear, but once the film is in motion, the uptick in resolution is fantastic.

I hung onto the original disc for comparison and let’s just say that this is what one would expect a 2.40:1 Panavision-filmed western to look like on Blu-ray. Colors are bolder and everything from swirling dust to facial features, to clothing textures and beads of sweat come through with spectacular detail. The audio upgrade also makes for a more spacious soundstage with cleaner dialogue and a wider range of directionality. As a comedy, the sound is more front-heavy, but surrounds kick in nicely such as cracking whips in the theme song, random explosions, and of course, Schtupp’s musical number or during the finale. Additional audio tracks include: 1.0 Dolby Digital Français and Español (Castilian and Latin), with subtitles in English, Français and Español.

Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Cleavon LittleAlmost every special feature, from the original release are intact, save for the Madeline Kahn featurette, but in its place we get a brand new feature: “Behind the Scenes: Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West” which runs 29 minutes. Brooks is interviewed about the lasting legacy of his film, and oddly enough, a lot of what he says sounds like it was used for the “Scene Specific Commentary with Mel Brooks.” One of the more interesting tidbits is Brooks mentioning that he couldn’t get another picture made called Marriage Is a Dirty Rotten Fraud, and considering he wrote it during his heyday, I’d love to see it get made today as it has to be sharper than his last stint behind the camera: Dracula: Dead and Loving It. He also talks about the genesis of the screenplay with fellow writers Andrew Bergman (the original story credit), Norman Steinberg, Al Uger, and Richard Pryor — who also gave full approval of all use of the derogatory N-word so prevalent throughout the film.

The rest of the features include “Behind the Scenes: Back in the Saddle” (28:24), Deleted Scenes (9:53) including “Give Mongo a Cigar,” “Quick Draw Mongo,” “Lili Slips Into Something More Comfortable,” “Baptism To-Day,” “Just Whistling Dixie,” “Campaigning for Dummies,” and “Bushwacker Malfunction.” A play all feature is included so you can watch all of them together. The most interesting feature is the return of the failed pilot called Black Bart (24:31) which shows that TV was no place for something as edgy as Blazing Saddles. Lastly, 10 quotable art cards with funny quotes and images from the film and the theatrical trailer (2:18) round things out.

For anyone who hasn’t already added Blazing Saddles to their Blu-ray collection now is the time to snatch up the 40th anniversary edition. With a new, stunning transfer, along with an upgraded audio track, the extras may be the same, but the presentation is certainly worth the purchase. Now, you can see Blazing Saddles break the fourth wall, and wind, with a stunning new HD transfer, looking as good as new, and as hilarious as always.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Jess Franco’s ‘The Demons’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Jess Franco’s ‘The Demons’ on Blogcritics.

Spanish erotic-auteur Jesús (Jess) Franco is well-known for his trashy exploits in horror. While many have claimed that he’s known for just as much gore as T&A, I have yet to find one of his films to feature the former. As for the latter, Redemption — Kino Lorber’s off-shoot — has released one of his more “erotic” films from 1973. The Demons (Les Demons) seduces Blu-ray collections on April 29; filled with more soft-core nunsploitation witchcraft than you can shake a broomstick at. Previously unreleased in the U.S. should not come as a surprise to anyone who happens to pop the disc in with the abundance of sex scenes on hand, you may want to watch this one alone, boys.

The Demons, Jess Franco, Jesus FrancoInquisition horror and witches actually make this release feel rather timely after the success of American Horror Story’s third season “Coven” and the just kicked-off first season of WGN America’s Salem. In The Demons, we open upon the trial of a woman being tested involving pokes, prods, and water evaporation leading to her being burned at the stake where she curses Lady de Winter (Karin Field), grand inquisitor Jeffries (Cihangir Gaffari), and their right-hand man Renfield (Alberto Dalbés). Turns out the old hag has two daughters living in a convent, Kathleen (Anne Libert) and Margaret (Britt Nichols), who are charged with being witches after exploiting in sins of their own flesh. Now, the two girls must save themselves and exact revenge against those who killed their mother.

As with all Kino/Redemption releases, the packaging stakes claim in being “newly mastered in HD from the original 35mm elements.” Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on a 50GB disc, the film looks reasonable enough, but still suffers from the as-is approach. Not that this is the kind of film that demands a frame-by-frame restoration, if any of the Kino releases aside from maybe their Mario Bava Collection. Nonetheless, the film features enough grain to keep a cinematic look, even if it takes on the soft look of most ’70s productions. Aliasing and crush never make an appearance, but some scenes look way worse than the rest.

The opening sequence is filled with excessive noise and a flickering effect, while another around the 90-minute mark looks the same but adds in a jittery look as if being played through a rickety projector and being slightly mis-framed. Scratch marks, vertical lines, and stray hairs are par for the course. The LPCM 2.0 audio track leaves even more to be desired. Dubbed in French and German, there are times where it looks like it might be the original language being spoken, but then there times when people’s lips are moving but there’s no dialogue at all. A few scenes seem to be recorded at a lower volume, but it never spikes so if you leave your volume level alone, it goes back to normal eventually, and with the included English subtitles, it’s not like you’ll miss anything anyway.

The special features are fulfilling, kicked off with a 16-minute interview with director Franco who admits the film is just as bad 20-years later — which makes this interview more than 10 years old now — as it was when first released. Interestingly enough, these are the first words spoken. Six minutes of deleted footage plays, without sound, featuring additional footage that was included in alternate cuts and trailers, of which two are included. Also, there are trailers for additional Franco films: The Awful Dr. Orlof, Female Vampire, and Exorcism/Demoniac.

Anyone in the market for softcore horror need look no further, even if I’m sure there’s far better recent material at your disposal. But I guess if you’re looking to delve deeper into film oddities of the past, you can also do far worse than The Demons. Filled to the brim with the aforementioned T&A, a decent video transfer, and Franco’s reputation front and center, it’s exactly what you’d expect from one of the reigning sex-ploitation kings.

Movie Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’

**** 1/2 out of 5
142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Sony Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ on Blogcritics.

Buckle up, true believers — the summer movie season has officially arrived. While April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier unofficially inducted the season, Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is here to kick off a month that includes Neighbors, Godzilla, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. If those titles aren’t enough to whet our appetites, I don’t know what is. Returning from the first Amazing Spider-Man, director Mark Webb delivers the grand spectacle we’ve come to expect from a superhero movie, while also finally following up on his rom-com promise after his brilliant Sundance debut (500) Days of Summer. The biggest surprise may be that one of the year’s best romances comes packaged with all the flash and sparkle of a summer blockbuster.

Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2Spider-Man 2 kicks off with a few more tidbits about Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) awol parents, Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz), who are trying to upload a file to the something mysteriously referred to as “Roosevelt,” before being killed off. In the present, Peter loves being our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Even if it means getting caught up in a high-speed chase/shootout involving Aleksai Systevich (Paul Giamatti) trying to steal plutonium on the way to his high school graduation missing Gwen Stacy’s (Emma Stone) valedictorian speech. Peter is haunted by the death of Gwen’s father at the hands of The Lizard and is torn to keep the promise he made to the dying Captain to stay away from Gwen for her safety.

Eventually, Gwen breaks up with Peter and may be leaving for England to attend Oxford. On the villain front, Oscorp electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has a Riddler-esque introduction leading to him turning into the deadly Electro and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) has returned from boarding school to take over Oscorp after his father Norman (Chris Cooper) informs him he’s passed on a genetic disease that will kill him. Harry figures out that the only thing that can save him is Spider-Man’s blood, and Electro wants to get back at Oscorp for stealing his electrical design and covering up his supposed death.

Andrew Garfield, Jamie Foxx, The Amazing Spider-Man 2If this all sounds like a case of sequelitis — where everyone is out to prove more is better — it is and isn’t. Things thankfully never get too convoluted or overcrowded. They could have had Mary Jane Watson been introduced, but I think Webb took the right road to clear the air for the Peter/Gwen relationship. Talk about an adorable on-screen couple, their relationship is the saving grace in amidst all the flashing lights and computer generated mayhem. The rest of the cast look like they’re having a ball, even if DeHaan is a bit stiff in his early scenes. As he starts to succumb to his degenerative disease and Harry starts to become more desperate he certainly loosens up. And the big action scenes definitely deliver on your ticket price.

Does everything work? Mostly. There are a lot more zingy one-liners in this Amazing Spider-Man, but I can’t help but think the smarter elements come courtesy writer Jeff Pinkner. While he may be one of three J.J. Abrams cronies credited to the screenplay, I’m sure he was the brains behind Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s brawn. The opening scene had me worried as it suffered a case of shaky-cam and a bad musical choice almost kills an important scene. And some tone issues start to make the ending feel totally off-kilter. I discussed this with a colleague on the way to the parking lot and we believe that the out-of-place scene was meant to be an end credit easter egg that got added to the main event after Sony and Fox decided to cross promote the upcoming X-Men movie — yes, stay through the credits. Fanboys will undoubtedly have plenty of bones to pick. But fanboys be damned, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an amazing way to kick off the season in high-flying, web-slinging action.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures