10/18/2011

Blu-ray Review: Everything Must Go (2011)



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Though he describes his dad as “more of a drunk who did interesting things,” as we discover in writer/director Dan Rush’s indie feature Everything Must Go, salesman Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) might just as well have been talking about himself. Only in Nick’s case, the interesting things have a way of happening to him involuntarily.

And it’s a good thing that he doesn’t live in a place where precipitation is all that common because for Arizona resident Halsey, when it rains, it pours as he gets fired from his Regional Vice President position at a company he’d given sixteen years of his life to and then finds out his wife has not only left him but also changed the locks, leaving everything Nick Halsey owns on the front lawn.

Out of options – not to mention nearly out of stuff – Nick realizes that to formally occupy his own lawn in the eyes of his community, he has to keep up the pretense of a sale for the sake of appearances.

Setting up shop in his yard, he spends a bulk of the film trying to figure out what his next move should be – beyond whether or not to sell a half a bottle of mouthwash to a random yard sale wanderer.

Whereas these decisions are made infinitely easier when he hires a neighbor kid to run his extremely disorganized sale alongside him in exchange for cigarette breaks he doesn’t use and baseball lessons, decisions about life and what’s next in the scheme of things continue to elude Nick.


Continuing to demonstrate his impressive range as a dramatic actor of untapped skill, following a career-changing turn in Marc Forster’s Stranger than Fiction, Will Ferrell sheds all traces of ham-and-cheese, embracing humility and humanity in their place in a fine performance as a lost man for whom answers refuse to come easily in this refreshingly real, slice-of-life adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”

Bold in its simplicity, clarity and authenticity – shortcuts are thankfully nowhere to be found in Dan Rush’s understated work wherein life unfolds without contrivance or cliché.


Although admittedly due to its very nature as a vignette and fact that the source material for the film came from the realm of short fiction, some big questions are left unanswered or articulated with much in the way of explanation.

Yet while this may bother some viewers who require more closure or a firmer conclusion that will provide us with a better sense of what might be next for Nick or indeed even a greater understanding of what had occurred earlier for the man as well, ultimately in the case of this work, less is so much more.

By giving us just enough to follow Nick from one point to the next, the film’s structure accurately reflects the plight of its existentially adrift lead as well as that of two other similarly struggling supporting players in the form of a new neighbor played by Rebecca Hall and Nick’s unlikely teen protégé (Christopher Wallace).


Moreover, in doing so in a film that’s unpretentious, devoid of cynicism and generous to its characters – flaws and all -- Rush invites us to deduce the truth about all three individuals the way we would do with our own neighbors, piecing all the interesting things together ourselves.

Knowing that anything goes upon the discovery that everything must go, Will Ferrell reminds us just how interesting playing it straight can be, letting go of his traditional “larger than life” onscreen persona to keep things real in Rush’s impressive debut.


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: The Lion King (1994) -- Diamond Edition


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Simba the lion cub isn’t the only one who “just can’t wait to be king” in Walt Disney animation’s Hamlet inspired epic of lion-sized family dysfunction, tragedy of Greek proportions and biblical complexity (oh my!) as shortly into the film, Simba’s nefarious green-eyed Uncle Scar gives into the green-eyed monster that is jealousy to murderous effect.

Pulling a Cain and Abel in a kiddie movie takes Disney villainy to a whole new level in what is arguably Disney’s darkest turn since Bambi’s mother was assassinated by an unseen human hunter so many decades ago.

Is it any wonder then that Bambi was recently restored to cinematographic splendor for its high definition debut mere months before Lion King shared the same fate as the ultimate anthropomorphic coming-of-age in the wild amidst tragedy double feature?

And in fact, Bambi was a direct source of inspiration on the more than six hundred illustrators, technicians, camera operators and Disney professionals who lent a hand on what would become the highest grossing hand-drawn animated feature of all-time.

Taking a cue from Bambi in using nature as its muse to base its iconic animal characters on the real-life animals found in the wild as opposed to convenient fictionalized versions of lions and tigers found in their imagination, Lion King’s commitment to authenticity is apparent right from the start in the film’s “Circle of Life” prologue sequence, which may very well be one of the studio’s crowning achievements.

A pitch-perfect opener that celebrates life, love, creativity, music, art, education and friendship – all of which together simultaneously represent the studio’s reason for being as well –The Lion King effectively references the “Circle” once again in the closing moments of the film, harking back to Bambi’s cyclical structure while adhering to the circular pattern of nature that doubles as the film’s overall theme.

While it’s doubtful that younger viewers will get the same “reading” of the picture and indeed, Lion King will inevitably play differently to those of various ages – in spite of its rather alarmingly Shakespearean subplot involving murderous greed, envy and malice in the pursuit of power – it’s an ultimately life-affirming odyssey incorporating the usual trials and tribulations of the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey.

Although it’s best known for its sing-along friendly Oscar-winning music from Elton John and Tim Rice, the powerful speaker shaking symphonic score from Hans Zimmer really stands out in this Blu-ray upgrade, balancing out the aforementioned duo’s radio-friendly pop songs and setting the stage for the African adventure.

Multigenerational in its appeal in addition to involving audience members of both genders, The Lion King is as far from Disney’s world of princesses, magic spells, poisoned apples and glass slippers as one could possibly get, even if admittedly it still uses the old studio standby of talking animals, silly sidekicks and royal birthrights being robbed right out from underneath the hero by relatives and/or someone they know.

While the movie’s hyena villains still annoy me on a Jar-Jar Binks in the new Star Wars borderline-racist-depiction level, going a tad overboard in their characterization to the extent that it’s sure to make some viewers uncomfortable, overall it’s easy to overlook as overwhelmed as we are by the power of the contemporary classic.

Though not on par with the masterful Beauty and the Beast, it’s a brilliant achievement of the highest artistic craftsmanship as further proof of the studio’s late ‘80s, early ‘90s renaissance that included such films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in addition to Beauty and Lion.

Painstakingly transferred to pitch-perfect Blu-ray complete with the option of 3D with a Diamond Edition set made exclusively for those that have the requisite technology set-ups and prefer to relive the recent theatrical experience by screening it in 3D in their living rooms, The Lion King arrives with a bevy of bonus features.

While the 2D version is dazzling enough for this reviewer, there’s a whole lot of studio treasure to explore including Disney’s informative second-screen option enabling you to get a closer look at the film with an additional screen (laptop, cell phone etc.) of behind-the-scenes information that’s fit for The Lion King.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

 FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Ben-Hur (1959) -- Fiftieth Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition



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Instead of turning water into wine, the 1959 production of Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic Christian novel turned MGM’s impending financial ruin of bankruptcy into box office gold with the most lucrative not to mention award-winning Hollywood endeavor of the year, thereby blessing the studio offscreen with the same level of miraculous wonder that changed the life of Charlton Heston’s eponymous hero onscreen in Ben-Hur.

The first of only three films in history to win a whopping eleven Oscars (with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King following suit in ’97 and ’03), three times proved to likewise be the charm for the legendary widescreen MGM remake as 1959’s production marked the third film adaptation of Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.


Still one of the grandest old-school hero’s journeys of them all, director William Wyler’s Technicolor odyssey set the bar for Hollywood epics and helped usher in the era of event movies that would eventually follow from Spartacus to Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia.

Admittedly, the meandering structure of Wyler’s production make it hard to deny that Ben-Hur would’ve been helped by a sharper final edit of a good thirty to forty-five minutes as the movie devolves into episodic subplots following the cinematic crowning achievement that is Hur’s legendary chariot race sequence.

However, aside from its clunky pacing problems which ultimately stem from the overall awkward genre transition from adventure film to passion play as Hur strives to be all things to all audiences, it’s nonetheless aged remarkably well and the movie’s influence can still be felt over five decades later in the films of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott in particular.

In fact, an entire documentary could be made focusing on the impact that Hur has had on contemporary popcorn pictures, beginning with a sharp focus on the decade of the ‘80s testosterone fueled blockbuster of modern hero’s journeys, in addition to Ben-Hur’s obvious influence on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (itself an amalgam of Hur and the Hur inspired Spartacus), of course.

Gorgeously restored to digitally enhanced perfection and packaged as a five-DVD fiftieth anniversary limited edition gift set collection with two keepsake books containing Charlton Heston’s private set diaries and an in-depth production book with original pressbook photos, studio information and more, Warner Brothers’ release of the MGM classic also serves up the 1925 feature for contrast and comparison.


And while it’s a treasure trove for scholars – not to mention Heston enthusiasts – as far as this critic is concerned, the feature presentation itself is the main attraction. The anniversary edition boasts eye-popping clarity, pitch-perfect flesh tones that stand up well next to the sun-drenched landscape and the film’s magnificent use of rich red hues look so impressive in DVD that I couldn’t help but wonder what – if any major – difference the high definition recent Blu-ray release would make.

Miklos Rozsa’s iconic score soars through every speaker of your home theater system both as part of the picture and as the main event given the DVD bonus of watching Wyler’s work with the isolated musical score to soak up the film on an aesthetic level alone.


Yet whichever way you prefer to soak up the well-preserved grandeur of this National Library of Congress certified National Treasure, the one thing that everyone can agree on is even in the cyclical world of film – when just like in the ‘50s, studios are relying on all kinds of gimmicks like extra wide screens and 3D to lure in viewers – there’s still nothing more thrilling than the effort of real human beings working together without state-of-the-art effects.

And nowhere is this feat best evidenced than in action director Andrew Marton’s five-week long chariot race shoot. One of Hollywood’s best adrenaline-fueled adventurous showdowns ever captured on celluloid, the death-defying climax of Ben-Hur is so miraculously awe-inspiring and groundbreaking that it’s the cinematic equivalent of turning water into wine.  


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/12/2011

DVD Review: Make Believe (2010)




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When she was four years old, Krystyn Lambert asked her mom if she was from another planet. She knew she wasn’t like everyone else but once she found her people and indulged her passion with endless practice, patience and perfectionism, Lambert encountered a lot of fellow Earthly oddballs called magicians who spring into action with a deck of cards and a sense of wonder.


Magicians, she discovered, can do something nobody else can do and in so doing shatter worldviews, remove obstacles, right wrongs, and (most importantly) connect to other human beings without barriers of culture, class or conversation thanks to the universal language of make believe.

One of six teens profiled in J. Clay Tweel’s winningly endearing documentary centering on entrants to the art form’s equivalent of the Olympic Games via the World Magic Seminar competition staged at The Orleans in Las Vegas, Krystyn Lambert is the only female in the mix and a clear front-runner complete with education and vast experience as well as industry mentors and an “in” at The Magic Shop.


Known as the group’s “Malibu Barbie” due to her looks, which refreshingly equal her intellect, Lambert isn’t the only subject who spends all of her free time devoted to her craft.

In Make Believe, we’re quickly led behind the curtain and into the homemade magic factories, laboratories, lairs, theatres, practice rehearsal spaces, after-school jobs, auditoriums and hobby shops haunted by a painfully shy Littleton, Colorado longer who goes from introverted to extroverted in a matter of minutes, coming to life when he starts to perform.


Journeying to the windy city before taking us abroad, we’re riveted by the subtle family dynamics at play in the portrait of a nineteen year old Chicagoan who postponed college for a year specifically to figure out the best way to create, shuffle and incorporate faux iPods into his act to prepare for the Vegas event.


And in his chronicle of the select few that professional tricksters will invite to compete at the World Magic Seminar, Tweel sheds new light on situations most of us only see a fraction of on the evening news by taking us on a touching coming-of-age tour of countries and cultures through the lens of illusion.

This feat is particularly apparent onscreen in Make Believe when the filmmaker leaves the comfort of American suburbia to visit the budding magic scene in Cape Town, South Africa where the art of make believe provides a much-needed means of escape by way of escapism as we meet performing arts students who indulge their love of showmanship through the academic curriculum that keeps them out of the ultraviolent slums.


Amazingly ambitious for an independent documentary feature -- let alone a directorial debut -- Tweel seems to take a cue from his guileless, optimistic daydreaming leads, traveling from Cape Town to an idyllic, remote Japanese locale where a young man renews our faith in the power of creativity, graduating from a single nearly worn-out videotape of a single magic special to inventing his own tricks with nature serving as his muse.


Through subtitles or sleight-of-hand, the meaning is always clear as we discover the role that magic has played in not only helping these six adolescents unravel some of life’s biggest mysteries but also figure out who they are along the way as Earthly oddballs with an out-of-this-world hunger to make you believe in the impossible… if only for an instant.

And in the case of Tweel’s terrific film, he manages to make this feat last far more than just an instant, keeping us utterly captivated for the entire 91 minute running time of this film festival circuit sleeper from the producers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/11/2011

Blu-ray Review: Scream 4 (2011)



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Scream 4


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What sets the Scream franchise apart from the rest of the blockbuster horror movie genre isn’t the fact that it’s so cleverly witty and pop-culturally self-referential – a postmodern comment of the genre it’s lampooning while at the same time taking itself seriously as though we were watching the feature presentation complete with filmmaker commentary from start to finish.

No, honestly what sets the series apart is how damn surprising it is or more accurately how startled we are on a multitude of levels as audience members – how it manages to take not just the scary movie formula and veritable genre goal of scaring the ever-lovin’ popcorn and goobers out of us and manages to move beyond that to thrill us in an entirely new way.


The Scream movies work so well because they blur the line between viewer and cast member – vicariously putting us in the film as co-conspirator one minute and victim the next and changing our role often.

In the course of a single onscreen phone call, we move from voyeur spectator to participant faster than we ourselves were aware of the change in point-of-view. And the process repeats frequently as director Wes Craven changes perspective to cover terror from all angles -- similar to the way the shower scene plays out in Psycho in making us see the events unfold through the eyes of both Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

Except this time around in the meta pop-culture world of Scream where characters comment on situations they’re in while they’re in them, we’re also aware of the camera, the tricks, the audience and the deceptive reality of each and every point-of-view, knowing we shouldn’t simply trust our eyes or ears. Time and again in Scream, Wes Craven uses celluloid as though it were an entirely new sense.


Obviously given the limits of the genre on a predator/prey primal level, we’ve seen it all before and Scream is further challenged by the fact that this is its fourth time at bat and they were always too cool for school in that they’d had the bases covered in the first hyper-aware act of the first film.

And because we know that when the phone rings, it’s going to be Ghostface instead of a friend playing a practical joke, it’s going to take a lot more than a simple scare to set this Scream apart.

Furthermore, to their immense credit, Craven and company swing for the fences in the latest and second greatest installment, sending the first of several curveballs right out of the park from the minute the movie begins – exactly like they did roughly fifteen years ago in the opening of the inaugural Scream when Drew Barrymore answered the original call.


Presenting us with everything we’re accustomed to while commenting on it, Scream 4 deceptively kicks off with a “business as usual” vibe before scripter Kevin Williamson reminds us that postmodern begins with the word “post” for a reason.

In a wildly weird introduction, Williamson (in addition to uncredited script polisher Ehren Kruger) fight against the very foundation upon which Scream was built, dissecting the franchise’s formula by simultaneous parody and homage, avoiding and confronting the movie-within-a-movie paradigms that served the first two Scream pictures so magnificently.


Immediately challenging your perception of what’s real – before you begin to get your bearings, the film builds on a beginning you didn’t expect before pulling the same bait and switch again and again to ingenious effect, once again calling up sights and sounds of earlier Screams for a new plan of attack.

Yes, it’s the same routine. The killer is on the other end of the phone after all but are we in the same place? Is the right person on either end of the line? Is technology adding a new layer or more confusion?


Similar to the way that Sylvester Stallone’s sixth entry in the Rocky series succeeded so wonderfully by essentially going back to its roots to ignore the trappings of movie sequel limbo altogether, Scream 4 operates on a similar level, playing to fans as the ultimate bookend to what was originally supposed to be a horror trilogy.

Augmented by an ingenious screenplay and assured direction, Scream 4 builds on signature scenes from Screams of the past as well as structure mandates of the widely recognized formula modus operandi complete with those epic standalone openers, violent showdowns and villainous pop-ups following a multiple talking-killer reveal in the end.

From not one but three fake-outs to spoof their tendency to serve up false-starts to the bold use of old locations and character-driven confrontations of mistaken identities and horror movie trivia employed to outsmart the killer and/or save a life, Scream 4’s a meta mix-tape movie. And amazingly, this particular Scream manages to walk a fine line of revisiting familiar territory instead of opting to completely reinvent the wheel while simultaneously never copying itself.


Even though we’ve seen some of the exact same set-ups before, they’re freshly crafted in Scream 4 to the point that we marvel over how effectively Craven manages to pay off on viewer assumption to diabolically surprising effect.

While admittedly the momentum does slip slightly following the jumpy beginning in order to acquaint us with the film’s newest additions in the form of Sidney Prescott’s high school cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) as well as her soon-to-be-Ghostface-prey pretty girl posse of friends and film buff hangers-on, Scream 4 picks up speed as it continues, deftly balancing the old and the new once Sidney returns to Woodsboro.


Having published a survivor memoir following what she believed to be the end of Ghostface, Sidney arrives on the anniversary of the tragic crimes that set Scream in motion fifteen years earlier along with her ethically challenged book editor in tow (Alison Brie), only to discover that you can’t go home again without old skeletons tumbling out of the closet to provide the 111 minute film with enough murder and mayhem to put Woodsboro on alert once again.

Teaming up with series favorites – the writer’s block plagued reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Gale’s deputy turned Sheriff husband Dewey Riely (David Arquette) – as well as her cousin’s targeted circle of friends, Sidney tries to unmask Ghostface once and for all.


While the final act doesn’t quite have the same energy apparent in the first two franchise films, Scream 4 is still light-years better than the third installment, eventually developing a major twist that unlike previous entries, we couldn’t see coming (at least to some extent) a mile away.

Although the first movie is still the best (despite some genre trappings that have dated it slightly), the fourth film ranks a close second.


Thus the thrill of redial is far from gone when it comes to Scream thanks to a stellar sequel it’s easy to get hung up on. With Ghostface dialing "M" for murder, switchboard operators Craven and Williamson shock us into a fun frenzy.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the brothers Weinstein aren’t putting their heads together to produce a second standalone Scream trilogy with the hopes of developing another one of this generation’s favorite scary movies to watch with the phone off the hook.


   
Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on Blu-ray Review: The Hour (2011)



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An imported BBC work of sudsy miniseries sophistication, The Hour plays like a Mad Men spinoff as penned by mile-a-minute screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and go-to English lit adapter Andrew Davies.

Destined to attract devotees of Don Draper suffering from Men in the gray flannel suited concrete jungle withdrawal along with those who were disappointed when Sorkin’s short-lived SNL behind-the-scenes NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was canceled -- BBC pulled out all the stops with a stellar Blu-ray transfer of their acclaimed summertime smash.


In fact, despite The Hour’s impressive IQ as high quality '00s television about high quality ‘50s television, polish and perfection is so prevalent throughout that at times it keeps us at arm’s length, coming off cooler than museum air-conditioning at with its mechanical precision as an impeccably crafted yet predictably safe work of highbrow diversion.


Filled with the requisite number of big moments and stagey speeches you can set your watch by, as the series continues it becomes easier to anticipate the “For Your Consideration” moments sure to net its exceptional cast award consideration in the 2012 season.


Nonetheless, because the major turns of events and soapbox soliloquies are enlivened by the presence of the vivacious Romola Garai – refreshingly given the chance to play a real flesh and blood woman instead of a girl – and Bright Star's Ben Whishaw in his most fully realized and complex turn since Brideshead Revisited, The Hour is elevated to must-see status even before the convoluted plotline begins to click together.


Although they deal with conflicts of interest on a daily basis, the show-runners of BBC’s 1956 news magazine program “The Hour” find themselves thrust into a web of conspiracy, crime, and deceit on an international level when what on the surface appears to be a simple case of murder involves the upper echelons of British intelligence, dirty little governmental secrets and foreign policy.

And the six-part series is at its best when embracing its inner Grisham movie feel of big brother paranoia in the Manchurian Candidate era rather than settling in for the claustrophobic chatter of a cross between Good Night and Good Luck and All the President’s Men.


Once The Hour realizes that its okay to give its brain a slight rest, it successfully gets our blood pumping --injecting the drama with (albeit) intellectual action -- stimulating our adrenaline as well as our gray matter with thrilling revelations and exciting turns of events that make the second half of screenwriter Abi Morgan’s 344 minute endeavor far more engrossing than the first.

An easy homerun for the period production friendly network, as expected The Hour boasts superlative art direction, costuming and technical values. But because of the BBC reputation and the topical, thematic and historic company the miniseries keeps among other channel masterpieces including State of Play, it’s an altogether impressive if slightly underwhelming offering.


However, given the incredible momentum that builds as the plotlines collide with new supporting characters and true motives are revealed, there’s enough promise evidenced in The Hour’s phenomenal last act for us to add the recently announced commission of a second series to our list of hotly anticipated 2012-2013 television events... alongside the return of Don Draper, of course.


   
Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.