Blu-ray Review: Fight Club -- 10th Anniversary Edition (1999; 2009)

Now Available to Own

The idea of an unreliable narrator is a fascinating literary device that seems to play best in the realm of cinema as film manages to trick viewers like no other medium. Upon researching unreliable narrators, I discovered that they originated in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and since the publication of that work, writers have been using false tricksters to guide readers and viewers with tales of increasing complexity.

Probably the most famous work of unreliable narration of the ‘90s was employed in Bryan Singer’s masterful film, The Usual Suspects, which starred Kevin Spacey. The actor followed up Usual Suspects with another neo-noir for director David Fincher in the form of Seven.

After my friend and fellow film critic Colin Boyd urged me to see Zodiac, I realized that I’ve been consistently impressed by the films of David Fincher including Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Panic Room. However, at the time it was released, I loathed Seven and have yet to see it again. Although I grant that it was indeed intelligent and that Fincher's frequent star (in their initial coupling), Brad Pitt finally had the chance to show his enormous range for the first time, overall I felt that it was a downright disgusting thriller. Saw before the horror franchise and torture porn genre was born, Seven is a work I felt sickened trying to view as one that left nothing to the imagination and had no purpose other than to simply horrify.

Yet ironically, most individuals called Fincher’s follow-up Fight Club even more disturbing with some of my favorite critics going as far as to damn the film as one of the most dangerous pieces of cinema ever made… and not in a great Roman Polanski way. However, while it definitely was a chore to sit through, as a film, Fight Club was also brilliant, darkly comic and impossible to forget.

At its essence, the movie was more of an assault on our commercial society than simply a film about a bunch of guys just wailing on each other, which unfortunately was the way it was dismissed by a large amount of reviewers. Still enough viewers identified its underlying theme and overall message on a visceral as well as intellectual level which Variety’s David Rooney likewise acknowledged by writing that, “rarely has a film been so keyed into its time.” And the audience for Fight Club has only grown more passionate about the 1999 work ever since, thereby making it a bona fide cult classic ten years after Fincher’s previous star, Spacey and his film American Beauty earned Oscar gold.

Allegory to the max, Fight Club's final cut was extreme in every way imaginable to ramp up the Fincher’s subtext in Jim Uhls’ brilliant adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. Every frame reaffirmed the film’s “message statement” against a generation abiding by “mission statements,” via its expressionistic usages of sound bridges and impressionistic marriage of production design, editing trickery, juxtaposition, and Edward Norton’s deadpan narration. In copious behind-the-scenes extra features, you can witness the painstaking effort of various departments working in tandem like the real external Project Mayhem crew of the movie’s internal guerilla group Project Mayhem to ensure that Fincher’s movie was as much of a psychological extension of the antithesis of late ‘90s consumer driven culture as was its main character Tyler Durden.

While on the surface, guys thrashed each other with full force, once you peeled past that outer layer, astute viewers understood that it’s a counterculture work using graphic imagery in place of a dull professorial lecture. As such, Fight Club is best experienced in the same allegorical spirit Peter Greenaway employed in his intensely sexual, over-the-top NC-17 rated The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover which was a disturbingly in-your-face response film to the British monarchy system of the ‘80s.

For those who have yet to see the movie, Fight Club follows our existentially adrift Narrator, played by Edward Norton, as an insurance calculator/cubicle drone who spends a large amount of time living a “single serving” life of travel by providing an impersonal mathematical formula gauging death vs. cost in deciding whether or not the major automobile company he works for should financially initiate a recall.

Furthermore, throughout the movie, Norton is credited with no set name other than “Jack” which is an in-film ironic joke after he finds a retro stack of informational health literature about Jack’s Medulla Oblongata, etc. Insomniac and dispassionate in his job, he takes to attending support groups for diseases he doesn’t have—anxious to simply feel and connect with strangers even for a brief period. However, our Narrator’s new and disturbing homeostasis proves to be a temporary solution, which is irrevocably altered when his condo full of Ikea purchased possessions blows up, forcing him to face his life and realize that he’s missing something vital. What he's missing, he realizes once he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt)—a loose cannon with whom he co-creates a “fight club” wherein men can work out their aggression on one another until this leads to acts of homegrown terrorism under the name of Project Mayhem.

Obviously this plot-point was a frightening development that critics and journalists feared would lead to off-screen destruction. And unfortunately, some young men—completely missing the film’s point—did indeed create their own fight clubs but again, this reaction made me recall the reaction to another movie made a decade earlier. Like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which many people felt would incite riots (and was blamed for the misfortune of being released before Rodney King)—Fight Club is a brilliant work that should incite thought instead of violence. Moreover, I couldn’t help realizing how sad it was at the time that those critiquing it didn’t give American audiences more respect and let the few who may have let media do their thinking for them give the millions of other intelligent viewers a bad name.

Additionally, as I learned in "How to Start a Fight," the original twenty page DVD booklet (which admirably cited reactions which ran the gamut), there is “more violence in the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan than if you watched Fight Club for an entire year.” Moreover honestly, underneath all of the “macho posing,” right from its opening phallic imagery of a gun barrel placed in Norton’s mouth, overall it’s quite homoerotic as both women and gay men noticed instantly. This makes the idea that it’s a total “Guy Film Hall of Fame” movie (as SpikeTV inducted it a few months back, which is included on the Blu-ray) seem far more subversive and fun on another level as several years ago author Chuck Palahniuk finally outed himself as a gay man.

While I’ve never read the book by Palahniuk, I learned from research that the ending varies greatly from his original plot but the author has been widely quoted as stating that he prefers the film’s ending to his own published version. Overall, Jim Uhls' script echoed the tone of the book, which Uhls described as, “a seminal statement of the times, a statement about this particular generation, much in the same way the ‘60s were captured in the better films of that decade,” in Fight Club’s original production notes. And to his immense credit, Uhls succeeded as the film perfectly captured Palahniuk’s beliefs on the power of culture, which were listed in the booklet as follows:
“The first way in which a new generation takes control of society is through the culture; the arts, films, books, music. Through all entertainment. People who feel safe and secure in the existing society are frightened by ideas that threaten their power. People who hold the power in society want nice complacent forms of entertainment, films that comfort people and support the status quo.”
Fight Club was a risky film to be sure and one quite excessive in its violence but the visuals and juxtaposition of shots are quite novel. Producer Laura Ziskin (yes, only a female producer would touch it) really helped keep this labor of love on track by giving unprecedented power to Fincher. In doing so, former music video director Fincher shot more than three times the normal amount of film reels (IMDb) to get his vision right.

The film’s huge narrative shock and switch revealing our unreliable narrator was quite surprising in the first viewing but after one goes through the film again, one notices what a clever craftsman Fincher and his editor were as there are so many clues littered throughout the movie on several sensory levels designed to hit each part of the brain, whether visually, in a literary fashion etc. for a stunned intellectual punch.

Although it’s filmed in L.A., the setting of the work was always Wilmington, Delaware but predictably and with justification, the city officials were worried about duplicate attacks witnessed onscreen so the setting is anonymous, giving viewers a more terrifying experience as we see that it could occur anywhere. And indeed, the film itself took on a whole new resonance after the events of 9/11.

Suddenly a film about a generation without direction, without “great wars” or purpose whose characters resort to terrorism from consumer slavery became a bit too hard to handle as in a scene where Norton’s character prays for a plane crash as well as in the final moments as skyscrapers explode. It only had two years there (released in ’99) when the film fit in with its time but following 9/11, everything changed and suddenly the film felt like a period piece… or it did until its tenth anniversary rolled around.

While watching it again a few years back for an undergraduate project on neo-noir films, I did find it especially eerie considering the aforementioned sequences and sentiment. However, now in 2009, it feels not like it was simply a clever allegory nor a period piece of a more consumerist time but a wake up call in retrospect. Just like viewing the miniseries of Traffik in its twentieth anniversary hit me on a global level in terms of alarm bells regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan that will make you want to shout “why didn’t we do anything?” Fight Club is deeply affecting on the level of not just terror but consumerism as well.

In ’99, Tyler’s “you’re not the car you drive,” monologue was indeed meaningful but not nearly as much as it is now when viewed again in an era where debt has enslaved us to the point wherein most of us can’t even “go to jobs we hate” to “buy shit we don’t need,” since the basics are what’s adding up and this time around, we're also indebted by fighting two “great wars” that we didn’t have then. So suddenly Fight Club becomes just as urgent, tragic, and retroactively potent as ever. This is particularly evident given Project Mayhem’s insane movement to set the debt record back to zero so that everyone becomes free, which is not only just as terrifyingly allegorical as it always was but now makes us want to shout, “why didn’t we do anything?” from a peaceful standpoint, of course since as Palahniuk noted entertainment is the way to introduce ideas for real change.

Yet that quote from the Fight Club scribe is one of the problems with the film’s 10th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition... since it doesn’t exist. When purchased originally in 2000, the two disc DVD set featured not just superlative features packaged in a gorgeous format of concept art but it also contained a twenty page fact and photo filled guide that was Fox 2000 Pictures’ equivalent of releasing their own pre-Criterion version essay.

Missing even a basic one-page Blu-ray insert of what was then titled “Jack’s Chapters,” as well as the aforementioned guide, while Fox’s enviable Blu-ray clarity is top-notch, this single disc dully packaged edition contains just three new extras, with one consisting of a simple search index. Still, a search index is needed since the menu is presented in tinier font and laid out in a more confusing manner. But being that the other two new extras are purely the SpikeTV induction (memorable only for Norton’s dare to Pitt involving Mel Gibson) and a very interesting yet way too short demonstration of the sound design with 2-time Fincher Oscar nominee Ren Klyce, it leaves me hesitant to recommend the full price-tag of the Blu-ray upgrade since no doubt you’d want to hang onto your original DVDs and would therefore double your shelf-space.

While high definition is a great way to appreciate the movie, such a passionately thorough job was done by Fincher in the original film itself that—although it does improve the depth perception—I’m assuming that there will be a far more worthwhile Blu-ray release down the road, either from Fox or perhaps Criterion who were involved in Fincher’s Benjamin Button from its home entertainment debut.

The absence of new features with the cast in fact does make me wonder if they were all far too busy in their respective endeavors like the Button release and Inglourious Basterds to get more involved, yet Fincher does provide a small but tiny gag by inserting the menu of the 1999 film that drew in more box office than Club in the form of Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed for a few seconds before Club kicks in.

Since press were sent notes and e-mails (I received one with the disc and one in the inbox) regarding the importance of not revealing the “Fincher gag,” I was extremely eager to uncover just what we were to expect when it finally arrived and while it’s cute for a moment, sadly just like the subtext of Kissed as having earned more money, this release without the superior packaging, DVD booklet or more than only a handful of bonuses just feels like a format upgrade for the dough and sans the spirit of Durden.

Needless to say, I am Jack’s Supreme Sense of Disappointment. Yet for those whose only interest is purely for the film and its format and not for the features, this particular release echoes one of my favorite lines by Norton's memorably unreliable narrator of, “it’s called a changeover, the movie goes on and nobody in the audience has any idea.”

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


Blu-ray Review: The Kevin Smith Collection (Clerks; Chasing Amy; Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back)

Now Available to Own

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Aside from hilarity, one of the side effects not addressed on the box of The Kevin Smith Collection amidst the phone book sized listing of bonus features is that viewing the trio of films in quick succession will temporarily send your vocabulary into the gutter. In other words, it unleashed this polite native Midwesterner’s inner “Jersey Girl.”

However, additionally I couldn’t help but admit that this Blu-ray box set would’ve been a far more coveted anthology for the filmmaker’s dedicated fan base if it weren’t missing the three other titles in what is now collectively known as the “View Askewniverse” of overlapping characters and incidents woven throughout six of his movies.

It was a surprising yearning for this reviewer to acknowledge since I could hardly be mistaken for a Smith purist as I’ve never owned any of the titles and furthermore--having seen them all-- I possess the very unpopular opinion that the real Jersey Girl was one of his best works. That's right, in Muppet terms, when it comes to Kevin Smith I'm ready to be Fozzie Bear and say, Jersey Girl was completely underrated so let the tomatoes fired at me fall where they may.

As a viewer,
once you commit to going back, you’d rather have the full Smith attack, regardless of the fact that-- much like the included Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back-- the missing ingredients of the critically loathed Mallrats, the Catholic Church’s 1999 enemy Dogma and the less than cohesive sequel Clerks II were somewhat uneven by comparison to the original Clerks and arguably his masterpiece Chasing Amy.

Yet no doubt this wish for a Smith cinematic mixtape would’ve failed to occur anyway since it would've involved far more than mixing movies by trying to mix together corporations that don’t belong to the former Smith home-base of Miramax and/or Dimension back when they were operated under the Walt Disney Studios banner by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Despite this, the Collection is a great journey fifteen years into the past when Smith as well as his cinematic alter-ego Silent Bob first entered Gen X pop culture via his Sundance breakthrough smash Clerks.

And this time around, I recognized a certain irony that the filmmaker who made his debut work shooting overnight at the New Jersey Quick Stop where he worked with his ode to “overeducated and underemployed”* characters that wasted their time apathetically engaged in customer service has refreshingly never abandoned the offer of “may I help you?”

One of the most accessible directors of his generation who engages with fans regularly online and in person in his famous Evening Q&A sessions which have been released on DVD and recently resulted in a sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall, Kevin Smith is not above ridiculing himself and the studio system in an admirable attempt to break down the walls of the filmmaking process to the level of transparency so that reality replaces glamour and honesty is the driving force.

In other words, Kevin Smith is Brian O’Halloran’s character Dante Hicks in Clerks, who frustrates his girlfriend by not journeying out of his comfort zone to go to college in the movie or selling out for Smith in real life. As such, while back in the ‘90s, Smith became a cult phenomenon for his characterization of Silent Bob in his View Askewniverse series portrayal of a slacker anomaly best described as the bastard son of Harpo Marx and Tommy Chong, it’s safe to say that now in the ‘00s Kevin Smith himself has become the bigger icon.

This was especially evident when, in an extraordinary coincidence, I spent not just one Evening but rather two weeks with Kevin Smith, critiquing both this set along with the film festival circuit and indie insider documentary Official Rejection, which Smith took part in as an interview subject, offering so much information that his comments were included in a longer, uncut segment as a bonus feature on the second disc.

Honestly, part of me has always wondered if perhaps and even subconsciously, Smith was puzzled by and/or envious of the mainstream acceptance and over-the-moon praise of gutter humor typically on display in the movies of Judd Apatow, television series like Sex and the City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and even Two and a Half Men, all of which have managed to spin sexually explicit dialogue into viewer and/or commercial gold. Yet humble as ever, in Rejection he goes as far as to speculate that Clerks wouldn’t get into Sundance if it were submitted today since the film itself just lucked into “saying the right thing at the right time,” when everyone and their brother weren’t running around making movies.

And admittedly, watching Clerks again today fifteen years later, I realize that I’m not entirely sure it would be accepted as well since by his own admission the movie “looks shitty."
* While you can just switch the color settings on your TV to standard at best to exert less power from your electronics and the film was restored nonetheless, Smith even jokes on the Blu-ray that he feels that it’s pointless to ask fans to buy the low quality work in the highest quality format (as it feels like a videotape or DVD feature all the way). Yet despite his disbelief and self-deprecating remarks, the Blu-ray makes sense to me from a purely film buff standpoint since it’s a necessary title to preserve.

Similar to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise which likewise doesn’t necessarily need a Blu-ray treatment along with Steven Soderbergh’s debut Cannes winner Sex, Lies and Videotape which just turned twenty on Blu-ray, the staples of our country’s independent cinema, like our very own British or French New Wave should be upgraded as part of our cinematic history. Made with the same passion and lack of resources that were the backbone of John Cassavetes' grainy titles like Shadows and Faces and the early films of Martin Scorsese like Who’s That Knocking on My Door? and Mean Streets, Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Smith and others including Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are the staples of our generation.

Additionally, if a studio is releasing a set and using Smith’s name as the glue that holds the collection together, Clerks is the rightful place to start to introduce a newcomer to his movies. Likewise as I simply did in just revisiting the View Askewniverse, you need to return to the humble beginnings as the first installment of a series via the Quick Stop inception is so close to his heart that Smith’s pop culture focused website is in fact titled Quick Stop Entertainment.

And as far as Clerks itself is concerned, the humor is still all there and the movie’s “work sucks” subtext is timelier than ever a la Office Space and despite the fact that so many of us are now out of work as it turns fifteen. However, I will grant that in my eyes, most likely if it were premiering today, the saga of Dante who goes into work on his day off to ridiculous result (think After Hours in a 7-Eleven) would probably fall into the same D.I.Y. camp of the South by Southwest or Slamdance as a snarky sibling of the outdated term/trend Mumblecore.

While it’s hindered by its budget, Clerks has yet to pass its freshness date because rather than use a ridiculous amount of money to obtain wall-to-wall indie rock music or show-off editing to try to set it apart on a shallow level, the saving grace of Clerks is in Smith’s incredibly unique, unmistakably authentic voice which one can attribute solely to his writing.

However, the audacious subject matter and incessantly foul language found the film slapped with an NC-17 rating in ‘94 before it was repealed to an R. And while I'm sure this wouldn't happen today when Knocked Up opens all around the globe, Clerks still packs a punch yet not quite the shocked sucker one we experienced back then as we’ve become desensitized by the mainstream acceptance of explicit conversations onscreen.

Furthermore, Smith’s rapid-fire screwball inspired approach is enviable to comics, screenwriters, actors, and filmmakers alike and of course, it's especially entertaining when it's brought to life by amateur co-star Jeff Anderson as the scene-stealing apathetic video store clerk Randal.

However, structurally Clerks feels a bit weak as I always felt like Smith waited a bit too long for certain plot-points like the former girlfriend to arrive and other gags to pay off. These amateur decisions made the distribution of comedic events threaten to topple the structure like a house of cards with Smith's killer material all being stacked on top (or near the end). Yet Clerks is immensely satisfying to witness as a snapshot of the full picture he would later create when his potential and strengths came together in Chasing Amy.

In a very telling featurette included on the Blu-ray for his most acclaimed, Golden Globe nominated and Independent Spirit Award winning Amy, Smith and his former girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams (who additionally served as the film’s star and muse) share an initially awkward but fascinating confessional conversation about both the evolution of their relationship and their inability to “divorce” their personal involvement with each other with Chasing Amy as a film.

Anyone who’s seen enough interviews with Smith that are less "posed" than some of the Blu-ray introductions contained in this Collection (which find him self-deprecating, cursing, and hilarious but very in the mindset of his View Askewniverse character), recognizes that deep down he’s less sarcastic and more sincere than he lets on. And sure enough, you get the chance to see that side of him creep in here and there in the Joey Lauren Adams conversation.

Whether it’s in the small details of being able to recall precisely what she ate at Denny’s before they even began dating when he offered to drive her to the airport out of the blue after Mallrats wrapped or being thrilled by her teasing offer that they should wed in Vegas without having so much as kissed when he sought her out again, Smith's romantic side emerges completely.

When Adams shares how startled she was to realize just how vulgar Chasing Amy was after watching it for the first time in several years, Smith presses her for more information about whether she thought so back in 1997 or if it just echoed his own way of speaking. Considering this and put on the spot, Adams confirms what we’ve long suspected by telling him directly and sideways to the camera that in real life, he really isn’t as crass as the dialogue of a Smith film when in a one-on-one, off-camera, offline relationship.

Hurriedly shushing her with the correction that he swears all the time and that vulgarity is his “bread and butter,” we realize that their relationship and his love for Adams is no doubt what inspired the movie. And watching it again today, I was thrilled to find that Chasing Amy still holds up well as a trashy yet terrifically tender examination of what it’s like when you blindly fall for someone to such a degree that you’re willing to defy the most extreme obstacles out of pure heartfelt necessity to test whether or not they share even the slightest level of—if not longing—than interest.

Likewise, the passion for filmmaking at its purist form was there for the first time since before Clerks as he shares in yet another Blu-ray Q&A that “he had nowhere to go but up,” after the disaster of Mallrats. However, Amy allowed him to build off of what he felt was the same screwball, rapid fire Preston Sturges like delivery he was striving for in Mallrats.

Moreover, when you couple this with his own added maturity and wisdom as a cinematic storyteller, and greater experience now with the filmmaking process complete with a more solid foundation in a perfectly structured screenplay, you understand that by the time Amy rolled around, he had the confidence to finally use silence "breaths between jokes," and nonverbal action to make the film feel far more emotionally authentic than the previous works.

Having joked that Mallrats was a “six million dollar audition for Chasing Amy,” Smith wrote the role of his "ideal male version of himself" for Mallrats star Ben Affleck and the part of his best friend and co-creator of their comic book based on Jay and Silent Bob for another Mall survivor in the form of Jason Lee. In doing so, Smith created an impossible love triangle wherein Affleck’s Holden McNeil falls for a beguilingly beautiful comic book colleague named Alyssa Jones (Adams), knowing full well that she’s a lesbian.

Despite the repeated warnings via Alyssa’s very open and frank discussion of her lifestyle, Holden tries to delude himself into believing he can just be her friend, thereby alienating his own best friend and business partner Banky (Lee) who retaliates with jealousy and homophobic jokes.

In a scene that’s fittingly filmed in the rain when no doubt most viewers will be likewise fighting back tears as well (foreshadowing Smith’s sentimental side, for which some Jersey Girl audiences weren’t prepared), Affleck gives one of the best monologues in his entire career when he finally tells Alyssa that he just can't be her friend. Yet, after successfully begging her to open her heart and mind up enough to accept him as a lover in the most powerful sequence Smith has created so far, Holden realizes that he isn’t able to do the same when it comes to her after he uncovers some salacious details about Alyssa’s checkered sexual past.

Filled with conflicting levels of Irish Catholic guilt and gender double standards in an atypical version of the virgin/whore complex, Holden is challenged all the more when he finally ascertains that the root of Banky’s resentment of Alyssa is because his best friend is actually in denial of his own sexuality, meaning that Holden has unknowingly been the “Alyssa” of Banky’s life as well.

While Chasing Amy goes even further than Clerks in terms of sexually explicit dialogue and in fact, much more than Clerks, I agree with Joey Lauren Adams that it is still just as vulgar from a dialogue standpoint as it was back then, because the language is so fully in tune with the situations and characterizations-- just like Smith manages to do with his characters-- we don’t judge it or dismiss it on that level.

And it's still one of his most emotionally potent and relatable works to this day regardless of the viewer’s sexuality as, from the standpoint of a straight single female, I could understand (even if I was shocked by the dialogue and odd confessions) where every single character was coming from in terms of their background and emotional state. Fittingly, Chasing Amy is also easily the standout of the Kevin Smith Collection in a superlative Blu-ray transfer which cleans up the limitations of the low-budget shoot in high caliber definition and new bonus features.

Despite the parade of former characters from the View Askewniverse and especially a great dual role by Ben Affleck as both Holden and Affleck post-Good Will Hunting super-stardom (since Smith helped get Damon and Affleck’s film made), the overwhelmingly homophobic Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a return to lowbrow Mallrats terrain and Dogma’s all-over-the-map style structure.

Despite fun turns by actors like Will Ferrell and Shannon Elizabeth, Jay and Silent Bob rightfully angered GLAAD and was justifiably slammed by critics in its initial release. Much like Zack and Miri, the humor seems to go directly for the gutter for less reason than in any of his previous work with a disappointing new fixation on scatological gags that are beneath him as a writer, since they require absolutely no creativity or intellect for the artist as well as the audience. However, the film is salvaged by enough must-see moments like the Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season spoof that it’s a mindlessly messy yet slightly enjoyable diversion.

As Jay and Silent Bob had been previously released on Blu-ray before, it’s the only title in the Collection missing any new bonus features yet understanding the economy and potential for consumer disappointment of having to buy the same movie twice and likewise asking people to buy Clerks in a pointless Blu-ray upgrade, Smith includes an in-depth documentary on the making-of-the-film, which is contained on the Clerks disc.

Throughout just three discs, The Kevin Smith Collection is filled with enough extras that you could go to experiential film school and essentially relive Smith’s hands-on learning experiences along with the filmmaker, the actors, and his dedicated producer Scott Mosier. And while you’re only presented with half of the View Askewniverse, it’s a hilariously original galaxy far out of the mainstream. Likewise, it's one that makes a welcome addition to your high-definition collection...even though it should come with a warning that you may
involuntarily suffer from sounding like a character from the Asewniverse upon watching the movies one after another.

* As quoted by Kevin Smith in Official Rejection.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


Blu-ray Review: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (2009)

Now Available to Own

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If TV was high school and the programs that aired on every network were members of a graduating class, FX's It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia would no doubt earn the yearbook honor of being dubbed the series “most unlikely to make a Christmas special.”

Yet if there's one thing we've learned well into the fifth season of the most consistently daring, enviably creative, and genuinely hilarious non-premium cable TV series currently on the airwaves, it's that much like the weather, Sunny is a force of its own that's impossible to predict.

Similar to the tagline of Kevin Smith's Clerks, which set up the characters via “just because they serve you... doesn't mean they like you,” the cheerfully misanthropic and outlandishly dysfunctional gang spend less time running their Philadelphia bar Paddy's Pub and more time scheming their way into hysterically awkward predicaments.

Yet rather than hide it in a tagline, as we discover right from the brilliant do-it-yourself pilot developed and executed by its three main stars for essentially the cost of videotape, they're incredibly open about how much they dislike not just their nonexistent patrons but the other members of their own codependent group as well.

However, unable to function without the rest and similar to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, unable to be remotely tolerated by anyone else for more than the length of an episode, they repeatedly form ever-changing alliances driven by their selfish quests to outdo the rest like kids on a playground all fighting over which one gets to go down the slide first.

And despite the fact that the show's originally cult following has grown over 95% with new fans tuning in all the time, for those who have yet to venture to the anti-Cheers setting of Paddy's Pub, allow me to give you the instant replay version of the players and their modus operandi.

Overall, Sunny is comprised of the following: vain siblings Dennis and Dee (Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson), Danny DeVito as Frank the unscrupulous prankster who raised them, the possible biological son of Frank in the form of Charlie O'Day as the show's zany Buster Keaton mixed with Jerry Lewis character, and the street-smart but wildly confrontational tough, Mac (Rob McElhenney).

In the gang's first straight-to-disc special, the traditional Paddy's greeting of “Hey-oh,” becomes “Merry Christmas, Bitches,” with the release of this inventive, uproarious and no-holds barred Very Sunny Christmas which the cast filmed in June of this year under the helm of one of their most effective directors, Fred Wonder Years Savage.

And unlike the perpetually DVD only installments of the fan frenzy favorite which have now become the sort of “must own” comedy staple accessory like the seasons of Arrested Development to find like-minded, discerning fans with good taste, A Very Sunny Christmas marks the first time Fox offered a Blu-ray option for those who wanted to bring Paddy's home in high definition.

And despite the fact that McElhenney prefers to continuously call it a DVD in a special Blu-ray introduction (prompting the use of subtitles to humorously correct his phrasing), technically speaking A Very Sunny Christmas is on par with the razor sharp clarity of Fox Blu-ray and accentuates the broken beer bottle sharp wit of Paddy's Pub.

Freer to go even wilder with the language, nudity, and violence of the FX rated MA show, this Sunny lets the f-bombs fly in subversive send-ups of wake up calls regarding memories of Christmas Past and trying to make amends in Christmas Present when Charlie and Mac grow as Scrooge-inclined as Dennis and Dee when they realize that the traditions of their childhood may have involved felonies.

Likewise, it offers Savage a chance to play with powerful cinematic cameras and effects including a very naughty Sunny take on the holiday claymation specials of our youth along with the endless sight gags, and a deviantly hilarious Charlie vs. shopping mall Santa smackdown after he confronts the bearded one a la De Niro's interrogation of Joe Pesci in Raging Bull.

Hoping to generate more Christmas spirit than their tradition of throwing rocks at trains on Christmas morning, Charlie and Mac revisit old home movies and Mac's preserved childhood bedroom and '80s treasure trove of the addictive Simon, Raggedy Andy, Cabbage Patch memories, Omni-Bot and a Karate Kid poster to match the karate trophy Mac cherishes which he'd simply found in the street as a boy.

While neither man is able to accurately assess why exactly their traditions and recollections of Christmas are alarming without the help of the other, Dennis and Dee decide to use their Scrooge meets Grinch attitude of the holiday to pull a Sunny version of A Christmas Carol on Frank.

Although the roughly forty-five minute disc shortchanges us in the extras department, the main draw of Sunny is the new feature length hilarity itself which more than makes up for its bogus bonus bummers. From Jesus freaks to a naked Frank sewed into a leather couch to carol singing at four in the morning, the winter special filmed back when it was actually Sunny manages to deliver one of the most memorable-- for wit as much as for its shocking use of wit-- new Christmas titles in recent memory.

For those who've never gotten Sunny, it may just seem like a TV spin on Bad Santa in terms of how far entertainment can push audience buttons rather than the cliched “envelope.” Yet admirably, and despite the fact that
Bad Santa is a damn funny movie, it's also one that had to go to the crude well incessantly to set-up its comedy.

As far as Sunny goes, their methodology for crudeness works in precisely the opposite way. With only very few and mostly dialogue based exceptions, Sunny never takes the immediate lewd shock shortcut for laughter by understanding that it's better to be startled right along with the ridiculous characters who seem just as shocked as we are to find themselves in any given situation such as picking a fight with a shopping mall Santa in a misplaced attempt to save Charlie's mom's honor. By firmly understanding what's funny and why before they explore it comically, this Sunny endeavor ensures it's a very “Merry Christmas, Bitches” indeed.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


Blu-ray Review: Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

Now Available to Own

Photo Slideshow

Being nicknamed "The Italian Stallion" was one thing but had Rocky creator Sylvester Stallone been so inclined, he could've taken a cue from Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni and simply opted for a vague or allegorical ending for all six of his movies. To the audience and regardless of the fact that the ultimate bouts of the films were always expertly choreographed and staged with authentic precision, essentially the movies ended even before Rocky Balboa landed his first punch.

Whether he won or lost the fights in the films was unimportant. Overall, whenever Rocky stepped into the ring, he'd already achieved victory in our hearts. We cheered right along with him when he managed to “go the distance” with the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (a terrific Carl Weathers) but ultimately lost in the original Academy Award winning film as well as when he took the title away from Creed in the sequel.

Truth be told and unlike the obsessive drive to be “number one” that permeates throughout all levels of our society especially in regards to sports, we honestly loved Rocky the most when he lost the fights in the bookend titles of Stallone's six part installment of his American filmmaking odyssey.

Similar to the true-blue parents who hang up every single piece of artwork their child creates on the refrigerator as though it were on par with paintings at the Louvre, we were blinded by our love for Rocky, along with Sylvester Stallone whom we correctly deemed was his interchangeable alter ego since the struggling actor wrote himself the part of a lifetime to give himself the opportunities that Stallone (and therefore Rocky) were being denied. Ultimately, since he put his whole heart and soul into every single endeavor, he managed to capture our heart and soul as well.

Likewise, when it comes to this series, there are no fair weather fans. As referenced countless times, Stallone's quintessential underdog was one with whom everyone identified. Moreover, just like Stallone did via his artistic sublimation of Rocky, it does our own hearts plenty of cathartic good as well in watching him go from his extremely humble beginnings up through the endless stream of heartbreak, disaster, and dramatic changes that filled the series as the most important figures in his life came and went.

Although some of the installments are more successful than others, in my eyes, the original classic work is one of the very best independent movies of the '70s. Additionally, it's ironic that it was released during the year of our bicentennial as director John G. Avildsen's Rocky is arguably one of our strongest American time-capsule classics like High Noon that defines who we are as a nation, which is referenced endlessly in the clever dialogue given to Weathers' Apollo Creed in '76.

And today, it's truly breathtaking to watch them evolve from start to finish, now gorgeously remastered, digitally enhanced and forever preserved in the Blu-ray debut set of Rocky: The Undisputed Collection.

Given the naturalistic feel of the original work, the high definition format tends to heighten some of the flaws on display in the budget limited production that was stylistically influenced by other urban slice-of-life pictures like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.

Yet the grain of the print is instantly smoothed out in a darker color setting to sync with the film's equally dark color palette as well as emphasis on tight, claustrophobic shots mostly filmed after sundown, which can be achieved by changing your television's source settings to cinema mode.

Adding more depth to the picture, I marveled at the clarity of the previously two-dimensional but now more lifelike figures of Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky out on their awkward first date. And ironically for a "sports movie," this ice-skating date still achieves-- from a straightforward filmmaking and storytelling standpoint-- what I feel is one of the most unabashedly romantic, genuinely sweet, and believable sequences ever captured on film.

Although, like the James Bond series, the Rocky franchise was originally made for MGM, this time around the distribution has been fortunately handled by Fox, whom, as I've noted previously has managed to perfect the Blu-ray format. Therefore, as I also discovered in Fox Studio Home Entertainment's previous 2009 release of William Friedkin's The French Connection, Rocky: The Undisputed Collection gave this early '80s baby the most accurate depiction of what director Avildsen's Oscar winning classic most likely looked like during its theatrical release thirty-three years ago.

Yet needless to say, since the six films were created over the course of three decades, they predictably managed to move with the technology. Finding a new appreciation for some of the sequels I'd previously disliked and likewise, feeling a bit underwhelmed with ones I watched more often than others as a child, viewing them again recently was especially revealing from a film studies perspective. It's interesting to note when they were made and how the overall look, sound, and tone of the movies changed as I noticed the way product placements, '80s Bruckheimer/Simpson style music video edits, and commercialism began creeping into the franchise.

Despite this, they all still hold up exceptionally well on Blu-ray aside from some very dated plot-points (Paulie is given a robot?) as admirably the films-- just like their titular character-- always kept their heart in the right place. Using the same through-line of the underdog with whom we could relate and even when the series was at its most extreme with a Hulk Hogan wrestling match in III or the odd early-techno score of the Russia vs. the US, post-Cold War installment Rocky IV, Stallone stays true to his original vision and intention. And by steadily building upon earlier installments, Stallone's opus pays off extraordinarily well in the emotionally gripping final film Rocky Balboa, which has more in common with part one than any previous sequel.

A perfect close to the franchise for those of us who have been caught up with the series from the start, the Blu-ray set manages to give us more cause for celebration via hours of bonus features on a separate disc. And as we watch Stallone share the saga of the original film which he penned in just six weeks as a personal allegory about not getting the chance to be a contender a la one of his inspirations of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, we're reminded once again why Rocky's legacy has lived on.

The reason for Rocky's success over perhaps any other "sports movie" in the increasingly popular underdog genre is simple indeed. For, just like its main character or the original film that has now been deemed a National Treasure by the Library of Congress' Film Registry, Rocky was never about boxing another but boxing ourselves and building a support system with whom we can train and who will inevitably stand in our corner.

By abandoning the boundaries of what it traditionally means to win or lose with the idea that commitment, dedication, and heart should be our measurement for success, Rocky transcends genre limitations to become a humanistic celebration and metaphor of how important it is to simply try. Thus, the set couldn't have returned to us at a timelier point in our nation's history as The Undisputed Collection finds not just its loyal audience ready to embrace it one more time but an entire nation of "Italian Stallions" who feel extremely ready to “fly now” with Balboa once again.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.