[14 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s always intriguing to see what gets put on the latest format upgrade and what begs to be remastered. It’s also fun to imagine the distributors, when faced with a particularly prickly cinematic dilemma, second guessing that titles to take on and what extras to obtain. As with many of these blu bunch overviews, there is an intriguing, often incomplete vision of the final decision. On the one hand, everything that hits the Cineplex in the current calendar year can anticipate a switch over to high definition. It’s the way that all media is headed. Elsewhere, catalog efforts with limited sell through capabilities are also hurried out into the marketplace with little contextual support. It’s a battle between the business model mindset acknowledging a need to feed the every growing consumer consensus - and yet lingering in the back of such vast and varied vaults are movies so magnificent and amazing that only one thing is stopping their update debut - money. It costs a lot to revamp an old negative, especially with the demands of the fanbase confusing your ability to concentrate.
Thus we have a decidedly mixed bad this time around, a selection that sees two contemporary titles (a psycho-drama and a comical kid vid) buoyed by a bio-pic, an awkward actioner, and a certified indie darling. Perhaps even more interesting is the collection of bonus features to be found. Few have director’s commentaries, while most contain that most pointless of cinematic supplement - the deleted scene. Others are adorned with featurettes that do little except pimp the final product in pure EPK style. While many of these movies weren’t hits in the traditional sense, they illustrate the current mindset on such offerings - give the buyer something resembling value, and they’ll come out spending…maybe?
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Score: 5)
At first, it looks like this narrative set within a psyche ward is going to be a wild and wicked farce. After all, you’ve got “overnight sensation” Zack Galifianakis in a major supporting role. So this should be the nutcase version of The Hangover, right? Not necessarily. In fact, this film is far more serious than silly, dealing with a depressed teen and the equally unhappy people he meets during a voluntary stay in a mental hospital. The main plot centers around Craig, his adolescent pressures, and the unlikely partnership he forms with failed father Galifianakis. Together with potential romances both in and out of the institution and a standard high schooler set of issues, the movie makes its points in a protected, often inert manner. This means that even the slightest amount of energy brought to the material by the famed comic and his pals is pacified by an approach that wants to walk a fine line between the spry and the stoic. While the performances are indeed fine and the direction from the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is decent, there’s no real spark here. Indeed, by avoiding the stereotypes implicit in this type of film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story avoids much of its potential entertainment value as well.
(As with any film starring the unhinged Galifianakis, this presentation offers some humorous outtakes, a collection of deleted scenes, a look at the making of the movie, and a peek at the premiere in NYC)
Nanny McPhee Returns (Score: 7)
Critics are constantly complaining about the state of the live action family film in 2011 (Pixar and the rest more than making up for the animated end of things). Yet when something as good as this sequel to the 2005 original comes along, audiences stay away in droves. Thus, the quandary between pabulum and the polished. Like the classic works of Roald Dahl and P.L. Travers, this “free” adaptation of Christianna Brands’s Nurse Matilda canon is excellent. It argues for both the carefree wonderment of childhood with the unavoidable traumas of maturity. Filtered through a twee conceit reminiscent of the UK past, we wander through a terrific tableau featuring frightening female hitmen (?), synchronized swimming piglets, and more potent pooh references than an episode of Jackass. Scattered in between all the scatology are wonderful performances from everyone in the cast. Of course those already convinced that every piece of wholesome mainstream entertainment has to be a made up of irritating eye candy and pop culture overload will find Nanny McPhee Returns to be too old-fashioned for its own good. Thankfully, such a charming, uncomplicated desire to engage is the movie’s most glorious attribute.
(This Blu-ray version of the title contains a wonderful commentary track from director Susanne White, a behind the scenes making-of, a few more behind the scenes featurettes, and a selection of deleted scenes)
Lost in Translation (Score: 8)
Here’s a sobering thought - Sophia Coppola has an Oscar and David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and David Lynch do not. Granted, it’s for writing, not directing, this enigmatic offering, but the reality of such a disparity can’t be ignored. As she’s moved on to works both criticized (her oddball modernization of Marie Antoinette) and complimented (her recent Somewhere), Coppolla’s second feature film remains a solid cinematic experience. Using Tokyo as a character in and of itself and applying that universal “stranger in a strange land” narrative maxim, we follow an aging star (Bill Murray) and a lonely young wife (Scarlett Johansson) as they find a fleeting connection among the noise and isolation of Japan’s major metropolis. A lot of the film is mere tone poems to being lost and outside of things. Other elements (such as Murray’s photo shoot sessions) are deadpan comic gold. With the bright lights of this big city blaring in the background, the HD update really brings the visuals to life. On the other hand, a film this small and personal often avoids the grandiose visuals to stay within its emotional boundaries, so the format retooling is rather unnecessary. All questions about her status as a member of the Academy’s elite aside, Coppola’s introspection succeeds.
(As part of this package, you get some deleted scenes, a conversation with Coppola, a visit to the set of her latest film, and a few film-oriented odds and ends)
Ray (Score: 6)
In sobering thoughts, part two, we have Jamie Foxx, owner of an award that many of his performance forefathers (and far more accomplished contemporaries) do not have on their own mantle. Granted, the role of musical icon Ray Charles seems tailor-made for this multi-talented (?) star, and he does deliver. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that this movie was ‘Taylor Hackford’ made for Foxx. The noted director, perhaps best remembered for his romantic dramas like An Officer and a Gentleman and Against All Odds, had his work cut out for him here, especially in dealing with a human subject that touched on some many dispirit themes - handicaps, intolerance, addiction, and individual idolatry. Together with his omnipresent lead, the filmmaker finds a nice balance between the concrete and kitsch. Of course, as with most biopics, the subject matter often scuttles into kitchen sink sloppiness, and no one fictional film can completely capture the genuine genius of someone like Charles. Then there is the distinct feeling that Foxx is more imitating the source than getting deep below the complicated man’s surface. Still, with all its flaws, there are some electrifying moments here. How could there not be when the story centers on the one and only Ray Charles?
(In a release overflowing with added content, this Blu-‘Ray’ comes complete with a Hackford introduction and commentary track, a series of featurettes focusing on the musicians, his collaborators, his life outside music, and how Foxx found his way into the role. There are also uncut performances of the various songs, as well as a few deleted scenes)
Backdraft (Score: 5)
After the failure of Willow and the rebound success of the family comedy Parenthood, Ron Howard surprised many by returning to the big budget action arena with this flailing firefighter melodrama. With an interesting cast (including Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a random Baldwin) and a plot that contains both familial squabbles and a wonky weird whodunit (who’s lighting the killer fires of greater Chicago?), the movie was a massive hit, cementing his status as an A-list director. Now, some 20 years after its release, the overall effect is dated and somewhat dumb. The notion of being afraid of a rogue flame just doesn’t have the same impact as it did two decades ago, and the majority of the movie plays like a laughable parody of itself. Of course, it doesn’t help that Universal Studios turned the entire premise into an interaction attraction, removing much of the mystery. Still, there are some successful F/X here, as well as few decent performances and as mindless entertainments go, you could do a lot worse. The HD update doesn’t really improve the film’s visual flair, but then again, when you’ve seen one technician manipulated blaze, no matter the scope or suspense, you’ve seen them all.
(This new Blu-ray release contains an intro by Howard, a collection of deleted scenes, and five featurettes revolving around the story, the production, and the true life adventures of real firefighters.)