Armageddon Blu-ray review

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New Blu-ray release of ARMAGEDDON recalls a time when a Michael Bay film was no cause for dread

Difficult as it might be to imagine, the prospect of a new Michael Bay film wasn’t always cause for dread. After a string of successful music videos, Bay hit box office pay-dirt with the buddy-cop action comedy BAD BOYS in 1995, immediately establishing a signature style of kinetic action visuals on a bed of questionably tasteful racial and sexual humor. While the stars were largely responsible for its success, the energy and strict adherence to formula was 100% Bay. He exhibited a far more refined touch in his next – and best film – THE ROCK, which displayed strong sense for casting and a better grip on action sequence pacing. The film was yet another smash, which guaranteed Bay even more control (and a coveted Producer credit) on his third film, ARMAGEDDON, a hugely expensive sci-fiextravaganza that pushed the limits of 1998-era digital effects.
After Manhattan Island is devastated – and the orbiting space shuttle Atlantis destroyed – by a particularly violent meteor shower, a group of NASA’s top scientists led by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) discovers that the initial strike was just a preamble to the real threat, a giant meteor the size of Texas that’s due to reach Earth in 18 days. With the meteor too immense to be destroyed by missile, it’s decided that a powerful nuclear device buried near the core would be enough to break the rock up before it impacts. To accomplish the necessary drilling, NASA approaches Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his crew of hard-nosed oil rig drillers with the job of a lifetime. The enormity of the task forces Harry to re-hire A J Frost (Ben Affleck) after chasing him away at gunpoint from daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) in an attempt to save her from a blue-collar life. Stamper and his team are trained alongside the crews for the shuttles Independence and Freedom, led by Col. Sharp (William Fichtner), whose military training is put to the test by the less-than-disciplined drillers, particularly the mellower than mellow Oscar Choice and the uber wormy ‘Rockhound’ (Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi, respectively, making for cinema’s most unlikely geologists). The shuttles finally launch, barely surviving a dock with a Russian space station to gather fuel, where they pick up cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare, reunited with Fargo costar Buscemi). After a dangerous slingshot maneuver around the moon severely reduces the team’s numbers, they must still attempt an unprecedented landing (on a surface without 2 tandem meters of flat space) and then drill through thousands of feet of hard iron for the detonation to be effective. When venting gas destroys the remote detonation system, it’s short straw time for Harry, A J and the remaining crew.
Michael Bay has been making it very difficult to remember that he used to know how to put together a satisfying summer blockbuster. What might have seemed bombastic – or just loud – a decade ago seems almost quaint in the wake of two Transformers films, and Bay’s over-reliance on Americana iconography hadn’t quite worn out its welcome yet (this oversight was taken care of with Pearl Harbor, where we lost count of the number of scenes of Middle-American families huddled around antique radios. Now, were not going to sit here and tell you that ARMAGEDDON is without problems – far from it. The film seriously drags once the crew lands on the offending comet, with Bay creating increasingly incredulous suspense sequences for no better reason than to wring an extra ‘beat’ out of an already exhausted story (and why NASA would think to install Gatling guns on its expedition vehicles would make for a deleted scene that we want to see!)
But you have to give credit where it’s due, and Bay (along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) shows an almost wizardly casting sense; in addition to giving Billy Bob Thornton his first truly high-profile role in a Hollywood Studio film, ARMAGEDDON features genuine ‘catch a rising star’ turns from Owen Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan. Almost more impressive is Bay’s knack for filling many small roles with the likes of Will Patton, William Fichtner and Peter Stormare – all welcome faces who take hackneyed characters and make them entertaining and watchable. Plus, look fast for Udo Kier (as a harried NASA psychologist) and Grace Zabriskie (a nagging wife who unwittingly names the meteor).
As for the leads, Willis and Affleck do just fine. Willis can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but to his credit, rarely does. He can take a potentially cringe-inducing scene like his final communication with daughter Liv Tyler, and find a genuinely affecting emotional beat to build on. Affleck, in an early role, doesn’t have the effortless gravitas that his costar does, but exhibits a nice, unaffected humor when given the chance (“I have no idea what I’m doing! See that button (hits button) I have no idea what that does!”) But it’s Thornton that you’ll be remembering, lending the same sort of authority as the executive director of NASA that Ed Harris did in Apollo 13 – and in far less forgiving surroundings!
Unfortunately, the success of ARMAGEDDON seemed to kill one part of Bay while simultaneously awakening another.  His follow-up film, Pearl Harbor, made money, to the extent that it was shoved down the collective throat of audiences in the months prior to 9/11, but good luck finding anyone who actually liked it. Bay’s casting instincts were off, and the few genuinely affecting moments are lost in an orgy of self-indulgent visuals and carelessly slight characterizations. After a brief detour on THE ISLAND (a film that featured a slow narrative build-up in its first act), things have only gotten worse since then, with the two overblown TRANSFORMERS films.
Unfortunately, Disney has let ARMAGEDDON down with a so-so Blu-Ray release that didn’t have to be. Criterion had previously released a deluxe 2-disc DVD, and though that set sports a non-anamorphic transfer (not, unfortunately, odd for a 1999 DVD release), this long out-of-print edition is still desirable for its extras, commentary, and extended cut of the feature (amounting to about 3min) – none of which are in evidence on the new Blu-Ray.  It’s possible that Criterion owns the rights to all of the above, but given Disney’s business practices, it’s a bit much to believe that they would hand over the rights to all that value-added material without at least tying a string to it.
Armageddon (1998)In any case, what matters is the image quality, and it’s quite good. Like Tombstone, Disney’s other high profile Blu-Ray release streeting on Tuesday, April 27th, ARMAGEDDON appears to have been struck using the same master for the older DVD releases. That’s good news the film, which always looked good on home video – even VHS – and not so good for a heavily filtered and artifact-plagued Tombstone. Unlike Bay’s heavily digitized Transformers films, ARMAGEDDON feels amazingly film-like, enough so that we were amazed to see some textural film grain pop-up now and then (particularly in darker scenes).
Equally good is the DTS-HD master audio that retains aural nuance and readable dialog levels without sacrificing the show-off sequences, like the initial meteor shower over Manhattan (featuring several disturbingly realistic shots of the WTC towers being hit) or the beautifully handled dual shuttle launch sequence.
Back in 1998, nobody was going to argue ARMAGEDDON’s place in the annals of great cinema, but more than a decade on, when summer blockbusters like G I Joe thrash about in an unconvincing digital world that leaves even engaging actors like Dennis Quaid adrift without a paddle, who’d have thunk that we’d be holding up a Michael Bay picture as a paradigm of taste and restraint?

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Blu-ray Review

True to its title, FANTASTIC MR. FOX is an absolute astonishment of a picture, seamlessly merging the literary sensibilities of author Roald Dahl with the droll, urbanite wit of Wes Anderson.  Ironically, it was the participation of Anderson that initially worried us; the director’s recent films have been polarizing, to say the least, and we found his arch, hyper-finicky visual style in THE LIFE AQUATIC (and especially THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) to be at odds with the development of any real emotion.  Maybe puppets are Anderson’s preferred medium.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) a reformed-chicken-thief-turned-columnist lives a safe, if boring, life with wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  Tiring of living in a hole (figuratively and literally), Fox enlists the aid of attorney Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) to purchase a grand new abode in a tree located perilously close to the industrial farms owned by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the latter, Michael Gambon). The proximity poses too great a temptation for Fox, who is soon breaking the promise made to his wife years ago to abandon his produce-stealing ways.  Enlisting the aid of tree superintendent Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Fox’s nephew Kristofferson (Wes’ brother Eric Anderson), Fox embarks on an – at first – stunningly successful round of thievery at the farmer’s expense; soon, however, their luck catches up with them at the hands of Bean, and all the animals in the area pay the price for Fox’s recklessness.
Anderson showed amazing promise with his 1998 debut, Rushmore, because at the center of the film was a carefully observed friendship between a pair of seemingly desperate characters.  Unfortunately, Anderson’s two subsequent efforts – The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – seemed to abandon emotional truth in favor of increasingly fussy cinematics, with both characters and situations existing only as representational ciphers.  The Darjeeling Limited was an encouraging departure, but it felt a bit half-baked, almost as if Max Fischer was attempting a Wes Anderson tribute.  Fortunately, there appears to be something about the medium of stop-motion animation that has brought out a tenderness in Anderson’s work that we haven’t seen in a decade.  All the trappings are still there (the elaborate framing and overlaid inter-titles, the all-around drollery of the humor, Owen Wilson), but here they find themselves at the service of a story that didn’t originate with Anderson.
Roald Dahl has one of the most instantly individual voices in the world of children’s literature.  Dahl, who passed away in 1990, understood that the young people need a bit of darkness in their stories and, until now, only Nic Roeg’s film The Witches has been able to tap into that darkness with success.  In Fantastic Mr. Fox, written in 1970, Dahl created a fanciful universe in which the creatures exist in typical ‘animal’ surroundings but with human attributes – but it is also a world of danger, with the possibility of a violent death at the hands of humans lurking just on the other side of the prose.  The ultimate success of the Fox family isn’t total victory, but merely surviving for another day. 
Anderson captures this underlying theme beautifully; the film is photographed in gorgeous amber hues, evoking fall – a season of death – as well as any film we’ve ever seen.  The particular brand of stop-motion puppetry used for is a bit jarring at first – it hasn’t the well-sanded edges of other stop-motion like Coraline or James and the Giant Peach (interestingly, another Dahl adaptation).  The textures of the individual puppets are a bit rougher, but combined with Anderson’s careful compositions and the superb, erudite vocal work of the cast (Clooney especially is outstanding here, effortlessly conveying Fox’s cocky but ultimately flawed character), they become yet another memorable component of one of 2009’s best films.
Fox’s Blu-Ray (20th Century, not Mr.) is the optimal presentation for the film, with the 1080p picture conveying the myriad colors and textures of the world – and here’s where the use of actual sets, costumes and actors (well, puppets, anyway) comes into play, as these things just can’t be replaced by computer animation. 
The disc also wins in not overloading the viewer with the typical EPK ballast that weighs down so many popular films.  There’s a single, long-form documentary Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (presented, as are all extras, in HD) that can be watched in pieces or as a whole. The documentary goes into the laborious stop-motion process in fascinating detail.  Bill Murray acts as a tour guide for a good chunk of the footage, and it’s great to see him so tuned-in by the process.  We also learn about the impression that Dahl’s home made on Anderson and learn the fate of the actual tree that inspired Fox’s swanky home. 
There’s also a brief but humorous breakdown of the rules of wack bat (which isn’t that much more stupefying than cricket) and the original trailer.  Fox has also taken the increasingly popular route of including a separate DVD edition of the film with each Blu-Ray set (at least in the initial pressings) alongside the more common digital copy.
 Highest recommendation.

Toy Story 1 & 2 Blu-ray review

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It might seem odd that the first two Toy Story films are so often mentioned in the same breath as the Godfather epic; though the films share little in common, there is a unifying bond – in both cases, a masterpiece was actually improved upon in a sequel.  The rarity of this occurrence is well documented among cineastes, putting these 2 disparate sets of films in the same exclusive club.  Disney is certainly hoping not to have Godfather III luck this summer, when the heavily anticipated Toy Story 3-D arrives in theaters; in the meantime, they’ve given fans a treat to hold them over – Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on Blu-Ray.  Now, we won’t waste time with a plot synopsis – if the story of Woody, Buzz and the rest of young Andy’s toys isn’t already familiar, than willful ignorance can be the only culprit.  Instead we’re going to concentrate on the contents of the new discs and see how they stack-up against the previous releases, including the extremely comprehensive (as far as supplemental go) Ultimate Toy Box release.
Back in 1995, the release of Toy Story was a not-so-minor milestone in the process of modern animation.  Not only was it the first Pixar feature film (made on a relatively modest budget with a staff of just over 100 people); it was also the first film to be entirely created using digital animation.  1995 might not seem that long ago, but in terms of technology it could well be a lifetime; its initial home video release was on VHS and Laserdisc, and it would take the 2000 home video release of its sequel, Toy Story 2, before the films received DVD treatment.  It would be another decade, however, before the films received a home video release that replicates the images the original animators created more than 15 years ago.  Both previous DVD sets were considered to be high quality releases of the moment, so our expectations were caught unawares by the near-ethereal image quality present on the Blu-Ray discs.  Looking beyond the bright, bold colors, we were absolutely gob-smacked by the sumptuous textures.  Details that were always present but had been hidden away by 480p transfers (the grain of the wood in Andy’s headboard, the stitching on Jessie and Woody’s vests, or the scales on Rex) now leapt off the screen as if rendered in 3-D (and, in spite of the recent 3D re-release, neither film was shot in that format).  In fact, the image quality is so pristine that some might not even notice the new DTS lossless audio track, adding yet another layer of dimensionality to the show.   
When we first saw Toy Story, the seemingly dull rendering of Andy (the only human that we see enough to concentrate on) made us dubious of the capabilities of digital animation; sure, you can animate inanimate objects, but are actual human beings that far beyond their range?  With the BD release you can finally see not only additional detail in Andy himself but clear evidence that the animators goal was to imbue the plastic toys with as much – or even more – personality than the humans of the world.  Since their release, the art and science of digital animation has grown at a geometric rate; Pixar’s continuing success eventually forced Disney to re-think their own approach to animation, and saw other studios like Fox and DreamWorks opening their own lucrative animation studios, though none would enjoy Pixar’s level of critical and box office success. 
Now, obviously, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 belong on a very short list of DVDs that you can find in virtually every household – regardless of the presence of children.  And we certainly feel that Disney’s new Blu-Ray discs operate at a reference standard that no serious videophile should be without, but the completist will want to take note that not all previously released bonus features made the jump to Blu-Ray.  On the plus side, there are quite a few new features present on the discs – all of which are in HD:
Toy Story bonus features:

  • The Story: An Exclusive Sneak Peek at Toy Story 3
  • Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: Blast Off
  • Paths to Pixar: Artists – a series of shorts in which Pixar’s artists discuss how they arrived at the company
  • Studio Stories – a series of ‘life at Pixar’ shorts that will make you hate your own job that much more
  • Buzz Takes Manhattan – the debut of the Buzz balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade
  • Black Friday: The Toy Story You Never Saw – an early edit of the film that nearly strangled digital animation in the cradle 

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Toy Story 2 bonus features:

  • Characters: An Exclusive Sneak Peek at Toy Story 3
  • Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: International Space Station
  • Paths to Pixar: Technical Artists – same as above, but the techies
  • Studio Stories – more stories to remind you that you don’t work at Pixar
  • Celebrating our Friend Joe Ranft – a nicely heartfelt tribute to a noted animation story editor

In addition to the new material, an enormous amount of the previously released bonus material has been included as well, but there is also a decent-sized chunk of material (mostly from the now out-of-print Ultimate Toy Box set) that didn’t make it.  We can’t pretend that we’ll miss the effects-only audio track, but we are a bit surprised to see that the Tin Toy short was omitted (you can view the entire list of missing material over at the Digital Bits).  As with most of Disney’s high profile BD releases, each set also includes a standard-def DVD with the film and bonus materials.

The Princess and the Frog – Blu-ray review

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One of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.

The 1990s were a pretty damn good time for Disney animated films; even though the film that really kicked off their 2nd golden age, THE LITTLE MERMAID, arrived in 1989, nearly all their animated films released subsequently (a list that includes THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and ALADDIN) were both critical darlings and box office behemoths. But the early part of the 21st century was not as kind – Pixar’s mix of digital animation, carefully crafted screenplays and rich voice characterization clashed sharply with an unmemorable batch of Disney duds like BROTHER BEAR and HOME ON THE RANGE. Soon, other studios like Fox and DreamWorks entered the fray and made major cake with their own digital efforts (ICE AGE and SHREK, respectively) that emphasized adult-friendly humor and celebrity casting. We can just imagine the uncomfortable board meetings held at the mouse compound where a directive to ‘get with the times’ resulted in films like CHICKEN LITTLE and MEET THE ROBINSONS that seemed to evaporate into the ether immediately after viewing. In 2006, Disney seemed to admit defeat and simply bought Pixar outright, elevating Pixar’s founder, John Lasseter, to “Chief Creative Officer” of Pixar and Disney’s animation division, where one of his first official acts was to set Disney back on the path of hand-drawn animation, forcing a reversal of company policy that sent the studio scurrying to rehire the animators it had so recently let go. The first fruit of that labor made its way to theaters in the 2009 holiday season, and arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week – THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Though nominally based on E D Baker’s ”The Frog Princess” (which was, in turn, inspired by the original Grimm tale “The Frog Prince”), THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG bears little resemblance to either, creating one of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.
Set in a beautifully rendered 1920s New Orleans, the story centers around Tiana, a seamstress’ daughter who saves every penny to realize her father’s dream of opening a restaurant. Tiana’s mother spent much of her life designing dresses for the wealthy “Big Daddy” La Bouff to bestow on his spoiled but sweet daughter, Charlotte, allowing the two girls the opportunity to grow an unlikely friendship over the years. Charlotte dreams of marrying a prince – even if it means kissing a frog like in the fairy tales read to the girls by Tiana’s mother – while the independent minded Tiana dreams of making her own way in the world. As young women, both almost have their respective dreams within their grasp: Charlotte has her hooks into the recently arrived Prince Naveen, and Tiana has saved just enough tip money to afford the down payment for the restaurant. The trouble begins when the local voo doo practitioner, Dr. Facilier, learns a few very useful facts: that the Prince is actually penniless and looking for a new revenue stream – preferably a young, attractive one – and that his long suffering servant would jump at the chance to trade places with his royal boss. Things come to a head at the party thrown by Big Daddy to welcome the Prince, as Tiana finds that she has a few days to up her bid or lose her dream location for the restaurant, prompting her to swallow her pride, and – in classic Disney tradition – wish upon a star, only to be presented with a Prince in a rather difficult situation.
Put simply, The Princess and the Frog is one of the very best animated films that we’ve seen in the last few years; its bouncy, energetic score evokes a dream-like (and charmingly Disneified) New Orleans, decked out in all its colorful jazz age glamour. As a return to hand-drawn animation, the film is a complete success, demonstrating a warmth that still remains outside the province of most digital animation. While the script represents a bit of an Achilles heel with the poorly developed Prince Naveen – one that may prevent the film from being remembered alongside Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the previous hits from Princess co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker   the charm of Tiana is ample compensation.
Disney heavily touted the addition of an “African American” Princess character to its animation stable in the months leading up to the release of The Princess and the Frog, and we will admit to catching a whiff of the ever popular ‘urbanization’ (see either Alvin & the Chipmunks film for the depths that this can sink to – honestly, folks, it’s an insult to everyone). Ethnicity is actually quite deftly handled in the film; divisions of race (while Big Daddy is noticeably the only affluent character in the piece) aren’t ignored, but the story wisely sidesteps making a race-class statement and plows ahead with a celebration of Afro-American New Orleans life.
The show’s most memorable character, however, is the villainous voodoo conman, Dr. Facilier, voiced by the great Keith David (whom we vividly remember questioning another character’s belief in “voodoo bullshit” in John Carpenter’s The Thing). Keith has been an in-demand voice actor for years now, but this material seems tailor-made for his buttery intonations. Physically, the character bears a close resemblance to the similarly sinister character played by Jeffrey Holder in Live and Let Die, and really pushes the envelope of acceptable levels of ‘horror’ in a children’s film. John Goodman has been doing variations on the Big Daddy role going all the way back to The Big Easy, but damned if you ever catch him phoning it in. And though the name might not be familiar, nearly anyone who has watched prime time television in the last 5 years will recognize the voice of Bruno Campos coming out of Prince Naveen.
There’s an early sequence in The Princess and the Frog that plays along with one of the Academy Award-nominated songs, “Almost There,” as Tiana dreams about the nightclub she has been saving for. This wonderful sequence – along with Facilier’s gleefully macabre number, “Friends on the Other Side” –showcases the traditional Disney animation style at its best. And though it doesn’t quite sustain the energy of its crazy-fun first half, this is still our favorite Disney film in years.
Our review copy of The Princess and the Frog was the familiar 3-disc format that the studio has been using for their high-profile HD releases: a BD, a DVD with limited bonus materials, and a digital copy DVD – a nice option for those without BD players but with an eye pointed to the future. The image on the BD is little short of breathtaking. The 1080p image achieves a level of perfection that is usually reserved for digital animation; the film has a uniquely warm color palette and the images almost seem to glow from within – this is a flawless presentation.
As usual, all the extras are presented in HD, though the pickings feel a little slight, with more EPK-style featurettes than we usually like (“Disney’s Newest Princess,” in particular, feels too much like studio back-slapping and self promotion). We did enjoy “Conjuring the Villain,” as he was our favorite character, and had limited fun with the storyboard feature that lets you watch the original visual conception of the film along with the audio track.

Ponyo – DVD Review

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A gentle fable that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.

One of the nicest perks of reviewing DVDs is the occasional arrival of a title that you may well never have sought out on your own. It might be because of the genre or the subject matter, or simply because it slipped under the radar. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s PONYO definitely falls into that category: a gentle fable inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.
When we first meet Brunhilde, she’s just one of many tiny goldfish living under the strict thumb of her father, Fujimoto, an unusual Nemo-like figure with magical powers who operates out of a flipper-powered submarine in a quest to “keep the oceans in balance”. He carries a deep mistrust for mankind, and keeps his children as far from human influence as possible. One day, the ever-curious Brunhilde strays from the rest of her family and winds up being trapped in a glass jar that floats to a coastal fishing town, where it’s spotted by 5-year-old Sosuke, who frees the fish but cuts his hand in the process. Sosuke renames Brunhilde Ponyo; she repays his kindness by licking the wound, causing it to heal almost instantly. This forms an unbreakable bond between the two, leading Ponyo to summon up all of her magic to transform herself into a human, separating herself from the sea forever.
The plot might sound paper thin, but Ponyo is as much about the fine details as the big picture. Miyazaki clearly takes great pleasure in illuminating small moments: Ponyo’s excited first reactions to the world in her new human body all center around little things, whether being hot or cold, or squealing with delight at each flavor of the simple meals prepared by Sosuke’s mother. There is a notion that Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts; this feeling could have its roots in the common ground it shares with the Disney hit of 20 years ago, THE LITTLE MERMAID (based on the same source material), or the fact that the plot has little in the way of the traditional good vs. evil conflict that we expect in children’s fare.
Ponyo is a film about wonder and discovery, and so gentle and sweet that one half-expects it to evaporate before our eyes. Amazingly, Miyazaki doesn’t let Disney’s immensely popular film of Anderson’s tale influence ether the animation or characterization – a much more difficult task than it sounds – but instead creates his own world, as far from the 1989 Disney film as it is from the large mass of cheap-jack Japanese anime (though certain character designs – particularly the gaunt, long-haired Fujimoto, do have their roots in the more traditional elements of the genre).
The story is seen through the eyes of the children, creating a film with somewhat unique worldview. This isn’t a story fraught with danger, nor are there plots to kill or kidnap; when Ponyo’s father comes looking for her, it’s out of love and a genuine fear for her safety among the humans who have been polluting the oceans. Miyazaki also earns points for his tactful handling of the story’s “green” messages: he never bashes you over the head with hectoring diatribes about ecology; a simple shot of the tons of man-made pollution that is drudged up from the ocean floor does it all without saying a word.

Ponyo (2009)
Ponyo rides the waves in the film's most technically impressive scene

Disney’s Blu-Ray is, as expected, absolutely breathtaking. While traditional “analog” animation is never going to “pop” in HD the way that Pixar’s all-digital films will, Ponyo’s hand-drawn images have a depth and weight that few other animated titles can match. Obviously, water imagery plays a central role, and Miyazaki’s use of different variations of the color blue is astounding. The film’s most technically impressive scene – Ponyo’s return to the seaside town riding a series of magical, rolling waves (trust us, it makes sense when you’re watching it) – should be enough to drag Blu-ray resisters happily into the HD arena.
The main audio track is a lossless DTS English dub track, with a French language track present in a lower quality 5.1 mix. Now, we’ve seen other reviews that mention a Japanese 5.1 mix as well (and the disc jacket seems to confirm its presence); however, we were unable to locate it, either within the menu or by cycling through the tracks using the audio button. Unless we hear different from Disney, we’ll have to count this as a very unusual defect. The furor over the dubbing of animation is, for us, one of the ultimate non-issues of home video. While we understand perfectly the desire to preserve the performance of the original actors in a live-action film, we can’t imagine anyone getting their knickers in a twist over dubbed animation. The idea of watching a film with this level of visual artistry and spending most of the time concentrating on the subtitles at the bottom of the screen feels utterly ridiculous to us. Great care has obviously been taken with the English cast, and one would never know that they were not the original voices.
As with other premiere animated titles on Disney Blu-Ray, Ponyo is outfitted with quite a few special features, most of which are presented in HD. We enjoyed the optional opening, “Meet Ponyo,” which briefly outlines the relationship between Disney and Miyazaki’s home, Studio Ghibli – something that’s even further fleshed out in “The World of Ghibli,” an interactive look at some of the studio’s other titles, including Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. As for the rest:

  • “A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter” is exactly what is says, a 4-minute long chat between the Pixar chief and Miyazaki, in which they discuss some of the specific design elements of Ponyo.
  • “Creating Ponyo” features Miyazaki discussing his intentions in making the film, specifically tailoring it to younger children. “Ponyo and Fujimoto” concentrates on the relationship between father and daughter.
  • “The Nursery” focuses on the real nursery that Miyazaki opened at the studio.
  • “Producer’s Perspective” gives an overview of the entire production process.
  • “The Locations of Ponyo” – the longest featurette – takes us on a Ghibli retreat to a small seaside town that helped inspire the artwork and tone.
  • “Scoring Miyazaki” walks us through the scoring process for Ponyo and several other Ghibli titles.
  • “Behind the Microphone” gives us a BTS look at the performance of the English dub track.

The extras are rounded out by an assortment of trailers for Ponyo, including several from the original Japanese release.

The Crazies (1973) – Blu-ray Review

The 1973 film is a near-perfect showcase for Romero’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker.

For more than four decades, George A Romero has been one of the unassailable giants of the modern horror film, particularly the independent variety. In 1968, his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD quite literally changed the game; besides kicking open the door for many to independent film (NIGHT was financed and shot in his beloved Pittsburgh) it pushed the limits of what was then considered acceptable levels of violence and was simply light years ahead of the then-current state of horror. For the uninitiated, Romero’s career seemed to descend into a kind of sleep mode between the release of NIGHT and its semi-sequel (really more a continuation of the theme) DAWN OF THE DEAD 10 years later, but Romero actually made 4 films in that period (and those who can name check the forgettable THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA or SEASON OF THE WITCH can consider their geek test passed). But Romero’s other two films of the era stand among his most important works; 1978’s MARTIN, a story of a severely troubled youth (John Amplas) whose delusions of vampirism result in tragedy, was released a few months before DAWN and still stands as one of Romero’s most personal and fully realized films (and his own favorite résumé bullet point) and 1973’s THE CRAZIES, available this week in high definition from Blue Underground.
Rebounding from the frankly awful Vanilla, Romero returned to exploitation, if not outright horror for his third film. The Crazies centers around the rural town of Evans City, PA, whose residents are beginning to exhibit decidedly strange behavioral ticks, like murdering loved ones and setting their homes ablaze. These extreme acts perpetrated by otherwise normal members of the community doesn’t escape the notice of local firemen David (W G McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) – particularly when a large military force, resplendent in gleaming white HazMat suits (a lovely, ironic touch) sets up camp as an occupying force. It turns out that an experimental biological weapon – code named ‘Trixie’* – has been accidentally dumped into the town’s water supply, igniting a murderous – even suicidal – rage in all the townspeople who come in contact with it. While Col. Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) attempts to enforce a quarantine of the town, a scientist close to the Trixie project(Richard France, who Romero used again in a small role in Dawn of the Dead as an eye patch-wearing TV commentator) works round the clock on an antivirus. Meanwhile, David and Clank – along with David’s pregnant girlfriend, Judy (Lane Caroll) – attempt to beat cheeks out of the infected area before either their Trixie-infected neighbors or the military killing them, along the way teaming up with another local man, Artie (Richard Liberty, who also worked for the director again as the memorably demented Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead) and his teenage daughter Kathie (the famously feline-featured Lynn Lowry, fresh from a brief appearance in I Drink Your Blood and fast becoming an exploitation mainstay with a lead role in Radley Metzger’s Score and a drop-dead sexy turn for David Cronenberg in Shivers on her horizon).
Romero rewrote Paul McCollough’s original script, giving equal emphasis to the military’s attempts to isolate Evans City, almost as if he realized how much stronger those scenes would play. As with Night, Romero’s color blind casting of a black actor in the central, heroic role of Col. Peckam pays off hugely, and the scenes of the military implementing martial law are effectively stark. In this way, The Crazies is a near-perfect showcase for Romero’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker: sometimes, George just can’t get a handle on performances – particularly with less experienced actors – allowing some (like nearly the entire cast of Day of the Dead) to drift into a shrill flatline. The non-military protagonists (with the exception of Liberty and Lowry) simply aren’t very interesting, and there isn’t enough on the page – or in Romero’s direction – to incite a spark.
Fortunately, The Crazies is also a prime showcase for Romero’s keener skills; even when his own words as a screenwriter fail him, he manages to imbue his characters with an emotional honesty that is not typically seen in low-budget exploitation fare. Romero is also particularly good at staging violent civil unrest, and scenes dealing with the military takeover of the town are the obvious antecedents of Dawn’s nerve-shaking opening movement. As the Trixie virus penetrates deeper into population, Romero has a lot of fun with the spreading insanity, including a kindly grandmother who calmly rises from her chair and stabs a soldier in the heart with a knitting needle, and a woman attempting to sweep blood off of grass with a broom in the middle of a pitched gunfight between the army and townsfolk.
These grace notes will be familiar to Romero’s fans, as will the socio-political subtext that runs through many of his films. The documentary-like camera work is deliberately evocative of the TV news footage of Vietnam – a grim reality to most American in 1973 – and Romero smartly exploits the rampant mistrust of the military with scenes of the martial law imposed on the Evans City. We suspect much of this will be lost on younger generations, particularly a sequence of a priest overcome with Trixie immolating himself in the middle of the road.
Blue Underground’s new Blu-Ray disc is a direct port of their fine DVD edition of a few years back. Early VHS releases were a dark, muddy mess that didn’t do the already low-budget film any favors. BU’s visual renovation of The Crazies is nothing short of miraculous, and the Blu-Ray allows us to see just how good their high-def master really looks. The colors are bright and deeply saturated; there’s a definite pop to the presentation, and the level of detail belie the picture’s low budget.
Some fans with intricate sound systems might balk at the 1.0 DTS mono, but it was probably best not to stretch the soup too much. Extras are identical to BU’s DVD and remain in standard definition, including one of Romero’s always genial, informal commentary tracks (this time sitting with BU founder and cut filmmaker extraordinaire, Bill Lustig)’ a nice featurette, “The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry” (who has a cameo in the remake); and a sampling of theatrical trailers.

  • “Code Name Trixie” was in fact an early title for The Crazies

Surrogates – Blu-ray Review

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If the notion of an $80 million B-picture sounds like a contradiction in terms, Jonathan Mostow’s SURROGATES will be a real eye-opener. An adaptation of a limited run comic series, the film takes place in a Boston roughly 20 years in a future, when the vast majority of mankind interacts with the world only through a robotic avatar (hey, it was a word before Cameron, you know). Called surrogates, these physically perfect, model-beautiful representation of the human body are neurologically linked to the user from the moment of purchase.
At the time the story takes place, we’re told that 98% of the human population have and use surrogates for everything from going to work, to shopping, to late night partying at after hours clubs. The good news is that crime is virtually non-existent (criminals can, of course, use surrogates, but they can also be shut down by the police while in the process of committing the crime); however, the cost to mankind is less obvious. The vast majority of the human race now spends almost all their time lying in a near comatose state inside darkened rooms within an electronic cocoon, their heads hardwired into computers while their bodies atrophy from lack of exercise and sunshine.
One night, a surrogate is gunned down in an alley behind a club using a powerful energy weapon that kills the user as well as the machine. The user, in this case, happens to be the son of the creator of the surrogate technology, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell) who loaned the use of the robot to his college-age son for the evening. Heading up the tricky investigation is FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), arriving at the crime scene via his own blonde-haired surrogate. Tom and his wife had retreated to life through their surrogates after the death of their young son in an auto accident (which also left his wife with a large facial scar); they rarely even lay eyes on each other’s human forms. Tom’s investigation leads him to the world of Dread Reservations – humans-only territories that practice a form of self rule – under the leadership of an anti-technology guru known only as “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames) who may be planning an uprising amongst his followers.
Even with an $80-million price tag, Surrogates appears more budget-challenged that you’d expect a Bruce Willis sci-fi/action vehicle to be: CGI isn’t unlimited (which works to the film’s advantage), and after Willis cashed his check there wasn’t enough left to put together a compelling supporting cast. Nothing against Rhames and Cromwell, but the former isn’t given anything interesting to do in a pretty silly role, and the latter has played to this type far too many times to be terribly effective (his character in I, Robot is similar enough to rate as an homage – if there were anyone who liked I, Robot enough to care).
The budgetary constraints do serve to create an endearing B-picture air about Surrogates, and director Mostow has been quite adept – in films like Breakdown and U-571 – at making a little look like a lot (and, conversely, making a lot look like a little in Terminator 3). The film’s not-too-distant future is smartly designed to look not much dissimilar from our current world, with surrogates seeming to be the only major technological advance. This enforced low tech approach works well, until it runs up against a similar economy in story and plot; the film takes great care in answering certain questions about the robots (recharging stations appear in the street with the frequency of phone booths in pre-1980 movies) while ignoring certain major issues (98% of the world uses surrogates?!?). These are relatively minor frustrations, but they do keep a good film from being any more than that.
The film’s heights come courtesy of an extraordinary turn by star Bruce Willis, whose performance ranks as one of the braver appearances by a major Hollywood star in recent memory. We’re first introduced to agent Greer in the form of his surrogate (imagine a Hudson Hawk-era Willis with a mop of slightly incongruous blonde hair), but once Greer’s robotic doppelganger is incapacitated, Greer must interact with the world as he is; a grizzled, bald and tired middle-age man. In addition to looking every day of his 55 years, Willis also spends much of the running time with massive facial contusions and abrasions – we can’t think of another actor in Willis’ strata that has ever allowed themselves to look this awful on screen, particularly at an age when most of his contemporaries are vainly attempting to hide the ravages of age.
The other actors, including his partner, Radha Mitchell, and wife, Rosamund Pike, don’t get the time to develop anywhere near as well (and appear mostly in surrogate form). At a brisk 89 minutes (including credits) Surrogates rarely loiters long enough for the inquisitive viewer to ask too many questions; it’s a well paced, entertaining show that proves that every action film needn’t carry with it a studio-busting budget.
Image wise, Touchstone’s Blu-Ray release is a decidedly mixed bag. While there was clearly some filtering used to make the surrogates of the older actors appear youthful (an effect much better used here than in the last X-Men film, in which Patrick Stewart resembled his own video game character), this appears to have been applied to the entire frame, rather than only to the faces and skin. In all but the daytime outdoor sequences, backgrounds appear variably pale and washed out. We viewed the film with a friend who instantly assumed that it was deliberate method, used to highlight the unreality of the world that the characters inhabit. This may indeed be true, but we have a hard time imagining a filmmaker like Mostow having much patience for this sort of trickery.
The uncompressed DTS audio suffers no such distortion and sounds every bit the muscular blockbuster. Extras on the standard DVD run a bit light (not surprisingly, since Disney all but abandoned the film in theaters without advance screenings for critics). We do have a decent commentary track with Mostow and a music video that we didn’t last long with. The Blu-Ray has a few exclusive features, including a non-starter EPK piece, a featurette on the graphic novel on which the film is based (no, we hadn’t heard of it either), and 6 minutes of deleted scenes.

Laserblast: Picks & Pans of January's DVD & Blu-ray Releases

Laserblast is trying to get itself onto a more regular schedule, in order to keep you abreast of what is happening in regards to horror, fantasy, and science fiction films on DVD and Blu-ray. Here is a roundup of noteworthy titles released in January.


8 ½ (BD) – For many, Italian film begins and ends with a single name, and one of the signature films of Federico Fellini arrives on Blu-Ray via Criterion in this direct port of their previous DVD. 8 ½ marks a pretty clear tipping point in Fellini’s career, leaving the narrative cinema world of La Dolce Vita and Night of Cabiria for the self-reflexive, surreal worlds of Satyricon and Casanova. A stunning piece of work.
Moon (BD & DVD) – A crazily impressive feature debut film from Duncan Jones (formerly Zowie Bowie, and if I have to tell you who his father is then you’re just not trying). Rooted in the thinking-man’s Sci-Fi films of the early 70s, Moon wouldn’t be out of place playing alongside 2001 or Silent Running, to name two clear inspirations. The great Sam Rockwell is very nearly a one man band as the solitary caretaker of a lunar mining operation nearing the end of his 3 year contract. We don’t want to ruin the twist (as many others have) but suffices to say that things don’t go completely smoothly.
The Matrix (BD) – A single-disc BD release of a film that you promised yourself you’d never buy again.
The House on Sorority Row (DVD) – The much loved, low budget 1983 slasher returns to DVD after many years in out-of-print purgatory with a 25th anniversary edition (yes, we know that would make it a 27th anniversary edition) featuring commentary by the director and two of the film’s stars and an “alternate ending”. The story of a prank gone wrong (and a body being subsequently stashed in a pool during a graduation party) is the stuff that campfire stories are made of, and House is a perennial favorite, ‘round our way.

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Halloween II (DVD-theatrical / DVD Director’s Cut & BD Director’s Cut) – Rob Zombie’s inexplicable cluster bomb of a sequel got points with us for going off in an entirely new (and truly odd) direction with the sequel to his controversial remake of the Carpenter classic. Zombie’s film riffs on the original sequel with its hospital-set dream sequence opener, but then swerves off the road, into a ditch, then right off a cliff as Michael (the hulking Tyler Mane) begins to have visions of his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) walking down the street leading a horse in a gleaming white vision as imagined in a 60s Mexican horror film. We’ve been a fan of young Scout Taylor-Compton’s work as Laurie, and Danielle Harris is exceptionally strong as Annie this time around. Malcolm McDowell phones it in a little less obviously, while Brad Dourif is pure gold as Sherriff Brackett.
Transformers: Season 2 (DVD) – Not the Michael Bay sense pounder, but the second season of the original animated series. Who knows what kids today will make of this cheaply produced cartoon – as blatant an example of show-as-commercial ever made – but those whose memories of the show are filtered through the haze of childhood will find many memory triggers here.

Purchase these titles in the Cinefantastique Online Store.


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Pandorum (BD & DVD) – It seems like Dennis Quaid is everywhere recently with 7 films released since early 2008. Bobbing around in that cluster is last year’s Sci-Fi/horror underperformer, Pandorum, a film that borrow ideas from so many other genre entries that it makes Avatar look like a wholly original creation. Quaid and Ben Foster play what appears to be the only surviving crewmen on board the gigantic spaceship Elysium (and you don’t need to be an expert on ancient Greek mythology to figure out where this is going) sent out with 60,000 men, women, and children in hypersleep to colonize an alien world. The only problem is, they wake up with almost a total memory blackout, and, worse still, alone. We had an ‘old man’ reaction to the trailer (“Bah, it’s too dark”) and have yet to run into anyone that had any strong impression of the film in any respect – we’ll all find out together next week.
Kingdom of the Spiders (DVD) – Now this is more like it! One of our favorite low budget ’70s shockers arrives on DVD like the Gotti boys on their way to prom, with a deluxe edition that completely eclipses the awful full frame transfer from Good Times Home Video. Shout! Factory’s release brings us a brand new, 16×9 enhanced transfer, an audio commentary featuring director John ‘Bud’ Cardos, an extended interview with the on-set spider wrangler, deleted scenes, and best of all, a newly recorded sit-down with the show’s star, William Shatner! A camp-fest for some, Kingdom of the Spiders has been a long-standing favorite from the ‘nature run amok’ group; the discomfort of the actors in extremely close contact with these massive, hairy spiders is palpable, and director Cardos manages some terrifically suspenseful sequences. Sure, some of the performances are just this side of ripe, and maybe the library cues are overused on the soundtrack, but Kingdom of the Spiders goes right to our arachnophobic heart.
Gamer (BD & DVD) – A grim little actioner that didn’t seem to excite much interest during its brief theatrical run in the fall. In as distant a future as the budget will allow, prisoner Gerald Butler (still unable to emote more than just a scowl) is allowed to take part in a gladiatorial-ish combat game in which he would be mentally controlled by another player. Butler, whom we believe can be a decent, appealing actor in the right role, has been a bit of a charisma vacuum of late, and the overused gunmetal-colored futuretech on display in the trailer didn’t thrill, so we skipped the theatrical run; but Dexter’s Michael C Hall is a riveting presence (he appears to be playing the Richard Dawson role) and the disc appears to be stacked with Blu goodies, so maybe we’ll leave this on the docket.
Haunting in Connecticut (BD & DVD) – Based on a supposedly true story, a sometime-single mother (Virginia Madsen, pulling the cart on her own like a Russian widow crossing the steppes) who moves her family into a creepy house in rural CT to be near the hospital where her eldest son (Kyle Gallner) is receiving experimental cancer treatment. But the house – the former site of a funeral home – features several tenants that simply refuse to vacate the premises. Effective atmosphere and several effectively scary moments highlight a tale that is a bit too thinly-written to support itself. The Blu-Ray, however, is well stuffed, with 2 commentary tracks (on the unrated version) and several featurettes, including a lengthy piece on the actual haunting and featuring interviews with the actual family members.

The above titles available here.


Surrogates (BD & DVD) – stay tuned for a full review of this title, as our review disc just arrived. Director Jonathan Mostow has an easy, unpretentious style that, at its best (with films like U-571 and Breakdown) brings to mind the sturdy work of Walter Hill or Peter Hyams – solid genre work with no auteurist signature getting in the way. But that lack of individualism can occasionally be a hindrance as well, with nondescript fare like Terminator 3 arriving in theaters DOA.
Pontypool (DVD) – good word of mouth has us looking forward to this low budget slice of Canadian horror, dealing with a small town whose citizens are being transformed into zombie-like creatures by a virus carried in certain words of the English language – a one-of-a-kind twist for sure.

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Rifftrax (DVD – 5 volumes) – Since the demise of the much loved Mystery Science Theater 3000 a decade ago, the show’s writing and performance staff have splintered off into two separate groups: Cinematic Titanic, featuring MST3K creator Joel Hodgson along with Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Josh Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl: and Rifftrax, featuring Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy. Speaking as a devoted Mystie, it’s useless comparing the two, and would instead just remind fans how lucky they are to be the child of divorced parents and getting twice the presents. New Rifftrax DVDs include 2 sets of shorts (what they do best) and two features, Voodoo Man and Planet of the Dinosaurs. FFor $10 a pop, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
Cult Horror Collection (The Skull, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Deadly Bees) – Legend Films (under license from Paramount) presents a sweetly-priced combo pack of 3 previously released titles, Hammer Studio’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death and two from the house of Amicus, The Skull and The Deadly Bees. Man gives Anton Diffring a rare starring role (and a break from playing Nazis) in a decent, if not great Hammer entry that also gives Christopher Lee a rare chance to be the hero. Bees, however, is a dour, grim, and relentlessly silly film (well skewered on MST3K) that isn’t even “fun” bad. But the jewel of the set is The Skull, finally presented on DVD in its original widescreen ratio in a gorgeous transfer. The film gave star Peter Cushing a far more textured role than he typically got with Hammer studios outside of the later Frankenstein films, with his occult collector getting more than he bargained for when he purchases the actual skull of the Marquis de Sade, destined to drive those who possess it mad. Even taking the weak link into account (“no, not the bees!!!”) this set is well-worth the price.
The Toolbox Murders (BD) – a decidedly unusual horror programmer from the late 70s that starts out as a blood-soaked slasher film, featuring a black-clothed killer who plies his trade with implements from – you guessed it.

Jennifer's Body (2009)

The Blu-ray disc offers a great transfer and some good extras, but even in unrated form, this allegedy horror-comedy is not particularly scary, sexy, or funny.

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Overexposure is a tragic affliction for a young actor – tragic because the films that pay the price are often not the ones responsible for causing the disease. Megan Fox rode two TRANSFORMERS pictures to every magazine cover and television show that could be possibly frequented by men between the age of 14 and 30. Securing her for the lead role in JENNIFER’S BODY must have seemed like a coup, offering the budding sex symbol the first film that she would carry on her own, supported by a script from Diablo Cody, still reasonably hot (well, lukewarm at least) from the massive indy-cred-of JUNO. However, something happened on the way to the forum, and JENNIFER’S BODYdramatically upended upon release, barely limping it’s way to recoup its meager $16 million production budget (here’s hoping DVD sales can pay for all those TV ads). Now, our own lascivious nature should have placed us right in the marketing crosshairs for the film, but we were oddly unmoved by the pre-release hype – finding our Spidey-sense tingling at terms like “feminist” and “empowerment” when what we wanted to hear were words like “scary” and “sexy”. But in the end, it seems that the American movie going public may have been just plain tired of having Ms. Fox shoved down their collected throats, like medicine for an ailment they never had.
High school students and childhood friends Jennifer (Fox) and Anita (Amanda Seyfried) alleviate the boredom of life in Devil’s Kettle with a trip to a local road house to see a hot band, Low Shoulder. A mysterious fire guts the bar just after the band begins their set, killing dozens and sending a near hypnotized Jennifer into the arms – and van – of lead singer Nikolai (a very funny Adam Brody, who should have been in this film a lot more). Anita (who goes more commonly by ‘Needy’) reluctantly returns home alone, only to find Jennifer in her kitchen later that night, covered in blood and vomiting a black, viscous fluid. The next day, Jennifer seems to be her usual bright and perky self in class, until she lures the captain of the football team into the woods, transforms into a demon and eats him. As Anita’s relationship with Jennifer grows more…complicated, she’s drawn closer to her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons) – whom Jennifer seems to be eyeing for her next course. Anita attempts to track down the band – now a major success after the post-fire publicity – and find out what happened to Jennifer that night in the woods.

As the recent (and superb) Daybreakers has reminded us, it’s entirely possible for a horror film to work on numerous levels as long as you don’t lose sight of the genre pool that you’re swimming in. The problem is that Diablo Cody’s script has no teeth for horror, and director Karyn Kusama seems to have little interest in exploring anything aside from Cody’s half-baked female empowerment agenda. The filmmakers are proud to point out the material’s girl power slant (as they do many times in the commentary and supplemental features), but in reality, the end product is no more enlightened than 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre, another weak tea horror tale that tried to sneak by on the basis of having been directed and written by avowed feminists. We enjoyed Kusama’s Girlfight, which had the courage of its convictions; Jennifer’s Body, however, had the gall to sell itself as a sensual horror-comedy without being particularly sexy, scary, or funny.
Looking back on Cody’s Juno, it’s easy to see how the fine ensemble cast and careful direction managed to flesh out the author’s too-clever-by-half dialog. Her scripts seem almost a throwback to those carefree days of the mid-’90s, when every screenwriter was trying to emulate Tarantino’s self-reflexive, hipster style; in Jennifer’s Body, there is almost no organic dialog between characters and every exchange, whether it’s between parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, or even ‘best friends forever’ Jennifer and Anita, feels overwritten and rehearsed (there’s a scene at the funeral of one of Jennifer’s victims in which the mother delivers a graveside haranguing at his assembled goth friends that is absolutely unwatchable).
The good news, however, comes from Amanda Seyfried, who comes closer than anyone else to making the script feel genuine. Her performance is open, honest, and completely winning. Frankly, we found her more attractive than her top-billed co-star; it’s another of the film’s logical leaps that we’re supposed to buy Seyfried as frump, clinging to Jennifer for popularity and acceptance (so much for empowerment!). There are other good actors here, but most are used in underwritten parts that make them little more than cameos: Amy Sedaris is wasted as Anita’s mom, as is the great J K Simmons as a teacher (sporting a prosthetic arm for no good reason, save a cheap laugh on the reveal).
And what of Megan Fox? She’s certainly not bad – and with a role so carefully tailored to her, failure in that regard wasn’t an option – but neither is she all that memorable. Though the title and publicity material say different, Jennifer’s Body really belongs to Seyfried’s Anita, as the film’s only dramatic content consists of her reaction to her friend’s demonic transformation. Little is required of Ms. Fox other than the sort of vamping that two films with Michael Bay should have her performing in her sleep, so perhaps this isn’t a true test of her abilities – but neither does it leave us panting for Untitled Megan Fox Project 2010.
There’s good news for the AV connoisseur, however, as the image on Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is nearly flawless. Jennifer’s Body is a well shot film, with a vivid, colorful palette that is faithfully reproduced on the disc without noticeable DNR or filtering. The lossless DTS track is unusually strong, and the BD also comes equipped with French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital tracks.
The major extra is the inclusion of an unrated cut of the film that runs almost a full 5 minutes longer than the theatrical version, clocking in at just over 107 minutes. Though the unspoken tease of these “unrated” cuts is the chance to see nudity or gore that was considered too strong for an R-rating, the changes often turn out to be more subtle: the unrated Jennifer’s Body actually features quite a few editorial changes, sometimes consisting of extensions lasting just a few seconds.
Also present are 14 minutes of deleted scenes; a featurette on the filming of the finale, “The Dead Pool” (both presented in HD); a gag reel; and video diaries by the cast (in SD). The best extra is a “Life After Film School” piece prepared for the Fox Movie Channel (and therefore in SD) that features a better than usual chat with Cody, while the most insipid is a 1-minute long clip mash-up of Ms. Fox vamping it up, called “Megan Fox” is Hot (in HD). There is also a digital copy.

Laserblast: The Best 25 Blu-ray Discs of 2009

Without unnecessary preamble, here is a list of the best Blu-ray discs from 2009, featuring horror, fantasy and science fiction titles. With so many great releases, it is hard to pick favorites, so the films are presented in alphabetical, rather than numeric, order.

An American Werewolf in London. Though director John Landis bristles at the term “horror comedy”, it’s a genre nevertheless, and one with very few successful entries.  Werewolf’s comedy grows organically out of the material, which is just a fancy way of saying that this isn’t a dopey, self-aware parody.  Almost 30 years after its initial release, the film still has the power to scare, and remains the best werewolf film of the modern era (or, after Oliver Reed got shot out of the bell tower).  Universal’s Blu-Ray release replicated all the extras from the previous DVD (and HD-DVD) edition, but also added a wonderful, fan-made documentary, Beware the Moon.     
 Big Trouble in Little China. This isn’t the last John Carpenter where the director noticeably gave a damn – but it is close.  A cult film in the very best tradition of the word, Big Trouble was a costly flop in ’86 (we were alone in the theater) but was also the first studio film to introduce elements of Hong Kong martial arts that the American film-going public would not appreciate for another decade or so.  Fox didn’t add anything to their BD that wasn’t on the previous DVD set (the commentary featuring Carpenter and star Kurt Russell is still one of the most purely fun tracks ever recorded), but their careful BD release should serve as a blue print for how to prepare a HD disc transfer: little-to-no DNR; natural film grain generating enormous detail; and a stupendous overall image.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Blue Underground picked up the gauntlet long ago dropped by Anchor Bay and has been specializing in creating superlative editions of Euro-sleaze and domestic grindhouse classics for years now.  2009 saw the company venturing into HD territory with several of their more popular titles, including Dario Argento’s debut stunner, the first giallo of the ‘modern era’.  A tasty combo of Hitchcockian suspense and aggressive violence, mixed with the mod style of the era to form an irresistible cocktail.  Argento certainly made wilder films, but rarely better ones.  BU’s Blu-Ray wrings every ounce of detail from the 40 year old Techniscope production, demonstrating just how much a careful transfer can benefit even older (and very inexpensive) genre films.         
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Dismissed by most critics as a pretentious Forrest Gump redux, David Fincher’s elegant, somber, and finally touching riff on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim source novella (which could be read in less time than it takes to view the film) was an easy film to dislike.  However,  Brad Pitt continues to impress us with interesting choices, and we always look forward to the almost clinical precision with which Fincher handles a digital camera.  Though the distribution was handled by Paramount, Criterion (as it has with several of Fincher’s previous films) put the disc package together, giving us a pristine 1080p image together with superbly detailed documentary.  
The Deep. Yes, The Deep.  We know it’s not really genre, but it’s such a thinly veiled cash-in on Jaws that we couldn’t resist including it here. Every couple of years we revisit the film and are duly amazed at how entertaining it is.  2 years after Steven Spielberg’s film of Peter Benchley’s previous best-seller redefined the term ‘blockbuster’, Columbia’s ad campaign deftly married author Benchley’s name with poster art that closely echoed the Spielberg mega hit, emphasizing the presence of Robert Shaw (and Jacqueline Bisset’s frequently wet T-shirt).  In truth, the book is pretty junky – and the film reflects that; Louis Gossett, Jr’s Henri Cloche, the film’s Voo Doo villain, is the sort of threatening stereotype that Hollywood was finally beginning to move away from (the scene where his henchmen threaten BIsset in her hotel room is genuinely disturbing and maybe not for the best of reasons).   But the location shooting in Bermuda and the Virgin Islands makes for a stunning show, and the Blu-Ray conveys this beautifully – the image is stunning.  Plans to reconstruct a longer version of the film never came to pass, but the studio did find several interesting new scenes (along with some nice extensions) that were added for the TV airings.       
Dexter Season 1. You could pick almost any of the 3 currently available Dexter seasons for this list, but the breathtakingly strong premier season will suffice for our purposes.  Showtime’s main contender to steal HBO’s original programming thunder is still going strong, providing 4 seasons of the edgiest television we’ve ever seen.  The show literally shoots the hell out of Miami on digital video, making the city seem alive, vibrant, and, most surprisingly, new – something that Showtime’s Blu-Ray releases display perfectly.
Fringe Season 1. 2008’s most interesting new show is also one of 2009’s best television releases on Blu-Ray.  Fringe is the first of its kind since the glory days of the X Files to really energize us in a weekly series; stars Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson eschew the typical ‘will they or won’t they’ interplay, instead crafting beautifully realized characters who display enough incredulousness to drag along those not already in the black helicopter brigade (a trick that co-creator J J Abrams managed to do more than once this year).  The winning first season is well served by Fox’s Blu-Ray set – a feast for the eyes and ears in all the usual A/V categories. But what really won our hearts was the addition of an actual episode guide booklet, featuring well rendered plot recaps along with the vital statistics – a stark contrast to Paramount’s Star Trek Season 3 set, that forces you to peel discs out to read the episode titles off the inside of the cover.       
Gremlins. An adequate transfer and no new bonus material, so why is it on the list?  Because Joe Dante’s ode to holiday horror just seems to get better with each passing year and would go on my list if it were projected on the underside of a rock
The Hannibal Lecter Collection. The first 3 films featuring Thomas Harris’ increasingly omniscient cannibal Hannibal Lecter came complete with a very pleasant surprise.  Silence of the Lambs is a straight reissue of the previously available BD (complete with a so-so transfer and extras so old they’ve got whiskers), whereas Hannibal and Manhunter make their domestic HD debuts.   Ridley Scott’s unfairly maligned Hannibal looks very decent, but is missing all the extras of the older DVD release – a feature-rich package that fans who purchase the set would be wise to hold on to.  But the set’s prize is Michael Mann’s Manhunter, freed from victimization under the Anchor Bay label, where it received 2 separate – and bungled – releases featuring the omission of an important line of dialog (“My heart bleeds for him as a child…”).  The BD of Manhunter represents the first time since a Warner Bros LaserDisc that the original, complete (and superior) theatrical version had been available domestically on home video.
Shaun of the Dead / Hot Fuzz. Available first as Best Buy exclusives, these BDs are thankfully now available everywhere, giving discerning aficionadas of director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg’s ’80s-influenced grindhouse aesthetic reason to rejoice.  These near-perfect distillations of a teenage life spent loitering in the action and horror isles of video stores may not be everyone’s afternoon tea (there are many right thinking people who still don’t know what to make of Fuzz), but we honestly can’t recall a tastier blend of parody and tribute.  Both BDs are A/V knockouts (Fuzz’s lossless soundtrack is one of the very best we’ve ever heard) and carryover the voluminous extras from the previous DVDs and HD-DVDs, with some new material added to boot   
The Man Who Fell to Earth. I suppose that we have Paramount to thank for abandoning this difficult, elliptical Sci-Fi tale back in 1976, sending Producer Michael Deeley scrambling for financing, but also making it an easy grab for the Criterion Collection.  One of the high watermarks from Nicolas Roeg’s artistic peak as a filmmaker (beginning with Performance in 1970 and ending, arguably, with 1983’s Eureka), this film has been traveling with Criterion since the days of Laserdisc, cumulating in their stunning BD release, bringing in all previous extras to compliment the superlative 1080p image.  While some directors assemble films in a traditional, linear fashion, experiencing a Roeg film is like watching all the pieces of a puzzle drop from the box in slow motion right before your eyes, engaging the viewer’s imagination in a way few other filmmakers ever had. Highly recommended. 
Monsters, Inc. / Up. What more needs to be said?  This fall saw Pixar’s newest film released on BD on the same day as one of their most requested catalog titles, to the delight (and relief) of parents and home theater geeks everywhere.  Both discs feature crystal-clear images – the result of a direct-digital download – and enough extras to keep you busy for many days afterwards.
My Bloody Valentine 3D. With everyone going nuts over creation of a 3D world in Avatar, it’s only right to remember this little horror gem, quite simply the best use of 3D that we had ever seen up until Cameron scared everyone else out of the playground.  We think there’s a tendency to over praise the original Canuk slasher (look, guys, it’s just okay – okay?) on which this film is based; fortunately, director Patrick Lussier smartly dispenses with the first film’s plot in the opening 10 minutes, leaving him ample breathing room to play.  Paramount’s BD gives us the expectedly pristine 2D standard edition of the film, but also throws in a 3D version as well, which worked pretty well with a darkened room and big enough screen.     
The New York Ripper. Another catalog triumph from Blue Underground, and from a film that I’d have bet never to have seen on Blu-Ray this quickly.  Fulci’s last great sickening glorious mess of a movie was first rescued from grey-label purgatory by Bill Lustig during his time with Anchor Bay, but that non-anamorphic transfer pales before Blue Underground’s BD release.  The image pops with vivid color and detail that we would have thought well beyond the abilities of the film’s inexpensive film stock.  Even if the movie itself isn’t to your specific tastes, just marvel at the irony that such a nasty, grungy little film can look this good.  
Night of the Creeps. One of the longest sought after DVD releases finally arrived in 2009, followed by a Blu-Ray release – a double blessing for fans of director Fred Dekker’s loving ode to everything from ’50s drive-in chillers to zombie movies.  Both the BD and DVD – from the same master used for the HD showings on the lamented MonstersHD network – look terrific. (Now if only we’re able to include The Monster Squad on next year’s best of BD list.)
North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition. Okay, it’s a thriller, not horror, but hey, it’s Hitchcock. Simply put, this is the best looking BD transfer we’ve yet seen.  The first HD Hitchcock on home video comes as the result of an extensive (and expensive) restoration effort that is nothing short of breathtaking.  Many believed that color value issues have plagued many earlier releases of the film; with the studio tweaking them too much to get that extra “pop” – but the image on this version you can practically drink.  Everything about this release, from the book-style case to the extras – right down to the superb cover art just whispers ‘class’. 
The Prisoner – Complete Series. The UK release may be more of a conversation piece – we’d still love to flip through the hard back book that came with it – but the lower price point of the domestic set (Amazon had a nearly 50% discount) made this one of the year’s best values.  The brainchild of much-missed star Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner is a genuine television landmark that only grows more impressive with each passing year (unlike AMC’s recent retooling, an entertaining but utterly forgettable experience).  Unlike many other UK shows of the time, this was shot on 35mm (as opposed to the cheaper and more common 16mm), and A&E uses the same beautiful transfers as the lauded UK set, making this the best that the show has ever looked.
Repulsion. Another Criterion release that has been stalking the shelves over the years in several incarnations dating back to their original Laserdisc.  The supplements may not have changed (no reason to – they’re terrific) but it’s been fun to watch the image quality – the most important aspect of any release – get better and better.  Roman Polanski’s paranoid, hallucinatory horror has never looked better, with its precise B&W photography leading us alongside Catherine Deneuve as she descends into madness within the confines of a South Kensington flat.    
Star Trek – Season 1. Though any of Paramount’s full-season sets of the original series could have made the list (even with their typically high price points, thankfully whipped into shape by large online discounts), the first season of the original Star Trek series is still the show’s finest.  Not just for the quality of the episodes (a list which includes “Arena”, “Balance of Terror”, and our personal favorite, “The Galileo Seven”) but because the show was simply better produced in its first year; notice the rich lighting schemes, utilizing complex shadows and gels, that are mostly absent from later seasons.  Episodes can be viewed in their original form or in the (extraordinarily well done) enhanced versions with new digital special effects. Menu navigation has been improved over the HD-DVD version – we don’t miss the ride in the turbo lift.  The only black mark is the lack of an episode guide, something Paramount did include on the previous SD DVD sets.
Star Trek (2009). What more can be said?  J J Abrams performed what we thought would have been an impossible feat this year, rebooting the Star Trek feature film franchise that had all but been beaten into the ground after a run of lackluster Next Generation films.  Everything about the franchise feels new – and not just the music, photography (love those lens flares), and costumes – but the jaunty style and boundless energy of the cast (with particular honors going to Pine and Quinto who had the biggest shoes to fill).  Beloved by geeks and norms alike, the film was a well-deserved triumph, raising expectations for the BD release that were met, and then some; a gorgeous image, a thumping yet subtle soundtrack, and well-chosen extras.
Trick ‘r Treat . Now here’s a rare Halloween treat, a horror film without ‘Saw’ in its title that was actually released in October (sort of).  Why Warner Bros sat on director Michael Dougherty debut effort for 2 years is a mystery – one made even more mysterious by the fact that the few showings that they did allow at festivals received amazingly positive reactions.  Trick ‘r Treat is a Valentine’s card to Halloween season – an intertwined anthology resembling Creepshow as filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A well-handled release could have netted a fortune for the studio, who even managed to screw up the video release by putting out too few copies, causing big box stores to routinely run out of stock. The Blu-Ray is a great show off for the lovingly photographed film, which also includes the nifty animated short that inspired the film’s lead character.
Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut. Clearly not to everyone’s taste, Zach Snyder’s long awaited film version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel masterpiece is, at worst, too slavish to its source material to really breathe on its own.  But at its best, Watchmen is a panoramic look at an alternate-universe 1980s where powerless masked heroes match wits with a mysterious villain who seems to be targeting them.  The Ultimate Cut incorporates all the changes that were made to the Director’s Cut from the previous BD edition, and adds the Tales of the Black Freighter storyline (the comic that the kid is reading at the newsstand which had been a larger part of Moore’s graphic novel) – pushing the running time over the 200-minute mark.   
Zodiac. Alright, we promise that this will be the last time we’ll be putting Zodiac on any year-end best list.  David Fincher’s true-crime masterpiece was the best film of 2007, the HD-DVD was the best disc release of 2008, and the BD release early in 2009 qualifies it to appear here as well.  The digitally-shot film looks luminous on BD, a pure, direct transfer of the theatrical experience, and the extras are among the best, most thought-out we’ve ever seen – both in terms of the film itself and the actual (and still officially open) case. 

…And a Not So Special Mention

Not all was glory in the land of cinefantastique BD releases. Here are some of the worst and/or most disappointing
Godzilla – King of the Monsters. A reminder to studios of what can happen when a sub-standard SD master is brushed-off and passed-off as HD.  While it’s true that Classic Media could only work with what they get from Toho Studios, a basic quality check should have stopped this from ever leaving the pressing plant (1080i?!?)
The Legend of the Drunken Master is not the same movie as Drunken Master II.  The problem, of course, is that Miramax probably doesn’t even know that an alternate version exists.  Legend is edited and dubbed (though Jackie added his own voice at least) featuring a crummy new soundtrack and sound effects thought to be more pleasing to Western ears.
Catwoman. Think of the titles of all your favorite films currently unavailable on BD and insert them here.
Gladiator. DNR runs rampant over this disc, with digital scrubbers working so hard that actual, vital film images have been removed.  See the first battle scene and watch the Romans launch fiery balls of nothing in their catapults.  A redo of this is in order – now.    
The Last Emperor. Vittorio Storaro’s unified theory of aspect ratio strikes again, with Criterion allowing hi m final say over their transfer and cropping the 2.35×1 image down to something closer to 2.0×1.  Not only does this violate Criterion’s mission statement (to present films in their original aspect ratio) but it ruins an otherwise wonderful release.
The French Connection. William Friedkin will certainly never be accused of viewing the world through rose colored glasses, but that’s exactly what you’ll think you were wearing while watching this BD.  Wild Billy is very frank about his theories behind the changes in color timing (there’s even an extra devoted to the color timing on the disc) but that doesn’t change the fact that this gritty masterpiece is now a pastel-colored mess on Blu-Ray, bad enough in some scenes that there is actually less detail than the SD DVD.  And for those of you thinking, “They came for Connection, and I said nothing”, keep in mind that color timing for The Exorcist BD is already underway under his supervision. 
Let the Right One In. One of the best genre films of recent years deserves better than to have the English subtitles simplified to the point of ridiculousness.  It’s one of those head-scratching errors (like the recent omission of 10 minutes from John Huston’s The Dead) that never seem to get an adequate explanation.  A revised edition is out, but no exchange program announced for those duped into buying the original release.  Not too smart to alienate those who pre-order…