Laserblast: Paranormal Activity, Jennifer's Body, 9

This Week’s Blu-ray and DVD releases provide further evidence that expectations are often made to be thwarted: A little movie that could have been buried and forgotten instead became a sleeper hit, while a would-be hit disappeared from theatres with barely a ripple of attention from audiences. There is also an animated fantasy whose trailer promised more than the film delivered and a little direct-to-video title headlined by an actor who went on to star in the summer’s biggest sci-fi blockbuster.

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Paranormal Activity – One of 2009’s scariest and best films is apt to divide audiences even more on DVD and Blu-Ray as it did in theaters this past fall.  Director Oren Peli’s self-bankrolled film sat on Paramount’s pay-no-mind shelf for well over a year while the studio slowly released it to festivals, generating a palpable buzz that had audiences literally signing an online petition to get the film released in their city.  We caught the film at Lincoln Center’s semi-annual Halloween horrorthon and were thoroughly blown away (clicky here for our effusive write-up) though we have heard that less respectful audiences could easily ruin the experience.  We’re anxious to see if the film weaves a similar spell at home – it’s an intimate experience, so we don’t expect too much of an issue.  From the press release:

The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY DVD is presented in widescreen enhanced for 16:9 televisions with Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround and Spanish 5.1 Surround (theatrical version only) and English, French and Spanish subtitles.  The two-disc Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital (theatrical version only) and English, English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.  Special features include:
Unrated version with alternate ending not seen in theaters
Digital copy of theatrical version (Blu-ray only)
Limited Collector’s Edition:
Fans like you made Paranormal Activity a nationwide phenomenon, and now you can literally own a piece of the film that you helped make successful by owning the Limited Collector’s Edition DVD.  Available only online and in limited quantities, the Limited Collector’s Edition DVD contains exclusive items that showcase your commitment and let you boast that YOU “demanded it!”
The Limited Collector’s Edition DVD can only be ordered online and includes:
The theatrical version and an unrated version with an alternate ending never shown in theaters
An authentic film cell from the movie, featured on a collectible trading card
Individually numbered, limited edition t-shirt to showcase that YOU “demanded it!”
Street Date:              December 29, 2009
S.R.P.:                       $29.99 U.S (DVD) – $40.99 U.S. (Blu-ray)
Runtime:                    86 minutes
U.S. Rating:               R for language
Canadian Rating:     14A for frightening scenes and coarse language; not recommended for children

As you can see, we’re a little stunned that Paramount should choose such a punitive pricing structure for this low, low budget film ($41 for a Blu-Ray should help to encourage piracy nicely, Paramount).

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Jennifer’s Body – A film that had all the ingredients for a hit was a surprising fizzle at the box office this past fall.  Maybe it was the criminal over-exposure of star Megan Fox, or the pixie dust that writer Diablo Cody had previously sprinkled over the critics with Juno had worn off, but it’s just more proof that in Hollywood, no one knows anything.  We hope to have a screener sent to us soon, but until then, here’s what to expect (from the official press release):

Blu-ray (BD) Features:
Disc One
heatrical Widescreen Feature Film  
Audio Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama and Writer Diablo Cody
Extended Widescreen Version
Audio Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama
Deleted Scenes
Dead Boys
Jennifer Check Is Gross
Needy Confronts Jennifer
Who’s Cindy Crawford?
Needy Faces The Band
Ass, Gas or Grass…
Gag Reel
Jennifer’s Body: The Dead Pool
Video Diaries
Megan Fox and Johnny Simmons
Amanda Seyfried
Diablo Cody
Dan Dubiecki
Megan Fox Is HOT
Megan Fox “Peer Pressure” PSA
Fox Movie Channel Presents ‘Life After Film School’ With Writer Diablo Cody
Disc Two
Digital Copy of Jennifer’s Body (Extended Version)
Standard DVD Features:
Theatrical Widescreen Feature Film  
Audio Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama and Writer Diablo Cody
Extended Widescreen Version
Audio Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama

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9 – If you find yourself watching Daniel Day-Lewis doing a Fellini impression while being serenaded to by Nicole Kidman, you’re watching the wrong movie.  This 9 is an animated feature directed by Shane Acker, a former WETA animator who first tackled the subject as a student short several years ago (this version was executive produced by Tim Burton).  The film (which we avoided solely because the digital animation style reminded us of the cut-scenes from a video game that we never would have been playing) features a top notch vocal cast, including Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and even Crispin Glover and what we assume will be a ravishing Blu-Ray presentation, in addition to a standard DVD release.
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Carriers – The winner of 2009’s fortuitous casting award for the presence of Chris (Star Trek’s new James T Kirk) Pine makes its debut on DVD.  From what we’ve read about the film, it seems to be a grim, post-apocalyptic, survivors-against-zombies type of tale of the stripe that only feel stale when they take themselves too seriously.  The presence of Pine is a definite plus (forget hype – his performance as Kirk is an amazing achievement under incredibly difficult circumstances) and we look forward to checking this out.

Laserblast: District 9 & Philadelphia Experiment

It’s the last Tuesday before Christmas – meaning it’s the last release date for new horror, fantasy and science fiction on home video – so you might be expecting a glut of last-minute shopping opportunities. No such luck. This week’s batch of releases offers only a couple of interesting titles; fortunately, one of them is a biggie.
DISTRICT 9. – We had our head in the sand when the Sci-Fi film of the year was released this fall; therefore, unfortunately, we cannot comment on it one way or another. The reviews and reaction to the allegorical action tale – concentrating on the appearance of an alien-filled UFO hovering over Johannesburg and their subsequent detainment in a shantytown – were overwhelmingly positive, even if the close resemblance to Alien Nation went largely unmentioned. Is it the masterpiece everyone says it is, or are the film’s correlations to South Africa’s very real history of racial segregation a bit too ‘on the nose’? The owners of almost any media device will be able to find out for themselves this week when the film is released in single and double-disc DVD editions, in addition to a Blu-Ray release (it’s even getting released on one of those PSP cartridges – are they really still making those?) Extras include the usual commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, etc. But the BD release also contains a few exclusive features, including “Joberg from Above: Interactive Map of Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9” and a God of War II demo for PS3.

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THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT. – The phrase “Starring Michael Pare and Nancy Allen” hasn’t been used much since 1984, when this well-regarded time travel film was first released, but we’re always happy to spend time with two of our favorite early ’80s headliners. In 1943, the US Navy conducts an experiment to make the USS Eldridge invisible to enemy radar, but as happens with most secret experiments of this ilk, things go horribly wrong and only two sailors (Pare and Bobby DiCicco) are able to get off the ship before it disappears completely. The pair finds themselves in the present-day (well, present day in 1984) Nevada desert and have to piece together what happened and make their way back in time and prevent the ship from getting sucked into a time-worm- void-hole. It’s been a while since we last laid eyes on Phily, and we hope that time has been charitable to this enjoyable, low-budget effort from New World Pictures. There doesn’t seem to be anything spectacular about this version (likely just another Anchor Bay catalog re-issue) – which is too bad because we’re dying to find out whatever happened to DiCiccio – once a high profile player for Spielberg (1941) and Sam Fuller (The Big Red One) before vanishing like a battleship in Philadelphia. DVD only.
This week’s other releases include Four Course Meal, a rather obvious attempt to simulate the look of an old EC horror comic, and a three-disc set of Kazuo Umezz’s Horror Theatre. The later is an anthology of 50-minute films, shot on video, based on stories by manga artist Kazuo Umezz; various well-known J-horror filmmakers were involved, including director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (PULSE) and screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi (RING).
Come back next week, when things pick up with the release of Paranormal Activity, Jennifer’s Body, 9, and Carriers (starring Chris Pine before he became Captain Kirk).

G-Force (2009)

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The Blu-ray disc provides a gorgeous transfer and good extras, but the film remains a high-sheen jumble designed for attention-deficit viewers.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s name and image were all over the publicity material for last summer’s G-Force, a manic kid’s film that blends digitally animated rodents with a live-action framework. And, if the film’s near $300 million world-wide gross is any indication, the movie-going populace believes(as Disney’s marketing team obviously do) that the Bruckheimer name is as specific a piece of corporate branding as the Good Housekeeping seal. If you ask a random sampling of Americans to describe a Bruckheimer film, it’s more than likely that you’ll hear dozens of descriptions of exactly the same film – one that might sound a lot like Con Air, or Bad Boys, or National Treasure, or…well, you get the picture – and G-Force is basically that film, scaled down to kid-size.
There’s a temptation to relate the experience of watching this film to a rollercoaster, but we’re hesitant to encourage the out-of-context use of the term for marketing fodder. The comparison is apt, however; the film begins so abruptly – almost in mid stride – that we thought the chapter skip button had been erroneously hit. We meet Ben (Zach Galifianakis, smartly cast for pre-Hangover money), a tech guru with some nebulous attachment to the FBI, giving a mission briefing to one of his operatives, a guinea pig named Darwin (voiced by Sam Rockwell). We later learn (though this information might have been better provided up front) that Ben has invented a device that allows communication between humans and the rodents, and has specially trained a team for intelligence gathering work, including guinea pigs Juarez (Penelope Cruz) and Blaster (Tracy Morgan), mole Speckles (Nicolas Cage) and Mooch the Fly (Dee Bradley Baker). Suspecting electronics mogul Leonard Saber (HRH, the martini-dry Bill Nighy) of masterminding some sort of evil plan utilizing his vast network of computers, Ben sends the self-proclaimed G-Force team on an unsanctioned investigation into the Saber mansion, where Mission: Impossible-style they retrieve what they believe to be the crucial data. Unfortunately, when it’s played for Ben’s FBI superior Kip (Will Arnett, criminally underused), all there appears to be are the specs for a new – and harmless – cappuccino machine. Enraged, Kip orders Ben’s program terminated and has the animals given over for medical experimentation. Ben manages to secret them out of the lab and into a pet store where they meet up with fellow guinea pig Hurley (John Favreau) and Bucky, an irascible hamster. Can the team break out of the confines of the pet store in time to clear their name and restore G-Force to the Bureau?
G-Force is the directorial debut film for the improbably named Hoyt Yeatman, a visual effects artist who had worked for Bruckheimer on several features (and who helped craft the genuinely groundbreaking effects in The Abyss). He seems a likeable guy, at least whenever his candle isn’t utterly eclipsed by the Bruckheimer supernova, and with a serviceable story and a smarter script, there’s no telling how well he might have fared. G-Force, however, is a bit of a mess – a high-sheen, expensive, and hugely profitable mess.
G-Force was designed from the ground up to be a 3D theatrical experience, and not having caught the film on the big screen, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that this mission was accomplished. There’s scarcely a moment of screentime devoid of some sort of frantic action, as if Bruckheimer were afraid of losing its grip on even the most ADD-addled child in the audience. Were we reviewing the 3D theatrical version, we would certainly take this into account, but Disney (to our knowledge) doesn’t attempt to reproduce the 3D experience at home, and for a near-carnival attraction like G-Force, that’s like reviewing a color film on a black and white television. Almost all filmmaking elements from script to casting to direction, is at the service of the 3D technology, as opposed to Pixar’s Up (2009), which was just the opposite.
There was a golden opportunity here for mega-producer Bruckheimer to poke gentle fun at a genre which all but bears his name, but either the screenwriters were too timid to risk insult or lacked the wit for the job. There are a few gags that register, like a fight with a particularly malevolent cappuccino machine, but most fall flat (at least to this 2D-only reviewer) because there’s almost no connective narrative tissue to bind these scenes together. In the end, G-Force isn’t all that different from the majority of Bruckheimer’s recent output – cinema that makes one feel like they’re watching with a impatient 10 year-old, skipping through every scene without some sort of action element to keep their interest.
And let’s not forget how awesomely ugly these creatures are to look at! I don’t know how far down guinea pigs rank on the list of “furry animals that haven’t been made the action hero of a Hollywood blockbuster yet,” but I’d assume they were near the bottom. With their scraggy buck teeth and indistinct features, we had a hard telling one from another.
That having been said, there certainly are impressive production values on display (the producer’s trademark look has been faithfully reproduced) and there are some impressive actors in the mix. It’s always fun to watch Bill Nighy, though we wish Galifianakis had more to do (his sections of the gag reel show how funny he could have been if given room to breathe). The voice casting, however, is a major letdown. Only Cage scores as Speckles, as the actor clearly delights in using one of his odder voices (we were reminded of Vampire’s Kiss – but that’s just us). The rest of the cast reads the mostly flat dialog in a deflated, disjointed style. Morgan and Cruz are on hand to contribute “urban” characterizations in a typically crass attempt by Disney to pull in money from all available revenue streams (watching their scenes is like staring at a Colt 45 billboard). Rockwell tries, but, like the other actors, seems to be working in a vacuum, and is unable to stitch a silk purse out of the material.
Those who do feel compelled to pick up the film certainly won’t be disappointed by the presentation. As with most of their animation films, the set we received for review contained a Blu-Ray disc, a standard-def DVD, and a 3rd disc holding a digital copy of the film. The 1080p image of the BD is as gorgeous as you’d expect, with rich, deep colors and inky blacks. However, the area in which we expected to notice quality right away – the digital rendering of the guinea pigs – left us rather cold (though this is the fault of the film’s effects rather than the quality of the disc).
Extras include being able to watch the film in Cine-Explore mode, a BD-only extra that plays like a supped-up commentary track, featuring interviews, bts footage, conceptual artwork, etc. while the film itself plays inside a smaller window. It’s a quality extra that Disney is getting better and better at putting together. There are two other features exclusive to BD, including a resolve-testing tribute to digital effects in Bruckheimer’s movies, and a featurette on the animation lab. There’s also the aforementioned bloopers, a collection of deleted scenes, and music videos.

Monsters, Inc. 4-Disc Combo Set

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Piggybacking on the November 10 release of the latest Pixar juggernaught, UP (2009), comes the long-awaited Blu-Ray of the studio’s 4th animated feature, Monsters, Inc. (2001), helmed by UP’s Pete Docter. Eight years ago, the film represented a bit of a turning point for us in relation to animated films; though we thoroughly enjoyed the first two TOY STORY films and A BUG’S LIFE, none really grabbed us the way MONSTER, INC. did. The film tapped a rich vein with this viewer, whose childhood was steeped in both the hope and fear that the world was full of monsters and that some of them might just be in our closet at this very minute (though others must share this semi-macabre world view, as the film handily out-grossed all previous Pixar films).
The power supply for the sprawling city of Monstropolis is completely dependent upon the employees of its utility company, Monsters, Inc. Through a porthole system that connects with the bedroom closet doors of children all over the human world, its employees – a select group of ‘scarers’ – appear to small children and coax out their screams, which the utility converts to raw power. One day, the company’s top scarer, Sulley (John Goodman) spots an unattended door on the scare floor while the vile Randall (Steve Buscemi) sneaks about after hours. Sulley checks the door, unwittingly allowing a human child to enter into the company, a child who is utterly unafraid of the Sulley and the rest of the Monster world. Since every monster knows that human children are highly toxic, any monster known to come in contact with one is immediately put into isolation by agents of the CDA (Child Detection Agency). Consequently, Sulley enlists the aid of best friend Mike (Billy Crystal) to hide the little girl (known only as ‘Boo’) until he can return her to the other side of the door. But Randall has other plans for Boo, plans that will guarantee him the title of ‘Top Scarer’ and change Monsters, Inc. forever.
You couldn’t tell from the box art for the new Blu-Ray set, the real secret to this film’s success is the sole non-monster in the cast. From almost the first moment she appears onscreen, ‘Boo’ became one of the most effortlessly charming Disney creations in recent memory. Design-wise, the cute factor is obviously super-accentuated, but it’s the voice casting that makes her so winning. Pixar knew not to bother with a teenager making baby talk, and instead went with a child that closely matched Boo’s actual age (Mary Gibbs, who provided the voice, was born in 1996 and could only have been about 3 years old when the tracks were recorded). And instead of attempting to get her to read from a script, the engineers simply followed her around with a microphone and recorded her natural chatter, giving all Boo’s actions an air of childhood verisimilitude that almost everyone will instantly recognize.
There’s a terrific sequence early in the film with Sulley and Mike trying to hide Boo from the CDA from inside Sulley’s apartment; she sings to herself while drawing in coloring books and skips in circles until she makes herself dizzy while Mike and Sulley cower in fear, using a pair of tongs held at arm’s length to move her around the apartment. Besides being drop-dead funny, the scene brilliantly deflates any fears of monsters from young children in the audience (an audience I’m sure that Disney was afraid Pixar would lose in telling a story centered on monsters in closets).
The real threat in the film comes from Randall, a chameleon-like creature that wants to tie young children down to a frightening-looking machine and forcibly extract their screams – sort-of like the Monsters, Inc take on dynamite fishing. Randall had been assigned as Boo’s official monster, and the moment when she tries to tell Sulley not to leave her alone in the bedroom by drawing a picture of Randall is almost unbearably sweet, funny, and sad all at once.
The film’s finale, featuring a break-neck chase through the M.C. Escher-inspired doorway conveyer facility, is as fine an action scene as we’ve ever seen in animated film, never feeling wedged-in merely to provide a final action beat (like the unnecessarily frightening studio fire sequence that capped BOLT). The film concludes, however, on one of the purest and flat-out beautiful notes we’ve ever seen, and we find our eyes welling up at the thought of it. After 10 hugely successful films, MONSTERS, INC. is still our favorite Pixar title.
MONSTERS, INC. is the 6th Pixar film to be released on Blu-Ray, and from the disc we were sent, the wait has been worth it. Following the example of UP, the film comes in a four-disc set, including the feature and the extras from the previous DVD special edition housed on 2 BD discs, a third standard-def DVD of the film, and a fourth disc housing the digital copy.
The feature represents a direct digital download from Pixar’s own servers and the image is never anything short of breathtaking. All Pixar films have looked great on standard-def DVD, but the bump up to 1080p resolution allows for close examining of picture detail that we ever even knew was there; one could, for instance, become almost hypnotized staring at the movement of Sulley’s purple fur (and as a child reared on a dog-eared edition of “Where the Wild Things Are,” we loved that the design of Sulley is clearly inspired by Maurice Sendak’s artwork).
The main feature is accompanied by a commentary track featuring co-directors Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich, writer Andrew Stanton, and producer John Lasseter. The Pixar team is justly famous for their ease on these tracks and this is no exception – an informal yet informative listen.
New to the set is a Filmmakers’ Round Table (a roughly 20-minute chat with several key members of the creative team as they look back on the film) and Ride and Go Seek: Building Monstropolis in Japan (a peek at the new ride at the Tokyo Disneyland – it may smell a bit too promotional, but it worked on us), and another interactive trivia game that we’ll never play, Roz’s 100 Door Challenge.
Everything else that appeared on the original 2002 DVD set appears to be here as well, including the wonderful For the Birds, which played theatrically with the film, and Mike’s New Car, the short that was added to the original DVD set. There are also literally dozens of production featurettes, with few running more than 5 minutes in length, and it would be nice to be able to bond these together in a single long-form documentary (though kids are more likely to be entertained in shorter bursts, we suppose). We’ve said before that reviewing Pixar discs is feeling increasingly trite; for fans of matchless digital animation and model storytelling, there’s simply no one else in their class.

Up 4-Disc Combo Pack

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Continuing the unassailable winning streak for animation studio Pixar, last summer’s UP (2009) arrives on Blu-Ray this week in a package that makes an adjective like ‘comprehensive’ seem inadequate.  We missed the film’s theatrical run, mostly out of indecision as to which version – standard 2D or the often heralded Disney Digital 3D – to make the effort to see, and so, like any good American, we just didn’t do anything.  Of course, UP is wonderful – we knew that already; for the last few years, we’ve been looking for weak spots in Pixar’s armor like Bilbo Baggins searching for the bare patch on Smaug’s breast plate only to find nothing.  Even CARS – a digital love letter to the world of NASCAR (an apparent national pastime which leaves us colder than a WWI trench) had an undeniable charm that out-stripped most competing animated fare
Both UP and WALL-E (2008) have represented a new direction for the studio toward more ‘adult’ themes (no, not that kind of adult theme) and more unusual narrative leaps; most critics were unified on the beauty and austerity of WALL-E’s breathlessly executed (and nearLY wordless) first act, featuring the titular robot on an abandoned Earth; however, many felt that the outer space adventure that filled the rest of the plot seemed almost jarringly trite – not living up to the promise of the gorgeous opening.  UP suffered similar complaints, but we found it a more heartfelt, captivating tale than WALL-E (which, make no mistake, we loved) and agree with those who place it among the very best films of the year – animated or not.
UP’s plot, roughly sketched, is about a recent widower, Carl Fredricksen (voiced wonderfully by Ed Asner) who uses thousands of balloons to fly his home to Paradise Falls in South America and fulfill a promise made to his late wife Ellie many years ago.  Complicating matters is a determined Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by 9 year old Jordan Nagal), who was on Carl’s porch trying to secure an Elderly Assistance merit badge just before take off.  A freak storm blows the balloon very close to its destination, where Carl and Russell run afoul of disgraced explorer Charles Muntz (the great Christopher Plummer), a childhood hero of Carl and Ellie who has spent decades in the jungle looking for the notorious Monster of Paradise Falls, which happens to be the very same gigantic bird that has taken a shine to Russell and Carl.  We have friends in the publishing industry that occasionally receive early peeks at Pixar films for the purposes of book tie-ins, and in much the same way we didn’t believe that the hero of the previous Pixar film would be a robot who doesn’t talk, we were also dubious about the prospects of a septuagenarian and his cub scout friend pulling a Danny Deck Chair – heading to South America and finding lost worlds, giant birds, and talking dogs (forgot to mention that, didn’t we?).
But the heart of Pixar’s films isn’t plot; it’s characterization and execution delivered in equal measure.  Carl is drawn, literally and figuratively, with enough love and care to transcend the accepted limitations of animation.  Much has been said of the film’s opening movement, a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together that should leave all but the archest military strongmen crippled with tears.  This couldn’t have pleased Disney or its corporate partners all that much, as it will likely leave very young children utterly puzzled while their parents-guardians crumble into fits of melancholy.  The tone changes drastically with the arrival of Russell and the voyage south, and the second half of the film becomes downright surreal.  How funny you find UP’s later sequences will depend largely on how funny you find Kevin the giant bird (so named by Russell) – a vision right out of a Chuck Jones cartoon (we could easily imagine Duck Dodgers spending a show engaged in a battle of wits with Kevin). 
Pixar also continues their tradition of casting actors rather than celebrities for the principal roles; Asner is an inspired choice for Carl, as the actor’s inherent gruffness nicely counteracts the weepier portions of the script.  Equally good as the still-proud Muntz, surrounded by mementos of his faded glory, is Plummer, who always excelled at playing larger-than-life peacock types.
Those fortunate to have BD capability will be laid out flat by the image quality of this release.  Details like the light filtered through the balloons as they pass by an apartment window, or the weave in the fabric of Russell’s scout shirt, or Carl’s subtle facial stubble come through and reveal the astonishing level of detail that Pixar’s digital rendering team have come up with.  The BD’s 1080p picture is the result of a direct digital download off Pixar’s own servers, resulting in the cleanest image possible, and what may be the best looking Pixar film on home video (UP is generally without the heavy filtering that the animators used on WALL-E, so even though both BD perfectly represent the vision of the respective filmmakers, UP “pops” a bit more). 
We also had to remember to keep turning down our receiver, forgetting how muscular a lossless DTS audio track for a Pixar film can be.  The feature can be played with a “Cine-Explore Mode” giving you a running PIP commentary from directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, which cannot be adjusted on the fly – you need to return to the menu screen.  Included with the feature on the first disc is the slapstick stork comedy short Partly Cloudy that ran with Up theatrically; a new short, Dug’s Special Mission (which almost plays like a deleted scene from the feature – again, not a bad thing). 
There’s also a featurette on the numerous demises scripted and eventually rejected for the villain Muntz; a longish piece about a trip that the principal animators took to an actual South American plateau; and a not-too-hard-to-find Easter Egg called, not surprisingly, The Egg, which contains some very trippy artwork featuring an abandoned story concept that had Muntz retaining his youth by drinking the contents of exotic eggs directly from the shell (presumably poor Kevin’s). Needless to say, all bonus features are in HD and look nearly as fabulous as the feature. 
The second BD disc contains another large helping of extra content, including the Global Guardian Badge Game (an interactive BD exclusive, you know, for kids).  Our own favorite extra, however, is a study of Carl and Muntz, Geriatric Heroes, charting the design and shaping of the unique characters.  Other docus include Canine Companions  (which goes over the creation of Muntz’s digital dog army) and Our Feathered Friend, Kevin (which gives insight into the research that went into the giant bird’s creation). 
There are 6 other worthwhile featurettes here as well, and all are in HD (not counting the promotional montage and theatrical trailers).  The set also contains a standard DVD (disc 1 of the DVD set) so that houses that don’t yet have BD can future proof their movie library) and a fourth disc featuring a digital copy of the film.

Stargate Blu-ray Disc

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Lionsgate’s second run at a Blu-Ray release for STARGATE is a mixed-to-good affair, but it does represent an upgrade from their first, embarrassingly shoddy, barebones release.

While flogging his controversial theories on the origin of the Giza pyramids to a less than enthusiastic audience in New York, Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is approached by the elderly Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors) with an interesting job – to translate the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on a tablet unearthed in 1928 by Langford’s father, which is now the centerpiece of a top secret military project in Colorado. Once Jackson correctly interprets the tablet as describing a “stargate”, the the actual device – circular, metallic, ringed with a pattern of hieroglyphics that, thanks to Jackson, can now be correctly aligned – is taken over by the military in the form of Col. O’Neil (Kurt Russell), and the gate is opened. A probe sent through reveals that the gate leads to a planet on the other side of the solar system with an Earth-like atmosphere. O’Neil and his team (including Jackson, brought to interpret the symbols on the other gate for the return trip) enter next, and find themselves inside a near duplicate of the great pyramid of Giza in the middle of a vast desert. The inhabitants of this world resemble in appearance and language those of ancient Egypt, even to the point of worshipping the symbol of the sun-God, Ra. But the God they worship is no deity, but the last of an alien race that used the gate to bring slave labor from Earth’s past, even stealing the body of a young Egyptian boy (Jaye Davidson) to extend its life. The creature has enslaved the people, who mine for the minerals that fuel its technology, and with a reactivated gate, now sets its sights on modern-day Earth.
Stargate carries some interesting baggage: it’s not a particularly great film; in fact, it actually looses dramatic momentum soon after the men step through the gate itself. But the idea is so intriguing that it lures us back for a peek every few years to see if we’re missing something – not for nothing has the film spawned (at my rough estimate) 4 different television series that all took the core plot point of the film and ran like hell with it. Director Roland Emmerich came to the project hot on the heels of the surprisingly effective Universal Soldier, wherein he proved himself adept at dealing with the rigors of sci-fi-action filmmaking without costs spiraling out of control.
Stargate seemed like natural follow-up material, but the script by Emmerich and producing partner Dean Devlin isn’t quite up to the load capacity placed on it. We vividly remember the crush of disappointment once our heroes stepped through to the alien world, only to find the burlap sack-costumed extras running around a village set that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Xena (imagine if Star Wars began on the Death Star and then moved to Tatooine where it remained for 2/3rds of the running time). We’ve already been prepared for the alien civilization looking much like ancient Egypt, thus killing any ‘chariots of the Gods’ excitement about the origin of ancient Egyptian culture. The film simply stalls out too long in the initial contact between our protagonists and the peasant people of the planet, with our heroes showing the natives the miracles of butane lighters and 5th Avenue bars in scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a ’30s Tarzan film. The arrival of “Ra” makes things a little more exciting, but the script can’t do much with it other than have Davidson vamp about (the actor’s famously androgynous appearance does more to sell the concept than anything else) while the audience waits for action beats that the expensive production seems shy about delivering.
The strong cast does much to help us buy the concept, with Russell (with military hair cut in the most aggressively geometric pattern we’ve ever seen) turning in typically strong work as a stoic military man shattered by the recent death of his son. Spader brings a lot of humor to Dr. Jackson, and adds welcome notes of masculinity to the traditional “nerd” role. There’s also fine support from Lindfors (her final role) who could effortlessly lend even the most outrageous moments total credibility, and also from the mysterious Davidson, who left acting and returned to the fashion industry after this film. Sharp-eyed viewers will catch an unlikely French Stewart as one of O’Neil’s military team, Deadwood’s Leon Rippy as the military head of the Stargate project, and Dijmon Hounsou as one of Ra’s guards. The picture is aided immensely by David Arnold’s lush score, a cross between John Williams and Maurice Jarre, along with the superb production design of Patrick Tatopoulos.
Lionsgate picked up the home video rights to Stargate along with numerous other pictures from the Carolco library (a once formidable mini-major studio brought low by the disastrous Cutthroat Island in 1995). Lionsgate’s second run at a Blu-Ray release for the title is a mixed-to-good affair. They seem to be working off the same film master, but there’s less obvious print damage and the 1080p image is serviceable, if not much more (this does count, to us anyway, as an upgrade from their first BD, an embarrassingly shoddy, barebones release). The audio too, has received a bump, with a lossless 7.1 DTS track. Both cuts of the film have also been included; the original theatrical version, running 2:00:47, and an extended cut running 2:09:36.
The most substantial of the new extras is a featurette on the production and legacy of the film, split into 3 parts but playable in 1 (presented in HD and running just over 20min); it features new interviews with Emmerich and Devlin – who are also featured in a recycled audio commentary track. There’s also a bizarre film, apparently made by and for the crew during production, billed as a “gag reel”, a P-I-P info feature, and a trivia track. The original theatrical trailer is also included in HD.

Wrong Turn 3: Turn Wronger (2009)

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With the blossoming of the home video market in the ’80s, the notion of direct-to-video features quickly became a stark reality. Soon, many budget-challenged genre efforts that in the past might have had a shot at theatrical exhibition were almost instantly deemed ‘DTV’ material. But there was good news: unless you lived in a major city, it could be impossible to catch the low-budget programmers routinely cranked out by the Roger Cormans of the world; at least home video guaranteed a half-life for films that otherwise may just disappeared into the winds like pollen into a breeze. Over the years, the sameness of most DTV features caused the acronym itself to cease being merely a descriptive phrase and “DTV” became a genre of its own. If you spotted our little video-renting cabal roaming the isles of Tower Video in the ’90s,it wouldn’t have been unusual to overhear phrases like “Rutger Hauer sure is doing a lot of DTV work lately” in the same way one might note a comedic star’s questionable move to action films. The enormous amount of dirt-cheap filler that began taking up shelf space soon caused an industry-wide devaluation of DTV films, with cheap digital effects rapidly taking the place of practical makeup and production design.

This convoluted preamble is all to help put Wrong Turn 3 into its proper context.  The original film, a tale of a group of teens meeting up with an inbred family of mutant cannibal killers while traveling through the West Virginia wilderness, was released in 2003 to moderate box office success and critical indifference, certainly not worthy of a theatrical sequel.  But 2007’s Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, released direct to home video was a surprisingly potent diversion, featuring an interesting twist on the original (instead of innocent teens, the protagonists had been gathered for the filming of a reality TV show and former idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell was the first victim) and actually made one look forward to the prospect of a series of blackly comic WT films. 
Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead (we still like our title better) begins promisingly with a narrative head-fake similar to the one which opened the recent Friday the 13th remake: a group of kayaking teens – who might ordinarily be our heroes – are nearly all dispatched by one of the surviving cannibals from the previous films in the first few minutes. 
It’s clever; unfortunately, it leaves us in the company of the real main characters: at a nearby prison, several inmates are being removed for an unscheduled transfer, including Chavez (Tamer Hassan) a Chicano gang leader, and Floyd (Gil Kolirin) his skinhead counterpart.  One of the guards, Nate (Tom Frederic) is a local boy who is looking forward to leaving the job shortly for law school and a better life, the chances for which greatly deteriorate when a tow truck being driven by one of the disfigured killers runs the transfer bus off the road, allowing the inmates to get the jump on the guards.  They soon runs into a nearly hysterical Alex (Janet Montgomery), the only survivor of the group from the beginning of the film, and Nate offers his familiarity with the area as leverage to keep himself, Alex, and his wounded partner alive – no easy feat as the group begins to be picked off one by one in a series of increasingly elaborate traps set by the cannibal clan.
If nothing else, Wrong Turn 3 neatly reflects the realities of low-budget filmmaking in the 21st century, with Bulgarian locations doubling for the West Virginia wilderness and a Euro-pudding cast that expends a tiring amount of energy keeping their native accents in check.  Unfortunately, this film looses much of the humor that made the previous sequel so surprisingly appealing, and while there’s no law that horror films have to be funny, they do have to be frightening, another column in which Wrong Turn 3 also fails. 
We’ll resist the old-man rant bemoaning the dependence on digital gore effects in modern horror, but a good deal of what made the previous film so appealing was the use of practical makeup effects.   But quick and cheap is the order of the day here, and the crummy EFX would feel more at home on the Sci-Fi Channel (where much of director Declan O’Brien’s previous CV dwells).  This frugality also extends to the facial makeup used for the inbred murderers, which looks onscreen to be exactly what it is, a meager latex creation that was designed to be applied and removed quickly and cheaply.  The film appears to have been shot on 16mm (though we are open to correction), which likely necessitated the drastically over-lit night scenes that drain much of the suspense – a problem that, ironically, may have been correctable had the film been shot with digital video.  We’d hate to see the franchise end with a whimper as the central conceit is still a highly exploitable fear, but Fox is going to have to be willing to loosen the purse strings a bit more if future entries are forthcoming.
Wrong Turn 3 arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray as an unrated edition featuring “footage too frightening for theaters” (maybe those theaters were in Bulgaria, as everywhere else the film is going direct to DVD).  The Blu-Ray disc polishes the image as much as the source material allows, adding most to the show’s interiors and limited daytime scenes. 
The extras are limited, which is unfortunate given the film’s interesting production history.  The sole featurette runs about 18min and is divided into 3 parts (presented picture-boxed at 480p) and goes into a reasonably interesting production history, included their limited time shooting at a working prison, along with the makeup and stuntwork (featuring some bracing behind-the-scenes footage of one of the actors doing a fire stunt himself).  There is also a pair of deleted scenes running about a minute.

The New York Ripper – Blu-ray Review

A film that fulfills both the positive and pejorative definitions of “sleaze,” Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER arrived – believe it or not – on Blu-Ray last week courtesy of the 21st century keepers of the exploitation flame, Blue Underground. The disc easily outstrips all previous foreign and domestic editions of the disc, and should be an essential purchase for fans of both the wildly uneven filmmaker and European exploitation of the ’70s and ’80s in general – for all others, here be dragons. The film is obscenely violent, sexually degrading, and bitterly misogynistic, but it has problems as well.
The story follows NYPD Detective Williams (featuring another staple of the genre, the slumming British thespian, personified here by Jack Hedley) as he tracks a serial killer who is brutally slashing women across Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry to a live sex show on 42nd St, all while speaking in a high pitched, duck-like voice. Williams reluctantly accepts the aid of a Columbia University psychiatrist, Dr. Davis (Paolo Malco) to help form a profile of the ripper, just as the maniac takes to calling Williams both at the station and at the home of his hooker/girlfriend, Kitty (Daniela Doria.) When young Fay Majors (the gorgeous Almanta Keller) survives a nighttime assault, she describes the killer as having a deformed hand – the very same man who was also at the scene of the sex show murder on the ‘duce (Renato Rossini, here billed as Howard Ross, an Italian exploitation fixture whose Tony Musante-looking mug and steely gaze can also be found in WEREWOLF WOMAN and THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE.) Once the man is identified as Mickey Scellenda – a two-bit punk with a history of sexual assault and an apartment literally filled with drugs and porn – he becomes the prime suspect; the pleas of Dr. Davis, who doesn’t believe that Scellenda fits his profile, are not enough to convince he police that they’ve got the wrong man, especially after Scellenda attacks Fay in her home during the abscence of her physician boyfriend Peter (Andrea Occhipinti, billed here as Andrew Painter, who went on to work with Fulci again in 1983’s CONQUEST only to learn what real on-screen humiliation means the next year in John Derek’s snore fest ode to wife Bo, BOLERO).
Glanced at objectively, THE NEW YORK RIPPER is a careless mess of a thriller. While the film nominally carries on the tradition of the Italian giallo, a genre whose name comes from the lurid yellow covers that graced the crime and thriller paperbacks on which the films drew their inspiration, it’s also very abusive of the genre’s founding principles, throwing the trace elements of grace and logic out the window in favor of a tour of humanity’s gutter. While there were certainly great giallos being made featuring strong elements of violence and sex (see Sergio Martino’s TORSO) they were made with a degree of care and artistry that is wholly missing here. Fulci earned his paycheck aboring on Italian fart comedies and nondescript westerns before a creative spark and the script for DON”T TORTURE A DUCKING arrived simultaneously in 1972 producing a taught suspense yarn containing actual eroticism rather than simply copious amounts of T&A. Fulci’s real breakthrough would come in 1979 with the vivid, gut-munching undead epic, ZOMBI. What began as a DAWN OF THE DEAD rip off morphed into an outright horror classic, with Fulci exhibiting a firm control of his Technovision frame, and boasting an uneasy, dread-fueled pace and the outrageous gore effects of longtime Fulci collaborator Gino De Rossi.
Fulci found himself the toast of the exploitation world and struck while the iron was still hot with the New England-gothic infused CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. In between those two came THE BEYOND, probably the director’s finest hour in any artistic sense, mixing his familiar doses of sexuality and violence but bolstered with a haunting, ethereal quality that seemed to indicate the beginning of an exciting new phase of his career.
THE NEW YORK RIPPER certainly signaled a new era for Fulci, but after the release of four noteworthy films, this effort felt like the work of a desperate magician whose hand had reached into the sticky bottom of the tricks bag. The film is artless, ugly, deeply cynical, and it proudly displays a misogynistic attitude that is utterly breathtaking. At the head of the pack of WTF moments is the head scratching decision to have the killer taunt his victims and the police with a grade-school Donald Duck impression that is neither scary nor funny and nearly takes the mickey out of the otherwise effective murder sequences (even if there is a justification revealed late in the film.)
And good Lord, what sequences! De Rossi’s makeup team worked overtime to devise what have to be among the most grisly onscreen deaths ever seen, from the business end of a broken whisky bottle delivered angrily to a sex performer’s privates to an agonizingly slow razor blade death (featuring one ultra-disturbing shot of the actress staring in horror directly into the camera, almost as if she were pleading with Fulci to stop the scene).
 That nearly all the film’s violent deaths are reserved for women is nothing new in the annals of horror history, but accusations of Fulci’s reported dislike of women can find no easier purchase than this film. Whether it’s the pathologist reporting that one victim had a knife “rammed up her joy trail” (thank you Dr. Giggles!) or the profoundly unappealing Det. Williams’ casually degrading treatment of both his own girlfriend and the husband of a ripper victim who was murdered during a motel room tryst. We’re not the least bit surprised to see a cop in a Fulci film flinch at the notion of an open marriage, but watching Williams strongly imply that she got just what she deserved while her grieving husband is on the verge of tears always catches us off guard.
Anyone even remotely familiar with genre conventions will know whom to instantly rule out as a suspect, as well as spot the real killer about ten seconds after they appear onscreen. Still, there is lip service paid to the notion of a ‘who done it’ – enough to keep the picture at least technically in giallo territory. But in Fulci’s world, unlikely coincidence reigns as the supreme story element; the mysterious man with the deformed hand appears at the scene of so many sexual assaults in the greater metropolitan area that you wonder why the police don’t simply follow him around! A search of his apartment (located in the Same Chelsea building that contained at least one of the area’s notorious S&M leather bars – you half-expect him to run into Al Pacino while shooting CRUISING) turns up a king’s ransom in pornographic magazines, shots of oiled bodybuilders, at least a dozen syringes, a penis-shaped hash pipe, and the coup de grace, a theatrical poster-sized print of himself – naked – pressed up against a giant image of Marilyn Monroe.
However, it’s these very outrageous elements that confirm the film’s status as a cult favorite (not for nothing is the screenplay credit buried halfway through the end crawl). There’s a scent of rapidly fading glory that permeates RIPPER and informs our appreciation almost 30 years later. Fulci (who cameos as a vague NYPD authority figure) was still regarded as an exciting filmmaker on a rapid rise up the exploitation food chain, but post-RIPPER his career nosedived into a mix of embarrassing trash that would make Jess Franco take an Alan Smithee credit (SODOM’S GHOST) or sad, faint echoes of prior glories (VOICES FROM BEYOND.)
One pleasure that does grow stronger in retrospect is the unprecedented tour of the fleshpits and grindhouses in and around 42nd St. THE NEW YORK RIPPER’s Manhattan has changed quite a bit since Italian directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari scuttled about the island, using its natural grime and urban decay as gratis art and set decoration. It’s also hard not to get a little wistful at the numerous shots of the World Trade Center towers, reminding us of how often filmmakers used them as a means of instantly fixing a location. We’re still trying to figure out exactly where Det. Williams’ apartment actually is, with its distinctive circular fire escape (poor Hedley seems like he’s on the verge of cardiac arrest after climbing to the top floor), and those familiar with Greenwich Village will note that Peter and Fay’s apartment is located in the bucolic Grove Court, making for a surprisingly good match with the Rome-shot interiors. Of course, the city has changed quite a bit since then (a fact lovingly documented on a new extra on the new Blu-Ray edition) and how amazing is it that a loose team of Italian exploitation artisans would wind up as the prime chroniclers of New York’s bleakest 20th century period?
Very few low budget European films of this vintage were shot with live sound, particularly those with the sort of extensive location filming that THE NEW YORK RIPPER showcases. The bigger British and American stars were almost always contracted to provide their own voices during the dubbing process (as Richard Johnson had done in Fulci’s ZOMBI a few years earlier), but apparently Jack Hedley was not considered a big enough star to make it worth going outside the usual pool of voice over talent. Hedley’s résumé consisted largely of small roles in large productions (he appears in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as the reporter outside St Paul’s and a has a featured role in the Bond picture FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), and it’s unlikely that schlepping permit-less around New York for Lucio Fulci did much for his subsequent career. It doesn’t help that ‘Detective Williams’ is one of the most unlikeable protagonists in eurosleaze history (a huge statement), whose character building moments consists mostly of stress smoking and calling his prostitute girlfriend a “stupid bitch”. Much better is Paolo Malco – a minor genre staple in the early ’80s who already appeared for Fulci the previous year in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and for Sergio Martino in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS – whose Columbia professor is far more sympathetic (even though Fulci tries to pull the rug out from under him as well by showing him secretly buying gay porn mags from a newsstand – a hateful no-no in the director’s oddly Catholic world view).
Blue Underground presents THE NEW YORK RIPPER in a staggering 1080p image on the newest edition to their Blu-Ray catalog. Long consigned to the domain of fuzzy VHS bootlegs, the film was previously available domestically on a non-anamorphic (and out of print) DVD edition from Anchor Bay, which presented the uncut version in the US for the first time. The amount of detail revealed here will be a revelation to fans, occasionally even revealing some EFX makeup inconsistencies that had always escaped us. The image might be a bit too bright at times, though this could also be due to flat lighting playing havoc with inexpensive Technovision lenses. The negative also has instances of dirt that show up just often enough to remind you what a miracle it is that this nearly 30-year-old, low-budget Italian offering has no business looking as good as it does here.
As if the image upgrade wasn’t enough reason to quack like a duck, there are two new featurettes (presented in HD, no less.) Aside from the aforementioned “NYC Locations Then and Now short,” there is also a brief interview with actress Zora Kerova, who played the female half of the couple performing the live sex show.

Dexter: The Third Season – Blu-ray Review

Though controversial among fans, Season Three once again demonstrates the writers’ tight control of the subject matter.

WARNING: The following contains Season 2 spoilers.
When last we left Dexter Morgan, not only had he narrowly escaped being exposed as the Bay Harbor Butcher (after his long-time dump site was discovered by divers), but he managed to set up the very officer that suspected him, Detective Sergeant Doakes, to take the fall. Dexter’s brief affair with the psychopathic Lila, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor with a soul almost as dark as Dexter’s, intensified once she got wind of his nocturnal activities. Planning on framing Doakes, Dexter imprisons him in a remote cabin, only to have Lila find her way there using Dexter’s GPS. She walks in on a caged Doakes and kills him, thinking that she’d be helping to set Dexter free. Realizing that he never really knew just how dangerous Lila was, Dexter decides to make her the Butcher’s next victim. Lila discovers his plan, however, and traps him in her burning apartment while she goes after Dexter’s girlfriend Rita and her two children. Of course the ever-resourceful Dexter manages to save the day (eventually catching up with Lila in Paris to finish the job), and with the authorities satisfied that the Bay Harbor Butcher’s reign of terror has come to an end with the death of Doakes, Dexter is free to indulge his Dark Passenger once again.
Season 3 of Showtime’s Dexter begins with a slate clean enough for microchip-manufacturing for its titular character; thankfully, it’s a temporary situation. In the premiere episode, “Our Father”, Dexter (Michael C Hall) targets Freebo, a neighborhood drug dealer sidelining in murder. Walking in on a struggle between Freebo and a second man, Dexter startles the pair, allowing Freebo to escape while the unknown assailant lunges for Dexter – forcing Dexter’s hand (the one holding the knife) and breaking his foster father Harry (the great James Remar)’s cherished code of only murdering those who kill the innocent. Dexter’s problems intensify when his latest victim turns out to be the younger brother of Miami’s hotshot Assistant D.A. Miguel Prado (Season 3’s guest star, Jimmy Smits) who will stop at nothing to bring the killer to justice. Dexter remains hot on Freebo’s trail, which is noticed by Prado, forcing Dexter to feign a real, human interest in catching the youngest Prado’s killer to justify his interest. With Prado and Dexter both desperately searching for Freebo for decidedly different reasons, it’s only a matter of time (the second episode to be exact) before they’re fated to collide; Dexter gets to him first, and after dispatching him in the usual manner almost collides with Prado outside of the room containing Freebo’s still-warm body. Thinking that his run has finally come to an end, Dexter starts fumbling for an excuse, and just after managing to stammer out, “ was self defense,” Prado embraces him and tearfully says, “Thank you.”
Thus begins the wonderfully twisted relationship that forms the core of Dexter’s third season. The first half carefully builds the cautious relationship between Dexter and Prado, with Hall turning in fantastic work (as usual) while Dexter slowly and believably becomes enamored of having a friend with whom he can share his secrets, even as the spirit of his father warns him against violating one of the pillars of the all important code. These “chats” with Harry represent another major change over previous seasons, which had Dexter remembering Harry only via flashback. While this generally worked, it allowed the actors to share only a few brief scenes (in which Hall had to wear a pretty unconvincing teenage wig – c’mon guys, this would have been the ‘90s and I don’t think Dex was in The Beatles), and if the idea of a long-dead character discussing plot points with the living sounds like a writer’s get-out-of-jail-free card, it also allows longtime fans of the show to see Hall and Remar act together on a consistent basis.
This past season also gave Hall another great partner in Jimmy Smits, an actor too often find floundering in TV dreck who is capable of great things when given a chance (the few folks who saw John Schlesinger’s criminally unloved The Believers will remember his brilliant, tortured performance). Watching his believable navigation of Prado from an upstanding ADA to a serial killer in training is a rare treat. His scenes with Hall have a complex emotional agenda (Dexter actually gains humanity through their association, while Prado slowly loses his own), yet somehow they manage to play utterly naturally and crackle with chemistry.
While Dexter keeps busy with ADA Prado, there’s another serial killer loose in Miami, the Skinner, whose method is self explanatory, but whose past is tied into the Freebo-Prado case. Over at Miami Metro, the Skinner case is being headed up by newly minted Detective Sergeant Angel Batista (David Zayas), along with Dexter’s sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and the ribald forensics expert Masuka (C S Lee). Watching over all is Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), whose budding friendship with crusading attorney Ellen Wolf places her in an awkward position with old flame Miguel Prado over the handling of the Skinner case. Dexter’s family life is also moving rapidly forward, as girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) discovers that there’s a little serial killer on the way – how will a man incapable of genuine human emotion handle the notion of fatherhood?
Dexter’s third season was somewhat controversial among the show’s fans, with many not cozying up to the supposed domesticating of their favorite serial killer. But for us, the season demonstrated once again just how tight a hold the writers and directors (a group that includes Ernest Dickerson and Keith Gordon) have on the show’s reigns. They’ve dangled the titular character over the precipice of human feeling for 36 episodes without violating his core sociopathic nature (and Dexter’s internal monologs remain the funniest deadpan comic dialog on television). It was inevitable that the show’s horizons would widen, lest it begin to repeat itself – in content if not form – and while some rejected the third season’s formula change-up, we found it necessary to Dexter’s longevity. And anyone not looking forward to seeing Dexter as a daddy in a few weeks is simply crazy.
Paramount’s Blu-Ray set (under the Showtime branding) offers all 12 episodes spread out evenly over 3 discs. Dexter is shot on location in Miami with digital cameras, making for bright, crisp daytime images and gorgeous nighttime photography without having to over-light the area. This provides the show with freedom to be more adventurous with their night shooting, while always allowing the Miami cityscape to play a large background role (much as it did with Michael Mann’s shot-on-digital Miami Vice in 2006); as with the previous seasons, the city itself is one of Dexter’s most vibrant characters. The striking 1080p Blu-Ray image accurately represents the show’s sumptuous visual palate. There is a slight layer of grain – particularly with the night shots – that some have commented on, but this is a direct result of the digital cameras and not an imperfection with the disc itself (and lets all be thankful that Paramount made no attempt to digitally ‘smooth out’ the image). The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is also unusually active for a television show.
Our only disappointment are in the lack of extras present on the set. Glancing at the back cover, one sees interviews, book excerpts, and bonus episodes of The United States of Tara and The Tudors, but the catch is that everything is available only through BD Live, requiring an internet connection and compatible player. We have no problem with studios offering a few extras in this manner to hype their service, but putting all extras online and none on the disc itself is a terrible notion, instantly leaving out a good chunk of purchasers who just don’t feel like connecting their player to the Internet and going through the laborious process of creating an account. For the purposes of these reviews, we have gone through those steps only to be unable to connect to the service half the time. We attempted twice to preview the supporting materials and were vexed each time.

Watchmen: Blu-ray Review

Who watches the WATCHMEN? Not nearly enough, if you ask Warner Bros or production partner Paramount. With just over $100 million in domestic grosses (a number that stopped being impressive ever since THE GOLDEN CHILD), the studio bean counters had to pour over the less than impressive foreign grosses and home video before they could begin to claim a profit. What this means is that hardcore fans – those who could recite the story chapter and verse – all went once or twice, but the marketing (and word of mouth) failed to convince the uninitiated to turn out. The March theatrical release was greeted by wildly mixed reviews, with even the book’s loyal fanbase split on the film’s virtues; director Zack Snyder used Dave Gibbons artwork as ultra-detailed storyboards that were followed with an unfailing devotion, and even though writer Alan Moore famously had nothing to do with this – or any other – film adaptation of his work, his labyrinthine plot machinations were left 90% intact (more on that infamous 10% later.) Some fans complained that the exercise felt like Snyder was simply holding out a copy of the comic in front of the audience, simply turning pages and transposing images by rote, while others less familiar with the story were shocked by some of the violent, sexually explicit imagery and left in the dark by the cross-decade, multiple generations-spanning storyline.
When WATCHMEN worked, it often did so thrillingly; after we’re gracefully introduced to the alternate reality of the 20th Century during the opening credits (memorably set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-Changin’”) with an original-to-the-film montage, we get to know the core group of heroes that still remain in 1985, as they react to the murder of one of their own, The Comedian. Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes a note-perfect Comedian (he’s dead but we get to know him through flashbacks), and is only outdone by the truly breathtaking work of former child star Jackie Earle Haley (go Cutters!) as Rorschach.
In the comic, both characters push the concept of an anti-hero right to the shatter point; neither have qualms about killing, though The Comedian kills with cold calculation (working at one point as a hitman for the government) while Rorschach’s sense of right and wrong is purely black and white, and typically views punishment along ‘an eye for an eye’ lines. The fact that WATCHMEN was able to bring these memorable characters to the screen without softening their hardest edges is remarkable.
Billy Crudup is also quite good as Dr. Manhattan, the only “Watchman” with actual superpowers; Crudup has a few brief scenes in human form before getting caught in a particle chamber that recombines his atoms into a bright blue image of perfect masculinity. Armed with only his voice and movements generated by a motion capture suit worn during production, Crudup sells the difficult concept and brings empathy to a supernatural being who no longer feels connected to the human race.
Not all actors fared as well, however. Matthew Goode never quite summons the physicality and movie star magnetism of Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt. Goode’s fey, distracted delivery is doubtlessly meant to suggest the world weariness of a man who is stronger and smarter than anyone else on the planet, but it’s transparent as an actor’s choice. Goode (and Snyder) also have trouble bringing the requisite charisma to Veidt, something that Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise (both of whom were approached before budget considerations came into play) would have been able to do in their sleep.
Other pivotal Watchmen, like Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre (each, to make it more confusing, representing the second permutation of the character) are less interesting, partly because they’re painted with narrower brush strokes, but also because Snyder’s mind appears to be geared solely to the visual. There are a few excellent supporting performances, including Matt Frewer’s Moloch, a golden age criminal mastermind now living out his cancer-ridden final days in a tenement, and a terrific performance from always underused Carla Gugino (who fights her character’s old age prosthetics valiantly) as the aging, alcoholic Silk Spectre (mother of the current incarnation of the hero), who sadly get lost in the shuffle.
This wouldn’t have been as tragic if Snyder didn’t feel compelled to emphasize the presence of 4th-term President Nixon (featuring some poor actor under enough prosthetics to stop a bullet) in numerous scenes – including several that take place in a replica of the DR. STRANGELOVE war room, seemingly for no better reason than for Snyder to remind all of us that he’s seen it – when he should have remained in the background.
Ironically, the biggest change to the source material works extremely well: omitting the comic’s giant squid (a visual that would likely have been laughable on the screen) as the villain’s agent of destruction and replacing it with something more practical that also manages to work on an entirely different level – and so well that I’m surprised that Moore didn’t think of it first.
It may sound like we liked WATCHMEN less than we did; on the whole we really enjoyed it, but also felt as if there were quite a few missed opportunities – opportunities that another filmmaker like Paul Greengrass (whose own version was deep into pre-production several years ago before Warner Bros pulled the plug) may have been better equipped to explore.
With a 162-minute theatrical length, it was common knowledge that Snyder had filmed numerous scenes that were cut for time and pacing purposes, including the beloved “Tales of the Black Freighter,” a comic within the original Watchmen that we see being read by a teenager at a newsstand throughout the story, and a bit of between-chapter filler called “Under the Hood,” featuring excerpts from the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. Many fans seemed to be crushed by their deletion, but much like Peter Jackson’s decision to cut Tom Bombadil, a peripheral character from the film version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, these missing bits have become the perfect embodiment of geek shorthand – a way of distancing oneself from mere laymen than didn’t spend their high school years learning to transcribe in perfect Elvish. In all honestly, neither “Black Freighter” nor “Under the Hood” are essential to the Watchmen story, and Snyder’s decision to film both but only make them available on separate video releases made good sense. People awaiting their inclusion will have to bide their time until Warner’s massive 5-disc set due out for Christmas – when the sequences will be (ill-advisedly, we think) edited back into the feature.
Over 20 minutes have been restored for Warner’s current director’s cut of WATCHMEN, bringing the running time up to 186min. Much of this amounts to minor scene extensions:

  • We now see The Comedian get struck by a can and yelled at during the 1970s street riot sequence; there are a few extra beats in The Comedian’s apartment when Rorschach takes out the cops left to guard it (plus an extra moment during the conversation with the current and former Nite Owls where this is referred to.)
  • We get another glimpse of an unmasked Rorschach walking by the Comedian’s funeral (a recurring image from the comics that was sorely missed in the theatrical cut.)
  • We get more mayhem during the Vietnam section with Comedian shooting at the Vietcong from a helicopter and an extra glimpse of the guy that Comedian cooks with the flame thrower revealing that his legs had been blown off.
  • We get additional cleaver hits when Rorschach kills the child murderer in flashback, along with a funny moment when he witnesses an attempted rape in an alley and is cheered at the thought of intervening.

We’re glad to have all the extensions back, as they do add some needed character beats, but have mixed feelings on the two major restored sequences. The first occurs just after Dr. Manhattan leaves the protective custody of the feds and goes to Mars, when the agents are questioning Silk Spectre about the disappearance. Like the war room, this set is a near duplicate of a room in The Man Who Fell to Earth where David Bowie’s alien is kept under surveillance by government agents. The information presented is redundant, and we certainly didn’t need another action beat just to see how Silk Spectre escapes deferral custody. We sense that its inclusion is solely to show the viewer that Snyder and co have seen the Nicolas Roeg film.
The second major sequence is another important moment from the graphic novel that fans were rightly apoplectic to see excised from the theatrical cut. In that version, we only get to meet Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) through his chat with Dan, while those that read the Alan Moore original knew the dark fate that awaited the kindly old man. The director’s cut restores the sequence when the Knothead gang, enraged at the re-emergence of the Watchmen, barge into Hollis’ apartment and beat him to death. As originally drawn and written, the scene was savage and cruel but necessary to the story, and we couldn’t imagine what Snyder was thinking by cutting that while dreaming up new scenes with the melting candle wax figure of Richard Nixon. Now that we’ve finally seen it, we’re even more surprised that it was deleted, as it’s one of Snyder’s best moments as a filmmaker; beautifully intercutting Mason defending himself with sepia-drenched images of fighting villains from the golden era (including gas mask-wearing Nazis, bubble-helmeted spacemen with ray guns, and gangsters out of a Dick Tracy strip.)
Fans of the film might want to wait for the deluxe edition coming out at year’s end, but based on what we’ve seen of the “Tales of the Black Freighter,” we feel that the 186min cut will be our preferred length. Warner’s Blu-Ray is predictably reference quality; even with all the filters and digital chicanery it is noticeably cleaner and sharper than its standard def cousin, and the picture-in-picture track hosted by Snyder makes up for the lack of a commentary track (though the upcoming version will have that as well).