Thursday, August 27, 2009

Blu-Ray Review: Hot Fuzz

Officially, Edgar Wright's brilliant Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz aren't slated to hit Blu-Ray shelves in the US until late September.  Best Buy, however, has released the two a full month early.  Days ago, I scoured the internet looking for any kind of review, but all I could find were useless user reviews on  Thanks, guys, I know all about the movie itself.  What about the features?  The digital transfer?  THAT is what I'm here to give you today.

If you're not familiar with Hot Fuzz, you're missing out on one of the best comedies of the decade, and one of the most well-executed parodies ever made.  It's your basic fish-out-of-water plot.  Nicolas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a London supercop who's so good at his job that the higher-ups transfer him to a small village to keep him from putting everyone out of a job.  From the moment he arrives in Sanford, Angel begins investigating a series of murders with his new partner (Nick Frost), and the two end up arresting or killing half the town.

The plot itself is deceptively simple, but the devil is in the details.  The movie flirts with half a dozen film genres, and pulls off each one with ease.  It's a buddy comedy, it's a slasher flick, it's a murder mystery, it's an over-the-top action movie, etc.  Of course, if the movie is parodying anything in particuler, it's the Tony Scott/Michael Bay-style action flick.  Edgar Wright admittedly loves movies like Bad Boys II, and that love is apparent in every scene.  Just like with Shaun of the Dead, it's to Wright's credit that Hot Fuzz is just as good a cop movie as it is a comedy. 

This is a film that works infinitely better on DVD than it did in theaters.  On the big screen, you're simply overwhelmed by the ridiculous spectacle of it all.  At home, you can take full advantage of the pause and rewind functions to catch jokes you might have missed or watch your favorites again.  What I love about Hot Fuzz is that with each viewing, I either catch a visual gag I missed the last time, or a whole series of one-liners and references that hadn't occurred to me until now.

So how's the blu-ray?  In a word, great.  The film already has that desaturated, high contrast cop-movie feel to it, and the 1080p transfer really looks crisp, bringing out the occasional flourish of color quite nicely.  I can't say it's a reference quality transfer, as the difference between this and the standard DVD isn't too noticeable.  But considering Hot Fuzz didn't have much of a budget (about $13 million) anyway, this is as good as it's ever going to look.

Then there are the features.  Every single special feature from the 3-disc standard DVD is present here.  No less than five audio commentaries, production diaries, trailers, deleted scenes, outtakes, storyboards, interviews, it's all here.  Even Edgar Wright's hilarious student film Dead Right is included, with it's own commentary no less.  Also, as is the custom with blu-ray discs, there are some interesting "U-Control" features as well.  At $20, If you've somehow held out this long on Hot Fuzz, you'll definitely be getting your money's worth and then some with this blu-ray.  I can only assume the Shaun of the Dead blu-ray received equal treatment, and I sincerely hope it did, because this disc is exceptionally put together.

THE MOVIE: 8/10  -  Hot Fuzz is equally hilarious and thrilling, and proves Edgar Wright to be the Quentin Tarantino of comedies.  Wright knows his action movies inside and out, and directs Hot Fuzz like he's been doing it for decades.  Truly great parodies are few and far between.  This is Wright's second great parody in a row.

THE BLU-RAY: 9/10  -  Not quite reference grade, but definitely a step up from the standard DVD.

THE FEATURES: 10/10  -  Three discs worth of special features are all crammed onto this one disc.  Some might argue that the number of features detracts from the quality of the film transfer, but if that's the case I definitely can't tell. 

OVERALL:  9/10  -  This is easily one of the best values for your blu-ray dollar.  And if you're upgrading from your standard DVD, this'll give you a little extra room on your shelf.  A hilarious, well-produced movie and a well-spring of features, all for a decent price.  How can you beat that?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: District 9

 There are two types of science fiction.  Soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi.  Soft sci-fi is the kind of science fiction that's more about the action and spectacle of seeing things go boom, or take a sci-fi concept to tell an otherwise contemporary story.  It may take place in a futuristic or science-fictional setting, but there's little real science in it.  Think Transformers or The Time Traveler's Wife.  By contrast, hard sci-fi deals more closely with scientific concepts in telling its story.  Gattaca, Blade Runner, 2001, all of these would be considered hard sci-fi.  Very rarely will you find a movie or book that can blend the hard and soft without diluting the whole thing.  District 9 is the rare film that manages to do just that. 

28 years ago, an alien spacecraft entered Earth's atmosphere and came to rest hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa.  Deciding to be the first ones to make contact, human military units cut their way into the ship and discovered a plethora of worker aliens on the brink of death.  The aliens are removed from the ship and placed into temporary housing in a new district of Johannesburg.  District 9.  Present day, MNU (think United Way meets FEMA) employee Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked with evicting all the aliens and relocating them to new, supposedly more efficient housing (District 10).

Needless to say, things don't go smoothly for Wikus.  Almost immediatly, he's infected with a mysterious alien fluid, and his body is confiscated by MNU for testing.  What began as a sort of faux-documentary soon becomes something more streamlined, as we follow Wikus' struggle to escape MNU, survive as a fugitive, and unravel the secret of District 9.  I'm only giving you the basics, and saying any more would ruin one of a hundred surprises that District 9 has up its sleeve. 

District 9 had something of a checkered production.  Early on, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were in the planning phases of a Halo movie.  When the studios refused to give them the budget they wanted, Jackson gave Blomkamp considerably less money ($30 million) and carte blanche to make whatever he wanted.  The result, District 9, is adapted from Blomkamp's original short film "Alive in Joburg".  You can see the Halo influences in the film.  A lot of the vehicles and weapons used in the film were clearly meant to be Spartan assault rifles and Warthogs.  Not that that's important to enjoying the film, but it's something interesting to notice.

Now, earlier I said that District 9 blends the hard sci-fi and the soft sci-fi remarkably well.  Yes, there are high-minded concepts like bioengineering, apartheid, war crimes, weapon smuggling, etc.  There are some really tough issues to deal with in District 9, but they're not overbearing.  If you don't feel like contemplating alien apartheid, there are plenty of well-executed action sequences to keep you occupied.  And not only are they well-executed, but the effects work is remarkably convincing for such a small budget.  The aliens (derisively referred to as 'prawns') occasionally look too plasticy, but they never stick out like sore, alien thumbs. 

But perhaps the single greatest thing about District 9 is its central character, Wikus.  Wikus' journey is not an easy one to watch, but Blomkamp knows exactly when to make us fear for him, when to cry for him and when to cheer for him.  And trust me, you WILL be cheering for Wikus before the end.  But perhaps even more surprising than the human story is the alien story.  Wikus meets up with an alien engineer named Christopher Johnson.  Christopher and his Earth-born son have a plan for getting the mothership back online, and they form a tentative partnership with Wikus.  While Wikus' story is predictably grim, Christopher's story goes to some fairly dark places of its own.

Overall, District 9 is a complete tour-de-force of sci-fi storytelling.  It's completely engaging, fascinating, terrifying, and even a little heartbreaking.  I'm not even sure what I can compare this movie to, and I think that's going to be my ultimate praise.  This is a wholly original work that any fan of science fiction owes it to themselves to see at least once.

5 ( lollollollollol ) stars out of five.  Seriously.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Defense of the Avatar Trailer

If today's internet buzz was any indication, Avatar Day (tomorrow) is going to be insane.

Let me back up for a moment.  Today, Fox released the first official trailer for James Cameron's latest sci-fi epic, AvatarYou can watch the trailer in all its 1080p glory over at  Go on, I'll wait.

Done?  Ok, let's continue.

Already, the internet is all atwitter over what to think of this behemoth.  Seriously, Twitter just exploded this morning.  The reason for my posting here today is because all the buzz over this thing is decidedly not good.  People are complaining that the CG looks plasticy and fake.  There's no sense of story; there's only one line of dialogue; it looks like 10,000 BC meets Aliens.  From the established movie bloggers, the primary complaint seems to be that the sense of scope is completely missing from the 25 minutes of footage that all the Twilight fans got to see at the San Diego Comic Con.

So let me say this as clearly as I can.  THIS IS A TEASER.  For all intents and purposes, it doesn't make too much sense for James Cameron, Fox, et al to reveal everything as early as August.  What is it about the concept of a teaser that people just don't understand?  A full trailer will probably hit some time in October, and that's going to be the one to scrutinize. 

The other issue is the CG element.  Complaints that Cameron's 10+ years of research and development were all for naught seem a bit overzealous, don't you think?  From those who were actually at Comic Con, the CG does indeed look gorgeous.  This is a film clearly meant to be experienced on the big screen, so why nitpick it on a 14 inch computer monitor?

Sure, the average joe moviegoer probably isn't going to be able to make heads or tails of this trailer beyond "Some guy puts his brain into an alien and flies around and does stuff.  And he's blue."  Going online and actually looking up the plot synopsis or (God forbid) waiting for the full trailer will reveal much more about the nature of the film, and I honestly hope the moviegoing public will show that kind of enthusiasm for this film.  Say what you want about the teaser, but it shows far too much promise for the general public to poo-poo it right away.

I guess my plea, if there must be one, is for you the viewer to keep an open mind about Avatar.  There is a very good chance that James Cameron WILL blow your mind, but you need to be willing to take that journey.  Chances are, if you haven't seen the teaser by now, you'll be seeing it in front of Inglourious Basterds this weekend.  An initial hatred of this teaser is only the first step in your ultimate disappointment.  A better trailer will come, trust me.  For my part, the clarity of the CG is secondary if the story is one worth telling.  I can't wait to see what else Avatar has up its sleeve.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Ponyo

Ponyo may not be the greatest Hayao Miyazaki film of all time, but this is very possibly the best film for kids the director has delivered. Many children’s films in America try to rope in parental appreciation as well by including more risqué jokes that will go over their children’s heads (I’m looking at you and your ilk, Shrek). This film keeps the humor sweet and simple, but crafted well enough that children and adults will enjoy it alike. Just look at the scene where five-year-old Sosuke and his mother communicate with his dad, a ship captain, via morse code and lanterns across the water, culminating in a short spousal argument blinked back and forth. Who can’t find some amusement in that?

While Ponyo lacks the epic scope of his most recent efforts Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki successfully adds some of the weight of those films to his formula for charming, deceptively simple children’s movies such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and the seminal My Neighbor Totoro. Whereas those two films focused primarily on the familial and social interactions of their young protagonists, this film gives equal weight to the conflict of man versus nature, as well as giving more focus to the adult relationships in the film. Miyazaki’s films have long been known for their pro-environment themes, which are never subtle but are rarely heavy-handed, more of just matter-of-fact, and it’s nice to see him include it in this film by showing how pollution contributes to throwing nature out-of-balance (the moon is almost crashing into the Earth). In fact, this balance wouldn’t be anywhere near as thrown off as it gets in the film if it weren’t for the magical goldfish Ponyo getting tossed into a glass jar by a fishing net, which then washes ashore, allowing Sosuke to find her and subsequently introduce her to the world of humans. The environmental message is simple enough for anyone to understand (pollution is bad and can destroy the world by throwing nature out of whack), but it never proselytizes, which would be to the loss of the charming story.

Another pleasant thematic change in this film as compared to his previous films for kids is the inclusion of the father who can’t bear to let his daughter ago. Ponyo’s father is at first adamantly against her becoming part of the human world, but upon seeing the joy it has brought her and at the behest of her mother he comes to understand that it’s not so bad to let his daughter go live her life the way which makes her happiest. Of course, that message might not be as obvious to the younger kids in the audience, but it’s a nice showcase of the difficulties of maturation that can at least bolster the notion that a child growing up is inevitable and okay on both sides of the generational gap.

Visually you can’t really ask for more out of an animated film than what Miyazaki brings to the plate in Ponyo. Whereas the foreground is more or less in his traditional style, the backgrounds have been rendered to look as though they were fashioned with crayon, colored pencil, and pastel. And considering this film was done in two dimensions by hand, they very well could have been crafted with these media. Even with the distinct smoothness of the foreground up against the softer impressionism in back, never do the two seem at odds with each other, but somehow seem to belong as parts of the same whole. By far this film is one of the best arguments to come out in the past few years to keep 2D animation alive. Disney may be going back to 2Danimation with The Princess and the Frog, but there really seems like there’s no way they could bring the level of brilliance and artistry that Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli present here, so I’m glad to have seen such a great argument here for other artists not to abandon it.

While the visuals definitely take the cake as the best part ofthis film all around, the soundtrack isn’t too shabby either. Granted, since I saw the American release I didn’t get to hear the original Japanese tracks, but Miyazaki has a sweet deal cut with Disney so the American dub for his films is never lacking. For instance, this film has Liam Neeson asPonyo’s father, as well as Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke’s parents, to name a few. And yeah, Disney did rope in MileyCyrus’s little sister Noah to voice Ponyo, and the youngest Jonas sibling, Frankie, to voice Sosuke, but they’re kids voicing kids and their director got them to do the job just fine. Plus, with John Lasseter as an executive producer and Skywalker Sound working on the American release, it’s no wonder the American soundtrack is just fine. As for the music, the score is highly European in style and didn’t seem evocative of anything Japanese. In fact, some portions reminded me of Wagner’s works, which doesn’t surprise me at all since after a little internet sleuthing I turned up that the film was in part inspired by Wagner’s Die Walküre (for example, Ponyo was named Brünnhilde until Sosuke renamed her).

I would definitely recommend this film to people of all ages and walks of life, unless of course you absolutely can’t stand animation or movies without sex, drugs, and/or violence. But for everyone else, this is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt, and dazzling films to hit cinemas in a while, and it would be a shame to pass it up. And if you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you can always just pretend this is a sequel to Taken since his daughter goes missing in this one as well.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Into the Vault: Dune

Although David Lynch's Dune (1984) was maligned in many a review, I actually quite enjoy it, albeit in its own way and for what does work in it. A lot of people deride this film for its flaws, and while I can definitely agree with at least some of them (the pacing is definitely screwed up), I try to appreciate what Lynch was able to make work under the terrible production requirements of the De Laurentiis clan. In other words, I find the film by the director to be quite enjoyable, but the film by the producers is quite flawed.

One of the first things a person might notice working for this film before even watching it is just how phenomenal the casting choices were, and they hold up past the credits. The young Kyle MacLachlan gives a subtlety to his transformation from "simple" Paul Atreides to the leader Muad'dib so his progress never seems jarring, even with the fast-paced editing Lynch was forced into so he could meet the requirement of delivering a two-and-a- half hour max film. We first meet Paul bright-faced and eager to learn about the universe he is about to travel into, but as he undergoes more and more hardships he smiles and beams less, adopting a stern glare that is yet not brutal, and a hard line to his mouth. One delectable performance of note is Sting as Feyd-Rautha, who barely talks but never needs to very much, his mad eyes taking in everything around him as if it is only a matter of time before he consumes it all. The only real complaint I have about the characters and acting in the film is the fact that not everyone is given as much screen time as they should have, such as Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck and Linda Hunt as Shadout Mapes, but this is most likely due to the fact that these characters were meant to be given more screen time but were forced into underdevelopment due to time constraints. And Lynch fans will be delighted to see many of his regulars pop up, such as Jack Nance as a Harkonnen captain, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, and Everett McGill as Stilgar.

As I've mentioned before, perhaps the greatest flaw in the film is the editing, which is constantly on the move, the plot rolling by at the pace of a trip down the open highway. We never get to sit back and really just take in the characters for who they are instead of for what they are doing. I highly doubt this is David Lynch's fault, though; if he needs to slow down and let shots and plot digest for a while in the viewer, even if it pushes the running time to three hours plus, he is a filmmaker who understands that this must be done. As such, I feel that the pacing problem in this film is simply because Lynch was forced to tell this story in under two and a half hours by the De Laurentiis'. The assembly cut he first delivered was four and a half hours long, and while this was longer than his final product was going to be, you can tell this movie is still much shorter than it was meant to be. Considering how the rest of Lynch's repertoire shows his capable skills for taking as much time as needed, from his first film, Eraserhead, to his latest, Inland Empire, I find it more than likely he is not to blame. Granted, David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers and I'm sure I am biased on this, but the fact that I really feel this film would have worked so much better if it weren't for the money behind the film, I find it quite easy to take the rushed editing in stride and enjoy the film. Plus, for the amount of story that Lynch had to cram into two and a half hours, the plot is amazingly coherent and still flows logically.

The other major point for which this film should be watched is the brilliant set designs, props, and costumes. The artistic direction of the film shows that Lynch is trained as a fine artist and knows how to make things simply look engaging. The homeworld and fleet of the Emperor are brilliantly barogue in design, covered in lavish gold and mirrors, evocative of Varseilles, but of course in space; this is science fiction, after all. The palace and accoutrement of the Atreides seem more indebted to 19th century European sensibilities, which reflects well the more pragmatic qualities of that house. Arrakis, the planet also known as Dune, didn't leave much to artistic design since it is simply desert, but the filming location in Chihuahua (yes, it's a place in Mexico, not just a dog) worked perfectly well in evoking the sense of what it should look like. My personal favorite for overall design, though, is the lodgings and clothing of the Harkonnen's, the brilliantly mad, technologically obssessed antagonists of the tale. With bright greens and steel blues everything about them seethes industry gone mad, where men have been lost to money and the progress of power through machines. Even the servants of the house are dehumanized, all outfitted with "heart plugs," designed for the film by Lynch, which act exactly how they sound in name: if one is pulled out, the heart is unplugged and leaks everywhere.

Of course, a review of Dune wouldn't be complete without mentioning the giant sandworms that live in the sands of Dune, and boy do they look good. I'm not exactly sure how they were created, but they definitely show that you don't need CGI to make a giant, awesome monster. These things have teeth like a lamprey but honestly look like they could crush you, interacting logically with their environments, never as if they'd been tossed in as a background layer.

Oh, and yes, other than the "Prophecy Theme" by Brian Eno, which is simply a great melody, the music is by Toto, but you wouldn't really notice other than the fact that there is electric guitar in the instrumentation. So don't let this fact distract you from the film or make you think that you're in for some post-'90's film featuring actual rock music throughout. The score is instrumental and more rooted in traditional film scores than many other '80's soundtracks, and therein lies the great distinction: this film has a score by Toto, not a soundtrack.
Another part of the film that is highly discussed is the manner in which the "weirding way" has been interpreted. In the original novel it involves intense, precise psychological control of one's musculature and nervous system, which would understandably be difficult to portray in film as opposed to literature, so it makes sense that it would be changed. And changed it is: the weirding way has become weirding modules, which are essentially guns that focus the energy found in certain sounds (which the wielder must make with his or her own voice) for different effects, but usually the end result is essentially a laser blast. By creating these weirding modules as a mode of combat based around sound, Lynch is able to literally turn Paul Atreides' adopted name Muad'dib into a "killing sound," as his name will trigger a lethal bolt from a weirding module. Although the weirding modules can definitely seem a little silly, watching these great warriors shouting odd noises to kill people, it's an engaging manner in which to present an idea or a sound representing an idea as directly lethal. Moreover, the sound of an army wielding these modules ends up evoking the battlecries many armies from around the world would use to intimidate their enemies; this time the battlecries just happen to be lethal themselves.

One part of the film on which I definitely am left ambivalent are the voiceovers. I understand why they're there in a film that has to cram so much plot and character development in such a short time; it really does help further the narrative in a logical way. But at the same time I really enjoy seeing plot and character development rather than essentially being told what plot and character development is occurring. Again, though, the time constraint put on the film definitely makes it impossible to properly develop these things through visuals and dialogue, and I did get used to the voiceovers as the film progressed.

In the end, Dune is definitely a flawed film, and by far David Lynch's weakest effort (even he doesn't like discussing this film, as he sees it as the one time in his career he truly sold out), but there is still so much to enjoy in the film that it shouldn't be overlooked based on its demerits. Instead, go in and appreciate the film for everything good that is there, because it honestly would be a better than good film if David Lynch had been allowed to do an actual three hour cut of it.

N.B. There is an extended cut of the film, but this was done without Lynch's consultation. Although there are a lot of things that do work nicely within the longer running time, the cut was made without Lynch's consultation, and as such he had his name removed from that version of the film. So if you want to see Lynch's Dune, the theatrical cut is the only way to go, as it is the only cut he has given approval to.