27 July 2014

Grace Kelly Collection

Region 1 Warner (USA)
NTSC, 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 16x9 enhanced
Audio: DD 2.0 mono and DD 5.1
Subtitles: Optional English (some have French and Spanish)

Released: 29 July 2014

Currently, Warner and Paramount have a three-year (2013-2015) agreement for the former to distribute the vast majority of the latter's movies on home video. Due to this agreement, Warner has been able to promote similar or related titles from both studios' libraries in new packaging.

Warner's new Grace Kelly Collection includes six of the actress's movies. (The five that aren't present are Fourteen Hours, High Noon, Rear Window, Green Fire, and The Swan.) This set also includes Princess Grace de Monaco: A Moment in Time on its own disc.

Undoubtedly, Grace Kelly's astonishing beauty continues to capture the imagination today. She did not have a long career, but High Noon is widely considered a classic. Rear Window and To Catch a Thief are enduringly popular entertainments.

Her acting, though, is a bit of an acquired taste. She spoke with what's called the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, which is an invented hybrid of American English and the “posh” British accent (only one of many in the UK). Depending on how affected her speaking was, Grace Kelly's performances ranged from the sympathetic to the grating. This is especially true of High Society, which I found to be almost unbearable due to Kelly's highly affected mannerisms. Indeed, I was shocked by how negative my reaction was to High Society.

Grace Kelly won an Oscar for The Country Girl, which is perhaps her most naturalistic and complex role. She plays a woman whom most of society perceives through her husband's descriptions. Eventually, we discover that she has been incredibly supportive and self-sacrificing despite her husband's passive-aggressive lies. At the opposite end of the spectrum, To Catch a Thief presents Grace Kelly at her most glamorous and playful.

Mogambo and The Bridges at Toko-Ri are fairly conventional melodramas despite their “exotic” settings. Dial M for Murder is rather stagey and excruciatingly obvious at times. However, even in 2D, you can see how Hitchcock adapted to 3D quite well. “Pop out” effects are apparent, and the camera moves in a way to highlight various planes within the depth of a shot.

Princess Grace de Monaco: A Moment in Time is a fifty-minute interview with Grace Kelly conducted by Pierre Salinger. This interview took place ten days before her death in a car crash. There are some softball questions, and Salinger seems too casual in both appearance and methodology. However, Grace Kelly provides some very candid and surprising responses. For example, she says that we should be less concerned with boundaries and frontiers than we are under the current IR system.

Note: There are three DVD versions of To Catch a Thief -- 2002, 2007, and 2009. This set has the same disc as the 2007 version. The 2007 and 2009 versions have different audio commentaries. The Blu-ray has the same set of Extras as the 2009 version.

These DVDs have been released and re-released several times under various guises. The oldest of these is The Bridges at Toko-Ri, from 2001. Video quality varies greatly, with Mogambo looking as if a layer of petroleum jelly had been applied on the film stock. The newest transfer, To Catch a Thief, looks the best. (Some of these movies are also available on Blu-ray.)

Some of these movies have basic DD 2.0 mono tracks, which tend to be thin and harsh due to the recording technologies of the time. High Society's audio was remastered in DD 5.1, which gives it a slightly “bigger” feel.

Mogambo = trailer
The Bridges at Toko-Ri = trailer
Dial M for Murder = “Hitchcock”, “Dial M and 3D: A Brief History”, trailer

The Country Girl = none

To Catch a Thief = audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau, “Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief”, “The Making of To Catch a Thief”, “Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation”, “Edith Head: The Paramount Years”, trailer

High Society = “Cole Porter in Hollywood: True Love”, “Gala Premiere for High Society”, four radio ads, “Millionaire Droopy” cartoon, trailers for High Society and The Philadelphia Story, text information about the production and filmmakers

The discs are kept in a large, colorless plastic case. You also get a small envelope which holds thirteen art cards and a reproduction of a letter by Bing Crosby about his experiences working with Grace Kelly. The case and envelope are housed in a cardboard slipbox.

13 July 2014

Very Good Girls (Naomi Foner, 2014)

Tribeca Film (USA)
91 minutes

Very Good Girls is Naomi Foner's directorial debut. Its first public exhibition was at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. Online streaming services began offering it on June 24, 2014, and it will appear in select theatres on July 25. Foner received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for writing Running on Empty. She also wrote A Dangerous Woman and Losing Isaiah, two movies that generated some heated discussions when they were released during the 1990s.

On paper, Very Good Girls seems promising. Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play the two leads. The supporting cast includes Ellen Barkin, Richard Dreyfus, Clark Gregg, Demi Moore, and Peter Sarsgaard. I know that large numbers of both men and women are anxious to lose their virginity, but I usually associate that behavior with group contexts (such as parties and other large social gatherings). In this movie, the two main characters don't seem to interact with anyone else from their high school. Yet, without any apparent social pressure, they seem despondent about not having had sex yet before going to college. (Are girls really as eager as guys in this matter?)

The movie begins with best friends Lilly (Fanning) and Gerry (Olsen) jumping naked into the ocean at Brighton Beach on a crowded day. As they leave the beach, Gerry accidentally knocks down an ice cream vendor's sign. She apologizes and buys a popsicle from David (Boyd Holbrook). She's interested in him, but he's interested in Lilly. Lilly starts to date David, but she doesn't say anything to Gerry even as Gerry tells Lilly about the things she does to get David's attention.

Foner is a filmmaking veteran. Yet, the movie is filled with very obvious touches, such as the Jules and Jim poster in Lilly's bedroom. David shares random poetry with Lilly and plasters pictures around the urban landscape like some kind of guerilla artist. Gerry's parents are such “hippies” that they seem more like caricatures than representations. There's even a dating montage set to dreamy music.

I would guess that Fanning gets the most screen time. Olsen's character is mostly flighty and underwritten after a major life event. Barkin, Dreyfus, Gregg, and Moore disappear for long stretches, with Barkin a particularly unwelcome presence as a shrill mother. Sarsgaard shows up just to leer at Fanning.

Since Very Good Girls was written and directed by a woman, I think it's fair to wonder if girls really are as similar to boys as depicted. Do they really spend a summer just talking about losing their virginity before parting ways in the fall? Maybe they do – in which case, I guess I learned something new.

03 June 2014

The Attorney (Yang Woo-seok, 2013)

Region 1 Well Go USA (USA)
NTSC, 1.85:1 16x9 enhanced
127 minutes
Audio: DD 5.1 Korean, DD 2.0 surround Korean
Subtitles: Optional English
Extras: trailers

Released: 17 June 2014

I began writing movie reviews nearly 20 years ago, first as a hobby and then for my high school student newspaper. In college, I wrote movie reviews for the student-run newspaper. Eventually, I started writing for Internet-only publications.

When I was in high school, most people accessed the Internet through phone lines. Information was relatively scarce compared to today's experience. Had I watched a movie like The Attorney back in the 1990s, I probably would not have learned until much later that story was inspired by the early career of Roh Moo-hyun, a former President of South Korea. Nowadays, I frequently scour the Internet for information about a movie as I watch it.

I know, I know – I should be devoting my undivided attention on the movie playing on my TV instead of frequently looking down at my laptop. Times have changed, though. The Internet fuels a constant appetite for information. Many of the students in my Film & Politics course at UT Dallas have told me that they, too, searched for information about the assigned movies as they watched them.

Would I have reacted differently to The Attorney had I not known that it was based on Roh Moo-hyun's life? Probably not. As you can infer from its title, the movie is a legal drama. There are extensive scenes set in a courtroom with plenty of fiery cross examinations and speeches. These scenes are powerful, compelling, and emotionally draining. Yet, they are also unrealistic in that a judge would not allow grandstanding by lawyers or witnesses. Indeed, these scenes are highly improbable considering the historical circumstances.

If you watch Korean movies with any regularity, you'll recognize many of the actors. Song Kang-ho is a huge star in South Korea, having appeared in the acclaimed JSA: Joint Security Area and Memories of Murder. Kim Young-ae was in Confession of Murder. Ol Dal-su was in The Thieves. Well Go USA is responsible for releasing both Confession of Murder and The Thieves in America.

Song Kang-ho plays Song Woo-seok, a man who only graduated from high school but managed to pass the bar examination. He is determined to earn a comfortable living for his family due to his humble origins, so he seeks lucrative opportunities that are mostly administrative in nature but can be processed quickly and in bulk. Mostly, he focuses on real estate registrations and providing tax advice.

One day, Song takes his family to a restaurant run by Choi Soon-ae (Kim Young-ae), a single mother with a son named Park Jin-woo (Im Siwan). Several years ago, Song left the restaurant without paying for a meal. He has returned to apologize and to pay his debt with interest. However, Choi refuses Song's money, choosing to congratulate him for his determination and success.

The story takes place during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The political situation in South Korean was very tense, with the military staging a coup, declaring martial law, and arresting people it accused of Communist sympathies. University students staged protests, and the military responded with violent crackdowns. Park Jin-woo is among those arrested in what was known as the “book club case”.

Several students were accused of subversion for reading certain books. One of these books was E. H. Carr's What Is History?. The military government considered this a subversive work in part because it was written by the author while he lived in the Soviet Union. Song joins Park's defense team when he sees the systematic abuse of power, including the use of torture to obtain confessions, and the military's usurpation of the Constitution.

In one of the movie's best scenes, Song systematically tears down the prosecution's case. It's true that Carr lived in the Soviet Union, but that was because he was the British ambassador to the Soviet Union. Song presents a telegram from the British government stating that the book is not a Communist tract. Furthermore, Carr's book and others on the “subversive literature” list are not only available in Korean bookstores but are also recommended readings at Seoul National University.

Song wonders if Carr and the British in general are “Communists” just because the ANSP (a Korean intelligence agency) has declared so. Song wonders if Seoul National University is a bastion of Communism just because it has recommended books deemed “subversive” by the ANSP. Pushing to the logical conclusion, Song wonders if the judge and prosecutor are suspect because they graduated from Seoul National University.

Like many other movies dealing with the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea, The Attorney deals with the national soul-searching that is an ongoing process. Was North Korea a serious threat to South Korea? Sure, and it still is today. However, military hardliners treated the Korean War as an excuse to attack any segment of the population that it didn't like. “Communism” was treated as a generic catch-all target, though the military grossly misrepresented what socialism actually espouses.

Korean dramas like The Attorney often include healthy doses of humor. Yet, the humor doesn't unbalance the overall seriousness of purpose. Although I don't understand the Korean language and have not lived in South Korea, I find myself deeply moved by the rawness of the anger and sadness depicted in Korean cinema. The best Korean movies still have a sense of conviction that I haven't seen in other countries' movies in a long time.

For the time being, Well Go USA is releasing The Attorney only on DVD. The disc offers a high-quality 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Dark blues, greens, and browns look quite nice. Detail is quite nice considering the resolution limitations of the DVD format.

The DD 5.1 Korean track is dominated by dialogue from the center channel. The front mains and surrounds carry music cues nicely, though they don't draw attention to themselves. There are some nice ambient effects for rainy weather.

This DVD includes trailers for this and other movies.

27 May 2014

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2014)

Tribeca Film (USA)
98 minutes

Giancarla “Gia” Coppola is the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola as well as the niece of Sofia Coppola. Her father, Gio, died in a boating accident before she was born. She grew up visiting her relatives on film sets and studied photography at Bard College in New York. After graduating from Bard, she took production photos for her grandfather's movie Twixt and also directed the featurette that appears on the Blu-ray Disc for that movie. For the remainder of this review, I'll refer to the Coppolas by their first names because many of them are directors.

Gia's mother introduced her to James Franco, and the two decided to adapt Franco's short-story anthology Palo Alto Stories into a movie. Gia wrote and directed it, with Franco playing one of the characters. Val Kilmer, who played the lead in Twixt, has a small role in this picture. Kilmer's ex-wife Joanne Whalley had a Skype cameo in Twixt; Kilmer and Whalley's son Jack has a substantial role in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto observes the lives of teenagers in suburban Northern California. April (Emma Roberts) is a soccer player who babysits her coach's son. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is a shy painter who unwisely spends too much time with Fred (Nat Wolff), a bullying lout. The soccer coach (James Franco) takes too much interest in April. Parents are mostly absent or as drug- and alcohol-dependent as their children. Between classes, soccer practice, and soccer games, the main characters drift through house parties and random car rides that last most of the night.

If you've seen movies directed by other members of the Coppola clan, you'll probably compare Palo Alto to Sofia's movies. They're similar in terms of content and form. Palo Alto is about high school students' ennui as they wait to go to college or start living on their own. Like Sofia, Gia employs soft focus, warm colors, ethereal music, and long takes with minimal camera movement. The female point-of-view is privileged, but men are not slighted or demonized. The ending is enigmatically open-ended, which lets us draw our own conclusions about what happens to April, Teddy, and Fred.

I really liked how a key soccer game was presented. Gia avoided fancy camerawork and instead opted for handheld shots that are generally level with the players on the field. She didn't rely on extreme close-ups to convey “immediacy”. Instead, there's a good mix of different framings to allow us to comprehend the flow of the game.

Like Sofia, Gia is very good at “showing” rather than “telling”. The viewer has to pay attention to nuanced developments in order to infer what the characters are thinking or feeling. This approach provides a wonderful showcase for Emma Roberts, who is generally underutilized or mis-used in mainstream dreck such as Valentine's Day or We're the Millers. Here, she is vulnerable but not weak, dreamy but not ditzy.

The material is rather slight, and I think that April's story could be a fine short film on its own. The house parties start to look the same, and Fred is beyond irritating. (To be fair, the latter two points may be intentional.)

On balance, Palo Alto is a welcome respite from the barrage of loud, hyper-edited movies and TV shows that dominate the American pop culture landscape. It's always nice to watch a movie that doesn't rush and doesn't make me feel like I have detached retinas.

21 May 2014

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time (Giancarlo Volpe, 2014)

Region 1 Warner (USA)
NTSC, 1.78:1 16x9 enhanced
53 minutes
Audio: DD 2.0 surround English, DD 2.0 surround French, DD 2.0 surround Spanish, DD 2.0 surround Portuguese, DD 2.0 surround Thai
Subtitles: Optional English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and Traditional Chinese
Extras: two episodes from the DC Comics Vault; previews

Released: 20 May 2014

(Originally released exclusively at Target back in January, JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time is now available at all retailers.)

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time falls short of the 60-minute mark that is typically used to define “feature film”. This might explain why it's being released only on DVD and not on Blu-ray Disc. Given its open-ended conclusion, I wonder if Trapped in Time is meant to be a sort of pilot for a new TV show?

The story begins with Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom increasing the amount of ice at the polar ice caps. The Justice League intervenes, and Lex Luthor becomes trapped in ice. We then skip ahead to the 31st century, where Karate Kid and Dawnstar wander the hallways of a museum dedicated to the Justice League. Karate Kid and Dawnstar are superheroes-in-training, and the museum includes the block of ice that has held Lex Luthor for a thousand years.

Karate Kid inadvertently frees Lex Luthor, who then steals an hourglass that symbolizes the Time Trapper's power. Lex Luthor travels back in time to prevent Superman from being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Karate Kid and Dawnstar follow Lex Luthor back in time in order to fix the problems they caused.

Trapped in Time skews much younger than other DC properties that have been released straight to home video. Two teenagers, Karate Kid and Dawnstar, help the adults whom they've idolized. There are a lot of cutesy moments involving Superman as a baby. The violence is noticeably reduced in both presentation and tone. For example, blood is not shown, and the villains deceive Jonathan and Martha Kent rather than killing them (as bad guys would probably do under “realistic” circumstances).

Although the story involves superheroes with a wide variety of powers, the central conflict ultimately hinges on a fistfight between the good guys and one bad guy. The teenagers save the day...until they don't. Trapped in Time takes a very basic approach to entertaining its audience. It will amuse kids, but older viewers may yearn for something more sophisticated.

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, bright, and colorful. However, it betrays some of the downsides associated with the MPEG-2 480i codec, such as jagged lines and halos.

The DD 2.0 surround English track is efficient and does what needs to be done. Dialogue is usually understandable despite the loud sound effects associated with explosions and brawls. There are some fun surround moments courtesy of The Flash.

Upon loading, the disc plays previews for other animation titles.

There are two episodes from TV series:
“The Mysterious Time Creatures” (The All-New Super Friends Hour Season 2)
“Elevator to Nowhere” (Super Friends Season 5)

You also get a cardboard slipcover.