06 September 2014

Any Given Sunday: Director's Cut 15th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc (Oliver Stone, 1999)

Warner (USA)
2.40:1 1080p
157 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 English, DD 5.1 Canadian French, DD 5.1 Parisian French, DD 5.1 German, DD 5.1 Italian, DD 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: Optional English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Latin Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish
Extras: Anything Can Happen; audio commentaries; Full Contact: The Making of Any Given Sunday; Jamie Foxx test footage; deleted/extended scenes with optional audio commentary; Instant Replay of key football scenes; still photos galleries; music videos; theatrical trailer

Released: 9 September 2014

I first watched Any Given Sunday many years ago. I remember hating the movie because it was loud, bloated, unfocused, cut too fast, and nausea-inducing due to extreme camera moves. After rewatching it for this review, I still think that the movie is loud, bloated, unfocused, cut too fast, and nausea-inducing due to extreme camera moves. Yet, I no longer hate it.

This is not to say that I like it. Like so many of Oliver Stone's other movies, this one tries too hard to do too much. The director is essentially trying to make a “BIG STATEMENT” about life as seen through professional football's prism. I respect Stone's ambitions and the wide-ranging coverage that he devotes to this sport/business, even if I'm left indifferent to the final product.

The movie begins with a football team losing its starting quarterback and its back-up quarterback within the span of a few minutes. The third-string QB (Jamie Foxx) is talented but unprepared. The frazzled coach (Al Pacino) has to figure out how to control a QB with a chip on his shoulder while fending off the team's General Manager (Cameron Diaz), who makes decisions based almost entirely on money rather than on what's right for everyone.

The huge cast is the movie's greatest draw. In addition to Pacino, Foxx, and Diaz, you also get James Woods, LL Cool J, Matthew Modine, Aaron Eckhart, Ann-Margret, Dennis Quaid, Lauren Holly, Lela Rochon, and Elizabeth Berkley. Charlton Heston shows up twice, first as Ben-Hur and then as the football commissioner. Some of them have never been better elsewhere. This is especially true of Cameron Diaz – not because she plays a mean person but because this is a substantive role.

(For the Director's Cut, Stone removed about twelve minutes from the theatrical version but added back six minutes of alternate footage.)

The movie is presented in 2.40:1 1080p. It was first released on Blu-ray in 2009, and it's obvious that this is an old video master. Detail is generally high, though the picture has many problems. There is obvious print damage. Colors are inconsistent. Second-unit shots are frequently out of focus or are smothered with swarming mosquitos (probably grain that was not kept under control). Also, a surprising number of people have very yellow teeth.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English track is thunderous and overwhelming. Voices emanating from multiple directions mimic the chaos of the playing field and wild parties. The subwoofer thumps with authority.

In addition to porting the Extras from previous Blu-ray and DVD versions, Warner included a new thirty-minute featurette called “Anything Can Happen”. This is basically a retrospective appraisal of how people who played football and wrote books about it view the movie since its initial release.

Next up are two audio commentaries, one by Oliver Stone and the other by Jamie Foxx. “Full Contact: The Making of Any Given Sunday” is a promo piece with some decent behind-the-scenes footage. Jamie Foxx was once a risky bet as a “dramatic” actor, so he had to audition for his role in this movie. The disc includes three clips with him demonstrating that he could deliver a “serious” performance.

There are several deleted/extended scenes with optional audio commentary by Stone.

“Instant Replay” helps you jump to key football scenes, though you could easily do this with the normal chapter stops.

There are two still photos galleries with an exhaustive amount of pictures. There are three music videos, one featuring LL Cool J and two featuring Jamie Foxx. Finally, you also get the theatrical trailer.

This release includes the Original Theatrical Version on DVD. The only audio track is DD 5.1 English. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, and Spanish.

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.