Blu-ray roundup

In my prior blogging life, I compulsively reviewed every film that I saw between January 1, 2006 and September 11, 2008. Just four days later, I watched Burn After Reading and I guess it must have defeated my critical capabilities, because I stopped blogging at that point. Of course, I also practically stopped watching movies, as I only saw two more films in 2008 (both of which I was more-or-less dragged to).

Various factors contributed to a gradual increase in movie-watching, the latest of which was my recent purchase of a used PlayStation 3, which as you probably know, can play Blu-ray movie discs. I’ve decided, then, to make that my arbitrary cut-off point for some retroactive capsule film reviews. I’m also gonna talk a bit more about my reasons for seeing these films. We’ll see how this goes:

Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne & John Stevenson, USA, 2008), June 9

I saw this back when it came out and reviewed it at the time. Of course, when you upgrade your digital home viewing capabilities, your first test has to be the most digital thing out there, which is obviously a CG animated film. Also, my girlfriend hadn’t seen it in very ideal circumstances the first time around.

As I said last time, I was skeptical that this would be good, but in fact it was surprisingly entertaining and visually impressive. Perhaps it was the high-definition presentation that saved it from becoming less impressive on its second viewing, or perhaps, without a heavy layer of suspicion to poke through, I was just more open to the film’s charms, but honestly it was better than I remembered it. I’m still skeptical that the inevitable sequel will be worthwhile, though, because something else I noticed on this viewing is that the film is entirely self-contained. There is no real need to learn more about the vaguely defined “Furious Five,” who have are merely foils for our hero Po (there are five of them so that some can be more sympathetic to him, while others can be more hostile). Elaborating upon anything in this film will probably just reveal its structural weaknesses.

Also, it’s a little hilarious that they found such famous actors to deliver such few lines. Does anyone really care if the snake is voiced by Lucy Liu?! Oh, there were plenty of features, but most of them seemed to be kids-oriented, unsurprisingly.

Young FrankensteinYoung Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, USA, 1974), June 14

This one was recommended to me some time ago, but I should have been more skeptical. Mel Brooks has always been hit (Blazing Saddles) or miss (The Producers) for me, and after this one, I think I’m gonna take a long, perhaps indefinite break from Brooks. Sure, it doesn’t help that I have no familiarity with the classical Hollywood horror that he’s parodying, but it also really doesn’t help that the film climaxes with a rape joke (the joke being that she enjoys it… yeah, my girlfriend and I were not amused). Some might enjoy it, but not us (it’s not to say there weren’t flashes of comedic brilliance). There seemed to be a ton of features, but we didn’t really care.

Be Kind RewindBe Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, USA, 2008), June 18

Conventional critical wisdom suggests that it’s all been downhill for Gondry without the writerly talents of Charlie Kaufman, with whom he collaborated on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Of course, he had a suitable muse in the form of Dave Chappelle for Block Party, but The Science of Sleep seemed to bear this out (my threadbare review) was probably as overly generous as it was underdeveloped… this is what self-imposed obligation does to you sometimes).

In fact, I only really gave Gondry another chance because, having joined a free trial, I discovered that Blockbuster is not even remotely serious about Blu-ray, and my selections were quite limited). Despite that, I now think that you should give Gondry another chance as well. This is important, because if you saw this film on cable, you would in all likelihood change the channel within the first 15 minutes, which drag terribly and seem to confirm that Gondry utterly lacks direction.

For one thing, the whole premise of the film – Jack Black’s character magnitizes (don’t ask) the VHS-exclusive video store (no, this is not a period piece), and then along with Mos Def’s character, they remake the movies with a video camera and become local heroes) – doesn’t even kick in until somewhere around that point. I used to try to writer my reviews so that they never spoiled anything that transpired so far into the film, but Be Kind Rewind is a good example of instance in which the PR people┬ábasically had no choice; if they didn’t give anything away, absoltuely no one would even think about renting this film.

I can sum it up best in this way: the film is pointlessly weird before the premise finally kicks in, and terrifically, excitingly weird once it does. The Ghostbusters parody (if that’s the right word for it) is genius, and the film just seems to expand from there. Give it a shot

My girlfriend, of course, had to point out that it was really bizarre that had rented a film about independent, VHS-only rental store on Blu-ray from a corporate chain store (the likes of which is parodied in the film, of course). Maybe Blockbuster felt that the film undermines itself too much to be a threat?

If you rent this, you should at least watch the “conversation” between Jack Black and Michel Gondry. At one point religion comes up, and you might be surprised by how much cleverer Black’s thoughts on the subject are!

Chungking ExpressChungking Express (Chung hing sam lam, Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 1994), July 2

I saw this back in January 2005 on a Miramax non-anamorphic DVD, but the Criterion Collection has since done a new DVD edition in addition to this Blu-ray disc. Special features are now sparse rather than non-existent as they previously were, which means, I suppose, that there’s just not much out there. The picture quality was much improved, of course.

Alright, so Wong Kar-Wai makes arty films in which people don’t say too much, and certainly not what they are really thinking. Oh, and usually the ending is quite melancholy. Ever since I saw In the Mood for Love Wong has become my favorite art film director, although I have always had trouble explaining just why.

This film of his, at least according to this Criterion essay, was his main attempt to be accessible to his home audience, by providing more accessible characters and a good dose of zaniness into the proceedings. There are actually two discrete segments of the film, one headed by a lovesick Kaneshiro Takeshi, the other by an endearing, pixie-like stalker (yeah, it’s problematic if you actually think about it) played by Faye Wong. The second part is better, but I think it needed the first part, for some reason.

The point, really, is that this is the only Wong Kar-Wai film that I can confidently and enthusiastically recommend, and all the moreso after finally watching it again. If you find yourself liking it, you might check out some of his other works, but it might well be the only film of his that you can get into. Rent it, though; Criterions are too expensive to buy!

MilkMilk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2008), July 7

Some online critics (I read this guy a lot, although I don’t always agree with him) really hate the standard biopic, seeing it to be ultimately an irredeemable formula. Personally, I understand the hesitation (I don’t usually rent these films) but I save my hatred for formulas like “blood-and-guts slasher” or “fart comedy.”

The other question this film raises is whether it “uplifts,” and whether uplift is enough to justify a film. It’s hard to deny that Harvey Milk’s story is worth telling, especially compared to the various musicians who inspired many of the perfunctory biopics. To be honest, though, I had decided to view the documentary that, from all reports, including the Milk end credits themselves, very directly inspired this narrative feature. Unfortunately, I got this disc anyway due to a Netflix mix-up, and I decided not to return it unwatched.

Perhaps in a few months I’ll try the documentary, as I can’t help but think that is a more fitting medium for this story. Of course, I know well enough that the average viewer does not feel that documentaries are at all worth watching, so ultimately this seems to be a conversion that is very much necessary, but for all the wrong reasons, at least artistically speaking.

Anyway, I have to withhold judgment until I’ve seen the “original,” but don’t worry, I will revisit this subject when or if that time comes. Heck, I’m more curious now that I’ve blogged so elliptically on the subject!

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