For the week of August 6th, Universal Studios is bringing Oblivion to Blu-ray. Oblivion marks the second film from director Joseph Kosinski, who made his feature-length debut with 2010's Tron: Legacy. Though the two sci-fi blockbusters occupy different narrative realms - Tron: Legacy is the sequel to the Disney computer epic Tron, while Oblivion occupies a dystopian future not dissimilar from Planet of the Apes - Oblivion shares the exact same strengths and weaknesses as the earlier picture. On the weakness front: like Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is alternately nonsensical and convoluted, as a team of screenwriters (including Kosinski, Last Resort showrunner Karl Gajdusek, and Academy Award-winners Michael Arndt and William Monahan) tries to cobble together something fresh from other movies, namely (Spoilers by Association) The Time Machine, Logan's Run, The Omega Man, Wall-E, and Duncan Jones' wonderful Moon, with only Tom Cruise's formidable charisma to patch over the recycled beats. The silver lining? As with Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is so visually and aurally stunning that, more often than not, the flaws just don't matter. Kosinski's eye is breathtaking, favoring crisp and precise graphic compositions over aesthetic bombast (Cruise's flights over a ruined Earth are genuinely poetic, as is the design of his and Andrea Riseborough's apartment in the clouds), and he matches the scenery with a M83 soundtrack that is as impressive as Daft Punk's much lauded Tron: Legacy score. For all its problems, Oblivion overwhelms the senses, and that fact alone makes it worthwhile.
In his Blu-ray review, Kenneth Brown notes that "as a high-concept, low-payout actioner...Oblivion delivers the spoils of war and then some. Visually, it's one of the most enthralling films of the year, with a dazzling clash between disheveled dystopian landscapes and white-washed Apple Inc. design; one that pits the evocative against the utilitarian in increasingly disarming ways. Kosinski's bright, sun-bathed exteriors fly in the face of the moody, shadow-slathered sci-fi dystopias to which we're most accustomed, and his practical sets are as engaging as the CG flyovers that provide breakneck glimpses at the broken planet...If Oblivion were a more emotionally complex, character-driven piece, if it took more time with its world and survivors, if it narrowed its focus to any one of the six sci-fi movies struggling for dominance, the resulting Tom Cruise vehicle might have been something special. Alas, it lacks substance and boasts a superficial sheen; a highly reflective, thematically inert glossiness ever at odds with the grand ideas at its core. I wanted to fall for Kosinski's dystopian epic. Instead, I munched mindlessly on my popcorn, enjoyed a decent sci-fi actioner, and went home imagining the incredible classic Oblivion could have been."
The other big title on Tuesday is as intimate as Oblivion is expansive: Lionsgate's Mud. The story of two best friends (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who make the acquaintance of a mysterious rogue (Matthew McConaughey, who is simply phenomenal in yet another stage of the career renaissance that has included The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe), Mud represents somewhat of a departure for writer/director Jeff Nichols. Whereas Nichols' two previous films were harrowing, Cormac McCarthy-esque slices of Southern Gothic - the family saga Shotgun Stories and the devastating psychological thriller Take Shelter, both of which contain incredible Michael Shannon performances - Mud sees Nichols chasing the shadows of Harper Lee, Charles Portis, and Mark Twain; the film mines the perils of adolescence for great drama, overstuffing (in a good way) the narrative with first loves, secret treasures, loathsome villains, and a quixotic title character who could be a grown-up version of Huckleberry Finn. What makes Mud so remarkable is that Nichols keeps the proceedings entertaining without sacrificing the attention to character and dialogue that made Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter so resonant. Across the board, his large cast (besides McConaughey, Sheridan, and Lofland, Mud stars Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Deadwood's Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Shannon, who delivers an uncharacteristically blithe and carefree turn as Lofland's slacker uncle) finds the truth in this boy's adventure, and the result is Nichols' most accessible movie and one of 2013's best films.
Jeffrey Kauffman offered Mud the highest praise, writing that "Jeff Nichols has been making quantum leaps between his few feature films. Shotgun Stories announced a major new talent on the scene, and Take Shelter confirmed the hunch that Nichols was a major artist with a singular vision. Mud is, in some ways, his most personal film, and it is a finely crafted, superbly nuanced piece of filmmaking that exults in an incredible atmosphere which is both stifling and unexpectedly unshackled...Uncommonly scenic and laconic without ever being dull, Mud is a haunting experience...[and] an otherwise beautifully realized character study. The film competed for the Palme d'Or in the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but was only officially released in the United States this year. Academy members are not known for their long memories, but if there's any justice in the world, Nichols will be garnering at least one, and possibly two, Oscar nominations for his largely impeccable contributions to this film."
Also from Universal is the latest from director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance made a big impact in 2010 with his Academy Award-nominated drama Blue Valentine. That picture remains one of the most emotionally lacerating studies of romantic love ever filmed, and it set the bar high for The Place Beyond the Pines. Here, Cianfrance examines three generations of cops and robbers in upstate New York, beginning with a down-on-his-luck motorcyclist (Ryan Gosling) and then following his criminal actions as they ripple through the lives of an idealistic police officer (Bradley Cooper) and two troubled young men (Emory Cohen and Chronicle's Dane DeHaan). If nothing else, the new picture earns points for ambition. Cianfrance has traded in some of Blue Valentine's intimacy for sheer scope, though he really doesn't add much to the crime genre that people like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese didn't do first. While Gosling's segment of the movie is largely brilliant (Gosling gives his protagonist genuine pathos), the Bradley Cooper portions fall into standard "good cop fights a bad system" territory, and the DeHaan/Cohen section that concludes The Place Beyond the Pines feels underdeveloped; Cohen is out of his depth, particularly when opposite the far more nuanced DeHaan. Still, the film is never boring and always exciting, and Cianfrance does a commendable job of using his handheld, free-form filmmaking style to give the intermittently cliched proceedings more grit and unpredictability than they might otherwise have. As "Difficult Second Albums" go, this is a good - not great - one, and it suggests a bright future for its director.
Kenneth Brown's Blu-ray review had fewer qualms with the picture, calling it "dangerously ambitious...apowerful ensemble drama, with outstanding performances and a carefully structured trio of riveting stories that bypass the usual interconnected-character tropes and strive for something greater; something more honest and revealing. The sins of the father are revisited upon the son in spectacularly minimalistic fashion, and a divisive, initially jarring third act is the only thing that prevents the film from resonating more. Tackle a second or third viewing, though, and watch as Cianfrance's true talents are put on display."
This week also plays host to the horror option Aftershock. Filmmaker Nicolás López has structured this thriller as a mash-up of survival horror and disaster epic; his backdrop is a massive earthquake in Chile, the aftermath of which causes the human survivors to commit unspeakable atrocities on one another. Admittedly, this isn't the most highbrow of fare, and López makes his gutter intentions clear by modeling Aftershock after Hostel - besides borrowing similar plot twists and character motivations, Aftershock also co-opts Hostel creator Eli Roth, who lends his bloody stamp of approval as Aftershock's producer, co-writer, and star. However, for horror movie buffs, this grisly melange works all the same. López gives the earthquake destruction scenes a visceral pace and impact - you feel the damage so much more intensely than in Roland Emmerich's expensive apocalypse epic 2012 - and the film's human-inspired chaos is appropriately unsettling.
Martin Liebman wrote that "once the earthquake strikes, Aftershock proves appropriately chaotic, but it also proves too much of a contrived mess of gory convenience by splattering characters left and right in the initial mayhem, not so much because it should but because it can, because it wants to create scenarios to maximize the carnage, not paint a more emotionally draining picture or, heaven forbid, make the effort to lurk a little more deeply than running from rape gangs and spitting clichés about how they're going to make it, by golly! It completely foregoes any chance of making crumbling humanity in a crumbling world the villain, instead taking the easy way out by populating the film with prisoners who mange to free themselves when the quake strikes. Rather than simply try to survive, their only goal is to further descend the world into bloody madness. They're bad because they're bad, not because the corruption of the new reality depicted in the film made them that way. Ultimately, Aftershock is simply too much, too chaotic, too rough, too morbid, too fascinated with the depravity and too willing to ignore deeper reasons why. It lacks the real inter-character dramatic tension and fear of the unknown that The Divide so expertly explored."
Finally, Sony has scheduled the Blu-ray release of Ishtar for Tuesday. For a certain subgroup of cinephiles, Ishtar's HD debut is a major event, and one that has been a few years in the making; Sony initially gave Ishtar a January 2011 street date, but rumblings from star Warren Beatty and writer/director Elaine May delayed the disc for over two and a half years, ostensibly so that May - a notorious perfectionist - could tweak her film for a director's cut (thanks to a miscommunication among Canadian distributors, a few copies of that 2011 run actually hit the market). Assuming that the same thing doesn't happen this week, viewers will now be able to experience one of the most infamous movies ever greenlit by a major studio. When May first conceived of Ishtar, she envisioned it as an updating of the old Hope and Crosby pictures, with Beatty and Dustin Hoffman filling in as two inept songwriters who become central pawns in a Middle East conflict. May's hopes quickly faded, however, as on-location production woes and her protracted session in the editing room created toxic advance buzz - and helped balloon this comedy's budget to over $50 million (or roughly $100 million, when adjusted for inflation, a figure which bespeaks to the needs of big-budget actioners such as Inception or World War Z rather than Ishtar's jokey satire). The immediate box-office result was catastrophic, and Ishtar joined the ranks of cinematic belly-flops like One from the Heart and Heaven's Gate.
Yet divorced from all this controversy, May's efforts prove satisfying and more-than-a-little prescient. In her collaborations with Mike Nichols or her underrated 1971 comedy A New Leaf, May has evinced a facility for the wobbly, from-left-field punchline, with Beatty and Hoffman a consistently funny pair to give the jokes the off-kilter speed they need. Their deliberately awkward, hapless rhythms seem like the antecedents to Ben Stiller's particular brand of squirm humor, and the duo's unearned confidence has a direct through-line to Will Ferrell heroes like Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby. As this Blu-ray shows, the most surprising thing about Ishtar, nowadays, is how entertaining it really is.
I'll probably pick up Oblivion and the Disney titles at a later date. Mostly a lot of rentals with this week's releases: Mud, Place Beyond the Pines, On the Road, and To The Wonder. Surprised that a Malick film seemed to come and go with such little fanfare, but from what I read To The Wonder wasn't as good as his other films.
Mud was fantastic so was Place Beyond the Pines both gonna purchase at some point. Oblivion was good worth watching and gonna buy and of course have to buy Robin Hood one of my favorites that always holds a place in my heart
This week I'm receiving from my preorders The Place Beyond the Pines (one of my favorite films so far this year), Mud and To the Wonder. I will soon also receive the UK steelbook version of Oblivion (a risky, but intriguing, blind buy).
Soon down the line, I'll add to my collection The Garden of Words and, with a moderate discount, The Earrings of Madame de...
With low prices, I'll maybe consider Antiviral and Ishtar.
One of my favorite Disney animated classics ends up with sub par PQ, and a full Disney price, I'll stick with my DVD of "The Sword in the Stone" rather than pay $24+
What a way to trash a classic, minor title or not!
I would absolutely recommend a blind buy for Mud. It's a phenomenal movie, funny and sad and exciting, and Lionsgate's Blu-ray has a good supplements package backing it up. The Place Beyond the Pines is less consistently excellent (I found the third act problematic, and some of the big details are pretty derivative), but it's always interesting, and Derek Cianfrance's style is visceral and involving - think John Cassavetes meets Sidney Lumet. If you liked Blue Valentine, you owe to yourself to check this one out, one way or another.
Nathanp, Bad Boys II was the first commercial I saw during the format war back in 2007 advertising the then new format; "Coming Soon only to Blu-ray (not HDDVD), Bad Boys 2 in full 1080p" (along a few other titles) - and they even showed High Def clips from BB2. Its just amazing that its 2013 and still not out.