For the week of October 8th, Warner Home Entertainment is releasing The Hangover: Part III on Blu-ray. When the first Hangover debuted in 2009, it felt like a new comedy classic; director Todd Phillips had been doing solid work in pictures like Road Trip and Old School, yet The Hangover brought him to a new level, marrying his gifts for shock-and-raunch humor with visceral, cinematic filmmaking chops (it also didn't hurt that the film made instant stars out of Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Trademarked Wild Card Zach Galifianakis). Sadly, Phillips' two efforts to replicate that brand have fallen flat. The Hangover: Part II just retold the same story in a different setting (Bangkok replaced Las Vegas), and Part III, though better than its immediate predecessor, finds the Hangover wolfpack returning to Vegas to rehash the past. Any promise the "new" setup had - whereas the first two films saw the Wolfpack searching for someone they'd misplaced, now they have to rescue Doug (the ever-hapless Justin Bartha) from the clutches of a revenge-crazed gangster (John Goodman, who's mostly wasted here) - falls flat. Helms and Cooper are wasted in favor of ceding screentime to Galifianakis and Ken Jeong's irritating Chow, and minus a couple of great beats between Galifianakis and Melissa McCarthy, the movie does not benefit from their endless mugging. Worst of all, this third installment often forgets to be funny. Phillips' eye is as strong as ever, to a fault: he seems more invested in staging action-heist setpieces than in making his audience laugh. Ostensibly, The Hangover: Part III is the last film in the franchise, but the most dispiriting thing about it is that the film feels so inconclusive - for a series that began with such early, aggressive promise, Part III ambles past the finish line, a pale shade of what could have been.
In his Blu-ray review, Kenneth Brown writes that "after the implausibly hard-R comedy that was The Hangover...The Hangover: Part III is uncharacteristically tame and unexpectedly uneventful. A lot seems to be happening at any given moment, and yet very, very little actually happens. It doesn't even feel like a Hangover sequel. There's some messy business with a giraffe that was spoiled in the film's trailers, one of the cleanest Melissa McCarthy cameos you're likely to see on the big screen, a run-in with a flock of cockfighting roosters, and plenty of Alan being Alan and Chow being Chow. But nothing startling or boundary busting in the least...For a grandiose, larger-than-life finale to a grandiose, larger-than-life series, Phillips and co-writer Craig Mazin deliver an uninspired romp that's infatuated with revisiting events and characters from the first two movies rather than dishing out something fiendishly clever and new...Galifianakis is hilarious, even when he isn't trying all that hard, but the trio is on autopilot. Worse, the sequel seems to exist solely because Warner wanted to put another sequel on the map and flashed enough cash to rope in the series' leading men; not because there was a third madcap adventure worth telling."
Far more invigorating a Warner genre property is the studio's deluxe edition of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Until now, this DCU Animated adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal graphic novel was only available in two parts; director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Rob Goodman added a break in between Batman's battle with the mutant leader and the resurgence of the Joker. The new Blu-ray re-edits the two halves into one 148-minute movie, and the long-form is both a negative and a positive. On one hand, it throws the essentially episodic nature of Miller's source material into stark relief: unlike Christopher Nolan's Academy Award-winning Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Returns eschews straightforward narrative development in favor of a series of vignettes that show the aged Bruce Wayne readjusting to his role as the Dark Knight. The animated film faithfully replicates that structure, which simply isn't a propulsive story engine. However, the elongated runtime affords Batman: The Dark Knight Returns something missing from the other DC Animated pictures - epic sprawl. Rather than condensing Miller's entire work into seventy-five minutes or less, the movie lets it breath, taking the time to develop not just the action scenes (which are splendid, especially the brutal Superman-Batman smackdown that concludes the film) but also the characters. It's not just Batman (a wonderful Peter Weller) who feels complete - we get to spend time with Commissioner Gordon, the Joker, the new Robin, and the world around them, and that attention to the human drama only enhances the thrills. Ultimately, the few missteps that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns evinces aren't enough to keep it from staking its claim as the best DCU Animated feature and a worthy film period in the Batman screen canon.
Kenneth Brown's Blu-ray review calls the "animation...some of the best the DCU branch of Warner Bros. Animation has produced. Fast, fluid, and fierce, every punch makes an impact, every fall has a consequence, every movement has weight and convincing heft. Batman's age is at play at all times, dragging him down, making him slower, and it reads on screen. Superman's vitality is intact, the Joker's impulse bleeds through his pores, Carrie's youth is apparent... from character design to final animation, the heroes and villains Miller re-imagined move and breathe just as they should, and it's abundantly clear how much thought went into animating some of the most iconic sequences in DC comicbook history. The Dark Knight Returns is a DCU animated masterpiece. And considering we're dealing with one of the most respected and influential DC comicbook stories of all time, that's no small feat. It's a blistering animated feature and a fine adaptation; a wonderfully dramatic, action-packed clash of the titans that won't soon be forgotten. As a two-part experiment, it succeeds. As a seamless film, it exceeds expectations, and then some. Timm and his fellow producers should take note. If dividing a DCU production into multiple parts is the only way to avoid the curse of the truncated eighty-minute adaptation, I'd love to see the experiment repeated. It certainly worked for The Dark Knight Returns. Perhaps this can serve as a launchpad for greater things to come."
Sometimes "greater" doesn't always equal "bigger." Case in point: after filming his massive Avengers blockbuster, filmmaker Joss Whedon downshifted radically to a micro-budget production of Much Ado About Nothing. How micro-budget, you might ask? Working with a cast of friends culled from his film and television endeavors (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Ashley Johnson, Sean Maher, Reed Diamond, Tom Lenk, and Nathan Fillion, who walks away with the film as inept constable Dogberry), Whedon shot Much Ado About Nothing in twelve days, working in his own house with lightweight digital cameras. That fleet production schedule and style affords the play a briskness that wasn't present even in Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed adaptation from 1993; better still is the way Whedon and his actors subtly modernize Shakespeare's text to enhance its relevance. With its many instances of hidden love and role-reversals, Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing feels just as beholden to 1930s and '40s screwball comedies as it does to the poetry of the Bard, although the cast gives the dialogue enough of an edge to keep things appropriately weighty. This is a comedy about the things we do for love, and both Shakespeare and Whedon know that sometimes, those things aren't wholly positive. The Avengers might have made all the money (over $1 billion and counting), but Much Ado About Nothing is the more satisfying feature - it's exactly one Neil Patrick Harris and one Alan Tudyk away (they couldn't appear due to scheduling conflicts) from being Whedon's finest feature-film.
Jeffrey Kauffman equates "Joss Whedon's 2012 version...[to] Woody Allen doing a screwball comedy version of The Bard (think A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, only with more actual Shakespeare), replete with black and white visuals, quasi-improvisatory sounding dialogue (despite it being more or less unadulterated Shakespeare) and an informal ethos which is distinctly at odds with the more structured world of England's most famous playwright and poet. This approach will seem pretentious and off putting to some, while probably reaching just as many as an interesting and even compelling take on the material. Whedon himself admits in one of the two commentaries included on this Blu-ray that he saw Much Ado About Nothing as something of a (literal) home movie (the film was shot in Whedon's own Los Angeles mansion), and a chance to reunite with longtime friends who had regularly met to read through various Shakespeare works, after Whedon's nearly year long absence while he made The Avengers. That may therefore label this Much Ado About Nothing as the very model of a vanity project, and while that may be true, there's also a refreshing honesty to Whedon's approach here, one that is less reliant on glamorous sets and costumes and more on the actual inner lives of the characters."
The second season of FX's American Horror Story hits Blu-ray this week, courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment. Showrunners Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy certainly made waves with the first season; a dark, sexually provocative chiller about an emotionally fragile family moving into a haunted house, American Horror Story proved one of 2011's most watched and divisive new programs (it's hard to believe it's run by the same two guys who created Glee), and Season Two is no different. Subtitled Asylum, the second season shifts the action to 1960's Massachusetts (for a story unrelated to the Murder House setup in Season One, though actors Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, and Sarah Paulson return in different roles), specifically the Briarcliff Mental Institution for the Criminally Insane, where staff and patients alike are intertwined in a twisted realm of life and death. This setting allows Falchuk and Murphy to widen their scope past even the narrative stew of Season One: we get hidden serial killers and Nazi doctors and unstable religious leaders and Shock Corridor-era gender politics and aliens and psycho Santa Clauses and, in one episode, musical numbers. A lot of this works - just as much of its doesn't. But the show is so consistently audacious and bizarre that even the flaws have merit because they represent the American Horror Story team swinging for the rafters.
Jeffrey Kauffman pondered that "the fact that American Horror Story: Asylum manages to weave together elements as disparate as alien abductions to electroconvulsive shock therapy to a winking reference to Tod Browning's Freaks is some indication of just how diverse this season is. That also means there's less of the intensely focused dread that suffused the first season, with this season's tone at times all over the map, but there are chills galore scattered throughout this season, including some rather graphic and disturbing imagery. Once again, the show features some absolutely amazing performances, capped here by a simply unforgettable turn by Jessica Lange as a nun whose vicious proclivities may not be all that they initially seem. My own personal reaction to American Horror Story: Asylum is overwhelmingly positive, while still recognizing that on a fundamental level, the show wasn't quite as subliminally unsettling this year as last. Still, it's a phenomenally original enterprise, and I for one am looking forward - with bated breath - to American Horror Story: Coven."
In addition, Fox is responsible for bringing one of the most iconic sci-fi adventures to Blu-ray this week: the wonderful Fantastic Voyage. One of the gems of 1960's sci-fi, Fantastic Voyage uses Cold War tension to motivate the action; after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt, a Russian scientist who's trying to defect falls into a coma...and the only chance he has of waking up is if a group of scientists and doctors can travel through his body and repair the damage from the inside. That's right - it's a miniaturization movie! - but just as Joe Dante's underrated Innerspace (which owes a great deal of its DNA to this movie) subverted the formula by turning it into an odd-couple buddy-comedy, director Richard Fleischer patterns Fantastic Voyage after great submarine movies like Destination Tokyo or Run Silent, Run Deep. There's a large, varied cast of characters (including Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence, Edmond O'Brien, Arthur Kennedy, Arthur O'Connell, and a young James Brolin), unspeakable physical challenges and dangers, and the threat of a Soviet spy undermining the whole operation: the only difference is, the battleground is the human body and not the sea. A blast, with special effects that still dazzle.
Jeffrey Kauffman correctly remarked that, "The real star here is, however, the incredible visual effects work. Many of the effects are going to strike those used to the perfectly rendered, shiny and sleek CGI variety as being patently old fashioned and even silly looking at times. But when one considers the incredible lengths the technicians had to go to to develop these eye popping moments, there should be nothing but admiration for not only their efforts, but more importantly, for their results. The film's really interesting sound design should also be mentioned. The film is awash in so-called 'Hickey effects,' Fox library sound files that became imprinted in a generation of Baby Boomers' minds through their frequent use in any number of Fox produced television series. Fantastic Voyage remains one of the most iconic science fiction films of its era for several reasons. Is it a bit clunky to modern day eyes? Undoubtedly. But there's also a level of craft and storytelling that any number of modern day CGI wizards who spend all their time offering shiny baubles on the screen without providing more than an ounce of plot interest could learn from."
Universal Studios' Chucky: The Complete Collection also hits Blu-ray this week. The Chucky movies comprise one of the oddest franchises in horror-movie history. Inspired by the "Amelia" segment in Trilogy of Terror as well as by Cavalcanti's breathtaking "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" contribution to Dead of Night, screenwriter Don Mancini developed Chucky, a Cabbage Patch Kid-esque "Good Guy Doll" possessed by the spirit of occultist serial killer Charles Lee Ray. That idea on its own is strange, but what's even stranger is the relative severity with which Mancini and director Tom Holland afforded Chucky in the first Chucky film, 1988's Child's Play. That picture almost functions as a psychological thriller, with Holland and Mancini keeping Chucky off-screen for much of the runtime in order to emphasize Chucky's owner, damaged pre-teen Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent). Child's Play's 2 and 3 shifted the formula, turning Chucky from a more symbolic terror into a pint-sized slasher and emphasizing the bloody details of his killings. And then a funny thing happened (literally): without sacrificing any of the gore, Mancini steered the series into an overtly comedic direction, satirizing classic monster movies in Ronny Yu's stylish Bride of Chucky before lampooning the whole Hollywood filmmaking system in Seed of Chucky (the latest installement, Curse of Chucky, tries to leaven the humor of the later films with the serious terror of the first Child's Play). If there's one constant, it's the great Brad Dourif, who has stuck around as the voice of Chucky. Dourif is an incredibly nuanced, subtle actor (check out his work in Wise Blood and Deadwood - or in the current Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Two Character Play - if you don't believe me), but he's an over-the-top, hammily menacing delight as Chucky, especially when the films begin letting him crack a dry one-liner as frequently as he slashes a throat.
Kenneth Brown's retrospective assessment of the series calls "The first installment...unmatched. Reinvention is the franchise's lifeblood. Camp slowly displaces straight scares. The diabolical baddie becomes more central to the story with each passing film. The human element becomes more and more inconsequential. The kills gorier, the deaths zanier, the body count higher, the satire more pronounced, the entries more niche, and the true series fans that much more ravenous. Like the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street sagas before it, the Chucky movies aren't so much about developing a terrifying mythos as they are keeping a franchise alive and kicking. And, like the well-established icons of the genre before it, the series' undying killer has become an indelible fixture in horror, no matter how hit or miss the original Child's Play sequels may be. Chucky has slashed his way through four different decades - the 1980s (Child's Play), 1990s (Child's Play 2, Child's Play 3, Bride of Chucky), 2000s (Seed of Chucky), and 2010s (Curse of Chucky) - and I suspect this won't be the last."
From Magnolia's Magnet label comes the sci-fi thriller Europa Report. In short, Europa Report is The Blair Witch Project in space; a found-footage feature, Europa Report purports to be recently recovered video transmissions from a doomed space exploration to Europa. That things go from bad to worse for the film's cast (which includes Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, and Sharlto Copley) is no surprise, but unlike, say, Apollo 18, Europa Report manages to stay reasonably suspenseful without resorting to formulaic contrivances. Director Sebastián Cordero actually consulted with NASA scientists when devising plausible challenges for his fictional space mission to face, and that verisimilitude, coupled with Enrique Chediak's vérité-style camerawork, keeps Europa Report believable even as its general plot contours begin to resemble other doomed space-mission movies like Prometheus or Mission to Mars. It isn't perfect – the stuff set on Earth with Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler's NASA investigators isn't as compelling as the material in and around Europa, and the ending is a bit anticlimactic – but for most of the picture, Europa Report plays like a low-budget Sunshine without the slasher-movie ending, and that's a very good thing.
Michael Reuben commented on how "the Europa Report's glitching, fritzing video feeds make it inevitable that the film will remain classified as a "found video" creation, but the film is much more. The constant interruptions by narrators are a reminder that even what appears to be "found" is a manipulated reality shaped by an editorial point of view. The handwriting of the author (or, in this case, authors, plural) can never be completely erased, and it can be identified if one knows where to look. Cordero, who wrote and directed the very fine Crónicas (2004), is obviously intrigued by the relation between the storyteller's purpose and the story he chooses to tell. In Europa Report, he has blended that theme with the grandest speculations of which science fiction is capable."
Millennium Media's Stuck in Love also covers well-trod genre territory: like Crazy, Stupid, Love or It's Complicated before it, it's a dramedy about how divorce impacts the different generations of an eccentric family. Greg Kinnear plays the patriarch, award-winning novelist William Borgens, whose literary success can't mask the pain he still harbors after separating from his wife (Jennifer Connelly); complicating matters are the personal and professional concerns of his two children (Lily Collins and Nat Wolff), who are finally bucking up against the influence of their famous-but-troubled father. Writer/director Josh Boone is clearly enamored with the lives of professional writers – his references to Richard Ford and Flannery O'Connor are exactly right - but his approach to the various family dynamics is soapy at best. That description above doesn't cover Kinnear's "comic" stalking of Connelly, or his affair with Kristen Bell's married neighbor, or Wolff's infatuation with a seriously disturbed young woman (Liana Liberato), or the ridiculous late-stage cameo from a superstar author, and Boone doesn't yet have the chops to keep this material from feeling sitcom-melodramatic (how unfortunate, too, that Kinnear's narration compares his character's life to a bad sitcom). Movies like Adaptation and Wonder Boys honor the writer's creative struggles without resorting to clichés: here's hoping that next time, Boone studies those kinds of films a little more carefully.
Finally, Anchor Bay is bringing the supernatural horror-thriller Nothing Left to Fear to Blu-ray. Nothing Left to Fear claims to be inspired by true events, in this case the town of Stull, Kansas, which, rumor has it, has such a direct connection to the terrors of Hell that Pope John Paul II once refused to fly over it (make of that what you will). That background, fake or not, is more interesting that the actual movie, which finds an innocent family (Anne Heche, James Tupper, Rebekah Brandes, and Jennifer Stone) coming face-to-face with Stull's evils, and - of course - the whole thing ends in tears. About the only thing unique about Nothing Left to Fear is its creative pedigree; it comes with the production imprimatur of Guns N'Roses lead guitarist Slash (who also contributes a new song to the film). Still, while I applaud Slash for trying to craft scares that are a little more psychological in nature, there just isn't a whole lot here that's fresh if you're well versed in Amityville Horror or Rosemary's Baby's lore. Heck, even Rob Zombie pulled off a more accomplished version of this kind of story just last April with his underrated The Lords of Salem.
Much bigger first-week order than usual for me ... just ordered
Much Ado About Nothing, Stalag 17, Airplane II, Fantastic Voyage, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I Married a Witch, and Billy Rose's Jumbo (though that latter title was already out of stock and back-ordered). Along with those I added a few of last week's releases, like From Here to Eternity, House of Wax 3D, and The Big Parade. Will eventually need to upgrade my old DVD of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but that can wait.