After Life Review

Starring: Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Christina Ricci, Josh Charles, Celia Weston
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay
Run Time: 104 minutes

            The premise of After Life (I refuse to call this film After.Life, because I have no idea what the point of the period is) is rather compelling. In fact, it seems like the kind of scenario which would work perfectly as a short film. As a feature film, it is nothing but frustrating. At first I was convinced that the film was compelling simply because it kept me guessing about the end.

I knew that the film was going in one of two directions; ghost story or serial killer. As long as I didn’t know what type of film it was, I couldn’t predict where it was going. Here is the problem: the distinction is never made. Rather than make a decision, this film backs itself into a corner which makes either implausible, giving no final conclusion either way. It is one thing to allow the audience to decide, but only when the clues are there. After Life attempts to have it both ways, failing miserably.

            After a contrived argument with her boyfriend, Anna (Christina Ricci) rushes away from a date only to get in a car accident. When she awakens, Anna is in a funeral home run by Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). Deacon claims that Anna is dead, and that he has a special ability to talk to the dead. Meanwhile Anna’s boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long), becomes convinced that she isn’t really dead. At the same time the audience never knows whether or not she is dead, but the film frustratingly goes nowhere.

            After the premise is set up, Deacon takes an overly long time preparing Anna. Ricci spends half of the movie nude, for no notable reason other than to keep the audience’s attention off of the fact that nothing happens. Other scenes are of an overacting Long attempting a one-man show of grief, in all stages. Although After Life is certainly unique in some ways, which does not necessarily make it a film of any worth. As captivated as I was at the premise, by the end I was angered by the outcome.

Air America Review

            Air America is a Vietnam-era suspense comedy, trying to have the best of all worlds. The film has a political message, once again showing government as suspect during the Vietnam years. The CIA has set up a private airline in Laos, which is used to support troops and to make backdoor deals. There are many moral implications of this airline, and all of the wild civilian pilots seem to embrace these issues by creating their own scams and quirks to deal with the somber reality. The comedy sometimes feels out of place, the melodrama somewhat forced, but the experience is enjoyable due to the skilled stars in the lead roles.

            Billy Covington (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a thrill seeker working as an air traffic pilot, until he is fired for reckless flying. He is recruited to fly in Laos, unaware that he will be in constant danger and asked to do things that he feels are morally wrong, such as transport drugs in order to make deals work with local government. Veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson) attempts to convince Billy not to make waves, but he becomes determined to stop the corruption.

            Air America is an idealistic post-post-war Vietnam film, which never actually deals directly with Vietnam. Ultimately, it seems to be riding on the moral implication of the war, while staying far enough away to keep the laughs and thrills more lighthearted. Gibson and Downey are enjoyable to watch, engaging enough to gloss over the faults of the film.
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jr. Robert Downey, Nancy Travis
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Lions Gate
Run Time: 113 minutes

Air Force One Blu-ray review

Starring: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writer: Andrew W. Marlowe
Producers: Armyan Bernstein, David V. Lester, Gail Katz, Jonathan Shestack, Marc Abraham
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Run Time: 124 minutes

            While some of the special effects in Air Force One may have seemed amazing at the time, they now simply appear archaic and uncomfortably unrealistic in the days of high definition clarity. When the film was initially released in theaters at the end of the 90s I remember thinking that the digital plane crash in the film was a cheap and shoddy climax for the film, void of any real life or realism. Seeing the film in the high definition presentation of Blu-ray only reconfirms this feeling, now knowing that it is possible for CGI to appear somewhat believable. Fortunately there is enough reliance on the old-fashioned filmmaking to ensure Air Force One is not entirely outdated, though the use of a heroic and selfless president may seem a little unbelievable to a country that just had George W. Bush as president for eight years.

            Although the protagonist president bears little resemblance to what most would consider reality, there are themes of terrorism that seem too familiar after 9/11. It is now difficult to watch a film about a terrorist hijacked plane with the same Blockbuster escapism that the film was meant to carry initially, though the film is simply meant to entertain. There is little political or social significance in the film, which is much more interested in making Die Hard with a president than any relevant statement about terrorism.               

            Harrison Ford plays the idealistically honest President of the United States, James Marshall. Marshall is the kind of president that always travels with his family. This unrealistic and idealistic vision of the president seemed to dominate the 90s, including films like American President, Dave and Independence Day. When Air Force One is hijacked by a group of militant Russian (or Kazakhstan) terrorists (led by Gary Oldman), Marshall chooses to stay with the plane rather than bailing out. He insists on protecting his wife and daughter, refusing to leave other people behind for safety. This was the last big success that Harrison Ford actually had, making a string of failures ever since.

            The Blu-ray disc only includes a commentary track by director Wolfgang Petersen, previously released on the DVD.

Alexander the Last Review

Starring: Josh Hamilton, Jess Weixler
Director: Joe Swanberg
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 
Rated: Unrated
Run Time: 72 minutes

            Filmmaker Joe Swanberg is at the head of the independent film movement often referred to as “mumblecore.” These films often include awkward nudity, natural lighting and mumbling dialogue. The attempt is supposed to be realism, but these films have often simply proved that reality is both depressing and dull. Though Alexander the Last is an improvement on Swanberg’s previous films, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Night and Weekends, this is not saying much. The improvement can immediately be attributed to the missing Greta Gerwig.

            This endeavor deals with a complex storyline by mumblecore standards, though viewers unaware of the movement may still marvel that 72 minutes could move so slow. The story involves an actress (Jesse Weixler) married to a musician (real-life musician, Justin Rice), while also developing feelings for her on-stage lover (Barlow Jacobs) in her latest project. At first this relationship seems platonic, until the actress introduces her co-star to her wildly impulsive sister (Amy Seimetz). Jealousy takes hold and feelings are apparent.

            The storyline seems to drive towards a predictable formula, but remarkably, it resists the urge of the inevitable. Though I must respect this decision, it doesn’t leave much of a film. There is a lot done with the simple storyline, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was.

A Mighty Heart Review

            What could be a disadvantage is turned into the main advantage of A Mighty Heart. Based on a highly publicized event which occurred relatively few years ago, A Mighty Heart promises audiences an ending they can already anticipate. Seeming to realize that this was a story everyone will know the ending of before watching the first five minutes, A Mighty Heart takes a factual approach to giving all of details which weren’t reported in the news. Adapted from Mariane Pearl’s book about the events we are given a personal perspective, but also one of precise factual reporting. This along with Michael Winterbottom’s documentary-style directing presents the predictable story into stark levels of realism that is difficult as it is fascinating in the same way a car wreck on the freeway is. Looking means seeing something terrible and horrific that nobody should have to go through, but not looking doesn’t change the fact that it happened.

Soon after 9/11, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his wife Mariane traveled to Pakistan to do what they could in terms of reporting the news. They establish a somewhat comfortable existence while working and even with Mariane pregnant they seem to feel safe, until Daniel sets up a meeting with Sheikh Gilani. Daniel meets with several people before deciding to meet Gilani, each warning him to stay in public if he takes the risk of meeting the infamous man. He agrees but when he receives a phone call at the public restaurant he was supposed to meet the man at telling him to leave with some of Gilani’s men. This is the last time he was free and safe, although Mariane’s battle is just beginning. Unable to get her husband on the phone she begins investigating his disappearance, which eventually begins to snowball into a mass effort which proves to be largely in vain. Even as advances are made in understanding who was behind the kidnapping it doesn’t help to accomplish the one thing that seems important throughout the entire film.

Certainly what seems to be an award season film for Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart showcases the actress’s ability to adapt into someone else’s shoes, but it also makes use of the reputation she has developed as a person. Jolie and her humanitarian work has been the only thing left for journalists to write about now that she no longer appears to be dating her brother, wearing Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck, and her relationship with Brad Pitt has morphed into much of the same humanitarian publicity with him joining the film as a producer as well. She is obviously a caring person, and it appears that this film is attempting some of that good outside of just an Academy Award nomination. Ultimately this is what A Mighty Heart seems determined to get across; the power and responsibility of information given by journalists. They have a dangerous, important, and often challenging career which is not always respected due to the scum that call themselves journalists in order to feed off of human suffering. The line is so blurred at points that when Mariane is leaving her home and accosted by all of the press looking to make a story out of her husband’s tragedy it inspires rage, and yet her novel of the same events seems a poignant and courageous undertaking to make certain her husband’s death was not in vain.
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irfan Khan, Archie Panjabi, Mohammed Afzal
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: John Orloff
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Paramount Vantage 
Run Time: 108 minutes

A Bug’s Life Blu-ray review


 When A Bug’s Life was released on DVD it was the first to have a transfer direct from the digital source, making it a special visual treat to those who took the film home, and it makes sense that the Blu-ray release of the second film from the now legendary Pixar Studio should be given special attention. I have come to realize that there is more to be said for high definition in the presentation of animation than nearly any other genre, and this film is a beautiful example. Even though some of the animation is slightly more rustic in comparison to the recent films from the computer animation studio, there is still much that seems groundbreaking about this film today despite the ten years that have gone by since its initial theatrical release.

            The film is extremely simple, though it is one that has made its way through several genres besides animation. Whether comedy (The Three Amigos), western (The Magnificent Seven) or Samurai film (The Seven Samurai), there is no questioning the influence of this film, but it isn’t nearly as much about the story as it is the imaginative retelling and the visual spectacle that comes with it. The previous Pixar film, Toy Story, had spent much of the film indoors, but A Bug’s Life takes full advantage of the surroundings of nature.

The scenery is spectacularly animated, which makes the animated bugs seem somewhat cartoonish by comparison. The representation of nature looks so real that it is hard to reconcile that the characters exist in the same film, which is only enhanced by the revealing high definition presentation. This is more of a compliment to the realistic presentation of everything from sunshine to raindrops, leaves to grass, than it is a criticism of the characters.

            All-new to the Blu-ray release are a couple of Blu-ray exclusive features, though the previous special features were not left off of the release. The particular feature which is spectacular in high definition is the short film, ‘Geri’s Game’, which was shown before the film in North American theaters. There is also the director’s original commentary track and a new introduction to the film. There is also a classic Silly Symphonies short that is included because it is about grasshoppers and ants. The new features include a featurette which brings the filmmakers to a round-table to discuss the film ten years later. There is also a fantastic never-before seen presentation of the original script idea for the film. There are drawings and simple animation sequences to give audiences an idea of what was originally conceived and how things changed.
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller
Directors: Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 
Rated: G (General Audience)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: May 19, 2009
Run Time: 95 minutes

World on a Wire Blu-ray Review

Starring: Klaus Lowitsch
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Format: Color, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1 
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Criterion Collection
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Run Time: 212 minutes

            The only science fiction movie that German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder ever made was this long-lost three-and-a-half hour long film made for German Television. It has traces of “The Prisoner” to it, along with influences of Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. The satirical look at the futuristic world of computer technology was incredibly ahead of its time in 1973, and is a recently rediscovered gem for film fans to now experience on high definition Blu-ray.

            The film’s storyline is simple, and even familiar in the sense that these themes have been touched upon by countless filmmakers from David Cronenberg to Steven Spielberg ever since. Fred Stiller (Klaus L√∂witsch) is a cybernetics engineer who is responsible for the creation of a complex computer world of virtual reality cities and people. It is like Sim City, but the cybernetic people aren’t aware that the life they are living isn’t actually reality, but virtual reality which can be visited though a machine.

            When one of Stiller’s co-workers dies suddenly, there are suspicions of foul play. As he investigates this mishap, a deeper corporate conspiracy is discovered, and Stiller begins to doubt his own existence and reality. There are hints that he may actually be living in one of the computer worlds himself, unable to trust the world around him. The labyrinth of computer worlds makes it impossible to know what—if anything—is reality. We follow Stiller on a mad escape from authorities who may very well be programmed to find and destroy him, as well as nearly every other citizen. As the most wanted man in his world, there seem to be higher powers preventing Stiller from finding the truth.

            The Blu-ray edition of World on a Wire provides the entire 3 ½ hour two-part TV film on one disc, along with plenty of additional special features. The film has been newly restored, with a digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. There is also a fifty-minute documentary on the making of the film, called “Fassbinder’s World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today, by filmmaker Juliane Lorenz. Also included is a new interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gem√ľnden and a booklet insert with an essay by film critic Ed Halter.

The Dead Blu-ray Review

Starring: Rob Freeman, Prince David Osei
Directors: Howard Ford, Jonathan Ford
Format: Widescreen
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 
Rated: R
Release Date: February 14, 2012
Run Time: 105 minutes

            The different sub-genres of horror films come and go in waves. Depending on the climate of the times, the monster of popularity is chosen. The first of vampire films arrived in Hollywood during The Depression, when the majority felt they were being drained of life by the rich. There was a conservative serial killer craze in the 80s, which monsters that all seemed to be doing the bidding of Ronald Reagan’s politics by killing only those who were acting immorally. Lately we have returned by to vampires, not coincidentally as the economy also began to slump. The other popular monster has been the zombie, which often comes within a post-apocalyptic framework. The Dead plays into the feeling that the world is ending, taking this political and social fear a step further by setting the entire film in war-torn South Africa.

            After the undead apocalypse has begun in South Africa, an American Air Force Engineer is stranded in the hostile terrain. Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is the sole survivor of the last rescue plane, which goes down off the coast. The zombie virus has not yet reached the rest of the world, so all of South Africa is quarantined and Lieutenant Murphy must trek across the sun-parched landscape in search of a means to survive. His ability to fix mechanical objects comes in handy, though the terror is more widespread than he imagined. The only helping hand he comes across is an African soldier, Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei).

            Though this is a zombie film which relies heavily on the fear of flesh-eating/disease-carrying undead, the plot also allows for it to be a film which discusses the minimal help provided by the American government when African countries are in turmoil. The dialogue between these two men bridges their separation, but not nearly as much as the actions they take to help each other. Sergeant Dembele has a son who is rumored to have survived, and with no way of escaping the carnage, Lieutenant Murphy agrees to join in this search.

            The acting is occasionally quite brutal, the dialogue a bit cheesy, and the metaphors a bit too transparent. The zombie action is typical; not unlike dozens which have come before. This is not to say that The Dead is a bad film. It may very well be one of the better zombie films of the year, but it also signals the decline of this particular monster. The Blu-ray includes a commentary track with filmmakers Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford, as well as a generic making-of featurette and a few deleted scenes.

Nude Nuns With Big Guns Blu-ray Review

Starring: Asun Ortega, David Castro, Perry D'Marco
Directors: Joseph Guzman
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1 
Rated: Unrated
Release Date: February 14, 2012
Run Time: 61 minutes

            Nude Nuns With Big Guns is more than an homage to Robert Rodriguez; in many ways it feels closer to plagiarism. With a storyline that occasionally has blow-by-blow similarities to El Mariachi and/or Desperado, and a style mimicking Machete, I found even five minutes of this hard to watch without the urge of simply putting a better film on. It is a second-hand collection of better movies, only held together by a weakly constructed selling point which began as a short film. It has the appeal of lesbianism violence, both perpetrated by a nun.

            The short film doesn’t feel the need to go into much detail about the sinful nun, but you would think that there might have been a better storyline thought up when creating a feature film. Instead we are just dropped into a world where the church is more of an organized crime syndicate than an institution for God. The priests are pimps and drug-dealers, with the convent nuns used as mules. When a drug deal goes wrong and Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) is left for dead, she heals with dedication to revenge alone.

            Built to resemble exploitation films of the 70s, Nude Nuns with Big Guns spends far more time imitating Rodriguez. To the point where weapons are even hidden in a similar manner to those in the guitar case of El Mariachi. There is plenty of senseless violence in this film, along with a plethora of nude nuns and a few lesbian love scenes. It is all indulgent male fantasy fit within the most macho of genres. It also happens to be quite dull, despite the mass quantity of flesh and blood. The acting alone makes the film near unbearable.

            The bonus features on the Blu-ray include the original short film, as well as a theatrical trailer. The acting is even worse in the short film, but it is a relevant inclusion. What isn’t surprising is the lack of any other features, and the unimpressive quality of the film in high definition.   

The Son of No One Blu-ray review

Starring: Channing Tatum, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche
Director: Dito Montiel
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Run Time: 94 minutes

            The Son of No One is complex in its attempt to connect its storyline together. This complexity is not intelligent and thought-provoking as much as it merely seems unbelievably coincidental. This makes for a strained viewing experience, and perhaps the reason that this film slipped below the radar of most film goers. Audiences don’t seem to mind unrealistic coincidences in comedies, especially when it comes to romance. But when these coincidences bring about sadness and misery instead of kismet, audiences tend to revolt.

            The unfortunate happenstance begins with an accident involving children in a Queens projects building. A man double homicide brings in a homicide detective (Al Pacino), who coincidentally has ties to one of the children involved. This child is given a pass because of his ties to law enforcement, and he grows to become a second generation cop. Jonathan (Channing Tatum) has put his past behind him, until he is assigned a beat in his old neighborhood and the double homicide he was involved in becomes reopened.

            With an anonymous source leaking hints at a police cover-up and a reporter (Juliette Binoche) who just happens to be interested in a decade-old homicide in the projects, the old case nobody cares about becomes a huge source of drama in the department. Jonathan is forced to track down his childhood friends (with a powerful supporting performance by Tracy Morgan), in a desperate attempt to stop the situation from escalating.

            The Blu-ray release of this brutally depressing police thriller includes an audio commentary with writer/producer/director Dito Montiel and executive producer/editor Jake Pushinsky. There are also a few deleted scenes, though the film already seems a bit too long at 94 minutes. The high definition also adds little to this average, albeit easily forgettable cop drama.

J. Edgar Blu-ray review

Starring: Leonardo Dicaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
Director: Clint Eastwood
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: February 21, 2012

            If there is a historical figure of political importance in the United States, it seems Dustin Lance Black will write a screenplay for their biopic. After bursting onto the scene and into the Oscar spotlight with his Harvey Milk biography, which was directed by Gus Van Sant, and to follow that success he has picked a less public historical homosexual. I am not suggesting that this is all J. Edgar is about, though it seems to drift through other subjects to focus on a single relationship the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had with his right hand man.

            There is more focus and direction in J. Edgar than there was in The Iron Lady, which also had a bad habit of skipping over those boring political details. When dealing with the biography of a person known for their career, why is it that these films are so dedicated to their personal lives? Although this may make them more relatable, as we all can understand longing and love, it detracts from the details of their lives which made them significant in the first place. J. Edgar doesn’t play like an accurate biography. Much of the film is told to us as a memory, proven to be fallible and exaggerated. Not even the details we are given can be trusted as accurate, leaving only an idea of the enigma that J. Edgar Hoover was.

            Another element that J. Edgar shares in common with The Iron Lady is the basic showcase of the leading actor’s abilities. We are meant to marvel at the adapting of mannerisms and speech. Leonardo DiCaprio has gone down this road before, and this is similar his performance as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. It is a recreation which is admirable enough, though I was always quite aware that he was acting. It lacks the nuance of Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher and the natural quality of Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, but it suffices for this moderately memorable biography.

            Directed by Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar is fitted with the appropriate melancholy piano soundtrack and brisk pace. It also means that the characters spend half of the film hidden in shadows. The lighting adds to the style of the film, like it or not. It is distinctly Eastwood’s style. There is also a cast full of fantastic supporting players, including Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, Armie Hammer and Judi Dench.

            The Blu-ray combo pack release of J. Edgar comes with a DVD copy and an Ultraviolet digital copy. The only special feature included with this 137 minute film is a featurette about the adapting of a historical figure to film. The high definition is the highlight of the Blu-ray above special features, adding clarity to the shadows in Eastood’s framing.

The Rum Diary Blu-ray review

Starring: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard
Director: Bruce Robinson
Writers: Bruce Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson
Producers: A.J. Dix, Anthony Rhulen, Christi Dembrowski, Colin Vaines, George Tobia Jr.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 14, 2012
Run Time: 120 minutes

            Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was only made into a film after a great deal of correspondence between actor Johnny Depp and the infamous intoxicated writer. Finally, the drug-induced Las Vegas trip was brought to the screen with the help of visionary director Terry Gilliam. Decades later, Johnny Depp is once again starring in the film adaptation of a Thompson book, though the writer has long since departed.

            The Rum Diary is an alcohol induced working vacation, with many absurdist similarities to Fear and Loathing. Depp stars as Paul Kemp, an unmotivated writer who has been sent to a thankless job in Puerto Rico. The position appears to be for a journalist, though they really just want a writer who will sell cheerful news to the vacationing Americans. On the other hand, Kemp is pursued by a shady businessman named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) to help use his talents with words to swindle the local people out of another pristine beach. This deal only seems to appeal to Kemp because of the proximity it puts him in to Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).

            Between making his moral decision regarding his journalistic pride and desires for another man’s woman, Kemp spends much of his time in drunken debauchery. Occasionally, he hallucinates on experimental drugs as well. Paired with fellow writers and heavy drinkers (Michael Rispoli and Giovani Ribisi), the drunken escapades lead to high speed pursuits and trouble with the local law. Mostly the film seems to drift between mishaps during drinking hours and those during hangover hours.

            The Blu-ray includes a featurette about the making of The Rum Diary, especially the literary beginnings which inspired the film. There is also a featurette on the backstory, though it is really just the period clothing and immaculate beaches in high definition which make the Blu-ray worth upgrading to.