This week’s Word from the Street for June 12, 2007 includes reviews of these new Blu-ray Disc releases: Blood & Chocolate, Cruel Intentions, Daddy’s Little Girls, Ghost Rider: Extended Cut, Music and Lyrics, Primeval, and Seven Years in Tibet.
Blood & Chocolate (Sony)
Featuring: Agnes Bruckner, Katja Riemann, Olivier Martinez and Hugh Dancy
Wanna see a real good coming-of-age/werewolf movie that provides romance, horror, decent effects work and strange new mythos of lycanthropy? Then avoid Blood & Chocolate and check out Ginger Snaps from 2001 (that, along with the mostly brilliant Dog Soliders seems to be the last decent werewolf flick). Blood & Chocolate is a rather poor adaptation of Annette Curtis Klause’s young adult novel of shape-shifting and romance, not to mention leadership issues among the loup-garou, a sub-species of human that can shift into the form of a wolf. Along with the usual tropes of silver and full moons we get a new version of the typical werewolf mythology, but in the long run this film makes chopped liver out of the novel’s characters and situations while offering a slew of low-budget CGI effects and real wolves in the place of the novel’s hybrid wolf-men.
The Blu-ray disc gives us a nice transfer that looks a little grainy (though that seems to be from the theatrical print’s neg). The colors are deep and saturated while the black levels are right on target… nothing is too dark or too light, but juuuuuuust right. Overall, the film has a lush look that translates well to hi-def. The widescreen 2.35 image (1080p) is as good as the audio mix… although not all channels in the DD PCM 5.1 (1.5mbps) mix or standard DD 5.1 (French/English) mix gave the sound of full quality audio. Either the source material or the transfer process leeched some of the oomph out of the sound, but in any case, it’s clean and the dialog is clear (though overall ambience and action sounds aren’t as fully brought out as they could be). Subtitles are in English, Spanish and French. Features offered include trailers (but not for this film) some deleted scenes and an audio commentary with the director and cast member Oliver Martinez.
Cruel Intentions (Sony)
Featuring: Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair
A minor hit with general audiences, but a huge hit with the teen crowd, Cruel Intentions is a modern day riff on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (which as been filmed many times before, but most recently as Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont). Aside from some pretty steamy teen kissin’ and sexuality (a rather voyeuristic experience, mind you), the film mainly shifts some characterizations around to fit its more modern outlook. It’s very well filmed (from sets to costumes, it’s a rather lush affair, heh heh), but on the whole the film is a let down due to the uneven acting of the young cast and it’s more fun a comically trashy voyage through young lust and best laid plans (so to speak) gone awry.
The video transfer in 1.85 widescreen (1080p) is not exceptional at all… there’s some color bleed here and there, inconsistent saturation during certain scenes and noticeable marring in some shots… aside from the 1980p sharpness, it almost seems standard-def in quality. The audio is also not up to the high standards of hi-def… I noticed a lack of overall ambient channels in the surround mixes (uncompressed PCM 5.1 fares better…. Then there’s the DD 5.1 surround in English and French, which seems rather muddy). The pop soundtrack often blows out over dialogue or sound effects… this could be handled by jiggering the equalization of the sound (highs and lows), but makes this Blu-ray effort less than satisfactory for hi-def systems. Subtitles are literally all over the map: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Korean, Thai, Hebrew, Arabic, Dutch, Swedish, Hungarian, Czech, Norwegian, Danish, Hindi, Polish, Greek, Icelandic, Finnish, Turkish, Brazilian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Romanian. Features, however, are on the lite-side with an audio commentary with the filmmakers (but not the cast), several deleted scenes and a couple of making-of featurettes. Last, there are a couple of music videos but on the whole it’s nearly an identical set of features to the standard-def DVD release from a few years back. Ultimately, the Blu-ray release has the feel of a cut-out bin item.
Daddy’s Little Girls (Lionsgate)
Featuring: Louis Gossett, Jr., Gabrielle Union, Malinda Williams, Tracee Ellis Ross and Idris Elba
Released only a few months back, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls found its audience somehow, but it’s a really mixed bag of some fine acting, emotional scenes and very uneven direction. Preachy and high-handed at times the film is a generally heartwarming story of a single dad facing a custody battle for his daughters. As is typical with a film of this nature, there are lots of family tensions (the usual run of bad luck, custody hearings, trying to make good in the world) — it’s got a similar strain of saccharine situations to the also recently released Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness. The Blu-ray disc, however, is a rich offering for those interested in the film and Tyler Perry, the filmmaker. You get a few extended and deleted scenes, a gag reel, and some making of featurettes including an overview of the cast (featuring the young girls, who demonstrate some good acting ability):
• Atlanta Aquarium: Working Underwater
• Tyler’s Team: Cast and Characters
• Introducing the McClain Sisters
• Touring the Sets
• Conducting Chaos: The Riot Scene
• The Oakland Cemetery
Last, but not least, there’s an audio commentary with filmmaker Tyler Perry. The generally good looking transfer is offered in a widescreen 1.85 ratio (1080p), but the low budget sometimes shows through in the overall look of the film (not the fault of the hi-def transfer, however). The sound is offered in a very nice (from a dialog standpoint) with an uncompressed PCM 7.1(!) channel overkill mix (exceptional for a film like this) as well as a DD-EX 5.1 mix (English and a Spanish DD 2.0 mix (subtitles in English and Spanish). This could have been a cut-out bin release save for the exceptional sound, good Blu-ray transfer and tons of extras. Tyler Perry, still growing as a filmmaker, keeps proving himself worth watching, even in standard uplifting fare such as this.
Ghost Rider: Extended Cut (Sony)
Featuring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue and Wes Bentley
Pop culture loves to go to hell and back again, for a variety of reasons, sometimes as morality play, sometimes as pure entertainment. Ghost Rider has a lot in common with other films (as well as comics and graphic novels) that offer a look at Hell on Earth, such as Constantine, Last Days, Hellboy, etc. Ghost Rider follows its source material, the Marvel Comic of the same name, very closely and presents us with the story of one Johnny Blaze (wouldn’t you know it… a fiery name for a flamin’ superhero of sorts) who unwittingly makes a deal with Mephistopheles (Satan with a capital M, played by the always reliable Peter Fonda) that leads him into having his soul merged with that of a demon, thus becoming “Ghost Rider” the Devil’s personal bounty hunter. Nicholas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stunt rider who, as a youth (played by Matt Long as the younger Johnny) attempts to save his father from cancer and ends up sealing his fate by accident in exchange for saving dear old dad. Cage is not quite as over-the-top as he’s been in other outings, but this one won’t lend his Oscar®-winning skills any further credibility. Still, in terms of campy comic book fare, this isn’t nearly as lame as the misfired Elektra movie or other attempts at creating a comic book feel and look. The setup is interesting, the premise gleefully absurd, but it’s the special effects that salvage an overall weak effort— in the end it’s an endurance test for those that aren’t already fans of the Marvel comic (who will probably love it). The single disc Blu-ray offering features an extended cut of the film (15 minutes overall) that fills in backstory regarding Johnny and his father and scenes of dialog between Johnny and Mephistopheles, as well as an strong action sequence between the Caretaker (played by the wonderful Sam Elliot) and the evil villain, Blackheart (played by Wes Bentley). The transfer is gorgeous in widescreen 2.40 ratio (1080p) showing clarity and sharpness with lovely color saturation throughout (nice to see flames so vivid that they could melt your TV screen). The audio is similarly extraordinary with a nicely mixed and uncompressed PCM 5.1 selection or a DD 5.1 mix (English/French). Action sequence sound is nicely rendered and the dialog never suffers for the utterly boom-bastic sound. Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai. The features are similar to the standard-def DVD release and include:
• Audio commentary with producer Gary Foster
• Audio commentary with writer/director Mark Steven Johnson and visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack
• Three Making of Documentaries: Spirit of Vengeance, Spirit of Adventure, Spirit of Execution
• Sin & Salvation: Featurettes Chronicling 40 years of Ghost Rider comic book history
• Animatics (animated story sequences)
Music and Lyrics (Warner)
Featuring: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Campbell Scott, Kristen Johnston and Brad Garrett
A nice little romantic comedy with a musical kick, let’s face it… it’s plenty hard to resist either Hugh Grant or Drew Barrymore… they’ve got the “just found love but don’t know what to do with it” vibe down pat by now in respective rom-coms of their own. Here, Grant stars as Alex Fletcher, one of the sidemen of PoP! (think Oates, Garfunkle, Ridgely, the News) a onetime ‘80s band famous for insipid little hits like Pop! Goes My Heart. Now on the downturn of a once quasi-famous career, Fletcher does tribute runs of PoP!’s hit parade slumming it to make a buck. A youthful pop singer whose hot with the tween set decides to dig up and resuscitate his flagging career by commissioning a song from him, and suddenly his life’s in turnaround and he needs to strike gold in a riverbed full of pyrite. As luck would have it (and luck is all it takes in a rom-com, that and a meet-cute!), the lovely lass that tends his houseplants can write lyrics to his music… and thus we have Music and Lyrics. Grant and Barrymore have good, if weird, chemistry (maybe it’s the age thing) and the relationship has it’s ups and downs… after some light conflict (involving credit for the song they write together) they’re like oil and water, but soon it’s more like Goober Grape… they just kinda go together and that’s that. The film’s actually pretty good in comparison with most other recent comedies that style themselves romantic (and usually fall short on the comedy side). Following in the footsteps of Bill Nighy’s riotous and sympathetic turns as fading rock stars, Grant makes a decent impression as Fletcher, and Barrymore is her goofy, charming self, but sometimes the plot and narrative seem all too familiar and all too stale. Ultimately this film makes a better DVD experience than a theatrical one (unless it’s date night).
The VC-1 encoded disc is a fine transfer in widescreen 1.85 ratio (1080p) but nothing extraordinary. It avoids the completely flat look that often afflicts rom-coms and offers nice detail and clarity. For a film that showcases music (and lyrics) throughout its running time, the audio is just plain sad for a hi-def release in either format. The English (Spanish and French[Quebec]) audio tracks are offered in DD 5.1 (at 640kbps!), no uncompressed mix offered, no higher bitrate given. Such a shame, but for those interested in the music only, the disc does give an option for a music-only track in DD 2.0 (be still my beating eardrums). I’m not impressed… Warner’s should have given this release a much better audio mix at least. For features you get a making-of doc (Note for Note: The Making of Music and Lyrics) some deleted scenes, a gag reel, a music video for “Pop! Goes My Heart” and a theatrical trailer.
Primeval (Buena Vista)
Featuring: Dominic Purcell, Jurgen Prochnow, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones and Gideon Emery
Gustave is a serial killer (if we’re to believe the advertising… and please, please don’t believe the ads), and he’s killed upwards of 300 people. That little factoid, in and of itself, should be enough to pique the interest of the horror film fan. I mean check out the poster and see skulls and rotting bones all over it… my gosh! the film must show every kind of depravity and insanity. Too bad the killer’s a big-assed crocodile who’s favorite haunt is smack dab in the middle of an African civil war. My gosh! this film SUCKS! Save for a few er, um.. stabs at campy horror, the movie just can’t make up its mind what it wants to be: action film, social commentary ala Blood Diamond, or an Anaconda styled hoot-fest (Prochnow alone is worth a hoot or two), but in the end it’s just a swampy mess that fails to do whatever it is it set out to do. Pure crap, and in on Blu-ray it’s just crap in sharp 1080 progressive scan line detail.
You get a 2.35 widescreen image that looks good (too bad the movie ain’t) with nice black levels and tons of detail seemingly packed into every frame. The PCM 5.1 surround mix is certainly effective during the action sequences and the dialog is clearly heard above the ambient sound and music (DD 5.1 is offered as well in English/Spanish/French, same as the subtitles). For features there’s a “Croc-umentary” called Bringing Gustave to Life, there’s also deleted scenes with director and VFX supervisor commentary and a standard audio commentary with the very same pair. Finally, the box of the Blu-ray release shows nothing but a close-up of a toothy croc-face and the text “Inspired by the true story of the most bloodthirsty crocodile ever.” No mention of a serial killer at all… that marketing campaign ran its course and got a few gullible asses in the theater seats—so, take revenge, O’ Consumer and rent, don’t buy (and only if you’re curious at that).
Seven Years in Tibet (Sony)
Featuring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong, Mako, Lhakpa Tsamchoe and Jamtsho Wangchuk
Based on the true life adventure book by Heinrich Harrer an Austrian sportsman and mountaineer (who also happened to be a member of the SA and SS ranks of the Nazi Party) the film is more a testament to one’s ability to change and forgo ego rather than an overt religious or political film. The real life Harrer is modified to fit Hollywood’s version of sainthood toward the end of the film, so the best parts play out early and during the scenes of Pitt’s more arrogant performance. Pitt underplays the role without being showy, but he comes across as distant and cold rather than uncompromisingly selfish and confident. Thewlis plays the real life Peter Aufschnaiter, another mountaineer who joins up on Harrer’s Kashmir trip to Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain on the planet. It’s during that attempt to summit the peak that Harrer and Aufschnaiter go from grating on each other’s nerves to outright animosity toward each other that only deepens when they find themselves prisoners of the British Army in India and are interred for a period of time before escaping and making tracks for Tibet where they find they’re not necessarily welcome. The film is beautiful in these sequences (some scenes were surreptitiously filmed in Tibet, but most were filmed in Argentina) and as Harrer and Aufschnaiter into the Tibetan realm of Lhasa to meet the young Dalai Lama, the tone of the film takes a turn from reckless adventurism toward a more spiritual and quiet take on Harrer’s character as he eventually becomes tutor to the Lama, training him on Western thought and culture (and perhaps golf, too). Harrer and Aufschnaiter fall into a love triangle with a local woman amidst political intrigue as China asserts its will into the monastery at Potala Palace. It’s here that the film takes on a melancholy air that deepens with Pitt’s pensive performance as Harrer longs for a wife and son that no longer want him. Harrer’s relationship with the 14th Dalai Lama allows him to get past the loss and appreciate a life of friendship and happiness, even as the world around them falls apart under China’s martial takeover and the loss of Tibetan autonomy. Though Scorsese’s Kundun, which came out in theaters around the same time, shares some of the same subject matter regarding the Dalai Lama and Tibet, the filmmaking styles couldn’t be more different. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud offers none of the cinematic flourishes that Scorsese tosses off so easily and gracefully. Yet, that might be this film’s greatest strength, since its narrative thrust is Harrer’s personal journey rather than the journey into the mystic of Tenzin Gyatso’s life and times.
The Blu-ray disc offers a typically crisp 1080p widescreen image (in 2.40 ratio) that blows away the Superbit release from a few years ago (gone is the annoying edge enhancement notorious on Columbia Superbit discs). The wide shots of Tibet (and Argentina!) look extraordinary in hi-def. Audio is offered in a nice, uncompressed 4.6 mbps PCM 5.1 mix and DD 5.1 (English/French). Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Thai, but not Tibetan. Sadly there are no features on this disc save for coming attractions for the Blu-ray format. Might not be worth the buy, but definitely worth the rental.