Yearly Archives: 2014

Nintendo To Focus On Hardcore Gamers?

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 10:57 am

Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto has suggested that the gaming veterans will stop focusing making games for passive gamers, and focus on hardcore games instead.

Interesting statement, as the Wii’s success came from casual gamers getting into the system for the first time, with games like Wii Sports proving extremely popular.

The designer of Mario has suggested his interest lies in hardcore gaming, with this quote from CVG;

“[These are] the sort of people who, for example, might want to watch a movie. They might want to go to Disneyland,” he said. “Their attitude is, ‘OK, I am the customer. You are supposed to entertain me.’ It’s kind of a passive attitude they’re taking, and to me it’s kind of a pathetic thing. They do not know how interesting it is if you move one step further and try to challenge yourself [with more advanced games].”

He suggests the casual gamer is more interested in smartphone gaming nowadays, so focusing on actual core gamers will make more sense.

 

Posted in Fun and Games

Rapture-Palooza

Posted on August 22, 2014 at 4:25 am

It’s unfortunately fitting that one of the biggest laughs in Rapture-Palooza is Craig Robinson’s Antichrist character, who has been spewing nothing but terrible sexual innuendo at Lindsey (Anna Kendrick) since the first moment he laid eyes on her, catches himself in the middle of explaining a pun to comment, “actually, that’s not that funny.” Despite a cast packed with some of the best people working in comedy today (John Francis Daley, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Thomas Lennon, John Michael Higgins, Ana Gasteyer, Paul Scheer, and Robinson, just to name a few), Bill & Ted scribes Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon taking up writing and producing duties, respectively, and the lovely Kendrick in the lead role, this end-of-the-world comedy is an apocalyptic misfire.

As Lindsay explains in a bit of voice-over narration, the Rapture arrived unexpectedly — she’s rolling strikes in a bowling alley with her boyfriend Ben (Daley) when most of the other patrons suddenly disappear, called up to heaven thanks to their belief. Everyone else has to stay on Earth, where locusts and crows scream at people, and fiery rocks rain from the sky. Despite the transformation of the world around them, Lindsay and Ben remain optimistic, with plans to open a sandwich cart, but when their first cart is smashed by one of those flaming boulders, they’re forced to turn to Ben’s dad (Corddry) for help, who works for The Antichrist and can potentially get them a job cleaning his pool. Instead, the moment “The Beast” (as he calls himself) sees Lindsay, he decides to try and make her his Queen of Darkness, much to everyone’s dismay.

Rapture-Palooza basically has three jokes, which the audience will become familiar with in a hurry: comically understated observation of the world as it now exists, swearing, and Robinson’s endless supply of double and single-entendres about Kendrick’s body and what he plans to do to it. Each of these is repeated, over and over. It rains blood, which frustrates Ben because his windshield wipers struggle with it. Those crows sit on lightposts and insult people from a distance. There’s comic potential in these ideas, but the film repeatedly settles for the easy or obvious gag, usually involving profanity.

In particular, Robinson’s material really grates on the nerves. Although he displays some crackerjack timing — he’s much more lively here than in This Is the End — comedy doesn’t play into a void. It requires a wall of some sort for the joke to bounce off of, and the character of Lindsay is a void, not a wall. A big part of The Beast’s interest in Lindsay stems from her virginity. It would be nice, for instance, if Lindsay had a reason that she had decided to remain a virgin, or if the film played up Ben and Lindsay trying to find the right moment, which would add some sort of emotional context for Lindsay’s reactions. Instead, the joke is just The Beast being aggressively gross toward Lindsay. One or two gags (like The Beast’s love of eggs) veers toward the absurd, which is much funnier, but they’re drops of water in a vast desert.

Other amusing weirdo gags linger elsewhere, like Thomas Lennon as a zombie who wants nothing more than to keep going through the motions of mowing his lawn, even though his mower was stolen months ago. Paul Scheer is also excellent in a tiny role as a monstrous gate guard who hates Corddry’s guts. There are a few laughs to be had, but more than anything, Rapture-Palooza feels like a brainstorming session of Rapture jokes and explicit pick-up lines, hastily slapped onto a clothesline plot that doesn’t actually support the jokes, because nobody’s put any thought into how these characters fit in with the ideas.

The DVD
Rapture-Palooza arrives in a simple but slick-looking package highlighting Kendrick and Robinson. No points for creativity, but there’s a nice use of color, I suppose. The disc and digital copy code are packaged inside an eco-friendly case, which is accompanied by a cardboard slipcover featuring identical artwork.

The Video and Audio
This 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound are both adequate, if not impressive — good enough to avoid serious complaints, not impressive enough to praise. Detail and color are very strong, although artifact-type edge haloes appear when characters are in front of bright backgrounds. Similarly, there are some decent surround effects (such as, for instance, a crowd of swearing crows flying away from a power line, as well as the occasional explosion or storm), and music is nicely amped, but most of the movie is just characters indoors talking to one another. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
First up is a audio commentary by Craig Robinson, Rob Huebel, and Rob Corddry. Much like the movie, all three of these guys are funny, and ought to be able to come up with something, but they seem unsure of where to go with the commentary format, spending more time mocking the fact that they’re doing a commentary and chuckling at the occasional joke. Disappointing.

An assortment of short video extras follow. First is a Robinson-centric making-of-featurette, “Good to Be the Beast” (8:05). Robinson talks a little about his role as a producer on the movie and how he worked to bring friends from the comedy world onto the project, intercut with lots of B-roll of the cast joking around on set, as well as some outtakes. This segues well into a gag reel (2:42), which is easily the best extra on the disc — why isn’t the movie this funny Next, “Thomas Lennon’s Movie Making Moments” (5:39) is an amusing little extra with the actor riffing from the makeup trailer and on the set (the makeup lady is a great sport and a great audience). His goofy French accent is a highlight. Lastly, there’s a series of deleted scenes (8:50), which includes some alternate improvisation for scenes that remain in the movie. A couple of chuckle-worthy lines were cut, but it’s basically more of the same.

Trailers for Warm Bodies, Peeples, Disaster Movie, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu.

Conclusion
Despite a fantastic cast, Rapture-Palooza is a mess, leaning heavily on gross-out humor that might earn a few chuckles from thirteen-year-olds. Skip it.

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Posted in Fun and Games

Charlie Chan Collection (Shadows Over Chinatown / Docks of New Orleans / Shanghai Chest / The Golden Eye)

Posted on August 20, 2014 at 4:25 am

Billed, simply, as Charlie Chan Collection, is if unaware of the scads of Charlie Chan boxed sets already in existence (at least seven, plus various public domain offerings), this one admittedly scrapes the bottom of the barrel, four movies made when the series was in its death throes. But for hardcore fans (like me) it’s still a must-have. The series as we know it began at Fox in 1931, with Warner Oland as the first and best Charlie Chan. When he died in 1938 Sidney Toler took over the role, then when Fox stopped making Chan movies in the early forties Toler bought the screen rights, probably anticipating a lateral move to a studio like RKO.

Instead, the series wound up at lowly Monogram, the third-rate Poverty Row studio best remembered today for its East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies and campy Bela Lugosi/John Carradine/George Zucco horror films. The Chan series’ budgets dropped from around $200,000 per picture at Fox to $75,000 at Monogram, most of which were shot in ten or twelve days.

Much less care went into the writing of these later films. They lack the rich proto-noir atmosphere of the ‘30s Fox films and as mysteries the Monograms pretty much suck rocks. But Toler was still fun to watch and, best of all, the movies all feature African-American comedian Mantan Moreland, an extremely underrated, reliably funny comic actor that shamefully misguided political correctness unjustly shuttered into obscurity for decades. Anyway, when Toler died in 1947 Monogram took no chances, hiring a hearty if then obscure actor named Roland Winters to replace him. Later, there was talk of moving the series lock, stock, and barrel to England (Monogram had funds tied up there) but when the British Pound was devalued the idea was abandoned and the series ignominiously ended.

Where Fox released DVDs of all the extant Fox Chan films, rights to Monogram’s film library are confusingly divided among Warner Bros., MGM and, apparently, Paramount. Warner Bros. themselves released a much more compact batch o’ Chans themselves some time back, as a DVD set also called Charlie Chan Collection, though as a TCM Spotlight Collection title.

This one, with pressed DVDs and not DVD-Rs, includes four more titles: Shadows Over Chinatown (1946), Docks of New Orleans, Shanghai Chest, and The Golden Eye (all 1948). Not counting the four early Warner Oland titles presumed lost, that leaves just a couple of Chan films yet to be released to DVD.

“Sometimes, surgeon’s scar speak louder than fingerprints.”

Shadows Over Chinatown was Sidney Toler’s penultimate Chan. The main thing distinguishing this otherwise tepid entry is that it reintroduces actor Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan, Charlie’s No. 2 son. He’d played the character in the last eight Fox films with Toler, and had not been seen since 1942’s Castle in the Desert. Victor Sen Yung was not as good an actor nor as memorable as Keye Luke, who had played elder brother Lee Chan during the Warner Oland years, and who was more energetic and excitable than Jimmy. But Sen Yung was certainly a big improvement over Monogram’s clumsy attempts to replace him with less talented (and more importantly for Monogram, much cheaper) Asian actors. Victor Sen Yung, like Keye Luke, could play the very Americanized Chinese-American (“Hey, Pop!”) in a way that amusingly contrasted Toler’s more traditional Chinese immigrant, and Sen Yung has good screen chemistry with the Monogram series’ comedy relief, Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, Charlie’s chauffeur.

The plots of these invariably incoherent Monograms hardly matter, but for the record this one has Charlie investigating the grim murder involving an armless, legless torso.

The film opens aboard a bus bound for San Francisco. Interestingly, for these scenes Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler), son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and black chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) all sit at the front of the bus, while the other passengers, all white, sit behind them. Though clearly staged that way for no other reason than the cameraman’s convenience, I’ll bet that didn’t go over well in Deep South. Having just seen Bus Stop (1956), an expensive Fox film starring Marilyn Monroe, the contrast between that bus interior set and this one is striking. So cheap is Monogram’s set that the featureless bus interior is like a giant cardboard box with seats. And curtains. Later what’s supposed to be a morgue is represented by a two particleboard walls painted to look like marble.

In San Francisco, Chan visits the Bureau of Missing Persons, where he consults with Captain Allen (Alan Bridge) about the case and another he’s just taken on: the search for a young woman named Mary Conover (Tanis Chandler), whose Scottish grandmother (Mary Gordon, Mrs. Hudson from the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films) is worried sick.

Shadows Over Chinatown ain’t much, but it does have a couple of nice ideas rare by this point in the series. One is Charlie’s relationship with a roguish old pickpocket, Cosgrove, played by perennial screen drunk Jack Norton. The cast, with character veterans such as Norton, Gordon, and Bridge, is a bit better than average as well. Toler, past seventy and growing ill, nonetheless looks just fine onscreen playing what a Variety reviewer described as the “sage slant-eyed sleuth.” (**1/2 out of *****)

“The ignorant always loud in argument.”

Filmed in less than ten days, Docks of New Orleans is pretty tepid. It was Roland Winters’s second appearance as Charlie Chan, and though physically quite different from Toler, he basically imitates Toler’s interpretation of the character. Winters’s Wikipedia entry makes this observation: “Some consider him an ineffective successor to Oland and Toler; others defend him for his unique approach to the character. Oland’s Chan was shrewd and placid, Toler’s was observant and crabby, and Winters’ was generally sarcastic and impatient.” That’s sort of true, but I’d argue that Oland’s Chan was outwardly more deferential, courteous, and warm, but who also knew how to use prejudices and presumptions about his race and English ability to his advantage, and he was amused by this. He also loved his family in ways Toler’s Chan barely tolerated them. Toler’s Chan was indeed crabby.

That Monogram would pluck Winters out of relative obscurity is odd considering that his frizzy hair and steely blue eyes make him the least convincingly Asian of the three non-Asian actors, though he was by far the healthiest. At 44, he was younger even than Keye Luke, who’d return as Chan’s No. 1 son for the last couple of entries.

The lack of enthusiasm put into Docks of New Orleans is exemplified by the script, which is actually a pretty close remake of Mr. Wong, Detective (1939), Monogram’s first attempt to create a Charlie Chan-like mystery series, this series starring Boris Karloff. If you’ve seen that film you won’t need a scorecard here.

The basic plot involves the murder, later murders, of partners of a New Orleans-based chemical company, and concerns that some of these chemicals are being shipped out of the country (represented by a typically cheap dockyard set, basically a cargo hold door). The murders somehow are connected to the use of poisonous gas hidden in radio tubes.

The film is occasionally fleetingly amusing. Chan notices a copy of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa hanging on a wall. “Ah, charming portrait,” he says, as if unaware of its fame. In another scene Jimmy Chan, inexplicably from here on called Tommy, and Birmingham Brown practice a musical number they’ve whipped up, called “Chop Suey Boogie,” though it’s painfully clear neither of them is actually playing their instruments. Mantan Moreland has a nice bit with black actor Haywood Jones, as Mobile Jones, a riff of Moreland’s signature “incomplete sentence” routine, though better, more complete versions appear in other Chan films. (**)

“Surprised detective might just as well clutch iron ball and dive in lake” or, better put, “Winters Chan excellent cure for restless insomniac.”

Dull as dishwater, Shanghai Chest opens with the stabbing death of San Francisco Judge Wesley Armstrong (Pierre Watkin). Moments later the judge’s nephew, Victor (John Alvin) is knocked cold by the assailant, his identity hidden beneath a heavy overcoat that looks like the coat hanger is still underneath. And, wouldn’t you know it, Victor regains consciousness dazedly holding the bloody murder weapon just as the police arrive.

Meanwhile, Tommy and Birmingham Brown follow an apparent burglar into the home of District Attorney Frank Bronson (Russell Hicks). (Tommy urges Birmingham to go first, reasoning “You’ll be harder to see in the dark.”) Unfortunately, the burglar is actually the D.A. himself, trying to get into his own locked house, and the two would-be sleuths are thrown into jail.

Soon after, Bronson himself turns up dead, shot, and a juror is found hanged. Evidence would seem to point to a man tried, convicted and executed six months before. Can Charlie Chan solve this baffling (and bafflingly dull) mystery

Not much here. This was the first of three series turns by Tim Ryan, Irene “Granny” Ryan’s ex-husband, as police Lt. Mike Ruark, but he’s not especially memorable. Indeed, other than the welcome appearance of character actors Tristram Coffin and Philip Van Zandt. The only thing about the picture stirring this reviewer’s near-somnambulistic state was the strange unbilled cameo of African-American actor Willie Best.

Best, who sometimes worked under the not-exactly flattering stage name “Sleep ‘n’Eat,” was a talented comedian who tended to play the worst racial stereotypes. He’d been in a couple of the Toler Chans, but my hunch is Mantan Moreland must have got him this half-day bit part so that Best could pay some bills. Having been bailed out of jail, Birmingham and Tommy are walking past some cells when Birmingham recognizes Willie Best playing, apparently, actor Willie Best, in jail after an attempted bank robbery. Odd.

As for the movie, (* 1/2)

“So much for so much.”

The Golden Eye, as opposed to GoldenEye, benefits somewhat from a thankful change of venue. In this entry, a weird fusing of genres, Charlie, Tommy, and Birmingham Go West to investigate attempts on the life of an Arizonian gold mine owner, Manning (Forrest Taylor). They check in as guests at the nearby Lazy Y Dude Ranch where Charlie bumps into Lt. Mike Ruark (Tim Ryan), working undercover and masquerading as an obnoxious drunk.

Manning’s, gold mine, the Golden Eye, long thought to be played out, is suddenly producing up a huge fortune in ore. Manning himself, however, is bedridden, unable to speak and his head completely wrapped in bandages, under the Lady Vanishes-like care of a suspicious Catholic nun/nurse, Sister Teresa (Evelyn Brent).

The Golden Eye is a slight improvement over the earlier Roland Winters Chans. The novelty of the Western setting helps, and it’s fun to see an enthusiastic Birmingham Brown and Tommy Chan play cowboy, dressing up like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. (Charlie, however, stubbornly sticks to his usual attire.) After a first reel set in San Francisco (and not-bad backlot streets), the film shifts to the Arizona dude ranch, apparently a real Santa Clarita, California resort of some kind. Regardless, it’s very photogenic, while our three heroes spend another big chunk of the film down in the gold mine, elaborate sets by Monogram’s standards, possibly left over from another film. Overall it looks more expensive than the last several Chan films combined.

The mystery aspects, though easily solvable, at least play fair with the audience for a change, and the film ends, strangely, with Mantan Moreland walking straight into the camera lens. (** 1/2)

Video & Audio

Each film gets its own DVD case and its own real, made-in-Mexico DVD, not DVD-Rs. The quality of the transfers, all full-frame and black and white, are exceptionally good, far superior to other contemporaneous Monogram films, e.g., the Bowery Boys series, Jimmy Wakely, Bomba the Jungle Boy. The Chans are comparatively pristine. The mono audio, English only, is also good, and unusual for minor catalog DVD titles these days, the discs offer subtitle options in English, French, and Spanish. No Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Those not familiar with the once-great Charlie Chan movie series are advised to skip this and instead seek out Fox’s boxed sets of Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies from the 1930s, which are still enormous fun. This Charlie Chan Collection is for die-hard fans only, those working toward a set of the complete series on DVD, and who can appreciate what extremely modest pleasures even these mostly bad films still offer. For them, this is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart’s Cine Blogarama here.

Posted in Fun and Games

Post Tenebras Lux

Posted on August 18, 2014 at 4:25 am

THE FILM
 

I suppose there’s a certain degree of “shock value” to the work of the fascinating, tremendously gifted Mexican writer-director Carlos Reygadas. In films like his debut, 2002’s Japón, or his despairingly gorgeous 2005 masterpiece, Battle in Heaven, a deadpan, unflinching, near-pornographic (except much too dispassionate) sexual explicitness vis-à-vis physically regular, unglamorous people (the elderly, the saggily middle-aged and/or obese, etc.) flows seamlessly with Reygadas’s unerring eye for mystery and beauty wherever it may be found, in teeming, sweaty urban clamor, the clashing classes and unreconstructed Catholicism, or the remote villages and wild, unpopulated nature of his country. The same can be said of his latest well-aimed shot at cinematic profundity, Post Tenebras Lux (in Latin, “after darkness, light”): The bourgeois-bohemian married couple at the center of its elusive narrative, Juan and Natalia (Adolfo Jimenez Castro and Nathalia Acevedo) have true love but also a restlessness that leads them to both try country life (albeit in an incongruously rustic-McMansion house that sticks out amid their rural neighbors’ relative poverty) and, in one of the film’s many unexpected, back-or-forth temporal displacements, to try their hand at sophisticated swinging in a Parisian sex club the various “specialty” chambers of which are named after Continental philosophers. But the near-metaphysical essence of that orgiastic encounter at which Reygadas carefully constructs this sequence of anxious sexual journeying to arrive is just part of the proof that his willingness to seem indelicate or look unflinchingly past any modesty his characters may feel for themselves (or us, prudishly, on their behalf) is working light-years removed from the kind of childish, repressed button-pushing and gimmickry indulged in by more notorious, thickheaded sensationalists like Irréversible spawner Gaspar Noé. He’s not trying to titillate or test our endurance by rubbing our noses in something he himself moralistically considers “dirty,” but rather negotiating some very complicated aesthetic and representational channels to see if there isn’t, as he suspects, some point at which what we consider brutal, “ugly,” or savage and what we consider beautiful and edifying don’t at least connect and harmonize, if not actually collapse into one another.

Post Tenebras Lux, too, has its forays into the unusually graphic, and it is in a very significant way Reygadas’s most extreme film to date, but the latter actually has nothing to do with how uncomfortably explicit it might become (it’s far from his most X-rated work). The shock here is that Reygadas has taken the pane depicting the strivings and (d)evolution of Juan and Natalia’s family (also including two toddlers, a boy called Eleazar and a girl called Rut, both played by Reygadas’s own children of the same names) and smashed it into asymmetrical shards that he’s then rearranged in an order and with an eccentric focus that absolutely and unrelentingly defy basic narrative rules of chronology, psychology, cause and effect, or continuity/consistency of point of view. The film’s scrambling of time is not narratively motivated at all (this is not Memento; it stubbornly refuses, ever, to “come together” in that way), but a purposeful downplaying, a diminution of the primary role of narrative itself: The dramatic moments for the family — Juan and Natalia’s Parisian visit; a big, affluent family Christmas party in the city years in the future; the crime committed by El Siete (Willebaldo Torres) that changers their rural existence forever and branches off into the poor, rural, servant-class El Siete’s own heartbreaking story of marriage and family; a day at the beach when Eleazar and Rut appear to be in their early teens; footage from an English boarding school’s violent soccer matches (is a teenaged Eleazar, or perhaps a younger Juan, a privileged Mexican enrollee among this unhappy, riled and combative group of international rich boys Impossible to say with any certainty) — play out more or less realistically but are never ordered to reveal a timeline or culmination of any dramas. And sometimes that more-or-less realism becomes suddenly, markedly less: Bookending the film is a scene in which a well-appointed home (possibly the dwelling of Juan and Natalia’s family unit before or after they’ve been in the country) is stealthily entered by an infrared-silhouette devil, complete with horns and pointed tail, toting a toolbox, to cause who knows what mischief; and one character’s fate, drawing the film to its very enigmatic close, involves an assuredly, technically perfectly played out (via subtle, amazing special effect), physically impossible sort of harakiri that, as in a Romantic poem, brings on a torrential rain — entirely unrealistic, compelling externalizations of overwhelming, unbearable emotional states.

The key to what’s going on in Post Tenebras Lux, the way to understand (though hardly “make sense of”) it, is in its surpassingly beautiful, experimental visual style. There are patterns here, discernible and evocative recurrences highlighting larger concerns than specific familial relationships, individual emotions, tricky marital and coming-of-age issues, etc.: Reygadas has no solutions to the problems of humankind’s ambivalent coexistence with the nature from which we emerged and alienated ourselves, or where “evil” — the compromise and failure of what is or is meant to be benevolent and good — originates, but these are the matters he’s trying to shed some light on through the prism of disordered and ultimately abandoned narrative. In collaboration with cinematographer Alexis Zabe (who also shot the director’s previous film, Silent Light) Reygadas orchestrates an image that’s made not less but so much more vivid through a strange distortion effect that most often blurs the edges of the frame in such a way that everything appears at a decided remove, as in a dream, or like viewing these ambiguous but striking snatches of human life and nature and super-nature in their various forms through some special sort of magnifying glass. With this ravishing, puzzling, bold appeal to our eye first and foremost, bypassing our rational/logical story-sense, Reygadas signals the terms on which he means, his disorienting, even maddening narrative emphases and elisions notwithstanding, to hold our attention and offer unexpected forms of “suspense” and gratification.

This all comes together not only as a force unto itself, but as a progression, a further deepening of Reygadas’s already-proven brilliance. The only other contemporary filmmaker who, often using similarly unusual, inspired photographic distortions, has so successfully dampened the narrative drive of his films to draw out such a metaphysical kind of magnificence is the great Russian director Alexandr Sokurov (this is especially true of Whispering Pages and Mother and Son); like Sokurov, Reygadas (along with Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier) belongs to a select, courageous group toiling fruitfully under an anxiety of influence implanted by the (aesthetically and spiritually) revolutionary cinéaste Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker), whose masterpiece The Mirror — free-associatively structured biographical fragments that evoke, gorgeously, wordlessly, formally, emotionally, non-narratively, vast philosophical, historical, and cultural meanings — Post Tenebras Lux does not copy but resembles in some very salient ways. It’s nothing less than a cinematic experience that demands, if you’re willing, that you dust off some wrongly neglected part of you to bypass its muffled, marginalized story in order to properly respond to its other, frightening, dazzling, magnificently serious implications. Whether or not you’re in any way religious, it reaches and awakens whatever’s in you that you might consider a soul, and in any case, it’s at least a holy enough rite to reaffirm one’s faith that Carlos Reygadas is one of the best, most vital and fearless filmmakers in the world.

 

THE DVD

Video:

This 1.33:1 aspect-ratio transfer (the acceptable, only minutely diverging DVD approximation of its original 1.37:1 AR) is very good, with all of the often lush and diverse colors and skin tones in the image (the opening shot, with a child roaming a muddy field of reflective pools while a rosy dusk looms in the sky overhead and a storm brews, is a lovely and entrancing example of how this photographically very rich film has been kept that way via this transfer). There may be some intermittent moments of slight over-smoothing via DNR (unlike many of the director’s films, this one was shot on 35 mm, not digital), but nothing offensive, and the picture retains a healthy celluloid-like quality for the most part, with very few, and even then only very minor, instances of compression artifacting (no aliasing at all, but some occasional very minor edge enhancement/haloing).

Sound:

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack (in Spanish and French with non-optional English subtitles) conveys all dialogue and music, and most importantly the deep, rich, and often ominous natural soundscape of the film with full range and detail (you feel the rumble of the strong seashore wind, ditto the thunder, while the falling rain sounds crystalline), and no distortion or imbalance at any point.

Extras:

–Just the film’s U.S. theatrical trailer and a few other previews for Strand Releasing titles such as Paradise: Love.

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS
To an even further extent than his previous, at once rudely earthy and metaphysical provocations, the latest film from visionary Mexican director Carlos Reygadas presents the viewer with a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. Our default desire to make narrative sense of its very loosely gathered-together fragments of story is, as far as I can tell, meant to be thwarted, trained out of us by the film’s stubbornly opaque structure, at least insofar as it concerns a sequence of events in the lives of its protagonists — the mother and father and two children of a well-off, bourgeois-bohemian nuclear family settled for a child-rearing stretch in a pretty house, surrounded by Nature in all its un-human manifestations, somewhere in Mexico far from the crowded and chaotic urban centers, where they remain vulnerable nevertheless to many kinds of trouble, both prosaic and singularly uncanny. We can perhaps see where the pieces of Post Tenebras Lux‘s domestic-drama story (very vividly, immediately rendered, on a scene-by-scene basis anyway, despite the overall seemingly random fragmentation) might have fit together, but Reygadas never really lets them meet, instead patiently holding them up, one by one and in a willfully arbitrary-feeling order, to the light. It’s profoundly frustrating for the part of us that wants the payoff — the chronology, the cause-and-effect, the “sense” events and characters should make, psychologically and narratively. But looked at another way — a way the film’s incredibly sensuous surfaces; the sheer, ravishing power of its sometimes frighteningly strange images; and the graceful elisions of its cutting conjoin to easily, luxuriously allow if you let them — it’s a great liberation from those old expectations and a stretching out, perhaps uncomfortable but boundlessly rewarding, of our story-hunger into some finer, perhaps more poetic or musical, mode of reception. Reygadas’s pointed neglect of our perceived “need” to know certain things is actually generous; it frees us to be affected by these disconnected episodes’ representing something the story, had it been delivered straighter, would’ve obscured — electrically-charged variations on a theme no less long-running, urgent, and permanently disconcerting than the place human beings, as individuals and as groups/tribes/societies, want, have, or can’t have amid the nature that we romanticize and admire even as it signals its indifference to all our attempts to somehow return to it from our artificial comforts. There’s no trail of crumbs left for us to feel we know or understand this film’s characters or its story with any satisfying certainty, but the through-line that surges right through every successive sequence is there, recurrent, cumulative, and magnificent: It’s an unfolding pattern — a tense, uneasy, visceral, kaleidoscopic comparison/contrast of neurotic homo sapiens to the maelstrom of the physical world we can’t seem to live either with or without. If you let the film work its strange magic on you, it overwhelms and invigorates; it’s a work of art that has the power not merely to cater to but to alter our perceptions, denying us one kind of fulfillment and pleasure in order to awaken and slake an even deeper, even more essential thirst. Highly Recommended.

Posted in Fun and Games

Elementary: The First Season

Posted on August 16, 2014 at 4:25 am

With Hollywood scrambling to turn anything they believe has a built-in audience into new grist for films and TV, it’s unsurprising that Sherlock Holmes has seen a massive resurgence in the last 5 years. First there was the BBC’s “Sherlock”, which moved the story to contemporary times for mini-series seasons divided up into two feature-length episodes. This was followed by the major motion pictures Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, set in the original time period and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the world’s greatest detective. Most recently, “Elementary” joined the fray, a US TV show starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as a gender-swapped Joan Watson.

Like the BBC show, this Sherlock is set in modern times. Sherlock was once employed by Scotland Yard as a consultant, who used his incredible powers of deduction to help solve murder cases. He was booted from the force when a drug addiction consumed him. Some two years later, he’s landed on his feet in New York City, ready to pick up the consulting mantle again with the NYPD following a stint in rehab. Joan is assigned to Sherlock as his sober companion, a live-in associate who helps him maintain his drug-free lifestyle. She accompanies him to work and quickly becomes wrapped up in the experience of visiting crime scenes and solving mysteries, discovering almost instantly that Sherlock’s ability to notice and dissect every detail is much more interesting than helping the average alcoholic stay on the wagon.

Compared to feature-length episodes or a massive film production, the first inclination is to call “Elementary” a bit simplistic. The pilot episode makes the mistake of using Sherlock’s eccentricities and immutable eye for detail as the source of cutesy comedy. It’s not the worst “Brits are witty” / “funny because he’s crazy” routine I’ve seen in American entertainment, but it’s mildly grating. Additionally, the “murder-of-the-week” nature of the show can end up feeling a little perfunctory; it would be nice to see the show attempt some more mysteries of varying lengths. However, as the season progresses, “Elementary” starts gaining traction thanks to sharp casting and the nice development of a male-female relationship that’s purely platonic.

The secret to this success is the character of Joan, a former surgeon who ended up sliding into sober companionship after a personal tragedy. Joan chose to retreat into a simpler career, where she could still help people, but even if she never says it out loud, the routine of sober companionship is frustrating for her. When she meets Sherlock, she not only finds someone who has swiftly and thoroughly defeated their own troubled past, but also a new way to help people that’s much more interesting. The developing partnership between Sherlock and Watson forms the backbone of “Elementary” — even when individual stories are somewhat repetitive, they provide the set up for new developments in Joan’s immersion into Sherlock’s work. Liu and Miller play this relationship with just the right amount of weight and sincerity. Meanwhile, Aidan Quinn plays Captain Gregson and Jon Michael Hill is his top detective Marcus Bell, completing an admirably unusual ensemble. Each of these roles is well-rounded and brings a specific tone or flavor to the piece, which is nice.

The battle at the heart of “Elementary” is between the skilled and engaging cast and the middle-of-the-road writing and direction. It’s not that any one of these episodes is boring or bad, but very few of them stand out, either. It’s got to be a challenge, writing 22 increasingly clever mysteries, especially when your protagonist is a genius: the stories must strike the perfect balance between being simple enough that the audience can follow Sherlock’s eventual explanation, while also being too smart for the answers to be obvious the moment the audience learns the facts. For the most part, the writers succeed, but not without the show settling into a familiar pattern (Sherlock hits a roadblock, Joan sees something minor he missed). Additionally, the show is crammed with exposition, because Sherlock is a naturally expository character, arriving at a conclusion and then explaining it to those who can’t see it. Sometimes, these spiels are on-the-nose, blatantly for the audience’s benefit rather than the characters.

Mostly, though, the direction is the disappointing angle. “Elementary” not only has no real stylistic personality (potentially refreshing), but even lacks a visual personality. Each episode looks the same and moves in basically the same fashion, which makes for sort of a bland marathon experience. The most lazy aspect of the show is the flashback sequences that pop up when Sherlock has unraveled a bit of information, which are quite generic and mostly unnecessary. It’s hard to come up with a visual way to convey Sherlock’s power of deduction, but there must be a more unique and interesting way to depict his ability to zero in on details. The show has a very interesting title sequence involving a marble rolling into a revolver, setting off some sort of Mouse Trap-style Rube Goldberg contraption, and it only becomes more abstract as the show reveals itself as directorially standard.

In the last three episodes, an arc begins that plays with key aspects of the modern Holmes mythos. Although it inspires some excellent dramatic moments from Miller and aims to put a distinctive new stamp on the show, it naturally pushes the limits of believability and can’t quite live up to certain expectations that the show itself inevitably sets up. Regardless, even when a given episode of “Elementary” can’t quite hold my attention (I started to have a problem with pausing it to take care of random chores), the strength of the characters kept me coming back to the show. “Elementary” has been renewed for a second season, giving them the freedom to shake things up — hopefully, the show is just beginning to hit its stride.

The DVD
The artwork for “Elementary”: The First Season is a bit underwhelming, considering the oddball and stylish opening credit sequence for the show. There must’ve been something more creative to do than simply slap a promo photo on the front, something with a bit more emphasis on the city of New York, which gives “Elementary” much of its personality. Oh, well. This 6-disc set is packed into a transparent, single-width plastic Amaray case with two double-sided flap trays. The case art is double-sided, displaying disc breakdowns with episode summaries on the inside, and the whole package slides into an embossed matte slipcover with identical artwork.

The Video and Audio
For some reason, Paramount and CBS have opted not to issue “Elementary” on Blu-Ray, which is not only disappointing because it ought to be on both formats, but also because this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is pretty underwhelming. Spread across 6 discs with 3 hours of content per disc, it seems like the show should look all right, but these episodes look digitally mushy. The episode-specific credits (after the intro) are surrounded with a noticeable cluster of noise and artifacting, as well around repetitive patterns, such as thin black lines on one of Sherlock’s shirts, or the bars of an iron gate. Black levels are not particularly deep, although thankfully banding is not an issue, that I noticed, aside from one shot on the last disc. Fine details, such as the individual bars of a Venetian blind in a scene from Episode 5 where Sherlock is standing in the back of a shot, are sometimes lost. Compression-based haloes can appear around faces and figures when a lighter color serves as a backdrop, like the sky or a white wall. What is probably a fine grain in HD is just a faintly blocky softness on DVD. On the whole, the picture quality is serviceable, and those with average-size TV sets will probably not notice most of these issues even if the picture doesn’t pop off the screen, but this is more in line with what I would’ve expected a TV show to look like on DVD roughly a decade ago, not a 2013 release of a brand new show.

Thankfully, the audio is much better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track included on these discs is robust and lively, capturing the jaunty dance of the show’s musical score and theme song with a pleasing enthusiasm. Dialogue is always clear, surround activity is nicely balanced in sets both cramped and spacious, and the occasional action beat is on-par with a low-budget feature film. Audio-wise, no complaints. An English 2.0 track, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
“Elementary” gets a very basic supplementary package, made up entirely of EPK-style behind-the-scenes clips, which are fairly perfunctory and not particularly interesting. Two of the featurettes appear on Disc 1. “A Holmes of Their Own” (11:52) sits down with executive producer / creator Robert Doherty and executive producer Carl Beverly to discuss their attempt to distinguish their version of the character from all of the others throughout history, then steps back for a more general look at the cast and characters. “In Liu of Watson” (9:45) unsurprisingly focuses a little more on Joan and what the gender-swap means for the show. Beverly has some slightly silly comments about the need to justify writing a character as a woman (even one with 100 years of history), but Doherty, Liu, and the writers steer the piece back on track. Of the two, this is the more interesting.

The rest of the material is on Disc 6. “Holmes Sweet Holmes” (17:56) is a discussion of the writing process and how the crew has chosen to develop the character and those around him over the course of the season. Next, Lucy Liu leads the viewer on a quick, amped up set tour (3:19), pointing out some of the details that can’t be spotted during the episodes, and finally, we have a series of shorter featurettes under the heading “The Power of Observation”: “Seeing is Believing” (3:01) is a very brief look at the visual effects for the series; “Devil in the Details” (3:43) examines the set decoration and props; and Watson yet again in “My Dear Watson” (3:53). These shorter bits are actually slightly more interesting than the longer featurettes; they feel as if they contain more information in less time (or perhaps, the same amount of information in less time).

The set is rounded out with a reel of promos (8:06) for the series, which unsurprisingly focus on the more eccentric elements of the pilot.

Conclusion
Although the market is slightly crowded in terms of Holmes adaptations, “Elementary” holds its own thanks to its twist on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Despite some the occasional trip and stumble, Miller and Liu guarantee that “Elementary” stays engaging. It’s disappointing the show didn’t get a high-def release, and the bonuses are pretty perfunctory, but this season still comes recommended.

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