Sinister (2012) Blu-ray review

What You May Like:

  • Ethan Hawke’s genuinely good performance
  • Cryptic atmosphere and tone keeps your attention
  • A good idea for a villain

What You May Not:

  • Riddled with modern horror cliches
  • Next to zero chemistry with primary characters
  • Typical jump scares lack originality

What You’ll Remember:

  • How even during daytime, everything can still remain pitch black

While horror films have certainly evolved within the last 30 years, taking into account the cheesy low budget slashers of the 70s and 80s, to those of a higher class within the 80s decade into the 90s, introducing more supernatural elements and psychological elements, horror is a genre that has certainly seen its fair share of change. Such changes seem to coincide with what a particular culture would perhaps prefer, yet this is no real surprise as all entertainment mediums must mature and grow in one way or another. While some work as blatant knock-offs, others borrow various elements from other films to present us with an entirely new, but altogether not entirely original story. Sinister, one of the more popular and critically acclaimed horror films of this current generation now comes to bring us what many others in the genre have seemed to become accustomed to for the 2000s era; yet whether some may like or dislike it, there is certainly a vibe within these types of films (this time harboring what seem strictly supernatural plot threads) that keep its returning customers happy, and Sinister certainly presents that vibe to the nth degree with enough oomph to keep our attention, even if it’s based on a palette we may have already experienced numerous times prior.

Sinister comes to us from director Scott Derrickson, the brains behind some fairly cheap but still somewhat relevant horror and thriller films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hellraiser: Inferno. Here, we have star Ethan Hawke playing Ellison Oswalt, a 30-something family man and professional author of various famous detective and crime thriller novels that he bases on real life events. Ellison decides to move his wife Tracy, played with a very basic and standard delivery by actress Juliet Rylance, and two young children to a new home in a small town in order to help Ellison gather enough research for his new novel, a work that is based on the true story of a murdered family that was killed right in the very home they are moving into. Upon arrival, Ellison is immediately given a very cold welcome by the local sheriff, who is straight in his proposal that the family leave as soon as possible so as to avoid any disrespectful reminders of those catastrophic events for the town. From here on in it comes to our knowledge that Ellison is really the only person who desires this new residence, while everyone else seems in constant disagreement; a good start considering we really only get to know Ellison throughout over anyone else. Whence unpacking, Ellison finds an old reel-to-reel machine with various homemade family reel films packaged neatly together, almost seemingly left on purpose. When things are a bit more settled with their move Ellison decides to watch the videos, only to find some truly horrific content on them, such as scenes and brutality and torture to not only the family that was killed in the home, but others as well. It is from here that Ellison soon discovers a more supernatural element at play, and must further investigate the circumstances not only for his novel, but for his own peace of mind as to who would film such content, as well as why the materials were left so conveniently in the attic. Thankfully the only ally Ellison finds is that of a local officer who, unlike his boss sheriff, is an actual fan of Ellison’s previous works. Due to Ellison’s past as a writer being more of a one-hit wonder story, he is all the more poised to find answers in the hopes of his next novel being his second breakthrough hit.

Derrickson is thankfully working with a decent enough script, albeit easily of higher quality than some of his previous straight-to-video works, and it shows. Sinister initially sucks the audience in for no other reason than its gloomy atmosphere and fatigued character moods, set to a decidedly dark and glum color palette; as is typical we see the same cliched surroundings and introductions you would expect from a modern horror showing  – continuous cloudy daylight, small house in a rural area, small town sheriffs, low lighting, slow-panning cameras, etc. Yet this style, although unoriginal, works, but perhaps only for reasoning of it being a horror film and such a familiar build-up for later scares never fails to entice audiences, even if they tend to be the more casual ones. However much the film faults won’t really be appreciated until it’s over. What is worth mentioning is the idea for the opening shot, being an extremely creepy one that stills itself for a good minute while we as the audience try to figure out what exactly we’re looking at. Small ideas like it give the film a unique feel, although they are way too few and far between. So once the script gets to the gritty and us knowing where the plot leads, does the film do what feels like a non-stop repetition of the same circumstance, almost on a loop. Ellison works on his novel at night whilst his family sleeps, therefore giving us a forgivable plot convenience as to why all the ensuing scares are happening to Ellison on his own, as well as for the sake or perhaps the writers not knowing exactly how to lead the rest of the family into the plot. What suffers here is the characterization relationships within the family. We soon come to see that even though the young son displays some night terrors as to which may or may not be related to the supernatural scares Ellison is experiencing, and his wife Tracy at time sprinkling in some obligatory tension, the family may as well not even exist considering how irrelevant they are to the entire story as actual growing people, instead of the cardboard obligatory stand-ins (since the former family was murdered, it would make sense a new family is threatened). Furthermore, not until you see Ellison and his wife Tracy share a bed do you actually come to realize she is his wife; only due to that Tracy plays better to the aunt or best friend type of role. Would it have been a huge bother to hire a more talented or bigger name actress? Obviously the film knows what story it wants to tell and prioritizes its characters accordingly, thus meaning that Hawke gets first bill for almost every portion of the film.

So this leaves us with Ellison, the author who seems to experience these cheesy scares in the following type of repetitive loop – work on some research material at night by watching another spooky unknown reel video, hear some strange noise, go to investigate, find out it’s really nothing, cheap jump scare, give the audience a hint as to the supernatural element living in the house, rinse and repeat. This formula repeats several times within the film, and after a few takes begins to feel like some kind of a joke by the filmmakers. But the question here being, are they actually scary? To the hardcore old-school horror fanatic, usually never, give for one or two creative scenes that do raise a few hairs on the creep factor are certainly present, yet it’s quite a shame that one of them was already ruined within the movie’s trailer. There are an overwhelming amount of scenes featured in darkness, even strangely enough during daylight hours, where our main man Ellison insists on checking every creepy sound; this really being the meat of the film, it is a thankful thing that Derrickson does well enough in his direction to not make things boring or unwatchable, but only mildly entertaining and tolerable; the darkness helps, but there feels nothing original in the style of cinematography, camera use and angles, or soundtrack. Therefore, it is not so much about the formulaic content of the film that keeps the audience interested, but instead some more technical aspects of the film itself; the first being that Ethan Hawke himself carries the movie all on his own, and if it had not been for his good performance and dedication to the role, Sinister would have felt like your standard straight-to-video feature just like many of Derrickson’s previous films, and probably would have been. Secondly, the invisible villain supernatural force here, specifically an old pagan deity, is a unique idea in a sea of cookie-cutter modern horror films featuring nameless demons of whatever sort taking over people’s bodies and/or minds, or simply found-footage films with forces that are never seen in any shape or form. Still, for one character’s performance and an idea for a villain being what makes a certain film work, just isn’t good enough. The biggest issue here though really is simply that Sinister is a film that may have some unique ideas but presents them in such a way that does very little to impress viewers who have at least two decade’s experience with the horror genre, but instead may mostly be seen as a work of genius by any who have never seen any horror film made before 8 or 10 years ago. To its credit, a worthy treat would be the instances of viewing the snuff reels themselves, and how various families were tortured and killed in each one. While not entirely creative situations on their own, they do add a decent edge of darkness to the film, but only just enough to warrant a light R-rating, otherwise it would be very easy to mistake this for having been rated PG-13 as the film is lacking severely in any blood content or even the least bit of harsh language, to which there are actually two significant ones, yet almost come out muted when uttered by Hawke. A second (although perhaps irrelevant) credit would have to go to the small nod to the culture of Norwegian black metal bands, where this main villain seems to come straight out of (at least for the first half of the film).

Eventually some tension comes in the form of Ellison taking this novel too far while his family comes into their usual danger, forcing him to move out of the house back to where they used to live. This eventually leading to the film’s conclusion which gives us a new plot element that may be seen as a twist but overall just ends to an shrug-worthy, cheap and unsatisfying conclusion which makes you wonder what the point of your last 100 minutes actually was for. Though we do get a fairly worthy attempt at a character study within Ellison himself, and the lengths he insists on in order to gain as much information as possible, writing the book, and the importance he puts into it above his family, as a whole there really is no sort of character growth here whatsoever; so though we like Ellison, we do not end up much caring for him. On the plus side, we do get an A-list Hollywood actor as the lead to carry a film that doesn’t do much in terms of originality to carry itself, still it would have been beneficial to either have written in the family to have some more involvement here, a better actress to play Ellison’s wife for better chemistry, or children who do more than just pander to the modern horror cliche of cheap looking make-up for some low brow attempts at scares. By the final 10 minutes, as always with modern horror films, the villain has already exposed itself so much that he may come off as more comedic than scary. And yes, those sudden loud keyboard notes to a big face suddenly showing up on screen is here and revels in all its cliched pride. At that point the audience will have too good a feeling as to how things will conclude. Making for some decently entertaining viewing, Sinister is just created with far too many cookie-cutter moments to be seen as original. Yet, perhaps sometimes it’s ok for a film to work with a formula, as long as it has just enough to carry it through, which is certainly the case here.

Extras:

Besides your basic commentary, we have a small collection of featurettes that though informative, have little to do with the actual movie. First we get a “True Crime Authors” feature running about 9 minutes long, and gives us several film scenes but only a discussion of several authors and their experiences writing crime novels similar to the genre Ellison in the film writes. Fairly uninteresting at worst and mildly entertaining at best. Next is a feature called “Living in a House of Death,” where a narrator takes us to an American home that has a history of hauntings due to a former family having died at the site; perhaps a bit more interesting but feels more like a cut episode from a reality TV haunting show; general fill to say the least. It would have been great to see some sort of behind-the-scenes features on the film itself, or hear from star Ethan Hawke, and perhaps at least some background on why the filmmakers chose the particular villain. Aside from these featurettes there is a trailer and a couple of deleted scenes. One scene in particular features an entirely new character that was cut from the film altogether – a rude and curt next door neighbor to the family who makes a deal with Ellison for information on the murdered family’s history. While it can be seen why the character was cut out of the final showing, it maybe could have opened new possibilities for the film if it had been left in tact.

Graphics and Sound:

On the visual front, Sinister is pleasing enough, and since black levels are so vital to a film that is about 80% dark, the transfer doesn’t fail in bringing us satisfying black levels. Daylight colors have a nice tint from the film cinematography itself, and although the transfer does come off a tad too sharp in this regard, it’s not anything that will detract from the viewing. At the very least we don’t get very many instances of distortion, but another layer of smoothing out could have given a near perfect and optimal HD look. Yet while visually the film is satisfactory, the sound is where there tends to be some minor issues, particularly with the dialogue track. When the characters initially speak, there is a strange in-studio production volume to their voices, almost as if the mics recording them were turned up too loud, giving a small hint of artificiality to their vocal tones. A better way to compare this would be a vocal sound as if one was speaking too closely into a microphone, giving off a mild but apparent scratchy sound. This comes off noticeable at first, but just like anything, you become adjusted and thankfully all other sound effects and music are at a full volume level, leaving nothing missing or muffled.

Final Verdict:

While Sinister does give us all the makings of your typical modern horror film and the overdone cliches to follow suit, it does so with a certain finesse and direction good enough to never bore us through it. What brings this film down feels at equal ground to what keeps it interesting, namely that of a decent enough atmosphere, worthwhile villain (ignoring the cheese factor towards the end of the film that makes him feel like a gag afterthought and not the truly evil presence he begins as), and a star actor as the lead who can make up for what the remainder of the cast lacks. Lastly, while the ending isn’t anything abhorrent, it is certainly disappointing, and one that really negates your entire time put into it. If you take the horror genre seriously, and are desperately looking for a breath of fresh air amongst the sea of junk films released within the past decade, it is a comfort to know that Sinister is one of the better films… but in the end, it is still just common enough to remain in that sea of modern horror. Perhaps a more experienced director could have brought a better sense of darkness and evil to the film, a mood that underneath its clean facade feels like it’s begging to break through, as well as without pandering so much to the PG-13 crowd despite its mostly erroneous R-rating. I’d say a loose recommendation of 2.5 night terrors out of 4.

New World (2013) Quickie Blu-ray review

What You’ll Like:

  • Some great performances
  • Slick presentation and directorial work
  • A welcome change to the action shoot-em-up Asian crime genre

What You May Not:

  • Significantly less action scenes may turn off many Asian action fanatics
  • Some story details feel lost in translation
  • Goes on a bit too long

What You’ll Remember:

  • How to knife fight in an enclosed elevator of about 6 people

From Korean film director Hoon-jung Park, director of thrillers such as I Saw the Devil and The UnJust, comes a film that sways a bit out of his accustomed pace, the crime gangster action drama New World; and just as always, the film comes to us undubbed in only a Korean spoken language track with English subtitles. A significant plus for the dedicated film purist. With a mostly satisfying, if not always genuinely thrilling, take on the world of the Asian crime syndicate, World provides us with a heap of a story, some slickly presented characters and direction, action on a technically serious-toned level, and a cast who do share a mutual passion for their work.

World tells the story of a high-profile crime syndicate named Goldmoon, and upon a freak car accident their leader is killed, leaving an entire congregation of henchmen and high-stakes criminals to nominate and inaugurate someone within the faction to take the reigns. While there is a somewhat established ladder of hierarchy, the top picks all expectedly have their eyes on the empty throne, one of which happens to be undercover detective Ja-seong, played by first-time actor Lee Jeong-jae, who puts on an impressive performance filled with complete unbridled passion, playing the role with a refreshingly serious dedication. Detective Ja-seong has been part of an intricate deep-cover operation, code-named New World, and after an 8-year dedicated placement, he is not only ready to call it quits, but also must see to his wife who is expecting their first child. Now Ja-seong’s position is torn between meeting his family expectations as well as appeasing his lead detective chief Kang, played by Min-sik Choi, to whom he tends to have bumped heads with more and more as the years have gone on. As a whole, this quick summation is as much story the average viewer really needs to know to appreciate the basics of the film’s intentions; although finer details regarding several Goldmoon higher-ups exist, as well as the relationship intricacies of a few protagonists, we unfortunately end up with some elements of the language translations feeling too fast or rushed, resulting in some minor twists not grasping audience attention as much as may have been intended to. Of course, any fluent Korean speakers may perhaps not have a problem at all, but to many of us State side, we’ll just have to deal with the non-English track. Despite this complaint, the two main leads, Ja-seong and his best friend Jeong (try not to confuse the names), played as the comic relief and unabashed part of the duo by actor Jeong-min Hwang, are the two in which World focuses most of its characterizing attention. At first, we come to learn that while Jeong and detective Ja-seong are friends, Jeong is a legit part of the cartel, whereas Ja-seong is obviously not, yet throughout the film there tends to be lack of chemistry between the two mostly because the tonality of things which doesn’t hold much leeway in terms of emotional expression, not actually until one emotional scene between the two towards the very end of the film.

As you’d expect, there are other characters here who are vying for the top spot, the main being who I BELIEVE is named Sin-woo, a very slick and overconfident smooth playboy type who isn’t an actual playboy. He is someone who has come into conflicting situations with the police chief on previous occasions. He, just like the actor portraying the main detective, are easily the show stoppers here, with Sin-woo coming out on top easy; the two actors have a clear passion for the film and are extremely likeable despite strangely enough not really coming off as the types you’d ever care to be friends with.

What may detract many hardcore Asian cinema viewers here is the extreme lack of action; being a grand story on the inner workings of each character’s intentions, plans, motivations, and fundamental care to now make waves wherever such conflicts are simply not necessary and mostly avoided, the true testosterone-injected moments do not come until the end of the film, where we have many henchmen facing off in a grand battle inside a parking garage, as well as Jeong getting into World‘s most unique fight – that of Jeong facing off against five or six henchmen inside that of a small cramped elevator, to which each is armed with a large combat knife. This would easily be the film’s all too brief highlight. Things end rather surprisingly, as the question becomes answered as to what ends up happening to that coveted Goldmoon leader’s throne, and thus implying a deep character study that may lead many to give the film another viewing.

Director Hoon-jung Park grants us a basic directorial style, interested primarily in the story he’s trying to tell and the way it is being conveyed may not actually be for every viewer, particularly those looking for a non-stop barrage of blood and guns. Yet even within the generalities of his style, there do come some very unique directorial moments in terms of establishing shots almost featuring the surroundings as a character all their own. Besides these, it is the story that keeps the viewer focused, showing us that character development, a steady pace, intricately detailed acting, and a no-frills tone can do much to make a good viewing just as much as any blasting firefight barrage can, even though the lack of excitement tends to unfortunately come from the lost details of dialect from the translation to subtitles. It will engulf those looking for a good change of pace, even if for everyone the duration may have done well to have been cut by at least 10 minutes. In the end, New World is a worthy film with unnerving and appreciated dedication in its artform, that may not fit every bill in the American household. I’d say a strong 2 out of 4, with the recommendation for drama fans over action fanatics. A Chow-Yun Fat film this is definitely not.

Extras:

Not much, we have a behind-the-scenes look lasting about 6 minutes, featuring a collection of documentary-style footage taken on a handheld camera showing us some backstage amusement by the cast, as well as a few of the scenes being shot, but no interviews of such sort. Afterwards there is a photo slide-show gallery set to some music from the film, lastly leading off to a trailer, which is a good effort in speaking of trailers. Due to an obvious constrained budget, a more detailed and entertaining set of extras perhaps were just not possible.

Graphics and Sound:

There’s no other way to put it, New World is an absolutely and astoundingly gorgeous and pleasing blu-ray transfer to look at. Despite coming off as cheap in its box art and foreign appeal, the HD detail in the film is easily one of the greatest looking blu-ray films yours grinch truly has ever had to pleasure of viewing. The colors are beautifully vivid, but never oversaturated, and for about 99% of the film, it remains constant, given one very short scene with Jeong in a car where some distortion pops us, yet surprisingly enough, after that short scene things go back to normal and stay that way for the remaining duration. Black are wonderfully deep, and there is virtually zero distortion anywhere otherwise, even at all TV picture settings, therefore it is definitely encouraged to put the TV settings on the most vivid picture possible. Now with the sound side of things, World is a relatively quiet film for the most part, but one where the dialogue, though in Korean, is at a perfect tone – good volume, and a balance of bass and treble, never coming off too scratchy or muffled in the least. Action scenes are well balanced and there never comes a moment where any important or even unimportant details are inaudible. As a whole, the sound and picture quality of New World is no less than pristine.

Evil Dead (2013) Blu-ray review

What You’ll Like:

  • Surprisingly impressive camera work and cinematography
  • Good amount of genuinely creepy looking scenes
  • Extremely scarce (if any) use of CGI keeps things shockingly real
  • A pleasingly creative reimagining of the original storyline

What You May Not:

  • Secondary actors are fairly thin and unmemorable
  • Some portions of acting do not correlate right with circumstances
  • Fundamental story palette is still a cliché one
  • Signature trailer “We’re gonna get you” line isn’t there! What the hell??

What You’ll Remember:

  • Oh man, the splatter, splatter, splatter…

“The most terrifying movie you will ever experience” was the main theatrical advertising tag for this 2013 reimagining of the 1981 original Sam Raimi B-movie style cult classic, and granted its over-abundant levels of demonic imagery, explicit gore, nauseatingly realistic dismemberment, and ambitiously creative cinematography and sleek camera work, young up and coming unknown Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez can rightfully state that his view of a film many original Evil Dead fans never wanted made may in fact sit rightfully justified amongst its forefather film. Renamed without the “The” in the title, Evil Dead does plenty to work off many of the staples that made the original such a memorably obnoxious and over-the-top exaggeration of horror films (or as original star Bruce Campbell puts it, “collection of bad ideas put in a blender”), it also contains its very own mind, wit, and series of epically dark and imaginative strengths which do much favor to set it apart as its own gut-wrenching entity, even if a long ways down the road people will still only think of the character of Ash and the former whenever the film known as Evil Dead comes up in conversation.

Evil Dead at its fundamental level basically shares the same palette as the original – bare and crumbling old cabin in the middle of some desolate woods, group of college-age young people unknowingly unleash a deadly demonic force via Book of the Dead, group becomes fair game for death by invisible demonic forces, open season to as many buckets of splatter as the film budget will allow. Whereas in the original we had four young people consisting of two couples on a leisure trip weekend at an old cabin, led by Bruce Campbell playing the lead as Ash, here we have five similarly aged victims who purposefully go to a desolate area not for pleasure but in the hopes of aiding their former drug addict friend Mia, played by Jane Levy (Suburgatory, Shameless), who decides to leave her addiction cold turkey. Since Mia has OD’d previously and may not make it through another alive, the group decides that no matter what the circumstances, they won’t leave the cabin, no matter how badly her cravings and tendencies for relapses become. Rounding off the cast is Mia’s older and near estranged brother and everyman guy David (Shiloh Hernandez), high school teacher and historics geek Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), loving BFF and medically trained Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and David’s love interest and sweet sheltered blonde Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).

Upon opening, there is finally some backstory given to the origins of the mysterious Book of the Dead (or at least how it used to be used, not sure if we’ll ever know why it exists and who originally wrote it), as well as some very unorthodox horrifics that went on in the very basement of the old deserted cabin; backstory that display both why the book holds just as much power to do good as it does to conjure evil. Fast forward to the present day where our five unknowing and graciously unimpressive college kids take a brief residence in the old shack to embark on their mission to save who will soon become our partial “Ash” for this reimagining. The reasoning behind why this group is (thankfully) not immediately impressive is part of what sets this new film not only apart from its predecessor, but also why it can demand a mature and respective audience – because while the 81′ classic was fast-paced despite its cheese and comedic factor due to its lower budget and insane ideas relevant for its time, the new Dead lacks such a fervent and mischievous sense of self-aware humor; although to its credit, the original was only held such a tongue-in-cheek tone due to its lack of financial resources and time, given it came at a time when there wasn’t much to be self-aware about. Alvarez’s Dead’s tone is dark, serious, brooding, and as intelligent as such a fantastically evil screenplay subject matter can be. In fact, there is not even an uttered attempt at humor throughout its entire running time. Starring a cast of mostly average looking young people, in the hopes of keeping our attention on the content instead of fleshy body parts and pretty faces, its really only our main two who shine, while the three extras, Olivia, Natalie, and Eric, are somewhat akin to stand-in cutouts during their character introductions, it is not until their clashing with the forces of evil that their best material comes forth, even if some of it can lose its audience in the moment considering at times the character reactions are underacted for some otherwise very painful situations they find themselves experiencing. In other words, it wouldn’t have hurt us to see more uninhibited projections in some of their own reactions. I don’t know about you, but if yours grinch truly’s arm were being torn off from under a heavy car, I would probably scream a hell of a lot more. While such moments are few, they still come off as noticeable, but thankfully these scenes temporarily taking us out are scarce.

Getting back to the story, the two young males leading the group soon discover a hidden basement door exactly as that of the original film, only this time they take the opportunity to explore it, running into a very grisly scene beneath the cabin that has been spreading a rancid stench throughout of the last day; a smell so putrid that for whatever reason Mia has been the only one noticing, which as the person in remission, makes anything she says hard to believe. It is at this point downstairs where the our male protagonists discover the book from hell, and it is taken into the care of Eric, who as you guessed ignorantly unleashes the forces of hell upon the group by audibly speaking out three old Latin words from an ancient prayer. The pacing in this entire setup is rather quick, but even with the limited time for our character introductions, Alvarez quickly makes a name for himself for his very attentive care towards what seems like each and every scene; establishing shots, off-beat zooming angles, some beautiful balance of lighting and character positioning – it all works to subconsciously involve the viewer in not only presenting itself as a work of horror art of sorts, but also establishing this as a film to be viewed as not even a “remake,” but an entire reimagining, ensuring its audience they are in for an entirely new experience. From here on in the actors complement the movie well enough, but it is Jane’s portrayal of Mia that is the true show stopper. There is a committed passion in each and every one of her scenes, and given Alvarez’s great eye for proper character placement and lighting effects (which alone can make or break any horror film), do make for some of the creepiest scenes in all the world of a genre that can tend to depend too much on cheap jump scares and scary children. Sure, while many of the more experienced horror genre viewers may not be as immediately creeped out, there is no denying the talent behind the camera lens. These same fans of the original Dead will notice many shots and scenes both inspired and emulated from it, but even so still containing their own unique look and feel, so thankfully never at any point does the film feel like a cheap rip-off, but one that can stand out on its own, while in its midst perhaps even causing some to forget the original entirely. This is not to even mention the bread and butter of Dead, that being its vivacious and near fetishist obsession with creating a gory unapologetic bloodbath unlike anything else in the industry. The situations these poor young and well-meaning saps find themselves in are in themselves so over-the-top it’s almost chuckle-inducing, albeit negating the amount of viewers who will quickly turn their eyes away in shock and disgust. While the original film tried its best to create the most intense bloodbath of its time, it couldn’t help but come off as what is now see as unapologetically campy simply due to its budget; but now in 2013 the sky is the limit in realism and ease at whichever sadistic ideas the writers could come up with. Granted its much more generous budget, the new Dead death counts never come off as a joke, most especially and very very thankfully implemented idea of Alvarez’s to not have any CGI work whatsoever in order to maintain the level of churning realism. While a few scenes, both in deaths and story, had to be reimagined in their own way from the original, the writers seemed to still inject so much originality in them that they almost don’t feel as if they had to be inspired by anything that preceded it. Taking for example the character of Mia, who many reviewers regard as this film’s female version of “Ash,” is not only the main character but also falls victim to a few circumstances that Bruce Campbell’s Ash never did, and at about the halfway point we soon see that both her and her brother David share this starring role, both emulating the character of Ash in their own ways. Hence, there is no single main protagonist here, only adding to the clever ways Dead rewrites the original for the sake of keeping things fresh and interesting.

Yet throughout this non-stop intense rollercoaster and crimson splattery the viewer may be taking all the action in, there seems a feeling throughout that the film just is not jumping out as much as it seems it should be; it grabs your eyes and tickles your mind but never seems to really thrust for the heart. While the film never becomes boring or has any significantly lagging moments of drag, in the end Dead still holds the same story palette that’s just been done too many times before in the past 30 years since the original to come off as anything incredibly original, or as engrossing as many newer story ideas of modernized horror ventures. Past films such as Cabin Fever, A Cabin in the Woods, 28 Days Later, The Day, or really anything fairly recent featuring a desolate cabin of some sort, all have done this fundamental story environment to death, because with a group of people trapped in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, there is only so much you can really do. The results here being that while this environmental setting features lots of eye-popping popcorn bloody mayhem, those features cannot escape the fact that the setting and story palette have just been outgrown. Now while this is no real fault of the film itself, as of course you cannot change the setting for a remake, it feels like more of a minor unnecessary evil that must be realized and purposefully looked past in order to get as much out of Dead as possible. Therefore it’s a good thing Alvarez had such an eye for detail to present us with something coming off much more like a remake and not a rehash. Despite its basic palette Dead still has enough to suck the viewer into its brooding sadistic mindset, and by its climax one really can’t help but begin cheering for Mia, especially when she gets her bloody hands on Ash’s former signature weapon of choice; though such throwbacks will definitely be better appreciated by hardcore fans than casual viewers.

Extras:

Besides your expected commentary tracks, we get a small handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, all running between 7 and 9 minutes, featuring interviews with the cast and crew (including Bruce Campbell), as well as some script reading sessions. All serve for some mildly interesting insight, but the one that really stands out is the one entitled “Being Mia” and is a 9-minute doc-style shaky cam look into one day on the set following Jane Levy herself. Here we see her in the trailer during make-up, then filming portions of one particular scene, as well as her clean up afterwards. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on the Best Buy exclusive version with the extra bonus DVD disc, you get a total of 25 minutes of extra features, half being a one-on-one interview with Bruce Campbell, and the second half being what the regular Blu-ray should have had – a featurette on the special effects themselves, and how the filmmakers put together a few that would perhaps have had viewers scratching their heads given nothing was left to computer effects. A decent bunch overall but nothing that gives us the amount of insight fans would definitely have wanted.

Graphics and Sound:

Visually Dead is mostly an absolute pleasure. Since most viewer’s preferred picture option tends to be the ones with the most dynamic colors, the HD transfer, at least for about the first three quarters, does not have any of that irritating distortion many others do. The first act featuring more daytime outdoor shots are beautifully well detailed, with a gentle and impressive use of cinematography that complements such great picture quality. Once things begin to get more intense, the movie moves into darker territory, and thankfully for the most part the film these blacks are handled very well, with virtually zero distortion… that is until later in the film where this layered fuzz starts to appear. The issue isn’t anything that can’t be remedied by adjusting your screen settings though, and Dead‘s picture can still be enjoyed just as much with the settings altered a bit. On the sound side of things, the transfer is just as impressive. Volume may have to be turned up just a tad in order to get all you can out of the first act’s quieter scenes, but for the most part the soundtrack music and dialogue are perfectly clear. During the film’s more climactic scenes, intensifying music tracks, screams, gunshots, and other effects stay at a great balance while at the same time all being fully audible and impressive. No significant issues at all in the sound department.

Final Verdict:

Original Evil Dead fanatics will easily get more out of this reimagining than casual viewers will, as many of the remade scenes and adjustments to the plot are tweaked to not just make things more believable, but are simply better, aiding to further develop the characters, situations, as well as making the film more relevant to a modern audience that simply has outgrown a camp factor to the likes of what we used to enjoy back in the 80s. Alvarez’s eye for visual art and color palettes which help accentuate the film’s isolated and even at times, somber and depressive tonality, and even the dark and macabre chaos bring us one of the most epic displays of grantacular gorefests this movie generation has ever seen. While it’s basic and now overused setting can only do so much to suck audiences in, the cast still tries hard despite not being the most talented actors in the world; due to the demands of such a humorless and serious endeavor there must be a limited amount of lightheartedness, if any, that the creators can allow. Evil Dead does do a great amount to give its audience a good time, but though its plusses are greatly appreciated, a film with such an extreme nature may do lots to deter a modern audience who have become so accustomed to a more PG-13 style of psychological horror, thus why it is a great point to state that this is a film more to the liking of hardcore horror and Sam Raimi The Evil Dead fans. The reimagining does much but still a bit too little to give itself a personality outside of grossing out its audience as much as possible; it’s got lots of enhanced story, but a style so still over-the-top that it makes the story elements a secondary thought, where it really should be the other way around. I would say 2.5 severed arms out of 4 for casual movie fans, but an easy 3 out of 4 for more hardcore ones.

American Mary (2012) Blu-ray review

What You’ll Like:

  • Extremely likable main character at first
  • Dark and gothic-toned visual aesthetic
  • Interestingly disturbed characters throughout
  • Some unique and creative directorial moments

What You May Not:

  • Main character becomes less relatable as film goes on
  • Story and themes gradually become too uneven and disjointed
  • Gore fanatics may be disappointed with lack of extreme visual content

What You’ll Remember:

  • 6 reasons why you should never violate a gifted and psychotic cosmetic surgeon

American Mary is a Canadian horror film by writers and directors the Soska sisters, who many most likely will not recognize at first, as they are not significantly relevant in the film industry perhaps due to their preference for sticking with more underground film works of extreme violence and sexual deviance. Being that their most notable physical characteristics seems a taste for gothic culture, much of their work may be limited to small time distribution, and nothing that has garnered as much press in the States as this latest piece of gothic psychological dark horror and black comedy. American Mary stars Katharine Isabelle playing the title role of Mary, who has made a career out of smaller roles mostly in the horror genre. In Mary she plays the main “protagonist,” or maybe more appropriately also playing the antagonist just as equally, gives viewers a chance to take a small crash course in the world of underground gothic culture, and more specifically what can become the obsession in body modification and alterations. American Mary is a film that while can grant such access, has a tendency to ultimately forget that as a film it must be more than just a fun and even psychotic glimpse, having a habit of focusing a bit too much on its visual aesthetic and creepily intriguing character personalities which it tends to stretch in order to hold our attention.

Mary introduces us to medical student Mary Mason who is attending classes in the city of Berlin, or as the film only shows us just one actual class. Mason is initially in an educational and financial rut – falling back several months on her rent despite the helping-hand offers her Hungarian born mother, as well as having a bluntly potty-mouthed professor who is mostly hard on her case due to him seeing her as having real potential, so he refuses to see such potential wasted in any way. It is obvious she does hold a love for her future medical career, mostly shown to us as she practices medical sewing procedures on raw poultry during her free time. Accepting her current fate with a nervous ease, Mason decides a good idea for fast cash would be to apply at a local strip club, where she meets with sketchy jerk owner Billy, played by Antonio Cupo. At first, and rather quickly during her job “interview” (which basically means showing her figure off in sexy lingerie) Billy decides to take advantage of Mason’s medical experience by offering her five-thousand dollars in cash to do a quick job, for which he takes her down to the club’s basement and asks her to sew up a profusely bleeding tortured young man, the cause of which is unknown. Taking the offer, Mason readily finishes the procedure but not without being completely shocked at what had just occurred. Vowing to herself to never repeat such an act, Mason is contacted by a young woman named Beatress, whose introduction gives us our initial taste into this macabre yet darkly artistic vivid world of what for some can become an obsessed psychosis in body modification, most especially for those who have a flourish of financial means to make it happen.

Beatress comes off as a sweet Betty Boop cartoon for real life but longingly lonely considering how attached she becomes with wanting to become closer to Mason, at a more personal friend level. Beatress herself has had extensive cosmetic procedures throughout her life considering her face has been done so many times she looks less like a person and more like a sadistic plastic doll; Mason herself figures out Beatress’s goal to actually become a real life iteration of the Betty Boop character, an obsession also shared by Beatress’s friend Ruby, who was the point of both women contacting Mason. Ruby desires to look like a real life doll, where she can live the rest of her life lacking any semblance of female body parts to achieve her dream of being just as unsexualized as these dolls. This would mean asking Mason to perform a procedure to remove her nipples and closing up her vaginal area as much a possible, without word to her husband of course. It is at this point of the film where Mason peaks to her most likable, and to this meaning to a high degree; her charmingly sarcastic and semi-shy demeanor displays her as someone who doesn’t mean to cause any trouble, yet harbors enough confidence to not be intimidated by any unexpected situation, granted they are within tasteful boundaries and not sewing up hacked and tortured people. Actress Katharine Isabelle grabs control of this role and performs it with near smooth expert efficiency, which makes her all the more relatable – the only seemingly normal person within this depraved world of what could be seen as mentally disturbed circus freaks – Mason will easily have enough wit and charm to put a smile on your face. Mary‘s script presents her as this character despite the questionable decisions she’s making as she delves deeper into what lies ahead; considering despite how hesitant she is at first, Mason also seems to be obtaining a taste  and appreciation for the sheer artistry of body modification. Slowly but surely, Mason is unintentionally making a name for herself in this culture, and it is here that her work for a local hospital resident student is becoming more noticed by her higher ups, namely her supervising doctor who soon invites her to a late night party.

Where Mary is its strongest in terms of character development, pacing and plot intrigue is during this first portion of the film, yet once Mason discovers the truly perverse sexual deviance of these resident doctors at the mentioned house party, where women are brought solely to be drugged and sexually exploited or raped, Mason herself falls victim by the hands of the very same med school professor who had been giving her such a hard time in the beginning. Once Mason has had this traumatic experience the script then does an almost 180 degree turn on its conventions in plot organization; while it is understandable that from here on in Mason would turn to a degree of coldness in her demeanor and personality, the film simply does this too quickly, and it is from this point that the audience will begin to lose relatability to the character as she begins to delve so far into this underground culture that she quits med school and takes on body modification full time, unlicensed, but financially highly profitable. Gone are her days of not being able to make rent or worry about money in the least. In perhaps the only portion of the film that truly earns its status as a horror film, is her revenge on the professor who raped her, trapping him in a secret hideout where she proceeds to use her medical knowledge to amputate all of his limbs, split his tongue, and even unspoken acts to his genitals which are never made known in any detail. In a scene reminiscent of the Saw films, Mason hangs her victim through hooks in his back, limbless, and even with his mouth sewn shut, deciding to torture him for however long she sees fit. Now with a detective investigating the professor’s disappearance, Mason must now manage her life as an underground cosmetic surgeon as well as keep her grotesque secret.

Beginning with this revenge plot, the film turns to different directions, all of which work well enough on their own as subplots, but have a tendency to not lead to any real character development or satisfying conclusions. Yet though the Soska sisters do display some interesting direction, editorial work, creepily slick camera angles and shots, and good overall pacing which will never get the viewer bored, they seem too reliant on mild humor and the visuals of general body mod weirdo fanatics, never giving us any main characters we can actually come to relate to or care that much about. Sure, Mason may have been incredibly likeable at first, but too soon after does she become cold and distant, with an ego that blew up overnight due to her new found place of royalty as sought out underground surgeon, ultimately making her less likeable (and at times even unlikeable), where the story ends up not even having a workable protagonist, but a main antagonist as well considering one really cannot see Mason as the “good guy” considering everything she does, most notably her sadistic revenge on the rapist professor. Regarding this point, the film doesn’t even seem to have any real antagonist or villain, hence there is a lack of character conflict considering the police investigator doesn’t hold much of a presence. This may just walk the line of ‘man vs. himself,’ that ‘man’ being Mason, and how far she is able to go, albeit however far-fetched. I mean talk about overkill, even fellow rape victim Lisbeth from 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would perhaps want to talk Mason down. But more than the act, the fact that such a shy and overall sweet well-meaning young ambitious doctor would suddenly turn from getting sick from sewing up a tortured man, to indulging in psychotic revenge torture and even murder just doesn’t really make sense, despite however much gore fans will appreciate the visuals of this type of victimization. Visuals that show us the after-effect but not the actual process – we never really get to see any sort of graphic psycho torture the film implied to have in the way it was advertised, but instead see only results. The surgery scenes are pretty tame themselves as well; honestly your grinch truly saw more gore in older F/X episodes of the medical drama Nip/Tuck. It may seem as if the sibling directors could have used this opportunity to instead enhance Mary and her own character study, but besides scenes of her taking on new clientele, as well as her stripper club colleagues taking part in their own shenanigans, Mary just becomes too stone-faced to portray any sort of the confusion, insecurity, uncertainty, or even sarcasm that we fell in love with about her during the film’s first act. To put it another way, we end up paying more attention to Mason’s acts rather than Mason herself, following the continuing story for its visual cinematography more than the characters who make up its whole. Even smaller ideas such as Billy’s eventual crush on Mason gives us some more creative direction but ends up leading to nothing. In short, there are a lot of ways in which Mary‘s script could have been revised in order to take advantage of potentially good plot points it hints at but never explores or even concludes. While the actors do put on good performances, the personalities they’re given start to become less comedic and intriguing, and more cardboard and stiff, yet still keeping up their beautiful looks as the film seems to later prefer its style over its substance, falling in love with how much it looks without much regard as to how its audience is made to feel. Add to this an ending that has nowhere near the impact it maybe hoped to, and we end up with a fairly fun, but unfulfilling film that has enough ideas to make itself work, but no real consideration in expanding these ideas that would have given us the much more gripping and thrilling experience it seemed it so wanted to have on paper.

Extras:

There is a commentary track from the Soska sisters as well as one theatrical trailer. Besides this we get one 17-minute making-of feature that is not so much a produced featurette with any cast or crew interviews as we are accustomed, but instead a straight documentary-style as it was filmed with a low-res handheld camera. It offers no interviews even by the person shooting the footage, or any actors or directors even so much as saying anything into the camera. We see a few scenes being shot, and some of the make-up work done in the trailers, all while just overhearing the cast and crew conversation. So unfortunately fans will not get to know anyone who was in the film, but doing so could have been interesting, especially from the Soska sisters themselves and their intentions or thoughts.

Graphics and Sound:

On the visual front, Mary does look rather appealing, coming off with a very smooth picture with very minimal visual distortion. While the overall look seems to be a little too high in its sharpness, giving the film a mild “rough” look, colors are all perfectly balanced and vivid regardless of the TV picture settings. Putting this in a “movie” mode will do well to smooth out the mild rough spots, but the picture on other settings are virtually identical. Now in the sound department things become a bit uneven overall. Initially, the film’s volume comes off quite loud, even for a blu-ray movie. The voices themselves are brought so much to the forefront that one may turn down the volume a notch simply due to the clarity of the dialogue itself. What is strange then is the fact that at random times, the voice clarity just shoots down, making things sound a bit too muffled to easily understand, and it happens quite often. In terms of balance, the voices in comparison to the effects and music stand out a bit too much, but it is still a relief because typically voices on blu-rays always need to be more clear, yet here it is just not necessary. Despite this unevenness there really is no other issue with the sound quality of the disc.

Final Verdict:

American Mary is a horror film that has a tone working to strike for the psyche more than it does to indulge you in what seemed like it would with bloody splatterfest guts and gore, and for the most part accomplishes what it sets out to do in telling its story. What begins as a black comedy morphs slowly into a dark psychological thriller with minimal thrills, giving us a unique series of characters that work well to bring us into this glimpse of such a broodingly obsessed, but beautifully artistic underworld where such acts of body manipulation must be appreciated for their very acquired taste. Although the culture of the world itself is clearly separated from the revenge plots that utilize the tools of the culture in Mary, the culture has more to say about itself and ultimately leaves the viewer longing for further plot exploration. Pacing, visuals, gorgeous sexy women, and a slick soundtrack are enough to hold your attention, despite the lack of real hardcore violence potentially deterring gore fanatics, but unfortunately one cannot help but notice the uneven scripting which does lots to hurt how much we actually feel for these characters and care for them. In the end, you’ll end up feeling how much things could have improved if plot elements were fleshed out, explored, and actually concluded, giving us a film with more characterization and less stylized visuals. Without the magic that Katharine Isabelle brings to this film, however much less charming it became towards its end, American Mary would have been a lot worse, so she is definitely a saving grace and one actress you’ll hope to see more of. It still works for a fun Friday night distraction, but maybe only if paired up with a better film following it. I’d say 2.5 split tongues out of 4.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Blu-ray review

What You’ll Like:

  • More mature and realistic tone and plot elements
  • Well paced and intriguing story
  • Great all around cast

What You May Not:

  • Mostly average villain
  • Significantly less cutesy than previous Spider Man films
  • Environmental scope and supporting cast is mostly obsolete
  • Ultimately not as charming as Toby Maguire’s performances

What You’ll Remember:

  • Emma Stone’s and Andrew Garfield’s relational chemistry

Just when you thought director Sam Raimi had completed a Marvel franchise for many generations to come, along came director Marc Webb and Sony pictures to retell the Spider story all over again with an all new trilogy, for a next generation “not alive in 2002” as said by one of the producers in the extra features (as much of a stretch as that is). For such a classic comic hero who has seen various retellings throughout his graphic medium beginning back in 1962, it really shouldn’t be such a departure that the story should take a second perspective so soon after Toby Maguire’s fun, if ever cute and hokey showcasing of the vigilante web-slinger ending back in 2007; a perspective that ultimately works in mostly technical function despite its subtraction of certain key elements of Maguire’s Spidey that made the former trilogy so charming.

Spiderman stars mostly unknown young American (with British lineage and accent) actor Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker as well as the title role, who some may remember from his supporting role opposite Jessie Eisenberg in 2010’s ‘The Social Network.’ In Spider-man, we are introduced to Parker after being forcefully dropped off by his parents to live with his aunt and uncle after some mysterious circumstances as a little kid; and fast forward to several years later as we meet Parker once again who plays less like the Maguire’esque shy wimp nerd and more the near savant intelligent social outcast. Attending a New York city science school, Garfield immediately displays his unique take on the young student simply by how he interacts with a local and stereotypically Hollywood school bully; it is also here that we meet up with the acquaintance/potential love interest Gwen Stacy, played intriguingly as always by the gorgeous Emma Stone. For the unknowest, the producers decided against Mary Jane Watson for the female supporting lead as another plot element change from the original trilogy, to I guess keep things fresh. Initially, fans may find that Garfield’s portrayal has some missing elements that made Maguire so likable beforehand, a shy quirkiness that helped the former Parker seem all the more… relatable, and human really. While this is a presumption that does tend to stick throughout the film, it feels less and less like a negative as Spider-man goes on,  considering that eventually one comes to appreciate that this more serious and mostly realistic tone does in time feel less like a cartoon and something that can be viewed as more culturally relevant than the previous trilogy (yes, even though it’s only been 5 years). Garfield does eventually become likable in his own way.

Nearby in a science lab we meet Dr. Curt Connors, played by Rhys Ifans, an armless man who for years has been doing research on cures for various diseases, taking as a template the phenomena of how some cold-blooded creatures can regenerate limbs by will if they happen to be severed, and just like the general predictability of where that plot element goes, the film as a whole follows suit, not offering many surprises at all. Parker eventually meets up with the doctor after infiltrating the facility during a school field trip, led by Gwen Stacy as a tour guide (how a 17 year old girl can work at such a sophisticated and classified place of research is perhaps something you can explain to me). It is here that Parker begins to find the first pieces of the puzzle that may help him solve the mystery of his missing parents. Somewhat akin to the way Maguire’s Parker got accidentally bit by a genetically mutated spider, here Garfield’s Parker discovers that mutating spiders as a path to experimental research are actually being bred in the hundreds, and being bitten by one opens the film to its first of a few differences in what makes this iteration more down to earth, that is that the bite simply gives Parker superhuman strength, but no ability to genetically spew webbing. For that, he eventually crafts small mechanisms attached at his wrists. Sure it’s a small change, but one that fits the less far-fetched tonality of the film’s intentions. Afterwards, due to some differences of opinion of Dr. Connor and his superior in regards to the research’s plans, he decides to accelerate the schedule of testing on humans and uses the genetics-enhancing formula on himself, thus turning him into the film’s sole villain, simply known as the Lizard; a creature who with good if misguided foresight sees it fit to create a more enhanced human race, superior to the one that has failed him in his own life.

An unfortunate setback as to the Dr. Connor Lizard is not necessarily his character’s story arc or intentions, or even to how well Ifans plays him, but to how little the film actually utilizes him as a threat to a city he only really attacks one time; an attack that doesn’t seem too big a deal for Spidey to handle, where really only one city patron seems threatened. The scope of the city itself seems way too ignored as well. In the original Spider-man, New York City became its own character, and Maguire’s residence in it was a relationship all in itself aside from the one with Mary Jane Watson. We met patrons, workers, and saw it during daylight and night hours. We even got some pretty in-depth and comedic characters in Peter Parker’s place of work, whereas in this film the entire photography element is eliminated entirely. In short, the environment in those films had a determined and dominant presence, and it added lots of personality in appropriate accordance to the Spider-man comic lore; an allie of sorts; a Robin to Spidey’s Batman, if you will. Yet here, New York City works simply as a place the characters just happen to live in, because well, they have to live somewhere. The scope of the general public is also so small in fact that at times it really feels the film should perhaps have just been called “Parker and Stacy,” because the establishment of this relationship, although done well, is the prime focus here, yet it is a shame that it had to come at the price of a more relatable atmosphere. While the more serious tone of the film is an overall positive, it seems almost necessary that we do not get to feel one with New York City as we used to; but maybe some more script revisions could have alleviated that.

As the film goes on we meet only a few other cast members, including Dennis Leary as Gwen’s Police chief father, Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Parker’s legal guardians. All supporting cast members do put on decent performances, if never really standing out as anything too special. Even in more emotional scenes between Parker and his uncle Ben, Sheen seems to really encompass the role of a disciplinarian more than a father figure, only spritzing in bits of obligatory compassion, which tends to be the trend of decreased charm the whole of the cast. Despite Garfield’s Parker and Stone’s Gwen having good chemistry throughout the film, most especially during their more romantic forays (which are way too few), there exists still a certain distance from these characters the audience may feel; that even though Webb’s directing does good in offering fast pacing, well directed action and fight scenes, as well as a story that has all these characters on a good balance in their interactions, the entertainment factor in the film feels more functional than memorably fulfilling. Even soon after Parker is bitten the discovery of his new powers come off as somewhat awkward and silly, where the film tries to interject comedy without actually knowing how to do it that well, which is perhaps why the comedic element is mostly non-existant throughout the film. Garfield’s transition is a portion that exists more because it has to and not really because it wants to; Webb seems more accustomed to getting the job done rather than doing it memorably, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he does it badly. The script to its merit is a good take on the franchise, and though it doesn’t immediately feel as good as the previous original 2002 film, it’s most likely to the reasoning that though perceived flaws like those mentioned do exist, they may perhaps be due to how well we still recall Toby Maguire and Raimi, and what their film’s accomplished; a charming and incredibly fun trilogy that is even arguably superior to how well 1989’s Batman film detonated a new superhero to the silver screen to such sweeping, inspirational, memorable, and epic status (yes, I’m even counting the overkill exaggerations on the quality of 2007’s Spiderman 3). This one factor may be the biggest setback in creating a reboot so soon. Still, Webb’s Spiderman outing must be appreciated and respected from the perspective that it is being told at, but constant comparisons are still going to happen, and really for good reason.

Extras:

This review is based on the 3D package version of the film, and along with it is an entire separate blu-ray disc of special features that the non-3D package version may not have. Therefore, a separate blu-ray disc means a heck of a lot of special features, and it begins with a set of behind-the-scenes featurettes lasting 1 hour and 50 minutes total, taking the viewer to the various locales the film was shot in, from Los Angelas to Sony studios to New York City itself, packed with plenty of interviews with the cast and crew. While interesting and well produced, there really is nothing here entirely necessary or incredibly interesting in regards to the actors themselves; a by-the-books affair all around. What does stand out though is one featurette in the set that goes into some significant detail in comparing the older Sam Raimi films and the reasoning and plans with this new iteration, so it’s a comfort getting to know why a reboot was done so soon. Aside from this, there are pre-visualization reels, which are mini-movies of storyboard scene presentations set to some pretty good piano music; some of them being drawn and others computer animated, all lasting about a half hour. We then get a short of stunt rehearsals without commentary at about 15 minutes. To round things off, there are some galleries displaying conceptual art of the Spiderman, Lizard and environments, as well as a 3 minute feature on the making of the Amazing Spiderman video game. On the actual film disc itself there is your standard commentary track as well as Sony second screen app for download, to get more info on your tablet while watching the film. Overall a nice set of extras for the more hardcore fan, casuals though can do without it.

Graphics and Sound:

There are no real complaints with this Spidey flick. While the featurettes require some color adjusting to your HD set due to some scenes of distortion, the film itself runs clean all the way through, if nothing incredibly groundbreaking. Blacks are deep, colors are vibrant enough without suffering from any visible oversaturation, and not once did yours grinch truly have to touch the TV color and picture options to make things look clearer. There is a mostly mild layer of distortion that is near invisible during faster action sequences, but can still be seen in darker scenes. A very small setback but does keep the transfer from having that wow-factor some may expect. On the sound side of things, there are no big complaints either. Dialogue has its moments where lower voices cannot be made out as easily and do sound a bit distorted if the volume is up too high. Moreover, the film’s overall volume must be turned up a few notches from your standard cable volume for comfortable listening. Action scenes are well balanced as well as the soundtrack, so you’ll never be missing anything here; things also never become too loud with more intense scenes as compared to quiet ones. Therefore, the sound easily trumps the visual transfer here.

Final Verdict:

The Amazing Spider-man is a rebooted take on a series that already told a very fulfilling and grandly entertaining take on this classic comic hero. Unlike the old Batman films as compared to the newer Christopher Nolan versions, there was a dire need for the hero to be saved as his 90s run ended to such a dismal disappointing failure. There was also over a time span of almost 2 full decades between the two film series. With Spider-man, the necessity just wasn’t there, and though it doesn’t show in the film’s script, it does stick out like a sore thumb in its overall charm factor. The key here is just how culturally relevant both series were: Raimi’s vision came at a time when America seriously needed an inspirational fictional hero to lift spirits in being so soon after the catastrophic events of 9/11 that came just a year prior, and the first 2 films at least were able to walk the perfect balance of far-fetched almost cartoonish tongue-in-cheek fantasy and granting New York City a strengthening realistic and hopeful presence. Considering Webb’s Spider-man severely lacks the scope of the city that should accompany it really does very little to make this film’s interest level going beyond the Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy romance (which really needed more depth and screentime) and some good action scenes that naturally have greatly improved visual effects over the previous trilogy. So while Spider-man is at its core a very entertaining and at times gripping action/adventure superhero film, it does so mostly at a technical level of sheer functionality, but ultimately lacks enough magic and zazz that made Toby Maguire’s take so much more relatable. There is no question audiences will be entertained here, even if years down the line perhaps showing their children the Raimi films way before showing them this one. I’d give it a wink at 3 blonde Gwens out of 4.

The Last of Us (2013) Playstation 3 review

What You’ll Like:

  • Beautifully crafted gameplay mechanics
  • Emotionally involving story
  • Intensely gripping action and fight sequences
  • How realistic it all feels
  • The absolute best graphics of this gaming generation

What You May Not:

  • Initially takes a short while to get truly involving
  • Very mild graphical snaffoos
  • Some very mild and rare saving quirks
  • It eventually ends

What You’ll Remember:

  • The jaw-dropping motion capture quality

Naughty Dog have almost seemed to come out of nowhere these days as a more sleeper gaming company, having crafted some decent hits back in the mid-90s, beginning with the classic Crash Bandicoot series on the original Playstation, and marking a gigantic leap with the current-gen smash hit Uncharted series. Yet just when you thought things could not get any better after Uncharted 3, as well as the once popular but dormant survival horror genre in general, have Naughty Dog truly and impressively outdone themselves. Their latest masterpiece, The Last of Us, a post-apocalypse zombie action adventure, will ensure to tag Naughty Dog as one of the best game designing companies of our day; a company that has ingeniously crafted some of the most intensely dramatic games of our time; a company that have done great wonders for the long-time dragging Playstation 3 console sales numbers; a company blessfully owned by the Sony and currently leading its last hurrah of the current gaming generation before the introduction of the Playstation 4 this 2013 holiday season. Sony can absolutely say with great pride and certainty that their underdog blu-ray gaming machine will close out with one of the most epic bangs in video game history.

Story:

After The Last of Us opens with one of the most fantastic and emotionally gripping introduction sequences in all of gaming, we come to meet up with our main protagonists a full 20 years after the mysterious zombie apocalypse began. The player takes control of Joel, a mid-40’s hardened, tired, and physically strong man who now lives in a socially desolate world run by a solid as steel authoritative police force and law enforcing strict city limit boundaries, decreased rights, minimal survival resources, zero luxuries, and daily public curfews. The unexpected “zombie” outbreak two decades earlier was due to a mysterious infection which mutates normal human beings to quick and ravenous blood thirsty versions of themselves, as well as creating other sorts of gross monstrosities for which the virus has almost taken on a sadistic mind of its own. Now that this is the reality of life, people must find any means to survive amongst the heartless authority and overrunning vandals, as well as our protagonist with an uncertain lady friend at his side, another hardened but attractive younger woman named Tess.

What players will immediately notice at first glance is the incredible acting ability by all motion capture actors during Last’s thoroughly scripted cut-scenes; the aim towards realism captured with not only the character reactions but also secondary surrounding actors pays off to film-like quality; it is all brought to amazing life through the game’s hawk-eyed meticulous attention to the most minute details in body language alone, not even mentioning actual dialogue. While great acting has become a staple of Naughty Dog as shown through the Uncharted series, it was then done in a lighter mood, injecting a good dose of humor to keep the game’s overall tone and adventurous mood. With Last, atmosphere takes on a significantly darker and serious tone, one that to become even the least bit believable would require complete focus on talented acting chops by the entire cast. Thankfully with Last, the performances are absolutely nailed to a tee, sucking in the player to a story that may not necessary be the most original take on zombies in history, but sure is one of the most realistic, and it is this realism that stands out most as the foundational structure of Last, investing the gamer and truly making him or her one with Joel. A man who, just like everyone else, will no longer live any semblance of a normal life, yet must take on tasks that put him in danger at every turn. As the player gets deeper into the game, they will notice that in terms of story focused cut-scenes, Last feels more like a big budget feature film than perhaps any other game they’ve ever played. At the initial starting point we are mildly introduced to Joel and Tess as they go on a sort of weapons hunt with a gun smuggling deal with another local. Soon after this deal goes near south, Tess and Joel are introduced to a 13-year old girl named Ellie, an almost obvious personality taken straight from actress Ellen Paige’s ‘Juno’ character (which is another funny issue altogether). Due to the circumstances, Ellie must travel along with Joel and Tess and be taken to an organized rebel group hell-bent on finding a cure to the zombie virus, a group called the Fireflies. Due to some of Ellie’s special abilities the couple now agrees to take a dangerous road ahead to see what kinds of progress they can make when meeting up with the Fireflies with Ellie in tow. At this start-up there is a fairly low set of action sequences that does a decent job of introducing the player to the game’s mechanics, but the story is not immediately involving as even though you do meet these characters, the game simply hasn’t done enough to establish who they really are yet, and reasons as to why their journey is so important is unfortunately not fleshed out enough, leading to the player wondering what the big deal really is. This plays out for about the first half-hour of the game, yet once the first significantly dramatic scene takes place, the game takes on a new life of its own, very quickly magnetizing the player to the edge of their seats.

While the overall story of Last has some wonderfully scripted hills and valleys for the main characters, as well as those for other allies and antagonists we get to meet throughout, at its base elements are primarily focused on the relationship between Joel and Ellie themselves and their growth as people and dependency on one another; a relationship that works to eventually have them opening up to their personal insecurities despite the strength and personal emotionless walls they have no option but to keep upholding throughout. The player not only is lucky enough to witness some fantastically acted and directed cut-scenes to further flesh out the story, but also, thanks to the near perfectly crafted gameplay mechanics truly are made to feel as if they are one within this horrid zombie outbreak; tension, fear, exasperation, hope, relief, frustration (a good kind), and joy of success are all emotional feedback rewards that Naughty Dog have all considered and implemented when designing exactly how this zombie tale would play out.

Gameplay Mechanics/ Elements/ Dynamics:

In Last you play primarily as Joel, despite the smaller game section a handful of hours in where you take the role of someone else for a little while. Yet for such an older man he can truly pack in some punch. Similarly to many survival horror games Joel begins with some weaker weapons in his arsenal, including even his bare fists when things become necessary in a clutch situation. In the third person perspective akin to Resident Evil 4, Joel is taken on a mostly linear path alongside mostly Ellie throughout the game. Need not worry as though it may sound like a continuous escort mission, it is anything but, yet a bit more on that in a bit. Once begun, more hardcore gamers may notice that the feel of how Joel moves, sneaks, and uses stealth tends to borrow the gameplay aspects of other recent hits, such as Tomb Raider and Far Cry; these controls can be seen as a tad unoriginal initially, but soon enough the game becomes so good that those other games quickly become a distant memory.

Last goes by a fairly basic and recognizable upgrade system, such as the ability to use randomly tossed scraps and tools around all the areas that can be used to level up weapons at workbenches scattered throughout the different areas. The game also integrates a smooth and rewarding crafting system, where Joel can use said scraps (ducktape, alcohol bottles, powders, etc) in real time to build various explosive devices, health items and small knives. Aside from this upgrade and crafting system, health and performance upgrades can be done through randomly scattered health pills. Maximum health, crafting speed, weapon skills, and other physical abilities can be leveled up through the ingestion of these pills; a system that is a tad far-fetched, but still keeps in check the believability of the overall game tone. Throughout the adventure, one will notice how vitally important the exploration element is in Last. Much of the game will be spent walking around desolate areas searching for as many scraps, pills, and health kits as possible, even scattered ammo which never gives Joel the luxury of any full clips and magazines, but simply bits of scattered bullets at a time; some which can be picked up from downed enemies, or others left behind by previous survivors. The ingenious purpose this upgrading and exploration mechanic has behind it is simply how realistically necessary it is. Throughout the game, Joel and Ellie will not only come across hordes of the bloodthirsty infected, but also violent human hunters and thieves who will kill anyone at the drop of a hat for resources. Since there are so very few friends and allies in Last, the enemy count will not only give the player a true run for their money, but also plenty and plenty of deaths. Experiencing this constant tension makes you aware that if you do not explore for scraps you will much sooner be dead; this gives the player the feel that every decision matters in regards to timing, control mastering (which isn’t hard at all), and strategizing of which weapons will be used, where, or if anything will be used at all. The player literally gets so involved into the overall atmospherics that the feeling as if they actually are trapped in a zombie apocalypse takes full swing as soon as the very first encounter with not just a series of infected, but also ones that have gone through such mutation, called ‘clickers’ who can kill Joel with a single touch (in that case, forget your health bar altogether). A frustrating feature at first, but eventually appreciated as this all becomes a gameplay design that absolutely revitalizes to full life the once dying genre of survival horror for modern game fanatics.

Last plays out in a very linear fashion, with no backtracking or side missions whatsoever. The game knows its purpose, and has no real reason to keep the player traveling in and out of the same areas, which is a thankful induction and works well to keep the player focused primarily on the general mission and story; this decision keeps the pace quick and exciting, full of tension as no area can be readily recognized, thus only adding to the constant edge-of-your-seat stretching of the player’s nerves. Just like other survival horror games, bigger and more powerful weapons are found around the towns as you progress through Last. Thankfully, sorting through the menu walks a great balance of ease and skill, leaving the player to determine when are the best times to not only swap weapons, but also craft together various bombs and health upgrades. Many times using your explosives is more enjoyable than your weapons, considering it not only takes more strategy, but also conserves ammo as well as the joy of watching our enemies blown to pathetic bits. It’s a good thing that the game itself knows when you’re in dire need of ammo or health, sometimes (though few) tossing the player a bone in the form of relieving upgrades. Since Joel is not able to pick up full items all of the time, as well as limited “ability” pills, having enough scraps to craft a much needed item feels like a breath of fresh air every absolute single time it is done; and don’t worry about any weapons ever becoming obsolete, as older and weaker weapons have enough oomph to get you out of clutch situations whenever necessary, making the player thankful for Joel still holding onto them. This is what we call balls-out true survival. Aside from the scraps needed to build these weapons, there are also pendents, comics for Ellie, and other collectibles that are strewn about for the picking, yet the player should know that getting absolutely all of them in the first playthrough without a game guide is virtually impossible.

The last aspect of gameplay that should be mentioned in Last is the violence factor, and all of its epically visceral brutality. While Last isn’t really a gory game per se, as you never really see guts or human remains such as your Silent Hills, what makes Last so disturbing is just how, again, real the characters and enemies move and act during fire and fist fights. Since animations are done so fluidly, as well as the same character reactions not typically acting the same way twice depending on the angles of shots as well as background objects, moreover to mention the amount of blood splatter per kill, all do a subtle but very significant level of success in surrounding the player into this depressive lost world they must survive. Gameplay fights are neither constant nor consistent, and the player is thankful when there’s a breather moment open to explore; yet when enemies are upcoming or plainly present, all senses of sound, visuals, and environmental objects become your best friend when deciding when and how to take cover, or not taking cover at all. Naughty Dog also did such an excellent job in a seemingly small detail as enemy placement in the game, where some of them come up so unexpectedly that yours grinch truly found himself mumbling “oh shit,” crouching Joel quickly out of harm’s way before being spotted. It’s as if Naughty Dog knew exactly how some sections would play out, and purposefully placed foes in the most hair-raising spots just to mess with you.

Joel also has the ability to use his listening ability to track enemy locations, depending if they are making sound or not. Some may recognize this feature to the recent Tomb Raider game when Lara was able to use her important, if somewhat silly “sensing” ability to track enemies and even objects (Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has a similar feature to track foes by using visual scan). Since inanimate objects are not able to be tracked in Last as they are in Raider, exploring every nook and cranny is not unheard of in Last. Anyway, so does Ellie do anything in this game? Besides being your escort she proves herself to be one tough teenage kid, offering a good amount of chuckles and general cuteness despite how foul-mouthed she can become. Since she is physically able to take care of herself, she never becomes a hindrance to your mission, and does a good amount to help you later in the game by taking down some foes herself. She almost becomes an extension of your character, but one tomboy you will definitely come to like and appreciate. Although you do play as Joel as your main lead, Ellie becomes the true star of the show.

Graphics:

While graphics are not always at the top of what makes a good game great, Last’s visuals not only work to make everything in it awe inspiringly believable, but are without a doubt some of the best, if not arguably THE best graphics of any game thus far this current gaming generation. As mentioned, the brilliant motion capture cut-scenes go beyond what is already impressive, but add to this the amount of attention put towards all of the environmental details and what you have is a game that makes you take breaks simply to stare at where you are. From far and vast distances you can make out distraught buildings in cities where nature is trying to take over everything in sight; cars lay burned and torn apart due to whatever ravages they had witnessed at whatever prior point in time in the last two decades; dead bodies and skeletons lay lonely and forgotten on sidewalks and random areas either killed by infected or simply starved to death. But even in more natural areas like the forests, birds fly by fluidly as do the rich and gorgeous clouds above, and the sun rays shine gorgeously through trees in some of the best designed lighting effects in gaming today. Heck, your grinch truly won’t even go into how gorgeous the rain effects look. Even in dark indoor areas such as the subway areas and abandoned buildings, objects lay wasted in all directions, many times just not visible, forcing Joel to switch on his flashlight (which in a cute feature sometimes begins to burn out, in which case a shake of the six-axis controller function brings it back to normal). Even Joel himself tends to slowly walk, jog and generally pace himself differently at the drop of a hat, depending on how much he feels he needs to perhaps conserve on his personal energy. The meticulous small nuances here in all objects and controls make not only your character, but also these objects feel so vividly life like, it’s just a shame that such stellar graphics have to always come so late in a console’s life span. Yet despite how downright beautiful everything looks, pushing a console’s hardware to this kind of extreme will likely not make for a 100% smooth game run. A few times throughout players may find the frame rate not as smooth as others, yet thankfully this virtually never happens during battles, but mostly just during walking bits. This never deters gameplay in the least but is still visible when it happens. As far as visuals go, that is about the only negative, therefore it’s easily wiped off the shoulder.

Sound:

If the visuals don’t immediately arrest you (but they will), the incredible sound production surely will. As mentioned above, Joel employs a listening ability as to which similar to the recent Tomb Raider, is able to track where enemies are depending on if they are making any sounds at all. These foes will come out as black silhouette shadows when behind objects, and using this ability by pressing L2 will automatically put Joel in a slower walking crouch position. Whether enemies are distant through the sound of their voices, moans, clicks (for those tough and intimidating clicker mutations) and footsteps, players must take it upon themselves to be hold awareness to these sounds (so to those with a good stereo system will probably do a bit better at getting through the game). Hearing the enemies in Last is just as important as seeing them. The game’s soundtrack also uses some keyboard tones to work in conjunction in making the player aware when enemies are nearby, which leads to just how spot on the soundtrack itself is.

Last doesn’t have any epic symphonies or loud intense music when action fills the screen, but instead decided to keep itself very low key, and really the only actual musical pieces play in the game’s opening menu, during more dramatic cut-scenes, as well as the ending credits. During actual gameplay the “music” is really left limited to atmospheric sounds and tones, which in themselves are infrequent enough that they can hardly even be called part of the soundtrack. This low key vibe ultimately works to keep things in Last very creepily realistic. So since the music is on the DL, what players really notice the most are the general sound effects, and it is pleasing to know that everything from the crunch of whacking an enemy in the head with a lead pipe or wooden plank, to the in-your-face gun shots and even down to the rich satisfying sounds of you crafting new materials, all blends so seamlessly to bring about an authentic world that does more to involve the player than all the Resident Evil 4’s in the world ever could (as wonderful as that game was).

Fun/Replay Value:

The greatest thing perhaps about The Last of Us is how even for a game focused on its single player campaign, once things are over players may likely feel more reason to play though it again. While games like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil do provide grand experiences throughout their campaigns, there is little reason to go back for a second playthrough, mostly due to the general lengths of the campaigns as well as the feeling that all necessities have already been explored. With Last, the campaign is so long and varied (probably about 15 – 17 hours in your first playthough), with enemies that are so much fun to kill thanks to such a well designed strategy system in place, as well as close quarter kills and satisfyingly full and intense weaponry, that it would be hard to deny this a second or third go around. You literally never have to do the same things twice, and various situations Joel and Ellie find themselves in call for differing gameplans, but never coming off too difficult or unreasonable; such variety keeps the pace fresh and fast, not to mention a lot of fun. In addition, Last has one of the best and smoothest running multiplayer games in recent memory. Here, you can play with a faction to accomplish tasks such as simply destroying the other team or collecting important objects. The multiplayer puts you on one of various maps from the game itself, and through credits collected you can purchase upgrades such as armor and enhanced weapons. The best thing about this feature is just how incredibly smooth it runs and how competitive it becomes. While not as involving as the single player, the mutliplayer does add a good amount of hours of enjoyable replay to Last. It should also be noted that once the single player is finished, the game grants some fun unlockables, through money accumulated where the player has the choice of what bonuses they can buy. The amount of money collected is likely determined on in-game performance as well as what difficulty levels were beaten.

Overall:

There is simply too much greatness to The Last of Us to be able to cover in a single written review without causing too many spoilers, but this is truly one of the greatest games of this generation, and possibly of all time. While the hardened content may not be for everyone, for those who do have a heart for this type of action/adventure survival horror thing, this is a must own for anyone with a Playstation 3, as well as being well worth the full retail purchase price. Actually, it could almost be determined sinful for a person owning a Playstation 3 and not having ever played Last, granted its sheer genius. On both a technical and storytelling level, what can be said for The Last of Us is the same that was said by many for the Uncharted series – how can Naughty Dog possibly improve on such a breakthrough piece of gaming creativity? Only time will tell, yet as of this writing Naughty Dog has come out and said that they unfortunately plan on no sequels to Last, believing such a task would be overkill on these two characters. One can only hope that their next project, likely to hit the Playstation 4 will at the very least match levels with this absolutely fantastic achievement. The Last of Us is one for the record books. 4 out of 4 clickers, easy.

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) Blu-ray review

What You’ll Like:

  • Story moves at a fast pace
  • Cute, comedic moments with main protagonist cast
  • Lots of visual eye candy throughout
  • Who coulda thought the wicked witch had once been hot?

What You May Not:

  • Too many contrived and lazy story elements
  • Laughably outdated CGI effects
  • The wicked witch is horribly miscast
  • Never tries to come anywhere near the magic and charm of the original Oz

What You’ll Remember:

  • The clever character conclusions giving way to the 1939 classic

Back in the 1930s Walt Disney had missed his shot at being the mind behind the silver screen adaptation of the land of Oz, based on the original Oz novels. Afterwards, it seems fate just did not have his way in mind as a small screen live play project based on the novel “The Rainbow of Oz” had still fallen through, putting it on the sidelines in lieu of many of his well-known classics such as Snow White and Babes in Toyland. Sadly, even after his death his vision was never imagined, instead taking the Disney company over 40 years later to finally give us the 2013 prequel to the 1939 classic. While the property of Oz is fair game to anyone brave enough to take on a new feature, it perhaps took decades before anything was attempted due to the belief that any studio looking to remake the original may result in a pitch fork mob of fans burning them down and out of business. Hence, taking the origin story of not only the Wizard, but also our well-known sister sibling villains, which had great potential to become a modern classic, instead failing to ultimately do so in exchange for avoiding storytelling risks to ensure immediate profit with an overall cute and entertaining, but fairly predictable and standard story arc presentation.

Great and Powerful stars James Franco as Oz (his name) as a deceitful and selfish carnival fair magician in the rural lands of 1905 Kansas who dreams of one day becoming a great inventor and creator to live in humankind’s memories forever. As the pompous wizard, James does put on a good performance throughout, staying convincing as such, giving the audience a good amount of laughs during his slick fibs and philandering of anything looking pretty in a dress, yet still with a deeply embedded heart of gold. As the film begins in a cute and creative black and white standard definition format, we witness him at a fair manipulating a gullible audience for which he is caught. Due to his womanizing ways he angers a local circus freak of a strong man who chases him into a hot air balloon, accidentally running himself into a wild twister, magically whisking him to the wonderful land of Oz. After a few chuckles of just how blatantly computer generated everything looks, we see Oz quickly meet up with Theodora, a conservatively dressed beautiful young witch played by Mina Kunis, whose performance during her more aggressive scenes will continuously take you away from the movie granted how kiddish and whiny she tends to come across. Too quickly, before ever really getting to know either character, we are forced a love story between the two, which leads to one of the most blatant problems with Great and Powerful, that which being of a story that may garner interest due to always being fast paced, but takes too little time to really investigate any characterization route that could lead to any sort of real depth for any person involved.

Oz is accompanied by a talking monkey dressed as a hotel bellboy as his sidekick named Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, who akin to the story element in the original 1939 Oz, is supposed to be a parallel character to Oz’s doormat human sidekick Frank back in the real world of Kansas. We soon learn (too quickly I should once again say) that Oz can take over officially as the great and powerful Wizard of the land, and benefit to a giant vault full of golden riches, if he destroys the scepter of who he is told is the wicked witch of that world; a lie passed to him by Theodora’s manipulative sister Evanora, played forgettably by Rachel Weisz. There apparently has also been a prophecy about a wizard coming to restore a balance, which by the looks on everyone’s face in the film, is nice but no real big deal (if this contrived “prophecy” element for a prequel would sound familiar to anyone, it would probably be Star Wars fans). But taking over officially just by doing this one scepter smashing task? By who’s authority? Who is this supposed witch threatening anyway, as we have yet to meet ANY inhabitants to this wondrous land? Oh, and where did the prophecy come from anyway? This, just like the sudden forced “romance” between Oz and Theodora is too quickly and lazily slapped on the script to keep the story moving, giving us no real interest in this completely phony looking toy land. The real story the filmmakers are trying to get to that is, is the lies and manipulation which cause the wicked witch to birth in the first place, but thus far considering no real character development has taken place, we are left still wondering what the big fuss is about, and more importantly, where the magic of Oz truly is at. Thankfully, about almost an hour into the film we meet Michelle Williams’ rendition of the good witch Glinda, who is perhaps the best part of the film and the true show stealer here; not counting Williams’ miraculous ability to not having seemed to age since her late 90s TV show, Dawson’s Creek. Williams seems to try her hardest and considering her past film resume, is easily the most talented actress on set, and it shows; this is all of course not counting her smile that could probably melt the polar ice caps. Furthermore, we also meet a nameless porcelain china doll voiced annoyingly by young actress Joey King. In her introduction, we are given a very emotionally heavy-handed scene, which almost desperately attempts to make us cry and ache for a character we do not even know yet. It all really is a necessary evil we must endure despite her ability to perhaps charm some people with the character’s whiny and needy, but cute, preteen age bracket; admittedly though, she does offer some wit and laughs as the film does remember to reach for some type of magical and charming elements it regrettably does not try hard enough to create. Unfortunately, the china doll and Finley the Zach Braff monkey’s voice actors are constantly taking the audience out of the experience simply by how much the script insists on them running their mouths; the characters, while having some cute and funny moments as mentioned, just talk too much, and too much like modern young metro-Americans, irritating politically correctness and all (most annoying, Finley’s completely pointless and distracting brief tirade on monkey-banana stereotypes). In such a far away vast land, one would expect perhaps some accents, creative language dialects, maybe even a language barrier of sorts, etc.; but to have such fantastical CGI (although poorly rendered) main characters sound more like New York City Starbucks chatterboxes isn’t doing Great and Powerful any favors. Really a neglectful handwave by Raimi, taking away more of what really could have been.

Once the major story arc is well underway does the movie finally begin to pick up in terms of garnering any real interest, so it is not until the second half of the film that things become significantly more entertaining, if still lacking any creative or memorable simple nuances that made its predecessor classic so unforgettable. Yes, Great and Powerful does give us those dastardly flying monkeys, although for a 2013 film, they pale in comparison to the lifelike and truly threatening flying wicked witch henchmen of the original. Still, despite these contrived storytelling flaws, we do get plenty of adventurous romps with our main protagonist cast, leading to a good amount of vivid enjoyment as they try to escape the grasp of the now turned wicked witch, who is just so galaxies beyond miscast it’s not even funny, and whose overall character, without giving away any spoilers, yet proves to us exactly why Great and Powerful could not be as strong a film as it perhaps should have been. That being, its constant pandering to modern audience predictability. Just like the china doll and Finley the Braff monkey, director Sam Raimi (who really should know better) decided to ultimately forgo any investigative thought as to why and what made the origin film so memorable, giving us a story that as we watch, can’t help but gradually get the feeling that we have seen with similar running themes a million times before in countless other animated family films. While doing well to entertain us with some dazzling colors and establishing shots, it’s all almost too overdone in a technical sense. We seem to become very enthralled in the melodrama going on with the main character conflicts instead of the characters themselves, who at their foundation have really given nobody any reason to actually care for them; though you may not immediately know it, you are being woo’d by a film that looks very pretty but only offers a fast-food style of screen writing – shallow drama that is quickly digested but gives you very few elements that are memorable or reflective. This is true until very thankfully Raimi does redeem himself by coming up with a very clever method of ending the story for each character, leaving no real loopholes, satisfying the audience in the end and perhaps making them want to review the 1939 original. The final 15 minutes of Great and Powerful does do much to make up for the plastic artificiality of the 2 hours that preceded it.

So is Great and Powerful a bad movie? No, but in the end it is evident that while Great and Powerful does offer us a mostly entertaining (if also completely ditzy) romp of dazzling colors, attractive looking characters, a small handful of laughs, and a fast paced story to get us to that quickly digested melodrama, it also feels too satisfied with itself at its base, fundamentally offering a very straight-forward story that hands its audience very little, if anything, that would have made Walt Disney himself proud and consider a worthy contender alongside the much loved classic and source material he held such a passion for. A classic that even decades later, is still charming the hell out of newer and newer generations of children. Everything in Great and Powerful just feels too modern and squeaky clean, taking almost zero risks as perhaps the original did over 70 years ago, and definitely nowhere near the guts it took to write the unofficial “sequel,” the 1985 cult classic, Return to Oz. In an era of quickly digested films that pander to today’s politically correct cheap safety nets of soccer moms and unchallenged sheltered children, Great and Powerful is unfortunately yet another harmless bet, and has only the Oz name slapped on it but can do next to nothing to match wits with the brains, guts, and especially heart and soul of what made the long-living beloved franchise as unforgettable as it still stands today.

Extras:

A very in-depth lot, especially for fans. If you own an Ipad, you can download the Oz app to view the film using Disney’s “Second Screen” which can offer up a good dose of info as you view. Next, there is a very informative 10-minute featurette on Walt Disney himself, and his history with wanting to release a Disney film project yet always having missed his chance to; it provides some interesting information that is mostly unknown about Walt. There are 6 other featurettes, all ranging between 10 and 20 minutes going into good detail about the individual cast members and their behind-the-scenes work, including a 20-minute documentary-style feature starring James Franco interviewing cast and crew; this also including interview questions with director Sam Raimi himself, who quite honestly seems so bored with the project it’s no wonder the film came out the way it did. Next, another featurette focuses on the score by Danny Elfman and his composing music for the film (a score that is fairly forgetful despite some pretty melodies only sprinkled here and there), followed by a decent blooper reel. Unfortunately, there are no trailers or TV spots.

Graphics and Sound:

Great and Powerful is mostly a beautiful looking blu-ray transfer, especially with the film’s focus being so much on vivid bright colors throughout the land of Oz. The lighter and brighter scenes match the plastic cartoony atmosphere perfectly, that is until we get to more darker scenes, such as the one in the golden riches cave with Oz and Evanora, where skin tones just become way too overly saturated, causing the viewer to lower the color palette picture mode to standard or movie, which does unfortunately take away detail from the darker background elements. While there is never any visual distortion throughout and all colors are smooth and vibrant, perhaps tuning down the dynamic level would’ve helped things become more even. On the audio end, for some reason the film is set defaulted on Dolby Surround 2.0, an ancient sound channel by today’s standards, but that is easily remedied in the main menu. All effects are very lively and there is never any issue with overall clarity, the only times showing any weakness are those where deeper voices have a tendency to come off a bit muffled, such as Mila Kunis’ earlier scenes. Louder scenes transition smoothly without ever badgering the viewer.

Final Verdict:

While becoming a modern classic perhaps was never a directorial intention, for such classic origin roots a film like Great and Powerful should have definitely put more focus on being something more mature and memorable. On its own, Great and Powerful does hold up fairly well, even when ignoring where it came from. There are good ideas scattered throughout, and nice shots as well as laughs to be had. Still, too many things just feel out of place here, too many poor casting choices and script ideas, plotting rushed in desperation of getting to the parts the movie itself knows are better, and it constantly is taking the viewer out of the experience. Great and Powerful is a film with no real sense of purpose or distinction from just another big budget Hollywood colorful blockbuster which takes yet another beloved classic franchise and cheapens it up with bad CGI (and wow is it ever bad) and forgettable storytelling, masking it with a name, known characters, and a few jokes, while underneath lying just another run-of-the-mill plot. Thanks to a few GOOD casting choices (namely, Williams, and usually Franco), and a well written ending, it keeps Great and Powerful from being merely average, but not enough to be fully recommended for a purchase. Lots of the effects here would have been nice to see in 3D, but do not even get me started on Disney’s green-eyed decision to release the 3D version in a completely separate blu-ray package aside from the digital copy and dvd/blu-ray packages, but still of course for the full $35 price tag. So anyway, I’d say 2.5 sexy witches out of 4. If you’re not a Wizard of Oz hardcore fan, you will be fine with just a weekend rental.