Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013) Blu-ray review

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What You May Like:

  • Unique and engaging storyline
  • Great action with unapologetic violence factor
  • Vivid, smooth and slick animation

What You May Not:

  • Not too significant of a villain present
  • Some substandard voice actors
  • A few story details are a bit convoluted

What You’ll Remember:

  • The darker and grittier version of Batman

From the fantastical minds that have brought us a vast library of ambitious feature length films featuring Marvel and DC Universe heroes comes the latest installment centered primarily on the Flash character and his Barry Allen alter ego. Staple DC film creator names such a Jay Oliva, Geoff Johns, and James Kreig carry the roles of director, story, and screenplay respectively, all of whom have a steady and respectable resume of comic and various children’s animated features, and with their new creation matters are taken down an unapologetic path of a more complex yet engaging storyline, darker characters, and more explicit bloodshed. The Flashpoint Paradox gives us a refreshingly original screenplay that absolutely earns its PG-13 rating, not simply for the violence factor, but also for direction to present a story with a good variety of interwoven character story arcs that give a great balance of history and the present character personalities fans have all come to recognize, but not necessarily told in a manner that non-adolescents will easily comprehend; a characteristic of Paradox that both helps and limits it just enough from a true breakthrough in animated action.

Paradox stars a hefty handful of DC Universe names with mostly good, if some sub-par voice performances that eventually become unimportant considering how gripping the story soon becomes. Names include Justin Chambers as the Flash, C. Thomas Howell playing nemesis Professor Zoom/ Eobard Thawne, Michael B. Jordan as Cyborg, and more famous ones with smaller roles such as Nathan Fillion as the Green Lantern, and Ron Pearlman as Deathstroke; yet the cast is pretty vast considering the amount of DC stars who make an appearance. Judging from the front cover, one thinks they’re in for a story involving the Flash, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Cyborg, but to our surprise other heroes give some cameos, as well as some fairly significant roles, such as Superman and the Green Lantern. Upon opening, we get the background behind Flash himself, and how his mother was murdered by a home intruder when he was just a boy. Immediately being taken into his adulthood visiting his deceased mother’s grave, Barry Allen woodenly expresses regrets as to how he should have done more to save his mother, however exaggerated a grown man could be about something he obviously had no control over at just 8 years old; soon the thankfully brief introduction to him is quickly forgotten when we meet Flash’s nemesis Eobard Thawne terrorizing a local city Flash museum along with his own posse of greedy but dimwitted thugs such as Boomerang and Captain Cold, otherwise known as the Rogues. Here is where Flash is aided by his own Justice League posse that we are also introduced to – your standard Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg – all working as a cohesive team to settle the matter. A good and solid opening, even if some characters appear a bit rushed in production.

The story takes a strange turn fairly quickly and may even go over a few viewers’ heads; suddenly we see Flash at his city news offices where word is spreading about the world’s apparent Armageddon, to which Flash suddenly and unexpectedly runs into his mother, who wonders why Barry is acting to strangely. His mother being alive is not the only strange difference, as we then see Barry’s love interest Iris as a wife and mother to another man, as well as are introduced to far more bitter, sinister, and unforgiving version of Batman, who apparently now forgoes any of the moral ethics of crime fighting we know him so well for. Lastly, and perhaps the biggest strange change to Barry’s seeming dreamworld is the fact that not only are Wonder Woman and Aquaman enemies, but their respective Amazon and Atlantis kingdoms have waged war against each other which is breaking down the world around them, nearing the end of it, all due to Wonder’s murder of Aqua’s wife after an extramarital affair between the two gone array. When Barry tries to make sense of matters he goes to visit the Batcave to get some answers, only to be beaten and questioned by this new darker version of the Dark Knight. Yet it is there that Barry discovers that his opposite “reverse-Flash” nemesis Professor Zoom, or Eobard Thawne is behind the strange set of circumstances in a way Barry cannot yet piece together. Then in an action-packed subplot, we meet Lex Luthor as he is trying to take control of a doomsday weapon aboard a military ship; a rather quick subplot that is there just to tie up the main villain of this new reality, that being Aquaman and yet another surprise that he will use as the weapon to defeat Wonder Woman’s Amazon kingdom, as well as the world around it. While everyone is downtroddenly helpless in accepting of the world’s fate, Cyborg seems the only one trying to take genuine steps to save it, unfortunately he gets orders from the president of the United States – an interesting animated impersonation of current president Obama – to stand down and be relieved of his duty. In a mild setback to the film itself, actor Michael B. Jordan (I guess not to mistake him with THE Michael Jordan), gives too stale of a voice-acting performance, yet due to the constantly growing story, this is similarly forgotten as Flash’s intro was. There is yet another plot twist involving the whereabouts of Superman, whose backstory no longer has him crash landing and meeting up with his rural country farm parents, but instead locked away by a government conspiracy experiment. Relatedly so, another subplot exists involving Lois Lane and her investigation of Wonder Woman’s Amazons, yet she soon meets up with a small band of resistance fighters who act as a third side to the war, desiring to stop the fighting that will inevitably destroy the planet.

What follows there on in is not only Flash’s mission to figure out his jogging memories of both realities clashing in on each other, but also his now smaller team’s task to figure out who and what will bring about doomsday, as well as what could be done to stop the war between the Amazon and Atlantis. The characters in Paradox are ever evolving, constantly changing in circumstances and also the motivations of each small or large band of armies, keeping the audience constantly engaged; and thanks to some greatly edited action sequences, completely enthralled as to the conclusion of each superhero, even those who have not necessarily turned evil, but whose priorities have gone astray due to old flames and hurts still held onto. The sheer amount of DC characters are so vast here in fact that the viewer is best recommended to get at least two full viewings to not only miss things lost during the first, but also appreciate how well balanced the story is told to us. A negative may be that some elements can come off as a bit convoluted, but the redeeming factor being that upon a second viewing there is lots to catch missed the first time around. Even minor characters such as Lois Lane’s resistance team, namely leader Grifter, are quick to impress, to whose credit should mostly go to not only the great use of voice-acting (the good talent does in fact outweigh the stale), but also each character’s presentation. The newer version of Batman himself is a thoughtful welcome treat, and though he is the best aspect of the film in terms of a character, it is all due to some greatly written dialogue. Sarcastic quips, strong personalities, and just enough slick animated acting to not let matters become too lighthearted, the way each character speaks is constantly focused on the story and matters at hand, never pandering the audience to cheap gags or childish jokes; moments of comic relief are perfectly placed. Director Jay Olivia displays absolute mindful skill, not only in his great pacing of the story, but also how well he is able to balance each story arc in such a limited 80-minute running length; such a task is much more difficult to achieve than perhaps thought. What should also be mentioned is the more ruthless violence factor present. While the film is nowhere near an R-rated level of blood, there are some fairly hardcore scenes that may surprise viewers, even those who have had experience with PG-13 animated features prior. Had being done with real actors in live action, the film would have easily gotten an R, yet it seems it is only the animation which keeps it suitable for teenagers. Yet for everyone, the shining star here is the story itself, which gives us one of the most unique and creative takes on time-travel plots to come along in a long while, even for an animated film. There is much in terms of originality, and not once does there feel any instant where we can argue logic problems, keeping an open mind of course.

So while the story does most to grant us one fantastic action feature, the focus on Flash himself brings a heap to the table. Since Flash experiences two different realities, his memories begin to widen out of nowhere and eventually clash in on themselves, only to come to a certain point of peace later on, but it is his character struggle alone during all the circumstances that keeps him growing as a man. Sure, while initially his voice work was a bit stale, it seems to actually improve as the film goes on, so such a complaint is definitely minor in the long run. Though not all characters go through a change or grow during the film, most of the main characters do, and again, to do it in such a limited running time only makes us wish the film could have run about 15 minutes longer. This also helps to keep the viewer engrossed in every detail of what is going on, even if the film presents some of the story points a bit too quickly, so as stated almost forces more than one viewing; not a setback given the worthy entertainment value. What some may dislike is that since there is so much focus on time travel and character growth, there is not too much of a villainous presence. Sure, while Aquaman and Wonder Woman are the main causes of what is bringing about the end of the world, their conflict is more one-to-one, not with the world so much, and as we learn later on, Flash’s arch nemesis Eobard Thawne has less of an involvement as we had initially hoped or could foresee. Therefore, the villain aspect of Paradox is not so much absent, but meets almost the minimal amount required to be appreciated. Yet due to the nature of the story itself, a more ruthless and present villain may have taken away from the grand intentions, especially at a shorter time length. Had this been a full two-hour feature, there could definitely have been some great possibilities to beef up the good we already have, as well as give Flash a more threatening situation than he is already in. Even if the end of the world does seem pretty drastic, there is not too much intensity here when thinking of Flash’s actual survival. In the end, it’s more of a superficial setback that as good as the film it, could not really help unless broadened to a longer running time.

Quick and thrilling edits during battles, vibrant animation (as expected), satisfying bloodshed, and a vividly in-your-face effects soundtrack that will have audio aficionados scrambling to turn up their speakers, Paradox can arguably be the named as the best Marvel/DC films to date. Jay Oliva has easily put a great achievement to his resume, especially for a main superhero who can sometimes be seen as a more uncared for underdog in the DC Universe as the Flash, but he definitely does get his just do in the action-packed, truly ambitious, and wholly satisfying Paradox.

Extras:

As usual from Marvel/DC original films, we get a good handful, but moreso lacking in the department of this actual film itself. There are two full featurettes; in the first, “A Flash in Time” is a 22-minute feature with some of the film’s creators interviewed about the process, possibilities, risks, and improbabilities of time travel itself, with some more historic information about famous philosophers and their take on it as well; some of the comic canon is mentioned to boot and keep discussion grounded. Next is “My Favorite Villain: The Flash Bad Guys,” with some interviews with the same film creators commenting on some of Flash’s most famous enemies in his own comic book history, including a few in the film itself; more to the liking of Flash fans, this may not entirely appeal to those just interested in the DC movies. Otherwise there is a DC vault that we usually get of 4 cartoon episodes, standard commentary track, a fairly long 8-minute sneak peak at the next DC Universe film iteration entitled War, and a preview sample of one of the Flashpoint comics in the new series. For a Target store exclusive feature there is one downloadable 34-page comic, being #1 of The New 52, of the new Flashpoint comic series. Unfortunately there are no features that talk about the making of this particular film itself.

Graphics and Sound:

Paradox displays a mostly stellar presentation of a blu-ray transfer. Being an animated feature, there is as usual not enough demand to detail as to live action films, but given that, the animation is still super clean and vibrant. While things can always be better, to nitpick would be to mention that colors could have been given a bit more vividness, as some more naturally loud colors such as Flash’s red or Green Lanterns greens are not super flashy as some may wish. To argue, giving them more of a popping effect may run the risk of overdoing the amount of color saturation; again, that would be to nitpick. There are virtually no instances of distortion and an unnoticable amount of pixelation during fast-moving scenes, therefore the frame rate is beautifully smooth and well kept. Yet as great as the picture is, the sound production is where Paradox put all its HD cards on the table. To mention how crystal clear the dialogue is would be just the start. The core of how grand or epic any action feature is sound-wise would be to measure how well sound effects come through, and to this Paradox does one of the most stellar jobs that yours grinch truly’s ears have ever had the pleasure of making out. The film effects are loud, robust, full, bombastic, detailed, and exciting. Every punch, explosion, gun shot, smack, and even footstep are placed to a perfect level of balance, and never do things become too loud or too low, much less ever obnoxious or irritating. The sound on its own brings a whole new level of engrossment to the film that any flaws within would have harmed the whole, and yet Paradox keeps things fantastically produced all the way through. This is truly animated sound gold.

Final Verdict:

The Flashpoint Paradox is chock full of great production values and other top-notch technical achievements, such as animation and sound design. It doesn’t end there, as the story elements are so vast and detailed that it only could leave room for further investigation if a sequel were ever considered, but not that it would be practical. If there is any setback to the story itself is that the film did not run long enough for a fuller story to be produced, one where some of the villains could have had a better role or taken a greater lead, such as Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Being that The Flash himself was the center of attention, as well as his own character development, the film could only do so much. Still, these complaints are mostly superficial and hypothetical “could be’s,” as Flashpoint can still maintain itself as one of the greatest DC Universe films, if not THE best DC film to date, of course disregarding any live action ones, many of which this can still easily trump. Though not intended for younger children, it’s a grandiose action-infested treat of a film for anyone else. While not being an animated action classic, there is still enough great here that shows true passion and determination to the characters stories as well as the fans by the filmmakers. It’s a welcome breathe of fresh air that though having released about 20 films so far, DC still holds just as much integrity and commitment to fans as ever, without ever resorting to cheap sellout tactics or quick cash-ins. Many newcomers will also easily appreciate how accessible the story is, granted if they know even the most basic backstories to the main characters (namely those of Flash, Superman and Batman). A definite recommendation for casual fans and an absolutely strong one to DC ones, a solid 3.5 Armageddons out of 4. Yours Grinch truly is absolutely looking forward to the next film Justice League: War set for this coming winter season.

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.

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.

New Blu-ray Pickups! (Battle Royale highlight)

So recently I picked up a few new blu-ray movies at some decent prices that I thought I’d share. Said blu-rays are the new Scarface blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy and Ultraviolet Steelbook from Target at a good sale price of $12; second is the fairly old blu-ray release of the Japanese spaghetti-western modern classic Battle Royale UK limited edition box set off an ebay auction for a total of $34 shipping included (an absolutely beautiful package that is highlighted with more detailed pics at the bottom of this article); third is the also fairly old Back to the Future trilogy blu-ray release but withOUT the digital copies included, for the sale price of $19.99 at Target.

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So there they are, and one may be asking why I didn’t own a couple of these earlier. Well, currently I already own the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD, and have for a number of years already, but have always avoided the blu-ray package because of price. Typically before a Target sale purchase I make sure to check what the same product is going for online, my usual route being Amazon, as checking ebay prices tends to get too hairy, what with all the auctions and Buy-It-Now prices have all kinds of ranges.

Besides this, I have never actually seen Scarface in its entirety before (yes I know, ridiculous!) A while back there was a digibook copy being sold at Target for about $20 – $30, and I never picked it up being as naive as I was, thinking it would eventually go down in price. It didn’t, hence I missed the opportunity. I never just wanted the 1-disc blu-ray version in that cheapo recycle-friendly blu-ray case only containing the one disc, so this new steelbook release was the best option. It began being sold for $14.99 at Target, so I figured I’d wait to see if there was a sale. Then the price went down to exactly $13 last week, and this week down to $12. I didn’t want to wait any longer being as how the local Target only had 3 copies left, and I didn’t really want to come back and see that they had all run out, especially at that price. Amazon prices begin at $13.99 plus shipping and tax. Being as how I hold a Target redcard credit card, my purchase takes off 5%, which is still something! Anyway, there are actually various versions of Scarface on blu-ray, as can be seen on Amazon, all going to various values, the most expensive being the limited “humidor” edition, beginning at $700 brand new, and only one used at $1000. Yea, crazy.

Anyway, here are a few more shots:

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Yup, some pics of the fronts and backs. Pretty nice lil’ packages. At Target they were also selling the Target-exclusive Django Unchained steelbook for $13. Granted that these are selling for about $25 online, I purchased the 3 they had left and am currently selling them on Amazon. I figure I can make about a $6 profit on each one, essentially lowering my cost of Scarface and Back to the Future to a total of $18 (yes, I actually did all the math, adding the State tax, as well as counting the cost with the 5% Target redcard reduction), and what I estimate the shipping cost will be once they sell. So my note to self was to see if another town’s Target also had any of these steelbooks left and if they were also selling them for that sale price.

Anyway, as promised, here are some detailed shots of the Battle Royal box set, which as I said was purchased from an ebay auction for a total of $34. The item as of now on Amazon sells for about $60 for used copies and beginning at $300 for brand new ones. The box set I got here was listed as ‘like-new’ condition, and despite a few superficial package flaws (so little in fact that you probably won’t be able to find them in these pictures) is still in fantastic shape overall.

The package comes with two versions of the film – the theatrical cut running at 117 minutes and the director’s cut running at about 222 minutes. Those are both on blu-ray discs. There is also a special features disc on DVD, and in terms of extra goodies, there is an awesome lot, as listed here:

  • 117-minute Theatrical cut blu-ray disc
  • 122-minute Director’s cut blu-ray disc
  • Special Features DVD
  • Artwork and Concepts booklet
  • Essays and Commentary booklet – features behind-the-scenes facts, character/actor bios, director’s statement, producers interview, and full color stills from the movie
  • “Parent’s Day” full color comic book
  • One classroom ‘photo-day’ shot on post card paper with authentic certification information and number
  • 8 full color 5×7 post card film stills
  • One double-sided poster

Here are some more detailed photos of the package so you can see for yourselves:

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I’m very fortunate to have gotten this one off ebay for such a cheap price, yet can only credit it to this package not being entirely the most popular thing in the world, despite it being desired by more hardcore fans or despite its Amazon value. Off a last minute bid I got the package for that price beating out one other person to last second put up $30.

Anyway so there ya go, some if not popular then at least valuable blu-rays, and god forbid I’d be able to find these at a local pawn shop for a good price. Lately pawn shops and garage sales have just been getting way to clever and expensive…. but of course you don’t want to deal with that.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed, and look for more of these updates, as long as I pick up more than 3 blu-rays 🙂

Cirque Du Soleil: World’s Away (2012) Blu-ray review

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What You’ll Like:

  • Stunning visuals and directorial cinematography
  • Awe-inspiring performances
  • Good operatic soundtrack helps build the atmosphere
  • Sweet and subtly paced love story

What You May Not:

  • Some annoying music tracks break up pacing and overall artistic merit
  • Technical visual distortions are disappointing and distracting
  • Tends to run somewhat low on steam after a little while
  • Will mostly be appreciated by fans and not necessarily casual viewers

What You’ll Remember:

  • Absolutely marvelous final act

Originally founded in the mid-1980s by a couple of acrobatic street performers in Canada, the now world-renown Cirque Du Soleil “circus” act (the term being almost insulting at this point) gained significant momentum in the 1990s and 2000s, and quickly began playing live shows on nearly every continent on the planet by its 4,000+ employ, generating over $800 million in annual revenue; perhaps its most famous staple venue being in Las Vegas, where it would perform for an audience of over 9,000 every night. There is absolutely no denying that through its other-worldly talents in acrobatic death-defying feats and high-scale production values in effects, music and stage sets, Cirque Du Soleil is undoubtedly one of the most famous entertainment performance companies the world has ever known. While many of its seekers may not immediately be able to afford their more affluently priced live shows, a good number have at least the several video and soundtrack options readily available to them, its most recent arriving at the very tail end of 2012 with 3D filming help by Hollywood directing legend James Cameron in Cirque Du Soleil: World’s Away. Yet just to note, this review was not done viewing the 3D version of the film but only the standard 2D version.

For those wondering how exactly a performance act (no, I won’t call it a “circus act”) gets translated into film form, it should be stated that this is is neither a completely live running show recorded to film nor a straight forward story featuring just small bits of performances; it is in fact a mesh of both that begins as what feels like your typical movie, establishing a story with a couple of characters, but then quickly delves into more or less constant stage performances working as sort of skits, that are mostly presented in order to back the story of our immediate character plot. A plot with virtually zero spoken dialogue but just presented through an artistic flow of well captured pantomiming.

World’s opens up with an attractive young woman walking into a town fair that is set at night in a grassy field in what seems like a forest in the middle of nowhere, and from the start the tone of the film is immediately apparent. World’s sets itself as a story of wonder and enchantment when the young woman makes her way into one of the tents and begins watching a show of your typical old school basic circus act, but featuring a main showing acrobatic act with an attractive young Russian man known only to us as ‘The Aerialist.’ The young woman, who we will know as only Mia, is engrossed by the act, until one misstep in a stunt that causes the man to fall down into the sandpit below. It then begins to suck him right in as Mia runs to save him, but then only being sucked in herself. From this, the very loose story of World’s is simple – the two are transported into another realm where circus shows are presented in various enormous and beautifully epic tents, and Mia wanders this world in order to find and hopefully save the Aerialist. The part of the young woman is played by mainstay Cirque De Soleil acrobat extraordinaire Erica Linz, who right from the start and throughout the film establishes such a sweet and comforting presence that the viewer wouldn’t mind the film primarily focusing on her the entire way through. The role of the Aerialist is played by actor Igor Zaripov, who puts on a good enough performance in being captured by these circus henchmen but comes nowhere near as likable as Mia. Initially, Mia comes into contact with a semi-quirky but helpful mime, who seems to have a small place in this fantastical circus netherworld, but knows it well enough to take Mia around, keeping her safe and helping her to find the man she is there to hopefully save.

What follows here is a series of acrobatic stage performance acts by Cirque regulars, backdropped by a flowing and sometimes soaring and epic operatic orchestral soundtrack, setting a dark but pleasant atmosphere which helps the acts stand out that much more. For anyone wondering, these stage acts set to film are perhaps exactly what people will see at live Cirque shows, but the benefit here being that since it is put to film we are treated to a good series of soaring and establishing shots, showing us that these actors even for the film are “doing their own stunts” by not filming with any safety nets or harnesses at all, but performing for film just as they would for audiences on a live stage. Despite the great viewing angles, watching any live show of such epic proportions would always be better and more captivating live as opposed to your living room, and such becomes a bit too apparent with World’s and some of its soundtrack and directorial choices.

While World’s initially sets itself up with more pleasingly gloomy settings, an intriguing love story and some incredibly beautiful visuals from the circus netherworld as well as the crisp and lush stage set cinematography, somewhere at about the 40-minute mark do things tend to lose a bit of steam. Sure, some of these performance skits are better than others, as would be expected, but after a little while a few of these sets begin to work a bit too awkwardly, where the camera simply cannot get a good position in order to showcase all the acrobatic action. The one biggest culprit of this is one act featuring a number of acrobats on a near vertically set rectangular stage, where something of a battle is taking place between some of the evil circus henchmen who captured the Aerialist and some good, I guess I can call them clowns, there to save him from his shackles. As the performers climb up and down this rectangle stage, doing their various leaps and bounds to simulate the battle, the camera changes angles too often, mostly due to any angle it gets cannot display what is happening properly enough, to the cause of the stage itself being too strangely set. Granted it’s also not one of the more interesting performance set pieces in World’s. Following this act, we get less acrobatics and some performance sets where we are no longer not being treated to jumping, leaping, or even curling in superhuman agility, but instead moving and dancing on ground level in what feels like a gimmicky Superbowl halftime show. What makes this section of the whole film worse is the 60s and 70s classic rock Beatles choice of music. While the first half of the film featured primarily beautifully dark settings and some gorgeous slo-mo water dances set to wondrous orchestral work, the shift to more eccentric rock n’ roll and floor dances feels like it takes the viewer out of the engrossing experience, especially for such an ethereal world the film is supposed to be set in. It not only doesn’t fit right, but after a few minutes starts to become somewhat annoying. Even one skit performance featuring an underwater theme with some amazing jellyfish props begins to present as a saving grace, yet is mostly ruined when Paul McCartney’s voice is heard singing to an upbeat rock song. These directorial choices just stray too far from the enchanting and wondrous experience the audience was set up for initially; one of discovery and hope where a young girl was taken out of her comfort zone to a place of zero familiarity. Yet thankfully, when things seem to get too far ahead, Mia pops in and constantly saves this film from becoming too carried away with itself. As the viewer you become grateful when things quiet down and we see her entering a new set, still searching for the Aerialist whilst making new discoveries. Even for a character who only speaks two words throughout the entire film, Linz is beautifully charming, and that comforting presence she owns as stated earlier is easily what makes this film ultimately work as a story. She is a fantastic actress who even without words gradually shows how she is falling more in love with this Russian performer even though the two have never actually met. Thus we finally get to see such love displayed during the epic grand finale. While I don’t want to give too much away, the act is absolutely riveting, and one of the most captivating and beautifully choreographed and shot performance set pieces I’ve ever seen. It works because it gets the film to once again harken back to the slower and more sweepingly filmed beauty that World’s began with, not to also mention being backed by the best musical piece of the entire film. It’s simply joyous to watch and one wishes it would last perhaps another 10 minutes.

World’s definitely knows what it’s doing, and with the visionary aid of James Cameron, makes this one of the best looking stage act films in existence. There is a magical flair to complement mostly everything, and some of the ideas presented here are greatly unique to showcase that. Yet even with such valiant efforts on Cameron’s part, World’s will still most likely be best appreciated by those who are already familiar with what Cirque has to offer, and not immediately by the casual viewer who may find the constant acrobatic acts a bit repetitive. Since this is directed with such a profound and ambitious vision, those who also do not have a fond appreciation for the visual medium of film as an art form may come away disappointed. Yet anyone else will mostly like enjoy what is presented here, despite what could be subjectively viewed as flaws therein.

Extras:

Next to nothing, disappointingly so, with only three pieces total, two of which just feel like TV spots; the first being a very short and shallow “behind-the-scenes” feature of a mere two minutes. The second being just a TV commercial for the Las Vegas Cirque show. Thankfully, we also have an all too short 13-minute real behind the scenes showing featuring actress and Cirque acrobat Erica Linz, where we are privileged to set foot into the rehearsal gym with her and three of the male performers. We get a good glimpse at their first rehearsal before film production begins as they practice several dances and moves, and she explains in some great detail as to what exactly they are doing to prepare. This also works as a sort of very brief autobiography by Linz as we get to know her as a person, her background as a performer and how she got into the gig of Cirque. It also doesn’t hurt that even in real life she is an absolute down-to-earth sweetheart, who seems extremely friendly and just an all-around fun person to work with and perhaps even be in company with. Would it have hurt to see in better detail the actual filming process, meet other acrobats and perhaps some bloopers?

Graphics and Sound:

Initially World’s looks fantastic and one of the more superb digital transfers ever put onto blu-ray. During most of the film’s introduction things are perfectly balanced; vibrant colors are never too lustrous as they never overtake any scenes, and balance the darker images meticulously, not to also mention the very sharp level of detail and overall smooth cleanliness of the film’s look work to complement its theme. It is a grand disappointment however, that about 15 minutes in during the scenes laden with deep blacks are some pretty obnoxious distortion effects present. This unfortunately goes on through most of the film at random spots, but it is gracious as these scenes last no longer than a couple of seconds. Yet even so, with such a film genre as this as well as its calibur, it is vital that all the scenes look sharp with minimal distractions, but these distorted portions tend to stick out like sore thumb. If most of the great looking scenes look stellar in high definition, there is no excuse as to why some shots were just left out or forgotten when transferring this film digitally. Some work so to even take the viewer out of the experience. In the sound department however, things are mostly good but to picky fanatics may come off as a tad disappointing. While at the film’s start the volume, bass and voices are perfectly clear, whole and rich, the music itself could stand to be a bit more surrounding and comes off as a bit too low, never taking charge of scenes they are really supposed to, especially in a film where the music is the primary audio communication used to translate the story themes and moods to the audience. Yet while this is still a small complaint, even later in the film the general volume seems to get a bit too low, requiring the setting to perhaps be put up a few notches. Overall in this technical department, the movie does well but gosh does it deserve so much more.

Final Verdict:

There is no denying the visual marvel that is World’s Away, nor can one hold back credit to the sheer and incredible talents of the actors, who can pull off some of the greatest physical feats known to man; with such speed and agility it is near miraculous that any accidents are so rare and perhaps even non-existent, and a gigantic testament to the physical abilities of mankind in general. One cannot help to not only take their hats off but also rise up in a standing ovation to the jaw dropping talent of these performing athletes. Still, as a film, there are a significant amount of directorial choices that simply do too much to take the viewer out of the experience of a film that should have been so much more captivating than it was, instead pandering to modern audiences who seemingly prefer to forsake a fully engrossing art form of majestic humble beauty of such an artistic nature for some cheap gimmicky gags in the form of upbeat Beatle’s pop music and floor dances. Thankfully this does not fill the entire film, even if it is one that has a more narrow audience that it perhaps was hoping for. Truly wanting to love this film so much more than I did, I’d have to give Cirque Du Soleil: World’s Away a very strong and solid 2.5 aerials out of 4, and add 1 full aerial if you’re a hardcore fan of the Cirque performance company. Give this one a rental or get it at a discounted price as it’s a great visual treat, and what works here, works extremely well and becomes wholly endearing to the more open-minded viewer.

Django Unchained (2012) Blu-ray review

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Whether delving into history and ambitiously rewriting certain portions to slightly exaggerated levels in his spaghetti-western signature style, or exploring the underground violent world of vengeful crime, drugs, hitmen, and beautifully obnoxious green, Quentin Tarantino has made a prestigious name for himself if even somewhat recently in 1992 with the low-budget classic ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ In terms of American film-making, although Tarantino is just reaching his middle-age level as a director, he still has garnered just as much respect and admiration as those working in the business for many of our entire lifetimes, such as your Spielbergs, Scorseses, Coppollas, and Kubricks. But whatever his age, the movie going public is now becoming aware that when we see a new film advertised with the tag “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino,” we know to expect intensity, creativity, ambition, and zero apologies. In comes his newest work, Django Unchained, a bloody and historic period piece western that again provides us with a fully entertaining and well directed epic containing most of the things we know to expect from Tarantino, if missing some factors that fans will noticeably pick out and probably come to miss.

Unchained tells a fairly simple story of a slave named Django (played well enough by Jaime Fox, more on his performance in a bit) in the 1858 American south just before the Civil War, and the love story with the wife Broomhilda whom he became separated from due to the circumstances of their oppressed lives. Django is picked up in our first scene by a traveling bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz, played once again spectacularly by Christoph Waltz. When Shultz takes down the slave hoarders carrying the small group and partners with Django, he does so motivated not only for his need for a partner, but also his hatred for slavery in general. Why a distinguished white man in the southern 1800s hates slavery to such a degree is never elaborated, the story paces fast enough so it’s never a deterring aspect. The two go on several bounty missions before Shultz agrees to aid Django to track and retrieve his lost wife, for which would never be able to be done if not for Shultz’s slick and uber-confident persuasive demeanor, very similar to his character in Tarantino’s previous masterpiece, Inglorious Bastards. This character introduction to Shultz may seem pretty far-fetched at first, but in time one will realize that it all flows perfectly with the Tarantino love for such exaggerated and entertainingly charming manipulators that he has presented in almost, if not all, of his films, complete with some of the elongated and intriguing dialogue fans have come to admire. The story in Unchained soon then reveals its complete intentions rather quickly, and the remaining two hours has the two tracking other bounty jobs, visiting wealthy plantations through manipulation, as a black freeman would never be believable to southern white men, and even has Django taking on a few vengeful kills of his own due to those white slave owners who have wronged him and his wife in the past. Things eventually climax with the two protagonists heading to a large and affluent property nicknamed ‘Candyland’ owned by Calvin Candie, a wealthy slave owner who makes his business by purchasing and betting on slaves who are forced into dogfights to the death with other shameless slave owners. Candie is played by Leonardo Dicaprio, who despite putting on a solid performance, does not seem to get as much intense dialogue or character arc as one would wish considering how impressively stellar of an actor the former Titanic heartthrob has matured to become. Perhaps needless to state to fans, the final half-hour is the most grippingly violent in the whole film, full of the genuine weaponry, harsh language, dramatic slow-mo shots, and splashing bloodshed we expect from a Tarantino popcorn flick. And really, a popcorn flick this winds up being in the end.

While Unchained received plenty of publicity stating how overly violent and possibly offensive it may be, it should be told that other films in the past have already put on much more extreme content than Unchained has, those more serious period pieces on black slavery. The “N” expletive is said a good handful of times, yes, mostly by white characters, but is nowhere near the abundance that has been reported by the American media that seems to be becoming more sensitive by the year. While Tarantino certainly makes no apologies about the film’s content, there is nothing offensive in the film despite this being another exaggerated, albeit entertaining, live action cartoon Quentin has become so brilliant at directing. Though, a few instances may be more disturbing than anything else, such as scenes of genuine slave abuse, such as whippings, beatings, and even one scene where a crying slave man is chewed apart by fierce dogs, surrounded by the laughter and enjoyment of hillbilly white trash. Yet, things are edited enough to where some more extreme fanatics will wonder why more is not shown… perhaps for reasons of keeping this from an X-rating. Fans will feel mostly at home here, but to some slight hairs of disappointment, a few instances of Tarantino staples exist that one can’t help feel are a bit weaker here, and would have potentially upped the film from just an entertaining popcorn flick, to an entertaining popcorn flick that will keep people talking for years to come. These are the memorable case with his older works, specifically films like Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series and Inglorious Bastards. One must remember that Unchained is not trying to teach a lesson on black history or make a statement on racism, but only uses these factors to tell the story it wants to. Now while not all of his films need to follow the spaghetti western genre that Tarantino pretty much single-handedly invented himself, Unchained provides only hints of it in quick zoom shots, shaky cam, and over-saturated color stained flashbacks, with the remainder of the film using your standard wide and standard shots. Point being, that for something to hold the cartoon-like presentation, especially in the gun fights, that we know from the director, yet not follow up further in his signature visual ecstasy trips, gives the whole of the film the feeling of something missing. As fans will remember, the pre-spaghetti style of Tarantino films such as Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction did not have these trippy visuals, but were presented in a more serious tone, and things did not feel as out of place because there was not the same portions of directorial unevenness we have with Unchained. While this setback does not go near detracting from the story we are intended, it does take the viewer out of the fuller experience at certain points, limiting its memorability.

As mentioned earlier, Tarantino’s knack for smart and intricate dialogue has worked as an almost unconscious subtle ticket to granting his films the unique nature of being entertainingly intriguing without anything physical happening besides two characters talking in front of a static shot camera. In Unchained, this happens too few and far between, and just like the snarky spaghetti acid trips, are merely hinted at, beginning to steadily building momentum to being halted before they bloom into the full life fans are so accustomed to. And this is not a mere idea that has come to being in only Tarantino’s recent works, but stem from his very first opening scene in 1992’s ‘Dogs.’ I can’t imagine Tarantino is running dry on ideas, but perhaps with a bit more time the script could have been fleshed out to a fuller degree, instead of giving us a few choice scenes scattered in Unchained that could have easily been left on the editorial floor. Now, the final gripe I hold with Unchained is with Jaime Fox himself. While the press has hailed him as a true leader of the show, the real credit must more go to Christoph Waltz, who engulfs every scene he encounters, overcoming every other actor on screen. Fox though, either is given too many flat lines or just presents them flatly, coming off as someone who is unarguably a strong and ballsy slave, but a bit unrealistically intelligent granted his societal status; this causes his lines walk a tight rope of trying to convince us with an uneducated and unsure fish out of water and a fearless warrior who is completely sure of all his intentions. The good news here is that this uneven character presentation is soon alleviated by the fact that Django does grow and actually becomes a heroic warrior positive of his intentions. Once this happens, he does suit to further likability, even if the majority of his performance does feel somewhat underwhelming; still, there is no other viable actor with the age and physical ability working in Hollywood that could have fulfilled this role besides Fox. In a separate issue entirely, the fact that we don’t have enough available black actors in Hollywood with the abundance of white actors of choice is hopefully something that will eventually change.

Yet even with a few glitches, Unchained never bores, and even at its 165-minute running length, overstaying its welcome is not an issue. To elaborate on the previous point, more complex dialogue could simply have been traded in for some other scenes, not that the entirely of the film should have been cut shorter. The positives here undoubtedly outweigh the setbacks, and Unchained can proudly still stand in the same line as its rebellious and outspoken predecessors, even if its overall ambition and imagination may not reach the same heights.

Extras:

It should be noted that as of now there are four available blu-ray version of Unchained available; the Target, Best Buy, Wal-mart and standard versions. Each retail store special edition contains different extra content on a separate bonus disc. The version I am reviewing here is the Best Buy special edition, which brings an extra disc of a press conference interview with a panel of all the Unchained actors, including Tarantino himself, and even two other actors with such smaller roles that one wonders why they even got invited. The info from these actors is a fun and informative extra for fans. This disc only has this feature recorded on it, so there are no menus, and ends very abruptly, which should be expected considering it is simply there as a promo disc in order for the retailer to garner more attention; therefore it is not in HD form but just a regular DVD. The standard blu-ray disc extras include three fairly brief behing-the-scenes making of featurettes, which give us the general info on editing and costume design, plus previews of the film’s soundtrack as well as the new 8-disc Tarantino collection compilation. The Target edition has a steelbook package, as well as its own extra disc entitled “The Stars of Django Unchained Unleashed at Comic-Con 2012.” While I have not yet opened the steelbook package, I can only predict that this is most likely another DVD disc with perhaps just another discussion panel with some of the film’s cast.

Graphics and Sound:

Unchained looks like your standard blu-ray quality film, and clean enough even if colors are not as vivid as more impressive looking transfers go, but that is perhaps something that helps the film considering that it is meant to have a certain dirty look that is all the more fitting for a western, especially a Tarantino one. Sound-wise things are slightly more flat than one could want, despite the fact that general volume is full enough and dialogue is crystal clear. Action scenes are perhaps not as bombastically effective as it could’ve been, these being in the gun fights especially. The soundtrack has a satisfying, if also a bit underwhelming mix of contemporary rap and more traditional Cash-style melodic gloom; the production in sound could have benefited from the score being more pronounced than it is. Overall, picture and sound is no Lord of the Rings or Life of Pi, but attains a good standard that does its job and won’t disappoint purists.

Final Verdict:

Unchained may not be the most complex or memorable of Tarantino films, and does not reach levels of imagination and aspiration that other works have, but it is still a fully entertaining film with a story that is straightforward and attainable enough for even a contemporary non-Tarantino familiar audience to enjoy, without even a minute of slow down or boredom. New characters constantly refresh the story with charming and relevant performances throughout. Even if the historic aspects do not provide any statements on violent natures of humanity or racial discrimination, it never intends to, and must be taken on the degree it presents and intentions it warrants, and to that it succeeds. So grab your soda and popcorn, sit back and enjoy all the unique staples of such a deserving and respected director, even if for more hardcore fans the staples don’t hold as strong as they remember.

I give Django Unchained 3 revolver twirls out of 4.