Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yellowstone: Battle for Life

BBC’s esteemed nature photographers deliver another outstanding effort with this new release focusing entirely on Yellowstone National Park . It’s a sumptuous treat for the eyes in its high definition Blu-ray format, with amazing color, detail, and sound clarity that truly makes viewers feel like they’re in the park. The Blu-ray allows viewers to see every strand of fur, every scale on the fish, and every color of the park’s Grand Prismatic Pool, while also providing crisp DTS HD 5.1 surround sound that brings the park’s ambient noise fully into the living room. Aside from the eye and ear candy, it’s also an effective and interesting concept as it follows the wildlife in the park over the course of nearly a year, exposing viewers to the park’s dramatic changes throughout the seasons.

The production is split into three 50-minute segments. Interestingly, the first segment starts in the dead of winter rather than the more obvious rebirth of spring. It’s an inspired choice that immediately pays off with stellar footage of the harsh beauty of the park at a time most people never see it. The park can get up to 50 feet of snow in the winter, effectively cutting it off from civilization and preserving the delicate ecosystem struggling for survival against the harsh conditions. The production’s primary focus is the wildlife in the park, so the initial segment explores the efforts of the animals to survive the winter, such as the bison burrowing their heads down through feet of snow to find scraps of grass and the elk attempting to thwart hungry packs of wolves by seeking temporary shelter in freezing rivers. There’s also an enthralling segment about the park’s beautiful diamond dust caused by moisture in the air freezing into ice crystals, made all the more impressive by the Blu-ray’s fine detail that captures every miniscule glittering crystal floating through the air.

In the second section, spring transforms the park into a fertile plateau able to sustain the life of the scores of resident animals. The bears emerge from hibernation with their new cubs, the flies emerge just in time to make a tasty snack for industrious birds, and the flora explodes into a concert of color. As spring gives way to summer and the snow recedes, the park’s solitude gives way to the flocks of tourists out to explore its famous geysers and other natural wonders. I had some misgivings that the production would be heavily weighted toward footage of those geysers, but thankfully there’s only brief mention of them as the crew keeps the focus firmly on the wildlife.

The final segment shows the park winding down for the year as it enters autumn. The animals begin their preparations for another winter survival, such as the birds that carry pine nuts to secret stashes all over the park and the beavers that stockpile tasty branches under water near their lodges. The migratory animals begin making their way out of the park, which leads to the only other mention of human influence in the film as it shows the precarious lowland winter pastures of the elk that have been overrun by drilling operations and cattle ranchers.

The disc has three bonus featurettes that focus on humans: one about a man who removes the deep snow from the roofs of Yellowstone’s buildings throughout the winter to avoid cave-ins, another about an odd group of geyser watchers who help to predict the activity of geysers throughout the park, and another about a man involved with the park’s fish population.

Yellowstone: Battle for Life is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you have Blu-ray capability, the price differential between Blu and DVD is extremely small, while the Blu definition is completely awesome even though it tops out at 1080i instead of 1080p, making the format choice an easy decision.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Human Condition

This film’s daunting 9 ½ hour length may scare off many casual viewers, but those willing to make the significant time investment will be rewarded with an absolutely essential experience. The Human Condition was originally released as three separate films over a three-year time span, and each film is split into two parts, so in effect this is a six-film miniseries which closely parallels its original six-volume source novels by author Junpei Gomikawa. Its story is told in strictly linear fashion and traces the WWII wartime activities of a principled office worker named Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai).

As the film opens, Kaji is an idealistic, fairly soft office drone content to escape military service by accepting a role as a POW work camp supervisor in Manchuria. His everyman demeanor makes him an instantly identifiable and sympathetic character, fully pulling viewers into the harrowing future effects of the war on him. His work camp experience opens his eyes to the mistreatment of the Chinese prisoners by his countrymen and forces him to try to improve conditions for the workers whenever possible. Unfortunately, this puts him in opposition with his compatriots and eventually leads to his transfer to active military service, the exact occupation he had hoped to escape through his work camp appointment.

In the second film (parts three-four), Kaji discovers injustices within the Japanese Imperial army, enduring abuse at the hands of his fellow soldiers and witnessing their improper treatment of POWs. The film is clearly an indictment of Japan’s wartime mentality as it takes pains to emphasize the corruption and injustice at every level rather than just singling out a few bad apples. Kaji attempts to retain his principles, but his continued exposure to the harsh reality of his situation eventually causes him to come to terms with the violence needed to protect his interests.

Finally, in the third act (parts five-six), Kaji finds himself a prisoner in a Soviet POW camp, a complete reversal of roles from his initial indoctrination as supervisor of his Japanese POW camp. Here he learns that even his idealized concept of a fair Soviet army is false, as he finds himself subjected to treatment similar to the offenses committed by his countrymen in his old camp. Nakadai does an incredible job of conveying the full horror of the war as he nears the film’s end as a broken, haunted man bearing little resemblance to his previous life as a virtuous office worker. It’s stunning to watch Kaji’s transformation throughout the film and particularly intriguing to get the full flavor of the war’s impact from the Japanese perspective.

Criterion has produced another exceptional package here, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the film’s initial bow at the Japanese box office. They struck a new print of the film and took rigorous care to remove the noise (dirt, scratches, hiss) carried over from the original negative, making this quite possibly the definitive edition of the film. Additionally, they produced a new 2009 interview with the still-spry Tatsuya Nakadai, a fascinating reminiscence by the actor who carried this mammoth production entirely on his shoulders. There’s an older interview with deceased director Masaki Kobayashi, as well as another appreciation of the film by a Japanese film scholar. The film is spread across three discs, while a fourth disc contains the special features.

The Human Condition is now available on DVD.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, September 11, 2009

Away We Go

Impending parenthood is always stressful, but for slacker 30-somethings still trying to find their place in the world it’s especially traumatic. Away We Go follows a grown-up couple who should have life figured out by now, but instead find themselves drifting from place to place across the North American continent as they attempt to find a spot that feels right to start their new family. It’s a pretty simple concept, but in the hands of director Sam Mendes along with screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida it becomes a rollicking and insightful road movie.

My initial fears about the film were that SNL alum Maya Rudolph would struggle in a dramatic/romantic role, and that Mendes was far too serious and high-profile for what’s really a small, quirky film. Thankfully, both fears proved to be completely unfounded. While the chemistry between Rudolph and co-star John Krasinski is practically non-existent, Rudolph turns in a completely convincing performance as the very pregnant girlfriend, nailing her key dramatic moments with soulful, heartfelt emotion. As for Krasinski, he’s his usual doofy, lovable self, just with unfortunate facial hair and nerdy glasses. Back to the chemistry: sure, Rudolph and Krasinski play cute and play off each other well, but there’s never really a sense that they’re a believable couple. As for Mendes, he keeps his touch light and allows the witty script to carry the film, giving it a perfect tone.

As the couple visits friends and family across the continent, they basically play the straight characters to all the other nuts. The situations they encounter border on the outlandish and unbelievable, but they’re played in such a matter-of-fact way that they don’t come off like phony rom-com scenarios, allowing the film to maintain a strong emotional core rather than surrender to cheap laughs. The most outrageous scene, and the closest to derailing the film’s intentions, is the over-the-top hippie lovenest inhabited by earth mother Maggie Gyllenhaal and long-haired peacenik Josh Hamilton. Their characters’ home allows all the children to sleep in the huge parental bed, bans strollers because they don’t want to be “pushing their children away from them”, and finds the mother nursing neighbor kids as well as her own far-too-old kids.

The film seems a bit contrived in its motivation to get characters from one destination to the next, frequently leaving me wondering why they were moving on save as an excuse to meet some more crazies. However, when it connects it really works, generating serious laughs and emotional heft. It’s a feel-good tale that will leave lovers young and old smiling about their own relationships.

Away We Go is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 29th. If you’re just interested in the movie, this really isn’t a title that benefits from enhanced Blu-Ray quality as its source video and audio material is a bit murky and flat, a perfectly fitting stylistic choice but not a technologically impressive one. For what it’s worth, the Blu-Ray picture is full 1080p, although audio tops out at 5.1 DTS-HD. However, the Blu-Ray does contain exclusive access to BD Live features, primarily the option to bookmark your favorite scenes and then share with your BD Live buddies. The BD Live features were not yet available at press time. Other bonus features available to both DVD and Blu-Ray customers include a featurette on the making of the film, as well as a “green filmmaking” featurette that details the production team’s efforts to make an environmentally friendly film.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Fringe: The Complete First Season

J. J. Abrams has had quite a year, with the stunning success of his Star Trek reboot, the continued relevance of Lost, and the survival of his latest show Fringe through its entire first season. Fence-sitters like me who questioned the ability of Fringe to thrive on network tv now have the opportunity to get caught up on that first season through today’s release of the DVD and Blu-Ray box sets.

The show centers on a plucky young FBI agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) assigned to the Fringe division of the FBI that explores paranormal occurrences. Sound familiar? I liked it better when the FBI called that division X-Files, but the show manages to put a fresh coat of paint on the concept that bears continued viewing. This being an Abrams production, the show is littered with easter eggs and hints of a global, interdimensional or possibly even interstellar conspiracy to keep intrepid viewers thinking about and involved with the show. Even the bumpers between commercial breaks offer something thought-provoking: a series of mysterious glyphs that allow amateur cryptographers in the audience to decipher and spell out secret messages in each episode. Sure, those messages are far from earth-shattering, but it’s still a nice touch.

Joining Agent Dunham on her adventures are a cranky conman named Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and his crackpot scientist dad Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), forming the most unlikely trio of leads in televised history. Dr. Bishop has been locked up in a mental institution for the last 17 years until his services are required on the first case, leading to his release thanks entirely to the unwilling stewardship of his son. Dr. Bishop has an encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of paranormal things thanks to his years of lab work related to them, but unfortunately his years of institutionalized care have contributed to his completely unstable recollection of that knowledge, so the show delights in his insane and impolitic ramblings and the reactions of other characters to them. Unfortunately, this works to Peter Bishop’s detriment as he’s left with little to do in the first season other than watch out for his dad, attempt to translate his scientific gibberish into English for other characters, and make faint attempts to rekindle a relationship that was never strong in the past. Hopefully the writers will figure out a way to better utilize the character in the second season, but for now he’s largely a waste.

Also following the X-Files model, the show alternates between stand-alone “monster of the week” shows and shows focused on the grand conspiracy. Like X-Files, the best shows are the ones included in the larger arc, while the others end up seeming like throwaways. Agent Dunham’s boss, Agent Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick), has close ties to Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an officer of a sprawling and possibly evil conglomeration with the silly but apt name of Massive Dynamic. Far too many of the Fringe division’s cases have ties back to Massive Dynamic to be coincidental, and it’s not clear to the leads or the audience just how much they can trust Broyles or Sharp. Speaking of Broyles, if you’re still mourning the loss of HBO's The Wire, Lance Reddick is basically playing exactly the same role here, the head of a rogue department operating well outside the status quo.

Also adding to the conspiracy flavor is a bald, well-dressed, eyebrowless and extremely odd man simply named The Observer who pops up in the periphery of nearly every episode, usually around the time some significant event transpires. He’s largely another fun easter egg so far as it’s fun to play “Spot the Observer” every week, but he portends the something-greater flavor of the show. Not to gripe, but he’s also recycled right down to his name, as he bears strong similarity to the Marvel comic book universe character The Watcher, a bald all-knowing alien character who can observe human events but cannot change them.

The Season One box set includes all 20 episodes with a wealth of bonus material such as three full-length commentaries by the creators, featurettes on the casting, special effects, show creation and the real science behind the show, unaired scenes, a gag reel, and even a feature on Dr. Bishop’s resident cow, Gene. Of special note is the great packaging job. The Fringe DVD box set comes contained in a completely enclosed plastic hardcase in a cardboard outer slipcase, with each of the seven discs on its own plastic tray inside, so viewers needn’t worry about scratching the discs on cardboard sleeves or trouble themselves with having to take one disc off in order to get at another disc underneath.

Labels: , , , ,