Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection

It's likely that anyone with an interest in this new Blu-ray box set has seen all three of the featured movies, so let's get right into the Blu-ray specs.

All three movies are presented in 1080p resolution with beefed-up audio options. Clerks and Chasing Amy deliver their audio in 5.1 DTS-HD MA (48kHz/24-bit), while Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back features 5.1 Uncompressed (48kHz/16-bit). That's all well and good, but does it really make a difference when the original material is famously lo-tech, especially Smith's breakout, the micro-budgeted Clerks? In this reviewer's opinion, not really. It's fine to brag to your fellow nerds about the unsurpassed quality of these Blu-rays, but in reality there's only so much video clarity and audio fidelity one can wring out of a mute fat dude and loud skinny dude saying "snootchie bootchies". Clerks is still as grainy as you remember it, Chasing Amy is murky, while Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back impresses comparatively with the best video quality of the bunch. The audio doesn't really have much notable discrete audio separation in any of the films, so the upgraded specs are mostly for peace of mind than any gain in performance. The diehard fans will appreciate owning the best possible specs, but for average viewers there's little in the featured films to justify moving up from DVD.

The discs are packed with bonus features, but most of them are carryovers from previous DVD releases. Only Chasing Amy touts truly exclusive and new Blu-ray bonuses.

Clerks includes the theatrical version of the film with classic commentary from '95 featuring Smith, producer Scott Mosier, co-stars Jason Mewes and Brian O'Halloran (Dante). There's also an enhanced playback track containing synchronized trivia and cast and crew quotes. The disc also includes the "First Cut" version of the film with an intro by Smith taped in 2004 for the Clerks X tenth anniversary release and a separate commentary track with Smith, Mewes, O'Halloran, Mosier, and Jeff Anderson (Randal). Other extras include a featurette on the film's restoration, original trailer, and a feature-length documentary about the film's production (also from 2004) entitled "Snowball Effect: The Story of Clerks". It's an exhaustive package for a trailblazing film, guaranteed to satisfy the most demanding of Smith's fans with its plethora of insider information.

Chasing Amy features the only advertised new and exclusive to Blu-ray bonus content. The new commentary track features Smith and Mosier, while the bonus features include a documentary about the film's production entitled "Tracing Amy", a conversation with Smith and co-star Joey Lauren Adams, and a "10 years later" Q&A with Smith and the cast. Returning from previous DVD bonus features are deleted scenes, outtakes, and the original trailer. Like Clerks, the thorough bonus content here is a treat for fans, and since it's exclusive to Blu-ray it's possibly the best reason to own this set.

Although Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the newest and most technically accomplished of the three films, it gets relatively short shrift in the Blu-ray department. In contrast to the bevy of bonus features on the other two discs, this one contains only an audio commentary track with Smith, Mewes, and Mosier, along with instant access to select scenes that showcase the "ultimate in High Definition Picture and Sound", an amusing option considering the decidedly non-ultimate source material.

Thankfully, the discs are each housed in their own full-size single edition Blu-ray cases with independent artwork rather than getting crammed into a substandard repackaged case. The cases are stored in a simple cardboard slipcover with Smith's mug towering over the original cover art. Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection is now available on Blu-ray.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Luxury Car

Luxury Car shines a light on China's generational chasm between traditional rural life and the modern embrace of urban consumerism at any cost. No, it's not a documentary, but by focusing on the microcosm of one father and daughter relationship it speaks volumes about the monumental macro changes impacting Chinese culture. At the same time, it presents a gripping and rewarding family drama.

An aging farmer travels to the bustling metropolis of Wuhan in search of his only son. His wife has a terminal illness and begs to see their son one more time before she dies, although the son has been missing for years. While in Wuhan, he reconnects with his daughter (pop star Tian Yuan) and learns that her life may not be playing out in the manner he had hoped. She's taken up with a local mobster and earns her keep as a karaoke bar escort, putting her in contact with some decidedly rough characters. Dad is no country bumpkin, in fact he spent his formative years in Wuhan as well, but was forced to flee to the country during political upheaval. However, he's long since adjusted to the rural way of life and is clearly uncomfortable with his daughter's lifestyle choice. As a result, what starts as a search for his son ultimately becomes a wake-up call for his daughter as she’s forced to reflect on her direction and determine her future path.

The film could have easily drifted toward parody if the daughter was a mindless gold digger or the father was a judgmental simpleton, but thanks to superb direction and acting, the characters are fully formed as intelligent and complex individuals. The father in particular carries himself with a stoic grace that fully conveys his conservative mindset without the need to talk about it. Tian Yuan nails her part as the prodigal daughter with just the right balance of world-weary charm and buried emotions. The only other supporting characters with significant screen time also avoid becoming caricatures in spite of their seemingly one-note roles: the mobster and a local cop who assists the father in his search. None of the characters are innocents, and their wizened approach to their situations helps to give the film significant depth and resonance.

Luxury Car is now available on DVD. For more information, visit

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Friday, November 06, 2009

The Yes Men Fix the World

Part documentary, part elaborate hoax, this enlightening new film exposes the folly and arrogance of big business and government in a decidedly direct manner. The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, pranksters with a conscience who were previously filmed for the 2004 documentary The Yes Men. Where other filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock tread similar territory from a mostly observational standpoint, the Yes Men pass themselves off as agents of their intended targets.

Acting as the stars and directors this time, the duo set up fake websites purporting to belong to major corporations or government agencies, then wait to get invited to public forums where they claim to be representatives of those companies. They’re not just passive observers; they actually take to the stage at these events and make seemingly legitimate presentations that emphatically portray the extent to which capitalism at any cost has undermined basic human decency. The goal is to shame big business and government into doing the right thing, and while the results appear to be fairly unsuccessful during the course of the film, their exploits clearly raise some valid red flags that will hopefully lead to greater impact and discussion through this more widely accessible venue.

In their most high-profile stunt, the boys pass themselves off to the mighty BBC as representatives of industrial giant Dow Chemical. In an interview broadcast live on the BBC to an audience of millions, Bichlbaum in his guise as a Dow spokesperson states that Dow has agreed to compensate the victims of the 1984 Bhopal, India gas disaster to the tune of $12 billion as part of their buyout of culprit Union Carbide. The resulting tremendous dive in Dow’s stock price comes as no surprise, but also shows the moral depravity of big business as a seemingly honorable humanitarian effort creates a huge negative hit to the company. It’s questionable whether the Yes Men acted in poor taste by temporarily raising the hopes of the actual victims of the disaster, but they take pains to travel to Bhopal to get some positive feedback about the stunt from select local representatives. It’s also questionable whether they had any real impact, as Dow has still failed to make amends to the disaster victims and the company share price quickly recovered when the hoax was exposed, but at the very least it’s extremely gripping footage.

Elsewhere, the boys poke at HUD’s response to Hurricane Katrina, come up with an inventive alternative energy solution for Exxon, and unveil a fake Halliburton survival suit called the Survivaball. Remarkably, they avoid arrest and get through most of their public presentations to unsuspecting audiences without interruption, even when demonstrating a financial model that purports to calculate the value of human life against potential business profitability. They are compelling figures and concoct some truly fascinating hoaxes, but the real power of their work is their exposure of the unabashed nonchalance and failure of their targets to mend their ways.

The Yes Men Fix the World opens today in Los Angeles and continues its national and UK rollouts in the coming weeks. For more information and theaters, visit

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Mickey's Magical Christmas

Unless you’re seriously nostalgic for the Disney Channel’s turn of the century animated series House of Mouse, there’s very little reason to pick up this re-released DVD. Originally released directly to DVD in 2001 and out of print for the past few years, the feature is basically an extended House of Mouse episode with a Christmas theme. That means sub-standard TV animation bookending Disney shorts that have been repurposed from other sources, most famously Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

The House of Mouse series was an excuse to gather all of Disney’s animated characters under one roof, in this case an all-inclusive nightclub run by Mickey where the characters could mingle while being entertained by Mickey and friends. The Disney characters apparently just acted as background scenery, with no real function other than to delight tots with glimpses of their favorites. Look, there’s Pocahontas! And over at that table are the Seven Dwarfs! They’re just hanging out, but isn’t it great to see them? Not so much. Don’t be deceived by the prominent position of Disney Princesses on the front cover of the DVD, because this show belongs almost entirely to Mickey and his regular gang of co-stars.

The paper-thin plot of this holiday special finds the gang stranded at the House of Mouse during a brutal snowstorm, leading to the shocking revelation that Donald Duck is lacking in Christmas spirit. Mickey grabs some holiday snacks, Minnie grabs some holiday cartoons, and they all settle in to try to unearth Donald’s holiday spirit. With this framing device in place, the show launches into two lousy modern shorts, Donald on Ice (1999) and The Nutcracker (1999) along with two classic shorts, Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952) and the aforementioned Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). The modern shorts are barely worth mentioning or watching, leaving only the classics as the essential viewing in the program.

Pluto’s Christmas Tree finds Pluto being outwitted by Chip and Dale while also trying to please his owner, Donald Duck. Hilarity ensues, and the animation continues to shine nearly 60 years after its production. Mickey’s Christmas Carol caused a minor sensation when it was released theatrically in 1983 as an accompaniment to a re-release of The Rescuers, representing the Mouse’s first new theatrical cartoon in 30 years. The production value was relatively high for its time, and the story was a fairly serious and faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol. It still holds up well today, although clearly shows its age compared to Disney’s animated theatrical features that followed it during their ‘90s glory days of cel animation. However, it’s also readily available in other DVD packages including its own standalone disc released just over a month ago (also including Pluto’s Christmas Tree), so there’s no reason to seek out this release to view it.

The DVD includes a nice bonus for fans of the show: the entire premiere episode of the House of Mouse series. There’s also a brief feature on the many tools foley artists use to make sound effects for the toons, as well as a couple of sing-along Christmas carols. Mickey’s Magical Christmas is now available on DVD.

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