Monday, September 27, 2010

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

Here’s a recipe for surefire fanboy satisfaction: pair the two most recognizable superheroes in the world with their most well-known and beloved vocal actors, stir in a great story adapted from comics stars Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner, season with eye-popping visuals and thumping sound and simmer to perfection. The latest DC Universe Animated direct-to-video film once again proves that theatrical blockbusters aren’t the only top chefs in the home video market, delivering a winning package destined to be a fan favorite.

Although Superman and Batman get top billing, the film is actually centered on the mysterious arrival and origin of Supergirl. Her appearance sets off completely different reactions in the star characters, with Superman immediately embracing her as his cousin while Batman warily investigates the validity of her story. Wonder Woman also pops in as a proponent for Supergirl, helping her to explore and refine her newfound powers. Of course it wouldn’t be a proper comic-themed project without a big bad, so Darkseid also appears with a great deal of interest in the new girl in town. With intergalactic hijinks, tension between friends and family, and the thrill of watching the new heroine find her place in the world, there’s something for nearly everyone to enjoy. Heck, even Superman’s dog Krypto briefly shows up to appeal to the lame animal superhero fans out there, whoever you are.

The vocal cast is top-notch, with the especially notable fan-service casting of both longtime Batman vocal star Kevin Conroy and longtime Superman vocal star Tim Daly. There’s even some amusing stunt casting with Ed Asner voicing burly female villain Granny Goodness. The only real dud is Summer Glau as Supergirl. Sounds like a good idea in theory, but she delivers her lines in such a dull monotone that one wonders whether she’s still playing her Terminator role from The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The animation has a fine amount of detail and vibrant color that can really be appreciated in Blu-ray, with the Metropolis and Gotham cityscapes in particular enveloping viewers in their vastness. However, that heightened resolution also unmasks some noticeable jaggies, particularly in the character models. The film is “hand-drawn” animation, or at least some semblance of what passes for non-CG animation these days, but it appears that it must have been drawn, scanned, or otherwise manipulated on computers that didn’t have high enough resolution settings to account for image quality on large HD screens, with character outlines occasionally appearing jagged and pixelated. It’s not really distracting and ultimately a minor quibble, but if we’re ponying up a few extra dollars for Blu we’re probably paying special attention to image quality.

I was thoroughly entertained by the film and was especially thankful to see that the character models carried quite a bit of the late artist Michael Turner’s renditions from the source comic book series. I enjoyed the story in comic form years ago and found this to be a fairly faithful and clearly worthwhile translation to film. The directing didn’t always hit its mark, especially with a few silent reaction scenes failing miserably at their comedic intention, but with strong source material, mostly stellar vocal contributions and a great character lineup, the film is definitely worth a look.

The Blu is overflowing with an impressive array of bonus features including featurettes that provide background on Supergirl, Darkseid and the New Gods, in-depth looks at three previous DC Universe Animated movies, and a generous behind the scenes sneak peak at the upcoming animated movie All-Star Superman. The Supergirl featurette is particularly comprehensive as it traces the character's comic book origin and subsequent career via interviews with the Apocalypse production team, DC Comics head honchos, Smallville Supergirl Laura Vandervoort, and even the star and director of the ill-received '80s live action film.

But wait, there's more! A new and exclusive animated short shines the spotlight on lesser-known DC superhero the Green Arrow as he protects a young princess from the evil Merlyn the Magnificent and the League of Assassins. I'm not fond of the character, but the story moves well and the production quality is as good as the film. Viewers looking for even more entertainment and background on the Apocalypse characters can dive into not one, not two, but four full episodes of the '90s Superman: The Animated Series specially selected by producer Bruce Timm. It's great to see so much effort put into delivering a robust and informative package, kudos to DC and WB for taking the time to do it right.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse on Blogcritics.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season Five

Can you believe it’s been five years and we still haven’t met the mother? Yes, the team behind this popular CBS sitcom managed to string us along for yet another year in Season Five, but the formula is finally starting to show some signs of age. It could be the demands of other Hollywood projects, new babies at home, or just going through the motions in familiar routines, but I couldn’t help picking up the feeling that the core actors just weren’t as energized or committed to the show this season. It’s also possible that there might have been some changes in the writing staff that negatively impacted the show, as the scripts seemed to deliver fewer laughs and memorable situations this time around. Whatever the reason, the show continued to be a reliable performer but not quite as winning as past years.

Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) spend the first half of the season playing out the remainder of their ill-conceived and doomed romantic relationship, putting a damper on Barney’s typically outrageous womanizing exploits that unfortunately carries over into the back half of the season as well. Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) continue their happy marriage with barely any hiccups, leaving Ted (Josh Radnor) the odd man out with a surprisingly inactive love life. He starts a new career as an architecture professor, meets the odd girl here and there, but goes the entire season without a significant romance. The only notable event is his date with a girl who happens to be the roommate of his future wife, according to his ongoing dialogue with his future kids. Ted and the viewers don’t see the roommate or learn her name, leaving us no closer to solving the show’s central mystery.

As for highlights, the show hit its milestone 100th episode this season and the team put some extra effort into it, designing an elaborate musical number around the considerable talents of Neil Patrick Harris with supporting roles from the rest of the cast and dozens of extras. There’s also another brief musical number in a different episode featuring Ted and Barney and it’s worth seeking out. Also, for those keeping track, Barney receives the fourth of five slaps awarded to Marshall early in the show’s run. Aside from those special moments, there’s little new to see in the rest of the season.

The DVD box set crams all 24 episodes onto just 3 DVDs, allowing the series to be contained in a space-saving standard DVD case. That leaves little room for special features, which include bloopers and behind the scenes footage on the making of the two musical numbers.

How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season Five is now available on DVD.

Article first published as DVD Review: How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season 5 on Blogcritics.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Like clockwork, summer inevitably brings the return of super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer to the local multiplex with at least one bombastic action film. This year’s first attempt didn’t fare particularly well at the box office, and now that it has reached home video I finally took up the quest to examine its merits or lack thereof. It looks like Bruckheimer and Disney were hoping for another Pirates of the Caribbean phenomenon, and as such there is plenty of that similar breezy action flavor in this effort, but unfortunately this one fell a bit short.

The first strike against the film is its basis as a video game, usually not fertile grounds for box office success. Sure, this particular video game property is relatively long-lived, with origins dating back over 20 years, but even in the gaming world it’s simply not a triple-A franchise. That may have kept average viewers away, but the filmmakers actually did a decent job of translating the property to the big screen with its gaming trappings intact, incorporating lots of the wall-jumping acrobatics and supernatural shenanigans that have populated the latest game releases.

The second and biggest strike is the preposterous casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as a Prince…of Persia. It sounded like a joke when first announced, and looked like a joke when the first set pictures of him with his long hair surfaced, but ultimately he put about as much credibility as he possibly could into the role with his beefed-up physique and heavy action scene participation. I still didn’t buy him as an action star, but he didn’t really embarrass himself. The script even offers an explanation of sorts for his apparent racial incongruity. You see, he’s not really a prince by blood, he’s just a homeless street rat named Aladd…um, Dastan…who was adopted by the king when he was a boy. Of course that doesn’t really translate in movie posters or trailers, so the public perception persisted that the casting was hopelessly insensitive and frankly ridiculous. To further the cultural trespasses, everyone in the film including Gyllenhaal utilizes a British accent, for no discernible reason other than to make the film seem classier. Unless Persia used to be ruled and populated by Brits and I missed that day in my History class.

As for the plot…well, this is a Bruckheimer film so you’re not really here for the plot. There’s action aplenty, epic vistas, lush sets, and top shelf effects, firmly defining this effort as a popcorn movie. Its point A to point B is entirely the Prince’s efforts to track down his father’s killer while simultaneously clearing his own name of the crime. Along the way, he teams up with spunky young Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) against villain Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and learns about mysterious sands that can rewind time when used in a mystical blade. Arterton is fine in her role, while Kingsley shows up for another paycheck, an alarmingly recurring fault of his in recent years.

So is it worth watching? If you want to turn your brain off for a couple of hours and veg out with some harmless and largely forgettable action, there are certainly worse ways to spend your movie time. I enjoyed the ride for the most part, when I wasn’t agog at the silly casting and accents. There’s nothing in the film by itself to warrant multiple viewings or further adventures, but it suitably honors the game property and moves at an agreeable and mostly logical clip, so it gets a passing grade from me.

The film shines on Blu-ray, not only for its pristine 1080p picture and DTS-HD Master Audio but for what is perhaps the most complex and immersive bonus feature I’ve ever seen, called appropriately the “Sands of Time”. At first glance, there appears to be next to nothing available in the bonus features section, but closer examination reveals that the film can be watched in its entirety with breakaways to a plethora of featurettes on its production that can be accessed whenever an hourglass appears on screen. That’s not a new idea, but there are so many featurettes (over 40!) on so many aspects of the production that it completely invigorates the viewing experience and offers viewers a true backstage pass. Topics range down to minutiae such as how they trained the ostrich jockeys to Bruckheimer’s personal set photographs, completely immersing viewers in the production and offering real insight rather than just the typical actor lovefest of how great it was to work with everyone else. Also, all of the bonus footage is presented in full HD, offering further evidence that the production team put a great amount of forethought and care into delivering a truly special Blu-ray experience.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is now available on 3-disc Blu-ray Combo Pack (Blu + DVD + Digital Copy), 1-disc Blu-ray, 1-disc DVD and digital download. Of special note, the “Sands of Time” bonus feature is reportedly exclusive to the Combo Pack.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time on Blogcritics.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season

Seriously? Another vampire show? Aside from being a blatant attempt to cash in on the inexplicable vampire craze of the last few years, The Vampire Diaries seemed like an ill-advised concept from the start, offering precious little originality in its take on what basically boils down to a supernatural love triangle between a woman and two vampire brothers. Didn’t get your fill of the Twilight books and movies? The many books but shorter seasons of True Blood just aren’t enough to quench your thirst? You don’t get BBC America so you’re shut out of Being Human? You’re too young to have watched Angel? If so, you’re the target demographic. Me, not so much, which is why I flatly boycotted this show during its first season tv broadcasts, but based on good reviews from a couple of co-workers who should know better, I forged ahead with a full season marathon thanks to the new Blu-ray box set.

The show’s weak stab at a differentiator is its focus on high school characters, adding teen drama to the vampire theme. That makes it a good fit amongst its similarly-aged CW neighbors such as Gossip Girl and 90210, but doesn’t add much to the concept. The show also marks the return of Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson to a teen-centric series, although he admits in a bonus feature that he consciously molded these characters far from the wise beyond their years Dawson’s gang, so as a result there’s not much noticeable trace of his previously distinctive stamp to be found. Instead, we’re left with a group of very pretty, humorless, and not particularly intelligent people grappling with the impact of vampirism on their lives and afterlives.

Regrettably, after watching all 22 season one episodes I can report that my initial misgiving was spot on. My wife, normally a genre tv junkie, gave up after about six episodes, finding the proceedings entirely too melodramatic and sappy (not her exact colorful term). These sexy kids mope around their small town pursuing typical high school activities and occasionally find themselves in some minor supernatural peril, but that peril never boils over into drama compelling enough to warrant continued viewing. The plot moves quickly, frequently bounces back into the past to add some historical impact to the love triangle, and has no qualms about summarily introducing and dispatching characters, and yet I found myself frequently struggling to care enough to stay awake even within my normal viewing hours. You’d think a show with vampires and witches could produce some fantastic situations brimming with suspense and excitement, but instead we’re mostly left with emo wusses going through the motions of their small town high school lives with brief supernatural interruptions. Also, the music is mostly terrible, with a soap opera score and unappealing pop rock tracks from minor acts that overshadow and ruin any forward momentum the plot may have managed. After hearing two weak modern covers of classic 80s new wave songs within the span of the first three episodes, my wife had already mostly checked out.

I will readily admit that Nina Dobrev is an inspired choice for the lead actress, although apparently that choice caused great dismay among fans of the novels based on the literary character’s frequently mentioned blonde hair and Dobrev’s brunette mane. It’s a delight to watch her develop her skills throughout the season, especially given her relatively young age that almost lets her legitimately pass as a high school student. As for the vampire brothers, I’m sure they’re not hard on the eyes but they didn’t do much for me. Ian Somerhalder gets to show much more range than his stint on Lost, but I never really buy him as a slimy antagonist no matter how many smirks he employs. Paul Wesley just seems like a boring cardboard cutout as the stoic brother fighting to keep his blood lust in check while also pining for Dobrev’s character, although he finally gets to emote a bit in the final episodes of the season.

The series is crammed onto four Blu-ray discs, so those who like to blaze through a disc at a time are in for a 4 ½ hour marathon per disc. Each of the first three discs contains a few deleted scenes relevant to the episodes on those discs, while disc four (with only four episodes) also houses other bonus featurettes where the cast and producers mostly talk about how awesome it is to work with everyone else. My favorite bonus was the inclusion of the original casting footage, showing the actors in their pre-fame state struggling for their eventual roles. The bonus features also include a few webisodes and a seemingly out of place gag reel. Thankfully, the show doesn’t scrimp on its production quality so the Blu image absolutely sparkles, with any given still pristine enough to be suitable for framing. The sound mix is right in line with what one would expect…if you can get past the “music”.

The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season on Blogcritics.

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