Spirited Away – Blu-ray Review

Spirited Away

Today is a notable day for fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as it brings forth the beloved Japanese animation Spirited Away on Blu-ray in the UK. I was lucky enough to give the disc a spin in advance and what follows are words written by me after watching said disc.

Film
You don’t need me to tell you that Spirited Away is a charming and beautiful masterpiece but if you do…

Spirited Away is a charming and beautiful masterpiece with a wild imagination capable of bringing delight to all ages and plenty of lessons for impressionable young minds to benefit from. The hero of the story is a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who stumbles into the spirit world while travelling to a new home with her parents. Alone in a reality populated by witches, monsters, and ghosts Chihiro must find the strength within herself to move forward and forge her own identity. The plot is littered with metaphors touching on environmental, political, and psychological issues but rest assured if you aren’t willing to look too deep everything looks pretty too.

The film is internationally recognised as Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film, Studio Ghibli’s greatest film, the greatest film of its decade, and the greatest animated film of all time. In summary; it’s pretty great.

The transfer to Blu-ray looks great stunning with lovely legible subtitles, vibrant colours, and crisp lines. The disc comes with the option of Japanese or American dialogue and while everyone has their opinion on what is the better option I do not have the energy to argue the case either way. Thankfully both English subtitles and audio have been assembled with care so you can’t go wrong. And if you speak Japanese then you needn’t trouble yourself with all this petty squabbling.

In short; Spirited Away is the greatest and looks sexy in high-definition.

Spirited Away 1

Extras
I hit Play All on the extras so as to be able to give you a comprehensive review then immediately skipped past the first feature on offer. The Blu-ray allows you to watch the entire film with the original storyboards overlayed in the top right hand corner for comparison. This is interesting to see, I am sure you will agree, but perhaps a feature to dip into rather than watch for the full running time. I smiled appreciatively and then skipped away.

What I watched next makes up the bulk of the extras on the disc and is a documentary made for Japanese television about the production of Spirited Away. The image quality is less than high-definition, stark contrast to the film itself, but what this extra lacks in pixels it makes up for in behind the scenes insight. The documentary introduces the story of the film and how Miyazaki was inspired to write it by a friend’s 10-year-old daughter who became the template for Chihiro. We get to see Miyazaki himself hard at work briefing and inspiring his animators; often seen poring over drawings with a cigarette in hand.

It is fascinating to see inside the animation studio as it resembles any regular office filled with cluttered desks and overworked employees. Pixar may be filled with individual animators’ offices decorated in wacky fun ways but Studio Ghibli is much more basic. What comes across between the animators is a sense of community and a desire to work hard to get the film, which was running behind schedule, finished on time. We are also shown what happens in the recording of the dialogue, background noises, and musical elements. The dialogue recording in particular makes working on a Ghibli film seem like lots of fun and surprisingly low-tech. At the end I got the feeling that Spirited Away was affectionately handmade; metaphorically and literally. Not often that features make you love a film all the more.

I will admit to skipping the next set of special features as they consisted of the original Japanese trailers for the film and there were eight of them. I cannot only indulge you guys so far I am afraid.

The remaining three features surround John Lasseter. A big wig over at Disney and Pixar Lasseter provides an introduction to the film and later introduces us to Miyazaki. Neither of these feel necessary or sincere. Of more interest is a mini-feature on the American re-dubbing of the film as we see actors having to deliver dialogue at the right pace to match the speaking pattern of a totally different language. What was most interesting about this feature was how polished and false the cast and crew came across when interviewed compared to the unguarded authentic feeling their Japanese counterparts had given earlier on.

There are plenty of extras here but I would advise that you only really need to give your time over to the full Making Of; the rest is mostly filler.

Spirited Away is on Blu-ray & DVD in the UK right now.

Grand Central – DVD Review

Grand Central

Gary (Tahar Rahim) is a young man looking for a job, somewhere to sleep, and people to connect with. With no qualifications to his name Gary starts working at a nuclear power plant and living with his fellow workers. By day he is risking being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation but by night he finally has a community to share his time with. His colleagues may be rough around the edges but they are good company and you need to be able to rely on one another when working in such a dangerous environment. Before starting his new job Gary is introduced to the symptoms of radiation poisoning by his co-worker Karole (Léa Seydoux) who jokingly gives him a passionate kiss while her boyfriend Toni (Denis Ménochet) watches and laughs.

It would seem that Gary has finally found everything he is looking for but that wouldn’t make a satisfying drama now would it? After one particularly sexually charged car ride Gary finds himself flung into a passionate affair with Karole. What started as a one-off develops into something a little more as Gary falls deeper and deeper in love with his friend’s girlfriend. As the intensity of his passion rises so does his recklessness as Gary ignores protocols at the power plant that ensure his safety but might separate him from the object of his desire. It is unclear what will be Gary’s ultimate downfall; his dangerous job or his dangerous love life.

Grand Central 1

Director Rebecca Zlotowski has created a film of simmering tension and an atmosphere in which the audience is constantly unsure of when the house of cards will come tumbling down. In the harsh industrial setting of the power plant Gary and his coworkers are covered from head to toe as any exposed skin increases the danger of radiation. When Gary and Karole are together they are completely exposed but in the fields where their affair takes place everything feels completely safe. Back at camp the two lovers are clothed but vulnerable; in danger should their indiscretion be discovered. Only when the pair are alone together can the audience relax as any other time death and discovery are a misstep away. Their love for one another is simple, primal, and somehow naive and innocent. In amongst tall grass and away from the dangers elsewhere Gary and Karole can be themselves and feel safe with one another. A relationship forged in passion turns tender and all the more intimate.

Seydoux and Rahim are a superb pair. Both give layered performances that allow them to behave foolishly without losing sympathy. Seydoux are Karole gives a particularly conflicted performance as a woman in love with one man but in lust with another while Rahim plays Gary as a man driven almost mad by desire. Grand Central as a result is a tense and sexy drama about how quickly one can become infected by love for another and how decisions made in the height of passion may not always serve you well. At times a little over the top and humourless Grand Central is nonetheless incredibly watchable and a great display of modern French filmmaking.

Grand Central is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 10th November 2014.

The Two Faces of January – DVD Review

The Two Faces of January

Film
Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are an American couple touring Greece in 1962 after fleecing investors back home and fleeing the country. At the Acropolis of Athens they bump into tour guide and con artist Oscar Isaac who latches onto the pair in pursuit of their money and Dunst’s feminine charms. Events back in the states catch up with the trio, blood is shed, and soon the three are on the run from the law. Who can be trusted? Will they make it out of the country? Who will Dunst choose, her husband or the man she hardly knows? Will they all make it out alive?

If you haven’t yet noticed The Two Faces of January is a thriller in the most traditional fashion. With its authentic period style, crosses and double crosses, and romantic trysts suggested at but never explicitly shown this film could easily have been made fifty years ago. Being such a slave to convention and possessing such an old-fashioned manner is both to the film’s credit and detriment. The look and feel of the piece is admirable. Every shot is gorgeous and benefits from the production’s globe-trotting filming schedule while the actors are shot in a sympathetic light that showcases bone structure and lets all three leads resemble classic Hollywood icons.

Where traditional thriller mechanics disappoint is in allowing the film to become completely predictable. Maybe not completely predictable, I won’t pretend to have seen every twist and turn coming, but certainly when a character is double crossed or revealed to have an ulterior motive I wasn’t exactly falling out of my seat so much as nodding slowly to myself in a knowing way. Feeling as though you know what is going to happen is a terrible situation to be in when watching a thriller as you are never overly concerned about what actually does happen. Add to this the fact that both male leads are unlikeable untrustworthy types and I was struggling to generate much empathy for them.

The Two Faces of January 2

As for Dunst’s leading lady; she is the biggest casualty of The Two Faces of January‘s retro feel. While these days we expect, but don’t always get, a female character with some level of personality and backbone this is something that the film fails to provide. Dunst is for the most part a prize to be won and a pawn in the struggle between Mortensen and Isaac. Dunst is seemingly ambivalent about who she ends up with and is equally happy being rescued by either man. When any scene of dramatic importance takes place Dunst will reliably be asleep, waiting in the bedroom, waiting at the top of the stairs, or simply elsewhere not troubling anybody. A feminist icon this character is not.

Quibbles aside The Two Faces of January is a perfectly fine throwback thriller with serviceable acting and beautiful scenery. Just don’t go in expect to see anything new. Writer/director Hossein Amini has certainly got a fine eye but perhaps could have spent some more time energising the plot when adapting from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel.

Extras
Both DVD and Blu-ray discs have the same special features which is something to admire in itself. These take the form of the usual collection of featurettes, interviews, and deleted scenes. The interviews focus mainly on celebrating the fact that filming took place in multiple countries; more Wish You Were Here then anything in depth. There is also a blooper reel which felt slightly odd considering the po-faced tone of the film itself.

The Two Faces of January is out on DVD and Blu-ray next Monday 15th September.

Bad Neighbours – DVD Review

Bad Neighbours

Film
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are a young couple who have just had their first baby and bought a house they can hardly afford in a nice suburban neighbourhood. As they struggle to accept their new lives as parents and leave behind their partying days they come up against some combative new neighbours; a University fraternity. Led by Zac Efron and his right hand man Dave Franco the fraternity hosts endless loud parties, leave condoms on their neighbour’s lawn, and generally wreak havoc on suburbia. At first Rogen and Byrne try to act cool and befriend the young students but, after calling the cops so their daughter can get to sleep, end up in a war with the youths next door. Hijinks ensue.

You can probably imagine everything you need to about the film just from reading that synopsis. There is nothing within Bad Neighbours to surprise and if you are anything like me you will struggle to find anything to entertain or amuse you either. Bad Neighbours exists as a series of set pieces strung together with weak laughs as the film flits from prank to prank and party to party. The plot itself could be taken care of in a short and sharp fifteen minute montage which would allow for the jokes to not get stale and the characters less time to irritate. Imagine the idea for a sketch stretched out to ninety minutes and you will understand what manner of beast we are dealing with here.

Rogen and Byrne start the film as relatable and sympathetic but quickly lose all sympathy and their audience’s patience. Their situation of being the first amongst their friends to have a child is not uncommon and their struggle to maintain social lives while taking care of a baby is one that people can relate to. Sadly this was not the focus of the film and instead it is shifted towards their petty rival with Efron and friends. As the pranks get more and more outlandish the film loses any residual relatability and when comedy stops being grounded in reality it stops being funny. By the end of Bad Neighbours I disliked everybody on-screen and was relieved that the experience was coming to an end.

Bad Neighbours - Zac Efron

Everybody involved has done better work before. These aren’t all terrible actors but they with this film there was little chance for any talent to shine through and often the film leant too heavily on the actors having to create jokes that should have been taken care of when the script was written. Many of the scenes peter out into a slow tail consisting of two actors improvising lines. The issue I have with improvised dialogue is that it can all too often feel like improvised dialogue. This is never more true than when two comedians ad-lib jokes at one other ad nauseam. Presumably this allowed director Nicholas Stoller to fill gaps left by screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien though admittedly the scripted dialogue looks a whole look better when held up alongside lines that pop up in the actors’ heads on set.

There are moments in Bad Neighbours that may well tickle you but on the whole the film is a failure as a comedy. If you have a pressing desire to see Zac Efron with his shirt off or Seth Rogen having sex then this is the film for you otherwise I would steer clear. I have included a picture of the former above to save you the trouble.

Extras
The DVD has no special features whereas the Blu-ray comes complete with an alternate opening, deleted scenes, commentary, gag reel, and various featurettes.

Bad Neighbours is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from Monday.

AIDs Activist Documentaries on DVD

Doc DVDs

Consider this a quick public service announcement to gently point out to you all that two fantastic documentaries from last year focussing on AIDs activists are released on DVD next month.

Fire In The Blood focuses on the ongoing scandal by which governments block access to affordable AIDs medication by ruthlessly protecting the patents of large pharmaceutical manufacturers. I called the film “engrossing and important” and said that it “needs to be seen by as many people as possible”. We all know what a good judge I am. Fire In The Blood is released on DVD on 24th March and can be pre-ordered now.

How to Survive a Plague tells a more specific and personal tale by looking at the New York AIDs epidemic from the 1980s to present day using mostly archive footage and few talking heads. I described the film as “an intimate and personal documentary about a global tragedy that will give you hope in the strength of the combined human spirit just as much as it crushes your belief in humanity.” Of the two films this is the one that brought out the tears. How to Survive a Plague is out on DVD on 31st March and is also available to pre-order.

Each film approaches the subject in a different way but both tell an important story about the AIDs crisis and the way in which we as a species will chase profits at the expense of other people’s lives.