Face/Off

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 7/4/23;
Paramount;
Action;
$17.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for intense sequences of strong violence, and for strong language.
Stars John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Harve Presnell, Margaret Cho, Nick Cassavetes, John Carrol Lynch, CCH Pounder.  

The name John Woo conjures up images of rhythmically decelerated violence expressively stretched to its limits. Shell casings chicly beat down against rain-soaked pavement while the gunslinger, mindfully pumping ammo, doesn’t bother to remove the toothpick from his mouth. By the time Hong Kong’s often imitated, never duplicated master of balletic action made the move to Hollywood in 1993, he had pretty much shown us everything he had, only this time his efforts yielded a well-deserved mountain of greenbacks. Hollywood began pitching Woo shortly after the international success of The Killers (1989) made him a cult favorite in the States. Woo, the first Asian filmmaker to direct a mainstream Hollywood picture, was sold to Universal execs by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme, who hailed him as “the Martin Scorsese of Asia!”

With Hard Target (1993), his first American film, Woo achieved what many thought to be impossible: a vigorously watchable Van Damme movie! Broken Arrow (1996) was a stiff, but a follow-up John Travolta picture, Face/Off (1997), demonstrated that Woo could handle a think-free blockbuster without compromising too much integrity. As delightful as it was to reconnect with the film some 26-years after its initial release, the question remains, was this Blu-ray re-release really necessary?

Woo spent a decade working on American soil. Of the seven films he signed between 1993 and 2003, Face/Off remains artistically unbeaten. Mission: Impossible II was the highest-grossing film of 2000, but Woo has yet to make an American film that is a patch on any of his Hong Kong hits. Oddly, my favorite of the director’s Hong Kong films, Hard Boiled, was his least successful in China. The locals slammed it as too American.

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The Face/Off script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary is constructed around a premise so silly that it makes Magnificent Obsession (1954) — millionaire playboy Rock Hudson studies to become a surgeon so as to restore sight to a woman he accidentally blinded — look like a paragon of plausibility when compared to what Woo and company cooked up.

Released at a time when Nicolas Cage and John Travolta ruled the box office, the biggest appeal was the stars’ and filmmakers’ commitment to making a hard ‘R’-rated movie, no matter how silly a premise they’ve concocted. Castor Troy (Cage) stands positioned on a grassy knoll, sucking down a soft drink and focusing his rifle scope on a nearby carousel. His aim is to take out Sean Archer (Travolta), but his bullet passes through the FBI agent killing his young son. Five minutes into the picture and a child’s corpse kicks off the body count. Six years later the cop and killer reconvene. Before being beaten to a comatose pulp, Troy confesses that he’s planted a bomb capable of spreading biological warfare of biblical proportions across Los Angeles. The only other person aware of the bomb’s whereabouts is Troy’s younger brother (Alessandro Nivola), and his lips are sealed. Archer undergoes an experimental surgical procedure that allows good and bad guys to swap mugs. Troy is kept alive in a vegetative state waiting to be revived at the precise moment the script needed a swift kick in the ass.

Cage playing Travolta playing Cage falls short of Being John Malkovich, but credit the filmmakers for having the courage of their conviction to play it straight, give or take a moment or two of sickening maudlinism. (The running gag of actors face-palming one another as a token of affection lost its charm after the third of what would amount to a dozen or so swipes.) And all things considered, these guys are two of the worst shots in movie history. If you had in your bank account what they spent on expended bullets, you could afford to put a family of 10 through college.

So what’s behind the pressing need for a 2023 pressing? The commentary tracks and special features are the same ones that were minted on Paramount’s 2008 release. Why should this version be different from all other home video copies? This one comes with access to a digital copy. How is this a selling tool? Why would anyone in possession of a Blu-ray, a flat-screen, and their right mind need a digital code to watch a film on their laptop or, even worse, a cell phone? And while we’re doing away with digital copies, why not put an end to Blu-ray/DVD combos? Who is the DVD copy for? Are you going to invite friends that you don’t like over for dinner followed by a screening of an inferior pressing? Last year Kino Lorber announced a 4K restoration and my guess is this is Paramount’s way to milk every last cent out of the title before it becomes obsolete. Sit tight. Kino Lorber is poised to cast the film in a different light that’s bound to be brighter than Paramount’s dingy face-lift.

 

Avatar: The Way of Water

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 6/20/23;
Disney/20th Century;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $684.08 million;
$29.99 DVD, $36.99 Blu-ray, $44.99 UHD BD, $39.99 3D BD, $19.99 Digital;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.
Stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Lo Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass.

The big question mark surrounding the box office prospects of an Avatar sequel was whether or not the first film had enough pop culture clout. After all, it’s not as if it were the topic of many conversions despite being the highest-grossing film of all time.

I think in the decade since that first movie came out, the only instance I can recall of Avatar being referenced by characters on another TV show or movie was in an episode of “The Rookie,” and that was only due to some corporate synergy to promote the sequel. (For corporate cross-promotion, it seems, “The Rookie” is Disney’s go-to show.)

But another adage going around Hollywood just before the release of Avatar: The Way of Water was “don’t bet against James Cameron.” And sure enough, the film ended up at No. 3 on the all-time list. And yet the franchise still doesn’t seem to be much of a conversation piece a la “Star Wars” or “Top Gun” or the Marvel movies or Zack Snyder’s Justice League, aside from “can you believe Avatar 2 made $2.3 billion dollars?”

A primary reason for this might be how much the “Avatar” films are designed as big-screen spectacles, almost akin to an amusement park ride or a traveling exhibit. Every few years, audiences can visit a large-format theater for the visual splendor of a tour of an exotic alien world, in this case, the exo-moon of Pandora, in eye-popping 3D. The story is almost a secondary concern, crafted to provide the excuse for the visuals, though Cameron clearly sees the films as parables for the plight of indigenous peoples and the impact of industrialization on the environment.

Nothing is more important to how a film leaves a lasting impression on a viewer than that first experience in seeing it, and there is probably no franchise that demonstrates the gap between the big screen and the small screen in this regard than “Avatar.”

For most films with staying power, the stories and characters will translate well despite being viewed in a theater or at home. I saw the original Avatar in Imax 3D, and was as blown away by the visual effects as anyone else, until a baffling plot oversight to set up the final battle took me out of the movie.

So I didn’t bother with the sequel in theaters, and my first impression would have to wait until I could play it on my 4K TV. As with the first film, the visual effects are so extensive that it’s easy to see why this would be a popular choice to see on the big screen.

The story probably works a bit better, too, and offers more depth in the emotional stakes. If the first Avatar was Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully, this one could be Free Willy meets Tarzan. Set about 15 years after the events of the first film, The Way of Water finds Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), having transferred to his alien avatar body, raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and leading their Na’vi clan.

Then the humans return to reclaim Pandora as the future home of humanity, while a clone of Quaritch (Stephan Lang) in a new avatar body leads a squad to hunt down Jake for betraying humanity in the first film. With his family under threat, Jake, Neytiri and their kids seek refuge with a clan of Na’vi who evolved to live in the sea, thus providing the film a template for allowing the audience to explore Pandora’s oceans.

For the story to work, Cameron also has to introduce new elements to the storyline that weren’t present in the original movie, most notably the addition of Spider (Jake Champion) a human teenager who was too young to return to Earth and thus grew up on Pandora as a loincloth wearing Na’vi wild child Na’vi wannabe.

There are several parallels to the events of the first film, including the introduction of a new magical substance to generate humanity’s interest in Pandora. Where the humans of the first film were interested in mining “unobtanium” ore, in Way of Water it’s about hunting alien whales, whose brains secrete an ooze that reverses aging.

The visuals are inventive, but the ubiquitous CGI and high frame rate make the film feel more like a video game without the human characters to provide some sense of scale. Every so often I had to remind myself this was supposed to be a representation of live-action, not a cartoon — a concern likely obviated in a theatrical setting with darkened lighting and 3D polarized lenses.

I’m not saying it isn’t fun to watch, but on the small screen it’s not so different in concept than many other visual effects extravaganzas. However, the filmmakers do take full advantage of the higher capacity of the 4K disc and HDR10 to really show off the visual effects, which are particularly bright and vivid compared with the image from the film’s standard Blu-ray, which itself offers some of the best picture quality the format allows. Also, at least at home the ability to start and stop the movie makes the three-hour running time easier to digest.

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The home video edition comes with a massive trove of behind-the-scenes material that runs more than three hours long, and as a primer on filmmaking techniques is probably more interesting than the movie itself.

The bulk is contained in the two-and-a-half-hour “Inside Pandora’s Box,” a series of 14 featurettes that delve into the technical challenges of the film, from the intricacies of crafting the visual effects to designing new alien sea creatures to expanding the Na’vi language. Of note, even though most of the characters are CGI aliens, the cast still performed the parts using performance capture techniques, which didn’t always let them off the hook in regards to doing stunts; for the sake of realism, several of the actors in performance-capture camera rigs still had to shoot scenes underwater, and learn how to hold their breath for minutes at a time to do so. Figuring out how to integrate Spider into the CG environments and interacting with CG characters also led to new challenges for the Oscar-winning effects team.

A half-hour supplement called “More From Pandora’s Box” offers four additional featurettes that focus on stunts and some of the below-the-line players that are essential to the film’s technical achievements, including a troupe of performers who put on blue suits to stand in for the Na’vi on set to provide reference for the CGI artists. Also included are screen tests from some of the new young cast members, which reveals a unique challenge for casting a film with a production schedule that lasts several years — having to cast a child while studying their family to project whether they’ll still fit the part in a few years when they appear on camera.

Rounding out the extras is a package of marketing materials that runs a total of about 10 minutes, including two trailers and a “Nothing Is Lost” music video by The Weeknd.

Note that these are the exact same extras included with the digital release of the film back in March. There are no exclusives for disc, which would have been a nice incentive for physical media buyers. At least the new 4K of the original 2009 Avatar has some new retrospective featurettes.

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray combo pack of Avatar: The Way of Water is a three-disc set that includes the film on both a 4K disc and a regular Blu-ray disc. All the extras are contained on the third disc, which also is a regular Blu-ray. Rounding out the package is a redemption code for a digital copy. The standard Blu-ray is a two-disc configuration, with the movie on one disc and the extras on another. The 3D edition is a four-disc set that includes the 3D version of the film split among two discs, joined by the regular Blu-ray Discs of the film and the bonus materials.

On the digital side of things, the bonus materials are subject to availability depending on the retailer. However, since Disney is a Movies Anywhere company it shouldn’t be too hard to access a member retailer that offers the extras (Movies Anywhere has them, as does Vudu).

Updated from a review of the digital version, originally published April 3, 2023.

The Shield: The Complete Series

Fans of “The Shield” won’t want to miss this new Blu-ray edition of the gritty cop drama, featuring all 88 episodes remastered into a nice-looking high-definition presentation that maintains the raw, textured look that helped give the series its unique flavor. Michael Chiklis shines as corrupt cop Vic Mackey, who set the stage for the arrival of some of television’s great antiheroes in the years to come. 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Mill Creek;
Drama;
$229.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Michael Chiklis, Catherine Dent, Reed Diamond, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenny Johnson, Jay Karnes, Benito Martinez, CCH Pounder, Glenn Close, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, David Rees Snell, Paula Garcés, David Marciano, Forest Whitaker.

Before “Mad Men.” Before “Breaking Bad.” Before “Fargo.” There was “The Shield.”

The gritty 2002-08 cop drama put FX on the map for original content and helped turn basic cable into a hub of prestige television, before Netflix and other streaming services would come along to further blur the lines of distribution.

The show focused on an LAPD precinct in a fictional, gang-ridden neighborhood of Los Angeles. The division serves as the headquarters for an anti-crime strike team led by Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a corrupt cop whose thuggish methods draw the ire of his captain and internal affairs. However, his ends-justify-the-means approach to law enforcement earned him a reputation as an antihero among viewers who resented the characters tasked with bringing him down in the name of doing things by the book. This made him somewhat of a precursor to complicated but morally ambiguous characters such as Don Draper and Walter White who would become icons of the new Golden Age of Television that emerged in the early 21st century.

Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray edition of the show features all 88 episodes remastered in 4K from the original 16mm film elements, preserving the grainy texture that reinforces the series’ gritty flavor.

The 18-disc set includes all seven seasons and two bonus discs, carrying over bonus materials from previous DVD releases from Fox and Sony Pictures. The discs come in sturdy digibook packaging with a slipcover containing a magnetic clasp to hold everything in nice and snug.

The episodes aren’t offered with a “play all” mode, which might annoy some binge-minded viewers. Episodes can be viewed with an optional commentary and many include deleted scenes.

The final disc includes three new extras that take a look back at the show 10 years after its finale.

First up is a 2018 cast reunion with series creator Shawn Ryan that runs about 56 minutes and gives most of the actors a chance to reflect on what drew them to the show and what made it connect with fans.

The hour-long “ATX Festival Panel: The Shield Writers Room” features a 2016 gathering of many of the show’s writers, who discuss how it redefined what basic cable was able to achieve in terms of providing an avenue for storytelling akin to what HBO was doing at the time.

Finally, the 19-minute “Beyond the Badge” retrospective offers more of a typical look-back of interviews mixed with series highlights.

“The Shield”