Last week’s Blu-ray haul was so lackluster that I didn’t even bother writing a column, but thankfully, that doesn’t look like it’s going to be a problem in July. In addition to today’s great selection of new releases, the rest of the month promises to be just as bountiful, which is good news for anyone trying to get out of this insane summer heat.
It’s easy to forgive the cast of “American Reunion” for having some hesitations about returning for another installment of the comedy franchise (especially after that terrible line of direct-to-video spin-offs didn’t do much for its reputation), but credit to co-writers/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg for not only getting everyone on board, but delivering one of the better films in the series. Nothing will ever compare to the 1999 original, but seeing Jim, Stifler and the rest of the gang all grown-up is just as ripe for comedy as when they were horny teenagers. Though not every subplot (and with this many characters to juggle, there are quite a few) works as well as others, the chemistry among the core cast remains intact, and that’s a major reason for its success. It’s also clear that Hurwitz and Schlossberg are fans of the franchise themselves, and it definitely shows in their understanding of the characters’ relationships, as well as the balance between the sweeter moments and gross-out humor. And yes, there’s plenty of both to go around.
Blu-ray Highlight: There’s a ton of bonus material on the disc, but most of it feels like filler. The audio commentary with Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, however, offers some nice insight on making the film and other behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The Nanking Massacre, which is arguably China’s most tragic event in modern history, has been portrayed in numerous films before, but not nearly with as much grace as Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War.” The director doesn’t exactly shy away from the brutal and violent behavior by the Japanese soldiers who invaded the city, but he brings a beauty to the movie that you wouldn’t expect from such grim material. Though there are some subplots that could have easily been cut to prevent the film from feeling so bloated, in many cases, those scenes allow for the supporting cast to be developed beyond simple background extras. The cinematography is gorgeous as always, and the performances are pretty good across the board (particularly newcomer Ni Ni and Christian Bale as the Westerner caught in the middle of the conflict), but the real star is the story itself, which earns its emotional beats without feeling like it’s pandering to the audience. “The Flowers of War” may not be Yimou’s best work, but it’s a well-crafted drama that definitely deserves to be seen.
Blu-ray Highlight: Although there’s no “Play All” option for the five-part behind-the-scenes featurette, each section is worth watching for various reasons. “The Birth of ‘The Flowers of War’” is undeniably the most interesting of the bunch, as it crams in a lot of material (including casting the children and hookers, as well as their preparation for the roles), but the one dedicated to Christian Bale’s involvement is also fascinating, even if the Chinese cast and crew go a bit over the top with their adoration for the actor.
Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed follow-up to his directorial debut “You Can Count on Me” received a mini publicity boost at the end of last year when some fans launched a Twitter campaign under the name Team Margaret to get the film a wider release and a bigger push for award season. Unfortunately, all the fuss was for naught, because “Margaret” is every bit the mess that its tortourous post-production saga suggests. Shot back in 2005, the movie not only looks really dated, but its behind-the-scenes drama is clearly evident on the screen. Characters pop in and out of the story with little explanation; others yell and fight with each other for no reason; and Anna Paquin (who plays one of the most annoying film characters in recent memory) simply isn’t a good enough actor to carry the whole thing on her shoulders. Though the movie probably would have been more effective if it was released when originally intended (especially with the tragic events of 9/11 still fresh in our minds), “Margaret” fails to weave its interesting premise into anything of actual substance.
Blu-ray Highlight: There are no special features to be found, but fans will want to check out the included extended cut of the film, boasting 36 additional minutes of footage.
I’ve never read “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” the award-winning memoir on which “Being Flynn” is based, but if it’s even half as depressing as the film version, then I don’t have any interest in ever doing so, despite Amazon always recommending it to me. While it’s admirable to see a movie this incredibly honest and uncompromising in its storytelling (even the mildly happy ending isn’t particularly feel-good), author Nick Flynn’s real-life tale about reconnecting with his estranged father is so bleak that it’s really no surprise so few people saw it. “Being Flynn” is one of those movies that probably worked a lot better on the page, especially in regards to Paul Dano and Robert De Niro’s shared narration. Although it was likely utilized to greater effect in the book, the decision to jump back and forth between their characters causes the narrative to feel fractured. And when it’s not very engaging to begin with, that only makes it harder to become emotionally invested in the story.
Blu-ray Highlight: The only extra on the disc is an EPK-style featurette titled “The Heart of ‘Being Flynn’” that includes interviews with various cast and crew (as well as author Nick Flynn) about making the movie, but it’s much too short to be anything substantial.