Blu Tuesday: Stoners, Shakespeare and the Meaning of Life

Following last week’s barrage of new releases, it’s relatively quiet on the Blu-ray front this week, with only a handful of movies and TV shows (like the PBS series, “Downton Abbey”) to choose from. I haven’t gotten around to watching the award-winning period drama, but I’ve heard good things about it. Disney is also releasing “The Lady & the Tramp” for the first time on Blu-ray, and although I remember loving it as a kid, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the film that I honestly don’t know what I could say about it. But don’t fret, because there are a few Blu-rays out today that I’ve actually seen this decade.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”

Harold and Kumar’s second outing, “Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” was such a major letdown that I wasn’t really looking forward to another installment. But thankfully, the stoner buds’ third adventure is a much-improved sequel that hews a lot closer to the spirit of the original film – which is to say that despite all the absurdity, it isn’t without a certain level of tact. Stars John Cho and Kal Penn have an undeniable chemistry that’s great fun to watch, and if the pair wanted to, they could probably make these movies for the rest of their lives. I’m sure the exact same thing was said about Cheech and Chong back in their heyday, but that stoner duo wasn’t fortunate enough to have a secret weapon like Neil Patrick Harris, who once again steals the show in an extended cameo as himself. And although it’s the last movie you’d expect to see in 3D, director Todd Strauss-Schulson utilizes the technology so effectively that it’s arguably one of the best 3D movies since the gimmick’s revival.

Blu-ray Highlight: Warner Bros. has offered up a few extras – including an extended cut of the movie and some deleted scenes – but there’s not a single one that’s worth your time. A featurette about the film’s 3D effects would have been a nice addition, or at the very least, an audio commentary by John Cho and Kal Penn, but that clearly wasn’t in the budget. Heck, they couldn’t even afford to put the DVD version on a separate disc.

“Anonymous”

Say what you will about Roland Emmerich’s ludicrous piece of revisionist history, because while the conspiracy theory at the center of his film may be a load of bullshit, it doesn’t make “Anonymous” any less entertaining. Okay, maybe a little, but the period drama is still an incredibly well-acted movie that features some great performances by Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford (and the supposed true author of Shakespeare’s work) and Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave as a younger and older version of Queen Elizabeth I, respectively. The film is also so passionate about trying to convince the audience that there’s some truth to the story that you almost want to believe it; and Emmerich might have succeeded if the movie didn’t devolve into a Shakespearean tragedy itself in the final act. Whether or not you buy into the director’s speculation is a moot point, however, because “Anonymous” is a lavishly-produced guilty pleasure that you’ll enjoy whether you’re a history buff or not.

Blu-ray Highlight: I didn’t receive a review copy in time, but I have to imagine that the audio commentary with director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff will be worth a listen, especially for those interested in hearing the reasoning behind the duo’s theory.

“The Sunset Limited”

HBO has an incredible track record when it comes to their original films, but I certainly didn’t think that a movie about two guys sitting around an apartment talking for 90 minutes could be so compelling. Based on the Cormac McCarthy stage play of the same name, “The Sunset Limited” is an example of a stage-to-screen adaptation done right, retaining its stripped-down production values in order to keep the spotlight on the actors themselves. Though I’ve never seen the play performed onstage before, it’s hard to imagine anyone outshining the fantastic performances that Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed the film) and Samuel L. Jackson deliver in this acting masterclass. In fact, the two screen veterans are so great in their respective roles that it’s kind of surprising they haven’t received more recognition. Some people probably won’t like the bleak subject matter (it’s essentially one big debate on God, culture and the meaning of life), but at least it makes you think.

Blu-ray Highlight: The audio commentary featuring director/co-star Tommy Lee Jones, co-star Samuel L. Jackson and writer Cormac McCarthy isn’t as fascinating as I had hoped, but despite getting off to a fairly slow start, the trio eventually settles into a nice groove with talking points ranging from philosophy to various aspects of the production.

  

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SOPA blackouts just might kill the bill

This past Wednesday, the world went dark. Quiet. Well, part of it anyway. If you’re reading this article I’m going to assume you visited at least one of the 115,000 websites that had made alterations to their frontpages in a “blackout” protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act. For Wikipedia, it meant displaying a mostly black page with the Wikipedia logo and an explanation of the ramifications of the bill. While some sites went for similar service-outages, others made small changes to raise awareness. Google simply put a big black box over the logo on its homepage. Participation hit every corner of the web, from content aggregators like Reddit to the porn networks. It seemed like everyone was opposed to the bill, even if just for a day. I thought it must be a fluke.

It wasn’t. Millions of people signed an anti-SOPA petition that Google had put together, and that was just one petition. Several sites held similar petitions and email drives, all of which reported hugely successful numbers. Still, the biggest number on the day of the blackout was eighteen. Eighteen is the number of Senators who changed position on the bill. Changed. In some ways that’s an inspiring figure – it’s fantastic to see that activism can produce change. On the other hand, it’s more than a little disconcerting that people in office were ready to pass a bill that could have such a negative impact on the most valued aspects of the web, namely that it is free and open.

Wednesday wasn’t an all-out victory over thoughtless legislation against the internet. The day also saw the US Department of Justice seize and shut down file-sharing site Megaupload. I’m not going to claim that the site hasn’t been involved in any criminal activity — it very likely has — but as several other sites have mentioned, the indictment has a few inconsistencies. In one instance, the indictment charges that “a member of the Mega Conspiracy made a transfer of $185,000 to further an advertising campaign for Megaupload.com involved a musical recording and a video.” That seems not only within the confines of the law but daily business practice. As Ars Technica points out, “When Viacom made many of the same charges against YouTube, it didn’t go to the government and try to get Eric Schmidt or Chad Hurley arrested.”

That’s where Anonymous came in. You knew they wouldn’t stay out of this one. After Megaupload went down, the hacker collective organized DDoS attacks against just about everyone involved in the Megaupload case, including the DoJ, the MPAA, and the FBI. In short, Anonymous took a piss all over the good vibrations of the blackout, and certainly the goodwill of anyone who may have been on the fence about the whole SOPA thing. It goes without saying that Anonymous hurt the conversation just as much as the blackout may have added to it, and that’s not something lawmakers will soon forget.

This is why I think the blackout’s effort to kill SOPA could still be a “maybe.” While the bill does look like it has been pulled off life support, the Megaupload indictment and the Anonymous attack stand as two steps back after that one big step forward. I’m hoping the internet pulls through, but I’m not nearly as confident as I was Wednesday night.

  

Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

October has never been known for offering much in the way of quality at the cineplex (in many respects, it’s the dumping ground of the fall movie season), but usually, horror fans can at least expect a bunch of scary movies to help get them in the mood for Halloween. This year is a little different, however, because there are very few horror films in sight. But while the month certainly looks to be short on scares with the exception of “Paranormal Activity 3,” “Red State” and perhaps “The Thing,” the rest of the schedule is filled with some interesting titles that really have the potential to surprise.

“REAL STEEL”

Who: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly and Anthony Mackie
What: Set in the near future where robots have replaced humans in the ring, a former boxer and his estranged son discover a junkyard bot that could become champion.
When: October 7th
Why: It’s easy to see how someone might be a little skeptical about a film that looks like “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie,” but after visiting the set last summer, any concerns I might have had were quickly laid to rest following a chat with director Shawn Levy and star Hugh Jackman. I’ve also had the opportunity to see the finished product since then, and while the movie certainly isn’t going to earn a spot alongside “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” as a boxing classic, it’s still a really enjoyable underdog sports drama with strong central performances and plenty of awesome robot-on-robot action.

“THE IDES OF MARCH”

Who: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti
What: An idealistic staff member for a Democratic presidential candidate gets a crash course on dirty politics during his latest stint on the campaign trail.
When: October 7th
Why: With a big name like George Clooney attached to a movie come big expectations, especially when he’s the one calling the shots. Thankfully, his latest directorial effort appears to be more “Good Night, and Good Luck” than “Leatherheads,” and it doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded himself with such an incredible ensemble cast. In addition to the film’s multi-hyphenate star, “The Ides of March” features two other Oscar winners and two nominees. It might not be considered the year’s strongest awards contender, but the Academy always loves a good political thriller, and this definitely looks the part.

“THE THING”

Who: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
What: When an alien life form begins wreaking havoc at an Antarctic research site, a graduate student teams up with a helicopter pilot to prevent it from escaping.
When: October 14th
Why: There’s been a lot of debate over whether Universal’s “The Thing” is a remake or a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter classic (the fact that it shares the same title certainly hasn’t helped matters), but it’s now been confirmed that it takes place prior to R.J. MacReady’s trip to the Antarctic and will detail what happened at the Norwegian camp featured in the original film. I’m not sure if that makes this prequel any less unnecessary, but at least it’s got a couple of good actors in Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. That’s definitely a start, but it still has a ways to go to winning back the fanboys after Ronald D. Moore’s script was reportedly scrapped back in late 2009.

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