Blu-ray Reviews: How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
Released during the late ’90s wave of teen comedies, 10 Things I Hate About You wasn’t really seen as anything special at the time (Greg Muskewitz of eFilmCritic asked, “How much does this film suck? Let me count the ways”), but after a decade of crappier genre entries, disappointments from Julia Stiles, and the awful death of Heath Ledger, it looks pretty good in hindsight. It’s a movie that most of the teens and twentysomethings of the ’90s look back on with fondness — perhaps a little too much fondness, given 10 Things‘ occasionally creaky gags and sitcom-level acting, but still, this isn’t a film undeserving of a little nostalgic love.
What it doesn’t deserve, however, is a 10th-anniversary reissue. It isn’t great enough to warrant the double-dipping treatment from the studio — and if Disney really needed to give us a 10 Things upgrade, they could have done a fair sight better than this.
What’s immediately striking about the 10 Things Blu-ray is just how soft and grainy the transfer is. Granted, the movie was never exactly a visual feast, and director Gil Junger betrays his sitcom roots early and often with a lot of two-in-the-frame shots and oh-my-God-I-have-a-crane-camera-now swoops, but you still expect to be impressed by an anniversary reissue, and there really isn’t anything about this transfer that justifies swapping out your DVD. This would still be okay, though, if the disc came with a nice big stack of bonus materials, but it doesn’t. Here’s what you get for your $29.99 MSRP:
- 10 Things I Love About 10 Things I Hate About You 10 Years Later: A depressingly slim 35-minute documentary that intercuts new interviews with Junger and screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith with archival footage of the cast talking about how much they enjoyed working on the movie.
- A new commentary track with Lutz, Smith, and stars Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Larisa Oleynik and Susan May Pratt. Yes, it’s crappy that Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt weren’t involved, but this is still a pretty entertaining commentary — and one with a few touching moments, too, when the discussion turns to Ledger. Unfortunately, this just underscores the lack of a real retrospective featurette.
- Deleted scenes and a gag reel, both of which play out at the end of the mini-doc.
- A sticker on the front cover promising “Never-Before-Seen HEATH LEDGER Screen Test Footage.” (This isn’t technically a lie, but given that the footage in question is really just a few seconds, glimpsed during the 10 Things I Love documentary, this sticker serves as the cherry on top of what feels like a fairly slapdash cash grab.)
And that’s it. So unless you’re a drooling fanatic for this movie, or Gil Junger’s mom, or you’re taking part in some kind of wacky, Brewster’s Millions-type bet in which you have to spend a ton of money on nothing of value, you can feel safe skipping the 10 Things I Hate About You 10th Anniversary Edition.
A much better high school film, in my opinion, is Jennifer’s Body, one of a small army of movies that showed up in my mailbox on or around their release dates over the holidays. If you believe the mostly rather noxious critical fumes that surrounded Jennifer’s corpse during its disappointing theatrical run, it’s just a jiveass mashup of Juno and Heathers — and though there’s an element of truth to that, it’s also a little unfair, because this movie is a lot of fun, and Diablo Cody’s script represents the smartest and least self-consciously hip work she’s done to date.
Even given all that, Jennifer’s Body wouldn’t work without a pair of strong leads, and it’s got ‘em. Megan Fox, asked to act for the first time in her career, acquits herself admirably as the snobby small-town tramp who gets herself in over her head with a van full of Satan-worshipping indie rockers; more impressive is Amanda Seyfried, who might not really be believable as a mousy best friend, but kicks so much ass — both literally and figuratively — that you can forgive Hollywood’s latest round of faux frump casting. And okay, so the movie’s underlying message — that teenage girls are monstrously awful to one another — isn’t terribly original. But how often do you get to see an American horror movie with a brain?
The Jennifer’s Body Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and packs a hefty array of added content, including a digital copy, theatrical and unrated cuts of the movie (and commentary tracks specifically recorded for each), deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes documentary, video diaries from members of the cast and crew, a gag reel, and a handful of fairly obnoxious Megan Fox-oriented extras (one of which, titled “Megan Fox Is Hot,” simply bundles together a few seconds of her “hottest” moments from the film). Maybe it’s just the lowered expectations talking, but I had a bloody good time.
If you prefer sweaty, tense dread to bloody, comedic gore, Jennifer’s Body might not be your thing; you’re likely to have more fun (and, in fact, have probably already seen) Paranormal Activity, the $15,000 documentary-style horror movie that Paramount turned into a $141 million grassroots hit in 2009. The buzz around Paranormal said it was one of the most horrifying films to reach theaters in years, a claim you can now put to the test in the comfort of your own home.
Paranormal Activity is a bit of a strange beast in terms of home video releases; like most horror flicks, it’s more fun to watch in a theater full of screaming people, but as the movie takes place almost entirely within the walls of one couple’s San Diego home, its slowly building sense of claustrophobic dread is more deeply felt if you watch it alone (and preferably in the dark). For filmgoers weaned on the adrenalized slasher pics of recent years, Paranormal might be sort of off-putting; like The Blair Witch Project, it contains relatively few outright scares, and if you go in expecting a shocking twist or explosive payoff, you’re probably going to walk away frustrated. This isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, you get a portrait of a young couple (played by film virgins Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) whose relationship is crumbling, for reasons both ordinary (it turns out Micah’s sort of an ass) and freaky (something nasty is haunting their home, and it might be after Katie). If that sounds mundane, well, long stretches of it really are, but director Oren Peli makes skillful use of the movie’s handicam aesthetic to suggest, rather than show, many of the movie’s truly scary bits. It’s to Peli’s credit — as well as Featherston and Sloat’s — that even though you’ll see the ending coming from a mile away, it still provides a nasty jolt.
Sadly, the Paranormal Blu-ray is a disappointment. Nothing about this movie calls for a 1080p transfer — the whole thing is seen through the lens of Micah’s camera — so you’d expect it to be bulked up for the home market, especially when it’s carrying a $48.99 MSRP. Snake eyes on that roll: You get a second disc containing a digital copy, an alternate ending of the film, and…that’s it. Given that this isn’t exactly the kind of movie that benefits from repeat viewings, there’s literally no reason to purchase the Paranormal Blu-ray. Rent it instead.
Like most of the rest of America, I’ve spent most of the last five years ignoring (non-documentary) movies about our great national boondoggle in the Middle East — and given that the list of cinematic failures stacked on top of the war includes such notable turkeys as The Kingdom I felt pretty good about that. I finally caved in over the winter break, though, and I picked the right time to do it, what with two of the strongest films on the subject — Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker — arriving on Blu-ray.
War is a huge subject, especially in this day and age; when we think of war, we think of the soldiers who pay for it with their lives — and rightly so — but that’s just the face of an enormous beast that generates more jobs, more bureacracy, and more money than any of us are comfortable thinking about. You don’t see a single soldier in active duty throughout In the Loop, but there isn’t a conversation that isn’t focused on the war; it takes place in a thinly fictionalized version of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, during a time when too few people were thinking about the eventual death toll and too many were trying to choose the side that would most benefit their careers. The whole shitty mess says something deeply disturbing about human nature — but it’s also fertile ground for a biting political satire. Watching In the Loop, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The story, written by Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche, kicks off when a mid-level British minister (Tom Hollander) makes the mistake of telling a reporter that war is “unforeseeable,” setting off a tempest in a teapot that enrages the government spokesman (Peter Capaldi) who oversees him. The whole thing is shot like an Office-style mockumentary, minus the “confessional booth” scenes; none of the characters ever let on that they’re in front of a camera, but it’s all filmed fly-on-the-wall style, which helps give In the Loop a more immediate punch than, say, Wag the Dog. It also helps that the script is chock full of hilarity; like Catch 22 and Dr. Strangelove, it drips with ink-black, uncomfortably real humor.
But it isn’t all funny business — Iannucci draws you in with Hollander’s flawlessly hapless buffoon and Capaldi’s endlessly entertaining bursts of profanity, but once he’s introduced you to the assistant Secretary of State (Mimi Kennedy) and American general (James Gandolfini) working to stop the war, as well as the assorted government underlings (including an all-grown-up Anna Chlumsky) who just want to keep their jobs, it becomes clear that you’re heading for the same sort of uncomfortably bleak no-win ending as the real-life war. It’s a truly funny film, but it’s also a rueful statement on the rampant self-interest that seems to motivate everything government does, even when it comes to life and death. The bad guys are incompetent boobs, but they know just enough to win, and the good guys aren’t even really good guys anyway. Watch it, laugh yourself silly, weep, then take a shower and pray for us all.
The In the Loop Blu-ray is about as bare-bones as you’d expect, both in terms of audiovisuals and extras; you get a TV spot, a trailer, some deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes documentary. Unless you prize continuity in the width and height of the movies on your shelf, you might as well stick with the DVD — but whichever format you choose, you’ll want to watch the movie.
For a very different, but no less gripping, war movie, follow In the Loop with The Hurt Locker, which is currently winning truckfuls of year-end critics’ awards. Unlike most movies about war — particularly this one — The Hurt Locker isn’t at all concerned with the political side of things, or even the rights and wrongs of the conflict; it’s entirely focused on the war’s human toll, specifically on the psyches of the men and women on the battlefield. It’s actually a little like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, in that it traces the deep roots violence leaves in a person — except where History followed a man on his desperate quest to get away from it, Locker shows you soldiers right in the thick of the fight.
We’ve all seen our share of battlefield flicks, from the sanitized propaganda of the John Wayne era to the harder-hitting stuff of the post-Deer Hunter era. In a sense, war doesn’t change — but then again, it does, because we’ve never been able to kill each other quite as horrifically as we can now. If you can look past the dead bodies and the walking wounded, this particular war is a fascinating collision of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned trench warfare; toss in the mind-numbing desert expanses and inhumanly hot temperatures of the region, and you’ve got all the ingredients of a waking nightmare — one Bigelow depicts with bone-thudding intensity. It helps that she’s working with terrific ingredients — everything, from Mark Boal’s searing script to the cast, led by a heartbreaking/captivating Jeremy Renner, works flawlessly. One pulse-quickening sequence after the next, The Hurt Locker feels like it’s about half as long as its 130-minute running time, but it may very well haunt you for a lifetime.
The Hurt Locker‘s Blu-ray isn’t overflowing with bonus content — you get a gallery, a behind-the-scenes documentary, and an audio commentary from Bigelow and Boal — but war movies are always good for a home theater showcase, and even though Locker isn’t exactly Independence Day, the HD transfer and DTS-HD soundtrack are appropriately crisp and punchy. It’s a movie with some important things to say, and it won’t let you look away until it’s finished saying them. Not to be missed.