Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?
I took a week off the usual new release pattern for Halloween so I’m catching up on two weeks of disc releases. There’s a lot here, too much to do justice to it all, but here are the highlights of what I received for review.
Inside Out (Disney, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) – In the 15th feature from Pixar, feelings are not just the focus of the story. They are the main characters. The primary emotions of preteen girl Riley get a workout when she’s uprooted from friends and activities in Minnesota, where she’s a devoted member of a hockey team, and dropped into San Francisco, where she doesn’t know a soul and none of her things have arrived to ease the transition. Joy, a pixie of a character voiced as a whirlwind of enthusiasm supercharged on sugar and caffeine by Amy Pohler, tries to focus on the positive and the possibilities but it’s a difficult adjustment. The blue frump Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office in a delivery pitched like a non-stop sigh), the outcast of the otherwise hyperactive team, keeps tripping up her increasingly desperate attempts to put a happy face on everything. The internal tug-of-war of the emotional turmoil lands them deep in Riley’s subconscious, along with Riley’s core memories, which they need to save before they’re lost to the graveyard of the forgotten past.
So it’s a journey film—the framework of many a Pixar classic—with two seemingly incompatible characters who learn to appreciate one another along the way. But it’s also a sharply insightful exploration of the complicated feelings of kids, a cartoon brainscan or an extended dream that turns the mind into an epic theme park run from a starship control center by five dominant emotions. Disgust, a green, judgmental mean girl voiced by Mindy Kaling, Fear, a skittish praying mantis of a figure (Bill Hader), and Anger, a literal hothead of a burning ember in a middle-management suit (perfectly pitched on the edge of outrage by Lewis Black), fill out the control room crew and end up panicking when left in charge. The confusion and unchecked impulses lead to some bad decisions.
Director and co-writer Pete Docter has been a part of the Pixar’s brain trust and talent chest since the beginning. He co-wrote Toy Story and Wall-E and directed the Oscar-winning Up, a film that shows just how well he knows his way around emotions. For this film Docter is as much concerned father as master filmmaker. He worked with psychiatrists to understand the inner workings of the emotional world of the growing child (he was inspired by the changed in his own adolescent daughter) and create visual metaphors for the abstract process and theoretical ideas. And what finally came up with is clever and funny and sweet and sad, an ingeniously physical interpretation of the ephemeral that acknowledges the competing impulses driving the growing child (not to mention older kids, adults, and by the coda, even dogs and cats).
There’s nothing Pollyanish about this portrait, even with the hyper upbeat Joy trying to micromanage every situation to a happy ending and banish Sadness to the margins. As she learns, suppressing your emotions doesn’t work. You have move through them. Inside Out reminds us that emotions are very real experiences and they have all have a place in our lives. It’s clever and it’s funny and it’s sweet, and it tells kids that, as Rosie Grier sang decades ago in Free to Be You and Me, it’s all right to cry because it might make you feel better.
Blu-ray and DVD with optional filmmaker commentary (director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, with a special guest or two along the way) and the bonus animated short film Lava, which played in front of the film in theaters.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original Riley’s First Date?, a snappy little short which spends even more time in the heads of Riley’s parents, and all the featurettes. “Mixed Emotions” (7 mins) looks as the design and development of the emotion characters, “Mapping the Mind” (8 mins) looks into the design of the visual film, “Into the Unknown: The Sound of Inside Out” (7 mins) explores the sound design, “The Misunderstood Art of Animation Film Editing” (4 mins) is self-explanatory, and “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out” (11 mins) looks at the personal stories of the women of the production. There’s also “Our Dads, The Filmmakers” (7 mins), the compilation reel “Mind Candy” (14 mins), and four deleted scenes with introductions from Docter, plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – In 1968, William F. Buckley was the face of the new Conservative movement: editor of The National Review, host of the public television show Firing Line, a conservative media celebrity with a cool intellect and sharp tongue. Gore Vidal, born and raised as a member of the East Coast American political aristocracy, was a respected novelist, essayist, and outspoken liberal commentator who used his wit to provoke and satirize. The despised one another as much as they hated what the other stood for. ABC, the distant third of three networks going into the political conventions of the election season, hired these men to debate the events of the respective Republican and Democratic conventions over ten nights of network coverage. What they got in those brief minutes at the end of each program was less debate than verbal sparring matches between two erudite intellectuals attacking the political philosophy and public record of the other and they were out for blood. As Christopher Hitchens puts it, “There’s nothing feigned about their mutual animosity. They really do despise each other.”
Best of Enemies presents a contrast of two very public intellectuals along with its portrait of an unlikely and unique television event in 1968, an approach to political coverage that ultimately changed the face of political discourse on TV from reporting to punditry and competing voices. Yet there is nothing on contemporary cable news that resembles what these two men gave viewers in 1968. These men took great pride in their vocabulary, their erudition, their intellect, and they dueled with words and ideas and wicked insults in cultivated, patrician mid-Atlantic accents. This was a time when “intellectual” was not an insult but a badge of pride and these men elevated the language of discourse even while engaging in a verbal street brawl.
Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville anchor their documentary with extended clips from their debates, which are unaccountably entertaining in their own right, with backstory and commentary in between. Buckley passed away in 2008, Gore Vidal in 2012, and their respective legacies are in danger of being forgotten. This documentary reminds us of their public presence and their cultural import, but what carries the film is the sheer spectacle of their verbal bloodsport on a national stage. You’ll never see this level of political discourse in the fractured world of cable TV news playing to partisan constituents and punditry reduced to sound bites and shouting matches. The personal hatred that fanned the flames of their duel only makes the spectacle that much more riveting.
Blu-ray and DVD, with a seven-minute interview with the directors and over an hour of additional interviews with the featured commentators, including Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, and James Wolcott, presented as a series short sound bite-sized clips. Also on VOD.
Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, DVD), the debut feature by Taiwan filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang is a study in urban alienation in the overcrowded city of Tapei. Sad faced, soft-featured young actor Lee Kang-sheng stars as a disconnected Taiwan youth studying to get into college who becomes obsessed with a petty hood (Chen Chao-jung) he witnesses vandalizing his father’s cab. There is very little dialogue in the film and Tsai uses long takes with minimal camera movement to emphasize the boredom and unhappiness of the characters. They seem to be going through the motions of life, especially the student who simply quits his studies, gets a motor bike, and stalks the young thief as he robs and vandalizes his days away.
The 1992 film played in film festivals but did not get a theatrical release in the U.S. until 2015, long after Tsai had made his reputation with films such as The River andGoodbye Dragon Inn, which also explore inchoate longing and human disconnection in the urban world. While his later films are more accomplished, Tsai is very much in command of his art and captures the inarticulate frustrations not just of the young but everyone living in this impersonal, overwhelming city. And for a film that keeps its audience at a distance, he shows a compassion for his characters, especially the confused young protagonist. Lee went on to become Tsai’s onscreen alter ego and the star of all of his subsequent films. A well-mastered disc, no supplements, in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Croupier (Hen’s Tooth, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1998 film that helped elevate the career of Clive Owen, is a low-key drama with Owen as a would-be writer and a gambling addict in denial who takes a high paying job at a casino. “He was a writer looking down on his subject,” he narrates in voice-over. “A detached voyeur.” Soaking in the atmosphere of card sharps and petty thievery and scams, he pours out his observations in a novel about “Jake,” a self-obsessed misanthrope who thrives on the misery of others. Pretty soon honest dealer Jack can’t tell himself apart from the corrupt Jake and takes a payoff in return for playing a part in a planned heist. It’s a mannered performance in a film that blurs fantasy and reality until you’re not sure what exactly you’re seeing, in sharp contrast to Gina McKee, who is so alive she seems to come from another film. Alex Kingston makes an impression in a supporting role. Directed by Mike Hodges, who made the original Get Carter and directed Owen again in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
I’m not really fond of this film—I find it a little precious—but it has its fans and the Blu-ray debut looks fine indeed. No supplements.
Second Sight: The Complete Series (BFS) didn’t launch the career of Clive Owen but it certainly helped establish his credentials as an actor and spread his fame as a rising star. The original two-part 1999 telefilm mystery, written by Paula Milne for British TV, establishes DCI Ross Tanner (Owen), leader of the Special Murder Unit, as intense and driven and brilliant. Unknown to his team, he’s also going blind and desperately trying to conceal it from the world and his coworkers. Claire Skinner is DI Catherine Tully, his new second and a sharp investigator who figures out Tanner’s secret, and forms an uneasy alliance with the boss: she’ll be his eyes, and he’ll see that she gets recognized in the department. Tanner sees his impending blindness as a blow to his abilities and Owen makes him burn with conviction and pride.
His story plays out in three subsequent TV mysteries through 2000, as Tanner becomes increasingly defensive and abrasive while helming high-profile cases and Tully, now his lover as well as his assistant, tiring of being his eyes. Mark Bazeley co-stars as the new man on the squad whose frustrations at being left out of the loop build with each slight. Owen is fearless in the part, a loving but unreliable dad, a brilliant investigator whose increasing isolation alienates his entire unit, and a tormented loner torn up over the inevitable of his career as he can’t even see the faces of his suspects, even as he develops a kind of second sight (which at times hits him like a beanball). Owen isn’t afraid to allow the less attractive features show as he lashes out against his incurable sight and catches others in the crossfire. It came out in what seems like a modern golden age of British mystery TV and it was one of the productions that showed Americans just what we were missing on out network shows: finely honed characters, dark stories and prickly relationships that don’t necessarily get easier with time. The show was released previously in separate volumes. All four telefilms, which showed in the U.S. on the PBS series Mystery!, are now collected in this five-disc set.