Monstrous fun in ‘MU’; true chills in ‘Conjuring’
Owls Head — Monsters University (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, G, 103 min.). This fun animated film is the prequel to “Monsters Inc.” from Pixar. However, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon does mess with the original film a bit, where it was stated that Mike Winowski (the green eyeball voiced by Billy Crystal) first met James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) in the fourth grade. Here, that meeting is pushed back to college, the Monsters University of the title, where both are enrolled in the scare program. They become rivals, though, as Sulley rests on his family’s reputation as scarers and Mike works extremely hard to make his unrealistic dream come true.
Both eventually are tossed out of the scare program by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), which costs Sulley his spot in the prestigious Roar Omega fraternity. However, cyclops Mike comes up with the idea of competing in the Scare Games as a way to get back in the scare training program and he latches onto the Oozma Kappa fraternity of misfits to be his competitive team (the frat guys live at the president’s mother’s house; she boogies while doing laundry in the background on their initiation ceremony). However, because competitive teams must have six members for the Scare Games, Mike is forced to accept Sulley as a fraternity brother and teammate. The Scare Games themselves are amusing, and there is a foray into the real world late in the film that cements Mike and Sulley’s bonding.
The Blu-ray picture and sound are exceptional and the animation is a delight throughout, with so much detail of college life thrown at the viewer during the arrival on campus. You will want to look at the film again to pick up on some of these details that are aside from the main story. There are lots of new creatures as well. This may not be the classic that “Monsters Inc.” is, but it is a very satisfying experience. There are lots of extras. Most of which appear on their own disc. However, the film itself has audio commentary by director Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and animation supervisor Kelsey Mann. The main disc also has the new Pixlar short, “Blue Umbrella,” about love between two umbrellas on a rainy street. Disc two has 10 featurettes, covering the creation and animation of the various students, teachers and so forth, the art of a perfect scare, adding color and light to the film, scoring with Randy Newman and Bruno Coon, and a comparison with the animation of the first film (total 69 min.). There also are four unfinished deleted scenes (22 min.); promotional materials (14 min.); high-definition fly-through tours of the campus, the Sdcare School, frat house row and the OK house (6 min.); and a large collection of artwork, divided into five categories. The film also is available in Blu-ray 3D. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
The Conjuring (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 112 min.). Director James Wan gave us the first “Saw” film and, more recently, “Insidious” (also starring Patrick Wilson). He has outdone himself this time, though, with a near-perfect horror film that, at its best, recalls “The Exorcist,” one of my all-time best scare movies. And like “The Exorcist,” it is based on true facts and involves a possession.
Wilson and Vera Farmiga (TV’s “Bates Motel”) play real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who, since the 1960s, have been known as the world’s most renowned paranormal investigators. Lorraine is clairvoyant, and the late Ed was the only non-ordained Demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church. In 1971, the Perron family -- dad Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and five daughters -- move into farmhouse they bought along with 200 acres in a rural part of Harrisville, Rhode Island. The viewer immediately knows things are not tight with the house as the family dog refuses to go inside, and indeed, the dog is found dead the next morning. Roger accidentally finds a boarded-up basement (the cellar door keeps opening by itself) and daughter Christine can see a figure in her room that sister Nancy cannot see. Carolyn keeps developing bruises, which are called the result of an iron deficiency, but we know better. When the Warrens are called in, Lorraine immediately senses at least two entities inside, one of which is very evil. Their research discovers at least five deaths associated with the property, including that of a witch who hanged herself after killing her child and putting a curse on the property.
The Warrens were the first to use temperature gages, cameras and so forth to track traces of spirits and we see them set up the equipment in the house, as director Wan proceeds at a steady pace. The director brings chills simply by having all the photos hung along the staircase get knocked down. In the exorcism climax, Wan brilliantly decides to have the possessed covered in a sheet -- after having bitten the policeman who helps the Warrens -- and the transformations are done from inside, including a pray of blood that soaks through the sheet. Creepy, indeed. There also is a subplot that has the Warrens’ daughter threatened by the same spirit, even though she is hours away.
While the film is beautifully presented, the extras are thin. The members of the Perron family and Lorraine Warren recall their experiences with the case (6:39) and a feature looks at the Warrens’ career (15:39), including some audio recordings made by Ed Warren. Finally, there is a behind-the-scenes look (8:04). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Byzantium (IFC, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 118 min.). Neil Jordan, who directed the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire,” returns to the vampire genre in this beautifully-lensed film. Forget what you know of vampire lore, it is reinvented here; and while there are scares, the film is leisurely paced and more of a character study.
The narrator is Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan), who was turned by her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton). The two vampires (although the word is almost never used in the film) have survived for 200 years and appear more like sisters, as Eleanor is stuck at physical age 16. However, while Clara is a prostitute who often kills her clients, the introspective Eleanor drains only the elderly who are about to die. Eleanor also hungers to tell her story, which she constantly writes down. After one of Clara’s bloodier episodes -- it includes a beheading -- the pair have to leave town. They arrive at a bit-seedy seaside town, where Clara befriends Noel (Daniel Mays), who owns Byzantium, a former hotel and boarding house. Clara and Eleanor are given shelter by Noel, and Clara turns Byzantium into a brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor was wandered into a restaurant and sat down and played the piano, which is how she meets waiter Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, also the vocalist and drummer for the psychedelic band Robert Jones), who we learn later suffers from leukemia, but currently is in remission. A tentative friendship develops and, when given a school assignment to write an essay about themselves, Eleanor writes down her vampire history and gives it to Frank to read
Meanwhile, Clara is being searched for by the Brotherhood. It seems that, before her, all the vampires were men, and she has broken their law by created a new vampire in her daughter. Flashbacks fill in Eleanor and Clara’s back stories, including how Clara was turned into a whore by Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller of TV’s “Elementary”), after meeting the gentle Midshipman Darvell (Sam Riley). These scenes are golden-tinged. Another unexpectedly beautiful scene is when a human is turned, the waterfalls on the island start flowing blood red. (I think the disturbed birds imagery is used a bit too often, but that is only a quibble.)
The film is based on the play, “A Vampire Story.” Extras include 76:34 of interviews with director Jordan (he says he pushed the writers toward the more bloody aspects, and he came up with the idea of the thumbnail growing when the vampires become hungry); actors Arterton, Ronan, Jones and Riley; writer Moira Buffini; producers Stephen Woolley and Alan Moloney; cinematographer Sean Boffit; and others. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars
R.I.P.D. *Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 96 min.). This film, a failed comedy, is kind of a rip-off of “Men in Black” and “Ghostbusters,” with a little Western thrown in. Ryan Reynolds plays narrator Nick Walter, a Boston police detective, who is killed by his partner, Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon), during a drug raid, because he said he was going to turn in his half of the gold they had found and stolen during a recent drug bust. The best thing I can say about the film is the scenes of Boston look nice, including a scene inside Fenway Park.
When Nick is killed, everything but he freezes and then he rises up towards heaven, only to be intercepted by Mildred (Mary-Louise Parker), head of the Boston branch of the Rest in Peace Department. Rather than risk going to hell, Nick accepts a 100-year stint as a hunter of dead people who have escaped judgment (“deados”). He is paired with 18th century lawman Roy Pulsifer (Jeff Bridges, who appears to be having a lot of fun). The branch’s outlet on Earth is the bathroom of a VCR repair store (hence, they will never be discovered because who has a VCR to be fixed these days). Unfortunately, when the deados turn into their real, partially-decayed selves, they look like poor animations and the action turns to cartoonish slapstick. It does not help the film, and it certainly is not funny. You will groan more than you laugh.
Extras include two alternate openings (10 min.); three alternate and one deleted scenes (7 min.); an 8-minute look at transferring the Dark Horse graphic novel by Peter M. Lenkov into a film; looks at the special effects (6 min.) and the avatars (7 min.; Nick appears as an old Chinese man, aka James Hong, and Roy as a supermodel, aka Marissa Miller); six minutes of animated storyboards; an 8-minute breakdown of the final shootout; a brief look at alternate avatars; and a 4-minute gag reel. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.5 stars
The Uninvited (1944, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 99 min.). Lewis Allen’s directorial debut is notable as being one of the first films to deal with a haunted house story seriously. On a whim, music critic/would-be composer Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald (Ray Milland of “Dial M for Murder” and “The Lost Weekend,” for which he won an Oscar) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey of “The Philadelphia Story”) buy the neglected clifftop mansion, Winward House, on the Cornish coast and turn it into their home. Their dog chases a squirrel into the house (an unexpected comic scene), but refuses to go upstairs, where Rick discovers a studio with a skylight that he will turn into his work room, even though it is always unusually cold. The room also depresses him.
They bought the house from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), whose daughter lived their for three years, but died by falling off the cliff into the ocean. His granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell in her second film and first starring role) did not want the house sold, but she befriends Rick and, over the course of their film, their friendship becomes more romantic -- but never more overt than a kiss. (Meanwhile, Pamela develops a romance with Dr. Scott, played by Alan Napier, completely off screen.) Before long, an unnerving presence makes itself felt. In addition to the chill, a distant wailing is heard at night. It appears the house is haunted, not only by Stella’s mother, but also by the Spanish maid, Carmel, who had an affair with Mr. Meredith. Trying to protect Stella, the Fitzgeralds and Dr. Scott arrange a fake séance.
The film is notable for the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Charles Lang Jr., who used flashlights and candles, as Winward House had no electricity. The film looks great on Blu-ray. Also, when Stella visits Rick in his work room, he plays part of composer Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” which would become a worldwide hit when lyrics were added two years later. Extras are sparser than normal for a Criterion release, but include a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. It contains a lot of information on the careers of Milland and Russell. In fact, Russell was plucked out of high school and signed to a multi-year contract due to her beauty and stunning eyes. However, she was nervous from the get-go and took to drinking between takes to steady her nerves and hands. That drinking would increase until it claimed her life at age 36. There also are two 29-minute radio adaptations starring Milland, one from 1944 (also with Hussey) and the other from 1949. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 108 min.). One of the directors who said he was influenced by “The Uninvited” is Guillermo del Toro ("Pacific Rim"), who offers his own haunting story here. Set during the final week of the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish-language film follows a pre-teen boy, Carlos, who is sent to a haunted orphanage after his freedom-fighting father is killed. He is given the bed of Santi, a boy who recently disappeared. In addition to being a horror story, the film also is a murder mystery and a historical melodrama. Extras include del Toro’s sketches for the film; a new interview with the director about Santi and the special effects (14 min.); a 2004 documentary film by Javier Soto on the film’s production history (28 min.); an 18-minute interview of del Toro by Soto in 2010; a new interview with the director on the work of the artists and craftsmen (12 min.); an interactive gallery of del Toro’s notebook; four deleted scenes; side-by-side comparisons of del Toro’s original sketches, Carlos Gimenez’s storyboards and the corresponding scene from the final film; a new, 15-minute interview with Spanish Civil War scholar Sebastian Faber; audio commentary by the director on the film; and a booklet with an essay by critic Mark Kermode. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 4 stars