After recent revelations that the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo made misguided decisions about abusive priests, working on their social media platforms has been a challenge. Saturday I wore my other hat as a journalist for the diocesan Catholic paper, the Western New York Catholic, as I covered a diaconate ordination where the news of the day hung heavy over the hearts of those attending.
One of the biggest hits of the year was “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which continued Marvel’s unprecedented string of success in building an expanded universe on the silver and small screens. While the digital version of the movie was released in early September, the home video version didn’t hit shelves until this past weekend. The question is: is it worth it to double-dip for the physical discs?
I picked up the collector’s edition set, which includes the 3D blu ray, regular blu ray and download code for the digital version. Not going to lie: I don’t have a 3D TV or player, so I’m just going to assume that disc is up to snuff. However, I compared the blu ray disc to what I got on the digital download, and saw that many of the special features are the same.
Both the blu ray and the digital version have the same featurettes: “From the Inside Out – Making of ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron;’” “The Infinite Six” and “Global Adventure.” “Global Adventure” is a three-minute short about the various places “Age of Ultron” was filmed, including Italy, South Korea and South Africa. “Inside Out” is a 20-minute standard behind-the-scenes feature that might be fun for kids to see how the film crew was able to combine practical stunts and shots with computer-animated characters like the Hulk or Ultron. “The Infinite Six” is a seven-minute feature outlining the ongoing Thanos subplot, which infinity stones have shown up so far, and the inspiration it takes from the comics.
Both the digital and physical releases also contain a short gag reel and four deleted scenes, the latter of which unfortunately doesn’t add much to the overall film. What the physical disc does contain is exclusive feature-length commentary from writer and director Joss Whedon, who has been pretty outspoken during the initial press tour about his ambivalence with the movie. He also offers commentary on the deleted scenes.
“Why on earth would I make another Avengers movie,” Whedon asks early in the movie. “They’re really hard. It was ill-advised, I see that now, but I think the most important thing about the movie is that it’s mine.”
While Whedon sounds down on the overall film (and, quite frankly, exhausted during the commentary), he offers few specifics about what he felt were the problems, instead focusing his commentary on praise for the cast and crew. He also often notes how hard he tried to make “Age of Ultron” visually distinctive from the first “Avengers” film, but outside of a slightly-greyer palette to reflect the morally-ambiguous tone of the sequel, this looks and feels like a standard blockbuster from Marvel Studios.
“I look at this movie as a series of compromises and failures,” he says at one point. “Just so you know, I’m not actually going to emphasize that. There are things about it that I love, I love very much, but I always think, ‘Ah, could have been better there.’”
That said, the picture and audio quality is the film and features on the blu ray disc are top notch. The disc also includes trailers for “Ant-Man,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” season two and “Agent Carter” season one.
Is it worth it? No. Whedon says nothing groundbreaking during the commentary, so unless you need the physical set to round out your Marvel Studios collection, save yourself a couple of bucks and stick with digital.
As a toddler of the 70s and a child of the 80s, I’m in the exact generational sweet spot for the original Star Wars toy line from Kenner. While I may have enjoyed other franchises better, there’s no doubt I was among the millions of kids who played the hell out of these small, barely-articulated action figures. These hunks of plastic made an impression, as now there’s a huge fan base eagerly awaiting #ForceFriday, a social media marketing event about the release of the new toys from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which doesn’t come out for another four months.
Outside of buying some franchise toys for my kids so we can share the love of our fandom, I’m not really in the toy buying business these days, but I still have an extreme fondness for the original Kenner line. Back in the 90s before you can just look up obscure video clips on YouTube, I bought a bootleg videotape just filled with old “Star Wars” toy commercials (I also bought the Star Wars Holiday Special, but that’s a story for another time). There’s even nostalgia of the packaging, as the ReAction company now sells Kenner-like figures of popular franchises like “Aliens,” “Back to the Future” and more. If you ever thought to yourself, “I really like those Star Wars toys, but I wish they made a figure of the Gimp from ‘Pulp Fiction,’” I’ve got good news for you.
The nostalgia business is not just angling into the toy market. Since anybody with a smartphone can shoot, edit and release their own videos, and there’s clearly a market for our childhood obsessions of the 70s and 80s, I’ve discovered a whole cottage industry of niche documentaries about VHS stores, pinball machines and graphic novels available on streaming. One of these is “Plastic Galaxy,” a 70-minute documentary about those original “Star Wars” toys.
Director Brian Stillman talks to some of the original Kenner employees who dreamed up a 3 and ¾ inch scale universe, as well as some heavy “Star Wars” collectors (Not heavy as in weight, but people who own original prototype figures like the fabled rocket-launching Boba Fett). The loose story told here is of Kenner, a small Cincinnati toy company that exploded after they secured the license to “Star Wars” a month before its original release in 1977. As the movie quickly became a phenomenon, Kenner was caught flatfooted by the demand for toys, so much so that during the Christmas season that year, they actually sold a just cardboard stand promising buyers actual figures later in the new year. Today those “Early Bird” cardboards are one of the most prized “Star Wars” collectables fetching hundreds of dollars.
Much of the documentary is focused on the minutiae of the “Star Wars” line, from how they marketed the commercials to show kids how to play with the toys, to some of the odder, obscure pieces of merchandise. There is a too-brief section on Kenner designers creating their own toys for an art exhibit. This is mostly the equivalent of spoon-fed sugar, pushing happy memory after happy memory to the point that when anything suggests a less-cheery thought (like the Kenner supervisor who missed two years of his kids’ lives because he was working nights and weekends at the height of "Star Wars" fever), dramatic music and editing kicks in, almost to let us know the bad times will be over momentarily and we’ll get back to playing with plastic.
This is a documentary with limited appeal if you have little interest in the franchise or its merchandise, but for those adults who remember playing with the toys as a kid, this might go down as easy as a bowl of Count Chocula.
“The compelling thing about these toys the fact that they can take you back to that time,” says one fan. “That’s the coolest thing about them.” Sounds about right.
"Plastic Galaxy" is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, DVD on Amazon or for free streaming for Amazon Prime members.
In honor of the occasion, I’ve rebooked the perfect blockbuster season, taking the best summer movies since 1975 (when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” provided the perfect mix between crowd-pleasing fun and action-filled suspense) until last year. For five weeks in May and July, and four in June and August, I map out a season that even the snobbiest cinephile would have a ball with.
2014 was a pretty great year for movies, and despite adding a second child to the mix, I happened to see a lot of them thanks to a more flexible work schedule and a number of new movies hitting VOD and streaming services pretty quickly. There’s a lot out there, and a number of them below are now available free-ish on the streaming. Here’s my Top 10:
1. UNDER THE SKIN-Dark, haunting and an experience unlike any I had in a theater this year. It also happens to ting my child-endangerment senses off the charts. If you enjoy Kubrick and Lynch, do yourself a favor and check out this flick, now streaming on Amazon Prime.
2. IDA-It’s interesting to probably nobody but me that what I believe to be the two best movies of the year are both about young, pretty and naïve “women” going out into the world for the first time and being utterly changed by the experience. “Ida” is about a young Polish woman about to profess her vows to a religious order when she’s told to first talk to her aunt about her family history. Filmed in black and white with very little dialogue, this movie is starkly beautiful in what’s not being said. And it’s up on Netflix and Amazon Prime!
3. WHIPLASH-You’ve probably seen your share of teacher/student relationship movies, but this is less “Dead Poets Society” and more “Full Metal Jacket.” An intense experience, and the final concert is one of the best scenes of the year.
4. SNOWPIERCER-Between this, “Under the Skin,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” 2014 has been a tremendous year for sci-fi movies. Chris Evans leads an amazing cast as the leader of a downtrodden group trying to make their way through a train that carries the last group of humanity on Earth. It’s on Netflix!
5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL-Enjoying this movie is probably completely dependant on your tolerance for Wes Anderson, but I loved spending time in this alternate-World War II Europe where decorum and intelligence are still considered the most redeeming traits in a film.
6. BOYHOOD-I wasn’t over the moon about this as a lot of other people, but it’s still staggering achievement to film one boy growing up over a 12 year period. The best attribute of this movie is how we recall the small moments of our childhood with as much weight as the milestones.
7. BIRDMAN-This flick probably appeals more to theater nerds, but “Birdman” is a fascinating study on how far we have to go to produce great art, and whether it matters at all in the end.
8. THE LEGO MOVIE-I’m not going to say I had a minor panic attack watching my kids put Duplos together in a different way from the instructions, but this is a pretty good movie.
9. FORCE MAJEURE-Have you ever wondered how would you react in a split-second crisis situation? Welp, it’s exactly what happens to one family on a ski vacation, and it threatens to tear them apart. Mostly dramatic and psychological, but also darkly funny.
10. THE ONE I LOVE-Here’s one thing I discovered in 2014: I tend to enjoy movies a lot more when I literally know nothing about them. So the only thing about this movie I’ll say is this: it’s about a married couple heading off to a cottage retreat to work on their relationship problems, and then “some Twilight Zone shit” starts happening. It’s on Netflix.
THE BEST OF THE REST: Nightcrawler, Stranger on the Lake, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Raid 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Life Itself, Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Big Hero 6.