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Bully (2012): Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

Bully (2012) movie poster Bully

Theatrical Release: March 30, 2012 (unrated), April 13, 2012 (PG-13) / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Lee Hirsch / Producers: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen / Tagline: It's Time To Take a Stand

Subjects: Ja'meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Londa Johnson, Bob Johnson, Alex Libby, Jackie Libby, Philip Libby, Maya Libby, Jada Libby, Ethan Libby, Logan Libby, Kim Lockwood, David Long, Tina Long, Teryn Long, Troy Long, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Kirk Smalley, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace

Buy Bully from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack DVD Instant Video

These days, there aren't many big surprises in the movie ratings issued by the MPAA. Films are shot with a rating in mind, typically PG-13 for most wide mainstream releases, PG for family-oriented ones, and R for genre fare. Once in a while, a film will get a stricter rating than expected. In those cases, cuts are usually made and the desired rating then secured.
Most of those instances aren't even made known to the public. Sometimes, though, a disagreeable rating will be issued and then publically challenged with an appeals process. The Weinstein Company has taken this route a few times in recent years, managing to get an NC-17 overturned for Blue Valentine but not a reversal of the R assigned to The King's Speech. Both of those battles earned the company some free publicity, so it couldn't have been too surprising that they would put on the boxing gloves again in objection to the MPAA's R-rated classification of the 2012 documentary Bully.

As a documentary, Bully's commercial prospects were sure to be limited. Around the same time this issue was in contention, a U.S. Tax Court judge questioned whether documentaries could even be considered a for-profit business so that filmmakers could write off their expenses. The Weinstein Company's position was that they stood behind the unflinching content of Lee Hirsch's film and would not compromise it by cleaning up some profanity spoken by kids. Their seemingly sturdy argument rested on the fact that this documentary about middle school bullying would be inaccessible to one of the audiences for whom it would hold the most value: middle school children. Weinstein made a big fuss on the matter, threatening to boycott the MPAA and, when that didn't work (falling one vote short), vowing to release the film unrated. They did that and the movie played in a handful of theaters for two weeks before the studio caved, trimming some profanity, and getting the PG-13 edit out pronto for a more profitable but not especially notable two-month run in a few hundred theaters.

Next week, Bully hits stores in a DVD and a Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack, each of which attach the subtitle "PG-13 Version" as some kind of selling point (the unrated original cut evidently isn't being released). That is an odd and stark reversal for the studio that was supposedly willing to indefinitely circumvent the ratings system altogether. It also turns a movie that is supposed to have great meaning and importance into a vehicle for a game of "chicken" that proved to be just as trivial as the comparable King's Speech dispute that culminated in a disastrously-performing, re-edited PG-13 version of the Oscar-winning period drama.

Unfortunate as it may be for Hirsch, it seems impossible to open a review of Bully with anything but the ratings battle. With no Oscar or Golden Globe nomination to draw attention elsewhere, that overblown ratings battle most distinguishes this good but not great documentary.

Alex Libby details his experiences with bullying to an assistant principal in the 2012 documentary "Bully." Kirk Smalley, the father of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide, speaks to kids against bullying at an Oklahoma rally.

Bullying seems to have been around as long as children, but it has been more of a news topic in recent years, often assuming the prefix "cyber." Hirsch steers clear of electronic bullying in favor of old-fashioned physical and mental torment. To give it breadth and relevance, he focuses on five subjects located in Southern and Middle America. Two of those subjects are dead by their own hands, resorting to suicide as the only escape from daily discomfort. The parents of those boys recall the grief, reflect on how the deaths could have been avoided, and are seen dedicating their time to raising awareness.

The other three subjects are middle schoolers who are living victims of bullying. Most prominent of these is Alex, a bespectacled 12-year-old Iowan who is called "Fishface." Hirsch tags along with him at the bus stop and on the bus. You would think the presence of an adult with a camera would diminish conflict, but Hirsch captures some surprisingly candid, regrettable behavior from Alex's peers. These are the most striking images of the film and though tame compared to the insults subsequently endured by elderly New York bus monitor Karen Huff Klein (whose viral 10 minutes of pain netted her a heartwarming retirement on $650,000 in public donations),
they are shocking enough to unsettle parents.

It isn't hard to see why Alex, undersized since a worrisome premature birth, and another subject, androgynous Oklahoman lesbian Kelby (who has since come out as a transgender male), are easy and obvious targets for childish insensitivity. The final subject -- a 14-year-old black girl in custody and facing some serious charges for waving her mother's gun at her own school bus tormentors -- doesn't perfectly align, but does offer a different extreme to suicide that could result from routine aggression.

Shot with oft-shifting focus on what looks like a standard consumer camera, Bully succeeds at calling attention to a serious issue. Beyond that, I don't know what else it can do and neither does the movie. It follows through on Alex's predicament, sharing the school bus footage with the parents, who then bring it to the attention of a principal who seems sympathetic to a point, but unlikely to get results. And how can she monitor every student's every interaction? Sure, the bus should probably have a monitor (ideally, an adult who isn't documenting, but intervening). But again, it's not as if bullies have limited opportunity to inflict pain on their eccentric classmates. Bully isn't arrogant enough to point fingers or propose solutions, only to end on notes of hope. Like all who see it, I hope that its message of tolerance is heeded and instilled.

Bully Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: February 12, 2013
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available in standalone DVD ($24.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

While not everyone will appreciate Hirsch's focus-swapping visuals, Bully's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer is without issue, boasting nice clarity, detail, and, when in focus, sharpness. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio boasts strong sound quality, with recordings exceeding expectations. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided, with the former also extending to the bonus features.

An extended sequence featuring this gym class outcast is preserved among the discs' deleted scenes. After "Bully", Alex is apparently a cool kid in high school.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

With one exception, Weinstein and Anchor Bay attach the same extras to each format, presenting all unless otherwise noted in high definition on Blu-ray. That exception is the Blu-ray's "Special Version of Bully Edited for a Younger Audience", (47:11). This cut loses everything about the two suicides, which research shows may have had more to do with mental illness than bullying,
and about the girl whose gun stunt got her incarcerated. That leaves only Alex and Kelby and a much shorter, much different film with some footage not in the theatrical cut. Some might prefer this edit -- an interesting inclusion to be sure.

Next up, we get six deleted scenes (12:35). They include Alex showing off his songwriting skills, Kelby and friends singing along with Alphaville's "Forever Young" en route to the last day of school, another androgynous child opening up about their bullying experiences, and an extended gym class scene.

"The Bully Project At Work" (7:17) gets reactions from the students of a California middle school that saw the movie and then got involved with follow-up lessons, a pledge, and a visit from Alex.

The Des Moines Register's technically lacking "Alex After Bully" (4:27, SD) catches up with the star of the movie, who is now popular in high school, and his mother.

Academy Award winner Meryl Streep discusses "Bully" and bullying in a short clip from an appearance at The Paley Center for Media. "Communities in Motion" encourages empowering victims with statistics and animation.

Seemingly intended for the film but cut, "Alex's Character Sketch" (1:45) introduces him in his own words. "Alex Raps" (2:27) has Alex freestyle alongside Sean Kingston on stage at the 2011 No Bull Teen Video Awards. "Kelby's Original Sketch" (1:26) has Kelby say some words among footage of her and her friends.

In "Meryl Streep on Bullying" (2:07), the Academy Award-winning actress weighs in on the film and its subject's relevance to her at a Paley Center for Media presentation.

"Communities in Motion" (5:16) gives some advice for dealing with bullying with animation, stats, and student and administrator remarks.

"Sioux City After Bully" (6:32) checks in on the school district most focal in the film, basically letting administrators talk up its policies and progress as a thank-you for their cooperation and access.

Katie Couric interviews director Lee Hirsch and three of his subjects in this licensed "Good Morning America" clip. "We Are Daniel Cui" tells a nice story of social network embarrassment swiftly reversed.

An excerpt from "Good Morning America" (7:57, SD) lets Katie Couric interview director Lee Hirsch, Alex and his mother, and the father of the suicidal Tyler. It's a good inclusion, the kind rarely included on video.

In "Kevin Jennings, An Advocate's Perspective" (2:22), the former U.S. Secretary of Education drops some stats
and knowledge regarding bullying.

"We Are Daniel Cui" (3:17) tells the nice story of a high school soccer goalie whose teammates turned his Facebook embarrassment around into something empowering.

Finally, "Bully: The Book" plugs the official companion with a static screen.

Each disc opens with the trailer for Undefeated, Weinstein's 2011 Best Documentary Oscar winner that hits DVD and Blu-ray a week later. The menu-inaccessible preview is the only one found on either disc, meaning Bully's is sadly absent.

The menu places a faint filter and yellow bar of listings (with no-sign cursors) over full-screen clips. Sadly, the Blu-ray does not resume playback or support bookmarks.

The predominantly silver DVD and full-color Blu-ray share a standard Blu-ray case. An insert promotes the official book and website, while another folds open to give ideas for starting your own Bully Project online or at school.

A victim is reluctant to heed the principal's advice, shake hands and forgive his recurring bully. Kelby Johnson and Lil' Wayne (in t-shirt form) are among those in attendance at the film's closing Stand for the Silent event.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though it doesn't do anything extraordinary, Bully is an easy film to commend for the awareness it aims to bring to the issue of school bullying. That's as undivisive an issue as any, yet it is one that requires adjustment to go away. Anyone with a heart will share with the film's views and empathize with its bullied youths, but I can't help feel that isn't quite enough. While this documentary has as much impact as it can without being irresponsible or exploitative, I doubt any viewer will come away with more knowledge or understanding. Still, all schools should see this to be reminded of the ongoing dangers and potentially irreversible effects of bullying.

Barely priced over the standalone DVD, this combo pack satisfies with its strong feature presentation and high volume of worthwhile extras including that alternate cut.

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Reviewed February 6, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2012 The Weinstein Company and Where We Live Films, 2013 The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment and Anchor Bay Entertainment.
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