June 20, 2024

AMERICAN FICTION and the Brilliant Balancing Act


AMERICAN FICTION (Blu-ray)
2023 / 117 min
Review by Pepper the Poopy😸

Before finally seeing it, I thought I knew what American Fiction was about…a brilliant African-American writer whose books are respected but don’t sell particularly well. Out of frustration, he cranks out a pandering “street” novel under a pseudonym. He intended it as a joke, but not only is Monk offered a huge advance, the book becomes a sensation, embraced by pretentious readers & critics (mostly white people) who declare the non-existent author an important new black voice.

Brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright, Monk is both shocked and dismayed that his pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh, is not only popular, but represents what society expects black authors to write about - oppression, poverty, crime, drugs, murder - in stereotypical dialect that contrasts his own literary sensibilities. When offered a movie deal, Monk is forced to adopt Stagg’s criminal persona. Worse yet, the book is selected for a potential literary prize, of which he’s one of the judges. 


Monk shows Coraline where the bodies are hidden.
But it turns out I was only half correct. The book’s success makes him financially able to care for his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), suffering from Alzheimer’s. This is the actual crux of the narrative. Returning home, Monk is also forced to deal with the sudden death of his sister, Lisa (Traci Ellis Ross), who’d been taking care of their mother until now. He also reunites with semi-estranged brother cliff (Sterling K. Brown), recently cleaned out by a divorce after coming out as gay. 

Monk also begins a relationship with a divorced lawyer, Coraline (Erika Alexander), but is unaccustomed to opening up to others. Much of the story is a character study of Monk, who has distanced himself from the family over the years and now feels overwhelmed. These somber narrative threads sharply contrast the satiric humor of his sudden book success. American Fiction balances both elements extremely well, resulting in a wonderfully written film that’s emotionally affecting and frequently hilarious. 


More importantly, it’s unpredictable, never pandering to audience expectations with familiar outcomes. This is especially true during the climax and denouement, which I didn’t see coming. I personally thought it ended brilliantly, while others might find it maddening. Punctuated by excellent performances from the entire cast, American Fiction is a unique film that deserved its five Oscar nominations (and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay).

June 19, 2024

Revisiting TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE in 4K


TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (4K UHD)
2004 / 97 & 98 min (Two Versions)
Review by Stinky the Destroyer😺

Considering the tumultuous times we currently live in, Team America: World Police has aged remarkably well. Not that it’s a timeless masterpiece or anything. At this point, one either already appreciates Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s brand of button-pushing brand of humor or they don’t. 20 years later, nobody is likely going to reassess the artistic merits of this one.

But certain aspects of Team America might be funnier or more relevant today than back in 2004, namely the parts which ruthlessly skewer American jingoism. Just listen to the lyrics of its most hilarious song, “America, Fuck Yeah” (heard several times), to be reminded of idiots in the real world who would probably consider it an anthem (hopefully, you don't know any of them personally). 


The song also sets the tone for the film’s best running gag…in their ongoing, single-minded mission to rid the world of terrorism, the team always ends up causing far more mass destruction than the terrorists. And most of the world appears to hate them for it, including a crusading batch of celebrities (the story’s antagonists, along with Kim Jong II) with the impression that their own political views can save the world. 


The Robert Pattinson action figure.
Of course, much of the humor has always been the novelty of watching Thunderbirds-inspired marionettes doing all the killing, swearing, vomiting, and fornicating. Some of those crudities are still amusing, though arguably the one ingredient that has aged the worst. Not because of changing attitudes, but this kind of stuff isn’t nearly as shocking as it was back in the day. Ironically, it was Parker & Stone themselves who made animated adult antics more mainstream (just turn on Adult Swim any given night). 

One thing about Team America that’s often overlooked are its technical aspects. The puppets are wonderfully expressive creations, moving with strings among incredibly detailed miniature sets. The whole thing really does resemble an elaborate Thunderbirds episode, enhanced by some really impressive special effects (namely the scenes of mass destruction). Aesthetically, the film is a marvel just to look at. 


Speaking of which, all those visual details look great in 4K, while the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is a good mix, effectively balancing the dialogue and sound effects. However, only the theatrical cut is in 4K. Those who prefer the unrated version - with its infamous uncut sex scene - will have to settle for the accompanying Blu-ray. There are also plenty of bonus features (outlined below), but none of them are new. This 20th Anniversary Edition is strictly for those wanting a technical upgrade.


EXTRA KIBBLES

R-RATED & UNRATED VERSIONS - Unrated version is on Blu-ray.

FEATURETTES - Team America: An Introduction; Building the World; Crafting the Puppets; Pulling the Strings; Capturing the Action; Miniature Pyrotechnics; Up Close with Kim Jong-II; Dressing Room Test; Puppet Test (most of these supplements are related to the technical aspects of the film).

DELETED/EXTENDED SCENES & OUTTAKES

ANIMATED STORYBOARDS


June 18, 2024

THE POOP SCOOP: Road Rage & Rats Edition

😺IF On Digital Now And 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray August 13th (with 40+ Minutes Of Bonus Content) from Paramount.
Experience writer/director John Krasinski’s “heartwarming” (Joey Paur, GeekTyrant) and “hilarious” (Tessa Smith, Mama’s Geeky) original adventure IF when it arrives to buy or rent on Digital June 18, 2024 from Paramount Home Entertainment.  The film will debut on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on August 13. The perfect movie to enjoy with the whole family, IF received an A CinemaScore and 88% Fresh Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film stars Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, Krasinski, and Fiona Shaw along with a cavalcade of top-tier voice talent, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr. and Steve Carell, who bring a delightful array of imaginary friends to life. Fans who purchase the film on Digital*, 4K Ultra HD, or Blu-ray will have access to over 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes bonus content to explore the whimsical world of imaginary friends.  See how each IF came to life, hear how filmmakers made the imaginary feel real, go on location in New York from Brooklyn Heights to Coney Island, and don't miss the hysterical gag reel!


🧛ABIGAIL Arrives on Digital June 25, and Blu-ray and DVD July 9 from Universal.
From Radio Silence comes the bloodthirsty, wild, and critically acclaimed vampire romp, ABIGAIL, available to own with all-new exclusive content on Digital June 25, 2024, and on Blu-ray and DVD July 9, 2024 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. Hailed as “a Bloody Blast” (The Detroit News) and Certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, ABIGAIL brings a refreshing approach to the vampire genre - unleashing never-before-seen bonus content, deleted & extended scenes, and more off-camera bloody carnage. ABIGAIL’s cast is led by the new IT scream queen Melissa Barrera (Scream VI, In The Heights) as well as the beloved Kathryn Newton (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Freaky, Lisa Frankenstein), The cast also includes Dan Stevens (Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, “Downton Abbey”), Giancarlo Esposito (“Breaking Bad”, The Usual Suspects, “Parish”), Alisha Weir (Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Don’t Leave Home), Kevin Durand (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Robin Hood), the late Angus Cloud (Your Lucky Day, “Euphoria”), and William Catlett (A Thousand and One, Lovecraft County).


😺FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA on Digital June 24, and $K, Blu-ray & DVD August 13 from Warner Bros Discovery.
George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, which reveals the captivating, never-before-told origin of Furiosa and her unrelenting drive to find her way back home, debuts for purchase and rental Digitally at home on June 25, the on 4K, Blu-ray & DVD August 13. As the world fell, young Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) is snatched from the Green Place of Many Mothers and falls into the hands of a great Biker Horde led by the Warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). Sweeping through the Wasteland, they come across the Citadel presided over by The Immortan Joe. While the two Tyrants war for dominance, Furiosa must survive many trials as she puts together the means to find her way home. Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is directed by Academy Award-winning director George Miller (Academy Award for Best Animated Feature – Happy Feet, The Mad Max franchise, The Witches of Eastwick).  Miller wrote the script with Mad Max: Fury Road co-writer Nico Lathouris. The film is produced by Doug Mitchell and George Miller.


🐀A Bit of Kittenhood Nostalgia with THE FOOD OF THE GODS, on Blu-ray August 20 from Kino Lorber.
Get ready for a taste of HELL! B-movie maestro Bert I. Gordon (Village of the Giants, Empire of the Ants)—the godfather of the "gigantic creature" genre—delivers the biggest Midnight Movie of all with this spine-tingling tale of ecology gone berserk. Based on H.G. Wells' classic tale of sci-fi terror, The Food of the Gods predicts a future where animals are suddenly at the top of the food chain…and eager to get their fill! On a remote island, a mysterious substance is oozing from the ground. A farmer sees that it acts as a growth hormone and thinks his fortune is made. But when rats, chickens, worms and wasps begin sampling the potent substance, they morph into bloodthirsty giants! Now, it's up to the island's few residents and visitors (including Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker, Jon Cypher and Ida Lupino) to destroy "the food of the gods"…before the animals take over for good!

June 16, 2024

CHINATOWN in 4K...With a TWO JAKES Chaser


CHINATOWN (4K UHD)
1974 / 131 min
Review by Mr. Paws😸

The Paramount Presents series has been getting better and better lately, especially their 4K releases. In addition to outstanding transfers and excellent packaging, the supplemental material is becoming increasingly tough to pass up for cinephiles. Chinatown (#45 in the series, for those counting) might be the best one yet.

Like Once Upon a Time in the West released earlier this year, this one includes interesting new bonus features along with a substantial list of supplemental material carried over from previous Blu-ray/DVD editions. But the cherry-on-top is a second disc featuring The Two Jakes, the belated and maligned sequel to Chinatown that’s been largely forgotten over time, now on Blu-ray for the first time. 


So from a historical perspective, it’s pretty close to indispensable. Not only is Chinatown one of the best films of the 1970s, it’s the greatest example of neo-noir ever made. Of course, one could easily argue it’s not actually neo-noir, but classic film noir that simply happened to be made decades after the genre’s heyday…and unbound by Hayes Code restrictions.



Either way, it remains a career highpoint for nearly everyone involved. Roman Polanski wouldn’t direct another film as narratively and visually engaging. Screenwriter Robert Towne would never again create characters or a story with this level of complexity. This was Jack Nicholson before his own persona began to creep into his characters, and one of Faye Dunaway’s last great roles…a quintessential femme fatale.

Chinatown truly captured lightning in a bottle, as dubiously demonstrated by its belated sequel. The Two Jakes isn’t a terrible movie by any stretch, but was a notoriously troubled production, which certainly contributed to the convoluted story, jarring tonal shifts and weak attempts to connect the narrative to that of the original film. Towne’s disjointed screenplay lacks the nuances that made Chinatown unique, including meaningless voiceover narration by Jake Gittes (Nicholson). Pulling double duty here, Nicholson’s direction is competent, but he’s certainly no Polanski. 


Still, it’s an interesting curio. Viewed in the context of circumstances surrounding its production - to say nothing of Chinatown’s looming legacy - The Two Jakes’ inclusion elevates it from a comparatively weak stand-alone film to the mother of all bonus features. As for the classic itself, Chinatown looks and sounds stunning in 4K UHD, one of the better transfers I’ve seen lately. That alone make this set worth the upgrading from previous editions, with the abundant extras as icing on the cake. So far, this is the best 4K release of the year.


EXTRA KIBBLES

THE TWO JAKES (1990) - On Blu-ray.

NEW FEATURETTES - In A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson on Chinatown is an appreciation by the author, who discusses aspects of the film from the viewpoint of a lifelong Los Angelino; The Trilogy that Never Was has Wasson discussing what was originally planned to be a trilogy (had The Two Jakes not flopped); In Chinatown Memories, assistant director Hawk Koch shares a few amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

FEATURETTES - In Chinatown: An Appreciation, some contemporary notables discuss their admiration; Chinatown: The Beginning and the End features interviews with Polanski, Nicholson, Towne and producer Robert Evans; Chinatown: Filming features discussions regarding the production; Chinatown: The Legacy has Polanski, Nicholson, Towne & Evans touting Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score, as well as discussing the film’s success when released.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Robert Towne and director David Fincher.

TRAILER

DIGITAL COPY

FOLD-OUT SLIPCOVER - Opens to reveal a replica of the original iconic one-sheet, which is infinitely more appealing than the godawful new cover.

June 14, 2024

THUNDERHEART: An Empathetic Thriller


THUNDERHEART (Blu-ray)
1992 / 119 min
FROM SONY
Available at www.MovieZyng.com
Review by Pepper the Poopy😺

Thunderheart is another one of those movies with a terrific cast, great performances, authentic dialogue, relevant themes and a plot just murky enough that we tend to forget it over time.

That’s not really intended as criticism either. I don’t recall ever talking with anyone who didn’t enjoy Thunderheart, but you generally have to bring up the subject first. “Oh, yeah,” a colleague recently replied when I mentioned I was reviewing the Blu-ray. “The one with Val Kilmer, right? That was pretty good.” He did, however, forget what it was about.


And Thunderheart is pretty good, as is Kilmer in the role of Ray Levoi, a young FBI agent assigned to help Agent “Cooch” Colutelle (Sam Shepard) in a murder investigation on a Native-American reservation in South Dakota. Somewhat dubiously, the bureau thinks the fact that Ray has a little Native ancestry will be good PR and perhaps loosen up some of the locals, though he knows nothing of their customs.


"Pull my finger."
There’s been an ongoing conflict between the tribal council and the radical Aboriginal Rights Movement (ARM), whose leader, Jimmy Looks Twice, is the prime suspect. Ray reluctantly finds an ally in tribal police chief Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene, who pretty much steals the movie). It’s an amusingly antagonistic relationship at first, but as Ray begins to understand and empathize with the locals, they depend on each other. He also suspects that Jimmy may not be the killer, especially after a local teacher is murdered.

That’s the quick & dirty summary, which I’ll probably forget again over time. But I believe the plot might be perfunctory by design, a clothesline on which to hang themes of racism, cultural awareness and Native American injustice. 


Ultimately, Thunderheart is a plea for empathy gift-wrapped as a mystery-thriller. As such, it’s remains pretty entertaining, with bursts of intense action interspersed throughout the story, as well as some humorous moments. But it’s the thematic elements, characters and performances that make the film memorable.


EXTRA KIBBLES

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By screenwriter/co-producer John Fusco

TRAILER


Litter Box Treasures: TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977)


TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotton, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Roscoe Lee Browne. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 

BY D.M. ANDERSON💀

Like a lot of movies I loved growing up, Twilight's Last Gleaming is one of those forgotten relics few people have ever heard of, let-alone actually seen. It’s a shame, really, because the film boasts a legendary cast and taut direction by Robert Aldrich, whose use of split-screen creates considerable tension & urgency. I’ll concede that it’s aesthetically dated, fairly grim in tone and maybe a tad too long. On the other hand, its pessimistic depiction of our government and those wielding power behind closed doors is as timely than ever.

Burt Lancaster plays disgraced (and slightly unhinged) Air Force officer Lawrence Dell, who, along with two thugs, escape from a military prison, infiltrate a missile silo and take control of its arsenal. Then Dell threatens to launch its missiles at the Soviet Union unless the powers-that-be in Washington make-public the real reason the U.S. continued to wage war in Vietnam long after it was declared unwinnable. Dell also wants a hostage - the President of the United States - to ensure his demands are met. 


The movie's premise is somewhat outrageous (I sure-as-hell hope taking over a missile complex isn't quite this easy), but it's a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, and that's part of what makes it fun. It's the kind of paranoid movie that could only have been made in the 70s, post-Watergate, when our faith in the government was at an all-time low. We start off thinking Dell is the film's villain, but by the end, it's the White House advisors surrounding the president we grow to despise (most of them would rather see their Commander-in-Chief die than reveal their secrets).


Pillow Talk II

What's kind of ironic about this one, considering our tendency to use presidents as de facto symbols of everything wrong or right about certain eras, is that this president (played by Charles Durning, who’s terrific) is probably the second-most sympathetic character. In the end, he actually begins to feel empathy for Dell and is painfully aware he can no longer trust those around him.

Even for a conspiracy thriller, this is dark stuff. By the final reel, the viewer is pretty certain things will not end well. This movie definitely has a sobering anti-government agenda that wasn't prevalent in the novel it’s loosely based on (Walter Wager’s Viper Three), which was totally lost on me as a kid, when I first watched it on HBO. It must have been lost on a lot of people, because Twilight's Last Gleaming came-and-went in theaters back in '77, when interests turned to fluffier fare like Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit. With Luke Skywalker saving the Rebellion from galactic empire and Burt Reynolds hauling ass in a Trans-Am with Sally Field, who the hell wanted to be reminded of the horror that was Vietnam, to say nothing of an awful theory why the war was so painfully dragged out?


Again, I was oblivious of any agenda back then. I simply loved the scenario in which the world could end. The threat of nuclear annihilation was one of the more realistic doomsday scenarios scaring the shit out of people in the 70s, so Twilight’s Last Gleaming was especially fascinating. But even four decades later, the film still carries a strong, relevant message: Do NOT always trust the people we’ve entrusted.