November 30, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: THE BFG

Starring Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader. Directed by Steven Spielberg. (2016, 117 min).

When The BFG more-or-less bombed in theaters this past summer, I noticed a slew of reactionary morons crawling out of the woodwork to ask, has Steven Spielberg finally lost it?

What a stupid question. The BFG's underwhelming box office performance had nothing to do with Spielberg. There are several obvious reasons why it failed. First, The BFG is based on a Roald Dahl novel that's less familiar to most audiences than some of his other works. Second, given the premise and frankly-terrible title, this film must have been a marketing nightmare. Third, the summer was glutted with so many would-be blockbusters that The BFG was even forced to compete with other family films from its own studio..

The biggest reason, though, is that audiences have changed. We're living in an age when superheroes and colorful, action-packed animation define family entertainment for the masses. It doubt even E.T. would make much of an impression if it were released today. What chance does a deliberately-paced, whimsically low-key, nearly conflict-free film like this have?

So is The BFG a great film? Not really, but it's a decent one that's brimming with confidence, creativity and visual wonders. In other words, Spielberg can direct stuff like this in his sleep and still end up with a pretty solid piece of family entertainment. Armed with a script by the late Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T., he treads similar ground with this tale of an English orphan girl, Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who gets taken away by the title character (Mark Rylance, in an amazing motion-capture performance) to Giant Country. There, they strike a friendship as he introduces her to his job, collecting & creating dreams in jars to place in people's minds while they sleep. A group of nastier, barbaric giants live there as well, who eat children and regularly bully the Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him). That's when Sophie suggests utilizing the BFG's dream-making skills to convince Queen Elizabeth II to mobilize England's army and rid Giant Country of the other monsters, thus saving more children from being eaten.

Sophie falls for the old 'pull my finger' gag...with tragic results.
The BFG doesn't actually spend a significant amount of time on the plot itself, or any real conflict at all, for that matter. The film's mostly content to follow Sophie and the BFG throughout Giant Country and the realm (?) where dreams flutter about like fireflies. As one would expect with Spielberg at the helm, The BFG is visually stunning. Giant Country looks cross between the Scottish Highlands and Middle Earth, while the cave the BFG calls home is both rustic and colorful. The title character himself - his facial expressions, in particular – is wonderfully rendered and perfectly voiced by Rylance. Every frame he shares with Sophie and the other human characters is mostly very convincing.

There is, however, an overall air of detachment in the proceedings. The relationship between Sophie and the BFG is charming, but not particularly dynamic, so we never become that emotionally invested in them. Even the few moments of mild conflict are quickly resolved and instantly forgotten, like the film is trying way too hard to consistently play nice. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but even E.T. had moments of suspense when we feared for characters' lives. That, coupled with its I'll-get-there-when-I-get-there pace, might have youngsters weened on Pixar fidgeting in their seats.

Still, this is undoubtedly a film only Spielberg could have made. So no, he hasn't “lost it.” If anything, considering how he's grown has a director over the decades and demonstrated uncanny talent in any genre, The BFG is more like Spielberg rediscovering his old toys in the attic and is inviting us to play along. Whether or not we feel we're above such childhood trifles isn't really his problem.

Bringing The BFG to Life” - making of doc, hosted by Ruby Barnhill;
Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Worlds of The BFG” - a look at the impressive set design;
Giants 101” - how the other 9 giants were designed and rendered.
The Big Friendly Giant and Me” - a charming motion-comic version of the book found by Sophie, written the the boy who lived with the BFG before her (sort-of bittersweet once you've seen the film);
Melissa Mathison: A Tribute” - production team members pat their respects to the late screenwriter (whose last film this was).

November 29, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: DON'T BREATHE

Starring Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Directed by Fede Alvarez. (2016, 88 min).

In a year that's seen some pretty decent high-profile horror films for a change, Don't Breathe is arguably the best of the bunch. Scary, smart, suspenseful and unpredictable, it's everything a good fright flick should be.

Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three brash young burglars who regularly break into houses and fence the valuables for cash. Since Alex's dad owns the company which has installed the security systems for these homes, getting in and out is easy. Their next target to too enticing to resist: an old, blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives in a run-down house in an abandoned neighborhood and apparently has hundreds of thousands in cash stashed there.

Breaking in is easy. Getting back out, however, turns into a fight for their lives because the blind man isn't nearly as helpless as they assumed. Not only is he heavily armed, his house is fortified to make it almost escape proof...for good reason; in addition to being slightly south of sanity, he's got some dark secrets locked away in his house. To elaborate would be giving away some of the film's greatest surprises, but even horror fans who think they've seen it all might be occasionally blindsided. Best of all, these sometimes unnerving plot twists are never gratuitous, making total sense within the context of the story.

"Eeew...old man smell."
Speaking of context, Don't Breathe's greatest asset may be its characters. The three robbers are pretty dumb, but not dumbly written. Rocky may be the so-called 'hero', but she is committing serious crimes for personal gain (though her motivation turns out to be understandable). Conversely, while the old man is a formidable and terrifying villain, we're provided enough exposition that we sort-of empathize with him, even though he's clearly a dangerous psychotic. The fact every character is morally ambiguous at-best is a nice touch that helps raise Don't Breathe above the usual horror fodder.

This is director Fede Alvarez' second solid horror film in a row, the first being his blood-soaked remake of Evil Dead. He demonstrates he's no one trick pony with this film by going the opposite route, placing atmosphere, narrative and tightly-wound suspense above gore and special effects. And it's too bad they don't ever recognize the horror genre at the Oscars, because Lang's menacing-yet-sympathetic performance is at-least worth a Supporting Actor nod (which is all the more impressive when you consider how little dialogue his character actually has).

With it's unique premise, memorable villain, claustrophobic atmosphere and clever twists, Don't Breathe manages to breathe some new life into what could have been just another tired retread of an old formula, making it a must-own for horror fans. Here's hoping Alverez quits while he's ahead, abandons his proposed idea for a sequel and moves on to something new, because attempting to turn a nifty little idea like this into a franchise is just begging for diminishing returns.

No Escape”
Creating the Creepy House”
Meet the Cast”
Man in the Dark”
The Sounds of Horror”
DELETED SCENES (with commentary)
AUDIO COMMENTARY – by Alvarez, co-writer Rodo Sayagues & Stephen Lang

November 28, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: PETE'S DRAGON (2016)

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford, Isiah Whitlock Jr and John Kassir as the Cryptkeeper Elliot. Directed by David Lowery. (2016, 103 min).

I think I know why Pete's Dragon undeservedly broke Disney's 2016 box office winning streak, and it's partially my fault. Maybe yours, too.

My wife sort-of wanted to see it in theaters, but I quashed that idea before she even finished her sentence. The original 1977 film was the biggest flaming pile of poo ever released under the Disney banner (and yes...I've seen Condorman). No way was I gonna endure a CG-laden remake of a movie I hated in the first place. Perhaps a lot of other folks felt the same way.

As a disc reviewer, it's my job to remain open-minded. Still, the thought of sitting through this title filled me with more dread than usual, so I put it off as long as I could. But, lo and behold, Pete's Dragon turned out to be a terrific surprise. Aside from the basic premise, this is almost a completely different film that outclasses the original in every way imaginable.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) survives a car crash that killed his parents. Stranded in the woods, he befriends Elliot, a friendly dragon who's sort-of an urban legend in a nearby logging town. Six years later, Pete is discovered by Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger who never believed the stories her father (Robert Redford) told her about a dragon living in the woods. After Pete and Elliot become separated, Pete befriends Grace's daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), while adjusting to civilization. Now alone and feeling abandoned, Elliot retreats back to the forest. Meanwhile, greedy hunter/lumberyard owner Gavin (Karl Urban) tries to hunt him down, hoping to get rich.

Elliot prepares to surprise Pete with the mother of all cannonballs.
Stripping away the schmaltz, sappy musical numbers, cornball comedy and roadshow spectacle of the original was the smartest move Disney could have made. By keeping this version a simple tale of friendship and family, with believable characters and plenty of heart-tugging moments, it nearly achieves the same level of charm as Disney's remake of The Jungle Book from earlier this year. Pete's Dragon isn't quite as ambitious, but for a film that's relatively low-key in comparison, it doesn't need to be. Still, it's technically proficient and looks wonderful. Elliot himself looks like a cross between Sully from Monsters Inc and my dog. He also behaves much like a loyal dog, which makes him a pretty endearing character.

I don't imagine there's much room set aside in Disney Stores for stuffed Elliots this holiday season, not with all the Marvel, Star Wars, Finding Dory, Zootopia and Moana toys taking up the shelf space. Pete's Dragon (as well as Spielberg's The BFG, but that's another sad tale) sort-of got lost in the shuffle during Disney's summer juggernaut. It'll also probably make the studio think twice before remaking any titles that aren't already bankable brand names. That's a shame, really, because not only is Pete's Dragon a satisfying and fun film, it's Disney's less-than-stellar originals that should be remade in the first place. More of us should have bitten the bullet and taken a chance on it in theaters, though perhaps it'll find the audience it deserves on home video.

"Notes to Self: A Director's Diary" - Director David Lowery narrates his own journal, covering several entries from the beginning of production through the end.
"Making Magic" - Visual Effects and what it was like shooting on-set without an actual dragon.
"Disappearing Moments" - Deleted, extended & alternate scenes.
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Lowery, co-writer Toby Halbrooks, Oakes Fegley & Oona Laurence.
BLOOPER REEL - Mostly the actors mugging for the camera.
MUSIC VIDEOS: "Nobody Knows" by The Lumineers; "Something Wild" by Lindsey Stirling.

Rest in Peace, Ron Glass

Ron Glass (1945-2016)

Rest in Peace, Fritz Weaver

Fritz Weaver (1926-2016)

November 26, 2016


Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon. Directed by David Mackenzie. (2016, 102 min).

Years from now, Hell or High Water might be remembered for being a film emblematic of its time. Not for its aesthetics, but the economic climate in which it takes place. Along with The Big Short, I can't really think of another film so effective at vilifying the corporate banks which have recently destroyed so many lives. It also happens to be damn good character-driven action film that could be viewed as a modern-day western.

So even though the lead characters are indeed robbing banks all over West Texas, they aren’t really the villains here. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is desperately trying to save his dead mother’s ranch from foreclosure - due to a reverse mortgage deal - so he has something to leave his estranged sons. Since he’s never robbed a bank, he enlists the help of his ex-con brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), who has a lot more experience, but is impulsive and reckless. Amusingly, they hit several branches of the very bank threatening to take the ranch (two before the opening credits even begin).

Two Texas Rangers are soon on the hunt. Jeff Bridges is Hamilton, a gruff curmudgeon about to retire against his will; Gil Birmingham is Alberto, his longtime partner who endures a variety of Hamilton’s racial insults, though they’re intended affectionately because these two are as close as the Howard brothers. Because of the small scale and frequency of these robberies, as well as the banks they’re targeting, Hamilton is quickly able to deduce where the suspects hit next. For Toby, time is definitely an issue - he needs all the money to pay off the loan by Friday, which is both helped and hindered by Tanner, who becomes an increasingly loose cannon.

"That's either a cow or the biggest damn gopher I ever saw."
Because the characters are so well-defined, Hell or High Water is much more than a shoot ‘em up chase film, though the action scenes are gritty, suspenseful and eventually bloody. We definitely have a personal stake in the outcome, and though we may not necessarily condone the Howards’ actions, we certainly understand them. Great performances help immensely. Foster and Bridges are good, though both have played similar characters before. Chris Pine, however, is the real surprise. He’s always been affable and likable, but this is the first time I’ve actually watched him become the character.

Hell or High Water comes to an inevitable conclusion that's poignant, satisfying and, above all, believable. It may not be another Bonnie & Clyde, though many favorable comparisons can be made. If the film were actually based on a true story, Toby & Tanner would probably be seen by moviegoers as modern day folk heroes. And unfortunately, there are probably countless, economically-devastated people who can completely relate to their plight. It would be nice if, someday, this movie were considered a period piece.

"Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water"
"Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water"
"Visualizing the Heart of America"
Red Carpet Premiere
Filmmaker Q&A

November 25, 2016


Just released with Moonlight Creek Publishing: the horror movie guide
When Animals Attack, edited by Vanessa Morgan

70 essays from Warren Fahy, Paul Kane, Matthew House, Aaron Christensen, Jonas Govaerts, and many others.

The definitive horror movie guide for fans of killers animals and “revenge of nature” films.

When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals provides a fascinating and entertaining insight into the cinematographic world of animals on the rampage. From well-known predators such as sharks and lions to unusual killing machines like turkeys, elephants, frogs, cats, and rabbits, there is no shortage of the species on display in this book.

Leading horror writers and filmmakers present their favorite “animals attack” films through in-depth essays. Some of the films are touching, some are repulsive, and some are just plain silly. Not all of these horror movies line up with the critical consensus, yet they have one thing in common: they have made the heart of the writer beat faster with excitement.

Available for Pre-Order at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FR

Rest in Peace, Forence Henderson

Florence Henderson (1934-2016)

November 24, 2016


Voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan, Albert Brooks, Tara Strong, Chris Renaud. Directed by Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney. (2016, 87 min).

The Secret Life of Pets is sort of a frustrating film. While it’s certainly decent family entertainment, the film mostly squanders the opportunity to make the most of its premise. Critics have favorably and unfavorably compared it to Toy Story, with a look at what our beloved housepets do when we aren’t around. If only it were more like Toy Story...

Things begin promisingly with Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier who spends most of his days waiting for his master to come home, while socializing with other animals in the apartment building, such as disinterested cat Chloe, dogs Buddy, Mel & Gidget (who has a crush on Max) and wayward guinea pig Norman (who spends most of his day wandering air vents in search of his own apartment). These scenes are highly amusing because the things these animals do and say don’t seem too far removed from what we’d imagine, their personalities a fanciful reflection of their real-life counterparts. However, these charming moments are fewer and farther between once the story begins to unfold.

The plot does indeed recycle the Toy Story formula when Max’s owner bring a new dog home, Duke (Eric Longstreet). Mac and Duke do not get along, but are forced to work together when they end up lost and far from home, running afoul of psychotic rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of a group of abandoned pets who live under the city. Meanwhile, Chloe leads the rest of the building’s pets in a quest to bring Max home.

"Now sniff butts and play nice."
Unfortunately, the film often eschews its title premise with hyperkinetic action, chases and scenes far removed from what any housepet is remotely capable of, like operate machines, drive cars, pick locks and fight like ninjas. Other than his appearance, nothing about the Snowball character suggests anything remotely indicative of a rabbit; it's simply an animated Kevin Hart, stunt casting at its most obvious.

None of these issues are likely to be a deal-breaker, though. The Secret Lives of Pets is not a bad movie by any stretch. It's frequently funny and its intended audience will certainly enjoy the film just the way it is. My own daughter enjoyed it immensely - and Snowball was her favorite character -  which probably means more than my own personal criticisms. But had it stayed true to its basic concept, the film could have been something really special, a Toy Story for pet lovers.

“Norman TV”; “Weenie”; “Mower Minions” (Of the three, “Norman TV is probably the most amusing and original).
“How to Make an Animated Film”;
“Anatomy of a Scene”;
“GoPro: The Secret Life of Pets”
“Animals Can Talk: Meet the Actors” (features three of the voice actors);
“The Humans That Brought You Pets” (individual interviews);
“All About the Pets” (featuring Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet and an animal trainer talking about various animals; it isn’t really related to the film);
“Hairstylist to the Dogs” (again, not really related to the film);
“The Best of Snowball” (if you can’t get enough of Kevin Hart...).
“Lovely Day” & the Grease number from the sausage fantasy sequence.

November 23, 2016

Blu-Ray News: Two More VESTRON HORROR Classics Arriving 1/31

There’s a new name for terror when the Vestron Video Collector’s Series brings the family back together in Parents, coming to limited-edition Blu-ray on January 31 from Lionsgate. In this black-comedy horror classic, a young boy in 1950s suburbia suspects his parents are cannibalistic murderers. The Parents Blu-ray includes all-new special features, including an audio commentary with director Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef and interviews with screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne and actress Mary Beth Hurt. This limited-edition Parents Blu-ray will be available for the suggested retail price of $34.97.

 A terrifying English legend returns when the Vestron Video Collector’s Series brings the British horror classic The Lair of the White Worm to limited-edition Blu-ray™ on January 31 from Lionsgate. In a remote corner of England’s Peak District, a mysterious skull is unearthed, then quickly stolen for use in worshiping a pagan god, the White Worm. Based on the novel by Bram Stoker, and starring Hugh Grant, the restored and remastered The Lair of the White Worm Blu-ray has all-new special features, including an audio commentary with Director Ken Russell and Lisi Russell and an interview with actress Sammi Davis. The Lair of the White Worm limited-edition Blu-ray will be available for the suggested retail price of $34.97.

Blu-Ray News: JERRY MAGUIRE Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary with An All-New Blu-Ray January 3

Few films have had more memorable lines of dialogue enter the public lexicon than writer/director Cameron Crowe’s JERRY MAGUIRE. “Show me the money,” “Help me help you,” “You complete me” and “You had me at hello” have all helped establish the film as a modern pop culture classic. On January 3, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the iconic fan favorite when JERRY MAGUIRE returns to Blu-ray in an all-new special anniversary edition.  

This new edition presents the film fully remastered in 4K and presented in 1080p HD, and with all new bonus materials, including the three-part retrospective “Jerry Maguire: We Meet Again,” featuring a new interview with Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe. Also included are nearly 60 minutes of never-before-seen deleted & extended scenes and a Photo Gallery featuring rare photos of the cast and crew.

The 20th anniversary Blu-ray will initially be available exclusively at Best Buy as a limited edition, which includes a booklet featuring an all-new written introduction from Cameron Crowe, Jerry Maguire’s original Mission Statement and the film’s original soundtrack CD.

Nominated for five 1996 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Cruise) and Best Original Screenplay (Cameron Crowe), JERRY MAGUIRE won for Best Supporting Actor (Cuba Gooding Jr.).

November 21, 2016

Blu-Ray News: Disney's PINOCCHIO Signature Collection on Digital HD Jan. 10 and Blu-ray Jan. 31

This weekend at D23’s Destination D: Amazing Adventures event at Walt Disney World Resort, Tyler Slater and Nicole Nalty announced the addition of Disney’s triumphant animated classic “Pinocchio” to the celebrated Walt Disney Signature Collection and gave members of D23: The Official Disney Fan Club the first look at the film’s all-new trailer. “Pinocchio,” which inspired the world to wish upon a star, arrives for the first time on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere on Jan. 10, and on Blu-ray™ and DVD on Jan. 31 with hours of new and classic bonus features.

“Pinocchio” is considered one of the greatest animated films ever made, with two Academy Awards® -- for best original score and best original song "When You Wish Upon a Star" – and a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, it will delight a whole new generation of dreamers with its masterful animation, unforgettable characters and award-winning music.

The Walt Disney Signature Collection release includes hours of classic bonus material and exclusive features including a reinvented rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” created and performed by music influencers from Disney’s Maker Studios; never-before-seen artwork from the film’s Pleasure Island sequence; archival recordings of Walt himself during “Pinocchio” production; and a recently restored and scored 1927 short featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

“Pinocchio” tells the tale of wood-carver Geppetto's beloved puppet who embarks on a thrilling quest – with faithful friend Jiminy Cricket – that tests his bravery, loyalty and honesty, all virtues he must learn to fulfill his heart’s desire: to become a real boy.

D23 is the official Disney fan club named in honor of the year 1923, when Walt left Kansas City, headed for Hollywood and founded what would become the Disney Studios. D23 celebrates Disney’s stories, characters, songs, and experiences that have captured imaginations the world over, offering members behind-the-scenes exclusives, member events, discounts and special offers.

Bonus Features:
Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island – The Pleasure Island scene in “Pinocchio” had much more development than what is seen in the film. Join Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney historian and author J.B. Kaufman as they explore artwork recently discovered in Disney’s animation research library revealing some of the attractions, gags and games, which Disney animators created for this iconic location of the film, that never made it on screen.
 In Walt’s Words – “Pinocchio” – Hear Walt himself discuss the making of “Pinocchio” through archival recordings and interviews.
The Pinocchio Project: “When You Wish Upon a Star” – Music influencers Alex G, Tanner Patrick and JR Aquino from Disney’s Maker Studios, a global leader in short-form videos, gather in a creative workspace to create their rendition of the film’s signature song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and produce a fresh new music video.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in “Poor Papa” – This recently restored and scored 1927 short features Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who gets multiple visits from the stork and is forced to attempt various methods to help stop the onslaught of baby deliveries.
 Classic Bonus Features – These offerings from prior home entertainment releases include hours of bonus material, such as the making of “Pinocchio,” deleted scenes, sing-alongs, storyboards and theatrical trailers.

Blu-Ray News: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH Collector's Edition Blu-ray Combo Pack Arrive on January 24

Relive the imaginative and compelling cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, when the Limited Collector’s Edition arrives on Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus Digital HD) January 24 from Lionsgate. International icon David Bowie stars in his unforgettable debut role as an alien who has ventured to Earth on a mission to save his planet from a catastrophic drought. In honor of David Bowie’s legacy, the limited collector’s edition Blu-ray Combo Pack includes never-before-seen interviews, brand new artwork, a 72-page bound book, press booklet, four art cards and a mini poster. Hailed as “the most intellectually provocative genre film of the 1970s” by Time Out, the remastered The Man Who Fell to Earth Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Combo Pack will be available for the suggested retail price of $34.99.

·       David Bowie Interview – French TV 1977
·       New Interview with Costume Designer May Routh Featuring Original Costume Sketches
·       New Interview with Stills Photographer David James Featuring Behind-the-Scenes Stills
·       New Interview with fan Sam Taylor-Johnson
·       New Interview with Producer Michael Deeley
·       New “The Lost Soundtracks” Featurette, Featuring Interviews with Paul Buckmaster and Author Chris Campion
·       Interview with Candy Clark
·       Interview with Writer Paul Mayersberg
·       Interview with Cinematographer Tony Richmond
·       Interview with Director Nicolas Roeg

November 19, 2016


OLIVE FILMS unearths two more relatively forgotten films on Blu-Ray. One is a fanciful biopic that’s more entertaining than historically accurate, while the other is noteworthy for launching the careers of a few future legends, both before and behind the camera.

HOUDINI (1953)
Starring Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Torin Thatcher, Angela Clarke. Directed by George Marshall. (1953, 106 min).

Tony Curtis plays the title character in this old-fashioned, episodic depiction of the great escape artist. However, the film plays fast and loose with the details of Harry Houdini’s life, choosing to focus more on the undeniable chemistry between Curtis and co-star/wife Janet Leigh. In fact, since neither were ever really considered method actors, one could argue these two are more-or-less playing themselves.

That’s not necessarily intended as criticism, either. Houdini may not be all that accurate, but as a love story, it has charm to spare and the numerous scenes featuring some of  Harry’s most famous escapes are well executed, even suspenseful at times. Most importantly, the film is a lot of fun and the charismatic stars are the chief reason why.


Starring Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, Emrys Jones, Joyce Redman, Pamela Brown, Peter Ustinov. Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. (1942, 103 min).

This 1942 British wartime propaganda film is arguably of more historical importance for who’s involved in its production than the final product. Co-director by Michael Powell was a big influence on such masters as Scorsese and Coppola. Cinematographer Ronald Neame would go on to become a respected director, while editor David Lean would, of course, become a legend. And hey...isn’t that a very young Peter Ustinov playing the priest?

However, despite an interesting premise (and a slam-bang opening), One of Our Aircraft is Missing is seldom very involving. This story of a flight crew stranded in the Netherlands after their plane goes down, then helped to escape German forces by Dutch villagers, seems like a can’t miss formula. Unfortunately, more than just a plane is missing; so is any real attention to characterization and pacing. After the initial plane crash, aside from a few sporadic moments of suspense, the film is often boring, with a dramatically unsatisfying resolution.


November 18, 2016


Starring Brian Knox, Shari McCollough, Brian Caraker (as themselves). Directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes. (2016, 83 min).

I remember first seeing the heavy metal documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, about a hapless metal band that never found any success despite 30 years of trying. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and seek it out because it’s essentially This is Spinal Tap, only real, which is part of what makes the film so fascinating (and often just as funny). In yet another case of life imitating art, Chicken People is to Christopher Guest’s Best in Show what Anvil is to Spinal Tap.

Almost identical in structure to Best in Show, Chicken People follows three competitive breeders as they discuss their life-long obsession with raising show-birds while preparing for the upcoming Ohio National Poultry Show, apparently the chicken world’s Super Bowl. Brian Caraker is a young lounge singer whose beleaguered parents appear do most of the work; Brian Knox builds racing engines for tractor-pulls while trying to breed the perfect chicken; Shari McCollough is a homemaker whose husband, five kids and dogs must share their home with a few thousand birds.

Chickens require firm discipline.
Chicken People does an admirable job allowing us to get to know these people (both inside and outside the breeding world). As casual viewers, we may feel they are a bit overzealous in their passion, but the film is never condescending or mean-spirited. We genuinely grow to like these folks, maybe even rooting for one over the others as the climactic competition draws closer. At the very least, these guys are living the dream, such as it is.

People Magazine's Sexiest Bird Alive.
And, of course, there are chickens. Lots and lots of fowl, from the common to the exotic. They’re all fun to watch because, in general, chickens are amusing animals. While this doesn’t seem like the subject of a compelling documentary, Chicken People is not only strangely fascinating, but good-natured, funny and charming. The film is unrated, so be ready for a bit of explicit chicken-on-chicken action.


Blu-Ray News: THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS – New Sing-A-Long Clip

The Secret Life of Pets is releasing on Digital HD next week, Tuesday, November 22. And as a lovely, end of the week treat we'd like to share a new special features clip that includes The Secret Life of Pets characters in a music video dancing to "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers. Starring an all-star voice cast featuring Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, and Albert Brooks, The Secret Life of Pets will also be available on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™ 3D, Blu-ray™, DVD, and On Demand December 6 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

November 16, 2016


Starring Rachel Welch, Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Christopher Lee. Directed by Burt Kennedy. (1971, 85 min).

Of course, no Rachel Welch vehicle will ever be considered a classic, much less taken all that seriously. Nor did any of them need to be. At the height of her popularity, you could have filmed her eating yogurt for 90 minutes and her damn-near intimidating beauty would keep us staring up at the screen in slack-jawed wonder.

Though few paid much attention at the time (other than how great Welch looked in nothing but a poncho), Hannie Caulder was sort-of a milestone. Sure, it was obviously tailored to prominently feature Welch’s considerable assets, but today it’s frequently cited as the first rape-revenge film, as well as one of the first westerns to feature a female gunfighter as the main character. This Blu-Ray, part of Olive Films’ Signature collection, includes several all-new bonus features which discuss its belated influence on those two genres.

Welch plays the title character, who is gang-raped and left-for-dead by the Clemons Brothers (Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, Jack Elam). Hannie solicits the help of bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp) to teach how to be a gunfighter so she can exact revenge. Price is reluctant at first, fearing for her life, but he soon relents, having a gun custom-made for her, showing her how to shoot and eventually buying her some trousers (good for the character, bad for males in the audience straining to get a glimpse beneath her poncho). Meanwhile, the film spends a surprising amount of time keeping us abreast of the Clemons Brothers, who bumble from one robbery to the next with soldiers on their tail.

"What are you smiling about? You just shot the neighbor's cat."
While Hannie Caulder is, at its heart, a fairly traditional western, it’s pretty violent at times (no doubt influenced by The Wild Bunch) and calculated to titillate (rape scene notwithstanding). Admittedly, Welch is sexy as hell - even when holding a gun - but lacks the intensity to make the film anything more than escapism. On the other hand, Culp is so good as Price that I often found myself wishing he had his own movie. One major bone of contention - which is discussed by a few film scholars in the bonus features - is the what-the-hell-were-they-thinking decision to present the Clemons Brothers as bumbling comic relief. Since they gang-rape the hero in the very first scene, it’s impossible to find any of their subsequent slapstick antics amusing.

Still, while no masterpiece, Hannie Caulder is certainly decent popcorn entertainment. The fact that the film was inadvertently groundbreaking has earned it a cult following over the years (including Quentin Tarantino), which makes it worth checking out for the curious. One other thing is certain...they just don’t build ’em like Rachel Welch anymore.

“Win or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the Making of Hannie Caulder”
“Exploitation or Redemption?” (Film scholar Ben Sher discusses the film’s place and influence on the rape-revenge genre).
“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (10 page essay by film critic Kim Morgan).
Audio Commentary by Director/Author Alex Cox


November 13, 2016


Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle. Directed by Martin Scorsese. (1976, 114 min).

At this point, what more can be said about Taxi Driver that hasn't been discussed, studied and appreciated by critics, film fans and pop culture historians? 40 years later, the film remains just as cinematically and thematically relevant as it did back in 1976. Its power to disturb and amaze viewers hasn't dissipated one iota.

It made a bonafide star out of Robert De Niro and established director Martin Scorsese as a creative force to be reckoned with. It featured one of Bernard Herrmann’s final (and best) film scores, guaranteed Jodie Foster would not fade into child-star obscurity and made “You talkin’ to me?” part of our vernacular. Not only is Taxi Driver the definitive study of loneliness, alienation and one's descent into madness, Travis Bickle is the arguably the most disturbing anti-hero of all time. And, of course, even with a budget of only a million-and-a-half bucks (a paltry sum even back then), the film is a technical marvel.

The future star of Dirty Grandpa.
Taxi Driver is no stranger to Blu-Ray and the 2011 release was already loaded with extensive and comprehensive extras, not-to-mention a terrific transfer. But this 40th Anniversary Edition, while including most of the same features, throws in a can’t miss, 40 minute Q&A session following Taxi Driver's screening during the most recent Tribeca Film Festival. Scorsese, writer, Paul Schrader and producer Michael Phillips join most of the primary cast in front of an appreciative live audience, all of whom offer interesting stories & entertaining anecdotes. This bonus feature alone makes the disc worth picking up.

At the Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro teases Taxi Driver II: Travis Takes Manhattan. Foster & Scorsese are as surprised as the audience.
All these years later, Taxi Driver remains a textbook lesson in filmmaking, not-to-mention another strong argument that the 1970s were Hollywood's true Golden Age. This is also the definitive Blu-Ray release. Aside from remaining an inarguably great film, even those who may not particularly like it (given its themes and subject matter, that’s certainly understandable) are provided ample reasons to at-least appreciate it.

Q&A from the 40th Anniversary TFF Screening (with Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, Paul Schrader, Michael Philips, Cybill Shepherd).
FEATURETTES: "Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver"; "Producing Taxi Driver"; "God's Lonely Man"; ""Travis' New York"; "Travis' New York Locations"; "Taxi Driver Stories".
Audio Commentary by Scorsese & Schrader (from 1986 Criterion release).
Audio Commentary by UoV Professor Robert Kolker.
Audio Commentary by Paul Schrader.
"Making Taxi Driver" (This nearly feature length documentary cover similar ground to some of the other bonuses, but is still the most comprehensive and entertaining).
Storyboard To Film Comparisons.
Theatrical Trailer
Digital Copy
(even if you own a previous version on video)

November 11, 2016

Rest in Peace, Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn (1932-2016)


Voices of Seth Rogan, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek. Directed by Conrad Vernon & Greg Tierman. (2016, 89 min).

Once you're aware of the cast and writers involved, I suppose the greatest praise one can give a movie like Sausage Party is it's exactly what you think it's going to be. That being said, the deviant in me likes to imagine the shocked, drop-jawed faces a few dumbass parents who ignorantly gathered their little ones for a family night at the movies and expecting another Toy Story. This had to have happened somewhere in the world, right?

The Toy Story comparison is appropriate, though, as Sausage Party shares a similar concept: the food products of a supermarket are actually alive and interact with each other when people aren't around. Only instead of a single delusional space toy, everyone is completely ignorant of their actual purpose, believing that once they're put into a shopping cart, they are taken to The Great Beyond, sort of a food Utopia. When a terrified jar of honey mustard is returned to the shelves with horrifying knowledge of what really happens, most of them refuse to believe him. However, Frank (Seth Rogan), a sausage, finds his faith shaken after some of his friends are whisked away (in an amusing homage to Saving Private Ryan). While Frank and his hot dog bun girlfriend, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), are looking for the truth, Barry, one of the other sausages taken away, struggles to make his way back to he store to save his friends before the store re-opens for the 4th of July holiday. Meanwhile, a psychotic douche rampages through the store, seeking revenge on Frank for blowing his opportunity to serve his purpose.

Some of you older movie-savvy viewers may also notice, in addition to Toy Story, Sausage Party has almost the exact same plot of that cult sci-fi relic, Logan's Run.

An intense scene from Pineapple Express This is the End Sausage Party.

As  with most movies with Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg's names attached, Sausage Party more-than-earns its R rating. The story takes a backseat to CG-animated characters who swear, get high, have orgies and engage in sex talk that would make Donald Trump blush. Much of the humor is juvenile and the novelty wears off pretty quickly (roughly a few minutes after the hilarious opening musical number). However, when it isn't pandering to middle school boys, are occasional moments when Sausage Party is actually pretty clever, particularly the thinly-veiled assaults on various stereotypes, religions and how some zealots twist sacred writings to fit their own agendas. Offensive? Absolutely, but that's probably the point.

Obviously, Sausage Party ain't the work of Pixar, but you knew that already. Still, the animation is decent for a relatively low budget film, certainly better than what you've seen in junk like The Nut Job. Your tolerance for this also depends largely on your appreciation for Rogan's brand of humor and his usual band of buddies employed to provide the voices. Personally, I always thought Rogan sounded like he'd be more at home in an announcer's booth calling a Raiders game than demonstrating diversity as an actor. Frank is simply pot-smoking Rogan as a pot-smoking sausage, but the rest of the cast does a decent job creating unique characters.

Again, unless you've just landed on Earth or are dumb enough to make your entertainment choices based solely upon spotting cheerful cartoon characters, none of this should come as a surprise. As such, Sausage Party delivers as promised, essentially an animated variation of Pineapple Express and This is the End.

FEATURETTES: “Shock and Awe: How Did This Get Made?”; “The Pitch”; “The Great Beyond”; “The Booth”; “Seth Rogan’s Animation Imaginatorium”; “Line-O-Rama” (alternate dialogue); “Good Food Gag Reel”.
Digital Copy

November 10, 2016


Movie posters are a dying art. Today, most are little more than quickly slapped-together Photoshopped montages. But back in the days before the internet, posters really had to sell movies, which meant hiring artists and photographers with enough creativity to (sometimes deviously) get butts planted in theater seats. In the tradition of P.T. Barnum, sometimes the best posters were used to entice moviegoers into seeing the worst movies...

Despite a few admittedly nasty moments, this 1976 schlocker is cheaply made tripe which earned a bit of belated attention on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The poster, however, is a horrific masterpiece that almost resembles a death metal album cover.


Jade was a Basic Instinct wannabe, written by the same guy, Joe Eszterhas, and directed by William Friedkin. Touted as an erotic thriller, it's certainly explicit, but while this poster does its job of promising a grand ol' dirty time, it's also the sexiest thing the film has to offer.


A 70's disaster film poster in the classic tradition...head shots of the all-star cast, epic hand-painted artwork and a tagline that sums up the entire movie in 17 words. The movie itself unbelievably cheap looking considering its rather large budget, which helped bankrupt American-International Pictures. Still, it beats watching Armageddon.

Evil slips through” indeed. Any movie that includes “Shit Weasels” as a major plot device guarantees some unintentional laughter. Seriously, Morgan Freeman's overgrown eyebrows (in serious need of weed whacking) are the scariest things in the whole picture. The poster, though, its beautifully ominous.

We may be in the extreme minority, but while most point their fingers at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull as being the worst in the franchise, Temple of Doom is truly the bottom feeder of the bunch. Stupid dialogue, brazenly obnoxious co-stars and surprisingly lazy direction by Steven Spielberg made this an endurance test, and the only film in the franchise that hasn't aged well. Love that painting, though.