March 30, 2017

THE WILD BUNCH vs. Metallica

Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. (1969, 143 min).

Essay D.M. Anderson

I've been a loyal Metallica fan ever since they first came riding into my hometown, guns blazing, to blow my face off back way back in 1984. At the time, nobody suspected they'd someday become the biggest heavy metal band on the planet. Metallica didn't invent heavy metal, of course, but along with Black Sabbath, arguably did more to shape and influence its direction (and public perception) than any other band in the genre's history.

Always an album-oriented genre, heavy metal itself is no longer as viable as it was in its glory years (roughly the 80s through the mid-90s), retreating back to the underground once the world began embracing instant pop stars belting out downloadable dance tunes with 'rap sections' replacing heroic guitar solos.

But with the exception of the dreary Load years, Metallica have kicked-ass unabated for over three decades now, indifferent to would-be successors to their crown, oblivious to changing trends and unphased by tidal changes in the music industry. Metal bands have come and gone (mostly gone), but Metallica soldiers on, still relevant, still selling out stadiums worldwide. Of all the heavy metal albums released in 2016, Metallica's Hardwired...To Self-Destruct was the only one to top the Billboard charts.

While they're still the biggest band in the world, what was once fresh and cutting-edge is now what my daughters impatiently refer to as "Dad's Music" whenever I crank-up my Ride the Lightning CD in the car. For all intents and purposes, Metallica is the last of a dying breed. Whenever they inevitably decide to hang up their guns or simply drop dead on the road, once they're gone, it will effectively be the end of an era that's already been on life support for a long time: the reign of the authentic, uncompromising heavy metal rock star.

Tector Gorch, Dutch Engstrom, Lyle Gorch, Pike Bishop.
Metallica's final chapter hasn't yet been written, but I suspect it probably will be sooner rather than later. If life truly imitates art, however, maybe I have already seen that final chapter in The Wild Bunch, one of the all-time great epic westerns and the only Sam Peckinpah movie I ever thought was any good.

Like the members of Metallica, the film depicts a band of notorious-but-aging outlaws whose days are numbered. Not necessarily because of their age, but a changing world where living by the gun is fast becoming a thing of the past. Their leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden) knows the end of the trail is inevitable. He's older and wiser - a bit less reckless - yet still has the intestinal fortitude to mastermind one last big score before riding off into the sunset, the robbery of a railroad office.

Rhythm guitarist/lead singer James Hetfield can be seen as Metallica's Pike Bishop: the primary creative force and defacto leader of the band. Hardened by 30+ years of writing and playing some of the most physically demanding music there is, he remains a master of the vicious metal riff, though his lyrics are a far cry from the hair-whipping days of Master of Puppets, often more personal & introspective, with an acute awareness of the world around him and the wisdom that comes with age.

If Hetfield is Metallica's Bishop, then drummer/co-founder Lars Ulrich is the band's Dutch Engstorm (played in the film by Ernest Borgnine). The two have ridden together the longest, establishing a nearly unbreakable bond of trust and respect over the years that isn't quite shared with the other gang members. Despite the considerable contributions and talents of bassist Robert Trujillo & lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (who's been with Metallica almost from the beginning), they're essentially the band's Gorch Brothers. Played by Warren Oates & Ben Johnson in the film, the Gorch Brothers certainly carry their weight in the gang, but are content to leave the thinking to Bishop & Dutch.

The initial railroad office job turns out to be a trap, set-up by Bishop's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the head of a posse deputized by the railroad. After a bloody shoot-out in the streets, Bishop's gang manages to escape, leaving behind one of their own, 'Crazy' Lee (Bo Hopkins), with instructions to keep the office workers as hostage. But the truth is they abandon him to take the fall because Lee is a crazy, trigger-happy liability. This mirrors an early incident in Metallica's career, when original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was unceremoniously kicked out of the band because he was often violent & crazy as well (mostly when he drank). How they dumped Mustaine was nearly as cruel as what Bishop does to Lee: On the eve of recording their debut album in a New York studio, the other three band members woke Mustaine and dropped him off at the bus station with a one-way ticket back to L.A.

Though Lee died in a hail of gunfire, Mustaine survived and rebounded with a major chip on his shoulder, putting together his own posse in the form of Megadeth, consisting mostly of hired guns only slightly more reliable than Thornton's scuzzy batch of bounty hunters, with the single-minded intent of chasing down Metallica and beating them at their own game. Though he inauspiciously began his career as 'Crazy' Lee, Dave Mustaine definitely became Metallica's Deke Thornton.

Empty handed after the botched railroad office job, the Bishop gang flees to a Mexican village where their youngest member, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), was born. The village is ruled by Mapache, a corrupt general in the Mexican Army. Though Angel runs afoul of Mapache, Bishop strikes a deal with the general in exchange for a massive cache of gold: rob a train of several cases of U.S. weapons destined for Pancho Villa's revolutionaries. It's the gang's second chance for a big score that'll enable them to hang up their guns for good.

But after Angel is caught smuggling one case of rifles for his village to defend themselves, Mapache insists on keeping him and lets his thugs do their worst. Bishop, Dutch and the others ride away with their gold, apparently willing to sacrifice Angel. Meanwhile, Thornton's posse is drawing closer.

Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich.
I suppose one-time bassist Jason Newsted can be seen as Metallica's Angel. Newsted was hired by Metallica after the death of beloved bassist Cliff Burton. The band was already becoming a major success, and though Newsted was a nice fit and well liked by fans, Metallica - rather infamously - never treated him as an equal. Despite his unwavering dedication to the band for 15 years, Newsted remained an relative outsider, was seldom allowed any creative input and mostly treated like a hired hand (hell, you could hardly even hear his bass on the albums). When he finally quit, the rest of the band appeared almost carelessly dismissive of his relevance.

Unlike Bishop, Dutch and the Gorch Brothers, Angel was never part of the gang's core, and seemingly the most expendable. Still, to see them leave Angel behind as nonchalantly as Metallica moved on without Newsted is a distressing moment in the film. Like Newsted, Angel often came across as the most likable, down-to-Earth guy in the bunch (as cold-blooded killers go, anyway).

It's at this this point The Wild Bunch may most accurately foretell the end of Metallica's reign (and heavy metal in general). Not only does Bishop realize he's too old and set in his ways to be anything other than a bandit, he can't bring himself to leave Angel like this. The four agree to turn back, try to rescue Angel and kill as many Mapache soldiers as they can. While they'll all likely die, their only shot at anything resembling redemption means going out in a hail of gunfire. This final shoot-out - still one of the greatest ever filmed - marks the end of the most romanticized era in American history, the reign of the outlaw gunfighter.

Metallica was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Newsted, who'd been out of the band for eight years, was inducted along with them and welcomed onto the stage to play with them once again. Publicly anyway, it was the first time the rest of Metallica ever really acknowledged his importance to them. It may have taken awhile, but at least they finally made things right with their own Angel and paid him the respect he was due.

Mustaine, however, wasn't afforded the same opportunity. He's still plugging away in Megadeth, and though they achieved considerable success in their own right, Mustaine's bitter obsession with beating his former bandmates at their own game never came to pass. He's mellowed out a lot over the years and now acknowledges his respect for everything Metallica's accomplished, though you can still detect a considerable - and understandable - amount of envy. After all, Metallica's won a slew of Grammys, sold tens-of-millions of albums and still sell-out every show they play with no signs of abating. One has the impression that, even three decades after his ouster, Mustaine would rejoin the band in a heartbeat if asked.

Similarly, Deke Thornton never did catch up with the Bishop gang, despite occasionally coming close while chasing them across Mexico. Like Mustaine, Thornton may have fallen out with his old gang, but as the film plays on, it's obvious he still has tremendous respect for them. And though he's working on the right side of the law, given the opportunity, he'd hook back up with Bishop & Dutch without giving it a second thought, which is more-or-less confirmed in the film's poignant final scene.

However Metallica decides to go out - walking away quietly or in a blaze of glory - they're probably going to take the very idea of heavy metal superstardom with them. Nearly every true metal band - from the legends to the flavors-of-the-month - have either broken up, faded away, retired or become nostalgia acts, and none (not even the mighty Black Sabbath) ever achieved the same consistent level of popularity and longevity as Metallica has. They are essentially the last relevant bastion of what was once the most popular music genre in the world. When they're gone, that's it. Metal as a lucrative, viable genre will be dead. The true rock star will be a thing of the past, to be romanticized by pop culture historians the same way Zane Grey mythologized the old west.

March 27, 2017

Blu-Ray News: Upcoming April titles from KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS

Based on the classic novel by Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls). This gripping version of the legendary writer's World War I masterpiece stars Rock Hudson (Giant, Seconds) as an ambulance driver and Jennifer Jones (Portrait of Jennie, Duel in the Sun) as the nurse he falls in love with. Initially strangers, the two find they must suddenly grapple with difficult decisions about their life together until fate steps in and their future becomes uncertain. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Vittorio De Sica (The Earrings of Madame de...), Mercedes McCambridge (All the King's Men) and Oskar Homolka (Sabotage). A Farewell to Arms is one of the cinema's more poignant portraits of war and survival, beautifully directed by the great Charles Vidor (Gilda). Vittorio DeSica was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actor.

When was the last time you were afraid? Really afraid? Brace yourself for the ultimate transplant... the human soul! The devil is in the music in this sleek and scary piece of movie necromancy - when a failed musician-turned-journalist (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H) interviews a reclusive aging pianist (Curt Jurgens, The Enemy Below), he doesn't realize he's being interviewed himself... to be the vessel for the Satanist's dying soul! Back in a youthful body, the pianist plans for a long life in the spotlight, but when the journalist's wife (Jacqueline Bisset, Bullitt) realizes her husband's twice the man he used to be, she prepares to make his new life a living Hell! Television veteran Paul Wendkos (Cannon for Cordoba) directs this cult horror classic, based on a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart (The Norliss Tapes) with a screenplay by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle). The stellar cast includes Barbara Parkins (Valley of the Dolls), Bradford Dillman (Chosen Survivors), Pamelyn Ferdin (The Beguiled), and William Windom (TV's The Farmer's Daughter). 

17th-century Salem, Massachusetts - a group of teenage girls meets in the woods at midnight for a secret love-conjuring ceremony. But instead of love, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder, Heathers) wishes for the death of her former lover's (Daniel Day-Lewis, The Last of the Mohicans) wife (Joan Allen, The Ice Storm). When the ceremony is witnessed by one of the town's ministers, the girls are accused of witchcraft. Soon the entire village is consumed by hysteria, and innocent victims are put on trial, leading to a devastating climax! Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) directed this modern classic based on a play by the great Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) and featuring an amazing cast that includes Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Bruce Davison (Longtime Companion), and Peter Vaughan (Straw Dogs). Received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Allen) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Miller).

Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan & Isolde! From executive producer Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) comes a sweeping, action-packed saga of epic battles, political intrigue and forbidden passion, set in a time when the lines between heroism and savagery were etched in fire and carved out with broadswords. After the fall of Rome, visionary warlord Marke (Rufus Sewell, A Knight's Tale) seeks to unite the squabbling English tribes to form one strong nation and defeat the brutal Irish king Donnchadh (David O'Hara, Braveheart). But when Lord Marke's greatest and most loyal knight, Tristan (James Franco, 127 Hours), falls in love with Isolde (Sophia Myles, Art School Confidential), a beautiful Irish woman, it threatens to destroy the fragile truce and ignite a war. Tristan + Isolde is a rousing tale of trust and treachery that will leave you breathless! The all-star cast also includes Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Henry Cavill (Man of Steel).

The year is 1870, and former Union soldier Tom Jeffords (James Stewart, No Highway in the Sky) is recruited to remove a tribe of Apache warriors from a U.S. Mail delivery route by any means necessary. Jeffords chooses peace instead of more killings and decides to learn the Apache way of life. He agrees to a peace treaty with Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler, Ten Seconds to Hell) and marries a beautiful Native American woman (Debra Paget, Cry of the City). Tragedy strikes after the settlers break the peace treaty, but now it's Cochise trying to stop Jeffords from acting out in vengeance. Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma) directed this classic action-packed western that was nominated for three Academy Awards - Best Supporting Actor (Chandler), Best Color Cinematography by Ernest Palmer (Blood and Sand) and Best Screenplay by the blacklisted Albert Maltz (Two Mules for Sister Sara).

Blu-Ray News: DREDD and EX MACHINA Available on 4K Ultra HD June 6


Experience the Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects (2015),  Ex Machina, more vividly than ever before when it arrives on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray™ and Digital HD) June 6 from Lionsgate. Discover what it truly means to be human with dynamic performances by Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (2015, Best Supporting Actress, The Danish Girl), Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, the Ex Machina 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack will be available for the suggested retail price of $22.99.

  • “Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina” 5-Part Featurette
  • 8 Behind-the-Scenes Vignettes
  • SXSW Q&A with Cast and Crew
  • Audio Commentary with Director Alex Garland and more; Andrew Whitehurst, Geoff Barrow, Mark Digby and Michelle Day
  • Oscar Isaac Dance Scene (Easter Egg) 

Court is back in session and more vibrant than ever when Dredd arrives on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray™ and Digital HD) June 6 from Lionsgate. Gear up for the Certified Fresh action-adventure with four times the resolution of Full HD and High Dynamic Range for the brightest, most vivid and realistic color with the greatest contrast. Adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Sunshine, 28 Days Later) from the classic comic book series, the Dredd 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack will be available for the suggested retail price of $22.99.

  • "Mega-City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd" Featurette
  • "Day of Chaos: The Visual Effects of Dredd 3D" Featurette
  • "Dredd" Featurette
  • "Dredd's Gear" Featurette
  • "The 3rd Dimension" Featurette
  • "Welcome to Peachtrees" Featurette
  • Dredd Motion Comic Prequel” Featurette
  • Theatrical Trailer


Directed by Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp. (2014, 81 min).

The Creeping Garden is a documentary about slime molds, something my high school biology teacher used to collect in Petri dishes and share with the same enthusiasm we generally reserved for achieving the highest Donkey Kong score. I don't know if he's still around, but I'm sure he would have appreciated a movie like this.

Slime molds hardly seem like compelling movie fodder. Directors Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp must have thought so, too, which is perhaps why The Creeping Garden pays meticulous aesthetic homage to such quirky cult classics as Phase IV and The Hellstrom Chronicle. Indeed, listening to various experts discuss their research of slime molds (personifying these critters with the same enthusiasm as my biology teacher) would be an effective insomnia cure, if not for the rather stunning time-lapse photography, weird-ass synthesizer score (by former Sonic Youth member, Jim O'Roarke) and transitional title cards that would have looked right at home in a 70's sci-fi/horror film.

One of The Creeping Garden's intense action scenes.
Content-wise, we learn what slime molds eat, how they grow & move, where they proliferate and, believe it or not, their ability to create music given the right electronic stimulation (something I certainly can't do). Some of it is interesting, other times it's like being back in biology class. Ironically, the most interesting information has nothing to do with slime molds at all: a segment which chronicles the history and evolution of 'moving pictures' and the time-lapse process.

Strictly from an entertainment standpoint, one can't help but wonder how much more fun The Creeping Garden would have been if it went "full Hellstrom," employing a hysteric "expert" to dish-out ominous and dire commentary, presenting slime molds as an unseen menace that could one-day inherit the Earth. After all, the other pieces are in place. Why not go the distance? 

Still, the film is visually captivating enough to check out at least once. At the very least, it presents things living in your backyard in a way you've never seen before. I suppose that-alone qualifies The Creeping Garden as the Citizen Kane of fungus movies.

"Biocomputer Music" - Researchers develop a system which uses electronically-stimulated slime molds to 'compose' music;
"Return to the Fungarium" - More fungi at Kew Gardens;
"Feeding Habits of Physarum" - What some slime molds like and don't like to eat (you'll probably want to use the subtitle option for this one);
CINEMA ILOOBIA SHORT FILMS - "Milk"; "Rotten"; "Paramusical Ensemble" (the first two shorts use similar film techniques as The Creeping Garden; the third focuses on using technology that allows severely impared people to create music).
"ANGELA MELE'S ANIMATED SLIME MOULDS" - The animation used in the end credits, sans text.
CD OF THE FILM SCORE (only two tracks, but they're reeeaallly long).


March 26, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: BLAST-OFF

Starring Burl Ives, Troy Donahue, Terry-Thomas, Gert Frobe, Hermione Gingold, Lionel Jeffries, Daliah Lavi, Dennis Price, Stratford Johns, Graham Stark. Directed by Don Sharp. (1967, 119 min).

Try to keep up, kids...

Long ago, Jules Verne adaptations were all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. His name was often featured more prominently than the cast, sometimes even incorporated in the title, much like Stephen King in the 80s. Even tenuous ties to a renowned author was a viable marketing tool. Though originally titled Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon, this film is to Verne's writings what The Lawnmower Man was to King's story.

There was also a wave of British adventure-comedies in the 60s with such whimsical titles as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and it's sequel, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies). For it's US release, this film was more accurately retitled Those Fantastic Flying Fools, suggesting a spiritual sequel (and why not, since a few prominent British actors appear in both films?).

It was eventually trimmed by nearly a half-hour and rechristened yet-again as Blast-Off. It's been restored to its original length for this Blu-Ray release. Though the title card reads Those Fantastic Flying Fools, the Blu-Ray cover still identifies it as Blast-Off (one of the ugliest Blu-Ray covers I've ever seen, by the way). Hopefully, this clarifies things for those who might have been seeking out this obscure film.

Burl Ives keeps an ongoing list of alternate film titles.
As for the movie itself, Burl Ives leads a rather large international cast as P.T. Barnum, a smooth-talking - and broke - huckster who escapes to England with his partner/underling Tom Thumb. After hearing a lecture by explosives expert Siegfried von Bulow (Gert Frobe), who wants to reach the moon by shooting a capsule from a massive cannon, Barnum gets behind the endeavor and recruits others to try and make it happen. Meanwhile, Charles Dillworthy (Lionel Jeffries), whose original spaceship design is discarded in favor of one by Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue), plots with his brother-in-law (Terry-Thomas, once again playing...well, Terry-Thomas) to sabotage the launch.

Some of this is mildly amusing, especially von Bulow's explosives tests (he seems to simply enjoy blowing stuff up), though seldom uproarious. And, unlike the films it tries to emulate, Blast-Off is somewhat hampered by an obviously lower budget; the 'wacky' moments resemble something you'd see in a Benny Hill sketch. The film is also very leisurely paced for a comedy, though the cast appears to be having a good time.

Far from a classic, Blast-Off is harmless fluff that'll hold some nostalgic value to the few who recall enjoying it as children. Just don't expect your own brood to be quite as enthralled, as this film is undoubtedly a product of its time.


March 24, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: THE DELINQUENTS (1957)

Starring Tom Laughlin, Peter Miller, Dick Bakalyan, Rosemary Howard. Directed by Robert Altman. (1957, 72 min).

One might be tempted to write off The Delinquents as another silly teen-sploitation picture of the 50s, heavy-handedly depicting youth gone wild, complete with a tacked-on voiceover which purports the film to be a dire warning to parents everywhere. Shot on miniscule budgets with casts we'd never see again, a lot of these movies are certainly chuckleworthy today.

But The Delinquents does have some historical significance. Not the story, mind you; it's another tale of a young teen briefly falling in with the wrong crowd, which were popular drive-in fodder at the time. However, this was the feature debut of none-other than Robert Altman, who'd go on to epitomize the romantic image of the maverick, independent director. Though essentially a director-for-hire, those familiar with his work might still see a few of the touches he'd become known for, such as the impromptu nature of the wild party sequence.

Scotty is challenged to an apple sculpting contest.
Altman gets pretty decent performances from his cast, which also features a very young Tom Laughlin as Scotty, who'd later find his own brand of fame in the Billy Jack films. Ironically, his performance is actually the worst in the entire film. Peter Miller, on the other hand, is suitably menacing as Cholly, the leader of this gang of hellraisers who insinuates himself on Scotty.

The Delinquents is obviously a minor footnote in Altman's filmography. Still, every director had to start somewhere, and it's interesting to watch this film with the hindsight of what he'd eventually become. And, truth be told, the movie is actually pretty good 


March 22, 2017

Movie News: OVERLOOK FILM FESTIVAL Packages Available

Overlook is Coming

The festival line-up will be announced soon.  In the meantime, if you haven't secured your pass or lodging yet, there are still a few chances - but they are going fast. 

Festival Packages Still Available


Includes private 2-bedroom chalet at the Collins Lake Resort in Government Camp and All-Access Pass. Chalet features kitchen and living area with free shuttle service to Timberline Lodge provided. Perfect for individuals or large groups. Additional passes can be purchased separately.

Three Night Stay April 27-29 + 1 All-Access Pass ($1,300)
Three Night Stay April 27-29 + 2 All-Access Passes ($1,650)

(4 Nights + 6 All-Access Passes, $3,300)
Bring your friends! This hostel-like room sleeps 6 in bunk beds and comes out to only $50 per person per night for lodging! Must be booked for all 6! Package includes 6 All-Access passes to the festival. Nights are April 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th.

(Sunday Night Only, $300)

Limited Availability! Like Dick Halloran, rush to the lodge right at the end. Though the fest ends early evening Sunday, you can enjoy one night only at historic Timberline, whether you’ve been elsewhere for the rest of the fest, or just want to stop by for the end. Night of Sunday April 30th only. Passes not included.


Packages are not required to attend the festival. Purchase badges here.

March 19, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: SING

Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Garth Jennings, Jennifer Hudson. Directed by Garth Jennings. (2016, 108 min).

There's an early moment in Sing where a snail, perched atop a microphone, is auditioning for a spot in an upcoming singing competition by belting out the pop classic, "Ride Like the Wind." It's an ironically amusing scene in a movie which could have used a lot more of them. Most of the characters are represented by animals completely unrelated to their mannerisms (a pig as a housewife with 25 children?). They're simply human characters that just happen to look like animals.

That the film seldom finds anything creative to do with its anthropomorphic world is just one reason why Zootopia will still be talked about ten years from now, while Sing is destined for a yard sale once all the kids in the house have outgrown it. Another reason is the story itself...though "let's-put-on-a-show" has been a standard trope since the days of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, it's been given a timely spin reflective of our current culture: instant fame through a singing competition, complete with instantly recognizable rock & pop songs.

"Hey! I'm finally off the endangered species list."
Maybe I'm wrong about Sing's potential shelf life. After all, it's far from the worst film to empty parents' wallets. However, stored in my attic are a boxes of DVDs that briefly amused my daughters as kids...Ice Age, Over the Hedge and dozens of other titles with little substance beyond aesthetics. But even now, they still enjoy Monsters Inc. on occasion.

Like most of Illumination Entertainment's other recent films (Minions, The Secret Life of Pets), Sing is meant to exist in the here-and-now, where its primary audience lives; let the likes of Pixar worry about any kind of lasting legacy. As such, the film plays like the characters were designed & cast, the songs selected & arranged - before a single line of dialogue was written - with kids in mind.

Road hogs.
A cynical approach to a family film, perhaps, but that's probably okay. While in the moment, kids are likely to find Sing very entertaining. It's colorful, fast moving and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The characters aren't all that imaginatively conceived, but they're well animated and adequately voiced by a surprisingly large cast of A-list actors. The soundtrack is filled with the type of bouncy, danceable songs your kids keep on their iPhones (even the classic standards are given a modern pop makeover).

Sing will make its rounds at slumber parties and long drives to Grandma's house before the next disposable piece of pop culture begs your kids' attention (and at no time will they care that it would have made more sense for Rosita to be depicted as a rabbit). Then it will take its rightful place with the Madagascars, Flushed Aways and Monsters vs. Aliens of the world: decent enough family entertainment with a definite expiration date. 
FEATURETTES: "The Making of Sing"; "Finding the Rhythm: Editing Sing"; "Character Profiles"; "Sing and Dance"
3 SHORTS: "Gunter Babysits"; "Love at First Sight"; "Eddie's Life Coach" (A separate makng-of featurette is also included)
MUSIC VIDEOS: "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" featuring Tori Kelly; inlcudes making-of featurette); "Faith"; "Set it All Free"
"THE BEST OF GUNTER" - A collection of the character's lines from the film)
"THE SING NETWORK" - A collection of faux-commercials and character 'profiles'

March 18, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: PASSENGERS

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia. Directed by Morten Tyldum. (2016, 116 min).

Passengers is not the movie it was promoted as, which apparently pissed off more-than-a-few critics & moviegoers. Perhaps touting the film as space lovers in peril was a bit deceptive, especially with box office darlings Jennifer Lawrence & Chris Pratt in the lead roles, but the fact that its undertones are much darker raises it above the by-the-numbers multiplex fodder it could have been.

The Avalon is a massive starship on a 120 year voyage to colonize another planet. Its 5,000 passengers & crew have been placed in hibernation for the trip, but when the ship is damaged after passing through a meteor storm, Jim Preston (Pratt) is accidentally awakened 90 years early. With no way of returning to hibernation, he's alone with only a robot bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), for company. He manages to last a year before loneliness and despair (and thoughts of suicide) threaten to overwhelm him.

Then Jim sees Aurora (Lawrence) asleep in her pod and becomes fixated on her, learning every aspect of her life through the ship's files, which, in a way, is tantamount to cyberstalking. Being a mechanical engineer, he figures out how to wake her up, and even though he's well-aware doing so sentences her to life on-board the ship with no chance of making it to the new world alive, Jim can't bare to face the rest of his life all alone. Over time, the two fall in love, but Jim doesn't tell Aurora he took it onto himself to wake her, maintaining a ruse that it was another pod malfunction.

"Ruff! Ruff! I'm a bad doggy!"
This is where Passengers gets interesting. Jim knows what he has done is morally unforgivable, and the guilt of his facade does weigh on him, yet at the same time, how can he possibly endure alone without losing his mind? This disturbing undercurrent is present throughout the romantic montage of their first year together, and effectively forces the viewer to ponder whether or not they would have done the same thing if they were in Jim's shoes. Then Aurora learns his secret and understandably freaks out. She can't forgive what he's done and refuses to continue living around him.

Passengers does such a great job making the viewer unsure of how to feel about the creepy aspects of this relationship that it's almost a shame when the film focuses on the actual plot: This entire time, various functions of the Avalon have been breaking down, and it turns out the meteor shower did a lot more damage than popping open Jim's pod. The malfunctions become increasingly serious and life threatening. A crew member, Chief Mancusco (Lawrence Fishburne), prematurely awakens just long enough to inform them that the ship is doomed unless they can find out what's tearing it apart. While this third act is suspenseful and exciting, it's also pretty predictable, as is the Stockholm Syndrome aspect of the resolution.

"Do we really have to watch American Hustle again?"
Until then, Passengers offers a compelling situation, and somehow, Pratt's inherent congeniality renders his character sublimely sinister; the fact we like and identify with him almost makes us co-conspirators. Since her character isn't quite as interesting, Lawrence has a less challenging task, but she's nonetheless appealing as the hapless object of Jim's affections. The special effects and production design are also very impressive, the Avalon, in particular. It's one of the more imaginatively conceived space vessels I've seen in quite some time.

Passengers may not be the straightforward sci-fi love story some people signed on for, but it would be a shame to dismiss any movie that practically forces the viewer to think long and hard about what they'd do in the same situation. Is it possible to empathize with someone who has no right to decide someone else's fate? Discovering one's own answer to that question is what makes Passengers unique. It isn't often you can say that about a big-budget, high-concept film aimed at a mass audience.

"On the Set with Chris Pratt"; "Creating the Avalon" (ship and set design); "Space on Screen: The Visual Effects of Passengers"; Casting the Passengers"
"BOOK YOUR PASSAGE" - This is a multipart mock 'infomercial' for Homestead's colonization cruise.
"PASSENGERS: AWAKENING" - A promo for the VR video game
OUTTAKES (Blooper Reel)

March 14, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: FENCES

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Sahiyya Sidney. Directed byy Denzel Washington. (139 min, 2016).

Troy Maxson is quite a character. 

He's harsh and abrasive. Though he may mean well, he's verbally abusive to his sons, belittling their loftier goals in life, perhaps because his own life decisions made it impossible to achieve his. He boasts about himself at every given opportunity, yet remains angry at the cards life dealt him. He's proud of everything he's worked hard for, but still resentful of those he perceives have held him back. While we never doubt his love for Rose, Troy's dutiful wife of 18 years, he commits the ultimate betrayal by keeping a mistress who ends up pregnant with his child. He drinks too much, is closed-minded, always convinced he's in the right and insists on dominating every conversation and argument he's part of.

Whether by his own doing or simply his circumstances, Troy is often a pretty terrible person, but what makes him fascinating is he genuinely doesn't think he is. Of course, the best villains were always those who don't see themselves as truly villainous. I hesitate to label Troy a villain in the purest sense, since the character's views and attitude are the driving narrative force behind Fences. After all, we've all known someone like Troy Maxson.

Someone had garlic for lunch.
He's played with almost manic gusto by Denzel Washington (who also directed), and like his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day, it's one of those performances where we forget we're watching Denzel, the Movie Star. What we see instead is a domineering, embittered man who's unwilling - or unable - to tear down the fence he's built around himself - of course, the title is a metaphor, as is the one he takes years to build in his back yard. The further he progresses on its construction, the more alienated he becomes from everyone close to him.

Washington's performance alone makes Fences worth seeing, but Viola Davis as Rose is every bit his equal (and certainly deserving of her Best Actress Oscar). Assertive yet vulnerable, Rose is strong enough to advocate for her sons when Troy is tearing them down. As someone whose love and dedication to her husband is put to the ultimate test, Rose is a better wife than he probably deserves. We suspect she knows it, too, but would never betray the sanctity of marriage, even as her respect for him threatens to wane. Davis plays off Washington perfectly, perhaps because both honed these characters on Broadway first. In fact, much of the primary cast did, which is probably why they're all so convincing.

"Ha, ha...shrimp joke. Haven't heard any of those before."
From a narrative standpoint, Washington does right by August Wilson's play, though aside from a few brief-but-effective scenes in and around Pittsburgh's Hill District (the setting for most of Wilson's work), the film never quite escapes its stage origins. Much of it takes place in a few rooms of the Maxson home and in the backyard where the fence is being built.

But that's okay. A movie like Fences lives and dies by its characters. The film isn't the most uplifting experience on Earth, but everything about these characters, from their mannerisms & expressions right down to their dialect & voice, feel completely real. Even during the most seemingly trivial conversations, we learn as much about their lives, both past and present, as the words Wilson gave them.

"Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen" - How Fences was adapted while remaining faithful to the play;
"Building Fences: Denzel Washington" - Denzel's challenge working as oth actor and director;
"Playing the Part: Rose Maxson" - A featurette on Viola Davis
"The Company of Fences" - I did not realize much of the main cast also performed it on Broadway;
"August Wilson's Hill District" - Recreating Pittsburgh's Hill District as it looked in the 1950s

March 11, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: ELLE

Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Christian Berkel, Anne Consigny, Virginie Efira, Charles Berling, Alice Isaaz, Judith Magre. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. (2016, 131 min).

Regarding Elle: What the hell??

I had that reaction several times throughout this movie, which isn't necessarily intended as criticism. After all, it's directed by Paul Verhoeven, certainly no stranger to provocative material or ruffling feathers. It's been awhile since we've heard from him, and while it's nice to see he's lost none of his audacity, Elle is unlike anything he's done before.

In the opening scene, the main character, Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally raped in her home by a masked assailant. However, she does not report it to the police, initially choosing to go on with her life as if everything is normal. Normal is a relative term, though. Michele owns and strictly runs a company which - ironically - produces video games with ample amounts of violence and sexual assault. She has a lazy, milquetoast son with a domineering girlfriend (who's pregnant with someone else's child), and is repulsed by her own aging, promiscuous mother (who is about to marry her latest man-toy). Michele infrequently sleeps with her best friend's husband, yet has mixed feelings about her own ex-husband's much younger new girlfriend. Her father, in prison for a mass murder spree 40 years ago, is due for a parole hearing; despite pleas from her mother, Michelle refuses to visit him. All the while, she's increasingly attracted to Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), who lives across the street with his wife.

Future crazy cat lady.
Michele herself is emotionally aloof (to the point of appearing cold-hearted) and accustomed to being in control. In fact, when she finally does confide to those closest to her - during a dinner party - that she'd been raped, she is shockingly non-nonchalant, refusing to let the incident change her. Though they urge Michele to go to the police, we eventually learn why she doesn't: When she was ten years old, Michele's father involved her in the murder spree (though not the actual killings), and she remains tormented by the subsequent police investigation and media attention.

Then the movie gets weird (like I said...what the hell). Her assailant taunts her with threatening texts, and she initially suspects someone who works at her company (Michele isn't liked by her mostly male staff of designers, presumably because she's strong-willed and assertive). But after her rapist attacks again and she discovers who he is while fighting back, the decisions she makes afterwards might have the viewer thinking Michele has lost her mind (or was never right-minded to begin with).

How to liven up an office party.
In either case, Elle is both genre and expectation defying. Whether or not that's a positive is highly subjective. One thing it's definitely not is your traditional rape-revenge film. The scenes of sexual assault are unflinching and graphic, as is some of the violence, made more shocking by the main character's ultimate response, which will likely upset and anger some viewers. But even though we don't often understand, approve-of, agree-with or sometimes even like her, Michele is a strong, fascinating character, perfectly played by Huppert (this is easily the bravest performance of any of this year's Best Actress Oscar nominees).

One thing is certain...Elle is probably a film only someone like Paul Verhoeven could have pulled off this effectively; artfully made, yet incendiary and polarizing. You may not necessarily like what you see, but chances are you won't forget it anytime soon. That alone probably makes it worthy of attention.

FEATURETTES: "A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle"; "Celebrating an Icon: AFI's Tribute to Isabelle Huppert"