February 28, 2018


Starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, Betty Field, Telly Savalas, Edmond O'Brien, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe. Directed by John Frankenheimer (1962/149 min).

Of the five films Burt Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer did together, this one is probably the most lauded (though Seven Days in May is my personal favorite).

For me, Frankenheimer's best work was during the early-to-mid sixties, when few directors made better use of black & white than he did. As for Lancaster...sure, he could play romantic leads and heroic figures in his sleep, but he was more interesting as a villain or extremely flawed protagonist (and not always playing with a full deck). One could say Birdman of Alcatraz was their first perfect union.

"What I wouldn't give for some dippin' sauce."
I've often read Birdman of Alcatraz isn't an accurate portrayal of Robert Stroud, the infamous  inmate sentenced to life in solitary confinement who found his calling in life by raising birds and becoming the world's foremost expert. The real Stroud, while quite brilliant, remained violently dangerous his whole life.

Frankly, I don't care about the real Stroud, and I doubt anyone involved in the film's production did either.

"Who loves ya, birdy?"
Besides, Lancaster doesn't portray the man as a saint. Stroud deserves to be incarcerated and knows it, but his transformation from anti-social egocentric to empathetic caregiver (to both friends & fowl) is the heart that gives this story life. But Lancaster & Frankenheimer aren't all that the film has going for it. The evolution of the adversarial relationship between Stroud and beleaguered prison warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is just as engaging - and important - as Stroud's aviary achievements. So are the few friendships he develops over the years, such as fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas, still with hair) and prison guard Bull Ranson (Neville Brand), the latter of which turns surprisingly poignant.

And that's what we care about. Stroud's life as a bird keeper is merely the catalyst for this inspirational journey. Like the best biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz wisely picks and chooses facts in order to create a history that serves its own dramatic purposes. Featuring one of Lancaster's best, most-nuanced mid-career performances, the movie is a classic that belongs on every serious fan's shelf. It was released on Blu-Ray before in 2014 as a Twilight Time limited edition with a much steeper price tag. This new release (from Olive Films) is skimpier on bonus features, but the picture & sound quality remain terrific.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life

News: THOR: RAGNAROK - Valkyrie and Hela Bonus Clips and Artwork

Digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD and Movies Anywhere on Feb. 20 and 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on March 6

In anticipation of next week’s Blu-ray & 4K release of Thor: Ragnarok, here are some great behind-the-scenes videos featuring Valkyrie & Hela, which are among the disc's many bonus features.

February 27, 2018

News: PROUD MARY on Digital 3/27 and Blu-ray & DVD 4/10

Fans will see Academy Award nominee (Best Supporting Actress, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008) and three-time Emmy Award nominee (“Empire”) Taraji P. Henson as she’s never been seen before in the action-packed gritty crime thriller PROUD MARY. Henson explodes in the title role, playing a hit woman working for an organized crime family in Boston, whose life is completely turned around when she meets a young boy whose path she crosses during a professional hit. Billy Brown (“How to Get Away with Murder”), Jahi Di’Allo Winston (The Upside), Danny Glover (Shooter, Lethal Weapon) and Neal McDonough (“Legends of Tomorrow”) also star in the film that blasts onto digital March 27 and Blu-ray and DVD April 10 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The digital, Blu-ray and DVD releases of PROUD MARY include three behind-the-scene featurettes. “Mary’s World” unlocks some of the mystery behind all things “Mary,” with the cast and filmmakers weighing in on Taraji P. Henson’s kick-ass turn as the assassin nobody sees coming and shows some of the tools of her trade that let everyone know this is one woman you don’t want to accidentally cross. “The Beginning of The End” dives deep into the film’s final set piece with interviews on Mary's signature battle to sever her ties from her former life once and for all. Lastly, not only is Mary about the best there is in the world of hit people … she looks good doing it. “If Looks Could Kill” explores Mary’s signature look and killer style, from her Maserati to the clothes and wigs that become her metaphorical armor.

Rest in Peace, Lewis Gilbert

February 25, 2018


Starring a variety of proverbial ass-kickers. Various Directors. (1975-2005/950 min).

It never fails...whenever my wife and I grocery shop each weekend, there's a point when we look at the price of an item on our list and our jaws collectively drop. For example, there are some weeks when cows have apparently been put on the endangered species list and we're expected to pay seven bucks for a pound of lean ground beef. That's usually when we decide Taco Tuesday will be just as enjoyable with the fattier packages, getting twice as much meat for our money.

Sometimes you gotta go with quantity over quality.

Similarly, this 3 disc collection of action epics from Mill Creek doesn't include any stone cold classics, but there's a plethora of Sony-released pictures featuring some former heavy hitters. We get some Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Samuel L. Jackson, Rutger Hauer...we're even reminded that Jan-Michael Vincent once had a film career.

Jamie Foxx boasts how his recent Oscar win allowed him freedom to choose his roles. Josh Lucas can barely contain his amusement.
The set contains nine action films of varying quality. Spanning three decades (though most are from the 90's & early 2000's), none are career high points for any of these guys, but for second-tier action, there's a lot of bang for your buck. Vertical Limit and the Rutger Hauer cult favorite, Blind Fury, are probably the best of the bunch, though time has been kinder to Schwarzenegger's mega-flop, Last Action Hero, than critics were back in '93. It's still an overlong, bloated mess, but certainly better than anything Arnie's lent his name to lately.

"That's the way to Grandmother's house."
Universal Soldier: The Return and Silent Rage serve as amusing reminders that we once threw away good money to catch Van Damme & Norris in theaters. Into the Sun is one of Seagal's better straight-to-video efforts (though that's still faint praise). S.W.A.T. and Stealth are typical of modern day action in the post-Fast and the Furious era: sexy stars, ultra-cool characters, plenty 'o pyro and plots you'll forget within minutes. Finally, 1975's White Line Fever evokes fond memories in yours truly, who used to frequent his local tri-plex to catch a variety of b-movie bonanzas.

Too bad they couldn't have thrown-in something from Stallone (like Lock Up or Cliffhanger). That would have made this set a virtual who's-who of big-screen brawn. But as it is, the 9 Lives Movie Collection delivers a lot of bullets, bombs and broken bones for the money. It's a perfect bundle of beef for taco night.

DISC 1: S.W.A.T., Stealth, Vertical Limit
DISC 2: Last Action Hero, Universal Solder: The Return, Into the Sun
DISC 3: Blind Fury, Silent Rage, White Line Fever


February 24, 2018

Digital Review: COCO

Featuring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau. Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina. (2017/105 min).

Like all Pixar movies, my family and I went to see Coco in a theater during its opening weekend. They're pretty-much the only movies all four of us can agree are always worth catching on the big screen. Some are better than others, of course, but at the very least, we've never left the theater two hours later feeling ripped off (except maybe Cars 2). It took only a single scene in Coco to reaffirm why.

Early in the film, when 9-year-old Miguel crosses-over into the mythical Land of the Dead, the transition from his humble Mexican village to the massive, spectacularly-colored metropolis is nothing short of breathtaking. This endless, towering city - bustling with life, so to speak - makes Blade Runner's Los Angeles look like a deserted truck stop. The last time I was this awestruck by a single shot was when the dinosaurs first appear in Jurassic Park.

"You've got a hell of a lot to learn about rock...and...rolllll!"
We spend most of the film in this world, which is a continuous feast for the eyes, like one of those intricate paintings that you could stare for hours and still not catch all the details. Predictably, some of Coco's visual impact is somewhat diminished on a smaller screen. If you didn't catch it in theaters, sorry, you really missed out.

But even in your living room, Coco is Pixar's most visually imaginative movie since WALL-E and its most emotionally satisfying since Inside Out, with a sweet story, charming characters, terrific music and obvious reverence for the culture it depicts. And if your aren't just a little bit misty by the time the end credits roll, there just might be something wrong with you.

In an era when Pixar increasingly dips back into the well to churn out unnecessary sequels, Coco is one of their more refreshingly original movies in a long time. It's best experienced on the big screen, but remains colorful, funny and poignant all the same.

"Mi Familia" - Several Latin crew members discuss their own experiences making the film and how it relates to them personally;
"Dante" - Inspiration and creation of Miguel's canine sidekick;
"You Got the Part" - The heartwarming way Anthony Gonzalez learns he's been cast as the lead character;
"A Thousand Pictures a Day" - In the longest of the featurettes, this covers the crew's visit to Mexico for inspiration;
OTHER FEATURETTES: "The Music of Coco"; "How to Draw a Skeleton"; "Fashion Through the Ages"; "The Real Guitar"; "How to Make Papel Picado" (Mexican paper decorations);
SHORT: "Welcome to the Fiesta" - with optional commentary
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By directors Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina producer Darla Anderson
MUSIC VIDEO: "Remember Me" by Natalia Lafourcade & Miguel

February 22, 2018


MANIAC (1963)
Starring Kerwin Matthews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston, George Pastell. Directed by Michael Carreras. (1963/87 min).
Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Stephanie Powers, Peter Vaughn, Maurice Kaufmann, Yootha Joyce, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Silvio Marizzano. (1965/97 min).

When we think Hammer Films, we generally think vampires, mummies, castles, Christopher Lee and sultry vixens with plunging necklines. But the studio also cranked out a handful of straightforward thrillers during its heyday - well, straightforward for them, anyway - such as the two in this collection.

1963's Maniac begins rather horrifically, with an angry French innkeeper avenging the rape of his daughter, Annette, by blow-torching her attacker to death. He's then committed to an insane asylum for his actions. Four years later, his wife, Eve (Nadia Gray), and Annette are still running the inn when lonely American Jeff (Karwin Matthews) decides to stay for awhile to get-over a recent break-up. He has the hots for Annette but falls in love with Eve, who dupes him to springing her husband from the asylum. That turns out to be a bad idea, but not in a way we're first led to believe.

"Yes, my refrigerator is running. Why do you ask?"
Maniac plays more like a twisted take on The Postman Always Rings Twice than typical Hammer horror fare. As such, it works pretty well. After a slow start, the complications keep things interesting. The performances are strictly pedestrian, but Maniac makes the most of its low budget with some interesting locations and surprising plot twists.

Before the title became synonymous with The Misfits, Die! Die! My Darling! was best-remembered as Tallulah Bankhead's final film. A decidedly dubious career capper for a screen legend, but Bankhead goes all-in with an over-the-top performance as religious zealot Mrs. Trefole, who imprisons her late son's fiancée, Patricia (Stephanie Powers), forcing her own brand of penance with the help of an equally-loony housekeeping staff.

"I commissioned this one back when I was known as Thomas Bankhead."
The film isn't remotely scary or suspenseful, though its camp value is mighty high. Powers makes a bland, irritating protagonist, but Bankhead's scenery-chewing performance ranks right up there with Betty Davis' in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, making it an amusing entry in the "psycho-biddy" subgenre that was popular at the time. There's also the added bonus of a young Donald Sutherland as a dim-witted groundskeeper.

Obviously, neither film is bursting with originality, but both are mildly entertaining for different reasons. Maniac looks and feels more like the type of Hammer film we're familiar with, and is the better of the two. Die! Die! My Darling! is good for a few morbid chuckles.


News: THE COMMUTER on Digital HD 4/3 and 4K, Blu-ray & DVD 4/17

Mega-action hero and Oscar nominee Liam Neeson (Best Actor, Schindler’s List, 1993) proves that no one gets hurt on his watch in The Commuter, arriving on Digital April 3 and 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray and Digital), Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus DVD and Digital), DVD, and On Demand April 17 from Lionsgate. Time is ticking as Michael (Neeson) gets entangled in a deadly conspiracy on his daily commute that forces him to work against the clock to protect the lives of his fellow train passengers. The edge-of-your-seat action thriller also stars Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring, The Departed, TV’s “Bates Motel”), Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring, Insidious), Jonathan Banks (TV’s “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul”), with Elizabeth McGovern (TV’s Downton Abbey), and Sam Neill (Thor: Ragnarok, Daybreakers).

February 21, 2018

HIGH NOON (1952) and the Temporal Transition

Starring Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef, Morgan Farley. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. (1952/85 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

You couldn't make a film like High Noon today.

I came to the sad realization that one of the greatest westerns of all time is in danger of becoming meaningless and irrelevant to an entire generation, and not simply because it's an old movie.

In addition to being one of the greatest, High Noon is also one of the most important. Allegorically, the film was always more than just another Hollywood oater, despite its deceptively simple plot. Additionally, it is a technical and visual masterpiece that plays as well today as it did nearly seven decades ago. Even outside of the context of the film, the very term, 'high noon,' remains part of our vernacular.

As played by Gary Cooper (who deservedly won an Oscar), retiring Marshall Will Kane was a hero we really hadn't seen in a western before. While certainly brave, he's not fearless. Kane is often uncertain of his own decisions, self-conflicted and torn between doing the 'smart' thing and the 'right' thing, even if the right thing could get him killed. Kane's not necessarily adored by all the townsfolk, either, though he's been solely responsible for keeping them safe over the years. As a man he once put-away is returning to town on the noon train for revenge, most of them want Kane to leave. Some fear for his safety, while others, all of whom refuse to help him, obviously fear for their own. A few simply hate the man, such as his deputy (a very young Lloyd Bridges), who resents being passed-over as the next Marshall.

"Tell me, Marshall...does this look infected?"
High Noon has been remade and ripped-off so many times over the years that one of its primary purposes has been largely forgotten. Screenwriter Carl Foreman intended this as an allegory in protest of McCarthy-era blacklisting (of which he himself was subjected to). Foreman's working relationship with producer/partner Stanley Kramer acrimoniously ended during filming due to their political positions during the Red Scare.

High-mindedness aside, High Noon still works wonderfully as sheer entertainment. Shot in beautiful black & white, the film is loaded with stunning imagery; the iconic image of Kane, alone in the streets before all hell breaks loose, still raises goosebumps. One of the earliest films presented in 'real time,' there isn't a lot of action per se, but with each ominous shot of a ticking clock, director Fred Zimmerman - with considerable help from editors Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad - masterfully piles on the suspense...

...all of which will sadly be forgotten by the relentless march of progress, not to mention our inherent laziness.

When bingo night turns deadly.
High Noon makes effective use of clocks throughout the story...always present in the background, relentless reminders that something bad is about to go down. You couldn't make a film like this today, not because the movie itself or its story have become dated, but because people are rapidly forgetting how to tell time using an actual clock. And I have the unfortunate evidence.

In the real world, I've been a middle school English teacher for about 20 years. I distinctly remember, during my first year, a kid named Kylie, who needed to use the restroom. At my school, students are required to fill out a hall pass, writing down the date, destination and time that they are leaving the classroom. The pass is then signed by a staff member, which allows the student to leave the room for five minutes to use the bathroom, get a drink or visit their locker.

Even though I was standing directly beneath the classroom clock, meaning it was well-within her field of vision, Kylie asked what time it was. I was momentarily speechless, briefly thinking this was the laziest seventh grader of all time. Then I quipped, "Look at the clock. It's right there." Without a hint of embarrassment, she replied, "I can't read it. It ain't digital."

I used to religiously read MAD Magazine as a kid and recalled one of Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of..." comic strips, where the punchline was a child explaining to an adult that he only knew how to read digital time. It was meant to be a light-hearted observation of the disconnect between generations. Now here I was, face-to-face with the same type of kid MAD Magazine made fun of 25 years earlier.

Bruce Dickinson's clock.
By the way, Kylie didn't actually return to class for 15 minutes, which meant I had to write her a referral for skipping. She angrily protested that she was only gone for five, at which time I replied, "How would you know? You can't read a clock." Her response was that she simply knew what five minutes "felt like." She trusted her own internal temporal instincts over my ability to tell time, a skill I mastered in kindergarten. Kylie's mom took her daughter's side, of course, calling to berate me for writing-up her up, and "if my daughter says she was gone five minutes, then it was five minutes!"

I dunno...maybe Mom's belligerence was her way of overcompensating for neglecting to teach her dumbass daughter one of society's rudimentary requirements. The last time I checked, awareness of time was still among the most important of daily functions, right up there with remembering to drop your pants before taking a dump.

It begged the question: How does one make it 13 fucking years totally unaware of how a clock works?

I wish I could say Kylie's short-hand/long-hand limitations were an anomaly, but it's gotten worse since then. Today, I'd estimate that at least half of my students in each class do not know how to read a clock (I've seen studies suggesting that number could be as high as 80%). Most either rely on someone to tell them what time it is, or repeatedly check their phones, which they love to do in the middle of class with the hopes of sneaking-in a text or two. Just recently, one student came to class wearing an actual watch - a big, shiny gold one with hands, numerals and everything. I remarked how easy it must have been to tell the time with a watch that big. He replied he couldn't actually read it; he just bought it with Christmas money because big-bling hip-hop watches were cool.

"Uh...what the f**k?"
I'm not sure what's worse...that so many kids have never bothered to learn a skill nearly as basic as socks-before-shoes, that they feel it's perfectly acceptable not to know, or that an inability to grasp the concept of a traditional clock is becoming the norm. I've mentioned this in class on numerous occasions and the responses are always the same: Blank, uncomprehending stares or the standard retort, "It doesn't matter. I've got my phone," which is also the common justification for not knowing their own phone numbers.

One could argue that this is just a sign of the times. After all, cursive writing is no longer taught in schools. Cursive may be formal and fancy, but an archaic skill with no functional purpose in the real world. Traditional clocks, on the other hand, are not simply living room decor or rappers' wrist accessories. They remain part everyday life...in schools, offices, stores, malls and towering over us atop buildings. I can't imagine what it's like to see them everywhere and be completely clueless.

Similarly, what must it be like to watch a classic like High Noon and feel absolutely no suspense, no tension or rudimentary awareness of the ominous implications of the ticking clock, simply because you never bothered to learn how to read one? I suppose those who are blissfully ignorant of a minute-hand's function wouldn't bother with High Noon, anyway. It's black & white and doesn't star Dwayne Johnson. But if I ever showed this film to my students (which I should do, just to be an asshole), the very concept would be lost on half of them.

When today's temporally-challenged children begin to procreate, the ability to read a traditional clock will become increasingly rare, and I'm sure the day is coming when I'm standing before an entire classroom of kids completely ignorant of that mysterious ticking disc on the wall. In the grand scheme of things, the extinction of time-telling skills is probably a minor concern - unless a freak solar flare fries their phones - but it's kind-of sad that a classic like High Noon may no longer a timeless classic.

February 20, 2018

News: INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY on Digital 3/20 and Blu-ray & DVD 4/3

Dubbed “the franchise’s best film since the original” (Kalyn Corrigan, Bloody-Disgusting) with the biggest worldwide box office in the saga with over $163M, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY arrives on digital March 20 and Blu-ray and DVD April 3 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Acclaimed horror producers James Wan (The Conjuring, Annabelle) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity franchise) return for the fourth installment from Blumhouse of the Insidious-franchise, along with fan-favorites Lin Shaye in her iconic role as Elise Rainier, and Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson as the ghost-hunting duo Specs and Tucker.  In INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY , Elise must face her past to confront the most personal haunting of her career – in her childhood home. The film also stars Josh Stewart (Interstellar), Kirk Acevedo (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Caitlin Gerard (Magic Mike), Spencer Locke (Resident Evil franchise) and Academy Award® nominee Bruce Davison (Best Supporting Actor, Longtime Companion, 1989).

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY comes packed with never-before-seen special features, including an alternate ending, more than 20 minutes of chilling additional scenes, a franchise recap and three all-new featurettes. “Becoming Elise” delves into the mythology of Elise's origin story and how this “sequel to the prequel” fits into the Insidious-franchise. “Going into the Further” examines what the Further represents to the cast and crew and how the production design in the film differs from the previous films. “Unlocking Keyface” introduces fans to the newest iconic demon in the Insidious-franchise and explores the symbolism behind its creation.

News: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI on Movies Anywhere 3/13 and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3/27

The next action-packed chapter of the Star Wars saga – Star Wars: The Last Jedi – welcomes the return of original characters as well as in-depth looks of the saga’s newest members. This release will include a feature-length documentary from Director Rian Johnson that takes fans on an intimate journey into the creation of Lucasfilm’s Star WarsThe Last Jedi. The release will also include two exclusive scenes featuring Andy Serkis as Snoke prior to his digital makeover, scene breakdowns, deleted scenes, audio commentary and more.  

Families can bring the next chapter of Star Wars home digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD and via Movies Anywhere March 13 and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray disc March 27. This release will mark Disney’s first title available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc in both Dolby Vision™ HDR and Dolby Atmos® immersive audio, delivering consumers a transformative viewing experience.

February 19, 2018


Lew Harper isn't quite down on his luck, though it does seem like his chosen profession isn't a very rewarding way to make a living. As played by Paul Newman in two films made a decade apart, Harper is a private detective in the classic Hollywood tradition: a cynical, world-weary loner who's quick with a quip, doesn't always play well with others and never loses his cool when he gets in over his head.

Harper and The Drowning Pool, on Blu-Ray for the first time, don't bring much to the genre we haven't seen before, but both benefit greatly from Newman's star power and natural charisma. From a historical perspective, watching them back-to-back is an interesting experience, as the style and tone of each is distinctively reflective of the decades from which they sprang.


Starring Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Pamela Tiffin, Harold Gould, Strother Martin. Directed by Jack Smight. (1966/121 min).

Harper establishes its titular character right away: Waking up alone in a tiny ramshackle apartment, presumably hung-over as he throws on the same old suit and brews a cup o' joe with a newspaper filter and yesterday's coffee grounds. We've seen it all before, but watching Newman go through a private dick's morning routine is pretty amusing.

Plotwise, Harper is hired by bitchy socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to locate her missing millionaire husband, who disappeared after returning to L.A. from Vegas. The last person to see him is Sampson's pilot, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), who's also the boyfriend of Elaine's flirtatious - and equally bitchy - daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin). Since Sampson's sort-of crazy and an alcoholic, everyone assumes he's shacking up with another woman. But Harper soon suspects something more sinister has happened to him.

"I drive like I live, kid...without insurance."
Harper encounters a assortment of eccentric characters. Whether they're helping or hindering his investigation, he doesn't fully trust any of 'em...with good reason. In fact, the only one he confides in completely is his estranged soon-to-be-ex wife, Susan (Janet Leigh, in a fairly thankless role).

Harper may be little more than a film-noir footnote today with its standard-issue plot, but it was a big hit at the time. It's the ultimately characters that make the film enjoyable. The fun Newman has with the role is infectious and he's supported by a terrific cast (though changing times have rendered Arthur Hiller's character - hopelessly smitten by Miranda - sorta creepy).

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By screenwriter William Goldman

Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Tony Franciosa, Murrey Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith, Linda Haynes, Richard Jaeckel, Paul Koslo, Andrew Robinson. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. (1975/109 min).

Lew Harper returns nine years later in The Drowning Pool, a belated sequel where the law of diminishing returns definitely applies. It's not a bad film, but other than the presence of Paul Newman, it doesn't really even play like a sequel, with a look and tone more similar to neo-noir movies like Night Moves (released the same year).

This time, Law Harper travels to New Orleans at the behest of old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanna Woodward). Someone is blackmailing her, threatening to expose her infidelity to current husband Mavis. At first, Harper suspects it's the Devereaux's ex-chauffeur, but a deeper plot unfolds after the family matriarch is murdered. It turns out there's an escalating struggle for control of oil-rich land involving corrupt cops and a sadistic tycoon.

"Easy, Lew. I just wanna cuddle."
Harper's caught in the middle, of course, and Newman slips comfortably back into the character's shoes. But while he's enjoyable, the puzzle pieces in The Drowning Pool don't fit together as neatly - or convincingly - as in Harper. Stuart Rosenberg, who previously teamed with Newman for Cool Hand Luke, is certainly a capable director, but screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted the original) is sorely missed. None of the secondary characters are quite as interesting, and though it was probably a sign of the times, eschewing the comparatively light tone of the first film for a more serious approach was a mistake.

Still, The Drowning Pool is worth seeing at-least once, especially back-to-back with Harper.

While neither ranks among Newman's all-time classics, both are prime examples of what personality and star power can do to boost a film. His popularity remained the only constant during the decade in-between. But really, what else do you need? Too bad Newman didn't revisit the character one more time, perhaps another decade later. Just as he once returned as an older & wiser Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, the results might have been interesting. 

February 17, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DARKEST HOUR

Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane. Directed by Joe Wright. (2017/125 min).

This is not the role Gary Oldman was born to play. That would imply he's a natural choice to portray Winston Churchill. Oldman looks, sounds and moves nothing like the legendary British Prime Minister, which makes his performance all-the-more remarkable because he is completely convincing. Darkest Hour itself may not be Oscar-worthy, but Oldman sure as hell is. If he doesn't take home a Best Actor statue for this role, I doubt he ever will.

The film chronicles Churchill's first tumultuous month as Prime Minister of Great Britain, a time in history when Hitler is not his only adversary. Many of his peers in Parliament, led by 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), don't want him as a wartime PM either, especially with their allies falling to the Germans and most of the British forces surrounded at Dunkirk. Halifax believes England's smartest course of action is to negotiate for peace, which Churchill is vehemently opposed to.

Much of what transpires is speculated and the film's most inspirational moment never actually happened, but Darkest Hour has no pretenses of being a biography or history lesson. Here, the focus is on making Churchill an engaging character, more than simply recreating the caricature we're all familiar with. While incorporating some of Churchill's notable mannerisms is obviously necessary, Oldman's performance goes far beyond a remarkable imitation. With considerable help from prosthetics, he looks and speaks uncannily like Churchill, but doesn't disappear entirely. There are key moments when the actor we know shines through, mostly in his eyes, giving the character emotional depth to go along with his gruff charm.

"Peace-out, Biotches!"
He's surrounded by a great cast, especially Lily Brown as Elizabeth, his beleaguered new secretary, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, Churchill's wife. Long-since resigned to taking a backseat to her husband's career, she remains a loving, devoted spouse, yet strong-willed enough to temper his frequent tirades. Churchill's relationships with these two women are interesting - and quite touching at times - but this is unquestionably Oldman's show the whole way. He dominates every scene he's in (which is most of 'em) and his performance keeps the viewer engaged during occasional stretches when the narrative gets a bit poky.

"You handle the passengers, Mr. Brown. I'll take care of the motorman."
Additionally, Darkest Hour is technically impressive, and not just the hair and make-up. Considering it's primarily a character drama and actor's showcase, the cinematography is striking. Similarly, there are several unexpected - though not gratuitous - CGI-created aerial shots that emphasize the enormity of, not only the impending threat of enemy invasion, but the responsibility Churchill carries almost solely on his shoulders.

Prior to Oscar night, Darkest Hour would make a great, epic double-bill with Dunkirk. The latter is a better film overall, but this one features one of the best performances from an actor who's long overdue for a statue. Since the Academy has always favored portrayals of historical figures - and Winston Churchill is infinitely more beloved than Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald - maybe he'll finally get one.

FEATURETTES: "Into the Darkest Hour"; "Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill"
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Director Joe Wright

February 15, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DADDY'S HOME 2 (4K)

Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, John Cena, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Alessandra Ambrosio, Didi Costine, Chesley Sullenberger and the voice of Liam Neeson. Directed by Sean Anders. (2017/100 min).

All things being equal, I'd have preferred a sequel to The Other Guys.

Instead, Will Ferrell & Mark Wahlberg re-team to give us a follow-up to 2015's Daddy's Home, which first gave them the unique opportunity to pad their bank accounts without working too hard. All that was required of them was to play extensions of their own images.

Daddy's Home 2 doubles the recipe by adding John Lithgow and Mel Gibson to the mix, who also play extensions of their own images as the two leads' overbearing dads with personalities nearly identical to their sons. The entire family goes to a winter resort to celebrate a Christmas, where the usual hijinks ensue. From pratfalls to family squabbles - even the gratuitous tender moments - everything is painted in broad strokes, with caricatures performed by a cast that looks like they're having a lot of fun.

The gang watches The Passion of the Christ.
How much fun the viewer has largely depends on their enjoyment of the original. The addition of Lithgow & Gibson notwithstanding, Daddy's Home 2 is more of the same and predictable to a fault. In fact, one could repeatedly leave the room while this is playing - for extended periods of time - and still know exactly what's happening at any given moment, making this the ideal film if you need to use the bathroom but misplaced the remote.

Similarly, my assessment of this pandering sequel is more of the same. Daddy's Home 2 is mostly an ensemble of cheap laughs, dumb slapstick and gags that go on way too long. Sure, there are a few chuckles along the way, but not nearly enough to make it worth enduring to anyone who didn't absolutely love the first film. And considering the cast, it's ironic that John Cena has all best moments (he's genuinely amusing, here).

FEATURETTES: "Making a Sequel"; "Co-Dads: Will & Mark" "The New Dads in Town: Mel & John";