Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Okay, now that I’ve actually gotten back in the habit, I’m feeling pretty good about this new more aggressive DVD review schedule. Besides, it’s not like I’ve been seeing a lot of films in the theater recently. Once my kid’s born in June, I anticipate that I’ll almost exclusively be reviewing things on DVD for a while, because I’m sure I won’t be seeing much daylight.
Thanks to everyone who entered the RAY contest. Jeff Doyle should have his prize package in the mail and on the way immediately. I’ll be posting details of an I HEART HUCKABEES contest later this week, so keep your eyes peeled.
In the meantime, I wasn’t kidding when I said that the first few months of the year are overstuffed with interesting titles. I’ve been updating the release calendar I keep here at the Labs, and here’s the stuff that I’ll be checking out between now and my birthday at the end of May. It doesn’t include titles I’ve already been sent, and keep in mind... I’m not trying to say this is a comprehensive list of every film being released... just the stuff I’m interested in:
THE BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS
DEAN MARTIN & JERRY LEWIS: WHEN TV WAS FUNNY
*MALCOLM X: SE
THE MARTIN SCORSESE COLLECTION
*MIAMI VICE: SEASON ONE
*MURDER ONE: SEASON ONE
ANGEL: SEASON 5
DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT
THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO: SEASON ONE
*HALF-BAKED: FULLY BAKED EDITION
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – HERE COME THE ABC’s
THE YES MEN
ALL IN A NIGHT’S WORK
AROUND THE BEND
*THE CAT RETURNS
I HEART HUCKABEE’S
*NAUSICAA IN THE VALLEY OF WIND
*SOUTH PARK: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
BRINGING UP BABY: SE
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO Criterion Collection
PHILADELPHIA STORY: SE
*SCTV NETWORK 90: Volume 3
THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
*BAMBI: PLATINUM EDITION
RED DWARF: Series 5
RED DWARF: Series 6
SWORD OF DOOM Criterion Collection
*THE TOOLBOX MURDERS
*BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA
ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE
THE FINAL CUT
THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES
ROSENCRANTZ & GILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
STAND BY ME: DELUXE EDITION
STAR WARS - THE CLONE WARS: VOLUME ONE
AFTER THE SUNSET
ASTRO BOY: THE COMPLETE SERIES
CHARLIE CHAN & THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON LADY
CRIMSON RIVERS: ANGELS OF THE APOCALYPSE
ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
JULES ET JIM: The Criterion Collection
KAGEMUSHA: The Criterion Collection
LADY IN A CAGE
THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO: Season Two
HARVEY BIRDMAN: ATTORNEY AT LAW Volume One
SEED OF CHUCKY
SLEDGE HAMMER Season Two
SPACE GHOST COAST TO COAST Volume Three
*SCRUBS: The Complete First Season
NEWSRADIO Season 1 & 2
That’s just at first glance, too. I know there’s stuff that is going to end up on the shelf that’s not on that list yet. That’s 109 titles in the next three months or so. The studios certainly don’t seem to be slowing down their flood of titles any time soon in anticipation of the upcoming format wars. If you want to stay in the loop as news breaks about HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, you should bookmark this page and check it frequently.
Right now, it’s time to get to the reviews, and as always, I’ve got my entire DVD collection set up at DVD Aficionado, a great site that I’ve enjoyed working with. With very few exceptions, I’ve been able to find all my titles in their archives. You can check it out right here if you’re curious, and I’ve made sure to point out what was purchased, what was sent as a screener, and what was a gift, since so many of your e-mails seemed to think that was so urgently important.
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KING SOLOMON’S MINES and ICE STATION ZEBRA
CELLULAR and THE NOTEBOOK
OCTOBER SKY, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and RAY
THE FIFTH ELEMENT: ULTIMATE EDITION AND GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE
KING SOLOMON’S MINES
ICE STATION ZEBRA
The last twenty years of action filmmaking has certainly seen giant leaps forward in terms of technology, and you could argue that there’s a degree of slick now that was never possible before, but some things are impossible to improve on. Story, character, performance... these fundamentals have always been part of the best examples of the genre.
ICE STATION ZEBRA is one of those movies that I knew by title long before I ever saw the film. I knew it was one of Howard Hughes’s favorites to watch over and over during the crazy Vegas-penthouse-Kleenex-box-shoes years. I knew it was a staple of basic cable in the early days of TNT. And I knew it was a John Sturges film, a director I deeply admier. So why did I want this long to see it? I feel even sillier now that I finally have, since it speaks so directly to so many of my fetishes. It’s an espionage movie set on a submarine starring Patrick McGoohan shot in super-wide ‘60s scope. Absolute bliss...
I don’t think 150 minutes is long enough to really justify an intermission, an overture, and exit music, but hats off to Warner Bros. for faithfully reproducing all of it here. This is an unbelievably beautiful transfer, and one of the most striking things about the film is how well the miniature effects work holds up. It’s flawless, with the exception of one flying scene, and they use reality shots beautifully to sell the illusion. The end result is a film that plays just as well now as it must have in 1968 when it was released.
Rock Hudson stars as the commander of the TIGERFISH, a nuclear sub that is assigned to transport an intelligence officer, played by McGoohan, to the North Pole. Something’s happened at Ice Station Zebra, and McGoohan’s got to get there before the Russians do. The first half of the film is just about the tensions onboard the sub between Hudson and his crew and this spy whose motives are cloudy at best, and it’s great stuff. There’s a strong supporting cast, including Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown, but the real star of the film is John Sturges. When I interviewed John Carpenter about BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, we talked about his career-long love affair with widescreen photography, and he credited Sturges as one of his primary influences. Watch the scenes in this film once they reach Ice Station Zebra and they’re looking around trying to make sense of what’s happened. You’ll see a hell of a lot of THE THING in there. I’m also willing to bet that McTiernan watched this one a couple of times while gearing up to make HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. It’s really no wonder directors to draw influences from this film. It’s a great espionage thriller and one hell of a disc. The only extra is a vintage featurette about John Stevens, the guy who developed the camera systems that allowed Sturges to shoot so much of his real sub footage. It’s slight, but it’s interesting. The disc features English and French 5.1 mixes, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. It’s another in a long list of excellent recent catalog releases by Warner Bros.
Equally great is their release of the 1950 adventure classic KING SOLOMON’S MINES, an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s novel that introduced the character of Allan Quartermain. Of all the various attempts to film the story, this is easily the most successful, and was actually nominated for Best Picture when it was released. Most younger viewers only know Quartermain from Alan Moore’s recent LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (or the film version, where he was played by Sean Connery), but this is a story of the great explorer in his heyday, before encountering the character from the sequel SHE that gave him his supernatural connection to Africa. In this film, he’s just a great guide, a man who has spent his entire adult life learning everything he possibly can about this wild and dangerous continent, the man you want to hire if you find yourself there.
Stewart Granger is just right as the fearless hunter who is respected by everyone he deals with. Deborah Kerr co-stars as a proper upper-crust Englishwoman who approaches Quartermain with an offer: more money than he’s earned in his whole career as a guide if he’ll help her track down her missing husband. He vanished while trying to follow a map that is purported to show the location of King Solomon’s legendary diamond mines. Reluctant at first, Quartermain eventually agrees, and what unfolds is absolutely gorgeous, a Technicolor dream of Africa that looks brand-new. Granger and Kerr have tremendous chemistry together, and I’m sure that their relationship was one of the primary influences on Lucas and Spielberg while thinking about TEMPLE OF DOOM. Technically, the disc is as good as anyone could ask for, with a clean English mono track, a French track, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. You want to see a classic that lives up to the hype, this is it.
Y’know, I’m just as guilty of mainstream snobbery as anyone. Sometimes I’ll see a trailer for a film that is obviously aimed at a mainstream audience and some part of my brain will just slam shut instantly, leaving me with no desire to see the movie. It’s not that the filmmakers do their job poorly, even. It’s just that my tastes run to the off-center and the eccentric more often than not. Somebody out there keeps buying tickets to Shaun Levy films, so there’s a reason that the mainstream is what it is. What’s nice is when you finally end up seeing one of those films you dismissed out of hand and end up enjoying it as simple, uncomplicated entertainment, as is the case with both of these recent New Line releases.
I think I just plain like David R. Ellis. He made a totally lunatic debut with FINAL DESTINATION 2, and he’s got a deservedly great reputation as a second-unit action director. With CELLULAR, he proves that he can get good performances out of the right cast just as well as he can orchestrate tension and mayhem. Chris Evans, due to fall under the unforgiving microscope of fanboy scrutiny later this year when he plays Johnny Storm in FANTASTIC FOUR, makes an engaging lead here as Ryan, the poor dope who answers the wrong call on his cell phone one morning. Kim Basinger’s at her high-strung-shaky-as-a-Chihuahua best as the woman who makes that call, a lucky accidental connection on a phone that’s broken beyond repair. These two strangers, joined by a strange twist of fate and that tenuous electronic thread, end up sharing a long strange day as a mystery unravels around them. Larry Cohen’s got story credit on this one, and it’s his second time back to the phone well after PHONE BOOTH. This is a more successful thriller overall because (A) the lead character isn’t a scumbag and (B) the film is allowed to cover more ground instead of being pinned down to one spot. It’s not a particularly surprising conclusion once we finally get where we’re going, but Ellis brings a great sense of propulsive energy to it. Jason Statham and William H. Macy both play juicy supporting roles, and when it does all come together, it’s satisfying. One of the things I like most about the film is that it is completely without pretension. It’s just a good yarn told well. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Yes, I watched THE NOTEBOOK. I have a pregnant wife who is riding a daily emotional rollercoaster. Of COURSE, I watched THE NOTEBOOK. This may well be the most shameless tearjerker I’ve seen since the Hong Kong film FLY ME TO POLARIS, and I’ll give Nick Cassavetes credit for playing this material completely straight. He cast the film with strong actors, hired a great DP, and then went for it without hesitation. You can’t make a hyper-sentimental tearjerker like this if you’re going to half-ass it. You’ve got to mean it, 100%, and I get the feeling that the author of the book, Nicholas Sparks, does. They certainly threw a fistful of great screenwriters at the project, with Jeremy Leven (DON JUAN DEMARCO) and Jan Sardi (SHINE) both credited. It’s not the story that makes the thing so potent, since you can pretty much guess how it’ll end from the first fifteen minutes... it’s the structure.
Each piece of the puzzle is spoonfed to you at just the right moment for maximum impact, all the way up the film’s most powerful scene, in which the true nature (and author) of the notebook that James Garner has been reading to Gena Rowlands for the whole film is finally revealed. Garner and Rowlands give the story of the young lovers, intercut with them in the nursing home, some real weight, and it must have been particularly emotional for Cassavetes to direct his mother in this role. If you’ve seen that amazing Criterion Collection box set of John Cassavetes films, and the documentary A CONSTANT FORGE in particular, then you know that Nick Cassavetes grew up in a house where love, in all its violent, turbulent, upsetting, and uplifting glory, was the most important thing in the world. It was more vital than oxygen, and grand displays were the norm in life and in art. Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that Cassavetes would direct a film like this, and that he would approach it with complete sincerity.
Ryan Gosling made a great debut in THE BELIEVER in 2001, and since then, he’s been almost totally underutilized in film after film. Here, he gets a chance to play something besides a sleepy-eyed psycho, and the result might well change the course of his career. He strikes real sparks with Rachel McAdams, who also plays against type here. In MEAN GIRLS, she was a spectacular bitch, and it’s hard to overcome an impression that strong. For this film to work, she’s got to be worthy of the love of both Gosling and James Marsden (cast as a very credible other man), and she manages nicely. Sam Shepard and Joan Allen round out the supporting cast doing solid work, each of them getting a few moments to shine. In the end, though, the film belongs to Garner, who radiates pure charm and unflagging devotion for the entire running time. Again... this film doesn’t transcend its genre, I wouldn’t call it high art, and if you’re a cynical viewer, you won’t make it ten minutes in, but it does what it sets out to do with merciless precision, and if you’re looking for a three-hanky sobfest this Valentine’s Day, here’s a great bet.
Both releases are part of New Line’s Platinum Series, meaning they’re overloaded with extra features. THE NOTEBOOK has one commentary by Cassavetes and another by Nicholas Sparks. Rachel McAdams’s screen test is included along with 12 deleted scenes, each of which comes with optional commentary, a feature I always like because it’s nice to hear why something was cut. It’s a valuable lesson for aspiring filmmakers. There are also four behind-the-scenes featurettes, including one that’s about the Cassavetes family. There’s a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, a Dobly surround mix, English and Spanish subtitles, and both a widescreen and a fullscreen transfer on the disc. CELLULAR has a director’s commentary, deleted and alternate scenes, and three behind-the-scenes features. The tech specs are almost exactly the same, except there’s no fullscreen transfer. Both discs feature typically great New Line transfers, and serve to remind just how long they’ve been one of the best in the DVD market.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
These three recent discs, all based on true stories, manage to not only offer up excellent transfers of the films, but they also give glimpses of the people who inspired the stories to underline just how well the filmmakers managed to capture reality.
OCTOBER SKY is still the best film that Joe Johnston’s made as a director, a terrifically sincere family film based on the true story of Homer Hickam Jr., played here by Jake Gyllenhaal. Basically, Homer catches a glimpse of Sputnik one night, and he decides he wants to build and launch a rocket of his own. It’s a universal story for anyone who’s ever been called to a vocation and pursued it despite what seemed like insurmountable odds. Johnston creates a lovely sense of period detail, sketching Coalwood, West Virginia and the late ‘50s quite strikingly. Homer’s torn between the support of his teacher (Laura Dern) and the demands of his father (Chris Cooper), and he recruits several friends to help him accomplish his dreams.
Universal’s put together a nice documentary called “Aiming High: The Story Of The Rocket Boys,” which details the truth behind the movie and also fills in the story that took place afterwards. In addition, Homer Hickam contributes the commentary track for even more information. The disc looks and sounds great, and it was a pleasure to rediscover this heartfelt little sleeper. There are Dolby 5.1 mixes in English, French, and Spanish, and an English DTS 5.1 mix, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I wrote about FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS in my end of the year list, and I’ll say it again here: I dig this movie. Peter Berg may have had an edge in adapting H.G. Bissinger’s acclaimed non-fiction book, since Bissinger’s his cousin. The reason the book was such an impressive read was because of the level of detail. You are immersed in the world of small-town Texas football for an entire season, and it’s amazing how well Berg reproduced the experience with his film. There are deleted scenes on the disc and a piece about country singer Tim McGraw, who plays the father of one of the kids on the team, but the feature that really makes this disc worth checking out is the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, complete with current interviews with the key players who are portrayed by Lucas Black, Derek Luke, and Jay Hernandez in the movie. Seeing how their lives have played out is both fascinating and, at times, bitterly sad. It’s not the sports story that makes this movie so powerful... it’s all the human stories wrapped up in it, and the disc amplifies that point quite nicely. The English Dolby 5.1 mix is awesome, and there are also Spanish and French Dolby 2.0 mixes, as well as English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Finally, there’s RAY, the little biopic that could last year. I don’t think I ever got around to reviewing the film, and I saw it late in the year after it had been out for a while. I think I’d be embarrassed if I were Joel Siegel with that kiss-ass quote on the cover of the disc: “One of the best films I ever saw.” Really, Joel? Ever? I mean, sure, it’s a reasonably entertaining, vaguely shapeless portrait of an artist who everyone pretty much loves, but I’d hardly call it a shining example of film craft. It follows the same basic shape as most biopics, right down to the obligatory drug/marriage problems, the phone calls that bring tragedy, and the eventual ending on just the right up note.
The bottom line, the real reason for all the acclaim, is that Taylor Hackford got extremely lucky when he cast Jamie Foxx in the role of Ray Charles. Foxx has been giving strong, promising performances for a while now in films like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and ALI, but this is one of those perfect matches between performer and material that results in magic. No matter how mediocre the script is at times, and no matter how much Hackford stumbles with key pacing issues, it doesn’t really matter because Jamie Foxx is just that good.
The film ran 2 ½ hours in theaters, but the disc allows you to watch an extended cut with almost a full half-hour of additional scenes. Taylor Hackford contributes a director’s commentary, and even if it strikes me as a wee bit self-congratulatory, you’ve got to admit... this guy struggled to get this film made for half a decade, and he believed in the film even when no one else did. The second disc contains some great material, including the feature “Walking In His Shoes,” which details the way Foxx worked on nailing down his performance as Charles. If Academy members have this disc and end up watching it, then they may find themselves rushing to fill out their Oscar ballots immediately afterwards. The segment where Foxx and Charles actually play together is dazzling. There’s also another featurette made up of musicians and friends of Ray’s talking about him that is quite sweet. It’s hard to make a biopic into a great film, and I’m not convinced Hackford did, but he certainly made an affectionate tribute to one of the great R&B entertainers of all time. The English and French 5.1 Dolby mixes sound great, and the anamorphic transfer is clean and crisp. There are English, French, and Spanish subtitles included.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT: ULTIMATE EDITION
GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE
What do you do when you enjoy a movie but find yourself totally underwhelmed by a DVD? Here are two science-fiction films I really enjoy, both releases that I was looking forward to, but they strike me as massive letdowns for very different reasons, and I’m having a hard time recommending either.
Can we pass a law right now that says that Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment can’t release any more editions of Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT until they are willing to actually improve the transfer significantly? This is the third Region 1 DVD release of the film that I can think of just off-hand, and I was hoping that this time they had finally put out something great. I love this movie, and my feelings about it haven’t dimmed a bit since 1997, when it first came out. It’s silly and beautiful and sexy and oh so very damn French, and I love every ludicrous second of it. Milla Jovovich gives a truly original, intuitive performance as Leeloo, the Supreme Being, a weapon sent to Earth to stave off the approach of Mr. Shadow, a living planet made up of Pure Evil. Bruce Willis is hilarious in the film as Korben Dallas, a cabdriver/ex-soldier who ends up helping Leeloo and Father Cornelius (the hilarious Ian Holm), the priest who has spent his whole life awaiting her arrival. Gary Oldman, who should be forced to work only with Besson, contributes a magnificent looney portrayal of Zorg, a weapons dealer who is doing Mr. Shadow’s bidding on Earth. And then there’s Chris Tucker, whose Ruby Rod is still the strangest, funniest hybrid of Prince and Michael Jackson that I can imagine, a love-it-or-hate-it-but-you-ain’t-gonna-forget-it bit of work from the days before he became the $20 million recluse. The movie is overstuffed with exceptional visual flourishes and nutball bits of humor, and that’s what I love about it. How can anyone hate a movie where Tiny Lister plays the President of Earth? How can you possibly complain about a SF action film that has the balls to go its full running time without the hero (Korben) and the bad guy (Zorg) ever even laying eyes on one another? The costuming by Jean-Paul Gaultier is outrageous, and Leeloo’s white band-aid costume alone deserves some special spot in the SF Mastubatory Fantasy Hall Of Fame. The FX work by Digital Domain was groundbreaking at the time, and its influence is still being felt in big-budget fare now.
So why would I say you should probably skip this disc?
For one thing, the Superbit transfer here may have been impressive when it was initially released several years ago, but at this point, it’s fairly piss-poor. Six different subtitle tracks, a feature length text trivia fact track, a Dolby 5.1 track and a DTS track all take up a fair amount of encoding space, and despite the claim that it’s been remastered in high definition, it looks exactly like the old Superbit transfer. The blacks are filled with digital noise, and the color saturation is miserable. I’ve checked the disc on every TV and monitor in the house, as well as every disc player, and there’s no doubt about it: this transfer blows. The extras on disc two are entertaining, with separate features on the aliens, the digital effects, the costumes, the design work by Moebius, the actress who played the Diva, the casting, and more. It’s all good stuff and interesting...
... and yet, I still say the most important part of any DVD package has got to be the film. If you don’t take care of the basics, then all the extras in the world don’t matter. GoFish may have learned that lesson the hard way with their recent release of GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE. They issued the discs without any English subtitles, despite the fact that it says there are both French and English subtitles on the back cover. There are English closed-captions here, complete with descriptive sound effects for the hearing impaired, so it’s not like the disc is unwatchable, and the anamorphic transfer is pretty impressive, the picture quality so vivid that it’s almost hallucinatory in places. That subtitle gaffe really pissed off the anime fan community, though, which is exactly not what GoFish had in mind, I’m sure. I really respect the fact that Dreamworks created a specialty label to distribute films like this one and MILLENNIUM ACTRESS in the United States. They’re still new to this, and they don’t seem to realize yet that anime fans are... how do I put this delicately?... freaks. Not in the pejorative sense, mind you, but more in the sense that they are incredibly nitpicky and megapossessive of the things they love. They were already irritated by the undeniably ugly cover for the disc, so the technical glitch just set them off. GoFish tried to go the “wardrobe malfunction” route at first, claiming they didn’t screw anything up, which only made it worse. Give them credit, though, for finally stepping up to fix the issue.
Having said that, the film itself is a close-to-great convoluted mess, a grab-bag of philosophical text, SF brain benders, and gorgeous action set pieces. Mamoru Oshii is an amazing visual storyteller, even if he is capable of belaboring a point to death. When I was working on POSTHUMAN for Revolution Studios, I read a lot of the current theory about the eventual merging of man and machine, the way we are all gradually handing over more and more of our essential humanity to technology. Oshii knows his stuff, and more than anything, this story is an excuse to examine various facets of those ideas. It’s a demanding film, and if you’re not up for two solid hours of the Architect scene from MATRIX RELOADED, then this might not be the movie for you.