Blu-Ray Round-Up: 10/28/13

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro, 2013) – When Guillermo Del Toro announced plans to make a movie about giant damn robots beating the crap out of giant damn monsters the entire comic con community collectively shit a brick. For the first time in an unfair amount of time, a major filmmaker was going to make a summer blockbuster that wasn’t based on an established property and had the potential to kick all sorts of heinie. Then it was released and sadly “only” brought in a $100 million in North America. Fortunately, those who saw it loved it and the flick pulled down enough cash overseas (especially in Asia, unsurprisingly) to qualify as a hit. Pacific Rim might not have ruled the 2013 summer in the way many hoped, but it was still the best popcorn shifter to come along after Iron Man 3 and a monster mash that could very well have a sequel. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is every bit as fun as we could have hoped.

Plot wise, the flick is pretty bare bones. A portal to another dimension has opened under the ocean unleashing giant monsters known as kaiju (a nice little name check for Japanese monster movie fans). After losing many cities to battling those big ol’ monsters, humanity finally finds an ace in their hole. They launch create a collection of massive robots known as jaegers (bizarrely, no boozy merchandising tie in was launched). When the plot kicks off the battle has been going on for ages and the humans aren’t exactly winning. A former star jaeger pilot (Charlie Hunnam) is called out of retirement by the human resistance leader (Idris Elba, doing his thing) and reluctantly agrees to get back in his big ol’ robot with a new untested, yet beautiful pilot with a tragic past (Rinko Kikuchi). Also helping the cause are a pair of eccentric comic relief scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) and eventually a kaiju bootlegger played by the one and only Ron Perlman. So, it’s simple summer entertainment stuff. Del Toro is a filmmaker unafraid to shoot for higher, but also knows that you can only do so much with a movie about giant robots fighting monsters. That’s what the audiences wants to see and that’s what they get. Sure, the filmmaker does create a surprisingly non-America centric blockbuster through casting and setting and also fills the movie with his usual evocative and symbolic use of color, but these things are only there for those who care to look and don’t in anyway detract from the blazing fun of the flick.

There’s so much fun to be had with this one. Pacific Rim is structured around its battles, with the center piece being a 20 minute epic that starts in the ocean, segues through downtown Hong Kong and concludes in space. The battles are grandiose, visceral, stylish, and grin inducing at all times. This is the work of a filmmaker digging out his inner child playing with the biggest and best toys on the sandbox. You can practically hear Del Toro giggling with glee in the background and that joy is infection. The human drama is again simplistic, but not without interest. Del Toro and the actors never try to pretend the movie is something it’s not and embrace the silly drama and slices of cheese. The film’s only real flaw is that it at times takes itself a little too seriously, but thankfully that disappears whenever Charlie Day or Ron Pearlman share the screen to ham it up and pop any bubble of pretension that may be growing. Pacific Rim can’t exactly be labeled a masterpiece, but it does what it does extraordinarily well. Like when he took the Blade II assignment, Del Toro puts his stamp on the material while still designing a movie with the audience’s pleasure taking precedence over his own. In a perfect world, that’s how all blockbusters would be made. But for now, just this one will do.

Unsurprisingly, the film transfers over to Blu-Ray pretty perfectly. The transfer is astounding with all the Neon-lit design and carefully crafted CGI titans popping off the screen in such depth and clarity that you might even think your TV has upgraded itself to 3D without warning. It’s an absolutely gorgeous presentation of the film on every technical level and should immediately jump to the top of the list of your home theater showpiece discs. Del Toro is also a director who loves his special features, so that section of the disc is packed. First off is his audio commentary, which as per usual is cramed with information from the first word to the last, delivered in a thoughtful style with a liberal use of salty language and mockery to keep things spicy. Next up is a “director’s notebook” section featuring sketches, notes, and videos from Del Toro on the visual design of the film, revealing a surprisingly amount of thought and layers hidden in the corners of the movie. After that is a wonderful 20-minute documentary on ILM’s CGI work that skips the technical jargon in favor of a look at how battle scenes are developed and tweaked with impressive incite. Toss in some deleted scenes, bloopers, still galleries, and an hours worth of video commentary “focus points” and you’ve got a disc packed to the gills with everything you could possibly want to know about the making of Pacific Rim, plus a little extra for good measure. It’s the blockbuster Blu-Ray presentation that the film deserves and hopefully a disc that will only expand the film’s fanbase, because this was one summer tentpole that actually deserves a sequel.

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 Slap Shot

Slap Shot (George Ray Hill, 1977) –As a Canadian who doesn’t like hockey, I had a rough time growing up. Thankfully, as someone who adores 70s movies, I did at least have one thing in common with my hocking-loving Canuck brethren: Slap Shot. Released in 1977, George Ray Hill’s tale of minor league hockey filth is one of those movies that could only have been made during that specific decade. Sure, it’s not as artistically daring as even Hill’s other contributions to the greatest decade of American movies, but it is unapologetically rude, crude, and wrong in ways only those nutty 70s studio execs would ever greenlight. The film makes an ideal double bill with The Bad News Bears as a sports movie defined by failure, struggle, and salty language completely devoid of the genre’s typical romanticism. It’s also really damn funny, which is why we’re all here today.

The film follows the exploits of the Chiefs, a minor league hockey team in Charlestown. The town is about to see its factory close and fall apart. The team can’t win a game. On the plus side, they do have an ageless wonder veteran played by Paul Newman as the captain/coach. However, even he’s in a rough spot with an estranged wife, a team that is about to be sold, and a career hitting the skids. Everything goes from bad to worse until the team acquires a trio of bespectacled brothers known as the Hansons. At first, Newman won’t even play them because they seem like overgrown children out of their depth. But eventually he gives in and the boys hit the ice with a bloodlust no one could have expected. Suddenly the Chiefs start winning, not because they are much better than they were, but because they are so ruthlessly violent that they win through intimidation tactics that even earn the Hansons a night in jail, Thankfully, once all the pieces are in place for a glorious sports movie finale, Hill and screenwriter Nancy Dowd find enough ways to subvert their inevitable climax to make things interesting. It’s still a film more fun in the journey than the destination, but at least things don’t wrap up in an obvious way.

Nancy Dowd’s brother was a minor league hockey player and she actually followed around his team one season as the hometown and ownership were collapsing as research for her screenplay. So there’s a level of authenticity to Slap Shot that kicks it up a notch in the sports movie cannon. Most the film’s belly laughs come out of the foul mouthed locker room conversations and it never feels like shock for the sake of shock, but a genuine representation of what it’s like to travel around in close quarters with a group of jocks past their prime. Paul Newman is pretty fantastic in the lead role and classes up the joint whenever he’s on screen. The actor often said that it was the most fun he ever had on a movie set and that joy clearly bled into his charmingly burned out performance.

Then of course there are the Hanson brothers (played by David Hanson as well as Jeff and Steve Carlson who were 2 of the three brothers who the characters were based on). They aren’t really actors, but they are pretty spectacular big screen presences who define the hyper violent idiocy of old timey blood soaked hockey perfectly. They became icons thanks to the film and deserve it (not even their involvement in two horrendous direct-to-video sequels can change that fact) George Ray Hill marshals things well from the director’s chair, toning down the hyper-stylized aesthetic he developed on Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Sting, and Slaughterhouse Five just enough to suit the piece, while still cutting loose whenever a violent hockey set piece must be delivered. Hill is one of the most underrated directors of the 70s, often dismissed because he was primarily an entertainer in an artists’ era. But looking back on movies like Slap Shot now, it’s clear the man was a talented and subversive entertainer and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Slap Shot debuts on Blu-Ray with a clean print that is easily the finest home video presentation the film has ever received. Universal might not flaunt the film as one of their finest achievements, but it’s clearly one of their biggest sellers so they’ve archived it well. It is a very grimy and grainy 70s flick, so you can’t expect it to look like Pacific Rim. But within the limitations of the aesthetic the filmmakers were after, the disc looks damn good. All of the special features from the DVD were ported over, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because it’s all here, bad because it’s not very interesting. With Hill and Newman long gone by the time the film got a special edition DVD, the only folks willing to contribute to the disc were the Hanson brothers who provide a five minute interview and a feature commentary, neither of which is very good. Sure, they were there so they’ve got some memories of the shoot to share, but they were hardly a major part of the creative process, nor are they exactly intellectuals, so there’s not much there. Realistically, aside from interviewing other actors like Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Magnolia) or Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks), not much could really done to improve the supplemental section. Still, the disc is worth picking up for the new transfer and underrated flick alone. If you’ve dismissed Slap Shot as a typical sports movie, it’s time to revaluate. This is one of the great bad taste comedies of the 70s and George Ray Hill’s final great film. If that isn’t enough reason for you to clear some shelf space for a disc, then I don’t know what is.

Film Title: R.I.P.D.

R.I.P.D. (2013, Robert Schwentke) – Some movies aren’t even worth giving a negative review to because even trashing them draws too much attention. R.I.P.D. is one of those. Horribly misconceived and miscast from the first frame to the last, the flick’s only purpose should be as a handout for everything that’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. It’s not really a film. It’s a pitch. Picture if you will this meeting in a dank office somewhere in Hollywood:

Producer: Alright, I hope you feel like making money today.

Studio Executive: Ooooooo! Sounds like you’ve got something good. Just let me finish off this bottle of scotch and I’ll get right with you.

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Producer: It’s 9 am.

Studio Executive: It’s Tuesday.

Producer: Good point. Ok, here we go….Imagine if there was a secret government agency like the Men in Black that fought ghosts like Ghostbusters.

Studio Executive: Hmmmm…is there a comic book based on that idea that we can latch onto? I’m worried people might get too excited.

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Producer: Sure is!

Studio Executive: Can we find a way to discard everything of interest from that comic book and just reshoot scenes from Ghostbusters and Men in Black instead?

Producer: Sounds great!

Studio Executive: I agree…but I’m worried this idea isn’t bad enough. I mean, we want to make some money here, not entertain people.

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Producer: Well, we could always hire Ryan Reynolds. No one is better at ruining comic book movies.

Studio Executive: Perfect! Now, do you think there’s a beloved actor whose reputation we could tarnish with this hunk of crap as well? I’d hate to let that opportunity go to waste.

Producer: How about Jeff Bridges? People love that guy. We could even get him to play his character from True Grit again and ruin that movie for everyone.

 Studio Executive: Delightful! Sounds like we’ve got ourselves a hit here, doesn’t it?  Let’s call it R.I.P.D. to make sure that people are even put off by the title. Wanna spend the rest of the day hiring and firing screenwriters while doing blow?

Producer: I think we earned it. 

So, there’s your movie, only if possible it’s actually a little worse that it sounds. Ryan Reynolds sleepwalks through the whole thing as only he can (it’s a shame, when he was a kid that guy was kind of funny and even charming). Entire sequences and jokes are pulled from other movies with groan inducing results. Robert Schwentke finds a directorial style defined by confusing cinematography, dead end jokes, and horrendous CGI. Jeff Bridges just seems sad to be involved. The plot couldn’t make less sense if it was written as part of a Grade 2 journal assignment. The only bright spot is Mary-Louise Parker who is so charming and funny as the commander that the filmmakers made sure she’d only get a few scenes so that she can’t save it. The one amusing joke regarding the R.I.P.D.’s secret identities was spoiled by the trailers and then run into the ground in the first few minutes. The whole thing is a big dull disaster with a stench of filmmaking by committee and studio interference so strong that it was physically impossible for potential audiences to even enter the theater. Yep, it’s that bad. Don’t believe me? Just try to watch it and don’t blame me for your enraged frustration.

R.I.P.D. arrives on Blu-Ray in a package that barely conceals the disappointment everyone clearly felt about the project. Sure, it looks and sounds pretty. How could it not? It cost $150 million and was designed for a digital theatrical release, so a mild compression was all that was necessary to cram it onto a Blu-ray. As far as special features go, there are only a few cursory featurettes and a motion comic that would have been made to promote the film. Clearly no one wanted to revisit the mess for home video. The director couldn’t even be bothered to record a commentary. However, at least you can tell everyone was ashamed of the movie by the special features section even though it’s never said out loud. The good news is that the movie is already a massive failure and will now disappear into obscurity to be revisited only by bloggers and podcasters who specialize in trashing terrible movies. For now, let’s just all agree to pretend this thing doesn’t exist. It’s really for the best, you guys.

 High Plains Drifter

High Planes Drifter (1973, Clint Eastwood) – Clint Eastwood will be always remembered for his role in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy that forever altered the Western and audience’s tolerance for bad dubbing. However, the man, myth, and legend that is Clint also went ahead and directed his own pretty amazing trilogy of Westerns that are often overlooked. Well, actually that’s a lie. The concluding chapter Unforgiven is a widely acknowledged Oscar-winning masterpiece. However, Eastwood found that script in the 70s after he’d already made two similar films and sat on it till he was old enough to play the role and complete his subversive de-romanticizing Western trilogy.  Unforgiven was the final, thoughtful conclusion that put a nail in the coffin for the concept of heroic cowboy violence. 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales was the first step in that direction, starting with Clint as a near-psychotic killer and finding a way of humanizing him. However, it all began with High Planes Drifter a twisted and almost hallucinatory dark Western in which Eastwood tried to out Spaghetti Western the Spaghetti Westerns. He didn’t quite manage that, but he did end up with a fascinatingly bleak feature that has been unjustly forgotten and kicked off his unofficial trilogy with style. Thankfully, it’s now on Blu-ray.

Right off the bat, Clint goes dark and never returns. His cowboy “hero” appears mysteriously out a desert mirage, wanders into an isolated Western town, kills three men, makes friends with a dwarf, rapes a woman, goes to sleep, and dreams about a man being brutally whipped. So…no punches pulled there. By the end, he trains the entire population to be killers, literally paints the town red, massacres a collection of bad guys, and disappears just as mysteriously as he appeared. It’s suggested and often written that Eastwood is playing no less than the angel of death in the film and you can make of that what you will. Certainly the movie is not a work of realism. It’s a nightmare Western filled with larger than life comic book imagery, graphic violence (most notably when a man’s ear is shot off), and a woozy score more than a little influenced by Ennio Morricone. Many people write the film off as offensive trash. There’s certainly good cause for that opinion, but it’s also missing the point. Yes, the movie is an exorcize in morally corrupt ultra violence, but it’s also a comment on morally corrupt ultra violent Westerns.

It’s important to understand the context in which High Planes Drifter was released. Through working with Sergio Leone on A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Clint not only became a star, but established a new style of Western and Western hero. Suddenly the plains of the ol’ West weren’t defined white hat vs. black hat moral simplicity, but grays of corruption. Clint’s Western hero was self-serving, sardonic, sarcastic, and more than happy to shoot first. That kicked off a series of similar Westerns starring Eastwood in Hollywood and a whole genre of Spaghetti Westerns in Italy by the likes of Sergio Corbucci that pushed the levels of violence, cynicism, and dark comedy even farther than Leone. When Eastwood made High Planes Drifter in 1973 the bar for the Western was very different than it had been in previous generations and Hollywood genre movies were defined by antiheros. So, Clint pushed things even farther to prove a point. What exactly would an audience accept as a big screen hero? How much violence and cynicism could they take without feeling ill? The film is an assault on the audience and the genre. It’s incredibly entertaining and darkly humorous, yet does so in a way that deliberately leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It’s as if Clint wanted nothing more than to kill off the New Western he helped create by proving just how vile the genre could get.

From there he went on to make The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, films that were equally uncompromising and ugly, yet more openly thoughtful about what that means through a strong sense of morality. They are both more interesting films than High Planes Drifter, but don’t detract from the original. They merely provide a more mature context for High Planes Drifter in a way that doesn’t take away from that film’s almost punk rock sensibility. It’s also a visually gorgeous piece of work shot in Leone-level widescreen and filled with nightmare images and Western-in jokes to tip off the audience that they aren’t dealing with reality, but genre commentary. Those visuals are beautifully rendered on the new Blu-ray. The woozy atmosphere, dead landscapes, and deliberately bright splashes of red have never been more vividly represented than they are here in HD and it’s such a visually driven movie that the new transfer makes quite a difference on the film’s visceral impact. Toss in an evocative sound mix filled with a pounding, queasy sound design and you’ve got a disc that’s a must buy for the tech specs alone.

That’s a good thing too given that there’s absolutely nothing on the Blu-Ray beyond the movie and its trailer. That’s particularly unfortunate given that both The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven hit HD in stacked sets. I guess Eastwood just didn’t care enough to get involved with the disc or feels somewhat ashamed about how uncompromising the movie is in hindsight. Either way, it’s not really a bad thing. High Planes Drifter is a tough movie that will garner intense polarizing reactions and it’s kind of nice that there’s nothing on the disc to explain to viewers how they are supposed to feel about it. If you’ve never seen the flick, but love Spaghetti Westerns or Clint Eastwood, that’s a crime that needs to be rectified immediately. Thankfully, Universal went ahead and delivered one hell of a Blu-Ray to make sure your first viewing will be under the best possible circumstances.

 Eyes without a Face

Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960) – 1960 was the year when horror films grew up. Sure there were movies that blurred the lines between genre entertainment and human drama before like Fritz Lang’s M, but for the most part horror had been defined by ghosts, monsters, and mutants from the silent era to the 50s drive-ins. Then in 1960, three movies came out that changed the direction of the genre forever. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face were released to outrage and controversy for their shocking depictions of onscreen violence. However, it wasn’t just the gore the films peddled that broke ground, it was also the fact that all three films took horror out of the castles and foam rubber masks and into the world very human monsters. Each did it in their own culturally specific way too. Psycho offered American sensationalism and the first big screen incarnation of one of their greatest folk hero serial killers Ed Gein (along with a touch of wry British humor courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock). Peeping Tom was was the most analytical and intellectual and featured classic British chamber drama (it also received the most intense controversy because the UK loves their content controversies). Then there was Eyes without a Face, the most overtly graphic film and also the only one that could be described as “poetic” or “lyrical.” Given those qualities, the film unsurprisingly came from France where it was despised for years, but is now considered as masterpiece. It’s also the most criminally underseen film of the three and thankfully Criterion took important steps to right that wrong by releasing the flick on Blu-Ray in time for Halloween.  

The film is at its core a mad scientist tale. Pierre Brasseur stars as Docteur Genessier, a groundbreaking plastic surgeon who specializes in transferring living tissue from one patient to another. The reason for this peculiar professional preoccupation is because his daughter Christiane (a heartbreakingly iconic turn from Edith Scob) had her face permanently scarred in a car accident. Dr. Genessier is determined to restore her face and so he has his assistant (Alida Valli) kidnap young woman and bring them to his house where the good doctor removes their faces and tries to place them on Christiane. It’s a twisted tale to be sure and one in which director Georges Franju pulls no punches. He films the surgeries in graphic detail never dared before at the time and it notoriously had audiences fainting in the aisles and critics dismissing the flick as trash. Time has a way of dulling excess and while these surgery scenes continue to shock, they don’t distract as they once did. Now it’s possible to easily watch the film for what it is, a poetic rumination on identity and a twisted deconstruction of family wrapped up in a gruesomely disturbing horror yarn.

Dr. Genesseier is a monster to be sure, but he’s a mundane monster without a moment of sneering or grandstanding in Brasseur’s performance. Instead he’s a gifted doctor and caring father who carried those gifts to the point of psychosis. With his endlessly accommodating assistant and disturbed daughter, he’s formed a bizarre broken family who he is determined to protect and serve by any means necessary. The result is a horrific and also perversely comedic family unit struggling for normalcy in sea of face chopping. Yet, it’s Christiane who is the most fascinating figure of the film, seen almost entirely wearing a creepy blank facemask, she’s a damaged innocent who can never heal. She might be the cause for the horrific actions of her father, but Franju presents her as an innocent naïf in need of protection and salvation. It’s a difficult tightrope to pull off that Franju executes beautifully. Through lyrical music, expressive cinematography, and carefully pitched performances, Franju (aided immeasurably by screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also wrote Diabolique and Vertigo) turns the film into a perverse fairy tale with Christiane as some sort of damaged princess. That makes the film an oddly moving one in addition to all the shock tactics and suspense. It’s a complex masterpiece with an intense punch and moving heart that remains one of the finest works of the horror genre over 50 years later.

Unsurprisingly, Criterion treats Eyes without a Face exquisitely. They are by far the finest company at preserving classic black and white films in HD and their presentation of George Fanju’s masterpiece is a revelation. The movie has never looked so rich, detailed, and deep. Given that the lyrical visual style and atmosphere are so important to the impact of the film, it makes the viewing experience that much more enveloping. The disc also comes with a healthy, if not overflowing special features section. Franju’s infamous 1949 slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beats is included (along with an interview with the director on the piece) and has lost none of its shock power or resonance. Edith Scob pops up for a new interview that’s wonderfully thoughtful and filled with behind the scenes secrets. Brief, yet fascinating archival interviews with screenwriters Boileau/Narcejac and Franju are also included to fill in a few more behind the scenes details. Aside from a few trailers (one from France and one hilariously sensationalistic one from the American release) and the usual Criterion booklet, that’s it. It’s less than an hour of material in total, yet all of it is fascinating and for a film this old, neglected, and obscure, it’s impressive that Criterion was even able to dig up this much. Criterion have provided horror fans a genuine gift by releasing this film on Blu-Ray in time for Halloween. If you feel like having a little art with your bite-sized candy this year, it’s a must own.

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