Blu-Ray Round-Up: 10/7/13

Psycho II

Psycho II & III (Richard Franklin, 1983 & Anthony Perkins, 1986) – It’s absurd to think that they even did it. Psycho, one of the most iconic and beloved movies ever made never called out for a sequel. It is as close to a perfect a roll of celluloid as was ever spat out of the Hollywood dream machine. Yet, in the 1980s when slasher sequels made up as much of the Hollywood production slate as Westerns once did, that’s the bright idea a handful of Universal execs had. Norman Bates was the kind of the original slasher, right? Why not give her another go? It could have been a disaster. It should have been a disaster. And yet, somehow Psycho II was pretty good. Good enough that there was even a Psycho III that was decent as well (let us never speak of Psycho IV again). Now, obviously neither film can touch the original, so you kind of have to wipe it from your mind and go in with understandably lowered expectations. But, any true 80s horror fanboy (or girl) knows that the Psycho sequels are actually worth a look and they’ve become minor cult movies within a community that loves cult movies. Clearly a few of those fanboys work at Shout Factory because the company that’s quickly become one of the finest home video houses in La-La land threw both on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween.

Psycho II starts off worryingly by replaying the shower scene, immediately forcing audiences to make less than flattering comparisons. Fortunately, that doesn’t prove to be a disastrous decision on the part of the filmmakers, but an appropriate one. The movie was made by folks with a deep love of Psycho who fully understood the masterful appeal of the original and knew they could never top it, yet hoped they could create a noble homage for other fans. Director Richard Franklin (Road Games) and screenwriter Tom Holland (Fright Night) spin a tale about Norman Bates struggling to reenter society 22 years after his “mommy” incident. Subtle framing homages, sequences involving showers, and glimpses of the late Mama Bates tease and toy with audience expectations, but the filmmakers are smart enough never to deliver a total rehash (they left that fruitless task to Gus Van Sant). Instead, they spin a story of Norman Bates as a victim with copycat murders spurring up suspicion in those around him and an excuse to go a little mad sometimes. Anthony Perkins is wonderful in the film, stepping back into his most iconic role and not missing a psychotic step. Franklin does his Hitchcock homage well, delivering some toe-twisting suspense sequences and a few 80s appropriate explosions of gore. Holland’s script is filled with deliciously dark humor and some rather brilliant twists (although the ending might go one twist too far after delivering one hell of a climax). The movie isn’t Psycho, but it is a surprisingly honorable sequel and one of the most unjustly forgotten horror flicks of the 80s.

Psycho III

Psycho III on the other hand is more a work of good, clean, dirty 80s horror fun. Directed by Perkins, it’s more of a dark comedy with grisly interludes. Ah well, at least it also treats the brand with respect. The plot involves an escaped nun who gave up on god and a rapist guitar player who somehow end up staying at the Bates motel while an ambitious reporter snoops around desperately hoping prove that Norman character remains a psycho. It’s all silly and it’s supposed to be. This is the 80s Psycho sequel that you’d expect. All the surprising subtly of Psycho II is gone. Instead of a sympathetic Norman Bates mystery, we get a gory slasher movie. Instead of subtle twists on and echoes of the Psycho mythology, we get a constant barrage of homage and parody (including, oddly, an opening take off on Vertigo). However, it’s all in good fun and presented with delicious macabre humor that Hitchcock would have approved of. Perkins is clearly just goofing around as both star and director, delighting in the fact that his most famous character can return without heresy and it’s hard not to see why. The movie is trash, but good trash executed by people who at least care enough about the original film’s legacy to take the piss out of it without pissing on it. Psycho III is certainly worth a look and can be damn fun, it just doesn’t deserve reappraisal as much as it’s predecessor.

As per usual, the tech specs from Shout Factory on both discs are damn impressive. The transfers are gloriously clear and colorful, while still retaining just enough film grain to appear cinematic. Legendary cinematographer Dean Cundy’s work on Psycho II looks particularly strong, but even Psycho III’s more subdued visual style holds up well in HD. Given that these movies were barely even available in previous formats, it’s a pleasant surprise to finally see them as intended and only Shout would have taken the time and effort to treat these neglected sequels right. The special features sections on both discs aren’t exactly overwhelming, but they certainly are enjoyable. Psycho II comes along with a nice vintage EPK kit featuring interviews with the entire cast and crew that is both surprisingly informative and hilariously dated. Even better is an audio commentary with Tom Holland, a man who knows his genre well, loves to spill secrets (like the fact that the Norman Bates house constantly shown off on the studio tour is actually from the sequel, not the original), and delivers one hell of a chat. The Psycho III disc features three contemporary interviews with a few key supporting cast members, a make up artist, and amusingly a body double, along with a commentary from screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue that is informative, if a little bit snotty. Toss in the usual trailers and still galleries and you’ve got yourself two really nice packages for two movies that no one imagined being on Blu-ray anytime soon. I know it’s tough to get over the obvious trepidations and embrace Psycho II & III. You can’t expect them to be cinema-changing classics like the original. But, as 80s horror gems that treat iconic source material with respect, both flicks are must sees. Plus, it’s October, so why not? (Phil Brown)

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Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983) – Of Monty Python’s three features (the Flying Circus “best of” And Now for Something Completely Different doesn’t count), Meaning of Life is generally considered the weakest. There are obvious reasons why, primarily due to the fact that it’s a stop and start sketch film, and that format doesn’t really work at feature length. However, for those hardcore Pythonites who eat up all the scraps, there’s no denying that Meaning of Life features some of the funniest scenes that the team ever dreamed up. It might not have been the epic farewell that the most famous comedy group of all time deserved, but the final feature has aged far better than anyone could ever have predicted. This is a group of guys who knew when to call it quits after all. They never allowed themselves to keep working past the point of it being funny for the sake of a nest egg and their worst feature is still arguably the greatest sketch comedy film ever made. So, I guess those Python guys are pretty funny after all.

The one thing that returning to sketches allowed the Pythons to do with the film was indulge in their extremes. With only a thematic link, entire sketches could be dedicated to music, the grotesque, the surreal, the philosophical, and the just plain silly side of Python. Terry Gilliam got a chance to insert a whole Terry Gilliam movie with The Crimson Permanent Insurance, Eric got to contribute the most songs he wrote for any project, Terry Jones got as surreal as he ever dared with “find the fish,” John Cleese got to play his finest crusty old school teacher, Michael Palin scripted some historical silliness, Graham Chapman got chased to death by naked women, and the gang got to mount an astounding musical number with “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” In a way, it’s a greatest hits album composed of originals and even if some of the bits stink, when it works the gang is operating at their peak. Plus they delivered the finest piece of vomit humor in the history of cinema. So, they made movie history and that’s certainly something. Life of Brian might be more tightly conceived and The Holy Grail might be funnier, but if you needed one 90-minute chunk of Python to introduce unfamiliar viewers to what the gang represented, you could do far worse that Meaning of Life.

The film hits Blu-ray for the first time to celebrate its 30th Anniversary and Universal did everything right. The transfer isn’t perfect, but that’s more due to the age of the source material than anything else. There’s film grain throughout, but that’s how 80s movies looked folks and this presentation is pleasingly cinematic (especially Gilliam’s epic opening). When you consider the fact that the film was previously only available in notoriously crappy DVDs, the fact that it even looks this good is a bit of a revelation. On the special features front, everything from the old stacked 2-disc set has been ported over, both the good (an excellent making-of doc) and the bad (some ill advised new bits of zero budget comedy). But, the real gem of the disc for Pynthon fanatics is the lone new special feature: an hour long chat between all the surviving Pythons. They start off talking about the film, but that soon devolves as they remember old abandoned sketches (bombers flying over Dresden talking about how beautiful the rear gunner is, aliens who fly to earth to save humanity and then lock themselves out of their spaceship, etc.) and chat about themselves and their careers. It’s an incredibly entertaining hour that shows just what a wonderful meeting of minds exists with the group, even all these years later and one Python less. For Python fanatics, that interview justifies a Blu-ray purchase alone. For anyone else, if you’ve never seen Meaning of Life, you really should. It’s pretty great. (Phil Brown)

 Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013)Audiences couldn’t have asked for a better kick off to the mainstream summer movie season than Iron Man 3. It sets the bar so high right out of the gate that it might be insurmountable to overcome. Not only is it the best Marvel film to date (narrowly edging out Captain America: The First Avenger, the monolithic The Avengers, and vastly improving on Tony Stark’s second outing in his super suit), but it’s also just an expertly designed and crafted bit of big budget blockbuster filmmaking that rarely ever gets made. The fact that it comes in the form of a third entry in a franchise that was always designed to tie into a bigger universe makes it even more admirable and shocking to see. It could very well even clear high end expectations from fans expecting more of the same old same old, but more than that, even outside of the franchise it’s just an excellent movie. Period.

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A series of events beginning on a fateful millennial New Year’s Eve in Sweden has led Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) into facing off against a new foe that he in part created. A mysterious terrorist called The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has begun carrying out a series of large scale bombings across the United States with the help of a band of nearly indestructible super soldiers created by a formerly nerdy mad scientist (Guy Pearce) that was ignored and ditched by Stark all those years ago.

This terrible twosome seems to have Tony’s number. They nearly decimate and destroy everything he holds dear in his cynical heart. The events of The Avengers have left Tony to become even more of a workaholic with severe PTSD issues that leave him prone to panic attacks at inopportune times. The few friends he has are either targets for attack or unknowing pawns in a larger scheme and his lady love (Gwyneth Paltrow) is more in harms way than ever before.

Making things even more complicated is the fact that Shane Black – directing his first entry in the franchise after working with Downey previously on the perennially underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and penning the Lethal Weapon films – has made a film not too far removed from the vein of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, Raimi’s Spider-man 2, or Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. This isn’t a movie about a hero who has things always going right for him. It’s a film about what happens when everything that can go wrong does go wrong. What makes it even more difficult is that Tony isn’t the swaggering ladies man and gadabout playboy he once was. He’s a broken man here even before anything hits the fan. When things go wrong, it takes a lot out of him to simply get back up again, let alone set things right.

The film acts as unequivocal proof that no one understands the Tony Stark character as well as Robert Downey Jr. does. He never changes Stark’s quippy mannerisms or highfaluting upper class trappings, but what he manages to do here is take all of the character beats that made Tony the man he once was and turns them into coping mechanisms here. Tony is a deeply frightened human being that’s falling lower than he previously had been before. He’s genuinely scared by what he sees around him and he sometimes lashes out in ill advised ways. It’s his best outing as the character and one would hope that if he continues on with the franchise that he continues to explore this side of Tony in deeper depth.

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Black also adds a new kind of energy that the franchise was in need of. Taking over from previous helmer Jon Favreau (who still appears as security expert Happy), Black takes the franchise back to its essence instead of trying to tie into another larger work. The plot itself is so incredibly simple despite a wealth of twists, but it doesn’t need to be complex as long as it’s actually good. It reminds the viewer that Tony is a bit of a genius, and keeps him out of his malfunctioning titular suit for a good chunk of the film while he investigates just what the heck is going on. Tony has to use his wits rather than fall back on them to outsmart someone.

But the best thing about Black’s outing is that there’s absolutely no filler material here. There’s no recap of The Avengers or the previous films because it isn’t necessary. It’s assumed that the audience already knows who Tony is, and even if they don’t by some strange reason, they don’t need to. They might even like him more by not knowing who he was. It also doesn’t go out of the way to perform the classic blunder of most franchises once they reach this point, which is to add unnecessary backstory to the character. This is a story about moving forward based on past events, not dwelling on what already happened. It’s practically a clinic not only in terms of how to make a super hero film, but also how to make remove a film successful from a larger entity to make the best stand alone story possible. Without credits (and the requisite stinger at the end) the film is and exact and efficient two hours. That’s what this kind of filmmaking should be.

Black also gets a chance to show off his own buddy cop background by having Tony team up with his best friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in the second half that sees the now rebranded War Machine pilot implicated in a larger conspiracy. When they are on the run together, the banter between the duo definitely harkens back to the work that Black is best known for. It’s snappy, funny, runnin’ and gunnin’ as the two have to do battle without any of their normal shielding. That is, until the stunning climactic sequence, of course.

Black (along with co-writer Drew Pearce, who also had a hand in Pacific Rim coming out later this summer) also gives the audience two perfect villains. Kingsley alternates between goofy and terrifying with great aplomb. His actions speak louder than words for reasons that are revealed in one of the film’s most killer twists, but when he’s seen on camera it’s hard not to marvel at how his videotaped messages of terror to the world are cut to look like a cross between an infomercial and a circa-1999 styled pro wrestling promo. Pearce gets to plays the more human and flawed braniac with a grudge, and he does a fine job of it in a bit of inspired casting.

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Through these villains Black also has some very interesting and somewhat subversive things to say about Tea Party Republicanism and how audiences watch these kinds of films. It’s hard to explain without giving away the film’s biggest reveals, but there’s definitely some really interesting and thoughtful subtext going on here that clever viewers should be able to pick up on. It’s something you can only get from a simple story told in the best possible way.

There’s so much to talk about in terms of just how surprisingly great Iron Man 3 manages to be, but I’ll cut it off here for now because saying anything more gets into spoiler territory. It’s the antithesis of shallow blockbuster filmmaking while delivering everything such a product needs to succeed. It’s a fun and breezy start to a summer movie season that looks to be one of the most stacked release schedules on record. We can only hope that most of what follows Mr. Black’s film can be half as good as what he’s come up with. And no, I can’t believe I just said all of these things about the third film in a superhero franchise, either.

The film arrives on Blu-Ray with a crystal clear transfer, sharp looking menus, and a jarring sound mix that might just be a tad heavier on the low end than I remember it being in theatres. There are plenty of extended sequences, deleted scenes, a few all too brief and somewhat scattershot featurettes, VFX breakdowns, a two minute sizzle reel for Thor: The Dark World, and a gag reel. But the real gems here are a hilariously self-effacing commentary track from Black and co-writer Drew Pearce that’s almost as entertaining and witty as the feature, and an exceptional Marvel One Shot short featuring Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Steve “Captain America” Rogers former love interest. That short is so good it makes one wish the new Cap movie would get here faster (sorry Thor) and that her character gets that long rumoured spin-off she rightfully deserves. (Andrew Parker)

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)Prince of Darkness might not be John Carpenter’s best movie, but it is certainly one the purest examples of his directorial style. Dark, brooding, slow in an almost European way yet pulpy in a grindhouse way and of course, underscored by brooding synth music composed by the director, the movie could have come from no other filmmaker. It’s an apocalyptic horror flick following a collection of characters reluctantly forced to save the world. However, the plot doesn’t really matter much and the acting is more serviceable than anything else. The movie lives and dies on mood and thankfully on that level Carpenter is at the top of his game. The opening credits are doled out over a full ten minutes while Carpenter slowly introduces his characters and apocalyptic omens. The mood slips under your skin instantly and by the time the scares come around, you’re already putty in the director’s hands. In a not so flattering way, the film is as close as Carpenter ever came to matching his Euro-horror influences like Dario Argento (it would make a heck of a “bad mustache and surrealism” double bill with Inferno) because the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, but since it’s also just a collection of set pieces that doesn’t really matter.

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So, that “plot” in question involves a priest, some scientists, and a bunch o’ grad students who discover a mysterious tube filled with green liquid that inadvertently unleashes an evil force onto humanity. The how and why combines various scientific theories and religious theologies that Carpenter amusingly tosses off as “mumbo-jumo” in his audio commentary. There’s probably intellectual deconstruction to be done, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that almost instantly Alice Cooper and a collection of hobo zombies start descending on a church and Carpenter frames and stages it all so effectively that you’ll take the material just seriously enough to be scared shitless.

The film represented Carpenter’s return to horror after making Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, and he comes out guns blazing. He uses every trick in his book and piles up jump scares, suspense, gore, psychological unease, and atmosphere so thick that it affects breathing patterns. In a way, the movie was also Carpenter’s farewell to horror. He used up all his tricks here and his later contributions to the genre were either disappointingly tossed off (Village of the Damned, Vampires) or meta deconstructions of the horror tropes that made his career (In the Mouth of Madness, Cigarette Burns). For that reason the film that was considered a disappointment theatrically has been revaluated decades later as a cult favorite. The end of that journey is clearly this glorious Blu-ray release courtesy of Shout Factory that treats the movie like the classic it has become.

Even though most John Carpenter joints weren’t discovered till video, VHS was always the worst format for the man’s finest work. Few directors used wide cinemascope frames as well and it feels like only now in Blu-ray that the careful compositions and lighting effects he employed decades ago can be properly appreciated. The film looks absolutely beautiful in HD and to say this is the best the film has ever looked outside of theaters is an understatement. It honestly feels like watching the film for the first time. When you’re done drooling over the transfer, the disc is also packed with enjoyable features. It all kicks off with a classic John Carpenter audio commentary in which he and actor Peter Jason delve into all aspects of production while also sharing candid stories and mocking themselves and the film. Carpenter also gets a solo interview where he humbly admits he’s shocked anyone remembers his movies and shares some other amusing tidbits like how the production team dangerously emptied all the mercury out of their camera crane to film the climatic mirror effect. Special effects supervisor Robert Grasmere explains further effects in delightful detail as well as how he ended up playing one of the major roles. Carpenter’s composing partner Alan Howarth chats about how they improvised (!) the score. Alice Cooper pops up to chat about his involvement and just like the folks behind Wayne’s World exploited decades ago, it’s always charming and hilarious to see the original shock rocker as his quiet, articulate self. The special features are rounded out by the usual trailers, alternate scenes, and Shout’s patented Horror’s Hallowed Ground location scout.

In short, this is the special edition disc for John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness that fans could only dare to dream about before. If you love the film or Carpenter, it’s a must buy. Don’t expect it to make much sense, but do expect it to crawl under your skin and make you squirm. Just in time for Halloween, no less! That can’t be a coincidence, right? (Phil Brown)

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012) – If you’re a Comic-Con cult figure who finally cracked the mainstream success by making the third most successful movie of all time, what do you do next? Well, if you’re Joss Whedon the answer is apparently make a zero budget Shakespeare comedy in your house with friends. The king of the geeks apparently had a secret Shakespeare obsession for years and would stage readings of his favorite plays in his house with his bestest buddies. Then, inexplicably, when he was given a brief break from the punishing Avengers schedule, he decided to turn one of those wine-drunk house parties into a movie over twelve days rather than taking a vacation. It sounds like the ultimate example of a self-indulgent vanity project and yet with Whedon being Whedon, it’s actually an incredibly charming little movie routed in everything that his big career solidifying blockbuster wasn’t. Sweet, small, goofy, and surprisingly accessible, this edition of Much Ado About Nothing probably ranks as one of the most breezily entertaining Shakespeare adaptation ever splattered all over a big screen.

 The cast was cobbled together from friends that Whedon made on various projects like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Their collective experience (or lack thereof) with Shakespeare is exactly what gives Much Ado About Nothing it’s charm. This isn’t a handsomely mounted Kenneth Branagh project filled with stars and stage veterans acting their guts out to commit their ultimate poetic recital to film. Nope, instead everyone involved plays the dramatics down. The play itself might be beautifully written, but it’s ultimately a trifle: a romantic comedy before the likes of Katherine Heigl gave the genre a bad name. The dialogue is performed in a loose, almost tossed off manner. The actors play it as if it were a contemporary comedy in iambic pentameter and somehow it works. Filled with subtle slapstick around the edges and sardonic line deliveries, the centuries old comedy feels like something new and fresh again. Sure there are moments where dated presentations of household power and shivery sit awkwardly with the contemporary home movie aesthetic, but rarely is it ever distracting. Those moments tend to only serve as cues to the source for viewers who might easily forget they’re watching a Shakespeare adaptation once their ears adjust to the language.

 The film bounces onto Blu-ray in a packaged as stacked as all Whedon home releases tend to be. The French New Wave inspired freewheeling black and white cinematography is transferred over beautifully. Obviously, it’s a small film that won’t pop like The Avengers, but Whedon and co. did employ a very specific aesthetic and it’s represented nicely here. Special features kick off with a 20-minute documentary (along with another 6-minute piece on a Much Ado bus trip that’s pretty well part in parcel) that’s refreshingly honest, detailed, and devoid of promotional fluff. This was a passion project for all involved, so there’s no need to shill. Everyone simply discusses their love and commitment to the project with joy that’s infectious. That love-in extends to an audio commentary with Whedon and almost the entire cast that’s all over the place, yet perfectly communicates the foundation of friendship in the production that made it work so well. Whedon also chips in a solo commentary that is richly informative and filled with all the details missing from the other features (plus it’s in his usual self-depreciating style to ensure there are jokes crammed in with the info). Throw in a sweet music video made of outtakes and you’ve got a wonderful little package for a wonderful little film. Much Ado About Nothing really shouldn’t have worked, yet somehow Whedon and his best buds made Shakespearian comedy that will move and tickle audiences beyond the knowing, pipe-smoking academic set and that’s somewhat of a minor miracle. It’s sure to be a high school English class viewing staple and also one of those rare Shakespeare movies like Roman Polanski’s Macbeth or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet that won’t put the kids to sleep. (Phil Brown)

 THE CROODS

The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, 2013) – Far from the “Ice Age with humans” pitch made by the film’s ad campaign or being a Flintstones knock-off, The Croods is an exceptional family adventure that rises above a plot cribbed from countless Disney films to create something special. It’s a funny, vibrant, and surprisingly thoughtful and sincere effort from the makers of the equally great How to Train Your Dragon with action scenes as good as anything that wowed audiences in Rango.

Somewhere between the Stone Age and the breaking apart of the continents, a family of cavemen, women, and kids believe themselves to be the only surviving humans left in a dangerous and hostile world. Father Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) is a worrywart who insists his clan only leave their cave as a group during the day and never at night. This sedentary lifestyle greatly irks young woman Eep (Emma Stone), who yearns for action and adventure. When she escapes one night, she runs into a soothsaying master of “modern” gadgets (Ryan Reynolds) and a friendship-slash-romance blooms, much to the chagrin of old school Papa Grug. After their cave is destroyed in a tectonic plate shifting quake, they are forced to rely on Eep’s smart-alecky friend to get them to safety.

On paper, instead of a typical caveman or ancient story arc, writer/directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco (working from a story penned in part by John Cleese) are aiming for a classical Disney sort of arc from the 90s. A rebellious daughter breaks away from her father and turns out to be right. There’s nothing particularly original or shocking there, but the true joy that can be gained from the film comes from how that story is being told, what is being said, and how the people are saying it.

There’s nary a pop culture reference to be found, with all of the humour coming from genuinely sharp dialogue delivered by actors getting fully used to get the most out of their individual talents. Reynolds hasn’t had a role this great or this warm hearted in quite some time, and his chemistry to Stone (who clearly sounds like she’s having a blast as an animated heroine) isn’t syrupy sweet or saccharine. As for Cage, he’s a great sport and Sanders and De Micco even give him room for a scene that would be a classic Cageian meltdown in a live action film. Around the periphery, Catherine Keener does solid work as the mother, Clark Duke is suitably lunkheaded as Eep’s doofus brother getting arguably the biggest laughs in the film next to Cage, and Cloris Leachman’s grandmother gives some of the best punchlines and throw away moments. It’s the perfect ensemble for this kind of story, and they’re definitely elevating everything around them beyond average family fare.

The Croods is also a great film in its own right, with large scale action set pieces that bridge the gaps in the story nicely, especially a genuinely thrilling opening chase sequence that in any other film would suggest an early peak. The film never really stages another action beat that grandly, instead focusing on the comedy and drama at the heart of the characters, but thanks to the input visual consultant and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins there’s always something wondrous to view on screen.

The extras here, like with many family oriented features, are distressingly light, but at least the best family film to see release so far this year looks and sounds exemplary. There are some roughly finished deleted scenes, a few animation how-to’s (some lengthier than others), and Guy talking about his relationship with his beloved Belt. (Andrew Parker)

 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965) – There have been many cinematic adaptations of the work of the great John Le Carre over the years (most recently Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Fernando Meirelles’ underrated The Constant Gardner did well by the British scribbler); however, the best film made out of Le Carre’s work remains the first. Based on the author’s first bestseller, Martin Ritt’s stunning adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about as far removed from the early Connery Bond movies filling up screens in the early 60s as a spy movie can be. It’s neither a rollicking adventure nor a sneakily suspenseful thriller. Instead, the film is defined by pain, rage, paranoia, and dread. It’s a nasty slice of Cold War politics and ruthless espionage bureaucracy designed to slither under your skin and leave you emotionally shattered. It’s also somewhat of an unheralded masterpiece, the type of movie that demands the Criterion treatment for reappraisal alone. Well, guess what happened?

Richard Burton stars a hard luck spy who refuses to return from his Cold War post, choosing instead to take another mission into East Germany all but guaranteed to be his last. The film is as dark and brooding as Bond is bright and sexy. There’s nothing fun about being a spy in this world. It’s a harsh, unforgiving, and depressing profession with little heroism. Burton is a just a man working his job and instead of flaunting his license to kill, there’s a sense that the lonely man views the profession as a lovely way to die. It’s an ugly grind of dirty secrets and morality testing conundrums. Burton pulls together a performance of hound dog looks and seething inner turmoil pushing towards emotional outbursts and if you know that actor at all, you’ll know that’s the exact type of role he was born to play. 

Yankee born Martin Ritt (Hud, The Front) was an unconventional choice to helm the particularly British picture, but with a background in the socially conscious New York theatre that spawned the likes of Elia Kazan, he proved to be an inspired choice. Ritt grounds the film in harsh, awkward realism and communicates his message without ever preaching. Continuing the anti-Bond aesthetic, Ritt shot the film is stark black and white with deep focus. It enhances the intense mood and also adds to the realism by presenting wide shots of a grey stony London/Germany with bursts of evocative film noir lighting and framing when the scene demands it. Spy Who Came in from the Cold might not exactly be light or thrilling entertainment, but it is a fascinating feature that gives audiences a glimpse of just how ruthless and uncompassionate international espionage can be.

Ever since they got into the Blu-ray game, Criterion has been by far the best studio and transferring vintage Black and White films to HD. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is easily one of their finest B&W restorations to date, revealing depth and detail barely visible before with stunning clarity. Given how important the moody aesthetic is to the devastating emotional impact of the film, that visual upgrade makes a huge difference that should please any and all viewers. The special features are surprisingly robust for a vintage film, kicking off with a wonderful 40-minute contemporary interview with John Le Carre that’s humorously honest (particularly when discussing Hollywood politics). Next up is an excellent hour long documentary about the author from 2000 that goes a little heavy on montages at times, but remains pretty fascinating. After that there’s a 50-minute 1985 audio interview with Martin Ritt that covers his entire career with remarkably candid insight (particularly when it comes to his black list adventures). Another audio interview with cinematographer Oswald Morris gets into the complex visual storytelling of the film with surprising depth. Richard Burton lovers should appreciate a vintage 34-minute interview for the BBC that presents the actor at his wryly intelligent/pretentious best (and the old timey TV chain-smoking adds a nice moody touch.).  Toss in an intriguing collection of production sketches and a trailer and you’ve got one hell of a Criterion set. If you’ve seen the film, there’s never been a better presentation than this. Sure, it won’t exactly brighten up your day, but you will certainly never forget the experience. The film set the standard for all Le Carre adaptations to follow and while it’s been equaled a few times, it’s never been topped and likely never will. (Phil Brown)

 Pain and Gain

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay 2013) – In a word: Whoa! If Michael Bay was put on earth to make one movie, it’s Pain & Gain. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a reasonable question, but for just over two hours Bay indulges in all of his most fetishistic and delightfully bad taste inclinations for a true crime story so absurd it actually suits all of the gloss and misplaced testosterone. Despite the genuine human tragedy and psychosis on display, Pain & Gain plays out like a perverse dark comedy. For those who lived through the story, I’m sure that will seem offensive. For audiences, it’s an over-stylized fiesta of filthy jokes, ultra violence, grandiose cinematography, and of course slow motion explosions. It’s almost subversive and almost self-parody, pushing Bay’s meager storytelling skill set as far as he can manage.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a Miami beefcake feels cheated by life because he’s not obscenely wealthy despite being a walking monument to physical perfection. After seeing a motivational speaker explain the importance of being a “doer” (Ken Jeong, screaming until it’s funny), he decides to take action. Wahlberg recruits a fellow bodybuilder so full of steroids that a certain part of his anatomy is non-functional (Anthony Mackie) and another who is an ex-con whose newfound love of Jesus barely contains his former violent ways (Dwayne Johnson). Together they decide to kidnap a rich Columbian jerk of a bodybuilding client (Tony Shalhoub) with plans of torturing him until he gives up everything he owns. They wear cheap ninja costumes and bungle the kidnapping a number of times before finally locking him in a sex toy warehouse where they beat him with dildos and torture him until he convinces his wife and child to move back to Columbia and signs all of his assets over to the bodybuilders. Then they try to kill him and screw that up too, but Shalhoub is such a jerk and his story is so ridiculous that no cop believes him. Eventually Shalhoub hires a private investigator (Ed Harris) to uncover the truth. By then, our three “heroes” have indulged in many excesses of the American Dream like starting neighborhood watch programs, fixing failing members, getting married, and doing cocaine off naked strippers that they’ve decided to pull off another bank account emptying scam on a phone sex company. That scam ends in murder, chainsaw n’ lye body disposal, and death sentences.

The story may sound absurd, but only because it is and somehow the most outlandish parts of the film are the closest to the actual events. There are many different ways that this movie could have been played, the most logical of which would be as a horrific true crime tragedy. Bay instead opts for the attitude of the policemen who presumably told him the story (it’s no accident that Ed Harris’ private detective is the only likable character on screen) and amps up the events into a blockbuster dark comedy. By playing the tale from the perspective of the bodybuilders, the audience is stuck with three completely delusional characters who start off as idiotic dumbbells before turning into accidental psychopaths. All the torture and murder is played as a perverse quest for the American Dream and Bay plasters the stars and stripes all over his sets to make sure the audience gets the message. It’s all admittedly quite funny, with the protagonists somehow convincing themselves that they are right at all times. It doesn’t hurt that those guys are perfectly cast. Wahlberg taps into the delusional innocence of Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler and carries the movie well, while Dwayne Johnson is hysterical in a career best performance as the born again Christian-turned coke head too dense to ever realize when he’s crossed the line. Anthony Mackie is a slight weak link as a character defined entirely by erectile dysfunction jokes, but once he gets to pal around with Rebel Wilson as his big booty bride even he adds plenty of laughs. Wilson isn’t the only comedic actor Bay plugs in around the edges, with the likes of Jeong, Shalhoub, and Rob Corddry adding more than a few laughs from the sidelines. Despite all of the SWAT team chases and severed hand bbqing insanity (actual scene), this is the closest thing Bay has ever made to a character-driven movie and his entire cast delivers surprisingly well.

Now, even though the main strength of Pain & Gain is the film’s glorious celebration of bad taste, that’s also something a little disturbing about the movie. Hilarious or not, these stories are genuine and Bay only reminds the audience of that via on screen text at a particularly ludicrous moment for laughs. There’s nothing outright wrong with laughing human at depravity (it’s a great coping mechanism), but given that the victims and the deceased family members from this case are still alive, it’s safe to assume that they won’t appreciate this slapstick rendition of an actual multiple homicide. That gives the movie an interesting level of tension. Throughout Michael Bay seems to be parodying his own style to an extent, playing his patented fetishizing glamour shots and over-the-top violence/patriotism for laughs. However, the movie does still glamorize these murderers even if we laugh at them for being stupid and Bay’s presentation of women has yet to elevate beyond pubescent body-ogling. The big joke of Pain & Gain is that these bodybuilders were so jacked up and high that they somehow thought they lived in the world of a Michael Bay movie and now they’re actually in one. Bay might be able to laugh at what he does, but he can’t really criticize it and none of the terrible people in this movie actually feel condemned by the end. They are all given hero exit shots. Much like Bad Boys 2, there’s something fascinating about watching a movie in which Michael Bay seems both aware of why his movies are a joke and blissfully unaware of what makes that so wrong.

After a decent, if hardly spectacular run at the box office at the start of the summer, Pain & Gain has been raced onto Blu-ray before the first leaf of fall could hit the pavement. As could be expected, the technical specs are top of the line. Bay is nothing if not a master technician and produced the type of bright, massive sensory overload the Bluray was made to support. Colors burst off the screen, depth is limitless, and every single pore on The Rock’s sweaty faced is crystal-clear beautiful for those anxious to examine his complexion. The sound mix is predictably explosion and packed with room filling details from the biggest explosion to the smallest…er…explosion (it is a Michael Bay movie after all). The only bummer about the disc is that there are zero special features included. Presumably that’s a result of the rush to get the film on Blu-ray and it’s disappointing. Obviously no one involved with the events would want to share their story (though a rage-filled survivor commentary would be a fascinating Blu-ray first). Yet Bay and his cast were all over the press in advance of the film’s release, so it’s a shame that a featurette wasn’t at least woven together from the junket footage. Given how absurd a movie Pain & Gain turned out to be, getting a glimpse at what the hell these filmmakers were thinking would have been nice. Still, the flick remains a fascinating ode to bad taste and the latest glimpse into Michael Bay’s gloriously unchecked id. He really should be making more movies like this rather than Transformers sequels, but unfortunately Bay’s 13-year-old millionaire fantasy lifestyle depends on movies that clear at least $300 million at the box office, so that ain’t going to happen. Let’s just hope that the man, myth, legend, and nutcase that Michael Bay indulges in all of his filthiest impulses again sometime soon, because like it or not there’s never been another movie quite like Pain & Gain. (Phil Brown)

 Seconds

Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)Seconds is one of the strangest films Hollywood has ever produced and arguably the finest achievement of the late great John Frankenheimer. There’s no sense in burying the lead. It really is that good. A searing social commentary, a terrifying horror flick, a brain-tingling slice of sci-fi, a visual masterpiece, a headtrip, the film is all those things and more. Yet, sadly, most folks aren’t even aware it exists. As Frankenheimer amusingly points out on the commentary track included on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, Seconds went from being considered a failure to being dubbed a classic without ever being a success. Admittedly, it’s an aggressively uncommercial flick that even criticizes the nature of escapism. But thankfully movies don’t have to be popular to become classics. They just have to be damn good and Seconds passes that test with ease.

A particularly hangdog John Randolf stars as a man with a boring job, wife, and life desperate to escape. He finds a means of doing so when offered a mysterious card from a stranger on the train. A quick phone call reveals that he has the chance to change who he is and after accepting is directed to a mysterious location. There he’s offered the chance to have his death faked, radical reconstructive surgery, and a new identity of his choosing. He’s also drugged and filmed with a prostitute to ensure he won’t back out, suggesting this organization just might be up to no good. One graphic surgery scene later and Randolf looks exactly like Rock Hudson (in the finest performance of his career) and is now a famous artist in swinging 60s LA. He tries his hand at the whole new life and love thing, but it just never sticks. So he starts drinking heavily and acting out. The secret organization seems to have eyes everywhere and they find him, even offering a way out…though not necessarily one he’ll enjoy.

The film feels like the finest episode of Frankenheimer friend Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone ever produced. Like all good episodes of that show, the message is clear with out preaching, the concept is deeply unnerving, and the ending is deliciously ironic. Working with multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe (and a delicious open credits sequence from Saul Bass), Frankenheimer crafts a uniquely disorienting visual style that suits the story perfectly. Shooting exclusively in wide angle lenses and off kilter composition to enhance the film’s paranoia, Frankenheimer created a vastly influential visual style that still feels ahead of its time. I suppose that quality is the biggest reason for the film’s endurance. It was a fairly radical filmgoing experience then and remains one now. There’s really nothing else like it and discussing things further would only spoil the twisted shock value of the material. If you haven’t seen it, you’re about to discover a new favorite simple as that.

Out of print for years with ancient DVDs pulling in ludicrous ebay prices, it’s a fantastic time to discover seconds thanks to the wonderful package Criterion whipped up. The transfer is astounding, offering sharp contrast in the loving b+w photography as well depth and clarity to the wide angle images unlike any presentation the film received before. There’s still film grain inherent to the 1966 source, but compared to the battered transfers offered before the Criterion presentation is a revelation and makes a huge impact on the visually driven film. The special feature section isn’t exactly overflowing, but more than makes up in quality what lacks in quantity. First up is a director’s commentary ported over from Paramount’s 1997 DVD that has some silent gaps, yet still delves into almost every aspect of the production and meaning of the movie. Alec Baldwin (!) offers a 15-minute interview discussing his love of the film and relationship with Frankenheimer that’s well worth a viewing despite being an odd addition. A 20-minute documentary pairs up Frankenheimer’s widow and actress Salome Jens for a surprisingly in depth look at the making of the movie filled with fascinating anecdotes (like the fact that Frankenheimer’s top choice for the lead was Laurence Olivier). A visual essay by two film historians delves into deep analysis and vintage interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson offer a surprising amount of insight in 15 total minutes as well as fragments of behind the scenes footage from the Seconds set. So, it’s hardly the most stacked disc Criterion has ever put out, but at least all the features add to the experience. The reason to buy the disc is the movie anyways and it is a genuine masterpiece that has been unavailable for far too long. (Phil Brown)

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