Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Christopher Landon, 2014)
It’s hard to believe that we’re now five movies into a franchise based around a locked off camera, a bedroom, and things that go bump in the night. When Oren Peli’s shot-in-my-bedroom indie got a major release from Paramount, it was quite a shock. Here was a return not just to no-budget indie horror from a major studio, but also a film that pulled the genre from the torture porn era into the found footage era. Bringing in almost $200 million worldwide on a $15 thousand dollar budget, the movie was a big fat success story and thus began the inevitable Hollywood practice of repeating the trick to death. Sure, Paranormal Activity 3 proved to be an enjoyable mix of 80s kitsch and high-fi/low-fi scares, but by part 4 the format had grown so nauseatingly sale that the profits dropped by half.
However, money was still being made and so Paranormal Activity 5 was going to happen no matter what. Thankfully, the folks behind the series decided it was time to change things up and actually delivered a movie that was quite different from what came before. By borrowing (a.k.a. stealing) from a variety of different found footage horror franchises and one-offs (mostly Chronicle), the Paranormal Activity franchise has somehow reinvented itself. Whether or not this new direction will lead to more sequels worth catching remains to be seen, but the good news is that against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is one of the best entries in the series to date.
Ditching technology obsessed WASPs for more ethnic outing, our heroes this time are Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), two recent Hispanic high school grads who start filming themselves and investigating a mysterious murder in their apartment building for no apparent reason. Rather quickly, Jesse discovers mysterious marks on his arm that a) give him superpowers and b) involve him with the mysterious coven that has been gradually taking over the franchise. Fulltime PA sequel scribe Christopher Landon assumes directing duties and ditches the static bedroom camera format in favor of a little demonic possession and witch-bashing fun. Aside from retaining the quiet-loud-quiet-loud jump scare format, it’s not even overtly a Paranormal Activity movie until a final twist cleverly folds this tale back into the original film.
If you want to be cynical about it, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones reinvents the franchise by mixing in other popular found footage horror tropes of recent years and shifting the focus to a working class Latino world that the Paramount marketing department determined was a strong fan base for the series. That’s all undeniably true, and yet regardless of the reasons for the changes in the series, it works surprisingly well. Landon clearly knows the franchise well enough to understand what to change and what to keep the same. There’s some shotgun action this time, the camera is constantly mobile rather than locked off, and there are even a couple gross out gags amidst the jump scares.
Yet despite all that and the heaping doses of Latino stereotypes (Tequila? Check. Fireworks? Check. Gangbangers? Check. It’s all an ill-placed sombrero away from being offensive), the film still feels like a successful entry in the most tasteful horror franchise in decades. Sure, the found footage horror clichés pile up fast and furiously, but Landon has at least wallowed in that world long enough to know how to pull them off effectively and delivers a film with a few decent jolts and without the tiresome repetition that dogged Paranormal 2 and 4.
The film debuts on Blu-Ray with the same nice, yet tossed off disc that all entries of the series received. The visual and audio transfers are nice, but the deliberately low-fi aesthetic ensures that it will never be a showpiece disc. Granted, the increased scale for this movie allows for a few set pieces that take advantage of the HD audio/video punch of Blu-Ray, but not by much. The special feature section is also as light as ever with the movies. (I guess they want to preserve the integrity of the “reality” of the series by not allowing the filmmakers to speak…or they don’t want to spend any more money on these micro-budget features). First, there’s an extended cut that offers nothing particularly worthwhile whatsoever. Next up comes seven deleted scenes that comprise about 10 minutes of footage, all of which were clearly deleted for a reason and don’t add much. That’s all you get on this disc and at this point that’s all that fans have come to expect.
Perhaps the Paranormal Activity series is settling into a pattern similar to the Star Trek movies where all of the odd numbered entries in the franchise are decent and the even numbered entries are disposable. PA5 is as probably about as good as PA1 or PA3, which is to say that it’s a perfectly acceptable jump scare timewaster with more good will than innovation. The performances are fine, the effects are decent, the scares work (even if about 70% were given away in the trailer. Sigh, when will marketing departments learn?). In other words, against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit. (Phil Brown)
Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded (Billy Corben, 2014/2006)
Originally released in 2006, Billy Corben’s Cocaine Cowboys is one of the most entertaining documentaries you’ll ever see. A definitive chronicle of the cocaine explosion in Miami in the 1980s, it’s a thrilling collage of interviews and archival news footage that proves Brian DePalma’s Scarface was a barely exaggerated chronicle of one of the most insane periods of American drug crime history. Filled with graphic murder, ludicrously excessive spending, and (of course) pastel colored graphics, Corben’s film is so damn entertaining that if his subjects exaggerated their stories at all (and we are talking about the championship cocaine users of the 1980s, so that’s a distinct possibility) the sheer insanity of the collective tale is still worth the price of admission. Eight years later, Corben has unexpectedly returned with a new cut of the film. Boasting extended interviews, a sprinkling of new interviews and updates, and a welcome dialing back of some of Corben’s distractingly stylized editing transitions, Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded is a surprisingly different cut and a worthy one. The added details improve the depth of the story, even if the added hour of running time is more than a little excessive. Still, if ever there were a subject that deserves the more-is-more approach, 80s Miami coke dealing is certainly that. Cocaine Cowboys centers on interviews with a few major players. Given that pretty well everyone involved in the story was either dead or in hiding when Corben shot his doc, it was also his only option. It has to be assumed that there is some judicious editing, aggrandizing, white-washing and history-shifting in how the subjects choose to tell their stories, but when the stories are this good and the world this surreal, that doesn’t matter much. The main subjects are Jon Roberts (the man with the initial Columbia connection) and pilot Mickey Munday. Both men got into the world of illegal exports as weed-loving hippies, but quickly realized that even more money could be made by focusing their efforts on a magical white powder that Columbia was also producing in mass quantities. The first chunk of the movie is dedicated to them detailing exactly how they got cocaine into the country and how it took America by storm. The how-to facts are fascinating (particularly interesting, and new to this cut, was how Munday convinced Columbian government officials to spray absolutely everything exported oversees from the country with trace amounts of cocaine so that drug sniffing dogs were useless). The tale of the massive profits earned, the ridiculous spending, and how it essentially created the contemporary Miami economy are incredibly entertaining. This part of the film feels like a party. Then it all stops.
Once the drug trade exploded and Columbian and Cuban refugees started flooding Miami, drug wars and murders started taking over the city. The bulk of the film is essentially a two-sided story of the war with the police and gangs represented by legendary (and thankfully imprisoned) hitman Jorge Rivi Ayala and the head of the police task force assigned to take down the cocaine cartels. The “star” of this section doesn’t really appear. It’s Griselda Blanco, the vicious cocaine Godmother responsible for much of the drug violence of the era. Blanco was a terrifying sociopath who delighted in chopping up her victims and dumping the pieces on the highway. She also developed a flair for the theatrical at the peak of her reign, once even insisting that a rival be killed with a bayonet shortly after leaving his plane at the Miami airport and somehow it happened. This section represents the bulk what’s new in the film and it’s absolutely terrifying. The violence described (primarily by Ayala who agreed to appear on camera for reasons best known to himself) is unthinkable, the type of acts that could only be dreamed up and enacted with this specific drug flowing through the blood stream.
From there, the doc takes on the traditional tragic fall, detailing how everyone involved in the story either ended up as a mutilated body or in prison. What’s most remarkable about Billy Corben’s movie is how the “talking heads” doc plays with the whiplash pacing, gallows humor, and hard-R details of a fictional gangster epic. Almost every story in the film would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true and Corben relishes in allowing his possibly unreliable narrators to cut loose with their nasty and surreal anecdotes. Corben cuts the movie together at quite a clip, fills the soundtrack with a bombastic score, and covers the screen with animated vintage images depicting as many of the joys and horrors as possible. Admittedly the Reloaded cut drags a bit in the middle, stumbling over a few too many murder stories from Ayala. However, it’s surprising just how consistently entertaining the 2.5 hour documentary can be. It’s a genuine thrill ride and it’s unsurprising that Oliver Stone whipped up his Scarface screenplay in a quick cocaine haze after hearing just a fraction of the stories laid out here.
The Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded Blu-ray from Magnet and Mongrel is a nice, if unspectacular affair. The transfer is bright and clear, taking full advantage of all of the neon and pastel colors of the era to light up the screen. However, given the dated camera equipment used to film the contemporary interview material and the SD nature of the vintage news reports and photographs, it’s hardly a glorious show-off disc. On the special features front, all you’ll get are about 14 minutes of fairly middling deleted scenes in SD. Granted, these sequences boast a full score and flashy editing to suggest they were clipped from the final cut at the last minute. So they’re all nice to watch, but were also clearly dropped from the movie for a reason. That’s it in terms of the disc, but really you’ll pick it up for the film and it’s a doosey. While the 2.5 hour running time doesn’t offer quite as easy of a sit as the 90 minute 2006 cut of Cocaine Cowboys, this version is a more complete and satisfying version of the story, offering plenty of fascinating new details and a welcome added input from 80s Miami police veterans. The quick montage of updates at the end also offers some nice new insights and completes a few stories. It’s not a dramatically different version of the seven year old documentary, but Cocaine Cowboys remains a wonderful and relentlessly entertaining doc that is vital viewing for fans of the medium and coked up gangster yarns. A great flick and by association, a great disc. (Phil Brown)
Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel, 1954)
One of the early “man’s man” directors like Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller who helped established macho cinema (for better or worse), Don Siegel was one of the most efficient and hardnosed directors that Hollywood has ever seen. Probably best known for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry, Siegel’s career spanned decades and his harshly uncompromising vision gradually grew from being ahead of his time to right of the moment. Quality can vary wildly in the films he made over an almost 40 year career, but his aesthetic and narrative efficiency stayed the same. Riot in Cell Block 11 was the film that he always considered his breakout project and it’s easy to see why. The intensity that would define Segal’s career explodes onto the screen in the film in full force, often reaching visceral highs that even prison films made decades later couldn’t muster. Teaming up with super-producer Walter Wanger (who brought his typical taste for social commentary along with him), Siegel delivered a smart, intense, and surprisingly realistic prison thriller that has aged far better than most prestigious productions of the era. In other words, it’s the type of film that demands the Criterion treatment and hey! Guess what happened?
Loosely based on the 1953 Jackson Prison riot, Riot in Cell Block 11 wastes no time in set up or establishing intent. Following a brief newsreel introduction to set the scene/world, a prison riot breaks out in Cell Block 11. Led by old timey Hollywood tough guy Neville Brand, the prisoners take over the cell black with sweat, fists, and relative ease. After kidnapping a few guards, Brand wisely plays the media for publicity before gradually taking over the entire prison. The reason? Simply requesting some human rights within the brutal system. That’s of course spoken in dialogue, but more profoundly expressed to the audience through visuals. Siegel shot in an actual prison and showcases the monotony, filth, and torment of that world through long wide shots that capture the world with impressive realism. Thankfully there’s no cartoonishly evil Warden to provide a ludicrous antagonist either, merely bureaucrats weighed down by red tape. It’s a stark and vicious little thriller that holds up far better than you’d expect, both in terms of thematic resonance and technical skill.
Working without stars or even much studio backlot production, what’s most immediately striking about Siegel’s breakout film is the verisimilitude. There’s an almost documentary naturalism to the way the director presents the world. Violence erupts suddenly and is always ugly. Dialogue is as conversational as 50s screenwriters could muster. There’s real filth on the walls, real scars on the actors’ faces. It’s a harsh vision of prison that vividly communicates the hypocrisy and danger of that world to the. Beyond that, Siegel also laces the movie with a finale bitterly painted morally compromised grays. It’s amazing that the director was able to pull off the film this effectively in 1954 and it plays wonderfully at home 60 years later.
Criterion has delivered one of their stellar restorations of the film for Blu-Ray. The black and white transfer is gorgeously cleaned up with deep shadows and details that really stand out during the intense riots scenes. The mono audio track is crisp and clear as well. It’s hard to imagine that the film even looked this good theatrically; great for a film that hasn’t been available since VHS.
The special feature section is nice, if obviously not massive given the age of the movie. All the features are audio based, kicking off with an audio commentary by scholar Matthew H. Bernstein filled with wonderful details about the production of the film and all the major players (with particular focus on producer Walter Wanger who Bernstein specializes). Next up is an audio except from Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book Don Siegel: Director read by the director’s son that adds additional insights from Siegel’s perspective, including the genuine fear he felt shooting the riot scenes using actual prisoners instead of extras. Another reading from Siegel’s autobiography provides further insights and the special feature section is rounded out by a 60 minute radio documentary from 1953 about the prison conditions of the time that provides an intriguing background to the circumstances under which the film was produced. Yet, perhaps the best additions to the disc come in the booklet, which includes an essay from Walter Wanger published in Look magazine about his personal experience in the prison system and how it flavored the film, as well as a piece on Siegel written by none other than Sam Peckinpah who worked as a PA on Riot in Cell Block 11.
Simply put, this is another amazing release from Criterion of an unjustly overlooked slice of Hollywood history. Riot in Cell Block 11 is an absolutely brilliant movie desperately deserving rediscovery that has been treated perfectly by Criterion. In other words, turn off your computer and go buy it right now. You will not regret it. (Phil Brown)
Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996)
Even though Breaking the Waves is technically the fourth feature film in Lars Von Trier’s career, it’s the first movie most people talk about. Von Trier’s first three films are certainly interesting and effective pieces of work, but it was Breaking the Waves that defined the style, aesthetic, tone, and narrative structure of everything that followed. In 1996, it felt like a radical departure for the director and filmmaking general. These days, the impact the Von Trier has dull that radical aspect slightly, but in no way dilutes the impact of the film. It remains the controversy-baiting director’s most moving, satisfying, and effective work. It’s the ground zero where anyone interested in the filmmaker should begin sampling his career and if they have the stomach to move on, they’ll have a good sense of what to expect from there.
In terms of plot, Breaking the Waves is Von Trier’s first tale of an innocent woman sent through horrifically tragic ordeals. In this case, that woman is Emily Watson as a sweet and possibly mentally challenged young Scottish waif in the 1970s. She lives a life of religious devotion and almost childish simplicity before falling in love with a foreign man “from the rig,” played by Stellan Skarsgard, shortly before the film begins. Watson weds the man against the wishes of the religious elders in her isolated community, but finds happiness in their puppy love until the tragic day that Skarsgard is brutally injured on his oil rig and returns to Watson bound to a bed, possibly never to walk again. Delusional from drugs and pain, Skarsgard asks his sweet young bride to seek out sexual adventures with strange men to tell him about them. She complies and soon finds herself in dangerous places and outcast from her community. Watson’s story can only end one way and it’s emotionally devastating, yet in an uncharacteristic move for the director the final moment is unexpectedly uplifting, even spiritual (in a cynical way that contrasts with how religion is depicted elsewhere the film before of course. It is still a Lars Von Trier film after all).
In keeping with the director’s subsequent work, Breaking the Waves is an absolutely gut-wrenching, tear-flowing viewing experience. Von Trier’s approach to the material is unflinching and his actors are required to pull off some nearly impossible, emotionally intense scenes. Here, everyone delivers the goods extraordinarily well, particularly Watson who has never been better and deservingly saw her career take off following the film’s release. Von Trier shoots handheld for the first time, and while the cinematography is deliberately chaotic and filled with jump cuts, it’s never difficult to follow the action the shaky effect only heightens the intensity of the content. Despite all of the thumb-nosing technical rule breaking that Von Trier uses in Breaking the Waves, it’s ultimately a very simple and traditionally structured film. Outrageous though it may be at times, the film is a fable of innocence lost and devotion (to both love and religion). Though some may balk at the experience due to its harsher scenes and ideas, the film is absolutely beautiful for those willing to give themselves over to Von Trier’s unique vision. It’s both one of his most accomplished and accessible films and one richly deserving of its new place in the Criterion Collection.
What’s most immediately apparent when watching the film is what a remarkable transfer the folks at Criterion have delivered. Even though the movie is shot with jagged handheld cameras, Von Trier did still hire genius cinematographer Robby Muller in 35 millimeter and for the first time on here on Blu-Ray that really shows. The rich Scottish countryside and golden hues that Muller paints in are absolutely gorgeous and add to the atmosphere of the film immeasurably on Blu-ray. It’s clear while watching the disc that previous home video transfers have completely misrepresented the look of the film and this Blu-Ray qualifies as one of Criterion most impressive restoration achievements.
The special feature section is also delightfully overflowing. First up comes a 45-minute audio commentary on select scenes by Von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and Anthony Dod Mantle that is an absolute blast. The trio are clearly friends and speak with unflinching honesty and dark humor that serves as a wonderful insight to both the film and Von Trier’s unique working process. Next up are new 20-minute interviews with Emma Watson and Stellan Skarsgard about the film and the impact it had on their careers that are both lively and enthusiastic with clear fondness for the experience. Next up, author and filmmaker Stig Bjorkman provides some amusing insights into the time he spent on the set of Breaking the Waves as an outsider. Finally, a collection of deleted scenes, a trailer, and a peculiar kilt-clad Cannes promotional clip for the film are tossed in as amusing curiosities. Overall, this is one of the finest Blu-Rays that Criterion has released so far this year for a film that could not deserve the treatment more. If you’ve got a taste for Lars Von Trier’s particular brand of cinematic provocation, this film is absolutely not to be missed. (Phil Brown)
Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
All too often, director William Friedkin is written off as a two trick pony. Granted, the two tricks in question are The French Connection and The Exorcist, two of the finest films of the 70s (and by association, two of the finest films ever made). So, it’s entirely reasonable for those two movies to dominate any discussion of his career. However, the hard boiled director has made many other excellent movies worthy of discussion. In particular, his 1977 flick Sorcerer is a masterpiece that has been ignored for far too long. There are a couple of big reasons why. First off, the massive 1977 production bombed at the box office, when audiences were misled by the title as the decidedly non-supernatural film followed The Exorcist and then balked at Friedkin’s harsh and nihilistic vision when it hit screens shortly after George Lucas’ pop fantasy Star Wars.
Then there’s also the little matter of Friedkin’s studio bosses at Universal and Paramount making the movie difficult to find in theaters and eventually on home video formats. Thankfully, Sorcerer’s reputation has grown over the years, turning into a full on cult movie sometime during the last decade because of its troubled reputation and scarcity. In fact, the flick has become such a favorite topic of discussion in online film debate that Warner Bros. went out of their way to purchase the movie from Paramount/Universal (following some legal battles led by Friedkin himself) and clean it up for a long overdue Blu-Ray release. The film is now widely available in extraordinary quality, so there’s never been a better time to rediscover a lost classic.
Oh, there is one other reason why the movie was dismissed on release that I left out. The film is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece Wages of Fear. As good as Friedkin’s movie is (and it is damn good), it’s not one of the greatest and most important thrillers ever made like Clouzot’s classic, so the 70s critical community had a justifiable bone to pick with Sorcerer that clouded their judgment. In broad strokes, the plot is the same, but the details are quite different. The movie opens with four prologues for the sad sacks Friedkin is about to put through a horrendous ordeal. Francisco Rabal plays a hitman who we see do his dirty business in a brief opening that feels like an homage to the similarly sudden start of The French Connection. Amidou plays a Palestinian terrorist who flees Israel following a bungled bombing. Bruno Cremer is a crooked financer forced to leave Paris when he loses everything and his partner shoots himself. And finally, Roy Scheider plays a wheelman whose failed job kills a mob boss’ priest brother. The failed foursome find themselves hiding out a remote South American village where circumstances somehow get worse for them and they all end up agreeing to take a suicidal job transporting explosives in rusty trucks through a twisted jungle road.
That journey takes up the second half of the film and is both one of the tensest achievements of Friedkin’s career and a personal statement from the director about the nature of fate. Given that this is a hardnosed filmmaker like Friedkin, his commentary on fate obviously isn’t of the uplifting and romantic variety. Nope, it’s a deeply cynical film about how fate is always watching us from around the corner looking to fuck us when we least suspect it. Friedkin expresses this eloquently and succinctly in the final hour of the film, with his four characters enduring one insurmountable obstacle after another while quite literally sitting on a bomb. If you’re not one for subtext, the film plays like gangbusters just as a gripping, vicious, and unrelenting thriller. One of the reasons Friedkin’s budget spiraled so far out of control (well, beyond an raging ego that the director freely admits was peaking at the time) is because the filmmaker shot in remote locations and staged every stunt and explosion practically. While that led to endless production challenges, it all shows on film. Much like Werner Herzog’s classics like Aguirre: Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo, there’s an intense sense of physical danger and obsession that hangs over every scene and wouldn’t translate as well unless the filmmaker felt both personally in production. In particular, the centerpiece scene involving a two trucks inching along a rickety rope bridge during a storm is one of the most viscerally nerve wracking scenes ever committed to film. Knowing that the trucks actually toppled over in filming multiple times and the bridge itself had to be rebuilt only adds to the sequence’s impact.
As was Friedkin’s way in the 70s, he shoots in a jagged style that favors handheld cameras and rough zooms without ever sacrificing visual beauty. It gives the proceedings not just an added sense of realism, but also builds on the suspense and paranoia. There’s a sense in the visuals that anything could go wrong at any time and it often does. This is a thriller where you don’t just fear for the protagonists’ death, but practically consider it an inevitability that stings in your stomach. The acting is also damn near perfect. Friedkin has complained that every actor was a third or fourth choice and none of them were the stars he felt he needed to open the picture. However, if ever there was a movie made for grizzled character actors this is it, each major player perfectly embodies their role and goes through enough anguish on screen that you follow and feel for them no matter how reprehensible their role (and make no mistake, the film is populated by a parade of semi-likable douchebags, probably another reason why it didn’t play well to an audience still hungover from their Star Wars high). At the center of it all is Roy Scheider in one of his finest performances, physically and emotionally drained through out and often getting empathy purely through his exhausted eyes. Sorcerer is harsh and exhausting in the most thrilling possible ways.
Seeing Sorcerer on Blu-Ray is an absolute revelation. The film was previously only available in a horribly transferred DVD that wasn’t even in widescreen. On Blu-Ray every bit of filth and grit in Friedkin’s frames is visible in absolute clarity. You’ll practically want to shower afterwards, and yet the rich jungle greens and bright light of the sun/explosions also make the film a vibrantly beautiful viewing experience. Toss in an astounding lossless sound mix that exquisitely combines the gritty sound design and evocative Tangerine Dream score and you’ve got yourself an absolutely astounding Blu-Ray presentation for a film most folks never assumed would never make it onto the format.
Sorcerer is destined to be one of the finest Blu-ray releases of the year from a film preservation standpoint alone. Good thing too because there are no special features included, not even a trailer. Granted, if you get the Digibook edition you’ll get a letter from Friedkin about the restoration, as well as a reprinted chapter from his autobiography about the film’s troubled production/legacy. Those inclusions are wonderful, but the fact that Warner Brothers couldn’t even be bothered to sit the director down to record an audio commentary is a real shame (the man is one of the best in the business at the commentary game). Yet at the same time, it’s hard to complain when Sorcerer appearing on Blu-Ray feels like a miracle in and of itself. Even after acquiring cult film status, Sorcerer remains one of the most underrated movies of the 70s and is a true masterpiece of suspense physical filmmaking. It’s safe to say that a film like Sorcerer will never be made in Hollywood again. That’s good news for the sanity of crews/studio executives, but bad news for audiences. (Phil Brown)
Eastbound & Down: Season 4
Bringing back Eastbound & Down for a fourth season was a dangerous proposition. The third season was designed to be a finale, but it was a somewhat unsatisfying one. So, the good news is that Jody Hill, Danny McBride and the whole Eastbound team seemed more aware of that than any of their fans and came back only to give their series a more deserving send off. True to form, the fourth season of Eastbound & Down is filthy, wrong, dark, morally ambiguous, and deeply hilarious. Looking back on the series as a whole, it feels like one of the strangest and most adventurous comedies any network has dared to fund. Getting to wrap things up properly confirms Kenny Powers’ place as one of the great television characters. An inexplicably lovable asshole whose life of endless triumphs and failures never actually delivered growth, just easily ignores epiphanies. It was a pretty ingenious character to wrap a comedy series around. The fact that Kenny was also so good at swearing was just icing on the cake.
Season 4 catches up with Kenny (McBride) a few years after faking his death. He’s now married to April (Katy Mixon), has a decent job, a big house, and a couple of kids. But Kenny being Kenny, that’s just not enough. The first brilliant concept of the series was seeing Kenny struggle to be a suburban Dad. The next was shoving him into the world of sports talk television hosted by an even bigger sports celebrity d-bag in Guy Young (Ken Marino). That gave Kenny a taste of celebrity and success, which was just enough rope to hang himself. He starts over-spending, plowing through drugs, and even gets his assistant/life partner Stevie (Steve Little, possibly the true star of the series) to open a mall food stand called Taters N’ Tits (or TNT for short). It all builds to Kenny having yet another breakdown and epiphany, only this time Kenny gets a proper ending. Granted it’s an ending he invented in the screenplay of his life that he’s been writing throughout the series, but in a perverse way that was almost perfect.
While Eastbound & Down will likely always be remembered as the ultimate vehicle for Danny McBride’s twisted ways, the reason it held up so well as a series is probably writer/director Jody Hill. As usual, Hill had a hand in writing every episode and directed most of them (with a few passed off to his buddy David Gordon Green). Hill has a very distinct brand of humor that’s rooted in failure, humiliation, and dark protagonists who are barely heroes. He’s written and shot every season to feel as much like a long movie as an episodic series and plastered his voice onto it from start to finish. The second season trip to Mexico introduced surrealism into his hard-edged humor that Hill and company were never quite able to satisfyingly reconcile with harsh realism in the 3rd series, but here the mix works. It peaks in the second last episode, a Christmas special that shits all over and yet oddly conforms to holiday values. It’s a stylized premised pushed even farther when Stevie shows up with a comically over-the-top plastic surgery chin. Yet, somehow Hill keeps it all grounded and even pulls out some genuine human tragedy amidst the insanity. It’s the tone of the fourth series as a whole and feels like a fond farewell and hat-tip to all of Kenny Powers’ ludicrous and self-serving adventures.
Just like any long-running TV series, ridiculously good casting was a big secret to Eastbound’s success and pretty much every major player gets a curtain call here. As always, Danny McBride owns the role of Kenny Powers. It’s likely the role he’ll always be known for and it’s a perfect vehicle for his distinct brand of self-mocking American arrogance. The season also brought Katy Mixon’s April back in a main role and justified its existence purely for that. Not only was Mixon a great comedic sparring partner for McBride, but her character somehow believably loved the big jerk and allowed for the series to close out on something resembling redemption. John Hawkes also returned to add dramatic weight as Kenny’s brother and was a secret weapon of the series for that purpose. And new players like Tim Heidecker, Ken Marino, and Sacha Baron Cohen stepped in as fans of the show who knew exactly how to deliver the sad/funny tone. But, the real star of the series has always been Steve Little as Kenny’s endlessly humiliated partner. Little should have emerged from the series as a breakout star, but it’s one of those weird cases where he was so perfectly suited to the role that other filmmakers might struggle to know how else to use him. It always felt like Hill and McBride went out of their way to figure out how they could possibly top their onscreen abuse to Little and this season definitely delivered his strangest scene: crying with a gun in his underwear on Christmas before accidentally blowing his plastic chin off. Not many actors could pull that off credibly and the guy deserves an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony just for doing it.
The fourth season of Eastbound & Down slides onto Blu-Ray in a very pleasing package. The transfers are gorgeous and since Hill and Green always give the show a cinematic look, it very much benefits from the Blu-Ray treatment. The series never looked this good when it aired and this is without a doubt the best way to watch it. Special features kick off with audio commentaries on every episode with McBride, Hill, and Little hosting a revolving table of cast and crew members. The commentaries are absolutely hilarious and offer an ideal mix of friendly piss-taking and behind the scenes info (in particular, Hill and McBride sum up their feelings on the series and this ending quite eloquently between f-bombs). Next up comes a collection of 25 minutes of hysterical deleted scenes (the gang admit on the commentary that almost every episode runs an hour in rough cut, so it’s safe to say that there was far more left off the disc) and a ten-minute blooper real. Overall, it’s a damn entertaining package that sends the series off in style. Given that Jody Hill and Danny McBride already claimed that they were done with Kenny Powers once, I find it hard to believe that this will genuinely be the last we see of the character. But even if Kenny never returns, the fourth season is a fitting send off for one of HBO’s greatest comedies. The series might never have been a massive hit, but it was always playing for a cult audience and god damn did it ever deliver. Let’s just hope that Jody Hill and Danny McBride pull another project out of their hats/ass soon. (Phil Brown)
A Birder’s Guide to Everything (Rob Meyer, 2014)
If one were to cross a low-key modern American indie with a 1980s coming of age road comedy, you would get something close to the amusing and thoughtful debut feature from Rob Meyer, A Birder’s Guide to Everything. Both a better breed of teen movie than audiences normally get and assuredly a better comedy about bird watching than The Big Year was a few years back, Meyer never plays his story too outlandishly to be unbelievable and packs it with some great writing and performances that speak to just how awkward it is to be a teenager.
Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a great leading performance as David, a birder who would much rather be off tracking down a potentially extinct duck that he saw instead of being dragged kicking and screaming into being the best man for his father’s wedding over the weekend. With the help of his school’s birding society buddies, a motormouthed horndog (Alex Wolff) and a procedure minded nerd (Michael Chen), and a photographer (Katie Chang) who tags along in exchange for not ratting on them stealing her equipment, the friends head out from New York to Connecticut to track down the migrating bird before it’s gone forever.
Minus a subplot about the car they “borrowed” being potentially tied to drug runners (which is an amusing, but slight sidetrack in the story), Meyer creates a nice sense of bonding among his cast to give his material a naturally relaxed feel. It never paints its characters as nerds or outcasts and never really forces them to have any truly clichéd showdowns with high school bullies. These are simply people on a journey, and that simplicity goes a long way. It’s also worth it for nice supporting performances from James LeGros as David’s increasingly frustrated father and Ben Kingsley as the local birding guru the boys look to for advice.
The DVD comes with a commentary track from Meyer and co-writer Luke Matheny, some behind the scenes peeks, and a “Bird Song Hero” feature that will teach you more about bird calls than you probably ever guessed you could learn. (Andrew Parker)
Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Kashales and Navot Papushado, 2013)
It’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino would be so quick to anoint the Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves as his favourite film of the year, because with 75% of the film’s non-stop dialogue made up of oh-so-witty tangential asides or alpha male posturing it fits in quite nicely with the worst aspects of his auteurist visions. Ultimately, Aharon Kashales and Navot Papushado’s intensely overhyped revenge fantasy equates to nothing more than a toothless, toneless satire devoid of real laughs, thrills, or anything that remotely earns the right to be depressing or funny.
A disgraced police officer (Lior Ashkenazi) is pulled from a child abduction case after the girl is found beheaded following a video showing the officer beating information out of the prime suspect (Rotam Keinan) getting uploaded to the internet. The officer never gives up, still stalking the now jobless school teacher, but both are kidnapped and drawn into a torturous revenge plot and search for answers by the dead girl’s father (Tzahi Grad).
There’s nothing here to recommend outside of some unilaterally fine performances from the three leads, all of whom are doing what they can. The fault is ultimately in the material. It would be fine that none of the three guys are likeable if Kashales and Papushado weren’t playing so overly coy about everything. Not once are the actual dynamics or evidence against the accused in the crime ever brought up, but the writing team will go out of its way to include a three minute scene where the father reads back the gory details to the possible culprit before breaking some fingers.
It’s indicative of the whole film, which really wants to be a political satire about how revenge trumps the desire for truth (replete with, I shit you not, an Arab character used as a convenient plot device), but it has no concept of wit or style. It gets off relentlessly on blow torching and toe nail ripping torture, but there’s never a sense of immediacy to any of it. Combine that with a snarky sense of humour and an overbearing orchestral score that would make John Williams snicker, and you get a product that feels like the highest and most unwelcome form of douchy pretension. It’s not fun, or even all that shocking, leading to a (sadly always foreseeable) conclusion that thinks it’s going out on a low note, but is so incompetently managed that it registers as a complete null set. It’s a major disappointment and one of the most overhyped films in recent memory.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds pretty great, though. But aside from one featurette and a a redundant EPK thing from AXS TV (which literally uses bits from the featurette and traler), there aren’t any special features here. (Andrew Parker)
Mr. Jones (Karl Mueller, 2014)
I’m all for pushing boundaries and challenging genre filmmaking to move into weird and different areas, but it needs a leash on it or it runs the risk of running all over the map. Mr. Jones actually has a pretty solid premise, but the balance between style and substance was just way too out of whack for any of it to work.
Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) just moved to a remote cabin to escape the pressures of the world and breathe new life into their art. Not long into their idyllic getaway, they will discover that they are not alone: an infamously reclusive artist, known only as Mr. Jones lives nearby. He doesn’t like to be disturbed, only coming out at night when he drags his strange, sinister sculptures deep into the woods. However, when Scott and Penny’s curiosity leads them to venture too close for Mr. Jones’ comfort, he plunges the young couple into a nightmare world of terror.
It’s ultimately a neat idea, but one that gets far too confusing and esoteric for its own good as Mr. Jones makes some huge, messy jumps in logic.Writer/director Karl Mueller best known for writing the recent festival darling The Divide, certainly has a knack for style and showmanship, setting it all in a POV, found footage style that actually works in the film’s favour. It’s just too unevenly balanced. There’s a lot of style and very little substance. It starts as a story about a creepy guy in the woods, but turns on almost a dime into something much more convoluted and layered then it needed to be. It feels every bit like a first feature that got away from the creator. It needs refining, as the character development is thread bare and plot points get brought up only to get abandoned two minutes later. Some people can have a great vision for something, all on their own and sometimes people need help to get there. For Karl Mueller and his directorial debut, this effort is certainly leaning towards the latter, as our two leads really couldn’t add anything to the experience.
Foster and Jones make for an attractive enough couple for us to get behind as they get into this mess. That being said, the material lets them down, forcing them to make these awkward emotional leaps to move us along the narrative. The establishing first act is decent enough, but the further it went along, the more it ultimately turns into 83 minutes of nonsense.
Mr. Jones strives to cover more themes than it can ultimately handle, and it ends up being way too abstract to be effective as a legitimate piece of horror. It’s more of a head scratcher than anything else.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are solid but there are no special features to speak of. (Dave Voigt)
Bad Country (Chris Brinker, 2014)
Every once in a while you see a movie come across your desk with an A (or at least a B+) cast but it goes straight to DVD and it makes you wonder what could have been so bad about it that it couldn’t get even a token theatrical release. The tide is turning, though, as the terms “straight to video” and “direct to VOD” aren’t necessarily ones that should inspire fear in film fans any more. Bad Country almost comes out ahead in this respect: a basic but gritty crime drama that hits all the necessary notes for it to be an effective yarn.
When Baton Rouge police detective Bud Carter (Willem Dafoe) takes down ruthless contract killer and safe cracker Jesse Weiland (Matt Dillon), he manages to convince Jesse to become an informant and rat out the South’s most powerful crime syndicate. However, when Carter is marked for death and Weiland is made as the snitch, these two former enemies ended up on the same side as they take down the entire organized crime syndicate in Louisiana and the mob boss (Tom Berenger) who was responsible for it all.
Hardly a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, Bad Country manages to keep its nose just above the watermark thanks to the inherent charisma from what was a fairly loaded ensemble cast who don’t embarrass themselves.
Sadly, director Chris Brinker passed away while the film was in post production, and he never got to see his directorial debut. The film successfully captures some of the vibe from the Boondock Saints films that he served as a producer on. The action is well staged, and the need for effects are kept to a minimum as it just feels like a lower budget, grimy crime thriller.
It’s the kind of story that has been done before, but it’s executed without any major hiccups, and while the script made have one too many cooks in the kitchen working on it (as some of the dialogue is decidedly clunky), it still makes for a perfectly acceptable and passable Saturday or Sunday afternoon flick.
The cast leans on their natural abilities to at least make it as engaging as possible. While this has to count as a paycheck type of job for Dafoe, he still makes this rough around the edges police officer work, as we see him bend and even occasionally break the rules for the sake of justice while making sure that the right guy still ends up in prison. Dillon is fine on the other side of that coin as the hardened criminal who just wants to do right by his wife (Amy Smart, who really had nothing to do) and his new born son. Neal McDonough is smarmy enough as a mob lawyer, and Berenger can’t seem to decide if he’s playing his mob boss seriously or for laughs, and his Louisiana accent is the perfect mix of lazy and just kind of horrible.
You don’t need to seek out Bad Country, but you could do a lot worse if an when you stumble upon it one day and you have time to kill.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are solid and the special features include deleted scenes and a looking at the making of the film. (Dave Voigt)
Seven Warriors (Terry Tong and Sammo Hung, 1989)
1989’s Sammo Hung effort Seven Warriors is clearly aping The Seven Samurai and the The Magnificent Seven at the same time without bringing anything new to the table, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
It’s the Warlord Era in China where desperate, out of work soldiers have turn to a life of crime, becoming a roving class of thieves and bandits that terrorize the small towns, pillage them dry and leave absolute ruin behind them. In the small village of Guangxi, the residents decide that enough is enough and they hire seven warriors to defend their homes and guard against the marauders would take everything that they have.
Just because it really doesn’t do anything new, doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth a watch. Seven Warriors could best be described as a film that tries to take the best action from the American version and the best drama from Japanese version and rolls it all into one. It’s not a perfect fit, but they get enough right to at least make it a fun experience.
Directors Terry Tong and Hung certainly get the spirit of the narrative bang on and keep the story moving at a fast pace. It almost needed to slow down just a little in order for each of these characters to be able grow, but it’s almost as if they know the audience has seen at least one of the two films they’re referencing before. The action is solid, albeit unspectacular by Hung’s usually lofty standards.
Fans of Hong Kong action will recognize a few familiar faces in Jacky Cheung, Philip Kwok, and the great Tony Leung holding down key roles. It’s a movie that’s perfectly entertaining that doesn’t have a single thing wrong with, but it is hardly the type of thing that you will be clamoring to see again and again.
Picture and sound quality on the BD are actually pretty solid, but sadly there are no special features. (Dave Voigt)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a gritty, blood and sweat stained drive into the underbelly of humanity that just might be one of the best films in the career of iconic director, Sam Peckinpah.
This the tale of Bennie (Warren Oates), a wayward soul drifting through the bars of Mexico playing the piano for a couple of bucks wherever he can. Along with his beautiful yet fragile prostitute girlfriend (Isela Vega), he happens upon one last big chance at a new life. In order to lay claim to more money than either of them have every dreamed of, all they have to do is retrieve the head of a wanted man. However, this path to freedom is littered with obstacles and peril, some of which are even more dangerous than Bennie himself.
Only available on the Twilight Time Limited Edition Series, Alfredo Garcia is an unapologetically seedy ride into the no man’s land of Mexico where anything goes and it just might be the best film that Sam Peckinpah ever made.
Peckinpah has been on record as stating that this was the only film that he ever got to release as he intended and it shows. Coming on the heels of the wildly unsuccessful Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, this was a film that truly felt as if it was made without restraint. Shot in a grubby haze like there was a layer of sweat on the lens itself, Peckinpah takes us to that place that is truly the last resort for anyone geographically and psychologically. It’s the kind of place where everyone has an open bottle of something in their car and no one is to be trusted. He puts the beautiful countryside right next to some horrific acts of violence and desperation, as Peckinpah paints this picture where the ugly and the beautiful have no choice but to coexist with each other. It’s a remarkable thing to watch, thanks to an amazing and understated performance from Warren Oates.
He doesn’t play Bennie with any grand flourishes as we see a man who is trying to be good in an environment that doesn’t reward that kind of behavior, rather it punishes is it as he tries to get to his pay day. Oates gives Bennie a desperate magnetism as a man who up until now has never genuinely dreamt of anything until this chance lands straight in his lap. Isela Vega brings a world weary emotion and beauty to the role of these two people who can’t help but love each other in a place where having those kind of emotions can be just as painful as a knife in the back or a bullet in the shoulder. Kris Kristofferson has a small but memorable role as a dangerous biker that sets off a chain of events that sends Bennie even further down the rabbit hole in his quest to get out.
It’s a hard movie to watch, as there isn’t really any character that’s all that likeable but Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia thrives today as story that acknowledges the occasional horrors of reality and the demons that they bring and in order to survive them (especially in the lawless countryside of Mexico), you need to embrace them.
It’s a clean, all be it unspectacular HD transfer, and the special features on this disc include an isolate score track, two separate feature length audio commentary tracks one with writer/producer Gordon Dawson and film historian Nick Redman and another with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman again. There’s a nearly hour long featurette about the making of the film, an interview with Garner Simmons recounting his time in Mexico with Peckinpah while making the film, a look back at the promotional stills of the film, along with 6 different TV spots and the original theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)