Home Entertanment Round-Up: 4/7/14

King of Comedy

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982)Dismissed and/or despised during its initial release only to develop a richly deserved cult audience over a long and lonely 30 years, The King of Comedy is possibly the most underrated movie of Martin Scorsese’s legendary career. The film was the capper to Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s unofficial “loner trilogy” following Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and suffered in its inevitable comparison to those masterpieces. The film is neither as stylistically daring or emotionally draining as its predecessors (and lost points with critics at the time for that reason), yet it follows a very similar thematic trajectory. All three films center in on a character defined by a certain antisocial tendency that the director and push to the point of insanity. In Taxi Driver the subject was depression, in Raging Bull it was self-destruction, and in The King of Comedy it was an obsession with fame. In 1982 that gave The King of Comedy a niche subject that general audiences couldn’t relate to and critics felt was beneath their favorite actor/director duo. In the age of Twitter and Reality TV, the film feels practically prophetic and has deservingly grown from a bomb into a masterpiece.

De Niro’s central loner is Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comedian with an act and sense of style as ill suited to his dreams as his name and his tack suits. He’s also undeniably a bit of a nut. He’s unhealthily obsessed with talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and unable to distinguish between his pathetic daily life and his overactive fantasies. Things hit the fan for Rupert when a deranged stalker (Sandra Bernhard) attacks Langford outside of his show and Rupert is able to slide into the back seat with his hero by acting as protector. He rambles to Langford about his desire to be a comedian and the innocent backhanded career advice the famous comic tosses off out of exhaustion sets a spark in Pupkin’s head convincing him that his time has come. He starts showing up at Langford’s office demanding a shot at performing on the show. He can’t take “no” for answer and seems incapable of hearing rejection. Eventually Pupkin’s psychotic obsession dips too far and he decides his only shot at stardom involves teaming up with Bernhard for a celebrity kidnapping and a surprisingly ingenious publicity stunt.

Like Travis Bickle and Jake La  Motta, Rupert Pupkin is such a fascinating character for Scorsese and De Niro to explore because he’s only one frightening degree separated from merely being a sad, normal loner. Pupkin’s desire for acceptance through fame is depressingly common, he just doesn’t know how to turn it off or tone it down. De Niro plays him like a dork, endearing at first and frightening only through delusion and desperation. It’s as strong and distinct a characterization that De Niro and Scorsese ever developed and one so real that he becomes excruciating to watch.

The film is very much a comedy, but hardly one driven by jokes. Its cringe worthy comedy made decades before a time where comedy could be defined by inappropriate behavior and awkward pauses. It’s a rough watch in an era of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office and would have been nearly impossible to take in 1982. There are times when De Niro’s character is so desperate and pathetic that you’ll feel sick to your stomach and want to leave the room. Laughter doesn’t just come out of relatable discomfort, but self-defense (and there are some good old fashioned belly laughs in some scenes, particularly those involving Scorsese’s mother).

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While the movie is very much De Niro’s show and he commands every scene, a pair of standout supporting roles are as crucial to the success of the film. The first is from Lewis, who limits his classic mugging to only a few of scenes and for the most part portrays a tragically lonely man distanced from the rest of the world by fame. It’s easily the finest performance of his career and one clearly derived from personal experience. The other great supporting player is Bernhard, whose obsessed fan crosses the line into an outright dangerous psychosis that De Niro never reveals, yet in the comedienne’s hands somehow remains endearingly comedic. There’s a depth to the performance that the actress ever got a chance to attempt again and she is a crucial character. While Bernhard’s Masha represents pure psychotic fandom objectifying celebrities, Pupkin’s desire for fame stretches into delusional narcissism.

It’s a depressingly common condition that Scorsese, De Niro, and critic-turned-screenwriting Paul Zimmerson gradually and brilliantly push to the point of psychosis. Pupkin’s final desperate stab at fame that concludes the movie is the sequence that’s aged in the most fascinating way. Without getting into details, what once seemed unbelievable now seems frighteningly plausible. To complicate matters further, the way that Scorsese shoots Rupert’s fantasies with the same naturalistic long-take style as his day-to-day life leaves the ending tantalizingly open to interpretation. It could be real and it could be fantasy, but either way its grand, cynical statement on fame that only stings deeper now.

The King of Comedy is an unexpected Blu-Ray release, but a richly deserved one. The film is far from Scorsese’s flashiest effort. In interviews he’s claimed that he was attempting to mimic the flat, simple style of television at the time. Maybe that’s true, but regardless it suits the embarrassment comedy and depressing realism of the film well, allowing scenes to play out painfully long and creating tension purely out of the situations and performances rather than the cinematic syntax. Despite the style, the Blu-Ray transfer is gorgeous. It’s true to the grey and low-key aesthetic, while also revealing rich colors and details in the deep focus photography (particularly during the daytime Manhattan sequences). It’s still a Scorsese movie, so it still looks great and obviously benefits from the long overdue HD debut.

The special feature section isn’t overflowing, but the quality far outweighs quantity. First up is an 18-minute featurette imported from the DVD with Scorsese and Bernhard that’s surprisingly insightful despite the brief running time. New to the disc is a 30-minute 30th anniversary live Q&A with Scorsese, De Niro, and Lewis at the Tribeca film festival. It’s a great piece that actually shows De Niro being a bit more articulate than usual until Lewis shows up and takes over the event by childishly mugging for the crowd in ways that are almost as uncomfortable Pupkin. It would be nice if the  Q&A were a little longer, but it’s a still a fascinating examination of the film and an inadvertent real life depiction of the painful desire for fame. Even more exciting for fans of the film is a full 40 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. It’s mostly comprised of expansions to Pupkin’s pathetic attempts to woo his former high school crush and his imagined talk show appearances, but two standout deleted sequences involving Rupert’s mom and Goodfellas player Chuck Low are worth the price of the disc alone. All of the scenes were understandably cut for running time, but are wonderful to watch on their own. Overall, it’s a far better Blu-ray set than anyone could have imagined The King of Comedy would have received and a strong indication of the film’s well deserved critical re-evalutation. Once dismissed as an embarrassment on their resumes, The King of Comedy is now rightly considered to be one of the finest collaborations of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro’s careers and one the belongs in the collection of any fan of either man. If you thought The Wolf of Wall Street was Scorsese’s first comedy, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise (and just wait till you find After Hours). (Phil Brown)

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) – For those who have lamented the loss the Martin Scorsese they loved as he danced with movie stars and popular genres to Oscar glory in flicks like The Aviator, Hugo, and even The Departed, it’s time to breath a deep sigh of relief. Wolf of Wall Street might boast the scale, gloss, and Leonardo DiCaprio casting of his late career Hollywood darling phase, but the content, style, rush, and remorse of the project are vintage Scorsese to a T. If this was the movie Scorsese was building towards over the last decade, it just might have been worth the wait.

Based on the autobiography of real life Wall Street criminal, drug addict, prick, and fantasist Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street sees Scorsese give white-collar crime the Goodfellas treatment. The voiceover, flowing camera, machine gun editing, wall-to-wall rock soundtrack, dark comedy, and guilty illicit pleasures of Scorsese’s 90s masterpiece are all here. This time it’s just used to tell the tale of a Wall Street criminal instead of a mobbed up hood. Given that the last 20 years have been filled with Goodfellas-style takes on everything from the Brazilian slums to the 70s porn industry, it’s entirely appropriate that the style eventually get slapped on financial crime. That Scorsese would be the one to do it is oddly appropriate given that the global economy has been crippled by the same sort of dirty dealings the filmmaker depicts here. At this point, these well-dressed scumbags are possibly even more dangerous than old timey gangsters.

DiCaprio stars as Belfort in a film that gleefully takes his ego, cocaine, and selective memory fuelled writing as fact. He’s a man who came to Wall Street with noble intentions that were quickly dashed on the first day when a smooth operator (perfectly played by Matthew McConaughey) tells him over lunch that the name of the game is making money and the tools of the trade are hookers and blow. After the 1987 market crash derails Leo’s career, he stumbles into a middle class stock scam that sells penny stocks for massive profits. He quickly befriends a cousin-banging, crack-smoking, buck-toothed business partner who could only be played by Jonah Hill. Together they find a team of former high school friends with no business experience beyond drug dealing and form their own scam-centric financial institution. Then as fast as Scorsese can cut together a montage (which is very fast, indeed), the company skyrockets to the top of the Wall Street heap. Suddenly these morons and petty financial thieves are playing with millions of dollars and the parties/hookers start flowing like Ancient Rome on Quaaludes. Leo tries to settle down with an ex model (Margot Robbie in a star-making turn), but his real passions in life are his additions: drugs, sex-for-cash, and above all money. The man is riding high in a way depressed English teachers and bored students might call hubris and there’s only one way for the story to end. The FBI starts taking a special interest in Jordan’s corrupt practices and…well…you’ve seen Goodfellas.

Above all else, the most pleasant surprise in The Wolf of Wall Street is just how damn funny it plays. Scorsese has dabbled in dark comedy before, but never to this extent. Anyone who questioned why the filmmaking genius would cast Apatow-alum Jonah Hill in his flick should figure it out almost immediately. Scorsese has turned the story into perverse comedy, with every one of Belfort’s fantastical tales of dwarf-tossing, gold-fish eating, and coke-fueled excess turned into exquisite laughter (in particular, there’s a Quaalude slapstick sequence between DiCaprio and Hill that was arguable the funniest sequence in any film last year).

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Some might claim that the film glorifies those despicable actions like the accusations tossed at Goodfellas back in the day and those critics are right to an extent but miss the point. There’s a joy and pleasure in this seductive lifestyle that makes it so appealing. That’s why people want in against their personal morals. By depicting that seductive lifestyle, Scorsese is simply being honest. By making us laugh at the material, he mocks it. Then as the steel trap closes in the concluding hour, the consequences make it clear that the fun wasn’t worth it. And yes, I said concluding hour. This is Scorsese’s longest film to date at 3 hours, but it’s paced so perfectly that it feels shorter than most two-hour Hollywood movies. Sure, you’ll feel the weight of the running time in the final hour, but that’s almost the point. Watching the film feels like partying on amphetamines all night long, sleeping for 15 minutes and waking up with a painful hangover to deal with the consequences.

That butt-numbing running time should be a bit more palatable on home video thanks to pause-button bathroom breaks. With the film proving to be both an Oscar-nominated prestige picture and a massive worldwide hit (the biggest of Scorsese’s career at almost $400 million worldwide), Paramount certainly didn’t skimp on their Blu-Ray presentation. The transfer is astounding, with sleazy detail and whip pan popping off the screen with gorgeous colors and glorious details. The lossless HD soundtrack also fills speakers with Scorsese’s wall-to-wall rock soundtrack nicely. It’s a home entertainment showpiece disc to be sure, even if it’s not one you should ever show off to your immediate family members.

Sadly, the special features section is almost pathetically weak. All Paramount produced is a single 17-minute featurette that features sound-bite interviews with all the main players. Stretched out to an hour, it probably could have been an interesting feature. But at 17 minutes, it never gets out of the back-slapping phase and is pretty disposable. Sadly, there’s nothing else. Not even an unrated cut for the MPAA torturing movie. Chances are Paramount are sitting on a stack of content for a second special edition release down the road. Hopefully they are anyways, because Wolf of Wall Street deserves better.

At least the disc presents the film well and it can speak for itself. The flick represents Scorsese at his best. The 71-year-old auteur finally found a big sweeping Hollywood epic that perfectly suits all his considerable talents and delivered a movie with the vitality than filmmakers less than half his age can’t muster. If only by virtue of fact that Scorsese’s style had such a profound influence on the last 30 years of filmmaking that it’s almost the norm now, the film lacks the shock and awe value of his early classics and is in no danger of cracking into even a top five list of his finest work. However, it’s also the first flick he’s delivered since the 90s even worthy of entering into a greater discussion about and one that calls to mind those classics while still feeling like a movie of the moment. In short, Wolf of Wall Street is a masterpiece and probably the first white-collar crime epic. It’s hard to imagine that Martin Scorsese has another film this strong left in him, so consider it a swan song and a great one. (Phil Brown)

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ANCHORMAN 2:  THE LEGEND CONTINUES

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay, 2013)It’s been a long road from the first Anchorman (jokingly dubbing itself The Legend of Ron Burgundy) to a sequel arriving with the subtitle The Legend Continues without a hint of irony. When Will Ferrell and his co-writer/director Adam McKay first launched their debut, they were still untested SNL vets trying to strike a chord in movies and scored a modest hit for their efforts. Then over the last nine years Anchorman turned into a cult classic and its entire cast became the comedy icons of a generation. By the time Anchorman 2 slipped onto screens last Christmas following one of the longest marketing campaigns in Hollywood history, it was a hot commodity with fevered expectations it could never fulfill. The good news is that the film is damn funny. The bad news is that by design the almost Dada comedy nonsense that Ferrell and McKay whipped up isn’t exactly a conventionally satisfying blockbuster comedy. Thankfully, as always, funny wins out with this sort of thing and the duo deliver a flick that should keep their fans giggling and meme-ing for quite some time, even if they didn’t quite create a new classic or deliver a monster hit.

The film once again charts the rise and fall of the great Ron Burgundy. This time he was passed over for a big primetime promotion for his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), which sends him into an alcoholic spiral. He ends up drunkenly ranting at Sea World before being given the opportunity to help launch the first 24-hour news network. So, the man with the fantabulous mustache and salon quality hair reunites his old news team. He finds sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) selling deep fried bats (“the chickens of the cave”) at a fast food restaurant, reporter extraordinaire Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) working as a professional cat photographer, and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) at his own funeral. All of them jump at the chance to get back in the biz and so the film moves to New York. From there the narrative stops, starts, fizzles, and soars like surrealist sketch comedy. Sketches include a brain dead love story between Carell and Kristen Wiig, a racially insensitive love story between Ron and his African American boss (Meagan Good), and a satirical arc in which Ron and company invent tabloid journalism. It all kind of comes together, but not really, and that would be a problem were it not for the fact that the original Anchorman was always lacking in the plot structure department anyways. (Remember that plot thread about endangered pandas? Well, you shouldn’t.)

Ferrell and McKay burst out of the box with a very distinctive comedy style that they’ve pursued through some big triumphs (Step Brothers and the Broadway Show/HBO special You’re Welcome America) and somewhat mediocre yuk-fests (Talladega Nights and The Other Guys). Their humor is pitched somewhere between highbrow Monty Python silliness and base level stupidity and it’s always wonderful to watch unfold. Even at their best, Ferrell and McKay are hit and miss. While they are true originals, a fair point of comparison would be the early films of The Zucker Brothers (Airplane!, Top Secret!, Police Squad!, etc!). Like the Zuckers, Farrell and McKay create joke factories. That comedy style revolves around the philosophy that if a joke fails (and plenty do here), it’s not that big of a deal since the next one is only seconds away. That philosophy works well in Anchorman 2, which throws enough jokes at the wall to land some big laughs (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Will Ferrell bottle-feed a baby shark). The core cast from last time all deliver the goods (especially the perpetually underrated Koechner) and a few key scenes will leave the audience in physical pain from laughter. If anything the problem with the movie is that it’s too much of a good thing.

Coming in just under the two-hour mark (almost thirty minutes longer than the original), the experience of watching the flick can be exhausting. Last time McKay managed to trim an extra feature film worth of material to make Anchorman a reasonable length and the sequel could have benefited from that relentless trimming as well (even though it would have been far harder to trim improv gold delivered by some of the most famous faces in comedy). Likewise, while it was admirable and clever for McKay to toss in a little tabloid news satire and mock racial politics, those serious satirical intentions can sit a little awkwardly next to all the apolitical silliness (The Other Guys also suffered from misplaced satirical intent). Still, these complaints are fairly minor in what is otherwise an almost unfairly funny film from two masters of their craft. Now that the movie is available on an extras-packed Blu-Ray, it’s all too easy to see the embarrassment of riches they had in the editing room and understand just how hard it must have been to cut things down to feature length.Paramount’s Anchorman 2 Blu-ray is a real feast for comedy nerds who love to sample deleted scenes and unused improv. The first disc alone would be enough for this to qualify a loaded set, while the second ensures there’s almost too much content here (with almost being the key word).

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First off, it must be said that the audio/visual specs are pretty spectacular. It’s a gorgeous and rich transfer that ensures no bit of tacky production design will go unseen and no ironic ballad on the soundtrack will be unappreciated. Now, the special features…this will take a while. The first disc kicks off with an extended cut of the movie featuring a few gags deleted for the ratings board. That cut of the film also features commentary from McKay, Ferrell, Carell, Rudd, Koechner, and Judd Apatow that’s always hilarious to listen to, even if it’s a bit light on facts and production details because the gang just can’t stop their joshing around.

Next up is an 18-minute featurette that covers all the basic “why’d you make this movie/cast this celebrity” questions and shows off a few outtakes. Speaking of outtakes, there’s a full ten minutes of flubs and fuck ups here that’s well worth a look/giggle for fans of such things. After that comes 8-minutes of Line-o-Rama alternate line improvs that shows off more than a few gags funnier than what made the final cut. Then as if that isn’t enough there are three more Line-O-Rama features focused on the Cat Fight, the news announcements, and best of all Ron Burgundy’s bottoming out Sea World segment that are absolutely glorious. Finally, about 20-minutes of footage from the original table read is included and it’s surprising how many scenes in the final movie actually stuck the script (especially my two favorite scenes involving deep fried bats and on-camera crack smoking).

I’ll bet you think that’s enough special features for one comedy? Think again wise guy, because there’s a whole other disc. First up a 2.5 hour R-rated cut featuring extra naughty bits, a musical number, and hundreds of alternate line readings. It’s a lot of fun to sift through, but also waaaaay too long and best absorbed in multiple sittings. After that, there are ten minutes of amusing scenes that were deleted for good reason and a full 90 minutes (!!!!!)  of extended scenes featuring even more alternate improvs and line readings not found anywhere on the disc. Next up comes a collection of animatics for the few special effects sequences in the movie and 45-minutes of making-of featurettes about said special effects sequences, the abandoned musical version of the film, and the epic superstar packed action finale (all of which are laid back, fun, and informative).

Finally, there’s the usual collection of trailers and an absolutely hilarious song that Jack Black performed at a charity reading of the script in which he sings about how pissed off he is about not being in the sequel in that hilariously faux-arrogant way only JB can muster. It’s one of the most insanely stacked discs I’ve ever sat through, but a pretty damn funny one for fans of Anchorman 2.  Will Farrell and Adam McKay joints usually play better one 4th or 5th viewing once you’ve become accustomed to their occasionally awkward rhythms, so this flick is likely only going to get better over time. Anchorman 2 is definitely a worthy sequel to Anchorman, but it is a sequel and a slight case of diminishing returns applies. Warts and all this was easily one of the funniest flicks of last year and kind of a big deal. Ditto the Blu-Ray. Go by it, a case of scotch, and make sweet comedy love to yourself all weekend long. Actually, you better call in sick on Monday, too. (Phil Brown)

Darkman

Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990) – Before he became one of the most financially successful directors of all time on the back of his Spider-man trilogy, Sam Raimi was one of the greatest cult filmmakers alive. His Evil Dead movies are the stuff of legends, but just as ridiculously entertaining and batshit insane is his 1990 superhero/Universal monster movie mash-up Darkman. The flick was made at a peculiar time in Raimi’s career. Evil Dead 1 and 2 were out, so he was regarded as a talent in the industry, but had yet to make a studio movie. He desperately wanted to direct Batman or The Shadow, but lost both gigs due to age and inexperience. Out of frustration, he decided to create his own damn superhero instead. Normally, that doesn’t work, but in this case, it somehow did. Darkman was easily the best superhero movie made in the post-Burton Batman era even though it didn’t have an established comic book backstory. But since Raimi was a genuine comic book fan with one of the wildest cinematic imaginations of all time, he managed to nail the comic book tone better than any old farts copying straight out of the funny pages. Plus, when the studio refused to let him use buddy Bruce Campbell in the lead role, Raimi cast Liam Neeson as an action lead a full 18 years before Taken. Yep, there are a lot of reasons to love Darkman and only two reasons to hate it: either you hate superheroes or you have no joy in your heart. Regardless, I pity you and this glorious Blu-Ray courtesy of Shout Factory is not for you. Good day, sir!

The plot is as weird as you’d expect from an early Sam Raimi movie. Neeson stars as a scientist working on artificial skin. His experiments work, except that the skin melts after 99 minutes. That’s a problem, but one Neeson never gets a chance to address. Before he can, his girlfriend gets mixed up in a convoluted real estate scam involving super evil gangster Durant (Larry Drake). Durant shows up in Neeson’s lab and blows it up. Neeson ends up covered in burn scars, impervious to pain, and prone to hulk-like fits of rage. He’s essentially a tragic Universal monster like Frankenstein or The Invisible Man, but he’s also got a justified lust for revenge and the means to perfectly disguise himself as anyone he wants thanks to his scientific super skin.

It’s a weird movie, but one perfectly pitched to Sam Raimi’s unique skills. There’s never a second where you’d mistake the movie as reality, but you don’t need to. Raimi doesn’t really make movies set in the real world (well, except for the masterful A Simple Plan), he makes live action cartoons and Darkman is a pretty perfect one. In a way, it’s shame that Bruce Campbell didn’t get a chance to play the title role, because the big-chinned man is a breathing ironic quotation mark who could have transformed Darkman into a comedy. However, if the flick couldn’t have been made with Bruce, Neeson was a pretty fascinating second choice. Neeson commits to this cartoon-like Shakespeare and somehow makes you believe it (ditto Frances McDormand to a lesser extent in the damsel in distress role). He’s asked to do some trademark Raimi silliness, but by then he’s covered in Darkman make-up and barely recognizable so it works. Around the edges, the film is a big goofy comedy thanks to Raimi regulars like Dan Hicks and Ted Raimi, not to mention Larry Drake whose scowling villain almost steels the movie away on the strength of his performance. The only weak link in the cast is the ultimate bad guy, Colin Friels. Yet by the time he takes center stage it’s in the middle of an action scene on an unfinished skyscraper, he’s easy to ignore.

Speaking of action, whoo-boy does this ever have some good stuff. Given access to studio resources for the first time, Raimi cuts loose on a massive rollercoaster.  In particular, the centerpiece action scene involving Darkman and a helicopter remains a stunner that few films have matched since. Sure, there are a couple of poorly composed optical effects that give away the movie’s fairly meager budget, but at this point the way those scenes date the movie add to its artificiality in a way that almost feels like part of the style. So in other words, Darkman is pitch-perfect pure entertainment and it’s even backed by a vintage Danny Elfman score when the man was at his prime.

As far as Shout’s Blu-Ray goes, it’s a big winner. The transfer and sound mix comes from Universal’s old barebones disc, but thankfully that’s not a problem. It was a pretty perfect restoration marred only by the dated source, so there was no room for Shout to improve it. Instead, they focused on the special feature section. Things kick off with an audio commentary by legendary cinematographer Bill Pope. You’d think that would be a dry tech track, but Pope is such a hilarious storyteller with a photographic memory that it’s a pure joy to listen to. Next up comes a series of 10-15 minute interviews with McDormand, Drake, and make-up designer Tony Gardner that are all fascinating in their own way given that they all of very fond memories of the movie and Raimi. The interviews continue with two fifteen-minute featurettes on the henchmen character actors and the art directors that are just as fun as informative.

Sadly, the folks at Shout Factory couldn’t get Raimi himself to participate in the disc, but they did dig up a 25-minute interview with him from 1990 that covers just about everything you’d want to hear. On top of that they also dug up a pair of vintage 30-minute interviews with Neeson and McDormand, as well as the original 8-minute making-of piece on the film filled with behind-the-scenes footage. Toss in the usual trailers, TV spots, and still galleries and you’ve got one of the most overflowing discs that Shout Factory has ever released.  Sure, you could get nitpicky and complain that they didn’t compile all the old and new interviews into a fantabulous feature length documentary, but that would just be me being a jerk. Aside from a Raimi audio commentary, this is a perfect Darkman disc featuring everyone you could possibly want. It’s also possibly the finest Blu-Ray Shout has produced since they got into the genre movie game. This isn’t just a must own, but a disc you should be ashamed not to have in your collection if you’re a fan of Darkman, Sam Raimi, Liam Neeson, superheroes, or cult movies in general. Turn off your computer and go buy it now. You won’t regret it. (Phil Brown)

 

El Dorado

El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966) – This is one of the few films in history that you can’t go wrong by watching.  El Dorado is a classic entry into the canon of westerns starrting ‘The Duke‘ -John Wayne – and a grippingly compelling yarn showcasing the decidedly unromantic side of the old west.

As hired gunman Cole Thornton (John Wayne) heads into El Dorado he quickly learns that things aren’t quite as they seem. He turns down a job with shady businessman Bart Jason (Edward Asner) since it would mean having to go up against his old friend and current sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum). They part ways and some months later he finds out the lawman is on the bottle after being given the run around by a beautiful young woman, and a top gunfighter (Christopher George) is heading his way to help Jason and take the sheriff down . Along with his new friend, young Mississippi (James Caan), Cole returns to town to help the only people he’s ever been able to call friends.

A classic western in the truest sense of the word, El Dorado is one of the most iconic films ever put to screen thanks to some classic veteran swagger from Wayne and Mitchum that clearly defines that lines between good and evil that were often a lot blurrier in the genre.The second to last movie in the directorial career of revered filmmaker Howard Hawks, El Dorado just might be one of his very best, and that says something.  These movies were never designed to portray any high minded ideals or overly intellectual concepts, but Hawks navigates this story deftly and on a deeply human level.  It’s a story of friendship in a time when a man was only as good as his word and you always had to be looking over your shoulder.  The script from Leigh Brackett that was adapted from the novel by Harry Brown does that and then some, strengthening the themes and giving Hawks and the cast plenty to work with.

It’s a good looking film, but it’s not the kind of western where you get swept up into the big scenic vistas that were common place in contemporary films in the genre by the likes of John Ford. By 1966 standards this is about as gritty a big budget film as they come.  Hawks makes it work incredibly well, because while these men’s standards of right and wrong are simply impeccable, they’re incredibly flawed people brought to life by some excellent performances.Most casual film fans have a tendency to think that Wayne was basically just playing himself his films.  While there is a modicum of truth to that statement, the films of Wayne really were an exploration of the male psyche, and this film shows an actual performance instead of just having the icon show up, do his thing, and leave.  A hard ass with emotional nuance, he always brought a genuine degree of emotion to his roles as he was either saving the day or simply looking for a place to call home.  It’s not a complex performance he delivers here, but it is a concise one.  Mitchum is note perfect playing opposite him as his old friend, getting to explore some of the areas that  Wayne’s character was keeping bottled up.  Caan, in one of his first big screen roles, is brimming with the natural charisma that made him a movie star and the historically affable Ed Asner is surprisingly effective as a viscous and opportunistic land baron and “businessman” in the old west.

Simple and masterfully executed, El Dorado is required viewing for fans of Wayne, Mitchum, and Hawks, and anyone looking to get into westerns. Special features includes two feature length commentary tracks, one from director and historian Peter Bogdanovich and another featuring historian and critic Richard Schickel along with actor Ed Asner and writer Todd McCarthy.  A look behind the scenes of the movie with Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado, a historical look at John Wayne and the original theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)

Cat People

Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982) – Probably most famous now for its David Bowie sung theme song (which made a cameo in Inglourious Basterds), Cat People is one strange fucking movie. It’s a remake of a classic 1942 horror film renowned for subtle scares that was that was trumped up for the gore-sploitation 80s horror market by producer Jerry Bruckheimer. To helm his popcorn monster remake, Bruckheumer weirdly hired arthouse misery porn specialist Paul Schrader, who had a healthy cocaine habit at the time and was also in a deeply unhealthy relationship with his leading lady Nastassja Kinski. The production was an endlessly delayed disaster and the box office returns were putrid. On paper it should be a big steaming mess of a movie unfit for consumption (kind of like Schrader’s Exorcist prequel that Warner Brothers was so unhappy with that they hired Renny Harlin to shoot an entirely new version). At times the movie is a mess (if always a glorious one), but somehow it comes together into something fascinating and rather special. It took a long time for a Cat People cult to develop, but it happed and it was richly deserved. The good folks at Shout Factory even decided to plop the film onto Blu-Ray and it’s a film that desperately deserves the treatment. Love or loath what Schrader threw together in a cocaine haze, you’ll certainly never forget it.

Kinski stars as a mysteriously sexy woman of mysteriously sexy European origin with an early 80s appropriate androgynous fashion sense. It’s the type of role that would have sent casting directors looking for a “Nastassja Kinski type,” so it’s lucky they got the real thing. She arrives in New Orleans to meet the brother she’s been seeking all her life. Turns out that brother is Malcolm McDowell, which is the first sign that something is wrong. To make matters worse McDowell is a cat person, meaning that every time he has sex with a lady, he turns into a black panther and can’t go back to being human until he kills a human. So, it’s a tough racket. The only way he can make bacon without having to kitty-kill is to share the sack with another cat person. The only trouble is that the only cat person left is his sister. So he suggests they make incestuous sexy time, just like their parents did before they were separated. Surprisingly, the virginal Kinski doesn’t approve and thus a horror yarn kicks off.

Very loosely based on the 1942 Cat People (it’s really only the title, the cat people, and two direct references that remain), Schrader’s movie is another one of his tales of self-destructive sexual obsession. The cat people metaphor is a good one to hang his themes on and the film works as one of his creepy character studies that have viewers running to the showers when the credits roll. As a horror yarn, it also works surprisingly well. The use of actual animals and practical gore effects stings hard. Aside from some endearingly cheesy flashback/fantasy scenes, all of the scares make a bigger impact than any CGI genre offering today.

Bruckheimer’s populist hand ensures enough bursts of violence and nudity (whoo-boy, tons of that!) break up Schrader’s existential brooding and the mix works well. Schrader kept the performances and characters strong, Bruckheimer brought the popcorn appeal and they met in the sleazy middle. It’s halfway between classical myth and disposable trash, mixing together the finest charms of each category. Backed up with stunning visuals designed by Bertolucci’s right hand man Ferdinando Scarfiotti and the synth-tacular skills of Giorgio Moroder (and of course David Bowie), Cat People plays like a 80s pop with an art house after taste and over time it’s aged better than the team’s actual hit American Gigolo. Audiences and critics might not have noticed at the time, but in hindsight the flick is a perfect mix of Schrader’s peculiar predilections and traditional grindhouse thrills.

Shout Factory clearly noticed as well, giving the film an absolutely astounding restoration of what might be the finest technical achievement of Schrader’s career that pops right off HD screens. It’s a sumptuous, sensual sensory experience that plays infinitely better after the glorious restoration. On the special feature front, Shout got interviews with Schrader, Kinski, McDowell, Moroder, and a few other supporting players, but oddly didn’t cut together a documentary. Instead we get chopped down 10-minute interviews with everyone, but at least they’re all worth a watch (in particular, Kinski gives one of the most drugged out and detached interviews I’ve ever seen on a DVD, McDowell spins wonderful harsh yarns as only he can, and Schrader is at his sleazy/thoughtful best, complete with a stained shirt for HD appreciation).

It’s not as stacked a disc as fans might have hoped for (the doc and/or commentary from the old DVD could have at least been ported over), but the transfer and the film are worth it. Sure, Cat People is far from the deepest film Paul Schrader ever made nor is it the fastest past monster movie of the 80s. But the fact that it somehow finds a middle ground between those disparate styles is pretty wonderful and must be seen by fans of either the director or the genre. (Phil Brown)

 

The Shadow

The Shadow (Russell Mulcachy, 1994) – When Tim Burton’s Batman made roughly a bazillion dollars in 1989 (after inflation, of course), the studios heads really showed their age in response. Obviously, there was an explosion of comic book and superhero movies in Hollywood searching for that sweet sweet Batman cash. All they got right was the packaging. Movie stars were covered in foam rubber to play supervilains like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, millions of t-shirts were printed, action figures filled shelves, and every marketing campaign had a Batman-style logo and McDonalds tie-in. Clearly all of our favorite DC and Marvel superheroes made it to the big screen in the 90s, right?

Well, not so much. Rather than capitalizing on the wealth of pre-established superhero properties available in comic book stores right around their noses, the studio heads instead decided to make movies based on the heroes they liked as a kid. So, we got blockbusters like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Phantom, and The Shadow. Weirdly, 90s kids didn’t flock out to see 40s-set gumshoe movies in the same numbers that they turned up to see Batman. It’s as if the target audience had no idea who those characters were and didn’t care. Who could have foreseen that? Maybe anyone younger than 60.  Looking back on a move like The Shadow now in fancy pants new Shout Factory Blu-Ray, it definitely feels like a relic from another time. It’s not without interest or entertainment, but it’s no mystery why this sucker flopped.

Based a popular Orson Welles-voiced radio show, The Shadow was legendary in the 30s, and the mysterious character is based almost entirely around his gravely voice taunting evil-doers from the darkness. It’s not the most visual character in the world (which is a problem the movie never quite overcomes), but the character was iconic and with a strapping young Alan Baldwin cast in the lead the film should have been a nostalgic treat. Unfortunately the movie is equally frustrating and enthralling. For every enjoyable scene with The Shadow taunting his foes, there are a dozen flaccid sequences desperately trying to make sense of a ridiculous plot involving a psychic descendent of Genghis Khan trying to take over the world from an invisible building in New York.

Granted, that plot is no less silly than many superhero flicks that are genuine hits, but it proves to be particularly difficult to take thanks to Highlander director’s Russell Mulcachy’s dull direction. Mulcachy cast his film well (the likes of Tim Curry, Ian McKellan, and Peter Boyle mug it up with Baldwin), but then seemed to stop caring about anything other than production design. The quippy script from David Koepp came at the peak of his Hollywood career, but it was clearly tossed off in between other high-profile writing assignments and shot a few drafts away from completion. Filmed entirely on the studio lot, the flick has a delightfully old-timey Hollywood feel (indeed the few blasts of early CGI are the weakest visuals). But Mulcachy seemed to get lost in the sets and under the weight of the production. Every sequence lacks urgency, which is a bit of a problem in an action movie. It’s a grand, expensive creation to be sure, just an inexplicably dull one.Still, there’s fun to be had simply for camp and nostalgia value. They don’t make movies like this any more and they didn’t even really then, with oodles of odd dramatic lighting cues from the 40s employed that bring out endless chuckles. Likewise Curry’s magnificent over-acting and McKellen’s weirdly wasted under-acting have their charms. At the center of it all is Baldwin working his voice like a magnificent instrument when he isn’t looking lost and confused in Mulcachy’s monstrous sets (an inexplicable prologue with Baldwin as a long-fingernailed warlord is particularly hilarious in hindsight).

The Shadow is a failure, but a magnificent one that’s as enjoyable to watch for what went wrong as what went right. The new Blu-Ray from Shout cleaned the film up to look like a million bucks and all of the massive sets and meticulously designed matt paintings look so good in HD that you’ll curse the fact that Hollywood can’t be bothered with such physical productions anymore. The lone special feature is a 25-minute documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew and it’s a pretty fascinating one. Everyone seems to have fond memories of the movies (particularly Baldwin), but it’s clear they are somewhat shocked anyone wants to talk about it today. Amusingly, everyone praises Koepp’s script and no one mentions Mulcachy other than the man himself, confirming that he always was the problem. It’s a shame that Sam Raimi never got to make The Shadow given that he tried desperately to get the job and had all the skills with spectacle, pacing, action, and humor that this movie sorely lacked. Still, as an archival piece The Shadow is fascinating to watch. It’s amazing how far off the Batman mark these 90s superhero flicks never failed to be, but at the same time The Shadow certainly holds up better than Dick Tracy these days. The fact that anyone could ever get behind that candy colored empty promise is one of the biggest mysteries of 1990.  (Phil Brown)

 

Night of the Demons

Night of the Demons (Kevin S. Tenney, 1988) – The 80s were the golden age of horror movies, not just because of the parade of classics that flickered across screens, but also because of the unusually high quality of the dreck that made millions on VHS. Take Night of the Demons, for example. In many ways, it’s completely disposable. The plot was clichéd when the filmmakers Xeroxed it from the back of the boxes of a dozen other horror movies. The acting is stiff. The pacing is horrendous. It doesn’t even pretend to have subtext. However, the effects are fantastic, the scares are plentiful once things get going, and everyone involved had their tongues planted so firmly in their cheeks that all of the cheese is just part of the fun. Sequels followed, cult appreciation bubbled up, and it’s undeniably fun to watch. Released in the 90s or 2000s, it would probably stand as one of the most memorable genre movies of the era. Taken from the 1988, it’s not even one of the best horror movies of that year. That’s not a knock on the goofy and charming Night of the Demons, but a reflection of how well the genre was thriving at the time. Regardless, Shout Factory finally got their hands on this Halloween slumber party classic and it’s a damn good time in HD.

The plot can be summed up as such: a bunch of teenager have a party in a creepy house on Halloween. Obviously they get bumped off by something. Since the movie is called Night of the Demons, you’ll know what that something is before you even start. It’s all standard stuff and truthfully while the characters and situation are being set up for 40 minutes, the only appeal is the camp value inherent in the cornball dialogue and stiff performances. Yet, once the rubber monster movie make up comes on, director Kevin S. Tenny (Witchboard) lights up and delivers one hit after the next. Bauhaus dance sequence with a vamping goth? Check (thanks Amelia Kinkdale!). Gratuitous nudity? Check (Thanks Linnea Return Of The Living Dead Quigley). Incredible make up and gore? Check (Thanks Steve Ghostbusters/Videodrome Johnson). Idiotic disposable characters who you want to see die and a screenplay that’s fit to be laughed at every time you’re not screaming? Check (thanks everyone else). Make no mistake, Night of the Demons is as disposable of a B-movie as the title suggests. It’s just also a textbook example of how to do that perfectly and one that earned a spot in the heart of every VHS clutching 80s horror nut.

Even though Night of the Demons isn’t really a classic, Shout Factory has given it one of their most lavish special editions to date. It’s safe to say that the independent production didn’t look or sound anywhere near this good on screens in the 80s, so where they even dug up a print this strong is mystery but good for them. Beyond that, you’ll get the old director and producers audio commentary from the DVD as well as a new audio commentary with the director, three actors, and the FX artist Steve Johnson. Not enough? How about a feature length (that’s right, feature length) documentary on the film that features interviews from everyone involved in production except for the caterers (to be fair, it was such a low budget production that the producers probably self-catered, so maybe that isn’t true).

Then on top of that there’s an extra 20-min interview with star Amelia Kinkade whose ironic diva sense of humor is a delight, a featurette on mementos that co-star Alison Barron kept from the set, trailers, storyboards, stills, FX tests, radio spots, and even the promo reel used the hock the movie to distributors (whew!). Yep, its safe to say that if there’s anything that you still want to know about Night Of The Demons by the time this disc has stopped playing, there’s something wrong with you and not the Blu-ray. This is a fantastic release from Shout Factory and even if it’s not the finest film they’ve put out that got this spectacular treatment, at least it shows their commitment to honoring even the cheesiest of vintage horror in a way that should make genre fans giddy. (Phil Brown)

The Horror at 37000 Feet

The Horror at 37,000 Feet (David Lowell Rich, 1973) There’s nothing like a blast from the past in order to stir up some genuinely unexpected entertainment.  The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a 41 year old TV movie that makes for an effective little ghost story that is so earnest in its execution you just can’t help but get a kick out of it all.

On a flight from London to Los Angeles, a wealthy architect (Roy Thinnes) and his wife (Jane Merrow) have rented out a jumbo jet’s entire cargo hold to transport a precious artifact; an altar from an ancient abbey that unbeknownst to them carries a deadly secret.  Not long after the fight is in the air, the crew (with Chuck Connors as the captain), the passengers (featuring William Shatner as a cynical and drunk ex-priest, Buddy Ebsen as an arrogant millionaire and Paul Winfield as a doctor) begin to face an unexpected kind of airborne jeopardy as a supernatural demonic horror escapes from the altar seeking a victim to possess and revenge on those who would desecrate it’s ancient ritual site.

While I can’t honestly say that The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a good movie, it is a surprisingly entertaining one as it makes effective use of its surroundings and effectively draws us into the narrative despite some of its obvious limitations.

 Directed by TV veteran David Lowell Rich who was also behind the camera for one of the better entries into the Airport series; The Concorde: Airport ’79, is well versed at executing a story inside a small space and after some minimal set up in the airport terminal we are basically on the plane for the rest of the film.  At a lean and mean 73 minute running time, it gets right to the point fairly quickly while the teleplay from the writing team of Ron Austin and Jim Buchanan forces us to deal with some little mini-monologues and silly character development arches it all works as a nice little bottled in type of ghost story thanks to some pretty decent performances who buy into the nature of the material.

 William Shatner as our cynical, sardonic and done with the world ex-priest was exactly what this movie needed.  It need him to be Bill Shatner, turned up all the way to 11.  A broken, but everyday type of man who over comes his obstacles to become a hero.  Shatner gave it all his trademark swagger as he stares evil in the face just because he can.  It was a bit of a swerve casting wise as trademark TV hero Chuck Connors as out captain just didn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do.  Buddy Ebsen must have had some fun playing against type as the arrogant know it all millionaire while his hit detective show Barnaby Jones was still on the air and while this was still in the early part of Paul Winfield’s career and I’m sure he was just happy to have the work.

While there are no special features on this DVD release of The Horror at 37,000 Feet, I’ve got to say that the fact that it even exists on any format is just a win for anybody who enjoys something a little cheesy but also a little classic all at the same time. (Dave Voigt)

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