The June Home Entertainment Round-Up

LEGO

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014) – On paper The Lego Movie should be a heartless blockbuster toy advertisement like Transformers or Battleship. Thankfully, the project fell into the hands of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who specialize in creating magical comedies out of terrible ideas (Clone High, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street). This is the best Hollywood animated film since Pixar started phoning in sequels. It’s filled with the barrage of pop culture in-jokes that one would expect from a Lord/Miller joint and the Lego brand, but also laced with a heartwarming adoration for the free-form imagination and creativity that Lego has inspired in generations of children. In other words, it’s hard to imagine that there will be a better animated film spit out of the studio system this year.

The plot falls somewhere between Toy Story and The Matrix, taking place in an all-Lego world that’s ruled with a plastic/iron fist by the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) who wants Legoland to be segregated by genre and defined by the rigid conformity of instruction books. Enter Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), a humble construction worker whose life is defined by routine, yet somehow ends up being dubbed “The Special,” a Neo-like chosen one who will break down the walls between the Legolands and encourage the world to be defined by creative building once again.

It all sounds oddly complicated, but in the hands of Lord/Miller, the tale is a lightening-paced, joyous, childish adventure. It’s the type of movie where Batman and Morgan Freeman might pop up for self-mocking cameos at any moment, yet at the same time the filmmakers have a final twist in store that will transform the entire pop culture melting pot into a touching ode to the playful sense of imagination that these little plastic blocks have pulled out of children for decades.

Lord/Miller clearly love this subject matter and that adoration spills out into every frame of The Lego Movie. The CGI animation is done in the herky-jerky style of a homemade stop motion Lego movie to stunning effect. The entire voice cast is stacked with celebrities like Pratt, Ferrell, Freeman, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, and Charlie Day, with every actor given at least one major laugh to launch at the audience. Watching the flick is pure joy and the filmmakers never lose track of the emotional heart hidden beneath all the jokes and set pieces. It’s the type of big, bright, hilarious adventure that defines children’s cinematic dreams and pulls adults who should know better into the theater for a candy-colored blast of nostalgic entertainment that won’t crap on any nostalgic attachments.

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The Lego Movie arrives on Blu-Ray in a pretty package befitting its massive success, but also filled with only a handful of handmade special features nailing home the humble origins of the unexpected massive success. In terms of the technical presentation, the visuals are beautiful, with poping colors and rich detail that reveal just how carefully the filmmakers crafted the movie to feel massive and yet still look like it was made by hand from children’s toys. The audio mix, on the other hand, goes the other way, playing like a massive blockbuster in a way that often hilariously clashes with the child’s toy aesthetic.

Special features are primarily geared to children, and that’s fair enough. There are a couple of featurettes explaining the animation and storyboard process in a way that kids can grasp while also showing off the artistry involved. There are also a handful of animated shorts (clearly made with actual Lego) that are one off promotional clip oriented jokes that are far more entertaining than they have any right to be (especially the “emo Batman” music video). Toss in some instructional videos on how to build various Lego props from the movie, a few unfinished deleted scenes and some fan-made Lego movies made for a contest, and you’ve got a wonderful package for kids.

For the grown up children buying the disc, there’s a hilarious audio commentary from Miller, Lord, Pratt, Arnett, Day, Brie, and Banks (via telephone) that’s filled with production anecdotes, Easter eggs, jokes, quips, and just pure entertainment like the film itself (favorite commentary tidbit: The Macho And The Nerd faux movie poster from Emmet’s apartment is the actual Russian title for 21 Jump Street). It’s a wonderful commentary that suits the film and shows the spirit of goof-off jokes, creativity, and affability behind the flick.

The Lego Movie perfectly captures the appeal of Lego and family blockbusters. It’s a film that really shouldn’t have worked and yet already feels like a classic after a few viewings. That’s a bit of a filmmaking miracle, a quality that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have turned into a specialty. The duo has enjoyed a pretty damn impressive year so far between this brilliant bit of animation and the meta lunacy of 22 Jump Street. With two major hits in a single year under their belt, the boys should be in that rare position of being able to make whatever they damn well please in Hollywood and it’ll be damn exciting to see what they come up with now that they’ve got carte blanche. Sure, it’ll be hard to top The Lego Movie, but no matter what the results, it’ll be a blast to watch them try. (Phil Brown)

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Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) – Like all of the films of Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is stylized with the precision of Stanley Kubrick on a gallon of espresso. Every frame is meticulously designed, every character cast with an actor who gives him or herself over to the deadpan house acting style, and the script shoots for a tone pitched between New Yorker cartoon whimsy and New Yorker JD Salinger melancholy.  Anderson has almost become the new Woody Allen, creating films that fall predictably within a particular directorial mandate cast in stone at some point in the middle of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Yet, the joy of watching an Anderson picture (like Woody at his best) is seeing what he’s able to accomplish within his parameters this time. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s created a murder mystery, wrapped in a caper, hidden in action movie that’s ultimately another one of his broken family fables.  Somehow it all works. In fact, it’s rather wonderful and just might be his finest film since Tenenbaums.

Unfolding in flashbacks within flashbacks (each one amusingly distinguished by a different cinematic aspect ratio), we’re introduced to the narrator known only as Author (Tom Wilkinson) who tells the story of the meeting he had as a young man (Jude Law) with the mysterious owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel (F. Murray Abraham). However, the real story at the heart of the film is the one that Abraham tells about his time as a lobby boy with a penciled on mustache (Tony Revolori) working for the dapper, foul-mouthed, perfectionist M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  Gustave was a difficult, yet charismatic man who loved his job as much as he loved seducing the wealthy old ladies who stayed in the hotel. One of these elderly trysts was with Madame D. (Tilda Swinton covered in old age pancake make up), the owner of the Grand Budapest who gifted the hotel and a priceless painting to Fiennes in her will. Unfortunately her children (who look like they were drawn by Edward Gorey) don’t take too kindly to that decision. Led by a dastardly Adrien Brody and his assistant Willem Dafoe (whose performance is essentially a collection of exquisite snarls), the kiddies lead an attack on Gustave in an attempt to ruin his life and steal his inheritance. An adventure kicks off involving an SS-styled military organization led by Edward Norton, a secret society of hotel managers led by Bill Murray, a prison escape led by Harvey Kietel, and of course roles for Jeff Goldblum and Owen Wilson. If that all sounds convoluted, then fear not. Somehow in Anderson’s capable hands it plays like an exquisitely wound Swiss watch with a spectacular soundtrack.

Like all Wes Anderson joints, the film is gorgeously designed with stunning eye candy that somehow only enhances its complex emotional core. The performances are of course superb, particularly Fiennes who plays the finest lovable Anderson asshole since Gene Hackman and shows off some physical comedy chops that I doubt he even knew he had. The jokes flow and the emotions sting; it does everything we’ve come to expect from the director only this time with suspense and action sequences. Wes attempted these things before in The Life Aquatic (see below), but they felt somewhat awkwardly staged and tonally inappropriate. Here Anderson stages Bond-like chases sequences with deliberately archaic miniature effects that perfectly fit into his world and are both genuinely exciting and winkingly hilarious.

The film feels like an expansion of his filmmaking style into adventure yarn territory, while still delivering everything expected from his rigidly defined style and aesthetic. Sure, it won’t win over anyone who has written off the endlessly influential and ripped off director, but the Wes Anderson converts and cultists will swoon at one of his most satisfying efforts. Wes Anderson may have shown enough of his directorial hand at this point that audiences can walk into his movies knowing exactly what to expect, but his ability to make the old tricks feel fresh again never ceases to amaze. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be just another Wes Anderson movie, but the filmmaker has created such a magical rut for himself that it’s impossible to mind.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel debuts on Blu-Ray in a package as predictably pretty as the film itself. There’s reason why all of this director’s films eventually find themselves released by Criterion eventually: Anderson’s picture box aesthetic was made for HD scrutiny. His latest effort looks better in Blu than almost any previous production. The deep focus photography, pastel color palette, lavish sets, detail miniatures, and action sequences pop off screen with extraordinary depth and clarity in every scene. It’s an absolutely beautiful disc worthy of a purchase for the tech specs alone.

The special feature section is a little light given that the big stuff is probably being saved for the inevitable Criterion re-release, but there’s still a handful of delightful feature done in a quirky Wes Anderson style. The center piece is an 18 minute making of talk featuring talking heads from Wes and most of his cast that’s breezy and self-promotional, but better than most featurettes of its kind. Also included are 4 minutes of interview outtakes from Anderson and a collection of cast members to fill in a few minor gaps. Next up comes nine minutes of bizarre “vignettes” like an in-character slideshow from Tom Wilkinson and a recipe for the baked treat from the film that’s shot in a very Andersony style. Finally, by far the best feature is a hilarious set tour from Bill Murray, which now seems to be a requirement for any WA Blu-ray and that is in no way a bad thing.  So, it’s not a stacked disc, but it’s still a pretty great one well worth picking up for anyone who doesn’t want to wait until the inevitably superior Criterion release. (Phil Brown)

 

The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic (Wes Anderson, 2004) – As part of Criterion’s ongoing commitment to producing definitive Blu-Ray special edition discs for every Wes Anderson flick, the company has finally gotten around to slipping The Life Aquatic onto HD. It’s a peculiar entry in the filmmaker’s catalogue, which is both Anderson’s most grandiose and technically stunning production and also arguably his most flawed movie. The film was made at the moment that Wes was officially considered America’s most promising young director and as the “bitter old man edition” of Bill Murray became a national treasure. So, after Anderson (along with writer Noah Baumbach) cranked out his first screenplay starring Murray, he was given a massive budget from Touchstone and flew out to Italy to create a deadpan comedy epic made in the type of huge physical production that had gone out of style long ago. On a purely technical level, the film just might be Anderson’s crowning achievement with his picture box aesthetic filled with nearly limitless resources. Unfortunately, it’s one of his messiest screenplays, which often clashes awkwardly with the visuals. Thankfully, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun despite the flaws.

Billy Murray stars as a self-destructive pothead deep sea documentary filmmaker (you know, that old character type). He’s got a massive boat/film studio to suit all of his needs (including the likes of Willem Dafoe and a Brazilian David Bowie cover artist on his crew). And with this being a Wes Anderson movie, it also turns out that he’s a deadbeat dad to a long lost son played by Owen Wilson and has an arch nemesis played by Jeff Goldblum. That would be more than enough material to hinge a movie on, but I’ve left out the pregnant journalist played by Cate Blanchett, Murray’s bitter wife played by Anjelica Huston, goofy roles for the likes of Michael Gambon and Bud Cort, as well as a revenge plot involving a tiger shark and cornucopia of stop motion ocean creatures made by Henry Selick.

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It’s a lot of material for one comedy to contain; too much, even. Though the story hits plenty of comedic and tear jerking peaks, there are too many characters, themes, jokes, and ideas competing for attention for it all to hang together. To make matters worse, Baumbach’s bitter, caustic character comedy and Wes Anderson’s trademark deadpan whimsy don’t always mix together well. The movie is a mess, but at least it’s a glorious mess.

The flaws of Life Aquatic ultimately come down to it being too much of too many good things. Though all the bits and pieces hang together awkwardly, each and every one of those bits and pieces works well in isolation. Murray delivers a hilariously nasty character with a heart of gold that might not reach the depths of his best Anderson collaboration Rushmore, but probably delivers the most laughs that the comedy legend ever provided Wes. All of the supporting performances are enjoyably quirky. The stop motion creatures from Selick lend the movie a nice taste of cartoon surrealism. The set and costumes are absolutely astounding (especially the full sized diorama of Zissou’s ship). The score made up largely of David Bowie covers is delightful. The emotional climax is almost inexplicably moving in terms of how far it’s willing to go. The movie gets so much so right that it’s hard not to be seduced by the surface pleasures that never add up. It’s the ultimate testament to all of Anderson’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker and offers an interesting milestone in his career, because he never made these same mistakes again. It’s also the only Anderson joint with Murray in a central role, so until that inevitably happens again, that makes it a special entry in Anderson’s filmography.

Regardless of whatever issues I have with The Life Aquatic as a movie, there’s no denying that it’s Anderson’s most improved film by its transition onto Blu-Ray. The scale of the production and time spent perfecting every anally composed frame was made for HD. The details added by the exclusively wide-angle photography are extraordinary and the pastel color scheme glows off the screen. It’s easily one of the most beautiful discs available from Criterion and a showpiece disc. That transfer is worth the price of the disc alone and that’s good news for fans who already own the Life Aquatic Criterion DVD because there are no new special features.

Thankfully, that disc was loaded with cast interviews, an hour long making-of documentary by Albert Maysals, deleted scenes, musical performances, a hilarious Charlie Rose parody, and a handful of other excellent bells and whistles that find their way onto this disc. All of the features have gotten an HD facelift by Criterion and as nice as it would be to hear some new insights from the Wes and co. a decade later, it’s hard to complain when the special feature section is this massive. The Life Aquatic might not be Wes Anderson’s best movie, but even at his worst the guy is more creative than pretty well any other contemporary American filmmaker. So, it’s still a must buy in HD, especially since the director finally just delivered a second movie on this scale that fixed all of the flaws. If ever there was a Wes Anderson double bill begging to happen, it’s The Life Aquatic followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel and Criterion was kind enough to make that possible just in time for Wes’ latest to make its Blu debut.  (Phil Brown)

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The Alan Partridge Movie

Alan Partridge (Declan Lowney, 2013) – It’s not necessary to have an intimate knowledge of actor and writer Steve Coogan’s most famous alter ego to enjoy Alan Partridge and the several British television series and specials the character has popped up in, but it does give a slight advantage to those who do. Fans of Coogan’s portrayal of a former television blowhard now slumming it as a small market radio DJ will probably get more belly laughs than those with only a passing interest. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work, but it will probably make the difference between someone really loving the film and how it decontextualizes a 20 year old character and someone who will probably just see it as a good way to kill 90 minutes with some mild chuckles.

It’s been some years now since Alan’s glory days on television, and he still barely hangs onto his job in mid-level radio market Norwich hosting the early afternoon show. When the station is purchased by a corporate conglomerate, a fellow DJ (Colm Meaney) gets the sack (mostly because Alan throws him under a bus to save his own skin) and he returns to the station’s launch party with a shotgun to take everyone hostage. Obviously disturbed and without clear motivation or demands beyond just getting his show back on the air, the gunman will only talk to the police via Alan – the one person he thinks he can be friendly with. Alan relishes the opportunity to feel even remotely important again, leading to him placing himself and everyone around him in great danger because he’s a narcissistic idiot.

Whenever Coogan plays Partridge, either here or on television, he disappears into the role completely, leaving little trace of the actor playing him. It was actually kind of a hard thing for Coogan to shake in order to branch out in his career simply because of how effortless he makes the character come across. Every tossed off, lame brained deep thought he has or every flip of his overcompensating and immovable hair gives the impression of a completely lived in performance. That’s no different here and neither is the humour for the most part. It’s an egoless performance of a man who has one of the biggest egos ever to be wrongfully inflated.

That effortless feeling could be a part of the film’s greatest problem or potentially greatest strength depending on how someone approaches the film. Those who have previously enjoyed watching Partridge get continually cut down to size over the course of his last two series should find a lot to like in how little Coogan, co-creator Armando Iannucci, and veteran UK television director Declan Lowney have kept things simple instead of letting the character run amok in a Die Hard clone. For those who go in cold with no knowledge of Coogan’s style of humour when in the Partridge character, they’ll still be pleasantly surprised but will have much less of a reason to get excited about all the little details and callbacks the pepper the film. If anything, non-fans of Partridge will get more laughs once the initial set-up is out of the way with some crudely funny set pieces and a very funny slow moving chase scene climax.

At least the film’s sense of nostalgia for the character doesn’t seem misplaced. It certainly seems like a story that everyone involved wanted to tell and Coogan still has fun playing the fool, so there’s certainly no harm being done to the greater franchise or to passing audiences. It’s one of those films that the old “mileage may vary” caveat could refer to when gauging how largely unfamiliar North American audiences will respond to the film. As someone who has enjoyed the character briefly in passing, I can say that I had a good time, but I could also see myself enjoying it more if I was more than just a minor fan. It’s interesting and funny, but I doubt even hardcore fans can say much more than that. It’s not making a fence swinging effort to adapt the character to the big screen, and that can either be seen as lazy or admirable, which is precisely the dividing line between how Alan sees himself and how the other characters in the world perceive him. It’s probably as good of a film featuring a character that will probably keep coming back for years to come that one would and should expect it to be. It’s likeable enough to never seem like a let down.

The Blu-Ray comes in a serviceable looking and sounding technical package (it’s not really a film designed to excel in either department), and there’s a small smattering of special features that add very little including a pair of EPK styled behind the scenes looks and some B-roll. It’s a shame because the UK disc of the same film has a shitload of special features including deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a commentary track. Unfortunately since Canada gets the American version of the disc (where Partridge never really set the world on fire), that’s all you’re going to get. (Andrew Parker)

 

Small Time

Small Time (Joel Sernow, 2014)Small Time is by no means a perfect film, but it gives enough of a fresh spin on a traditional sort of coming of age story thanks to some excellent performances from some consistently underrated actors.

Al Klein (Christopher Meloni) and his good buddy Ash Martini (Dean Norris) have been long time partners in a used car lot.  These two guys are the best of the best and they know every trick in the book when it comes to getting you into an automobile.  Ash is a carefree kind of guy who never settled down, but Al still pines for the ex-wife Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) who left him years ago for someone a little more stable and successful.  When their son Freddy (Devon Bostwick) graduates high school, rather than go to college he decides that he wants to sell cars with his old man.  At first Al is thrilled to have Freddy move in with him as it’s been the first time since Freddy was a kid, but Barbara is decidedly less excited.  Al quickly learns that what might be best for him probably isn’t the best for Freddy. He watches Freddy transform from a innocent young kid to a seasoned pro salesman, leaving Klein with a tough choice to make.

We don’t often get the coming of age story, empty nest tale from the male perspective looking in from the outside, but Small Time is a heartfelt and often funny film that tackles some of these issues in a fairly entertaining way; enough so that it makes up for any hiccups and bumps in the road along the narrative.

In his feature film debut, TV veteran Joel Sernow puts together a solid enough film that takes place at some point at an indeterminate past moment in our narrator’s (Freddy) life.  It’s got a good flow and enough production design value to make it feel like a slice of the past. While grounding the story in a specific time period would have helped for clarity sake, it doesn’t hinder anything in the story itself.  The dialogue is crisp, and the script doesn’t resort to any cheap theatrics.

If there is one major thing to complain about, it’s that the story never really generates any stakes despite having well rounded characters.  It’s almost too steady and safe. There’s some legitimate charm to it but when it tries to create tension, it just feels forced, playing more like an awkward family dramadey, rather than having to deal with any genuinely serious issues, but those lapses are where the excellent cast takes over and saves the film’s blander moments.

Meloni has shown for years the stalwart ability to be a leading man and it’s astounding he isn’t used as such more often.  As Al he manages that delicate balance between a touch of salesman smarm and charm that makes him the kind of character you can like both when he chasing the woman of his dreams or when telling bawdy jokes at the deli with his buddies.  Coming off the smash success of Breaking Bad, Norris’ Ash makes a perfect counter balance as both these men have each other’s back both on and off of the car lot despite their differences.  Canada’s Bostwick acquits himself admirably, however the balance of the rest of the ensemble just didn’t have a ton to do. Moynahan always far too much of a background character to make an impact. For some reason Garcelle Beauvais was there to be Klein’s girlfriend with little major payoff, and Xander Berkeley is wasted most of all as Moynahan’s new husband.

Still, Small Time works as a decent bit of counter programming for people already sick of big budget blockbusters before the summer even begins.  It’s fresh & solid in all the places that matter and its main goal is to make audiences smile. In that respect, it succeeds.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are like new and the special features include a jovial and lively feature length audio commentary track with Surnow, Meloni, and Norris. (Dave Voigt)

 

The Cold Lands

The Cold Lands (Tom Gilroy, 2014) – A solid, if somewhat wishy-washy coming of age drama set in the more blandly inhospitable country of the Ozarks, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands never quite decides if it wants to be vague and low key or emotionally and thematically complex. At times the film feels like it’s giving too much away, while at other moments it seems to be hinting at a greater familial and cultural history and subtext. It’s kind of maddening when neither one really emerges, but the heart of the film and the warmth of its direction and performances make up for the shortcomings of the script and editing.

Atticus (newcomer Silas Yelich) is an average middle American teenager who just so happens to be homeschooled and raised by his self-reliant mother (Lili Taylor). She still takes her son shopping like an everyday human being and he’s clearly cognizant of pop culture phenomena, so don’t expect either to come across as backwoods stereotypes and their relationship is as loving as mothers and sons usually get. Early on, Atticus’ mother passes away and in an eagerness to live up to her expectations he begins an ill advised journey of self-sufficiency on his own.

Gilroy comes out of the gate with a great hook and the general idea behind The Cold Lands stays consistently engaging and thoughtful. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t a little more at the beginning and end of this one. While Gilroy delivers a bravura middle third that often finds Atticus having to often wordlessly grapple with physical, emotional, and moral issues to survive after being on his own for only a couple of days, there feels like something is missing off the top with Taylor’s character and later with a hippy drifter (played by Peter Scanavino) with whom our protagonist starts a friendship.

It’s a film that seemingly exists only for the middle of the story, which is as problematic as it is refreshing since the opening hints at greater narrative detail than the story ultimately provides. It’s far from a misfire, with excellent cinematography, a keen sense of emotional awareness that places the audience firmly in the shoes of a scared, previously sheltered teen, and an admirably awkward performance from Yelich that feels more like an actual young adult instead of a Hollywood approximation of one.

The Cold Lands is now available on most VOD services. The DVD will be released this August. (Andrew Parker)

 

Judex

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963) – Georges Franju is one of those curious classical directors whose career was overshadowed by the fact that he was a filmmaker who never quite fit in with his time. He came up among the infamous French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut and shared their intense cinephelia and desire to reclaim pulp as art, yet lacked their groundbreaking stylistic ticks. Franju certainly had his provocateur instincts, but was more classical in his filmmaking approach. His masterpiece remains Eyes Without A Face, a film that along with Psycho and Peeping Tom created the contemporary horror film. It was wrongly dismissed as exploitative trash at the time, but has subsequently been reclaimed as a lyrical masterpiece. Yet, despite that movie remaining a classic decades later, Franju’s other work can be almost impossible to find outside of France.

Thankfully, there’s always The Criterion Collection to save forgotten films and filmmakers from oblivion and they’ve gone and supped up his 1963 classic Judex in a stunning Blu-Ray set begging for cinephile adoration. Though the film isn’t nearly as rich as Eyes without a Face, it has a more pronounced contemporary appeal. Adapting a pulp film serial, Franju treated a silly tale seriously and artfully to often stunning effect. The film remains a peculiar predecessor to contemporary blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that treat pop as art.

Judex comes from a 1916 French film serial of the same name by Louis Feuillade. Like George Lucas years later, Franju had a fascination with those serials from his youth that stretched far beyond nostalgia. He wanted to recreate that experience for contemporary audiences. Unfortunately, the director wasn’t able to retain the rights to favorite Feuillade serial, the deliciously corrupt Fantomas, so he compromised with Judex. The story was about a masked avenger with anti-authoritarian vigilante intentions (sound familiar?). Franju’s film follows Judex through a bizarre plot that involves him kidnapping a corrupt banker and fighting off a leotard sporting villainous. The story is deliberately episodic, mimicking the weekly start and stop narrative of the serials rather than conforming to a traditional three act structure. It plays as a series of exciting events and cliffhangers wrapped around a morally corrupt hero. The film was a contemporary of similar projects like Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik and the 1960s version of Batman, yet plays dramatically different because Franju denies himself even an instant of camp.

Franju plays the material surprisingly straight given the silly origins of the material and that is both the project’s greatest strength and weakness. At its best, the movie finds a disturbing poetry in its pulp, such as an astounding sequence in which Judex arrives at a masquerade party in a bizarre bird mask performing sleight of hand magic or another scene in which the film’s villain transforms from a nun into a cat-suited villain for a daring escape. The sequences mix the vaguely surrealist source material with Franju’s disturbing sense of the uncanny and lyrical realism. They are undeniably stunning pieces of pure, silently filmmaking. Elsewhere as a ludicrous plot wears on, the film can be hard to take as seriously as the filmmaker intends and often descends into indeliberate camp. Ultimately, the material isn’t quite suited to Franju’s intention from start to finish, but those flaws don’t derail the film so much as the prevent it from reaching the masterpiece status of Eyes without a Face. It’s still fascinating to see Franju treat this material in his signature style and at its best, the film hits the heights of the director’s greatest achievement, finding a sense of filmmaking poetry in source material frequently dismissed as mindless trash.

While Judex might be flawed, there’s absolutely nothing flawed about Criterion’s gorgeous Blu-Ray of the film. The transfer is simply astounding, offering rich black and white visuals with incredibly depth and detail that immeasurably improves the film’s impact. Beyond the technical presentation, there’s also quite a nice collection of extras.

First up come interviews with actress Francine Berge and co-screenwriter Jacques Champreux. Totaling 20-minutes collectively, the interviews provide a unique and personal insight into the production of Judex and Franju’s intentions. Even better is the 50 minute documentary Franju Le Vissionaire made for French television in the 90s. Featuring a wealth of interviews with Franju from throughout his career, the documentary provides a wonderful first person account into the director’s philosophies and working methods with surprising emphasis on Judex that makes it feel like an impressive featurette made particularly for this Blu-ray. But the best inclusions of all are a pair of vintage documentaries that Franju made in the 50s.

The 20 minute documentary Hotel Des Invalides about a hotel/hospital for war veterans that turned into a museum. It’s essentially a documentary tour guide, but a good one. Far better is Le Grand Melies, Franju’s 30-minute tribute to film pioneer George Melies (A Trip to The Moon). The film opens finding Melies working at the train station toy store from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (it’s safe to say that this short was a massive influence of Scorsese’s film). Then the movie turns into a stylish love letter to Melies, casting the director’s son as his father playing out some of his finest magic tricks and recreating some of his famous films in a wonderful little bit of homage. It’s a loveletter from Franju to Melier (clearly a major influence) that shows off many of the groundbreaking director’s finest achievements and reveals the tricks (as well as including archival prints of his work when possible). Filmed in a playful, tongue-in-cheek manner it’s also a glorious homage to Melies’ personal style that feels decades ahead of its time.  Though only 30-minutes long a light on subtext, it’s one of Franju’s finest achievements as a director and when combined with everything else on this disc, the Blu-Ray serves as a wonderful tribute to the oft forgotten director. It’s a perfect companion piece to Criterion’s glorious Eyes without a Face disc that also includes Franju’s most infamous short. Between the two sets, Criterion has provided a near-perfect archive for one of cinemas most underrated visionaries and with a little luck, they’ll fill out the rest of filmography soon. It goes without saying that no Blu-Ray company could do it better or would even try. (Phil Brown)

 

Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) – Though the film remains an extraordinarily powerful piece of work and the undeniable pinnacle of documentary director Peter Davis’ career, it’s impossible to watch Hearts and Minds now and understand the impact it had on audiences in 1974. The film cut through all of the propaganda and bullshit that clouded much of America’s view of the Vietnam War to devastatingly reveal the truth, contradictions, and consequences of that black mark on American history. As a cultural document, the movie was remarkably important. As a slice of film history, it also plays a unique role. Aside from obviously being the first American film made about Vietnam this open, harsh, and unflattering, it’s also the final production of BBS. That often forgotten, yet vastly important film studio founded by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson kicked off the New Hollywood movement of the 70s with films like Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Five Easy Pieces that proved small personal films by young American directors could be lucrative and fused the renegade spirit of American exploitation filmmaking with the unapologetically artistic style of the European auteur movement. The studio burned bright and burned out in the early 70s before the Movie Brat movement exploded and with Hearts and Minds released as its last production, BBS’ final legacy was to kick off the wave of self-critical cinematic explorations of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Weirdly, the documentary didn’t appear on Criterion’s beautiful BBS Blu-Ray box set even though the company retained the home video distribution rights. But now Criterion have finally slipped it onto Blu-Ray and completed that slice of indie Hollywood history in a wonderful Blu-Ray set.

Culled from years of work and hundreds of hours of footage, Davis’ film represents an all encompassing portrait of the Vietnam tragedy. He combines first person accounts, stock footage, unaired news footage, interviews, and observations in a masterfully composed tapestry. The editing effect Davis employs most consistently and impressively is his use of contrast. He frequently plants images and discussions against each other to prove a point. Images of ravaged Vietnamese civilians are slammed up against dubious American experts discussing the supposed savage nature of [insert racist Asian term of your choice here]; montages of US soldiers indulging in Vietnamese brothels disturbingly clash against images of soldiers indiscriminately burning down civilian homes; and Richard Nixon’s jovial, self-satisfied congratulation speech discussing the success of a B-52 bomber team is cut against disturbing footage of the damage the “heroes” caused on civilian targets. It’s an angry, pointed, and carefully controlled feature-length montage that elicits intense emotional and intellectual reactions like few films on the subject ever have.

Davis’ film has a strong and clear point of view, yet allows all voices to speak. His portrait of the war and its participants is impressively wide, touching on the causes, turmoil, and questionable results of the war. It plays off America’s irrational image of itself as peacekeepers responsible for the world’s well-being and the heartbreakingly contradictory results of that thinking. It’s also a documentary thankfully devoid of narration or a first person perspective. The images speak for themselves and their power is undeniable.  The controversy the film caused at the time isn’t nearly as intense now. Davis’ perspective on Vietnam has long since become the status quo and yet his film remains remarkably affective because of the director’s brazing provocation and the vast amount of extraordinary footage that he was able to acquire. Hearts and Minds might not be timely anymore, but it’s no less intense and the eerie ways in which the mistakes of Vietnam outlined in this film have been repeated in America’s current never-ending oil war provides the movie with a new layer to appreciate.

Criterion has unsurprisingly treated the film with reverence and respect. The high definition transfer reveals new depths and details that makes some footage almost unbearable to watch (in a good way). Obviously, a 40-year-old documentary will never look as pretty in HD as a contemporary blockbuster, but Hearts and Minds still looks incredible on this Blu-Ray and should be considered the definitive presentation of the film from now on.

In terms of special features, the Peter Davis audio commentary from Criterion’s old DVD is included and remains a wonderful compliment to the film that discusses everything from production anecdotes to Davis’ feelings about the meaning and legacy of his film. New to this edition is a full two hours of deleted scenes that have never been available before. For the most part, this is made up of interview footage with outspoken critics of the Vietnam War that Davis wisely left out of the film to prevent it from becoming too didactic or one-sided. Still, that footage remains deeply intriguing as an archival piece. More affecting are two brief excised sequences of a Vietnamese funeral and hospital that remain remarkably powerful even in the very raw form that they are presented here. Toss in a booklet featuring no less than five insightful essays about Hearts and Minds as well as a DVD copy and you’ve got an impressive set for an important film that deserves it. You know, just like Criterion always provides. It’s easy to take what they do for granted, but thank god that company is around to preserve important works like this in Blu-Ray sets that no other studio would even consider financing. (Phil Brown)

 

Tapped Out

Tapped Out (Allan Ungar, 2014) – There’s nothing about the MMA drama Tapped Out that’s genuinely original, but it succeeds in updating a classic narrative and showcasing one the world of the planet’s fastest growing sports by giving it an edgier feel.

A disgruntled young man (Cody Hackman) who lives with the memory of his parents being brutally murdered is sent to do community service at a rundown karate school after running afoul of the law and clashing with the wrong people one too many times.  It does him good at first, and under the guidance a teacher who was an old friend of his father’s (Michael Biehn) he finds a purpose and a way to let go of his anger. That all changes when he comes across an underground MMA tournament where the champion (Krzysztof Soszynski) is the man he saw savagely murder his parents.  Now the only way he can find justice and peace is to enter a dangerous tournament where the will and desire to fight is the only thing keeping him from life and death.

It’s hardly the best executed film that I have seen, but Tapped Out works just fine by focusing nicely on the bare essentials while highlighting the more positive aspects of the martial arts even though it takes place in a world populated by often scary and shady dudes.

On his first feature outing, working from a story idea developed by star Hackman, writer/director Allan Unger more or less borrows from things like The Karate Kid,  Jean Claude Van Damme movies in the early 90’s and Jet Li movies in the early 00’s for plot points and ideas as he mashes it all up.  It’s not going to win any awards and you’ve seen this movie before, but it gets from point A to point B in a reasonable fashion while telling a solid story of young angst.  It’s shot on an obvious shoe string budget, but it is smart enough to accentuate the strengths that it has and to hide what it can’t quite do and that starts with the cast. Also, the fights can be downright terrifying to watch, a major plus for any film in this genre.

While the story isn’t necessarily the strongest asset here, it all comes from a simple and believable place.  Everyone involved takes great care to make sure that the action is as authentic as possible. Hackman is a legitimate martial artist and 5x World Karate Champion, so it isn’t a question of an actor playing at being able to execute  some of these manoeuvres.  Soszynski is a killer looking bad guy in terms of presence alone, but this ex-MMA star takes time and effort to sell and develop his menacing character.  Biehn adds a few badass moments and professional credibility to the cast of novices, and he plays very well off of Hackman.  MMA stars Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida pop up in smaller roles during a training segment, but their presences are enough to make fans of the sport smile a bit.

There are a few moments that really strain in terms of logic, but Tapped Out still works as an effective story of how martial arts can help anyone in any walk of life overcome adversity and improve quality of life.   Much like The Karate Kid years ago, it’s nice to have an example of how those who get bullied and knocked down have an effective way to fight back. (Dave Voigt)

 

The Revengers

The Revengers (Daniel Mann, 1972)The Revengers is the type of decent but disposable entertainment that results when you have a film where you can’t quite remember who was in it, but you maybe remember one key plot element and you try to think back as to what the heck the name of it was.  It’s a simple hard boiled western that just never really resonated because it spends too much energy trying to recreate the gritty westerns that came before it instead of going in its own direction.

Peaceful Civil War veteran turned rancher John Benedict (William Holden) returns home from a hunting trip to discover that his family has been ruthlessly butchered by a roving gang of outlaws, rogue Indians and killers.  Set on a path that no man can steer him away from, Benedict finds a prison full of desperate souls and recruits six condemned men (Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode and others) under false pretenses to help him exact the fatal revenge that he desires. (Yes, it’s one of THOSE movies.)  However, he quickly realizes that these men are just as wild and dangerous as the men he’s hunting, and Benedict wonders how far in front he needs to stay since the crew helping him can just as easily shoot him at the drop of a hat.

A film that’s so obviously hoping to recapture the essence of films from the 60’s like The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, and any other Seven Samurai knock-off, it sets a rag tag group of miscreants to a task only meant for hardened men like these. It’s not a hard bar to clear, and even with a game cast and sturdy direction, it’s all pretty forgettable.

The Revengers is too underwritten of an experience, with massive pacing problems and gaps in characterizaton that don’t allow the audience to give a damn about any of these people. Director Daniel Mann, coming off of the cult oddity Willard, shoots it all well enough, but the narrative starts off a little too ‘matter of factly’ and within about 10 minutes our protagonist is set on his way. It’s a really hokey and lazy start.  The script from writer Wendell Hayes is pure cut and paste, borrowing plot points and tropes from about a half a dozen other movies without anything original going on. Worse, some story arches that are initially embraced are maddeningly dropped and never to be heard from again in some cases.  It’s the kind of movie that actually had all the elements right on, but it couldn’t get the recipe just the way it needed to be. It’s like cooking a bunch of seasonings at once without adding any protein.

Holden channels a tamer version of his character in The Wild Bunch from a few years earlier, and it’s not as compelling as it was the first time around.  Borgnine similarly tries to milk some past magic out of this script, but he can’t do much, either.  Woody Strode is easily the most recognizable face of the rest of the gang, and while he actually gets to show some flashes of character, he still has nothing to really work with.

While hardcore western fans could do a lot worse than putting on The Revengers one lazy Saturday afternoon, there just isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done about 100 times better in a plethora of classic westerns.

The only special feature on the DVD is the theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)

 

Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971) – Straight out of the embarrassment of genre riches buried within the famed Hammer Horror Collection, Countess Dracula is a surprisingly solid twist on the vampire flick that’s actually based on a true story (!!!) and still holds up as one the best in the career of a cult movie sex symbol and genuine star.

Elisabeth Nadasdy (Ingrid Pitt) is an aging and bitter Hungarian countess who one day stumbles upon that fact that she can reverse her aging process by bathing in the blood of young women, particularly young virgins.  While in her youthful form, she falls in love with the handsome Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Eles) and actually impersonates her own daughter who she subsequently locks up in order to earn his affections.  However, after a while the young girls in the nearby town begin to go missing and are subsequently murdered to satiate her ever growing blood lust and it is getting increasingly difficult for her to maintain her secret.  Can she continue to live the lie in her quest for blood and eternal youth, or will her horrible secret be her undoing as she grows more and more voracious for the powers and energy of youth?

Made towards the end of the Hammer Films peak period, Countess Dracula is a surprisingly strong gothic yarn that’s consistently compelling thanks to the beauty, talent and natural charisma of Pitt. Director Peter Sasdy was a serviceable hand who split his time between TV and features, and on this one – which was just his second feature – the action moves at a solid, surprisingly good looking pace. Shooting in the sprawling Pinewood studios only aided in creating a fast and epic feel for the story, as the production design of the entire affair matches its vamping leading lady to perfection.

Unofficially inspired by the book The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose, this true story manages to walk the line between theatrically gothic and straight horror and terror.  The narrative keeps it fast and loose, never getting overly maudlin or leaning on the tropes of the genre. Instead just telling a macabre tale about the obsession the film hones perfectly in on its message about the futility of trying to attain eternal youth. It tackles more standard themes without getting too supernatural or horror natured with it all, boiling it down to a sick singular obsession that is personified in a great performance from Pitt.

As our titular countess, Pitt might have been hired for her “natural assets”, but she can also act.  This buxom exotic actress looks amazing in little to no clothing, but in the moments that she’s old and obsessed with her youth, she shines through with some genuine emotion and pathos that made it work all the better.  We were aroused by her, terrified by her and sympathetic towards her all at the same time and it made for a great performance. It’s a great high wire act that raises the film above the level of a camp curiosity and to something that’s an actually decent film. It’s actually a really great entry for people who also only have a passing knowledge of the kinds of films Hammer produced over the years.

The HD transfer on the Blu-Ray is clean, and the special features on this combo pack release include a feature length audio commentary track with Pitt, Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott.  There’s also a short featurette looking at the cinematic life of Pitt, an archival audio interview with her, a still gallery and the theatrical trailer. (Dave Voigt)

 

A Wife Alone

A Wife Alone (Justin Reichman, 2014) – It’s hard to tell if there’s a kernel of a good idea buried within debut filmmaker Justin Reichman’s bizarrely atonal neo-noir-slash-mumblecore hybrid or if there wasn’t anything there to begin with. It’s a film that’s made with what seems like the best of intentions despite an obviously ultra-low budget, but with precious few ideas how to make anything interesting happen.

Jaine (Genevieve Hudson-Price, daughter of famed novelist and screenwriter Richard Price) is hatching a plan by marrying an unsuspecting mark (Ashley Springer) to exact a revenge of some sort. Her new hubby is an investment banker involved in some kind of international land buying deal with a pair of mall developers. One of them, the lecherous Steve (Sean Patrick Reilly), remembers Janie as a Texan prostitute. During a weekend at Steve’s house, the shared history and discomfort between Jaine and Steve starts to come to potentially violent light.

Not a single thing that happens in Reichman’s film is exciting, titillating, or emotionally intriguing. I can’t think of a more boring hook that’s been used as the potential backdrop of a revenge thriller, and I can’t think of more boring dialogue that characters in such a situation can be given. Reichman (whose background is predominantly in being a script supervisor, most recently for the little seen James Franco vehicle Maladies and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves) certainly can’t shoot a good looking sequence thanks to obvious budgetary constraints that force him to work with what he has in sometimes unworkable or uninteresting spaces, and he also can’t really write his way around the fact that he clearly conceived the film with three major high points and absolutely nothing remotely resembling character, nuance, or subtext in the spaces between. It’s one of the emptiest films I’ve ever seen. By the time the final truth is revealed about Jaine’s end game, the film’s time shifting narrative seems like it was edited in the wrong order, no stakes have even been established beyond a bored almost sighing resignation to even have any, and the film’s climactic lynchpin is botched by an innate ability to not show what happened out of either budgetary constraints, pretentious, ill place obfuscation, or just flat out incompetence.

Still, Hudson-Price and Reilly are really making the most of what little they have to work with. Price does some really great work with subtle glances and jittery body language that makes her consistently interesting to watch even though her character isn’t a particularly engaging lead. And Reilly gets some great scenery chewing moments and seems to be aping the villain of a John McNaughton production. That’s the right tone to hit for something like this. Whatever ended up on screen is wrong. The almost deafening sound of humming powerlines and bugs in the hot summer sun at the beginning of the film is the loudest and realest thing about the final product.

A Wife Alone is now available through most VOD providers. (Andrew Parker)


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