This week looks like a dump of lesser titles, tv/cable series offerings and some B-grade genre grinds, but there is one must-own title, for indie-fans (or fans of what was once called Independent Cinema) and one truly spectacular little gem of a horror film. There’s also a real stinker from the 80’s that somehow still has legs as trash cinema cult fave.
In The Book of Eli (Warner Brothers, 2010) Denzel is The Postman! Er—I mean, Eli!
And Eli’s got this book see and that book happens to be the last King James Bible (say what! With over millions sold each year in the U.S. alone, I find that plot device hard to believe) which is wanted by a sorta kinda bad dude named Carnegie (Gary Oldman)… needless to say, Eli doesn’t want to give up the book, and a half-dozen ass kickings later (Eli’s a superhuman, one-man fighting force with Denzel Washington’s no-nonsense attitude) proves a point of sorts by getting the book’s contents into some more righteous hands than Carnegie’s. While not a bad movie in the least (professionally lensed using the RED HD camera system, well-acted for the most part), it’s not all that great either… more like the kind of thing you turn on when there’s not much else to watch and are a little surprised its as good as it is considering the lazy plot, hackneyed characters and the often unbelievable action sequences (which look cool nonetheless). Still, the Hughes Brothers have come back with something better than From Hell, which at least had excellent source material to draw upon. I just figured that the brothers Hughes might someday follow up their mostly excellent Menace II Society and Dead Presidents with more interesting urban excursions rather than muddled graphic novel adaptations and by-the-numbers apocalyptic fare. One must give them credit for expanding their horizons, but it does seem like any decent hack could have directed From Hell and Eli. There’s no discernable directorial voice to be found in Eli… no real statement here, though the film tries mightily to be deep and thoughtful while eschewing hard-core Bible thumping and turning the whole affair into a rather tepid actioneer aiming for loftier goals. Denzel and the cast are generally fine, but you get the feeling they’re working around script issues and inadequate direction. The Blu-ray is already considered an excellent transfer that reviewers say does justice to Don Burgess’s cinematography and the apocalyptic landscapes. In VC-1/1080p, 2.39:1 widescreen you’ll be able to see the finest bits of dust and dirt on the character’s motley clothing and those in the know say there is an amazing amount of visual depth, though the transfer keeps the washed-out, desaturated colors of the theatrical presentation. Black levels should be well balanced allowing details to come through even in the darkest scenes, and apparently there’s nary a significant visual defect to be found with little or no edge enhancement or DNR to screw up a viewing on a ginormous HD screen. The audio is also getting high marks with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that offers an impressive lossless experience in the HD format with highly realistic gunshots, machine noise, desert wind and other foley and ambient effects traveling across the channels, making for an aurally intense trip as Eli walks his way across the land. There’s quite a few extras that range from BD exclusives such as the PnP “Maximum Movie Mode Survival Guide” which offers onscreen glimpses into aspects of the movie’s pre-to-post production while you watch the film itself (these “Focus Points” are also available on their own via the menu). There’s also a backstory featurette on the Carnagie character that’s presented as a motion comic (“A Lost Tale: Billy”), a short fictional-doc on the post-post-apocalyptic reconstruction called “Starting Over,” and “Eli’s Journey” is a puff piece of infotainment wherein the cast and crew discuss the film’s progress to the screen while a gaggle of university professors expound, with utmost ivory tower seriousness, on the meaning and message of the film (if you haven’t noticed, it’s quite fashionable to add “meaning” to a disc’s extras sections these days). Lastly, there’s deleted/alternate scenes and an interesting discussion about the film’s score with Allen Hughes and composer Atticus Ross. The BD is being sold along with a DVD and digital copy. A must own?? Mmmmmaybe… if you’re a fan of the film whilst in the theater, then yes, pick it up on Blu-ray… you’ll get a wonderful Warner Bros BD transfer with great extras. For everyone else, I’d say rent before you own… without the literary pedigree of The Road (a desperate apocalyptic drama-cum-horror film that was recently released), The Book of Max Max Eli feels like been there, done that.
A real treat for Jim Jarmusch fans, Mystery Train (JVC/Criterion, 1989) revolves around a rundown Memphis hotel and the various travelers (and locals) that find themselves holed up there… they don’t all meet each other, but as their stories unravel they do have a certain connection thanks to the ghost of fat Elvis. Suffice to say, if you know Jarmusch’s other works (notably his earlier films such as Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law) you’ll fall into familiar territory here, and see how this bastion of indie-cinema began to evolve with larger budgets, use of color and hey! even a moving camera. Mystery Train itself is an anthology triptych of stories, each representing a fish-out-of-water scenario in the cultural heart of the American South, where music matters, especially the music emanating from Sun Records, and that of a young Memphis man named Elvis Presley. The segments of the film are “Far From Yokohama” about a young Japanese couple who cannot decide if Carl Perkins or Elvis is the true King of Rock and Roll and successor to the Southern blues legacy; “A Ghost” features Italian actress (and wife of comic-actor Roberto Benigni, who starred with her in Down By Law) Nicoletta Braschi as a very recent widow transporting her husband’s casketed remains back to her homeland by way of Memphis only to become stranded and taken advantage of amidst the urban blight and desolation; and “Lost In Space” about the anomie and disconnection felt by three men hellbent for trouble. And while the trouble may not be big trouble, and the Italian widow comes away from her experiences with the strange locals intact and slightly bemused, the overall feeling of the film is one of dislocation in a town where the midnight train whistles mournfully as if a dirge for Memphis and the declining dreams of stardom, fame and musical accomplishment it once held (The King only appears as an apparition… which serves to underscore the tone of the film). Yet, the film is not depressing or sad, but rather joyful actually… the sensibility is that of comedy in spite of the dilapidated locales and hotel where the characters all end up for one night of rest or, more likely, restless dreaming and scheming. The cast is a mix of pros and non-pros that Jarmusch befriended over the years, and they all come across as well-suited to the roles… especially the young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase), the trio of disgruntled men played by indie stalwart Steve Buschemi, Rick Aviles and the late, great Joe Strummer, former guitarist and singer for The Clash. Also notable is Screaming Jay Hawkins as the hotel’s night manager in a performance tailored for his limited acting skills… he does quite well and steals a scene where the merits of eating a Japanese plum are debated. The Blu-ray is a Criterion release… so what else do you really need to know other than it’s been reviewed as a marvelous transfer in MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p/1.77:1 widescreen. Supervised and approved by Jarmusch from a cleaned up 35mm interpositive, the video is a remarkable HD feat with an amazing degree of detail and visual clarity with colors that pop off the screen with no apparent bleed. The dark scenes have a reduced grain, solid black levels and no edge or DNR issues. The audio is (gasp!) only a lossless monaural soundtrack… kinda hard to believe for a film whose soul like in music, but then again, the film is mostly talk with only faint background rock n’ roll here n’ there. As is, the audio track is getting fine reviews though folks just can’t help grumble about the lack of a good dynamic multi-channel track. Oh well… as this is Criterion and the whole shmear was supervised by the director, I’d have to say it’s probably the most accurate representation of Mystery Train you’ll get on video and a must own for Jarmusch fans and newcomers alike… this one belongs in your high-def library if only to show your cinematic bona fides. Extras include (from Criterion’s site):
- Q&A with Jim Jarmusch (in which he responds to questions sent in by fans)
- Excerpts from the 2001 documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me
- Original documentary on the film’s locations and the rich social and musical history of Memphis
- On-set photos by Masayoshi Sukita and behind-the-scenes photos
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A 26-page booklet featuring essays by writers Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick
High on kitsch and low on class, Showgirls (15th Anniversary Sinsational Edition) (MGM/UA, 1995), remains a sleazefest of big budget proportions, with an allure that seems strange, but hey… the film does have its fans amongst serious critics, filmmakers and the general public, though mostly it’s deemed as fun because of its “so bad, it’s good” reputation… it’s often termed “shit-astic!” Joe Esterhaus’s reported $2mil. script is appropriately lurid (the kind of thing that Roger Ebert would write for Russ Meyer) and Paul Verhoven brings an earnest sensibility to it all that makes the on-the-nose dialogue about the tough lives of strippers and showgirls all the more hilarious, and makes scenes like the famous swimming pool sex scene (complete with one of the most bizarre quasi-porno orgasms you’ll probably ever see) even more unintentionally hilarious than they should be. Well, what can you really say about a film whose most salient quotes are “You ARE a whore” and “Thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it– THRUST IT!” It’s review proof and, well, a lot of fun, especially if you form some type of drinking game around it. Nowadays, the full-frontal nudity, mostly female with only fleeting shots of Kyle’s MacLachlan in comparison, is hardly a big deal… if you’ve seen one set of glistening boobs, y’know. Elizabeth Berkley gives a fearless performance that won a well-deserved Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Acting (and Worst New Star), and Gina Gershon makes for a fine domineering lesbian showgirl at the top of the heap, until Berkley’s ingénue brings her down (a flight of stairs). So, is the Blu-ray worth buying just to see the scene where Gershon an Berkley bond over choices dog food and tits? Considering this movie really found its audience through midnight theatrical screenings and home video where it developed cult-status, I’d say the Blu-ray is a must own if only for the crazy material contained within the film… but you also get an AVC-encoded 1080p/2.35:1 widescreen presentation that looks sinsational according to early reviewers. The hot, garish colors of Vegas are captured perfectly on Blu-ray and the film hardly looks its age. High-definition allows the details to come through… every sparkling rhinestone, every bit of neon is displayed with minimal grain and low incidents of DNR. The audio acquits itself nicely with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that offers pristine dialogue from center and surround channels while thudding along with musical numbers on the rear channels with low-frequency effects making the sound feel well-rounded. The real treat reviewers have found is that the special features are mostly in HD with a “Find Your Inner Stripper” Pole Dancing instructional video that will have your ass sliding all around the brass, and a “Lap Dance Tutorial (featuring the World-Famous Girls of Scores)” where the girls of Scores show you how to earn a few extra bucks the easy way. The Blu-ray also features an audio commentary by columnist/critic, David Schmader called “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” (without tongue being planted firmly in cheek), and a “Showgirls Diary” that’s really a few deleted scenes with storyboards and onset video. Along with an additional trivia feature and HD theatrical trailer there’s a DVD boner bonus disc for the family van. With all of that, and a top-notch audio and video transfer it stands to reason that this is a must own for fans of trash cinema and HD fans alike… but should you, the general movie fan, pick it up to own? As always, give it a whirl on rental first… if it gets a rise out of you, then perhaps you should plop down the bucks for the Blu-ray (in one dollar bills, of course).
There are two reasons to see The Stepfather (New Century Vista/Shout Factory, 1987), a little gem from the Reagan-era 80s. One is the efficiently grim script by Donald Westlake that almost manages to tap into picket-fence suburban fears in a way that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet had done masterfully just one year prior. The other reason is to see a truly great performance by actor Terry O’Quinn in a role that could have easily been taken for granted, dumbed down and read through as if it were nothing more than just another demented killer. O’Quinn, better known nowadays for his duplicitous turn as John “Smokey” Locke on six seasons of the recently ended Lost TV series, really came into his own with the whackopath that is “Jerry Blake”… and Henry Morrison, and Bill Hoskins, and lord knows how many other aliases he’s used and discarded like the butchered women and children he leaves behind in his gore soaked wake. “Jerry,” as the newest family he’s infiltrated knows him, is a man who craves domestic perfection… a perfect home, a perfect wife, and perfect kids. The ideal is an illusion and as each family fails and falls apart from his point-of-view, he cuts ties… literally, slicing and dicing his way through families that didn’t live up to his expectations and going back to square one, finding another lonely widow with kids or some pretty single mom to prey upon. Jerry is not as outwardly evil as he is sinister and creepy, with O’Quinn doing a subtlety effective acting two-step that fans of Lost will appreciate. O’Quinn nearly wins the viewer over with Jerry’s nice guy appearance and friendly manner— though we already know he’s a dangerous nutjob, and his vision of an über-family neatly satirizes the ultra-conservative yearning for “family values” –but soon he’s weaving in and out of his assumed personas with less aplomb until the moment where he can no longer remember just who he’s supposed to be… and then he snaps! Shelly Hack does an admirable job with her role, while young Jill Schoelen is passable as the threatened teen, but really, this is O’Quinn’s show and as the titular villain he’s as impressive as they come, making a B-grade thriller even better than it should be. Since it’s had a spotty video release over the past few decades, most reviewers who’ve had an early look are saying it’s a fine general Blu-ray release… nothing visually spectacular expect a clean(ish) print of the film transferred to 1080p/1.85:1 widescreen with nicely toned colors, evident grain and gauziness typical of older films from the era. Though black levels are generally good, there’s some loss of detail in the dark sequences and with Jerry creeping out of the shadows occasionally the average viewer may notice that. Nevertheless, the film looks good according to some adept reviewers who also found fault with the PCM 2.0 lossless sound mix (though the clamshell claims a TrueHD sound mix), saying it sometimes makes mud of the dialogue and reduced all tonal range to the center channels exclusively. There’s some extra items such as a commentary with director Joseph Ruben (in an quasi-interview style moderated by Fangoria Magazine’s Michael Gingold), and a nearly 30-minute featurette in HD that offers a look back on the film with some of the cast and crew (Terry O’Quinn is, sadly, MIA). To round things out there’s a theatrical trailer for The Stepfather and its sequel along with something termed a “video store promo.” Now, granted, there is a remake out there already on Blu-ray and DVD, but trust me… stick with the original no matter what and savor O’Quinn’s acting chops. It’s rare when one absolutely chilling performance makes a video release a must own (the same case can be made for Silence of the Lambs), but this is that release… buy it on Blu-ray. It’s not a perfect BD, but even Jerry Blake would agree it’s perfect entertainment (at least, until the next perfect entertainment comes along, that is).
The rest of the Blu-ray releases for June 15, 2010 are as follows:
- Circle of Pain (Lionsgate)
- Darkman (Universal)
- Flash Gordon (Universal)
- The Horseman (Screen Media Films)
- Mary and Max (MPI)
- Puppet Master/Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (Limited Edition Toulon Trunk) (Full Moon)
- Sanctuary: The Complete First Season (E1)
- Sanctuary: The Complete Second Season (E1)
- The Shadows: The Final Tour (Eagle Vision)
- Stargate Universe – SGU: Season 1.5 (20th Century Fox) [Released June 13th]
- Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Warner Brothers)
- Unthinkable (Sony)
- Youth in Revolt (Sony)
Here’s a link to all of this week’s Blu-ray releases for June 15, 2010.