Sunday, March 30, 2014
Do you enjoy watching unlikable people engaging in abhorrent behavior? Do you enjoy watching people take drugs and engage in bizarre sexual acts? And do you like spending three hours watching all of these things? Then THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the movie for you.
This is a film directed by Martin Scorsese--but this time around he's portraying the lives of white-collar criminals instead of gangsters and hoods. There's no overt violence in WOLF--and it seems because of that Scorsese decided to turn the volume knob up to No. 11, so to speak. This picture is three full hours of unbridled excess and obnoxious characters.
The story is based on real-life financial swindler Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). From the beginning Belfort is a overbearing, arrogant, greedy jerk. It's a part that DiCaprio plays very well--heck, that type of role has become DiCaprio's screen persona (I'll be writing a blog on Leo's film career very soon). Belfort is a sex/drugs/money addict, with no conscience whatsoever. I don't believe every movie has to have a decent character in the lead, but after spending three hours experiencing Belfort's lifestyle you feel like taking a shower.
Of course Martin Scorsese has made several films featuring disreputable people. The difference between those films and WOLF is that in the earlier Scorsese works, he attracted the audience's interest through a suspenseful storyline. The threat of violence in Scorsese's world magnified and propelled the plot. In WOLF you have white collar crime, which is very hard to show cinematically. Instead of shootings or beatings, Socrsese piles on the sex, drugs and lies to the point where it just gets tiresome.
As one would expect from Scorsese, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a very well-made production. Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker use just about every cinematic trick in the book. The one trick that was left out is the point of it all. Is this movie a dark comedy? Is it a satire? Is it an indictment of American capitalistic greed? If it is, that's a bit ironic, considering that WOLF is a multi-million dollar production featuring multi-millon dollar performers. Every single character in WOLF, with the exception of the FBI agent who takes Belfort down, is a detestable individual. There's no counterpoint to all the lying and cheating; we don't see any victims of these financial crimes. Even at the climax it's hard to say that Belfort got what he deserved--he wound up writing a book and having a major feature film based on his life (he even has a cameo in this movie).
Jordan Belfort's story could have easily been told in about an hour instead of three. It was hard work for me to watch this film--and it's not because I was offended by it. I think Scorsese was trying to match the film's style to Belfort's excessive life. If Belfort really did all these things, then Scorsese succeeded. Personally, I believe he succeeded too well. Spending an entire afternoon watching rich amoral people act like jerks just isn't very entertaining to me, no matter how great the director is.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
My latest Criterion Blu-ray features Akira Kurosawa's THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. I first saw this movie at the University of Notre Dame's Browning Cinema. THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is well-known among film buffs for being a major influence on George Lucas and STAR WARS, but my first reaction after seeing it was how much it reminded me of Sergio Leone's film work. (Remember that Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is basically a Western remake of Kurosawa's YOJIMBO.) THE HIDDEN FORTRESS has a lot in common with Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Both movies involve a small group of characters who make an arduous journey through a countryside affected by civil war, with a fortune in gold at stake. Sergio Leone's widescreen visual style owes a lot to Kurosawa, and both directors were huge fans of John Ford. It's very easy to connect the dots from John Ford to Kurosawa to Leone to George Lucas.
The story begins with two bumbling peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, who get themselves stuck in a wartime adventure in 16th Century feudal Japan (much like C3PO and R2-D2 would get involved in intergalactic wartime adventure). The duo are tricked into helping a fugitive princess (Misa Uehara) by General Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune). The characters of the General and the proud and determined princess were obviously inspirations for George Lucas' Ob-Wan Kenobi and Leia Organa.
Mifune is his typical commanding self, and he makes a huge impression with a knock-out action sequence which shows him chasing foes on horseback and fighting a lance duel with another general. The duel certainly foreshadows the lightsaber battles in the STAR WARS saga, and is very reminiscent of Sergio Leone's various gunfights.
For my money it is Misa Uehara who steals the film. Her Princess Yuki is one of the great female roles of action-adventure cinema, and more proof that old movies didn't always treat women badly. (In my opinion, women had far more opportunities to prove their talent in classic films than they do today.)
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS was Akira Kurosawa's first widescreen film. It's hard to believe that fact after watching it--you would be sure that Kurosawa had been working in the widescreen format for years. Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Ichio Yamazaki, bring such a clarity, and such a depth of field to the scenes, that there are times you feel you are looking at a 3-D production.
Kurosawa and Yamazaki's work is enhanced by the stunning picture quality of Criterion's Blu-ray. Criterion has also included a 3.0 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD audio which replicates the original Perspectra sound track. The audio commentary is by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince, and it is well worth listening to. The rest of the extras include a eight-minute interview with George Lucas about Kurosawa, and a 40-minute documentary on the making of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS for the series AKIRA KUROSAWA: IT IS WONDERFUL TO CREATE. There is also a booklet written by film scholar Catherine Russell. Like all new Criterion product now being released, a DVD of the film and all the extras is included.
My favorite film of all time is STAR WARS, and my second favorite film is THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. So of course I would recommend THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. But don't buy this Blu-ray or watch this movie because you feel you have to as a film buff--watch it because it really is an entertaining, well-made film from one of the great cinema artists of all time.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Yesterday after work I was channel surfing, and I stumbled upon a Spaghetti Western I had never heard of....starring no less a performer than Adam West. The movie was being shown on the MGMHD channel, and the title of it was THE RELENTLESS FOUR.
Before I discuss this film, a quick explanation of my fondness for Adam West. When I was a very little kid, one of my first favorite TV shows was "Batman". Of course at that age I didn't get the fact that the show was campy....I totally bought into it, even to the point were I sometimes got worried that Batman might actually get killed.
Because of my early viewing of "Batman", Adam West became one of my first heroes. Whenever he showed up in another movie or TV show I would always try to watch it--and I would wind up disappointed that he didn't act like Batman. As I got older I was able to see a lot more of his TV guest appearances, including a "Bonanza" episode where he was the bad guy and shot someone in the back! (That really freaked me out.) Not too long ago, I saw for the very first time an episode of "The Big Valley" where West played a Union Army officer who had a compulsion to kill women because his mother was a prostitute (if I had seen this when I was a kid I would have been traumatized for life).
So obviously I was interested in viewing THE RELENTLESS FOUR. Adam West plays Sam Garrett, a (Texas?) Ranger who comes into conflict with the four bandits of the film's title. The bandits set Sam up to be accused of murder, and various Western-style conflicts ensue until Sam is able to defeat the four and clear his name.
The reason that Spaghetti Westerns have such a cult following is mainly because of their bizarre attributes, such as strange characters, over-the-top acting, wild stunts, and grotesque violence. Unfortunately THE RELENTLESS FOUR features none of these. It's a very, very standard Western--most of what goes on in it would fit right in any American TV Western of the period. There's no unique take on any of the typical situations. The movie drags along (even at 90 minutes), and while it is competently made, there's no real style or memorable moments.
As for Adam West, he does a good job as the scruffy hero. He handles the requisite gunplay and fistfights very well (and before you even ask, comic book action words DO NOT appear on the screen when he punches somebody). The problem with accurately judging his performance is....Adam West was dubbed in this film! Watching Adam West speak with someone else's voice is a unique experience. One of West's major strengths is his distinctive voice, and his even more distinctive speech pattern. Taking that away from him detracts from his role.
Why was West dubbed? Well, THE RELENTLESS FOUR was made in 1965....before the "Batman" series had come out and made West a star. At the time this movie was made, West was like a lot of other young American actors who had gone to Europe to try and follow up Clint Eastwood's success with director Sergio Leone's Westerns. I assume the producers wanted a voice that sounded "tougher". The voice used in the film does sound familiar to me.....I'm pretty sure that voice was used in Leone's DOLLARS trilogy. I asked a Facebook friend of mine who happens to be a Spaghetti Western expert if he knew who did the dubbing, and even he was not able to say.
I searched all over the internet not just for dubbing information, but any information on THE RELENTLESS FOUR. I didn't get much. I do know that it was filmed in Almeria, Spain, and the town set is the same one used in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (I could tell that just by looking at it). And that's about it. If Adam West had not starred in this film, I doubt there would be any knowledge of it at all (I know I wouldn't have watched it). THE RELENTLESS FOUR isn't a terrible film--but it is probably the most normal Spaghetti Western that I have ever seen. In this case, that is not a compliment.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Shout Factory has come out with another collector's edition Blu-ray of a 80s/90s cult genre film. This time it's Sam Raimi's DARKMAN (1990). The film was writer/director Raimi's first major studio project, and it is still more entertaining than Raimi's more "important" recent work.
Made between EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS, DARKMAN was created by Raimi to serve as the basis of a comic book/superhero story. A brilliant scientist (Liam Neeson) is savagely attacked and left for dead by gangsters. The scientist survives, but in a horribly disfigured state. He uses his research into producing artificial skin to enable him to become just about anyone he wants, and getting revenge on his enemies.
DARKMAN is more of a dark revenge fable instead of a straight comic-book story. The Darkman isn't interested in fighting crime--he's just trying to get back at those who ruined his life. There's a lot of horror/noir elements in this film, mixed in with Raimi's love for goofy slapstick humor and grotesque cartoonish violence. The result is a very unique movie, made even more so by the leads being played by Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand (not exactly the type of actors you would expect in a story such as this).
The Shout Factory Blu-ray of DARKMAN has a lot of extras, including new interviews with actors Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake, Dan Bell, and Danny Hicks. The talk with Liam Neeson isn't very long (only about 7 minutes), but it's nice that Neeson looks back on the role fondly, and agreed to be on the Blu-ray. There's also features with production designer Randy Ser, art director Philip Dagort, and makeup artist Tony Gardner which go into the challenges of making the film (even though this was a major step up budget-wise for Sam Raimi, it still was not a very expensive picture).
The audio commentary features director of photography Bill Pope. DARKMAN was Pope's first film as a DOP (he would later work on THE MATRIX films and SPIDERMAN 2 & 3). Pope gives a lot of insight in what it was like working for Raimi, and the various non-CGI tricks used in the film.
The Blu-ray also includes interviews & material from when DARKMAN was first released. What the extras do not have is anything new from Sam Raimi himself--kind of surprising, considering that Raimi is usually all over the extras on the video releases of his other films.
Unfortunately the picture quality of this Blu-ray is somewhat disappointing. It's not terrible, but it isn't that much of an improvement over the look of the DARKMAN DVD. The 5.1 DTS sound mix is impressive, showcasing Danny Elfman's excellent music score.
As I have stated before, since DARKMAN Sam Raimi has gone on to make a lot of more famous pictures--but I still think his first major studio effort is more memorable.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
One of the films most requested to be released on DVD is Universal's 1936 version of the famed Broadway musical, SHOW BOAT. The Warner Archive Collection has now made a lot of film buffs happy by finally putting out the movie through their made-to-order line.
SHOW BOAT had already been made once by Universal in 1929 as a silent with some talkie sequences (I'd love to watch that version just to see how they tried to pull that off). Universal went out of its way to make the 1936 version a super-spectacular. The studio gave the project to its top director, James Whale (best known for FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and cast several stars who had made appearances on the stage version of SHOW BOAT at one time or another.
I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to movie musicals, but aficionados of the genre consider the 1936 SHOW BOAT the best out of all three total film versions of the story, and some believe it is one of the best cinematic musicals of all time.
When MGM made their own version of SHOW BOAT years later, they bought the rights to the other versions, and the 1936 production became almost a lost film (the same thing happened to Universal's and James Whale's film of WATERLOO BRIDGE when MGM remade that as well). TCM has shown the '36 film from time to time, but fans have been clamoring for its home video release for years. There were internet rumors that all three versions would be released as a Blu-ray set, but apparently that's not going to happen now.
Usually any product from the Warner Archive Collection is a DVD-R--which means that the quality will not be as good as a regular DVD. I'm happy to say that my copy of SHOW BOAT is a regular DVD. If you go to the Warner Archive ordering page for this film, it says that due to the anticipated high demand, initial orders will be traditionally pressed DVDs. So if you want to get a good copy of this, you'd better order it right away.
The Warner Archive site also says that SHOW BOAT has been remastered. The picture quality is okay, but the sound quality is excellent, even though it is in mono. There are no extras, which is a shame, because a movie like this calls out for something like a documentary detailing the history of its production, or at least an audio commentary from someone who is an expert on Universal Studios during the 1930s, such as Gregory Mank.
There's a ton of highlights in this musical....the songs of Oscar Hammerstein & Jerome Kern, the performances of Irene Dunne (who should have been nominated for an Oscar) and Helen Morgan, and of course the justly celebrated rendition of "Ol' Man River" by Paul Robeson. But it is the brilliant work of James Whale that puts this movie over the top. For example, the "Ol' Man River" sequence would be stunning just for the singing of Robeson alone--but Whale's visual staging makes it one of the greatest moments in movie musical history. Whale himself should have been Oscar nominated for his directorial work here.
Kudos to the Warner Archive Collection for releasing this film, and extras kudos for also releasing it on to regular DVD (for a while, anyway). I predict it will wind up being one of the best sellers in the entire Warner Archive home video collection.
Monday, March 3, 2014
In recent years, Alec Baldwin has gone the William Shatner route and turned into a bloated parody of himself. It wasn't that long ago that Baldwin was considered an "A" list Hollywood leading man. He even played the lead in a "sort of" superhero movie--the almost forgotten THE SHADOW (1994), which has just come out on a special edition Blu-ray from Shout Factory.
THE SHADOW was produced by Universal, and the studio hoped that it would be a big summer blockbuster and maybe even start a series. The movie was directed by Russell Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER), and the script was written by David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK). The impressive supporting cast included such names as John Lone, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and Ian McKellen (who had not yet had his 21st Century mainstream success).
THE SHADOW has a lot in common with other superhero/comic book movies of the period like THE ROCKETEER and DICK TRACY. It's set in the 1930s (1936, to be exact....in the background of one of the scenes there's a movie theater marquee advertising THE INVISIBLE RAY) and the production design and the costumes are more interesting than the plot or most of the characters. This film also has some similarities to Tim Burton's BATMAN (remember that BATMAN has a very 30s/40s feel to it). The Shadow's alter ego, Lamont Cranston, has a lot of Bruce Wayne in him, and Jerry Goldsmith's music score for THE SHADOW sounds very Danny Elfman-like.
Alec Baldwin actually does a fine job in the title role. A lot of that has to do with his natural persona (if any actor fits the definition of the word "smug", it's Alec Baldwin). The Shadow has a dark side to him (the movie shows that Lamont Cranston was somewhat of a super-villain himself once), and Baldwin is able to use his unique voice to convince the audience that he has the power to "cloud men's minds" (even though on the screen he seems like he's using Jedi mind tricks).
John Lone plays Shiwan Khan, the film's bad guy. Shiwan is the last descendant of Genghis Khan and is planning to take over the world with the help of an early version of the atomic bomb. Shiwan Khan is one of the movie's biggest problems. He comes off as being a bit silly instead of dangerous. It's not the fault of the actor--the script doesn't give the character much to do. Shiwan Khan is supposed to have the same powers as the Shadow, but those powers (and their limitations) are left somewhat vague, so the viewer is left wondering about some of the plot points.
Penelope Ann Miller (what ever happened to her?) plays the Shadow's love interest, Margo Lane. Miller looks fantastic in a 1930's style wardrobe, but this is another character that is underwritten and fails to become interesting. One of the sub-plots of the film is that somehow Margo Lane has a psychic connection with the Shadow, which means she finds out who he really is (what's a comic book/superhero movie without the lead character's secret identity being revealed?).
Russell Mulcahy does give the film some nice visual moments. When Baldwin is the Shadow, he looks great, with a fine costume design and some facial makeup. Unfortunately, the Shadow doesn't appear all that much. Even in the climax of the film (which is a take-off of the mirrors sequence in the ending of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) we see more Lamont Cranston instead of the Shadow. The entire film looks stunning, but the story is a little thin, and 1994 audiences just didn't seem to respond to it all that well.
Shout Factory's new Blu-ray contains a 23-minute extra on the making of the film, with new interviews with Alec Baldwin, Russell Mulcahy, Penelope Ann Miller, David Koepp, Production Designer Joseph Nemec III, and Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum. It was quite a feat for Shout Factory to get all these people talking on camera, but one wishes that the running time had been longer, and the interviews had gone into more depth about the production. There's also a trailer and a photo gallery.
One other thing I'd like to point out....this movie made me think of....BATMAN BEGINS. Both THE SHADOW and BATMAN BEGINS start in Central Asia, with a lead character who is a "lost soul". Both characters are trained to find their "true selves" at a mysterious monastery, and after a multi-year absence, they both return to their crime-ridden big city hometowns to fight evil. I'm certainly not suggesting that Christopher Nolan was in any way influenced by THE SHADOW. It's just something I noticed for myself.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Last fall I wrote a blog post on how impressed I was upon seeing GRAVITY on the big screen. I was hoping that when the movie came out on home video, there would be supplements and extra features explaining how the production was made. Most Blu-rays of recently released films have very little extra content, and usually that content is nothing more than promotional fluff pieces.
I'm happy to say that the standard (non-3-D) Blu-ray version of GRAVITY has about three hours of features detailing all the work that went into making the film. All of this information is pretty fascinating to a film geek like me. Most of what takes place in GRAVITY is CGI-rendered--but it is CGI with a purpose. The CGI serves the story, not the other way around. Various new FX techniques were used in the making of GRAVITY, including practical elements such as brand-new wire rigging.
For the most part the extra features avoid the typical routines such as people sitting on the set saying things like "I'm so impressed with the director's vision!" and "This is such a great project!!". There is some of that when Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are talking (I'm convinced that actors have trained themselves to say the same exact things for any Blu-ray/DVD documentary). There's a lot of technical stuff involved, but the features are done in such a way that the general audience can understand and appreciate what had to be done to get the story filmed properly.
GRAVITY of course looks fantastic on Blu-ray, but it is still a film meant to be seen in a theater. Anyone who loves this film and wonders how it was produced should pick up this Blu-ray. I get the feeling, though, that if GRAVITY cleans up at the Oscars, there's going to be a future super-duper home video release with even more extras and background material. It's too bad that Cinefantastique magazine doesn't exist anymore--GRAVITY would have been perfect for an all-issue special.