September 18, 2017


Starring Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Directed by John Sturges. (1959, 89 min).

Never having seen The Law and Jake Wade prior to reviewing this disc (its first time on Blu-ray), the film was of personal interest to me for two reasons: John Sturges and Richard Widmark.

My appreciation for Sturges came pretty late in life, when I eventually noticed that his name popped up in a lot of old classics I've always loved, such as Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, as well as kitschy potboilers like The Satan Bug and Ice Station Zebra. So whenever the chance to discover another one turns up, deal me in.

I've liked Richard Widmark since I was a kid, mostly from the types of movies that appealed to me at the time, like Rollercoaster, Twilight's Last Gleaming and The Swarm (really). Mostly a supporting player by then, Widmark was the go-to guy when a film required an antagonistic general or argumentative man-in-charge who exists to second-guess the hero. With a distinctive voice, weathered face and deadly serious stare, I enjoyed his performances immensely. But I had no idea at the time that he had a long, respected career in all sorts of roles, most notably bad guys. When I eventually watched him in Kiss of Death, his delirious, unhinged performance was amazing.

"Boop! Got yer nose!"
The Law and Jake Wade doesn't rank among either man's greatest work, but it is a solid, briskly-paced and exciting western that provides a fine showcase for both.

Robert Taylor plays the titular character, a former bandit turned town marshal who's trying to leave his old life behind and set-up house with fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens). Unfortunately, the man he used to ride with, Clint Hollister (Widmark), shows up demanding the $20,000 they stole from a bank the previous year. But, troubled by the death of a child during the robbery, Jake buried the money, and when he initially refuses to reveal where the it is, Clint and his new gang abduct Peggy. Now Jake is forced to lead the way through treacherous Indian country to retrieve it.

"C'mon, say it just one time...'He's dead, Jim!' Please!"
While the film isn't as sweeping as The Magnificent Seven or suspenseful as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Sturges once again demonstrates his mastery of the western genre, presenting a compelling story with great economy (at 89 minutes, the film doesn't get the chance to where out his welcome). Taylor makes a stoic hero, but it's Widmark who owns this movie, instilling Clint with just the right amount of arrogance - along with a dash of depravity - to make him a menacing villain.

As westerns go, The Law and Jake Wade may not be a lost classic, but it's thoroughly entertaining and worth picking up by genre fans. Originally released just before Sturges went on a decade-long hot streak, it's an interesting little footnote in his career. 

September 16, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: THE BIG SICK

Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Directed by Michael Sowwalter. (2017, 120 min).

The Big Sick is about defying tradition in more ways than one, and not quite the movie it was promoted as, which is ultimately a positive. After all, the last thing we need is yet-another rom-com with two seemingly incompatible lead characters. While this film has some of those elements, calling it a romantic comedy doesn't really do it justice.

I often review rom-coms with my wife, who truly loves genre (and its inherent predictability), and this isn't what she was expecting. The Big Sick is indeed very funny on occasion, as is the obligatory meet-cute between Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan). He's a struggling stand-up comedian from a Pakistani family, while she's studying to be a therapist. For the first third of the story, Kumail is torn between the expectations of his family - their tradition of arranged marriages - and his growing love for Emily. But when she learns his family doesn't even know about her - and he's unwilling to say whether or not they even have a future together - she breaks up with him.

"Hi, I'm Travis Bickle. Where to?"
After Emily ends up hospitalized in a medically-induced coma, the film becomes Kumail's story. Her illness is the catalyst for him to weigh personal happiness versus cultural tradition: He's expected to marry a Pakistani girl, yet it's Emily who makes him truly happy. During this time, he meets Emily's parents (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), who are slow to warm up to him at first, but their own views on relationships - including their own tumultuous marriage - leave Kumail with a few epiphanies about his own life, family and, of course, how he feels about Emily.

The bulk of the film focuses on Kumail's internal conflict, and while it's quite charming and often poignant, actual laughs grow fewer and farther between. On a personal note, Emily's illness sort-of hit my wife and I a little too close to home, since a similar, potentially life-threatening lung infection once landed me in the hospital for several months.

Still, The Big Sick is an engaging film, partially because it indeed defies expectations, but also because the characters and performances feel authentic. The knowledge that the entire film is based on how Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon met in real life (and they wrote this together) makes the viewer more emotionally invested. On the other hand, it's also kind-of a spoiler regarding the ultimate outcome, but that's nitpicking. After all, what good's a rom-com - even one that breaks with tradition - if it doesn't end happy?

FEATURETTES: "A Personal Journey: The Making of The Big Sick"; "The Real Story" (featuring Nanjiani and real-wife Emily Gordon); "The Big Sick: The Other Stuff" (alternate gags); "The Bigger Sick: Stick Around for More Laughs"; SXSW Film Fest Panel
AUDIO COMMENTARY - by Nanjiani, Gordon, producer Barry Mendel & director Michael Showalter

September 15, 2017

Rest in Peace, Harry Dean Stanton


Starring the voices of Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal. Directed by David Soren. (2017, 90 min).

If nothing else, this movie knows its audience. Ergo, there's a climactic battle between our titular hero and an evil genius with a gigantic super-toilet.

That audience is, of course, the millions of kids (with parents in-tow) who grew up on Captain Underpants, the still-popular book series that convinced a lot of them that reading for pleasure isn't a federal crime. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie stays remarkably faithful to its source material...irreverent, just-a-tad rebellious and, of course, packed with as many underwear, private part & potty jokes as they could squeeze into the story while maintaining a PG rating.

"Time for my solo!"
Yet, the movie is consistently good-natured and frequently quite funny, even if one has since-graduated elementary school, such as a throw-away scene involving a symbolic bluebird and a cat, which made this old man laugh out loud. More importantly, despite being computer-animated, the film maintains the colorful, exaggerated look of the illustrations in the books.

The main characters, George & Harold, are are amusing and likable, despite the pranks they pull on their hapless-but-evil principal, Mr. Krupp, who the boys have also managed to turn into the comic character they created, Captain Underpants (using a hypnotizing ring from a cereal box). These two often break the fourth wall to narrate this story, even "stopping" the film to draw what happens next to avoid traumatizing youngsters.

George & Harold neglect to inform the captain that his barn door is open.
On a side note, I was surprised to discover that Kevin Hart voices George. I must confess I've never been a fan, finding him more overwhelming than funny. Even as a voice actor in The Secret Life of Pets, he came across as trying to dominate every scene he's in. But here, Hart actually disappears into the character and gives George a voice and personality befitting a mischievous young boy. The rest of the cast is equally good in their roles, as well.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is unashamedly a children's film and your little ones will likely outgrow its charms once they hit middle school. But in the moment, fans of the books will love seeing these heroes & villains being brought to life. It's affably entertaining and, despite two main characters who often victimize their elders, never mean-spirited. 

EXTRA KIBBLES (mostly of the comical, kid-friendly variety)
"The Captain Underpants Guide to Being a Hero"; "The Professor Poopypants Guide to Being a Villain"; Q&A with Ed Helms, Kevin Hart & Thomas Middleditch
MOTION COMIC: The Really Cool Adventures of Captain Underpants
MUSIC VIDEOS: "Captain Underpants Theme" by "Weird" Al Yankovic & "A Friend Like You" by Andy Grammer

September 14, 2017

Blu-Ray News: ATOMIC BLONDE Available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand 11/14, Digital HD 10/24

Universal City, California, September 14, 2017 Double-crossed while sent to collect stolen intelligence in East Germany, elusive secret agent Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Fate of the Furious) unleashes a deadly arsenal of skills in ATOMIC BLONDE, the adrenaline pumping, stylish spy-thriller, coming to Digital on October 24, 2017 and 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on November 14, 2017, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. Adapted from Antony Johnson’s graphic novel, The Coldest City, the explosive film set in the late eighties takes viewers on a high-stakes chase as Theron attempts to escape Berlin. The 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital versions include commentary from the cast, filmmakers, stunt performers and fight coordinators, plus behind-the-scenes features that take viewers inside the making of the film’s intense stunt choreography.

Oscar®-winner Charlize Theron stars as elite MI6’s most lethal assassin and the crown jewel of her Majesty’s secret intelligence service, Lorraine Broughton, in ATOMIC BLONDE. When she’s sent on a covert mission into Cold War Berlin, she must use all of the spycraft, sensuality and savagery she has to stay alive in the ticking time bomb of a city simmering with revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors. Broughton must navigate her way through a deadly game of spies to recover a priceless dossier while fighting ferocious killers along the way in this breakneck action-thriller from director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, John Wick).  Theron is joined by James McAvoy (Split, X-Men: First Class), Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) and John Goodman (Transformers: The Last Knight, Patriots Day) in what critics are calling “the best spy movie in years,” Shawn Edwards, FOX-TV.


Rest In Peace, Frank Vincent


By Julian Rice. (2017, 297 pp).

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is one of Steven Spielberg's more polarizing films. Some declare it an underappreciated masterpiece, while others have criticized it for a variety of reasons. A chief complaint among the latter is Spielberg's treatment of the source material, which Stanley Kubrick had been trying to adapt for years. While he had the late director's blessing, many felt Spielberg's style was completely incompatible with Kubrick's darker sensibilities.

If there was ever a movie with a back-story worthy of a fascinating book, it's A.I. However, Julian Rice's book, Kubrick's Story, Spielberg's Film, is not a chronicle of the film's production. Instead, it's a deeply detailed analysis of each director's narrative and visual ideals, delving deep into both filmographies to pull out similar imagery and themes which may have ultimately shaped the film that was finally released (two years after Kubrick's death). The author's recurring argument is that the directors shared more common ground than their reputations suggest.

While A.I. is indeed analyzed in great detail - both narratively and aesthetically - other chapters look back to such work as Close Encounters, Dr. Strangelove, even the original novel of Pinocchio, in search of recurring themes like the apocalypse and parent/child relationships. Perhaps a but too analytical, at times, not to mention some really heavy, labyrinthine academic arguments that make this book a challenging read.

Not a book for the average movie fan - even if you happen to love A.I. - Kubrick's Story, Spieberg's Film is aimed more for at those whose appreciation of either director extends beyond their films' mere entertainment value. 


September 11, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: THE MUMMY (2017)

Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance. Directed by Alex Kurtzman. (2017, 110 min).

There occasions when I watch a movie that seems to be almost universally despised (by critics and audiences) and wonder if I'm stupid for actually liking it. While Tom Cruise's The Mummy - his name really should be part of the title - didn't quite get Universal's Dark Universe off to the roaring start they were hoping for, I enjoyed the film for what it was.

It sure as hell isn't one of the worst films of the year, like many list-loving critics have smugly declared, a few of whom I suspect had their spears sharpened before they even set foot in the goddamn theater.

There were the negative comparisons to the 1999 blockbuster with Brendan Fraser, along with quips that it's only been nine years since the last film in that franchise. Sure, we've been getting reboots before the corpses of the old movies are cold, but comparatively speaking, aside from the basic premise, this film is completely different in look and tone, achieving a dark vibe that The Mummy (1999) - which was not-so-much a remake of the 1932 classic as an Indiana Jones-type comic/fantasy-adventure - never really attempted. The reboot  film isn't particularly scary, but taking the concept more-or-less seriously was a wise creative choice. We don't need yet-another gag-filled romp through the same material.

Tom flies coach.
Then there were the accusatory complaints of The Mummy being turned into just another Tom Cruise vehicle. To that I say, where have you been lately? For at-least the last decade, all his movies are Tom Cruise vehicles. He's long since he's given-up all pretenses of being anything other than TOM CRUISE, who runs like it hurts, comes equipped with Intens-O-Vision & has no business being in better physical shape than most 20-year-olds. He's really his own little genre and I've grown to appreciate that, which is why most of his recent films a lot of undemanding fun. In fact, they could just as accurately be titled Tom Cruise Battles Aliens, Tom Cruise Dangles from a Plane, Tom Cruise Hunts Hitler, Tom Cruise Rides a Bus to Help Strangers, etc.

At this point, he's simply too Tom Cruisey to be accepted as anything else. Hence, Tom Cruise vs. The Mummy should surprise nobody. If you're unable to accept that, well, there's always the Brendan Fraser movies. Here, Cruise is at his Cruisiest as Tom Cruise Nick Morton, an unscrupulous military man (and too cool to wear an actual uniform) who steals ancient treasures as a side gig. He inadvertently awakens a mummified Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella), who curses him in order to resurrect an ancient evil God. Also on-board the Tom train are Jake Johnson as his comic relief, Chris (a shameless rip-off of Griffin Dunne's character in An American Werewolf in London), and Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), whose purpose is reacting to Tom doing Tom stuff.

Tom Cruise vs. a big-ass gopher.
Finally, there's a considerable amount of screen time dedicated to establishing Universal's so-called Dark Universe. Yeah, I'll concede that was a bad idea. Throwing in Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and brief allusions to other legendary Universal monsters are annoying distractions that smack of a blatant attempt to jump on the Marvel bandwagon with their own ready-made cinematic universe. Worst yet, these elements do absolutely nothing to advance the plot.

 Deleted scene from The Mummy

All that being said, The Mummy is exactly the movie I suspected it would be. And maybe that's why I sort-of enjoyed it. The visual effects are decent and there's a lot of violent action (the plane crash sequence during the first act is the best scene in a Tom Cruise movie since the last Mission: Impossible). There's even a decent jump-scare or two for those unaccustomed to them. And even though it pointlessly drops hints of more-to-come in the Dark Universe, the film wisely makes certain this particular Mummy story is wrapped up (no pun intended).

FEATURETTES: "Cruise & Kurtzman: A Conversation"; "Rooted in Reality"; "Life in Zero-G: Creating the Plane Crash"; "Meet Ahmanet"; "Cruise in Action"; "Becoming Jekyll and Hyde"; "Choreographed Chaos"; "Nick Morton: In Search of a Soul"
AUDIO COMMENTARY: By director Alex Kurtzman, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson

September 9, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: RONIN

Starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale, Jonathan Pryce, Jan Triska, Katarina Witt. Directed by John Frankenheimer. (1998, 122 min).

Ronin was the best action film of the 90s, and as the genre becomes increasingly dependent on shaky-cam, hyper-active editing and - ugh! - CGI, I appreciate it more with each passing year. To coin an oft-used cliche, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Actually, they didn't really make 'em like this in the 90s, either. Ronin was an anomaly, a throwback to the aesthetics of the 1970s, when elaborate chases were artistically choreographed and performed for a director who knew that what makes a chase thrilling has nothing to do with quick editing and massive destruction. It's convincing the viewer that the chase is real, we're in the middle of it and his actors are actually behind the wheel. The high-tech freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded may be a visual wonder, but can anyone honestly say it's more harrowing and suspenseful than Gene Hackman trailing an L-train in The French Connection?

During his heyday, few directors were as skilled at capturing the thrill of the chase as John Frankenheimer. In many ways, Ronin was a glorious return-to-form for a director who had wallowed in mediocrity for a couple of decades. While his keen eye renders the action scenes as thrilling as anything else he's done in his long career, what also makes Ronin memorable is its intriguingly mysterious characters and narrative purity.

Road rage...some guys have it all figured out.
Sure, there are major characters who hatch intricate and complicated plans to steal a case before it's sold to nefarious buyers. There are also surprising double-crosses as these characters regularly screw each other over. Yet the case is just a MacGuffin. We never learn what's inside, nor the intentions of any of the buyers. Not only that, it's never made quite clear if our mercenary protagonists are working for people who are any better than those they're stealing the case from. In fact, aside from some vague conversations that are never elaborated upon, we don't know much about the main characters, either. We learn just enough to like, hate or - in one case - pity each and every one of them.

But to mistake the overall lack of exposition for ambiguity is missing the point. Ronin simply jettisons every element that isn't absolutely necessary. By stripping the story down to its bare essentials, all we concern ourselves with is who's chasing who, who's got the case and who we should be rooting for. Action cinema doesn't get much more pure than that.

"No, Robert, you can't play with them."
In modern terms, Ronin can sort-of be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, without the hookers. There are missions you must complete before reaching your ultimate goal, by any means necessary, regardless of the collateral damage. All you really need to worry about are the folks you’re chasing (or running from). But unlike my frustration with my dubious video-gaming skills, these folks never say "Aw, fuck it" and start wiping-out everybody within eyeshot.

"Siri...where the hell are we?"
There are vivid gunfights and two extended (very destructive) car chases. Frankenheimer, who helmed some of the best racing footage ever in Grand Prix, hadn’t lost a single step. The thrilling seven minute chase through the streets of Paris rivals the likes of The French Connection and doesn't rely much on special effects. We don't get many classic car chases like these anymore, where we're totally convinced it's really Robert De Niro chasing down Natascha McElhone down the wrong way of a busy expressway.

On a side note, another thing which makes Ronin interesting is Frankenheimer's decision to show the consequences of the mayhem caused by these characters. Innocent people get caught crossfire during gunfights or barbecued in their vehicles because they chose the wrong road on which to commute that day. However, Frankenheimer is careful not to show the film’s “heroes” directly causing any of these deaths. It’s also clearly apparent that if you want to go on a killing spree, do it in France. Despite all the carnage inflicted in public streets, there’s almost never a cop to be found, kind-of like Grand Theft Auto when you activate a cheat code which erases your wanted level.

"This is how many f**ks I give."
Still, it's almost criminal that hyperactive junk like Bad Boys defines 90's-era action for so many viewers, while Ronin remains relatively underappreciated. I would think the virtuosity displayed in the chase scenes alone would have people ranking it right up there with Bullitt, The French Connection and Mad Max. The movie definitely has a similar 70's vibe - an era when action didn't always go hand-in-hand with spectacle. Had it been made back then, perhaps it would be hailed today as one of the great action classics.

This Blu-Ray from Arrow Films throws in a few new-to-Blu-Ray extras in addition to the supplemental material that was included on the original DVD release. However, the terrific 4K restoration is what makes this disc preferable to previous Blu-Ray editions.

"YOU TALKIN' TO ME?" - Quentin Tarantino discusses Robert De Niro, with an emphasis on the actor's 70s work (made in 1994).
ARCHIVAL FEATURES (all of which are from the original DVD release): "Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane"; "Through the Lens" (with cinematographer Robert Fraisse"; "The Driving of Ronin"; "Natascha McElhone: An Actor's Process"; "Composing the Ronin Score"; "In the Cutting Room" (with editor Tony Gibbs); "Venice Film Festival Interviews"
AUDIO COMMENTARY - by John Frankenheimer
ALTERNATE ENDING (which is a bit bleaker)
COLLECTOR'S BOOKLET (not available for review)


September 7, 2017


Starring Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, James LeGros. Directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm: Ravager directed by David Hartman). (1979-2016, 454 min).


For those lamenting Well Go USA's initial decision to release their impressive Phantasm Collection only on Blu-Ray, a more budget-friendly edition is now available on DVD. With different but no-less-attractive packaging, the 5 Movie DVD Collection offers the same films, including the 4K-remastered edition of the original. It doesn't include the Blu-Ray set's geektastic sixth disc (and its treasure trove of supplemental material), but each film is still accompanied by the same extras (outlined below).

The original Phantasm - the one nearest and dearest to most fans' hearts - has never looked or sounded this good on home video, which helps compensate for the surprisingly underwhelming batch of bonus features. What's here is interesting, but there are previously released DVD editions with more comprehensive extras.

The Tall Man knows who stole the cookies from the cookie jar.
I'm probably in the extreme minority on this, but I still consider Phantasm II to be the best film in the entire series. It may lack the original's creative, dreamlike surrealism, but thanks to an obviously bigger budget, the film is a significant improvement in every other aspect...better direction, production values and special effects, to say nothing of the overall performances. The smartest thing writer/director Don Coscarelli did for the franchise was turn Reggie (Reggie Bannister, who has the most actual talent) into a lead character. This disc is the exact same as Scream Factory's 2013 release, along with the generous amount of bonus features that came along with it.

Reggie Bannister Jackson
The less said about Phantasm III & Phantasm IV, the better. Working with reduced budgets, these two direct-to-video films feel like they went into production before Coscarelli was even sure what to do next. Purists may have been happy over the return of Michael Baldwin & Bill Thornbury (both conspicuously absent from II), but really, neither of them are what anyone would consider great thespians (say what you want about James LeGros' casting as Michael in II, at least the guy could act). But even the return of two fan favorites can't compensate for the dumpster fire that is Phantasm IV, a convoluted hodge-podge of tenuously related scenes padded out by unused footage from the original.These two discs are also the lightest on extras, but I doubt many will care.

"Hey! Watch where your puttin' that nightstick!"
However, Phantasm: Ravager, while still hampered by its budget, is a ton of goofy fun and arguably closest in overall tone to the original, and if you aren't already a fan of the series, utterly incomprehensible. The story, such as it is, serves only to throw all the beloved Phantasm elements together one last time, but it's obvious a lot of love went into this picture. In fact, despite all the violence, death and apocalyptic implications, Phantasm: Ravager ultimately becomes a charming feel-good film for those who grew up on the series. Despite concluding just as ambiguously open-ended as the others, Ravager leaves little question that this film will be the last, and now it's time to bid a fond farewell.

For hardcore fans of the franchise, The Phantasm Collection Blu-Ray set is still the way to go. But this lower-priced DVD set is certainly worth picking up for curious newcomers or those content just to have all the movies in their collection.


AUDIO COMMENTARY (with writer/director Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm & Bill Thornbury).
1979 INTERVIEW (featuring Coscarelli & Scrimm...looks like a local cable access program).
TRAILERS (Original and Remastered)
AUDIO COMMENTARY (with writer/director Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm & Reggie Bannister)
"THE BALL IS BACK: The Making of Phantasm II" (Another exemplary Scream Factory documentary produced exclusively for their Blu-Ray release)
"THE GORY DAYS" (A decent featurette focusing on make-up artist Greg Nicotero)
AUDIO COMMENTARY (with writer/director Don Coscarelli and editor Norman Buckley)
FEATURETTE: "Balls of Steel: Bob Ivey's Stunt for the Ages"
(with writer/director Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm & Reggie Bannister)
AUDIO COMMENTARY (with director/co-writer David Hartman & producer/co-writer Don Coscarelli).