Category Archives: 3 stars

Smart Money (1931)


3 stars out of 4.

Someone obviously came up with the idea to re-team Robinson and Cagney after their huge successes with Little Caesar and  The Public Enemyrespectively the previous year. This is exactly what Smart Money is, another gangster picture culled from “ripped from the headlines” news stories where the lead character will be a fictionalized variant based on several real life notorious crime figures.

This became Warner’s bread and butter release during the worst years of the Depression and still pack quite a punch these days, particularly these earlier films that arrived before the Code implementation. These Pre-Code gangster releases are grittier and darker, and today are finally seen again uncut. If they were reissued or put on tape any earlier it was always in a truncated Code enforced edit.

All this aside, Smart Money is an inferior picture that skirts by on the charm of its stars and the PreCode elements. Otherwise it’s all  very standardized and drags despite its short runtime. Robinson is given the lead, with Cagney playing a supporting role. He naturally steals all his scenes and it only when both are present onscreen that the picture really lights up. Of particular note is a small bit part for pre-fame Boris Karloff as some sort of pimp and a scene where Cagney pantomimes the err…accentuations of a certain lady that Robinson will find of certain interest.

It’s thankfully short, but many narrative contrivances cannot be overlooked, especially the apparent bloodthirstiness of the police and the sudden ending designed to punish evildoers.

Not a bad way to spend a little bit of time though. An hour and twenty minutes of pure American cinema pairing two of the great stars. Found in WB’s phenomenal Gangsters Volume 3 DVD set which can be had for NOTHING online. Highly recommended.

The transfer is astonishing for those used to grimy tape and laser releases. The film is uncut 1.33:1 in a clean typical WB transfer with a healthy grain field. The sound is clear and undistorted mono. There is a commentary  and full WB night at the Movies feature on all these from the Gangster sets. Maybe someday the studio will get its act together and do one big set of all their classic Gangster pictures.

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Filed under 3 stars, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime, Uncategorized

The Premature Burial (1962)

All of the Corman Poes had some great poster artwork.

3 stars out of 4.

It’s truly amazing to see what one can do with so little when one puts in the necessary willpower. This single idea is the meaning behind Roger Corman’s entire filmmaking career. He became legendary for stretching tiny budgets to the absolute maximum, and producing results of such a similar uniform quality that audiences came to know exactly what a Corman production entailed.

The Premature Burial is no exception. in the third of his Poe series, Corman departs from the successful formula established on House of Usher (1960) and wonderfully developed on Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This time the Poe experience is brought away form the rather Gothic and medieval trappings and into the realm of a character study. As all Poe enthusiasts are aware, the Corman films merely use the words of Poe as a backdrop and setup for an entire film. because they utilize the short stories there isn’t enough material to cover an entire film narrative and so with varying degrees the films depart from their source material.  The best of them actually deviate the most, becoming freer to create their own particular worlds and in turn remain faithful to the spirit of Poe, if not in the exact details. (Pit and Masque of the Red Death respectively)

And so the film in question is obviously about a man terrified of being buried alive. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) suffers from a fear of developing catalepsy and being buried alive, just as he believes his father was many years ago. He has refused to marry his sweetheart, Emily (the wonderful Hazel Court, borrowed from Hammer) because of this but is convinced perhaps wrongly that they should marry anyway. (As if the thousand strikes of ominous lightning that interrupt their wedding ceremony doesn’t tell them anything.) Guy’s malignant fears of premature internment have been awakened by attending a exhumation that happens to reveal the occupant was indeed buried alive. His overly convenient doctor friend warns Emily that Guy’s fears may, if properly motivated by events, actually cayuse the condition of catalepsy he so fears.

After the marriage, Guy retreats into himself and builds and elaborate tomb complete with a multitude of escape methods all in the event of a premature burial. Still, he finds himself confronted by memories and visions of the exhumation, references to death and premature burial and finally the fears of his father’s fate. Are these indeed true, and has Guy begun to actually go mad or could there be something else at work…

As with all the Poes, this is the primary conundrum for the audience. The casting of Milland over Vincent Price furthers the different flavor of Burial, and allows for a fresh look at what could have quickly become boring and routine. Milland brings his leading man charm that became so increasingly underused by Hollywood, and this non-use led him to productions like Corman’s. This is at a completely different angle than Price, who would either coldly or joyously throw himself into whatever the role dictated. Milland always retains a certain steely sense of sophistication, much like his portrayal of the jilted husband who plots an elaborate way to murder his wife in Dial M For Murder (1953). In the final denouement of the film, this becomes absolutely exemplary and a joy to watch, however brief the result may be.

And here we are with yet another inherent flaw in these films, the fact that the short 80 minute or so running time does not allow for an adequate space for the plot reveals to actually work and take hold in the audience’s mind. here it’s a great one, but the handling is so rushed that it loses almost all credibility. Inf act it takes the second viewing to fully appreciate the entire story in context and the ending because  one isn’t simply hit over the head with hit in the last minute of the reel!

Part of the fun of the Poe films is seeing where the same sets were reused from picture to picture, or actors, props, costumes and not to mention those damn red candles that appear in every film. (Seemingly when making House of Usher someone got a great deal on red candles.) But on Premature Burial, this isn’t as readily apparent as on some of the others. It seems as if Corman and his team tried to create a different film from the previous two so that it may reside in the same world, but has its own distinct personality. In fact, the film that reminds me most of Burial besides the other Poes is Hammer’s The Mummy (1959).

This is a brisk little film that may not prove to be very surprising, or shocking in any regard but it is a nice little reminder of what craftsmanship can do with good talent in even the lowest of production values. An essential Halloween treat shrouded in fog. It is worth viewing alone for the Poe series requirement of a color tinted nightmare sequence, this time depicting how Guy’s burial tomb goes horrifyingly wrong.

EDITIONS: Released by MGM on DVD some time ago, Burial is one of the best looking of the Poes on disc. The Panavision frame is well presented in a 16:9 anamorphically enhanced transfer. Print damage and wear is light but occasionally noticeable. Color looks good, though grain is seemingly reduced a bit. Dupes and transitions are a bit dirty but then click into the main feature cleanliness again. Audio is clear in Dolby 2.0 mono with only some very faint hiss on occasion. Later repackaged with The Masque of the Red Death at a reduced price. Look for these films to hit Blu-ray in Europe, sourced from the HD transfers that first appeared on HDTV networks a few years ago.

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Filed under 3 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman

Batman Begins (2005)

I still think the new cowl looks a bit stunted and silly.

3 stars out of 4.

Batman Begins is an unexpectedly interesting origin story. Yes, we are treated to yet another origin story of the Batman, but this time around, there is never a reveal of the character we expect. See, there is no true Batman in the Christopher Nolan universe. Begins strips everything bare so that only the fundamental elements of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City are left to delve into. Then everything else is layered on before our eyes in a promise that there will be a dark knight rising. (Whoops, did I make a pun there?)

The only problem is that that promise is never fulfilled. The fundamentals and elements of the Batman character are slowly built up in this 140 minute film and never actually completed. You may argue that this is a clever way of introducing and setting up the sequel, but it l;eaves the audience with a decidedly empty feeling when exiting the theater. And stealing the ending shot to Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t help matters.

This may come as a surprise from reading what I have just written above, but I like this movie. I like the design schemes and the risks they tried to take with the characters. I like the performances, I like the look with all the dark browns and copper reds and I even like Katie Holmes in the film. (One of those supposed black sheep performances that never does anything to deserve the criticism.) What I do not enjoy is the fact that at nearly every plot point, the story takes an abrupt left turn away from the natural completion of the arc. There’s no fleshing out of the storylines or the characters. We understand their motivations and the plot, but must always stop to ask why.

I thought this was just me originally, maybe I was just expecting too much from a new Batman movie. It had taken eight long years to get off the ground, emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of all the Batman projects that langui9shed in development hell during that time period. I stuck with this mindset for some time and still enjoy the movie for what it is; a decent attempt to re-imagine the Bat in a post-modern context with a psychological skew on Gotham’s humanity.

I was wrong. Actually, I’m pretty glad I was wrong. This would have been an easy 3.5 star review before I read the novelization. Yes, I can hear the cries of “foul!” already. Film tie-in novelizations are little more than an earlier draft transcribed to book form by some hack writer in another attempt to wring the last dollar out of a merchandising run, and these are usually only read by the most desperate of airport business traveler.  This would be true if not for one little fact: the tie-in was written by legendary Batman scribe Dennis O’Neil. For those who do not know, O’Neil is one of the few responsible for returning Batman to his dark roots in the 1970’s. He served as editor for many of the great storylines, so if there is one person who could write a heck of a Batman story it would be he.

The novelization honestly plays better than the film. All of those little touches I had craved are here, with fuller character development. For example, we see Bruce sitting around Wayne mansion before the Batman is created, just simply soaking in life and his wealth while realizing the fact that he has never truly lived at all. That is something so decidedly simple yet so completely profound that adds an incomparable amount to Bruce’s background. It only increases our sympathies for him and in turn increases our admiration for the Batman. I don’t know if this is merely bits form an earlier shooting draft that were jettisoned for the final edit, but it feels complete in a way. Yes, there are differences between the novel and film format, but the novel fleshes out the film to such a degree that it enhances the experience. I enjoy the film more now because I can actually envision the characters speaking the dialogue form the novel.

Of course the film is about Batman and how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) came to take up his mantle. We get the obligatory origin of young Bruce losing his parents outside a theater in the dark alleyway of Gotham. But this time around it is all rooted in Bruce’s fear. His fear of bats causes his parents to exit an opera (What happened to The Mark of Zorro?) and be gunned down in a failed mugging. Thus fear becomes the root of all of his unending grief. The pain his grief is built upon is a manifestation of his own guilt for inadvertently causing his parents death and leads to his desire for vengeance. He kicks aimlessly about schools for years until returning for the trial of his parent’s killer. He intends to kill the man and when this goes awry, he throws in the towel and loses himself amongst the world in a search for the strength and knowledge to do what he desires and possibly discover himself. He eventually is found by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who trains him to be a member of the League of Shadows. This shadowy origination is led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and is revealed to be little more than a grand terrorist group hell bent of destroying Gotham.

Bruce barely escapes with his life and in the process saves Ducard. He returns to Gotham and takes up his old life much to the surprise of all. Quickly he remembers his fear of bats and uses that fear to create The Batman. While taking down the Carmine Falcone mob, he encounters the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who happens to be working for a certain someone believed to be dead…all this while the world at large including childhood friend turned assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes)  think him a disgustingly rich buffoon too full of himself.

So, I highly recommend the novelization of Batman Begins which if it were a film would get a 3.5 from me if not higher. The film  itself is not bad, just not fully able to achieve its set goals. It is a slight disappointment in that regard only. In any case it is a massive improvement over its unbelievably confused, empty and over-complicated sequel. Begins is the fifth best of the film series overall. Not bad for a gutsy reboot.

EDITIONS: Warner did an initial transfer back in the early days of HD-DVD versus Blu-ray, with the DVD being merely a standard definition version of the same.

The DVD looks fine for the format, if a bit muted on color, 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1, with a expectedly  thumping 5.1 Dolby track. The Special features disc has one of the worst DVD menus ever though. The Blu-ray is the exact same transfer as the old HD-DVD and is thus limited in it’s overall impact. The colors are much richer and very much like the theatrical experience on 35mm. Still there isn’t quite as much depth as I would like to see and this I think comes from the recycling of transfers. Audio is increased over the DVD in a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which is great but could have been improved using a DTS-HDMA track with a higher bitrate.

The Blu-ray is regularly had for less than $10 and is a steal for this film. Hopefully they strike a newer transfer sometime, but that isn’t likely with Warner for several years.

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Filed under 3 stars, Batman, Film Review

Batman Forever (1995)

3 stars out of 4. Compromised edit befuddles a story meant to contain both heroics and darkness. And yes the Bat-asses are absolutely stupid.

Batman Forever has a noble idea: take the two least alike aspects of the Dark Knight and try to examine both in the same story. These two themes are the psychological trauma that befell and still haunts Bruce Wayne, and the heroic duty of Batman.

I always take a lot of flack for this, but I still love this movie. Call it leftover childhood nostalgia or something but I can’t help but enjoy this the 5,000th time around. I know it has many problems and I know it gets too campy in all the wrong places. But it is still to date the only Batman film to include the escapist adventure element of the character. Forever is a forgotten film that is only remembered in the wake of the indisputably awful Batman & Robin. The film’s problems stem primarily from studio meddling with the reputed 160 minute original cut of Forever, but the really big problem came in a last-minute meddling with the final film and dropping some crucial subplot scenes. Then they re-ordered the opening structure of the film and made things very discombobulated. Read the original novelization or a earlier script if you can find it, and you get a much better idea of what the original intent was.

Like the first film, there is a lot of subtext going on here. And again like the first film, it is impossible to get all of it due to not being given the whole picture. Val Kilmer’s performance goes beyond Michael Keaton in the psychologically damaged and tortured department. His Bruce Wayne is a quiet reserved man who puts on an air of ineffectiveness as a mask to hide his obsessed brooding. And boy does he ever brood. You begin to wonder if he does anything besides brood until he begins having flashbacks to the night of his parent’s murder. These come without warning and are the heart of the film. Deep in the shadowy visions of his subconscious is his soul crying out in repressed torment. This was the major subplot of the film and was unfairly ripped out by meddling studio heads. All that remain are bits and pieces of the flashbacks and references. Originally, this culminated with Bruce finally coming to terms with the beast deep within the caverns of the Batcave.

Kilmer deserved a straight Batman story that did not delve into the campier aspects of the Bat universe. As it stands, his character provides a strong mooring point so that the story doesn’t go flying off into lunacy, something that did happen on Batman & Robin. And as another plus his main appearances as Batman here are probably the most iconic we’ll ever get for live-action (save for the stupid Bat-nipples). It is rare to find an actor who can play both Bruce and Batman, but it is another to play both well and as two separate defined characters.

The love interest this time around is Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), an imminent psychologist lured to Gotham by its notorious denizens.  She quickly falls for Batman and is intrigued by the endless mysteries behind the man known as Bruce Wayne. The Bruce/Batman relationship with a psychologist is a brilliantly twisted idea, but that too goes nowhere in the film.  The novelization has a great subplot where Chase realizes Bruce’s secret and wrestles with herself about revealing it, but that too is removed from the film.

The villains are Two-Face and the Riddler. Forever follows Returns’ formula by having one established villain with disfigurement, joined by a distressed person with psychological issues who loses it to become a costumed criminal. Two-Face serves as little more than plot advancement in the final film. Tommy Lee Jones is wasted as Two-Face, but I think the character was devolved in this way to eventually just be a silly watered down version of Nicholson’s Joker.

The Riddler begins life as a lowly WayneTech employee named Edward Nygma. He idolizes Bruce and presents him with his wacky invention for a 3D Televsion box to implant viewers directly into their shows.  In a twist of fate, Bruce notices the Batsignal and is forced to cut Edward short. Because of his temperamental nature, Nygma’s desire for an immediate answer gets a no from Bruce who was his idol. This rejection causes a break, and that night Nygma assaults his factory boss and uses him as a guinea pig for his invention. The test shows a side result that allowed Ngyma’s brain energy to feed off the schmuck hooked into the machine.He kills his boss and resigns his post, leaving little riddles for Bruce to find. Eventually he makes a costumed identity and seeks out Two-Face to start mass producing his Box to sap the mental energy of Gotham.

The problem with this is that Jim Carrey is too Jim Carrey as the Riddler, and lacks the panache and restraint that Frank Gorshin brought to the role on the TV series. In addition, the bit about Nygma’s intense devotion to Bruce is dialed down so that his constant attempts at one-upmanship go largely unnoticed. (Look at the party scene, where he even fatidously has done his hair in Bruce’s style and dons Bruce’s exact glasses and accent at times.) Robin Williams would have brought a much more chilling and intense portrayal in Tim Burton’s proposed version, much as Tim Curry would have as the Joker in 1989. (Two of the all-time missed casting opportunities in my opinion, but these would have been “R” rated 😉  Burton’s Batman III would have also featured Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Two-Face, Keaton in the Batsuit and followed in the same darkening vein as Returns.

Lastly, Two-Face wreaks havoc on a circus and orphans Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). This happens right in front of Bruce and furthers his guilt over his parents’ death because in his eyes it has happened again. He has let his own tragedy happen to another and is just as guilty as the killer. In one of the finest moments in the film, Alfred comes across Bruce in a trance having yet another vision. Upon awakening he says: “It’s happening again. A monster comes out of the night, a scream, two shots. I killed them.”

–“What did you say?”

“He killed them. Two-Face. He slaughtered that boy’s parents.”

–“No, no. You said, “I killed them.”

Bruce takes him in and persuades him to stay for a time. All Dick cares about is vengeance. Bruce sees this as a way to correct the same mistakes he feels he has made and attempts to push him into the light indirectly. Dick causes Bruce some much unneeded headaches in the process before discovering the Batcave and taking the Batmobile for a joyride. Robin still feels shoehorned into the story a bit, but at least the dynamic works a little better by lifting the idea of an older Dick Grayson from the Animated series. Has anyone ever really liked the idea of the Dark Knight running around with a little kid with no pants on? It was only doable in the earlier comics really, as none of the film adaptations have attempted a young Robin. (Imagine the current films with a Robin. Hockey pad wearing Godamn Batman anyone?)

The look of the film is wonderfully realized, with batman having a distinct look to all of his arsenal right down to the soft blue glow seeping out of the Batmobile. The design changes bring in some fresh vitality, but lack the presence of Burton’s films because the Forever sets are primarily mattes, models and digital imaging. This works as a new vision of Gotham, but on the whole is never very involving because we are given very little detail other than the setting as a mere backdrop. Even the Batcave seems rather empty because we are never shown more than just a room with a car and a desk. (Yet another element cut out of the film.) And I really hope you like neon, because Forever is filled with it. In nearly every set this is some kind of neon trailing along something and there’s even a street gang composed entirely of black-lit neon paint. The setting is also harmed by the severe series of edits made to the film as much of the visual atmosphere was lost.

The cinematography attempts to match the tone and style Burton set, staying in the same 1.85:1 spherical universe instead of opting for Scope widescreen. Sets, costumes and lights are bright and colorful almost giving a somewhat wacky sense to the proceedings which no doubt come at the desires of new director Joel Schumacher.

The score however is fantastic. It works partially in-tandem with the motifs that Elfman setup all the while going for that big Batman fanfare. Elliot Goldenthal provides one of the best aspects of the entire film, able to accurately portray both the serious brooding of Bruce/Batman with the campy antics of the Riddler.

The initial idea seems to have been a meeting of Bruce’s tortured soul with the fantasy and adventure of Batman. What happened was that the studio wanted a more commercialized venture and here and there little changes became big changes. This started in the scripting process and continued throughout the shooting and into the editing suite.  The scenes in the film bang together if you really look at them, and there is a noticeable patchwork effect if you pay close enough attention. The original cut was rumored to be in the neighborhood of 160 minutes and features a number of scenes finally released on DVD in partially unfinished state. Some of these and other deleted scenes include:

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

  •         The escape of Two-Face from Arkham Asylum. René Auberjonois had more scenes filmed here, playing Doctor Burton but his role was reduced to a cameo in the final film. He encounters the escape with the psychologist hanged in Two-Face’s cell with “The Bat Must Die” written in blood on the wall. This was supposed to be the film’s opening scene, but producers decided this was far too dark for a family audience. This scene appears in a rough edit on the special edition DVD. Segments of the scene also appears in the music video for U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”.
  •         The construction of NygmaTech was more in-depth. There were scenes shot that appear in publicity stills of Edward Nygma with a hard hat helping with the construction of his headquarters on Claw Island. This scene does not appear on the new special edition release but is shown in the sticker album published by Merlin Collections.
  •         Sugar and Spice, played by Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, try out the Riddler’s device during the montage when it goes on sale. They are seated with the Riddler and Two-Face on the couch where Chase is handcuffed later in the film. This scene appears in the comic adaptation but not in the final film.
  •         The most well-known deleted scene involved further backstory to the film. It involved Bruce waking up after being shot in the head by Two-Face, temporarily wiping a part of his memory; he has forgotten his origin and life as the Dark Knight. Alfred takes him to the Batcave, which has been destroyed by the Riddler. They stand on the platform where the Batmobile was, and Alfred says, “Funny they did not know about the cave beneath the cave.” The platform then rotates downward to another level where the sonar-modification equipment is kept, from the special Batsuit to the hi-tech weaponry. Bruce then discovers the cavern where he first saw the image that inspired him to become Batman – a giant bat. The bat appears and Bruce raises his arms and the shot shows that they are one. Bruce now remembers who he is and goes with Alfred to solve the riddles left throughout the film. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman admitted the scene was very theatrical on the special edition DVD and felt it would have made a difference to the final cut. The bat was designed and created by Rick Baker, who was in charge of the make-up of Two-Face. This scene appears in a rough form on the special edition DVD and is briefly mentioned in the comic adaptation.
  •         The original ending was an homage to the first film. When Alfred drives Doctor Chase Meridian back to Gotham she asks him “Does it ever end?” Alfred replies, “No, Doctor Meridian, not in this lifetime…” The Bat-Signal shines on the night sky and Batman is standing on a pillar looking ahead. Robin then comes into shot and joins his new partner. They both leap off the pillar, towards the camera. A rough edit of the first half of the scene appears on the special edition DVD, but not in its entirety. The sequence with Batman and Robin at the end of this scene appears in a teaser trailer for the video game, which is on the VHS release of this film, released in the UK on December 3, 1995.

You can begin to see some of the film’s original shape in these descriptions, and these are further explained in original drafts and the film’s tie-in book novelization. I highly recommend tracking the book down if you can find a copy, because given a few novel-to-film transitive changes, this could have easily been the best Batman film.

The film as it stands was cobbled together by a editor at the last minute to have the closest thing to a summer popcorn movie for 1995. But it isn’t bad. Just full of missed opportunities, some of which were originally present but removed at various points by a meddling studio. But dammit, Batman Forever is a Batman movie that actually feels like Batman! He is the comic book hero who is tortured and haunted by his past and desire for vengeance, yet whose crusade is in its own way a noble one. Just as there are different tonal versions of the character in the comics dependent of the time of publication and writers, there are differing Batman films. This just happens to like promoting the more traditional heroic aspects and what exactly is wrong with that? In Forever you can feel that childhood desire to be Batman, which is not something to throw out! There’s an actual dramatic arc still present despite the edits that some people nowadays could really learn from…clears throat…I’m not suggesting anyone in particular…

EDITIONS: Same as with the other Bat-films in the first franchise: 1997 DVD, 2005 2 Disc Special Edition with Dolby and DTS 5.1, and Blu-ray from the old HD master with Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Strangely, Forever appears to be the softest of all the films, and I don’t think this is part of the photography. It seems that Warner inadvertently or not did too much processing on the video resulting in this over-soft and frankly almost flat look. It did not look this way theatrically at all.

I last watched this film on projected DVD in a sound suite. With amps and the like, the DTS 5.1 track was incredible. However, it sounded a bit too enhanced to my ears and not quite how I remembered the film sounding. I stumbled across this review from The Widescreen Review of the Laserdisc:

   Both versions of the soundtrack are a blast and you had better be braced into your seat when things get revved up and the 25Hz deep bass kicks in at reference level. The use of the discrete 5.1 palette is wonderful with energized directional and motion effects throughout the soundfield. But the Dolby Surround® version delivers an even fuller bass soundfield experience, with the discrete better articulated.

I’ve always felt that the Special Editions of the Batman films (ported to Blu-ray) had been tweaked and didn’t fully resemble the original presentations. The first film never felt right to me until the LD. I actually have a copy of the Forever LD, and decided to give it a try.

This Dolby Surround track has some of the most natural bass I’ve ever encountered on a film. Though I still lack an AC3 demodulator, it crushes the DVD 5.1 mixes (even DTS!) from sheer dynamic range alone. Every channel is well balanced with tremendous natural bass and my subwoofer sounding like it’s being fed a huge LFE. All this from a 2.0 matrixed stereo track! The rear surround is actually split as well so there is rear separation just like a 5.1 mix, but just a tiny bit muddy. This is like being in the theaters of old during the 90’s era of sound system wars.

In other news, La La Land Records has just released Elliot Goldenthal’s complete score on a Limited 2 CD set, available for the first time ever. The original CD was edited down substantially and has been impossible to find, so this is release is really welcome.

Don’t even bother with the videogames, they’re terrible. Many hours of my childhood were spent damning the Sega Genesis version.

And now…oh crap, it’s time for Batman & Robin. W H Y ?

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Filed under 3 stars, Batman, Film Review

The Getaway (1972)

Japanese poster that is better than the film itself. And it cuts off McQueen's bad haircut.

3 stars out of 4. Mismatch between commercial overtones, big star power and director.

After the colossal failure of Junior Bonner (1972), Sam Peckinpah re-teamed with star Steve McQueen in this box office smash. Of course the box office of that time was not really what Peckinpah had in mind, so the resulting film is really a bit of a mess. It also the first film in the director’s career that bears little or none of a personal stamp. It’s more of a for-hire job to be honest.

The reasons? Not much to work with and star power. Steve McQueen essentially began to dictate where the production would go and how things were going to get done. He also had a little thing called final cut. What little interest Sam may have had in the film seems to have been completely evaporated. For such a boring film to come out of a Jim Thompson novel is truly incredible.

The film tells of inmate Doc McCoy (McQueen) who is fed up with his 10 year stretch in a Texas prison. After being refused parole, he tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to begin “arranging” for his release with corrupt business man Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). McCoy is released on the understanding that he will now complete a bank robbery with an appointed team. There’s a double cross of course, (several actually) and the result leaves McCoy and his wife on the run.

The plot loses itself constantly, and at the point that the story decides to have some logic again, this will soon go right back out the window. It is a frustrating experience to try and understand this movie. Not only do the characters make illogical decisions that seems to have no basis in anything, but the ending sequence is something that should never have happened. There is a point where the McCoys can simply go anywhere, and they just go to  a prearranged location where they can easily be ambushed!

The best parts of the film are about the lesser characters. The subplot about the wounded gunman and the veterinarian’s wife is far interesting than the “plight” of the McCoys. The action is pretty standard fare, so that the film drags even in the places where it’s supposed to be exciting. There’s very few scenes that even have a semblance of Peckinpah’s touch, the most notable being the garbage truck sequence. Other than that there’s a wonderful Slim Pickens cameo. Really. That’s it. This film was built around the McQueen-MacGraw relationship and that’s exactly what sold it to people in 1972. Thompson’s book simply became yet another 70’s star vehicle.

There is one great sequence though. In a train station, Carol is hoodwinked into losing a bag full of money. The simple con man doesn’t know what he’s got a hold of and slips onto the next train. McCoy goes after him and methodically stalks him through the moving train. It’s a brilliantly executed sequence that has the right balance of tension and humanity that Peckinpah could deliver so well. For a moment you forget what film you’re actually watching.

The Getaway is not a bad film, but it is strangely indifferent to itself or anything else for that matter. A bit of a mess that stands out as a curio maybe. You get left with a bad taste in your mouth. To top it all off, the whole “couple on the road chased by police in the early 70’s” bit was done two years later in The Sugarland Express (1974), and absolutely bests this film. It even features Ben Johnson in a much better role, here his part is basically a cameo.

The Getaway is compromised, commercially minded Peckinpah-lite. Which of course is still better than most directors anyway. It isn’t anywhere near the awfulness of Convoy (1978, and rumored to not have even been truly directed by Sam), and is much more cohesive than The Killer Elite (1975).

Oh, and there’s another great scene where McQueen actually slaps MacGraw. It’s such a wonderful moment of nasty self-disgust that perfectly reflects the film.

Note: This film was photographed in the rare Todd-AO 35 process. This was a process made by Todd-AO to try and compete with standard 35mm production, not that it made any difference here.

EDITIONS: Originally released on an early snapper case DVD by Warner, the  2005 DVD Deluxe Edition was simultaneously released alongside a Blu-ray and HD-DVD. All three come from the same new master. 1.85:1 16:9 anamorphic video image which looks quite clear, with maybe an occasional blemish or two. Of course, there’s very little to distinguish the film visually as this was an early 70’s production. The HD-DVD is no longer viable, so the Blu-ray is your best bet. Being the same transfer, the disc is stuck around the single layer size. Unfortunately no release has lossless mono, not that it was that enveloping of a soundtrack to begin with. So DVD or Blu-ray take your pick, but one’s $5 and the other usually $7.

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Filed under 3 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

A Better Tomorrow II (1987)

Yay Mark's back! Oh wait...what the...?

3 stars out of 4. Weird and disjointed film.

Let me start by saying this. This is a strange movie.

Since A Better Tomorrow had such phenomenal success and took China by storm there of course had to be a sequel. And of course, they had to rush this into production in order to capitalize on the first film’s success.

So…no wait that isn’t the problem. The problem with ABTII is the fact that the producer and director had different ideas on the way the film should go. The final film clocked in at over 2.5 hours and no one could agree on what to edit out to achieve a standard runtime. So someone brilliantly decided to have a third party of standard editors who had nothing to do with the film come in and do a rush job to make a shorter cut of 104 minutes. This is what was released and is a big reason why the film really makes no sense.

The film as follows picks up with Ho in prison three years later and the authorities now want to utilize his talents to investigate his former mentor Lung Si. He refuses to dig up dirt on Lung and quickly changes his mind after discovering his younger brother has undertaken the assignment. He tries to warn his brother off, but of course Kit refuses so the two brothers must once again work together in order to resolve the case.

In the midst of their investigation, Long is framed for the murder of a rival and Ho decides to ferry him out of Hong Kong and into hiding in New York. His daughter and brother are both killed and this drives Lung into a state of madness. So magically Mark’s twin brother Ken comes to take care of the raving Lung. Unfortunately the way these scenes are played are so over the top that nothing can be done to hide the fact that it’s an actor sitting on the floor throwing food around like a child.

There is one giant plot device that should be getting to anyone who has seen the first film…since the major star character of the first film obviously could not return the producers had to do something. I know! Let’s replace him with his identical twin brother who has never been mentioned before! And that’s exactly what they did. Chow Yun-fat returns as identical brother Ken who has conveniently been away in America this whole time and can just magically come back and do what Mark did. Hmmm…well at least Chow is in this movie somehow, because he’s about the only thing worth watching. Ken is introduced in one of the oddest scenes I’ve ever come across, where a mobster demanding protection money from his restaurant is harassed to apologize to a bowl of rice. And for some strange reason Chow does a bad English voice on the Cantonese soundtrack.

You just need to see it for yourself. I still don’t know if it’s awful, funny, inspired or-oh who am I kidding? It’s Chow yelling about apologizing to the rice. I love it. It’s inspired. (I think.)

Multitudes of goons come gunning for Lung once again, and Ken goes into action. The same can be said for John Woo, because it’s really the action that gives you any reason to watch this cobbled together film. Chow even has another great gun battle moment on a staircase. Lung somehow snaps out of his bad acting and he and Ken go back to HK. They rejoin with Ho and Kit to discover one of Lung’s partners behind the scheme.

Kit is killed doing some reconnaissance on villain in a mansion and the remaining three go in for revenge. That’s really all there is to it. The entire conclusion of the film  is a mindblowing, ecstatic, unbelievable orgy of violence. Guns, grenades, C4, an axe and even a samurai sword get thrown in. The body count rises to over 90 and Ho, Ken and Lung wear the requisite black suit and tie combo of cool. Of course another bit of HK cinema ripped off for Resevoir Dogs.

Chow & Co. don't need any more QT ripoffs.

Woo has  publicly disowned the film save for the ending action sequence. In fact, if you just took the action as a separate film you’d really have something special on your hands. As with all Woo films it’s simply exquisite. But the story just doesn’t work. There are so many great little moments and dramatic flairs that then get torn right back down by the stupidity of the next scene. ABTIIcannot decide whether it’s a comedy, a soap opera or an action film. I place this problem directly on the discord between Hark and Woo and the bad nonsensical editing.

It isn’t a bad film, but one that could have been much more. And it is this thought that ultimately drags it down even further. You start on the what-if’s and suddenly wish the 160 minute original version would surface.

But could someone please tell me why Chow Yun-fat will inhale a lighter’s open flame? It’s unbelievably cool for no apparent reason.

EDITIONS: Like the first film, the best video versions to have in the States are the IVL trilogy box or the Anchor Bay single release. Anamorphic 16:9 progressive video, Cantonese mono, English subs but those on the IVL disc have errors. The Anchor Bay has a slightly more filmic image to my eyes. But avoid the first pressing of the disc because that was issued with the wrong soundtrack.

Comparison between numerous versions:

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Filed under 3 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Directors, Film Review, Hong Kong action, John Woo

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Yay Photoshop!

3 stars out of 4. Closer but still no twinkie.

Twelve years after the fact, John McClane returned to say “yippee-ki-yay mother”gunshot.

Yeah, this is a PG-13 Die Hard. Much has been made of this controversial rating for a beloved franchise but it actually isn’t too distracting…until you see DH4 a second time.

The first time around in the theater it actually felt like McClane was back. You didn’t question it, for fear of it all tumbling down in front of you like Die Hard with a Hangover did. Of course, this was now the 21st century, and the man who struggled with faxes would be out of his depth in a computerized world, right?

But they went overboard with making McClane feel alienated and seem like like an ancient dinosaur. In fact, with his typical energizer bunny determination he clambers about more like a Terminator than a significantly older NYC cop. This time McClane faces Thomas Gabriel, a disgruntled defense programmer who has decided to strike back at the government which casually destroyed him once his theories became too far reaching.

His method of attack is a “fire sale”, involving the systematic control and shutdown of the nation’s infrastructure. And of course, only one man stands in his way…well actually two.

McClane is once again saddled with a sidekick, this time his unfortunate companion is ace computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long). While you may have seen the nerdy hacker bit done to death, this pairing actually works in the context provided. McClane and Farrell argue about nearly everything under the sun, and McClane seems flabbergasted at how ineffective this kid is. Their relationship underlines the way the writers decided to age McClane for this fourth outing. Since it is now 2007, the hero cop of the 80’s is out of his depth in everything save for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why is Kevin Smith in this movie? He’s as extraneous as Lucy McClane!! Yes, McClane’s daughter who was briefly featured in the first film is now all grown up so that she can be kidnapped by the villain in the last act! What a lovely surprise! I don’t think it was that necessary to give McClane another reason to kill the bad guy. It’s not like he hasn’t already spent the entire film trying to take him down! And then we come to the sticks out like a sore thumb Kevin Smith. The whole film just comes to a screeching halt so that he can have his extended cameo. It serves no purpose!

Of course, the villain is completely one note, monotonous and becomes grating in his sheer blandness. Criticize Col. Stuart from Die Harder if you must, but at least that guy did something of interest! all Gabriel wants to do is stand around in various bare rooms and order his hacker minions around. Oh, that’s so very compelling…so boring. In addition, the CGI employed gets a bit too out of hand at times. Since this is a 2007 film it is a necessary crutch and yes even a Die Hard sequel cannot be done out of the digital domain. And then there is that jet sequence. In the last major action sequence, McClane must fight off a army fighter jet while driving an eighteen wheeler rig on the interstate. And of course he survives, but not by his sheer stupid luck or the skin of his teeth or anything at all feasible. He survives this so obviously faked sequence by the magic of some pointing and clicking. Woo.

It’s not great, it’s not bad, but it gets the job done as it would have had you believe, but no! In the end Live Free or Die Hard cannot even accomplish this small feat. There are just too many modern gimmicks, shortcomings and way too many scenes that rely on a computer to have the simple human element of the first two entries.

All of this is a shame because it should have worked better for a Die Hard. Bruce Willis seems to have grown into the role and he actually looks like he’s enjoying himself this time around.

But at least some of the one liners worked. There was a glimmer of energy in this commercial product.

And the bald McClane worked. It actually worked so bring on Die Hard 5! (set for release in 2013) And since you’re setting it in Russia, in honor of getting McClane out of the States let’s do something really special. Let’s get him back into a single confined space again with no sidekicks! Oh wait, he’s supposed to rescue his son or something. What happened to Lucy?

EDITIONS: Live Free or Die Hard looks and sounds excellent both on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s status as a system workout is still upheld. However the Unrated edition is really a faked rush job to try and create a hybrid version between the original conceived film and the compromised PG-13 theatrical edition. The Unrated cut feels more rushed than the PG-13 cut and lacks the sweep of the theatrical edition. There are numerous errors, obvious ADR, line changes and even dropouts in video and audio. to further the case of a rush job this cut wasn’t even released on Blu-ray because that disc was being produced simultaneously by another team!

The Blu-ray is a great demo disc for video and sound. So unless Fox finally puts out an actual unrated version by the director, skip the “Unrated” version and enjoy this bit of modern fluff.


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Filed under 3 stars, Die Hard, Film Review