Mel Gibson has always had a fetish for cinematic struggle — from his acting career, dotted with heartbroken and often bloodied law enforcement officers, to his directorial efforts, notably fixated on death and torture, Gibson has led audiences on a long odyssey of pain. What’s funny is that a lot of people didn’t realize this until Gibson went over the top with The Passion of the Christ, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that for a lot of years, he was just too pretty to make you believe his characters had it all that bad. Martin Riggs might have been suicidal, but he had an exquisite mullet and he made funny voices; his sadness always seemed like more of a plot device designed to give audiences a breather between wisecracks.
Gibson is 54 now — or, to put things in perspective, three years older than Wilford Brimley was when he made Cocoon — and the rest of his body has caught up to those sad hound dog’s eyes. He stalks through Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness (a remake of Campbell’s own BBC series) like a ghost — shoulders slumped, head bowed, voice often little more than a leathery growl. Those eyes still have the same weight, but now it looks like they’ve pulled lines across the rest of his face. Did I say he stalks through the picture like a ghost? He’s haunting.
Gibson’s performance is what holds Edge of Darkness together. Campbell’s miniseries was a critical sensation in the ’80s, but in 2010, all of us have seen this kind of thing before — the story of the cop (Gibson) who loses his daughter in a seemingly random slaying, only to discover there’s a terrible conspiracy behind it all. And as it turns out, the bad guys here are fairly garden variety; worse still, there isn’t a lot of mystery surrounding the whodunit.
So without many thrills in the plot of this action thriller, it falls to Gibson to shoulder Edge‘s weight, and he’s more than up to the task, whether he’s badgering suspects or bantering with the always-marvelous Ray Winstone, who plays a shifty operator who may or may not have Gibson’s interests at heart. For an action flick, Edge of Darkness is kind of an odd duck — you get some bang-up set pieces, and some moments of startling violence, but more than anything, you witness the emotional and physical unraveling of a man burdened by unbearable grief. When he hisses “I’m the guy who has nothing to lose,” it should feel like the hackneyed second-act throwaway line it is, but Gibson makes it work. Sadly, the whole thing goes careening off the rails in the final 15 minutes, a stupid mess of bullets and gross sentimentality, but once you shake off the sour aftertaste, you’re mostly just glad to see Gibson back in action. Long may he get pummeled by the bad guys.
The Edge of Darkness Blu-ray is pretty light on the extra features — you get a smattering of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a handful of extra scenes — but it’s sleek and dark in hi-def, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does a fine job of balancing between the (mostly very quiet) dialogue and the rock ’em-sock ’em action sequences. You also get a combo DVD/digital copy disc bundled in with the package, which is always a nice touch.
Speaking of outstanding performances that improve otherwise ordinary pictures, here’s Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for his work here, and rightfully so; in a long line of deeply naturalistic performances, Bridges’ turn as the bloated, alcoholic misanthrope Bad Blake deserves a spot at or near the top. Bridges disappears into Blake here, fading beneath a flabby gut, unkempt beard, and lazy drawl. For big chunks of Crazy Heart‘s 111-minute running time, Blake isn’t a particularly likable guy, and writer-director Scott Cooper puts him in some pretty embarrassing positions, but Bridges handles it all with fearless grace. You might not think you’d ever be the kind of person who’d root for a middle-aged guy who passes out in his underwear on the bathroom floor, but Bridges will change your mind.
All that said, Crazy Heart isn’t quite the jaw-dropping drama some of its fans made it out to be. At bottom, it’s nothing more than another redemption story for an aging white dude who pissed away the prime of his life — and another excuse for a graying actor to make nookie with a co-star half his age (in this case, Maggie Gyllenhaal). The storyline isn’t especially compelling, but it’s to Cooper’s credit that he stocked Crazy Heart with some fine actors (a list that also includes Robert Duvall in a minor but memorable role) and drafted T Bone Burnett to work on the soundtrack. Part of believing in Bridges as Bad Blake is believing in Blake as a faded country star who had some big hits — and that requires some great songs, delivered convincingly. Having owned Bridges’ 2000 solo album, I wouldn’t have believe it possible, but Bridges wraps himself in these songs (especially the effortlessly memorable “Fallin’ & Flyin'”) like he’s been carrying them around all his life.
If you’ve ever seen Tender Mercies, you might find yourself tuning out pretty quickly, but Hollywood doesn’t provide acting showcases this sturdy as often as it ought to, so if moderately paced character studies are your thing — and you’ve got a taste for roots rock tinged with country and regret — make a spot in your queue for Crazy Heart. The 1080p transfer isn’t eye-poppingly spectacular, but then, this is a quiet drama that happens to take place in some pretty dark and dingy settings, so you shouldn’t go into it expecting stunning visuals. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has plenty of dynamic, narrowing its scope for the quieter moments but making room for the musical numbers, especially those that take place in front of larger crowds. The extra features are sort of slim for an Oscar-winning picture — you get a smattering of deleted scenes, including a few that would have changed the movie dramatically, and a brief featurette bringing Bridges together with Gyllenhaal and Duvall for a chat about what drew them to the movie — but you do get a digital copy disc bundled in with the Blu-ray.
Before Ron Howard was one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood, he was just another actor trying to start a career behind the camera — and one who had the shadow of two tremendously well-known television characters looming over him to boot. So what did he do to make a name for himself? He made, in order: a comedy about a prostitution ring running out of a morgue, a romance between a man and a mermaid, and a sci-fi drama about senior citizens who get a new lease on life when they discover alien pods in a nearby swimming pool.
From the beginning, then, Howard was a director with a unique fondness for high-concept plots — and a gift for the kind of sweet, soft-focus sentimentality that has always sold tons of tickets. Case in point: 1985’s Cocoon, which took a bunch of grizzled film vets and delivered them an unlikely (not to mention Academy Award-winning) comeback. Given how popular remakes of ’80s properties are, it isn’t hard to imagine seeing a new Cocoon at some point, but it didn’t sound like a hit in ’85, and it’s even harder to imagine a studio taking a risk on something like it today. Notwithstanding the involvement of Steve Guttenberg and the barest hint of T&A from Tahnee Welch, this is a love letter to a generation of filmgoers and actors (including Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Maureen Stapleton, and Jessica Tandy) that the studios had long forgotten. Hollywood might have been slightly less ageist then — this was the era of The Golden Girls, Murder, She Wrote, and Matlock — but still, you’re talking about a year whose biggest hits were Back to the Future and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Quiet movies about people with wrinkles have never made the most money.
What made it work in this case was Howard’s fine cast. The storyline is fairly predictable and the script was no great shakes, but you just can’t put this much acting talent in one place without creating something that is, at the bare minimum, pleasantly entertaining. Or maybe you can — see 1988’s Cocoon: The Return. Either way, this is the kind of warm, gentle film you can actually start feeling nostalgic for as you’re watching it, and although its Oscar-winning special effects haven’t (ahem) aged well, you can safely spend $18 on the Cocoon Blu-ray without feeling like too much of a sucker. For one thing, this is an excellent transfer; the visuals are sharper and bolder than some movies 10 years younger, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack won’t provoke any complaints. It’s enough to make you wonder why the disc’s extra features are so skimpy — everything you see here has been ported over from the 2004 DVD, and aside from a wonderfully interesting and gracious commentary track from Howard, none of it really adds much to the film. Still, for the price, it’s hard to complain; if you’ve been waiting 25 years to add the movie to your collection, this is the Cocoon to own.
One of those movies that never seems to come up in conversation — not even when you’re talking about Westerns — yet enjoys an undying, albeit small, cult of affection, 1993’s Tombstone falls awkwardly between the cornpone John Wayne era and the hard-nosed Clint Eastwood revisionist style. It’s a movie that features a fair amount of fine acting, especially from Val Kilmer as the ghostly Doc Holliday, but it also has a weakness for hokey fallbacks like over-the-top musical cues and “dramatic” close-ups. Plus, it has the length of a serious epic, weighing in at two hours and ten minutes, but it lacks the kind of dramatic heft that would justify its running time. If you’ve ever watched Deadwood, you’ve seen a more convincing Western.
But if Tombstone isn’t a classic Western, or even a thoroughly compelling drama, that’s okay, because it’s still plenty of fun. Kurt Russell is sort of an unlikely Wyatt Earp, but he brings a pleasantly cagey gruffness to the role, and he’s surrounded with top-shelf talent, including Dany Delany, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, and the ever-reliable Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott. And then there’s Kilmer, who more or less single-handedly gives Tombstone whatever depth it has. He’s made enough bad films that it hurts a little to call him underrated, but Kilmer steals every moment he’s on the screen; his deathly pale, hollowed-out Holliday makes everyone else seem like they’re play-acting.
And speaking of play-acting, this Blu-ray transfer has the look and feel of a half-hearted hi-def feint on Disney’s part. Though the transfer isn’t bad, with sound and video that improve noticeably upon earlier editions of the film, the extra features are bewildering, cutting out a chunk of what came with the movie’s Vista Series release (including, inexplicably, a commentary track from credited director George Cosmatos) while porting over a so-so trio of featurettes and an assortment of TV spots. As many other writers have noted, Tombstone is celebrating its 20th anniversary in a few years, so this budget release is probably just the first scoop of a double dip. If you’re a casual fan of the film, you probably don’t need to own it on Blu-ray; if you love it, you can probably stand to wait for the inevitable deluxe repackage.
It’s much the same story for Armageddon, which (somewhat inexplicably) received the Criterion treatment on DVD, but gets a perfunctory polish with this Blu-ray release. Touchstone, showing off their asteroid-sized balls, have included next to nothing in the way of extra features — you get a video for Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which is actually sort of a punishment, and a couple of trailers. That’s it. It’s safe to assume that rights issues kept the studio from bundling all the Criterion goodies into this package, but come on — if studios want to shore up their ailing video sales, charging $30 list for a package this skimpy is not the way to do it.
However, if you must own Armageddon on Blu-ray, you can take solace in the knowledge that the picture and sound on this transfer are, for the most part, excellent. Say what you will about Michael Bay as a filmmaker, but he’s certainly got an eye for a dramatic shot, and if you’re going to make a movie about a crew of rough-and-tumble oilmen (led by Bruce Willis, natch) who have to fly into space and blow up an asteroid before it can wipe out all life on Earth, well…you could hardly ask for a more enthusiastic director when it comes to this kind of stuff. The scenes between Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck haven’t gotten any less painful to watch, and all told, Armageddon is still a bloated adolescent fantasy with unrelentingly awful dialogue, but much like Tombstone, it can still be a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood.
An example of the right way of doing things is Paramount’s Sapphire Series release of Saving Private Ryan, which brings Steven Spielberg’s near-flawless World War II drama to hi-def in style. Unlike the other reissues we’ve discussed here, Ryan is a film that most film enthusiasts would agree is a must-own, so the studio’s job was half done before they even started planning this reissue — all they had to do was make sure they didn’t screw up the picture or the soundtrack, and include a fair amount of bonus content.
Check, check, and check. The Saving Private Ryan Blu-ray looks great — it’s noticeably better than previous DVD releases, even the fancy ones — without looking too perfect, which is important when you’re talking about a movie that’s supposed to feel dirty. There’s some grain here, and the eagle-eyed will spot some minor dirt and noise, but whether this is by artistic design or due to mastering negligence will be up to the eye of the beholder. Personally, I was delighted — and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is damn near unimpeachable. To watch the Sapphire Series Saving Private Ryan‘s opening sequence on a decent home theater system is to understand why investing a little extra cash in your AV equipment makes a difference. Remember how you felt when you watched this movie in the theater? This Blu-ray will take you back, and it might even do better than that.
The extra features leave more room for quibbling, but only because they’ve been ported over from previous DVD releases (and they’re presented in standard definition). If you haven’t purchased previous expanded editions of the movie, and you aren’t a stickler for having your bonus content in HD, you won’t care, but if you’re owning this stuff for the second time, it’ll be hard not to be at least a little ticked off. This is a fine version of Saving Private Ryan, but it seems pretty obvious that it isn’t the definitive version, so if you’re the type of viewer who’s going to feel tempted when Paramount releases the Ultimate Edition and encases it in a mortar helmet five to ten years down the road, you might as well let the Sapphire Series edition pass you by. For everyone else, it’s a worthy addition to the library, and a stunning piece of filmmaking from a master director.