CGI animals, the unflappable (and unkillable) Bruce Campbell, and a naked Ralph Fiennes are among the highlights of recent weeks. Let’s get out our pith helmets (and, for Bruce, chainsaws attached to our stumps) and explore.
Stranger Things, Stranger Things, Stranger Things. Everyone’s talking about Stranger Things. Me, I’ll get to it, as it sits on the same “Great Unwatched” pile as Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, The Wire, and every streaming show except Amazon’s excellent Transparent. What do Transparent (back tomorrow) and Ash vs. Evil Dead, a Starz show returning to the airwaves next week, have in common? One outstanding attribute: They’re both a half-hour long, making it easier for me to binge a few episodes and feel I’ve made progress. Five hours of deadite goodness goes by in a snap. (Die-hard fans, the ones Campbell met at conventions hungering for more Evil Dead, will want to spend ten, watching every episode again with the fun cast and crew commentary tracks on.) Ash vs. Evil Dead shouldn’t have worked–it’s been almost 25 years since the star fought the Army of Darkness, and in the first episode he hits the dumbass button too hard. But the joke is on his slower, heftier middle-aged self, and as the gore and horror ratchet up, in the same lo-fi way as the movies, it just keeps getting funnier. Adding appealing multicultural sidekicks to the mix was a major plus, too–co-stars Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo give as good as they get from dopey Ash, updating the concept without slowing the momentum. And it is fast, and nasty–don’t get too attached to any one character, is all I’m saying. Much as I enjoyed the show on TV the Blu-ray makes for a more immersive experience, particularly the room-shaking Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio, and there’s a 15-minute making-of that covers the bases more fully explored in the commentaries.
Oscar Actors Go Wild in A Bigger Splash, with winner Tilda Swinton her usual uninhibited, androgynous self and nominee Ralph Fiennes starkers in the pool. Fiennes is quite the sexy beast in this one, pulling ex-lover Swinton, a rock star with vocal issues, back into his orbit on a jaunt to her vacation home on the exquisite Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. Her more sober-minded boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Fiennes’ estranged daughter (Dakota Johnson, fifty shades of ambiguous) are along for the ride, as the movie, which coasts on erotically charged atmosphere, suddenly U-turns into a thriller. (It’s a loose remake of an equally oblique Alain Delon picture, 1969’s Swimming Pool. Does the cover art convey any of this?) I preferred it before the screws tightened, when an exuberant Fiennes (liberated perhaps by his comic turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Hail, Caesar!) plays his wicked games. I wanted to jet off to Pantelleria and hang out with him, which I don’t think was the point. If not a wholly satisfying meal, director Luca Guadagnino (who made I Am Love with Swinton) knows how to set a table, and the locations and food are sumptuous on Blu-ray. Insubstantial EPK pieces are the only significant extras.
The Coen brothers made their big splash in 1984 with Blood Simple, a black-humored neo-noir that was the “in” movie with my campus crowd at Northwestern. What a great year for indies that was, with This is Spinal Tap, Stop Making Sense, Stranger Than Paradise, and more spoiling audiences who thumbed their noses at the kind of fare exalted in Stranger Things. (It was possible to enjoy it all, but dorm room arguments were more sophisticated and “collegiate” when Paris, Texas was the subject.) We thought it would never end, as we braved sub-zero temps to see the latest at Chicago’s long-gone Fine Arts Theater, and for the Coens, it hasn’t–what a remarkably elastic career they’ve had. Blood Simple, a tale of illicit love, bloody murder, and mix-ups this side of screwball comedy, shows a sensibility forming, and whatever the subject there’s a consistency of tone that was there from the start. Prior DVDs were marred by the brothers’ smart-ass attitude toward their debut, and the home video market, with a phony commentary track; for its enshriment in the Criterion Collection, that’s gone, and the Coens get more serious with writer and fan Dave Eggers in a featurette about how the shoe-string enterprise came together, with Joel and Ethan also chatting with DP Barry Sonnenfeld about his invaluable contribution. (Here’s a piece about the storyboards.) Complementing the rich 4k digital transfer are additional interviews with sound mixer Skip Lievsay, composer Carter Burwell, and actors Frances McDormand (at the start of her career, she beat out roommate Holly Hunter, who would go on to the Coens’ Raising Arizona, for the part) and M. Emmett Walsh, who had the role of his lifetime as the conniving private eye Marty Visser. Yellow suit. Cowboy hat. “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”
Forget Kevin Costner. Sammo Hung is The Bodyguard, and as you can see from the jacket art the Russian mob is in big trouble. Sammo was just minding his business when a neighbor who left his cutesy daughter in his care vanished–and it’s time for the retiree to bring his special skills out of mothballs, dementia be damned, and take out the trash that’s cluttering his neighborhood. Directing himself and, in cameos, a galaxy of martial arts stars from his glory days, the 64-year-old performer indulges more in the sentimental side of the story, which is disappointing. The action gets short shrift, and the editing interferes with the choreography once the movie gets down to brass tacks. It doesn’t really work, and the heavy hand of Chinese bureaucracy is felt. (Its Central Security Bureau is lionized, and the movie doesn’t do anything compelling with its interesting spy movie setting, where Russia, China, and North Korea meet.) The Blu-ray, with some making-of featurettes, is up to par, even as the film lags behind. Still, as the singer once sang, sort of, I will always love you, Sammo Hung.
I’ve missed all kinds of great TV shows, but, somehow, I watch all but one of the CW’s superhero programs. Arrow, the first member of its near-nightly bloc, succumbed to CW Syndrome, whereby a show overstays its welcome, and I was done with it by Season Four. Look for it to last eight or nine more, as CW shows with any kind of a rating pulse are wont to do. But after two seasons The Flash remains irresistible, in its comic book comfort food way, and rewatching the the second season was no hardship. Selectively, that is–the Earth 2 stuff with the diabolical Zoom got to be a drag, and I was happier with the more standalone shark man and Gorilla Grodd episodes. I’m happiest when it’s just the core nucleus of the show’s characters shooting the breeze in between crises in alternate dimensions, and it’s nirvana when The Flash (Grant Gustin) and his surrogate dad (Jesse L. Martin) just talk–the actors have a palpable bond, and Martin’s like everyone’s dream father. (In nightmarish episodes, the Broadway veteran gets to sing.) Don’t get me wrong, the superhero shenanigans are diverting (Mark Hamill has a whale of a time as The Trickster), but it’s the heart that The Flash gets right, and it’s why I keep watching. Season Three promises to reboot the entire timeline, starting Oct. 4; before then, catch up with a splendidly rendered set loaded with deleted scenes, featurettes, a gag reel, and a half-hour cast and crew session recorded at last year’s Paley Fest.
Penny Dreadful was the one Showtime program we could have used more of; still, its three seasons were sublime horror television. Wondering what else creator John Logan had up his sleeve, I turned to Genius, then turned away as quickly as I could. Casting flop indicator Nicole Kidman was a bad omen, and the movie felt cursed from the start, with Colin Firth and Jude Law uncomfortably engaged as super editor Maxwell Perkins and one of the more challenging writers in his stable, Thomas Wolfe. Better casting alone wouldn’t have helped, but why, in this quintessentially American story, do you have to drill down five cast members to find an actual American, Laura Linney? Happens all the time and I’m practically Trumpian about the issue–I mean, Dominic West as Hemingway? Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald? This is a very stagy, underlit, unexciting treatment of a story better suited for a documentary or a play, statically directed by stage veteran Michael Grandage. (He and Logan won Tonys for Red, a more dynamic two hander about artistic creation.) DVD only for this failure, which has a serviceable image and sound, a making of, and a piece about the actual, American artists depicted. Get me rewrite.
My eight-year-old daughter did not want to see The Jungle Book. She’d tired of the Disney cartoon, it was too “boy,” etc. Well, she and her five-year-old brother were on the edge of their seats throughout when I took them, and the magnificent Blu-ray is practically glued into the player. The third most successful movie of the year to date worldwide is a crowdpleaser from beginning to end, not without a few bumps–shoehorning in some of the animated feature’s music is awkward, though no one will have any complaints about Scarlett Johansson’s silky, sinister version of “Trust in Me.” That’s the highlight of this version, and there are many others, mostly on four legs. (Neel Sethi’s Mowgli has come in for some unwarranted criticism, to which I say, “You try acting with greenscreens and mo-cap co-stars for months.” Not easy even for skilled grownups.) I do hope to see Idris Elba again, after a run of voiceovers and costumed creations, yet he wields a commanding instrument perfect for the stalking Shere Khan, and the more lighthearted casting includes Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and the late Garry Shandling. Director Jon Favreau’s excellent commentary, along with other video supplements, complements an expectedly top of the line transfer, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack that brings the jungle into your TV room. (But why no 3D Blu for America, Disney? We want lions in our laps, too!)
Executive produced by Terrence Malick and Natalie Portman, The Seventh Fire is a searing documentary about Rob Brown, a Native American gang leader forced to confront the legacy of drug violence he brought into his Ojibwe community as he faces another stretch in a Minnesota prison. Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s portrait, which contrasts Brown’s choices with those facing his teenage protege, put me in mind of the powerful Once Were Warriors (1994), an unsparing look at fading Maori culture in New Zealand that knocked me for a loop all over again. Through the prism of a horribly abusive but somehow still passionate marriage that persists through the encroaching crime and violence of an Auckland slum, an entire lost generation is captured–with a door still open to change if anyone can break through it and reclaim a noble birthright. Such a great movie, but so hard; a battered wife on the cusp of empowerment is never more tender than after her husband has left her face an open wound. The truth hurts. Director Lee Tamahori and co-stars Rena Owen, Temeura Morrison, and Cliff Curtis have gone on to varied international careers (Owen and Morrison, perfection as the battling and embattled couple, were in the Star Wars prequels) but this was their high water mark in world cinema, and the Blu-ray transfer of a hauntingly shot film (Stuart Dryburgh was the cinematographer) glistens. The only significant extra, other than a fine jacket essay by New Zealand Herald scribe Peter Calder, is a faded making-of that does add context to the endeavor. Film Movement and its Classics line are doing the (movie) Lord’s work by unearthing worthy films new and old, and have on tap two signature credits from Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, Violent Cop and Boiling Point.
Shout Select is a new line of more vintage titles given “Blu-chip” treatment. Thus far the focus is on Eighties favorites, movies we talked about at the water fountain, and now at the water cooler. The funky The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984; talk about stranger things) and especially the great, and still a tad underrated, Midnight Run (1988), got things off to a good start. For some, the bells and whistles applied to Road House (1989) will be misapplied. It’s an Eighties action movie, not a very good one, that’s already on Blu-ray. Looked at another way, it’s also a poker-faced parody of the genre at the time, overheated and ridiculous, a throwback to moonshine Roger Corman quickies of 15 years earlier earlier amped up with Lethal Weapon-y absurdist heroics and OTT violence. I urge you to look at it that way, as it’s goofy, redneck, revenge-happy fun, with the spoofery built in. More a star in kinder, gentler credits like Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990), the late Patrick Swayze had enough parts in this less reputable genre to qualify for an Expendables movie, and his self-doctoring bouncer with Zen instincts and a pure, white-hatted Western hero’s heart is an inimitably silly character, played straight. (Co-stars Sam Elliott, Kevin Tighe, and baddie Ben Gazzara try hard not to break; audiences lose it over Kelly Lynch, in a hapless heroine role.) Did Shout need to Select this title for collector’s edition treatment? Maybe not. Yet you’ve got a saloonful of extra entertainment here–besides a new and brighter 2K scan, supervised by DP Dean Cundey, there’s a commentary with Razzie-nominated director Rowdy Herrington (his Jack’s Back is another Shout title), a second commentary with enthusiastic super fans Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, and, on a second disc, an hour-long making of that’s a romp, more from the inexhaustible Herrington, a look at the stunts, memoriam-oriented featurettes about Swayze and Jeff Healey, whose on-camera performances rock the house, and a lot of older archival material. Time to belly up to the bar, and whatever you think of Road House, do as Dalton says, and “be nice.”