A Few Random Blu Ray Reviews

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956)

Missing in action from the home video scene, Nicholas Ray’s disturbing domestic drama is finally released on Blu ray and DVD. Starring James Mason as a cultured school teacher and family man, it concerns his downward spiral from abusing the prescribed drug cortisone. Mason begins taking the drug because of painful attacks and at first all is peachy – his strength and energy increases as does his intense focus. This escalates into psychosis scaring his wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) into submission until they realize it’s gotten out of hand.

Mason (who also co-wrote and co-produced) delivers a performance that is a tour de force; it’s remarkable work coming from an actor who specializes in suavity – even his iconic flustered Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA is more a study in restraint than this character. The film moves with Mason aesthetically evolving from brightly colored small town tranquility into dark shadowy behind closed doors oppression.

Its ending is a bit too pat but BIGGER THAN LIFE is a movie milestone now restored to a proper place in the cinematic canon thanks to the Criterion Collection. Insightful featurettes from author Jonathan Lethem (“Motherless Brooklyn”), the director’s widow Suzanne Ray, commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, and a half hour interview with Ray from the 70’s (which is mostly about REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) make for a great package for this all too long absent near masterpiece.

COCOON (Dir. Ron Howard, 1985) A ton of older titles are hitting Blu ray every day it seems which can be a good excuse to revisit forgotten films. However, In the case of this film the pristine picture quality hinders rather than enhances the dated special effects and its other cheesy attributes. Being about a group of seniors who stumble upon a fountain of youth in the form of a swimming pool which happens to have ancient alien cocoons resting in its water, this movie appeared to exist so that there could be at least one sci-fi film in the 80’s that you could take your grandparents to.

Don Ameche (who won the Oscar for his role), Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley (who was only 51 at the time) are the old timers who find the inside pool located on property rented by Brian Dennehy as the leader of the visiting aliens disguised as humans. The aliens hire Steve Guttenberg, taking a break from the POLICE ACADEMY series, and his boat to help them move the cocoons. Meanwhile the old folks (including Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, and Gwen Verdon) show off their new youthful power in a standard era montage – one of many hammy scenes that made me wish this film remained in the dusty VHS section of my mind.

Watching it again after all these years, it looks like Howard too closely followed Spielberg’s alien handbook – when revealed as the generic glowing loose-limbed life forms that became the norm after CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, a good deal of the charm and fun is drained from the project. Likewise for big reveal of the alien’s mother ship too.

Some of its corny charm is still there, but COCOON is really just a footnote from a period populated by much better fantasy film offerings. It’s by no means a classic, shiny Blu ray notwithstanding. Among the ample special features that ignore this, there’s a trailer for COCOON: THE RETURN which is more than I want to see of one of the most unnecessary sequels ever again.

WONDERFUL WORLD (Dir. Joshua Goldin, 2009)

Much like John Cusack, the work of Matthew Broderick over much of the last decade has suffered from weak material. So it’s great to report that his film is Broderick’s strongest film since ELECTION. Broderick plays a former children’s folk music star that lives a sorry existence as a cynical divorced man toiling in jobs he believes are beneath him. When his roommate (Michael K. Williams – Omar from
The Wire) falls ill and needs hospitalization, Broderick contacts his family back in Senegal. Sanaa Lathan arrives as Williams’ sister and a romance blooms between her and Broderick.

WONDERFUL WORLD could be seen as a more accessible version of THE VISITOR – an over educated socially withdrawn white man meets a foreign woman who re-ignites his spark while they both try to help a brother in need with culture clashes becoming revelations. It may be predictable in parts, but this is a film with a lot of heart and just the right amount of comic edge to make it satisfyingly worthwhile.

More later…