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…

Helen Hunt’s Directorial Debut & A Few New DVD Reviews

THEN SHE FOUND ME (Dir. Helen Hunt, 2007)

Best known as Paul Reiser’s wisecracking wife on the rom sit-com Mad About You, Helen Hunt has forged a cagey career on the big screen. Despite her Best Actress win for AS GOOD AS IT GETS her other roles have been less than stellar – her sideline spouse part in CAST AWAY could’ve been done by just about any actress and her tone and delivery in Woody Allen’s THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION were so off the mark that I would consider it among the worst acting of the last decade. So, surprise surprise – I wasn’t looking forward to her first-time out as director but lo and behold, I actually ended up being won over. Based on the 1990 novel by Elinor Lipman, it’s being marketed as a comic drama but I’d but the emphasis on drama and as such it’s definitely a more genuine work than Noam Murro’s recent SMART PEOPLE – another piece about aging, pregnancy, and over educated middle-class white anquish. And it has a cameo by Mr. “Satanic Verses” himself Salman Rushdie as Hunt’s gynecologist!

Hunt casts herself as a withdrawn elementary school teacher and Matthew Broderick as her pensive husband. Shortly after their marriage he tells her he doesn’t “want this life” and moves out after she isn’t able to change his mind with some spontaneous kitchen floor sex. Within 9 hours of the break-up, Colin Firth as a befuddled divorced parent is hitting on her in the parking lot of her school but her biological clock is ticking so loudly that it barely registers. Then, if the timing couldn’t be any worse (or better for the sake of the drama) Bette Midler, as a local TV talk show host, shows up out of the blue saying she’s Hunt’s long lost Mother and drops another bombshell: Steve McQueen was her father. Hunt is skeptical of this, and rightly so, but charmed by Midler’s schtick – which is undeniably the funnybone of this film. Wanting to pursue a relationship with Firth is confounded by Hunt finding out she is pregnant with Broderick’s baby. Broderick, in a part that’s more pathetic ELECTION-style than FERRIS BUELLER-ish, wants back into Hunt’s life…maybe. Hunt, using long takes and a good sense of lighting, effectively portrays the stressful pulling of her character’s sensibilities in every direction and does it with a nice lack of snarky one-liners and manufactured quirk. THEN SHE FOUND ME shows that Hunt has learned a lot from the film makers and actors she’s worked with (James L. Brooks, Robert Altman, Nancy Meyers, Jack Nicholson, et al) and, weirdly enough, makes her a film maker to look out for. Never thought I’d be writing that.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 2007)

When Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar last year the award was presented to him by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. That wasn’t just a group of honored directors walking off the stage afterwards, that was what was once called New Hollywood walking off the stage. The surviving members of the maverick auteur movement that saved the movies in the late 60’s and 70’s were still majorly representin’. Of course we know where Marty’s at with his DeCaprio epics and rock docs, and Spielberg/Lucas, of course, we know what’s going on with them with the #1 movie right now, sure but what of Francis Ford Coppola?

Well, for his first film proper since 1997’s THE RAINMAKER it appears that he’s the modern movie maker equivalent to Sisyphus from Greek mythology. If you don’t know, Sisyphus was a King cursed to have to roll a huge boulder up a steep treacherous hill, only to see it roll all the way back down again and then have to repeat this action til the end of time. So Coppola, yet again at square 1 gives us this curious case – a movie about a 70 year old man struck by lightning that makes him young again and gaves him another chance at love and finishing his previous life’s philosophical work.

Tim Roth, as the old man turned young, has a gravitas and intensity apt for the part but the premise is far from satisfactorily played out. His tortured, and unfortunately tedious, time recovering in his hospital bed as too many headlines tell us the timeframe (World War II) takes away from the story’s momentum. Roth meets Alexandra Maria Lara, (a stunning woman even when speaking in tongues) who also plays his lover from his early life, who is overtaken by the same lightning shining (or whatever it is) and they form a bond which of course becomes something more. The fractured-ness of the film gets a bit tiring – right when I was thinking ‘hey, that last shot didn’t make much sense’ Coppola starts showing shots upside down. There’s a lot that’s confusingly mismatched in the material here – I’m seriously unsure what the point was to a lot of it. I got that Coppola was trying make some sort of a new cinematic language (he says something like that on a “making of” featurette on the DVD) out of choppy yet beautful imagery interspersed with trying narrative introspection but come on! There’s very little here that someone who is not a hardcore film buff would care to follow. If APOCALYPSE NOW was a failed film experiment that still turned out to be a great movie, this is a failed film experiment that just ends up a puzzling curio. So come on Sisyphus – it’s time to start rolling that boulder again!

DELIRIOUS (Dir. Tom DiCillo, 2006)

As I wrote before (Buscemi Now? – Dec. 17th, 2007) Director Tom Dicillo doesn’t think his film, which got good reviews, didn’t get a fair shake at the box office. Well having finally seen it upon its recent DVD release I can honestly say he’s right. While no masterpiece it is a better than average independent movie that surely deserved better distribution and surely would’ve gained some audience support. Michael Pitt plays Toby, a homeless 20something New York kid who by chance comes across a plethora of paparazzi waiting for a chance to photograph K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman) – the pop star flavor of the day. After that shoot goes awry, Toby makes an unlikely friend in Les the acerbic (Steve Buscemi) who doesn’t consider himself to be paparazzi but a “licensed professional” and declares: “Rule #1: There are players and there are peons – I am a player.” That becomes a running joke as there are many Rule #1’s throughout the film as in “Rule #1: Never let a hooker slip you the tongue.” Les, for all his cynical arrogance prides himself on getting photos of Goldie Hawn eating lunch and Elvis Costello without his hat.

Toby as an unpaid assistant joins Les in his celebrity stalking quests and learns the tricks of the tawdry trade driving around in Les’s beat-up station wagon, hauling around gear, and trying to crash into celebrity parties. At one such event Toby gets swept up into K’Harma’s entourage. K’Harma and Toby hit it off back at her hotel while Les is left in the dust. Toby and Les patch things up the next day but then Les blows it by taking photos at K’Harma’s birthday party (of Elvis Costello!) that he weaseled his way into. “Rule #1: Know where you belong” Les says but by this point Toby has tired of his teachings. Gina Gershon plays a sexy saavy sop opera casting director that helps Toby on to the ladder of actor success he longs for while Les (Buscemi in full bug-out mode) toils on the lowest rung. The themes of parasitic tabloidism and the trials of being a celebrity in the spotlight are obvious but it’s the chemistry between Buscemi and Pitt that makes this work. Lohman’s diva issues with stardom are fairly transparent and there are some unneeded artsy interludes (such as the one with flower petals falling from the sky) but DiCillo has made a funny appealing film with a heart that beats through the equal measures of grime and glitter. It would make a good double flipside feature with INTERVIEW – Buscemi’s fine film about a serious journalist having to do a piece on a B-movie/TV star (Sienna Miller). In my before mentioned Buscemi Now? post I said that Buscemi pulls off the task of being “extremely creepy yet incredibly lovable at the same time”, the same could be said about DELIRIOUS.

More later…