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…

ANGELS AND DEMONS: The First Big Bad Movie Of The Summer

ANGELS AND DEMONS (Dir. Ron Howard, 2009)

Symbologist Robert Langdon, the hero of the critically condemned yet commercially successful 2006 film THE DA VINCI CODE, is back in this bloated blockbuster wannabe adaptation of Dan Brown’s inconsequentially controversial bestselling book. As played by a unusually stiff Tom Hanks, Langdon, who was described by Brown as “Harrison Ford in a Harris tweed”, is no franchise powering figure – obviously he’s no Indiana Jones but come on, he’s not even in the league of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan who Ford played in a few durable 90’s thrillers.

After the Pope dies and Cardinal candidates are kidnapped with the Vatican under terrorist threats, Hanks is called upon by Vatican police officials to do his deciphering clues thing. He suspects the Illuminati – the secret society considered to be the “power behind the throne” and with Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as his obligatory dark haired female companion, he runs around Rome spouting exposition connecting the dubious dots. As the Pope’s shifty eyed assistant, Ewan McGregor seems eager to chew scenery but stalks the shadows instead, lacking a coherent character. So does Stellan Skarsgård as a police commander in charge of a bunch of black suits with ear pieces also running from location to location for reasons you’re likely to forget. “I need a map with all the churches in Rome!” Hanks yells in possibly one of the least gripping moments in recent movie history.

Like its predecessor, ANGELS AND DEMONS looks great (Salvatore Totino’s luxurious cinematography being one of the sole saving graces), but the emptiness is endless with the actors, director, and everyone involved grasping for a gravitas that simply isn’t there. Ron Howard has made many solid accessible films – FROST/NIXON was one of last year’s best movies – so with hope, he’ll leave Dan Brown’s mechanical formula history playtime theatrics behind from here on out. I was reminded in one of the many long boring stretches of this intensely tedious film that I saw Howard/Hanks’s first film together, the man meets mermaid rom com SPLASH, in the same theater almost exactly 25 years ago. Now, come to think of it, that was a fun movie with a more plausible take on mythology. Wish they’d make another like that next time around.

More later…

FROST/NIXON: The Film Babble Blog Review

FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard, 2008)

Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play moves briskly as it opens with a montage of early ’70s archival footage and period news reports of the Watergate break-in leading to the first impeachment of a sitting President in history.

Seemingly derived from the sweeping intro to Oliver Stone’s JFK, this capsule of video and sound bites gives newcomers to this material ample back story while plunging those who lived through it back into the feeling and tone of the era.

Once that is established, it is summer 1977 – Ex President Richard M. Nixon, disgraced and in self imposed exile in his beach house in San Clemente, CA is approached by ambitious British broadcaster David Frost to make an expensive deal for a series of extended television interviews.

Nixon, portrayed grandly by Frank Langella, sees this as an opportunity to redeem himself in the public’s eye while Frost, given a quirky but still suave demeanor by Michael Sheen, sees opportunity of a different sort – a career breaking, star making spectacle sort, to be exact.

Though it contains nothing but men (and a few women) talking in hotel rooms, cars, and the living room set where the interviews were conducted, this is compelling stuff from start to finish.

Paced like many boxing movies with back and forth training sessions up to the final round in the ring, the momentum never lags. Frost struggles to finance the endeavor, insulted by those who blow him off as a “talk show host” while still allowing time for a new love interest – Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Woody Allens VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) who doesn’t have much to do except sit on the sidelines looking pretty.

Frost’s team includes Sam Rockwell as passionate anti-Nixon author James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as journalist Bob Zelnick who together provide considerable comic relief. Nixon’s corner is dominated by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s fiercely over-protective post Presidential chief of staff, who both turns in one of his best performances while narrowing down the number degrees of separation between him and everybody else in show business.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul”, Neil Young once sang and the final third of this movie seems to suggest just that. First presented as a shady money grubbing player disguised as an elder statesman, Langella’s Nixon betrays hidden levels of dark conscience in his home stretch showdown with Frost which would make even Hunter S. Thompson tear up for the man.

If Langella isn’t nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award I’ll be royally shocked. Howard thankfully retained both Langella and Sheen, from the 2006 stage play written by Peter Morgan. Sheen, who had played British Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (also written by Morgan), has the definitive “deer caught in the headlights” look when first sitting down with Tricky Dick but over time assumes the prize fighter Rocky’s “eye of the tiger” – to bring the boxing analogy back into it.
FROST/NIXON is a tightly focused and deeply pleasing film, certainly one of Ron Howard’s best as director. Whether or not Nixon was redeemable or remorseful doesnt matter; layered reflective takes on history like this make for the best art regardless (see Shakespeare).

More later…