Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Cooler (2003) Wayne Kramer

The Cooler is one of those films hardly anyone remembers or talks about just over 10 years after its release, although at the time it was nominated for (and in a few cases, won) several awards. The strength of the film lies in its performances. William H. Macy plays Bernie, a guy who works in a casino owned by a mobster named Shelly (Alec Baldwin). Bernie is a “cooler,” a guy so unlucky that his mere presence at a crap table, slot machine, card game - you name it - causes the person who’s on a winning streak to collapse in immediate and utter defeat. Bernie is a loser, but he’s a well-paid loser. One day his luck starts to change when he gets a casino waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) out of a jam. 

The Cooler loses its cool when the Frank Hannah/Wayne Kramer screenplay hits us over the head a little too hard with too many examples both of Bernie’s hard luck and his change of luck. A subplot involving Bernie’s son and the son’s pregnant girlfriend doesn’t really work because we know they’re just there as a plot device that helps bring the film to its turning point. Those instances aren’t really deal breakers, at least not until we get to the final slow-motion gambling scenes and a completely implausible ending. Still, the performances - including a couple of short scenes with Paul Sorvino - make The Cooler worth a look. 


Monday, June 16, 2014

Rod Serling

Yesterday, one of my favorite comics writers Ed Brubaker retweeted this Mike Wallace interview with Rod Serling from 1959. The interview was conducted before The Twilight Zone aired in that same year, so Serling - although he had already written successfully for television - was far from a household name. 

The interview touches on some very interesting topics: the future and quality of television, censorship, writing, and much more. Although obviously much in television has changed since 1959, so much has not. Serling certainly saw the potential for television and storytelling via television and was not afraid to fight for quality. As you can see and hear from the interview, Wallace, at times, clearly doesn't get it and you can see the frustration on Serling's face. 

The quality of the film isn't very good and both guys smoke like stacks, but it's still essential viewing for Serling fans, Twilight Zone fans, or simply fans of quality TV.  

Brubaker also tweeted this documentary of Serling which I have not yet watched, but plan to later today.

Serling's daughter Anne published a biography of her dad in 2013 called As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, a book I hope to read soon.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Criterion Collection Format Change

Well, it was nice while it lasted...

Criterion recently announced that starting with the September releases (which should be announced sometime tomorrow) it will no longer offer its films in the dual format packaging, something they've been doing for the past several months. I'm very disappointed in this decision for several reasons, which I'll go into below.

I should probably clear up a misconception. The "dual format" does not mean that a single disc contains a DVD side and a Blu-ray side (which I don't even think is possible), but rather that both are included in a single case. That packaging has been responsible for a lot of the complaints to Criterion, since in many instances, you're talking about a package that contains three discs: one for the Blu-ray edition, one for the DVD edition, and one for the DVD supplements. To accommodate three discs, Criterion often goes with a digipak package - like this release of Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent I recently bought. 

Yeah, those discs aren't in the normal plastic packaging and they look a little funny on the shelf with your other discs, but so what? Yes, I know they're not as sturdy, either, but take care of your movies and everything's fine. 

I like the dual format because I can loan movies out to friends who don't have a Blu-ray player, I can play them on my computer, I can take them on vacation, I can play them for licensed library programs... all sorts of reasons. And since the retail price of the sets remained $39.95 (same price as the individual formats), you're basically getting something for free. 

I know these decisions are all about money, but many (I won't say most, because I haven't researched it) companies put out dual format editions of new releases anyway, and include digital copies (which Criterion still doesn't do). 

Why not keep the dual format option and add a digital copy? Go ahead and bump the price up to $45. Heck, make it a print-on-demand and raise it to $50. See how many people want 'em. (I would, but I'd wait until the 50% off sales.)

If both discs together are currently priced at $39.95, then it seems the price of the Blu-ray by itself should drop to a retail of $29.95. The new one-disc Criterion DVDs are currently $19.95 retail; the 2-discs, $29.95. So you're making me pay $10 for supplemental features on a DVD? That's ridiculous. Make the 2-disc DVD $24.95 tops

That's my solution. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Invisible Man (1933) James Whale

The Invisible Man (1933) James Whale

(The Invisible Man is part of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection 
Blu-ray set, which I am slowly working through.)  

I first saw James Whale’s The Invisible Man on the late show when I was in college and - like most college students - thought I knew everything. I remember thinking that the film was uneven, slow, and not very exciting, at least compared to other classic horror films like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Now, watching it again after 30 years, I understand why I didn’t like it then: The Invisible Man is enormously disturbing. 

Claude Rains (all wrapped up, naturally, in gauze and bandages) plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who has discovered the secret of invisibility, mainly through the use of monocane, a drug that also causes Griffin to become unstable in his thinking and cruel in his actions. Like many mad scientists in the movies, Griffin believes his power gives him the right and means to rule the world. 

Such movie villains are usually laughable and rarely do much serious harm, but Griffin kills people. Lots of them, many of them on-screen. Griffin even promises to kill one of the main characters, a threat we see all the time in movies, but rarely carried out. When Griffin makes good on his promise, it’s a chilling scene.  

I also remember thinking the film contained too much obvious comic relief. When Griffin checks in to a village inn - all bundled up with his head covered in bandages - the locals get a little too inquisitive, causing Griffin to engage in some invisible hijinks. Clearly these antics are meant to show off the film’s special effects, but we also see that many of these characters aren’t too bright, especially the innkeeper, played by Una O’Connor. (We can almost sympathize with Griffin’s desire to be rid of them.) Give credit to John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams for what were at the time, groundbreaking special effects. You can’t really fault them for wanting to indulge themselves. 

The Invisible Man is ultimately more terror than horror. Although the characters realize that Griffin certainly isn’t omnipresent, they never really know where he might be at any time. He could be anywhere, sitting right next to you, ready to strangle you with hands you’d never see. The unpredictability of the menace is both suspenseful and disturbing. The idea that death could strike at any moment is one no one enjoys, especially in the times we live in now. Combine the aspect of terror with the fact that Griffin operates on his own rules, answering to no one, and you’ve got a disturbing film that unfortunately resonates all too well in 2014. Or maybe Whale just meant it all as dark comedy. Either way, The Invisible Man is still worth a look and deserves a place in this collection. 

(The Invisible Man also includes a performance by Gloria Stewart, who was 23 when this film was made, and 87 when she appeared in James Cameron’s Titanic.)

Extras on the disc include a Rudy Behlmer commentary (which I did not sample), “Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed,” a interesting but not very inspired 35-minute look at The Invisible Man and its sequels, a four-minute series of production photographs, a trailer gallery of The Invisible Man Returns and Invisible Agent, and an 8-minute short called “100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters,” trumpeting Universal’s horror and non-horror characters. 


Saturday, June 07, 2014

Upcoming Blu-ray Releases

I often take a look at the Release Calendar over at, usually just for fun, seeing not only the new "just-got-out-of-the-theater" movies, but releases of movies I haven't seen in years/decades. Here's a little bit of both that, although I probably won't buy many of these, I would like to see the upgraded versions. 

I think it'll be much easier to watch this streaming or from the library, but everybody's talking about True Detective. Eager to start this one. Release date June 10, 2014

I remember seeing this Charles Bronson flick when I was a kid, being struck that Jan-Michael Vincent - who had been in a lot of Disney movies I'd seen - was playing a way cooler character than he'd played in any of those kids' films. Release date June 10, 2014

Hey, it's Wes Anderson - what other reason do you need? Release date June 17, 2014

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the most popular "entry points" into art films. It certainly was for me. This is one I plan to buy, especially with the dual format that I can loan out to friends. Release date June 17, 2014

Another must-buy. It's the Beatles. It's Criterion. It's dual format. Done. Release date June 24, 2014

I've always loved George Pal's 1960 version of The Time Machine, even if it does look cheesy over 50 years later. I grew up with it and love it. I'll get this one for sure. 
Release date July 8, 2014

There's really only one scene that people remember from David Cronenberg's Scanners, even people who've never seen the movie. I'll be interested to see if the whole movie holds up. (I kinda suspect it doesn't.) Release date July 15, 2014

Marty isn't the type of movie that really needs a Blu-ray release, unless it has a lot of extras, but it's a movie I've always enjoyed. I have to be in the right mood for it, but I'd like to see it again at some point. Release date July 15, 2014

I'll confess that I've never seen the entire run of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but I usually buy into the Lynch weirdness. The whole series was streaming, but I don't know if that will be the case after this set is released, which also includes the movie Fire Walk With Me.  
Release date July 29, 2014

So, look around on the Release Calendar and see what grabs you. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Movies Watched in May 2014

Not a ton of movies in May, but hopefully some old and new films for your consideration:

Safety Last! (1923) Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor [Criterion Collection Blu-ray] (2x)

From time to time it’s my job to provide a movie for the students in our church’s college ministry to watch and discuss. I wracked my brain for something new and edgy to talk about, something relevant to the times we live in and maybe even something “straight from the headlines” (or the Facebook posts). Then I decided to go in the complete opposite direction and show them a silent movie that’s over 90 years old, Harold Lloyd’s classic Safety Last! 

I wasn’t sure how the students would like the movie, but they were on the edge of their seats during the climbing sequences, gasping and clutching their chairs. I also wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the film as much on a second viewing, but I enjoyed it more than the first time, having a greater appreciation for Lloyd’s masterful timing, charm and ability to make us laugh - and grip our chairs in suspense. 


Dallas Buyers Club (2013) Jean-Marc Valée [library DVD]

I’ve always thought Matthew McConaughey a talented actor who often rises above his material - sometimes too much so, due either to a bad script or as a result of his presence being too strong (or possibly unchecked). In his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, he’s certainly worthy of the award, even though I didn’t always think the movie worked as a consistent story. 


The Mummy (1932) Karl Freund (2x)  [Blu-ray]  

Watching some of the old horror classics shows you just how good some of these filmmakers were at what they did, considering what they had to work with and what - compared to modern times - they didn’t have. Boris Karloff shows why he remains one of the giants of cinema, but much credit has to go to makeup pioneer Jack Pierce, a man who is still not given the recognition he deserves. Also noteworthy is a striking performance by Zita Johann, who was far stranger in real life than the role she plays here, that of a woman who may or may not be the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess. You can learn more about Karloff, Pierce, Johann, and the film itself in the Blu-ray’s excellent extras.  


Lars and the Real Girl (2007) Craig Gillespie [Netflix streaming]
Lars and the Real Girl comes oh, so dangerously close to disaster in so many places that I marvel at its tone and construction. By now, everyone knows the plot: Lars (Ryan Gosling) - an extremely shy, awkward recluse - orders a lifelike doll from an adult website and acts like she’s a real woman, showing her off to everyone in his small Wisconsin town. Credit director Gillespie for making us believe in the premise, but also credit Gosling for an incredibly restrained performance that, somehow, works. 


Eye of the Needle (1981) Richard Marquand [DVD] (2x)

Maybe you’re not familiar with director Richard Marquand, but after Eye of the Needle, he did a little movie you might’ve heard of called Return of the Jedi. I’m not exactly sure what George Lucas saw in Marquand from this film, since it’s a pretty pedestrian adaptation of Ken Follett’s novel of the same name, minus most of the suspense and character development. Even musical score legend Miklós Rózsa stumbles badly in places. (Nothing can ruin a spy film faster than overscoring.) 

Still, the story itself is good: Donald Sutherland plays a spy for the Nazis who discovers the location of the D-Day landing. On the run, he crashes a boat near a remote island in an attempt to reach a radio so that he can warn the Nazis of the impending attack. The sole inhabitants of the island - a family of three - find him, believing him to be a innocent (and rather incompetent) sailor. Earning their trust (especially that of the wife, played by Kate Nelligan), “The Needle” seeks to reach a radio in time to foil the Allied attack.     


A River Runs Through It (1992) Robert Redford [DVD]

Many of my friends love this movie based on a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, but I found it to be too openly sentimental and nostalgic for my tastes. The story of two sons (Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer) of a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt) in Missoula, Montana roughly during the 1920s and 30s contains some absolutely stunning cinematography, but you can predict just about everything that’s going to happen. Worth watching for the cinematography and to see a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  


The Conjuring (2013) James Wan [library DVD]

Good gracious, this scared the crap out of me! Leave the lights on and don’t see it by yourself - that’s all I’m going to tell you. (That and never, ever play hide and seek again!)


X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Brian Singer (theater)

Marvel is finally starting to figure some things out. Just give us a good story and most moviegoers will be happy. It’s more important to have a solid story than to have stuff blowing up every 10 seconds, and while some stuff does blow up, the story drives the film. This is a movie you can go to and just have a good time. (And isn’t that why we go to the movies anyway?) I’ll leave you with one word: Quicksilver.