Thursday, August 30, 2007

HD-DVD Review: Bullitt and Army of Darkness


Peter Yates' 1968 crime classic is a personal attempt to define the limitations of HD. I was curious as to how a classic print would stand up in the Hi-Def format. It's been over 10 years since I'd seen "Bullitt" (on a crappy VHS copy no less) so my initial impressions of how this film compares on HD are probably highly overstated. Still, this is a beautiful looking print. The clearest examples of this version's sharpness come in the many exterior shots of San Francisco, which makes the superbly crafted and largely lauded car chase sequence especially exciting. The buildings in the background are given definition, the cars that dart in and out of the frame look sparkling, and the various gaudy colors of people's Sunday best really jump out at you. Once again, as in "The 40 Year Old Virgin", Hi-Def visualizes the film's color more than ever. Watching "Bullitt" in HD reminded me of the old, exaggerated colors of "Duel In the Sun", a film full of images that feels like they're burning off the edges. And I mean that in a good way. The disappointment of "Bullitt's" Hi-Defness comes in the interior scenes. I didn't notice any real definition when the film turns to set and studio. Also, some of the nigh time scenes in the beginning of the film fail to register on anything more than DVD quality. As in other HD features, the deep blacks and shadows of the film are heightened. In "Bullit", they feel grainy and worn. Perhaps this is the overwhelming deficit of bringing older films into the HD format.

A quick word about the film itself.... I'd forgotten how modern the story feels, right down the climactic airport chase that surely influenced Michael Mann's runway finale in "Heat". Also, this is a brilliantly conceived take on violence in the movies, sporting a complex realization of cops and their guns. When McQueen finally does pull his gun in the last five minutes of the film, it's quite startling. The film cues that extraordinary moment with a tense cut to the gun and a blast of music across the soundtrack. Expecting somewhat of a relief in the film's final minute as McQueen returns home, instead, director Yates closes in on McQueen washing his face in the sink, visibly regretting the bloodletting. A slow zoom into McQueen's gun as it rests in its holster on the table closes out the film. "Bullitt" makes clear that this is something very heavy for bad ass cop McQueen, and it inverts the confident attitude of its protagonist. Bullitt is dealing with something real now, and its quite a refreshingly poignant way to close out a film much praised for its car chases and brutish posing.

Army of Darkness

Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness" is the next HD challenger. No disappointments here. Picture quality is impressive and, unlike "Bullitt", the night time scenes pop off the screen. Really, if you're a fan of the Evil Dead trilogy, then you gotta have this on HD-DVD. Nevermind that it's probably the third most quotable film of the 90's (tailing behind "The Big Lebowski" and "Swingers" of course), but in HD, the Harryhausen-style animation still impresses and you get to see Bruce Campbell flail about in vivid picture quality. The drawback to this DVD (and "Bullitt") though is the extreme lack of extra features. No commentary, no deleted scenes... just the bare-bones movie. If one can live with that, then buy away.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Caged Fury: The Dynamic Nicholas Cage

This post is part of the Bizarro Blog-a-thon sponsored by Lazy Eye Theater.

Alongside Marlon Brando, there's one actor who defines his generation through intensity. He burrows deep into each and every role, creating an indelible impression of wit, honesty and emotion. That actor is Nicholas Cage. What began due to favored kindness (as the nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola), soon evolved into a career far beyond those generous acts of charity. Cage soon emerged as an actor who deserved (and still deserves) to be heard, felt, and experienced. He's the greatest actor currently on the horizon of American motion pictures.

After receiving bit parts in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High", "Rumble Fish" and "The Cotton Club", Cage burst onto the American psyche with his supporting role in Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married". This is where I first experienced the fury of Cage. His performance, basically upstaging every one else on screen, resembles that of Brando squirming with intensity in "A Streetcar Named Desire". Cage's performance shifted from leisurely explosive youth to world-weary husband in the blink of an eye. It was then he re-invented himself and portrayed the role of Ronny opposite Cher in "Moonstruck", showing that he can also invade persona of hard-edged Italian lover. Still more invention, when in 1987, he shifted genres effortlessly again, landing himself in the lead role of the Coen Brothers' "Raising Arizona". Even though this is probably his most generic role to date, the film survives the onslaught of sophomore camera tricks and the Coen Brothers usual flat humor due to Cage's wily performance. From there, the sky seemed to open up and lay out the limit. Cage continually invested each upcoming role with bravado. While a majority of the mid-90's were spent in a slight decline, he still made the best of every role. There was his perverse and fine-tuned performance in David Lynch's exotic spectacle "Wild At Heart" (a film that, like "Raising Arizona", survived the masturbatory impulses of its lazy autuer director due to Cage's magnificent grounding). Then there was Cage's manifestation of a down and out loser in John Dahl's "Red Rock West". It was clear that Cage was having fun even when his director and crew seemed to have no idea what they were doing. Didn't they know the neo-noir wave in American cinema began and ended with "Pulp Fiction"??? The only real highlights of Cage during this time period happened in the supremely funny and ground-breaking comedy "Guarding Tess" and the fairy tale New York story "It Could Happen To You", a film so light and generous that it feels like Ernst Lubitsch was hovering over the production. There was also his role in Christopher Coppola's "Deadfall", a film that feels literally dead on arrival, saved only by Cage's gleeful and revolutionary supporting character role. This is the performance that supporting Oscar awards are made for, but sadly he was overlooked. The performance he did eventually win an Oscar for, 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas" feels more like a lifetime achivement award than anything else. But still, it only confirmed Cage's explosive temperament was finally washing over modern audiences after 11 years of stoic abilities.

The crowning achievement came in 1996 though, when actor Cage met producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Their marriage, resulting in the slam-bam coupling of the two greatest American action films since Buster Keaton, still resonates to this day. I'm referring to "The Rock" and "Con Air". Not only did these two films represent a shift in modern filmmaking (spearheading the magnificent idea that no film can be digested without 12,345 edits per 200 feet of film) but they transformed Nicholas Cage from American actor to AMERICAN ACTOR. Just look at those pecks in "Con Air", or the twirly blonde hair he sports. Even in "The Rock", he grandstands an aging Sean Connery and a spineless Ed Harris. Nicholas Cage was now the new American icon.

But the defining of Cage as actor didn't end there. After 1997, Cage entered a golden age of acting, embodying stellar performance after stellar performance. There was his re-admission into the heart throb category opposite Meg Ryan in the beautifully nuanced "City of Angels", a film that said so much with so little. The same could be said for his 2004 masterpiece, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin". And there was "Gone In Sixty Seconds", a throwback to 70's two-lane blacktop cinema that still holds up today, perhaps even more than the original 70's motor fests. And who could forget Cage's bid as the modern Jimmy Stewart with 2001's "The Family Man".

Even today, Cage is still choosing roles carefully. After twenty years in front of American audiences, he continues to fascinate and enthrall. Think back to the succession of films that Jack Nicholson churned out between 1969 and 1975. For the last six years, Cage duplicated that feat: "Windtalkers", "Sonny", "National Treasure" (probably the most entertaining film of the last 50 years!), The Wicker Man", "Ghost Rider" and "Next". Not only does this series of films prove that Cage is still burning the candles at both ends, but he's transformed himself into a cypher of modern emotions and characters. He is everyman, and he's no one. But I could go on all day. I'll simply let the images above speak louder than my feeble words. If Brando doesn't come to mind, then you're fuckin' crazy....

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Trailers I Love

This fall looks to be a smashingly good year for the western. James Mangold's "3:10 To Yuma" looks to kick all kinds of ass (just like "Open Range" did a few years back). Compare that with the contemplative images and mood of Andrew Dominik's upcoming Jesse James film (which is reportedly a 3 hour meditation on the Old West, sparing not a single dreamy image) and I think we're in for a treat. Plus, let's not forget Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" which very well may qualify as a time period piece that gives the western a run for its money. This trailer was just released today. Now that I've gotten my "post video" problems worked out on You Tube, I intend to include more trailers periodically.

Monday, August 20, 2007

HD DVD review: The 40 Year Old Virgin

This is probably an underrated choice to test my new-found limits of HD DVD, but what better way to determine the parameters of new technology than with a film that shouldn't pop on screen. Well, even in HD, "The 40 Year Old Virgin" is a complete visual surprise. I'm learning that HD creates stunning clarity in the background of films. Judd Apatow's comic masterpiece only benefits from the crisp colors of HD, drawing out the cluttered sets of action figures and busy backdrops of the electronics store or speed dating locale. Two of the most impressive scenes in this film (due not only to the sharp writing, of course) include the following: 1) the scene when Paul Rudd and his buddies take Andy (Steve Carell) to a night club towards the beginning of the film. I'm not sure if I just never looked for the blend of colors before or if Hi Def 'heightens' my sense of picture quality, but the way the neon lights illuminates the screen feels intoxicating, like we're watching a Shaw Brothers picture. It was probably meant to be campy, but in HD, it becomes something altogether different, adding to the giddiness of the scene. 2) the Elizabeth Banks seduction scene. I mean, really, we don't need much more than Elizabeth Banks tearing up the scenery in this succession of images to create a memorable moment, but in HD, the campy backdrop of her apartment come bustling towards you. There's the fluorescent fish tank, the multi-colored pillows on her bed, the green light emanating from her bathroom- it all feels as carefully constructed and as painstakingly lit as a Stanley Kubrick film. Okay, maybe I'm waaay off base here, using first the Shaw Brothers and now Kubrick in my description for a Judd Apatow comedy, but the bottom line is that colors of movies have never felt so vivid. Hi Def leaves nothing non-descript in the background, opening us up to 3-D worlds on screen. That, so far, is the biggest win of this technology.

Enough gushing about that. The disc itself is loaded, but nothing different from the standard disc. The one advantage to HD-DVD is it's easy pop up menu function. Unlike standard DVD's, you don't have to exit out of the film to access the menu. It also features a great round table commentary track with the film's stars, and if you expect the "in this scene I used an anamorphic lens to frame everything...", think again. It's commentary just as loose, nasty, and anecdotal as the film.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Not Always the Best Medicine

I've been writing alot about comedy lately. First, there was my previous post ranking the Top 50 comedies of all time and now this. Is it because I'm growing more and more wearied at the increasingly violent quagmire we've gotten ourselves into in Iraq? Nah, I'm not that politically minded. I just don't usually fall hard for comedies. While all of my friends eagerly anticipate the next served laugh, I've always been the one anticipating something else. Comedies rarely get me to the theater. The recent exception, of course, being "Hot Fuzz". And fyi.. you have to hear the commentary on this one- did you know that Cate Blanchett was the mask-covered woman who breaks up with Simon Pegg in the beginning, or the 1 second clip of a Santa Clause shanking Pegg was Peter Jackson? The entire commentary is simply movie-drunk and a fascinating listen.

So, what got me out to see the new comedy, "Hot Rod", was it's slightly amusing trailer and amiable word of mouth on Aint It Cool News. What got me out to see "The Simpsons Movie" was its seventeen year history of generating enormous laughs through visual puns and carefully constructed situations. These two films couldn't be further apart as far as comedies go- one is the granddaddy of animated art, still emanating a heartbeat after all these years and reflecting laughs off current events and pop culture iconography, and the other is a mildly diverting comedy featuring Saturday Night Live alum Adam Samberg and espousing that oh-so hip manner of dead pan filmmaking combined with non-sequiter humor. Both of these films represent modern comedy, although they score wildly different results.

"Hot Rod", in and of itself, is not a terrible movie. I laughed a few times. But it's the manner in which it goes about its laughs that's disturbing. It belongs in that camp of comedy that I'm guessing originated with the films of Will Ferrell; or perhaps even further back with other Saturday Night Live spin-offs such as "A Night At the Roxbury" and "The Ladies Man", or dare I say "The Coneheads". Then again, I could be wrong and the blame lies at the feet of David Zucker with his 1980 "Airplane" (which is a great comedy by the way). Simply put, these are sketch comedy films, stretched out to feature length proportion through odd, humorous tangents. When you watch a film such as "Hot Rod", or "Talledega Nights", or "Dodgeball", or most certainly "Anchorman", it feels like an insider's club; you can imagine the cast and crew sitting around thinking up improvisational bits to levy the unsubstantial structure of the script. Think of the cameos that come flying at you in "Anchorman", or the prolonged riot that breaks out, or the scenes that carry on long after they should end as a character laughs or suffers (specifically the images of Ferrell running around the racetrack in his undies). In "Hot Rod", there are so many I lost count, including the scene where our hero trips and rolls.... and rolls... and rolls down the side of a mountain for what feels like 3 minutes. There's another moment when Rod Kimble, stuntman extraordinaire, summons the spirits of a dolphin, a wolf, and a house cat before he proceeds to jump. If that bit of outer space humor fails to register with the audience, we're given quick insets with pictures of the mentioned animals circling his head. Or there's the character who desperately wants to help Rod and his crew, and anytime he's on screen, he breaks into an 80's type thrust dance (you have to see it to believe it). And if that's not enough, when Rod visits heaven briefly, we're entertained by the images of a stuffed taco and grilled cheese sandwich fighting (don't even ask, it'd take waaay to long to explain). Yes, it's all there along with the kitchen sink. Where did this type of humor come from? Why does it often stop a comedy dead in its tracks when I see such an out-of-body comedy moment? In "Hot Rod", that's all the film has going for it. You watch because you just can't believe what writer Pam Brady may throw at you next. This may work in films such as "Napolean Dynamite", which I consider a personal favorite and the film that "Hot Rod" has been unjustly coupled with, but only because writer-director Jared Hess earns my respect for his characters. It's also probably unfair to mention the comedic canon of Judd Apatow at this point, but if one wants to see how comedy should be done right, then go watch "Knocked Up" or, even better, his 1999 television series "Freaks and Geeks". Not only do his characters make us laugh at them, but certainly laugh with them. His films (and writing) surface something human in their comedy which Will Ferrell, Adam Samberg and Adam Sandler don't understand.

Then you temper that with "The Simpsons Movie". This, in all essence, shouldn't work. It shouldn't garner the amount of laughs it ultimately draws from the audience. Alot of its success depends on its zeitgeist cult following (a following that Fox's "The Family Guy" is slowly eroding with much more tawdry humor). The amazing thing about "The Simpsons Movie" is that, after 17 years, it still packs a humorous wallop. Maybe even more so due to the fact that we've grown up with these characters. We feel for them in a way. And, like the best of the Simpsons episodes, it begins in one place and ends a world apart, defying our expectations in glorious ways. Like "Hot Rod", it relies on tangential laughs- Homer and a pig, Homer whipping a pack of dogs, even the cut to a picture inside Homer's head as a monkey plays while Marge talks. This is not far removed from the sense of humor that received a resounding "thud" in a similar scene in "Hot Rod". Does the animation, illicitly reminding us this not the 'real world', make excuses for laughs found in "The Simpsons Movie"? I'd wager that "Hot Rod" feels less 'real world' than The Simpsons. The humor there feels forced upon us while in "The Simpsons Movie", it settles into a routine that feels familiar. I'm not sure how much of a slam that is to "Hot Rod", but its never good when you take away more emotive connection from an animated film than with a flesh and bone acted movie. Both films intend to make us laugh, but only one really succeeds.

So what does this tell us about the comedy genre itself? Nothing. This is a genre that will always succeed and continually make money. I'm not sure if I care to see Adam Samberg in another comedy, but the next big breakthrough will be supported by Saturday Night Live and more comedy 'thuds' will be heard in theaters. As long as we have plenty of Judd Apatow films and "The Simpsons" to curb those moments, we'll probably be ok.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Welcome to the New Generation

So I went ahead and did it. I purchased the Toshiba HD DVD player today. It was a measured decision- I know HD and Blu ray are still fighting it out for format supremacy, but for $299, its an investment I decided to make. Pretty much everything I've read (and boy have I read alot over the past 6 months) seems to feel that no clear cut winner will emerge for the next year or two. If I can get the most out of this player for 2 years, then that'll suit me. This player makes standard DVD's look INCREDIBLE. I popped in Malick's "The New World" and Michael Mann's "Miami Vice". This is the way movies were intended to be watched. You can see when someone blushes or the color goes out of their face. You can pick up little signs on bus stops, read street signs and differentiate the color patterns in clothes. My eyes were continually darting around the edges of the screen trying to decipher images that I hadn't noticed before. Amazing. And like I said, that's just for standard DVD's. Upconvert is ok, but even if this format loses out, it still crispens my old DVDs like never before.

I did purchase 1 HD-DVD movie, "Goodfellas". My old copy is one of the first generation DVD's and it was time to upgrade. Holy shit.... this is a Scorsese film like you've never seen, full of deep blacks and shadows that cascade around the characters faces. Honestly, HD opens up the world beyond the characters on screen, fulfilling the setting around them with vivid clarity. I'm not trying to talk anyone into a rash decision (like I may have done), but HD quality is the way to go. Do the research for yourself and if $299 is affordable, then I recommend it.

Stay tuned for HD DVD reviews and thoughts.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Will the Real Nuke LaLoosh Please Stand Up?

This is an amazing story for the major leagues.

I doubt many will remember pitcher Rick Ankiel from the late 90's and early 00's. A pitching phenom in every sense of the word, Ankiel finally got his start in the bigs with the St. Louis Cardinals. After a great season of 11-7 and a strikeout percentage of almost 10 batters per 9 ininngs, he pitched the first game of the 2000 NLDS and the wheels came off. He threw numerous wild pitches and walked several batters. Even though they still won the game (thanks to a 6 run first couple of innings), Ankiel didn't look like a major league pitcher. In his second outing during the NLCS, he didn't make it out of the second inning, throwing 20 total pitches, walking two and throwing 2 wild pitches. The Cards lost that series to the Amazing Mets. After being sent down to the minors, his troubles continued. In one game he walked 24 batters in only 4 innings, settling with an ERA of over 20. Ankiel then had season ending Tommy Johns surgery in 2003. So, what does a down and out pitcher suffering from surgery do? He switches to the outfield, comes back to the majors 4 years later and smacks a 3 run homer in his first game with the Cardinals this week. The Cardinals have had a tremendously tough year and even though I'm not a Cards fan, it's stories like these that continue to fuel my enduring passion for our greatest sport.

UPDATE: Just watched Baseball Tonight and learned that Ankiel went 3-4 today with 2 more home runs. Plus, he made an incredible over the shoulder catch. They stated it best, saying, "This guy is the natural."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Posters I Love

Along with a new trailer, James Gray's fall release "We Own The Night" also gets a fresh poster. It's not the fairly average placement of Phoenix and Whalburg within the poster that creates its aura, but the black and white facade of the image. It fits Gray's sense of classicism perfectly. As pointed out in an earlier post, I'm a huge fan of Gray. He makes crime films that feel out of place in today's modern market. They're slower, more disciplined, and certainly more textured than other crime films. I'm hoping "We Own the Night" follows suit. Still, it's one helluva poster.

Friday, August 03, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #8

There actually is a trend in this queue. Not only am I going back and re-watching every film of the splendid Arthur Penn, but I'm digging into a certain type of cinema that often divides viewing audiences. I'm not quite sure how to define these films, but perhaps this review will give you some insight. Cult Japanese cinema, maybe? Anyway, read some of the synopsis of films within this queue selection and you'll get the idea. I'm either about to explore some intense examples of cult cinema or pure trash. Either way, half the fun is finding out. And, back to the esteemed Mr. Penn, I'm pissed off that the only film of his not available on DVD is "Mickey One" starring Warren Beatty. This movie played incessantly on Bravo back in the day, but I can't stand watching a movie edited for TV, so never gave it a shot.

1. Four Friends- One of Penn's later efforts, a shift in tone from his more intense films, this charts the relationship between 3 men and the woman they're all attracted to in the late 60's.
2. Organ- Taken directly from the synopsis: Tokyo cops investigate the black market in human organs, only to find themselves on the wrong end of the surgeon's knife! Director Kei Fujiwara's disturbing horror film ignited a wave of controversy in its native Japan. Organ -- which may feature the most graphic depictions of vivisection in cinematic history -- was subsequently censored, though the full version has been restored for release on DVD.
3. House On the Edge of the Park- Director Ruggero Deodoto (the "Cannibal Holocaust" films!) directs this early 80's splatterfest that has received some acclaim. "Sleazoid Express" writers highly enjoyed this one.
4. Dead of Winter- Mary Steenburgen and Roddy McDowall chew up the scenery in Arthur Penn's 1987 film. I remember seeing this one as a kid. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up with a more mature eye and by assessing it within the confines of Penn's ouevre.
5. Vibrator- Director Ryuichi Hiroki earned some critical favor with this 2003 road drama that moves at its own pace. Three other Hiroki films are on this list.
6. Alice's Restaurant- How can one not love the film that the TV show "Alice" was based on? Yes, Arthur Penn was there.
7. I Am An S&M Writer- More Hiroki.
8. Evil Dead Trap- In this Japanese cult horror film, talk show hostess Nami (Miyuki Ono) receives an anonymous videotape in the mail. When she plays it, she's shocked to view what looks like a murder -- that is, a snuff film. With the help of her faithful crew, she discovers that the tape originated in an abandoned ex-military base in the middle of nowhere. As the team splits up to investigate, they're drawn deeper into a deadly nightmare.
9. Bullet Ballet- Director Shinya Tsukamoto is largely responsible for this crop of Japanese cult films after he released the highly influential "Tetsuo" movies in the late 80's. "Bullet Ballet" is more of the same and I'm looking forward to stepping back into Tsukamoto's extremely fucked up vision of our world.
10. Mouchette- Wow. This one's outta left field after the above selections, huh? If nothing, you can't say I'm not eclectic.