2/16/10 Edition
The New Remake Reviewed
Plus: GOODFELLAS Anniversary Edition & More
A few pictures over the years have tried to evoke the mood of Universal’s classic monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s -- most meeting with mixed reaction from critics and fans.

Universal’s oft-delayed remake of THE WOLFMAN underwent a turbulent production with extensive re-editing, and seemed destined to join the ranks of past failures like Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing” (a film I plead guilty to enjoying on balance despite its abundant flaws and lack of period detail). Happily, this impressively mounted, atmospheric, serious and decidedly old-fashioned throwback movie is an entertaining and nostalgic return to the past, well directed by Joe Johnston and with excellent Rick Baker make-up and visual effects -- not all of which, thankfully, were enhanced by CGI.

In this interesting spin on Curt Siodmak’s original story, writers Andrew Kevin Walker (“Sleepy Hollow”) and David Self (“Mad Men”) turn tragic hero Laurence Talbot into an American actor called home to his family’s rundown English manor after his brother is brutually killed. As essayed by a nicely understated Benicio Del Toro, Talbot is immediately greeted by his haunted, disconnected father (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s beautiful fiancee (Emily Blunt), all the while the villagers speak of an animal running through the moors, ripping out the throats of its victims while a full moon sits overhead. While an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) is called in to assess the bloody murders, Del Toro is confronted with both demons from his past and the ones lurking within himself after he’s attacked outside a gypsy camp, thereby setting in motion the curse of the werewolf...

It only takes a few seconds for one to realize that despite all of its behind-the-scenes issues, director Joe Johnston got “The Wolfman” completely right in terms of duplicating the atmosphere of the Universal classics. Rick Henrichs’ production design and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography are absolutely pitch-perfect, capturing the light and shadows of the fog-ridden countryside and the general Gothic period atmosphere that fans pine for. This is a just gorgeous looking movie that is sure to become a Halloween viewing perennial for style alone, much in the same way that Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” harkened back to the Hammer era with its autumnal visual pallet (it’s also no coincidence that Heinrichs designed the sets for both pictures).

The story is indeed serious, starts off a bit on the choppy side and plays out with hardly any light moments (a bit of the old Universal “gallows humor” might’ve helped), but the Walker-Self script nevertheless takes proper time to develop its characters, allowing us to sympathize with Talbot’s plight. Del Toro is excellent as the tormented Talbot and Hopkins’ role plays right to the actor's strengths; the dynamic between the duo is modest at first but as the story opens up, their interplay becomes more emotionally charged. Blunt and Weaving offer able support, but the film is really the story of a father and son, though ultimately quite a different rendering of Siodmak’s original concept.

Considering the enormous amount of time the picture spent in post-production, it’s surprising how well-paced “The Wolfman” is. Johnston’s character-driven sequences are almost leisurely played, but he spices the picture up with an appropriate amount of crowd-pleasing action, and it’s here where the picture also shines. One sequence plays like a Victorian-era recreation of the monster's romp in "An American Werewolf in London," while genre great Rick Baker’s make-up is an elaborate spin on Jack Pierce’s legendary ‘40s “Wolf Man” design. Together with the visual FX, Johnston's film deftly combines the “old school” Lon Chaney look with occasional CGI to create a quite satisfying modern “Wolfman” that’s nevertheless firmly in the spirit of its predecessor.

Bodies fly, victims pile up, blood spurts out -- but it’s never sadistic and all of it is enhanced by a superb score credited to Danny Elfman that was reportedly augmented by work from orchestrator Conrad Pope. Pope was called in to work on the final cut after Paul Haslinger’s replacement score was axed -- this all coming after Elfman’s music was, also, originally replaced!

“The Wolfman” is rich in tone and -- for those who us grew up on the Universal monsters -- entertainment. Despite its shortcomings
(which will hopefully be rectified by a Director's Cut on DVD later this year), this is a satisfying revitalization of that genre, one that fans are likely to enjoy in spite of its not entirely promising pedigree. It may not be a classic, but this wolf didn’t turn out to be a dog after all. (***, 102 mins., R).

New on Blu-Ray and DVD

GOODFELLAS: 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray (****, 146 mins., 1990, R; Warner). LOWDOWN: Martin Scorsese’s masterwork celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a new Blu-Ray “Digibook” release offering glossy, book-bound packaging, liner notes, and a bonus DVD. Unfortunately the disc itself is the same HD edition of “Goodfellas” that’s already available on Blu-Ray, sporting a superior VC-1 encoded transfer and plain 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. That platter did include a number of extras including insightful commentaries (one by the real-life Henry Hill and the FBI agent who put him in witness protection; the other from assorted cast and crew members) and several featurettes, so it’s not as if the prior release needed much of an upgrade (except for a “lossless” high-def audio track). The bonus DVD is a documentary on gangster films with vintage Warner cartoons that was previously available in one of the studio’s “Gangsters” DVD box-sets. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Goodfellas” is one of my all-time favorite movies -- a symphonic collage of sights, sounds, classic dialogue and a story that grabs you from its opening frames and never lets go, moving from decade to decade celebrating the music and mood of its assorted eras. Those of you who already own the original “Goodfellas” Blu-Ray release can bypass this Anniversary edition, though, as it only offers deluxe packaging and a DVD that can be accessed elsewhere. Either way the quality of the product nevertheless comes highly recommended.    

THE INFORMANT! Blu-Ray (***, 108 mins., 2009, R; Warner). LOWDOWN: Oddball Steven Soderbergh film takes a true story about a corporate whistleblower (here portrayed by Matt Damon) and turns it into a serio-comic rendition of “The Insider.” Damon gives an amusing, on-target performance as Mark Whitacre, who decides to help out the FBI by informing them about the price-fixing of food additives -- all the while digging himself into a hole with a scheme of his own that’s only revealed as the film moves forward. A terrific, breezy score by Marvin Hamlisch sets the mood of Soderbergh’s playful film, which offers character turns from Scott Bakula and Joel McHale (as the FBI agents assigned to the case) plus Clancy Brown, Tom Wilson (“Back to the Future”) and even Tom Smothers. It’s not uproariously funny but “The Informant!” is consistently entertaining and just a bit eccentric at the same time. TECH SPECS: Gorgeously transferred in HD, Warner’s Blu-Ray sports a fully satisfying VC-1 transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. Light extras include a few additional scenes and a combo DVD/digital copy disc. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “The Informant!” is one of those movies that some viewers aren’t going to necessarily “get,” and Soderbergh’s directorial touches are admittedly a bit unusual given the material (for some reason the on-screen graphics and some of Hamlisch’s score reference the ‘70s when the film is set in the early ‘90s). It doesn’t always work but the film, on balance, is still worth a viewing for its offbeat elements and Hamlisch’s score.

THE BOX Blu-Ray (*, mins., 2009, PG-13; Warner). LOWDOWN: “Donnie Darko” director Richard Kelly lays another egg with this overwrought, unintentionally humorous tale of a mysterious stranger (Frank Langella) who brings a box to a young couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) in Virginia with the promise that they’ll receive a million dollars if they press a button -- an action that will also claim the life of someone else on the planet. Kelly adapted a Richard Matheson short story (which was previously filmed as a “Twilight Zone” episode) for this ridiculously stone-faced thriller that has many of the hallmarks of Kelly’s previous works including an overstuffed, convoluted story and pointless period setting (the mid ‘70s), which you’re only reminded of when, for example, a TV set blares out an old ABC commercial with Ernie Anderson’s voice-over. Diaz, with her terrible southern accent, is completely miscast and the incessant musical score is another turn off. TECH SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray edition contains a satisfying VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer, the movie often looking overly-glossy with its digital backdrops (the film was shot in Boston). The DTS Master Audio sound is nicely detailed, but there’s far too much of the overbearing score by Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and Owen Pallett, the former two members of a Canadian group that Kelly hired to score the film. Lightweight extras include commentary from Kelly, music video prequels, an interview with Richard Matheson, a featurette, and a combo DVD/digital copy disc. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: With an ending as unsatisfying as the rest of the film, “The Box” is a box-office bust not worth opening.

PLANET HULK Blu-Ray (81 mins., 2010; Lionsgate): The latest Marvel/Lionsgate direct-to-video animated production is easily one of the company’s best to date -- a colorful tale of our favorite green behemoth being thrust into outer space where he crashlands on a planet named Sakaar and is enslaved by a bad guy named the Red King. It’s not long before Bruce Banner’s alter-ego does his best Russell Crowe imitation and seeks “FREEDOM!” in this adaptation of the popular Hulk comic-book story line, with decent animation that looks crisp and vibrant in Lionsgate’s 1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The Blu-Ray also boasts a boisterous DTS Master Audio soundtrack, two different commentary tracks, Making Of content, the opening sequence from the upcoming “Thor: Tales of Asgard” video movie, and a digital copy for portable media players.

SAW VI Unrated Blu-Ray (*, 92 mins., 2009, Unrated; Lionsgate): Sixth entry in the seemingly neverending horror series finds Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) stepping into the shoes of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) with the FBI in hot pursuit of Hoffman’s scheme, which may or may not be orchestrated still by Jigsaw himself. More gory deaths and lame suspense make this one best left only for series fans. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc offers two commentary tracks, a music video, Making Of content, BD Live extras, and a bonus Blu-Ray disc sporting the original “Saw,” which when it was first released was an indie horror sensation -- much like the film that ironically dethroned it (“Paranormal Activity”) at the box-office last October.       

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING Blu-Ray (**, 98 mins., 2009, R; Magnolia): Completely bonkers, in-name-only “prequel” to martial arts star Tony Jaa’s comparatively mundane original “Ong Bak” is set in Thailand centuries ago where our hero (Jaa) is an outcast immortal (or something like that) who takes on the villainous types who enslaved him as a child. This reportedly troubled production is almost incoherent from a narrative perspective, but it is vividly shot in widescreen and boasts some predictably dazzling action sequences – I recommend having the remote nearby, however, to fast-forward inbetween the various kicks and grunts. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray edition of “Ong Bak 2" is impressively presented, achieving an almost three-dimensional level of detail. The DTS Master Sound is loud though not quite as satisfying, being offered here in both English dubbed and Thai language tracks. Extras include an “alternate cut” plus behind the scenes featurettes, interviews, both U.S. and international trailers, and a look at the already-produced “Ong Bak 3.”

BLACK DYNAMITE Blu-Ray (***, 84 mins., 2009, R; Sony): There have been several Black-exploitation parodies over the years, but, despite a few fleeting laughs, movies like Keenan Ivory Wayans’ “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” and the Eddie Griffin comedy “Undercover Brother” had a hard time sustaining their level of humor to feature length. Thankfully the comedy comes at you consistently in the Scott Sanders spoof “Black Dynamite,” which stars Michael Jai White as a former C.I.A. agent who goes after The Man after his brother is gunned down. Some uproarious moments and an affectionate understanding of ‘70s “Soul Cinema” make “Black Dynamite” a winner, with White, Sanders and Byron Minns’ script balancing silliness (like visible boom microphones) with kung-fu kicking action and intentionally grainy 16mm visuals. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc captures the fun in a splendid AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and several extras including commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, a Making Of featurette, a BD-exclusive “70s Back in Action” segment and BD Live “MovieIQ” functions. 

DEAD SNOW Blu-Ray (**½, 91 mins., 2009, R; MPI): A group of vacationing students head to a secluded lodge for a frosty weekend getaway, only to run into zombie nazis (yes!), in this wacky Norwegian horror import. With ample (but mostly cartoonish) gore and a devilish sense of humor “Dead Snow” is a fair amount of fun for horror aficionados, the wintry locales being utilized to an effective degree and a definite sense of self-awareness on display, particularly in its early going. MPI’s Blu-Ray edition of “Dead Snow” is another winner, offering a marvelously crisp and detailed AVC-encode with DTS Master Audio sound. Extras include outtakes, assorted Making Of content, trailers, and other goodies. Not great but still recommended for genre fans.  
STARGATE UNIVERSE SGU 1.0 DVD and Blu-Ray (436 mins., 2009; MGM/Fox): Robert Carlyle, Ming Na and Lou Diamond Phillips star in Syfy Channel’s continuation of the “Stargate” franchise, which has so far been met with mostly derisive reaction from fans, most of whom have criticized the series for its weak story lines and lack of resemblance to prior “Stargate” entries. Making matters worse is that MGM has opted to split up SGU’s still-ongoing first season into two different video releases, “1.0" offering the first 10 episodes from the show in AVC encoded 1080p (Blu-Ray) and 16:9 (DVD) transfers with DTS (BD) and 5.1 Dolby Digital (DVD) sound. Extras include an extended version of the pilot episode “Air,” video diaries, chatting with the cast, commentaries from cast and crew members on all episodes, and BD-exclusive 40-minutes of bonus behind the scenes content.

New From Criterion

One of Merchant-Ivory’s best films, HOWARDS END (***½, 142 mins., 1992, PG) arrives as a Criterion special edition this month on DVD.

Emma Thompson earned an Oscar for her role as Margaret Schlegel, an intellectual in 1910 England whose relationship with a rich upper-class family (Anthony Hopkins and dying wife Vanessa Redgrave) forms the core of this adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel.

Helena Bonham Carter, James Wilby and Samuel West co-star in this delicately told, visually rich Merchant-Ivory piece, scripted as usual by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Forster’s novel and augmented by vivid Tony Pierce-Roberts cinematography, here captured splendidly in 2.35 widescreen. It’s a period piece with rich emotional passages and wonderful performances that easily ranks with the finest Merchant-Ivory productions; in fact, it’s my favorite film of their lengthy cinematic collaboration.

Criterion’s two-disc DVD edition sports a fresh digital transfer (in 16:9 widescreen) and the trailer, as well as a new documentary on the production; an appreciation from James Ivory about the late Ismail Merchant; a detailed look at the costume and production design of the movie; “The Wandering Company,” a documentary about the history of Merchant-Ivory; and a 1992 behind-the-scenes featurette.

Also new from Criterion is a special edition of Leo McCarey’s gut-wrenching, emotional rollercoaster MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (92 mins., 1937), a Depression-era depiction of an elderly couple (Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi) who have to move back in with their grown children after the bank forecloses on their home – only to meet with one tearjerking situation after another.

McCarey later won an Oscar for his directorial work on “The Awful Truth,” but reportedly said during his acceptance speech that they gave it “to the wrong picture.” “Make Way For Tomorrow” is a fascinating, still relevant portrait of aging and human relationships, striking for its time and with superb performances.

Criterion’s DVD includes a new video interview with Peter Bogdanovich discussing the film and McCarey’s career; an interview with Gary Giddings; and several essays in the booklet notes. The crisp B&W full-screen transfer has been derived from a new high-def video master and looks superb for its age.

Also on DVD

BAD GIRLS OF FILM NOIR Vol. 2 (Sony): Film noir aficionados who miss Fox’s retrospective line of genre releases would do well to check out Sony’s “Columbia Classics” set of “Bad Girls of Film Noir” DVDs, each offering four features from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Volume 1 offers Evelyn Keyes in the 1950 programmer “The Killer That Stalked New York”; Lizabeth Scott and Edmond O’Brien in the 1951 effort “Two of a Kind”; Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame starring in “The Glass Wall,” shot on-location in New York City by Joseph Biroc; and Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott and Diane Foster in the forgettable 1953 production “Bad For Each Other.” All four films offer crisp black-and-white transfers with extras including Terry Moore reflecting on “Two of a Kind” and the All-Star Theatre episode, “The Payoff.”

Volume 2 is toplined by Cleo Moore and Richard Crenna in 1956's “Over-Exposed”; Moore and Hugo Haas in Haas’ 1953 production “One Girls Confession”; the gritty “Night Editor” from 1946 with William Gargan and Janis Carter; and the not-quite-noir “Women’s Prison” with Ida Lupino which mines camp laughs thanks to its silly, melodramatic plot. Once again B&W full-screen transfers spotlight the work of veteran cinematographers like Burnett Guffey and extras include trailers on three of the films plus the All-Star Theatre episode, “Remember to Live.”

SINBAD: WHERE U BEEN? (90 mins., 2010; Comedy Central): Comic Sinbad has been off the radar for a while (unless you saw him on one of Byron Allen’s “Comic Unleashed” programs late at night), but he’s back in this new Comedy Central special offered on DVD in a widescreen transfer with bonus behind-the-scenes content.                    I

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