6/02/09 Edition
June Arrival Edition

Like a veteran conductor returning to supervise the performance of a symphony he knows by heart, Sam Raimi’s new film DRAG ME TO HELL represents a coming home of sorts for the director of the “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” films.

The fetching Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a normal, everyday young woman working in a bank who has a gypsy curse thrust upon her by an old woman seeking an extension on her mortgage payment. Soon Christine is stalked by a demon that lurks in the shadows; has nightmarish visions of the old woman sleeping in her bed; and seeks out spiritual counseling from a medium who tells her she could try to appease the demon by murdering her kitten! And if all that  wasn’t bad enough, she’s been passed over for a promotion at work, while the stuffy family of her boyfriend (Justin Long) thinks she’s not prime material for their son.

After overseeing Sony’s three blockbuster “Spider-Man” films, there’s little doubt Sam Raimi could have selected basically any type of film he wanted for his next project. However, instead of trying to go “serious” and make an “important” film as other genre filmmakers have in the past -- or continue along the big-budget path established by the Spidey films -- Raimi chose to go back to his roots with “Drag Me to Hell.”

Working from a screenplay he wrote with his brother Ivan, Raimi’s modestly-budgeted “small” horror piece is a throwback movie in many ways: from the opening Universal Pictures logo of decades past, to the old-time morality play at the story’s center, “Drag Me to Hell” looks and feels like the kind of chiller Hollywood left behind years ago. Eschewing the washed-out cinematography and explicit violence of modern “torture porn” movies as well as the sterile, humorless tone of Japanese horrors we’ve seen over the last decade (one series of which -- the “Grudge” films -- Raimi helped to import to these shores), “Drag Me” is an intimate, playful though not entirely lightweight tale of a girl who makes a bad decision and feverishly spends the next few days attempting to find a way -- any way -- out of it.

It’s a movie that’s quite entertaining on balance, mixing horror with some humor, backed by a fine performance from Lohman (in a role that’s not completely sympathetic) and virtuosic filmmaking from its director. There’s gore, but the movie’s fantasy angle diminishes its edge to the degree where, these days, its PG-13 rating doesn’t feel entirely out of place. There are numerous scary moments (and some tremendous sound design), but they’re mostly of the “old school” variety where Raimi works in shadows, editing and camera work to suggest the supernatural instead of relying on an endless parade of CGI to explicitly show it. And there’s a message lurking underneath it all, which is likely to be lost on younger viewers just in it for the ride, that you’d better be a genuine person and respect others or else suffer the consequences -- as in, being attacked by a demon that, as long-time Raimi fans will fondly recall, just wants to swallow your soul.

It’s easy to overrate “Drag Me to Hell” because most of what we’ve seen in the horror genre is so reprehensible these days that anything that doesn’t follow that trend comes across as a breath of fresh air. And it’s true that the film’s structure proves repetitive, with an ending so predictable that horror fans are likely to be sitting there wondering when the “big shock” is going to happen far in advance of its reveal (sadly, Raimi holds it until the very end, concluding the film on a “that’s all there is?” type of note).

Yet Raimi’s filmmaking alone gives “Drag Me to Hell” a jolt that’s likely to entertain most audiences willing to go along for the ride, and it’s all topped off by a haunting and highly satisfying score by Christopher Young. Just as it’s terrific to hear “real” film music again, it’s tremendous to see Raimi back in top form in the genre as if he’s never missed a beat. (***, 99 mins., PG-13; Universal)

New on Blu-Ray

The quintessential '80s thriller that set the standard for a stream of imitators to follow, FATAL ATTRACTION (***, 119 mins., 1987, R; Paramount) is due out shortly on Blu-Ray with a handful of terrific special features.

Adrian Lyne's film was not only a box-office blockbuster but also a cultural phenomenon at the time of its release. James Dearden's script -- which he adapted from his own short film -- deftly exploits the nightmarish scenario that happens to married NYC book editor Michael Douglas when he decides to spend some time with sexy, aggressive Glenn Close, whom he spies at a company party. Douglas tries in vain to end the affair, but Close keeps on coming even after he calls it off -- going so far as to stalk Douglas' family (wife Anne Archer and a little girl), and displaying just a few psychotic tendencies along the way.

Before it turns violent and a bit excessive at the end, “Fatal Attraction” is an excellent thriller with a plot that has, admittedly, lost a bit of its potency since so many films have copied its blueprint. What keeps it fresh and compelling are the performances of its stars, from Close's creepy villainess (whose mental ailments are never disclosed) to Douglas' love-him-or-hate-him, though ultimately sympathetic, family man. Anne Archer, meanwhile, may not have made that positive an impression as Harrison Ford's wife in the Jack Ryan films, but her role in “Fatal” has a depth that many of her other devoted-spouse characters have lacked.

Dearden's script -- which was worked on by an uncredited Nicholas Meyer -- presses a lot of "hot button" issues involving fidelity, sex, and relationships, which director Lyne uses to enhance a formulaic story with a predictable outcome. Maurice Jarre's low-key score becomes a bit much in the final third (when its heavy-handed synths turn overly bombastic), but technically the movie is well-made and an interesting document -- and indictment -- of social and sexual relationships in the '80s.

Paramount's Blu-Ray disc offers a reprise of their 2002 Special Edition DVD, highlighted by a remastered, satisfying 1080p transfer and surprisingly active Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, along with three excellent featurettes chronicling the film's production. Featuring then-new interviews with Douglas, Close, Archer, Lyne, and producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe, the principal half-hour documentary covers the film's production, while separate featurettes look at the overwhelming public response to the film and the picture's visual scheme. While the comments are often candid and interesting, it's surprising that Dearden's original movie isn't discussed much at all, while Nicholas Meyer appears for an on-camera interview, even though he wasn't even credited on the film!

As many viewers are aware, “Fatal Attraction”’s satisfying though somewhat hackneyed resolution was actually the project's re-shot, second ending -- filmed to replace the its far subtler though highly flawed original denouement. That original ending, which was first included years ago on Paramount's letterboxed laserdisc, re-appears here (this time in HD), and it makes for a fascinating comparison with the final version. Paramount has also included screen tests and the original trailer (also in HD), making for a superb package for a film that will be forever remembered as one of the top thrillers of the 1980s.

After stumbling at the box-office with the supernatural thriller “Jacob’s Ladder,” Lyne struck box-office gold again with 1993's INDECENT PROPOSAL (**½, 116 mins., 1993, R; Paramount).

At one point, this slick romantic drama was supposed to star Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. After the movie stalled in pre-production, “Indecent Proposal” ended up with Robert Redford (okay), Demi Moore (a good choice at the time), and Woody Harrelson (huh?) as its leads.

Even if the original casting might have made “Indecent Proposal” more durable over the years (people seem to have forgotten about it completely), it didn't hurt the movie too much at the time, since despite unfavorable reviews, Lyne's film rode the crest of over-hyped controversy to a $100-million domestic gross -- not too shabby since any film starring Woody Harrelson or Demi Moore would be hard-pressed to gross half as much these days.

Woody and Demi play a happily married couple whose relationship is strained by financial difficulties. A trip to Vegas (never the cure for anyone's ills) results in the couple running into millionaire Robert Redford, who puts a proposal on the table for the two to ponder: if Demi will sleep with the millionaire for one night (and one night only), he'll give them a nice prize of $1-million. (Remember that this was years before "Who Wants To Have Sex With A Millionaire," or any other unsavory Fox weekly specials).

Clearly, Lyne and producer Sherry Lansing were hoping for a repeat of the publicity that surrounded "Fatal Attraction" with “Indecent Proposal,” though this is really just a romantic piffle that Lyne now accurately describes as a "fairy tale" in his audio commentary. From Howard Atherton's soft-focus cinematography to John Barry's lush, lyrical score, “Indecent Proposal” is a cinematic soap opera with unbelievable dialogue and ridiculously overwrought dramatic situations -- but that's also still part of its appeal years later. Redford's just-for-the-money performance is thankfully restrained, while Moore and Harrelson are adequate as the misguided young couple (it might have been more interesting, though, if Moore had been playing opposite her then-husband, Bruce Willis). Amy Holden Jones's script, adapted from a Jack Engelhard book, didn't win any awards, but then again, it didn't have to: “Indecent Proposal” is a glossy melodrama that looks good, and no matter how silly it becomes at times, remains watchable throughout.

Lyne's frank though sporadic commentary track is the sole supplement on Paramount's superb-looking Blu-Ray release. The 1.85 transfer is almost-perfect while the Dolby TrueHD surround mix provides a nice sound stage for Barry's easy-listening score. Recommended for romantics, Redford fans, and Moore aficionados as well.

Also New On Blu-Ray

Universal dips into their back catalog this week for two ‘80s box-office hits arriving on Blu-Ray for the first time.

Chevy Chase notched one of his biggest box-office successes playing investigative journalist Irwin Fletcher, better known simply as FLETCH (***, 98 mins., 1985, PG; Universal) in Michael Ritchie’s engaging comic mystery.

Though fans of author Gregory McDonald might’ve hoped for a more serious rendition of Fletch’s exploits (which the author chronicled in a series of popular books), “Fletch” is an entertaining mix of who-dune-it and laid-back star vehicle for Chase, who dons a variety of disguises as he investigates smarmy Tim Matheson and villainous Joe Don Baker, while wooing Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and dreaming of shooting hoops with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers.

“Fletch” is very much an ‘80s movie, right down to one of Harold Faltermeyer’s better scores and a peppy succession of pop songs (including Stephanie Mills’ title track “Bit By Bit”), but taken on its own terms it’s still an enjoyable time-killer, enough so that one can understand how the film was a big success back in June of ‘85.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc is a straight reprise of their HD-DVD edition, offering the latter’s same 1080p HD encode and trio of featurettes. In place of the HD-DVD’s Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, the Blu-Ray offers a DTS Master Audio soundtrack that’s basically identical, and wraps it up on a BD-25 single-layer disc.

Also out this week on Blu is FIELD OF DREAMS (***½, 106 mins., 1989, PG; Universal), a 20th anniversary (was it really that long ago?) HD edition of the Kevin Costner baseball fantasy from director Phil Alden Robinson: a supremely memorable adaptation of the W.P. Kinsella book with a gorgeous James Horner score, haunting cinematography by John Lindley, and a roster of memorable performances, from Costner and Amy Madigan to James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc is, again, essentially a straight reprise of its HD-DVD platter from a couple of years back. The 1080p transfer is identical to the HD-DVD disc, meaning it’s generally quite good with some minor artifacts cropping up here and there (such as early on when Costner is first seen in his cornfield). The Blu-Ray does boast a DTS Master Audio track in place of the HD-DVD’s Dolby Digital Plus mix, but given that the sound is so subdued, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish any differences between them.

Extras are all culled from the 2002 DVD: some 20 minutes of deleted scenes are included with introductions from director Robinson (among them is an outtake of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones watching batting practice at Fenway Park), plus a documentary on the making of the film which covers all the requisite behind-the-scenes bases, and a "Roundtable" discussion that offers Costner, Johnny Bench and Brett Saberhagen discussing their love of the game.

There’s also a superb Bravo "Making Of" special, baseball trivia, and a segment on the "real" "Field of Dreams." Commentary with Robinson and D.P. John Lindley rounds out a terrific package that should be a must for all fans of the film.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (**½, 118 mins., 2008, R; Dreamworks/Paramount): Well-made and absorbing, and yet relentlessly depressing, Sam Mendes-directed adaptation of the Richard Yates novel arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet rekindle their “Titanic” chemistry as a young couple stifled by suburban life in rural ‘50s Connecticut, in a movie that basically reprises all of the same themes about unhappy domestic life that Mendes hammered home more effectively in his over-praised “American Beauty.” The finished result boasts strong performances (Michael Shannon is particularly good as real estate agent Kathy Bates’ mentally ill son) and superb cinematography by Roger Deakins, but it’s a one-note movie with thematic material that’s been explored more effectively in AMC’s recent, superb “Mad Men” series. Dreamworks’ Blu-Ray disc offers a superb 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack (sporting an okay score by Thomas Newman) and extras including commentary with Mendes and writer Justin Haythe, deleted scenes, a Making Of, the trailer, and a profile of Yates (all of the extras are in HD as well). The DVD edition boasts a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and the same extras, albeit obviously in standard-definition.

DEFIANCE (**½, 136 mins., 2008, R; Paramount): Daniel Craig attempts to stretch his acting chops beyond Bond here as Tuvia Bielski, a Jewish farmer who becomes an unlikely freedom fighter in WWII German-occupied Poland, in Edward Zwick’s lavishly-produced “Defiance.” This true story, scripted by Clayton Frohman and Zwick, offers Liev Schrieber and Jamie Bell as the other Bielski brothers, who hide out from the Nazis in rugged terrain and ultimately rescued over 1000 Jews from the Holocaust. From Eduardo Serra’s vivid cinematography (which looks spectacular in HD) to James Newton Howard’s fine score, “Defiance” has a polished, high-quality production sheen to it, yet the movie feels a bit labored, lumbering on past two hours with uneven pacing. What’s more, the script was criticized by some historians for glossing over some of the Bielskis’ alleged darker aspects, not all of which are portrayed in the film. That said, Paramount has served up an excellent 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio on Blu-Ray, with commentary from Zwick and several featurettes (a production history, two historical ones, and a segment on Newton Howard’s music) also offered in HD. The DVD’s 16:9 (1.78) transfer is equally fine on its own terms with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and the same extras offered in standard-def.

THE INTERNATIONAL (**½, 118 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Tom Tykwer’s movies are turning out to be consistently interesting for their visuals if nothing else. Following on the heels of the international hit “Perfume” (which did nothing in North America but raked in huge amounts of cash in its director’s native Germany), Tykwer brings us this thriller about a dashing Interpol agent (Clive Owen) trying to track down an international bank involved in all kinds of schemes from providing arms to terrorists and even cold-blooded murder. Owen hooks up with a Manhattan D.A. (Naomi Watts) as he pursues his latest lead, trotting around the globe from Germany to Italy, France and the U.S. along the way. “The International” has one or two decent action sequences, but the movie eventually stalls out from too much talk, and gets bogged down in sermonizing in the process. The good news is that Tykwer’s visuals are stylish (as always), with another fine score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimex and Reinhold Heil adding to the film’s technical pleasures. It’s ultimately a disappointment but at least it’s a watchable one. Sony’s Blu-Ray of this box-office underachiever from last winter boasts a gorgeous AVC-encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, with extras including commentary, deleted scenes and Making Of featurettes, and additional BD-Live extras that will be available when the disc streets next week.

DR. DOLITTLE: MILLION DOLLAR MUTTS (87 mins., 2008, PG; Fox): Kyla Pratt is back as the Doctor’s young daughter, now studying to be a vet but finding herself wrapped up in a Hollywood animal talk show run by heiress Tegan Moss. This latest direct-to-video sequel in the “Dolittle” franchise seems to be tapping into the same well as Disney’s recent “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” but young viewers may not mind it, and from what I sampled it isn’t any less tolerable than the Eddie Murphy “Dolittle” films which preceded it. (Discriminating parents should opt to pick up “Hotel For Dogs” for their kids instead). Fox’s Blu-Ray disc looks pleasing in its AVC-encoded transfer, with the disc sporting a DTS Master Audio soundtrack, three featurettes, and a bonus standard-definition DVD of the film also in the package.

EDEN LOG (98 mins., 2007, R; Magnolia): Garbled, tedious French post-apocalyptic thriller gets a disappointing Blu-Ray release from Magnolia. The movie’s English-dubbed version is offered here in a solid 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, but if you want to see the original French version of this Franck Vestiel film, you’ll have to live with a standard-definition presentation of the movie with English subs -- presented as a “special feature” (!) on the Blu-Ray platter.

New on DVD

THE DANA CARVEY SHOW (210 mins., 1996; Shout! Factory): The former Saturday Night Live star tried his hand at a network TV sketch comedy series but garnered only lukewarm ratings in the mid ‘90s, lasting just seven episodes (with an eighth that never made it to air).

"The Dana Carvey Show," though, has lived on thanks to a cult following over the years, mainly because of the brilliance of some of its sketches: “Oliver Stone’s Washington,” which finds Antonio Banderas as our first President and the filmmaker indulging in his usual creative liberties (including George’s “coke habbit”), the first ever “Ambiguously Gay Duo” cartoon from Robert Smigel, and an uproarious bit with Carvey and co-star Steve Carrell as idiots who run through a drive-in and pay – but fail to pick up their food – prove to be gems in a show that was both hit-or-miss and perhaps a bit ahead of its time. Among the other creative staff on the series were Charlie Kaufman and Louis C.K., and despite its unevenness, some of the writing is simply hysterical (other memorable bits include “Mark Twain Tonight Starring Stomp" and “C-Span After Dark”).

Shout Factory has done an exceptional job bringing the complete series to DVD. All eight episodes are on-hand in full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks, with extra features including new interviews with Carvey and Robert Smigel, deleted scenes, and a short episode synopsis in the booklet notes. Highly recommended!

LABOU (**½, 95 mins., 2006, G; MGM/Fox): Innocuous children’s film about a trio of kids who go about hunting for a pirate ship lost in the Louisiana bayou, only to find ghosts of the captain’s descendants walking about, oil tycoons who want to take over the land to build a refinery, and a cute swamp critter named Labou who helps them out. Greg Aronowitz’s independently-made family movie is most definitely aimed at the younger set, but “Labou” is fairly well done, imparting some nice lessons and offering ample entertainment for kids. Even if the animatronic effects of Labou aren’t of the highest caliber (to be expected given the movie’s modest budget), younger viewers ought to be sufficiently entertained by this fun adventure fantasy. MGM’s DVD is full of extras including a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, commentary, and numerous featurettes.

THE HUNGER: Season 1 (22 episodes, 1997, 616 mins; E1 Entertainment): Tony and Ridley Scott opted to bring “The Hunger” to the small-screen in the form of this limp Showtime anthology series, which had less to do with the 1982 movie of the same name than it did billing itself as a supposedly sexier version of “Tales From the Crypt.” Indeed, instead of the Cryptkeeper we get Terence Stamp (his name spelled wrong on the DVD jacket’s front cover!) here introducing a disappointing slate of 22 half-hour episodes, offering low-rent stars like Margot Kidder, Karen Black, Lena Headey and Balthazar Getty, plus an early appearance from Daniel Craig. The shows are seldom interesting or titillating, with E1's DVD box-set offering the series’ complete first season in fine full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks, plus a look at Season 2, which found Stamp being replaced by David Bowie, who co-starred in the “Hunger” movie and likely needed a check more than Stamp did.

ELSEWHERE: Blu-Ray (106 mins., 2008, R; E1 Entertainment): Watchable small-screen thriller starring Anna Kendrick (“Twilight”) as a small-town girl whose best friend (Tania Raymonde) goes missing. Kendrick then teams up with a computer nerd (Paul Wesley) in trying to track down her whereabouts, leading to a larger conspiracy in their quaint Indiana town. Veteran cinematographer Nathan Hope wrote and directed this decent thriller, which E1 brings to DVD and Blu-Ray this week. The Blu-Ray offers a crisp 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and several extras, including commentary with Hope and producer Vincent Palomino, deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and a Making Of featurette.

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