I don't believe that Jerry Bruckheimer's slick new "re-vision" of KING ARTHUR (***) will ever be regarded as a celebrated epic like Mel Gibson's "Braveheart", as a visionary fantasy like John Boorman's "Excalibur," or a beloved cult item like "Conan the Barbarian."
Still, given the parameters of summer popcorn pictures, you could do a lot worse than to take in Antoine Fuqua's action-packed adaptation of the Arthurian legend, set nearly a thousand years prior to most versions of the story. Here, Arthur (Clive Owen) and his Knights are servants of the Roman Empire, which itself is about to withdraw from England and leave its people to fight off a Saxon invasion lead by evil Stellan Skarsgard. With the Knights behind him, Arthur opts to stay and take down the invading Saxon threat, with the help of a rival band of warriors lead by Merlin and Guinevere, here envisioned as a Xena-type warrior and played by Keira Knightley.
I wish David Franzoni's script had a bit more character development, but this muscular and sometimes enthralling epic generally gets the job done in spite of its shortcomings. The actors perform admirably across the board, and there's at least one inventive battle sequence (with Arthur's band and the Saxons fighting on a sheet of thin ice) that's particularly effective.
At a time when so many films are overly reliant on CGI, it's refreshing to see a movie utilize actual locales, stunt men, and settings without the glare of glossy effects work. Fuqua's direction may be standard for the Bruckheimer school, but the movie thankfully doesn't cross-cut every few seconds like a typical Michael Bay epic, and "King Arthur" works perfectly for seasonal summer movie consumption.
One last criticism, however: can we now, officially, put the kibosh on Hans Zimmer's constant use of wailing female vocalists? Since "Gladiator," nearly every Zimmer score (not to mention countless other movie soundtracks) have been inundated with depressing cues punctuated by a Lisa Gerrard-esque vocalist. In "King Arthur," those moments come off as a distraction that takes away from the film's identity, reminding one of other scores and movies that sounded exactly the same. If you're going to call on James Horner for the over-use of various repetitive motifs, we're now well beyond the point of criticizing Zimmer and his stable of composers for now doing exactly the same thing. Enough already! (Insert wailing female vocalist riff here).
HELLBOY (**1/2, 2004). 122 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar, available July 27th. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary tracks, deleted scenes, Documentary features, made-for-DVD comics, Gerald McBoing Boing shorts, character biographies, trailers and TV spots; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mingola's Dark Horse comic book is a valiant attempt at bringing the cult hero to the screen, though the end result is not entirely successful.
Ron Perlman is terrific as the title hero, a creature from the depths of hell whom professor John Hurt raises as his own son after he crosses over into our world during WWII. Raised to be good in spite of his demonic origins, Hellboy works alongside Hurt's paranormal team of heroes (including an aquatic gill-man dubbed Abe Sapien and FBI agent Rupert Evans) to eradicate monsters from terrorizing humanity.
Hellboy and Co. face a stiffer challenge than their typical creature of the week, however, when mad monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) appears on the scene, wanting to finish the job he started while working alongside the Nazis decades before. Rasputin needs Hellboy's power to open a portal and unleash hell on Earth, forcing our hero to question his origins and make the ultimate choice between good and evil.
"Hellboy" has some great moments and special effects to match, while Perlman makes the protagonist's struggle to come to grips with his history and do the right thing believable. His comedic quips help to distinguish the character from other, brooding super heroes, and lighten the action in comparison with similar movies like "X-Men."
Where "Hellboy" pales in comparison with the latter, however, comes
in the film's uneven script and odd pacing, which spends too little
with the characters (Hurt and Perlman, for example, don't share enough
scenes for their relationship to carry any weight) and too much with
and crew fighting the slimy, egg-laying creatures Rasputin has
into the world. After the second or third fight between these monsters,
I had seen enough, but Del Toro brings them back for subsequent battles
that go on forever.
Also disappointing is the movie's love story, with Perlman and vanilla recruit Evans battling for the affections of Selma Blair's "Firestarter"-like heroine. Awkwardly shot and written (perhaps the partial result of Evans's bland performance), this aspect of the picture doesn't pay off at all. (Ditto for Roden's bad-guy, who is never as remotely interesting as the title character).
"Hellboy" works best when Perlman gets an opportunity to illuminate Hellboy's wild persona, but throughout, I kept thinking a better movie could have been made from Mingola's comic. It's diverting for the most part and Perlman is great, but the pacing is wildly inconsistent (some scenes feel oddly truncated, others play as if they'd never end) and Del Toro's claustrophobic direction accentuates the phoniness of the Prague locations (which are supposed to be NYC but look like the same sets Del Toro used for "Blade II").
Columbia TriStar's Special Edition two-disc DVD, due out July 27th, is supposed to be complimented in the near future by a "Director's Cut" DVD (advertised in the booklet), but it's hard to imagine the next release will sport more worthwhile supplements than this edition.
Chock full of excellent special features that cover each aspect of the picture, the "Hellboy" DVD includes two commentary tracks -- one by the cast, the other by Del Toro with comic creator Mike Mingola. Their banter is funny and revealing, detailing the trials and tribulations of bringing "Hellboy" to the screen, and ranks as one of the stronger DVD commentaries I've heard lately.
Three brief deleted scenes are included with optional commentary, while disc one also includes made-for-DVD comics and on-set production "visits" that can be accessed via seamless branching during the movie, or as a supplement on their own. The documentary features, meanwhile, are excellent and will appeal especially to fans, who will eat up the various production diaries, illustrating the creation of the movie's make-up design, special effects, stunts, set design, and more. Animatics, storyboards, trailers, TV spots and DVD-ROM features are also included.
Last but not least, the DVD also includes three vintage "Gerald McBoing Boing" shorts (one in full 2.35 widescreen), plus a "Tell Tale Heart" adaptation, also made by UPA Studios in the '60s. Animation buffs may want to check out the DVD for the inclusion of these shorts alone. With its user-friendly menus and extras, the "Hellboy" DVD provides fans with a cavalcade of extras that ranks as one of the better disc supplements of the year to date. The movie may not entirely realize its potential, but it's entertaining enough to warrant a mid-summer's view, and the DVD packages the film and its backstory together splendidly.
Leading off July's round-up of recently-released DVD catalog titles are a pair of ABC Motion Pictures releases from late '60s/early '70s that have turned up courtesy of MGM.
First up is LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS (***, 1969, 107 mins., R), the film adaptation of Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor's play, scripted by the authors for the screen with David Zelag Goodman.
The ensemble piece, directed by Cy Howard, stars Bonnie Bedelia and Michael Brandon as a young couple about to walk down the aisle. This being a late '60s comedy, there's plenty of "generation gap" confrontations between the two and their families, including Brandon's parents (Harry Guardino and Bea Arthur) and Bedelia's warring mom and dad (Gig Young, Marian Hailey), the latter engaged in an affair with his spouse's best friend (Anne Jackson).
The respective characters at times bicker like real people, at other moments like sitcom stereotypes, yet there's a warmth in the movie and the performances that enable the film to hold up fairly well. Fred Karlin's tuneful score is mostly of its era, with several songs (including the Oscar winner "For All We Know") sprinkled throughout the film.
MGM's DVD offers a full-screen transfer that looks sharp and clear, plus a mono soundtrack with sometimes inconsistent dialogue levels.
This more dated piece stars Walter Matthau as an elderly grandfather, unwanted by his own son and daughter-in-law, who takes up with free-spirited teenage mother-to-be Deborah Winters and heads off to New Mexico. There, he finds that his existence is still worthwhile, as he attempts to guide her onto the right path in life.
"Kotch" is by no means a bad film, but Marvin Hamlisch's soundtrack is overwrought (opening up with a saccharine choral ballad penned with Johnny Mercer), and the claustrophobic production makes you feel as if you're watching a TV movie. Still, Matthau's performance is worth catching for fans of the late actor, and MGM's DVD offers an acceptable 1.85 widescreen transfer (not 16:9 enhanced) with mono sound.
John Frankenheimer's picture remains one of the top political thrillers of all-time -- if not THE definitive movie of its genre -- for its performances (Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and a chilling turn from Angela Lansbury), script (George Axelrod adapted Richard Condon's novel), and taut, efficient Frankenheimer direction, the latter clearly years ahead of its time.
In fact, it was just over a decade ago when "The Manchurian Candidate" was basically a forgotten film. Out of circulation for years, MGM re-issued the movie and it bowed on video to a new generation of viewers and critics.
After several previous releases on tape, disc, and DVD, MGM has issued yet another DVD edition, this time with a new 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. In addition to interviews conducted in the late '80s with the principals (Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and Axelrod), the DVD includes two new featurettes: "Queen of Diamonds" with Angela Lansbury and "A Little Solitaire" with director William Friedkin. Both share their views on the film and its legacy, while the original commentary track with Frankenheimer has also been included.
A great package for a classic film whose reputation hopefully will continue to prosper, regardless of how the remake fares.
A trio of espionage films from the '60s highlight Paramount's recent catalog releases.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (***, 112 mins., 1965) and THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR (***, 140 mins., 1962) were two of the finest spy thrillers released in the early-mid '60s, just when Ian Fleming's James Bond became an international cinematic icon in addition to his popularity on the printed page.
Martin Ritt's "Spy Who Came In From the Cold" is generally regarded as one of Richard Burton's finest performances. As a tired, burned-out British spy, Burton spurns a desk job and is assigned to eliminate East German agent Oskar Werner ("Fahrenheit 451"). In the process, Burton gets involved with librarian Claire Bloom at his phony day job, and ultimately finds out that any battle waged during the Cold War is a futile one.
Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper adapted John LeCarre's bestseller, and Ritt's film proves to be every bit as compulsively watchable as a good, page-turning paperback on a hot summer afternoon. This is a wonderfully layered, intelligent and thought-provoking film that's depressing and bleak at every turn, with Sol Kaplan providing a sparse music score and the entire cast giving superb performances.
George Seaton's "The Counterfeit Traitor," meanwhile, comes from a slightly different era both in its filmmaking style and story setting: in this WWII tale, William Holden plays an American entrepreneur and Swedish oil mogul coerced into becoming an Allied spy. Holden loses his friends and family in the process of posing as a Nazi sympathizer, and runs into a German woman (Lili Palmer) also working for the Allied cause behind enemy lines.
With a superb score by Alfred Newman and excellent performances across the board (be on the lookout for a young Klaus Kinski), "The Counterfeit Traitor" is a perfect blend of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking with a sophisticated story that delves into the motivations of its characters and the choices they have to make during war time. Seaton's film is a good deal more complicated and honest than most WWII films produced in the period, and its mature script results in a taut and exciting adventure that's been newly resurrected by Paramount on DVD.
The DVD transfers of the two movies do, however, vary. The earlier laserdisc and video releases of "The Counterfeit Traitor" were apparently soft and grainy, which leads me to believe that there likely aren't any better elements available for this little-seen film. As with the laserdisc version, the DVD is likewise a bit out of focus and "soft" at times, with some unstable colors. The 1.85 framing, though, is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound exemplary for a film of its age. While those anticipating "The Counterfeit Traitor" to look substantially improved from its earlier releases may be disappointed, the DVD is still perfectly acceptable and a bargain at its price.
"The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," meanwhile, has received a superlative 1.85 black-and-white transfer which preserves Oswald Morris' excellent cinematography. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is also superb, making the dialogue far easier to hear than the standard mono track (also included).
A sometimes dated product of its era, "The Assassination Bureau" stars Diana Rigg as a WWI-era reporter who attempts to uncover the secrets behind a covert organization that will assassinate nearly anyone for the right price. Oliver Reed is the head of the Bureau, while Telly Savalas, Curt Jurgens, and others round out the ensemble.
The chemistry between Rigg and Reed is the prime reason to revisit this frothy piece of fluff, which sports a heavy-handed Ron Granier score with a "groovy" song performed by a Henry Mancini-esque chorus. The performances, though, are all tongue in cheek and make the silly script almost worthwhile. Paramount's DVD includes a solid if not spectacular 1.85 transfer with mono sound.
With Randal Kleiser replacing the oddball brilliance that Tim Burton brought to 1985's "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," this amiable but slight comedy naturally pales in comparison with its predecessor. Pee-Wee fans, though, will still find a few sporadic laughs throughout this tale of a traveling circus (run by Kris Kristofferson) that arrives in Pee- Wee's small town (with its appropriately small-minded residents).
Pee-Wee has a talking pig named Vance, a fiancee named Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), and ultimately falls for trapeze artist Valeria Golino, all the while the circus -- with its freaky acts including a dog-boy played by Benicio Del Toro -- attempts to acclimate itself to small-town life.
Without the manic pacing and Burton-esque touches, "Big Top Pee-Wee" feels a lot more generic than "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," but taken on its own terms, this short but sweet film is good fun for Pee-Wee aficionados. Best of all is Danny Elfman's infectious score, which reworks the tone of his preceding score (though not the themes, since Paramount produced this film and not Warner Bros.), and raises the entire picture up a notch.
Paramount's DVD offers a sterling 1.85 transfer with jumpy 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks.
Ronald Neame directed this talky comedy-drama, which glosses over various social issues (like a case involving a pornographic movie) and focuses instead on cliched "battle of the sexes" bickering that doesn't exactly resemble a Hepburn-Tracy vehicle from several decades prior. Both Matthau and Clayburgh are fine, but the picture definitely feels like a product of its time (back when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the Court).
At least Paramount's DVD does the movie justice by serving up a 2.35 widescreen transfer that preserves the original Panavision cinematography. For some odd reason, Neame opted to shoot the movie in scope, and utilizes the 2.35 framing to place characters on all edges of the action. Needless to say, this is the first opportunity anyone has had to see "First Monday" in scope since its original release, and the transfer is superb. The mono sound is also fine, sporting brief Ian Fraser adaptations of standard Americana music.
Columbia has also been busy of late on the catalog front, issuing a handful of vintage titles on disc for the first time.
The teen comedy NO SMALL AFFAIR (**1/2, 102 mins., 1984, R) had an interesting production history. This tale of a teen photographer's infatuation with an older model was at one point a vehicle for Matthew Broderick (before he made "WarGames") and Sally Field. When the project collapsed with the couple starring, it was re-cast with Demi Moore and Jon Cryer instead.
What resulted from that teaming is a cute, low-key '80s comedy with Cryer as a young kid with a crush on the wiser, more experienced Moore. Jerry Schatzberg's direction and the Rupert Holmes score are pretty much standard fare, but Cryer and Moore work well together, while cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives the movie a slick, early '80s visual sheen.
For fans of the movie, Columbia's DVD comes strongly recommended with an excellent 1.85 anamorphic transfer and 4.0 Dolby Digital sound.
Written by Guy Thomas and directed by Gary Weis, "Wholly Moses!" sports all kinds of familiar faces in supporting roles: Dom DeLuise, John Ritter, Richard Pryor, David L. Lander ("Laverne and Shirley"), Madeline Kahn, John Houseman, Jack Gilford, and SNL alumnus Laraine Newman as Herschel's wife.
Unfortunately, despite the huge cast, this forgettable comedy pales in comparison with the nuttiness of "Life of Brian," with predictable gags and misfired jokes making for a curiosity item due to its cast and little else.
Compounding the problems is Columbia's DVD, which has been issued in full-screen only. "Wholly Moses!" was shot wide in Panavision, and the cropping further hurts the picture with constant panning and scanning. The mono sound, sporting an OK score by Patrick Williams, is fine.
Still, this oddball late '60s WWII tale works well enough -- almost -- to overcome the framing disappointment, albeit only if you indulge in the story's eccentricities. Burt Lancaster and Peter Falk star as members of an American squadron who come across a medieval castle in the midst of the Ardennes Forest. What follows from there in the Daniel Taradash-David Rayfiel script (based on a book by William Eastlake) is a mix of satire, action-adventure, and black comedy, all backed by a Michel Legrand score, no less!
The 4.0 Dolby Digital sound is solid, but while the source materials seem to be in decent shape, the full-screen DVD framing comes again as a major obstacle in enjoying the overall package.
Shot in 1977 but not released until two years later, this Austrian-funded effort resembles your typical '70s all-star production, with Sylvia Kristel providing the love interest and "Guest Star" cameos featuring Olivia De Havilland (as Queen Anne) and Rex Harrison among others. Riz Ortolani's score is solid and the settings are used to good effect by veteran Annakin ("Swiss Family Robinson"), all culminating in an amiable though forgettable swashbuckler that makes if nothing else for decent family entertainment.
Columbia's DVD sports a terrific 1.78 widescreen transfer (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) with standard mono sound.
That's not to say there isn't something inherently fun about this mix of surf, sand, and sun, with C. Thomas Howell as a would-be lawyer hooking up with Christopher Rydell and beach bum Peter Horton for a few serve-and-volleys. Courtney Thorne-Smith provides ample eye candy, the soundtrack includes plenty of familiar '90s staples (from the likes of Paula Abdul and the B-52s), while David Thoreau's script offers no surprises whatsoever.
Still, it's mindless summer fun perfect for this time of year, and Columbia's DVD does the movie proud by offering a crisp, colorful 1.85 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (*, 2004). 110/117 mins., R, New Line. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director's Cut and Theatrical Versions; audio commentary; Deleted Scenes; Trivia fact track; time travel and science featurettes; documentaries on the making of the film; trailers; DVD-ROM Content.
Ridiculous thriller stars Ashton Kutcher as a college student who finds that he can travel back in time to when he encountered blackouts as a youngster. There, he's not only able to re-live tragic events involving his childhood friends, but also change events and alter the course of the present day he's living in.
Directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber previously helmed the by-the-numbers sequel "Final Destination 2," and their script for "The Butterfly Effect" at least proves more ambitious than their earlier work. Sadly, that's the most positive element one could say about this awful sci-fi drama, which puts Kutcher in a difficult role that finds him a playboy frat guy one moment, then a paralyzed student the next -- and none of it is played for laughs (at least intentionally).
The depressing events that Kutcher tries to change involve child abuse (with Eric Stoltz as a dad into juvenile porn), a tragic accident (involving the death of an infant), and animal cruelty. If that wasn't unappealing enough, Kutcher's character repeatedly finds out he can't totally change the course of the future, meaning we have to go back and watch those incidents over...and over...and over again. It's a repetitive structure that becomes more and more unintentionally funny as the film progresses, with Kutcher at one point sent to jail for would-be girlfriend Amy Smart's murder! (This leads to a hysterically awkward prison sequence that doesn't work at all). Later, he scurries around like a madman in the climax, trying to scribble down an ending that makes sense (needless to say, little does in this film!).
New Line's DVD offers the movie's theatrical release (110 mins.) plus a Director's Version (117 mins.) that includes a totally different ending. While I'm always supportive of seeing the filmmakers' original intentions, the Director's Cut finale is nearly as much of a disaster as the rest of the film, unwisely shifting the focus off Kutcher and onto Smart's character. By comparison, the re-shot ending used in the theatrical version manages to keep the bittersweet aspect of the film intact while making it as satisfying as the script allows (which, admittedly, isn't much).
The rest of the "Infinifilm" DVD sports typically excellent New Line supplements, from an on-screen trivia track to documentaries charting the film's production, storyboards, trailers, supporting featurettes on time travel and the "science" behind the film, plus commentary from the directors. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and throbbing Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks -- sporting Michael Suby's none-too-subtle score -- round out the disc.
Widely praised adaptation of Charles Frazier's book from filmmaker Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") didn't work for me, but it's possible your tolerance for this pretentious, outlandish Civil War-era soap opera will be substantially higher.
Jude Law plays a Confederate soldier who leaves his beloved (Nicole Kidman) behind for the battlefield of the Civil War. While he's off fighting a futile fight, she's left to run her farm with the help of Kathy Baker and crazy o'l country coot Renee Zellweger (Oscar winner). Ultimately, Law begins a long, long, long journey back to the woods of North Carolina, running into a succession of seedy characters (including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Giovanni Ribisi), plus a new single mother (Natalie Portman) and despicable Union and Confederate veterans along the way.
Zellweger's performance gives some much needed levity to the rest of "Cold Mountain," which is by turns slow, seedy, and depressing. The production, at least, is first class all the way: production designer Dante Ferreti, cinematographer John Seale, and composer Gabriel Yared all provide a strong presentation for the senses, yet when the story feels so unreal and pretentious, it's difficult to admire the strong artistic work turned in by the top-notch crew. Frazier's book was criticized by some for being overwrought, and the movie itself unsurprisingly suffers from the same fate.
Miramax's DVD looks fine (2.35) and sounds equally strong (5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks), and offers an entire disc of generous supplemental features. The commentary track with Minghella and sound editor Walter Murch is solid, encompassing the technical and artistic challenges of making the film; a handful of deleted scenes and two documentaries (one of which, "Climbing Cold Mountain," is quite good) are included; while "A Journey to Cold Mountain" is a concert special showcasing the movie's period music, which was obviously patterned after the bluegrass/country flavored compilation made so popular in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".
THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (**, 89 mins., 2001, PG; Columbia TriStar): Independently-made spoof of '50s sci-fi thrillers made for a hysterical theatrical trailer, but as a feature-length film (padded out to 90 minutes), Larry Blamire's well-meaning but one-joke parody doesn't work nearly as well. The "plot" is cobbled together from B- movie faves "Teenagers From Outer Space," "Plan Nine" and others, and the effects are intentionally bad, showing wires on spaceships, etc. There are sporadic laughs, yet because most genre fans already find humor in the pictures "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" is poking fun of, there's little reason not to watch the real thing instead. Columbia's DVD does offer generous supplements (two commentary tracks, making of featurette, and a Q&A session at the American Cinematheque), plus a 1.85 anamorphic transfer and mono sound sporting various library cues.