For the week of October 15th, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is releasing The Heat on Blu-ray. The Heat reunites director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy after the breakout success of their 2011 comedy Bridesmaids, and for an instant, the new film appears to suffer from the sophomore slump. While Bridesmaids was a love-letter to women in comedy (the plot is really just an excuse to get such talented comediannes as McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Rebel Wilson, and Nancy Carell in the same film together), The Heat seeks inspiration from that most venerated and least original of Hollywood genre properties: it's a buddy-cop movie that pairs Sandra Bullock's uptight, rule-conscious FBI agent alongside McCarthy's slobby, foulmouthed Boston street cop in an effort to bring down a vicious drug kingpin. You've seen this movie before, and the biggest strike against The Heat is that Feig can't give it that action kick that galvanized 48 Hrs. or Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys - it's just not that exciting a movie. However, what The Heat has in spades - what distinguishes it among its buddy-cop-movie brethren and ultimately makes it a better movie than Bridesmaids - is the chemistry between Bullock and McCarthy. The two are a great screen pairing, and their relationship feels genuine and funny; the mutual respect that Bullock and McCarthy have for one another by the end is palpable, with their impromptu riffs on Katie Dippold's already-amusing script giving their characterizations greater depth and comic bite.
Jeffrey Kauffman offered special praise for Bullock, as "without the tamped down presence of [her], the fact is The Heat might have seriously run off the rails. It's the interplay between these two very different characters that generates most of the comedic - yes - heat in this film, with Bullock's by the numbers FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn repeatedly running smack dab into the force of nature of the much less structured Boston police detective Shannon Mullins, portrayed by McCarthy...The two actually come to physical blows on a couple of occasions, but haltingly learn to work together (just one of too many predictable elements in the screenplay). There are some fairly lame attempts at pathos thrown in with a fairly sappy back story granted to Ashburn, and a hilariously dysfunctional family granted to Mullins (including a nice bit by Jane Curtin as the Mullins grand matriarch). Ultimately this film succeeds due to its expert performances. McCarthy's slovenly, disheveled Mullins is a marauding cacophony of brute force, blasting her way through interviews and repeatedly humiliating Ashburn to increasing comedic effect. Bullock's Ashburn is a study in corporate-think, reciting statutes and insisting that things be done according to the field manual. The collision of these two characters is rather like a figurative train wreck which is horrifying on its face but which is so compelling it's impossible not to watch."
From Magnolia Pictures comes the Danish film A Hijacking. Director Tobias Lindholm's tense drama focuses on the titular hijacking when Somali pirates take control of a commercial freighting vessel. That setup isn't a million miles removed from the recent Tom Hanks docudrama Captain Phillips, and like that Paul Greengrass thriller, A Hijacking is based on real events. However, while Captain Phillips unfolds like a visceral action-adventure, Lindholm (who is a staff writer on the acclaimed TV drama Borgen) gives A Hijacking as a far more internal pulse. He downplays the violence and nautical mayhem of the hijacking and foregrounds the hostage negotiations between the pirates and the corporation that owns the ship; much like the first half of the great Akira Kurosawa picture High and Low, the most important concern bandied about isn't just the difference between life and death but also between profit and expense, as both the company CEO (Søren Malling) and the head Somali negotiator (Abdihakin Asgar) try to maximize their own respective earnings without incurring too much of a loss. In this situation, the ransomed Danish sailors become currency to be traded and bargained, and the whole film takes on the cynical patina of a corporate drama like Wall Street or Margin Call.
In his review, Michael Reuben looked at the political/economic issues behind the film, that "where Captain Phillips vibrates with the adrenaline of constant peril, A Hijacking explores the exhaustion of limbo, as the freighter crew can do nothing but wait - for months, as it turns out - while the company and the kidnappers play out the elaborate rituals of negotiation. Both sides have expert advisers who know their business and eventually steer their 'clients' toward an acceptable result, but there is an irreducible element of chance that haunts each crew member as day follows hopeless day, with no sense of where they stand or whether a resolution is anywhere in sight. Without the backing of a major military apparatus, the Danish executives and their counselors have different options than did the U.S. in responding to the seizure of the Maersk Alabama. For all the cliches of European governments' supposed paternalism, in this instance it is the European example that, for better or worse, demonstrates the pure market-based approach, free of government intervention."
An equally idiosyncratic look at familiar genre tropes is Johnnie To's latest Hong Kong actioner, the police procedural Drug War. Drug War plays like the incredibly prolific To has internalized all the component parts that make classic cop movies like Heat and The Departed work; after a major screw-up puts drug dealer Choi (Louis Koo) on the receiving end of a death-penalty sentence, he agrees to work as an informant for police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) who wants Choi's suppliers. What's genuinely exciting about Drug War, though, is how To tinkers with this formula to serve his own delirious ends. In one regard, this is a fractured buddy-cop story, since Choi and Zhang find themselves allied against a common enemy, except neither protagonist quite fits the proper archetypes. Choi is a scumbag, but he's resourceful and much smarter than he seems, while the straight-laced Zhang seems to get an illicit thrill from tossing away the rule book whenever he has to go undercover. Those character wrinkles keep Zhang and Choi's motives a mystery to us as well as to one another: their dynamic is transactional and constantly shifting. So's the movie. For all To's skill at detailing the minutia behind working a drug bust of this nature, he has a Brian De Palma-like gift for building and staging electric setpieces, and you can feel his glee whenever he diverts from the procedural plot to show us a kinetic chase scene or shootout. Drug War is the kind of picture that puts American action filmmaking to shame - there's more invention and wit here than in your average Hollywood blockbuster.
Jeffrey Kauffman noted that "Other than the occasional kind of odd comedic elements, the rest of Drug War is an unbelievably tense and well done film which builds slowly but surely to a devastating climax. Those coming to this film expecting a knock 'em, sock 'em action-fest may well be surprised at how character driven this outing is. That said, the final 20 minutes or so of the film is a frighteningly real seeming shootout between so many parties that it's actually hard to keep track of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Making things even more dangerous is the fact that this melée breaks out right next to a school where there are a gaggle of kids entering the building. In fact, Choi ends up taking a school bus at one point with two terrified kids huddling in the back seats. To stages this sequence stunningly, with towering crane shots alternating with close-ups that are so intimate it seems like we're peering into various characters' psyches...Buoyed by two fantastically visceral lead performances (and a wealth of fantastic supporting ones), and only slightly hobbled by some ill conceived comedic elements, Drug War once again affirms what a genre master Johnnie To is."
This week also plays host to a number of great catalog titles. In anticipation of Halloween, we get In the Mouth of Madness from Warner and New Line and Eyes without a Face from the Criterion Collection. Though indifferently received by audiences and critics in 1995, In the Mouth of Madness now stands as the last great film from John Carpenter. In the Mouth of Madness begins as a slice of neo-noir, as insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill, in an underrated, Bogart-esque turn) starts looking into the disappearance of acclaimed horror novelist Sutter Cane (Das Boot's Jürgen Prochnow). The more Trent digs, the more he discovers how potent Cane's fictions really are, and the film slowly glides into a supernatural realm, building in intensity to a chaotic, Lovecraftian finale that concludes the loose "Apocalyptic Trilogy" that Carpenter began with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. This is a nihilistic, disturbing tale, but like Carpenter's best works, it's fleet and incredibly exciting, and it creates a believable End of the World on a relatively modest budget. Though Carpenter would never make a movie this good again, In the Mouth of Madness is still a fitting capper to one of the great movie-making tears in American cinema; from 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 to 1995, no one made genre movies like John Carpenter.
Michael Reuben reflected on how "as many times as I've watched In the Mouth of Madness, I still can't find a clear point at which Trent leaves a 'real' world and enters an imaginary one. It's one of the neatest jobs I know of blurring the line between illusion and reality. Watch carefully, and you can see Carpenter designing uncertainty into almost every scene. The asylum where Trent is committed is far too big, the cells too spacious (especially if cases of insanity are multiplying at the rate suggested), the presiding Dr. Saperstein far too indifferently beatific, and the facility too empty of doctors, to be credible. Arcane Publishing has more people crowding its narrow halls and stairwells than Grand Central Station, and none of them appears to be doing anything besides rushing back and forth, getting in the way of Trent and Styles. The alley where Trent's apartment is located looks like an urban war zone - hardly the place where a well-paid investigator would live - and there's something off about the huge Sutter Cane posters near his entrance. And how does Trent know how to cut up Cane's book covers to form the map to Hobb's End? Seeing patterns where none exist is a common symptom of schizophrenia."
Georges Franju's 1960 shocker Eyes without a Face is less overtly terrifying than In the Mouth of Madness, but it too is one of the gems of horror cinema. Though the film is an adaptation of Jean Redon's novel, Franju takes great inspiration from the Frankenstein story; his villain is Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a brilliant plastic surgeon who kidnaps and murders young women in a desperate attempt to heal the daughter (Edith Scob) that he unwittingly disfigured. Genessier's methods are revolting - and Franju shoots them with a clinical brutality that still retains its power to shock audiences today - but his love for his daughter Christiane complicates our feelings towards his grisly acts. As played by Scob (under an incredibly disturbing mask that must have inspired Cameron Crowe during the making of Vanilla Sky), Christiane begins the film as innocent as her father is guilty, but his actions still manage to corrode her soul. This is a chilling, uncanny marriage of beauty and horror, and its influence pervades movies as diverse as Holy Motors and The Skin I Live In.
The next features come from two of Hollywood's most iconic actor-director auteurs: Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood. By his own admission, Welles' 1946 drama The Stranger was not one of his most inspired films; Lawrence of Arabia producer Sam Spiegel only got Welles to direct this relatively straightforward potboiler - a U.N. investigator (Edward G. Robinson) searches for a Nazi war criminal (Welles) in a small Connecticut town - because the Citizen Kane mastermind was hurting from the personal and professional hardships he'd encountered trying to make The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, and It's All True, and he felt if he didn't direct something, he'd soon become persona non grata in Hollywood. The decision paid off, and The Stranger became one of the few commercial successes of Welles' directing career. More importantly, like his other famous "hired gun" project - Touch of Evil - The Stranger is one of Welles' most sheerly enjoyable movies. There's a certain magic when a talented filmmaker elevates material that might otherwise be beneath him/her, and The Stranger shows why. As co-leads, Robinson and Welles are perfectly matched, and Welles' baroque, expressionistic shooting style turns small-town America into an otherworldly space reminiscent of a Ray Bradbury story (the climactic struggle between Robinson and Welles looks like something from a horror movie). Plus, ever the perfectionist, Welles couldn't help improving The Stranger beyond the aesthetic level: he and John Huston did uncredited rewrites to fix Anthony Veiller, Victor Trivas, and Decla Dunning's pedestrian script. For years, this sterling noir-thriller languished in the public domain, but Kino's new Blu-ray offers a Library of Congress restoration that's the best The Stranger has looked in many years.
In Casey Broadwater's Blu-ray review, he noted that "Though not as grand a statement, The Stranger is every bit as stylistically Wellesian as Citizen Kane. The deep focus, the chiaroscuro lighting and silhouettes, the elaborate tracking and crane shots - it's all here, evidence of a director who knew exactly what he wanted on screen (Even if this was later botched by studio interference, as the editing of The Stranger occasionally reveals). Most notable here is Welles' uses of verticality to illustrate the hierarchy of authority and power. He frames some characters from above and others from below, and there are numerous "level" references, like Mr. Wilson mentioning the 'lowest depths of hell,' Herr Meinike referring to God as 'The Highest,' and Rankin describing the defeated Germans' 'subterranean meeting places.' The film culminates in a showdown inside the town's clock tower, which Rankin has been restoring in his spare time, and the ending - without giving anything away - is the direct opposite of a deus ex machina. Instead of delivering unexpected salvation, this machine of the gods - the clock tower - doles out retribution from on high and brings Franz Kindler low indeed."
Whereas Welles used his auteurist leanings to enhance The Stranger's commercial appeal, Clint Eastwood took advantage of his commercial appeal in order to make High Plains Drifter, one of the strangest and most off-putting Westerns ever made. The opening is not at all dissimilar from earlier Eastwood oaters like Hang 'Em High or A Fistful of Dollars; Eastwood plays a mysterious gunslinger who enters a town under the thrall of three vicious outlaws and their gang. That "The Stranger" metes out justice is no surprise, but Eastwood muddies conventional morality so much that his violent retribution takes on an unpleasant tone. "The Stranger" does some awful things to people who aren't as good as they first appear to be, and just as we've started to understand his motivations, Eastwood pulls out the rug on us - he leaves us with the possibility that "The Stranger" is less a man than some vengeful, malevolent spirit. As far as revisionist Westerns go, this one feels far more surreal than the norm (you can't help but wonder if Eastwood had seen El Topo when he was thinking about High Plains Drifter), yet it's very much of a piece with the kinds of films that would define Clint Eastwood the Director. Barring a few exceptions (The Rookie, Sudden Impact), no celebrity has been as interested in examining the kind of themes and stature that made him/her famous as Eastwood, and High Plains Drifter is the first step in a series of movies (with Unforgiven the final grace note) that would obliterate his legend as a Western archetype.
Finally, we end the week with an entry in the "Really?" department. By all accounts, the original Embrace of the Vampire should have fallen into obscurity; a low-rent horror film about a college freshman trying to resist the allure of a handsome vampire, this erotic thriller from 1995 has endured, I suspect, because it provides a generous look at Who's the Boss? and Charmed bombshell Alyssa Milano. Not only has it stuck around, but it's spawned a new remake, of all things. The new Embrace of the Vampire borrows the original's general contours (Sharon Hinnendael's virginal teenager begins drawing the attentions of some seductive vampires) and penchant for graphic nudity while adding in some backstory about vampire lore and Hinnendael's troubled past, and...but what's the point? This is just a bloodier, slightly better made version of the kind of after hours programming Cinemax specialized in before switching to action-packed dramas like Strike Back and Banshee, with the fact that it's a remake of something that didn't need to be remade in the first place being the only semi-unique thing about it.
Martin Liebman's Blu-ray review called the remake "rather anticlimactic, both in the lead-up and in the resolution. It all works well enough on a very simple level, but there's just nothing here that commands the audience's attention or stirs up the brain cells beyond the hackneyed basics. At least it's pretty. Embrace of the Vampire offers a clean, robust appearance. Everything in the film looks smooth and manicured, so effortlessly modern and sleek that it almost feels wrong, from the absence of 'regular' looking people to the school grounds, dorms, and classrooms that are so neat and tidy and straight and modernist that it almost feels as if no evil could lurk within, no ill could come from them, nothing bad could survive in such surroundings. It all reflects, to a degree, Charlotte's personality. She should feel safe in such an environment that, like her, is pure, but around her are all sorts of ills in the shape of untrustworthy people, or other people she is convinced may be untrustworthy by those who would see her suffer. She's hazed, spoken of with contempt, and surreptitiously led down a dark path by the one she should trust the most. It's all very refined in a manner that allows the story to feel straightforward but at the same time show a sharp edge underneath. Yet it's all rather bland at the end of the day. The pieces are there, but the film never quite makes use of them beyond the basic structure they provide. What might have been a much more thought-provoking film is instead a movie of some missed potential that, despite its best efforts to the contrary, feels rather superficial and hollow from start to finish."
How could you not place a review Pacific Rim amongst this weeks offerings? It will outsell all of them easily. And a few of the ones selected are not big releases... certainly not new... Talk about editorializing on the review selections... does Mr. Katz has an issue with a Mexican director?
Aside fom current titles with fresh appeal, there's not much here for the classic film buff in these releases. That seems to be becoming the norm recently. The big studios are not devoting their resources to their libraries.