For the week of January 21st, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is bringing the tense thriller Captain Phillips to Blu-ray. The story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama sea hijacking, Captain Phillips focuses on opposing forces in the conflict: the titular sea captain (Tom Hanks), who finds himself in a hostage situation, and Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), the Somali pirate who initiates the hijacking. Director Paul Greengrass is in comfortable territory with this film, having helmed both The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum as well as the chilling United 93, and he gives this fact-based drama the pulse of an action-adventure – he constructs several masterful setpieces, from the pirates' initial assault on the Alabama to the unbearably tense final hour, which puts Phillips and Muse head-to-head from within the confines of a very small lifeboat. Ultimately, though, what makes Captain Phillips function as more than an absorbing actioner is Greengrass' surprising focus on character. Both Phillips and Muse are fully realized individuals that don't hew to traditional definitions of hero and villain. Abdi's haunted, sympathetic performance reveals the desperation behind Muse's criminal activities, while Hanks gives Phillips a flintiness that often frustrates his captors and his Alabama shipmates. Greengrass lets the two actors have all sorts of wonderful little grace notes, from the realization that they share many of the same struggles to the remarkable final scene, which shows Hanks opening himself up on camera in a way that he's never really done before. The moment takes your breath away. So does the rest of the movie.
In his Blu-ray review, Martin Liebman called Captain Phillips "the rare film that can take a highly publicized real-life event, with the outcome known well ahead of time, and engender such uneasiness in the open and raw fear and uncontrollable emotional turmoil during and even after the fact...[It's] a truly special movie that finds an uncanny balance in narrative progression, action, drama, heartbreaking emotion, and heart-stopping terror. With faultless craftsmanship, pitch-perfect performances, and a story so incredible it could only be based on real life, Captain Phillips ranks as one of the finest films of 2013 and cements Paul Greengrass as one of the masters of the filmmaking craft…Greengrass opens that authentic world like few films before his. Like Greengrass' United 93, Captain Phillips recreates a widely-known event and crafts a disturbing, all-too-real look at everyday people and the extraordinary situations in which they find themselves, situations into which they are unwittingly thrust while closely examining the progressions and consequences of their actions under terrible duress. Also like United 93, Captain Phillips moves well beyond the physical actions and storyline dramas to more deeply explore the significantly more complex human emotions in play and in constant flux throughout the story, from inside both the heroes and the villains alike as actions and reactionary forces play out through their words, their maneuvers, and the unseen but clearly felt turmoil that tears at them from the inside. Few films, and fewer filmmakers, are so accomplished at exploring the complexities of man under force of peril and uncertainty as Paul Greengrass, and Captain Phillips is a jewel representative of the culmination of deep understanding and flawless execution of the cinema medium as both entertainment and vehicle for unfettered emotion."
This week also highlights two actresses doing some of their best work. From Sony comes Blue Jasmine, the newest drama from legendary filmmaker Woody Allen. In relaying the breakdown of a New York socialite (Cate Blanchett) who loses everything after her Wall Street-sleaze-of-a-husband (Alec Baldwin) goes to prison for fraud, Allen uses Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams' great A Streetcar Named Desire as his template. Like Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois in that earlier feature, Blanchett's title character finds herself depending on the kindness of strangers she feels superior to, namely her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, terrific) and Ginger's bitter ex-husband (shock comic Andrew "Dice" Clay, who's surprisingly compelling as a dramatic presence). Despite some lovely San Francisco locations and a great cast (the film also stars Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, and Michael Stuhlbarg), Blue Jasmine is more reminiscent of something like Allen's Cassandra's Dream or Melinda and Melinda than his late-period masterwork Midnight in Paris; it's curiously underdone, a series of solid dramatic scenelets that Allen never really pulls together to serve a larger point. Why Blue Jasmine is still worth your time is entirely Blanchett's doing. Giving perhaps the finest performance of her career, she turns Jasmine into a figure worthy of both resentment and pity: Blanchett never loses sight of the vulnerability behind Jasmine's oft-abrasive, arrogant façade.
Martin Liebman found the film far more compelling, writing that " the film's triumph lies in Jasmine's inner reflections and the battle she fights with herself. While it doesn't quite explore that inner struggle to complete satisfaction, Allen has crafted a character portrait that's interesting at its worst and absorbing and emotional at its best. Cate Blanchett thoroughly builds the character not simply through dialogue and interactions with the world around her, but through the nuance of a glance or movement that tells a much larger story than the script alone. She's surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, including Alec Baldwin as her charming but controlling and conniving New York husband, Sally Hawkins as her adopted sister who is herself pushing through a myriad of personal and relationship problems, and Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Ginger's wounded ex-husband whose life Hal ostensibly ruined...[The film] represents the quintessential Woody Allen. The film excels with its visual simplicity and character complexities. The script is smart and witty but powerfully emotional in a rather subtle, everyday way. It's much more an inward-focused film than it is a picture that concerns itself with the exterior, using the latter to better define and support the former. It's beautifully performed and nicely photographed, effortlessly combining charm, humor, heart, hurt, doubt, and detailed character study into a complete, must-see picture."
Jessica Lange worked similar magic in the 1981 noir romance The Postman Always Rings Twice. A reimagining of James M. Cain's classic novel, which Tay Garnett memorably adapted for the screen in 1946, this new Postman Always Rings Twice reunites Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens collaborators Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; under Rafelson's direction, Nicholson plays a jaded drifter driven to murder after he enters a torrid affair with a lunch wagon owner's unhappy wife (Lange). And I mean "torrid" - working from David Mamet's script, Rafelson plays up the sexuality to a degree that Garnett could not have attempted in 1946. Nicholson and Lange couple with the ferocity of feral animals (their first lovemaking scene has a brutal, graphic intensity), and it's all very explicit, almost to a fault. At a certain point, the sex overwhelms the drama, although Lange maintains our interest all the way through. Unlike Lana Turner in the original version, Lange seems motivated to kill her boorish husband less by inner rot than by a deeper yearning. She wants a better, happier life, but given the film's Depression-era backdrop, she just can't see any other options for getting her dreams outside of murder. Throughout her forty-plus-year career, Lange has always been reliably terrific, but this is one of her most underrated roles.
Michael Reuben commented on the film's complex moral attitudes, how "aside from the raw sexuality of its central couple, Rafelson's version of Postman is noteworthy for its stubborn refusal to reduce Frank and Cora to film noir clichés. Nicholson's Frank is more than just a poor sap caught in the web of a manipulative woman. He chooses his fate and does so repeatedly; indeed, he virtually bullies Cora into an affair and then requires very little encouragement to begin plotting her husband's demise. Lange's Cora is a complex and often inscrutable woman, but she's no manipulator. She barely knows herself. It's as much a surprise to her as to anyone that a man she immediately recognizes as 'scum' can inspire such unquestioning passion from deep inside. Cora doesn't plan; she reacts, and her reactions take her to unexpected places. If she and Frank had souls, they'd be soulmates."
From MGM comes a new pressing of Paul Verhoeven's great RoboCop. RoboCop remains a minor miracle, a grisly, gutsy blend of ultraviolence and satire that looks to both Frankenstein and Dirty Harry for inspiration. Peter Weller stars as the title character, a bionic supercop charged with cleaning up a dystopian, ruined Detriot, and he's able to give RoboCop more soul than you might expect; using subtle facial gestures and body language, Weller creates a portrait of a machine slowly rediscovering his humanity. It's our luck that the movie around him is just as good. Verhoeven tosses everything at us, from slam-bang action scenes, cutting-edge (for 1987) special effects, beyond-gory carnage, and trenchant social criticism. For Verhoeven, it's a toss-up who's worse: the amoral psychopath (Kurtwood Smith) responsible for pushing drugs and crime into Detriot, or a corporate police state that sees no value in a human life. Along with Starship Troopers, which shares much of the same DNA, RoboCop might be Verhoeven's finest hour. This Blu-ray rectifies the many blunders of the first Blu-ray iteration - that first disc had subpar picture quality and no significant bonus features, while this new version gives RoboCop a 4K digital scan and loads of substantive special features. It's a fitting package for a film that has remained an iconic cult classic.
Michael Reuben's Blu-ray review called RoboCop "something for everybody: robots for science fiction fans, Verhoeven's trademark blood-and-guts for gore hounds, big action set pieces, a wickedly satirical sense of humor (especially in the news broadcast inserts) and, at its core, the moving story of Officer Alex Murphy's loss of his family and the life he lived before he was transformed into a law enforcement superhero. Add to this the pointed critique of corporate maneuvering and the pertinent questions raised about profits vs. public service, and there's a lot going on in a taut 103 minutes. RoboCop may prompt different reactions from viewers, but boredom isn't one of them… In a narrative strategy that Ed Neumaier would later repeat in Starship Troopers, Robocop is punctuated by upbeat news broadcasts from two chipper TV anchors (Leeza Gibbons and Mario Marchado) who supply essential information about OCP and the state of the world and whose sang-froid is hilarious. Mock ads for everything from an artifical heart to a gas guzzling auto with the suggestive name "6000-SUX" (always spoken with each letter pronounced separately: "es-you-ex") provide comic relief, as do clips of what is obviously a popular sitcom of the era featuring a short guy with a mustache surrounded by tall busty women. His catchphrase, "I'd buy that for a dollar!" is one of RoboCop's most famous lines. The bright, happy world of the TV screen only serves to underline the grim and rusty reality of life in the streets, where real cops risk their lives to protect a struggling populace that, to the titans of OCP, is just so much refuse to be swept aside while they profit and party. A few of RoboCop's references may have dated, and some of the technology looks clunky by today's standards, but the cynical forces against which its lone hero fights a dangerous and lonely battle don't look much different than they did in 1987."
Magnolia Pictures is offering the equally cheeky Bad Milo this week. This monster-movie-comedy traffics in body horror, albeit of a different kind from, say, the films of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly): The State and Party Down's Ken Marino stars as a beleaguered suburban drone Duncan who discovers that his stomach problems are the result of a hideous demon polyp inside his colon (yes, you read that right). When Duncan gets too upset, the demon exits (through, to quote Mallrats, a very unpleasant place) and wreaks bloody revenge on Duncan's stressers, but instead of trying to fight back, Duncan takes the advice of a loopy hypnotherapist (Peter Stormare) and befriends the creature he nicknames "Milo." Even though he pulls off some nifty/gross gore sequences, director/co-writer Jacob Vaughan definitely skews things towards the comedic end of the spectrum - not a surprise, given that his cast includes Marino, Stormare, Stephen Root, Patrick Warburton, and Community's Gillian Jacobs - with his biggest target the stresses of the modern world. Marino is a great everyman because his problems aren't abnormal. His wife wants kids when he doesn't, his boss is an ogre, and his divorced parents are beyond dysfunctional. We get why he's struggling, and why he's a wreck before Milo rears (pun intended) his ugly head.
Michael Reuben wrote that "he best thing about Bad Milo is its talented cast. As the Blu-ray's extras reveal, much of their dialogue was improvised, and the performances are perched on the edge between storytelling and sketch comedy. At the center of it all is Duncan Hayslip (Ken Marino), a harried accountant at a financial services firm where nothing is kosher and clients' funds randomly disappear. Duncan's boss, Phil (the inimitable Patrick Warburton), saddles him with the task of firing people at the same time he is being moved to a smaller office, which he has to share with an annoying partner named Allistair (Community's Erik Charles Nielsen). Duncan hates confrontation; handing people their severance package ramps up his stress to unbearable levels...From the beginning, director Vaughan envisioned Milo as a puppet rather than a CG creation. The only use of digital technology is to erase the puppeteers and to add realistic blinking to Milo's eyes. While the figure is obviously a puppet, it has weight and presence, and it interacts with the human actors in realistic manner familiar from films like Gremlins, Critters, or Ghoulies, all of which Vaughan and his star Marino cite as influences. Milo isn't exactly scary, but since you're always aware of where he comes from (and where he returns after feeding on a victim or two), he is pretty damn disgusting...If you can stand the scenes of Milo's entrances and exits (not to mention the often yucky aftermath), it's an amusing trip."
Finally, the Criterion Collection is offering another HD upgrade of Stanley Kramer's massive comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1963, Kramer was best known as the sober, compassionate force behind such "important" melodramas as The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremberg, and Kramer's concerned-liberal persona made It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World all the more surprising: here was an anarchic, epic-scaled comedy about a group of scoundrels (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, Ethel Merman, and Jonathan Winters) in hot pursuit of buried treasure. What little plot there is follows Spencer Tracy's watchful cop on his investigation of the chase, but Kramer knows audiences really don't care about these interludes, and he lets the film sprawl into a near-endless series of pratfalls and gags as the unscrupulous treasure hunters sabotage each other - and much of the California coast road. If It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World isn't quite as funny as its comedy-to-end-all-comedies reputation suggests (and considering it wrangles appearances from comedy icons like Jimmy Durante, Terry-Thomas, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Jack Benny, Sterling Holloway, Don Knotts, Joe E. Brown, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, the Three Stooges, and Buster Keaton, the fact that this isn't the funniest movie every made is a bit of a letdown), it still provides a number of classic sequences, such as Rooney and Hackett's unintentional flight training and a virtuoso bit where Winters destroys a gas station with his bare hands. This is required viewing for fans of the big-budget comedy; films running the gamut from 1941 to The Blues Brothers to even Men in Black all have the same impulse to cross spectacle with silly as this one does.
Picked up Robocop at Best Buy for $7.99 last week with the free ticket to see Robocop (2014). Only cost me $3 with my Reward zone certificate! It's a great transfer and a solid release for fans of the movie.