February 19, 2018


Lew Harper isn't quite down on his luck, though it does seem like his chosen profession isn't a very rewarding way to make a living. As played by Paul Newman in two films made a decade apart, Harper is a private detective in the classic Hollywood tradition: a cynical, world-weary loner who's quick with a quip, doesn't always play well with others and never loses his cool when he gets in over his head.

Harper and The Drowning Pool, on Blu-Ray for the first time, don't bring much to the genre we haven't seen before, but both benefit greatly from Newman's star power and natural charisma. From a historical perspective, watching them back-to-back is an interesting experience, as the style and tone of each is distinctively reflective of the decades from which they sprang.


Starring Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Pamela Tiffin, Harold Gould, Strother Martin. Directed by Jack Smight. (1966/121 min).

Harper establishes its titular character right away: Waking up alone in a tiny ramshackle apartment, presumably hung-over as he throws on the same old suit and brews a cup o' joe with a newspaper filter and yesterday's coffee grounds. We've seen it all before, but watching Newman go through a private dick's morning routine is pretty amusing.

Plotwise, Harper is hired by bitchy socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to locate her missing millionaire husband, who disappeared after returning to L.A. from Vegas. The last person to see him is Sampson's pilot, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), who's also the boyfriend of Elaine's flirtatious - and equally bitchy - daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin). Since Sampson's sort-of crazy and an alcoholic, everyone assumes he's shacking up with another woman. But Harper soon suspects something more sinister has happened to him.

"I drive like I live, kid...without insurance."
Harper encounters a assortment of eccentric characters. Whether they're helping or hindering his investigation, he doesn't fully trust any of 'em...with good reason. In fact, the only one he confides in completely is his estranged soon-to-be-ex wife, Susan (Janet Leigh, in a fairly thankless role).

Harper may be little more than a film-noir footnote today with its standard-issue plot, but it was a big hit at the time. It's the ultimately characters that make the film enjoyable. The fun Newman has with the role is infectious and he's supported by a terrific cast (though changing times have rendered Arthur Hiller's character - hopelessly smitten by Miranda - sorta creepy).

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By screenwriter William Goldman

Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Tony Franciosa, Murrey Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith, Linda Haynes, Richard Jaeckel, Paul Koslo, Andrew Robinson. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. (1975/109 min).

Lew Harper returns nine years later in The Drowning Pool, a belated sequel where the law of diminishing returns definitely applies. It's not a bad film, but other than the presence of Paul Newman, it doesn't really even play like a sequel, with a look and tone more similar to neo-noir movies like Night Moves (released the same year).

This time, Law Harper travels to New Orleans at the behest of old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanna Woodward). Someone is blackmailing her, threatening to expose her infidelity to current husband Mavis. At first, Harper suspects it's the Devereaux's ex-chauffeur, but a deeper plot unfolds after the family matriarch is murdered. It turns out there's an escalating struggle for control of oil-rich land involving corrupt cops and a sadistic tycoon.

"Easy, Lew. I just wanna cuddle."
Harper's caught in the middle, of course, and Newman slips comfortably back into the character's shoes. But while he's enjoyable, the puzzle pieces in The Drowning Pool don't fit together as well - or convincingly - as in Harper. Stuart Rosenberg, who previously teamed with Newman for Cool Hand Luke, is certainly a capable director, but screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted the original) is sorely missed. None of the secondary characters are quite as interesting, and though it was probably a sign of the times, eschewing the comparatively light tone of the first film for a more serious approach was a mistake.

Still, The Drowning Pool is worth seeing at-least once, especially back-to-back with Harper.

While neither ranks among Newman's all-time classics, both are prime examples of what personality and star power can do to boost a film. His popularity remained the only constant during the decade in-between. But really, what else do you need? Too bad Newman didn't revisit the character one more time, perhaps another decade later. Just as he once returned as an older & wiser Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, the results might have been interesting. 

February 17, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DARKEST HOUR

Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane. Directed by Joe Wright. (2017/125 min).

This is not the role Gary Oldman was born to play. That would imply he's a natural choice to portray Winston Churchill. Oldman looks, sounds and moves nothing like the legendary British Prime Minister, which makes his performance all-the-more remarkable because he is completely convincing. Darkest Hour itself may not be Oscar-worthy, but Oldman sure as hell is. If he doesn't take home a Best Actor statue for this role, I doubt he ever will.

The film chronicles Churchill's first tumultuous month as Prime Minister of Great Britain, a time in history when Hitler is not his only adversary. Many of his peers in Parliament, led by 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), don't want him as a wartime PM either, especially with their allies falling to the Germans and most of the British forces surrounded at Dunkirk. Halifax believes England's smartest course of action is to negotiate for peace, which Churchill is vehemently opposed to.

Much of what transpires is speculated and the film's most inspirational moment never actually happened, but Darkest Hour has no pretenses of being a biography or history lesson. Here, the focus is on making Churchill an engaging character, more than simply recreating the caricature we're all familiar with. While incorporating some of Churchill's notable mannerisms is obviously necessary, Oldman's performance goes far beyond a remarkable imitation. With considerable help from prosthetics, he looks and speaks uncannily like Churchill, but doesn't disappear entirely. There are key moments when the actor we know shines through, mostly in his eyes, giving the character emotional depth to go along with his gruff charm.

"Peace-out, Biotches!"
He's surrounded by a great cast, especially Lily Brown as Elizabeth, his beleaguered new secretary, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, Churchill's wife. Long-since resigned to taking a backseat to her husband's career, she remains a loving, devoted spouse, yet strong-willed enough to temper his frequent tirades. Churchill's relationships with these two women are interesting - and quite touching at times - but this is unquestionably Oldman's show the whole way. He dominates every scene he's in (which is most of 'em) and his performance keeps the viewer engaged during occasional stretches when the narrative gets a bit poky.

"You handle the passengers, Mr. Brown. I'll take care of the motorman."
Additionally, Darkest Hour is technically impressive, and not just the hair and make-up. Considering it's primarily a character drama and actor's showcase, the cinematography is striking. Similarly, there are several unexpected - though not gratuitous - CGI-created aerial shots that emphasize the enormity of, not only the impending threat of enemy invasion, but the responsibility Churchill carries almost solely on his shoulders.

Prior to Oscar night, Darkest Hour would make a great, epic double-bill with Dunkirk. The latter is a better film overall, but this one features one of the best performances from an actor who's long overdue for a statue. Since the Academy has always favored portrayals of historical figures - and Winston Churchill is infinitely more beloved than Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald - maybe he'll finally get one.

FEATURETTES: "Into the Darkest Hour"; "Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill"
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Director Joe Wright

February 15, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DADDY'S HOME 2 (4K)

Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, John Cena, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Alessandra Ambrosio, Didi Costine, Chesley Sullenberger and the voice of Liam Neeson. Directed by Sean Anders. (2017/100 min).

All things being equal, I'd have preferred a sequel to The Other Guys.

Instead, Will Ferrell & Mark Wahlberg re-team to give us a follow-up to 2015's Daddy's Home, which first gave them the unique opportunity to pad their bank accounts without working too hard. All that was required of them was to play extensions of their own images.

Daddy's Home 2 doubles the recipe by adding John Lithgow and Mel Gibson to the mix, who also play extensions of their own images as the two leads' overbearing dads with personalities nearly identical to their sons. The entire family goes to a winter resort to celebrate a Christmas, where the usual hijinks ensue. From pratfalls to family squabbles - even the gratuitous tender moments - everything is painted in broad strokes, with caricatures performed by a cast that looks like they're having a lot of fun.

The gang watches The Passion of the Christ.
How much fun the viewer has largely depends on their enjoyment of the original. The addition of Lithgow & Gibson notwithstanding, Daddy's Home 2 is more of the same and predictable to a fault. In fact, one could repeatedly leave the room while this is playing - for extended periods of time - and still know exactly what's happening at any given moment, making this the ideal film if you need to use the bathroom but misplaced the remote.

Similarly, my assessment of this pandering sequel is more of the same. Daddy's Home 2 is mostly an ensemble of cheap laughs, dumb slapstick and gags that go on way too long. Sure, there are a few chuckles along the way, but not nearly enough to make it worth enduring to anyone who didn't absolutely love the first film. And considering the cast, it's ironic that John Cena has all best moments (he's genuinely amusing, here).

FEATURETTES: "Making a Sequel"; "Co-Dads: Will & Mark" "The New Dads in Town: Mel & John";


February 13, 2018

News: Disney•Pixar's COCO: New Behind-the-Scenes Clips


In celebration of Disney•Pixar's Coco releasing today on Digital and Movies Anywhere check out a newly released deleted scene and two featurettes that shows how star Anthony Gonzalez learned he was cast as Miguel and how the animators designed the clothing for the skeleton characters. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and winner of 11 Annie Awards, Disney•Pixar's Coco finds its way onto 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand on February 27.


News: Oscar-Nominated I, TONYA on Digital March 2 and on Blu-ray March 13

Nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing), I, Tonya is a darkly funny and entertaining examination of Tonya Harding, the most controversial figure in the history of figure skating, and the headline-grabbing scandal that mesmerized a nation. I, Tonya is available on Digital and the all-new digital movie app MOVIES ANYWHERE on March 2, 2018 and on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on March 13, 2018 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. Packed with more than 40 minutes of exclusive bonus content, the Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD showcase deleted scenes and in-depth featurettes taking viewers behind the scenes of the film and its captivating story.

February 11, 2018


Starring Kate Hodge, Viggo Mortensen, Ken Foree, William Butler, Joe Unger, R.A. Mihailoff, Tom Hudson, Tom Everett, Jennifer Banko, Miriam Byrd Nethery. Directed by Jeff Burr. (1990/85 min).

Not to be confused with the recent similarly-titled film (which, by most accounts, is pretty terrible), 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is the final chapter of the original franchise. The first one without original writer/director Tobe Hooper, it is also the most maligned.

The original is, of course, a classic and one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Hooper's totally bonkers sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, dove head-first into black comedy territory, piling-on the blood & gore he creatively avoided before. Though thoroughly polarizing, it earned a latent cult following. Leatherface, on the other hand, remains the bastard son of the franchise, seldom talked about and largely forgotten.

"It followed me home. Can we keep it?"
One reason could be that Leatherface was heavily edited by New Line Cinema (who released the film) to earn an R-rating, leaving a truncated version that de-fanged one of horror's most celebrated psychopaths. Or maybe the world simply never needed a third chapter (one could easily argue we didn't need a second one). But as unnecessary sequels go, Leatherface isn't bad at all. It's worth mentioning that, while I acknowledge its influence on the genre, I was never a massive fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or Hooper's work in general...sorry). So maybe my expectations were low to begin with.

Leatherface strives for the middle ground between the grimy realism of the original and the lunacy of Part 2. What's impressive is how often it actually succeeds. Title character notwithstanding, it bares no relation to the other films, with a new batch of cannibalistic crazies terrorizing idiotic wayward travelers and Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree (yay!) thrown-in as a gun-toting survivalist. The film doesn't have any aspirations beyond cheap thrills and journeyman director Jeff Burr doesn't re-invent the wheel here, but he manages to create a fair amount of dread and suspense.

Viggo preps another Wet Willie.
While not particularly gory, Leatherface is still plenty-gruesome, and would-be thrill-seekers will be happy to know that much of the footage that was removed to earn an R rating is included in the bonus features (as well as an alternate ending which, in my opinion, is much more effective). Additionally, part of the fun of revisiting older films (especially horror films) is catching early performances by some of today's A-listers. In this case, a very young Viggo Mortensen shows up to pay the bills - and chew a bit of scenery - as Tex, your not-so-standard local yokel.

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III isn't a great film, but it's a well-crafted slab of sick-minded sleaze that's certainly more twisted fun than recent movies parading under the franchise banner. This disc from Warner Archive also packs in some great fan-friendly bonus features (from the original DVD release) that show us what the film could have been without studio meddling.

FEATURETTES: "The Saw is Family: The Making of Leatherface"; "We Know What to Do with Them Parts" (Scenes that were deleted to earn an R rating...there are quite a few of them).
ALTERNATE ENDING (they should have gone with this one)

February 9, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: BENJI (1974)

Starring Higgins, Tiffany, Patsy Garrett, Cynthia Smith, Allen Fiuzat, Peter Breck, Christopher Connelly, Tom Lester, Mark Slade, Deborah Walley, Frances Bavier, Terry Carter, Herb Vigran. Directed by Joe Camp. (1974/86 min).

Forced to endure this against my will back in the mid-70s, I really wanted to hate Benji.

My parents used to drop my younger sister and I off at the Southgate Quad while they ran errands or took in a hockey game. This time, to my chagrin, they let her pick the movie. She chose Benji, which pissed me off because G-rated movies were stupid kid's stuff and the more grown-up Airport 1975 was playing in the auditorium next door (I was really into disaster flicks).

Speaking of G-rated movies, Benji was kind-of an anomaly when released. In an era when even the mighty Disney had trouble filling theater seats, the G rating was damn-near the kiss of death at the box office. Yet this low-budget, independently-produced film became a massive hit, was re-released several times and spawned sequels well into the 80s. How was this possible? I mean, the dog wasn't even that cute.

But even while stewing in my theater seat and cursing my sister, I grudgingly had to concede Benji was a charming film. Dammit, I actually found myself caring about this mongrel and the people he loves. I'd never willingly admit it, though.

"Hey, you kids! Get the hell off my lawn!"
Unlike other films passing themselves off as family fare at the time, Benji doesn't have a cynical bone in its entire body. Even the so-called plot - bumbling bad guys kidnapping two children - takes a backseat to the titular character's congenial encounters with small-town locals, played by a variety of second-fiddle familiar faces.

Grassroots auteur Joe Camp (who built a film career with this dog) doesn't direct with any remarkable style, yet the film's manipulative power is undeniable. Perhaps that's because there's no question who the star is and Camp simply tells the story through Benji's eyes without trying to be flashy or clever. In an era when family films were defined by buffoonish slapstick or cloying cartoons, Benji's laid-back aesthetic was sort-of refreshing.

Four decades on, Benji undoubtedly looks like a product of its time and the cornball music score dates it even worse. But it's a much better film than I wanted to admit when babysitting my sister all those years ago. It's probably a bit too leisurely-paced for kids raised on CG spectacle, but those who grew up with this scruffy little dog will love the Blu-Ray restoration and vintage featurettes (which were actually TV specials that aired at the height of Benji's popularity).

FEATURETTES: "The Phenomenon of Benji"; "Benji at Work" (Chevy Chase wasn't funny back then either).
AUDIO COMMENTARY - by writer/director/producer Joe Camp and his son, Brandon (who's directing the upcoming remake).
DVD & DIGITAL COPIES (the two featurettes are on the DVD)


News: JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE on Digital 3/6, Blu-Ray & DVD 3/20

Experience this year’s biggest and best family fun adventure starring some of Hollywood’s most popular actors when JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE debuts on digital March 6 and on 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD March 20 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. In addition, the physical skus will also include digital versions of the movie, redeemable via the all-new Movies Anywhere App. Explore the vast and exciting world of Jumanji with Dwayne Johnson (Fast and the Furious franchise), Jack Black (Goosebumps), Kevin Hart (Ride Along) and Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) as they work together to beat the mysterious game they were drawn into so they can return to the real world. JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE also stars Nick Jonas (“Scream Queens”) and Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man).

Now fans can experience what it’s like to be transported into the world of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.  For the first time ever, the home entertainment packaging will feature a Snapchat Snapcode that unlocks an augmented reality experience. When fans pick up a copy of the film on Blu-ray or DVD at any retailer and scan the Snapcode with their Snapchat app, they will find the jungle brought to life right in front of them. Once there, they can record their experience and share it with their friends. There will be an additional Snapcode on an insert inside the package, exclusively for consumers who purchase the disc, that will trigger a second first-of-its-kind AR experience that will bring the characters from Jumanji into your living room.

Blu-ray and Digital Bonus Materials Include:
  • Gag Reel
  • “Jumanji, Jumanji” Music Video by Jack Black and Nick Jonas
  • Five Featurettes:
    • “Journey Through The Jungle: The Making of Jumanji
    • “Meet the Players: A Heroic Cast”
    • “Attack of the Rhinos!”
    • “Surviving the Jungle: Spectacular Stunts!”
    • “Book to Board Game to Big Screen & Beyond! Celebrating The Legacy of Jumanji