Blu Tuesday: Big Bad Wolves and Sorcerer

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Big Bad Wolves”

WHAT: When a lawless police detective (Lior Ashkenazi) botches his investigation into a series of brutal child murders that he believes was committed by religious studies teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan), he teams up with the vengeful father (Tzahi Grad) of the latest victim to kidnap and torture the suspected killer into revealing the location of the girl’s severed head.

WHY: “Big Bad Wolves” is one of those movies where all the hype may have hurt the film more than it helps it, because while writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have produced a well-made Israeli thriller, it’s not nearly as amazing as many people (including Quentin Tarantino, who named it his best film of 2013) would lead you to believe. Between the many plot holes that defy logic and twists so predictable that it makes the police characters seem incompetent by comparison, “Big Bad Wolves” is unable to stick the landing, resulting in a movie that’s good, but not as great as it could have been. What makes the whole thing work at all are the performances from the three leads. Even when you’re 99% certain that you know the truth, a character will say or do something that forces you to rethink your position. And that’s where the film’s true genius is revealed, because it never allows you to feel comfortable about what these brutish men are doing to their captive, even if he may be guilty. It’s a smarter, more socially conscious form of torture porn – one that places morality over shock and awe.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty decent making-of featurette and a fluff piece produced for AXS TV, but that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sorcerer”

WHAT: A group of outcasts from different backgrounds find themselves working for a drilling company in South America. When an oil well explodes several hundred miles away, four of the men (including Roy Scheider) are given a lucrative opportunity to transport six crates of unstable dynamite across the jungle so that the nitroglycerin can be used to extinguish the flames.

WHY: William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller has experienced a bit of a revival lately, but it’s hard to understand why. The movie was critically panned when it was first released, and rightfully so, because it’s an often boring and uneven mess, beginning with its horribly misleading title. Named after one of the trucks that the characters drive in the film, it tells you absolutely nothing about the story, nor does anything of much interest happen in the first hour. It takes 30 minutes just to introduce the four main characters, and another 30 minutes to send them on their journey. Once they embark on the suicide mission, however, the movie finally shifts out of first gear and delivers a handful of truly suspenseful moments as the quartet is forced to battle the elements, dangerous rebels and shoddy terrain. Many people have singled out the bridge crossing as the standout sequence in the film, but there’s a pair of set pieces that come just before and after that are equally as good, even if they’re dragged out a little longer than necessary. With better pacing and more likable characters, “Sorcerer” could have been an American classic, but instead, it’s a disappointing exercise in wasted potential.

EXTRAS: Nothing, zilch, nada.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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007 One by One: Live and Let Die

Bullz-Eye continues its look back at every James Bond film, 007 One by One, as part of our James Bond Fan Hub that we’ve created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film.

Pimpmobiles. Alligators. A trip through Harlem. Voodoo. Cigars. Blaxploitation. George Martin. Bourbon and water. Tarot Cards. Snakes. The City of New Orleans. Paul McCartney and Wings.

“That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” – 007 in “Goldfinger”

Somebody’s out to prove Roger Moore ain’t your daddy’s James Bond.

On the calendar, 007 entered the ‘70s with Sean Connery’s last official entry, “Diamonds are Forever”, but it wasn’t until two years later in 1973 that the shift of the decade really affected cinema’s most popular secret agent.

The Plot: Three MI6 agents are killed – one each in New York, New Orleans, and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. M (Bernard Lee) assigns Bond (Moore) to the case. He follows the trail of bodies, only to discover an elaborate heroin producing, smuggling and selling operation, masterminded by the ruthless San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who operates under heavy makeup stateside as Mr. Big, where the goods are dispersed through a chain of soul food restaurant/bars called Fillet of Soul. But faux voodoo and mysticism surround Bond from the word go, as does the hypnotic spell cast over him by Kananga’s delicately beautiful reader of cards and seer of visions, Solitaire (Jane Seymour).

The Girls: Nabbing the role of lead Bond girl must seem exciting for an unknown actress, but as has been proven repeatedly, it rarely leads to a big time career. Seymour is one of a handful of actresses to buck that trend and with good reason: Solitaire ranks high on the list of Bond’s classiest ladies, and her story is arguably the heart of the picture. The character isn’t necessarily written with a huge amount of depth, yet that very simplicity makes her complex. In a movie full of charlatanistic voodoo, she stands out as the lone figure possessing the psychic ability to see into the future. Additionally, she differs from the Bond girl flock by sporting ornate, body-covering costumes that contrast with the oft-expected “Bond girl in a bikini” mold. And she’s a virgin, until James enters her, um, life.

Content - Jane Seymour as Solitaire with James Bond in Live and Let Die

Also on hand is Gloria Hendry’s Rosie Carver (see photo above), marking Bond’s first filmic foray into the wilds of jungle fever. Unfortunately for double-agent Carver, that’s about all she was good for, as she not only betrays James, but also does little more than scream until somebody shuts her up. At the start of the movie, there’s the adorable Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith), an Italian agent James worked with in an offscreen adventure, and is now bedding back home in his flat.

Content - Madeline Smith as Miss Caruso in Live and Let Die

The Nemeses: If a Bond movie is only as strong as its villains, then “Live and Let Die” is one of the strongest, with a half a dozen characters worthy of mention. Yaphet Kotto’s double act of Kananga & Mr. Big was quite a departure for a Bond baddie — after a decade of destruction by SMERSH, SPECTRE and Blofeld, here’s a guy who isn’t out to take over the world, only to keep his vast opium operation afloat whilst continuing his duties as dictator of San Monique. His fatal flaw is his mistaken belief in Solitaire’s ultimate devotion, and when the issue sidetracks his attention, it costs him his life.

Content - Kananga Live and Let Die

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Drink of the Week: Make Way for Amaro (TCM Fest Salute #1)

Make Way for Amaro. For the last four years or so I’ve had the privilege of attending the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. It’s been great and I’ve been able to cover it from a few different angles, both as a classic film loving cinephile and, last year especially, as a cinema-addled boozer.

This year, however, I’ve come up with a slightly different approach and will be covering the festival right from DOTW. For the next few weeks, rather than simply stealing drinks from elsewhere and trying them out myself as per usual, I’m going to be whipping up my own creations, all inspired by some of the amazing films I was lucky enough to see projected on the big screen in my native Hollywood. I’m not promising they’re all going to be cocktail classics. I’m not even necessarily promising they’ll be any good. I’m definitely not promising that they’ll be terribly original or unique. I am, however, reasonably certain that it’s a great excuse for me talk a little bit about a few remarkable movies.

I’m happy to say, the first drink of our series surprised me by turning out to be very drinkable indeed. In fact, I think I’ll have an easier time persuading many of you to try the drink that than to watch the film. That’s because, our selection is a tragicomic masterpiece about an elderly couple who are forced to separate by the behavior of their selfish, but all too understandable, adult children.

I know nothing I’m going to say that will persuade you that watching  Leo McCarey’s sneaky, awe-inspiring 15 hankie tragicomedy, “Make Way for Tomorrow,” goes down nearly as easily as this rather lively variation on the oldest of popular classic cocktails, but it’s that good a movie. The drink isn’t too terrible either.

Make Way for Amaro

2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye (100 proof)
1/2 ounce Amaro CioCiaro
2 teaspoons soda water or club soda
1 sugar cube
1 orange or grapefruit slice
Garnish with an additional slice of citrus twist

Muddle the sugar cube and citrus slice with the soda water in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the Rittenhouse Rye and Amaro CioCiaro – one of a number of bittersweet Italian after-dinner liqueurs – and plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into the smallest Tom Collins or Old Fashioned glass you can find. (The one in the picture is too big, but it did okay for me.) Toast your mom and your dad. In fact, if they’re alive, give them a call – before you have a second drink.

****
Unless you’re a member of the Cinephile American community, you’ve probably never heard of Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece. Though “Make Way for Tomorrow” has nearly as many well-earned laughs as tears – McCarey is legendary as a director of comedies like “The Awful Truth” and “Duck Soup” – it was a failure at the box-office. It could hardly have been a surpise. With subject matter like this, it would be a tough enough sell on today’s arthouse circuit.

Even so, the film takes a surprising and, at least temporarily, more upbeat turn at what might have been its most maudlin moment as the aged parents break free of their offspring and find themselves in the hotel where they enjoyed their honeymoon 50 years prior. A kindly manager suggests a cocktail and, despite that the fact that the Beulah Bondi character comes from an era when “nice” females never drank in public, they decide on “two Old Fashioneds, for two old-fashioned people.”

Aside from being the height of bittersweet comedic drama, the scene is interesting for cocktail geeks. The Old Fashioneds the couple enjoys actually look nothing like Old Fashioneds you’d get today. They are served in the kind of teeny-tiny glass that was once standard for cocktails – in this case a sort of mini-Tom Collins – and it’s not on the rocks. It’s presumably served up and with a long, spiral orange peel like you’d get in a classic Horse’s Neck.

Even so, I started out making this drink in the usual Old Fashioned fashion by building it in the glass and serving it on the rocks, but the results just didn’t come together. The amaro, which I’m using largely, though not entirely, in the place of the bitters, just kind of held the drink down. Shaking it and serving it in a chilled glass, however, added the kind of lightness to the drink that brought the whole thing together. It’s a bit glib to compare shaking a cocktail to the ample humor in an essentially tragic film, but it really did kind of feel and taste that way.

Finally, though I usually try to make my drinks as non brand-specific as I can, it’s hard enough to come up with a new cocktail in three days if you’re not an absolute souse and have a day job. I will say that I leaned towards the oldest school brands I could.  I went with rye instead of bourbon, and the wondrous Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond over a fancier newer brand because it’s just possible that that’s what Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore might have been served way back in 1937. Like the movie, you might be surprised but it packs at least as much of a punch today as it must have 77 years back.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself and watch the whole movie right here. I guess modern ways aren’t entirely for the birds.

  

Movie Review: “Transcendence”

Starring
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser
Director
Wally Pfister

With Easter just around the corner, it’s probably no coincidence that just as the furor over “Noah,” a man who had visions from God, has died down, we are treated to Johnny Depp taking the futuristic steps in becoming a god in “Transcendence.” A cautionary tale about the evils of technology by way of artificial intelligence gets the visual treatment by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” the Dark Knight trilogy) in his directorial debut, but this is more than just a big budget version of “Siri Goes Wild.”

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the leading scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He’s brilliant to the point of being a bit bored with the non-scientific world, not that his flock of geek groupies seems to mind. (Eat your heart out, Reed Richards). Keeping him tethered to people, places and things is his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She’s more than Will’s diplomatic arm candy, though. She’s arguably his intellectual equal.

While Will charges down the road towards creating sentient machines, his best friend and part-time conscience, Max (Paul Bettany), reminds him that just because you can play god doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, he’s not the only one who thinks society should pump the brakes on giving Cortina cyber synapses to work with. The anti-tech terrorist organization R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) – led be Kate Mara’s Bree – subtly voices its opposition with a coordinated attack targeting the Casters’ former mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and killing his entire staff in the process. But Will isn’t spared when the group attempts to kill him as well, and they pull it off… somewhat.

After he’s poisoned by R.I.F.T. and given only days to live, Evelyn does the unthinkable and transfers Will’s mind into his living computer P.I.N.N. (You can’t have science without a couple good acronyms), the Physically Independent Neural Network. As Will tells a crowd before he’s shot, “Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology.” And he does just that, initially to the delight of his grieving wife Evelyn and the shock of his pal Max. Will is more than just a ghost in the machine, however, using his near-infinite knowledge to help change the world, effectively becoming a god. Yes, connecting to the internet can make you a god, but the Casters come to find that being a diety power couple comes at a price.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

Blu Tuesday: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ride Along and The Nut Job

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

WHAT: Daydreaming photo editor Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has just learned that the magazine where he works is transitioning into a digital-only publication, and to make matters worse, the photo negative that was intended for the final cover has gone missing. With his condescending boss (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter embarks on an adventure around the world to track down the missing photo before it’s too late.

WHY: Hollywood has been actively trying to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for nearly two decades, so it’s curious that the way the movie finally ended up getting made was to not remake it all. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t resemble James Thurber’s 1939 short story (or the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye) that much apart from its daydreaming title character, although that’s probably for the best. While Stiller has retained the core spirit of the original story, he’s produced a more modernized, feel-good road movie that’s got a bit of a “Forrest Gump” vibe to it without quite the same heavy-handedness. The film’s Big Message isn’t as profound as you might expect, but there’s something to really admire about its contagious optimism about the joys of life. It’s sweet without feeling overly saccharine, and that’s due not only to Steve Conrad’s screenplay, but Stiller’s contributions behind and in front of the camera as well. Though the movie is incredibly predictable from start to finish, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” succeeds thanks to the lighthearted story, visually-stunning fantasy sequences and great performances by its cast.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes five production featurettes (covering things like music, casting and shooting on location in Iceland), as well as a host of deleted and extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Ride Along”

WHAT: High school security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) has spent the past few years trying to prove to detective James Payton (Ice Cube) that he’s worthy of dating his sister. So when Ben gets accepted into the police academy, James decides to take him on a ride-along designed to scare him. But James’ little prank suddenly gets very real when they find themselves hot on the trail of the city’s most notorious criminal.

WHY: I’m a firm believer that the best way to get a laugh is by grounding the situation in reality, which is probably why “Ride Along” failed to make me chuckle even once. This is the kind of movie where a supposedly intelligent character (Ice Cube’s undercover cop) is constantly surprised that an unarmed citizen with zero authority (Kevin Hart’s cadet-to-be) is unable to successfully police someone breaking the law. It’s also the kind of movie where firing a shotgun or lighting a gas grill miraculously catapults the person backwards like a cartoon. And it doesn’t help that Hart, one of the most annoyingly over-the-top comedians working today, is the cartoon in question, especially when his incessant screeching makes Chris Tucker seem tolerable by comparison. “Ride Along” is an incredibly by-the-books buddy cop film that’s every bit as predictable as it is short on laughs. This is a movie, after all, that was co-written by the guy behind such bargain bin gems as “Sorority Boys” and “Employee of the Month,” and the only thing more insulting than its childish script is the fact that it managed to make over a $100 million at the domestic box office.

EXTRAS: Universal has gone all out with the Blu-ray release, including an audio commentary by director Tim Story, a host of production featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an alternate ending.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“The Nut Job”

WHAT: After a self-centered squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett) is exiled from the neighborhood park, he must team up with his fellow animals (including a pair of squirrels voiced by Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fraser) to raid a nut store with enough food to last the entire winter. But they run into trouble with a gang of bank robbers who are using the store as a front for their latest job.

WHY: “The Nut Job” might just be one of the worst animated films ever made, eloquently described by one Letterboxd user as “‘Over the Hedge,’ but shittier.” There’s nothing about this movie that is even remotely entertaining, from its clichéd story, to the out-of-date animation, to its totally miscast voice actors. The latter issue is particularly annoying, because with the exception of Liam Neeson (who could make the phone book sound good), director Peter Lepeniotis seems to have cast the movie solely based on name recognition instead of whether or not they were right for the part. Consequently, the characters sound like soulless versions of their human counterparts (especially Will Arnett and Katherine Heigl), as if they were crammed into a recording booth and held at gunpoint to record their dialogue. And believe it or not, South Korean production company Redrover somehow manages to make things worse by not only forcing Psy’s “Gangnam Style” into the movie, but also an animated version of the chart-topping singer during the end credits that will leave viewers scratching their heads. It doesn’t just smack of desperation, but accentuates the sheer laziness surrounding this film.

EXTRAS: In addition to some deleted scenes, there’s a short featurette, storyboards and the animated shorts “Surly Squirrel” and “Nuts & Robbers.”

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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