Blu Tuesday: Reese’s Pieces, Serial Killers and Hitchcock

After taking last week off due to a disappointing lack of quality releases (don’t waste your time with “Dark Shadows”), my column is back this week with a number of films from the back catalog. Though it’s always nice to see any Alfred Hitchcock film get the Blu-ray treatment, this has truly been the season of Spielberg, following up the release of “Jaws” and the Indiana Jones movies with the debut of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”

I’ve never understood why so many people place “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” on such a high pedestal, because it’s easily one of Steven Spielberg’s most overrated movies. Though the nostalgia factor has certainly played a role in its sustained popularity over the years, when viewed without those rose-colored glasses, the film’s flaws are pretty evident. Not only is the acting terrible for the most part, but a lot of the special effects don’t hold up that well, particularly the flying bikes. It’s also way too long – a fact that’s even more incredible considering the director cut 40 minutes from the original version – and it has some strange tonal issues, including the arrival of those creepy men in the astronaut suits in the final act. Still, while “E.T.” is hardly worthy of joining “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on the list of cinema classics, it’s a sweet and often funny film that every parent should show their children at least once.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are two new extras included on the 30th Anniversary release, and they’re both excellent. “The E.T. Journals” offers nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes footage from production, while “Steven Spielberg and E.T.” features the director reflecting on the making of the film, including where the idea originated from, showing the movie at Cannes and the White House, the aborted sequel talk and much more.

“The Raven”

The latest in a growing line of projects driven by Hollywood’s fascination with revisionist history, James McTeigue’s “The Raven” proposes that in the weeks leading up to his death, American poet Edgar Allen Poe helped solve a series of copycat murders based on his grisly tales. It’s difficult to view the film as anything other than a half-hearted attempt at cashing in on the success of Warner Brothers’ “Sherlock Holmes” reboot, because it’s every bit the dull, cookie cutter thriller that the trailers suggested. Not only is the premise ridiculous, but it’s executed so tediously that McTeigue could have lopped off 20 minutes from just about any part of the movie and no one would have noticed. The legacy of Poe deserves so much better than this generic murder mystery, and although John Cusack has some good moments as the eccentric writer, it would have been a lot more interesting to see the actor play him in a traditional biopic as opposed to this preposterous and lifeless piece of schlock. The next time Hollywood thinks about defiling a respected literary figure, they would be wise to heed Poe’s famous words and simply say “nevermore.”

Blu-ray Highlight: There aren’t any extras on the disc that stand out, but the making-of featurette “The Raven Guts: Bringing Death to Life” provides the usual behind the scenes fluff on things like casting and production design for those who are interested.

“Strangers on a Train” / “Dial M for Murder”

With the upcoming release of Universal’s “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection,” it only seems fitting that Warner Bros. should take the opportunity to debut some of their Hitchcock films on Blu-ray as well. Though “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial M for Murder” predate many of the director’s most popular movies, they still showcase the Master of Suspense at the top of his game. “Strangers on a Train” is probably the better known of the pair, but despite a solid turn by Robert Walker as the eccentric villain, the film’s sluggish pacing and ridiculous finale prevent it from being as great as its reputation might suggest. In fact, although it doesn’t get as much credit, “Dial M for Murder” is the stronger movie – an adaptation of the Frederick Knotts stage play that’s as tautly thrilling as it is smart. It also helps that everyone in the cast is so good, from Grace Kelly’s adulterous victim to John Williams’ police inspector, but it’s Ray Milland who absolutely steals the show as a “villain” so likable that you’re practically rooting for him to get away with murder. Though it’s a bit strange that Hitchcock would chose one of his less visually interesting movies to shoot in 3D, “Dial M for Murder” is every bit as captivating without the silly gimmick.

Blu-ray Highlight: Though most of the bonus material is from previous DVD releases, there’s a retrospective on each film – “Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic” and “Hitchcock and Dial M” – that provides some excellent insight from various friends and historians about the movies’ productions and the key Hitchcockian elements in both.

  

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A chat with John Cusack of “The Raven”

The really fun part of setting up an interview with John Cusack is telling people about it and getting their reaction. The still boyish star of such classics like “Say Anything,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “The Grifters,” “Being John Malkovich,” and recent ‘plex-fare like “2012” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” is one popular guy, and not only with women.

Now in his mid-40s, the former teen rom-com leading man is also something of a paradox in that he’s been able to keep the details of his private life private while also being unafraid of a little controversy. He maintains a direct connection with his fans via his well-known Twitter feed that often touches bluntly on his strongly left-of-center politics. We interviewed Mr. Cusack back in 2008 about his somewhat underrated satirical broadside, “War, Inc.,” and he makes some revealing comments about its production below. He has nevertheless avoided becoming a Sean Penn-style right wing whipping boy, though his recent election-year bashing of the Obama administration’s civil liberties failings on “CBS This Morning” attracted some attention from conservative outlets.

The fact of the matter is that Cusack, still best remembered by many as idealistic aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler, is the closest thing modern audiences have to a Jimmy Stewart. He’s a low-key, yet charismatic and highly energetic actor who never seems to act at all. That’s high praise, but it does make him a slightly counterintuitive choice for the role of Edgar Allen Poe, the flamboyant, floridly romantic author who largely invented modern horror and crime fiction.

Directed by James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta,” “The Raven” has the master of the macabre trying to solve a “Se7en”-style killing spree inspired by his own stories. Critics have not been impressed by the film and the crowded opening weekend box office returns have been kind of dismal, but that won’t have been for any lack of effort on John Cusack’s part. The actor spent weeks promoting the film everywhere from “The View” to our humble selves. He did, however, take a moment to receive a very special Hollywood honor.

Bullz-Eye: It’s been a good day for you; you just got your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

JC: Yeah man, thanks.

BE: What’s that like at your relatively young age?

JC: I don’t know. I’ve never got one before so I don’t know. It was pretty surreal; pretty cool. I liked that I was right next to the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. That was pretty cool.

BE: That is cool.

JC: I was right across from Musso and Frank’s, so I thought that was pretty damn cool. That’s such a great place. I’m also next to this great book store, so I’m well represented. I liked it.

BE: Speaking of books — a great segue there — I know that one of the reasons that you took on “The Raven” is it gave you an excuse to read up on Edgar Allan Poe. Why do you think he has remained kind of contemporary all of these years?

JC: I think he’s this classic sort of archetype for all of the shadow parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit out loud or you’re not supposed to admit in polite company or society. You know, all of these terrors and fears and phobias and anguishes and torments, and also this kind of grave, deep love of language and poetry. I think he’s a genuine genius and he spoke to the language of the subconscious and he was a great poet and artist. A great storyteller; a wild creator of different genres and hybrids of genres and mash-ups of genres. He was a pretty talented man, and he was also just wired way too tight, so it was a volatile mix.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to April

With the summer movie season just around the corner, Hollywood is gearing up for what promises to be its most exciting slate of films in a long time by heading into the blockbuster-filled madness of May on a high note. This month has something for just about everyone, including several promising comedies, an innovative horror film with “Scream”-sized potential, and a new movie from action guru Luc Besson. It may not compare to what this summer has to offer, but it’s better than the doldrums of winter.

“AMERICAN REUNION”

Who: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy
What: The gang is reunited in East Great Falls, Michigan for their high school reunion.
When: April 6th
Why: I’ve been a fan of the “American Pie” series (not including those terrible direct-to-DVD spinoffs, of course) since the original film was released back in 1999. It’s a purely generational thing; when the characters are having the same major life experiences as most people your age, it makes them easy to relate to. The movies also happen to be pretty entertaining in a guilty pleasure kind of way, and it’ll be great to see the whole cast reunited for the first time since they all went their separate ways to become big movie stars. Though that didn’t exactly work out for any of them (Alyson Hannigan and Seann William Scott are arguably the most successful of the bunch), as long as their chemistry is still intact, “American Reunion” should be a fun trip down memory lane.

“COMIC-CON: EPISODE IV – A FAN’S HOPE”

Who: Chuck Rozanski, Holly Conrad, Eric Henson, Anthony Calderon and Skip Harvey
What: A behind-the-scenes look at the fans who gather by the thousands each year in San Diego, California to attend Comic-Con.
When: April 6th
Why: It’s actually quite surprising that no one has thought to make a documentary about Comic-Con until now, because although it’s not really a hard-hitting subject matter, it already has a built-in audience that continues to grow every year. Morgan Spurlock isn’t the first person you’d think of to direct a documentary about the popular geek Mecca, but he’s wisely chosen to stay out of the spotlight this time around, instead opting to focus on the lives of five attendees (including a toy collector, an aspiring artist and a costume designer) who have traveled to the annual convention for various reasons. And with guys like Stan Lee, Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith all involved in some form, Spurlock’s latest doc has the makings to be the perfect love letter to comic book geeks everywhere.

“THE CABIN IN THE WOODS”

Who: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford
What: Five friends head to a remote cabin in the woods for the weekend where they get more than they bargained for.
When: April 13th
Why: I’ve had the good fortune to see Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods” twice now, and it’s every bit as original and entertaining as you’d expect for a movie co-written by Joss Whedon. This is one of those films that you need to go into knowing as little as possible, so while the trailer has been provided below, I’d recommend that you don’t watch it in order to avoid spoiling anything. It may look like just your average slasher flick on paper, but the movie has a few tricks up its sleeves. Fueled by a great script that not only defies most horror conventions, but does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “The Cabin in the Woods” is either going to be the movie that everyone can’t stop talking about, or that no one goes to see. Do your part and make sure it’s the former.

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