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The DVD-Blus: ‘Knock at The Cabin’, ‘Quantumania’, ‘Infinity Pool’, ’12 Angry Men’, ‘Magic Mike’s Last Dance, & More!

Welcome back to the latest review roundup of recently released media. This time we have some classic titles that have come to 4K UHD, plus super-heroes, sequels and more!  Fire up your queue…

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Disney

I loved the first two Ant-Man films.

They exist more as comedies in the MCU, and were a bit more slight than the usual comic book blockbusters. That all changes with the newest installment of the franchise.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has to fight for the universe and all reality here, and it is his biggest battle yet. Scott is less of a clown here and more of a superhero than we have seen in past films. This is both really great and a bit depressing at the same time.

The movie starts off with Scott settling into life on earth after the blip. He is pretty happy, dating The Wasp AKA Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and has a a new book about his adventures in stores.

He’s also developing his relationship further with his post-blip teenage daughter Cassie (played this time by Kathryn Newton).

Much like her father was before being acquiring the Ant-Man costume, Cassie has been getting into trouble with the police.

Cassie also has been spending time with her “pseudo” grandparents, the orignal Ant-Man and Wasp, Dr. Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne, played by Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeifer.

Together, they create a device that takes them all to the Quantum Realm. That’s when all hell breaks loose. They find out that the quantum realm is inhabited by intelligent life forms.

Even worse, there is a dictator ruling everyone and everything named Kang The Conqueror.

Kang is played by Jonathan Majors, who steals the show completely. He’s so good as Kang that he overpowers the entire film. Kang wants to get out of the quantum realm so he can enjoy being a villain again. Needless to say, Scott and his family need to stop Kang from getting what he wants.

It’s all just silly fun for the most part. If you’ve ever read the Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius, you’ll dig it for sure. It feels like something from that universe.

Director Peyton Reed tries his hardest to be one or both of the Russo brothers but comes up short. The script by Jeff Loveness is totally nuts and that’s okay by me. I mean, a poorly CGI-M.O.D.O.K. shows up for no reason as does Bill Murray (he looks like he wandered on set). Ah, well. So be it!

The performers are all decent. Michael Douglas becomes more of furry Hobbit with each passing film. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a strong performance as does Rudd for the most part. I loved the ending though.

Extras include commentary, featurettes, a gag reel, and deleted scenes.

The last ten minutes are certainly great, and the film gives us an ending that just made me cackle with delight. It’s worth seeing.  (– Lenny Schwartz)

Magic Mike’s Last Dance

Warner Bros.

The first Magic Mike movie was an interesting blend of men stripping while also being a bit of a meditation on the struggle of achieving the American Dream in a difficult economy.

The second movie, Magic Mike: XXL, tweaked the format and became a road trip buddy comedy loaded with tons of humor and fun.

What is the third movie, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, then?

Interestingly enough, the flick has now morphed into a bit of a modern romantic comedy with a lot of self-awareness about how rom-coms can themselves be cliché.

The movie opens with Mike (Channing Tatum) working as a bartender due to the pandemic ruining his furniture business.

He finds himself dancing for a wealthy socialite named Max (Selma Hayek, absolutely killing it in this role).

Then, before fifteen minutes have even passed we are in London where Mike is going to be putting on a cabaret show of sorts as the new stage manager after impressing Max with his moves.

The movie honestly could’ve been called, Magic Mike Goes to London, as we spend almost the entirety of the film there, and a good deal of humor is wrung out of how much of a fish out of water Mike feels like in another country surrounded by wealthy people who act fake when he is honest and blunt to nearly a fault.

The fact Mike is in London does bring me to one of my few quibbles with the movie, namely that all of his awesome friends barely appear in it outside of a group Zoom call. The camaraderie of all the guys in the second movie was so enjoyable that their presence is missed in this film, but the chemistry between Channing Tatum‘s Mike and Salma Hayek‘s Max thankfully provides plenty of entertainment.

Mike and Max don’t necessarily have a, “Will they or won’t they?” vibe because they do hook up the first ten minutes in the movie and then decide that they should not sleep together anymore and keep their relationship professional.

So it becomes more of a, “Will they or won’t they again?” kind of question. It provides a fun bit of anxiety for viewers wondering if Mike and Max will grow closer together or have a falling out as the attempt to have a big show full of dancing faces various obstacles.

Oh, yes, the dancing!

Whether you appreciate the art of dance and the technical skill the men showcase in the movie or are looking to see some barely clothed fellows gyrating in an extremely raunchy manner, this movie fits the bill. If you thought the big stripping convention dance segments at the end of the second movie were amazing then get ready for an absolute extravaganza at the climax of this movie.

Even in a world where the Magic Mike movies were simply a showcase of dance and stripping, they would still be a fun time. However, the fact that the movies have so much heart and always tell an interesting story makes them so fantastic. Steven Soderbergh directed the first film and was involved as a producer for the second. He returned to the director’s chair for this film and clearly is having as much fun as we are, concocting a story about stories as a great deal of the movie discusses the act of dance, why we seek out art such as plays, and how so many stories stereotypically end with a man swooping in to save a woman from an awful life.

The movie manages to be a meta rom-com while also making sure to showcase plenty of flesh. There is as much of a physical impact as an emotional one in the end thanks to the careful balancing act.

Extras include an expanded dance sequence and a short EPK/featurette.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance, is not as serious as the first film, or as outright silly as the second. It is a perfect blend of tones while showing off bodies that are extremely toned. I would recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a good love story and/or good dancing. If this truly is, Magic Mike’s, final dance, it’s a great one to go out with. ( – David Bitterbaum)

Knock at the Cabin

Universal Studios

M. Night Shyamalan’s career is one of great hits and equally substantial misses, unfortunately having had more of the latter in the later part of his career.

Known for some of the most startling twists in cinema history, these twists have become a double-edged sword of sorts for the Philadelphian, as everyone is always expecting him to match – or even outdo – the twist of The Sixth Sense in particular, which is an ungrateful task bordering on the outright impossible.

However, while some of Shyamalan’s later works have been outright nonsensical – even bordering on the unintentionally hilarious at times – the filmmaker has nonetheless proven that he does still have the ability to bounce back after a failure without losing any of his zest for utilizing storytelling in unusual ways.

As mentioned above, a twist of some form is of course to be expected from a Shyamalan movie, and regardless of how that twist is realized in the film at hand, it will always play a substantial role in the audience experience, so nothing beyond the bare minimum shall be revealed here.

With Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan returns to form once more with an adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, the filmmaker crafting a suspenseful thriller that focuses more on emotional tension than traditional horror elements.

The cinematography is sweeping and engrossing in a way that Shyamalan is an expert at executing, resulting in the practically restrictive setting of the interior of a remote cabin becoming surprisingly eerie without relying on any of the cliched parlor tricks some may associate with cabins in the woods in scary movies.

Complimenting the visuals is Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s score, which further elevates the haunting atmosphere of the film by underlining the unease and confusion the protagonists and, by proxy, the viewers feel about the situation.

On the acting side, Dave Bautista leads the pack with an excellent performance as one of four people who seek out a family of three in a cabin to ask them to make an impossible choice – sacrifice a family member or usher in the apocalypse.

Having proven time and time again that he possesses acting chops as great as his muscle mass, Bautista ensures that what could have become a goofy adaptation of an unsettling tale remains grounded thanks to the subtlety and tenderness the big man is more than capable of conveying.

Similarly, Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge also do an outstanding job as the married couple with a young daughter – who is also portrayed incredibly well by newcomer Kristen Cui – enabling the audience to invest in the family’s plight without having to suspend much disbelief.

From start to finish, the film is intense and uncompromising, impressively keeping its momentum throughout as it keeps the audience guessing about what is going on, just as the family spends the runtime uncertain of what to believe and what will happen before the end credits roll.

Extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

While he will likely never surpass those early mega hits such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shyamalan nonetheless still approaches cinema with a reassured assertiveness that he can still tell stories how he wants to without the expectations of critics or moviegoers alike marring his willingness to take creative risks.

His best effort since Split, Knock at the Cabin does indeed prove that Shyamalan is still an interesting filmmaker capable of delivering interesting work. ( – Leyla Mikkelsen)

The Last Starfighter (4K Limited Edition)

Arrow

Nostalgia alert!!

Dear readers, please understand, I am aware this is not a good film. It’s kind of silly and borrows liberally from other films. However, I was 13 when it came out and I love it.

It’s campy. It’s low budget. It’s cliche. It’s also super fun.

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is recruited to be a Starfighter by the Star League to join the fight against Xur and Kodan Armada.

How do the aliens recruit him?

They created a video game that sat outside the office of the trailer park his mom managed and when Alex finally broke the record a signal went across the universe and let some people know a new Starfighter was born.

Yup.

I spent a lot of time in arcades around then. I don’t remember ever seeing the actual game from the film.

The galaxy was protected by a frontier. A bunch of interconnected satellites that blocked the bad guys from getting in…. you know… in space. I may not be Neil Degrasse Tyson, but I am reasonably sure galaxies don’t have front doors.

Young Alex disappears into the night with his recruiter, Centauri, played by the late, great, Robert Preston in one of his final roles. This is where the fun really begins. And by fun I mean, the DeLorean looking spaceship, Star Trek level sets and Tron like animation. We are also greeted with bald caps, foam prosthetics and laser blasts right out of 1977.

While Alex was in space, he was replaced on Earth by an android version of himself. Some of the most fun parts of the film are the android interacting with humans. At one point the android has to fake his way through a romantic encounter with Alex’s girlfriend, Maggs. Even now, almost 40 years later, it really made me giggle. Maggs was played by Catherine Mary Stewart and she was 80s perfection, down to her feathered hair.

This film has everything an 80’s movie should have down to the kid from the other side of the tracks, annoying little brother and the late Barbara Bossom as Alex’s single mom who works too hard.

As I rewatched this ode to my childhood it became quite clear that this was supposed to be a franchise. Alex would be the gunslinging space cowboy, with his trusty sidekick Grig.

Even the resolution of the film teases the possibility of more, but alas, it never arrived. Gary Whitta, who wrote Rogue One said he was working hard to bring a sequel or reboot to life, but wasn’t sure it would ever happen.

If they make it, I’ll watch it.

Extras include a new restored print, audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes, documentary, trailers, reversible sleeve, collector’s booklet, and a limited edition slipcover.

The Last Starfighter isn’t a great movie, but it is a fun one.  ( – David Landsman)

12 Angry Men

Kino Lorber

12 Angry Men is one of the crown jewels of the American cinema. It is emblematic of the incredible standard of quality the studio system was capable of with access to so much of the world’s finest talent on both sides of the camera. Adapted from a television production that remains one of the artistic highlights of the golden age of that medium, its script is a thoughtful meditation on both sociological and philosophical issues, that is effective with a minimum of preach.

On a hot summer night in New York, twelve jurors deliberate the case of a young man from the slums who is accused of killing his father. Eleven jurors believe he’s guilty, but Juror 8 (Henry Fonda, in one of his greatest career roles) isn’t so sure.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, they will debate each piece of evidence and the fault lines that divide them will begin to emerge: age, class, background, interest level.

This story is so beloved that it might be playing at your local amateur theater but what this version has that no other does is the impeccable casting: Fonda was already mentioned, and he deserves the lion’s share of the accolades, but equally brilliant is Lee J. Cobb (The Exorcist) playing the small business owner whose zeal to sentence the accused to death matches Fonda’s steadfast desire for justice. Martin Balsam plays the foreman with everyman calm, and even though he’s probably best known as the ill-fated PI in Psycho, this might be his best performance.

It’s tempting to summarize every member of the cast in this manner but doing so would throw this review outside the bounds of concise readability. Suffice to say that in a filmed play, an actor’s showcase, every actor rises to the mark here. Even the all white casting, so typical of an American film of the period, aids in the subtext. These men all begin the afternoon believing that they are seated among their fellows, their peers, and that each man shares roughly the same life experiences that they do. As the divisions between them fracture the jury, how they respond to those divisions is the window we get into what kind of people they are.

That’s really the secret sauce here: the characters. 12 Angry Men is a one-set, three-act play and the plot is very linear, but what makes the whole journey worthwhile and incredibly cinematic is the claustrophobia, exhaustion, and discomfort of these characters as they spark off of one another. As I said before, this piece has a lot of sociological commentary, but what keeps it from feeling like a trip to Sunday School at 40 frames per second is that every character feels just right from the moment they’re introduced until the final shot. One juror is incapable of caring about the life that’s been placed into his hands, and his apathy is never resolved in a way that feels very real, very true to life.

It is very rare that a person in 2023 can watch a film from 1957 and feel “I know these people. I’ve met these people.” 12 Angry Men has several characters like that, and though some of the language and references may be dated, these characters and the attitudes they represent feel ripped right from any social media discussion today.

In addition to the restoration in 4K (which includes two commentary tracks), the set also includes a packed Blu-ray which contains 1997’s 12 Angry Men, William Friedkin’s made-for-TV remake, featurettes and trailers.

Ultimately 12 Angry Men works because it plays upon the hope that we all have that one reasonable person can, if they’re clever and brave enough, turn back the lynch mob and by the force of clear headed logic show their fellow man a better way. The jury trial is, after all, a hallmark and microcosm of the democratic process as a whole and so the trick that this film pulls: to be inspiring without being unbearable reaffirms our faith in our way of life and our neighbors, and hopefully ourselves.  My highest recommendation. ( – Will McGuire)

iMordecai DVD

Greenwich Entertainment

iMordecai is new film starring the recently Oscar nominated Judd Hirsch as the title character.

Mordecai is a Holocaust survivor but this isn’t a movie about the Holocaust. Mordecai’s wife suffers from dementia but this isn’t a movie about dementia. Mordecai has a complicated relationship with his son, but this isn’t a typical father/son drama either.

At its core, iMordecai is about Mordecai, a man finally coming to terms with the changes that come with old age in a heartwarmingly hilarious way.  This is an unexpected comic gem you won’t soon forget.

iMordecai is the sort of film you can watch with the whole family without any member being bored. It is a light-hearted look on life, even one filled with darkness and loss.

The depictions of the Holocaust in the film are largely done through animation which ties into the film’s view of art and its power to evoke passion.

The animation strikes the perfect balance of childlike meets informative leaving the viewer somehow both scared and safe.

iMordecai boasts some wonderful performances from Judd Hirsch in the title role, his former Taxi co-star Carol Kane as his ailing wife, and Sean Astin of Lord of the Rings fame as their ever-patient son, Marvin. Astin’s Marvin, a character juggling his own family, the pending sale of his business, and trying to please a father who seems impossible to do so, is great fun to watch.

As is, Kane’s heartbreakingly charming portrayal of a dutiful wife slowing losing her mind. But it’s Judd Hirsch’s Mordecai who really steals the show. Mordecai still finds time to learn a trick or two in a world (an elder neighborhood in Miami) it seems impossible to do so.

A handful of other actors round out the cast including Broadway stalwart Stephanie J. Block playing Marvin’s wife Netta, and newcomer Azia Dinea Hale who is an actress to look out for. Hale as Nina has the herculean task of explaining an iPhone to Mordecai. Anyone ever trying to explain a smartphone to a parent can more than sympathize. Her scenes with Hirsch are some of the most endearing in a film full of endearing scenes.  ( – Fred Shahadi)

The Mask of Zorro 

Sony Pictures

The Mask of Zorro is 90’s nostalgia done right, and thirty years later stands as nostalgia in its own right for an era of blockbuster action films built around great stunt work, sharp filmmaking, and smoldering sensuality, as opposed to the chaste computer fantasy worlds of contemporary spectacle films.

It successfully evokes the thrilling physicality of classic Hollywood swashbucklers just with the best filmmaking techniques available at the time and therefore, looking back at it a generation later it has aged like fine wine.

It never concerned itself with the trends of its moment and therefore, it will work in any set of trends that come along.

Conceptually, The Mask of Zorro began life as the project to reteam Robert Rodriguez and Antonio Banderas from their incredible success on Desperado.

It ended up after a swirl of cast and crew changes becoming the Ellis Island from which refugees of MGM’s insane production schedule on Tomorrow Never Dies ended up.

Martin Campbell turned down another shot at Bond after GoldenEye, but Anthony Hopkins was signed, sealed, and delivered to play the bad guy of that entry when MGM’s concerns over the real life Hong Kong handover necessitated a Page 1 rewrite while shooting was gearing up and he decided Colonial California sounded better than Saigon.

Teaming with Banderas and Hopkins is Catherine Zeta-Jones who was catapulted into worldwide fame as the impossibly good looking female lead in this picture. Zeta-Jones’ contribution to this picture is almost impossible to understate as her physical chemistry with Banderas is ridiculous. Their dynamic, smoldering, dance is what elevates material that, on the face of it, might be too juvenile to work on a mass audience into an intoxicating crowd pleaser that pulls in just about every age dynamic.

Regular readers of my reviews know that I specialize in Asian films, and its strangely appropriate that I get to do a retrospective on The Mask of Zorro on its reissue as few Hollywood films trade so freely in the motifs and themes that make kung fu films work as this one does. Like any kung fu film, the physicality of the combat is the major draw, but in addition to that this is a training sequence film: Hopkins passes the mantle of Zorro onto Banderas who spends the first act gaining the skills we will see him employ through the rest of the film– the film even directly references Jackie Chan’s training sequence in Drunken Master.

This emphasis on technique, training, and development lends the fighting dramatic weight: we’ve invested in the journey of Banderas’ development as Zorro and so we’re locked in to see the shoe drop and all the training come to fruition. Too many Western martial arts films have their main characters begin at the same level of expertise as they end the film at and it can leave the audience without an emotional tether to the fighting. After all, very few of us have fought to the death, but almost all of us have honed a skill over time. That’s what we can relate to.

The film even gives us villains who live up to the power of Hopkins and Banderas on screen: Stuart Wilson brings a real sense of courtly menace to Don Montero, but special notice must be given to playwright Matt Letscher who plays the cannibalistic psychopathic US Cavalry Captain Harrison Love. A sequence halfway through where Letscher interrogates Banderas in the guise of a friendly conversation brings not only an edge of Hitchcockian suspense to the “secret identity” gambit and a touch of gonzo horror to a mainstream Hollywood action film.

Extras include trailers and deleted scenes and the accompanying Blu-ray features include commentary, a featurette, deleted scenes, music video, a look at the sequel, The Legend of Zorro, and previews

Bottom line: the movie is as good as you remember it being, and watching it now makes it all the more clear how much the American box office needs tentpole films that aren’t also concerned about being too sexy for the Middle East or too weird for some demographics, or too talkative for China and India and get back to telling classic stories.  ( – Will McGuire)

Search for Beauty

Kino Lorber

Former Olympic swimming champ Buster Crabbe is remembered as an early action hero as Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Billy the Kid, and other pop culture characters, but he made a stalwart leading man in other types of pictures as well.

One such starring appearance is in a Pre-Code obscurity now coming more to light, Paramount’s 1934 Search for Beauty.

Search for Beauty is a riff on the popular early 20th century craze for “health” magazines that were actually an excuse to promote sex.

Plot wise, Ex-con con-artist Robert Armstrong (King Kong), at his smooth-talking best, teams with James Gleason and Gertrude Michael to put out such a “health” mag, and they convince all-American wholesome specimens Crabbe and Ida Lupino, playing famous Olympic competitors, to unknowingly front for them.

When our hapless heroes tumble to the plot, they work out their own deal and attempt to cut out the crooks. With the money from the magazine, they start a health farm and utilize the contestants from the mag’s “body beautiful” contest as its instructors. But the bad guys refuse to admit defeat.

“Record Buster” Crabbe is handsome and noble and plays his character as sometimes sharp and sometimes clueless. He never really had a lot of range, just that movie star magic. He would continue to promote health and fitness in the real world for the rest of his life.

Ida Lupino was only 15 when she shot Search for Beauty, a decade younger than her on-screen love interest, Buster. Tiny and blonde, she practically glows, even as her somewhat squicky love scenes unfold.

Although she continued acting throughout her life (She was even a Bat-villain!), Lupino’s real legacy is as one of the first major female directors, particularly as television became a big deal.

The rest of the cast is quite good—with Gleason’s shameless mugging always welcome in any movie—as are the sets and Erle C. Kenton’s straightforward direction. Ultra-cute Toby Wing—actually three years older—plays Ida’s little sister, whose innocence comes close to being corrupted by a group of drunken businessmen. The later “Oomph Girl” Ann Sheridan, in her first feature film, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss unbilled cameo.

Extras include commentary and trailers.

All in all, Search for Beauty an unusual comedy-drama with a couple of genuinely dicey scenes, a virtue-triumphs-over-sin storyline, and likable characters—even the crooks. Although the whole point of the picture is to ostensibly promote health and beauty, there’s a heaping helping of beefcake and cheesecake throughout as well, including a long, choreographed non-dance sequence, making Search for Beauty really just as guilty as the cheesy rag at the heart of its plot! And this being a Pre-Code flick, they manage to get away with more of it than later films could have.  ( – Steven Thompson)

The Maltese Falcon 

Warner Bros.

The Maltese Falcon, like the Trojan War, launched a thousand ships. It was the first film directed by John Huston, the first film in which Bogie plays the lead good guy, the first film to pair Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet as a duo, the first faithful Hollywood adaptation of a hard boiled detective story, and is generally considered the first film noir– touching off a run of increasingly dark and fatalistic crime pictures that would continue for the next fifteen years. It is one of a handful of crown jewel films that define Warner Brothers Pictures–the best American studio during the years of the American studio system.

I had thought for many years that there was really no point to further discussion of a film that was so universally praised and canonized but recently a friend who was a taking an American Cinema class had told it was “by far the worst movie” he had seen for the class, and so when the opportunity to write about this classic for its re-release came down the pike I jumped all over it. Yeah, this is still the best.

While visually The Maltese Falcon is still a product of the adolescence of the motion picture and has several scenes that feel like a filmed play, in terms of character, theme, and attitude is shockingly modern.

Like Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key (which the Coen Brothers adapted as Miller’s Crossing) it concerns a detached professional operator who plays a number of crooked factions off of one another while appearing, in the moment, to be genuine to each one without ever explaining his real motives until the end.

Like The Thin Man it is a play fair detective story that uses a modern voice and misdirection rather than detail complexity to hide its criminal. Like a million novels by Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald, and Rex Stout that would follow it portrays the professional non-police detective as a tough operator navigating a world that wants to kill him by only his wits.

The Maltese Falcon is a magic trick in its construction: there is only one real crime to focus on and because only one other character is introduced before the crime there can only be one solution. Ordinarily this would make for a very dull mystery, but the secret sauce of the picture is its fabulous red herring, the greatest one in the history of literature or film, the titular Maltese Falcon. Without any real warning and with only a single pre-titles text crawl of exposition it drops itself in the middle of the proceedings and forces our hero into a metaphorical poker game for his life with a group of killers he doesn’t even know while the cops close in on him for what seems to be a tangentially related problem.

This literary device, of slowly bringing a powerful and menacing criminal conspiracy into focus through a few small lines of dialogue that mostly go by without being explicitly explained, is what gives the film its modern reputation of being convoluted but a simple rewatch shows that the film is really deceptively simple as a narrative whole, it simply never stops and takes the time to tell you, the viewer, where everyone stands and what is known and what is unknown until the very end even though its main character sells himself as being on top of everything to all the various factions he’s bargaining with.

What this produces is a game of mental brinkmanship unlike anything else in classic American filmmaking: Spade meets the “Fat Man” we’ve heard whispers of and when he won’t tell him what the Falcon is he flies off into an uncharacteristic rage for a man who hasn’t raised his voice the entire picture. When he leaves the hotel suite in a huff and is sure he isn’t followed he smiles, revealing the rage to be a ruse that delighted even himself, but notices his hands are shaking and steadies himself. It’s the largest objective insight into our hero until the final monologue of the picture.

This 4K remaster is stunning and includes audio commentary.  As for the accompanying Blu-ray, it’s full of extras including commentary, several featurettes, radio adaptation clips and makeup tests.

The film is not perfect: it is visually dated and because the ending depends emotionally on Spade turning on the femme fatale despite his own ravenous animal attraction to her, the fact that he always seems to be a step ahead of her anyway greatly undercuts her danger, however even with that flaw the endings earns its legendary status as the guilty symbolically drop to Hell and the hero considers the inhumanity and greed the Falcon has produced in otherwise educated, worldly, people.

“The stuff that dreams are made of” indeed!  ( – Will McGuire)

Training Day

Warner Bros.

Spoiler Alert – This review contains spoilers for the 20+ year old movie. If you are reading this and you haven’t seen Training Day by now…. umm, you’re late to the party, but always welcome.

Since it’s been a couple of decades let’s recap. Rookie patrolman Jake Hoyt, played by Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke wants to join Alonzo Harris’ (Oscar winner Denzel Washington) elite narcotics squad. Unbeknownst to Jake, it’s all a big ruse to set him up as a patsy so Alonzo can pay off a debt to Russian mobsters and save his own life.

From early in the film we understand that Alonzo is not a good guy, but it isn’t until later we understand how truly malicious he is. At first we are supposed to think he’s a good cop that has been driven to blur lines because of the complexity of policing the narcotics trade and the corruption that goes with it.

Later we find out he’s more or less a sociopath that will use his own child as a human shield if it suits his needs.

Early in the film it seems like Alonzo is trying very hard to get Jake to focus on what’s important:

“We’re professional anglers.”
“This shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers.”

David Ayer’s writing and Anton Fuqua’s directing are brilliant throughout the film and their ability to tell a textured story, that has a deep background, without a ton of exposition is really incredible.

Through the dialogue we learn that police corruption in Los Angeles is extremely organized and controlled by three men. The Three Wise Men, in fact, played masterfully by Tom Berenger, Raymond Barry and Harris Yulin.

Tom Berenger had the biggest career of the three, but Barry and Yulin are ultimate that guys. “You know, that guy from Justified, Raylan’s dad” “You know, that guy from Ozark, the one they rent the house from?” If you look down their collective credits you see a LOT of things you know and love. They play off each other brilliantly in Training Day and for the first time we start to get an understanding that Alonzo doesn’t have total control of the situation around him. Everyone has people they answer to and corrupt cops, answer to the Three Wise Men.

This is another clever bit of storytelling from Ayer and Fuqua. Denzel’s character unravels slowly at first and then faster and faster until Jake shoots him in the backside and walks out of gang territory with the money that could have saved Alonzo’s life. Alonzo’s brutal shooting death at a darkened intersection is just crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of the story. It’s clear that it’s fait accompli as soon as Jake walks out with the cash.

There are an amazing amount of stars in this film in small roles. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have cameos that are both impactful and believable. This was Eva Mendes’ breakout role. She had a very minor part, playing a love interest and baby momma of Denzel’s, but her beauty radiated through the gritty background and it wasn’t surprising she worked consistently for years after. Alonzo’s crew is all faces you know, even if you don’t know the names. “You know, that guy from The Usual Suspects, Redfoot?” “You know, that guy from Con Air that Nic Cage kills in the belly of the plane, because he wouldn’t put the bunny back in the box?”

OK, I’ve used words like brilliant, masterful, radiant, and other superlatives to describe this almost perfect film, but we’ve got to talk about the East Side Treces and the bathroom.

Early in the film, Ethan Hawke saves a young girl from being sexually assaulted in an alley by a couple of drug addicts. Alonzo watches thoughtfully as Jake beats and handcuffs the two vagrants and then steps in and lets them go in the midst of another lesson to Jake about focusing on what is important in elite narcotics investigations and if he wants to run and gun he should go back to patrol.

Later on, after Alonzo and crew rob and murder Scott Glenn’s character to secure the necessary funds, they implicate Jake in their criminal plan. When Jake doesn’t take the offer of a payoff, things get very heated and while it is unsaid, Alonzo decides Jake must die. He brings Jake to the home of a gang leader under the auspices of paying back for some help they had given him at some indeterminate previous point. In actuality, Alonzo leaves Jake there to be murdered by the gang members.

The three gang members are all faces you know, if not names. Cliff Curtis plays Smiley, the gang leader and the other two primary gang bangers are Raymond Cruz, “You know, that crazy guy from Breaking Bad, Tuco?” and Noel Gugliemi, “You know, that guy from everything?” He has 231 acting credits. 231!!!!

So after Alonzo scoots out the East Side Treces beat Jake and drag him into the bathroom to execute him. Now, earlier in the film, when Jake saves the girl he finds her wallet and sticks it in his back pocket. They are holding Jake in the tub, Smiley has a shotgun to his head and Noel G chimes in, “Let me get his money” and reaches down to take the wallet out of Jake’s back pocket.

WHY?? Wouldn’t it be easier to take the wallet out of Jake’s pocket after his head had been blown off?

I think so. Then it becomes clear it’s the girl’s wallet from earlier and she’s Smiley’s cousin. Now they foreshadowed all of this, but come on. According to the Justice Department there are 450 gangs and 30,000 gang members in Los Angeles and the one teenager that happens to get saved that morning happens to be the cousin of the one dude who happens to be getting paid to blow Jake’s head off…

Smiley calls his baby cousin, all the while threatening Jake.

You fucked up” – Jake was literally in a bathtub with a shotgun to his head. Whatever fucking up had been done was pretty much assumed at that point.

It ain’t right involving family” – As if Jake wouldn’t have mentioned he saved Smiley’s cousin earlier if he had a clue it might have saved his life.

If you’re lying I’m going to blow your nuts off” – I mean, flip a coin, but I think Jake would prefer being a eunuch to a corpse.

Unsurprisingly, Smiley’s cousin confirms Jake saved her and they let him go, all the while talking about how trippy the event was. Trippy? No kidding. I don’t know what they should have done differently, but they should have done something differently. There are other ways of having Jake escape death without invoking the coincidence of coincidences.

Extras include audio commentary on the 4K disc and the Blu-ray includes the same commentary, plus deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a featurette, trailer, and two music videos.

This is a great movie. The writing is amazing, the plot is believable, gritty and real and the resolution, aside from the bathroom, is dark and satisfying. It even has a Godfather homage at the end as Alonzo’s death mirrors Sonny Corleone’s on the causeway. It’s magnificent. I enjoyed it as much today as I did the first time.  East Side Treces for life.  ( – David Landsman)

All-Star Superman

Warner Bros.

All-Star Superman was originally a comic book limited series that began back in 2005. As I was not at all happy with the earlier, controversial issues of All-Star Batman, I opted to stay away from All-Star Superman…for about 18 years!

When I finally did read the early issues of the series, by Grant Morrison and his frequent collaborator, Frank Quitely, I was greatly impressed!

I ended up stuck in the hospital for a while before I could read more but when I got out, I was offered the opportunity to see and review the 2011 animated version of the story.

I’ve written before that Grant Morrison “gets” comics more than most writers who have worked in the field in recent decades.

He gets what makes them special, and he gets the unique characterizations that make the reader care about them.

The late Dwayne McDuffie was another comics writer who innately grasped what made the comics work.

In one of his final projects, he adapted Morrison’s high-profile maxi-series into this full-length PG-rated cartoon version.

Produced by some of the folks who did the classic ‘90s Batman series, All-Star Superman had everything going for it…and it almost works.

As with any adaptation of an episodic storyline, something had to go, and while I believe McDuffie made some good choices in that regard, it still leaves us with a number of individual, unconnected, set pieces strung together by an overarching storyline that has Superman slowly dying due to the backstabbing machinations of his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor.

Luthor, voiced here by Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia (whom I know from the wonderful Empire Records), is the juiciest role, as he fakes reforming to help a space mission to the sun only for that to be the tip of the iceberg as far as the Man of Steel’s troubles.

There are some amusing scenes with Clark Kent, a couple of funny bits with Jimmy Olsen and Steve Lombard, and Lois Lane gets to star in a couple of the segments. But there are also seeming gaps in continuity, mostly made, I assume, by having to leave out sections or detail from the comic.

James Denton voices Superman. I don’t know him. Apparently Desperate Housewives—a show I was never desperate enough to watch—is still his main claim to fame. He’s good…but we’ve had better Superman voice performers. While his acting is fine, I feel like his voice just isn’t commanding enough. I kept wishing LaPaglia had done Superman instead.

Other recognizable names include Ed Asner, barely present as Perry White, Christina Hendricks good as Lois, and a favorite of mine—Linda Cardellini—as Luthor’s daughter. Alexis Denisof (of Buffy fame) plays Dr. Quintum, who appears in the beginning and also gets the closing scene, which I believe is slightly different from that of the comic (I skipped ahead).

The new 4K remaster includes two new featurettes and shares several with the accompanying Blu-ray such as commentary from Bruce Timm and Grant Morrison, featurettes, and a Digital Comic of All-Star Superman #1. The Blu-ray exclusively features other DC animated trailers, sneak peeks, and a featurette.

All-Star Superman, the comic book, was meant to be “an” ultimate epic of the ultimate hero, and from what I’ve read of it so far, Morrison and Quitely succeed on a grand scale. All-Star Superman, the movie, hampered by trying to squeeze all that imagination into 90 minutes, doesn’t quite make the grade, but it’s still much better than many other DC animated adventures.

With a nice musical score, some colorful and creative design work and animation, and particularly drawn characters one actually cares about, All-Star Superman more than holds one’s interests in spite of its flaws. It even manages to find an upbeat ending.  ( – Steven Thompson)

Infinity Pool 

Decal Releasing

Infinity Pool is an atmospheric, high-concept, science-fiction film from Brandon Cronenberg, son of the legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg. It is a well-staged and performed film; workmanlike in composition and with a premise that feels like it would be at home in a contemporary Twilight Zone revival.

The film is best enjoyed completely cold but here’s a small sketch so you can evaluate whether this is of interest: Frustrated novelist James (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are having a perfectly miserable vacation at a remote, exotic, resort. Their nouveau riche bickering is interrupted by Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), a wealthy couple who happen to be fans of James’ only novel to date.

On an outing beyond the resort’s borders, James accidentally kills an islander with his car but when he experiences the island’s strange justice system he loses himself in consequence-free debauchery at the expense of an endless procession of disposable clones culled from his DNA.

Infinity Pool ought to be right in my wheelhouse, and I’m shocked to report how little I feel for it after two viewings. For a film that deals with human cloning, Brandon Cronenberg’s thriller is ironically beholden to a number of better films and invites comparisons it cannot possibly profit from.

Its moody establishing shots and foreboding minimalist score in the first act seem to be carbon copied from Cary Joji Fukunaga’s exceptional work on True Detective.

The camera swirls to downbeat bass notes as the resort is flipped upside down– an amusing visual metaphor but really on the nose and delivered before it has been earned by the events of the film. The cloning chamber evokes Altered States and has surreal womb imagery because of course it does. It’s the place where they make people.

It may read like I’m nitpicking at Brandon Cronenberg’s film but if there’s any disappointment it’s that his imagination and observation seem to be receding from 2020’s Possessor which was one of the freshest takes on Alfred Bester/William Gibson style cyberpunk I’ve ever seen in a film. Infinity Pool ultimately has little to say beyond that Western elites are decadent and emotionally barren. The cloning technology doesn’t produce a new human experience so much as it re-constitutes a truism.

For point of reference to bring clarity to my critique please revisit David Cronenberg’s most recent feature, Crimes of the Future. That introduces a set of interlocking new technologies involving human bodily modification and sensory input that feel like they were developed according to the logic of how human sciences progress and have shifted human society in ways that rest outside how their creators likely intended them to, just like in the real world. The result is a great piece of speculative fiction that speaks to human sensitivity (or the lack thereof) in the real world. Infinity Pool feels deeply shallow in comparison– the human genome is just another frontier for rich aesthetes to get their rocks off. The implications, such as they are explored here, could have been exhausted in a fifteen minute short film.  ( – Will McGuire)

The Big Easy

Kino Lorber

I missed The Big Easy when it played on the big screen in 1987. Instead, I caught it on cable TV a few years later and was surprised at how downright entertaining it was!

And that’s in spite of the fact that it can’t seem to decide of it’s a romance, a comedy, or a serious, violent police drama.

“The Big Easy,” is, as you may not know, a nickname for the city of New Orleans. The movie goes out of its way to give lip service to the accents, the music, and other Creole/Cajun/Southern/Voodoo/French buzzwords but that’s really all it is, the trappings. The plot would play just fine without them.

I must admit that Dennis Quaid’s accent, although it would likely not fool a real Louisianan, is great fun throughout. In fact. Dennis Quaid is much fun throughout, at his best here in terms of both physical looks and light charm.

And then, just when you think you have an understanding of his rakish and only slightly corrupted good guy policeman, his character gets some unexpected character development.

The same applies to Ellen Barkin, who never looked or acted sexier than in this film, as well as developing—almost entirely with her face—a more complex character than probably was needed.

Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie are on hand in the cast and there are a couple odd cameos from musician Solomon Burke and JFK investigator Jim Garrison (as himself).

Barkin and Quaid were two of the actors who defined US films of the 1980s, and both were generally excellent, but their chemistry here is palpable. Their seduction scene is undoubtedly one of the more realistic ones I have ever seen.

Barkin is an assistant DA investigating police corruption in an area of New Orleans where Quaid is an impetuous legacy detective. He doesn’t consider himself corrupt at all. He just considers that he’s entitled to all the “perks” he gets for the tough job he does.

As Barkin arrives on the scene, that tough job is investigating a very showy murder that leads to what appears to be a gang war…at first. She tries hard to be all business but falls to his flirtations, only to suddenly find herself against him in court.

Again, it all seems to happen too fast and—except for that sex scene—certainly not realistically but their quirky on/off romance is a lot more interesting than the police case that keeps interrupting it so the viewer doesn’t care.

No spoilers but the real killers are partly telegraphed right from the beginning if one is paying attention. The climax of the picture involves an exciting dockside confrontation or two that settles the cop plot while a bit of silliness as the closing credits begin settles the romance.

Extras include commentary and a trailer.

Film is about illusion, and The Big Easy does a fine job of creating the illusion of a Louisiana setting for a most enjoyable romance to play out against. It’s not as good as I remembered it being but thanks to Barkin and Quaid, it’s still just as enjoyable. ( – Steven Thompson)

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