Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Musgo hopes that the general film fandom out there appreciates the greatness of the Warner Archive releases. If you need a reminder - check out Musgo's musings on Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. These releases are a perfect ways for no-frills versions of these important smaller genre and art films to find a home. The perfect example of this is the recent release of Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud.

This arty satire falls right between two of Altman's greatest flims - released after M*A*S*H (1970) and right before McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Altman was really starting to find his comedic voice after the success of M*A*S*H . At the same time, he was able to create a film that went beyond just being a satire but really explored the deeper meanings of the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s.

Brewster McCloud is our lead character played by young Bud Cort. Brewster is a youthful rebel who appears with huge glasses and a red-striped shirt like a cross between Where's Waldo and Harry Potter. He secretly lives in a fallout shelter under the Houston Astrodome. Brewster is building a pair of wings - convinced that he can fly. He is protected by his very own angel (Sally Kellerman). At the same time, people around Brewster keep showing up dead and the Houston police call in Detective Shaft (Michael Murphy) from San Francisco to help solve the crimes. Brewster meets Astrodome tour guide, Suzanne (Shelley Duvall's first role), who becomes his muse and first lover. Young Brewster wants to fly away from the world with Suzanne.

Altman breaks all kinds of storytelling conventions from the beginning to the end of the film. Even the opening MGM lion roar is replaced by a character saying "I forgot the opening line". There is a narrator, a college lecturer that starts the film talking about birds. Throughout the film we will hear his voice overdubbed giving his lecture on birds and his bird themes will mirror the action on screen. There is consistently a cacophony of sound - much like the screeches of birds. In one scene, while Detective Shaft is trying to investigate a murder scene, the other officers are talking over him about a party they are going to have. And in other places, the narrator or the music often intrudes on the dialog.

The film centers around a number of bird themes. The symbolism of birds works on so many levels that it's a perfect vehicle for Altman to tell multiple stories at once. This technique would serve Altman later on, notably in Short Cuts, where he could link many different stories with the ever present LAPD helicopters as symbols of freedom in some cases and symbols of repression in others. In the case of Brewster, the desire to fly away is certainly symbolic of his youth and innocence. But it also feeds into the counterculture's rebelling against authority. Brewster lives secretly underneath what is a symbol of Man triumphing against Nature - the Astrodome with its fake grass and artificial environment for football and baseball games. Brewster is followed around by an "angel" who was tattooed wings on her back. Even the cars fly (in a tribute to Bullitt the cars leave the ground over a hill in a long car chase scene) and have bird plates like DUV, OWL and BRD SHT.

Ultimately, Brewster is discovered by the police and tries to fly away. But he is a caged bird. The dome provides him with the environment to allow him to fly but his freedom is only an illusion because he can't escape it. Like Icarus, he flies to close to the sun and is forced to return to the fake grass that lines his cage. Has love betrayed him? As a tour guide for the Astrodome, was Suzanne just part of the machine that keeps him prisoner? Altman doesn't feel the need to answer all the questions raised in the film - it was his job to lay them out there.

The DVD release only comes with a trailer. But it doesn't really need any help. Much like Altman, the film just needs to be there to ask the questions. The viewer is left to ponder their own answers. Very few movies have the guts to do that today. And in a crazy finale, we can write the whole thing off as just a diversion if we care to, because the show ends with a full circus that introduces us to the cast, as if they are merely actors and clowns for our entertainment.

Well done, Warner Archives, well done.

ER: The Complete Thirteenth Season

Written by Hombre Divertido

ER: Season 13 is a treasure…hunt.

On July 6th 2010, Warner Home Video released all twenty-three episodes of the classic hospital dram ER. Though there are certainly some gems in this season, one must dig through many overwritten and acted stories that include rehashed and cartoon characters.

In the opening episode, we return to Cook County Hospital in Chicago, to wrap up one of the worst cliffhangers in the history of the series. Sam (Linda Cardellini) and her son Alex (Dominic Janes) have been kidnapped by her escaped convict husband Steve (Garret Dillahunt). Jerry (Abraham Benrubi) has been shot, and unbeknownst to everyone else on staff, a pregnant and bleeding Abby (Maura Tierney) has passed out and Luka (Goran Visnjic) has been tied to a bed and intubated. Yes, there is a lot going on. Unfortunately it plays out like pure desperation on the part of the writers. The kidnapping especially is horribly contrived, poorly written and executed.

In the second episode efforts are made to get things back to order, but there are too many fragments from the first episode bomb, to make this episode worth watching.

The first gem of the season is found in the guest performance by John Mahoney as an older gay man who comes into the ER with his partner. The entire episode may not be great, but the performance by Mahoney and the direction of the episode by Stephen Cragg are.

Eventually the season does get going, and there are some fine stories and performances including those of guest stars Forest Whitaker, Sally Field, Robert Prosky, Stacy Keach, and the afore mentioned Mahoney.

In season thirteen J. P. Manoux as Dr. Dustin Crenshaw, is the primary antagonist and what would appear to be an attempt to replace Paul McCrane as Dr. Robert Romano. The character of Dr. Crenshaw is far too much of a cartoon for this series. Eventually Stanly Tucci as Dr. Kevin Moretti would take over ER operations and serve as a far superior antagonist as the character has much more depth. Also jumping into many storylines in season 13 is John Stamos as former EMT and new intern Tony Gates. In many scenes Stamos appears to be channeling a young George Clooney, and it is extremely distracting.

Though season thirteen makes a valiant effort to balance the stories revolving around the personal lives of the staff at the ER, and the stories of the patients, the failure comes in the writing of the plots for the regular cast. The episodes revolving around the love triangle between Neela (Parminder Nagra), Gates, and Ray (Shane West) is boring and the outcome is fat too contrived.

Season thirteen ends with a far more reasonable cliffhanger than that of the twelfth season, and leaves the audience with an optimistic perspective of Season fourteen.

Recommendation: Season thirteen is worth owning due primarily to the guest performances. There are more bad episodes than good, but generally the direction of the episodes in season thirteen are superior to previous seasons. Many episodes feature music that is both poignant and powerful.

Season thirteen appears to contain more sexual situations than previous seasons, and there is an unusual amount of blood as choices are made to show many of the procedures in graphic detail.

The only bonus material is the “Outpatient Outtakes” and in most cases it is clear why these scenes were deleted.

Article first published as DVD Review: ER - The Complete Thirteenth Season on Blogcritics.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

PREDATOR - Ultimate Hunter Edition (Blu-ray)

Written by Fido

Whether you’re getting “to the chopper” 23 years ago (man, has it really been that long?) or now, Predator is still one of the more purely fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the ‘80s. And honestly after watching it in its now newfound glory on the ol’ Blu-Ray format, nothing has been done to displace that love.

In the end, that is the best compliment I can give to an older movie being released on a new format. Simply put, this release just adds another layer of sheen onto an already fun film to watch. When it washed over you like most ‘80s action flicks did, without consequence, but fun while it lasted, it now washes over you with a shiny new coat of wax that makes it that much easier to go back and check out again.

From the opening slap handshake / bicep close-up to the ridiculously odd maniacal laugh of the vertically mouthed Predator himself, I was thoroughly entertained, yet again, by this movie - even more so, on Blu-Ray as a paramilitary group battles against the ultimate hunter from the stars in the jungles of Guatemala.

Though Blu-Ray is far from the once brand new-fangled thing everyone is surprised by, I still marvel at how older movies are being churned out with this kind of quality. Whatever source they’re deriving these films from or however the process goes that cleans them up; this format has done wonders for movies like this.

Not only does it expose it to a new audience (although the now-released Predators and the accompanying ad bum-rush for these films doesn’t hurt), but it shows them that movies without the complete and utter over-use of CGI can still hold just as much attention and wonder in them as slicker effects of the now can. Sometimes practical effects, such as the man-in-suit ones of this film, really lend to a warmer / deeper feeling of immersion into a movie and its story.

Anyway, that’s a rant for another time…


Though I usually am pretty picky when it comes to picture, I find myself being incredibly forgiving to films that are 20-plus years old (again, ouch) being released with this kind of picture. I’m fascinated with just how this kind of cleanup is done. Movies that I saw in the theatre at their height as still pretty ragged copies are being churned out with some crazy levels of clarity. There were honestly times when watching this disc that I found myself staring more at the backgrounds (especially in the more lush jungle scenes) with a bit of awe.

It may seem pretty lame to be looking at trees when Conan, Apollo Creed, the governor of Minnesota, and everyone else is trouncing through South America blowing crap up, but I found myself hypnotized by the small details (probably unforeseen by the filmmakers at the time). The clarity is remarkable considering the notoriously careless ’80s era. There are moments when colors really pop well. The red of the blood against the intentionally flatter colors of the film are a true stand out through the whole thing.

So I was saying something about being forgiving to older movies on Blu-Ray right? O.K., back to that.

Sure, there are plenty of moments in the movie when the film grain becomes a bit prominent, but it’s really hard for me to completely rip the picture when it’s derived from a source that was much less than the now-common 1080p style we’re all getting quickly accustomed to. A quick little crank down of some of the brightness took care of quite a bit of the graininess. Of course you don’t want to adjust your TV every time you watch a new disc, but if it becomes this huge distraction (which with all the movement and background detail in this movie it shouldn’t) there is an easy way around it there.

The grain becomes readily apparent when there’s a static shot with one big color dominating the screen. But in most of the jungle scenes when there’s a fair amount of browns, greens and blacks playing with each other the clarity is pretty dang sweet. It’s a flatly filmed movie anyway. Meaning the depth of characters in foreground to jungle in the background or vice versa was never really a strong point of the flick to begin with. So it’s hard to hold that as a fault of the Blu-Ray release.

The most noticeable drawbacks with the picture are when the p.o.v. shots of the Predator flash up. The black levels are mediocre. They’re not as deep as they could’ve been done. Again, it could be a matter of adjustment on different sets, but I threw this into another monitor as well to check the same thing and it still had the same lack of depth in the darker colors.

Movie-wise, one would hope that by the time those shots start coming in (about 20 minutes or so into the film) that you’re not that easily distracted by what turn out to be small nibbles of imperfection.


It’s nothing crazy great, but it’s a strong enough 5.1 mix that when jacked up to a not-safe-for-apartment-living level even on my modest sound system - it has palpable dynamics. The shuffling through the jungle is well handled for the source they more than likely worked from. With movies like these, ‘80s action flicks, it was never really about the tiny touches of sound as much as it was about using sound and music as another way to get a rush out of you. The spikes in the soundtrack or the stings of the sound effects are sharp enough here to still get you nice and pumped up when you’re supposed to be.

Extra Stuff

When it comes to Special Features of older films, again I’m really biased. I appreciate that film companies (and yes I know they have the material available right here, but still) go through the effort of finding deleted scenes, outtakes (which though minimal are really fun to watch by the way) and culling together some making of featurettes is great to me.

Certainly for the inflated price (my opinion only there) they charge for this format, some bells and whistles are almost mandatory any more, but it’s still good to see some care taken. With sci-fi / action / cult movies such as this it’s always cool to sit back and rifle through the previously unknown and unseen special effects blurbs (check out the red Predator suit, used to knock it clear of the green background he played against – cool beans) like the ones that are included here. “If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It: The Making Of Predator” is something I know I’ve seen cuts of on previous incarnations or somewhere on broadcast television before. It’s pretty much older interviews all pieced together.

My favorite of all the stuff is still the deleted scenes (only a smattering of them – four in all), which yet again were deleted for a good reason, and the unexpected outtakes that a machismo-based flick like this produced. Though the deleted scenes and outtakes were not hi-def it’s really nothing I’d expect the manufacturers to go through the hassle of doing anyway. The fact that these special features don’t always have the best of presentation to them is nothing that detracts from the fun of watching them for me. They weren’t looking to shoot in hi-def in 1986 and it’s not something that counts as a black mark on the disc nowadays.

Not all the special features are standard def though. The preview for the now-released Predators is in hi-def as well as the reflective “Evolution of the Species: Hunters of Extreme Perfection". So if it bugs you that much, you’ve got something there. Photo galleries are photo galleries, nothing I really go back and look at ever, since most pictures have been seen or can be found online anyway.

All In All

Though it’s surely a by-product of promotion, it’s always great to see an old familiar friend get its day on a new shiny format like Blu-Ray. Predator is one of those movies that, if you like it, you’re going to go buy this version of it, despite any tiny flaws in the picture or lack of hi-def special features. There’s enough here to yet again bring that wonderfully visceral feeling back that only ‘80s action flicks can give. It may not be the most stunning looking or sounding release, but it still is a blast to watch, even after Arnold’s term in government.

In the end, that is the best compliment I can give to an older movie being released on a new format. Simply put, this release just adds another layer of sheen onto an already fun film to watch. When it washed over you like most ‘80s action flicks did, without consequence, but fun while it lasted, it now washes over you with a shiny new coat of wax that makes it that much easier to go back and check out again.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Predator - Ultimate Hunter Edition on Blogcritics.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Written by Pirata Hermosa

When Rick Riordan beginning telling his children bedtime stories, he choose Greek Mythology, a subject that he was very interested in. But when he ran out of those stories and found his kids clamoring for more, he decided to make up his own stories with a hero named Percy Jackson. Even then he had no idea that he would turn them into a successful series of books, let alone a motion picture.

The film is set in modern day and focuses on Percy (Logan Lerman), a relatively normal teen diagnosed with both Dyslexia and ADHD. His only friend is Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who he has known for years and needs to use crutches to walk. His father left when he was a baby and Percy lives with his mother, Sally (Catherine Keener) and sleazy stepfather Gabe (Joe Pantoliano).

But when the lightning bolt of Zeus is stolen from Mt. Olympus, the most powerful god blames the only person capable of accomplishing the theft. Unfortunately for Percy, that person is him. Only a demigod is capable of such an act, a half-man half-god, and it just so happens that Percy’s real father is none other than the god Poseidon. Percy has two weeks to save his mother from Hades (Steve Coogan), find the real lightning thief, and return the bolt to Zeus. If he doesn’t succeed then the gods will go to war and use the Earth as their battlefield.

The film uses many of the tales and creatures from Greek Mythology. Percy must do battle with Medusa and take on a five-headed Hydra in his quest. The special effects aren’t quite up to par with those used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but align well with the kind used in the Harry Potter series. Pretty good, but you can still tell that something’s not quite right.

While geared towards a younger audience, Percy can be enjoyed by everyone. The pace is quick and flows nicely between the action scenes. There's a nice comical element that threads through the film that brings just enough humor when it could easily take itself too seriously. Most films would get bogged down with too much storyline, but this has just the right mixture, and with a running time just shy of two hours you won't find yourself looking at your watch trying to find out how much time is left.

There are also several surprise big-name celebrities, such as Pierce Brosnan, Rosario Dawson as Persephone, and Uma Thurman. At first their appearance is a little jarring, but they are excellent actors with Uma giving a fun and creepy performance that is worth seeing.

The film is presented on a 50 GB Dual Layer disc with a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 ratio. It is visually superior to the DVD in regards to clarity and sharpness. The only issue is that in a couple of the night scenes it is a little difficult to see everything, but since the DVD has the same issues in the same exact spots it must be a byproduct of the way it was originally filmed.

The audio is in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is really good, but it could have been mixed better. Most of the scenes are quiet, but any time there is action the volume comes blaring out at such a loud volume that you’re forced to reach for the remote every few minutes to adjust the sound. Ultimately, you end up just turning everything down so as not to be caught off guard that you lose a lot of the subtlety during the quieter scenes.

Even though there are eight Special Features on the disc, it feels like everything was just thrown together kind of haphazardly. When you first put in the Blu-ray it comes up to a fairly cheap and cheesy looking menu bar that runs across the bottom of the screen. Not only is it simple, but it’s difficult to read without getting up and walking halfway across the room. All of the Special Features are short and feel like added fluff in order to have something to put on the disc.

The feature “Secrets of the Gods” has the most potential as you can move around Mt. Olympus and click on the gods, demigods and monsters. When you click on them you only get the vaguest of descriptions that even a six-year-old would already know.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief on Blu-ray also comes a DVD copy of the film and a digital version for download to your computer.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief on Blogcritics.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Tom & Jerry: Deluxe Anniversary Collection

Written by Pirata Hermosa

The iconic cat and mouse duo is being featured in a new Deluxe Anniversary Collection, a double-DVD set containing 30 episodes spanning the entire on-screen history. Starting as a simple cartoon for theatre houses in 1940, Tom & Jerry became an immediate hit and won creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera seven Academy Awards.

The first disc in this set contains 20 of the 30 episodes. Starting from the very first short, “Puss Gets the Boot,” the viewer is treated with the very best original episodes including multiple Academy nominees as well as all seven of the Academy Award Winners. The second disc starts off with the scene from the live-action film Anchors Aweigh where Jerry dances with Gene Kelly, and then follows up with Tom and Jerry swimming with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet.

While both of those were considered groundbreaking at the time, today they come across as a little flat. And while the following episodes produced by Chuck Jones are more reminiscent of his previously done Warner Bros. cartoons, they are not enough to float this second disc above mediocrity as the last five episodes are terrible and come from newer shows like The Tom and Jerry Comedy Show and Tom and Jerry Kids. After having watched all of the incredible episodes from disc one, watching the second disc was almost pure torture by contrast.

There is also a feature on the first disc titled: “Much Ado About Tom and Jerry”, which has interviews from Hanna and Barbera and discusses the cartoon's origination and what was going on behind the scenes in the world of animation. This was quite interesting, but it would have been even better with longer interview footage and a few more added stories of the creative process.

For someone who doesn’t have any Tom and Jerry DVDs already, then you might be interested in this collection. But since all but the last five cartoons on disc two are already on previously released DVDs and not up to the same standards as the others, it might be worth buying some of the other sets instead and just taking a pass at this one.

Article first published as DVD Review: Tom & Jerry: Deluxe Anniversary Collection on Blogcritics.