Director: Matt Peters
Alongside the releases of The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie, and The Lego Ninjago Movie, Warner Bros. and DC have pumped out a series of Lego DC Comics Super Heroes films, straight-to-video, that play on our kids’ love for all things LEGO, all things superhero, and all things awesome. This genre will suck you in if you let it; what’s not to love about your favorite characters in brick form on epic adventures? But that doesn’t mean that the quality lives up to the anticipation of seeing your dreams come true. These films stay out of theatres for a reason, and ultimately they’re just for your sons and daughters to enjoy, as they taste comic book action for the first time, and in a package that’s much less violent, much more silly, and just plain fun, at least as long as you’re under the age of 10.
The Justice League is Earth’s first, last, and constant defense against the evils of aliens and bad guys everywhere. It is made up of the mightiest heroes in the world, and there is no danger that they will not face for the good of mankind. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Green Lantern; there’s not a better team to be found, and no evildoer better test them. But their most tentative member, Aquaman, isn’t exactly sure how he fits in, how his water skills translate to battle on land, or just how he can coexist with these legends. He wants to prove himself by saving the day once in a while, but he makes more mistakes than he does highlights, and so each mission is a toss up. He knows he can do the job, it’s just a matter of time, and of mistakes along the way.
The newest Green Lantern, Jessica Cruz, stepping in for Hal, is also nervous about how she fits into the group. She can’t quite get her power ring under control; it does what it wants to, not what she tells it to, and she doesn’t really know how to command it anyway. She’s not very helpful in a firefight, but she wants to be, and again, perhaps it’s just a matter of time. But Green and Aqua better get their game faces on, because trouble is coming whether they’re ready or not. In Atlantis, Aquaman’s stepbrother, Ocean Master, is planning a coup. Along with his buddy, a Red Lantern named Atrocitus, he plans to take control of the city, the people, and the kingdom. The Justice League will have to respond quickly and smartly if they want to avert disaster, and they’ll have to work together if they want to win.
There’s something undeniably fun about these Lego movies; it’s like our childhood dreams come to life. You imagined storylines as you played, but now you can see them on screen, and that’s something special, so thank you WB and DC, for creating something awesome and entertaining and transporting. Also, kids love these movies. Obviously the theatrical releases were the big deals, Chris Pratt and Will Arnett and all that, but these silly Lego videos have been a big hit with kids too, because they basically deliver they same content, just at a markedly poorer quality. Still, I doubt you’ll find a 6-10-year-old who wouldn’t enjoy these stories, especially if they are anything like my son, who loves superheroes but hasn’t seen the darker, more adult versions quite yet.
But the special thing about The Lego Movie and those like it is that they appeal to adults as well; these DC Comics Super Heroes movies really don’t. They play more like episodes of a Netflix original series than real films, and perhaps that’s as much as should be expected of them; they never claim to be the animated movie of the year. Aquaman is a throwaway installment, not a stand alone movie, a bit of a disappointment if you’re expecting something strong, a bit of enjoyable fluff if you don’t have very high expectations. The jokes fall flat, the action is predictable, the story is muddled, the characters are shells; it seems ridiculous to pick it apart too much, because it is what it is, but other films of this style have been successful, so there’s a chance for it to be better, it just isn’t.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (1080 HD 16×9), the video quality of the Blu-ray disc is acceptable but not stellar. It’s a low-budget, straight-to-video production, so no one is expecting Disney/Pixar, and that’s exactly what we don’t get. It’s a mediocre display of the Lego action we’ve started to enjoy, not on par with its contemporaries, but done well enough to entertain the kids if they’re already into the genre.
Audio – The disc was done in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with an option of Dolby Digital French 5.1 and Dolby Digital Spanish 5.1. Also, subtitles are available in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The audio is completely forgettable, without a soundtrack to remember or awesome effects that stick with you after you power down. The sound simply wasn’t important at all, and no effort was put in to make it so.
Extras – There are no bonus features on the Blu-ray, but you do get a cool limited edition Jessica Cruz mini-figure.
Rent It. If your child has ever stumbled upon these movies in the Lego section of your local library, picked one up, and enjoyed it at home, then Aquaman will deliver all that they expect and enjoy. It’s goofy, it’s bumbly, it’s action-packed, you know all the characters, and at 77 minutes it’s a quick and easy watch for a rainy afternoon. I just can’t recommend that parents watch along with their kids. The best animated features can be loved by the whole family; this isn’t that. This is something for your kids, something disposable, something a little longer than an episode of a dumb show but without the content of a real film. The video is only OK, the audio isn’t noteworthy, and there aren’t any special features, so don’t expect anything from the technical aspects, but hey, you do get a mini-figure.
Director: George Roy Hill
One of the best Westerns ever crafted, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is also a perfect depiction of the era in which it was made, the switch between the 60s and the 70s that ushered in an extremely unique time in art, music, film, and expression. It’s a cowboy movie and a 70s flick wrapped in one, not a Western using old, warbly guitar music and archaic phrasing, but a breath of fresh air that still holds true to the style that Americans were born to love. I’m not sure a film has ever straddled two styles so perfectly, without making any missteps or leaning too far in one direction. I guess that’s what makes it a masterpiece, and a standout among classics.
Butch Cassidy leads an outlaw gang whose specialty is robbing banks and holding up trains, although they’re not especially good at it nor do any of them hold onto their money for long. His right hand man is the Sundance Kid, a gun fighter and gambler who can out draw and out play any man who dares give him a challenge. The two are as close to friends as criminals can be, and when a special posse of lawmen arrive on the scene of their latest job in order to catch them once and for all, dead or alive, the duo high tail it out of there together, unsure of where to hide. With enough money to travel and the sweet Etta at their side, the now-trio head to New York City, and then to Bolivia, a land that Butch believes will be the answer to all their problems. But once an outlaw always an outlaw, and problems have a way of finding you no matter where you hide.
The thing that tickles me the most about this movie is the music. It’s so 70s, so perfect, B.J. Thomas, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David joining together to create original songs and a wonderful soundtrack that’s as timeless as the film itself. The songs are just so wonderful, and it could have gone so disastrously wrong, trying to make a Western fit the time the movie was made, instead of the other way around, but it didn’t, it all works seamlessly. The story is great, the friendship is real, Etta adds an important piece, and the comedic timing is the key to the whole thing, working in tandem with the action flawlessly. Newman is absolutely amazing as Butch, playing the part with a humanity that goes beyond the genre and enters into dramatic legend. Redford is less astounding perhaps, but god is he handsome, and he always brings that special something that has enthralled us all for years. There aren’t many iconic features more outstanding that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a Western and a drama that somehow showcases too distinct time periods at once, doing them both incredible service.
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” So says Luke, Cool Hand Luke, with a line that would define a film, not just because it gave the hero his nickname, but because it summarized the entire essence of the picture. Sometimes you are dealt nothing, but when you have nothing to lose, you are finally free to do whatever you choose. That might seem like a strange theme to be placed inside the barbed wire walls of a prison, but perhaps no place better exemplifies both the feelings of desperate hopelessness and of astounding faith. Shawshank Redemption would perfect the plot in later years, but Cool Hank Luke experimented with the idea and gave us a character we’ll never forget. For that, we hold it among the classics, and very few films in cinematic history deserve the recognition more.
Busted for destroying municipal property and disorderly conduct (aka breaking parking meters while drunk, just for kicks), Luke Jackson is sentenced to two years in a Southern labor camp, becoming a part of the chain gang community overnight, a place where men go to work off their time along the highways and in the ditches. Luke is a bird not meant to be caged, his song to the world is so sweet, and the rules of the camp begin to chafe him immediately. Escape attempts are punished by leg irons, time in the Box, extended sentences, or a combination thereof, but Luke can’t drown out the Siren call of the open road. For his refusal to conform and for his unbreakable spirit, the prison gang begin to love Luke, piling their own hopes on a man who seems above the law, who embodies all they wish they could be.
If you know the films of this time period, you will expect something slow and methodical, focused on atmosphere and content over speed and overwhelming action. Cool Hand Luke delivers the best of what this era and this genre have to offer, a story like none other that takes its time to unfold. The weight of the plot gets heavier and heavier as the characters get more and more desperate, and the conclusion is something you will never forget. But there is also comedy sprinkled throughout, enough to keep audiences engaged when the going gets tough. Nominated for four Academy Awards, this is a classic among classics, and it definitely deserves the spot. Amazing music, an excellent locale, memorable characters, iconic scenes, and Paul Newman in his prime; what more could you ask for. Cool Hand Luke is both a pillar at the base and a step toward modern masterpieces, with enough experimentation to impress but also a grounded firmness that you can sense from the very beginning. You could watch this movie any number of times and still come away impressed; it has that much to offer and is that well-made, a spectacularly dramatic look at a life led freely, even while in bondage.
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
I’ve played my fair share of shooters, though I’m sure I’m nowhere near the level of many men my age. We grew up in the Nintendo Revolution and were the first gamers, we remember having to blow in cartridges to get them to work, we remember tapping keyboards to make our men move forward toward their certain deaths. Doom, Duke Nukem, later Half-life, even this strange but awesome first-person alien battle called Area 51; I know what’s up. These games have a certain quality that we will always remember, and they sparked the fire that lit up the gaming world. So if you wanted to get romantic you could call Doom a frontrunner, a trailblazer, and even this film fills that role somewhat; Hardcore Henry wasn’t the first movie to put the audience in the driver’s seat of a killing machine. But that’s only if you wanted to get a little ridiculous; I don’t think Doom was shot with artistic history in mind.
Some years from now, humans discover an ancient, alien artifact in the American desert, a portal that will transport you to an abandoned civilization on Mars. These Martians were apparently very similar to humans, but had the ability to tap into their genetic material, to make themselves better somehow, to turn themselves into super humans. What we wouldn’t give to harness that power, so a team of corporate scientists start a small colony on Mars, researching the potential of advancing human biology. But it’s never a good idea to mess with Mother Nature, especially far from home, and something goes deathly wrong. Quarantine is called, and a team of special operatives is sent deep inside the facility to find out what happened, why the scientists aren’t responding, and who the hell is killing who.
Apparently Rocks, like wine, improve with age; see what I did there? But seriously; this was one of The Rock’s first roles, right after his Scorpion King days, and you can easily tell that he’s progressed as an actor, a real actor, especially compared to whatever it was he was supposed to be in this movie. Again though, I don’t think anyone was confused about what they were doing here; Doom exists to have a good time. Its homage to the game is brilliant, even doing a small first-person scene, and I loved the running scientists, the gross creatures, the trips down the tunnels, it all worked swimmingly. But only if you want it to, because, let’s be honest, no awards are heading this film’s way for anything other than its nostalgic qualities. It’s silly, it’s nonsensical, it’s not well-acted, but I honestly didn’t care. I had a shocking amount of fun watching, and that’s all I wanted from this throwback. Urban is a terrible actor, always has been, but Pike isn’t, she just isn’t really asked to do much other than scream. No one is asked to do too much, which was probably a smart choice, and so no one completely fails. Doom is something to enjoy if you know the structure of these games, and something not to take too seriously; let it entertain you, that’s all it wants.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
FJS has an underrated filmography that escapes notice only because it’s rather small as well, but the projects he was a part of are all undeniable: Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon. He died in 1989, but he left a lasting mark, having helped to sculpt the late 60s/early 70s into the cinematic vision we now look back on in awe. At least I do; I’ve always loved the lack of speed and abundance of experimentation from this era, as filmmakers played with what was possible and what audiences would accept. In that way, Papillon was a trailblazer, pushing boundaries and taking risks, while sticking to the deliberate style of the times. I grew up loving this period, and this film in particular, as it showcased all of what was best about movies, and all they could someday be.
Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, a Frenchman nicknamed Papillon for the butterfly tattoo on his chest is taken to the infamous penal colony in French Guiana to serve his time. Hard labor awaits him amid the crocodile-ridden and malaria-invested swamps of the colony, and Papi knows that his only chance at survival lies in escape. Among his fellow prisoners is infamous (and very wealthy) counterfeiter Louis Dega, who hopes to buy his way out of jail, but needs to survive long enough to do so. The money he swallowed is simply begging to be cut out by an opportunistic thief, so he and Papillon strike a deal; protection for Dega and a funded escape for Papi. The two become close allies and friends as their stay at the colony, in solitary confinement, and on Devil’s Island grows longer and longer. As their hope dwindles and their bodies age, each man will have to accept his fate, or go mad trying to fight it.
I wish I had been alive to experience these films as they were being created, to see the trial & error firsthand and to watch these stars make their marks. Schaffner would never do better than his core trio of films, McQueen was a legitimate action hero, and Hoffman was the talent to lean on whenever needed; no wonder this movie worked so well. It was nominated for its score at the Oscars, but I think Hoffman should have gotten a nod for Best Supporting; he is incredible as Dega. Perhaps he’s just in the movie too little, which is a mistake, because he makes it, and he makes McQueen seem better, since he’s not naturally a wonderful dramatic actor. The scope of the film is great though, as are the side characters, and the brutality you experience right alongside these men is something you’ll never forget. A little experimentation, a solid pace, great music, and an unforgettable story; Papillon is a classic from whatever direction you look at it.
Director: Mark Herman
Mark Herman went from directing movies in the 90s that no one ever heard of, to writing/directing a star-studded rom/com in Hope Springs, to adapting a mesmerizing drama for the screen in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Then he simply stopped. From unknown to embarrassing to award-winning to just done; I guess it’s smart to go out on top, especially when your previous project was an utter disaster and you don’t want to risk that again. Because that’s what this movie is, a complete disasterpiece, and I don’t mean in the same way as Dante’s Peak. I don’t know what Herman was thinking when he read this novel, turned it into a film, and cast these actors, but he could not possibly have been in his right mind, since this is a feature not even a mother could love, a dirty smudge on the landscape of cinema that ought simply to be wiped off.
Colin is a sad Englishman far from home by choice, looking for an escape from a broken heart and a failed relationship. The girl who broke his spirit, Vera, also broke off their engagement, and is already engaged to another man. The wedding invitation is what sent Colin over the edge, and across the pond, as he travels to the States in order to leave the past behind. Or, perhaps, just to wallow in his own self pity, but that’s understandable. Looking at a map, he picks a town called Hope as his destination, a lovely little town in New England that he imagines will serve as a springboard for a new life, or at least a temporary escape from his problems. But, of course, his issues reside in his own head, and no quaint village is going to quiet down the racing doubt and utter despair that follow him on vacation.
First step; find a hotel room, and there’s one that features an owner who also happens to own an odd face, so that’s where Colin heads. He’s an artist, usually portraits, and he has a mind to draw the people of this lovely town, perhaps create an exhibit of his work to showcase his medium and his melancholy. And since he’s so depressed, the hotel owner’s wife calls up her friend Mandy, who is a caregiver, to come over and talk to Colin, see if she can help him with his problems. Mandy is a hands-on type of woman, always positive and always lively, the exact opposite of Colin at the moment. However, they say opposites attract, and the pair begin to fall for each other at once. But Vera won’t let her ex get away that easy, she wants him for herself, and she’s traveled many a mile to bring him back home, no matter which blond American wants to keep him for her own.
I don’t often call a film a smudge, but I’m not sure what other term I can use to describe such an ugly outing, something that sullies the movie-going experience just by existing. Hope Springs is a feature to steal the hope from your heart, to make you unsure about turning on the television ever again, it’s that bad. Pedantic, pathetic, problematic, and just plain poor; this film is an embarrassment to a genre that is already pretty awful. This style isn’t utterly impossible, there are a few good rom/coms, but Hope Springs isn’t one of them, it’s instead the exact example of what not to do. Don’t make your characters despicable, don’t forget to bring something original to the table, and for god’s sake, don’t ever cast Heather Graham in a starring role; you’ll live to regret it.
Graham is one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen on screen, at least when she’s called upon to star; it’s just something she’s not capable of doing. I’m not talking about Rollergirl, she can be quaint when she wants to be, but her role here even tries to produce something lovable and dim like that and can’t, because she doesn’t have enough ability to pull it off again. I consider myself an expert on Graham, mainly because I’ve watched the entirety of Gray Matters and survived, which is no small feat. I hate to pick on her too much, but I don’t even care that she gets semi-naked in this film; nothing is worth her performance. Incidentally, Minnie Driver also takes her clothes off, which is a perk, but she’s also a great actress, even if she isn’t called upon to do any real acting in this movie. Even Colin Firth gets in on the skin, but I doubt anyone is rushing to the theatre for that, and his character is so sniveling and sad that you can’t possible enjoy his talent, even if you know it’s there somewhere. All three fail to make the story captivating, but in their defense, there’s not much to work with; this is perhaps the worst script ever written and a terrible idea from start to finish.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (1920x1080p), the video quality of the Blu-ray is fine for the film’s original year and for the transfer, but far from anything you’d want to write home about. The clarity and the picture are OK, there’s nothing glaringly wrong, it’s just not special, and the cinematography is questionable at best. The scenes feel more like skits than actual planned out cinematic sequences, which is not what you want.
Audio – The disc was done in English with an option of English subtitles. That’s it, that’s all she wrote, and I doubt we’d want to hear this dialogue in any other language. The conversations were so terrible they made you feel as if you should have been hired to write the lines instead; you couldn’t have done a worse job.
Extras – The only special features on this Blu-ray are a Making Of featurette (7 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage) and a group of trailers (6 in total).
Skip It. Hope Springs can at least go down as an example of what not to do, and I guess that’s helpful for educational reasons, if not enjoyable for any other. Whatever can go wrong did go wrong, which isn’t exactly the theory, but close enough; I think we’ve established a new law of science, wherein creating something that’s the opposite of chemistry results in a very bad smell. The acting, the story, the writing, the music, the setting, the general assumption that audiences are as dumb as they look; there isn’t anything to hang your hat on if you’re anyone in charge of this film, it was an all-around disappointment. The video and audio are only OK, there aren’t many extras, so don’t look to the technical aspects to save you, you won’t get any help there. The only thing to do is to stay far, far away, in another galaxy would be fine, as long as you don’t subject yourself to this film.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
The exclamation mark at the end of this title tells you all you need to know about this movie. It’s a not-so-subtle clue that what you are about to watch is ridiculous, but, in this case, only because it’s mostly true. The Informant! is based on a non-fiction crime novel about a real life white-collar caper that still defies understanding, only because the man at the middle of it was such an idiot. The exclamation mark combined with Matt Damon’s face on the cover will start you chuckling before you even start watching, and by the end you’ll be shaking your head in disbelief, because sometimes criminals can simply be that dumb. Soderbergh was in rare form for this film, Matt Damon was the perfect choice, George Clooney produced, Marvin Hamlisch did the music; how they got so many talented people in the room at the same time to adapt this story for the screen is beyond my, but I’m glad it happened, because the result is gold.
Mark Whitacre works for a giant corporation, ADM, which processes a lot of corn, putting the byproducts into everything we eat and drink and see. Mark’s job is to create the process that creates the sugars that creates the product; it’s complicated. He’s also a vice president, knows all the ins & outs of the industry, and makes a lot of money in the process. But he’s also a compulsive liar, or at least a man who lives in a fantasy world in which he’s the good guy in every situation, a hero who will rise to the top no matter what. When Mark brings a wild tale about a 10 million dollar bribery to his bosses, they bring in the FBI to meet with Mark and to hear his story. Inexplicably, Mark starts telling the FBI that his company is price fixing, which of course is illegal, and he begins work as an informant in a blockbuster case. Over the course of years Mark helps the FBI stockpile data, all the while lying to them about his involvement, his reasons, his money, and basically his sanity.
This might be the very first Soderbergh film I’ve enjoyed. Really, looking back, I disagree with the popular opinion, I think the majority of his movies are really bad, or at least nothing to write home about. Actually, George Clooney’s fingerprints are smudged all over this feature, and Matt Damon is the hands-down star, so perhaps that’s why I was entertained by it so much. Damon is hilarious as the bumbling bandit Whitacre, carrying a bit of a Burn After Reading feel alongside him, which may also reflect on Clooney. The film also smells an awful lot like a less-violent Suburbicon, which makes sense, but is fine by me, since I liked that one more than most critics. The Informant! is pure fun, made more incredible by the fact that it’s a true story, that someone was seriously this vague, that they thought they could get away with these crimes. Damon is great, Lynskey is so adorable in everything she does, and the rest of the cast is too full of semi-stars to write down. They all team up wonderfully though, and the 90s feel prevalent through the plot is fantastically dated. If you are in the mood for a Coen Bros. comedy without the gore, then here you go; I’m not saying it’s as good as those icons, but it’s not so far off.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Of all Darren Aronofsky’s wacky filmography, The Wrestler is the least wacky, a story that refuses to conform to the director’s usual style of shock and allegory. Pi, Requiem, Fountain, Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah, Mother; these are the seven gems in the crown, and if you’re a cinephile you know how important these movies are, how much talent is exposed in these stories, if in an extremely unconventional way. Count me as a huge fan, and although I don’t like every one of his films the same, I always recognize genius. But The Wrestler is a different breed, a more bare bones approach at conveying a message, instead of looking toward existential musings to make the point. It’s also one of Aronofsky’s most honest and very best, so he’s not a one trick pony, he can rein his own imagination in when the occasion calls for it, and he shows that here with a film that cuts deep without Novocaine, a character that is all of us at our darkest moment.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson, which is not his real name, is an aging professional wrestler whose best days are behind him. His body is slowing giving out, finally showing the signs of a life fueled by alcohol and steroids, punished by razor blades and metal chairs. But it’s a profession that Ram loves, a rush that very few get to feel, when the crowd roars as you bleed on the mat, having given everything you have inside you for their entertainment. Now though, Ram is a has-been, a legend to a dwindling few, a relic who used to be an action figure. Health problems might keep him from future fights, but that doesn’t mean his life has to be over, there are still important moments he can spend with the people he loves the best, wrongs he can right if he can only find the words. A budding relationship with a kind stripper and a chance to reconnect with an estranged daughter keep him keeping on, which is all any of us can do, before thet time comes to tap out for good.
I don’t mind the weird (usually), but I also keenly enjoy the not-so-weird, so I guess it’s safe to say that I like Aronofsky from whatever direction I can get him. Black Swan is one of my favorite films of all-time, so The Wrestler can’t quite compete with that, but it’s a strong film all its own, another great addition to a small filmography that’s full of smart successes. It’s a very personal film, very close to the main character; we often follow directly behind him as he moves, like we’re the angel or demon on his shoulder. And he is both good & evil, full of love and making mistakes, he’s not a perfect man, and the story doesn’t end with a glorious happy ending where the world is a golden slumber. This is reality, rough reality, and the plot doesn’t shy away from things like strippers on the lap, needles in the ass, regret, and heartbreak. Who would’ve thought that Mickey Rourke could carry that load, but he does, and in fine style. Also, Marisa Tomei is amazing, both so extremely talented and so perfectly beautiful; she simply blows me away. The wrestling scenes are intense and sad, the pace is expertly fine-tuned, the morals weave in and out; The Wrestler is more than it appears on the surface, but it is also simple and succinct, which is a recipe for applause in my book.