Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Blu-ray (Casey/Werner 1996) Paramount Home Video

The popularized cinematic cannibalization of classic TV shows for big screen entertainment reaches its zenith with Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible (1996); a relatively faithful adaptation of the long-running serialized exploits of a group of highly trained federal espionage experts. 

The original show was a springboard for stellar ensemble acting, headlined by Peter Graves's stellar performance as Jim Phelps. The film, however, is little more than a star vehicle for Tom Cruise; arguably his last memorable movie to date. David Koeppe/Robert Towne's screenplay shifts its focus from Phelps (played in the film by Jon Voight) to his crackerjack point agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). This rewrite wouldn't be so disquieting, even with Phelps made over as a double agent and the villain of the piece, if only Voight's performance had risen above mediocrity now and then. Regrettably, it does not. Nevertheless,  audiences flocked to see this big budget update, ringing registers to the tune of $456,494,833 in worldwide box office receipts.

De Palma’s utilization of the split screen – a devise (arguably gimmick) that the director is justly famous for utilizing almost to the point of cliché – crops up sparingly in this film, most effectively, when illustrating simultaneous action taking place at various locations. After a very Bond-like pre-credit sequence has fellow IMF team member, Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Bearte) nearly poisoned to death in Hunt’s ambush of a Russian Mafia member, the film moves into a frenetic montage of snippets from the rest of the story over Lalo Schifrin’s classic 'Mission Impossible' theme, ever so slightly re-orchestrated by film composer Danny Elfman.

The action moves to an Embassy gala in Prague, where Ethan impersonates an American senator in order to gain access to some top secret computer files containing the covert names of undercover agents. The IMF team helmed by Jim (Voight) begins their infiltration with considerable stealth. Unfortunately, their cover does not last for very long.

As Ethan helplessly observes from his various monitors, operative Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) is stabbed to death near the Embassy’s wrought iron entrance gate while pursuing a Ukrainian couple. Techno-genius, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) is gruesomely impaled inside one of the Embassy’s elevator shafts. Claire is blown up with a car bomb just outside the Embassy's parameters, while her husband Jim is briefly glimpsed toppling off a nearby bridge, the victim of an apparent stabbing.

Aborting the mission, Ethan calls in his casualties to the home office. He is met at a posh after hours club by CIA director, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), who reveals to Ethan that not only was the ambush suspected and actually planned for to expose a mole named Job, but that the U.S. government now considers Ethan the mole who arranged for the rest of his colleagues to meet with their untimely ends.

Escaping incarceration, Ethan decides to contact Job’s paymaster; illegal arms dealer 'Max' (Vanessa Redgrave) in the hopes that by apprehending her he will learn the truth about the real Job and therefore clear his name and restore his reputation. Ethan reveals to Max that the NOC list in her possession is a government fake but offers to steal the real list for her since he is now a rogue agent working against the United States. Max agrees to Ethan's venture and the race for the truth begins.

Ethan is reunited with Claire inside their Prague safe house. Although Ethan believed Claire was murdered along with the rest, she explains that she managed an escape the car bomb at the last possible moment and has since been in hiding. Taking Claire at face value, Ethan assembles a team of experts from a group of disavowed intelligence agents that include computer genius, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and hotshot pilot Franz Kreiger (Jean Reno). Together, they break into CIA headquarters at Langley - the now utterly iconic moment when Ethan precariously dangles from wires inside an ultra-sterile safe room surrounded by a grid of electronic eyes - and successfully steals the NOC list.

Retreating to London, Ethan learns that his uncle and mother have been arrested as supposed drug dealers in a feeble attempt by Kittridge to smoke Ethan out of hiding. Contacting Kittridge and allowing his phone call to be traced, Ethan is next reunited with Jim, who confides that Kittridge is the mole. Ethan contacts Max to arrange for the swap and sale of the NOC list aboard a high speed train en route to Paris. However, Ethan has already developed a theory of his own about the real identity of the mole and is merely baiting the rest of the players to get to the truth.

Having been sent a video watch by Ethan, Kittridge boards the train, able to view the events as they unfold through Ethan’s eyes, but from a distance. Upon receiving the NOC list, Max attempts to download the files onto her laptop. She quickly discovers that the signal is being jammed, though she remains unaware it is Luther - seated across from her on the train - who is blocking her.

Claire recognizes Kittridge on the train and moves to the baggage car where Jim awaits. Ethan follows and Jim finally confronts him with the truth – that he is Job, the mole and the man responsible for his team’s demise. Ethan reveals to Jim that his entire confession has been filmed through his video glasses and that Kittridge is waiting outside to arrest him.

Panicking, Jim shoots Claire and pummels Ethan before escaping with the NOC list to the train's roof. Ethan makes chase and the two men become locked in a perilous battle.
Kreiger, also revealed as a double agent, attempts to save Jim by lowering a rescue winch attached to his helicopter flying overhead. Instead, Ethan seizes and attaches the cable to a hook on the train’s roof, thereby dragging the copter into the Chunnel along with the train. In the ensuing struggle for possession of the list, Kreiger’s chopper crashes against the Chunnel walls and Jim is thrown under the speeding train's rails.

Max is arrested by Kittridge and Ethan and Luther are reinstated as active IMF agents. The film ends with Ethan on a plane – presumably bound for the U.S. only to have a faux flight attendant inform him that his next mission in the tropics is about to begin.

Mission Impossible is heartily realized, heart-palpitating entertainment. The Koeppe/Towne screenplay is intricately balanced with just the right amounts of action, suspense and drama to legitimize what could so easily have become just another popcorn action/adventure yarn for the mindless and easily satisfied. Instead, we are treated to a stylish thriller of considerable substance.

The film does have its flaws. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is a petulant pretty boy driven to almost mad pursuit by a series of unforeseen circumstances. Though he excels at playing glib in the scenes between Ethan and Max – the more dramatic confrontations, particularly between Ethan and Kittridge take on the flavor of two insolent school chums sparring over the latest Game Boy cartridge.

Voight is perhaps a weak-kneed villain in the final act – unable to convey an adequate level of menace. It is also a pity that Kristin Scott Thomas’ Sarah has been done away with so early in the film. Nevertheless, the stealth with which director De Palma moves all of his chess pieces into play more than makes up for these shortcomings. In the final analysis, Mission Impossible is an exercise in good writing and solid directing trumping mediocre delivery. It’s a great summer film to revisit.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray rectifies the shortcomings on the studio’s DVD transfer. The 1080p image is superior in all aspects. We get vibrant colors, exceptional contrast levels and fine details that positively pop. Overall, this is a great example of Blu-ray's capabilities fully realized. The audio is 7.1 DTS with a pounding bass and phenomenal spatial separation.

Extras include no less than 7 featurettes covering the making of the movie, casting, marketing, etc. as well as a look back at the original television series that inspired the movie. All of these extras are direct imports from Paramount's Collector's Edition DVD. There’s also some theatrical trailers, television spots and other junket materials slapped together for those interested in such things. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



U Turn (Columbia 1997) Sony Home Entertainment

Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997) is an abysmal trifle – a disposable entertainment of monumental misfires. Bogged down by John Ridley’s screenplay that presents a ‘bad day’ gone virtually insane, the film is easily the most vial excuse for a road trip movie ever attempted. The landscape of Ridley’s novel and subsequent screenplay is populated with a bizarre cast of reprobates that Stone has chosen to flesh out with cameo turns from a potpourri of established talent. If only there were one among them worthy of our sustained interest or even minor fascination, the film might have evolved into something greater than a claptrap of disassociated vignettes.

The story begins when con artist, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) bursts a radiator hose in his 1964 Mustang convertible. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Cooper, a shyster who has lost two fingers as partial payment to Vegas hood, Mr. Arkady (Valery Nikolaev) and his henchman, Sergi (Ilia Volokh) was on his way back to Vegas with his $30,000 repayment when the accident occurred.

Barely making it to Harlan’s; an automobile graveyard and makeshift repair shop run by bleeding gums redneck, Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), the egotistical Bobby makes short shrift of Darrell’s limited intellect before entrusting his repairs to this backwater blackmailer. He then departs on foot to the nearby town of Superior, Arizona – a figurative name at best.
In reality, the town is little more than a ramshackle of nearly abandoned store fronts and hovels populated by discarded lost souls that time forgot. Bobby’s first encounter is with a Blind Indian (Jon Voight) begging for loose change and a cold beverage on the street corner. Quickly, however, Bobby’s interests segue to town slut, Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez) a sultry Hispanic lugging several large boxes of window shades back to her Jeep. Bobby helps Grace with her load and earns an invitation to her home. However, once there Grace baits Bobby with sexual flirtations that end when Grace’s husband, Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives.

A physical altercation ensues. Bobby leaves the McKenna home but is picked up by Jake not far down the road. After apologizing for giving Bobby a bloody nose, Jake propositions him to kill his wife for $40,000 insurance money. Bobby refuses. However, when his own bag of money is destroyed in a shotgun blast during the hold up of a local convenience store, Bobby begins to have second thoughts. Distraught and desperate, Bobby telephones Arkady to plead his case, only to have his paymaster send Sergi after him.

In the meantime, Bobby incurs the wrath of local hothead, Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who misinterprets a harmless conversation between Bobby and his girlfriend, Jenny (Claire Danes) as a passionate flirtation. It doesn’t help that Jenny – a clueless waif with more imagination than tact – enjoys observing Toby in action, thereby encouraging reasons for him to vent his rage. Bobby telephones Jake with his agreement to murder Grace. But once alone with her on a cliff Bobby instead falls under her spell. The two attempt to have sex, but Grace pulls away at the last moment – confessing that Jake was actually her mother’s second husband before he became hers. She tells Bobby of a $200,000 loot McKenna has stashed in a floor safe at their house. The key Jake wears around his neck is for its safe keeping. Now Grace and Bobby plot Jake’s murder instead.

Meanwhile, Sergi arrives in town and is promptly arrested by Sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe) for speeding. Bobby goes to the McKennas that evening with the intent to murder Jake. But the plan goes awry and after considerable struggle it is Grace who takes an Indian tomahawk to her husband’s chest instead. Bobby and Grace make haste with Jake’s body in the trunk of his car only to be pulled over by Virgil, who tells Bobby that he and Grace were supposed to run away together.

Grace murders Virgil in cold blood and she and Bobby dispose of both bodies over the side of a steep ravine. Unfortunately for Bobby, Grace has no intention of sharing her dead husband’s money with him. She pushes Bobby over the side of the cliff too and he tumbles down to a rocky plateau, breaking a leg and an arm on the way down. It is only then that Grace realizes Bobby still has the car keys in his pocket. She crawls down to retrieve them, but Bobby is still alive and after much flailing, strangles Grace to death instead. Making his way back to the car with considerable difficulty, Bobby laughingly proclaims that he is “still lucky” only to have the replacement radiator hose that Darrell fixed explode on him in the middle of nowhere. Trapped and mortally wounded, Bobby dies in the baking sun, his body awaiting the arrival of vultures to be picked apart.

Those pondering the significance of this bad karma/morality tale will be more than a tad perplexed. None of the characters are above suspicion or reproach; hence, none escape the dingy grit and uselessness of their miserable lives. The point of the story is undoubtedly to illustrate how no one can escape their own fate/destiny. Bobby has begun his journey with bad intentions – therefore, his fate can only consume his own selfishness and greed.

Jake is a child rapist who, even in death, is forced to watch another man pleasure the young woman he took advantage of for so many years. Grace is a perverse femme fatale. Though she tells Bobby she suspects Jake is responsible for her mother’s (Sheri Foster) fatal tumble down a cliff many years before, Grace’s own predilection for murder and her final betrayal of Bobby suggest that perhaps she might have killed her own mother to be with McKenna instead.

Ridley’s screenplay is little more than a series of improbable vignettes strung together by Bobby’s inability to learn from his past mistakes. There’s no progression or arch to any of the characters’ personal development. In fact, each is a cartoon cut-out from the rogue's gallery. Sean Penn is a fairly descent actor, but this isn’t his finest hour. He sleepwalks through his part, utterly disengaged. As Grace, Lopez is drearily uninspired – a cold-blooded reptile with a smoldering façade and a butt that should have its own zip code. Nolte's Jake is just another whack job ripped from the latter half of his most recent screen credits. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the only point to the film is ‘you can’t win’ a fitting tag line considering how poorly U-Turn performed at the box office.

Poor is a good work for Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD transfer; marred by excessive age related artifacts – dirt, scratches – and a very muddy color palette. At times the image can be crisp and relatively grain free. However, there are many instances where browns, taupe, oranges and beige blend into one indiscernible mess. Flesh tones are much too orange throughout. Fine details are lost during night scenes.  Pixelization occurs in background detail. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital but often slightly garbled, particularly during whispered portions of dialogue. This flipper disc also contains a full frame version of the movie on Side B. Why bother?  There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



Saturday, June 7, 2008

DEAD AGAIN (Mirage 1991) Paramount Home Video

A bloodless attempt to reinvigorate the B-noir thriller, updated and shot in color for contemporary tastes, Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991) is a would-be homage with an utterly flawed psychological/supernatural twist. Scott Frank's screenplay falls miserably short of its aspirations. After a sneak preview in which audiences were thoroughly baffled by the shenanigans of a botched reincarnation, bad karma, fate vs. destiny and selective amnesia, the film was recut and reedited with all sequences taking place in the past desaturated to B&W to delineate the action between past and present narratives.

Composer Patrick Doyle – a Branagh favorite – lends his musical styling herein, but the orchestral offerings are so garish and over the top they all but dwarf the tepid dumb show on the screen. From a technical aspect, the film is on more solid ground. Branagh’s fascination with long takes yields some brief, albeit rather impressive camera work, including a 360 rotating shot inside the Laughing Duke pawn shop. If only Scott Frank’s screenplay had risen to the challenge of making us either laugh or gasp we might have had a very good thriller. As it stands, we merely, and very rarely, cringe. 

The film stars Branagh and then wife, Emma Thompson in dual roles. He plays fast talking private investigator, Mike Church in the present and cultured, though temperamental pianist and composer, Roman Strauss in the past. She is the mysterious amnesiac that Mike nicknames Grace, and also Margaret Strauss, Roman’s wife during the flashback sequences.

In the first of these flashbacks that opens the story, Roman is convicted of Margaret’s brutal homicide. As he sits on death row, Roman is interviewed by hard-living newspaper reporter, Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) who writes a series of lurid articles following the trial to its inevitable conclusion. From here, the story flashes forward into the present. The Strauss mansion is now a Catholic monastery where Grace has been taken after having been found wandering the streets without the capability to speak.

The curiously unhelpful priest, Father Timothy (Richard Easton) contacts Mike to take Grace into police custody where she will be safe and out of his hair. However, after realizing just how awful the precinct can be, Mike takes pity on Grace, moving her into his apartment. Intrigued to solve the mystery of this woman’s real name and whereabouts, Mike contacts newspaper columnist Pete Dugan (Wayne Knight) who takes some pictures of Grace and places an item in the paper about her discovery.

However, almost from the moment the article appears in print, charlatans interested in Mike's potential reward begin to crop up. Eventually, Mike and Grace are introduced to clairvoyant pawn broker, Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi) who promises that he can release Grace from her self-imposed silence with regression therapy. This seemingly impossible feat he does indeed accomplish, though his motives are far from selfless.

Gradually, the two opposing narratives of Roman and Margaret and Grace and Mike begin to converge and then, startlingly enough, run a parallel course. As ruined psychotherapist turned frozen produce grocery clerk, Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) tells Mike, “It’s all part of the karma payment plan. Sin now. Pay forever.”

Dead Again is a thriller dead in the water before it even enters its second act. I cannot decide which is more pedestrian: the screenplay or Matthew F. Leonetti's cinematography - neither recapturing the moody look or feel of a classic B-noir thriller. True enough – Scott Franks’ narrative is so full of holes and red herrings that it makes an episode of the Twilight Zone seem coherent by comparison, but Leonetti’s camera work is run of the mill to boring at best; even taking on something of the flavor of a Remington Steele (apologies to NBC - I like that show) television episode instead of a full blown cinema/noir experience. Occasionally, there are some inspired visual touches – but overall this is a rather bland attempt to revisit the genre. The B&W sequences are either under or over exposed, presumably to add a vintage quality to their appearance. The contemporary sequences have no visual flair. 

And then there is the acting to consider. Branagh is a very poor excuse for the classic American gumshoe. His Mike is like a carefree adolescent out on a lark; a sort of devil-may-care Hardy boy who cannot decide whether we wants to solve a crime or simply bed the mysterious woman currently occupying a space on his couch. Emma Thompson is terrible as the amnesiac. Someone ought to have explained to her that her character has forgotten her past - not her marbles.  Worse, the supposed groundswell of romantic chemistry that is supposed to make us care about Mike and Grace as a couple just isn't there. It's only superficially present in the Roman/Margaret flashbacks, yet there too seems unnaturally stiff and blunted. 

Derek Jacobi is too ethereal and flighty as the villain of the piece; played strictly for comedy until the last act when he inexplicable switches over to utter insanity. The supposed hint of homo eroticism between P.I. Gray Baker and Roman is ill conceived and badly played out. Furthermore, it undercuts Roman's innocence of the crime of killing his wife - a woman he genuinely loved. I can't say I was a fan of Andy Garcia's turn as Baker either - looking more silly than sly and simply skulking around for a good story rather than clues during the flashback sequences. In the final analysis, Dead Again is a film that ought to remain buried.

Paramount Home Video’s DVD delivers an adequate image retaining all of the aforementioned visual characteristics discussed in this review. Colors in the contemporary sequences are nicely contrasted, though not quite as punchy as one might expect. The B&W sequences have a harsher patina of grain – either intentionally or perhaps just slightly more exaggerated as digital grit than expected. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering effort. The sonic characteristic is oddly strident with a decided lack of bass tonality. Extras include an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



Wednesday, June 4, 2008

BEING JULIA (Serendipity 2004) Alliance Atlantis Home Entertainment

Istvan Zabo’s Being Julia (2004) is an adroit, often frank, occasionally meandering, but never anything less than compelling critique of life upon the wicked stage circa 1920s. The film stars Annette Benning as grand dame of the theater, Julia Lambert. Though the actress’ professional life could not be any better (she is currently wrapping up a successful London engagement and looking forward to a vacation) her temperament and frequent bouts of backstage depression render her a rather emotionally unstable spouse for manager, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons).

Michael and Julia have an open marriage – so lax, in fact, that Michael deliberately introduces his wife to scheming social climber and much too young for her, though undeniably handsome upstart, Tom Fennel (Sean Evans) with the probable likelihood that Julia will take a sexual interest in him. 

Before long, Tom and Julia do indeed become passionate lovers and Julia snaps out of her depression, bouncing back into a brand new hit show guaranteed to make Michael a lot of money. But Tom wants too much. Not content to simply accept Julia’s expensive gifts, though she is quite generous in their affair – lavishing her stud with expensive clothes, jewelry and money for travel - Tom is really after some rapid advancement for his own career and wants Julia to offer her understudy’s position to his girlfriend on the side, Evie (Juliet Stevenson).

Believing that the acceptance of Tom’s terms will bring them closer together Julia agrees; then quickly regrets her decision. Evie is a harpy and decidedly not the actress that patrons will pay good money to see. Worse, Tom has grown more distant from Julia since Evie’s appointment. Then, the truth comes out. Tom is scheming with Evie to have Julia deposed from her perch as the undisputed first lady of the footlights. Only, this time depression will not be the order of the day. A totally delicious revenge has taken its place.

Based on Sommerset Maugham's clever novel, revisited with slight revisions by screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, Being Julia is basically a clever drawing room comedy of errors buried beneath some rather contrived and maudlin melodramatic trappings. The narrative clings together – compellingly so - thanks to Benning’s tour de force, masterfully carried off with a wily sense of self deprecation. The rest of the cast pale by comparison.

Jeremy Irons is given precious little to do and does just that. His Michael ought to be something of a disreputable scamp. After all, it is through his procurement of other men for his wife that he enjoys her renewed commitments to the theater - thereby filling its coffers and affording Michael his cushy lifestyle with its more obvious perks hidden behind closed doors. Yet, Irons' Michael is a foppish milquetoast at best. He lacks guts and spark to make us invest and despise his scheming.

Sean Evans is never quite convincing as the lover driven by hidden agendas. As an audience we know immediately what his intentions are, begging the question as to how a woman as sophisticated as Julia could be so easily deceived? But Evans plays Tom as a mostly petulant manipulator. There's no subterfuge in his eagerness to get what he wants at any and all costs, no cleverness to his seductions.

The only friend that Julia really has is Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood); a closeted homosexual who wants nothing from her other than friendship, and proves time and again he is the only one able to offer Julia his rejuvenating spirit as remuneration for her enduring loyalty and kindnesses towards him.

The film's finale ramps into a celebratory mode for vengeance as Julia exposes her enemies within the context of her latest play - proving once and for all that she is the undisputed grand dame of the European stage. The premise is slightly strained, with Benning's Julia crucifying Evie in front of a live audience on opening night while pretending that their confrontation is just a part of the stagecraft. 

Evie knows better, and Tom and Michael do too as they helplessly watch Evie endure her painful public execution from the wings. In Tom's case, he realizes that his run of deceptive manipulations has come to an end. But Michael is suddenly filled with a quiet admiration for his wife.  

The film ends with Julia foregoing all the resplendent mania of after theater parties for a quiet dinner alone -  thoroughly satisfied with herself. In these final moments the film suggests, perhaps accurately so, that strange isolationism all truly creative people feel - removed from the world around them even as they are applauded for their craftsmanship by legions of adoring fans.  Perhaps then, 'being' Julia is never easy. But Annette Benning makes it all seem quite effortless and worth the trouble.

Alliance Atlantis DVD presentation is quite acceptable. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a refined color palette with rich bold hues, very natural flesh tones and adequately rendered contrast levels. Blacks are solid; though on occasion do tend to be deep gray.

Age related artifacts are a non-issue, but edge enhancement and pixelization crop up now and then and distract. A patina of film grain is quite prevalent and more often rendered as digital grit for an image that is, at times, not as smooth as one would hope for. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite sufficient for this primarily dialogue driven presentation. Extras include a very brief ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)