Review of THE BAT (1959) (Special Edition Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

Another release timed for Halloween is The Bat (1959), which is in the public domain and widely available for free . . . in blurred versions that are no better than VHS tapes (remember those?). The way to watch, if you’re a fan, is on hi-def Blu-ray from The Film Detective, which becomes available on October 25. Transfer purists might wince at a few compression artifacts, but this print is still plenty sharp and a major improvement over the free stuff.

Don’t let the title, tagline (“When it flies . . . Someone Dies”) or star fool you. The Bat isn’t a horror film. With Vincent Price onboard and cover art reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum, you’d certainly think as much, but when I watched this film for the first time a single thought kept popping into my head:  the old “Shadow” radio serials.

With a radio mystery feel to it, The Bat has more in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories than it does his tales of the macabre. And while Price gets top billing, Agnes Moorehead (Samantha’s mom on the old Bewitched TV series) has the most screen time and is also more engaging. She plays a mystery writer who rents a mansion that has a sketchy past and rumors of hauntings and crazy people, just so she can get ideas for her next book.

Men in Plaid

Sleeping in a haunted house all alone except for a terrified female assistant (Lanita Lane)? No problem. Cornelia van Gorder is more like her sleuth heroes than the typical writer immersed in a real-life adventure that we encounter in movies. Nothing seems to faze her, this creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who in 1920 based her three-act play The Bat on her 1908 novel, The Circular Staircase, and lived long enough to see two Hollywood adaptations. She died a year before this faithful adaptation was released on a B-movie twin bill with the 1959 Hammer version of The Mummy. But based on a play, it feels like a play.


Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  


Review of THE IPCRESS FILE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time. More

Review of DARK WATERS (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay. More

Review of PARASITE (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
Comedy, crime thriller
2019, 132 min., Color
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean DTS-HDMA 5.1 (or dubbed English 2.0)
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

Parasite is a South Korean black comedy with English subtitles that was among my Top Five films for 2019, along with Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), the Korean film focuses on a poor family that plots to sponge off of a rich family.

The structure is classic, with one small act leading to another, and another, growing larger each time. Before you watch, it’s okay to look up “parasite” in the dictionary and discover something like this: “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.” In fact, Bong counts on the association, if the audience is really going to appreciate his film. But if you’re not a fan of spoilers, stay away from the encyclopedia or specific case histories of certain parasites like mistletoe. Wait until after you’ve seen Parasite and then read up. It will make the film resonate all the more.

The Kim family struggles to get by. They live in a basement apartment in a crappy neighborhood where people urinate outside their window. The first hint of their parasitic nature is that they’re tapped into other people’s wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and college-age daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are all unemployed and have only temporary jobs that bring in just a little money as the family struggles to get by. More

SUDDENLY (Blu-ray)

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suddenlycoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1954, 75 min., Black-and-white
Film Detective
Not rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

A year before Frank Sinatra would play the better-known hoodlum Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and a year after he impressed audiences with his Oscar-winning performance as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, Old Blue Eyes was convincingly crazy-eyed as a war-hero-turned-criminal in the 1954 film Suddenly.

If you remove the hokum—the overly obvious and period-wholesome nonsense that frames the main narrative and reminds you a bit of The Andy Griffith ShowSuddenly is a taut thriller in the Key Largo mold, with hoods taking over a family residence (in this case a private one, rather than a hotel).


NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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nowyouseeme2coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence and some language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD compatible)
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Now You See Me 2 is a solid sequel that’s as glitzy and stylish as the first—even though it may be a little harder to figure out. This heist thriller brings back Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and David Franco (James’ brother) as three of the Four Horsemen—magicians who pulled off grand illusions as diversions so they could steal from the conniving rich and give their money away to common people.

That Robin Hood theme isn’t a part of the second film, which opens with Jack Wilder (Franco) thought dead and Atlas (Eisenberg) and McKinney (Harrelson) waiting for instructions from The Eye. In short order they are given a fourth illusionist named Lula May (Lizzy Caplan) and their contact/handler, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) tells them they are to expose a software magnate who is stealing user data.

nowyouseeme2screen1It really helps to have seen the original, as what emerges is a revenge motif that’s dependent on your knowledge of the past. Even so, it’s possible to enjoy Now You See Me 2 as a stand-alone film because it’s essentially a come-uppance plot that involves grand illusions that are mostly unexplained. So what’s a little extra confusion?

The FBI, led by new chief Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan) is out to get the Four Horsemen, not knowing that Agent Rhodes is playing both sides. They’re not the only ones with an axe to grind. Rhodes’ nemesis (Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bentley) wants to bring them down because he was framed by them in the first film because Rhodes thought him responsible for the death of his father, a Houdini-like magician. Their original handler (Michael Caine) is also disgruntled with them and wants to bring them down, with the assistance of his son (Daniel Radcliffe).

nowyouseeme2screen2Everything starts to hit the fan when the Horsemen expose that software magnate but are themselves exposed at that same event, which forces them to go on the run. They escape through a previously placed chute but instead of going according to plan they mysteriously find themselves in Macau, where they become involved with all sorts of danger and intrigue and Jay Chou, a popular Taiwanese musician/actor who plays a magic shop employee.

The plot of Now You See Me 2 is a little more convoluted than the original, meaning it’s going to be for ages 13 and up—not so much because of anything that is censorable, but because it’s intellectually demanding. Much depends on the audience’s ability to figure out some things on the fly, as well as their willingness to just have fun and appreciate the rest without needing to have every last thing explained. Aside from some confusion, Now You See Me 2 offers everything you’d want from a film like this: great production values, great performances, and illusions that are rendered with equally great special effects.

Language: One f-bomb and multiple lesser swearwords
Sex: Nothing here
Violence: Hand-to-hand combat, bloody loss of body part (that turns out to be fake)
Adult situations: A boy watches while his father drowns inside a safe
Takeaway: Though it’s a half-grade less than the original, this film about magic can get away with a lot


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MidnightSpecialcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 112 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

Midnight Special is a strange movie about a boy with strange powers that are never fully explained, even as the film tries to transcend its limitations to enter Steven Spielberg territory toward the second half.

In giving us a different kind of Close Encounter with a sorta-human version of E.T., writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) hovers over Sixth Sense territory as well. Yet, as much as you keep watching with interest, this 2016 sci-fi drama is uneven and kinda cops out when it comes to explanations.

You can picture Nichols’ mind at work: Okay, start with a young boy who has special powers (Jaeden Lieberher)—a boy who was taken from his parents and raised for two years by the leader of a religious cult (Sam Shepard) that thinks he’s the key to life itself. MidnightSpecialscreen1Have them be investigated by the FBI, then have his parents decide they want to rescue him, and, with the help of his best friend, have Dad (Michael Shannon) grab the kid and hits the road. Of course the kid’s powers have to be cool—Light shooting from his hands? Ability to unleash a light attack on people who would harm them?—and then bring in some alien or alternate universe elements to keep viewers guessing. But mostly run with a chase story and lean heavily on Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst to pull off the roles of parents and friend on the run, trusting that viewers will go along for the ride and not ask too many questions.

As I watched this PG-13 rated film with my son, I found myself asking plenty of questions, starting with the title. “Midnight Special” is a traditional American folk song about a train from Houston whose light would shine on a prisoner’s cell as it passed every evening. If you know that and think about it, the title fits. But MidnightSpecialscreen2if you’re not getting the allusion, the title probably makes no sense. The pacing also makes no sense. You’ll be chugging along at a slow pace with not much happening and then WHAM! Something freaky or strange happens to make you go, huh? or wow! Sometimes it’s violence. Sometimes it’s violence that reminds you of cartoons, because characters that seem to get shot point blank just bounce up as if nothing happened. Sometimes it’s a new sci-fi wrinkle. But it’s never character development (there’s no arc to follow), and you don’t really get much in the way of why any of this is really happening. That misguided urge to understate is the film’s chief weakness.

Maybe in some perverse way it’s also the reason why Midnight Special holds your interest as much as it does. You keep watching, hoping to piece everything together. In the end, how much you enjoy this movie may be tied to how much you’re willing to accept the information you’re given and not demand more than that. But the actors also do their part to keep you hanging on, with Shannon especially turning in a fine performance. Star Wars fans will also enjoy watching Adam Driver leave the Dark Side to play a lead investigator.

Midnight Special depends on the element of surprise, so that’s all I’m going to say. I thought it was slightly better than average, but my teenage son was more into it . . . enough to shelve it and watch it again sometime.

Language: No F-words, and less than a handful of others
Sex: None
Violence: People are shot point blank, involved in violent car crashes, and bloodied
Adult situations: Nothing besides the above, plus intense pursuit
Takeaway: Sci-fi thrillers walk a fine line between telling too much and revealing too little, and you’ll either walk away from this shrugging, or you’ll be fascinated enough by the film’s unique elements to give it thumbs up

SAN ANDREAS (Blu-ray combo)

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SanAndreascoverGrade: C+
Entire family: No
2015, 114 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

You don’t have to be a seismologist to know that San Andreas is far-fetched—though an expert will certainly confirm your suspicions.

In this 2015 disaster movie starring Dwayne Johnson, an earthquake caused by a fault no one even knew about completely destroys the Hoover Dam, setting off a chain reaction that leads the San Andreas Fault to shift dramatically. When that happens, all of Los Angeles spectacularly crashes and burns—no spoiler here, you’ve seen the previews—and all the massive skyscrapers and buildings for many miles topple like dominoes. Then a second quake and a tsunami knock down everything and everyone who thought they’d survived—again, in spectacular fashion. We’re not just talking about L.A., either. The destruction begins in the City of Angels with a 9.1 quake on the Richter scale and spreads across California, with a second major quake to the north registering a 9.6.

SanAndreasscreen1The actual San Andreas Fault is nearly 800 miles long and has the potential to cause a disastrous earthquake, but not one above 9.0. That’s because, according to experts, the fault is not long or deep enough. Plus, the level of destruction wouldn’t be nearly as massive. Scientists predict a San Andreas earthquake would cause 1800 deaths and 50,000 injuries, with hundreds of old buildings and a few skyscrapers collapsing—nothing remotely close to the wholesale destruction we see in the film.

Then again, subtlety has never been a Hollywood trademark. Thinking back to disaster movies of the ‘70s that started it all—films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno—I’m struck that at least this time there isn’t a woman like Shelley Winters shrieking in panic the entire time. Besides, these are popcorn movies that rely more on story than factuality, and on special effects more than story.

Viewers will recognize two stories combined into one: Godzilla (only this time it’s nature doing the stomping) and any number of cop dramas where the guy has to rescue his estranged wife and/or daughter. Paul Giamatti SanAndreasscreen2plays the lone scientist trying to warn everyone (really?). So it’s all pretty familiar, and if you happen to miss the first act you’re not missing a lot. We don’t learn much about these people except that Ray (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot who served with his team in the military, and his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is moving in with real-estate developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Ray’s not happy about that, but grown-up daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) understands and provides another person for him to worry about when the quake strikes. The only backstory we get is that Ray and Emma had a daughter named Mallory who drowned years earlier, so of course that tsunami proves especially terrifying. Throw in a few British brothers visiting California (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) and you get a romantic sideplot and comic relief.   More


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TheWinterSoldiercoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 136 min., Color
Marvel Entertainment
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay, and action throughout
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+

Superhero films are the exception to many parents’ rules against too much violence, because even without the “BAM” or “SOCK” graphics we got from TV’s campy Batman episodes, it’s understood that superheroes aren’t real and so neither, by extension, is the violence. It’s why younger children climb onboard to watch a film that, were it a straight action flick, might have been taboo.

But Captain America: The Winter Soldier does something no superhero movie has even attempted: it picks up the superhero and plunks him down right in the middle of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. That makes sense, actually, because Captain America is probably the most human and normal of all the Marvel superheroes. He’s a regular guy who was made stronger and faster through medical experimentation, the U.S.’s attempt to counter Hitler’s “Master Race.” His only weapon is a shield that he throws like a Frisbee.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were heavily influenced by espionage thrillers such as Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, while directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to push the superhero movie beyond the simple nemesis-driven plots we typically see. How unusual is it for a superhero NOT to appear in just about every scene of a superhero movie? But of course it isn’t unusual for that to happen in more complex thrillers.

The Winter Soldier takes its title from a Soviet agent that Captain America (Chris Evans) goes up against, but that assassin (Sebastian Stan) is only one piece of the puzzle in a complex plot that twists and turns like Steve Rogers own souped-up DNA.   More

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