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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Hail, Caesar!; House Of Cards; It Came From Outer Space; Independence Day: Resurgence

With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen again prove that the Bros. do not make normal movies. This delightful film is another classic in the movies about moviemaking genre and improves considerably with each viewing. The kneejerk pairing would be to play it with Barton Fink, but its real spiritual twin in the Coen world is The Hudsucker Proxy, for along with being about the film business and, less demandingly than A Serious Man, about faith, it is about Capitalism vs. Communism.

Josh Brolin is the head of a studio in the 1950s coping with problems on the studio’s production. The centerpiece is the star of a biblical epic (George Clooney), who is kidnapped by a group of writers who belong to the same communist cell and don’t believe they’re being paid enough for their work. In the secondary story, a charming cowboy hero, played by Alden Ehrenreich, is miscast in a sophisticated musical. Other problems arise, and a better but more mundane job offer tempts Brolin’s character. Tilda Swinton has a marvelous dual bit as competing, twin gossip columnists, and the exquisite performances include Frances McDormand in a bit part as an editor who gets her tie caught in an editing machine, nearly strangling herself. While there is steady contrast between big ideas, not limited to “faith,” “profit” and “duty,” the movie’s biggest idea, “love,” is never tarnished, because it is not about love between human beings. Rather, the film is about the love of movies and moviemaking, demonstrating how eternal that love will remain.

House of Cards The Complete Third Season

“House of Cards” has reached a plateau. At the end of the second season, there was no more “up” for the characters to go, so the third and fourth seasons are very different from the initial years. The central characters, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, achieve their career goals at the end of the second season, and the third season action has a major downshift. Spacey’s character is no longer murdering mistresses or blackmailing billionaires. Instead, he deals with the petty, day-to-day irritations of the job he has inherited. While it does involve Frank Underwood interacting with the Russian premier and manipulating presidential primary candidates with his usual Machiavellian flair, the show is more reserved and more cloistered than it was in the initial two seasons. Frank stops talking to the camera, as well. Oh, there is a token bit now and then, but you don’t get the real Richard III skinny he was giving you in the first two seasons. It is a different entertainment, which some fans may embrace while others may not. The more realistically an alternate universe drama such as this attempts to imitate the real political arguments and crises of the day, the more embarrassing it can be, especially as time takes reality on a different course. And then there is reality. In olden days, “The West Wing” was held up as an idealized version of what our nation’s political leaders could be like; now everyone would just be happy if they were as cooperative and sensible as the folks in this show. But if you just accept the fact that everyone is play-acting, and enjoy the characters for their own complexities, strengths and flaws, then many of the pleasures that made the show so successful to begin with can still be savored.

The third season is entertaining, but it is especially worth sitting through because the fourth season is exceptional. By then, a viewer will have acclimated to the show’s fantasy and settle in with the characters as they make audacious choices and race to hold onto their power against an accelerating mass of revealed secrets. Spacey even starts talking to the camera again, although sporadically. It is also worth noting that Ellen Burstyn delivers an exceptional and powerhouse performance as the mother of Wright’s character. The series seems to find the right balance in its own measure of how much ‘realism’ (how the White House operates, how the president interacts with other people, how the new media reacts to things, and so on) can be blended into its drama without distracting a viewer from the narrative. Along with the basic appeal of the characters and the sweep of the drama, the show’s strength comes from its overpowering analogy of marriage with politics. Everything that happens on a personal level between the two leads reflects upon the power struggles of the nation, and everything that happens in the nation reflects upon the psychology and emotional tapestry of the two leads. That’s the real problem with politics. There’s no escaping it, ever.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

Written by Ray Bradbury, produced by William Alland and directed by Jack Arnold, the 1953 sci-fi thriller, It Came from Outer Space, is one of the finest examples of the Fifties alien encounter genre. Made three years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy plot has the aliens ‘taking over’ local humans, who walk around in a zombie-like state gathering materials to repair a spaceship and perhaps conquer the world. Set in the Arizona desert, Richard Carlson is an astronomer who sees the ship crash and tries to sound the alarm, only to be met with skepticism, disbelief and ridicule. Running 80 minutes, the film is spare and methodical, and is blessed with Bradbury’s final plot twist, which endures as a breath of fresh air amid alien paranoia. Barbara Rush, Charles Drake and Russell Johnson co-star—there is also a marvelous, single-scene performance by Kathleen Hughes, who can’t resist checking out the hero after her own boyfriend has gone missing.

Arnold made one of the greatest 3D movies ever, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space was an earlier 3D production, with a smaller budget. The Blu-ray contains both the 2D version and the 3D version of the film. The 3D effects do not have the same thematic power they had in Creature from the Black Lagoon, nor are they as consistent. But the 3D presentation of the film is still a great deal of fun. Not only are there shots, such as a rock slide, that will have you ducking left and right, but there is an enhanced atmosphere of terror, decent framings of the desert landscape and the cheaply furnished interiors, and some pretty good frights, as the tentacles and who knows what of the aliens reach out of the screen to take over your own soul.

The presentation has an Intermission, and the full screen black-and-white picture is spotless. Some of the cinematography, particularly the stock shots, is a little soft (and distinctly lacking in dimensionality), but everything else is crisp. The remastered 3-channel DTS sound is strong and clear, with a general but engaging dimensionality. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a standard trailer, a joyful 3D trailer and a 32-minute retrospective documentary that places the film in the context of Universal’s sci-fi traditions (i.e., selling other Universal product). The segment talks about all aspects of the film, including its electronic musical score and the utilization of 3D.

Film historian Tom Weaver supplies a comprehensive commentary track, going over the backgrounds of most of the cast and crew, breaking down the process by which the script was developed (and sharing some lyrical Bradbury dialog passages that were dropped), explaining how the special effects were created, identifying the location and studio work, and just sharing generally witty or informative insights, such as, “At Universal, the scientist heroes all look like tennis pros.” Weaver also points out that almost all of the aliens in early post-War sci-fi films were benign, until George Pal’s blockbuster, War of the Worlds, was released and it became clear what sort of approach audiences responded to the most. Which brings us to…

Putting the 3D effects in It Came from Outer Space next to the 3D effects on the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD release, Independence Day Resurgence, is like parking a Model T next to a brand new Cadillac. The Model T will probably attract more attention and, for that matter, more affection, but it definitely comes from a different age. There are no deliberate at-your-face shots in Resurgence. Instead, there is just a vast and complex dimensional landscape in shot after shot, and action scenes that become more exciting when the full location and juxtaposition of objects and characters are clarified. As for the 2016 film, it was clearly intended as a necessary set up to what might have been a very interesting and different sequel, where the heroes would advance into outer space to pull a surprise attack on the aliens before they have time to organize another volley at Earth. Because the film didn’t do all that well at the box-office, however, the fate of such a sequel is in doubt. Nevertheless, Resurgence is a viable spectacle. The story is pretty much a repeat of the first film—and a surprising number of the cast members return, with the notable exception of Will Smith; Brent Spiner is a particular surprise and gives a witty performance)—though with one important difference. In the 20 years since the initial attack depicted in the first Independence Day film, mankind has adapted quite a bit of alien technology and integrated it with their own rebuilding. So, from the movie’s opening shot, especially in the sweeping depth of 3D, its extensive (and undoubtedly costly) vision of the future is completely dazzling. From there, the film journeys (or, rather, hops) to the moon and then inside of the alien spaceship and elsewhere. The finale is set on an endlessly flat desert—not all that far from where the aliens in It Came from Outer Space landed—but even then, the positioning of the vehicles and the people in 3D gives the images a greater sense of reality and a feeling that you’ve been dropped into the future, with everything zipping over you and crashing down around you.

The film still has the same flaws that Independence Day had, but with less finesse in covering them up. There are wild and unlikely coincidences that bring characters who know one another or are related to one another together after they begin on opposite sides of the continent, and the efforts to milk sentimentality out of the reunions are clunky and bland. The attempts to drum up patriotism may also seem like the series has gone to the well one or more too many times, while on the other hand, the efforts the first film made to convey the sense of an international crisis is given no more than a token acknowledgement. This film is about saving America, and if the rest of the world gets saved, too, well, okay. Science-fiction fans were so excited and remain so excited about the first Star Wars movie. It had all of these great special effects, and its plot wasn’t stupid. But most science-fiction movies like this one coming from Hollywood are stupid, and that is just something that fans have to put up with in order to thrive upon the spectacle of what science and technology can bring us and has brought us, now with the intricate and dazzling integration of three-dimensional detail.

The supplement on the standard Blu-ray includes 8 minutes of mostly unnecessary deleted scenes, although the alternate opening is appreciably wonky, along with 9 minutes of what one could term ‘prequels.’ One, an imaginary TV report about what has happened to the world in the ensuing years since the first film, is worth watching before the movie, but the other, showing the antics of a couple of the characters on a talk show, is a waste of time. Also featured is a 55-minute promotional documentary that shares a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and includes interviews with many members of the cast and crew, 6 minutes of uninteresting bloopers, a very good collection of preliminary and conceptual artwork in still frame, two trailers and a TV commercial.

The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, provides a commentary track over the film and the deleted scenes on the standard Blu-ray (there are nine more subtitling tracks for the commentary, including English), mostly reacting to what is on the screen, but, in addition to reiterating the story, explaining how various sequences were staged and how the special effects were integrated with the action. “Now comes one of my favorites shots here. Look, here, all CG, even the bus. See, this is not a real bus, and that’s the thing you learn, that you can sometimes create easier and more convincing in a computer now, than when you would kind of like do it in real. And real naturally means you have to have a huge crew out in the salt flats, and it’s just simpler [using CG]. It’s a little nerve-wracking because you rely on other people, but the results are great. I think in the future this will be more and more done like that. Figure out ways to shoot these movies fast and simple. It’s also for the actors much better because they don’t have to endlessly wait around for stuff. Imagine how much of a relief this is for a director, because I would always come up with very clever ideas and I had sleepless nights about it, you know, how to shoot stuff like that. Actually, most of the time, I said, ‘Let’s not shoot it,’ because it’s too complex and too difficult. And now, you can shoot stuff like that.” He never mentions the 3D effects, which are not brought up in the promotional documentary, either.

And why are the aliens invading? Resurgence is rather specific about their need to drain the Earth’s molten core. Which makes them pretty dumb aliens. There must be billions of worlds with molten cores made up only or rock or, at the most, lichen, that they could drain without suffering the least bit of equipment and personnel loss. Why raid a beehive when you can just open a jar to get your honey? It was Bradbury, and Spiner’s old boss, Gene Roddenberry who understood what aliens would really want from humans, but as we learn on an almost daily basis, fear sells better than friendship.

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“The purpose of film isn’t to present the kindness of the world.”
~ Isabelle Huppert

The Promised Land steers into the fact that the United States can mean whatever people want it to mean. You may not be able to be Elvis, but you can sure as shit impersonate him for a living. America, like its current President (at least as of this article’s publication), is so dangerous precisely because it’s a blank canvas on which anyone can project their dreams. Whatever it is that you see for yourself, there’s someone you can pay for the pleasure of believing that it’s possible. In his view, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate con, a delusion that prevents us from seeing our circumstances for what they are.

“Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.”
~ David Ehrlich