Ghostbusters II Pop Art Steelcase Blu-Ray Review

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, Peter MacNicol
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Film length: 1hr 50 mins
Theatrical Release: 1989
Blu-ray release: 2016

Although I was only 12 at the time, I knew prior to my first viewing of Ghostbusters II how it was not going to be as good as the original.  I over-prepared by reading every article I could get my hands on and watching all the segments on Entertainment Tonight about this upcoming film.  I already knew the legit funny gag of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was being replaced with this kind of lame walking Statue of Liberty, the “no ghost” logo (which was soooo cool) was changed to a weird “2 ghost” that didn’t make sense for an extermination company to wear, and how were those silly “slime blowers” supposed to catch a ghost?

Despite the changes I didn’t approve of, there was a lot more that did look good to me and I begged my parents to let me see it. I could still count the number of lifetime visits I had to the movie theater on my hands by 1989: The Muppet Movie, Star Wars, The Never Ending Story, Back to The Future, The Great Mouse Detective, and Masters of the Universe.  Going to the show was just something we didn’t do often but there was no way I was going to miss Ghostbusters II.   Thankfully, the grown-ups caved even though, “it’s cheaper to rent the movie next year” and I got to see my boys in grey on the big screen for the first time.  My foreboding feelings did hold true as it is not as good as the first, but I still loved it anyway.

The film (3/5)

Iggy! She’s twitching!
Five years following the events in Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) are still feeling the after-effects from their battle with Gozer.  Destroying Gozer’s gateway into New York City caused a dramatic drop in paranormal events, and a successful lawsuit filed by the City for inadvertently conjuring the god of destruction forbid them from conducting any paranormal investigating or eliminating.  This caused the Ghostbusters to disband and find employment elsewhere.

When their friend, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), has a paranormal experience involving her baby, Oscar, they decide to help her out on the DL.  They discover a river of pink slime flowing under the city, which is a physical manifestation of negative emotions from the people living above ground.  Unfortunately, the Ghostbusters are caught red-handed  by the NYPD for disobeying their judicial restraining order and are arrested.  Their trial is cut short, however, after it is interrupted by a couple of ghosts.  The judge is then forced to remove the order so the Ghostbusters can do their thang, and they are quickly back in business.

The party doesn’t last long, however, when Dana’s colleague at the Museum of Modern Art, Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol), kidnaps baby Oscar!  Janosz is possessed by Viggo the Carpathian, a powerful 16th century expert in dark magic whose essence is trapped inside a painting of his likeness.   Viggo wants to transfer himself from the painting into Oscar’s body where he could be free to continue his tyranny.  It is now up to the Ghostbusters to rescue Oscar and free New York from the negative energy that is holding it back!

If the goal was to recapture the lightning in the bottle that the first film was, Ghostbusters II was a clumsy effort.  I can follow the logic of putting the Ghostbusters back into a position where they are unsuccessful again.  This would again place them as the underdogs and the audience could have a good time rooting for them a second time, but it feels like déjà vu all over again as they stick too close to the same direction as the first film.  Overall, the story feels flat as it is simplified as “the Ghostbusters do it all over again”.

Also, in a “real” way, ABC’s successful Saturday morning cartoon, The Real Ghostbusters tamed Ghostbusters II.  With two Saturday Night Live and two SCTV alumni in the main cast, the original film was aimed for an audience who would be willing to stay up late to hear some sharp humor with a shade of blue.  By the time they got together for the sequel, the cartoon show and the Kenner toy line was what the Ghostbusters where mostly known for.  So, I can see the desire to stick to a more light-hearted, family-friendly script, but it was at the cost of the edgy wit that was so strong in Ghostbusters.

With that said, Murray, Ramis, and Aykoryd are still in fine form and this film is pretty darn delightful for its first two acts.  Yes, the scenes with the baby do have a Three Men and a Baby vibe, but the trio pull them off well.   The chemistry between Murray and Weaver is as good as it was in the first film and it is nice to see the hint of the old SNL raunch during the “walking toaster” scene.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

“World of the Psychic” should  have been its own show
When we first see Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters II, he is still riding the local celebrity status he gained as a Ghostbuster and is hosting a cable show that interviews people who claim to have psychic abilities.  The scene is short, but oh so memorable.  Murray’s deadpan humor plays so well with the “sensitive guests” and allows his sarcasm to rage just as hard as it did in the first film.  My personal favourite moment is when one of the guests checks the backdrop with Peter’s name on it before saying his name; she has no idea who he is.  Love it!

Murray made the same mistake in the mediocre Larger Than Life where the film opens with a short scene of him as a motivational speaker selling a self-help book.  The film then jumps off of a cliff from that point on by never attempting to approach another moment like that.  Bill is at his best during those kind of scenes and I’m puzzled why he usually attempts to stay away from them.  Thankfully Ramis got it right when directing Murray in Groundhog Day and made sure to work in enough scenes with him as a corny local weather man.

The walking Statue of Liberty is plain awful, and what did they do to Ecto-1?
I hate walking Liberty.  The close up shots of the Ghostbusters in Liberty’s crown were obviously shot on a sound stage and special effects of the statue walking were never good.  I’m lumping this in with the Ecto-1 remix, Ecto-1A, because they both exemplify how closely they stuck to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it rule.”  They had a giant walking thing in part one, and we need to wedge one into part two.  We had an outrageous looking car in the first one, let’s make it even MORE outrageous in part two.  Doesn’t matter how much or how little it makes sense to do so.

Louis Tully had no business being here
Rick Moranis is uber-talented and it’s a shame they didn’t find a fit for Louis Tully.  Like William Baldwin’s character in Backdraft, Louis Tully goes wherever it’s convent for the script.  He is the Ghostbusters’ lawyer in his first scene, their accountant during the montage, their secretary, and then Janine Meltez’s (Annie Potts) love interest later on, before finally finishing up as a wannabe Ghostbuster whose attempt to help them is inconsequential.

Video (4/5)

Ghostbusters II is a clean-looking film with very little grain.  The colours are dark and rich especially when compared to the original.  No need to upgrade from here.

Audio (5/5)

Another solid DTS-HD audio track.  The subwoofer thumped along nicely to the walking Liberty and the proton packs charging up sounded beefy.   Randy Edelman’s score is not as standout as Elmer Bernstein’s original but it is a competent one.

Special Features (1/5)

All of the special features are found on previous DVD and Blu-ray releases.  The interview with Dan Aykoryd and Ivan Reitman are from the 2014 Blu-ray; and the deleted scenes and Bobby Brown go as far back as the DVD.   None of it is worth hunting down.

Final Verdict

The critic in me can recognize how unimaginative Ghostbusters II is, but I will defend its first two acts as not perfect, but still enjoyable.  I get goosebumps seeing Venkman putting on a proton pack for the first time in five years, Egon is very well written and expanded on a bit as Ramis gives himself a few more zingers, and the court room scene does have its moments.  It’s like Rick Moranis’ role in this film.  There isn’t much point to it, but it functions and the talent can make it funny at times.

Ghostbusters (1984) Pop Art Steelbook Blu-ray Review

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Film length: 1hr 47 mins
Theatrical Release: 1984
Blu-ray release: 2016

Extremely bias review alert!  Ghostbusters is like comfort food to me as I have watched this film more than any other.  It was there for me when I was sick, needed inspiration, or had a couple of hours to kill.  And that was only yesterday.

This is my 4th time buying it and 5th time owning it.  The film has been released several times on Blu-ray and this “Pop Art Steelbook” edition came out to coincide with the 2016 “Answer the Call” film.  Since this version contained the 4K remaster, all the extra content, a unique case, and was under $20 when bundled with Ghostbusters II… I figured, why not?  It’s Ghostbusters.

The film (5/5)

“I wanna go with them in the car.”
When three parapsychologists, Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis), are kicked out of Columbia University in New York City for their unorthodox paranormal research, they decide to go into business for themselves… catching ghosts.  They develop some high tech equipment and set up shop in an old fire hall.

Business is slow to start with Dana Barrett (Weaver) as their sole client who claims her apartment is haunted.  They quickly reach local celebrity status, however, as the amount of ghost encounters mysteriously begin to rise in New York City.

When Dana becomes possessed by a demonic spirit named Zuul, the Ghostbusters discover her apartment is in a building designed to open a doorway to another dimension for Gozer, a god of destruction.  It is then up to the Ghostbusters to stop Gozer from bringing on the end of the world.

I’m not sorry to sound like an old man here, but they don’t make movies like this anymore.  Hollywood was doing something special in the 80s, which is not seen today.  I think, outside of the Pixar films (and even they are starting to turn to sequels) there aren’t many new universes to dive into and explore in film today.  We have many old or adapted ones for sure, but in the 80s it was all about taking inspiration from previous work and creating something new.  Ghostbusters definitely did that.

Aykroyd’s original script had the main characters and the concept of Ghostbusting, but also had some major expensive ideas like visiting other dimensions.  Director Ivan Reitman thought a New York setting and making the story about starting a business would ground the film in reality.  Harold Ramis was then brought in to flesh out those ideas and add his special brand of humor, and it all works.

Ghostbusters is still as funny and fantastical as it was in 1984.  New York kind of plays this extra character that really gives the film its edge and heart.  The special effects were state of the art at the time and are a wee bit dated now, but that’s okay because it doesn’t need them to be entertaining.  Its witty dialogue, spot-on pacing, and rich characters will keep you locked in until the credits roll.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

Ghostbusters is a raunchy comedy
I still laugh out loud at the jokes.  Not only was Bill Murray on a whole other level at this moment in time, but Harold Ramis’ writing needs a huge shout-out too.  His National Lampoon’s brand of raunchiness plays a part in what makes this film timeless, since sex in 1984 is still sex in 2017 (Thankfully!).  Getting Mr. Stay Puft laid, the Key Master/Gate Keeper, and Ray gets a BJ from a ghost!  Stuff that went over my head as a kid, but I can appreciate now.

My favourite scene as a kid was probably either the Marshmallow man or the boys in grey capturing Slimer in the Sedgewick Hotel.  Today, however, adult me most enjoys when Peter first visits Dana’s apartment.   A scene that was prepared by both Murray and Weaver ahead of shooting which contains enough sexual innuendo to make Anthony Wiener blush.  I mean, Bill Murray is practically masturbating with “one of his little toys” for a good part it.  I doubt it would have worked as well or had been as memorable if they couldn’t go there.

Every Ghostbuster is there to connect with the audience
Ghostbusters is a good example of a film where every character has their place, but the Ghostbusters themselves are designed to be characters we can relate to.  Venkman is the leader and the one we want to be.  He always has a right or funny thing to say and it is how we perceive (or desire) our own sense of humor to be.  Ray is the excitement we feel when we see the Ghostbusters experience paranormal encounters.  Egon answers our questions and grounds the fantastical moments in science, and Winston (Ernie Hudson) brings the high-tech jargon down to a level we can understand.  These strong characters are a good part of why they were able to spin the film off into a successful cartoon series.

Rick Moranis is the unsung hero of this movie
He is not a Ghostbuster and he is not in the film all that much, but damn, does he steal every scene he is in.  Louis Tully might have been a dweeb, but instead of playing him as socially awkward or shy, Moranis plays him as fast talking and confident.  (Of course Dana wants to show up to his accountant party.)  This makes for way more comedic opportunities and allows us to not feel so bad when the evil stuff starts happening to him.  Brilliant.

Walter Peck was misguided, but right
Set up as a foe for the Ghostbusters, Walter Peck from the Environmental Protection Agency was dick-less for shutting down their containment unit while believing they are con-artists.  He would have been justified, however, if his motivation was to ensure heath and safety regulations are in place, because they are not.  He may represent the Government coming in to take their jawbs, but if there was a private company running around your home town with mini nuclear accelerators, and had a giant energy-consuming device in their basement, wouldn’t you want someone to ensure guidelines are followed?

Video (3/5)
This was by far the best version I have seen yet.  The lettuce in Dana’s grocery bag looked crispy and green; good enough to eat.  I could count the scan lines on Dana’s TV during the Ghostbusters TV spot, and could see flies buzzing around Janine’s desk when Dana first pays the Ghostbusters a visit.  I am pleased overall, but parts of the film did have way more film grain than I would have liked.

Audio (5/5)
Solid DTS-HD audio track.  The growl of proton packs when firing and Mr. Stay Puft’s foot stomps shook the room.  Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score, Dana’s theme particularly, surrounds you and never sounded better.  Dialogue was clear throughout, even while characters where shooting quick one-liners off screen.

Special Features (3/5)

The content itself is 5/5 but I have to dock it a few points since it is rehashed from the 20th anniversary DVD and the 2014 Blu-ray.  It’s as old as the DVD, but if you are a Ghostbusters fan and you haven’t listened to the commentary track by Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and associate producer Joe Medjuck, you’ll want to do so.  These guys all had a ton to do behind the scenes and Ramis has a great memory for what parts of the script were written and what was ad-libbed.

The 2014 additions are a 30 minute interview with Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd.  There is some interesting insight but it is nothing to write home about.

Final Verdict

I have tried many times throughout the years to pinpoint what exactly it is about Ghostbusters that I like most above any other film.   Is it nostalgia? The familiarity with the characters and re-watching the film is like revisiting old friends.  Nah, forget that noise.  I love it because it’s a great movie.  Ramis and Aykroyd’s solid writing, the direction of Reitman to refine their ideas,  talented/comedic actors delivering some amazing performances, and a final layer of some wonderful special effects.  It all came together in 1983/84 to make Ghostbusters a truly special film.

The Fugitive Blu-ray Review

Starring:  Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Julianne Moore, Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano
Directed by: Andrew Davis
Film length: 2hrs 10mins
Theatrical Release: 1993
Blu-ray release: 2006

It had been a long time since I previously watched The Fugitive.  It was in heavy rotation for me back in the VHS days and I never did own another copy until Sarah and I picked it up on Blu-ray a few years ago.  It stayed filed away in our collection, sealed and not played until this past Sunday.  It was time to revisit to see if The Fugitive still holds up.

The film (4/5)

“Our fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.”
Following an evening dinner party, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) arrives home to find his wife fatally wounded by a one-armed man.  After a brief altercation the man escapes and Kimble returns to his wife who dies in his arms.  The police find Kimble’s story of the one-armed man hard to believe since he is the only one to have seen him.  When they begin finding circumstantial, but convincing, evidence that points to Kimble as the killer, he is arrested, found guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Kimble later escapes a prison bus after it collides with a train during a freak accident.  He is now free to track down this one-armed man and find justice for his dead wife; but he has to do so while staying one step ahead of Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who will go to great lengths to get his man with ferocious determination.

The Fugitive is a great movie with a contrived premise.  I’m not blind to the problems with the American Justice system, but it is a bit of a stretch to buy into how Kimble received a guilty verdict, let alone the death penalty.  There are too many ways to interpret his wife’s statement on the 911 call (“Richard…. He’s trying to kill me”), which was the prosecution’s most damaging evidence.  It was hard to believe Kimble’s lawyer wouldn’t be able to show reasonable doubt; but if you can roll with some of the Fugitive’s imperfections, you are in for a treat.

The film is a well-paced, character-driven action/thriller that Hitchcock, who himself used similar premises in films like The Wrong Man and North By Northwest,  would have applauded all the way through.  A good part of the story is about Kimble’s attempt to prove his innocence and find the one-armed man, but the cat and mouse game he is forced into playing with Gerard is really what makes it.

Within the early moments, there is an improvised scene with Ford and two real-life Chicago Police detectives.  Kimble is explaining what happened to his wife (and we witness it during flashbacks) during an interrogation.  It is to be the only time Ford presses the melodrama button, but it is enough to load up the audience with some solid empathy for the remainder of the film.  You want him to win.

Then Gerard enters the story.  A real leader who is surrounded by a solid team of US Marshals that he elevates to be great.  He is smart, quick-witted, likable, and no-nonsense.  He won’t be won over with a sob story.  Kimble actually attempts to explain how he did not kill his wife when the two first meet.  Gerard responds with, “I don’t care!”  It is the moment when you realize that you might be caught up in Kimble’s plight but Gerard isn’t.

Kimble is on the run, but at the same time is putting together the plot behind why his wife was killed.  While Gerard is attempting to anticipate where Kimble will be next, he ends up coming to the same conclusions as Kimble.  The relationship between the two grows as Gerard goes from “not caring” to beginning to accept that Kimble might be innocent.  All of this is delivered with a dose of fast-paced action that director Andrew Davis mixes in well.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

Fantastic moments are grounded in reality by the characters
Both Ford and Jones play their roles even-keeled.  They never get too excited when the action is ramped up or too low when the film takes a breather.  This allows the film to bend and stretch around their centered characters and you end up buying into the more fantastical moments.  Kimble survives a high fall from the top of a dam that should have killed him, but you are willing to accept it.  By that point, not only are you rooting for Kimble to make it, but the insistence from level-headed Gerard to carry out a thorough search on the chance that he is still alive sells it too.

A real train crash
Like Backdraft, The Fugitive was made in the day when all special effects were practical ones.  The filmmakers rammed a real train into a real bus to pull off the scene where Kimble escapes.  Still good times!

Hey, look.  It is Joan and John Cusack’s Dad
Just pointing it out.

Video (2/5)

Alright, so this copy is an early Blu-ray from 2006.  It was not remastered in any way and it shows.  The overall image is soft and washed out with prevalent film grain and noticeable video compression throughout.  Not the best the format has to offer – by far.

Audio (3/5)

Audio is okay but lacks the range of other Blu-rays.

Special Features (2/5)

The extras here are all from the 2001 DVD.  There is a 22 minute short on the film in general with material from 2001 spliced in with behind the scenes crew interviews while on set in 1993.  There is a 7-minute short on the train scene and a commentary with the director and Tommy Lee Jones.  The commentary is fair with a lot of dead air.  Andrew Davis does most of the talking and TLJ pipes in once in a while, but he definitely didn’t do much to earn his paycheck.

There is a 20th Anniversary edition that was released in 2013 with a DTS-HD audio track and more extra features.  I’ll be on the hunt for that.

Final Verdict

Tommy Lee Jones went on to win an Academy Award for his role of Gerard, and then played a similar variation of this character in numerous films, but that wasn’t the only part of The Fugitive that lived on.  Its snappy dialogue, strong characters, and production values laid down the ground work for how to do a thriller right.  So much so, I believe it is very likely that every thriller since 1993 owes it a bit of gratitude.  If you have yet to watch The Fugitive you are going to… hunt it down… and… catch it soon… before it… escapes you… all together.

The Little Prince Blu-ray Review

Starring:  Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie Foy, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks, Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti
Directed by: Mark Osborne
Film length: 1hr 50mins
Theatrical Release: 2015 (France), 2016 (North America)
Blu-ray release: 2017

I used to watch The Little Prince cartoon when I was a kid.  It was a bit different from the book it was based on.  It was about this boy who lived on a tiny planet and he would go on adventures by grabbing comets with a fish net.  It was from France and it was kind of trippy.

Other than what I knew from the cartoon, I didn’t know what else to expect with this film. It came highly recommended by Victor Lucas, who I have been watching on TV and the internet since the late 90’s.  My taste is fairly close to his and I do pay attention when he gives a film a perfect score.

I did try to take my wife, Sarah, to see it when it was in the theaters, but she said the book had made her cry when she read it and she didn’t want that to happen in public…. Hmmmm…  Well, colour me even more intrigued.   I made a mental note to pick this one up if I ever saw it and I did the other day.  Here’s what I thought.

The film (5/5)

“I cannot play with you. I’m not tamed.”
The Little Prince is not a direct adaptation of the book.  Instead the story of “The Little Prince” is told in tandem with another about The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) who is caught in a world of conformity.  Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) plots out The Little Girl’s entire summer vacation to the minute with studies and chores, which she at first sticks to with a desire to please her mother and society.

Her priorities change after she meets an old, eccentric man called The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) who introduces her to free form thinking and a colourful way at looking at life.  The Aviator gives her pages of a book he is writing called The Little Prince.  It is about a boy, The Little Prince, who lives on a small planet.  He goes on adventures flying via a flock of birds to other small planets.  He makes friends with a fox, a snake, and a rose; and the relationships are surreal stories about friendship, unconditional love, and death.  The film then switches back and forth between the two stories as The Little Girl continues to read until she eventually attempts to travel to The Little Prince’s world.

Despite this being an animated film with plenty of humour, I’m not sure if it is for small kids.  The movie gets kind of heady with a couple of dark twists and I can see younger kids becoming upset by them.  Even The Little Girl becomes upset with The Aviator for this reason in the film, but you will want to show this to any kid over the age of ten (including adults).  A lot of care was put into delivering the book version of  The Little Prince to a generation who is used to the Disney/Pixar brand of film,  As I watched The Little Girl apply the metaphors in The Little Prince’s story to her life, I realized I was doing the same with my own.

Geez,  I’m kind of making this film sound like a heavy thinker, which isn’t right.  It is just, that is what stuck with me after watching it.  The film is deep if you wish to dive into it but on the surface it is a light affair with plenty of humour.  Jeff Bridges’ Aviator definitely channels a Doc Brown from Back to the Future vibe. Regular cameos from Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks, Paul Rudd, and Paul Giamatti all deliver the comedy and cartoony fun.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

Stop motion animation with paper is something you need to see
I’m not afraid to admit how I had no idea that “The Little Prince” portions of the movie were stop animation until I watched the extra feature on it.  It is a bit sad to say, but my brain is so geared towards seeing computers do it all today.  I guess it is a compliment of sorts.  All the work done by hand looks just as good as anything a computer can do.

Darn film is going to get me to read
Since this isn’t a direct adaptation of the book I feel like I need to read it now.  The parts they do tell do work in with the rest of the film, but I definitely felt like I was missing something.  I don’t believe you need to read the book to appreciate the film, but I need to find my library card now.

Video (5/5)

There is no reason a Blu-ray disc of an animated movie in 2017 shouldn’t look perfect.  This one does.

Audio (5/5)

An excellent sounding Blu-ray too. The Aviator’s plane would roar through the sub woofer and all of the speakers were used during the action sequences.

Special Features (2/5)

What is here is quality but three short behind-the-scenes features isn’t a lot.  The best one of the bunch, of course, gives you the scoop on the stop motion animation.  One second of animation took them an entire day!

Final Verdict

The Little Prince reminds me of a film from my youth –The Brave Little Toaster – not in terms of story, art style, or characters, but size.  They are both animated movies with small-ish budgets, each having their own charm, and a lot of heart.  Both did not have the big marketing push like a Disney film would have, so you were in for a treat if you were lucky enough to stumble upon it one day.  While Big Budget Triple-A Hollywood is focused on remakes of the same film over and over again, it is nice to know there is room somewhere for a film like The Little Prince.  This is one you need to check out if you are looking for something a bit different that has more to say other than what is on the surface.  Plus, it is from France and it is kind of trippy.

 

Backdraft Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland
Directed by: Ron Howard
Film length: 2hr 17min
Theatrical Release: 1991
Blu-ray release: 2011

I was in my early teens the last time I watched Backdraft prior to this Blu-ray viewing.  I remember my mother switching it off during the scene when William Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh started making out on top of a fire truck.  It wasn’t to protect my innocence; she was very liberal about sex in movies and I had already watched Mischief with both of my parents years earlier.  (There will always be a special place in my memories for you, 80’s Kelly Preston.)  Mom did make a declaration before shutting it off though: that the movie was stupid… or crap… I may be paraphrasing.  Point is, she thought it sucked. I was floored since the hype for this film and rave reviews it got were everywhere at the time.  I think my sister and I finished watching it the next morning before the VHS tape we rented had to be returned, but I couldn’t recall if I enjoyed it.  Well, considering this disc was cheap as chips and loaded with extras, I decided it was time for a re-watch to see if Mom was right.

The film (2/5)

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“You go. We go.”
Backdraft takes place in Chicago and mostly follows two firefighter brothers who don’t get along.  Lt. Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) is the experienced veteran whose reckless methods are frowned upon by some, but who has a knack for getting the job done.  Younger brother Brian (William Baldwin) had resisted joining the department after a traumatic childhood event made him a witness to their firefighter father’s death while on the job.  After a few failed attempts at a career outside of firefighting, Brian finally answers the call and joins the department.

While Bull is putting Brian through the paces to see if he REALLY wants to be a firefighter, a rash of oxygen induced fires called “backdrafts”  have broken out in the city.  Fire investigator, Captain Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (De Niro) is convinced they are the work of an arsonist, but he is finding it difficult to prove.  The backdrafts are contained with the focus on a single victim and the usual MO of arsonists is to inflict as much damage as they possibly can.

In an attempt to gain perspective, Rimgale solicits the help of imprisoned arsonist Ronald Bartel (Sutherland) who years prior set similar fires.  The case seems to be headed nowhere as the fires continue to ramp up, and even claim one of the department’s own as a victim.  A breakthrough is reached when Bartel points out the materials used to create the backdrafts are easily accessible to anyone in the fire department.  This narrows down the field of suspects, but it now means there is a strong possibility that someone in the department is the arsonist!

Let’s just get this out of the way right now.  Mom, you were right: Backdraft’s story sucks.  The love/hate relationship built on tension between the brothers, the love story between Baldwin and Leigh, De Niro’s “investigator with a hunch he can’t prove” scenario, and the political real estate deal thingy that is supposed to tie it all together….  blah.  They all hit familiar notes you’ve heard too many times, and the result is a series of easily predictable movie clichés glued together.

Baldwin’s character is the closest thing to a lead and he is the one we’re supposed to experience the story through.  Problem is he’s a generic slice of tasteless white bread that is too willing to go wherever and do whatever is convenient for the plot.  A large part of the film’s beginning centers around him trying to prove himself as a firefighter, but at no point does he display any desire to be one.  The opening scene of the film is him aiming to be assigned to a firehouse with the least amount of action so he won’t have to do much firefighting.  So why do I care if he makes it or not?

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Later, he gets it on with Jennifer Jason Leigh on top of a fire truck.  At no point prior in the film does it seem like either is interested in each other, but they must screw because what is a movie without sex?  The idea being it would make for a good scene (or a funny gag) where the good-looking couple is in mid-bang when the fire truck they have chosen to pinch hit for a mattress eventually gets sent out on a call.  The scene cuts between shots of love-making and Kurt Russell on the job elsewhere banging on doors with an axe and rubbing at walls while describing the fire as “hot and smokey”. Gee wiz, Mom, why did you stop the movie there?

Eventually we need to move the arsonist part of the story along, so guess who no longer wishes to be a firefighter and is conveniently placed in the forensics department to work under De Niro?  Laaaame.

I don’t wish to pick on Baldwin (the dude was just there to do the job that was asked from him), but I don’t understand why they felt they needed him to carry the entire film. The De Niro and Sutherland scene would be fine without him.  The problem really lies with the script that was only designed to thread together some state of the art special effects, and at the very least I guess it does do that. I just wish they used a sewing kit instead of duct tape to keep it all together.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

These firefighters be dumb
They are reckless!  Forget Russell’s clichéd “I don’t wear an oxygen mask” character, the rest are running into blazes they have no business being in.  Firefighters would never put lives at risk for the sake of a building.  Yeah, sometimes there are people trapped in buildings and they need to go into them, but that isn’t always the case in this film.  At one point they are on the roof of a completely engulfed building on the verge of collapse, yet no one is trapped inside. What the frack are they doing up there?  It makes no sense.

 

The special effects, of course are amazing
The only reason to watch and own this film are the special effects.  This film was made in the day when effects were practical and they are truly a feat you need to see.  Something like this will never be made this way again as long as computers are a part of film making.

 

Firefighters will mess up your car if you park in front of a fire hydrant 
Don’t do it.

Video (4/5)

The back cover boasts this as a “picture perfect” edition.  I have no idea if that is the case, but this is one good-looking film for sure.  The amount of film grain keeps it just a step below Demolition Man, but still it is way better than a film this old should look.

Audio (5/5)

An excellent sounding Blu-ray too.  Dialogue was nice and clear even during the heavy action scenes.  There was a hard rumble when things went boom and the sound of the backdraft swirled around my head.  I’m starting to really dig these DTS HD lossless tracks.  Oh, and the Hans Zimmer score delivers big time.  I just wish it was attached to a better film.

Special Features (1/5)

Everything here is regurgitated from the 2006 special edition DVD.  That means it is all in SD, folks!  The 15 minute featurette on the special effects is a must watch though.  I found how the fire scenes were planned out and how close the stunt men got to the flames fascinating.  This is film-making that will never be done this way again.   The other material is about the cast and script, and I could live without it.  Give me a full on 1 – 2 hr HD feature about the special effects and I would eat it up.

Final Verdict

Ron Howard has always been hit or miss with me.  Backdraft directly followed two of my personal favorites of his, Willow and Parenthood.  Unfortunately the care put into the stories for those films didn’t carry over into this one.  Special effects should be there as an enhancement to the story only, and Backdraft instead is a show piece for them.  It’s okay when a script takes liberties for the sake of show, but dip into that well too many times and you risk insulting the viewer’s intelligence.

Cast Away Blu-ray Review

Starring:  Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Film length: 2hr 17mins
Theatrical Release: 2000
Blu-ray release: 2007

After I first watched Cast Away (I must have rented it when it first came out on DVD),  I remember telling my friends that this film deserves every Oscar the Academy could throw at it.  I got a lot of eye rolling from those who hadn’t seen it yet since Tom Hanks had just come off an amazing run in the 90’s (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13,  Saving Private Ryan, and The Green Mile) where his films either won or were nominated for various prestigious Oscar categories.

I suppose everyone had “Tom Hanks fatigue” by then and it is too bad if anyone might have skipped it for that reason, because out of all of those films Cast Away might be the best in that line up.

The film (5/5)

“I’ll be right back!”
Cast Away begins in 1995 and centers around Chuck Noland (Hanks), a busy Fed Ex Systems Engineer.  He is the type to get his hands dirty, and motivate employees to better their delivery times.  He is meticulous and dedicated to his job.

So, when his work pager (remember those?) goes off during Christmas dinner, he heads off to Malaysia leaving behind his (almost) fiancée, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), with the promise of returning home to Memphis, Tennessee before New Years Day.  When his plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean during a storm, it leaves him stranded alone on a small, isolated island.  Since his plane was far off course when it went down, his chance of being found is a remote one.

Cast Away is much more than “Will this guy get off of the island?” story.  Tom Hanks came up with the idea for the movie while filming Apollo 13, and wanted to ask the question of how someone would feel while isolated on a small island.  The result is a film that explores not only survival, but loneliness and how isolation affects him.

Chuck goes through a dramatic physical transformation before our eyes (Hanks lost 55 lbs and let his hair and beard grow wild for a year before they shot the second half of the film). But, it is not the typical “movie story” about the self-centered arse who goes through a traumatic event, and becomes a better person by the end.  Without getting too spoiler-ish, we eventually discover that Chuck cannot go back to who he was at the beginning of the film, and we mourn that loss.  From that moment on, his personal growth is subtle and savored until in the film’s final moments.  It is a wonderful payoff.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

The camera stays on Hanks
We only see and know what Chuck does.   The opening scenes of the film shows a Fed Ex package being delivered to him in Russia.  Once it is in his hands, the camera rarely shows us a shot without Chuck in it.

When the plane is going down we only see what is happening to Chuck.  Pilots are talking jargon that we don’t understand because Chuck doesn’t.  We hear the side door being ripped open, but we only see how it affects Chuck.  At one point we hear a thumping noise off-screen while Chuck is trying to sleep on the beach.  We don’t discover the cause of the noise until Chuck does.

When he uses the blade of an ice skate as an impromptu mirror to look at his abscessed tooth.  We don’t see a camera shot of what is happening inside of his mouth.  We only get to see the same reflection in the blade that Chuck does.  When Chuck’s friend is telling a co-worker about his wife’s cancer treatment, the camera is on Chuck’s uncomfortable face.

You can’t see the special effects
Cast Away is loaded with special effects that you probably won’t notice unless you dive into some behind-the-scenes content.  A huge effort went into finding the right island for this film, but still it wasn’t perfect.  In reality, other islands can be seen on the horizon and the beach is flanked by hills on both sides.  The special effects department took great lengths to remove these islands and a second hill to give you a better feeling of isolation.

There is one scene where Chuck is looking down at the island.  The two real things in the shot is Tom Hanks and a rock he is standing on in a studio parking lot.  The rest is CG. It is incredible how they were able to pull this off in 2000 and still have it look good in 2017.

Wilson
I just need to mention the film’s stand out co-star.  You know what I’m talking about if you have watched Cast Away already.

Video (3/5)

There are many bright outdoor scenes that expose a lot of film grain, and the result is a movie that looks older than it should.  You can see the odd piece of dirt flick by at times too.  It’s not bad overall, but not great.  Bring on a remaster.

Audio (5/5)

The audio is top-notch and how a Blu-ray should sound.   This is the most impressed I have been by a DTS-HD lossless 5.1 track as it gave my set up a nice workout.  My sub-woofer rumbled along with the crashing ocean waves during the storm, and the scream of the jet plane crash was loud.  The surround sound was in constant use during the quieter times on the island as the sound of the crashing surf was always in the distance.  Very impressed.

Special Features (2/5)

What is here is regurgitated from the film’s DVD release and half of it is missing from the special 2 disc edition.  The commentary track is solid.  It features director Robert Zemeckis, the director of photography, a special effects dude, and one of the sound engineers.  You can tell it is spliced together from several different conversations but I did catch them talking to each other once.  Regardless, it is crammed with plenty of behind the curtain info and back story.  Worth listening to if you are a fan and haven’t yet.

The rest is a couple of HD trailers and a Fox “trivia track”.  Nothing to write home about.  A remaster with all the content from the original DVD 2 disc set and some updated “looking back” content would be worth picking up.

Final Verdict

Cast Away is the result of one person’s desire to take a standard story beyond what has already been done.  Hanks brought some of Hollywood’s best talent together to help him pull it off and the result is a great movie.  It may not be the single film I’d choose to have with me if I was… stranded on a deserted island… but it is close.

Cop Land Blu-ray Review

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Michael Rapaport
Directed by: James Mangold
Film length: 1hr 44mins
Theatrical Release: 1997
Blu-ray release: 2009

I picked up Cop Land on Blu-ray years ago and was surprised to see it was still wrapped in cellophane when my wife, Sarah, chose it for Sunday movie night.  So, I can’t say for sure, but the last time I watched it might have been in the theater in 1997.

Like most movies I haven’t watched in a really long time, I could not tell you much about it.  I remember really liking it but I couldn’t tell you why.  Well, the advantage of having memory like a slice of Swiss cheese is, I can experience it again for the first time!

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The Film (5/5)

“That cupcake makes a mess and we got a case again.”
Cop Land takes place in the fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey, whose residents are mostly members of the New York City Police Department.  These cops live a little higher on the hog than they should be able to on a single income salary, if you know what I mean.  Garrison is led by Lt. Ray Donlan (Keitel) who doesn’t hold any official position, but he runs the show as one of the town’s founders.

After an incident on the George Washington Bridge (which leads into Garrison from New York) leaves two black teens shot dead in their car by the young officer Murray “Super Boy” Babitch (Rapaport), and Officer Jack Rucker (Patrick) is caught planting a gun at the scene, Donlan devises a quick cover up on the spot and convinces Babitch to fake his own death.

The incident makes big news as New York politicians are given heat by black community leaders to seek justice, while the internal affairs division, led by Moe Tilden (DeNiro), becomes involved.  Donlan realizes that the case will never go cold as long as no body is found, and he plots to kill Babitch himself.  Babitch is tipped off and shows up at the door of Garrison’s local Sheriff, Freddie Heflin (Stallone), for help.

Heflin, who has spent his entire career (and life) accustomed to letting the New York cops walk all over him professionally and personally, now must decide to either do the right thing or look away again.

I was enthralled with Cop Land from beginning to end.  After our Sunday viewing, I read some reviews that knocked the film for having too many characters and too many side stories happening.  Wow.  I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed how the side stories gave depth to the characters and added suspense.

Figgsy (Liotta), for instance, has a side story about his greasy scheme to collect some insurance money so he can leave Garrison.  Figgsy currently has no love for Donlan, but he also has a long history of friendship with the man.  When Figgsy decides to help out Heflin we don’t know which one of his multiple motives is the cause of his actions.  Is it to keep internal affairs off of his trail?  Is it because Heflin uncovered his plan to defraud an insurance company?  Is it because he really dislikes Donlan?  Since we never know, we don’t know if we can fully trust him.  We don’t know what will happen next!  Hence, suspense.

Donlan is a solid antagonist for the film too. He isn’t a villain with a master plan, but he continuously adapts to the hand he is given.  As long as there is little chance of him getting caught, he will take advantage of any opportunity to get rid of anyone who might be a threat.  He might use his political influence or straight up get his hands dirty.  You see him do both in this film, and you get to know how dangerous he can be. You never know what he will do or what will happen next!  Suspense!

Cop Land is loaded with good actors, and the complexity of the situation and characters who are in it drive the film.  Clocking in at 1hr 45mins, cutting something like the Figgsy side story might have trimmed it up a bit, but I’m glad it wasn’t done at the cost of suspense.  Besides, the film is already paced well as it is.

What stood out to me/Memorable moments

Sopranos Everywhere
Cop Land was filmed in New Jersey and a lot of local actors that later became staples on The Sopranos are here.  Edie Falco, Frank Vincent and Paul Herman all play small roles; and Arthur J. Nascarella and Annabella Sciorra have considerably larger parts.  Paulie Walnuts makes an appearance too, but only in some photos… not sure if that counts.  And yes, Robert Patrick was in The Sopranos as well, but I still see him as the T-2000 more than anything else.  There is a “Spot The Sopranos Star” drinking game here somewhere.

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The scenes with DeNiro and Stallone together are some of the best
There is this desire in Hollywood to get DeNiro and Al Pacino on-screen at the same time together in a decent film.  They were both in The Godfather 2, but never together.  Their scene together in Heat was a big let down, and holy hell did Righteous Kill ever suck.  I see they’re trying again with an upcoming Netflix film, but forget those two!  Let’s get DeNiro back on-screen with Stallone!

If, like they say, acting is reacting, then Stallone kills every scene he is in with DeNiro.   In their first long scene together, DeNiro is calling him out for not doing his job.  Stallone is fidgeting around, giving minimal answers, and looking away like a kid sent to the principal’s office.  He plays it well.  Their second moment together is kind of spoilery, so I’ll just say, “see it for yourself!”

The shoot out
A young Heflin was left deaf in one ear after saving someone from drowning.  This incident and outcome are known in the community and at one point in the film, someone fires a gun close to his good ear to put him out of commission.  What follows is several intense minutes of pure action bliss.  The audio is from Heflin’s perspective, with muffled gun shots and dialogue.  It is like Heflin is hearing things underwater with a steady blast of Tinnitus.

I know critics at the time really knocked this scene for being too “cartoony”.  It’s understandable considering the rest of the film is firmly  grounded in reality, but damn: this IS a movie after all.  A more realistic sequence may have been more appropriate but I’m sure it would have been boring, too.  I, for one, am glad the filmmakers decided to make it entertaining instead.

Video (2/5)
Cop Land was filmed in the late 90’s, so there is no surprise that it isn’t terribly grainy, but this print hasn’t held up very well.  Dirt and film scratches (One hung out on Liotta’s face for an entire scene) are prevalent.  I’m already on the hunt for the Collector’s Edition which I understand has been cleaned up a bit.

Audio (4/5)
Another competent DTS-HD audio track.  Gun shots have a nice pop to them, and dialogue is clear even while some actors are speaking low.  The shoot-out scene that I mention previously is a delight in 5.1 as the “Tinnitus effect” swirls around the speakers.

Special Features (0.0/5)
There are none.  Zero. Zip. Zilch.  There is not even an option to select chapters. Got to find that Collector’s Edition.

Final Verdict

When I eventually get off of this Stallone kick I’m on right now, I’ll be shocked if Cop Land is no longer my favorite “Sly flick”.  I love First Blood, and consider both it and Cop Land to be perfect movies but for different reasons.  Cop Land gets to sit a little higher since crime drama is right in my wheelhouse.  Crooked cops, mafia connections, conflicted characters, racial tension, political cover ups…  The only thing missing is a ’40s or ’70s setting instead of the ’90s.  I have no problem with keeping Cop Land on the same shelf as L.A. Confidential, The Godfather, and Goodfellas.  I highly recommend this film.

Thanks for reading.