Hugo, Hoover and Heist
Owls Head — Hugo (Paramount, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D or standard DVD, 126 min.). Martin Scorsese’s delightful family film is based on the Brian Selznick novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” about a young orphan who lives in a vast, wondrously populated Paris train station, within view of the Eiffel Tower, in the 1930s. When his father (Jude Law shown in some early flashbacks) died, Hugo (11-year-old Asa Butterfield) was taken in by his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and taught how to take care of the train station’s many clocks. They also live in old, abandoned spaces, hidden behind the scenes. When Claude goes missing, Hugo keeps up the clock maintenance by himself, and no one is the wiser. However, as he steals a little bit of food here and there to survive, Hugo has to be careful about the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen in a fairly straight role, but one that really isn’t necessary to the film), whose joy in life is grabbing stray children and sending them off to the orphanage.
Hugo has a notebook left by his father that contains information on fixing a writing automaton that he rescued from a museum. Toy booth owner Georges Meleis (Ben Kingsley) confiscates the notebook and threatens to burn in, after he catches Hugo trying to steal a mechanical mouse. (Hugo has been looking for parts to fix the automaton.). Hugo eventually learns, helped by Meleis’ adventure-seeking godchild Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), that Melies is the special effects-pioneering filmmaker, who created “A Trip to the Moon,” about hundreds of other early films. Melies also was the original creator of the automaton.
This is a review of the 2D Blu-ray version, which looks quite marvelous. Scorsese scores with some early bravura shot-making, including the amazing opening shot from high above Paris that zooms down and through the vast train station, eventually ending of Hugo’s face behind one of the station’s giant clocks. Not soon after, there is a long, complicated tracking shot of Hugo running behind the scenes along a maze of catwalks, ladders, passages and even through the gears of the giant clocks. In all, it makes for an exciting, impressive first half of the film. In the second half, though, Scorsese shifts the focus a bit away from Hugo and more towards a celebration of Melies and other pioneering filmmakers. It is all lovingly portrayed and even informative, but it takes the film away from Hugo too much. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won five: Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography.
The extras, while good, are a bit on the thin side. They include a making-of look (19:48); a closer look at Melies’ life and career (15:41); a look back at automata, including the design of the one in the film (12:45); a short look at Cohen’s role (3:33); and a very brief look at the film’s special effects shots (5:55). You also get a standard DVD and a digital copy of the film. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
J. Edgar (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 137 min.). J. Edgar Hoover was never a sympathetic person, although he did and does have his admirers. At his best, he brought organization to crime fighting and, more importantly, to crime solving. At his worst, he compiled secret files, even against presidents, one reason he lasted 48 years on the job and served eight different presidents. Arguably, he is the perfect definition of absolute power corrupting absolutely. As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he introduced the modern crime-solving practices of fingerprinting, interrogation, evidence gathering, handwriting analysis and expert witness testimony.
Hoover projected a squeaky-clean image and buttoned-down demeanor, yet that clearly was at odds with his concealed personal life. Here, under the direction of Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio masterfully recreates the man in both his public life and in his three most important personal relationships. The first is with his controlling mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench, who hid a foot injury so she could play the role), whom he lived with until her death, and who told him she would rather die than have a son who was homosexual. The second is with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a secretary at the Bureau that he takes out on a unique first date. He takes her to the Library of Congress, where he shows off the card catalogue he created so books could be speedily found and then tries to propose to her. She turns him down in marriage, but accepts his offer to become his confidential secretary, a post she held until his death. The third is with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), whom he fell in love with shortly after they met (although the film indicates they may never have been physical) and who he hired as deputy director of the FBI and always ate lunches and dinners with and even took vacations with.
As presented here by Eastwood and DiCaprio, Hoover is often emotionless; we get to know him by the reactions of the people he interacts with, including a couple of presidents and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Much of the story is told in flashbacks -- a complex series of time jumps, created by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), but ably rendered. The viewer almost never gets lost. The flashbacks begin as Hoover is telling his story, with embellishments to make him look more active as it turns out, to Agent Smith (Ed Westwick) for a possible book. In the early days, Hoover fought domestic Communism, which sometimes resorted to violence. He continued to battle Communism here, even when, with the Cold War, is was more a foreign threat. One of his biggest cases was the kidnap and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby. So hindered was Hoover by New Jersey authorities, that he got Congress to pass a law making kidnapping a federal offense.
The film is excellently acted, but the DVD is very light on extras. There only is an 18:10 look at Hoover as “The Most Powerful Man in the World” with comments by Eastwood, Black, the producers and actors. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 2 stars
The FBI: The Second Season Parts One and Two (1966-67, each Warner, 4 DVDs, NR, 813/660 min.). Originally shown when I was a freshman in college, these 29 episodes were produced with the full cooperation of the government and features real-life cases. (In “J. Edgar,” above, we see Hoover working with film and TV producers. The show ran until 1974 and Hoover did serve as a series consultant until his death in 1972.) Efrem Zimbalist Jr. returned as an ever more taciturn Inspector Lewis Erskine, who worked with Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks) on cases all across the country. Philip Abbott plays FBI Assistant Director Arthur Ward. The show prided itself on being realistic. Episodes this season include assassins, plague, a cave-in, a prison break, a kidnapping, arson, piracy, civil rights violations, murder in the sky and a vendetta. Guest stars include Ralph Meeker, Robert Blake, Jack Lord, Richard Anderson, Fritz Weaver, Suzanne Pleshette, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Hackman, Alejandro Rey, Louis Jordan, Telly Savales, Susan Strasberg, Celeste Holm, Robert Duvall, Jessica Walter, Peter Graves, Bradford Dillman, Charles Grodin and William Wellman Jr. These sets are manufactured on demand and available from www.warnerarchive.com Grade: 3.5 stars
Tower Heist (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.). The best part of Brett Ratner’s action comedy is the return of smart-mouth Eddie Murphy. Murphy plays Slide, a smalltime thief (he only steals from balconies so it is not breaking and entering and less than $1,000 so it is not a felony, thus he mainly steals satellite dishes) who is brought in to help Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) steal back the pension plan money that crooked investor Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) misused and lost. Kovacs is the building manager of the Tower condominiums on New York’s Central Park West -- or at least he was until Shaw got him fired for busting up the windows in the 1963 Ferrari (one raced by actor Steve McQueen) that Shaw keeps in the living room of his penthouse. Also fired and in on the plot are concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck) and elevator operator Enrique (Michael Pena). The other gang member is Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a former Tower tenant who was evicted when the bank repossessed his apartment. Kovacs believes Shaw has hidden a safe in one of the walls of his penthouse, so maid Odessa, who needs a husband so she can stay in the USA, is brought in due to her lock-picking skills.
The film has its moments, particularly dialogue when Murphy is involved, and the actual heist turns very wild and unbelievable. The Blu-ray disc comes with a ton of extras, including audio commentary by Ratner, editor Mark Helfrich and co-writers Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson; two alternate endings that take place many months in the future; three alternate and six deleted scenes (5:58); a gag reel (4:18); Ratner’s video diary (22:42, including an appearance by Donald Trump); and a six-part making-of feature (44:42). Grade: film and extras 3 stars
Immortals (Fox, 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 110 min.). From the producers of “300,” this is a very disappointing effort. The sets, costumes and look often are very striking -- when not too dark, a problem that plagues the film -- but the plot is simplistic to the point of making you question why characters are going from point A to point B. Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar has chosen to place most events high up on cliffs, with CGI filling in the distant backgrounds. However, the use of so much green screen technology leads to a stage look for most of the non-battle sequences. The best battle is the first one hero Theseus has, as he tries to rescue his mother from evil King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, who is way over the top initially, including one groaner of a pun before he executes a priest). The massed battles later on leave doubt who is on which side.
According to the extras, the film was built upon one line in Greek mythology, that Theseus battled the Minotaur. Theseus is played by handsome Henry Cavill, who has the lead in the upcoming “Superman: Man of Steel” (he looks like he will make a good Superman physically). Throughout his youth, Theseus has been guided by Old Man (John Hurt, who also does the opening and closing voice narration, recalling his similar work on the TV series “Merlin”), but Old Man is just a guise that Zeus (Luke Evans) takes while among humans. And while Zeus admonishes his children not to interfere with the affairs of man or he will kill them, they do anyway. This includes Poseidon (Kellan Lutz of the “Twilight” series) leaping from Olympus into the sea to create a tidal wave that saves Theseus and his travel companions, who include the soon-to-be-no-longer virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”) and fellow slave Stavros (Stephen Dorff). So, whenever the good guys are in trouble, the Gods intervene; that sure does not create much tension. King Hyperion wants to unleash the Titans (the old gods, who care not for mankind and who were defeated by Zeus and his crew) from their eternal confinement in Mount Tartarus, and he needs the Epirus Bow (its arrows are invisible until fired) to do so. Theseus inadvertently gives Hyperion the bow.
There are a goodly amount of extras, some of which are more interesting than the film. There is an alternative opening (11:34) that shows Theseus as a child, first meeting Old Man; two alternate endings (8:38 and 4:07) that provide a second and third fate for Theseus; eight deleted scenes (8:10), including dogs licking a couple of severed heads and lots of people reporting to people; a look at Greek mythology (5:27); and a multi-part making-of feature (20:29), called Caravaggio meets Fight Club, how the director described the film. Most interesting of the latter are how the film was created visually and the stunt and fight preparation. There also is a graphic novel, “Immortals: Gods & Heroes.” Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3 stars
Honey 2 (Universal, Blu=ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 110 min.). Eight years later comes this direct-to-video sequel, the connection being that Honey Daniels has left behind a dance studio run by her mother, and her mother takes custody of Maria Ramirez (Katerina Graham) from juvenile detention. I must say Graham’s dancing was a revelation in this film; she is very restricted in her role as a teenage witch on TV’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Maria gets a job at a variety store run by Mr. Kapoor (Gerry Bednop), who becomes another member of her new “family.”
However, the film is all about dance, and rightfully so, because that is where it comes alive. At first, her old crew, The 718, wants her back, but she has a falling out with its leader (Christopher “War” Martinez as Luis), who was the reason she went to juvie in the first place. Another dance crew, HD Crew (it’s for Hi Def), practices at the Honey Daniels Studio and it is lead by Brandon (Randy Wayne). Here’s where the major problem with the film starts to come into play: the characters are cardboard stereotypes. One assumes that Brandon is white just to appeal to that segment of the film audience; that he is a rich boy doing dance despite his father urging him into business, just is lazy background sketching. It helps, though, that Wayne is likable and works well with Graham. The other dancer of note is Tina (Seychelle Gabriel), who is lured from the HD Crew by Luis. Mario Lopez plays himself as the celebrity host of the TV dance show, “Battle Zone,” of which The 718 is the defending champ. Overall, the film is very likable.
In the Blu-ray version the sound is quite awesome, especially the bass. Some of the extraordinary dance crews used in the film are Quest Crew, Beat Freaks, Strikers All-Stars, Super Cr3w and Fanny Pak. Extras include deleted scenes, extended dance sequences, a making-of feature and two others, and audio commentary by director Bille Woodruff. Grade: film 3 stars; extra 2.75 stars
Godzilla (Japan, 1954, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 96 min.). This is the original film by director Ishiro Honda in its original Japanese form (“Gojira”). It is the granddaddy of all monster movies. It is a bit melancholy, as it was created at a time when Japan was steel reeling from the two nuclear attacks. That made it natural that the beast would be radioactive, the spawn of nuclear testing. How successful was the film? Well it has spawned almost 30 sequels. It also was adapted for American audiences as “Godzilla, King of Monsters” in 1956, with a subplot starring Raymond Burr added.
Both versions come with audio commentary by film historian David Kalat. There are new interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Laimai, plus an archival interview with legendary score composer Akira Ifukube. A featurette on the film’s photographic effects is introduced by special effects director Koichi Kawakita and special effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka. There also is a new interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, while “The Unluckiest Drago” is an illustrated audio essay with historian Greg Pflugfelder that describes the tragic tale of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, an event that inspired the film. The 16-page comes with an essay by critic J. Hoberman and the packaging, in a surprise, has a pop-up Godzilla head. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 161 min.). This classic courtroom drama is anchored by a marvelous performance by James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a small-town Michigan lawyer with a witty, disarming, easy-going nature that hides just how cagey he is. There is not much money flowing Biegler’s way, as his secretary (Eve Arden as Maida Rutledge) keeps pointing out, but then pops up the case of an Army officer (Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion) accused of killing a bar owner in public at the bar for raping his wife (Lee Remick as the flirtatious Laura Manion, a role that was much more scandalous when the film was made, as was the film‘s frank discussion of sex and “panties”). The problems for the defense include that a doctor says Laura was not raped, Lt. Manion waited an hour before going to shoot the alleged rapist and the prosecution has brought in big-city lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott, who has some memorable sparring with Stewart throughout the trial). At the time, Gazzara, Remick and Scott were relative unknowns, but they each would go on to major careers. Biegler slyly bends Manion towards a temporary insanity defense.
Producer/director Otto Preminger also chose an amateur to play Judge Weaver. He was Joseph N. Welch, the Boston lawyer who gained lasting fame for his role as Army counsel in the nationally-televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Duke Ellington wrote the wonderful jazz score and appears in a night club scene as pianist Pie-Eye; he and Biegler play a tune together. The black-and-white film looks great on Blu-ray. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Extras include a new interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch; critic Gary Giddins explores Ellington’s score; a look at the relationship between graphic designer Saul Bass and Preminger with Bass biographer Pat Krikham; newsreel footage from the set; excerpts from a 1967 episode of “Firing Line” with Preminger and William F. Buckley Jr. discussing censorship; behind-the-scenes photography by Life magazine’s Gjon Mili; and a booklet with an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and a 1959 Life magazine article of Welch, who played the judge. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 3.75 stars
To Kill a Mockingbird, 50th anniversary Edition (1962, Universal, Blu-ray/DVD set, NR, 130 min.). This is another of the all-time great courtroom films, based on the beloved book by Harper Lee, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Gregory Peck, in an Oscar-winning performance, stars as Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man (Brock Peters) accused of rape, and then tries to explain the proceedings to his children and their friend. Horton Foote’s screenplay also won an Oscar; the film was nominated for eight in all. Note that the film was Robert Duvall’s debut. This edition is digitally remastered. Extras include a feature-length documentary on the making of the film with cast and crew interviews and a visit to Lee’s home town; a feature-length documentary on Peck; his Best Actor acceptance speech and his remarks on receiving the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award; Cecilia Peck’s farewell to her father at the Academy’s celebration of his life; actress Mary Badham’s (she played Scout) recalling her experiences working with Peck; feature audio commentary by director Robert Mulligen and producer Alan Pakula; and an in-depth look at Universal’s process of preserving its film legacy. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.75 stars
Perry Mason: Season 6 Volumes 1 and 2 (1962-63, each CBS/Paramount, 4 DVDs, NR, 11 hours 50 min.). Each set contains 14 digitally remastered episodes from the season. Raymond Burr (see “Godzilla” above) continues to play defense attorney Perry Mason, aided by his secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and witty private eye Paul Drake (William Hopper). Cases in Volume 1 include the future of an orphanage endangered when its benefactor lapses into a coma and his heir is murdered; a young policeman becomes the victim of a tangled murder/embezzlement scheme; two brothers both claim the same young woman as their daughter, who is set to inherit $200,000; Della gets arrested as an accessory to murder; a young, widowed high school teacher is accused of making inappropriate advances toward her male students; and a chronic shoplifter is accused of murder. Guest star Karl Held as a recurring role as David Gideon, a law-school drop out who befriends Mason. In Volume 2, cases include a teacher who hires a man to shoot him with blanks as a class prank, only to end up dead for real; Drake is asked to help a student while Mason is in the hospital; Mason’s star witness in a murder case is a dog named Hard Tack; a man declared legally dead shows up to claim his dying wife’s fortune; Mason defends the former wife of a tell-all author; and a highly respected judge is charged with murder. Grade for both: 3.5 stars
Matlock: The Seventh Season (1992-93, CBS/Paramount, 5 DVDs, NR, 13 hours 57 min.). In season seven, Andy Griffith continued to bring his special brand of charm to the role of Ben Matlock, a prominent defense attorney. Among the cases are Matlock reopening a 30-year-old murder case; a ghost hires him to defend his wife, who is accused of killing him; learning to work with his daughter and new partner (Brynn Thayer as Leanne), including taking a vacation with her; a student goes missing after Matlock discusses his career ands the idea of a perfect murder in a law class; Matlock becomes a juror in a murder case; Matlock witnesses a robbery at a convenience store; and a former football player and his wife are killed in separate incidents. Also is the cast are Clarence Gilyard Jr. as Matlock’s trusted colleague Conrad McMasters and newcomer Daniel Roebuck as recent law school graduate Cliff Lewis. Grade for season 3.5 stars
Midsomer Murders: Set 19 (Britain, 2009, Acorn, 2 Blu-ray DVDs, NR, 400 min.). The acclaimed, endearing, Midsomer Murders series, inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham, makes its Blu-ray debut with this set (also available on standard DVDs) of four mysteries from 2009. We are still behind and, in Britain at least, John Nettles is about to bow out of the series as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. In fact, his eventual replacement, Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby, makes his first appearance in this set. James Hughes continues as protégé, Detective Sgt. Ben Jones. In an unusual twist, it actually is Barnaby’s wife Joyce (James Wymark) who solves the case in “The Made-to-Measure Murders,” in which a widow is murdered on her way to the village priest, reportedly to confess something -- perhaps having to do with her husband’s death two years earlier? The deceased’s brother (Philip Bretherton as Matthew) and her son (Karl Davies as Luke) run the family business, a tailor shop. The episode brings out a discussion of religion between Barnaby and Jones, with Barnaby saying, “That’s religion for you, Jones. It brings out the irrational in people.” In the other three cases, Barnaby travels to Brighton to investigate a land deal; a dispute over property lines turns a Wild West show into a crime scene; and a librarian obsessed with March Magna’s cemetery is found dead on top of a grave. (The first episode included two murders in a graveyard.) Other guest stars are Tim McInnerny, David Rintoul, Saskia Reeves, Janet Suzman, Kenneth Cranham and James Wilby. Grade for episodes: 3.5 stars
Agatha Christie Poirot: Series One and Series Two (Britain, 1989-1990, Acorn, each 2 Blu-ray discs, NR, 519/523 min.). Acorn also has begun releasing the acclaimed early work of David Suchet as Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on Blu-ray. These 50-minute mysteries are remastered and now presented in the original British broadcast order, which the previous DVD releases were not. The remastering helps the 1930s European Art Deco era come to life on your TV screen. Suchet is joined by Hugh Fraser as affable Captain Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Series 1 includes “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook” (the cook has gone missing); “Murder in the Mews” (a suspicious death on Guy Fawkes Day); “The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly” (there are kidnapping threats against a rich man’s son); “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” (Poirot’s culinary skills come into play); “The Third Floor Flat”; “Triangle at Rhodes” (Poirot’s Greek holiday is interrupted); “Problem at Sea” (a woman is killed aboard a cruise ship); “The Incredible Theft” (top-secret government documents are stolen); “The King of Clubs” (a playing card is the only clue); and “The Dream” (a wealthy man has a recurring nightmare).
In Series 2, the mysteries are: “Peril at End House” (a young female friend is in danger); “The Veiled Lady” (a mysterious woman needs help); “The Lost Mine” (a valuable map disappears); “The Cornish Mystery” (a wife asks Poirot to investigate her husband); “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim” (a wealthy banker disappears); “Double Sin” (Poirot makes an announcement about his career); “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat” (there is more to a real estate bargain than meets the eye); “The Kidnapped Prime Minister”; and “The Adventure of the Western Star” (Poirot tracks down a jewel thief). Grade for both sets: 3.75 stars