June 27, 2009

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On one hand it’s great Fox has been releasing their catalog titles in 1080p and in DTS looking great. On the other hand, they haven’t put in that much work to jazz it up for audiences buying it a second time. None of the films here have anything new, but all look appreciably better in their Blu-ray iterations. After the jump are my reviews of “Predator 2”, “Fargo” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” on Blu-ray.

Let’s start with Predator 2, easily the least of the recent Fox catalog titles.

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But let’s be nice. Sequels are a tricky business, especially when there’s no visible returning cast members, but that didn’t stop Fox from making 1990’s Predator 2 sans first film survivor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This decision led to P2 being met with indifference at the box office, but it was well received on video to develop a bit of a following. Though not a great film by any stretch, it’s one of the better B-movies to come from the 90’s. Which ain’t saying much. It’s also an okay sequel that retreads the original with an interesting setting.

Taking place in the-then futuristic 1997 (ten years after the events of the first film) during the hottest days of the summer, the film follows another predator (played again by Kevin Peter Hall) who makes his playground the city of Los Angeles, which has become overrun by gang problems that the police feel ill-equipped to deal with. Making sport of both the Cuban and Jamaican drug lords, the predator seems to be having a good time until Lt. Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his team (comprising Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Bill Paxton) get caught in the middle. Trying to figure out what’s killing the bad guys, Harrigan and company find some small clues – but every time they get closer, government agent Peter Keys (Gary Busey) tells them it’s none of their business. When one of Harrigan’s team members dies, it becomes personal, and – like the first film – the sequel becomes a mano a mano clash between two tough hombres.

The filmmakers of Predator 2 faced an uphill battle because, without somehow working Arnie in (which would have probably been silly), there were only a few directions to go with the story. They also didn’t have the skill set of John McTiernan, who is still one of the great action directors. Regardless,  it works well enough as Los Angeles is a gritty, interesting looking city, and the idea of the predator hunting in an urban jungle gives the filmmakers a whole slew of nifty set-pieces (a subway, an apartment, a meat-packing plant, and more), while the picture gives the audience something they wanted from the first film: more of a peek into the predator’s world (we visit his ship, which is decorated with all kinds of alien heads, including the sequel-setting-up Alien head). The movie moves at a brisk clip, as the supporting players (like the always reliable Paxton) provide the right amount of comic relief, even if it’s a little more cheese dick this time. As directed by Stephen Hopkins (of Lost in Space infamy), Predator 2 makes for an okay “lowered expectations” tour. Fox’s Blu-ray presents the movie in widescreen (1.85:1) and 5.1 DTS-HD audio and English 2.0 surround. The film comes with two audio commentaries, the first with director Stephen Hopkins, the second with writers Jim and John Thomas. Then there’s a “making-of” entitled “The Hunters and The Hunted” (36 min.), “Evolutions,” which walks through four effects sequences with commentary by visual effects supervisor Jeff Hynek (8 min.), “Weapons of Choice,” which shows all of the Predator’s weapons (8 min.), uncut versions of the faux TV show “Hard Core” (7 min.), three trailers, five TV spots, the original featurette (3 min.), the international featurette (6 min.), a vintage effects featurette “Creating the Ultimate Hunter” (4 min.).

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Fargo is the Coen’s return to form after The Hudsucker Proxy. And though they had an awkward spell for a bit, they’ve been back with a vengeance. But where they had an extended cult following until Fargo, it was this film that really broke them at and started making them academy players.

Frances McDormand stars as Marge Gunderson, a Brainerd, Minnesota sheriff who is really, really pregnant. She stumbles across a scheme by car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife for a couple grand pay-out, and a new car. The criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) are interesting as Carl can’t shut up and is something of a hyperactive twit and Gaear rarely talks, and is more likely to solve things with violence.

They kidnap the wife, all so Jerry can get money off his father in law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), but then everything starts to go bad. Wade wants to handle the money, Carl starts getting interest from Marge, and she also stumbles across Jerry, who can’t keep his interests contained, and Marge sniffs out the beginnings of their plot just as everything starts going to hell.

Fargo made stars of McDormand, Macy, and Stormare, while giving Presnell a new career as a bullish older man (see Face/Off), and cemented Steve Buscemi’s status as one of the great actors of the 1990’s. Like most of the Coen’s great films, the film has a literary conceit, and it builds like a true-crime story in the line of In Cold Blood. But with the Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark comedic twist on it. The film does have a heart (the brothers  are often accused of missing theirs) with McDormand’s Marge are real, and engaging pregnant woman of great decency. The first time I saw the film, I was a little disturbed by the scene with Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) because it seems to go nowhere, but it’s the core to how Marge figures everything out. And though her part is smaller than you’d think, McDormand’s Marge is one of those great characters.

Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD. The film also comes with a commentary by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a trivia track. The trivia track is insipid, but Deakins offers some insights when he’s not distracted by what’s going on (he does his share of narrating). There’s a making of called “Minesota Nice” (28 min.) that does get comments from Joel and Ethan Coen, Macy, McDormand, Stormare, and Buscemi. There’s a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and the American Cinematographer article on the making of the film.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is pure cinema. It may not be great cinema, though it is great filmmaking. It is a genre work done by a master, someone playing with form, someone stretching time and moments into indelibility.

The premise is there’s a treasure buried somewhere, and three men long to get it. The bad is Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), who is the hired killer/soldier who will kill innocent people to get it. The ugly is Tuco (Eli Wallach), a thief and killer who now makes his money getting arrested, and then sprung from the noose by Blondie, the Good (Clint Eastwood), who is the hero almost by default.

Angel Eyes is on the hunt, but after Tuco tortures Blondie for their deal going bad, Blondie is gifted with the dying words of the only man who knows the location. Angel Eyes has his men and captures Blondie, but Blondie uses Tuco to make things even, as they head to a graveyard for their epic shootout.

Set during the civil war, it’s a fascinating backdrop that provides commentary on the size of these men, who wander through American history mostly unconcerned with what’s going on around them. Only towards the end does the war really make it presence felt, in one of the film’s great sequences. But the plot is almost a husk. The film is about images, motion, and the music provided by Ennio Morricone. The film is quotable, but the dialog is secondary. And for that the Blu-ray is a marked improvement as the only way to watch the film is as big and as loud as possible. This is one of the great Spaghetti westerns, and though Leone’s next, Once Upon a Time in the West, is his masterpiece, this is only spitting distance from that. This is an absolute must-have.

Fox’s DVD presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 and the original 2.0 mono track. The film also comes with a commentary by Richard Schickel and a second track by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling. There’s also the featurettes from the two disc DVD: “Leone’s West” (20 min.), “The Leone Style” (23 min.), “The Man Who Lost the Civil War” (15 min.), “Reconstructing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (11 min.) and “Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (20 min. broken into two parts) There’s also  two deleted scenes (10 min.) that are part reconstructions, and the original English and French theatrical trailers. The supplements here are solid and thoughtful for what they are. Insightful but light.

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