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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Crime Pays

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Have you ever noticed how many movies revolve around illegal activities? Robberies, scams, murder and mayhem may be frowned upon here in the real world but they're a recipe for a darn good time at the movies. If Hollywood's creative minds ever decided to put their skills to the test, they'd form a league of evil that would give the Legion of Doom a run for their money.

The three discs reviewed this time out on the surface have absolutely nothing in common but all revolve around crime. From a tough-as-rusty-nails classic to a neo-noir thriller/comedy hybrid to an all-out farce. Remember kids, don't try this at home.

Point Blank

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Point Blank
1967 (2005) - MGM (Warner Home Video)

If you're looking for an object lesson in the kind of movie they just don't make anymore, you could do a lot worse than John Boorman's Point Blank. Based on the novel by Richard Stark (the hardass pseudonym of Donald Westlake), Point Blank stars Lee Marvin, the kind of man's man movie star who has no equivalent among today's soft-boiled crop of actors, has a splintered narrative that requires the audience to pay attention, and is influenced heavily by the films of the French nouvelle vague. Mel Gibson's 1999 remake Payback is to Point Blank as a Hostess Twinkie is to a gourmet éclair.

Marvin plays Walker (no first name, just Walker), a man swindled by his partner and left for dead during a robbery on Alcatraz. He's approached by a mysterious Keenan Wynn who offers information that will lead to the recovery of Walker's lost $93,000. In return, Wynn expects him to help bring down the criminal corporation known only as The Organization. This suits Walker fine, although destroying the Organization is a distant second-place concern behind getting back his 93 grand.

Lee Marvin was an actor of surprising adaptability, capable of turning himself into an irresistible force or a loosey-goosey tall drink of water. In Point Blank, he's at his most granite-edged, roughing people up (though never actually killing anyone, it's interesting to note) and walking into situations with grim purpose and casual authority. When a thug shoots at him in a parking garage, Marvin calmly takes two steps back behind a pillar and waits for the cops to take care of the shooter for him.

But Marvin's tough portrayal wouldn't be nearly as effective if not for John Boorman's inspired direction. He enlivens this pulp story with stylish visuals, brilliant sound and editing (the sequence with Marvin's echoing, menacing footsteps spilling over into subsequent shots is one of the most memorable you'll ever see), and outstanding use of locations. Thanks to Boorman, Point Blank takes on a haunted, dreamlike quality. Is Walker even real or is he a driven spirit of vengeance? Both of these are valid interpretations, as are countless others. Of course, you don't need to go all metaphysical to enjoy Point Blank but it's to Boorman's credit that the tools are there for you if you care to pick them up.

Warner's DVD presents Point Blank in a gorgeous 16x9-enhanced transfer that preserves Boorman's careful widescreen compositions. The audio is presented in its original mono form and sounds more than adequate. There are not a lot of extras on here but every one is a keeper. The Rock is a two-part vintage documentary focusing on the location shoot on Alcatraz Island. The second part is the more interesting, interviewing a former inmate as he returns to the prison.

Best of all is an audio commentary by Boorman and Steven Soderbergh (whose movie The Limey owes more than a few debts to Point Blank) that we really should have nominated for a Best Audio Commentary Bitsy Award last year if we'd had our act together and listened to it in time. Boorman and Soderbergh cover everything a good audio commentary should, including anecdotal, thematic and technical concerns. If you're interested in filmmaking, the disc is worth picking up for the commentary alone. Perhaps part of the reason we didn't get to this sooner is that it was given something of an under-the-radar release. When Bill sent me a list of available review discs and I saw Point Blank on it, I had to ask if it was the Boorman movie because I had no idea it had even been released. Well, it has and I'm thrilled to have it. Point Blank is a great, tough movie, well worth seeking out on DVD.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/B+

The Ice Harvest

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The Ice Harvest
2005 (2006) - Focus Features (Universal)

I don't envy the marketing departments tasked with selling movies like The Ice Harvest. If you sell it as an all-out comedy, audiences will be surprised when the movie turns out to be much more serious than they expected. But if you sell it as a thriller, they're bound to be disappointed by its lack of... well, thrills. While The Ice Harvest isn't the most ingenious or satisfying dark comic neo-noir you'll ever see, it does register as an enjoyable, low-key potboiler.

John Cusack stars as Charlie, a mob lawyer who comes up with a plan (never fully explained) to rob his employer of a couple million dollars. He teams up with Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), a porn merchant who, like Charlie, is desperate for a way out of his dead-end life in Wichita, Kansas. The movie opens with the money having already been stolen. The rest of the story details the twelve hours on Christmas Eve following the crime during which Charlie and Vic must sit out an ice storm before they can hit the road.

While the plot does take a few twists and turns, The Ice Harvest isn't exactly a story-driven movie. Its pleasures mainly lie in watching the great cast at work. Cusack and Thornton have a terrific rapport, easy enough that you understand why two such different guys would partner up but also highlighting the edge of mistrust between them. Randy Quaid has a small but memorable role as the mob boss, while Oliver Platt all but commits grand theft cinema as Pete, Charlie's drunk friend who is now married to his ex-wife. Connie Nielsen is a convincing femme fatale. Director Harold Ramis, previously known exclusively for comedies like Groundhog Day, acquits himself well here. He keeps the movie's tone on track, not skimping on hard-edged violence but leavening it with a sense of dark comedy.

Universal's DVD captures the look of the movie extremely well. Extras include a couple of extended alternate endings, interesting to look at but wisely changed, an amusing outtake with Thornton, and a few featurettes. Cracking the Story interviews screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton along with Scott Phillips, whose novel provided the basis for the film. Not bad but not as detailed as I'd have hoped. Beneath the Harvest is a fairly standard promotional behind-the-scenes piece while Ice Cracking takes a closer look at a key scene. Finally, Ramis provides a decent if somewhat unenthusiastic commentary track.

The Ice Harvest is not in the same league as some superior films of its type, such as Cusack's Grosse Pointe Blank or the underrated Miami Blues. But it is something of a refreshing throwback to movies of an earlier generation that didn't have pretensions of greatness but merely aimed to tell an entertaining story. The Ice Harvest accomplishes that handily. It may not stick with you long afterwards but it's enjoyable enough for as long as it lasts.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C+

The Pink Panther: Special Edition

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The Pink Panther: Special Edition
2006 - MGM/Columbia (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Every so often, a film critic finds him or herself in an uncomfortable situation. They either have to bash a movie that everyone loves but them or admit to enjoying a movie that it seems everyone else hates. I don't usually have a problem doing the former so now that I'm in the latter position, I suppose I'd better just bite the bullet and admit it. I enjoyed Steve Martin's remake of The Pink Panther and I don't care what anybody else says about it.

For many people, the very idea that someone other than Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards would even attempt a Clouseau picture verges on the blasphemous. This strikes me as odd, since the Panther series has never been considered untouchable. Alan Arkin attempted the character as far back as 1968 in the little-seen Inspector Clouseau. Worse yet, Edwards himself cobbled together a post-mortem Panther with the greatest hits pastiche of Trail of the Pink Panther, then attempted to replace the late Sellers with the likes of Ted Wass and Roberto Benigni in the misbegotten sequels Curse and Son of the Pink Panther. The way I figure it, if you're not going to get bent out of shape about Ted freakin' Wass starring in a Pink Panther movie, you should at least cut somebody like Steve Martin a little slack.

The plot of the remake is pretty similar to all the other Panther films. The fabulous Pink Panther diamond disappears following the very public murder of a famous soccer coach (Jason Statham in a brief cameo). Assigned to crack the case is Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Unlike the rest of the series, Panther '06 is designed as an origin story of sorts for Clouseau. He is handpicked for the assignment by Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline taking over the Herbert Lom role), who merely wants a bumbling patsy to fumble the investigation while he solves the crime himself, thus securing the Medal of Honor. Yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense but most of these movies aren't exactly Agatha Christie-style models of airtight plotting.

What matters in a Panther movie is whether or not you laugh and I did. I laughed when I saw it in the theatre and, much to my relief, I laughed again when I revisited it on DVD. Now, nothing is more subjective than comedy. I know that and you know that, so what makes me laugh might just make you stare at me like I'm the world's biggest imbecile. Perhaps I am but that's not going to make me stop enjoying Clouseau's endless attempts to pronounce the word "hamburger", the clever cameo by Clive Owen, or those ridiculous camouflage outfits (complete with camouflage ears) worn by Martin and Jean Reno. I even laughed at the fart joke, which ordinarily would have me in despair for the state of comedy in film today.

I'm the first to admit that this is far from being a great comedy. The attempt to give Clouseau some depth is a big mistake and Martin performs these "Poor Clouseau" moments with a hangdog expression that will make you miss Peter Sellers more than anything else in the picture. Not all of the jokes are winners, either. Although some of the lamer moments, like when Clouseau performs the Heimlich on his choking secretary, are at least partially redeemed by a good punchline (the egg she's choking on flies out the window, hits a bicyclist, who then crashes into an outdoor café which explodes for absolutely no reason). But enough of the jokes work, and Martin, Kline and Reno are all good enough in their roles to make the inevitable prospect of a sequel not entirely unwelcome.

Sony's special edition DVD packs quite a bit onto its single disc (as well as providing very fine video and audio quality, as one might expect). By far the most interesting extra is the alternate opening sequence, a slick computer-animated short that's absolutely gorgeous but totally at odds with the movie itself. The imagery from this sequence is also sampled in the disc's main menu. Director Shawn Levy provides an optional commentary for this as well as a collection of deleted scenes (including a surreal airplane bit that didn't work in the movie but is pretty funny on its own), Beyonce's complete performance of the song A Woman Like Me, and the film itself. I wasn't looking forward to his feature commentary but I was very pleasantly surprised. Levy conveys a lot of information, points out what works and what doesn't (identifying a particularly clumsy edit, he admits that he tried to hide it by including a jarringly loud music cue), and provides insight into Martin's working methods. If you didn't like the movie in the first place, nothing Levy says is going to change your mind. But if you thought it was funny, his commentary is well worth a listen. Other extras include a trio of mini-featurettes including one on the final animated title sequence, Beyonce's music video for the song Check on It, and something called "Sleuth-Cams", basically just raw video footage from the set. This gives a good fly-on-the-wall feel of what it was like to make the film but it also confirms the very real truth that making movies is often quite boring.

I can't quite say that this new Pink Panther is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. While many people certainly hated it, I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved it. I did, however, like it, sometimes a lot. No, it's not as good as the Peter Sellers films in their prime. But that series didn't hit the ground running, either. If nothing else, this strikes me as a good family comedy. There were a lot of kids in the theatre when I saw this and they all seemed to love it. Personally, I'd much rather have my kids watching this than something like Yours, Mine and Ours. Given time, maybe they'll discover the Sellers films as well.

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B+

Adam Jahnke

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