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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Mr. Brooks

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Mr. Brooks
2007 (2007) - MGM

Film Rating: B-
Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B/B
Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/C

For a man who seemingly has everything - a successful company, a beautiful wife (Marg Helgenberger) and daughter (Danielle Panabaker), good standing in his Portland, Oregon community, a nice house - Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) has a hunger; an addiction that diligent twelve-stepping can't totally control: he is a serial killer who after two years on the wagon finds himself doing more killing than even he wants to commit. Thus is the intriguing premise of Mr. Brooks, a potentially taut psychological thriller that buries itself under too much plot, proving that more isn't necessarily more.

Brooks was the "Thumbprint Killer", notable for posing his victims and leaving their bloody thumbprints at the scene. No substantial evidence was ever found and the cases were unsolved by the detective on the case, Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore). Unfortunately for Brooks, his murderous id has been goading him into killing again.

This devil on his shoulder takes the form of Marshall (William Hurt), who appears and converses with Brooks in a neat way of visualizing Brooks' interior struggle. Marshall knows Brooks has an appetite for destruction and it's not that difficult to convince him to kill a couple he had spotted at a dance studio.

But for all his methodical preparation for and execution of the executions, Brooks fails to notice one crucial detail of the scene: the exhibitionist couple liked to make love with the curtains open. He draws the drapes to finish his dirty work before returning home to glower over photos of the scene he's taken before burning them and the clothes he wore in the ceramics kiln in his studio. Marshall has to chide Brooks not to even think about keeping the photos. If Brooks had wanted souvenirs, he doesn't have to wait long before "Mr. Smith" (Dane Cook) shows up at his office with photos of Brooks at the scene. He'd been photographing the couple for his own personal spank bank and as exciting as he found that action, he found witnessing their murders to be an even greater rush. But Smith doesn't want to blackmail Brooks for money, he wants in on the action. He wants Brooks to take him along when he kills again.

While this is an interesting premise, co-writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans (who also directed) overwhelm the story with an absurd amount of tangential rigmarole. Atwood is going through a messy divorce and is being sued for a huge settlement which indicates she has means well beyond a cop's salary. A vicious killer who goes by the handle "The Hangman" (Matt Schulze), that she'd put away, has escaped and is seeking revenge on her. If that wasn't enough, Brooks' daughter Jane has a passel of secrets which tip the whole shebang into the ditch well before the crazy ending. You know that saying about fashion accessories where you should put on what you want and then take one item off? Gideon and Evans should've taken about half of the plot and characters off. Lose the daughter's problems, Atwood's problems, or this Hangman guy; it's not that these were individually bad ideas; it's that there are too many threads cluttering the crazy quilt story.

It's too bad because the performances are uniformly very good and Evans conducts the proceedings with and unobtrusive slick style. Costner is generally a white bread actor, but here he's got a depth and edge that we rarely see from him. Hurt is amusing and less mannered than he was in A History of Violence and even the stand-up comic Cook brings a creepy dimension to his role of someone who fancies the dangerous life, but clearly isn't half as clever as he thinks he is.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very good with rock solid black levels and excellent shadow details. Colors are vivid and clean and red neon signs don't smear. There were a few instances of filtering and noise noted, but they were few and far between and would only bother the most nit-picky viewers. The audio presentations between the Dolby and DTS tracks are comparable with the usual extra definition in bass response in the latter. The mix features clear dialog and would be absolutely generic and unmemorable in its pedestrian nature but for the thunderous gunshot effects which sent me scrambling for the volume control twice and scared the heck out of the sleeping cat in the room. The disparity in levels for this talky film was way too much to overlook - the shots are crazy loud.

The extras package is slim compared to the overstuffed movie leading with an adequate feature commentary by Gideon and Evans. Most of their chatter covers how Shreveport, Louisiana doubled for Portland and how great all the performers were. While not too self-congratulatory, it's of modest informational value. Apparently Zach Braff was originally slated to play Cook's role, but had to drop out when another project got greenlit.

The half-dozen deleted scenes offer little of interest other than to show how much more detail they were going into Atwood's life as if there wasn't too much. One scene that should've been retained involves a clue left at the scene and explains a baffling line of questioning that Atwood presses Smith about. Its omission breaks the movie a little and considering their reluctance to trim anything else, should've been left in.

The remaining trio of behind-the-scenes pieces - The Birth of a Serial Killer: The Writing of Mr. Brooks, On the Set of Mr. Brooks, and Murder on Their Minds: Mr. Brooks, Marshall and Mr. Smith (total run time: approx. 26 mins.) - are tilted toward the EPK fluff side of things with plenty of mutual appreciation for everyone else's brilliance, but also provide a few inadvertent insights as to why the film turned out as it did. Costner had declared the script to be "perfect" and decided it needed to be made outside the Hollywood system to prevent meddling, though perhaps some script editing with a big red marker could've improved things. There are also several references that this was intended to be the first of a series of two or three films if it did well. Can't anyone be satisfied with making one tight movie instead of trying to make a franchise out of everything?

Mr. Brooks is destined to be a case study for screenwriting classes of how overwriting can be as bad as underwriting. While it's too flawed to recommend permanent inclusion in your DVD library, its strengths do recommend it for a rental for those with the desire to see a near-miss of a bloody, noirish thriller.

Some Kind of Wonderful: Special Collector's Edition

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Some Kind of Wonderful
Special Collector's Edition - 1987 (2006) - Paramount

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

For nearly two decades I have held the opinion that Some Kind of Wonderful was Eighties teen movie king John Hughes' penance for botching the ending of Pretty in Pink. While that Molly Ringwald epic was a hit, that she would toss away Duckie (Jon Cryer) at the last moment for Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), thus sacrificing the loyalty and lifelong love of one for the vapid blankness of some traditional ideal of manliness never sat right with me. Why would this offbeat girl want to sell out to the traditional hunk, especially when he's blander than soggy Wonder Bread?

Despite the test screening results which indicated the audience wanted that result, the fact that Hughes and director Howard Deutsch would immediately reteam to tell almost the exact same story, beat for beat, a couple of years later suggests that perhaps Hughes felt something wasn't done properly and only a Mirror Universe treatment would set things right. While they reversed the endings, it's remarkable how similar both films are, right down to their extensive flaws.

The misunderstood red-haired outsider this time is Keith (Eric Stoltz), a sensitive artistic type whose best friend is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), a tough-shelled misfit girl who loves playing drums almost as much as she pines for Keith, whom hasn't a clue that true love is staring him in the face on a daily basis. (Feel free to keep a running tally of recycled Pretty in Pink elements.) Keith probably hasn't noticed Watts because he's fixated on Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), a girl from their wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood who is dating Hardy (Craig Sheffer), a snobby rich jerk who constantly dealing on other girls, yet she doesn't abandon her ticket to higher society.

One night, Keith spies an opportunity to ask Amanda out on a date and if you've seen Pretty in Pink, you pretty much know what comes next as Amanda's "friends" and Watts react badly to this mismatched romance and that some misunderstandings, misgivings and a happy ending that's too rushed will surely follow. Frequently, it seems as if Hughes merely shuffled the script pages from Pretty in Pink, substituting "Keith" for "Andie", "Watts" for "Duckie", "Amanda" for "Blaine", "Hardy" for "Steff" (the James Spader character), and so on, and slapped another pop song title onto the cover page. (Oddly, the namesake song is never heard during this movie.)

The scene where the misfit best friend declares that if the protagonist is going to go out with that shallow person who can't possibly understand them, they'll have to disassociate themselves lest the heartache grow too much to bear? Check. The confrontation scene between the parent and child where one is sensible and the other acting rashly? Present. Hip rock clubs, wild rich kid parties and the total absence of any parental figures other than the hero's? Yep, 10-4 and you betcha! (If stealing from others is plagiarism, but stealing from oneself is style; John Hughes is the Style Master!)

With so much in common, what distinguishes Some Kind of Wonderful from its pretty pink predecessor? For starters, a much darker tone as Hughes and Deutsch deftly lay out the principal characters and their lives in the span of the opening credits, scored to the menacing "Abuse" by Propaganda. (Peppy "Pretty in Pink", this isn't.) Scenes play out with discomforting tension due to the near-absence of underscore - the musical accompaniment which subconsciously cues the viewer how to feel. The rich-poor class divide is more subtly handled because Amanda is a poor girl trying to run with the rich kids, not a native-born spoiled brat.

But where Some Kind of Wonderful falters is in its third act when Keith takes Amanda out on the big date; an event so momentous that he literally cashes in his future to finance it. It's noteworthy that I found myself with no recollection of this whole part of the movie from my initial viewing; I'd simply edited it out of my memory along with Duncan (Elias Koteas), the colorful skinhead thug character. It's easy to see why as it veers wildly in tone and logic as they take turns acting out their mutual contempt and class aspirations against each other in passive-aggressive fashion. Has Keith been pining all this time for a girl who he knew absolutely nothing about and thus dreadfully misplaced his affections? (Well, duh.)

When I saw Some Kind of Wonderful almost 20 years ago, I wondered why Keith didn't find a way to date both of these cute chicks, but now I found Amanda's shallowness immediately grating and Keith's mooning over her more mystifying. This is mostly due to Masterson's raw, hurt performance as the soft-boiled Watts - hard and brittle on the outside, but all soft and runny within. Even though she never explicitly states her ardor for her oblivious friend - there's no "I love this woman" scene a la Duckie here - we get it and we grow to resent Keith for his denseness. His constantly clueless sleepwalk only makes his last-moment road-to-Damascus epiphany seem more arbitrary. Knowing what they learned from Pretty in Pink, the reliance on a flashback shot to sell this change of heart is not one of Hughes and Deutsch's finer filmmaking moments.

Once upon a time, I thought Some Kind of Wonderful was better than Pretty in Pink because the proper love match was made in the end. Looking at it now with a more mature sensibility reveals it doesn't hold together as well and is the less-entertaining film of the pair. While both films' leads mistake infatuation for love, because of Masterson's aching portrayal of an unrequited soul forced to support a friend choosing another over her, Some Kind of Wonderful almost ends up some kind of bummer. Yes, the right people end up together in the end, but it's not handled very gracefully.

While Hughes' redundant ruminations on love (ahem) and class has had their fans for all these years, they suffer in comparison to another film which copped its title from a song: Martha Coolidge's 1983 film Valley Girl, which starred Nicolas Cage in his first leading role. Despite sharing many of the conventions of Eighties teen movies, this opposites attract tale actually took the time to build the relationship between its lovers instead of expecting us to root for people who barely know each other and it came out a few years earlier than either of these teen epics. If you haven't already, you should definitely check it out.

1.85:1 anamorphic transfer does a decent job of presenting the image with only minor flaws, starting with some moderate grain which intensifies the grittier vibe of this film. While black levels are good, there is some muddiness in shadowy areas. Overall detail is good and any softness appears to be deliberate, rather than transfer flaw related. The print is free of excessive grunge and no damage was noted. Edge-enhancement is minor and colors and skin tones appear accurate.

Audio choices are English Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 Surround and French stereo with subtitles in English. Predating the surround audio era, the track is understandably front-loaded with little, if any, surround activity conjured up for this release. Dialogue is clear and free of undue hiss or distortion and the music is reasonably dynamic in tone and range.

In annoying Paramount fashion, you have to chapter-skip through several trailers to get to the main menu, but the respectable batch of extras kicks of with a feature commentary by director Howard Deutsch and Lea Thompson. This track by the married Deutsch and Thompson - they met making this film and have two children together - is lackluster with long silences and little in the way of insight. Thompson has almost nothing to say, while Deutsch occasionally discusses the themes in Hughes script. Considering the nearly-identical stories, there is only a single passing mention of the similarity to Pretty in Pink and the biggest surprise is that the painting is in a prop house somewhere and not in their possession, as I had guessed.

The Making of Some Kind of Wonderful featurette (7:44) has new interviews with all the major players (except Hughes who only appears in vintage footage) with the biggest tidbits being Stoltz talking Thompson into doing the film in the wake of Howard the Duck's plucking and that his Method acting technique causing some butting of heads with Deutsch.

The Meet the Cast featurette (13:26) runs through most of cast with more newly captured interviews and Stoltz opines that Watts is the central character, not Keith. While everyone has aged fairly well into their 40s, the shocker is Maddie Corman (Keith's bratty sister Laura) who was 16 when this was shot and now looks about 19; she probably still gets carded at bars!

John Hughes' canny soundtrack choices gave many artists - Simple Minds, Yello, OMD, and The Psychedelic Furs are a few - a boost and The Music featurette (5:07) discusses how he used music mix tapes to inspire his writing and vintage interviews explains his choices for this movie.

The John Hughes Time Capsule interview feature (10:49) shows that all the Hughes footage was culled from an interview conducted by Kevin Bacon. (One degree of separation!) It's a good discussion of the film's themes and his career starting with writing Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation. Unfortunately, the audio from Hughes microphone is really muddy, so you'll have to listen sharp.

Wrapping up is a photo gallery of a couple dozen promo and production stills and the opening previews from the disc. Missing in action is the striking teaser trailer for the feature which consisted of abstract shots of Watts - though we never see her face - pounding her drums on a darkened stage. It's mentioned and partially shown in the cast feature, but should've been here, too.

The World's Fastest Indian

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The World's Fastest Indian
1987 (2006) - Magnolia Pictures (Magnolia)

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

Despite a long and varied career, the roles most associated with Sir Anthony Hopkins in most minds are the evil genius Hannibal Lecter in a trio of films beginning with The Silence of the Lambs and various repressed British butlers in several films including The Remains of the Day. It's against these archetypes that his performance in The World's Fastest Indian is such a surprise, though it really shouldn't be.

Hopkins plays real-life motorcycle maven Burt Munro, a 63-year-old codger who lives alone in a shed on an overgrown lot in Invercargill, New Zealand where he tinkers endlessly on his 1920 Indian motorcycle, forging pistons in the quest for speed. His neighbors tolerate his eccentricities, though they draw the line at his gunning his engine in the pre-dawn hours.

Munro's dream is to bring his "motorsickle" (as he pronounces it) to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week, when the fastest and most furious cars and drivers descend on the legendary dry lake bed to vie for land speed records. When he has a heart attack, it spurs him to make the journey sooner than he expected since who knows how much longer he has on this Earth. So with his Indian crated up, he sets off on a road trip adventure.

Along the way, he encounters the expected Murphy's Law speed bumps, but he is able to use his mechanical savvy and refreshingly no bull candor to win people over to supporting his cause. Whether it's Tina (Chris Williams - former Miss America Vanessa's brother), the drag queen desk clerk at the motel he stays; Fernando (Paul Rodriguez), a car dealer; or Jim (Christopher Lawford), the high-rolling racer who takes pity on Burt when he gets to Bonneville only to find that registration was long-closed and his bike doesn't meet basic safety standards; Burt's unpretentious crankiness carries the day.

While the outcome of his journey is given away by the title - it's not called A Long Trip That Ends in Failure after all - it's the well-observed episodic details of his trip that make The World's Fastest Indian a simple pleasure of a road movie. It reminded me of David Lynch's The Straight Story in both structure and tone and with Hopkins irascible performance at its center, it's a trip that certainly should be taken.

While the film was exhibited at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it is presented here in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. After the controversial Lord of War DVD in which the film had its sides lopped off to make a "widescreen fullscreen" picture, I was afraid that this was another example of a studio butchering the director's compositions to assuage unsophisticated viewers who were whining about "black bars on my widescreen TV." However, in this case, it appears that the film, shot on Super 35, has merely had the matting opened up expanding the vertical dimension.

While the aspect ratio is fine, problems with the transfer appear right off the bat with considerable noise and grit in dark shadowy areas resulting in some strobing of highlights. Outdoors scenes were a tad blown out in the highlights, too. Colors were clean and free of smearing, but could've been more vivid. Some compression artifacts and edge-enhancement were quite evident in spots, but less offensive elsewhere and overall detail was good.

Audio choices are English Dolby 5.1 Surround and 2.0 with subtitles in Spanish. The sound mix wasn't particularly exciting with even the obvious places for surround activity - for instance when his motorcycle goes whipping past - remaining almost exclusively up front in the sound field. Dialogue was clear with the exception of some accents and engine sounds were well-mixed, if sonically unimpressive.

The feature commentary by Roger Donaldson is very interesting as he details the development of the project and what the specific inspiration for each scene was; an invaluable touch for a biopic. Some scenes were drawn from Munro's experiences and others from Donaldson's travels as a newcomer to America, doing things like driving on the wrong side of the roads.

Making of The World's Fastest Indian (45:23) is a lightweight featurette consisting mostly of everyone praising Donaldson's passion for the project and Hopkins performance. Not much really nitty-gritty information is conveyed despite the length and until the end of the piece, when they go into each of the characters and the actors portraying them, speakers aren't even identified as to who they are, making for some frustrating viewing. (Would some simple captions have been such an imposition?)

There are four Deleted Scenes totaling approximately four minutes, half of which don't add much, but the others could have added some additional flavor as Munro balks at the cost of staying in a hospital for observation and scams some gasoline.

The treat of the extras is Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed (27:28) which is a 1971 documentary by Donaldson showing the real man in action on the salt flats and at home in New Zealand. Through testimonials of friends, we learn a lot of the back story that the film didn't bother with, and astute viewers will notice many lines of dialogue that have their origins here, including a shot of Munro in a t-shirt reading, "Dirty old men need love too."

Southland: Burt's Home of Invercargill (2:55) is little more than a tourist bureau montage of the lush and varied scenery set to a particularly awful tune and the Soundtrack Promo is merely a page saying that a soundtrack album is available. Woohoo.

Perhaps The World's Fastest Indian was a box office disappointment because the title suggested it was a movie about Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe, but with its arrival on DVD, hopefully it will find an audience as a word-of-mouth sleeper.

Peter Schorn

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