The Ice Harvest

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
Stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt.

The wildest double-bill I ever saw an ad for involved an Ohio drive-in the mid-1960s that managed to splice Becket with a re-issue of the Martin & Lewis girls’-school romp You’re Never Too Young. Some direct descendent, or at least sanitarium soulmate, of the film booker responsible must have worked at Focus Features 40 years later when the decision was made to position The Ice Harvest, with all its foiled-caper nastiness, as a holiday picture (Friday after Thanksgiving, 2005). Talk about an exercise in perversity, to say nothing of commercial suicide — but I still think, as I did at the time, that Harvest deserved a better shake than it got (critics, with some brand-name exceptions, didn’t like it, either).

Even by noir standards — and this one has a lot of noir DNA, including Connie Nielsen’s vintage-movie-poster-caliber babe — Harvest is uncommonly brutal in language, graphic bodily harm and, well, life attitude. Especially for a movie with recognizable stars and filmmakers (with the latter working out of their wheelhouse). For starters on the last count was Robert Benton, who co-scripted this adaptation of a Scott Phillips novel, and even Bonnie and Clyde (the picture that made him) wasn’t this down and dirty. And Benton’s writing partner here was novelist Richard Russo, whose novel Nobody’s Fool became the wonderful, big-hearted Paul Newman movie the two co-scripted and Benton directed.

Though their dialogue here is funny — and a key point here is that Harvest has a lot of laughs — it’s still an eye-opener to find it on Harold Ramis’s own behind-the-camera filmography. Nor does Ramis fumble the assignment; this is one of the better pictures from a spotty directorial career, even if it’s minor fare (no shame in that) that’s more along the lines of what a satisfying drive-in movie used to be. At 88 minutes, it’s tight, and doesn’t let up from an opening that wastes no time in letting us know that the most successful, well-dressed mob lawyer in Wichita (John Cusack) has ripped off $2 million from his employer on Christmas Eve and in a manner that won’t remain secret for very long.

But in keeping with the movie’s basic attitude that life is futile, the winter roads are too dangerous to facilitate a quick getaway with his sleazier partner-in-crime (Billy Bob Thornton — whose dialogue deliveries, as always, are spot on). And Wichita isn’t a large enough place to maintain a low-key presence, especially when Cusack is spending a lot of visible time at his strip bar of choice, which at least has a sympathetic bartender and other employees willing to supply him with a hiding room when certain local “figures” come in looking for him. Nielsen’s character owns the establishment, and it’s no small mental exercise wondering what her background might be. Whatever it is, and the movie is purposely sketchy about this, divorced Cusack has a big-time yen.

Indicative of the manner in which this story enjoys going in warped directions, Cusack’s ex is now married to an alcoholically loquacious lawyer buddy played by any movie’s secret weapon this side of Thornton: Oliver Platt. He seems to be the only close buddy that Cusack has, and the affection is real, though it does lead to a bleak if hilarious confrontation with Cusack’s kids and former in-laws when he drops in with Platt for dinner. Not that Platt gets much of a better reception given his blitzed state, which eventually leads to him passing out near a tree of presents with no one else (and much less the Mrs.) to be seen.

Cusack is flawless here, though this is the kind of take-for-granted performance that never garners much critical notice even in a movie that’s been enthusiastically received. I can’t figure out what has happened to his career, though I’ve always sensed that he might be something of a hothead. In contrast to, say, Jeff Bridges, the slower-fuse excellence of all the cult movies he made earlier on eventually caught up with audiences and made him a bigger star in later years than he’d been.

I also like the skill with which Harvest conveys the bitter cold of this movie winter. On a commentary carried over from the original DVD, Ramis (who died in 2014) mentions the CGI that helped out convincingly on this count, as in the snowy highway late in the movie that got a computer assist on the snow. Ramis apparently did this easygoing commentary a few days before the movie’s theatrical release, when he wasn’t certain how its reception would go. It kind of adds poignancy to the entire enterprise, especially given that Harvest was his only big-screen feature in a seven-year period as serious and eventually fatal health problems loomed on the horizon.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

The Catcher Was a Spy

DVD REVIEW:

Street Date 10/2/18;
Paramount;
Drama;
Box Office $0.7 million;
$22.99 DVD;
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality, violence and language.
Stars Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham.

The Catcher Was a Spy is one of those strange-but-true tales that really drives up the curiosity factor based on its somewhat bizarre premise alone.

The film is based on a book of the same name that relates the true story of a former Major League Baseball catcher who was tasked with assassinating the head of Germany’s atomic bomb program during World War II.

The actual circumstances make a lot more sense when played out in context of course, even if the man at the center of it, the Jewish baseball player-turned-spy Moe Berg, would seem to defy most attempts to classify his character.

Berg, played here by the always affable Paul Rudd, was an avid reader who spoke several languages, demonstrated his smarts on radio quiz shows and was labeled an oddball for his eccentricities by coaches and teammates during an otherwise underwhelming 15-year baseball career.

After being invited to join an all-star team of Major Leaguers touring Japan in 1934, Berg learned from a Japanese friend that a war between the U.S. and Japan was likely inevitable, so he snuck onto the roof of a Tokyo hospital to film footage of the city’s harbor. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berg gave the footage to U.S. intelligence services and ended up joining the OSS (precursor to the CIA).

Incidentally, while the film doesn’t dwell on the particulars, this was the same 1934 tour touted in Ken Burns’ Baseball in which a 17-year-old Japanese kid named Eiji Sawamura struck out Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in succession. (Sawamura was killed a decade later serving the Japanese navy in WWII.)

Anyway, the OSS eventually assigns Berg to a team looking into the activities of famed German physicist Werner Heisenberg (namesake for Walter White’s alias on “Breaking Bad”), trying to gauge his involvement in helping Germany develop an atomic bomb and assess what progress, if any, he has made on the project. The key moment comes when Berg is sent to stalk Heisenberg (played by Mark Strong) during a lecture in neutral Switzerland and shoot him on the spot if the scientist offers any hint that he is working on an atomic weapon.

Part baseball movie, part spy thriller, The Cather Was a Spy is an intriguing wartime procedural carried primarily by its old-fashioned sensibilities and the likability of its main cast. The screenplay is by Robert Rodat, who is no stranger to WWII movies having penned Saving Private Ryan.

The DVD includes seven deleted scenes that run a total of about nine minutes. Many shed a bit more light on Berg’s character and motivations, and had some of them been kept they might have helped the character study bona fides of a film that runs a svelte hour-and-a-half as it is.

Justice League

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street 3/13/18;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $229.01 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 3D BD, $44.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
Stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, Ciaran Hinds.

As a movie, Justice League is a perfectly fine, entertaining superhero adventure, in which Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit a handful of superheroes to fight an alien invasion. Except, you just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.

This was supposed to be the DC Comics version of Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, with the greatest superheroes of all time finally coming together on the big screen. But with Marvel’s cinematic universe having such a head start (Black Panther is the 18th MCU film, while Justice League is just the fifth for DC), the DC films creative team took a few creative shortcuts to try to jump-start its mega franchise, mostly by foregoing introductory films for many of the characters and relying on the audience to have built-in knowledge of and nostalgia for who the characters are supposed to be.

In that regard, Justice League is primarily a sequel to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which introduced Wonder Woman in advance of her own solo film, as well as most of the concepts meant to pay off in Justice League. But when audiences balked at BvS being too long and confusing, the studio allegedly mandated trimming Justice League to a manageable two hours, leaving little room for complex plot dynamics or character development.

So, where the Marvel films have become an intriguing network of interconnected stories and characters that invite and enable audience investment, the DC films have mostly been disposable popcorn entertainment, about as distinct a representation of the characters as any of the direct-to-video animated DC Universe movies, or the multitude of DC-based shows on the CW, which managed to pull off their own mega-crossover shortly after Justice League came out that many fans considered a much better example of how to present a satisfying superhero team-up.

The film itself was vastly overshadowed by rumors of production issues, as director Zack Snyder left the project following a family tragedy, and Avengers director Joss Whedon stepped in to guide re-shoots and post-production. That led to some fans trying to dissect the film to determine who directed what, with most guessing incorrectly. Then, irony of ironies, once the film came out, the fan base that decried Snyder’s vision as having muddled both Man of Steel and BvS suddenly demanded a mythical “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, as if he were suddenly their favorite filmmaker (a dichotomy somewhat echoed by the “Star Wars” fans who hated the unfamiliarity of The Last Jedi after criticizing The Force Awakens for being too familiar).

The Blu-ray offers no hint of whatever behind-the-scenes discord influenced what finally ended up on screen. For what it’s worth, Whedon is never mentioned in the bonus materials, and there’s plenty of footage of Snyder on set and praise from the cast for his direction.

Anyway, the film is fun, flashy and filled with action, though the abundance of CGI makes most of it look like it came from a video game. (I won’t even get into the controversy about Henry Cavill’s moustache grown for Mission: Impossible — Fallout having to be digitally removed because Paramount wouldn’t let him shave it for the JL reshoots.) And there are plenty of moments that comic book fans should enjoy, particularly when it comes to the homages to the classic versions of the characters.

Another highlight is the musical score from Danny Elfman, who mostly abandons the sound from the previous films in favor of something more akin to his traditional filmmusic sensibilities. In this case, that means straight-up re-using his own Batman theme from 1989 and John Williams’ classic Superman theme. Whether it serves the franchise will be open to debate, but it’s certainly helps fuel the nostalgia the film needs for the audience to embrace its version of the characters. (Though for some perspective, there were 21 years between the 1960s Batman show and the 1989 Tim Burton movie where Elfman debuted his theme, and then 25 years between Batman Returns and the theme’s return in Justice League; it’s no surprise some fans might have found it a bit jarring).

On top of all that, Justice League also serves as a decent set-up for the upcoming Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Flash (Ezra Miller) movies, and with a little tweaking to the DC formula a team-up sequel with the same characters and some new additions wouldn’t be unwelcome.

With rumors the film was heavily edited from its original intentions, there has been a lot of speculation about what deleted scenes were out there. Notably, the Justice League home video versions do not include an extended cut of the film, as happened with previous DC entries BvS and Suicide Squad. Instead, the Blu-ray includes just two short deleted scenes, running a total of two minutes, tying into the “Return of Superman” subplot.

The rest of the extras consist of about an hour of behind-the-scenes material, segmented into shorter featurettes. Most interesting for fans of the lore will be the “Road to Justice” featurette that traces some of the history of the characters.