MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Hail, Caesar!; House Of Cards; It Came From Outer Space; Independence Day: Resurgence

With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen again prove that the Bros. do not make normal movies. This delightful film is another classic in the movies about moviemaking genre and improves considerably with each viewing. The kneejerk pairing would be to play it with Barton Fink, but its real spiritual twin in the Coen world is The Hudsucker Proxy, for along with being about the film business and, less demandingly than A Serious Man, about faith, it is about Capitalism vs. Communism.

Josh Brolin is the head of a studio in the 1950s coping with problems on the studio’s production. The centerpiece is the star of a biblical epic (George Clooney), who is kidnapped by a group of writers who belong to the same communist cell and don’t believe they’re being paid enough for their work. In the secondary story, a charming cowboy hero, played by Alden Ehrenreich, is miscast in a sophisticated musical. Other problems arise, and a better but more mundane job offer tempts Brolin’s character. Tilda Swinton has a marvelous dual bit as competing, twin gossip columnists, and the exquisite performances include Frances McDormand in a bit part as an editor who gets her tie caught in an editing machine, nearly strangling herself. While there is steady contrast between big ideas, not limited to “faith,” “profit” and “duty,” the movie’s biggest idea, “love,” is never tarnished, because it is not about love between human beings. Rather, the film is about the love of movies and moviemaking, demonstrating how eternal that love will remain.

House of Cards The Complete Third Season

“House of Cards” has reached a plateau. At the end of the second season, there was no more “up” for the characters to go, so the third and fourth seasons are very different from the initial years. The central characters, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, achieve their career goals at the end of the second season, and the third season action has a major downshift. Spacey’s character is no longer murdering mistresses or blackmailing billionaires. Instead, he deals with the petty, day-to-day irritations of the job he has inherited. While it does involve Frank Underwood interacting with the Russian premier and manipulating presidential primary candidates with his usual Machiavellian flair, the show is more reserved and more cloistered than it was in the initial two seasons. Frank stops talking to the camera, as well. Oh, there is a token bit now and then, but you don’t get the real Richard III skinny he was giving you in the first two seasons. It is a different entertainment, which some fans may embrace while others may not. The more realistically an alternate universe drama such as this attempts to imitate the real political arguments and crises of the day, the more embarrassing it can be, especially as time takes reality on a different course. And then there is reality. In olden days, “The West Wing” was held up as an idealized version of what our nation’s political leaders could be like; now everyone would just be happy if they were as cooperative and sensible as the folks in this show. But if you just accept the fact that everyone is play-acting, and enjoy the characters for their own complexities, strengths and flaws, then many of the pleasures that made the show so successful to begin with can still be savored.

The third season is entertaining, but it is especially worth sitting through because the fourth season is exceptional. By then, a viewer will have acclimated to the show’s fantasy and settle in with the characters as they make audacious choices and race to hold onto their power against an accelerating mass of revealed secrets. Spacey even starts talking to the camera again, although sporadically. It is also worth noting that Ellen Burstyn delivers an exceptional and powerhouse performance as the mother of Wright’s character. The series seems to find the right balance in its own measure of how much ‘realism’ (how the White House operates, how the president interacts with other people, how the new media reacts to things, and so on) can be blended into its drama without distracting a viewer from the narrative. Along with the basic appeal of the characters and the sweep of the drama, the show’s strength comes from its overpowering analogy of marriage with politics. Everything that happens on a personal level between the two leads reflects upon the power struggles of the nation, and everything that happens in the nation reflects upon the psychology and emotional tapestry of the two leads. That’s the real problem with politics. There’s no escaping it, ever.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

Written by Ray Bradbury, produced by William Alland and directed by Jack Arnold, the 1953 sci-fi thriller, It Came from Outer Space, is one of the finest examples of the Fifties alien encounter genre. Made three years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy plot has the aliens ‘taking over’ local humans, who walk around in a zombie-like state gathering materials to repair a spaceship and perhaps conquer the world. Set in the Arizona desert, Richard Carlson is an astronomer who sees the ship crash and tries to sound the alarm, only to be met with skepticism, disbelief and ridicule. Running 80 minutes, the film is spare and methodical, and is blessed with Bradbury’s final plot twist, which endures as a breath of fresh air amid alien paranoia. Barbara Rush, Charles Drake and Russell Johnson co-star—there is also a marvelous, single-scene performance by Kathleen Hughes, who can’t resist checking out the hero after her own boyfriend has gone missing.

Arnold made one of the greatest 3D movies ever, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space was an earlier 3D production, with a smaller budget. The Blu-ray contains both the 2D version and the 3D version of the film. The 3D effects do not have the same thematic power they had in Creature from the Black Lagoon, nor are they as consistent. But the 3D presentation of the film is still a great deal of fun. Not only are there shots, such as a rock slide, that will have you ducking left and right, but there is an enhanced atmosphere of terror, decent framings of the desert landscape and the cheaply furnished interiors, and some pretty good frights, as the tentacles and who knows what of the aliens reach out of the screen to take over your own soul.

The presentation has an Intermission, and the full screen black-and-white picture is spotless. Some of the cinematography, particularly the stock shots, is a little soft (and distinctly lacking in dimensionality), but everything else is crisp. The remastered 3-channel DTS sound is strong and clear, with a general but engaging dimensionality. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a standard trailer, a joyful 3D trailer and a 32-minute retrospective documentary that places the film in the context of Universal’s sci-fi traditions (i.e., selling other Universal product). The segment talks about all aspects of the film, including its electronic musical score and the utilization of 3D.

Film historian Tom Weaver supplies a comprehensive commentary track, going over the backgrounds of most of the cast and crew, breaking down the process by which the script was developed (and sharing some lyrical Bradbury dialog passages that were dropped), explaining how the special effects were created, identifying the location and studio work, and just sharing generally witty or informative insights, such as, “At Universal, the scientist heroes all look like tennis pros.” Weaver also points out that almost all of the aliens in early post-War sci-fi films were benign, until George Pal’s blockbuster, War of the Worlds, was released and it became clear what sort of approach audiences responded to the most. Which brings us to…

Putting the 3D effects in It Came from Outer Space next to the 3D effects on the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD release, Independence Day Resurgence, is like parking a Model T next to a brand new Cadillac. The Model T will probably attract more attention and, for that matter, more affection, but it definitely comes from a different age. There are no deliberate at-your-face shots in Resurgence. Instead, there is just a vast and complex dimensional landscape in shot after shot, and action scenes that become more exciting when the full location and juxtaposition of objects and characters are clarified. As for the 2016 film, it was clearly intended as a necessary set up to what might have been a very interesting and different sequel, where the heroes would advance into outer space to pull a surprise attack on the aliens before they have time to organize another volley at Earth. Because the film didn’t do all that well at the box-office, however, the fate of such a sequel is in doubt. Nevertheless, Resurgence is a viable spectacle. The story is pretty much a repeat of the first film—and a surprising number of the cast members return, with the notable exception of Will Smith; Brent Spiner is a particular surprise and gives a witty performance)—though with one important difference. In the 20 years since the initial attack depicted in the first Independence Day film, mankind has adapted quite a bit of alien