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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

16 Blocks

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16 Blocks
2006 (2006) - Warner Bros.

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

[Editor's Note: This review contains significant spoilers for the film.]

It's surely a sign that life in New York City has settled back into a semblance of normalcy, post-9/11, when it is once again acceptable to make stock formula action thriller movies which seem to portray a majority of NYPD officers as being totally corrupt and willing to kill to keep their secrets. Such is the case with 16 Blocks, the latest effort from veteran director Richard Donner (Superman, the Lethal Weapon series).

Bruce Willis stars as Jack Mosely, a limping, burned-out, alcoholic cop (Tired cliché count: 1) who is roped into what appears to be a routine milk run: Deliver a witness, Eddie (Mos Def), to the courthouse 16 blocks away within two hours to testify for the grand jury. When Jack stops on the way to buy some more booze, a pair of assassins attempt to kill Eddie. After Jack dispatches them, he and his prisoner take refuge in a bar. Jack calls for backup, and the first to arrive is Frank (David Morse), Jack's former partner. (Tired cliché count: 2).

When more cops arrive, Jack notices that Eddie - who has been a non-stop chatterbox the whole time - has suddenly gotten quiet. Frank informs Jack that Eddie was going to testify against one of the officers, and that the ramifications would take down a half-dozen more "good men". (Tired cliché count: 3) Naturally, Jack decides not to go along with their plan to get Eddie out of the way for good, and the pair soon finds themselves on the run with what appears to be most of the force chasing them to prevent Eddie's delivery to the grand jury.

When a movie is built of such well-worn stock ingredients, it all comes down to execution of the recipe to determine its overall success. Despite the addition of some red herrings and other spices, 16 Blocks never overcomes the sense that we've had this meal many, many times before. Hardly any of the plot twists twist in a unique direction, and the only people who will be surprised by the denouement are those who started watching at that point and have never seen a crooked cop flick before. At one point, Jack holds a bus "hostage" and though he knows that the SWAT teams are planning to move in, he doesn't bother to do something obvious: Call the media and tell why he's in this spot. When an army is coming to get you, wouldn't you play every card possible?

Bruce Willis looks like hell here - a cross between his Hartigan in Sin City and his wimpy mortician in Death Becomes Her (his skin is nearly gray) - but he's solid in his weary performance. More problematic is Mos Def's Eddie - he speaks in a nasal whine like Mike Tyson, and it's unclear as to whether he's supposed to be slightly dim or hit in the head one too many times. It's a love/hate sort of thing and while I didn't hate it, it was definitely annoying. (Part of the problem may have been what a black friend enunciated while we compared notes: Mos Def is what's know as a "conscience rapper" - one who doesn't rap about bling or thugging, but more on the social commentary tip - and it seemed beneath him to talk that way. We agreed he probably wasn't forced to make that choice, but it caused some dissonance for us; your mileage may vary.) David Morse continues his string of nuanced supporting performances as well.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer does a nice job of reproducing the sometimes desaturated, sometimes vibrant cinematography of Glen MacPherson. While some areas of flat-shaded color exhibited a little filtering and noise, and the brightness level was a tad low, shadow detail is good and little in the way of edge-enhancement was noted. The audio options are English and French (dubbed in Quebec) Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (subtitles: English, Spanish, French), and it's one of those slightly vexing tracks where the dialogue is low enough to make you goose up the volume, only to have the cats get startled when the bullets start flying. LFE activity is sporadic, but solid, and positional activity when the action occurs makes your back channel speakers feel loved.

The sparse extras begin with an alternate ending (6:36) which, as is often the case these days, was the originally scripted and shot ending - I'll give you one guess as to how it was different. This is presented in non-anamorphic video with incomplete sound. Donner and writer Robert Wenk appear to introduce the clip, and there is an option to watch the film with this ending in place at the end. (You don't really want to do this.) Next up is a series of deleted scenes (19:50), that come with mandatory commentary from Donner and Wenk, who frequently pop up in a box at the bottom of the screen. Since they chatter throughout, supertitles caption the dialogue. Only a couple of the scenes could've been included; the bulk are best on the cutting room floor. There is no commentary track. A theatrical trailer completes the bonus materials.

If you're looking to rent a competently directed and acted popcorn flick with a familiar script, 16 Blocks will fill the bill nicely. It's not so much bad as unambitious, and if only Mos Def had chosen a different voice - would his normal voice have been so contrary to the character? - it would have been marginally more enjoyable.

Underworld Evolution

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Underworld Evolution
Special Edition - 2005 (2006) - Screen Gems (Sony)

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

Released in 2003, the stylish vampires vs. werewolves action-horror movie Underworld created an interesting milieu, in which Goth bloodsuckers had been waging a centuries-long war against the Lycans. (A werewolf by any other name would surely shed on the sofa.) Starring the luscious leather-and-latex-clad Kate Beckinsale as Selene, a pistol-packing "death dealer," Underworld told the story of this war and of a special vampire-Lycan hybrid, Michael (Scott Speedman) to whom Selene is attracted. With special effects and production values that belied its modest budget, it was a fun little film... even though it got a little dopey when Michael turned into what looked like a steroid-enhanced Smurf at the end.

The inevitable franchise continuation, Underworld Evolution, attempts to further progress the fur-crossed lovers' story, while delving into the origins of the war and a pair of brothers - Marcus (Tony Curran), head of Team Vampire; and William (a special effects wolf) for the hirsute side. With William locked away for his transgressions (eating villages and making new Lycans is frowned upon by the folks who feed on and turn people into vamps), Marcus is searching for the keys that will release him from his custom sarcophagus. In the immediate aftermath of the events of the first film, Selene and Michael are also on the run, being hunted not only by their own people, but also by mysterious soldiers under the command of Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), who operates out of a converted naval vessel.

Despite the attempt to broaden the mythology, Underworld Evolution suffers from the smaller and generally uninteresting cast of characters. While the first time around there were plenty of players on the field, the relative handful here allows the deficiencies of each stand out, starting with Speedman's bland Michael. Maybe it's because he reminds me of the lead singer from Creed - strike that, precisely because he's like the dope from Creed - but I didn't care if someone shot/ate/Naired him to death, and I didn't see why a icy-hot babe like Selene would decide to make anything more than a throw rug out of him. His rapid transformations into and out of his hybrid form seemed more Buffy than Beowulf, and was it really necessary to see him fake humping Selene under the direction of Beckinsale's off-screen husband, Len Wiseman? (No, they don't do it that way, in case you were wondering.)

Curran spends most of his time as the vengeful Marcus in the form of a bat-man with spike-tipped wings suitable for pinning foes to hard surfaces, and the seamless blending of the practical effects with CGI enhancements is quite effective. Still, as a character, he's your typical one-note, power-mad baddie - nothing new to see here folks, so move along. Other than a few quick cameos, like Bill Nighy as Viktor, and flashback clips from the original film to tie the pair together, Underworld Evolution doesn't really stand on its own. As a continuation of the tale, it's a dull step down in energy and entertainment value. Even Selene, stripped of her death-dealing purpose, seems wan and pale... and I'm not just talking about her moontan.

The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer does a good job of representing the blueish-white and black color palette that typifies the look of the movie. Black levels and shadow detail are excellent, and only rarely does sparkling moonlit snow or flashing gun muzzles result in image graininess or artifacting. Audio choices are either English or French Dolby 5.1 Surround, with matching subtitles. As is typical with action movies, the soundstage is predominantly located up front until the shooting starts, at which time the surrounds chime in with some exaggerated positional effects. Dialogue is clear, if maybe a hair too quiet, and no undue distortion was noted.

The DVD does include some extras, starting with an audio commentary with Wiseman and a trio of production cohorts. It didn't really grab me, as their comments never delved into too much nitty gritty, though during the love scene between his wife and that Creed guy, he acknowledged that he did fire Speedman several times. The 80-odd minutes of making-of featurettes included on the disc are broken into six parts - Bloodlines: From Script to Screen, Building a Saga: Production Design, The Hybrid Theory: Visual Effects, The War Rages On: Stunts, Making Monsters Roar: Creatures and Music and Mayhem: Music and Sound Design. They manage to pack less useful content than you'd expect for the allotted time. The technical stuff never gets that hardcore for the FX mavens, and the discussion of the mythology comes off as somewhat self-important. Finally, the music video for Atreyu's Her Portrait in Black nails the lid on this coffin.

While the first Underworld wasn't exactly the greatest werewolves vs. vampires flick every made - that honor will go to Deuce Bigelow: Vampire Werewolf, if and when it gets made - it made more of its premise than this thrown-back Evolution. Beckinsale has announced that she won't be doing any more of these movies, so let's hope that they'll take the hint and put a stake through the heart of any future franchise extensions.

Basic Instinct 2: Unrated Extended Cut

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Basic Instinct 2
Unrated Extended Cut - 2006 (2006) - Columbia Pictures (Sony)

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

When the notorious 1992 sex-slasher thriller Basic Instinct became a smash hit, and elevated Sharon Stone to the A-list, it was a foregone conclusion that the fatal femme Catherine Tramell would return to the screen at some point. What wasn't expected was that it would take 14 years for this eventual sequel to arrive. While no one was expecting Citizen Kane 2: Electric Boogaloo, the resulting Basic Instinct 2 - shorn of its original Risk Addiction subtitle - received such critical lashing and box office ostracism that it all seemed a bit harsh. Surely, it couldn't have been that bad. Could it?

Trust me, it's beyond that bad!

After Tramell survives a spectacular car crash that claims the life of her soccer star passenger - apparently finger-[bang]ing is a bad idea when the lady is driving at 120 mph - she is sent for psychiatric evaluation to Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), a lumpen recent divorcee who determines that she has a "risk addiction" that drives her to do things like... well, what we witnessed in the opening scene. Against his better professional judgment, he facilitates the plot and starts to see her as a therapist, whereupon she makes all sorts of provocative comments which are meant to get a rise (heh) out of him.

Apparently the not-so-good doctor had a bad experience seven years prior with a patient running amok and killing his girlfriend, and this reflected badly on him. A reporter (Hugh Dancy) keeps taunting him about it while also shagging Glass' ex-wife (Indira Varma), and a possibly crooked police detective (David Thewlis) is on the case, suspicious of everyone and... okay, let's be honest. You couldn't really care less about anything I've written in the last two paragraphs, because all you want to know is if Sharon Stone gets naked, and does she still look hot? Right?

The answers are: "a little" and "fairly, for her age."

And no, the movie is still not worth seeing.

While screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has earned the enmity of many a too-serious film maven, even his fiercest detractors have to admit that while he plied a trade in lowbrow trash, at least it was entertaining lowbrow trash. Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, Sliver, Jade and the pinnacle of schlock, Showgirls, may not give fans of William Goldman, Robert Towne or Paddy Chayefsky much reason to pay respect, but there's a reason why you're more likely to come across an Eszterhas picture on late-night cable than, say, Chinatown. Despite feeble attempts to rip off the story beats of the original (e.g. male lead acts out his sexual frustrations about Tramell on other sexual partners - thank ya, ma'am!), the flaccid screenplay by Leora Barish and Henry Bean wouldn't pass muster for a softcore "Skinemax" flick, because it spends endless amounts time with the least interesting character, Glass, and his petty travails. Will he get the prestigious academic gig he covets? Who the hell cares?!? No one stepping up to see a movie called Basic Instinct 2 is looking for anything more than hot, sleazy, tawdry, disreputable, dirty sex... and here's where the movie achieves its greatest failures.

Before the film's theatrical release, a pixilated video - purportedly an exhibitor's teaser clip - circulated around the Net that promised oodles of boot-knocking, three-ways and girl-girl action, which would up the ante over its positively staid predecessor. Well, let's hear it for false viral marketing because none of the promised sleaziness is on display. Even the additional glimpse of an orgy that supposedly merits the Unrated label is about as sexy as watching wildebeests gorge on an ox carcass. Stone doesn't reveal any of her goodies until over an hour in, and by movie's end, unfortunate viewers who have managed to stay awake will probably be asking, "That was it?" Even with a bad hairstyle, Stone still looks good enough to make us disappointed that she didn't give up more skin. (In addition to her charitable works, at least Angelina Jolie had the decency to keep stripping down after her Oscar win. What's Stone's excuse?)

With a plodding script and a barely present peek-a-boo performance from Stone, what else is there to recommend this? Not much. Stone's detractors like to claim that her fame came solely from the infamous leg-crossing shot in the first film, but that sells short her gleefully wicked bad girl performance. We could see why Michael Douglas didn't learn his lessons from his run-in with Glenn Close and, despite the plot's red herrings, we were along for the ride. Here, Stone spits out her dialogue with the bitterness of someone who realized too late that cashing the check meant actually doing the picture. This Tramell is written so bogusly ambiguously, nothing she does makes sense. Her actions are dictated by the script's feeble plot contrivances, not by a sense of inner life. (Egads! Am I really pondering this mess this much?) The old Tramell was an irresistible force... this new one is a sour tease.

As for the cold fish Morrissey, he has a single vacant expression throughout - whether he's analyzing Trammel or engaging in high-risk sex with her - as if he's constantly remembering to buy some more mayonnaise on the way home. If he'd been replaced with a performer with more charisma - say, a loaf of Wonder bread on a stick - the movie would've still sucked, but at least the male lead would've had more sex appeal than a pencil eraser. (Morrissey from The Smiths is James Brown in comparison to this name-sharing lump.) Thewlis seems to be imitating Alan Rickman and Charlotte Rampling, as a psychiatric colleague to the empty Glass, plays her role with the bemused smile of someone who knows that no one will remember she was ever in this fiasco.

For those who still care, the DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is slightly soft in everything but the close-ups, and the harsh edge-lighting on figures is a bit more blown-out than normal. The dark-hued palette is represented cleanly, and black levels and shadow detail are good. The English Dolby 5.1 Surround mix is generally front-loaded with minimal surround activity. The insipid dialogue is cleanly audible and no undue hissing was heard that didn't come from those viewing the movie.

Extras on this disc begin with 10 deleted scenes, that total about 17 minutes. They're presented in non-anamorphic letterbox, and have optional director's commentary. Most are just transitional bits that did little, though one with Tramell talking about a sexual experience with another girl would upped the heat factor exponential if it'd been left in. Another lengthy scene was cut because it was dull, but it does feature Stone in soaking wet clothing. The alternate ending is less ambiguous, but by that point, no one cares one way or the other.

Between the Sheets: A Look Inside Basic Instinct 2 (11:02) is an inadvertently hilarious EPK fluff piece in which everyone cheerfully chirps about the collective brilliance that was supposed to be in the movie, and how sexy Morrissey is supposed to be. (Apparently there was free crack and whiskey available at the craft services table.) Caton-Jones says, "I wanted something that was radically removed from the first one," and it's clear that he overwhelmingly succeeded, because this one sucked hard enough to bend light! The only part that doesn't beggar credulity is the brief section about the opening car crash. Watch this only to witness group psychosis in action.

There's feature-length commentary by Caton-Jones here, that has the odd effect of almost making the movie seem like it wasn't a waste of celluloid. Almost. Stripped of the trite dialogue, the shiny images accompanied by Caton-Jones guileless spin almost gives the impression that something of merit is actually occurring onscreen. Perhaps if I had watched the movie this way the first time, I would've had a more favorable opinion? An assortment of 14 trailers - none of which are for the feature - close out the meager extras.

Despite the body count and fleeting moments of carnality, Basic Instinct 2 Unrated is mostly bloodless and sexless... as sterile and cold as the sleek sets and chilly direction of Michael Caton-Jones. When Jerry Goldsmith's signature theme from the first film is haphazardly ladled over the images here, it only emphasizes the threadbare and limp nature of this unerotic non-thriller. While some may be still tempted to see if this mess is truly as bad as portrayed above, let me give you a final word of warning: Do you remember how dreadful Stone's follow-up Sliver and Madonna's desperate me-too Body of Evidence were? Basic Instinct 2 makes those two look like... well, the original Basic Instinct in comparison. This isn't a "so bad it's good" movie... it's a so bad it's awful mess. Avoid!

Peter Schorn
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