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Featured Blu-ray Review: Lionsgate: Controversial Dramas

September 29th, 2010

Lionsgate: Controversial Dramas - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon: Bad Lieutenant, Hard Candy, Secretary, Wonderland

This week Lionsgate is releasing a group of Blu-rays with a theme. Actually, they are releasing two groups, the first of which can be called, Controversial Dramas. There are four films on subjects from porn stars to pedophiles. I'm lumping all four reviews into one story for two reasons. Firstly, that's how the studio offered them to me in the first place. Secondly, I've reviewed two of the movies previously, one quite recently, so there's little reason to go too in-depth about the movie. I'm going in chronological order for page-setting reasons (seriously) which means we start with...

Bad Lieutenant

Harvey Keitel plays the titular, and unnamed, police lieutenant, who starts out in a bad place, but during the investigation of the brutal rape of a nun, he spirals into a much, much worse place.

The film earned good reviews, but I'm not among its fans. I felt the main character was without redeeming quality, and worse yet, there was no reason to care about him. I didn't care about him, so I didn't care about his story arc. Since he was not just the main character, but in practically every scene, this meant I was never emotionally invested in the movie. On the other hand, Harvey Keitel does give one hell of a performance.

The Blu-ray

Extras are ported over from the DVD and include the audio commentary track with the director, Abel Ferrara, and the director of photography, Ken Kelsch. There's also the three-part making of featurette.

Visually the film was never a stunner, so the muted colors and soft details presented here are to be expected. Don't get me wrong, it looks a lot better than it did on DVD, perhaps better than it has since opening night, but this is not the kind of film you will pop into your machine to show off your home theater system. Likewise, the audio is clear, but unchallenging. ... It's 2.0, so you might as well not has surround sound speakers.

The Verdict

If you like Harvey Keitel, then Bad Lieutenant is worth checking out for his performance alone. On the other hand, his performance is the only reason to watch the movie. The Blu-ray is better than the previous DVD release in terms of its technical presentation, but it is shovelware. On the other hand, it is hard to argue with $11.49 for a Blu-ray.


When we first meet Lee Holloway she is a meek, timid individual who is a little apprehensive of leaving the mental hospital where she was undergoing treatment. Actually, when we first meet her, she's wearing some kind of weird restraining device and trying to pick up papers with her mouth, but then we flashback six months to when she was first released. She's worried about leaving, as she's grown accustomed to the regimented life at the institute, but she has other concerns about coming home. Her troubled home life gets to her right away at her sister's wedding. At first its okay, she even reconnects with an old friend, Peter. But when her father gets drunk, despite his previous sobriety, she goes right back to cutting herself, which is what got her institutionalized in the first place.

Desperate for a way out, she learns to type so she can get a job and support herself. After passing secretarial school, she goes into the law office of one E. Edward Grey to try to get a job. After a strange interview in which he asks more questions about her living arrangments than her experience, he hires her on the spot. It's clear this man goes through a lot of secretaries (one is walking out after being fired just as Lee is walking in for the interview). The place is a mess, he dials his phone using a dart to avoid touching the buttons. Clearly this man is nuts.

Fortunately, his crazy and her crazy make them a good pair. He's exacting in his demands to the point of neurosis, while she's very, very eager to please. Work is demanding, at least her boss is demanding, but she develops the beginnings of a social life with Peter, who clearly cares about her, in his socially awkward way. Then something happens at work. Mr. Grey's demands more from her. She's the first person potential costumers will encounter, so she has to look more professional, she has to be more assertive on the phone, etc. These demands help her become a more assertive person in real life, and more independent, in a strange way. It's like being around another crazy person is helping her overcome her past problems. It's similar to a coming of age movie, but she's in her mid-20s at the time.

... And then one day at work he slaps her on the ass. Hard.

You almost forgot about that bondage gear she was wearing at the beginning of the movie, didn't you?

This is a very good movie with two excellent performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. (Much of the supporting cast are a little on the underwritten side.) However, it is a romantic comedy at its heart, or a romantic dark comedy, and the story doesn't have a lot of depth. Occasionally the BDS&M might seem a little gimmicky rather than an organic part of the story, but it is still a very good movie.

On a side note, watching Lee go in for the interview was like watching a Teenage Slasher and Maggie Gyllenhaal was Teenage Victim #3. "Don't go in the back! Turn around and run away!" The introduction to James Spader's character is definitely a highlight of the film.

The Blu-ray

Extras on the Blu-ray include an audio commentary track, which is worth checking out, and a making of featurette, which is short at only seven minutes long, but still worth watching. This is hardly a huge number of extras, but the film was a limited release and those rarely come with a full compliment of extras. The video presentation is adequate, but not stellar. You have to keep in mind that the film only cost about $4 million to make, so one can't expect this to be the best looking Blu-ray around. Colors, details, etc. are all good, but nothing that really pushes the format. The film has a 7.1 surround sound audio track; however, it is a dialogue driven film, so much of the sound is still front and center. There are a few shots, like the rainstorm, where we find good use of the side and rear speakers, but they are not many.

The Verdict

Like the previous film in this story, Secretary relies on a strong central performance. However, unlike Bad Lieutenant this one has a better story and more compelling characters. Much more compelling characters. It costs a bit more at $15, but that still worth picking up.


Set in 1981, this movie tells the story of porn star John Holmes, whom we meet picking up his underage girlfriend, Dawn. By this point, his career was all but over for a number of reasons, including his massive drug addiction. In order to support his habit, he also deals drugs, with a group of fellow drug addicts called the Wonderland Gang, because of the area of Los Angeles where they lived. There's Ronald, the leader, plus Billy, his right hand man, and David.

One night the gang is looking for drugs, but there's a shortage in Los Angeles. John Holmes thinks he knows someone who has the connections needed to get the good stuff. In addition to selling drugs, the gang committed robbers, including a recent one that netted them four antique guns. John's idea was to take the four guns to someone he referred to as, "The Arab" and exchange them for as much heroin as he can get. However, when he comes back, he has no drugs, no money, and no guns. He is high, on the other hand. Instantly the rest of the gang think he stole from them, but they give him two days to pay them back. Weeks go by and they don't hear from him. When he finally does show up, he has an idea. If the Arab stole from them, they should steal from him. John says he has half a million in loot just waiting to be taken, so they do.

It turns out "The Arab" is Eddie Nash, who is one of the most powerful nightclub owns in Los Angeles. He is also a major connection in the drug trade and not someone to mess with. The retribution comes swiftly and only David and John are left to tell the story of what happened. Of course, their stories don't exactly match up.

When you have a movie about a controversial subject, you are bound to deal with characters that are not angels. The worse the characters are, the harder it is to make the audience care enough about them to want to watch the movie. This movie never figures out a way to combat that problem. Because of this, the filmmakers overcompensate with style. There's the flashbacks, split-screens, colors are faded out, grain is cranked up, etc. It's too much and detracts from a film that already has a couple strikes against it.

The conflicting tales and the police trying to unravel what really happened is a little interesting, but it is not enough.

The Blu-ray

The extras start with an audio commentary track with the writer / director, James Cox, and his co-writer, Captain Mauzner. There are five minutes of interviews, ten minutes of deleted scenes, a six-minute segment from Court TV called Hollywood At Large, actual crime scene footage that feels more exploitative than informative. Finally, there's Wadd - The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, which is a feature-length documentary on John Holmes. Total running time for the extras is well over two hours; however, those that deal with the movie itself are a small percentage of the total, and not that interesting.

Visually the film has a lot of style, unfortunately that style gets in the way of the technical presentation. In some scenes the colors are washed out, or the grain is oppressive, or the details are soft, etc. (sometime all at once). Other times, when the scene just has the camera pointed at someone while they talk, none of these problems are present. This makes judging the video nearly impossible, for while it is terrible at times, it is intentionally terrible. The audio is much better than the video. The surround sound get a workout, and not just with ambient noise, but also with directional effects.

The Verdict

Wonderland is a tough movie to watch at times, and not just because of the brutality of the crimes involved, but also because how loathsome the characters are. Oppressive style doesn't help and the Rashomon like quality of the mystery isn't enough.

Hard Candy

I reviewed this film first came out on DVD, back when I was only getting a couple DVDs to review every month, so the previous review is very in-depth. There's little need to reproduce that information here, but as a short recap of the review...

Hard Candy deals with a subject most filmmakers wouldn't touch and does so with a very tight script and it blessed with two amazing leads. Absolutely worth picking up.

The Blu-ray

Like the other releases on this list, this one is shovelware, but the selection of extras on the original DVD was amazing. There are two audio commentary tracks, the first with the writer and the director and the second has Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. Both are entertaining and informative, but the first leans to the latter while the second leans to the former. There's about an hour of making of / interview featurettes, ten minutes of deleted / extended scenes. An excellent selection and everything here has high replay value.

The technical presentation was also very impressive. Like the rest of the films on this list, Hard Candy was a low-budget movie costing less than $1 million to make. However, unless the others on this list, it has a style that helps its transition to high definition. The color especially benefits from High Definition, as a lot of work went into post-production coloring when they made this film. The audio is also good with the surround sound speakers doing their part, but this is still a dialogue driven film and much of the work is done by the front and center speakers.

The Verdict

Buy this Blu-ray. If you only buy one release on this list, Hard Candy should be it.

The Final Verdict

Of the four films featured here, Hard Candy is the best and it is absolutely worth picking up and the current price on of $11.49 is a massive bargain. Secretary is also worth picking up, but the movie and the extras are not quite as strong. If you really like Harvey Keitel, then Bad Lieutenant is worth a rental, but that's as far as I will go for my recommendation. Meanwhile, Wonderland is safely skippable for most people.

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Filed under: Video Review, Hard Candy