On The Shelf (1.06.09)
Every Tuesday, let's talk about what you should be paying attention to on the shelves.
Every Friday, same thing but for the bigscreen.
Simple. Just so we can all keep track, and weed through some of the clutter. As DVD and BluRay try to figure out what part of what market they each own or share, there are all sorts of titles being coughed loose. This is the first week of the year, not typically a busy one, but there are things that are absolutely worth paying attention to this week. Here's what I'm planning to check out in one form or another.
"Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0"
So far, the only season I haven't seen. It's here. It's in the house and has been for about a week and a half, and I keep looking at it. But do I want to wait and get the last batch of episodes once they come out, and then watch it all together? Because I guarantee Universal will get that last episode out on DVD fast as shit after it's on TV. They'll have the BluRay box set of the entire series ready for next Christmas, and it'll come in a box shaped like the Galactica, I'm sure, and I'll totally f'ing buy one and tell Toshi and Allen not to touch it.
So do I wait and watch the whole thing then? Or do I go ahead, watch it now, and then try to keep up on TV, which I almost always stink at doing while it's actually airing.
I'm frakkin' tortured about it. Seriously. But either way, if you're a fan, I'm sure you're picking this up today, and if you're not a fan, catch up. You really, really, really should be.
"Pineapple Express" (BluRay)
"The Last Emperor" (BluRay)
I'm so glad I didn't pick this up last year when Criterion put it out, because for a film shot by Storaro and directed by Bertolucci, and especially this one, which is about as visually ravishing as a film gets, I'm going to want the BluRay release, and now I'm not getting double-dipped. I will definitely review this one once I pick it up.
"Babylon A.D." (BluRay)
"Bangkok Dangerous" (BluRay)
Two films with poisonous buzz, both starring action stars who seem to be waning, and both on BluRay. I'll check them out, but I didn't care much for the original version of "Bangkok Dangerous," so I'm not sure what the remake has to offer, and with "Babylon A.D.," I think director Matthieu Kossovitz has a great eye, but no story sense. At least he's starting from some strong source material, though.
"Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Vol. 3"
I love Tony Bourdain's work. I think his books are sensational, but he's doing something really great with "No Reservations," which is part travel show, part food porn. Basically, Bourdain goes around the world and immerses himself in local food culture, reporting on it all with that great sardonic wit of his. At this point, it would be easy for him to project this "been there done that" air towards everything, and he'd be right about that. But Bourdain remains excited by potential, and he seems to genuinely embrace each new trip as an opportunity. It makes him incredibly engaging as a tour guide, and I'll keep watching as long as he keeps making these shows.
"Dexter: The Complete First Season" (BluRay)
This season's been out on regular DVD for a while, but if you're a huge "Dexter" fan, it might be worth it to go ahead and make the upgrade to BluRay. The set doesn't appear to have any BluRay only extras, but the show is so good you might not care. I thought "Dexter" sounded too precious when I first heard the idea: serial killer who only kills other serial killers who deserve it. But over the course of the three seasons so far, the show has not only found its own voice, slowly abandoning the novels that were the source material originally, but it's actually become quite adept at dodging the formula that could easily make this a drag. This first season is a somewhat faithful adaptation of the first book in the series, but even here, they made changes with an eye on the big picture, laying some solid groundwork they can build off of for as long as the series runs.
"Duckman: Seasons Three And Four"
When "The Simpsons" became a phenomenon, one of the results was that a lot of animation got rushed into production for television, and a lot of it was fairly terrible. "Duckman" managed to run for several seasons, and it was one of the few that actually managed to retain the flavor of its underground comic origins. Everett Peck created the series, but it was Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno who developed it for TV and who were really in there, day in and day out, making it work as a series.
If you haven't seen it, Duckman (voiced by Jason Alexander at his most exasperated) is a private investigator who is partnered with the very deadpan Cornfed (voiced by Gregg Berger, who gives good Jack Webb) on mostly ridiculous cases while also struggling with his runaway libido and his obligations as a single father to a whole gaggle of freaky kids. It's a rude, politcally incorrect, occasionally grotesque series, and it's also very, very funny at times. This release completes the full run of all 70 episodes of the series, and it's been nice to go back and check some of the episodes out and realize that they are actually built to last, funny without being pinned down to a particular moment in the '90s like so much of the animation that was made then.
"Frisky Dingo: Season Two"
And speaking of crazy animation, here's the latest Adult Swim release on DVD, Adam Reed and Matt Thompson's "Frisky Dingo," a deranged superhero show that, like most of the Adult Swim shows, is very hard to do justice to with a mere description. Basically, it's about the profoundly dysfunctional relationship between Awesome X and Killface, hero and villain, arch enemies, as they both try to establish successful toy lines, run a business, and make a life outside the business. It's completely insane, and it's one of the better shows they've aired as of late. It's no "Metalocalypse," but what is?
"Friday Night Lights" (BluRay)
While I think the TV show's first season actually bested anything the feature film did, I do quite like what Peter Berg did in adapting this book to the bigscreen, and on BluRay, it's gorgeous.
"Opium And The Kung-Fu Master" (BluRay)
This was made at the end of the legendary run that the Shaw Bros. had producing martial arts films, and it was one of three films directed by master fight choreographer Tang Chia. I've never seen it, but it's well-regarded by fans of the genre, and the action is evidently top-notch. I'm just glad to see this kind of material on BluRay, and if we're already getting this sort of catalog stuff in the new format, that's an encouraging sign. I'll review this once I've seen it.
"Strays" (Steelbook packaging)
I should have paired this with "Babylon A.D.," probably, so you could get a look at where Vin Diesel started and where he is now, but I figured that juxtaposition would even depress Diesel, and why start the New Year that way?
If all you knew of Vin Diesel was this film, you'd probably think this guy has some sort of monster career ahead of him in film as a writer/director/movie star. "Strays" doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's an assured directorial effort and it tells its small-scale story well. Rick (Diesel) is the center of gravity for a loose collection of hustlers and street kids, and the film chronicles his efforts to hold them all together. This Steelbook release of this autobiographical film by Diesel does a nice job of packaging the movie that first got him onto Hollywood's radar. I just wish we'd seen more like this from him in the 11 years since then.
"The Wackness" (BluRay)
I know a lot of people who flipped for this one at Sundance last year, and it's precisely the kind of film that is HUGE in a festival setting but that has trouble when it goes theatrical because, typically, marketing departments don't know how to impart what you're going to get from a film like this. A low-key charmer, Jonathan Levine's film tells the story of a kid in New York in 1994 who is selling pot while he tries to figure out what to do with his life. His business brings him into contact with a complete shambling mess of a psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) who befriends this kid even as he tells him to stay the hell away from his step-daughter (Olivia Thirlby). The film's shaggy as hell, sort of aimlessly wandering from subplot to subplot, but that's a nice match for the main character, played through what appears to be an authentic marijuana haze by Josh Peck. It's got a good sense of time and place, and even if some of the points the film makes are overly familiar to most coming-of-age stories, it has a voice, and Levine continues to impress as a filmmaker who is still in the process of defining exactly who he is.
There's a nice assortment of extras on the disc, including a Levine/Peck commentary track and a feature called "A Day In The Life Of Jonathan Levine," but for the most part, it's all superficial stuff. If you're going to pick this one up, do it for the movie.
"Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 4"
I'm not ashamed of my appetite for exploitation trash. And why should I be? I know there are people who think that they have to only endorse highbrow film art, but that's just not the way I consume film. I love high art and low art equally, and I think trash requires a certain touch that isn't as easy as people think. I watch a lot of junk looking for gems, and thank god there's a steady stream of both modern and classic exploitation coming out for me to indulge myself.
"Eden Lake" is the latest release from Dimension Extreme, which is basically a place for them to dump unrated releases from their very deep shelves. This one's about a couple who goes to the woods for a relaxing weekend, only to end up in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse with a bunch of local kids. Not the most original idea for a film, but it all comes down to execution, and this one actually has pretty solid buzz in the horror community.
You've got to love the way Crown International Pictures has been handlign this series of compilation discs, where they put a bunch of their films in one set. This time out, you get "Wild Riders," "The Van," "Chain Gang Women," "Brain Twisters," "The Young Graduates," "Don't Answer The Phone!", " "The Specialist," and "Death Machines," a pretty wide range of genre and style. I'm sure I'll watch this whole thing in one weekend as soon as I pick it up.
"The Battle Wizard"
One of the reasons it's hard to collect everything from the Shaw Bros. library is because chunks of that library have been sold off to different distributors over the years, and the library covers so many different eras. Everything's getting a sort of haphazard release on a very strange timetable, and since I only know many of these titles because of a star or a director or by reputation, I end up buying everything and then whittling away the ones I don't like.
Of these three, it seems like "The Battle Wizard" is the best-liked. "The Lizard" is a sort of modern Hong Kong riff on Robin Hood that has been described as "really fucking goofy" by a friend of mine. "Life Gamble" is significant mostly as part of the ramp up to the various "Venoms" films that came out of the Shaw Bros. factory in the early '80s.
All three appear to be presented in very basic bare bones packages, but just having these titles on home video finally is a pleasure.
"Caligula: The Imperial Edition" (BluRay)
I haven't seen the BluRay edition yet, but last year's three-disc release of "Caligula" finally made the case for the film's place in cinema history. Love it or hate it, this controversial Bob Guccione production is worth discussion because of the way it aimed to mix a serious historical picture with some downright filthy hardcore porn. Tinto Brass, the original director, was replaced by Penthouse-publisher Guccione, who wanted to make the film even crazier. There were several cuts and a wealth of extras on the regular DVD release, and if all of that is included on the BluRay, this is a definitely keeper.
"Michael Powell Double Feature: Age Of Consent/Stairway To Heaven"
Remember when I said I like both high art and low art? Well, this would be the "high art" entry in today's column.
Powell and Pressburger were hugely important in the history of English cinema, but today, their work is about as far from mainstream as you can get. That's a shame, because so much of it is about pure tactile pleasure that I'm sure the films would still play if people would only check them out. "A Matter Of Life and Death" is one of their very best films, and "Age Of Consent" was the last one they made together. Both are important to an understanding of the remarkable filmography these men built together, and I can't wait to pick this up so I can post a more indepth review in the weeks ahead.
Oh my god. Really. I saw it. It was the first film I saw this year, actually, while working at my desk on New Year's Day. Picked at random. And, uh... what a way to kick off a year. Two of my idols, working together... and embarrassing themselves and each other with one of the worst, by the numbers, empty-headed corn flake commercials of a movie I've seen in a while. It's not just bad. It's awful. They're awful in it.
Carla Gugino has one scene with Pacino that's waaaaay more fun than anything else in the movie, and maybe if that one scene (his smile as he says "You're a bad girl" and her flush in response) was the whole movie, a sort of proto-Eszterhas thriller, it might have been a whole lot more fun.
But this movie? Ummm. Fuck this movie. And I don't say that often.
Next week, we've got titles like "Mirrors," "Swing Vote," "Appaloosa," and the great "Tokyo Gore Police" to discuss, so check back on Tuesday for more of what's on the shelf.