On The Shelf (2.24.09) Final 'Futurama,' Lilley's 'Summer Heights High,' and rare Argento
Hey, everyone. While much of the online film world sits watching the Oscars on Sunday afternoon/evening, I'm going to throw on a fistful of kung-fu movies and work on this column instead. And I feel good about the choice. It's a diverse but weird week in DVD and BluRay, and there's a fair amount of ground to cover, so let's dive right in.
Is anyone else vaguely let down by the return of "Futurama"? I want to love it. I certainly loved the show during its run, and when I finally got it on DVD and watched it again, it just confirmed to me how smart and inventive the show really was. So why don't I love these direct-to-video films they've been putting out for the last year? Many of the same people are involved in the production, but it feels like something just didn't reconnect when they started back to work. I'm still enough of a fan that I'll give "Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder" on BluRay a chance, but I'll set my expectations lower.
On the other hand, if you haven't seen "Summer Heights High," and you're just now catching up to it on DVD, you can't really set your expectations too high. It's that smart. I reviewed the series over at Ain't It Cool when HBO began broadcasting it, and I think it's one of the best pick-ups they've made since "The Office." Chris Lilley is sort of the one-man army of the show, playing three main characters and also serving as the overall creative force. What could easily be a one-note gag or broad and silly actually serves as a blunt and honest comedy about the personalities that make up any school.
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I find that more and more often, I just wait on TV shows and watch them in box-set form instead of while they're airing during the season. It's that trade paperback mentality of mine. I prefer things with a start and a finish, and so often, I'm unable to put that regular time in during the year to track various shows. I make the effort occasionally for something like "Lost" that I really love, but my Tivo is used more for South American telenovellas or episodes of "Yo Gabba Gabba" than anything else these days. As a result, when I pick up "Breaking Bad: The First Complete Season," I'm approaching the show as a total noob. I like Bryan Cranston a lot, though, and I've heard so many good things that I feel comfortable just making this a blind-buy. He plays a high-school chemistry teacher who learns he has a terminal illness, so he sets out earning enough money to leave behind for his family. Method? Cooking and selling crystal meth. It sounds like an even edgier riff on "Weeds," which I love dearly, although I doubt I'll find myself as profoundly turned on by Cranston each week as I am by Mary Louise Parker. Could happen... I'd just be surprised.
God, has it really been seven years since I interviewed Art Linson for the first time? Linson, if you don't know the name, is a producer behind films like "Into the Wild," "The Untouchables," "Fight Club," and "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," and he's also written several books about his life and career in Hollywood. One of those books was adapted into the film "What Just Happened?" which is coming out on DVD and BluRay this week. The film isn't as good as the book, particularly since much of what Linson wrote has to be fictionalized here, and I'm not sure how much of the film will even play for people who aren't involved in the film industry. This is verrrrrry inside baseball. But it has its moments, and I'm fascinated by the choices Robert De Niro makes these days. As someone said to Linson in the book version, "You wouldn't even have a career if you didn't have Robert De Niro's phone number." They've been connected for a lot of years, and having De Niro essentially play Linson here is worth a look just for the strange echoes it sets up.
I can't say I was shocked when Summit released "Sex Drive" to a largely indifferent audience last year, but I was sorry to see it happen. I think it's a difficult title for people to get past, but if they did, they saw a funny, sweet, profoundly raunchy little teen comedy that did what it did very, very well. Clark Duke gave a fantastic performance in the film, as did James Marsden, and I'll be picking up a copy of the unrated BluRay to see what material didn't make it to the theatrical version. I hope people give this one a chance on home video. I have a feeling it's one of those films where the audience will slowly find it as the various stars and behind-the-camera players all do other work, and it'll have a loooooooong shelf life.
Wow. Here's something I honestly never thought I'd get to cover on DVD, but someone has finally gotten the rights untangled and today, Mya/Ryko is releasing "Dario Argento's Four Flies On Grey Velvet," one of the rarest of his classic giallo efforts. I've only seen this one time, and it was late at night, after three other films, sitting in Quentin Tarantino's screening room. By that point, everything was a little hazy, so I look forward to actually owning the film and being able to digest it like I have with Argento's other films from that era. I honestly think that stretch of his career was the moment for him, when he was at his creative peak and when he was also given room to do whatever he wanted commercially. He's been one of those filmmakers who spent a lot of years in the wilderness for one reason or another, but all you have to do is look at a film like this one to understand why he's still held in such high regard by so many of us. The film tells the story of a musician who believes he's being stalked, until he finally corners the person responsible and, in a violent confrontation, kills him. When he is sent photographs of himself standing over the body, he realizes that he confronted the wrong person, and that his own personal hell is just getting started. It's not quite the home run that "Deep Red" or "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" are, but it's well worth your time, and it can only enhance your appreciation of this criminally underrated genre master.
I know this is a YouTube video, which seems about as fitting a way to promote a BluRay release as showing a red-and-blue 3D commercial during the Super Bowl would be if you're releasing a RealD 3D film in theaters (not that anyone would be stupid enough to do that), but I'm doing it anyway...
That's the opening to the first episode of the original Japanese language version of "Samurai 7," an anime based on Akira Kurosawa's classic proto-action-epic, "The Seven Samurai." Today, there's a release of the entire series in one box-set on BluRay, and I think I'll take that as my excuse to finally watch it. I like the idea of an anime update of the classic film, particularly with them adding SF elements, because it's so removed from the original that you can't even really call it a remake. It's just another riff on the basic story shape, one that's been co-opted so many times and in so many ways that you can see its DNA in films as different as "The Three Amigos" or "A Bug's Life." It's a very simple archetypical set-up, and it allows for all sorts of great character development if done right. "Samurai 7" seems to have its fans, more for the writing and the character work than the animation, and I'll give almost anything a chance on BluRay at this point, so it looks like I've got some anime in my near-future.
I'm not sure I'm strong enough to revisit "Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father," and I certainly can't imagine it being something I'd watch regularly. But it's a devastating movie, and one that you should see, and one that you should read very little about ahead of time. It's a documentary about a doctor named Andrew Bagby who was gunned down by a deranged woman he was involved with, and the impact that murder had on his family, his friends, and ultimately, his son. It's not a slick documentary, and there are things about the film that I find a little mawkish or obvious, but it's very personal, and the things that work about it are so undeniable that my other complaints don't matter. The film sparked a huge personal sense of outrage for me, towards an individual's actions and a system's failure, and I hope the story it tells actually has a lasting impact on Canadian law. Nothing is worth the sadness and suffering endured by the friends and family of Andrew Bagby, but at least if there are changes, it won't be completely in vain.
I'll take any excuse to watch a good martial arts film, and if Dragon Dynasty sends something, I can pretty much count on it being a good martial arts film. I haven't seen "Protege" yet, but I'm sure I will very soon. Actually, that's not fair... they don't just do martial arts films. Any Asian action film is up for grabs, and this Andy Lau film is more of an "Infernal Affairs" style story of a cop who spends the better part of a decade inside an organized crime ring, working his way up until he's just a heartbeat away from running the whole thing himself. Good premise, and Lau's the man. I'm going to watch this ASAP.
I know very little about "The Matador," but I keep seeing trailers for it in front of other releases from City Lights, and it looks absolutely absorbing. It's a documentary about one particular bullfighter and a full season he spends on the job. Even a three-minute trailer is just hypnotic, and as someone who doesn't really understand the cultural side of bullfighting, I can at least understand the visceral draw of it. I'm horrified by it ethically, but that only makes the attraction more electric for me. I really dig City Lights... they've got very good taste, and more often than not, if they send something, it deserves my attention.
I was watching "Choke" over the weekend, and there was a trailer on the front of it for "The Haunting Of Molly Hartley" that appeared to give the entire movie away. Every single beat. It was sort of an amazing example of how not to sell a movie. A teenaged girl's mother tries to kill her, and then kills herself. The girl tries to get on with her life at a new school, while her dead mother keeps appearing to her, and she comes to suspect that she is actually at the center of a conspiracy of some sort. Are they all trying to kill her... or do they have something else in mind? (Hint: they do.) The one notable thing about the trailer is the presence of AnnaLynne McCord, who is making a career out of being the allegedly-hot-but-actually-on-the-verge-of-scary-girl-with-the-Joker-smile-who-is-a-giant-raging-bitch. She does it well, I guess, but there's no shelf life for it. As soon as she's too old for "90210" and that ass drops at all, she's out of business. Ever since seeing her on "Nip/Tuck," I am just plain skeeved out by her act, and I am almost reluctant to see this one just because of her presence.
Oscar bait is not a new game. I'm sure when someone greenlit the Hector Babenco film "Ironweed," based on the novel by William Kennedy, they were thinking of all the little gold statues they'd be able to put on the shelves. Particularly once they cast Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson as a pair of bums during the Great Depression. It's a minor key affair, with performances worth watching, about these two rolling into town after being away for years, all their ghosts in tow. As memories flood in, both of them crumble under the impact of all this stuff they thought was buried, and their only solace comes from emptying bottles together. The film never really had any traction at the Oscars, but that's probably because it's better than that... it's not an easy awards sell. It plays things subtle, quiet. These two are haunted, rotten on the inside, and the movie is content to study them up close, not needing giant fireworks to make its points. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing it for the first time in years.
All sorts of weird cult titles out this week. Don May's Synapse Films has a label called Impulse that is more for really culty softcore stuff, and this week, he's releasing "Schoolgirl Report Vol. 5," part of a series that has been dependably smutty. I missed "Late Bloomer" at Fantastic Fest last fall, but I heard from several people that it's very demanding, almost like performance art, about a man with severe muscular dystrophy who falls for his nurse, only to feel betrayed when she falls for someone else. His revenge turns bloody, and the film seems to be a wild black and white avant garde freak out. Sounds great to me. I did see the Cult Epics release of "Viva," which is the unrated director's cut. I don't know what planet filmmaker Anna Biller is from, but she makes me cackle. She wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited, photographed, choreographed, catered and carpooled on the movie. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but she's all over the credits, and if you read this interview with her, it sounds like a labor of love. Or lust, I guess. She's made a film that feels like a real bored-housewife-on-the-rampage softcore movie from the '70s, right down to the film stock and the editing rhythms. It's as much a labor of reproduction love as anything in "Grindhouse," and while I didn't love it as much as "Grindhouse," I admire the effort and the aesthetic. Finally, there's Mondo Macabro's "The Sins Of Sister Lucia." It's not just Nunsploitation, though. Oh, no, that would be too easy. It's actually Nunsploitation from Japan. I also want "Japan Noir," which appears to be four Japanese films from the '50s and '60s, none of which I've seen or even heard of. Buying a set like that is great because I love the sense of discovery if even one of those movies is good.
"The Whole Shooting Match" is one of those movies I've read about a dozen times over the years and had just accepted that I would never see. An early indie cinema landmark, it was one of the films that led Robert Redford to found the Sundance Institute, and it was a late '70s release by New Line, still an exploitation label at the time. The story of a pair of Texas drifters, I've always heard this described as a very low-key charmer, and I am excited to finally get a chance to see it for myself.
Let's wrap things up today with a look at what's coming out exclusively in BluRay, catalog titles making their way to high-definition. I've had a few of you e-mail me to say that you resent me paying extra attention to BluRay, but I don't know what to tell you. I honestly think that most DVD transfers are brutal now when I watch them. BluRay has absolutely spoiled me. The jump is like it was between VHS to DVD, and I'm amazed how much I enjoy the experience of watching pretty much anything in high-definition. It's so much closer to the experience of watching an actual film print, which is, of course, the ultimate goal for film freaks and home video. And there are some promising titles this week.
There's a fair amount of debate online about "The French Connection," which William Friedkin supervised with an all-new transfer, trying a digital color-timing process that radically changes the look of the film. At this point, good or bad, I'm going to have to see the disc just to see what he did. I'll also pick up "The French Connection II" while I'm at it, and I was pleased to realize as I was cataloguing my DVDs last week to realize that I don't own either one of those already, so this won't be a double-dip for me. I am perfectly happy to double-dip on "Akira," though, based on the great reviews I've been reading of the new remastering. Say what you will about the film, but without "Akira," anime would not have broken in this country the way it did. That film was the beachhead, and everything that's happened afterwards in terms of mainstream acceptance started with that one. For good reason, too... it's still one of the most overwhelming experiences in all of anime, widely imitated but rarely equalled. "Vanishing Point" should be a great BluRay pick-up for car chase freaks, and I'm curious to see what kind of print they were able to find for "Zulu". And, finally, to bring things back around to Argento, his classic "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" is getting the BluRay treatment from Blue Underground this week, and it's a great looking film to begin with. I'll pick this up, but I'm counting the days till they deliver "Suspiria" on BluRay.
COMING NEXT WEEK
Next week's actually one of the slower weeks we'll have for this column, but even so, there's plenty to discuss, like the BluRay release of Baz Luhrmann's "Australia," the new DC direct-to-video animated releases of "Wonder Woman" and "Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic," and Wong Kar-Wai's rejiggered "Ashes Of Time Redux".
"On The Shelf" appears here every Monday, except when it doesn't.
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