On The Shelf (4.13.09) Kate's Oscar, Carrey's comedy, and Keanu's from outer space
Yep... it's another one of those weeks where I skipped last week's new releases, and now it's either do a two-week column at once or risk throwing myself off completely. And, of course, since I am doing two weeks at once, it's a huge column, so strap in. We're gonna be here a while.
Since moving to HitFix from AICN, I'm sent a lot less material for review, and I'm working to change that. It's hard enough to keep up with what's coming out, and when I'm sent about one out of twenty titles for review, it gets real expensive real fast to put this column together. I mean, I guess I could just write it having seen nothing, but what value is there in that?
I do have some good BluRay reviews coming this week, and I'm hoping to find a way to ramp up DVD and BluRay coverage in general here at the site. It's important to me because, more and more often, this is where people are exposed to films for the first time, or where they are willing to take a chance with what they watch, and I think that makes home video a big part of the conversation about movies.
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It's an interesting moment for home video in general. The studios are starting to rethink how they package titles, how they produce extras, how they approach the entire experience. And the rush to see how low-end they can get misses the point, in my opinion. Yes, people like buying $5 DVDs. But they also love collector's editions that actually offer real value, even at a premium price, and that's where the studios are starting to fall down on the job. Stop double and triple and quadruple dipping for no good goddamn reason, and get busy actually making sure that when we buy something, we feel good about that purchase. I'm sure that the new "No Country For Old Men: 3-Disc Collector's Edition" has some nice new features on it, but didn't I just buy that BluRay last year? Are you seriously asking me to buy it again already? At this rate, you'll be releasing a new edition of every film every month, and no one will ever buy a goddamn thing again.
Oh, I'm sorry, home video... hold on... phone's ringing. Hmmm... it's the music industry, and they wanted me to tell you they'll be waiting in Total Ruin for you to catch up any day now. Keep it up.
Two of last year's big Oscar contenders have made their way home, and of the two, I prefer John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." I think the last few weeks have made it clear that I'm totally in the tank for Shanley's "Joe Versus The Volcano," but that has little bearing on his latest picture. They couldn't be more different. "Doubt" is a period piece set during the days of integration, as a black student is admitted to a Catholic school for the first time ever. When a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes an interest in the boy, it raises alarms with the school's mother superior (Meryl Streep) and a younger nun (Amy Adams), setting off a power struggle based on hint and innuendo. The cast is great, Viola Davis earned that nomination with her powerhouse appearance as the boy's mother, and it's a somber, striking film overall. I found "The Reader" to be more problematic. There are some interesting ideas in the film, but overall, I don't think it's a gripping or even particularly coherent story, and the film makes some weird moral apologies that I find troubling. I'm not going to write fifty articles condemning it like some people would, and I don't care if someone else enjoys it... but Kate Winslet's character is both stupid and morally repellent, and the notion of offering her grace in the form of literacy strikes me as lunkheaded and, frankly, dull.
Universal's got an aggressive couple of classic releases out this week. That "Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition" is an amazing release of Cecil B. DeMille's silent take on the life of the Egyptian queen. The Liz Taylor version is far more notorious, but this Claudette Colbert version was heavily Oscar-nominated, and it's acknowledged as the best version of the story attempted so far on film. There are some great extras on the disc, including commentary by F.X. Feeny, a film critic worth listening to, and a piece on the era of the Production Code. That bookends nicely with the other major catalog release from Universal this week, the "Pre-Code Hollywood Collection" made up of six films from the Paramount vault (all part of Universal's home library these days) that were all made before the infamous Code was enacted, and based on how far some of these films push boundaries, it's not hard to see why some people thought movies were too decadent. By today's standards, these are all fairly restrained, but there's some wild subject matter (alcoholism, orgies, S&M) and there are some moments that are stunningly blunt. Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, Buster Crabbe, and Ida Lupino are just a few of the stars in these films, and although I'm sure there are titles they could have included that pushed the envelope even more, this is a worthwhile companion to the "Forbidden Hollywood" series that Warner has been publishing for the last couple of years.
Three of the bigger titles from Christmas are all getting the DVD/BluRay treatment, and all three of them are shaky as movies, but pristine as presentation. The Adam Sandler vehicle "Bedtime Stories" is, surprisingly, a real Adam Sandler movie, complete with appearances by his buddies and his typical silly sense of humor, only toned down so it's kid-friendly. It's mild-mannered comedy, and it certainly made the target audience (i.e., my three year old) laugh and laugh, but I found it too predictable and safe, even within the formula, to really work for me. The BluRay presentation by Disney, though? Spectacular. It looks and sounds better than most movies, and even for Disney, it's a better-than-average transfer. Warner Bros. also heaped a similar amount of care into the way they prepared "Yes Man" for BluRay. Now if only the movie was anything more than utterly predictable. There's not a beat in this film that I didn't see coming after the first trailer. Hell... the concept does all the heavy lifting. It's like as soon as they said, "He has to say yes to everything," everyone checked out and went into autopilot. Jim Carrey appears to be determined to burn down every single bit of remaining goodwill towards him as a performer, and basically remaking an earlier hit, but with a lazier execution? Sounds like a great way to go about that complete immolation. Finally, there's the Lionsgate BluRay of "The Spirit," which I have not yet picked up, but which I watched a bit of at a friend's. Wow. If "Sin City" looks this good on BluRay next week, then we're looking at some reference-quality B&W, and if I were trying to convince a studio to let me make a film in black-and-white, that "Spirit" BluRay is what I'd use to show them how sweet it could be. The movie is ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag, and it's Frank Miller, through and through, so don't expect anything deeper than a puddle. I'll admit, though, that there are good movies from last year that I don't feel any urge to revisit, while I'm practically frantic to sit down and soak up a bit more of the lunacy of "The Spirit" as soon as I can.
I liked the first film from the director of "The Day The Earth Stood Still," so I'm going to pretend this movie never happened and blame it all on the development process at Fox. If I spend any real brain power thinking about how bad this remake is, I'll rupture something. I'm not even sure how a script as limp as this one makes it to the screen. I understand the urge to remake the film, looking at the way every studio in town has gone positively stupid for remakes, but if you're going to do it, shouldn't there be some point? Keanu Reeves gives his best bland in the lead as Klaatu, and Jennifer Connelly once again marches through an entire film acting like it would give her cancer if she smiled. If you love the original, skip this one. If you hate the original, skip this one. Actually... fuck it. Skip this one completely. If you're a SF nerd looking to part with some cash this week, pick up the brand-new BluRay release of "2010: The Year We Make Contact" instead. It seemed like sacrilege in 1984 when they released "2010," since it was a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, and many people have never gotten over that. If you can watch the film removed from the notion of just how crazy it is to follow up "2001" at all, then you'll be rewarded with a smart, human SF film that honors the first film while also telling a great Cold War-era story. The film's filled with amazing sequences, like the slingshot into orbit or the space walk with John Lithgow, and when I'm at Amoeba tomorrow, I guarantee this is one of the discs I'm taking home.
Wow. It's been a lot of years since I thought about this show at all, and I wonder if it'll hold up. I remember watching every episode of "The Paper Chase: Season One" back in the day, though. We're definitely living through a very different era of television right now, but for a somewhat dry and location-bound TV show about kids in law school, "The Paper Chase" was compulsively watchable. I hope the show holds up all these years later, and I'm curious enough that I'll probably give it a try. One question, though: when do we get the feature film that inspired the show on DVD?
Fans of golden-age Hollywood musicals and comedies have a smattering of titles to choose from this week. I'm not terribly familiar with "A Song Is Born," "It's A Pleasure," or "The Goldwyn Follies," but I have a habit of buying pretty much any musical Warner Home Video puts out. George Feltenstein, one of the big brains over there, is a musical fantatic, and I trust his taste implicitly. Doris Day fans are getting serviced hardcore this week with "TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection" and "Pillow Talk" both hitting stores. I watched "Pillow Talk" again recently, and it's exactly as toothless and amiable as I remembered. Day's fans know what they're getting when they buy her films, so I imagine they'll be ecstatic. All others, particularly diabetics... be warned.
When I wrote about my theatrical viewing of "I.O.U.S.A." last year, it was before the economic crisis really kicked into high gear, and I'll never forget the Q&A afterwards, when Warren "I Haven't Got A Clue, But I Could Afford To Buy One For A Billion Dollars" Buffet sat onstage laughing at all the doom and gloom, trying to convince everyone that everything was fine and there was enough pie for everyone, metaphorically speaking. "There will always be pie," he kept saying. "We'll just make more pie for everybody." Hey... dude... blow me. The kitchen's closed, they forgot how to make pie, and no one here's even had a glass of water yet. Let's drop the dessert metaphors, okay? "I.O.U.S.A." is going to play more like a horror film at this point than when I saw it, but there's great information here on what really caused the problems we are ALL feeling right now, and it's not a partisan attack on anyone. Instead, it takes a clear-eyed look at how we got here and asks the terrifying question: is there any way back?
If you've got a BluRay player, I have a question for you... which of the following films, if any, do you feel compelled to pick up now that there are high-definition transfers, and which of them would be a double-dip for you? "The Wedding Singer," "Final Destination," "American History X," "Tango And Cash," "Above The Law," "The Last Kiss," "Taking Lives," "Rounders," "Mean Girls," "8 Mile," "The Thirteenth Floor," "Collateral Damage," "Point Of No Return" and "John Q" are the titles that have hit BluRay in the last two weeks, and of those, I'd buy two, and I don't have either of them on regular DVD, so they're not double-dips for me. I think "Above The Law" is one of the very best of the Steven Seagal films, due in no small part to the work by director Andrew Davis, and I think "Tango and Cash" is hilarious junk. So those two might make it into my stack. The rest? Either I've got perfectly acceptable DVD copies here already, or I don't want any copy here, much less a $30 BluRay. Come on, studios... how about you start tapping into the titles we really want and stop with all this "product-for-the-sake-of-product" horseshit?
I didn't include "Fly Away Home" and "Winged Migration" above because these two titles deserve a little special attention as they're released on BluRay. Carol Ballard makes some of the best movies ever made about nature, including "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf," so it should come as no surprise that his sweet story of a little girl and her father who raised a flock of geese is an emotionally winning and stunningly-shot treat, and on BluRay, this great-looking movie is taken to a whole other level. I wish the print on "Winged Migration" was a little better, but it's a documentary about the migratory patterns of birds, and I doubt there was a ton of money available for a clean-up. Still, it's very pretty on BluRay, and I was surprised when Toshi sat through every second of the movie mesmerized. That's a pretty strong endorsement from a three year old. I'm also hoping to pick up the BluRay release of "IMAX: Deep Sea/Into The Sea" for him. Our trip to see the last big IMAX underwater movie was a great one, and he's fascinated by beautifully shot nature shows right now, so I imagine this would be a perfect fit.
And speaking of the kids, they were probably better served this week than I was, between Universal's "The Tale Of Despereaux" and Nickelodeon's "Yo Gabba Gabba: New Friends" (complete with special appearance by Jack Black), as well as a new line of releases from Disney that include (so far) "Disney Animation Collection 1: Mickey And The Beanstalk," "Disney Animation Collection 2: Three Little Pigs" and "Disney Animation Collection 3: Prince And The Pauper." The title I expect Toshi and I will spend the most time watching? "Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941 - 1942", which should be a huge hit considering his love of Superman and his love of the Fleischer version of "Gulliver's Travels."
I didn't see "Donkey Punch: Unrated" when it played Fantastic Fest last fall, but I'll catch up with it now. Magnolia's releasing it through their Magnet label, and so far, they've got a pretty good batting average. What's put me off so far is the idea that it sounds like a knock-off of "Very Bad Things" or "Stag," movies that are all set-up with no place to go. I think there's something really ugly and misogynistic at the heart of the basic idea of "What do you do with a dead chick?" when you mix in the sex and the sniggering bad boy behavior with it. Just sits wrong with me. Still, I haven't seen it, and maybe this is the version that finally figures out how to wring more than one joke from the premise. If you're looking for a little moral outrage this week, then maybe you should give "La Grande Bouffe" a try. If you haven't seen Marco Ferreri's 1973 film, it's a trippy bit of surrealist gross-out, the story of four men who decide to spend a weekend in a secluded house where they will throw a giant food orgy and literally eat themselves to death. Throw in some prostitutes, a fat neighbor lady, and a whole lot of existential angst, and you've got one of the strangest foreign-language hits in box-office history. Ferreri's got a spotty track record as a filmmaker, given to occasional indulgence, but I like his take on Bukowski's "Tales Of Ordinary Madness," also out this week. Ben Gazarra stars as the obvious Bukowski substitute here, and although he's not quite as ruined as Mickey Rourke was in "Barfly," there's an authentic world-weariness to the performance that works. And Ornella Muti (best known to geeks as Princess Aurora in 1980's "Flash Gordon") does sterling work here as one of Bukowski's bruised muses. Now there's a band name for you...
I'm guessing that any release of a Vin Diesel movie would have been ample opportunity for the BluRay release of "A Man Apart," "Boiler Room," and "Knockaround Guys," but aren't films like this the reason that "Fast and Furious" was seen as a comeback in the first place? You're not doing him a favor, anybody. It's like pouring a recovering alcoholic a drink to celebrate his first year sober.
Yes, the BBC has finally put the six-part 300 minute "Pride and Prejudice" from 1995 on BluRay. No, my wife who absolutely adores both of the "Bridget Jones" movies hasn't seen this yet. And, yes, I expect that I will be measured next to Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy for months after she finally does watch it, and that I will come up short on every count. Damn youse, Jane Austen. Damn youse, Colin Firth.
I liked "Splinter" when I reviewed it last year on AICN, and I would definitely say that anyone who loves horror films should give it a try. Director Toby Wilkins is a name I hope we hear more from in the near future.
Lionsgate, I love you, but you're not fooling anyone. It's a clever idea to market a bunch of '80s films together, but calling them lost classics is doing both the movies and the audience a disservice. When the list of titles includes "Slaughter High," "My Best Friend's A Vampire," "Hiding Out," "Homer and Eddie," "Irreconcilable Differences," "The Night Before," "Repossessed" and "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" (the film that first introduced me to the idea of an Alan Smithee film), those films weren't lost... they were intentionally forgotten. Still, I give you points for finding a way to try and peddle them to fresh victims.
I'm surprised Magnolia didn't send "American Swing" for review. This documentary about Plato's Retreat, a notorious sex club in New York in the '70s, sounds like yet more reinforcement of one of my most passionately-held beliefs: 99.9% of the people who swing are people I wouldn't fuck on a bet. I find the entire '70s swinger movement both sad and disturbing, and it seems incredible to someone like me, who has been aware of the reality of AIDS for as long as I've been sexually active, that a moment like this ever really existed in this country, or that people still emulate this sort of behavior. I'm fascinated, and I will definitely see this one at some point soon.
Finally, I haven't seen it. I don't know what it's about. But FilmMovement is a great company with a cool plan, sending out one title a month to subscribers, chosen from all sorts of cinema around the world, and this month's choice wins as best title of the week: "The Pope's Toilet."
And on that note, I'm out. Be sure to be here this coming Tuesday, when we'll discuss titles like "The Wrestler," "Caprica," "Frost/Nixon," and the "X-Men" trilogy on BluRay.
On The Shelf appears here every Tuesday. Except when it doesn't.
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