Tuesday, 30 March 2004
On the Street: Just a few notable items on the street this week, but next week promises to have plenty more in store. Warner has three new catalog items on shelves this morning with The Sunshine Boys, Going in Style, and The Late Show. New from DreamWorks is The House and Sand and Fog. Fans of John Malkovich won't want to miss New Line's Ripley's Game, which was not released theatrically stateside. And horror fans are welcome to get a look at the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Meanwhile, fans of the small screen have new boxes of CSI and Homicide to check out, in addition to Penn & Teller's excellent Showtime series Bullshit!. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 29 March 2004
Disc of the Week: Figuring out the puzzle of director Martin Brest may not be the most urgent of cinematic conundrums, but it's an intriguing exercise for those who admired his long since atrophied gift for smart, idiosyncratic commercial entertainments. Before garnering a reputation for budget-busting self-indulgence rivaled in audacity only by his films' unforgivably bloated run-times three hours for the infamous Meet Joe Black and 150-plus minutes for the hardly epic Scent of a Woman Brest really was one of the top mainstream directors in Hollywood, with Midnight Run standing as one of the most polished and beloved buddy movies of the 1980s. But for some reason, Brest earned the kind of "Final Cut" carte blanche granted only to the elite A-list directors, which inspired delusions of auteurism in a filmmaker whose work never possessed significant emotional or physical scope. It's sad, too, because Brest's best movies are imbued with a quiet eloquence that allows them to linger in memory. In fact, he's never topped his debut feature, Going in Style (1979), which one should note while harping on the facile run-time issue, clocks in at a relatively scant 98 minutes. Still, it manages to be more wistfully observant about old age and death than anything Brest has done since.
The leisurely paced, light-hearted comedy stars George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg as, respectively, Joe, Al and Willie three Queens retirees whiling away their winter years doing little more than sitting on a park bench and waiting for their Social Security checks to arrive. Motivated partially by the paltry sums doled out by the government, but mostly out of a yearning for action, Joe cooks up a decidedly improbable plan to break up the oppressive boredom: Why not pull a stick-up? After a bare minimum of resistance, Al and Willie agree to join him, and the trio, blessedly unburdened by desperation or greed, casually goes about plotting to knock over a major Manhattan bank. Though Willie worries about the use of real guns spirited away from Al's sweetly oblivious nephew, Pete (Charles Hallahan), Joe maintains that they must make the robbery look absolutely real if they're to pull it off. Donning Groucho Marx masks, the three geriatrics walk into the bank with barely two days' planning, and walk out with a small fortune. But once the high of the gang's initially successful caper wears off, they're left with the unconsidered problem of what to do with the cash. More importantly, though, they're also unexpectedly confronted with their own onrushing mortality, which it turns out is nearer than they might've expected.
For a first film by a 28-year-old director fresh out of the American Film Institute, Going in Style is a surprisingly contemplative effort marked by a maturity and patience well beyond Brest's years. Though leisurely paced and occasionally digressive, Brest does a wonderful job with his veteran cast, giving them ample space to flesh out their characters. This generosity is especially unusual for Burns, who, even with his Oscar win for the overrated The Sunshine Boys, had never been called on to craft a character that didn't closely mimic his straight-man persona carefully honed over 50 years of television and radio work alongside Gracie Allen. And he responds with a tough, unsentimental performance that easily ranks as his crowning moment on film. Carney is also wonderful as the gregarious Al, who's still got an eye for the ladies even though he's far too long in the tooth to do anything about it. We also see in Al a guy who really hasn't lived much beyond New York City, which makes his trip to Las Vegas all the more poignant. After a wildly successful night at the craps table, Al breathlessly confesses to Joe, "I never dreamt a place like this existed." Carney invests that line with a heartbreakingly heavy mix of exhilaration and regret that piercingly belies his worldly manner. None of this would work nearly as well without Brest's sensitive direction, which smartly plays away from the formulaic potential of the script. As a late entry in a string of '70s geezer comedies, kicked off by The Sunshine Boys and including Burns's Oh, God!, Going in Style stands apart as a genuine rumination on growing old, eschewing the synthetic set-up/gag patter of those other films for something more character driven. And it succeeds largely on account of Brest's intuitiveness, which, for one brief shining moment, justified the studio generosity that has sadly enabled his ear-splittingly counterintuitive latter-day misfires.
Warner presents Going in Style in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with serviceable Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a entertaining appearance by Art Carney and George Burns on "Dinah" (7 min.), which offers nostalgia buffs the added pleasure of seeing ubiquitous 1970s talk-show guest Paul Williams appearing alongside them. One suspects that Willie Tyler and Lester were otherwise engaged. Going in Style is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Warner picked up a barrel full of scooby-snacks at the North American box-office over the weekend with Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, the live-action sequel to the original film starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard, and Linda Cardellini, which shot to the top of the chart with a $30.7 million. The win far outdistanced the weekend's other major release, Buena Vista's The Ladykillers, which racked up $13 million for the Coen Brothers and Tom Hanks. Arriving in fifth place was Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl starring Ben Affleck with $8.3 million, while the urban drama Never Die Alone with DMX failed to crack the top ten with a $3 million bow. Critics were mixed-to-positive on Ladykillers, while the remaining new titles earned mixed-to-negative notices.
In continuing release, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ now stands in third place after five weeks, breaking the $300 million mark to become one of the highest-grossing (and most profitable) films in history. Slipping to fourth was Universal's remake of Dawn of the Dead, which added $10 million to its $43.8 million gross. A sequel looks all but inevitable for Warner's Starsky & Hutch starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, which has garnered $76.8 million in one month. And Focus Films' Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey is still doing good business in semi-limited release with $16.7 million so far. Meanwhile, off to DVD prep is Paramount's Twisted, which will finish below $30 million.
New films arriving on screens this Friday include Hellboy, Walking Tall starring The Rock, The Prince and Me with Julia Stiles, and the animated Home on the Range. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne wraps up his month-long survey of Warner's Chaplin series with City Lights and The Chaplin Revue, while Greg Dorr recently looked at New Line's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Platinum Series. New spins this week from the rest of the gang include The Rundown, The Sunshine Boys, Ripley's Game, Stargate SG-1: Season Five, The Late Show, Hangman's Curse, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Going in Style, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 23 March 2004
On the Street: There aren't as many classics as new titles on the street-list this week, which leads off with Columbia's smart romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. Action fans can look for Universal's surprise hit The Rundown starring The Rock, while new from Paramount is Beyond Borders and the 2003 American remake of The Singing Detective. Warner's got thrills in store with Gothika starring Halle Berry. And fresh from Buena Vista are two Ron Howard special editions, Splash and Ransom. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 22 March 2004
Disc of the Week: Audiences are intimately familiar with the work of Alan Parker even if they don't immediately recognize his name the British ex-ad man is responsible for an impressive collection of films that make money and entertain ticket-buyers, but he's never mentioned in the upper-tiers of modern filmmakers. For while the general public seems to like Parker's work, critics often don't care for him very much and special-interest groups have repeatedly accused him of focusing on the wrong aspect of the stories he's told. With Midnight Express (1978) Parker was charged with racism regarding the way he portrayed Turkish prison guards; with Mississippi Burning (1988) he took heat for making a movie more about white civil rights workers than about the blacks who were fighting the good fight; and when Parker signed on to direct Madonna in Evita (1996), he was not only flogged repeatedly by the press but received death threats from Argentinians who took issue with the Material Girl playing one of their most beloved cultural icons. Apparently unswayed by threats and criticisms Parker, who received a knighthood in 2002, is frequently referred to in the British press as a "curmudgeon" and a "bruiser" the director continues to take on projects that divide critics. In the 1990s, that included adaptations of books by two wildly disparate Irish authors Frank McCourt's downbeat memoir "Angela's Ashes" and Roddy Doyle's rollicking comic novel "The Commitments." The first film received a mixed reception, with reviewers finding it either deeply moving or unrelentingly bleak, but the second was warmly embraced by both critics and audiences alike Doyle's ode to the spirit of the Irish working class became, as critic Scott Weinberg put it, Parker's "celebration of black soul music in one of the whitest places on Earth." Released with little fanfare and a small promotional budget, it was easy to miss The Commitments on its 1991 theatrical release if you didn't live in a major metropolitan area (the title grossed just under $15 million), but it's one of Parker's happiest, most enjoyable films.
In one of the poorest parts of North Dublin, ambitious young Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) hatches a scheme to put together a band and not just any band, mind you, but a band playing great classic American soul music. His Elvis-worshipping father (Colm Meaney) and his mates are dubious but, as Rabbitte explains, "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!" After a disappointing and very funny series of auditions for singers, Rabbitte finds the perfect front man in disheveled Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong), a Joe Cocker sound-alike with the size and grace of John Belushi. The group pulls together with admirable ingenuity the piano player confesses that he stole the piano from his grandmother, explaining, "She doesn't know I took it, but she doesn't use the front room very often" and Rabbitte schools his ensemble on the gospel of Wilson Pickett and James Brown. The group's journey through rehearsals and early gigs to their inevitable Shot at the Big Time is hardly smooth, with the boorish Deco insulting the girl backup singers, who in turn each have a tumble with fast-talking horn player Joey "The Lips" Fagan (Johnny Murphy), and the usual backstage rivalries threaten to tear the band apart. But there's a carrot at the end of the stick, if they can pull themselves together Wilson Pickett himself is coming to town, and he's promised to play a set with them. Or so Joey "The Lips" says, anyway.
Some of Alan Parker's best films have been musical projects, from the grossly misunderstood 1980 hit Fame (which is far grittier than most people remember and an obvious precursor to The Commitments) back through his interpretation of Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982) and his early, underrated Bugsy Malone (1976). As good as The Commitments is as an ensemble acting piece and it's very good, especially given the cast of mostly novice actors the film really soars when it's all about the music. Sixteen-year-old Andrew Strong was discovered by Parker purely by accident the son of a singer with whom Parker was rehearsing, he stepped in when his father's voice became hoarse and Parker cast him immediately. He's a remarkable talent, bringing a vibrancy to classics like "Mustang Sally" and "Try a Little Tenderness" that rivals the original recordings. Parker's loving musical tribute inspired a brief international resurgence of interest in classic soul music, with MTV playing videos featuring songs from the film (the first soundtrack album, with the band's covers of songs like "Chain of Fools," "The Dark End of the Street," "In the Midnight Hour," and "I Never Loved a Man," was such a huge, immediate seller that a second volume was released six months later), contributing to a boom in album sales for the original artists. With a catalog of wonderful songs, a phenomenally talented cast, and a dead-perfect eye for the clash of egos and ambitions that sink most bands before they ever really get started, The Commitments is an irresistible delight.
Fox's new special-edition DVD release replaces an earlier full-frame-only disc, offering a gorgeous transfer of the movie in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Visually, this is a lovely picture shot on location in Dublin, it's earthy and gritty with an expert use of shadow and contrast, and the squeaky-clean transfer here presents it all beautifully. The audio is equally fine, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track (in English, French or Spanish) balancing music, dialogue and ambient sounds to good effect. On board is a commentary by Alan Parker, whose affection for the movie is obvious his comments are spare, but fans will appreciate the interesting background details he offers. A second disc offers a nice collection of extras, including a fairly standard "making-of" featurette (22 min.); a much better retrospective entitled "The Commitments: Looking Back," with often hilarious anecdotes from the band members and a portion devoted to Irish swearing (47 min.); a background feature on "Dublin Soul: The Working Class and Changing Face of Dublin" (15 min.); another "making-of" that offers little that isn't available on the longer featurettes (8 min.); music videos, trailers, TV and radio spots and a still gallery. The Commitments: Collector's Edition is on the street now.
Box Office: After a mammoth three-week run at the top of the box-office chart, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has finally been toppled by zombies. Universal's remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead scooped up $27.3 million in receipts over the weekend to claim the top spot, nudging Passion down to second place, where it added $19.1 million to a $295.2 million cume. Also new in theaters was Warner's Taking Lives starring Angelina Jolie, which was good for $11.4 million in third place. Meanwhile, Focus Films debuted Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey, in semi-limited release it arrived in sixth place with $8.5 million. Critics heaped praise on Sunshine and mostly liked Dead, while Lives drew mixed-to-negative reviews.
In continuing release, Warner's Starsky & Hutch starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson held on to fourth place, adding $10.6 million to a three-week $67.7 million total. Rounding out the top five was Sony's Secret Window starring Johnny Depp, which scared up $9.6 million for the frame. Buena Vista's horse-saga Hidalgo is turning into a modest hit, nearing the $50 million mark after three weeks, while MGM's Agent Cody Banks 2 is performing within expectations, nearing $20 million. Still making the chart is the big-format NASCAR: The IMAX Experience. But off to the smaller circuits and DVD is David Mamet's Spartan starring Val Kilmer, which barely registered last week with less than $3 million.
Next up in cineplexes this Friday are The Ladykillers starring Tom Hanks, Jersey Girl with Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez, Never Die Alone starring DMX, and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Greg Dorr has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's thriller Gothika, while Mark Bourne continues his Chaplin Collection survey with the documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. New reviews this week from the rest of the gang include Something's Gotta Give, Beyond Borders, Onibaba: The Criterion Collection, Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), Space Camp, The Singing Detective (2003), The Commitments: Collector's Edition, and the 1978 Dawn of the Dead. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 16 March 2004
On the Street: The DVD potpourri this week is a mix of old a new. Few folks saw it in theaters, but Buena Vista's Veronica Guerin starring Cate Blanchett is due for a second chance on home video. Universal's got Mike Myers in the live-action Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, while the critically acclaimed 21 Grams starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro is now on disc. Fresh from Criterion are Ingmar Bergman's 1973 miniseries-turned-feature Scenes From a Marriage and Kaneto Shindo's 1964 Onibaba. Fox has a slew of items from the vault, including a re-issue of The Commitments, 1950's Cheaper by the Dozen, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. TV titles from Warner include The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, and Kung Fu. And Artisan's special edition of The Running Man is a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed by everyone. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 15 March 2004
Disc of the Week: In the halcyon days of 1987, before producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray repackaged the premise of PBS's "An American Family" as the younger, sexier "The Real World," thus setting off the reality television craze that's saved the networks millions in production costs, a film like The Running Man was, given its pulp pedigree (it's based on a Stephen King short story written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), viewed less as a satirically prophetic vision of entertainment in a potentially dystopian near-future than as yet another variation on The Most Dangerous Game paradigm, in which men are hunted down for sport. However, in the wake of "Survivor," "The Amazing Race," and "Big Brother," what was once merely glitzy, over-produced trash anchored by that most improbable of movie stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now begs to be taken seriously as serious science-fiction. And in this two-disc Special Edition DVD, the begging is sometimes deathly serious, going so far as to invoke 9/11 and the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, which some contend is a dangerous erosion of Americans' civil liberties. Uh-huh. This is the movie where Jim Brown sports a hideous wig with skunk-like white stripes whilst running around with a flame thrower, right?
Indeed, it is. Set in 2017 after a worldwide economic collapse brought on by widespread famine and an energy crisis, The Running Man foresees an Orwellian police state being instituted to maintain order with an iron fist. When Officer Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is ordered to fire upon a crowd of unarmed demonstrators in the interest of suppressing dissent, his conscience intercedes and he revolts, which lands him in a maximum security prison performing hard labor. Even worse, the massacre he tried to prevent ends up being carried out in his name, replete with manipulated videotape, earning Richards the moniker "The Butcher of Bakersfield." Refusing to remain unjustly incarcerated, Richards and two other convicts organize a daring escape from the penal colony, but his freedom is short-lived Richards is promptly tracked down while trying to flee the country. But rather than get sent back to prison (or worse), Richards and his cronies are selected to be contestants on the world's most popular television show, "The Running Man," where he will be forced to earn his freedom by eluding the game's colorful and ruthlessly proficient "Stalkers," whose job it is to kill the hapless runners. Because Richards is so reviled by the public, he's viewed by the show's sleazily charismatic host, Killian (Richard Dawson), as the perfect contestant to provide a much-needed ratings-boost. While this may indeed be the case, what Killian isn't expecting in the bargain is that the physically imposing Richards is also uniquely suited to win the rigged game; ergo, the host must watch helplessly as his dream contestant kills off one Stalker after another while capturing the imagination of the audience.
As was the case on Total Recall, the script for The Running Man, credited to Steven E. deSouza (though he was far from the only writer to work on it), has been calibrated to fit Schwarzenegger's cheesy, wisecracking image, and it's this overt silliness that effectively dashes any aspirations for thoughtful satire or probing science-fiction. However, under the clean, workmanlike direction of television veteran Paul Michael Glaser, the film moves along at a brisk pace. In fact, when compared to some of Schwarzenegger's other '80s vehicles, The Running Man actually has aged pretty damn well. Perhaps realizing the limitations imposed on him by the script, Glaser revels in the film's cartoon sadism, recalling the gleeful cruelty of such amoral classics as Death Race 2000 and Escape 2000. Adding to the chintz is a vintage score from '80s synthesizer king Harold Faltermeyer, which glazes the picture in a welcome nostalgia for those who lived through that triumphant era. But it's Richard Dawson who really makes this flick cook, fiendishly parodying his smiling, kissing-bandit persona honed on "Family Feud." Though the premise is still hopelessly far-fetched, Dawson's charismatic Killian makes it somewhat easier to buy an entire population's acceptance of slickly produced public execution. As for the Stalkers, they're still high-camp in their garish outfits, led by Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial pal Jesse Ventura as "Captain Freedom." The disc's preposterous suggestions to the contrary, the only trend really presaged by The Running Man is the short-lived "American Gladiators," which pitted athletic contestants against muscle-bound foes with names no less ridiculous than "Sub-Zero" or "Dynamo" (happily, only cash prizes were at stake on that show.) Otherwise, The Running Man should be taken as nothing more than mindless entertainment, a level on which it succeeds pretty sensationally.
Artisan Home Entertainment presents The Running Man in excellent anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-screen transfers with superb Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES 6.1 audio. As good as the presentation is, however, the extras are a mixed bag. The best offerings can be found on Disc One, which boasts two feature-length commentaries. The first, and most enjoyable, is from Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, who recount their experiences on this troubled production from Glaser's last-minute replacement of Andy Davis through to the end of the rigorous shoot. Executive producer Rob Cohen also gets a commentary, and his take, while different, is equally entertaining provided one can stomach his occasional self-importance. Rounding out Disc One is the documentary "Lockdown on Main Street" (24 min.), which is essentially an anti-Patriot Act PSA. Even if one is inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed in this featurette, it's still woefully out-of-place when considered alongside a work of such unabashed stupidity. More appropriate is the documentary found on Disc Two, "Game Theory," which examines the reality television craze through interviews with producers and former contestants on these shows. Also on Disc Two is a massively lame "Meet the Stalkers" feature that attempts to offer amusing profiles on the film's villains. The Running Man: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: For the third week in a row, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ held the top spot at the box-office, adding $31.6 million to its $264 million gross, and putting it on track to clear at least $350 domestically before it's through. Passion's nearest competitor this time around was Sony's Secret Window starring Johnny Depp, which delivered $19 million, while MGM's Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London had a modest break in fifth place with $8 million. Appearing on less screens, David Mamet's Spartan starring Val Kilmer made it into the top ten with $2 million, and NASCAR: The IMAX Experience revved up $1.5 million in the big format. Critics were mixed-to-positive on NASCAR and Spartan, while Secret Window earned mixed notices and Cody Banks was widely dismissed.
In continuing release, Warner's Starsky & Hutch starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson slipped to third place with $16 million for the frame and $51.4 million after 10 days. Buena Vista's Hidalgo with Viggo Mortensen got bumped to fourth with $11.7 million, giving it $35.5 million so far. And Sony's 50 First Dates is out of the top five but into triple-digits with $106.5 million in five weeks. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King could get caught by The Passion before year's end, but it still has a healthy $371.1 million cume. And off to DVD prep is Newmarket's Monster, which closes with more than $30 million.
New films arriving in theaters this Friday include Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Angelina Jolie in Taking Lives, and another stab at Dawn of the Dead. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted his latest spin in Warner's new Chaplin Collection, the double-feature A King in New York and A Woman of Paris, while new stuff this week from the rest of the team includes Veronica Guerin, Scenes From a Marriage: The Criterion Collection, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Ned Kelly, Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator, The Running Man: Special Edition, and the Russian silent films Bed and Sofa and Chess Fever. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 9 March 2004
On the Street: Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List makes its DVD debut this week in a heavily-hyped two-disc set that's sure to be one of the year's best sellers, while new from Paramount is a two-disc package of the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. Fox is serving up the retro with a quartet of Raquel Welch titles, Bandolero!, Mother Jugs & Speed, Myra Breckinridge, and One Million Years B.C.. Columbia leads the mainstream releases with Mona Lisa Smile. Animation fans won't want to miss the latest installment of Futurama. And even though it's a bare-bones release, fans of Croupier can finally cross it off the list. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 8 March 2004
Disc of the Week: In 1999, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening debuted a new show at the eager behest of Fox executives Futurama, an animated science-fiction comedy that promised to bring Groening's smart-aleck sensibility to a new (and, hopefully, financially lucrative) new project. A long-time fan of science fiction, Groening cited such disparate authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith, and Robert Sheckley among the inspirations for his next cartoon. "When I was a kid, I would read these books and I was so excited by some of the adventurous ideas," he said at a press conference prior to the show's debut. "I thought, boy, it's really going to be great when I'm grown up and special effects get so much better, and they'll be able to do all the things that are depicted in these books. And I grew up and I found a lot of science fiction concepts really annoying. So this show is an opportunity to both honor some of the conventions of science fiction and satirize them." Unfortunately, to Groening's dismay, the same Fox executives who had begged him for three years to produce a new show then failed to promote Futurama or even to give it a stable time slot the generally amiable Groening later told interviewers that his experience wrangling with Fox over Futurama was the most unpleasant of his career. Finally, after four years of non-support, Fox just left Futurama to die by not canceling it but, rather, simply not ordering any new shows. A few episodes trickled out sporadically during the show's fifth season but, with no promotion or even a regular time slot, viewers were never sure when it would be on the air. With 72 episodes in the can, however, the show was licensed to Cartoon Network for late-night exhibition as part of their "Adult Swim" programming and that, along with Fox Home Entertainment's snazzy DVD releases (ironic, given the Fox network's utter lack of support for the show) have gained Futurama an avid cult following.
Futurama's central character is Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West), a 21st century pizza delivery boy who finds himself awakening in the 31st century after a mishap in a cryogenics lab. He seeks out his own great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great nephew, Prof. Farnsworth (also West), who runs Planet Express intergalactic delivery service, and joins up with beautiful, one-eyed alien pilot Leela (Katy Sagal), Rastafarian bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (Phil Lamarr), insufferably cute go-to girl Amy Wong (Lauren Tan) and lobster-like physician from planet Decapod 10, Dr. Zoidberg (West, yet again). Fry finds a best friend and comic foil in Bender (John DiMaggio), a hard-drinking, amoral, sarcastic robot who quickly emerges as the show's funniest character. In the course of their adventures the crew encounter an array of brilliantly rendered secondary characters like the egotistical space captain Zapp Brannigan and his smarter, eye-rolling alien lieutenant, Kif, a homicidal robot Santa Claus who wreaks havoc every Christmas Eve, and aliens who vow to destroy the world unless they're given a final episode of their favorite Earth TV show, "Single Female Lawyer," a thinly veiled parody of "Ally McBeal." Although the series offered a few episodes that fell flat, the overall writing, brilliant art direction and the amazing talent doing the voices made Futurama an exemplary program that equaled and sometimes surpassed The Simpsons in its ability to offer both hearty laughs and intelligent scripting.
Much of the humor in Futurama is decidedly high-brow, which may be what gave the Fox execs pause co-creator David X. Cohen holds a master's degree in computer science and has gone on the record to state, "We wanted to get in as much science as possible where it didn't clog up the gears of the story Our hope is that, although such material will fly by most people unnoticed, it might make die-hard fans of the people who do appreciate it." Staff writers on Futurama had science-oriented backgrounds not usually held by comedy scribes J. Stewart Burns graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard; Ken Keeler holds a Ph.D, also from Harvard (his doctoral thesis was on "Map Representations and Optimal Encoding for Image Segmentation"); and writer Jeff Westbrook has a Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton he served as an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Yale and also worked at AT&T Labs before writing for Futurama. The result of this brain-trust were scripts that were not just hilarious but also chock-full of in-jokes designed purely for science nerds "Bender's serial number is 1729, a historically significant integer to mathematicians everywhere "Keeler said in a 2003 interview. "That 'joke' alone is worth six years of grad school, I'd say." And on one of the first season DVD's commentary tracks, Cohen explains that one of Prof. Farnsworth's blackboard diagrams is actually a parody of a type of diagram used in particle physics, and that the diagram translates into a joke about dog poop. The 22 episodes of Futurama: Season Three are some of the most assured, smart and hilarious of the series' run. "A Tale of Two Santas" revisits that ultra-violent robotic Santa Claus that terrorized the world earlier in the show's run, the Emmy-winning "Roswell That Ends Well" sends the crew back in time to Roswell, N.M.. circa 1947, where Fry ends up becoming his own ancestor, "Amazon Women in the Mood" brings back the smarmy Zapp Brannigan as the crew crashes on the man-hating Planet Amazonia, and "Parasite Lost" finds Fry getting stronger and smarter after he ingests "intelligent worms" from a vending machine sandwich. And the show not only parodied science fiction but the entire genre of animated television itself with the brilliant "Time Keeps On Slippin'," in which the 31st century Harlem Globetrotters make an appearance, playing against a group of mutant basketball players created by Prof. Farnsworth whose very existence threatens the space/time continuum. Choosing one best episode from this season is impossible but if one were to try, a stand-out gem is "I Dated a Robot," in which Fry's romance with a downloaded humanoid version of Lucy Liu inspires a parody of 1950's hygiene films, jokes about Napster, and a final, Matrix-like confrontation with, as Bender shrieks, "An army of Lucy Lius!"
Fox's DVD release of Futurama's third season is presented with the same care for detail that marked the first two sets, from the easy-to-use, attractive packaging to the design of the interactive menus and even the opening gags pop in the first disc and we're treated to a quartet of legal statements, the fourth printed in an alien language, followed by a parody MPAA rating which states that Futurama is rated MV-2/5 ("Viewers may not watch with more than two of their five eyes "). Take too long to choose an episode from the menu and you'll be assaulted by random remarks from Bender like, "How many idiots does it take to work a remote control?" and "Hey, doofus! Ahhh, you looked!" The digitally mastered episodes themselves are beautiful, the crisp, brightly saturated, full-screen transfers looking far better than broadcast television ever presented them, with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio in English, Spanish or French with a choice of English or Spanish subtitles. Each episode features a full-length commentary from some combination of writers, producers, directors, and voice talent, with an extra yack-track focusing on the animation aspects of "Roswell That Ends Well." There's also a wealth of deleted scenes, animatics and storyboards, plus still galleries, 3-D models, and a fun "How to Draw Characters" feature. Futurama: Season Three is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ continues to be the surprise blockbuster of the season despite strong competition from two new films, it held the top spot for the second week in a row, taking $51.3 million for the frame and clearing a monumental $212 million in just 12 days. Arriving in second place with $29 million was Warner's Starsky & Hutch starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, which took in a healthy $29 million, while Buena Vista's horse-racing epic Hidalgo starring Viggo Mortensen was good for $19.6 million in receipts. Both new films received mixed notices from critics.
In continuing release, Sony's 50 First Dates starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore is assured triple-digits with $99.4 million after one month, while Paramount's poorly reviewed Twisted with Ashley Judd and Sam Jackson dropped to fifth place with $16.3 million so far. The Oscars gave a boost to New Line's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King which charted an additional $3.1 million, while Clint Eastwood's Mystic River took in $2 million and Newmarket's Monster notched itself over the $30 million mark. Buena Vista's Miracle is sure to clear $60 million before it exits theaters. And off to cheap screens are Welcome to Mooseport and Eurotrip, which failed to impress during their short runs.
New films arriving in the 'plexes this Friday include Secret Window starring Johnny Depp and John Turturro, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, and David Mamet's Spartan with Val Kilmer. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted two more installments in his month-long survey of Chaplin films, Monsieur Verdoux and The Circus, while new spins this week from the gang include reviews this week include Mona Lisa Smile, The Ten Commandments: Special Collector's Edition, Croupier, Futurama: Season Three, and four Raquel Welch titles from Fox, One Million Years B.C., Bandolero!, Myra Breckinridge, and Mother, Jugs & Speed. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 2 March 2004
On the Street: There's one collection on the street list this week so massive that it may be warping the monitor you're reading right now Warner and MK2's second wave of The Chaplin Collection includes such classics as Chaplin Revue, Circus, City Lights, The Kid, A King in New York/A Woman of Paris, and Monsieur Verdoux, all available individually or in the big box with an extra documentary on board. If that just ain't your bag, Jack Black's makin' noise in The School of Rock, the gang is back in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and classic drama can be found in Peyton Place: Fox Studio Classics. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 1 March 2004
Disc of the Week: From Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin through Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Jim Carrey, every society gets the comics it deserves with one or two shining talents emerging as their decade's iconic funnymen. It's far too early to say whether Jack Black will fill that role soon, but his breakout performance in The School of Rock (2003) resonated with audiences in the same manner as Steve Martin's turn in The Jerk and Bill Murray's in Caddyshack. A little bit hyper, a little bit rock 'n roll, Black's shtick is a combination of false, blustering ego and PG-rated crudity. Having slowly come to the public's attention through his appearances on TV's "Mr. Show" and via his rock-parody duo Tenacious D as well as perfectly rendered secondary roles in films like Mars Attacks! and High Fidelity Black has frequently been compared to John Belushi, mainly because of his surprisingly athletic physical grace. But the charismatic Black also reminds one of Belushi in the way he exhibits an impish sweetness beneath his bigger-than-life persona. Of course, Black got lucky with School of Rock the film was written specifically for him by Mike White (The Good Girl) and directed by Richard Linklater, giving the movie a pedigree far more advanced than most entries in the genre. As to whether his star power increases with time or he flounders in a string of weak copycat "loser rock guy" comedies, only time will tell. But School of Rock is a flat-out hilarious film and Black, in his first starring role, owns it with the confidence of a generational icon.
A rock-and-roll wash-out, unemployed and booted from his third-rate band, Dewey Finn (Black) just wants to rawk. His childhood friend, substitute teacher Ned Schneebley (White) lets Dewey crash on the floor of his apartment much to the consternation of Ned's shrewish girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) while Dewey insists that his slacker lifestyle has philosophical merit ("I serve society by rocking!"). When Dewey takes a phone call meant for Ned about a high-paying sub position, Dewey sees it as a chance to pick up the money he needs to pay his back rent and put together some musicians for an upcoming "Battle of the Bands" contest. Passing himself off as "Mr. Schneebly" at a tony private school, Dewey tosses aside the lesson plan when he discovers that his ten-year-old charges are musically gifted, and thus turns the class into a crash-course in rock-and-roll. As Dewey gets to know the kids the grade-fixated overachiever, the shy classical pianist, the awkward guitar player with the domineering dad he teaches them a few things about AC/DC and the Ramones, but he also learns a little bit about caring for other people, too. He helps the uptight principal (the always hilarious Joan Cusack) come out of her shell and acknowledge her inner Stevie Nicks, and he finally leads his newly minted, pre-teen rockers to their inevitable public performance at the big rock-off.
The School of Rock has a fairly formulaic script, but each step of the plot is crafted with such intelligence and warmth by White and Linklater that one barely notices the predictable structure and it's so startlingly funny that nothing matters but the ride. A genuine "family film" with appeal for adults and kids alike (the PG-13 rating, for "rude humor and drug references," is utterly ridiculous since the movie is more squeaky-clean than most television sitcoms), The School of Rock is one of only a handful of movies in recent memory that grants kids the respect they deserve, neither turning them into midget adults with preternatural wit or treating them as adorable, angelic urchins. Black's young charges play their own instruments several were found via casting calls at music camps and do their own singing, and they even manage to hold their own as actors alongside the bigger-than-life Black, who generously allows them their own share of laughs. While grown-ups will get the music references and laugh at Black's manic inventiveness, younger viewers will get a kick out of the plot, in which a class full of nerdy musicians become full-fledged rockers. Linklater's direction is flawless this is certainly his funniest film so far and White's screenplay turns the whole Stand by Me/Dead Poets Society construct on its ear.
Paramount's DVD release of The School of Rock includes an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with excellent color saturation and great contrast, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is solid The School of Rock, despite its title and subject matter, isn't a very music-heavy film and the audio does justice to what's primarily a dialogue-driven soundtrack. There are two commentary tracks on board the first, with Linklater and Black, is surprisingly dull, with the pair making rather uninspired small talk mostly about the work they did to get the film produced and offering very little in the way of scene-specific tech-talk or anecdotes. Surprisingly, the second "Kids Kommentary" is a lot more fun, with the younger actors making fun of their on-screen selves ("Listen to me! I sound like Mickey Mouse!" groans drummer Kevin Clark, whose adolescent voice has deepened since filming), sharing funny stories about Black, and ribbing each other relentlessly. There's a standard behind-the-scenes featurette, "Lessons Learned in the School of Rock," a music video for the film's set-piece rock number, a rather tedious "MTV Diary" episode following Black, and a cute feature showcasing camcorder footage shot by the kids when they attended the Toronto Film Festival. There's also an amusing piece shot by Linklater and Black during the film's production, with Black using a theater full of extras to help beg Led Zeppelin to allow them to use "Immigrant Song" in the film. A DVD-ROM "Chalkboard of Rock" feature offers up Jack Black's favorite bands plus an extensive, interactive musical family tree similar to the one used by Dewey in the film, with optional commentary by Linklater and Black. The School of Rock is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Confounding critics and pundits everywhere (who apparently failed to understand that free publicity = lotsa moola), Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ starring James Caviezel and Monica Bellucci dominated the past week at the movies, racking up $76 million from Friday to Sunday and a staggering $117.5 million since its debut last Wednesday. The win gave The Passion the raw-dollar record for the best opening of any film in February, the second-best R-rated debut (behind The Matrix Reloaded), and the seventh spot on the all-time list. The competition barely merits a footnote by comparison Paramount's thriller Twisted earned $9.1 million, Lions Gate's Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights racked up $5.9 million, and Fox Searchlight's Broken Lizard's Club Dread managed just $3 million. Critics were mixed on The Passion, while Havana and Dread skewed negative. Meanwhile, Twisted likely will be one of the worst-reviewed films of the year, barely getting even one positive notice.
In continuing release, Sony's 50 First Dates starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore continues to be the big rom-com of the season, holding down second place with $88.7 million overall, and only kept from a third straight week at number-one by The Passion. Buena Vista's Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen held on to a top-five position going into its second frame, albeit with just $16.7 million so far. Buena Vista's Miracle is burning much brighter, now with $56.3 million after one month. And MGM's Barbershop 2: Back in Business is doing nearly equal numbers with $57.5 million in the bag. But dropping in a hurry are last week's debuts Eurotrip and Welcome to Mooseport. And getting a big spankin' is Paramount's Against the Ropes, which cleared just $3 million last week and already has fallen from view.
New films arriving on screens this weekend include Hidalgo starring Viggo Mortensen and Starsky & Hutch with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne kicks off his month-long survey of Warner's The Chaplin Collection: Vol. 2 with a sneak-preview of The Kid, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include Richard III: The Criterion Collection, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Dog Park, Salvatore Giuliano: The Criterion Collection, Peyton Place: Fox Studio Classics, My Life Without Me, The School of Rock, and Chappelle's Show: Season One. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.