Monday, 31 Oct. 2005
Disc of the Week: More than 50 years before Steven Spielberg gave H.G. Wells' Victorian novel The War of the Worlds a frequently impressive 2005 interpretation, producer-as-auteur George Pal gave the material his own update spin, scoring big with an A-list actioner that became Paramount's must-see thriller of 1953. For his Martian sturm und drang, Pal shifted the action to Atomic Age California, bringing the monstrous "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" up against the post-war era's as Paul Frees' baronial narration puts it "terrible weapons of super-science." For a movie that already succeeded in scaring the Grape Nehi out of every ten-year-old in the audience, how disquieting it must have been for the Cold War-agitated grownups to witness U.S. might, tanks and A-bombs alike, brushed away helpless as the Martians' "skeleton rays" destroy world capitals and give all America the Dresden treatment. They watched L.A. get pummeled and refugees by the thousands flee the sinister, graceful, cobra-headed war machines. These attackers' stance on interplanetary relations trumped the previous invasion by the lone marauder in The Thing from Another World, and rendered moot Klaatu's preemptive finger-wagging about our WMDs in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Today Pal's version endures as one of the favorite and most muscular of the 1950s science fiction spectacles.
Pal stamped his personality on each of his films. His adaptations of literary sources display Pal's hands in the clay more than the original authors'. In this case, at least, that suited the film just fine. The smart script (by Wells enthusiast Barré Lyndon) never talks down to the audience or treats the material as merely kids' matinee fare. When Gene Barry (as scientist Clayton Forrester) and 18-year-old Ann Robinson (as his librarian-in-distress) get trapped together in a farmhouse, their torpid romance scene pays off with a close encounter and a mushroom-body Martian running away shrieking and waving its arms like a little girl. The Oscar-winning visual effects, supported by sound effects that have since become stock standards, were state-of-the-art, and they still impress us today even when modern prints reveal the wires suspending the Martian juggernauts. The richly saturated three-strip Technicolor, restored to its vibrancy for this DVD, probably caused the entire nation to stop dreaming in black-and-white. Director Byron Haskin kept "the rout of civilization and the massacre of mankind" galloping forward at a stylish clip. Pal's fingerprints are awkward only at the conclusion. When the Martians face defeat by "the littlest things which God in His wisdom had put on the Earth," what Wells the atheist wrote in irony Pal the devout Catholic literalized with Sunday-school piousness. We wince and Wells would scowl, but give Pal's deus ex bacteria credit for prodding the evolution-vs.-"intelligent design" rhubarb two generations early.
Speaking of Barry and Robinson, Joe Dante (in one of the two very good audio commentary tracks on this disc) mentions that when Paramount's marketing department advertised the film they didn't even mention that it had a cast. But the scientist and the redhead on the run ably occupy the boy-meets-girl melodrama Paramount forced Pal to shoehorn into his apocalypse. Ann Robinson's emoting, Max Factor'd screamer is one of the less appealing love interests of the decade, and Barry's likable, hero-jawed professor brings the film quiveringly close to self-parody. A pilot who remains Time magazine handsome even in horn-rims, he's the can-do, outdoorsy celebrity-genius every "top man in astro and nuclear physics" fantasizes he could be. Yet despite his "Pacific Tech" creds and his gardyloo about neutralized mesons, it's a sobering twist to see that even he can't save the day with a stroke of that super-science, like Hugh Marlowe's anti-saucer ray in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Although Barry punches his way through the sometimes gigglesome dialogue like a trouper, because Lee Marvin had been considered for the role we can wonder how movie history might have turned on that casting choice. And speaking of alternate histories, Pal and Spielberg weren't the first big-shot talents to take a cinematic interest in Wells' interplanetary blitzkrieg. In the 1920s a version slated for Cecil B. DeMille resulted in an interesting, albeit unproduced, screenplay. In the '30s Alfred Hitchcock approached Wells directly about securing the novel's movie rights. But Hitchcock wasn't with Paramount, who owned the rights. The studio ultimately archived five unproduced WOTW scripts over the years. They even offered Sergei Eisenstein the job when the great Russian director was briefly working in the U.S. Finally, in '51 it was Pal's friend and fellow Paramount director DeMille who handed Pal then completing another erstwhile DeMille could-have-been, When Worlds Collide the book's movie rights. Grouping Pal with DeMille, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and Spielberg doesn't happen often; nonetheless, the Wells estate was so satisfied with his treatment of The War of the Worlds that they offered him his choice of any other Wells property. Pal chose The Time Machine, which arrived the same year Hitchcock delivered Psycho. A timeline in which Hitchcock had, thanks to Wells, instead become Hollywood's first master of science fiction, thereby putting Cary Grant in the Tom Cruise role, bears thinking about.
Compared to the 1999 DVD edition, Paramount's "Special Collector's Edition" is superior in every way except the box art. The source print is flawless, definition and clarity are excellent, and that vivid Technicolor knocks our socks off. While this new transfer reveals the wires supporting the Martian attack force more than before, we're grateful that nobody "fixed" the film by CGIing them out of the picture. Along with the DD 1.0 monaural audio, a new and seriously good DD 2.0 surround track gives the audio enough dynamic range and soundspread gusto to take forty years off its age. The menu of extras kicks off with two enjoyable commentary tracks. The first features charming and loquacious Ann Robinson, with Gene Barry occasionally getting a word in edgewise, reminiscing about the production, Pal, their careers, and yesteryear Hollywood. The second commentary brings together three fan-pros we'd want joining us at a drinking spot Joe Dante (director, authoritative enthusiast), Bob Burns (genre film historian, collector of rare antiquities), and Bill Warren (author of Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties). Their lively commentary annotates every scene, pointing out filmcraft details, offering backgrounders on the cast and crew, and being infectiously fanboyish. Further production history with first-hand accounts comes in a new making-of featurette, "The Sky is Falling: The Making of War of the Worlds" (30 mins.), which includes Ray Harryhausen's portfolio footage of his own Martian octopoid emerging from its cylinder. Author-director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time), Forrest J. Ackerman, and others give Wells his due in "H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction" (10 mins.). Finally we get the original theatrical trailer and (a nice surprise) Orson Welles' famous Mercury Theatre radio adaptation, the hour-long broadcast that on Halloween 1938 gave a timorous America the freaking fantods. It's illustrated with studio stills, though while it plays we aren't allowed to fast-forward, chapter-skip, or rewind to favorite scenes. The War of the Worlds: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Four new titles arrived on screens over the weekend, but horror won Halloween Lions Gate's Saw II cut far ahead of the pack with a surprisingly strong $30.5 million opening. The win outdistanced Sony's The Legend of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, which garnered $16.5 to land in second place. Arriving in third was Universal's comedy Prime starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep, which took in $6.3 million. And taking a disappointing sixth place was Paramount's The Weather Man with Nicolas Cage, which brought in just $4.2 million. Critics were mixed on Weather Man and Prime, while Zorro and Saw earned mixed-to-negative notices.
In continuing release, DreamWorks' horse-tale Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story starring Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell hung in at fourth place in its second frame, adding $6.3 million to a $17.5 million total, while the studio's Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit closed out a strong month of October with nearly $50 million in receipts. Taking a tumble was Sony's Doom starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, which dropped all the way from first to seventh place, earning a dismal $4 million over its second weekend. Also doing small numbers is Warner's North Country starring Charlize Theron, which has $12.1 million after two sessions. Expect George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck to hang around for a while it's earned $7.2 million with less than 300 screens. Meanwhile, off to DVD prep is New Line's Domino starring Keira Knightly, which failed to reach $10 million before losing its footing.
New films in theaters this Friday include Jarhead starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, as well as Disney's animated Chicken Little. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Making her final appearance anywhere, including on these pages, is the illustrious Alexandra DuPont, who has posted a sneak-preview of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Meanwhile, new spins this week from the rest of the team include Office Space: Special Edition, Millions, The Wages of Fear: The Criterion Collection, Batman & Robin: Special Edition, Hammett, Kill!: The Criterion Collection, Samurai Rebellion: The Criterion Collection, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The War of the Worlds: Special Edition (1953), and Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye. 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, 25 Oct. 2005
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements, courtesy of Amazon.com and additional staff reports:
On the Street: We're looking at one of the longest street-lists of the year this morning and probably the heaviest, if anybody could manage to weigh it. With all of Criterion's October releases postponed until today, collectors not only have Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï to pick up, but also a re-issue of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear and a four-disc "Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics" set with Kill!, Samurai Rebellion, Samurai Spy, and Sword of the Beast. Also coming out of the catalog are two MGM re-issues, Battle of Britain and A Bridge Too Far, while Warner has a three-disc Wizard of Oz: Collector's Edition and the third volume of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection on the shelves. But wait there's more! Up from Disney are double-wide reissues of The Emperor's New Groove and Tarzan. Paramount goes triple-wide with James Cameron's 1997 Titanic. And fresh from theatrical runs are such titles as Bewitched, House of Wax, and Herbie: Fully Loaded. Draw up a shopping list and demand your weight in DVDs this Christmas here's this morning's notable street discs:
Monday, 24 Oct. 2005
Disc of the Week: French director Jean-Pierre Melville knew what he liked and what he didn't. Once, he famously compiled a list the best directors of the pre-WWII era, ending up with sixty-three names. Raoul Walsh was omitted because Melville never liked him. Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, didn't make the list because "Chaplin is a God." Great art doesn't happen in isolation, a fact borne out by the French New Wave filmmakers, many of whom began their careers as critics. For them, Melville was a hero, the sort of director who was deeply in love with the big screen, free to pick and choose his influences and reshape them into something altogether new. Melville spent his youth watching five movies a day or feeling bad if he couldn't get to and his life-long love affair with cinema eventually led to a career behind the camera. After the Second World War, he put together what little money he had to make his first feature, 1947's Le Silence de la Mer, which was based on a book that he didn't even have the rights to. As a maverick, he remained outside the system, craving autonomy so badly that he formed his own studio. It was there that he shot his most accessible film, 1967's Le Samouraï. It was also during that shoot that the studio was destroyed by fire. Thankfully, the picture remains, as intact as it was on its premiere night.
Le Samouraï opens with a quote (made up by the director) from the Book of Bushido, and a "trombone shot" (when the camera dollies out as the camera zooms in, used most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo and Steven Spielberg in Jaws). Within this evolving space we meet contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) sitting on his bed, smoking, creating movement in stillness a perfect metaphor for what's to come. He's been assigned to take out a club owner, and he concocts the perfect alibi: His girlfriend (Nathalie Delon) will say he was at her place. And because she's a kept woman, he will make sure the other man sees him leave. The hit goes down according to his plan, after which Jef is picked up by the police but his airtight alibi (provided by both his girlfriend and the cuckolded man) provokes entirely new suspicions. The people who hired Jef did not expect him to be picked up, causing them to renege on their payment and try to take him out unsuccessfully. On the run like a wounded animal, Jef then tries to put together the pieces of what went wrong. He's most curious about the pianist (Cathy Rosier) who saw him leave the club after the hit but didn't turn him in to the police he figures she must know the men who set him up. But after proving his sure and steady hand, he's contracted again for another job, even though an entire police department is following his every move.
Jean-Pierre Melville was always attracted to film noir after his success with Le Doulos (1962) he made a string of crime thrillers that led to the creative zenith of Le Samouraï. The film, which blends American noir, police procedurals, Japanese minimalism, and French romantic fatalism, is all about small gestures and looks. Delon said he was attracted to the role because as he read the script it became apparent that he was the leading character, even though he barely talked (like his director, Delon was attracted to samurai sensibilities). Few actors are so fascinating to watch sans dialogue, and he and Melville make the minutiae count. One of the most striking images of the film features Jef hiding in the bathroom, washing his hands, only to reveal as he wipes his hands with a towel that he's already wearing his killer's gloves (the gloves are the same type editors wear when cutting film). Thanks to the script's procedural framework, viewer are asked pay close attention, which Melville uses to his advantage. Having spent his life studying movies, he's a master at manipulation, creating tension with the simplest of inter-cutting. Filmmakers thrive on their influences, but Melville transformed his passions into something unique. Le Samouraï which doesn't quite hide its forbears it still very much its own thing, in addition to being a film that has influenced later generations of cineastes most notably Walter Hill, who reworked Le Samouraï into 1978's The Driver, and John Woo, who also took much from this film for 1989's The Killer.
The Criterion Collection presents Le Samouraï in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original French monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track with optional English subtitles. Extras include an interview with Melville on Melville author Rui Nogueira (13 min.), in French with optional English subtitles, which covers the body of Melville's career but, more importantly, Melville's state of mind when making this picture. Nogueira describes the film as being "almost unbearably perfect." There's also a second interview with Ginette Vincendeau (19 min.), who's written extensively on Melville. "The Line Up" (24 min.) includes vintage interviews with Melville, Alain and Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, and François Perier. Also on board is the film's theatrical trailer, and (as with all Criterion releases) an insight-packed booklet, here featuring essays by David Thomson, John Woo, and excerpts from Nogueira's Melville on Melville. Le Samouraï: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Halloween is just around the corner, but action returned to the top of the box-office over the weekend Sony/Universal's Doom starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson launched to the top of the chart with a $15.3 million break, easily beating all other new arrivals. Landing in second place was DreamWorks' Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story with Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell, which took in $9.3 million, while struggling to reach the top five was Warner's North Country starring Charlize Theron, taking in $6.4 million. Grabbing just $2.2 million, Fox's thriller Stay with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts failed to chart, beaten into the 12th spot by George Clooney's Oscar-contender Good Night, and Good Luck, which generated $2.3 million on just 225 screens. Dreamer and Country earned mixed-to-positive notices, while critics largely dismissed Doom and Stay. And it seems reviewers can't praise Luck nearly enough.
In continuing release, DreamWorks' animated Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit continues to draw in fans, holding down third place after three weeks with $44 million overall. Slipping from its first-place debut, Sony's The Fog tumbled to fourth in its second frame, now holding down $21.5 million. And Paramount's Elizabethtown starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst is struggling to find its audience, taking in just $5.7 million over its second weekend. Buena Vista's Flightplan with Jodie Foster is a bona fide hit thanks to a $77 million gross after five frames. And Fox's In Her Shoes from director Curtis Hanson may be an Oscar dark-horse this year, now with $26.1 million and strong notices. However, taking the worst hit is New Line's reviled Domino starring Keira Knightly and directed by Tony Scott, which fell out of the top ten in a hurry. And off to DVD prep is Universal's Serenity, which doubtless will connect with its fan-base after a $22 million theatrical run.
Four new titles seek box-office glory this Friday The Weather Man starring Nicolas Cage, The Legend of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Prime with Uma Thurman, and the slasher Saw II. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Dawn Taylor has posted a look at Universal/Focus Features' new The Big Lebowski: Collector's Edition, while fresh spins this week from the rest of the team include Bewitched , House of Wax , Melinda and Melinda, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Batman Forever: Special Edition, Sword of the Beast: The Criterion Collection, Samurai Spy: The Criterion Collection, Battle of Britain: Collector's Edition, A Bridge Too Far: Special Edition, Le Samouraï: The Criterion Collection, and The Wizard of Oz: Collector's Edition. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page you can find even more DVD reviews with our handy search engine right above it.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 18 Oct. 2005
On the Street: There's little doubt what this week's all about The Bat-Man, who gets reimagined in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, arriving from Warner in a deluxe two-disc set. Also new from Warner is an eight-disc "Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology," which delivers new double-disc sets of Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Begins, and Batman & Robin. New from Universal is George Romero's Land of the Dead in unrated and R-rated packages, as well as a re-issue of the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. Finally out from Fox is the last MIA Hitchcock film, 1944's Lifeboat, while double-dips of Elektra and The Mark of Zorro are on the board as well. Sony triple-dips The Mask of Zorro in anticipation of the sequel The Legend of Zorro, Lions Gate has a two-disc Saw on the board, and one of this year's better documentaries is out from Paramount, Mad Hot Ballroom. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 17 Oct. 2005
Disc of the Week: Alfred Hitchcock may be remembered forever as "The Master of Suspense," etched into cinema history by several masterpieces and some shrewd self-promotion, but few will remember the legendary auteur's second career: journeyman director. Hitchcock got his start in the film industry as a graphic artist, creating title-cards for London's Famous Players-Lasky studio, which quickly led to directing jobs in the mad dash of silent-era productions. Nearly a third of Hitchcock's filmography preceded his first breakout hit, 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, and while he later became synonymous with sophisticated thrillers, from time to time he also took on the sort of material that marked his younger days as a director-for-hire. Lesser entries, such as Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Paradine Case (1947) tend to attract completists, while Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is a competent screwball comedy and Dial 'M' for Murder (1954) is a superior stage-play adaptation. Hitchcock first came to America as a journeyman, undertaking producer David O. Selznick's Rebecca (1940) Selznick got an Oscar, Hitchcock didn't. And when Selznick loaned out Hitch to Daryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, the director asked John Steinbeck to write a story for him. But not about murders, or microfilm, or innocent men accused of crimes they didn't commit he simply wanted to make a movie entirely in a lifeboat.
Lifeboat (1944) begins with two startling images: A smokestack on a large transatlantic steamer bellows coal-black soot, only to tip over sideways and fall into the sea; amid the floating debris-field, a lifeboat contains a glamorous woman, smoking a cigarette with luggage at her side, perturbed that she has a run in her stocking. She is Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), an international reporter who as with everyone else on the Merchant Marine vessel finds her New York-to-London voyage disrupted by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Soon, others find the lifeboat and climb aboard, including seamen John Kovac (John Hodiak), Gus Smith (William Bendix), and Sparks Garrett (Hume Cronyn); galley mate George Spencer (Canada Lee); industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); and nurse Alice McKenzie (Mary Anderson). Some survivors confirm that the steamer was able to torpedo the U-boat before she went down, destroying both vessels a fact made plain when the American survivors pluck German sailor Willy (Walter Slezak) from the chilly Atlantic. Debate over how to handle the German prisoner reveals early discord among the Americans, whose temperaments range from communist to isolationist to fascist. The situation is made even more dire when they realize they'll have to sail for the nearest land, and Willy is the only one among them who can navigate by currents and stars.
Lacking the suspense, plotting, and dark humor that marks Alfred Hitchcock's masterworks, Lifeboat is the director's most notable break with the thriller genre. And for it, critical reception has been mixed in some quarters. New York Tribune critic Dorothy Thomson famously gave it "ten days to get out of town," while Hitchcock authority Donald Spoto has described it as his least-favorite Hitchcock film. To be certain, Lifeboat is grim the characters' predicament is underscored by a constant sense of loss and wearing away, as one by one things are sent overboard: a camera, a typewriter, food and water, an amputated leg, and eventually people. But the picture overcomes its own bleakness thanks to Hitchcock's masterful handling. Lifeboat marked Hitch's first foray into one of his favorite cinematic experiments, the single-set film. Dial 'M' for Murder, Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954) would follow, but rarely would the director undertake a project quite this ambitious again. With most of the principal photography to take place on actual water, a massive tank with rear-projection served as the primary locale, which brought about sea-sickness among the cast, a case of pneumonia for Tallulah Bankhead, and a near-drowning for Hume Cronyn. Nonetheless, the confined space forced Hitchcock to create a variety of compositions with nothing more than his cast and the pitching sea, and virtually every shot is a small study in Academy-ratio framing. As always, Hitch demanded a solid script, and while John Steinbeck earned prominent credit, Hitchcock and scenarist Jo Swerling compiled the final dialogue, which is sharp enough to work as a straightforward radio play. Bankhead's A-list work is supported by a well-rounded cast, in particular John Hodiak, the Steinbeck-esque left-wing machinist, and Walter Slezak, who toys with the audience's sympathies as the German captive. Lifeboat may never garner the enduring popularity of such Hitchcockian treats as North By Northwest and Psycho. But it deserves its reputation as one of his great minor masterworks, earning new admirers every year thanks to the name above the title.
Fox's DVD release of Lifeboat features a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that looks excellent overall. There are moments in the film when the transfer appears to display artifacts, but in fact this most likely is a result of the oil-and-water mist Hitchcock directed at his stars with giant fans (and they say he didn't like actors). Audio is crisp clear in both the original mono and a new Dolby 2.0 stereo track. Supplements include an informative commentary from USC film professor Drew Casper, as well as the featurette "Lifeboat: The Theater of War" (20 min.) and five stills galleries. Lifeboat: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Sony's low-budget remake of John Carpenter's The Fog bested the competition to grab the top spot on the box-office chart but while the run up to Halloween may have helped, the tally was a modest $12.2 million. Debuting in third place was Paramount's romantic comedy Elizabethtown starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, and directed by Cameron Crowe, which earned $11 million. And arriving in a disappointing sixth was New Line's Domino from director Tony Scott, starring Keira Knightley, which took in just $4.6 million. Critics were mixed-to-negative on Elizabethtown, while Fog and Domino earned overwhelmingly poor notices.
In continuing release, DreamWorks' animated Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit stepped down to second place, adding $11.7 million to a $33.2 million total, while Buena Vista's Flightplan isn't out of fuel yet, in fourth place after one month and $70 million. Fox's well-received In Her Shoes from director Curtis Hanson dropped to fifth place in its second session, crossing $20 million. But Universal's Two for the Money starring Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey is down to seventh with $16.5 million. Look for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride to clear $50 million before it exits. And on the way to DVD prep is Sony's Into the Blue with Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, which earned a dismal $14 million before dropping off the chart.
New in theaters this Friday are Doom starring The Rock, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story with Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell, North Country starring Charlize Theron, and Stay with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the team include Batman Begins: Deluxe Edition, Kicking & Screaming, Land of the Dead, Unleashed, Mad Hot Ballroom, Batman: Special Edition, Batman Returns: Special Edition, McLintock!, The Mark of Zorro: Special Edition, The Mask of Zorro: Deluxe Edition, Lifeboat: Special Edition, and Elektra: Unrated Director's Cut. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, while our DVD reviews database features more than 3,200 additional write-ups.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 11 Oct. 2005
On the Street: Fresh from Fox this week is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven starring Orlando Bloom, which arrives in a packed two-disc special edition. Universal also is on the board with Kicking & Screaming starring Will Ferrell and Unleashed with Jet Li. Up from Paramount are a pair of John Wayne catalog classics, Hondo and McLintock!, as well as the sixth season of South Park, while Lions Gate has the French thriller High Tension under wraps. Also watch for Warner's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Sony/MGM's Me and You and Everyone We Know. And small-screen spins this time around include Arrested Development: Season Two and Veronica Mars: Season One. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 10 Oct. 2005
Disc of the Week: Given that much of today's children's literature or "Young Adult" fiction is better than mainstream fiction, it seems appropriate that one of the best shows on TV at the moment is a kid's program disguised as a prime-time mystery series called Veronica Mars. For those who haven't been paying attention, Young Adult fiction has grown surprisingly mature over the years. Writers such as Louis Sachar, Philip Pullman, Lois Duncan, S. E. Hinton, Lois Lowry, and Rob Thomas, among many others, write books that deal frankly with sex, violence, drugs, and social conflict. And it's all happening in an era when most "kid-oriented" movies, such as animated features, are often wittier and better paced than adult fare livelier, with more engaging characters and imaginative plots.
YA novelist Rob Thomas (Slave Day, Rats Saw God) is the creative spirit behind Veronica Mars, which is produced by Scott Rudin (because, it seems, no big-name movie producer today is worth his salt without a hit show on prime time). An unofficial updating of the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books with keggers, premarital sex, and roofies, Veronica Mars takes place in the fictional town of Neptune, in the fictional seaside county of Balboa, lodged somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. Neptune also lies to the west of seemingly placid Wisteria Lane and just south of the O.C. it's got the amused narration and serious murder plots of one popular show and the beautiful, rich, sun-dazed teens of another. By day, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) goes to Neptune High, where the class divisions are out of Dickens, and where she is the most unpopular girl due to the actions of her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) during a murder case a year earlier when he was sheriff. By night, she works for her dad, who opened the Keith Mars Detective Agency after his wife Lianne (Corinne Bohrer) abandoned them in the wake of the scandal. From week to week, Veronica takes on one minor mystery after another (Who kidnapped a rap producer's daughter? Who is manufacturing fake i.d.s at the school? Did the Neptune High's history teacher really sleep with a student? Who kidnapped the school's mascot parrot?). Meanwhile, her overriding mission is to solve the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a software millionaire (Kyle Secor), and whose brother (Teddy Dunn) Veronica once dated. The fact that, by the last episode of Season One, Veronica does solve this mystery, in a fully gratifying and tear-inducing climax, is a credit to the show's creators, who pack more plot, character, and incident in a typical hour of Veronica Mars than there is in a whole season of "Lost."
From its hallucinogenic theme song by the Dandy Warhols to its sometimes garish color schemes (director of photography Victor Hammer uses a lot of orange and red gels for his Super 16 images), Veronica Mars may come across at first like one of those old USA Network sexy crime shows. In reality, it's arguably the best kid's program on the air. One of its conceits is that Veronica used to be one of the cool kids, but since the scandal she can view those rich, selfish layabouts with a mix of outsider and insider perspectives. The success of the series is due to the petite Bell, as well as the show's quotably clever dialogue and intricately designed plots. Veronica's quick wit gives her a pleasingly mature relationship with her dad, where both the banter and the sincerity are probably the envy of struggling single fathers everywhere. The pilot offers a good example of how thoroughly satisfying the Mars narratives can be, and the episode "Ruskie Business" illustrates the writers' attention to detail, from the episode titles on down, with its intricate blend of Russian mail-order brides, Tom Cruise, and '80s nostalgia. Veronica Mars made its debut on the Paramount-owned UPN network on September 22, 2004, and it came perilously close to cancellation. But fan-marshaled protests were enough for UPN to approve a second season (in which the main story arc concerns a school bus tragedy that may be no accident).
Despite the fact that UPN is a Paramount-Viacom company, Veronica Mars is produced by Warner Television, and Warner Home Video releases Veronica Mars: The Complete First Season in a six-disc set. Each disc contains at least four of the first season's 22 episodes with anamorphic transfers (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital audio, as well as captions in English, French, and Spanish. (Each disc also has a "play all" option.) Given the rabid fan-base for the show, it's disappointing that the extras are little more than an extended version of the pilot, a collection of deleted or extended scenes (22 min.) 28 of them from 14 episodes and a brief promo for Season Two. For the most part, the deleted scenes add little to our understanding of the episodes, except for clarifying parts of "Hot Dogs" and "Ruskie Business." Each disc has a special features screen, which summarily explains that the supplements are on Disc Six. Also included is a 16-page booklet with stills, credits, episode summaries, and chapter titles. Veronica Mars: The Complete First Season is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: A rush of new films dominated the weekend box-office, with one cheese-eating Brit and his dog taking the top spot DreamWorks' Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit from Aardman Animations took in $16.1 million, further establishing the franchise on American shores. Arriving in third place with $10 million was Fox's In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette and directed by Curtis Hanson, while Universal's Two for the Money starring Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey arrived in the fourth spot with $8.3 million. Also charting were Sony's The Gospel in fifth with $8 million and Artisan/Lions Gate's Waiting in seventh with $5.7 million. Critics praised Were-Rabbit and Shoes, while the remaining films earned mixed-to-negative notices. In limited release, George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck also earned raves.
In continuing release, Sony's Flightplan starring Jodie Foster held strong in second place after two weeks at the top, adding $10.7 million to a $60.9 million gross. Warner's Tim Burton's Corpse Bride also has found a following, taking in $42.1 million after one month. Expect New Line's A History of Violence with Viggo Mortensen to be a slow burn, holding $16.6 million after three sessions. Meanwhile, Universal's Serenity is fading in ninth place with $17.5 million, while Sony/MGM's Into the Blue is bound for the cheap screens with just $13.8 million. And off to DVD prep is Universal's The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, which cleared $100 million.
New films in the 'plexes this Friday include Tony Scott's Domino starring Keira Knightley and Mickey Rourke, Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown with Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, and the spooktacular The Fog. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Kingdom of Heaven, Battlestar Galactica: Season One, The Fly II: Special Edition, South Park: Season Six, Demon Seed, Dracula A.D. 1972, Veronica Mars: Season One, and Night of the Lepus. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 4 Oct. 2005
On the Street: Making its DVD debut this week is Walt Disney's Cinderella in a two-disc "Platinum Edition," which kicks off the pre-holiday shopping season and is certain to be one of the top sellers of the year. Also new this week is Fox's splendid two-disc set of David Cronenberg's 1986 The Fly in a definitive edition. Warner's got catalog treats with The Val Lewton Collection, a five-disc set that features the 1942 classic Cat People. Up from Universal is this year's thriller The Interpreter starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, while Paramount's The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut is sure to satisfy late-night cable fans. Under the radar from Lions Gate is David Duchovny's House of D. And if it looks like Universal's trying to wreck our credit ratings with both the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a 15-disc Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, Paramount's weighs in a pound or two heavier with Star Trek: Nemesis: Special Edition and a 20-disc Star Trek: The Motion Pictures Collections. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 3 Oct. 2005
Disc of the Week: The most paralyzing horror story to come out of the movie industry in the last few decades might be Hollywood's fear of new ideas. With multiplexes already sagging from sequelibrium, recent years have seen a non-stop influx of TV spinoffs and movie remakes angling for the jaded moviegoing dollar, usually offering little more than name-recognition doused in the damp humor of smug pop-culture deconstruction. One of the least ambitious strains of this recent remakery has been the recycling of classic horror movies, duly stripped and sterilized of genuine thrills and atmosphere, and fed into the meatyocrity grinder. In this current atmosphere of prefab gore it's easy to forget, then, just how good an uncynical horror remake can be. While the 1980s horror genre was overrun with franchises built around unstoppable killers Jason and Freddy, two of the movies of the decade were dynamic remakes of talky 1950s sci-fi and horror classics: John Carpenter's 1982 chilling monster yarn The Thing and David Cronenberg's astounding 1986 updating of the 1958 Vincent Price creature feature The Fly. Where Kurt Neumann's 1958 version of George Langelaan's short story "The Fly" featured a few memorable scenes and lines, its drive-in, B-movie aspirations translated into a triumph of camp over creeps, and its titular fly-headed ghoul (and the corresponding human-headed fly) is more likely to elicit titters than shivers. Director Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue, however, instead of simply regurgitating the same content into a slicker but soulless package, dig deep into the source material to mine an emotionally powerful story that, appropriately, melds contemporary special effects with profoundly disturbing psychological human drama and technological terror.
Jeff Goldblum gives the performance of his career as brilliant but socially awkward and isolated physicist Seth Brundle, who can't help but reveal to a pretty science journalist (Geena Davis) that he's close to completing a project that will revolutionize life as we know it: a teleportation pod that can deconstruct an object down to its molecular level and reassemble it in another pod. When Veronica threatens to turn his flaccid attempt at seduction into a career-making scoop, he persuades her to wait until he has perfected the pioneering process, after which he promises her exclusive book rights to his discovery. While the teleportation system works well with inanimate objects, it doesn't do so well with living creatures (as evidenced by a baboon that comes out of the destination pod turned gooily inside out). It takes Seth and Veronica's burgeoning love affair to inspire the epiphanous breakthrough, but when Veronica opts to visit an ex-boyfriend (Jon Getz) rather than celebrate a successful baboon teleportation, Seth decides in a drunken fit of jealousy to teleport himself before further testing, and neglects to notice when a common housefly enters the teleportation chamber with him. Not programmed to handle the teleportation of two separate subjects, the computer combines in-transit Seth's and the fly's DNA structures into one hybrid organism. Initially visibly unaltered, Seth feels revitalized by the process, stronger and more agile, energetic and powerful. But his physical appearance begins to deteriorate as he begins to shed his human features and the insect within him takes control.
The Fly's most remarkable qualities are inextricably tied to its three key players David Cronenberg, Jeff Goldblum, and makeup effects master Chris Walas. Since his crude-but-effective 1975 low-budget feature Shivers, Cronenberg has been the undisputed master of biological sci-fi horror, racking up a series of fascinating, unsettling, and thoroughly original explorations of humans consumed by science, technology, and machinery (best amongst them 1976's gritty Rabid and 1979's unforgettably eerie The Brood). In many ways, The Fly is the perfect culmination of Cronenberg's key obsessions, as Brundle's conflicting human needs and emotions corrupt his hunger for discovery, and the final, unforgettably heartbreaking scene is Cronenberg at his purest, mixing horrific content with a deep sense of empathy. As always, Cronenberg's approach is patient, never in a rush to deliver cheap shocks, but letting them evolve naturally from his keenly designed character's obsession. Goldblum has always been the best in his class at delivering quirky pseudo-scientific chatter as if he were accessing organic thoughts, and the first half of The Fly plays to his most obvious strengths. But it is during the second half of the film as he slowly transforms from a monstrously paranoid and self-obsessed man-fly into monstrous fly-like creature bitterly aching to reclaim his humanity that he delivers one of the all-time great film performances, effortlessly exuding empathy, pathos, self-loathing, and fascinated anguish from underneath several pounds of decaying latex goo. Goldblum is so powerful as "Brundlefly" that he disarms resistance to what was a dramatic step-up in the level of gore considered stomachable in most big Hollywood pictures. And what exquisite (but never gratuitous) gore it is, with Walas creating a disturbingly authentic transformation that even in its most extreme moments never loses the echoes of humanity that make the movie so effectively potent and unprecedentedly poignant. Walas won an Oscar for Best Makeup Effects (and went on to direct a 1989 sequel, The Fly II), but neither Goldblum or Cronenberg were nominated.
Fox's two-disc Collector's Edition of The Fly is an excellent tribute to an underrated movie, presenting the feature in a great anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options, as well as an interesting commentary by Cronenberg. Disc Two features a wealth of extras, including the three-part documentary "Fear of the Flesh," which covers the film more extensively than one would reasonably expect (running 2 hrs. 30 min.) and features an enhanced branching option for even more depth of coverage on selected subjects. Also included are a few deleted and extended scenes, including a shocking (and sometimes silly) sequence, understandably cut following a test screening, during which a deteriorating Brundle creates and then kills a deformed baboon-cat hybrid creature before chewing off a newly grown insect appendage. (Ick.) A thankfully unused alternate ending is also included. In the "The Brundle Museum of Natural History," Walas looks at the a collection of concepts, models, and artifacts from the movie (12 min.). Film tests show evolving ideas for the title sequence and some special effects, including "Cronenfly" (8 min.) Textual supplements include Langelaan's original short story, Pogue's original screenplay, Cronenberg's screenplay rewrite, and articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer magazines. Also on board are promotional featurettes, still galleries, original teasers, trailers, and TV spots. The Fly: Collector's Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Despite several new releases over the weekend, Jodie Foster held altitude on the box-office chart Sony's thriller Flightplan took first place for the second weekend in a row, adding $15 million to a $46.1 million gross. Debuting in second place was Universal's sci-fi saga Serenity from Josh Whedon, which took in $10.1 million from "Firefly" fans. In semi-limited release, New Line's A History of Violence from director David Cronenberg landed in fourth place with an $8.2 million break. MGM's Into the Blue starring Jessica Alba and Paul Walker barely reached the top five with $7 million. And Disney's The Greatest Game Ever Played, also in semi-limited release, earned $3.7 million for ninth place. Critics gushed over Violence and Serenity, were mixed-to-positive with Game, and largely dismissed Blue. With $875,000 on less than 800 screens, Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist did not chart, earning mixed notices.
In continuing release, Warner's Tim Burton's Corpse Bride held strongly in third place, adding $9.7 million to a $32.9 million tally. DreamWorks' rom-com Just Like Heaven also has done well with early-fall audiences, taking in $38.3 million after three sessions. And Sony's The Exorcism of Emily Rose has garnered $68.5 million after one month. Falling despite some generous reviews is the '70s roller-skating drama Roll Bounce, now with $12.6 million. Also struggling is Lions Gate's Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage, which has generated $21.6 million so far. And off to DVD prep is Fox's The Transporter 2 after stashing $40 million in the trunk.
Plenty more new titles are in cineplexes this Friday, including Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, Two For the Money with Matthew McConaughey and Al Pacino, the musical drama The Gospel, and the restaurant-based Waiting with Ryan Reynolds. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the team include Cinderella: Platinum Edition, The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut, Inside Deep Throat, The Fly: Special Edition, and Gilmore Girls: Season Four. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, while our DVD reviews database features more than 3,200 additional write-ups.
We'll be back tomorrow with this week's street discs.