Every week I will bring you reviews of my home video picks of the week, as well as a round-up of pretty much everything else that is released at the same time. Dont be shy if you are from the U.S. as the column is still interesting for you as a quick snippets of what I think of these movies and hopefully they will help you decide whether to Netflix, or make a purchase on a movie you might have missed in the cinemas.
This week, I have been mostly watching Disney return to what they know best with The Princess and The Frog, along with The Last Station, Extraordinary Measures, Micmacs and Blessed. In addition, this week sees a veritable feast of B-Movie style horrors including Two Thirteen, Somebody Help Me and the excellently name Zombie Women of Satan. The things I do for OWF! Needless to say, not every one made the cut... Elsewhere, the excellent Boogie Nights gets the Blu-Ray treatment, as well as the beautiful sprawling war epic Mulan.
Follow me over the jump for more...The Princess and The Frog available on DVD, Double Play & Triple Play
Extraordinary Measures new on DVD and Blu-Ray
Long before the Pixar revolution, and even before Disney changed their strategy to include terrible straight to DVD sequels, the famous mouse house was the best at making feature-length cartoons. Sumptuous animated films like Sleeping Beauty didnt scrimp on the effects, the script or the music, and every penny spent was obvious in the outcome: hence the earlier films (before the almighty dollar emancipated the studios more money-lusty side and suspended their artesan morality) are the ones that have lasting appeal- the longevity of projects like The Sword in the Stone and Snow White will never be matched by Brother Bear because they simply do not exist on the same artistic level.
Thankfully, Disney appear to be getting their act together for their cartoon house- The Princess & The Frog is a return to the immediate classic status that usually accompanied a Disney release, with complex, likeable characters, a charismatic, and often genuinely scary villain, an intriguing narrative and highly emotional sequences. This is exactly why people shell out their hard-earned whenever there's a Disney release, because this is what the studio do best.
The Last Station
Extraordinary Measures is one of those curious productions that would surely have been no more than a made-for-TV afternoon weep-fest were it not for the acting talent attached to it. And make no mistake, the only things Hollywood about it are the top-billed names: Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser must surely have been tempted by the prospect of working on an important topical subject, because there is no way the script pulled them in. In every other aspect, this is Real Movies Network fare at very best, with so much sugar poured on the subject matter, and so very little conviction in the acting thatwhat could have been a timely and important message ends up drowned in sentimentality and banality. Having wondered which way Ford would go when he reached the age where certain actors seem to hold onto one characteristic more than any other throughout their roles- Pacino shouts, De Niro wants to be funny, Nicholson goes for anti-hero charm and Murray likes hip edginess- it seem the answer is that he has chosen grumpiness, just like Sean Connery.
Boogie Nights new on Blu-Ray
Fine central performances from a strong cast- particularly from Helen Mirren who visibly bubbles and bristles with passion throughout- help this adaptation of Jay Parini's biography of the last years of Leo Tolstoy shine brighter than the initial prospect might make it sound. It's shot beautifully as well, giving the intensely portrayed relationships an appropriate, and crucially a historically faithful canvas to play out on.
Micmacs new on DVD and Blu-Ray
Being far and away Mark Wahlberg's best performance is perhaps not the greatest accolade ever granted by a critic- though to be fair to the former rapper he has produced in The Departed and The Lovely Bones two further stand-out performances in a career sadly blighted by too many bad one choices. The real fact is that Boogie Nights deserves to be considered the best film of the other chief characters- certainly John C Reilly and Heather Graham, while it also has to rank high on the rap-sheets of fellow actors William H Macy, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore, and that is no mean feat. The script is perfection, from hilariously tongue-in-cheek in-film porno dialogue to the more nuanced character portraits- especially the troubled, tragic cuckolded husband William H Macy brings to screen and the vapid, pathetic image magpie played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the character performances are excellent across the board- most notably Wahlberg, Moore and the peerless Burt Reynolds on career-high form. In short, Boogie Nights is as flash and as beautiful as Jackie Brown, but it never has to resort to being over-stylised, which even Tarantino's best does at times.
The Blu-Ray release (and DVD rerelease that goes hand-in-hand) addresses the painfully inept handling that the original DVD transfer was given back in 1997, which was odd considering director Paul Thomas Anderson's usually exacting specifications. The blu-ray is one exceptionally sexy 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer. If you've seen the film before, you'll know that it's soaked with SoCal sunshine and bold 1970s colors, and when compared to the film's DVD release, everything here looks deeper, tighter, and more vivid. Special Features wise, youre looking at two commentaries: the first from director Paul Thomas Anderson and the second features the auteur alongside stars Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Heather Graham. As well as the commentaries there are a number of other features- basically the usual suspects- including a 15 minute John C. Reilly Files which has the actor improvising, 30 minutes of deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Anderson, the 3 minute Try music video by Michael Penn (with optional commentary by Anderson as well), and the 2 minute theatrical trailer.Good work all round, and a definite must-have for every Blu-Ray collection.
Mulan new on Blu-Ray
Somewhat typically of the director of Amelie, one word keeps popping up in reviews of Micmacs: "whimsy". It is a particular personal annoyance as well, because it is one of those dismissive words that doesnt really mean anything when it boils down to it- it's sort of a replacement for a stylistic term that takes in magic-realist imagination, light-heartedness and even tweeness (though not strictly in a derogative way). Even further annoyingly, I found myself thinking that Micmacs is the epitome of the whimsical film- like the word itself the film defies easy definition, but there are certainly elements of that ethereal playfulness that isnt almost like a dialled down, far less dark Gilliam derivative.
After a little while though, I was less enamoured with the style. Micmacs is the filmic equivalent of eating candyfloss- it's entirely different to everything else on offer, it's sweet and magical and it channels the inner childish spirit that just wants to play. Sadly, it's also way too sickly to eat for a sustained amount of time, and it doesnt offer anything substantial enough to really fill a hole. So it is with Micmacs; after a while the silliness and the magic begins to get a little too sickly, and you begin to wonder whether there might be some substance under the preoccupation with the surface. The tragedy is that ultimately there isnt, and the film ultimately suffers for it, despite good performances and a mostly stunning visual set-up.
Zombie Women of Satan new to DVD
Otherwise known as Jingle Ma'sHua Mulan, this is definitely not the Disney, Eddie-Murphy-as-a-sassy-dragon retelling of the legend, though in terms of artistic scope the film certainly comes close to some of the grander Disney productions. The aesthetic created by the film's limited pallet, which gives everything an ethereal hew (predominantly blue), also gives the impression that the director and cinematographer have somehow conspired to paint their own landscapes to suit the film. Aside from this aesthetic, the film-makers get little right, rather unfortunately: ignoring the infinite potential offered by the underlying story's framework, the director chooses to essentially present a protacted montage of snippets from Mulan's time at war. This approach sacrifices substance and character development to an insanely fatal degree, and you come away feeling robbed despite some serious promise. I was expecting an epic, with war scenes comparable to the excellent Red Cliff but also with a strong female identity at its heart- what I got was a broken narrative full of ideas of events without sufficient generation or development, which badly missed the epic status it so clearly craves.
Samson & Delilah new on DVD and Blu-Ray
Sometimes I watch a film and come out of it feeling like the film-makers have something profound to say, and have used their film as a vehicle for their voice. Other times I think I've just watched the ramblings of a mad man. Very, very occassionally, I worry for the soul of the film-maker. The time immediately following my viewing of Zombie Women of Satan was one such time. I am a self-confessed fan of the Zom-Sploitation film, but even I found it a little difficult to take the level of misogynism and insanity on show here.
The film's narrative centres on a circus-style stage show featuring compère Johnny Dee Hellfire (Seymour Leon Mace), Pervo the Clown (played by co-director and infamous male burlesque star Warren Speed), midget strongman (!!!) Zeus (Peter Bonner) and rocker Skye Brannigan (Victoria Hopkins) among others, who are invited to appear on a TV show for the web. So far, so odd. In a dark twist, presenter the TV show Tycho Zander (Christian Steel) and his family have an ominous secret involving cults of beautiful young women and experimentation with the undead. As you do. Somewhat unhelpfully for Skye, she discovers her sister is being held captive by the cult just as the cult drink the special stuff provided by Tycho and are transformed into the walking dead. The action involves the performers attempting to rescue the sister while attempting to avoid their own brains becoming snacks: basically it all descends into a clowns, midgets and singers vs cults and zombies battle-fest.
The long and short of it is that you need intelligence and wit to pull off this sort of film, and ZWOS has neither. There are no stylistic skills, no script to speak of, and the characters are all badly performed grotesques designed to try and get some sort of perverse rise out of the audience. Needless to say it fails on all accounts, and the lack of even the smallest hint of flair (even in the midst of a million bloody, jigglesome boobs) will ensure not even cult status attaches itself to this project.
Blessed new to DVD
One of the picks of last year's Un Certain Regard category at Cannes, Samson and Delilah is one of those under-marketed, profound gems that the success of world cinema within more traditional filmic circles depends upon. It is visually stunning, thanks to some truly astounding shots of Australia and director Warwick Thornton's obvious technical skills behind the camera, and the script, though rather sparse (one of the leads is mute) helps the film plod along nicely. That it is also deeply, unflinchingly bleak in places, to the point of being disturbing is incredibly impressive- the film's tonal range makes it extremely compelling, and for being able to carry the emotional heart of the plot, and be so utterly believable, lead actors (though they are more appropriately considered amateurs) Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson deserve the highest of plaudits. In two words: highly recommended.
She A Chinese
I always thought James Nesbitt's good work on projects like Bloody Sunday, Jekyll and the excellent Five Minutes of Heaven with a sustained career on the big screen that would see him in front of main-stream audiences on a regular basis. Aside from a few projects including an upcoming Ralph Fiennes-helmed take on Coriolanus, and an under-billing on the Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen project The Way, it seems Nesbitt will be stuck with being one of the staple figures of British television with upcoming mini-series The Deep currently in post-production. Also on the small screen is this surprising gem of a touching drama, which sees Nesbitt on particularly fine form as a bereaved man who gives up his life as a successful city trader to live on a remote island in his grief and begins to heal his emotional wounds thanks to a relationship with a young girl. It feels, in terms of plot, a little like Reign Over Me, and Nesbitt is clearly at home with the destructive, insular giref that he depicts here well, and which made him a stand-out performer in Five Minutes of Heaven. The only sticking point is that it feels very much like it has been made for TV, with the production gloss of a larger production a conspicuous absentee- all in all though, its easily worth a watch, if only for Nesbitt's performance.
An understandable festival favourite, She A Chinese is a low-key affair, adapted by London-based Chinese novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo from her own novel telling the story of a young girl who moves to London buoyed by the promise of a better life, only to find the grass isnt any greener on the Western side. The central role of Li Mei is played admirably by Lu Huang, and her personal tragedies are certainly more believable for the performance, but sadly the tone is just too detached and subdued.
The rest of the week's news would be choc-full of horrible, DVD bargain bin-bound releases like the afore-mentioned Somebody Help Me (an appallingly cliched teen slasher flick), 12 (a British fighting flick with as much class as the majority of Danny Dyer's back-catalogue) and the animation rip-off The Frog Princess were it not for my willingness to censor what goes into the column. Hopefully what we are left with isn't all bad...
As if tempting fate, the first two releases I came across (and will include as a barometer of the quality available this week outside of the big new releases) were Surviving Summer- an interracial teen romance film starring Hillary Duff that had me leaping for the Stop button after a paltry twenty minutes of painful sugary garbage. Not exactly cutting-edge, challenging cinema. Next off, a film billed as The Devil Wears Prada meets Weekend at Bernies, called Drop Dead Gorgeous in which a model dies on set, but is still incuded in the shoot rather than the organisers suffering financal setbacks and penalties. Whoever it was that coined that marketing-friendly, but entirlely spurious tagline is either a genius or the world's best con-man. So much for sorting the wheat from the chaff.
And finally for features comes Alan Rickman starrer Nobel Son, which eagle-eyed fans out there might remember was released first by the Daily Mail as a free give away with their Sunday paper. Ominous heraldry aside, Nobel Son is actually not as bad as its Straight To Newspaper Give-Away release may suggest, with Alan Rickman in particular on fine form (and Danny DeVito almost as good). It's just a shame that he film revels in being ridiculously obtuse and heavily over-plotted.
Not exactly a great week for releases.TV ReleasesLuther
Stephen Hawking's Universe new to DVD
Idris Elba has a remarkable burden to bear in the shape of the potential that was presumed of him in the wake of his career-making performance as Stringer Bell in the hyperbole-baiting The Wire: so far, the British actor with the surprisingly convincing American accent has done sweet FA of note since he hung up his pimp coat, trading on that potential with admirable mirth.
So, Luther should have been Elba's soaring sophomore effort. Sadly, it doesnt quite cut it. Aside from the Columbo-alike mechanism of revealing the killer at the start of each episode, there is little to tell it apart from the myriad haunted maverick cop shows that periodically pepper our TV screens. The problem is that Luther is not Stringer Bell, no matter how you paint him. He cannot compete in the coolness stakes, nor is he given the kind of generous scripts that made The Wire so compelling to watch- instead he is about as cliched a TV detective as they come: he wears the visible and mental scars of his job, having to contend with a familiar ghost in the shape of a man shot on the job. Elba does manfully well to make the character more interesting, and the performance is reasonably good, but he should stick to the other side of the Atlantic, where he will be given roles on the strength of the Bell-connection, which play up to his cool and which audiences will lap up hungrily.
The world's pre-eminent physicist explores the greatest mysteries and greatest wonders of the cosmos in a visually stunning work of epic vision. Definitive, provocative, surprising, and beautiful, this is a fascinating look at some of the key theories of the scientific world including black holes, anti-matter and the theory of relativity, which is surprisingly accessible for layman viewers. Despite his intellect, Hawkings has a way of relating some seriously complex ideas while making them easier to digest, but not compromising interest.
Elsewhere, the artist formerly known as Baldrick continues his one man quest to bring history to the masses with Tony Robinson's Crime and Punishment, new on DVD- definitely nowhere near the thrills and spills of Time Team, but still a reasonably interesting look into the past. Joining Robinson in recalling voices from the past, the A-Team gets an all-series rerelease, with pretty new covers and just a whiff of cynical in-line-with-the-cinematic-release about them. Likewise, though possibly not purposely linkes with the MacGruber cinema release, the master of paperclip machine guns MacGyver comes to DVD for the final time (barring rereleases) as his final, caper-filled series hits British shores on DVD. It's fun, and the cult appeal is pretty much off the charts, but there are some serious ageing issues, and the degree to which you have to leave your brain and all sense of conventional logic outside of the room is a bit too much of a stretch.
The rest of the TV market is dominated by later-season releases, which will no doubt find their own fans, but have limited attraction to the uninitiated: releases like Melrose Place and Dynasty, both into their fifth boxed volume so far and King of Queens and JAG which are into series 8. None really offer anything new, but then it is their familiarity that ensures fans return I guess.
Final word must go to The Raggy Dolls- The Complete Series One, a gem of a kids' TV show that I fondly remember watching while growing up. Sadly, it hasnt aged particularly well, but it's still a great trip down memory lane for those of us born in the 80s and still holds enough appeal to warrant introducing to new little viewers even twenty odd years after it first aired.