May 26 2009

DVDs for 5/26/09 – Sky Crawlers, Jack Bauer, Harlan Ellison and more

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The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature The Sky Crawlers (Sony) is a more somber and contemplative film than most people would expect from the director of the Ghost in the Shell films. His story of a perpetual war fought by corporate entities with private air forces of eternally young fighter pilots in an alternate reality Europe (adapted from a novel by Hiroshi Mori) is a work of stillness and quiet, a world where these orphaned kildren arrive on eerily deserted air force bases and live an abstract existence between missions. The mix of traditional cel animation (for the characters) and 3D CGI (for the planes and the backgrounds) gives it a surreal, hypnotic quality broken only by the dynamic scenes of battle, which Oshii shoots with a visual intensity that shatters the meditative peace of their existence below. It’s  an unusual animated feature and that’s part of what I like about this film and its sensibility, so different from American animated films. I have always appreciated Oshii’s talent for creating pensive animation and if you like this, you should seek out his Patlabor features, which paces the giant robot action with contemplative scenes of characters simply thinking or resting.

Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer has had some bad days but the twenty four hours of 24: Season 7 (Fox) may be his worst yet: He starts the morning investigate by a congressional committee for torture and ends up facing domestic terrorists while slowly dying from a biological attack. In between he helps the FBI, goes rogue with a Scooby Gang of former CTU agents (including Carlos Bernard as Tony Almeida and Mary Lynn Rajskub as fan favorite Chloe O’Brian) working outside the intelligence community, battles a truly audacious assault on the White House and takes on the show’s equivalent of Blackwater as it engages in domestic terrorism. It’s still full of the crazed twists, shady endgames and wild card intrigues while blithely making the case for torture as a legitimate intelligence tool (easily the show’s greatest fiction). But if can roll with all of that, it’s as good as the series has ever been. Jon Voight and Will Patton make fine guest villains, Cherry Jones plays the president this time around, Janeane Garofalo gets to play the impotent liberal voice decrying the trampling of American civil rights, and even the return of his daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) is mostly bearable. The strange history of the show skipping a season due to the writer’s strike is covered in the 15-minute featurette 24-7: The Untold Story, which chronicles the difficult development of the season’s storyline without once mentioning Sutherland’s run-in with the law (which might have ended the season even of the writer’s strike hadn’t).

“I sell my soul, but at the highest rates.” Harlan Ellison is not only one of the most prolific authors of our time and science fiction legend, he’s as entertaining, outspoken and ferocious a cultural critic as you’ll meet. Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (Docurama) profiles the author (and his notorious reputation) through interviews with friends (Robin Williams quizzes him on the most famous stories surrounding his reputation) and fellow writers (such as Neil Gaiman and Ron Moore, both of whom Ellison encouraged and championed) great archival interview footage of Ellison on talk shows in the seventies and eighties and excerpts of Ellison reading (or more accurately, performing) excerpts from his work. Now over 70 years old, he’s mellowed a little, but this long overdue appreciation still captures some of that angry young man in the angry old man.

Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. I write about M Butterfly for Parallax View. The other releases are Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Hugh Hudson’s Revolution: Director’s Cut and John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon.

More foreign releases worth checking  out: The 40-year career of French director Philippe Garrel has been largely unknown to American audiences until the stateside release of his 2005 feature Regular Lovers. Zeitgeist offers a double feature of earlier films in the two-disc set Philippe Garrel X 2. And Strand releases Claire Denis’ 1993 family drama Nenette + Boni.

On Blu-ray, Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection, featuring the first six Star Trek feature films, was actually released a couple of weeks ago but my copy arrived late. But it was worth the wait, and not just for the swashbuckling Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Along with all the supplements, old and new, on each film is a seventh disc with The Captain’s Summit, an unaccountably entertaining roundtable discussion with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and host/moderator Whoopi Goldberg swapping stories and sharing experiences with a laugh.

For the rest of the highlights (including a new edition of the Jet Li film The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, Wayne Wang’s indie drama A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Fanboys, most expensive in-joke tribute to cult-movie nerddom ever made), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.







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