The cheese loving inventor and energetically eccentric entrepreneur Wallace and his silent but astute canine companion Gromit have become one of the most popular comedy duos in the movies after only three animated shorts (two of which won Oscars) and one feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Not bad for a couple of plasticine creations brought to life through the painstaking process (and increasingly neglected art) of stop-motion animation. A Matter of Loaf and Death (Lionsgate) is their first screen appearance in four years and only their fifth film longer than three minutes since their debut twenty years ago, which makes it all the more exciting for fans young and old. Creator Nick Park is back at the helm for this “bread-based murder mystery,” which casts the pals and partners as bakers with a delivery business based out of an urban windmill that powers yet another magnificent collection of mechanical devices and Rube Goldberg contraptions. While Wallace falls in love with a former bakery pin-up girl, someone is killing the bakers around town and Gromit has a pretty good idea who… not that grinning goof Wallace will pay any attention to him in his starry-eyed infatuation.
It’s another half hour comic classic, with marvelously intricate bits of comic choreography and visual gags with the invention of Charlie Chaplin shorts and Bug Bunny cartoons, all rooted in the comfortable character of the moldable clay heroes. Fans of the series will be delighted. The DVD features the twenty-minute “How They Donut: The Making of a Matter of Loaf and Death” (it’s always a treat to see the models and the animators bring them to life) and a bonus “Shaun the Sheep” short, and it debuts in Blu-ray on a special edition disc featuring the Blu-ray debut of the previous three Wallace and Gromit shorts, A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1998), plus making-of featurettes for each short and all ten Wallace and Gromit: Cracking Contraptions of adventures in inventing (each under three minutes).
The direct-to-DVD The Hills Run Red (Warner) is the rare self-aware horror by an unabashed fan of the genre that works on its own terms. Dave Parker’s first feature, his sadly underappreciated love-letter to Italian horror films and giallo buffs The Dead Hate the Living!, was made ten years ago. In the meantime he honed his technical skills on movie documentaries and featurettes for DVDs. As a result, The Hills Run Red—which sends another horror buff on the trail of a lost movie with a camera, a small crew and the lost girl-turned-junkie stripper daughter (Sophie Monk) of the mysterious, long dead director and into a real-life continuation of the film—is leaner, tighter, more assured in its direction and less obvious in its references. His male leads are a bit thin—Parker creates likable characters but not particularly vivid or memorable heroes—but Sophie Monk takes a big bloody bite out of her part and William Sadler makes the mad movie director into a real gone guy, an obsessive lost in his delusions of suffering for art. Other people’s suffering, that is. “Everybody is expendable for the good of the movie,” is his mantra. “Everybody.” The signature villain, Babyface, is as visually distinctive a figure as you could hope for (it has eerie echoes of a creature escaped from a Quay Brothers nightmare) and the shake of a baby rattle as he runs after his victims is a nice touch.
You can find echoes of Psycho, Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project and Theodore Roszak’s cult cinephile novel Flicker in the script (by The Crow screenwriter David J. Schow) and imagery, and there’s a timely meta-textual debate on the aesthetics of modern horror cinema that is played for grisly humor between warring art-killers. While one argues for the importance of context and emotional resonance, the other makes the case for shock value and upping the ante on sadism spectacle: “Nobody cares about that subtext shit.” But the film works on its own merits. Parker knows what he wants and he gets it. He plays with the contrast of movie-movie gore (the idea that what we’re seeing is a special effect) and the “real” gore assaulting our characters by shifting our perspectives time and again, and he blurs the line between on-screen and off-screen reality, at least for these characters. Features commentary by Parker with writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett and the shot-on-location featurette “It’s Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red,” which is a bit disorganized but captures the excitement of the creators (like Parker, they create trailers and DVD featurettes for other people in their day jobs) getting to make their own feature.
Cult Epics continues its fascinating excavation of the career of Italian Eurotica auteur Tinto Brass with Attraction (Nerosubianco) (Cult Epics), a 1969 “Psychedelic Pop Art Experience” (as the poster promises) about a beautiful married woman (Anita Sanders) who steps out for a lazy stroll on a sunny London afternoon and ends up flirting with and fantasizing about a handsome stranger (a smartly stylish Terry Carter, aka Col. Tigh on the original Battlestar Galactica). There really isn’t a story here, merely a succession of surreal erotic daydreams and music-video digressions (performed by the band Freedom) as she walks through parks, window shops along busy streets, navigates the subway and drinks in the hipster youth culture, while the stream-of-consciousness narration works its way through the sexual politics of the age (a mix of feminism and erotic fantasy). It’s like a rock and roll art film by way of a continental skin flick, psychedelic and sexy, with pop art posters and Guido Crepax comics interspersed with a few newsreel clips of Vietnam and the Holocaust to give it progressive political cred. Which makes you wonder: just who was the audience for this film? I don’t know, but it’s a trippy cultural document and a fun little diversion. This version is “presented by Radley Metzger” and you won’t believe the title he gave it for American release that appears on the opening credits. Be warned, however, that this is a less-than-stellar transfer and appears to be cropped on the top and bottom to fit in the widescreen TV ratio. More likely, it’s a 1.66 film; it is definitely at the incorrect aspect ratio.
Fermat’s Room (MPI) is a cerebral thriller with a different kind of locked-room mystery. A select group of brilliant mathematicians are invited for an exclusive evening of brain teasing conundrums (“enigmas,” as they are called here). They have a time limit to solve each problem. When time runs out, the walls start to close in, powered by the same industrial-strength hydraulic presses that crush cars into cubes, and only stops once they send the correct answer. Written and directed by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena, it’s a neat little thriller where the overarching mystery—who is doing this and why?—and the nicely-seeded red herrings complicate their survival by distracting their focus. It’s a horror film for folks who prefer puzzles and tension over gore and spectacle. In Spanish with English subtitles.
On the more mainstream side of things, there’s Management (Image), where high-strung corporate professional Jennifer Aniston and small town goofball Steve Zahn aren’t really made for each other, but that’s no impediment to enjoying this easy-going romantic comedy. He’s working at his parents’ motel in Kingman, Arizona, with aspirations for something more, when he’s smitten by the smart, confident, adult Aniston when she checks on in on a business trip (she sells “corporate decorative art”) and follows her back to Baltimore like a puppy. Forget logic here, there’s a good cast, nice chemistry and warm feelings all around as they all fumble around for something to bring meaning to their lives. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary by writer/director Stephen Belber and star Steve Zahn (who shares more about the job of acting than you’d expect) and deleted scenes.
Blu-ray for the week: The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner). When gingham-clad farm girl Dorothy Gale rode the tornado out of the somber, sepia-tinged black and white of her Kansas dust bowl farm and into the sparkling Technicolor fantasy land somewhere over the rainbow, she changed the lives of her audiences (both then and now) as assuredly as she changed her own. Now that Technicolor splendor gets another sterling overhaul, this time for the definitive Blu-ray release. It was then and still is one of the great showcases for the astounding Technicolor film process, and the digital engineers have gone back to the original camera negative for this newly mastered edition at twice the resolution of the previous digital master. This trip down the yellow brick road is a sight to behold: The ruby slippers glimmer, the green of the wicked witch glows and the colors of Oz take on shades you may never have noticed before. Which also means the seams show more, but then that’s never been a problem in a film full of painted backdrops and artificial forests: a tribute to the dream factory of Hollywood that invited audiences to dream along with the film.
It features all the supplements from previous releases—commentary, documentaries, featurettes, silent film adaptations, archival film and audio recordings and more—plus four hours of new supplements, including the exclusive new documentary on director Victor Fleming, Master Craftsman, the 1990 TV-movie The Dreamer of Oz starring John Ritter as author L. Frank Baum and restored editions of the 1914 silent films The Magic Cloak of Oz (featuring footage not available in the previous release) and The Patchwork Girl of Oz, among the supplements. The box set also includes a reproduction of the original campaign, exploitation, and press books, an exclusive mini coffee-table book and a Wizard of Oz watch. (I also wrote about The Wizard of Oz earlier on my blog here.)
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights (including Away We Go, Shrink and Blu-ray editions of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer), 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.