The New Releases of the week can’t help but fall in the shadow of a couple of mighty releases and one underrated film that should get a second chance on DVD. The blockbuster this week is The Hangover (Warner), the raucous comedy of a bachelor party gone horribly wrong and one of the surprise smash hits of 2009. And while it will likely be the sales winner of the week (which, like box-office numbers, I’ve found neither the need nor the desire to report on either on MSN or on my blog here), the more exciting release is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Universal). A surprise hit in its own right, Tarantino’s tribute to and complete rewrite of the World War II behind-enemy-lines/caper thriller is a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against an occupied France informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? narrative doodling than any historical record. That’s from my feature review (you can read it on my blog here).
As for the DVD and Blu-ray, the disc producers have skipped the usual commentary track and traditional making-of documentary for a more eclectic collection of supplements, including all six minutes (credits included) of the film-within-a-film “Nation’s Pride” and three illuminating deleted/extended scenes. The extended scene of Shoshana’s lunch with Goebbels and Zoeller is mostly presented in a single long take, while a brief sequence celebrates the mechanics and showmanship of a presenting a movie in a movie palace of old. The highlight of the “2-Disc Special Edition” DVD and Blu-ray editions is 30-minute video interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt (conducted by Elvis Mitchell for his radio series “The Treatment”) that brings out a calmer (yet still enthusiastic) QT to discuss the creative ideas behind his film, with Pitt in full support of his vision and his collaborative engagement with actors. Mitchell also narrates a tour through the film poster and film history in Tarantino’s movie. The rest are of the supplements are just grace notes: a relaxed interview with actor Rod Taylor, a tribute to “The Original Inglorious Bastards” with director Enzo Castellari and actor Bo Svenson (who both make cameo’s in QT’s film), a mock-featurette on “The Making of Nation’s Pride” (with the performers all in character – Eli Roth has a blast playing the sneering autocratic German auteur of this “lost” classic of Nazi propaganda cinema) and montages showing the playfulness of QT and his cast and crew on the set. Both deluxe editions include a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
The underdog release is Taking Woodstock (Universal), Ang Lee’s film of the story behind the legendary concert, the defining event of the sixties counterculture ideals of peace and love and communal harmony. Though it received mixed reviews and was a financial flop, I found it quite compelling, a film that captured the craziness and the inclusiveness of the world behind the scenes as seen from the point of view of Elliot (Demetri Martin), a young, gay Jewish man smothered by his upstate New York life who finds his universe exploded for this unprecedented event. I wrote a feature review for my blog here: “Ang Lee has never made a film this loose and rambling…. This is surely the calmest and warmest portrait of chaos I’ve seen on screen and Elliot, as accommodating and passive as he is, drinks it in like a parched man at an oasis.” The DVD features commentary by director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus (who have an easy rapport after so many years as friends and collaborators), a conventional making-of featurette “Peace, Love and Cinema” and three deleted scenes. The Blu-ray edition includes additional deleted scenes and a throwaway micro-featurette.
With those mainstream titles out of the way, let’s get to the discoveries. None are more enjoyable than the giddy Soviet adventure serial Miss Mend (Flicker Alley), an energetic rollercoaster of a spy movie rollercoaster with evil capitalist villains and working class heroes who rise the challenge. I review it separately here.
The Headless Woman (Strand), the third feature from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, is a hypnotic drama about a middle-aged woman (María Onetto) who all but drops out of her life after roadside accident leaves her with a concussion and the hazy memory that she killed someone. Martel keeps us tied to her dislocated perspective, passively watching the swirl of lives around her as she smiles and walks around in a daze. Meanwhile we get a searing portrait of family relations, class distinctions and lives out of touch. Features a 35-minute “Q&A Session with the Director” conducted by Scott Foundas at a screening at UCLA. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Animator Nina Paley retells the epic Indian tale of Ramayana in Sita Sings The Blues (IndiePix Films), a colorful and clever mix of styles and sensibilities. The playful production intersperses a psychedelic but otherwise straightforward telling of the myth with comic conversational commentary between three shadow puppets (they look like ancient icons but talk like modern young adults) and a musical reenactment featuring the torch song stylings of late-twenties American singer Annette Hanshaw and done up like a Technicolor Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Paley mirrors it with her own semi-autobiographical story in a sketchy modern style (to my mind the least successful part of the film, maybe because it’s just too close to home for Paley). Subtitles “The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told,” it’s smart and funny, hip and tremendously entertaining, and it almost didn’t get seen due to copyright issues with the original Hanshaw recordings. Paley discusses those issues in her commentary track with Carl Fogel, who helped Paley get the film released, and in a bonus 25-minute interview for WNET. There’s also her short film “Fetch” and oodles of subtitle options, including the silly LOLSpeak subtitles. That’s all.
20th Century Boys 1: Beginning Of The End (Viz) is the strangest apocalyptic epic I’ve ever seen. Based on a long running manga serial by Naoki Urasawa, it’s the story boyhood friends whose childhood fantasies of evil conspiracies become the blueprint for a mysterious cult leader known only as “Friend” (he hides his face behind a child’s monkey mask most of the time). This is strangely compelling and unexpectedly entertaining, a crazy tale that shifts up and down through 45 years of narrative to tell the story of viral outbreaks around the world, terrorist attacks that cripple major airports, an underground resistance, “the Chosen One” and the power of rock and roll to change the world. And, of course, a giant robot rampaging through Tokyo spewing the killer virus through the streets. “9 friends emerged to stop the terror,” reads the story, but the boys left it unfinished, as does the film: there are two more features in the series, both of which have already been released to theaters in Japan. The big-budget series was a hit in Japan but virtually unknown stateside. It’s hard to see this getting a lot of traction here. Not quite science fiction and as surreal a conspiratorial epic as you’ll find, this dense thriller has a distinctively Japanese sensibility. Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi moves the film from goofy humor and wistful nostalgia to eerie weirdness and doomsday stakes and keeps the complex narrative surprisingly easy to follow through the sprawling 142 minutes.
From Thailand comes Chai Lai Angels: Dangerous Flowers (Magnolia), a silly, sloppy, at times utterly incomprehensible spoof of “Charlie’s Angels” featuring five dubiously qualified babes playing action hero. The ostensible plot has this quintet sent to protect the young daughter of a famous scientist and martial arts master who alone knows the secret location of a priceless pearl, which, somehow, is also the key to ecological balance in the ocean. We have to take this on faith, just as we do the fact that these intermittently effective and incompetent agents have been hired to do anything but strike poses in skimpy costumes. Most of the film involves them gracelessly battling bad guys while clad in towels and bathrobes, dancing in their underwear, swimming in nighties and wielding automatic weapons and bazookas in bikinis. There are tasteless “ugly” jokes lobbed at the girl with the “hillbilly face” and flat nose and another girl has a temper that goes off when she’s groped, so the gang starts squeezing when they are in need of her hellcat strength. Director Poj Arnon apparently learned nothing from the Hong Kong and South Korea action genres. It has none of the creative style of the Thai New Wave hits (like Tears of a Black Tiger) and none of the impressive action stunts of the Tony Jaa movies. It’s pure kitsch, full of mugging performances and slapstick gags and pretty girls jiggling their bosoms while taking on a preening clown of a transvestite and his cross-eyed assistant. But it does feature a brilliant take-off of brassy James Bond music. In Thai with English subtitles and an alternate English dub track, and the DVD includes a featurette and music videos.
Documentary filmmaker Ron Mann is cinema’s poet laureate of popular subculture and counterculture, from comic books to poetry to the history of marijuana. Know Your Mushrooms (Docurama) is his latest trip, but despite the psychedelic soundtrack, playful animation and trippy imagery, this mushroom hunt is about all facets of fungi culture. Mann travels to the Telluride Mushroom Festival with Larry Evans, who serves as our field guide to the many varieties of mushrooms, and explores the many aspects of mushroom culture, from the gourmet to the recreational to the spiritual and medicinal, with the help of “mushroom guru” Gary Lincoff, who traces the mushroom through myth, legend and literature. Mann likes to entertain while he educates and he tosses off his factoids with groovy animated interstitials and tongue-in-cheek “Fun with Fungi” quizzes. It’s clear that the director is more taken with the culture around it than with the mushroom itself; botany takes a backseat to the colorful characters and the rather dubious claims (from the proposal that mushrooms a spore from space to one man’s assertion that Jesus was actually a evolved mushroom man) tossed in from the fringes of shroom-dom. But it is a highly entertaining trip through the facts and fictions of fungi, from ancient culture to counter-culture to epicurean treat.
Blu-ray of the week: The Mel Brooks Collection (Fox) is a 9-disc box set with 8 comedies directed by Mel Brooks and one film he produced and starred in. The highlights of the set are his two masterpieces of mirth. Voted the sixth funniest movie of all time in an AFI poll, Blazing Saddles (1974) spins genre parody, cartoon slapstick and bathroom humor into comic gold. Cleavon Little is a quick-witted railway worker saved from the gallows by corrupt governor’s aide Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamar (Harvey Korman) only to be offered up for a sure lynching as the sheriff of a conservative western town under siege from the Governor’s own gangsters. The sheer wackiness of the film—quick costume changes, exploding candy boxes and a hulking brute named Mongo—suggests at times a live action Tex Avery cartoon. Madeline Kahn is a scream as a lisping Dietrich-like entertainer (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Gene Wilder provides amiable support and crack timing as the alcoholic ex-gunfighter who joins our stalwart hero. Brooks himself co-stars as the Governor and as a kvetching Indian chief in a brief flashback and Frankie Lane sings the brilliant theme song without a trace of camp (it also received an Oscar nomination). Campfire meals have never been the same since. Watch it. You’d do it for Randolph Scott! Brooks co-writes Young Frankenstein (1974) with Wilder, creating a lovingly hilarious spoof of the Universal Frankenstein films shot in living B&W and accompanied by a lush, haunting score by John Morris. Simultaneously respectful and ridiculous, it mixes pathos and parody and remains best film that either of them have every made. Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars co-star and an uncredited Gene Hackman plays the blind man. His all-star comedy Silent Movie (1976) isn’t exactly silent—it’s full of music and inventive sound effects—merely wordless (the dialogue is printed in onscreen intertitles). Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar and Bernadette Peters star, with special appearances by Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman and Marcel Marceau (who gets the only spoken word, of course). Spaceballs (1987) lampoons the Star Wars phenomenon with his spotty farce starring Rick Moranis as the evil dweeb Dark Helmet, Bill Pullman as the intergalactic rogue Lone Starr, John Candy as his half-man/half-dog co-pilot Barf (“I’m my one best friend!”), and Daphne Zuniga as the outer space valley girl Princess Vespa. Mel Brooks appears as the corrupt President Skroob and the moss-back mystic Yogurt, who teaches them about the greatest force in the galaxy: merchandising! “May the Schwartz be with you!” As for the rest of the set: The Twelve Chairs (1970) is an adaptation of a classic Russian story about former aristocrat (Ron Moody) who goes searching for a fortune hidden inside a dining room chair from a plush set, Brooks pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock in his high-concept spoof High Anxiety (1977), plunders history for sight gags and sex jokes in The History Of The World: Part 1 (1981) and goofs on Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood (and whatever else he can think of along the way) in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Finally, Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft take the roles created by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in a remake of To Be Or Not To Be (1983) that is funnier than it really has any right to be (directed by longtime Brooks collaborator Alan Johnson). You take the flat with the fizz in this set, but even the least of Brooks’ film have moments that bubble over. There’s commentary on three discs and featurettes on almost all of them. The discs are organized chronologically in paperboard sleeves in a book-like set, with an accompanying hard-bound book with notes on each film and lots of stills. It won’t fit on your DVD shelf but it is a handsome package.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, 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.