DVDs for 2/2/10 – Zombieland, Devil House, Medieval Thailand and Planet Hulk

The zombie comedy is hardly fresh territory (and really, will anyone top Shaun of the Dead?) but the creators of Zombieland (Sony) do a fine job of mining the humor inherent in the end of the world. Jesse Eisenberg is the loner college geek who finds that his obsessive-compulsive instincts are just what he needs to survive a world gone wild. He puts together his simple rules for survival and goes off in search of… what, we’re not really sure, but he’s happy to discover another warm body when the gun-toting Woody Harrelson comes careening down the wreck-filled highway and gives him a lift. This redneck madman takes a more devil-may-care approach (zombie-bashing as sport) while Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, a cagey pair they find in a supermarket stop, have simply adapted their mercenary skills to life after people.

Batter up!

Think of Zombieland (as in “We are now the United States of Zombieland”) as I Am Legend as a road movie comedy. First-time feature director Ruben Fleischer moves it along with decent momentum while punctuating the sardonic humor with cheeky graphics that flash and crash on screen, and he certainly doesn’t skimp on the splatter or the sport. But it’s a character piece at heart and these oddballs discover that, emotional baggage and survival scars aside, there’s something to be said for human companionship in a world where every other living thing wants to eat you.

Actors Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg get front billing on the group commentary track but they generally defer to director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. There’s a good camaraderie to this crew, who keep it entertaining while keeping it focused on the film. Also includes the featurettes “In Search of Zombieland” (a conventional making-of) and “Zombieland is Your Land” (on the production design) and seven deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the “Beyond the Graveyard” picture-in-picture track, which runs storyboards and production footage to fill time between the sporadic interview sequences, plus BD-Live movieIQ and a digital copy of the film for portable media players.

Ti West a young horror director with old-school sensibilities and The House of the Devil (Dark Sky) is a film that seems to come from another time, specifically the boom of the early eighties. Jocelin Donahue (who recalls a young Karen Allen) is well cast as the small-town college girl, Greta Gerwig provides the right attitude as her brassy best friend and Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov give off appropriately creepy vibes. There’s a babysitter, an isolated house in the middle of nowhere and devil worshippers but title aside, this simple but effective little thriller is less splatter movie than mood piece with real shivers. Imagine John Carpenter hired to make a drive-in knock-off of Rosemary’s Baby. It favors tension over spectacle while delivering a palpable sense of helplessness. West shot in super16, which gives it the grain of an earlier era of filmmaking, but the whole style evokes late-seventies/early eighties low-budget horror, from the austere set decoration and muted colors to the Carpenter-esque score and period songs to the directorial restraint and style of lingering takes, moving camerawork and well-tuned zooms. Not to mention the freeze-frame credits with John Carpenter’s trademark typography. The DVD and Blu-ray include two commentary tracks (one by director Ti West and actress Jocelin Donahue, another by West with the producers and production designer) where West talks about evoking the texture of an early eighties horror film, a decent making-of and a short promotional featurette.

New York, I Love You (Sony) – Producer Emmanuel Benbihy attempts to slice up The Big Apple in his follow-up Paris Je T’aime and inaugurate a whole series of love letters to the major cities of the world. The anthology of intertwined short stories from an international collection of directors and actors is a scattershot effort that results in a couple of sweet vignettes (Allen Hughes’ portrait of romantic anxiety with Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo and Fatih Akin’s observation of missed connections with Shu Qi and Ugur Yücel are particularly delicate and nicely observed, and Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are sublime on Joshua Marston’s Coney Island outing) and a lot of “cute” twist endings. But for all the voices brought in to the project there’s not much variety of style or story or even neighborhood, and very little effort to explore the variety of cultures within the teeming city. Unlike Paris, which took us all over the City of Lights, we don’t much escape the familiar locations and settings we’ve been seeing on screen for years, or get much beyond the young, urban, white characters that dominate most of the stories. Yvan Attal, Shunji Iwai, Wen Jiang, Shekhar Kapur, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman, Brett Ratner and Randall Balsmeyer also contribute sequences and the DVD offers two bonus segments, by Scarlett Johansson and Andrey Zvyagintsev, and interviews with five of the contributing directors. On DVD and Blu-ray.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (Magnolia) is a prequel in name only, sharing only the title and star Tony Jaa from the original international martial arts hit from Thailand. Set some 500 years ago in 15th Century Thailand, this revenge thriller stirs up almost non-stop action with a swirl of flashbacks, a full compliment of slow-motion and strobing skip-frame action, and Hollywood-style camerawork and rapid-fire editing. It owes more to Apocalypto than the original Ong Bak and is slicker and more technically accomplished than any Thai action film I’ve seen, but it comes at the expense of the down-and-dirty filmmaking that made the first Ong Bak so impressive: you didn’t just see every stunt executed by Jaa in straight-on, unbroken shots, you saw them replayed a couple of times from other angles to show just how damnably impressive it really was. This is a simple revenge story loaded up with far more exposition than necessary: young Tien survives the betrayal that leaves his father murdered, gets tossed into a crocodile pit by nasty child slavers and is adopted by Chernang, the King of the Outlaws (Sorapong Chatree) after he proves himself by dispatching the creature. After an energetic training montage, the kid grows up into the emotionally impenetrable Tony Jaa, shows off a greatest hits of old Jackie Chan moves and then goes on to take his revenge on the man who murdered his warrior father, one epic battle at a time. The minions keep coming, day and night, and he goes through a small army by the end, at one point helped by the elephant he befriended as a boy.

Tony Jaa stares down the next casualty

Jaa wrote the story, co-directed the film and directed the action scenes, so this is his baby and he fills it with impressive set pieces that show off his range of fighting styles (at one point he resorts to drunken fighting, for no good reason other than it looks cool) and action stunts (and even acrobatic dancing; see Tien, those lessons paid off after all) without demanding he do more than look haunted by his unresolved past. Jaa isn’t one for emoting, or for leavening any of the overly-serious gravity with some much-needed humor for that matter, and the lack of any dramatic center leaves the action, for all its bloody carnage and brutality, emotionally untethered: all spectacle and no character. The mix of hyper-ventilating style, scenes flowing into long flashbacks at the drop of a pensive look from Jaa and non-stop action set-piece hung on the minimal narrative creates something the verges on the abstract and the bizarre climax only encourages that unfixed sense. For all the adrenaline-pumping through the stunts, there’s nothing at stake here. Except maybe… reincarnation?

The two-disc DVD and Blu-ray “Collectors Edition”s both feature an alternate cut of the film runs about 10 minutes shorter and plays a little tighter but still lacks any emotional drive, plus three Thai-produced “Making of Featurettes” (with plenty of interviews with Jaa and the creative team), three “Behind the Scenes Featurettes” (no narration, just raw footage and music) and 25 minutes of additional cast and crew interviews. The “sneak peak” at Ong Bak 3 is actually a teaser trailer and the HD-Net featurette is little more than a three-minute promotional piece, but it is in English.

What is it about these direct-to-DVD animated superhero features that drive screenwriters to simplify their stories to the point of juvenilia? Planet Hulk (Lionsgate) is based on a storyline from the “Incredible Hulk” comic book series in 2006, where the Hulk is sent to another planet by the superheroes of Earth. It’s supposed to be uninhabited but for vegetation but he ends up in the fall of the Roman Empire on the other side of the galaxy, a corrupt empire rules by a brutal despot who enslaves the big green and sends him to the gladiator ring. Yes, The Hulk is Spartacus, the once and future hero of prophecy who will free the enslaved in this otherwise typically simplified adventure. This is TV-style cel animation with limited detail and awkward motion. The dialogue is spoken more like the pronouncements of Shakespearean hams putting every utterance in quotation marks and the story reduces the characters dynamics and story complications to the lowest common denominator. Features two production commentary tracks, the featurettes “A Whole World of Hurt: The Making of Planet Hulk” (which goes into details of the adaptation) and “Let the Smashing Commence: The Saga of Planet Hulk” (with the writer and artist of the original comic books), plus an bonus episode of the animated series Wolverine and the X-Men featuring the Hulk, two motion comics and a sneak peak at the upcoming animated “Thor” among the supplements.

The Wolf Man: Special Edition (1941) (Universal) – With the new Benicio Del Toro remake on the way, Universal goes back for yet another release of the classic werewolf horror starring a lumbering Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured innocent cursed to turn into a savage killer every full moon. I review the film and the supplements on the new two-disc edition for MSN here.

Plus Amelia (Fox) with Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, the romantic drama Adam (Fox) with Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne (Sony) and The Evelyn Waugh Collection (Acorn) with the eighties productions of A Handful of Dust and Scoop.

Blu-ray of the Week: Mystic River (Warner) – Three adolescent boys write their names in the wet cement of a newly poured sidewalk patch in their Boston neighborhood, but the last boy is interrupted, his name unfinished when he’s taken away in a car by two men who purport to be cops but are child molesters who torture him for days. Decades later, the boys have grown apart and grown up to become Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon. The brutal murder of Penn’s daughter brings them together again: Bacon is the investigating detective and Robbins, a hunched, haunted man looking every inch the adolescent in an adult’s body trying to hold back the darkness by sheer will, becomes the prime suspect. Like his name in the cement, he remains stuck, unfinished, never to get beyond that nightmare.

Clint Eastwood’s film of Dennis Lehane’s acclaimed novel (scripted by Brian Helgeland) is a dark, vivid tale of family, community, loyalty, and justice on the streets. As a craftsman, Eastwood meets the tight, interlaced structure of Helgeland’s script with a driving pace that never pushes the rhythm of the individual scenes, yet drives the film as if it’s racing out of the control of all the characters. But it’s his recognition of the darkness in the hearts of the characters, the way their lives never escape their past, and the what it takes to live with it all, that gives the film its resonance. There is nothing romantic about the law of the streets, and its unforgiving nature has a finality that can’t be undone. Eastwood has an understanding of what it takes to live with yourself, not so much a sympathy as an appreciation. Eastwood directed actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to Academy Awards for their performances, and draws equally fine performances from Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney. Also stars Laurence Fishburne.

The Blu-ray debut features the supplements of the previous DVD special edition: commentary by actors Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, the featurettes “Mystic River: Beneath the Surface” (which features author Dennis Lehane on a journey back to the streets of Boston to reveal his inspirations for the book) and the made-for-cable special “Mystic River: From Page to Screen” and selections from The Charlie Rose Show with Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, plus trailers.

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.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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