My DVD of the week, Make Way For Tomorrow (Criterion), was reviewed a couple of days ago here. Of slightly newer vintage is The Informant! (Warner), a film that straddles multiple eras: released in 2009, set in the nineties, directed with seventies flavor and set to a swinging Marvin Hamlisch score that channels the groovy sixties. I reviewed this lightfingered film, based on a true story but directed with a jaunty snap and a deadpan style that makes the absurd cascade of complications all the more astounding and hilarious, on my blog last year here. “Matt Damon is a constant churn of gee-whiz earnestness, righteous indignation, nervous exasperation and self-aggrandizing swagger as Whitacre,” I wrote. “It’s a brilliant dance of charm and delusion delivered with an amiable enthusiasm and wavering resolve and accompanied by a running stream-of-consciousness narration of constant distraction… “
The DVD features four deleted scenes which run about six minutes and were cut simply to move the film along; the scene with Damon and his FBI handlers, however, is a nicely understated bit that adds to a twist to their complicated loyalties. Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is commentary by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Soderbergh is one of the better commentary track jockeys around, having talked not just over his own films but been a guest on other film tracks. He brings that talent as a moderator to bring Burns front and center in a discussion that ranges over all aspects of the film, from its inspirations (Burns initially heard the story told on the public radio show “This American Life”) to Soderbergh’s conscious shift in style to working with composer Marvin Hamlisch. Also includes a bonus digital copy of the film for portable media players.
I’m not really sure what I think about The Box (Warner), Richard Kelly’s adaptation-cum-extrapolation of Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button” dropped into the metaphysical universe of Donnie Darko and told as an Old Testament test of faith and morality by way of brutal psychological experiments on unlucky human test subjects out of X-Files or Fringe. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are the middle class couple in 1976 Virginia who get the test—push the button, kill someone you don’t know and get a million dollars—and are then swept into the weird fabric of some an extraterrestrial conspiracy and by something not of this earth that has taken up residence in the lightning-struck body of Frank Langella (his missing cheek, burned away to the bone, is both a reminder of the jolt and an settling image that hints at physical consequences to come) and now apparently pulls the strings at NASA and the NSA. This couple has been through a lot and they’re struggling to keep their heads above water, but they are also loving spouses and parents who would do anything for one another, and that devotion is put to the test as well.
Matheson’s original story was a short, sharp piece with a very direct point. Kelley simply uses it as a jumping off point for his own dense, weird and oddly personal “what-if” tale. It’s a complex construction and he’s careful not to over-explain as he maps out a compelling ordeal that, by the end, becomes some tragic loop powered by moral weakness in the face of an unbelievable, almost incomprehensible offer. He let’s you draw your own conclusion as to what this is: extraterrestrial experiment, Biblical test or something else entirely. It’s intriguing to say the least, full of so much mystery and paranoia, ominous clues and eerie visual marvels (not to mention a small army of zombie-like soldiers that, by the end, you realize are former test subjects) that you can’t help but watch to see where it is going, even if the equation doesn’t really add up to a satisfying answer. But it’s certainly more coherent than Southland Tales. The DVD includes a brief interview with author Richard Matheson. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a thorough and detailed commentary track by director/writer Richard Kelly, the featurette “The Box: Grounded in Reality” (about the real-life history of his parents that inspired the characters), three brief yet quite efficient snapshots of the film’s digital effects, a trio of bonus mood piece shorts (more ominous suggestions of otherworldly surveillance) and a bonus digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Alternate realities and warped parallel universe versions of familiar superheroes are part of the fabric of the DC comic book universe. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (Warner) pulls it out of the four-color pages and drops it into an original animated feature (it’s previously been the basis for episodes of the Cartoon Network Justice League series as well). Sort of like the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek, this story sends the familiar Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and others to an alternate reality where Lex Luthor and The Joker are the heroes and the twisted super-powered incarnations of our heroes rule the world through a global crime syndicate. They are the “Made Men” of this reality and they rule through intimidation over the mortal population, which is ready to make whatever deal with the devil they think will keep them unharmed. Mark Harmon voices Superman this time around and he brings an interesting touch of righteous arrogance to the part, while William Baldwin’s suspicious Batman goes head-to-head with his sociopathic alternate twin, Owl Man, who looks oddly like Watchmen’s Nite Owl and is voiced by James Woods. The story, stylized artwork and fluid animation are top notch for the direct-to-DVD market and this is one of the best superhero animations to date.
As Warner owns DC comics and its iconic heroes, it has a lot invested in them and it shows: the DC Universe original animation productions smarter and more interesting than the animated Marvel adventures from Lionsgate and Warner creates terrific DVD/Blu-ray editions around the films. Along with four bonus episodes from the Justice League animated series that deal with alternate universe characters and previews of other DC Universe features, this release features an original short spotlighting the supernatural horror hero The Spectre, voiced by Gary Cole. The 11-minute story is done up in hardboiled style like a seventies crime show (complete with funky TV action score) and “aged” with fake film wear and emulsion scratches, but under the bright daylight of crime TV imagery is an appropriately dark and gruesome tone. This “hero” doesn’t just catch bad guys, he exacts his own brand of righteous vengeance. Also includes the half-hour documentary “DCU: The New World,” a retrospective of the “Crisis” series of DC comic stories that inspired the film, featuring interviews with the creators and editors of the original comics. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the live-action pilot episodes to the seventies Wonder Woman series (previously released on the DVD series set) and the pilot for an Aquaman series from Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar that was never picked up. Justin Hartley stars as the orphan son of Atlantis who discovers his legacy, courtesy of an attack by a mythological siren with a killer instinct and the lore passed down by a reclusive lighthouse keeper played by Ving Rhames, the obligatory mysterious guy who knows stuff that is necessary to all these kinds of shows. It’s neither great nor awful, but it is a treat for superhero fans: never broadcast and previously available on via i-Tunes, this is the home video debut of the show. Trivia note: If you recognize Hartley, it may be because Gough and Millar subsequently cast him as The Green Arrow in Smallville.
George Bernard Shaw On Film (Eclipse Series 20) (Criterion) – Director/producer Gabriel Pascal brought four of George Bernard Shaw’s plays to the screen in handsome British productions that rivaled Alexander Korda. This box set from Eclipse, the budget-minded imprint from Criterion, features the three film that followed their first collaboration, Pygmalion (previously released on Criterion). Major Barbara (1941), a satire of charity and hypocrisy with a paean to the glories of capitalism and industrialization that feels partially influence by wartime patriotism, preserves the social debate and witty dialogue of the play and succeeds on the personality brought to the screen by a top-notch cast (Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Robert Newton and a young Deborah Kerr among them). Pascal takes director credit but history suggests that editor and assistant David Lean had more to do with getting it on screen so crisply. Caesar And Cleopatra (1945), the most expensive British production of its day, is a gorgeous Technicolor spectacle centered by a mesmerizing performance from Claude Rains as the wily Caesar and featuring a kittenish Vivien Leigh trying to play a teenager and almost succeeding on pure performance. Jack Cardiff, Jack Hilyard, Robert Krasker and Freddie Young are all credited as cinematographers and they do a fabulous job of creating rich color but I don’t know if it’s their doing or a weakness of the restoration that makes Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh look like marble figures in motion, their skin tones so pale they at times lose their definition. Otherwise, it is a plodding, stagebound production that fails to find a visual complement to Shaw’s words and scenes (Pascal has no Lean on the set to help him out this time) and it ended up a huge financial flop.. Pascal is merely producer of Androcles and the Lion (1952), a Hollywood production starring Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. Three discs in three thinpak cases in a paperboard sleeve. No supplements beyond excellent notes on each film by Bruce Eder.
There’s blood on the snow when Nazi zombies rise from the powder of the Norwegian Alps to feed on the flesh vacationing innocents in Dead Snow (IFC), a film that the DVD box (with tongue-firmly-in-cheek) proclaims as “perhaps the finest Nazi Zombie movie of our time.” That alone is enough for many to rush out and rent this gorehound import, but there’s more: this is terrific, a dryly hilarious horror comedy with a macabre sense of splatter humor a la Evil Dead 2 (complete with zombie hunters armed with chainsaws and other deep woods implements of destruction) but minus the self-conscious wisecracking of the genre. It’s black and white and red all over (movie blood and SS uniforms both contrast nicely against the snowy landscape), with a sharp professionalism to the filmmaking and more unraveled intestines than you’ve ever seen in a single film. Two-disc DVD set features the film on one disc (in Norwegian with optional subtitles and an English dub track) and supplements on the second, including featurettes on the film, the make-up effects and the soundtrack.
The Damned United (Sony) – Michael Sheen is scrappy upstart coach Brian Clough (pronounced “cluff”), an obstinate manager whose pluck, ambition and bulldozing personality drives a nothing team to the top of the league, and whose colorful media presence and media savvy promotes his star even more than his players. This slice of British football sports history won’t have any cultural resonance for us Yanks, who still insist on calling the sport soccer, but the portrait of ambition and hubris run amuck resonates in any arena, even if the script boils down his motivation for jumping ship and taking over the league bruisers and longtime champions Leeds United (the “Damned” of the title) to a grudge against their longtime coach and the sport’s most successful manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney). It all comes down to a private snub that Clough internalizes and elevates into a public display of disdain. Given that somewhat thin psychological insight, Sheen delivers bravado and arrogance without losing the man underneath while Timothy Spall humanizes Clough as his friend and longtime assistant Peter Taylor. Their friendship doesn’t just center the film, it ultimately becomes the real story. Features commentary by director Tom Hooper, producer Andy Harries and star Michael Sheen, deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes (on both the film and the culture of British football in the seventies) among the supplements.
Breakfast With Scot (E1) – We’ve all seen the movies where gruff, macho dads and resolve to toughen up sons who show interest in such clearly effeminate pursuits as ballet or theater or literature. The twist in this tale of orphaned boy Scot (Noah Bernett) who finds comfort in jewelry and feather boas and belting out Christmas carols is that his new guardians are gay men who cringe at Scot’s exuberantly “gay” behavior. Eric (Thomas Cavanagh), a former pro hockey player turned sportscaster, and his partner (Ben Shenkman), a lawyer, hide their relationship under a front of heterosexual respectability and inadvertently teach Scot to be ashamed of appearing different. The angle is intriguing if not actually enlightening and the film has the unusual distinction of being the first gay-themed movie officially sanctioned by a professional sports league. Otherwise, this gay film is content to pass for a predictably heartwarming story of fathers and sons and lessons learned all around. Laurie Lynd directs the Canadian production, adapted from Michael Downing’s novel.
Criterion released James Ivory’s Howards End on Blu-ray last year. Now it arrives on a two-disc DVD set with most of the same supplements from the earlier Home Vision release but featuring the same new high-definition transfer as the Blu-ray disc and an appreciation of the late Ismail Merchant by director James Ivory (also on the Blu-ray). The 1992 film is an impeccably elegant satire of Edwardian England where a plot by snooty upper-class conservative becomes hopelessly intertwined in a complicated story that encompasses class, politics, adultery, marriage, murder, and ultimately the driest irony the intolerant aristocratic snobs could imagine. Anthony Hopkins is conservative patriarch of an old-money family in early 20th century England, Emma Thompson is a free-thinking woman befriended by his dying wife (Vanessa Redgrave, in an incandescent performance), and Helena Bonham Carter is Thompson’s younger sister, an even freer spirit. The Merchant-Ivory adaptation of the E.M Forster novel, directed from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, remains one of the finest of their collaborations.
Again, it’s been a week with far more interesting releases than I’ve had the opportunity to explore. Flame and Citron (IFC) from Denmark, Bliss (First Run) from Turkey, the animated $9.99 (E1) from writer Etgar Kerets and the documentaries Crude (First Run) from Joe Berlinger and End of the Line (Docurama) from Rupert Murray.
Finally, there’s no need for me to rehash Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Universal), another attempt to transform a young adult supernatural adventure series into a film franchise, but even with the freakshow hook, this is the most anemic vampire movie in ages. You can read my full review on my blog here and get DVD details from my MSN review here.