I spent much of the past couple of weeks at the Vancouver International Film Festival (see my coverage rolling out at Parallax View), so I watched (and wrote up) less DVD and Blu-ray than I normally do. Given that, I review How to Train Your Dragon (DreamWorks), the animation underdog story of the year (which means a DreamWorks film with the heart—and the box-office—of a Disney production), for MSN and Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray debut of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician on my blog here. For a glimpse of a few of the other week’s highlights, read on…
The Essential Bugs Bunny (Warner) – Are the twelve Looney Toon shorts, spanning the years 1940 (the first proto-Bugs appearance in “Elmer’s Candid Camera” with an early Elmer Fudd, neither with their distinctive voice) to 1957, presented in this set really the “essentials”? Perhaps not (and let’s face it, even the most dedicated Bugs fans will have disagreements on this score) but they are all landmarks in their own way and the selection includes my picks for greatest of all Bugs Bunny cartoons: the hilarious highbrow farce “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950), “Rabbit Fire” (1951), which features the greatest verbal sparring (as well as the most insanely surreal identity swaps) of any Bugs cartoon, and the brilliant Wagner parody “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), all three directed by Chuck Jones and written by Michael Maltese. Other highlights (historical if not aesthetic) include the Tex Avery-directed “A Wild Hare” (1940), where Bugs finds his wise-guy voice and first utters his signature line “What’s up, Doc?” and Elmer Fudd slips into his familiar persona with “Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I’m hunting wabbit”; Chuck Jones’ “Hairdevil Hare” (1948) and “8 Ball Bunny” (1950), both featuring Warner studio movie star caricatures (Peter Lorre in the former and Humphrey Bogart, in Treasure of the Sierra Madre mode, in the latter); and Friz Freleng’s “Baseball Bugs” (1946), with Bugs as a one-man team in a surreal baseball game.
A second disc features recent animated originals “Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers” (1992), “Carrotblanca” (1995) and “Hare and Loathing in Las Vegas” (2004) (all pale imitations of the golden age cartoons), a couple of compilation TV specials and the inconsequential new featurette “Bugs Bunny: Ain’t He a Stinker,” which is basically a whirlwind tour through animated highlights, memorable lines and Bugs trademarks. More satisfying is the new-to-DVD animated Bugs sequence from the 1949 Doris Day feature film My Dream is Yours and the previously released 1976 TV special Bugs and Daffy’s Carnival of the Animals, the best of the Bugs TV originals. And I need to point out a significant design flaw: The contents listing is one the backside of the cover art, which works great in clear plastic cases but is useless in the standard black case of this two-disc set. You have to remove the cover from the sleeve to get the listings. Maybe the designers thought it would get packaged in a clear plastic case.
Ladies & Gentlemen…The Rolling Stones (Eagle Rock) – You may recognize some of the footage from the documentary Stones in Exile, and no surprise. This 1974 Rolling Stones concert movie was recorded over the course of four nights on their 1972 “Exile On Main Street” tour. The film is nothing flashy, just a straight-ahead production of the Stones live, but it arguably presents the band at their best, at least captured on film. They are tight, hard-driving and in peak form. The rudimentary direction works against the energy of the performances—the filmmakers and cameramen seem determined only to keep out of their way—and doesn’t even give the viewer that sense of intimacy and raw, behind-the-scenes immediacy that the D.A. Pennebaker brings to Don’t Look Back or Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It does, however, give the film viewer a better seat than the audience and you won’t see better live performances of most of these numbers, predominantly them songs from their most recent albums (from “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to “Bitch,” “Tumblin’ Dice” and “All Down the Line”). Sidemen Bobby Keys and Jim Price and pianist extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins joined them for the tour, but the camera is on Mick, Keith and the Stones. Supplements include rehearsals of three numbers and two Mick Jagger interviews (one from a 1972 episode of Old Grey Whistle Test and a new 2010 interview recorded for this release).
Criterion releases a new DVD special edition (and the Blu-ray debut) of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (Criterion), a colorful lark of family dysfunction and emotional distance among the lost souls of privileged starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as estranged brothers who come together for a fraternal bonding odyssey and perhaps even a family reunion. The oldest (Wilson) has organized the train trip across India and micromanaged their every moment, much to the exasperation of a middle brother Brody, apprehensive about impending fatherhood, and kid brother Schwartzman, who is nursing a broken heart. It’s all quite precious, full of whimsy and irony and earnest rituals that they never quite connect with, and the story resorts to the most arrogant of tragedies to finally bring them together in unified heroism. But there is also a nice sense of fraternal affection under the frustration, playful details in the margins, a bouncy energy, and Anderson’s idiosyncratic tastes in fashion and music. Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston co-star. Criterion’s edition features new commentary by Anderson and co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola and a documentary by Barry Braverman as well as the short “prologue” film Hotel Chevalier with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman (previously available on the Fox release). Also features audition footage, deleted and alternate scenes, interviews and other supplements, plus a booklet with an essay by critic Richard Brody and original illustrations by Eric Anderson.
Jonah Hex (Warner) is by any measure one of the worst movies of 2010. An adaptation of one of the more curious comic books in the DC stable, a mix of western, supernatural and psychological drama, it gets turned into a twilight version of The Wild, Wild West by way of Django, with mercenaries, Confederate terrorists, a steampunk atomic weapon and Megan Fox posing in 19th century lingerie. Josh Brolin plays it straight as the disfigured bounty hunter who speaks to the dead and Michael Fassbender is suitably enigmatic as an Irish explosives expert, but John Malkovich hams it up shamelessly as a flamboyant genius plotting the revenge of the defeated Confederacy. Of course, he just happens to be the man who killed Jonah’s family, so this mission is personal. Isn’t it always? Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (genre mechanics with a gift for narrative momentum but weak on story) write and produce but don’t direct (Jimmy Hayward gets credit there), and this dull mess could really used some of their hairbrained excess just to make it interesting. The DVD features deleted scenes, the Blu-ray has an interactive picture-in-picture mode and a making-of featurette, plus a bonus DVD and digital copy of the film for portable media players.
My busy schedule this week knocked out some films I would otherwise have caught, notably the 1984 Hong Kong film 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (Vivendi) from old school martial arts movie master Liu Chia-Lian and the 1959 Japanese film Samurai Vendetta (AnimEigo) with Katsu Shintaru and Ichikawa Raizo.
Also new this week: I Am Love (Magnolia) with Tilda Swinton, Leaves of Grass (First Look) with Edward Norton, JT Petty’s S&man (Sandman) (Magnolia), Alex de la Iglesia’s The Oxford Murders (Magnolia), the Swedish Viking drama Arn: The Knight Templar (Entertainment One) and the documentary Kimjongilia (Kino Lorber).