I can’t say I’m a major fan of Robert Zemeckis’ circus-like Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Disney) or the multiple performance provided by Carrey through the techno magic of CGI, a collection of caricatured cartoon figures with inconsistent, unconvincing British accents, while the uncanny valley makes the most “realistic” characters almost ghoulish in their waxy, mannequin-like appearance. But the density of detail is impressive and, let’s face it, it’s hard to really screw up this Dickens classic and Zemickis draws a lot of the dialogue right out of the text. Though I don’t remember the madcap chase through London as Scrooge, shrunk to the size of the mouse, scurries from the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come. It feels more like a potential theme park ride than an organic expression of the Dickens experience. I guess that explains the Disney possessive in the film’s title. Zemeckis chimes in with his own assessment of the film’s achievement in the audio-video commentary of the Blu-ray edition: “Every generation has their version of “A Christmas Carol” that sets it in their time and I think that the digital 3-D version “A Christmas Carol” is going to live as one of the quintessential movies of the 21st Century and the digital cinema.” He’s entitled to his opinion. I review the DVD and Blu-ray for MSN here.
I also review Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, a film where the actor chemistry and portrait of family dynamics tangled up with personal anxieties and frustrations outweigh the narrative contrivances of the script, at MSN here and dig into the Kino DVD of The Complete Metropolis, easily the landmark release of the week, on my blog here (with links to my review for Turner Classic Movies). * UPDATE: Due to an issue over region coding, the Kino Blu-ray has been delayed a week, but the DVD is apparently still on time * Here some of the rest of the week’s highlights.
Vengeance (IFC) – Johnnie To, the reigning king of the crime movie and the romantic code of gangster brothers within the mercenary world of organized crime, delivers another perfect little genre piece, this one with French pop legend Johnny Hallyday as a retired pro who comes to Macau to take revenge on the men who attacked his daughter’s family. Costello is a Frenchman in China who doesn’t speak the language, but in a way he does: as a former criminal professional himself (long since retired to become a chef and raise a family) he reads the signs and finds the men who can help him navigate the local underworld and back him up, and wouldn’t you know they are To’s eternal crew: Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Lam Ka Tung and the recurring cast of the honorable mercenaries who privilege professionalism above everything but brotherhood and justice, and they find both in this Frenchman’s quest, even though it means taking on their sometime-employer, decadent crime boss Fung (Simon Yam).
Gaunt and weathered, Hallyday is superb casting (and reportedly a last minute substitution for original choice Alain Delon) and slips right in to To’s brand of taciturn camaraderie and silent communication, whether sharing meals and under fire, and there’s plenty of both here. And just to add another layer of genre tragedy to the odyssey, Costello is losing his memory; he snaps Polaroids (a Polaroid camera! How old school!) of his new compatriots to hold on to the identities just long enough to reach his goal. And, of course, he is loved by the homeless children who revolve around the beach retreat of den mother cook, another sign of his purity. To has a way of shaping his genre dramas to their essential elements and then sculpting beautiful action scenes around them, and Vengeance has some of his best pieces, including an almost abstracted shoot-out in a garbage dump where the ambushed team ducks behind bales of scrap and then pushes them along as a rolling cover and sometime weapon.
Yet my favorite scene is when the newly-bonded team revisit the scene of the crime and reconstruct the massacre wordlessly through nods and gestures (with flashbacks illustrating their silent dialogue for the rest of us) while Costello cooks up a dinner from what he finds in the kitchen, a ritual meal that seals their partnership. When they do converse in words, it is in their only shared spoken language: English. The soundtrack is in French and Cantonese with a smattering of English and the disc features English subtitles and the featurette “Johnny x Johnnie,” a standard Hong Kong promotional featurette with lots of mutual-admiration interviews with To and the cast (in Cantonese and English) and behind-the-scenes footage: not very informative (and curiously missing any interviews with Hallyday) but pleasant company for ten minutes.
Best Worst Movie (Docurama) – Whether or not you believe Troll 2 is the single worst film ever made (it certainly makes the short list), any fan of so-bad-it’s-good cinema will appreciate this loving tribute to the English language Italian production about a American family on vacation where the weirdly welcoming locals try to turn them into plants to feed vegetarian trolls and the ghost of the kids’ dead grandfather returns from the grave to help. It was shot in a small town in Utah with a largely non-professional cast, a tone-deaf script by a non-English speaker and a director, Claudio Fragasso, who still insists on the artistic integrity of this film: “Troll 2 is a film that examines many serious and important issues like eating, living and dying. It’s an important film which talks about the family, the union of the family resisting all of those things that want to destroy it and see it dead. People want to eat this family. In Italy, we call this a parable.” Riiiiiiight. The cast members are less convinced of the film’s genius but are (mostly) quite amenable to talking about the experience and even reenacting scenes for the camera and various convention appearances, especially George Hardy, the beloved small town dentist who played the lead in the film and embarks on a series of conventions to promote the film before tiring of the dim glory of obscure cult fame.
Michael Paul Stephenson, who directed this tribute/remembrance/celebration of the film that is so bad it has inspired a cult following, was also the juvenile lead in the film and is more than happy to turn an embarrassment into a triumph. Fragasso, meanwhile, seems oblivious to the camp popularity of his absurdly clumsy picture and becomes almost enraged (under forced smiles) as he listens to the cast describe the chaos, confusion and warped understanding of the English language and American culture of the set, thanks to the language barrier between the American cast and the Italian crew. Features an hour of deleted scenes and interviews and a text Q&A with the filmmaker among the supplements.
Metropia (Tribeca Film/New Video) – Corporate conspiracy, urban alienation and mind control through shampoo are stirred up in Tarik Saleh’s animated science fiction dystopia, set in a future where all of Europe is connected by a giant, high-speed metro and the culture blurs across borders into one giant gray urban slum. It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world. The unconventional animation cries out for a featurette but the best we get is too-brief “On the Red Carpet with Metropia,” where director Tarik Saleh only hints at the purposeful distortions in the imagery through flattening the image and bending physical movement: “We used the software the wrong way.” I want to know more.
Monte Walsh (Paramount) – The superb cinematographer William A. Fraker (fresh off Rosemary’s Baby) made his directorial debut with this lovely autumnal western, starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance as veteran cowboys facing the closing of the frontier. This isn’t about gunfighters and outlaws but working men who find their skills are no longer needs as the west becomes settled and cities change the landscape of both the horizon and the economy. Marvin and Palance fill out their characters with an authenticity of experience and their camaraderie is warm and convincing. While it isn’t without its gunplay, the focus is on the simple pleasures of life on the range and Fraker’s naturalistic direction and eye for men at work on the land gives it an evocative power. Jeanne Moreau, Mitchell Ryan and Bo Hopkins co-star. No supplements.
Also new on DVD: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (Paramount), an adaptation of the animated TV series and one of the most critically reviled films of the year, the feature film version of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona And Beezus (Fox), Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (Warner), Marina de Van’s Don’t Look Back (IFC) with Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, The Lightkeepers (Image) with Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner, Lau Kar-Leung’s classic martial arts movie Shaolin Mantis (Vivendi) and the newly remastered The Endless Summer: Director’s Special Edition (Monterey).