DVDs for 5/26/09 – Sky Crawlers, Jack Bauer, Harlan Ellison and more

The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature The Sky Crawlers (Sony) is a more somber and contemplative film than most people would expect from the director of the Ghost in the Shell films. His story of a perpetual war fought by corporate entities with private air forces of eternally young fighter pilots in an alternate reality Europe (adapted from a novel by Hiroshi Mori) is a work of stillness and quiet, a world where these orphaned kildren arrive on eerily deserted air force bases and live an abstract existence between missions. The mix of traditional cel animation (for the characters) and 3D CGI (for the planes and the backgrounds) gives it a surreal, hypnotic quality broken only by the dynamic scenes of battle, which Oshii shoots with a visual intensity that shatters the meditative peace of their existence below. It’s  an unusual animated feature and that’s part of what I like about this film and its sensibility, so different from American animated films. I have always appreciated Oshii’s talent for creating pensive animation and if you like this, you should seek out his Patlabor features, which paces the giant robot action with contemplative scenes of characters simply thinking or resting.

Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer has had some bad days but the twenty four hours of 24: Season 7 (Fox) may be his worst yet: He starts the morning investigate by a congressional committee for torture and ends up facing domestic terrorists while slowly dying from a biological attack. In between he helps the FBI, goes rogue with a Scooby Gang of former CTU agents (including Carlos Bernard as Tony Almeida and Mary Lynn Rajskub as fan favorite Chloe O’Brian) working outside the intelligence community, battles a truly audacious assault on the White House and takes on the show’s equivalent of Blackwater as it engages in domestic terrorism. It’s still full of the crazed twists, shady endgames and wild card intrigues while blithely making the case for torture as a legitimate intelligence tool (easily the show’s greatest fiction). But if can roll with all of that, it’s as good as the series has ever been. Jon Voight and Will Patton make fine guest villains, Cherry Jones plays the president this time around, Janeane Garofalo gets to play the impotent liberal voice decrying the trampling of American civil rights, and even the return of his daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) is mostly bearable. The strange history of the show skipping a season due to the writer’s strike is covered in the 15-minute featurette 24-7: The Untold Story, which chronicles the difficult development of the season’s storyline without once mentioning Sutherland’s run-in with the law (which might have ended the season even of the writer’s strike hadn’t).
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DVD of the Week – The Films Of Budd Boetticher – Nov 4, 2008

Budd Boetticher, one of the most neglected of American auteurs, gets some much overdue respect with the marvelous box set The Films of Budd Boetticher, a collection of five features starring Randolph Scott and produced by Scott’s production company. The films are not exactly B-movies but they are lean productions, shot on 18-days schedules and small budgets, and not a one of them breaks 80 minutes. In a few of the most urban theaters they might have played bottom of a double bill, but most everywhere else these films were sold on the strength of star Randolph Scott and his track record as a reliable western star. Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters, a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. When he moved, it meant something.

The earliest film in the set, The Tall T (1957) is also one of the best and a genuine western classic, with a tiny central cast and vivid characters carved out of the rogues gallery, especially Richard Boone as the charming but ruthless gangleader. Burt Kennedy, who first worked with Budd Boetticher on Seven Men From Now, writes the perfectly tuned, beautifully austere script and Boetticher matches it with a style stripped of all flourish and focused in on the tensions and dynamics that play out in the hostage situation.

The set includes the offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown (all mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) along with his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, both scripted by Kennedy and set in the almost abstract nowhereland of the desert. The latter films, like The Tall T, are lean stories about men on the dangerous, inhospitable frontier, and they stand next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford.

Read my DVD review on MSN here.

Also new this week is the cult sci-fi show The Starlost, famously created by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, who took their name of the project when they saw what the budget-starved Canadian project turned into. Or at least Ellison did, turning to the pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird” for creator and script credits. Bova’s name stuck as science adviser, much to his chagrin in a show that pointedly ignored all his science advice. Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame) stars as a kind of flower child peacenik who rebels against his repressive agrarian culture (a cross between an Amish village and a religious cult) and the dictatorial leader (guest star sterling Hayden) and discovers his enclosed society is really a sealed pod on a giant crewless space ark that has drifted off course. It’s sort of like Star Trek, except all the new life and new civilizations are discovered in the many sealed pods on this ship, which Dullea and his companions (Gay Rowan and Robin Ward) explore on a scavenger hunt to find the lost secrets of the science and engineering needed to put the ship back on course. The Canadian series was shot on videotape and filled with primitive video blue-screen effects, which are more endearing than convincing, and was shown in the U.S. on NBC in 1973 until it was cancelled. The four disc set features all 16 episodes, most of which have not been seen in syndication for decades. the DVD review is featured in the DVD column’s TV section.
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