Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Told you I’d be back sooner rather than later. I can’t dawdle if I’m going to ever hope to catch up on all the DVD reviews I have to write.
I’m still going to try to group titles thematically if I can, and sometimes studios help by putting out a fistful of stuff all at once (can’t wait to watch that WARNER BROS. GANGSTER box this week), but some days we’ll just do a grab bag of whatever I can pull off the stack first.
Today, I’m reviewing ten recent releases worth your attention, one of which is an old favorite that I feel like I just saw for the first time. As always, I’ve got my entire DVD collection set up at DVD Aficionado, a great site that I’ve enjoyed working with. They’ve changed things so I can only keep 500 titles per category at most, so things are spread out a bit. Still, with very few exceptions, I’ve been able to find all my titles in their archives. You can check it out right here if you’re curious, and I’ve made sure to point out what was purchased, what was sent as a screener, and what was a gift, since so many of your e-mails seemed to think that was so urgently important.
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THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and RAGTIME
NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS and MARK OF THE DEVIL
TWO BROTHERS and THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL
THUNDERBIRDS, ELF, and A WRINKLE IN TIME
THE ESSENTIALS: MARY POPPINS 40th Anniversary Edition
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
These two period dramas are exactly the sort of films that I love seeing released on DVD, movies that I know by title or reputation, but that I’ve never seen for one reason or another. Catching up with them in beautiful new anamorphic transfers makes me very happy, especially when I end up enjoying the films as much as I did in this case.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is one of the darkest films Sydney Pollack ever directed, and it’s also one of his best, an ugly, sweaty little story about just how far desperation will drive people. Horace McCoy’s novel about the bizarre Depression-era fad of dance marathons provided Pollack with a rich canvass upon which to paint a half-dozen indelible portraits of people pushed past their breaking points. Jane Fonda’s the lead, but the whole cast is given excellent material to play in the screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson. Michael Sarrazin’s got a twitchy, sleepy charisma as the drifter who gets pressed into being Fonda’s partner in the contest. Susannah York plays an aspiring actress who hopes to use the contest as a springboard to roles in Hollywood movies. Gig Young, the MC and organizer of the event, won an Oscar for his work here, and it’s a deeply cynical performance. He’s a man who is weary, worn out, but still willing to sell the suffering of others as long as he can keep his own head above water. Bonnie Bedelia, so young she’s hard to recognize, plays a pregnant hayseed who has actually won other marathons with her husband, Bruce Dern. And then there’s Red Buttons, easily the oldest of the contestants, a Navy guy who refuses to let age or infirmity beat him down.
So what exactly is a dance marathon? Well, it’s a sort of nightmare the way Pollack depicts it. Couples hit the ballroom floor and start dancing and then don’t stop until the last couple drops. I expected it would cover a period of several days, or maybe even a week, but this is a whole different level of endurance test. They get a few 10-minute breaks a day, but other than that, they’re on their feet and moving for upward of 80 days. They eat while dancing, they take turns sleeping while dancing, and little by little, they all go mad. The couples who hold out all end up with the same sort of shell-shocked expressions on their faces. It’s not a dance contest. It’s a death march, and Pollack wrings every bit of seedy sorrow and heartbreak out of it that he can. The period detail is persuasive, and by the end of the movie, you’ll feel like you’ve endured this experience alongside these characters. The film was nominated for nine Oscars in 1969, and it’s every bit as potent now as it must have been then. MGM/UA’s transfer does a great job of reproducing the dreamy photography, and they’ve included English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There are no special features, but it’s a great price for a great film. Check it out.
RAGTIME’s another laugh riot, two and a half hours of racial tension and slow-simmering sexual scandal set against the sprawling backdrop of America at the dawn of the 20th century. Milos Forman’s film may not be as dense or hallucinatory as E.L. Doctrow’s undeniably brilliant novel, but looking at the film now, removed from all the crushing weight of expectation, it’s a pretty damn great yarn in its own right. There are four or five major storylines entertwined here, but first and foremost, it’s the story of Coalhouse Walker, played with such natural charisma by Howard E. Rollins Jr. that it’s hard to believe this wasn’t a springboard to a much larger career. His story is initially one of optimism as he tracks down and reconnects with his pregnant girlfriend, played by Debbie Allen. He seems so dizzy with love when we first meet him that we’re not sure why she would have run away from him. It becomes clear that darker passions than love run his life, though, when he’s involved in a relatively minor, though humiliating, incident with a racist douchebag of a fireman (Kenneth McMillan). Coalhouse digs in and starts a war of principle that has devastating results for almost every one of the major characters that we meet.
The film’s packed with familiar faces like Brad Dourif, Moses Gunn, Elizabeth McGovern, Pat O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, Mandy Patinkin, and Mary Steenburgen. I was surprised to also see Samuel L. Jackson in one of his earliest roles, already a commanding presence. In his last screen appearance, the legendary James Cagney raises some hell as the police commissioner, a man who knows how badly things are going to end well before they do. As with THEY SHOOT HORSES, much of the pleasure of RAGTIME comes from the period detail and the texture of the piece. In this case, I love how Forman uses newsreels to help establish time and place. McGovern fans (and I can’t be the only one who harbored a major crush all through the ‘80s) should be delighted to see that, despite the PG rating, she treats us to one of her only full-frontal nude scenes. The MPAA’s standards have certainly changed since 1981.
Paramount’s done a nice job with the disc, providing a commentary by Forman and exec producer Michael Hausman, as well as a short documentary called “Remembering RAGTIME.” The anamorphic transfer is crisp and clean, and the restored mono track is actually better than the simulated 5.1 mix. The only subtitles here are in English, but I’m sure the disc is pushing maximum storage capacity as it is. This is a film well worth revisiting or discovering for the first time if you’re like me.
NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS
MARK OF THE DEVIL
Two more relatively obscure horror titles that have been given some loving attention by Blue Underground, one of these is a major find while the other seems, to be generous, overrated.
I’ve never heard of NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS, but horror fans who have any hesitation about picking it up should do so immediately. Director Aldo Lado isn’t some unsung master of the genre, and you could argue that this is just another ultra-violent rehash of THE VIRGIN SPRING, a la LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, but there’s a brutal, unpolished power to the film that eventually becomes quite affecting. It’s hard not to get rattled by a movie that descends this far into depravity without ever seeming to revel in it. We’re meant to be offended here, something that many of the hack slasher directors of the ‘80s seemed to forget in their rush to titillate. Two young girls, on their way home for a holiday, have the tremendously shitty luck of ending up on the same train as two violent punks, Blackie and Curly, who are on the run from the cops. What Lado does particularly well is demonstrate how thin the veneer of civilization is through the example of one character, an upper-class lady traveling alone. Fans of the genre might recognize her as Macha Meril from Argento’s DEEP RED. The college girls recognize the punks for what they are and try to steer clear, but the Lady is turned on, attracted to the danger. When they all switch trains, these five characters end up in an otherwise-empty car. A series of hellish events unfold with no hope of escape for the girls, and the Lady doesn’t just watch... she spurs it on. It’s like she’s been waiting for an excuse to indulge the most cruel and sadistic aspects of her nature.
Eventually, the Lady and the thugs face their own personal horror thanks to a twist of circumstance that will seem familiar to fans of Craven’s LAST HOUSE. Again, though, I’ve got to give the edge to this film. Lado just plain pays it off better, and there’s a greater sense of satisfaction to the way things wrap up. This is an unremittingly grim film, but a smart one, and the transfer’s really well done. There’s an interview with Lado on the disc, as well as trailers, radio spots, and a poster and still gallery. Seriously... if you’re in the mood for a little-seen horror gem with a vintage Ennio Morricone score, pick this one up immediately.
I wish I could recommend MARK OF THE DEVIL with the same enthusiasm, because I love the subject matter. There’s a brilliant film starring Vincent Price called THE CONQUEROR WORM (or THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, depending on which cut you see) that deals with the cruel influence of 18th century Witchfinders given free reign to torture and kill anyone in the name of the Church. This film deals with the same ideas, and it’s infamous. I’ve heard for years that it was some sort of extreme, transgressive powerhouse. If you’re a gorehound, hearing that about a film is like a dare, and I was excited to put this one in the player as soon as it showed up. Trouble is... it’s dull, dramatically inert, and the gore sequences I’ve heard so much about seem fairly tame. Even in 1970, I can’t imagine what seemed so overwhelming. There are some grace notes, thanks largely to the work by Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, and Reggie Nalder, but it’s a long 96 minutes. To their credit, the folks at Blue Underground put together an amazing array of extras, so if you’re a fan of the film, you’ll have four interviews, a commentary track, trailers, radio spots, and a poster and still gallery to wade through. Even when I’m not crazy about a film they release, I remain deeply impressed by the efforts of this company to please the genre fan.
THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL
Directing any film well is a challenge, and you can often find yourself struggling to communicate with your cast, but when you’re making a film that depends almost entirely on the performances of animals, it’s a whole different level of difficult.
I have boundless respect for the work of Jean-Jacques Annaud. His film THE BEAR is a classic, beautifully built and strikingly photographed. His most recent film, TWO BROTHERS, is a return to form, and this is the kind of film that deserves to do tremendous business on DVD, especially for families. It’s a simple story, and once again, Annaud manages to get magical work out of wild creatures, giving them distinct personalities to such a degree that you can almost imagine what they’re thinking in each scene. Two tiger cubs are captured and separated. One is sold to a circus and subjected to a difficult life full of abuse, while the other is given as a gift to the son of a local governor. Freddie Highmore, currently winning acclaim for his work in FINDING NEVERLAND, is genuine and winning as the boy who gets to raise a tiger as a pet. Guy Pearce plays the hunter who splits the two cubs up in the first place, only to gradually realize his mistake. Everything hinges on the question of whether or not the two tigers will be reunited and escape to the wild once again. The ending won’t really come as a surprise to anyone, but what makes it work is the way Annaud earns every emotional card he plays. It would take a harder heart than mine to resist this one, and I don’t even like cats.
Universal made sure that the disc is every bit as much fun as the film itself, with several features that show exactly how Annaud managed to get all of this on film. The effects work in the movie is seamless and invisible, and there are several shots that fooled me completely. The movie looks great, and Jean-Marie Dreujou’s incredibly lush photography has been faithfully reproduced. There are English and Spanish subtitles on the disc, with English, French, and Spanish language 5.1 tracks.
I’m pretty sure that THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL is the first Mongolian language picture I’ve ever seen. In some ways, it reminds me of ATANARJUAT THE FAST RUNNER, the Inuit film that came out a few years ago. That was a fairly raw story of jealousy and murder, though, whereas this is a sweet-natured film about one family’s struggle to get one of their camels to nurse her newborn colt. And, yep... that’s the whole plot. Yet, somehow, it’s an involving, fascinating experience that ends up feeling like a documentary, even though it’s not. Filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni pull of a completely natural, unobtrusive aesthetic that is immersive, and there’s a slow, hypnotic rhythm to the way things unfold. The “actors,” if you can call them that, are all playing themselves, but this is definitely a story that has been carefully crafted. It allows us to experience the life that they face every day, but instead of treating them like aliens or putting us in the position of just gawking at them, it works hard to create empathy so that we understand what these small daily struggles mean to them. When their youngest son, Ugna, gets a chance to watch TV during a visit to a distant neighbor, the sheer awe on his face is a reminder that even though this is modern-day, the things we take for granted can be wonders to other people who share this planet with us. Even better is the final punchline to the film, one of the rare moments that isn’t subtitled, but it doesn’t need to be. We know full well what Ugna’s yelling at his brother, Dude. When you finally get to the moment that gives the film its title, it is a startling, powerful image that underlines the idea that all of us, whether human or animal, share certain qualities of the heart. I found the entire experience to be powerfully moving, and would recommend this to anyone, young or old. New Line Home Video, which distributed the film for ThinkFilm, did a nice job with the disc, but I would have loved some sort of behind-the-scenes feature in which the filmmakers discussed what was real and what was staged, since the line is so difficult to distinguish as an audience. Still, it’s a small complaint. The movie’s subititled in English, French, and Spanish, and the transfer perfectly preserves the 1.77:1 aspect ratio and the lovely cinematography.
A WRINKLE IN TIME
Making family films can be tricky business. The best of them play to audiences across the board, and they frequently work for different age groups on different levels. The worst of them condescend to children while openly insulting the parents who they dragged along.
The original Gerry Anderson THUNDERBIRDS TV series and films were fun, but never exactly the cutting edge of hip. There’s a sort of innocent goofiness to Anderson’s work, and there was something insanely silly about watching an action show where everyone’s on strings. The idea of making a new, updated version of THUNDERBIRDS has been kicking around for a while now. Peter Hewitt was going to make an all-CG version at one point (sort of like this updated version of Anderson’s CAPTAIN SCARLETT, which looks dead-on faithful to the spirit of the original), but that fell apart. The film that was finally made appears to be a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the success of Robert Rodriguez’s SPY KIDS films. It’s bad enough that they would make a THUNDERBIRDS movie without puppets, but to also make one that relegates the Tracy family to the status of background players is just plain stupid.
Jonathan Frakes isn’t to blame, even if fanboys love to beat him up for no good reason. He does his best to keep things energetic and colorful, and he’s confident with the effects work, what little there is. He also got lucky with two key pieces of casting. Sophia Myles plays Lady Penelope, and she’s a total cutie pie with a good head for comedy. She’s paired up with Ron Cook, who plays her chauffeur/bodyguard Parker. The two of them liven up every scene they’re in, and if the whole film had been played the same way, it might have worked. Bill Paxton plays the head of the Tracy family, and his four adult sons might as well be played by puppets, since not one of the guys has an ounce of screen presence. I just plain feel bad for Brady Corbet, who plays Alan, the youngest son. He’s saddled with a miserable role here, the kid who wants to be a Thunderbird more than anything. It’s just so painfully on the nose, a pandering attempt to draw kids into the film. Corbet seems drawn to more provocative and edgy material for the most part with roles in THIRTEEN and the new Gregg Araki film, and they’ll serve him much better in the long run than plastic crap like this. Ben Kingsley does what he can as “The Hood,” the film’s bad guy, but there’s nothing there to play. Same thing with Anthony Edwards as Brains, the tech guy for the Thunderbirds. How many variations have we seen on this character type by now? It’s got to be written smarter than this. Alan’s given the a couple of kid companions who are equally familiar stereotypes, a tomboy girl and Brain’s supersmart nerd son. Even worse than the anemic characterization, though, is the near-total lack of action scenes involving the Thunderbirds. Isn’t that the point of the whole thing? You know... rocket ships and experimental jets and stuff like that?
Universal did a nice job putting together the extras for the disc, with five featurettes that cover things like design and effects and stunt work. There’s also a music video and a director’s commentary track. The transfer is bright and colorful, better than Brendan Galvin’s garish photography deserves, frankly. The film’s got French and Spanish subtitles, as well as English, French, and Spanish 5.1 tracks. If you liked the film, then the disc is definitely worth picking up, but if you’re just a fan of the original THUNDERBIRDS, track down some DVDs of that series instead.
Jon Favreau’s ELF isn’t going to win any prizes for its narrative, either, but no matter how thin the script is, the film works because it’s got charm to spare. Will Ferrell gives Buddy the Elf such heart and soul that he’s impossible to dislike. The rest of the cast is equally good. Zooey Deschanel is practically the poster girl for “quirky,” and she’s adorable in (or out of) her elf outfit. It’s easy to see why Buddy is smitten with her. Ed Asner and Bob Newhart, both veteran comedy character actors, make the North Pole great fun, and James Caan gives great slow burn as Buddy’s real father. New Line made this one of their Infinifilm releases, so it’s overflowing with extra features. The Will Ferrell commentary is great fun, very personal and low-key, while the Favreau commentary is filled with informative anecdotes. There are deleted scenes and a number of documentaries about the making of the movie. The second disc, which features the fullscreen version of the film, has extras that are far more kid-oriented, things like Elf Karaoke and Buddy’s Adventure Games. The film features English and Spanish subtitles as well as a Spanish stereo surround mix. Overall, this is a perfect example of how New Line continues to prove that when the want to, they can turn out some of the best DVDs on the market.
Disney also knows how to create a great DVD, but it helps when they start with a good film. I missed A WRINKLE IN TIME when it aired on ABC, so when the disc showed up in the mail, I was curious. I was a big fan of the novels by Madeleine L’Engle while I was growing up, and I remember what mind-benders the books about the Murray family were. It would take a smart director with a strong vision to turn these into films, and John Kent Harrison, unfortunately, is not the man for the job. He’s got no visual style to speak of, and he strands his actors. In particular, he seems to have no idea what to do with David Dorfman (the creepy kid from THE RING and THE RING 2) as Charles Wallace. It’s a tricky role, the most important in the film, and if he doesn’t work, nothing does.
It doesn’t help that Susan Shilliday’s script has no idea how to translate the surreal complexity of L’Engle’s novel. At 128 minutes, the film manages to both overstay its welcome and feel completely rushed. Kate Nelligan, Alfre Woodard, and Allison Elliott all try their best to inject some life into things as Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, respectively. Kyle Secor, who doesn’t seem to work often enough, is miscast completely as the bad guy of the piece. Anyone who remembers his quirky work on NBC’s HOMICIDE knows how good he can be, but you’d never know it from this film. Ultimately, there was only one thing I enjoyed about the disc, an interview with the reclusive L’Engle. It may be the only time I’ve ever heard her speak about her own work, and for that reason alone, this is worth at least a rental for any fans. There are some deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette also included. The film’s been transferred at 1.33:1 and features a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. This is part of a new series of adaptations of books that Disney is issuing, and I’ll be sure to check out WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS and THE YOUNG BLACK STALLION soon.
THE ESSENTIALS: MARY POPPINS 40th Anniversary Edition
If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, then this DVD should be no problem at all, because it’s one of 2004’s sweetest releases, a spectacular 2-disc edition of one of the company’s crown gems. Watching the film, as well as the wealth of extra features, was more than just a nostalgic pleasure. Instead, this was one of those moments where something played totally different for me as an adult than it did as a kid, and I can honestly say that I love this film even more today.
I’m not sure what I thought the film was about when I was young. It’s always been incredibly enjoyable, especially because of the wonderful mix of animation and live-action. Who doesn’t love Julie Andrews as the nanny who is “practically perfect in every way”? She lost out on playing Eliza Doolittle in the film version of MY FAIR LADY, but that turned out to be a godsend, because she’s perfect for this role. She’s so young and so beautiful and has such an amazing crystal clear voice that it’s no wonder Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) Banks fall for her almost at once. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman wrote some of their very best songs for this film, and they’ve stuck with me ever since that first viewing all those years ago. “Sister Suffragette,” “A Spoonful Of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “I Love To Laugh,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Step In Time” are all wonderful, but there are three songs that tower over the others. They may well be among the best songs from the entire Disney library. “Stay Awake” is a brilliant anti-lullaby. “Feed The Birds” is like an anthem about empathy, a wrenchingly pretty number. But it’s “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” that really kicked my ass this time around, and it changed my opinion of the entire point of the film.
As I mentioned here on the site recently, I’m about to become a father, and it’s hard not to see things through the prism of that experience right now. What I never realized is that this film isn’t about the kids. Instead, it’s a moral fable in which Mr. Banks (played by the magnificent David Tomlinson) learns the lesson that you cannot allow someone else to raise your children for you, and you have to cherish the time you have with them. The kids don’t really learn any lessons from Mary Poppins, but Mr. Banks certainly does. It’s one of the most joyous epiphanies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Watch the closing moments of the film in particular. The kids are upstairs saying a tearful goodbye to Mary Poppins, who knows it’s time to leave, and they’re begging her to stay when their father suddenly comes home, transformed by what he’s learned. As soon as the kids see the change in him, they forget all about Mary Poppins. They don’t even finish their goodbyes. They’re so caught up in this newfound rush of emotion from their father that they just run off with him. This is what they’ve wanted... no, what they’ve needed... all along. “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” is an ode to this sudden unity, the sound of a family coming together for the first time, and I found it to be unspeakably beautiful.
That’s the same way I’d describe the transfer that Disney did for the movie. The film’s restored 1.66:1 image is a revelation, and the brand-new 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater mix is a treat from start to finish. The 139 minutes of the film fly by, and disc one’s got a great audio commentary with Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, the Sherman brothers, and Dick Van Dyke. There are also French and Spanish 5.1 mixes. Disc two features a deleted song, “Chimpanzoo,” which has been reconstructed using storyboard and concept art, and it’s great to hear it. I do think Disney made the right decision to cut it, but it’s still fascinating. There are two features about the Oscar-winning score, and a tremendous making-of documentary. Some of my favorite material deals with Walt Disney’s various efforts to convince P.L. Travers to let him make a film based on her work. She sounds like a wonderful, difficult woman, and her demands made Disney work even harder to get the film right. I was surprised and saddened to learn that Matthew Garber, who played Michael, died young, which explains why he’s not part of any of the extra features. There’s a tasteful and moving tribute to him included, fitting since his only three films were Disney titles. Finally, there’s a brand-new short cartoon based on another of the MARY POPPINS stories by Travers. It’s the weakest thing on the disc, but that’s a minor complaint at best. Overall, this is one of those discs that actually makes a classic film even better. If you have kids... or if you’ve ever been one... you have to add this to your collection immediately.