Believe it or not, there are only seven full shopping weeks before something called Santa Claus teaches the wee ones of the world a lesson in misguided materialism and hope-crushing gift disappointment. Of course, this means DVD marketers industry wide are stuck trying to find creative ways of pushing the same product back into your already bloated gift sack. As you venture into your local technology center, wish list gripped firmly in hand, you will have to navigate shelves filled with box sets, special editions, limited releases and the always aggravating double dips. Still, if you look closely, you’ll see some very worthy fare out there – as well as a horrid comedy from three months ago that, hopefully, will die the oversized death its undersized storyline so richly deserves. With such a diverse selection to choose from, the only advice SE&L can supply is select wisely – oh, and anything from Criterion or Something Weird Video is always welcome under the blog’s bountiful Yuletide tree. The possible prizes awaiting your wampum for 7 November are:
Why, exactly, did critics pick on Pixar and this latest example of their anthropomorphic expertise? Is it all just a matter of success-based jealousy, or was there something really wrong with this story about a spoiled stock car who learns valuable life lessons at the hands of some backwater automobiles. For all the claims that this ‘only average’ entry in the company’s creative canon could not match the magic of Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., for SE&L’s money, this was some unbelievably fun stuff. Besides, the computer animation bar is set at right around The Incredibles for us, and all other offerings more or less pale in comparison. Still, Cars was a solid, sensationally realized effort that may have poured on the schmaltz, but still delivered an array of dizzying visuals that made the basic narrative explode with invention and wonder. If this is supposedly run of the mill animation, what does one label the frequently lame offerings from other cartoon creators?
Carousel: 50th Anniversary Edition*
One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s more inventive and evocative musicals, this forgotten gem gets frequently overlooked (along with the unworthy Flower Drum Song) when classic song and dance showcases are considered. And that’s too bad, since it features some of the duo’s more ambitions tunes and a pair of compelling performances from Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow and Shirley Jones as Julie Jordan. Granted, the subject matter here is much darker than in your standard Broadway show, and the operetta approach can throw some artform aficionados off their game, but this is still one of the best combinations of story, performance and melody the pair ever attempted. Long available on DVD, this new 50th Anniversary presentation promises commentary, cut songs and an overview of the production. Even better, you can round out your collection by picking up the Box Set edition which includes other timeless masterworks like The Sound of Music and South Pacific.
Cinema Paradiso: Collector’s Edition*
What exactly, has happened to Giuseppe Tornatore in recent years? A look at his IMDb resume reveals a string of films since this 1989 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, but after the solid follow-up, Everybody’s Fine, his efforts have never really made an impact outside his Italian homeland. While his 1998 movie The Legend of 1990 is plastered all over some pay cable channels, few of his other productions have made it over to our discerning shores. And that’s too bad, since this love letter to cinema is one of the best nostalgic narratives the medium has to offer. Tornatore, using a flashback style storyline, expresses everything that’s magic, maddening, and moving about motion pictures, and does so with limited sap and just a small amount of pap. Previous DVD editions have revealed differing cuts of the film, as well as limited supplemental elements. This newest presentation promises to include all available versions, as well as a few complementary surprises.
The Fallen Idol: The Criterion Collection*
Carol Reed, the British director responsible for several of cinema’s more outstanding milestones (The Third Man, Oliver!) delivered one of the most devastating takes on hero worship and shattered expectations ever attempted. In this classic coming of age tale, a young boy looks up to the family butler, a secretive man whose life appears both purposefully enigmatic and oddly clandestine. When a murder forces the child to confront his issues of loyalty and adulation, the truth becomes more difficult to decipher than the mixed messages from the adults around him. Long lost to the occasional revival by a classic film channel, Criterion steps up and gives this minor masterwork the preservationist’s polish it so richly deserves. With a brand new black and white transfer, and a documentary about the filmmaker and his fascinating career, there is more to this release than just a chance to own a remarkable motion picture. It’s a chance to celebrate a forgotten artist as well.
SE&L is sick and tired of every review of this film pointing out that the so-called story for this anti-comedy atrocity is lifted directly from the Warner Brothers cartoon “Baby Buggy Bunny”. Granted, this horrible hackwork by the used to be talented Wayans Brothers did lift a few of its fetid gags from the 1954 animated short, but there is a far more disturbing source for much of this movie’s Apocalyptic awfulness. In 1932, the Our Gang/Little Rascals starred in “Free Eats”, a slapstick send-up of poverty and the orphaned featuring – you guessed it – a pair of midgets pretending to be babies. Their ruse? To rob a rich matron of her fancy jewels. Since the dowager is throwing a party for the star unfortunates, the crooks come along for the toddler carriage ride. All manner of racially insensitive, but still quite hilarious, hi-jinx ensue. It’s the only thing that separates the humorous efforts of the past from the laugh-free lameness of this Summer of 2006 cinematic hate crime.
Oh! What a Lovely War!
Political satire usually comes in one of two distinct packages: outlandish and obvious, or subtle and subversive. Oddly, this 1969 British effort – clearly timed as a rebuke of the US involvement in Vietnam - wants to be a little bit of both. With an approach that’s more like a musical M*A*S*H* than an actual attempt at lampooning the events of World War I, Sir Richard Attenborough follows the infamous Charles Chilton play rather faithfully. He also gets magical performances out of UK staples Maggie Smith, Ian Holm and John Mills, among many others. There was a lot of behind the scenes intrigue during the making of this movie, and with its absence from the DVD domain, the newly minted special edition promises to address some of the scandal. In this time of war, where questions are being raised regarding the nobility of dying for an unjust cause, this ripping roast of the insanity of armed conflict may finally find an eager and accepting audience.
It’s a hobby that can count such diverse persons as Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and Bob Dole as participants. It requires a knowledge of language, a skill at problem solving, and a mind that can strategize and extemporize equally well. Indeed, everyday, millions of people around the world sit down with their morning paper and don’t feel fully awake until they’ve had a crack at the crossword puzzle. This delightful documentary centers on the 28th Annual competition for “professional” solvers, and yet it’s the testimonials from the famous and the faithful that really resonate throughout. Watching people describe their ‘addiction’, admitting to themselves for perhaps the first time that their lives are undeniably linked to discovering a five letter word for “frequently indifferent” is truly enlightening. Bolstered by a wealth of added content, and a chance to see who actually wins the final round of the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, this terrific title is enough to make you grab a pencil and start deciphering for yourself.
And Now for Something Completely Different:
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 7 November:
Francis Ford Coppola Presents William S. Burroughs’ The Junky’s Christmas*
If you’re fed up of all the syrupy, saccharine holiday specials that seemingly clog up your TV screen about 30 seconds after Halloween ends, Francis Ford Coppolla and famed Beat author William Burroughs have the perfect antidote for you. This stop motion animated treat, based on the Burroughs’ story of the same name, centers around a recently incarcerated dope fiend desperate for a fix. When he finally scores, he’s forced into a position of either fending for himself, or helping out another in need. The work by director Nick Donkin is amazing, a kind of anti-Rankin/Bass approach where reality and surrealism are mixed together to form a unique combination of fact and fairy tale. Of course, Burroughs narrates this excellent adaptation, and his cracked, croaking voice adds just the right amount of seasonal cynicism. Presented along with a pair of short films that are equally evocative, here’s the perfect stocking stuffer for those who’d like to see the entire commercialized celebration blown up.