I haven't posted any DVD reviews in a while, so here is some of the titles I've endured or enjoyed recently
Indiana Jones: the Adventure Collection
Just in time to help publicize the new Indiana Jones movie, Paramount has released the first three films in a boxed set. The films had been released in a previous boxed set, which is still available and the difference is in the extras they are all new for the new edition.
As for the films themselves, they are a mixed bag, although all hold up very well. I vividly remember my friend Dave Mackey and I catching a peek of the first film at a sneak preview and both of us were bowled over. I'm happy to say I'm still bowled over 20-plus years after the fact.
Director Stephen Spielberg explains in his introduction to the film in the new DVD edition that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a test for him to prove he could make a commercial film at or under budget. He deliberately wanted to make a film that was inspired by the Republic serials of the 1930s and '40s and he wanted the production to be fast and relatively inexpensive.
The result was a fast-moving adventure film with a truly different kind of hero that might have seemed vaguely nostalgic to some in the audience, but not to most of them.
In this era of computer-generated images, the three Jones films, which relied on old-fashioned stunt works and physical props, don't seem dated at all. Instead, there is a bracing quality to the "real" action.
My favorite still remains the first. I love the chemistry in the film between Harrison Ford and Western Massachusetts' own Karen Allen and I think the casting of the villains was inspired.
The second film is essentially a horror movie and once you embrace the notion, I think it works very well. "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is a historic film as its rating of PG caused such an uproar among parents that the Motion Picture Producers Association amended the rating system to include PG-13.
The third film, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," was my least favorite film when I saw it during its theatrical release. Upon another viewing, though, I really liked the film's humor which is more prominent than in the previous two films and I liked Sean Connery's performance as the elder Jones.
The extras are quite informative and I especially liked a discussion taped in 2003 between the three female leads of the film as well as a discussion on how the filmmakers worked with thousands of bugs, rats and snakes during the course of the three films.
This set is a must-have for your movie library, if you don't already have the films.
Ice Cube has carved out an interesting genre for himself: films depicting urban life that have humor but more importantly a strong dramatic core. I really liked "Barber Shop," which was sold as a flat-out comedy, but was really an engaging drama.
"First Sunday" is from the same cloth. Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan star as two young men raised in the foster care system who have drifted in and out of trouble with the law. When Durell (Ice Cube) learns the mother of his beloved son might be forced to move out of the state because the landlord of her hair salon has demanded a year's worth of rent up front, Durell is confronted with how he can obtain the money for her. After stumbling into a local church with his friend Lee John (Tracy Morgan), Durell decides to rob the church.
What transpires is an involving story about true faith and hypocrisy.
Director and writer David Talbert keeps the action, both comic and dramatic, moving well and the performances are on the mark. Katt Williams almost steals the show as a wisecracking chorus director.
The DVD features the usual extras of a gag reel and deleted scenes.
Well-worth watching, "First Sunday" is a comedy with heart.
For more information, log onto www.sonypictures.com.
The Loch Ness Terror
Here's a simple rule of thumb: television series on the Sci-Fi Channel have a solid statistical chance of being good. Their original movies, on the other hand, are almost bound to be awful.
Why? I wish I could tell you and "Loch Ness Terror" follows that rule. This bloodthirsty dino movie offers the idea that aquatic dinosaurs have survived over the years and have migrated from Scotland through various undersea tunnels to Lake Superior where they find a new group of humans to munch.
The hero of this film is a nomadic cryptozoologist played with a Clint Eastwood swagger by Brian Krause. This guy even smokes little cigars like Eastwood's heroes in his spaghetti westerns of 40 years ago.
Our hero has to convince the skeptical small-town sheriff is there any other kind? before her own son is dino food.
The effects are acceptable and have a level of gore that might offend more sensible viewers, but more sensible viewers aren't the target audience for this by-the-numbers horror film.
Log on to www.sonypictures.com for more information.
Oban Star Racer: Volume One
This French-Japanese animated television co-production is a lot of fun and I found myself watching episode after episode.
Set in the future, the fate of Earth is going to be determined by an intergalactic race set on the planet Oban. The Earth team is headed by rocket racing producer Don Weis who is unaware that his 15-year-old daughter Molly has joined his crew. He hasn't seen his daughter for years and she is just another mechanic to him.
Part "Speed Racer" and part "Last Star Fighter," "Oban Star Racer" is funny, fast and surprisingly touching at times.
I love the design of the show and the animation seamlessly meshes more traditional two-dimensional work with computer-produced three-dimensional animation.
For more information, log into www.shoutfactory.com.
Paranormal U: Season One
My wife pretty much hates the trashy reality shows I will admit I watch. She particularly dislikes "Ghost Hunters" as she says that nothing really ever happens on the show other than some one says they feel cold all of a sudden.
She's right. "Ghost Hunters" is pretty lame at times, especially when compared to "Paranormal U," a reality show featuring a student organization from Penn State that investigates possible paranormal activity.
While "Ghost Hunters" is shot in a straight-ahead no-frills fashion, "Paranormal U" is shot and edited as a horror film. And in this series, there are events captured on camera that are genuinely creepy.
The star of the show is Ryan Buell, a journalism student who has been fascinated with the paranormal since he had a visitation when he was a young child and is the founder of the group. The producers have Buell doing a voice-over that is often times too theatrical.
Certain episodes are better than others. I especially liked one about a bar haunted by a guy identified as having committed suicide there in the 1930s. "Charlie" doesn't like wine glasses and smashes them. During one on-camera interview, a wine glass comes tumbling down and freaked out one of the team members who had to exit the building.
This series is bound to invite criticism from people who believe that ghosts are in our minds rather than the attic, but if you're like me and am intrigued by such subjects, give this series a try.
Sweeney Todd: Two-Disc Special Edition
I've been a big Tim Burton fan for years, but I have to admit I didn't rush to the theater to see his adaptation of the 1980s Broadway hit "Sweeney Todd." Granted, I'm not a big musical fan and the concept of transforming a near iconic horror legend into a song and dance film just didn't interest me.
"Sweeney Todd" under Burton's hand as director is a stylish, beautifully realized film. It is perhaps his best produced film as Burton, while having a great eye for the visuals, has had trouble telling his stories effectively. "Sweeney Todd" wraps every little story point up very neatly.
If you've not heard of the Sweeney Todd legend, something that originated in penny dreadfuls of 19th century England, then you need to know Johnny Depp plays "the demon barber of Fleet Street," a man who is seeking revenge against the judge who wronged him. His disgust with humanity, though, leads him to start killing just about anybody who comes off the street looking for a shave.
Todd has formed an alliance with an impoverished baker, Mrs. Lovetts (played by Helena Bonham Carter), who needs meat for her meat pies. Need I say more?
Murder, cannibalism, sexual perversion and bloodthirsty revenge are at the center of Burton's film which brings a revised version of Stephen Sondheim's musical to the big screen.
While I admire the film for its look, I really couldn't get into it. While there are several sympathetic characters in the movie, they are relatively minor ones. Without some sort of conflict between good and evil there isn't any real suspense. We know Todd will eventually kill the judge and we know that generally things must end pretty badly for all of the central characters.
The result then is a very bloody ride to a predictable conclusion.
There is a whole DVD's worth of extras including a very interesting one on the origins of the Sweeney Todd character and another on the legendary Grand Guignol Theater of Paris that specialized in gory melodramas.
For more information log onto www.dreamworks.com.
Although the idea of telling a story through "found" footage is not new the modern trend for this style of storytelling originated with "The Last Broadcast" and was popularized with "The Blair Witch Project" "Cloverfield" is still quite a singular movie experience.
Everyone who has ever sat through a giant monster movie has seen scenes in which the creature is stomping through city streets raising havoc and inevitably squashing victims just trying to get out of his way. What if the story was told from the perspective of those hapless city dwellers people who have no real idea of what is happening except there is something very big and inexplicable trying to kill them?
Producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves take this approach to the story. A group of young people is at a party. One of them is taping the event. When all hell breaks loose he keeps taping it. What we see is the tape that has been recovered.
While the first 15 minutes or so of the film seem a little long as the characters are introduced, once the monster makes his debut the film rolls along a quick clip. There are plenty of scares as the group we are following make their way to midtown Manhattan to attempt a rescue of a friend.
What I loved about this film is even when we get a clear view of the monster, the beast's design is so original I still did not truly understand just what I was seeing. And the subway tunnel sequence in the film goes down in my book as a modern horror classic.
The extras include the now standard "making of" featurette, which in this case, is actually quite interesting. There are two alternative endings to the film presented as well, but neither actually makes narrative changes to the film.
"Cloverfield" is an original, very scary and relatively bloodless fright fest.
For more information, log onto www.paramount.com/
Ah, the relentless silliness of a 50-plus year-old serial is the balm I frequently seek after a day of laboring in the media vineyard and "Jungle Queen" surprisingly took care of my chapter play jones.
I say "surprisingly" because of the three studios that produced these action films aimed at juvenile audiences, Republic Pictures made the best, Columbia Pictures made the loopiest and Universal Pictures made the talkiest. If a sequence could be made in which characters spoke about something rather than showing it, the folks at Universal would do so.
What makes "Jungle Queen," a 1945 13-episode serial, so interesting is its mixture of actual action, implausible plotting and a level of respect for supporting characters one seldom saw in serials. In a nutshell, two American agents are racing around the unexplored jungles of central Africa in 1939 trying to thwart Nazis from taking over the continent. The Nazis are manipulating tribal politics for their own goals, while the mysterious Lothal, "queen of the jungle," is helping the good guys.
What fascinated me was the treatment of the African characters who are portrayed as intelligent and as both good and evil. One doesn't see this kind of characterization very often in American films as of the time.
Will Lothal save the day? Will the Nazis succeed? Log onto www.vcient.com to get your copy and find out yourself.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs