Thursday, February 05, 2009

I haven't posted any DVD reviews in awhile, so here goes:

Studio One Anthology

I don't use the word "important" very often to describe a DVD release, but this collection of 17 hours of "Studio One" on six DVDs is indeed significant to anyone either interested in the presentation of live drama or the history of television.

It's sad to note that since "Studio One" ended its 10-year run in 1958, commercial television has clearly devolved. In the infancy of the medium, sponsors and networks strived to present a variety of programming including the production of plays performed live.

Granted, Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote for shows such as "Studio One," predicted television's decline with his films "network," but I doubt that when he was employed in the 1950s by shows such as this one that he couldn't ever envisioned a time when a show such as "Momma's Boys" would be a network hit.

"Studio One" was one of many live dramatic anthology programs from the 1950s, but it is remembered as one of the best. This collection includes a wide range of shows, from Shakespeare to originals such as "Twelve Angry Men" and "Dino," both of which were later adapted into feature films.

Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach

Back in the 1980s, I used to get various odd things sent to me by studios to help attract my attention to their current theatrical releases. For example, Columbia sent me a dipstick from a car to publicize its movie "Used Cars," with the promise I would receive a part of month to eventually I would be able to build my own used car.

It would be done about now, I bet.

Well, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment just didn't send me a DVD screener of "Balls Out," they also sent me a brand new athletic supporter as a gift -- I guess.

I suppose the gift ties into the scene in which star Seann William Scott coaches the tennis team at a small Nebraska high school in just his athletic supporter.

The director of two of my favorite junk moves, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Dude! Where's My Car?" directed this film in a style I can best describe as a combination of "Napoleon Dynamite" with a low-rent frat comedy.

Williams plays the title character, a has-been tennis player who accidentally winds up the janitor of a high school and who gets to coach the tennis team when the former coach drops dead. His technique to inspire his students includes beer, lap dances, cursing and various scatological behaviors.

Somehow we're supposed to buy into this guy as a lovable eccentric. I'm afraid I didn't.

Although there are a few scattered laughs, largely this comedy is pretty barren of chuckles. Williams tries hard to impress, but he is let down by a really poor script.

Unless you're really desperate, watch something else – almost anything.

Jurassic Fight Club

Hey, you might think that paleontology is some sort of passive egghead discipline with scientists content to scratch stone and dirt away from bones that they then assemble like some sort of model, but think again! There's a lot of action there, although it's sort of like "CSI" action -- piecing together stories from dinosaur crime scenes.

That's the spirit of the television show "Jurassic Fight Club." The first season has been collected in a new four-disc set and it's a rock 'em, sock 'em show. The premise is that a real prehistoric "crime scene" is explained and re-created for the viewers. For instance, one show explains a fossil finds in which a juvenile T. Rex was killed. What other dinosaur would have dared attack and successfully killed the most feared predator of its age?

Another show examines a "gang" attack of smaller raptor dinos on a docile vegetarian beast. Four raptor remains were found along with the "victim." How did that happen?

Using computer animation, the show recreates the grisly action as described by a number of scientists. They don't pull too many punches so be aware that younger viewers will see dinos ripping each other up.

The show is informative and pretty fast moving and just might be something to interest younger people in history and science blood and guts do have charms for some.

Monster Quest: Season Two

If I ever hit the lottery, I will do many things and chief among them would be underwriting a cryptozoological expedition someplace to try to fund proof of an unconfirmed species of animal.

But since I don't have access to millions of dollars to chase a lake monster or Big Foot, the next best thing is watching people who are doing that in "Monster Quest."

The second season continues the satisfying formula of having actual scientists go out into the field to try to collect evidence of a wide variety of disputed creatures. They don't always come up completely empty-handed, as their investigations have indeed produced interesting photos, hair samples and footprints.

It's hard to dispute the mega-hogs that have been killed and photographed or the attacks on farm animals in which the predator leaves the body behind but drains the victim of blood.

Sometimes the shows are a bit silly, such as the one in which the investigators put a camera rig on a rat in New York City to try to catch a glimpse of a "super rat." What the heck, though -- this is the cutting edge of science!

This show is a lot of fun and seems a bit more plausible than the various ghost investigation shows that almost never are convincing.

Pineapple Express

OK, what if Cheech and Chong had made an action film/dope comedy? Well, I'm trying to wrap my head around Tommy Chong handling a gun -- Cheech Marin already has done such scenes in other films -- but I can't really see it.

So, it's a real accomplishment that the creative team behind "Pineapple Express" was able to make that delicate transition from a dope comedy about two slackers constantly high to an action film in which they find themselves waist deep in crooked cops and warring drug lords. It's not easy mixing genres like that, but director David Gordon Green and writers Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow and Evan Goldberg get it right.

Green was an odd choice, at least on paper, as this project's director, as he has specialized in indie dramas as opposed more high profile studio work. He handles both the comedy and the action very well, though.

The film is centered on the premise of what two stoners would do when they realize their lives are in danger -- would they give up smoking weed long enough to save themselves? And would they have any epiphanies about their lives?

A film that is, in appropriate turns, both satisfyingly funny and action packed answers that question.

I watched the theatrical cut of the film as opposed to the unrated extended version simply because the last time I watched an extended version of a film it dragged. Generally, scenes are cut from a film for a reason and I'm more inclined to watch them as an extra.

Although not a film for people who don't like drug humor, "Pineapple Express" is a fun way to kill 90 minutes.

Underworld & Underworld: Evolution

Sony Home Video has released this double feature of the first two film in its popular "Underworld" franchise in time for the theatrical release on Jan. 23 of the newest film in the series, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans."

I've often wanted to see these films, but hadn't up until this set arrived on my desk and I can easily understand why they've been a success. The two movies weave their own complicated mythology that is part horror film convention, part soap opera and part political intrigue wrapped up in an action film package.

For a "horror" film, there are precious few shocks and that is clearly the intent. Other than some werewolf transformations and some nasty biting sound effects, the gore quotient is minimal.

And oh, yes, star Kate Beckinsale looks pretty amazing in that leather and latex outfit as the werewolf hunter Selene.

The films detail a centuries-old conflict between vampires and werewolves and we humans figure in very, very marginally. The vampires have largely won the conflict, but the tide might be turning as the long thought dead werewolf leader Lucian has devised a way to combine werewolf and vampire blood in order to become immortal.

A human, a doctor named Michael, figures prominently into Lucian's plans.

Complicating matters is the political intrigue among the vampires and Selene's desire to find out the truth.

The first film, presented here in an extended director's cut, is a little top heavy with plot and with scenes in which people wearing long leather coats are trying to kill one another.

The second film, which continues the story from the moment the narrative in the film ended, moves much quicker as all of the necessary back-story has been introduced in the first installment.

I liked both films, although sometimes the overly dark photography design affected my understanding of just what the heck was going on in the first film.

Like many epics -- horror films -- the villains have all of the best lines and scenes. Bill Nighy as the vampire leader and Michael Sheen as Lucian steal the move. Beckinsale has relative little to do in the first movie other than handle the gun-slinging action. In the second film, her role has more depth.

Interestingly enough, the new movie doesn't extend the story of Selene and Michael as one might have expected, but instead is a prequel that explains more on how the conflict between the two groups arose, which, by the way, was already covered in the first two films.


I'm 54 years old and the average life expectancy for an American male is 75. Since I have diabetes I'm sure I have less than that. Therefore I'm politely asking the makers of "Baghead" for my hour and a half back. I need that time.

Seldom have I squandered my time in a less satisfying way than watching what was billed as "the funniest spoof horror film of the year," much less a selection of both the 2008 Sundance and Tribeca films festivals.

Now, I've wasted plenty of time watching bad movies, sometimes in the line of duty of reviewing them and sometimes because I'm damn curious. Could I pass up watching a Filipino horror film like "Mad Doctor of Blood Island?" No, and I'm not ashamed.

There is no inherent pretension about such a film. Is it well done? Maybe. A little goofy? Definitely. Entertaining? Yes.

I can't say that about "Baghead," a new example of "mumblecore," a brand of filmmaking in which the goal to is to produce a feature film with a minimal script, maximum improvisation on a budget that is within even my price range.

The aesthetic seems to emphasize medium shots and close-ups of actors talking and talking and talking, trying to make something out of nothing and in this case failing pretty miserably.

The plot revolves around four sad sack would-be actors who decide to write their own movie so they could finally get a decent role. They go to a cabin in the woods to do so and wind up confronting a guy with a bag over his head with a knife.

There is a marginal effort to poke fun at slasher films and low budget films in general, but it is not enough to be of any great interest to me.

In the extras, the film's two writers, directors and producers, Jay and Mark Duplass, say they made the film for $1,000 and seemed pretty pleased with themselves. Congratulations, boys. You got your film into festivals and on DVD. How about actually making a new one with a plot and with characters who don't seem to be stumbling for something to say?


National Lampoon's Stoned Age Unrated

Remember when the "National Lampoon" banner meant a movie might actually be funny? Well once again, the designation is no assurance of laughs as "Stoned Age Unrated" is devoid of even a chuckle.

Director and writer Adam Rifkin stars in this tepid film that is constructed as a facsimile of Woody Allen's early comedies. Rifkin plays Isbo the tribal outcast who wonders about the meaning of life and invents things. He's in love with Fardart (Ali Larter) who is attracted to Isbo's virile but stupid brother.

Will Isbo ever be the hero? Will he win the girl? Who cares?

In his commentary, Rifkin admits he was inspired by the Woody Allen comedies. I wouldn't doubt that casting himself in the lead was part ego and part economy. Rifkin even wears glasses as part of his caveman portrayal, which further pushes the resemblance to Woody Allen.

Not since a pair of imitators tried to fool fans of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the equally terrible film "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" has one entertainer so blatantly ripped off the shtick of another.

Rifkin's career as a director has been pretty spotty -- his "Dark Backward" left me cold, but is considered a cult hit -- and he has written two films I enjoyed a lot, director Joe Dante's "Small Soldiers" and the Nathan Lane vehicle "Mousehunt."

"Stoned Age Unrated," though, is a complete failure. The premise is tired and derivative, the performances are lackluster and Rifkin doesn't make much of a lead actor.

What makes this unrated are various gratuitous topless shots that were an apparent tie-in with "Penthouse" and "Maxim" magazines.

In his commentary he reveals that the film's theatrical title, "Homo Erectus" -- a legitimate anthropological term for a primitive man -- was rejected by several national retailers because they thought it sounded like a gay sex film. I think that was the most interesting aspect to this sad production.


Arch Oboler had made his mark in radio as a writer and producer of some groundbreaking horror shows when he started writing movie scripts in the 1940s. These assignments allowed him to enter directing and while his films are considered uneven -- they include the first 3-D feature "Bwana Devil" -- "Five" from 1951 is a solid film that should interest contemporary audiences.

Oboler wrote, produced and directed this drama about the aftermath of a nuclear war and five survivors -- a mountain climber, two bank employees, a pregnant woman and a young philosopher -- who find shelter in a house in the country. This was the first film to present a post-apocalyptic vision of the world and it works well.

The film has no stars in the cast, but rather mostly young actors at the beginning of their careers. What I like about the film particularly is the inclusion in the cast of Charles Limpkin, an African-American actor, in a dignified role rare for its time.

Although elements of the story are a little silly -- picked-clean skeletons in clothing represent the bodies of the bomb's victims -- what rings true is the interactions between these five characters.

Oboler likes moving his camera and using close-ups to punctuate the drama and the film is very visually interesting.

This is a film worth discovering.

Liberty's Kids

Too many kids roll their eyes in despair when confronted with history lessons, but this animated series produced in 2002 might be the ticket for some elementary age children to find out about the founding of this nation in a relatively painless manner.

The premise of the show is to follow three young teenagers who are reporters for Benjamin Franklin's newspaper as the events of the American Revolution unfolds around them. The 15-hour series is presented in a boxed set that comes with an illustrated episode guide and a map to show where key events of the Revolution took place.

The series deals with immigration issues as well as slavery and the differences between the colonists who viewed America as their nation and the loyalists who still considered themselves part of Great Britain. The show is pretty involving and humanizes a lot of events that frequently make young eyes glaze over.

The animation is acceptable as are the vocal performances with a lot of stunt casting that might impress more adults than kids. Walter Cronkite, though, cast in the key role of Franklin doesn't really cut it.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

No comments: