Monday, November 07, 2011

DVD reviews!

The Troll Hunter

While the way that writer/director André Øvredal tells his story — in the found-footage format similar to “The Last Broadcast” and “The Blair Witch Project” — is not new, the story he tells is new.

A group of university students in Norway is trying to do a video production on the spate of recent illegal killings of bears. The government-approved hunters point the young video crew in the direction of a mysterious loner named Hans (Otto Jespersen) who lives in a very funky looking — and smelling — trailer.

They follow him up into the woods and witness for themselves what this guy really kills: trolls.

It seems that trolls as big as four-story houses are real and the Norwegian government has managed to set up a preserve for them. When these monsters break out of their area, Hans the troll hunter is called in to kill them or drive them back where they belong.

This is a deep dark secret and Hans’ boss is responsible for creating cover stories for the media to explain the damage done by the trolls.

At first, Hans tries to get rid of the students, but then he decides to let them tag along to the horror of his boss.

“The Troll Hunter” manages to be funny at times and then can quickly shift to frightening. A great example of this style is when the group is trapped in an abandoned mine that is the home of a group of trolls. They must endure being holed up — literally — with their way blocked by a flatulent sleeping troll. The humor turns to horror when one of the students panics and the trolls attack.

I love originality in movies and “The Troll Hunter” is one of the most interesting new films I’ve seen in a long time.

The version that is now available is dubbed, although I watched a subtitled DVD because I enjoy hearing the real voices of the actors.

A ton of television

I find it fascinating the way people watch television programs these days: on their computer through a number of different websites, recorded from their cable systems, streamed through Netflix, on demand from their cable systems and on DVD.

Is anyone actually watching television in the old school manner?

There are now dozens and dozens of series making their way onto DVD and I’ve written about quite of number of them so far. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve received a small pile of them.

So, let’s do a lightening round of comments.

I realize that sex sells, but I couldn’t imagine that “Holly’s World, The Complete Seasons One and Two” and “Kendra, Seasons Two and Three” would really make it to the tops of the sales charts.

The initial appeal of these two women was due to their status as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends — whatever that really means — but now we get to see how they fare outside the walls of the mansion.

Take them away from the geezer in the pajamas and they are a lot less interesting. Ho hum.

My problem is I find both of them boring. Holly Madison is starring in a Las Vegas burlesque show – OK, she has to work, big deal! Kendra Baskett is married and a mother, as are many people.

The History Channel does have two of my favorite reality shows: “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” and each show is out in a new season compilation.

What I like about each program is that I enjoy rummaging around tag sales and flea markets myself, looking for some odd artifact and here are folks who do this for a living. I learn a lot from the shows and even tolerate the drama between the various participants that is supposed to add some entertainment value. I could easily do without Chumlee, the “comic relief” of “Pawn Stars.”

“Top Shot Reloaded” is essentially a kind of sports show for The History Channel. Here we have a group of world-class marksmen — and women — who are challenged each week as they try to work their way to a $100,000 prize. If target shooting is an interest, this show is well worth watching.

Now a real television show to savor on DVD is Denis Leary’s magnum opus of “Rescue Me,” with the sixth season now available.

I like Leary’s work a lot and thought the series he created that preceded this one, “The Job,” was brilliant. “The Job” only lasted one season, though, and Leary has had far better luck with his hard-edged comic approach with “Rescue Me.”

In “The Job,” Leary was a troubled cop and here he is a New York City firefighter who is battling considerable person demons.

Because of the many characters and intersecting storylines, I’d recommend seeing previous seasons first just to catch up, but “Rescue Me” is superior television.

The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951 to 1957

When comedian Jackie Gleason performed the first “Honeymooners” sketch in 1951 as part of a weekly show “The Cavalcade of Stars,” I’m sure few people would have predicted the kind of the success Ralph and Alice Kramden would enjoy 60 years later.

Yet in 2011, it’s clear to see the comic genius of Gleason, his cast and writers. Today when so many sitcoms rely on gimmicks or staid formulas, “The Honeymooners” have remained fresh with characters that are believable and funny.

For the younger people reading this column, Gleason has been a moderately successful comic on stage and in a handful of movies, who found his true medium — television. He created many characters on his long-running show, but his most enduring was Ralph Kramden, a bus driver who lives with his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn.

Ralph is desperately insecure and constantly jumps to conclusions. He is always seeking ways to hit it big and yearns to be a big shot. Alice has got the common sense in the family and is more than Ralph’s equal when he goes on one of his frequent tirades.

Ralph’s best friend, Ed Norton (Art Carney), lives with his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph) in the same building. Norton is a comic original — a combination of child-like innocence and wise savvy.

I was shocked at just how well developed the characters were in the very first skit. Gleason and his first Alice (Pert Kelton) had their roles down cold and were immediately believable as they fought over whether or not Ralph was going down to the deli to pick up a loaf of bread.

This is character driven comedy at its finest, and this DVD collection brings together on 15 discs all of “The Honeymooners” skits known to exist, with the exception of the 39 half-hour episodes Gleason produced as a stand-alone show in 1955 television season.

At the time Gleason produced his first skit, sitcoms were more likely to feature a knowing wife and a clueless husband. The difference is that in “The Honeymooners,” the husband was prone to rage and the wife dished it out as well as he did. People may have fought like that in real life, but characters on television did not.

By the end of the first episode, though, it was clear these two people truly loved each other, despite their failings.

This humanity made Ralph and Alice seem very real to audiences, then as well as now.

This collection also features an informative booklet on the history of the show and a great collection of extras, including two parodies of “The Honeymooners,” one starring Jack Benny in the Gleason role and the other featuring Peter Lorre as Ralph.

If you have a “Honeymooner” fan in your family, this should be high up on your holiday gift list.

The Captains

William Shatner started out as a serious actor on the stage in his native Canada. He became well known to American audiences in the 1950s and ‘60s with frequent guest-starring roles on television, movie appearances and starring roles on Broadway.

Then he accepted the role of Captain Kirk on the original “Star Trek” and his life changed.

For more than 40 years — during which Shatner has seen additional success in show business as well as being the object of adoration for millions of “Star Trek” fans — the actor has apparently nursed an unresolved issue over being identified as Kirk. Apparently he can’t reconcile the “serious” nature of his early career and the promise it had with his post-“Star Trek” life.

To try to deal with this nagging conflict, the actor interviewed every other actor who has appeared as the star — and commanding officers — of a “Star Trek” series or movie to see how playing the part changed them. Shatner spoke with Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bacula, Avery Brooks, Chris Pine and Sir Patrick Stewart.

That’s the subject of “The Captains,” the new documentary written and directed by Shatner. This production seemed to be an extension of the interview shows Shatner has done in the last several years.

As a fan, I found the interviews, with the exception of the one with Brooks, pretty interesting. Mulgrew is very candid in first admitting she really had no idea who Shatner was when she starred in her “Star Trek” series and said her children have never forgiven her for accepting the job, as the brutal work schedule kept her away for years of their childhood.

Stewart spoke earnestly about making the transition between being a renowned Shakespearean actor to a starship captain, while Bacula spoke about how much Shatner had been an influence on him.

Brooks doesn’t address any of the issues brought forth in the other interviews and instead spouts off some strained philosophical blather while seated at a piano. I wondered if he was pulling Shatner’s leg. Of course, I’ve long wondered if Shatner’s wacky self-indulgent and ironic public personality is a well-played parody itself.

At the end, Shatner came to grips with his alter ego – no surprise. In the hands of a lesser egomaniac or eccentric, this film would come across as a huge vanity project. With Shatner at the helm, though, it’s oddly endearing at times.

Die-hard “Star Trek” fans will need to see “The Captains.”


I never saw “The Pianist,” mainly because I no longer watch films by director Roman Polanski as I have a moral dilemma about supporting the work of a pedophile. So, I missed the performance that earned Adrien Brody an Oscar for best male performance.

Since then, I have watched a number of his films, and aside from the remake of “King Kong” in which he was terribly miscast, he has impressed me.

What is also significant is his willingness to do work such as the vastly entertaining “Predators” and the envelope pushing “Splice” that other Academy Award winners would avoid.

Certainly, this new film on DVD falls into that category. It’s a low budget thriller that is essentially a one-man show for Brody.

Brody plays an unnamed man who wakes up finding himself in the front seat of a car that has crashed into a deep-forested ravine. He is injured. He has a gun. There is another passenger in the car who is dead.

He has no memory of what has happened.

Brody’s character must first extricate himself from the wreck and he discovers he has a severely injured leg. He also discovers a backpack filled with money in the car’s trunk.

He still doesn’t know what happened, but there is enough charge left in the car’s battery to hear a radio broadcast and a news report about a bank robbery. A name he eventually recognizes as his own is mentioned.

This film teases the audience in the best way. We don’t know the story and since the character has suffered from a concussion, we don’t know what is real and what is imagined.

This film is a first feature-length effort for director Michael Greenspan and he does well setting up the confusion and terror felt by the man. Christopher Dodd’s screenplay kept me involved and guessing.

And Brody turns in a great performance as a person trying to survive and to recall what event put him in this situation.

For a solid and different thriller, try “Wrecked.”

The Trip

I love British comedy and what little I’ve seen of Brit comic superstar Steve Coogan he is capable of being pretty funny.

This film has a premise that undermines the limited laughs it presents and will be a challenge for American audiences. Context in humor is everything.

Coogan plays a version of himself — an aging comic superstar beset with numerous insecurities — who is asked by a British magazine to tour the north of England and eat in upscale restaurants for an article.

Coogan wants to take his American girlfriend on the trip, but she is back in the United States. Instead he chooses friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon. Brydon is happily married and is satisfied with his career.

Coogan can’t stand that Brydon is happy and views Brydon as a sidekick rather than star — a view Brydon doesn’t share. The two men alternate between arguing with one another, competing with impersonations and improvising bits as they drive from one eatery to another. Some of these scenes are funny and some fell flat because they referenced British entertainment figures I didn’t know.

The film plays with the professional and personal reputations of both performers. Brydon’s version of himself is quite likable, while Coogan is the epitome of a vain superstar. The fact they are playing versions of themselves is a bit precious.

I had to research Coogan on the Internet to understand the parody of himself he was presenting.

Director Michael Winter-bottom presented the film as a fictional narrative despite the fact the subject is supposed to be more of a semi-fake documentary. The playing with formats added greater confusion for me.

The few laughs the film generated — my wife noted I laughed five times — didn’t justify the time it took to watch it.

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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