#055

Down With Love
20th Century Fox DVD

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The sense of self-parody in Peyton Reed’s film is so arch it practically blinds itself while winking at its overcultivated irony. In the theatres, the film felt frantic and laboured, but on the small screen, shrunk to fit more modest expectations, this tribute to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies of the early 60s feels just right.

Maybe it’s because Day/Hudson films like Pillow Talk were really just sitcoms given a bit more real estate and a lot less time, or maybe it’s the fact that most people are used to seeing this sort of pre-counterculture froth on TV. In either case, Reed wisely keeps the pace brisk (the sole exception being a far-too-droll split-screen sequence) and the sight gags coming, since a moment’s reflection is more than Down With Love could stand.

Maybe it’s ironic – or slyly intentional - that the male leads come better than the female. David Hyde Pierce’s timing is perfect in the Tony Randall role – the machismo-deprived best buddy – while Ewan McGregor makes an elegantly comic case for casting him as the next 007.

Renee Zellweger is, alas, still too squinty and twee, even in the sort of role made famous by the sex-appeal-free Doris Day; Sarah Paulson as her best friend is simply too underwritten. Zellweger has a decent singing voice, however, as showcased in a duet with McGregor, singing the film’s title song, included along with the usual menu of gag reels, deleted scenes, commentary and “making of” bonus features.

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The Lion King Special Edition
Disney DVD

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The Lion King, now almost a decade old, is probably Disney’s last great moment of the pre-Pixar era. It might be an effort for many people to obscure the blockbuster Broadway musical and the overplayed hit songs from their vision long enough to enjoy the film’s considerable technical virtues. For most parents, however, years of daily play in the VCR have probably made it more torture than pleasure.

Disney’s deluxe reissue adds a new song, digital sound, and a whole extra disc of games, music videos and production featurettes for those willing to regard The Lion King as a final reprise of the consummate visual skill Disney brought to films like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia. In the era of all-digital animation, it’s like admiring the craftsmanship in a fine old watch or a wooden boat, while wearing a digital and sailing in fiberglass.

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The West
PBS DVD

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America thrives on its myths, or at least that’s what we’re told by the talking heads interviewed for this nine-part miniseries from the Ken Burns documentary factory. Truth be told, no one is as absorbed in America’s myths as Burns and his colleagues, including Stephen Ives, the director of this 1996 series.

Burns, who was making his epic baseball program at the time, only produced The West, but all the Burns trademarks are there: the loving pans over postcard landscapes and old photos, the speeches and private letters read by famous actors, the olde tyme music played on fiddles and flutes.

The overall story – the settling of the American West at terminal cost to its native inhabitants – isn’t new, but Burns and Ives focus on some often heart-wrenching stories while soaring over familiar territory. That it occasionally feels a bit precious and soporific is a genetic weakness of the Burns style, and one that viewers will either hate or love.

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Home Movie
Home Vision Entertainment DVD

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Chris Smith’s whimsical feature documentary on the unique homes of a handful of eccentric Americans began as a series of TV commercials for a now-defunct home-reno dotcom. From the cat-infested bungalow to the Hawaiian jungle treehouse to the missile silo retreat to the “space-age” home, it’s a gentle examination of the sacred status of “lifestyle” today.

Included are a fantastic group of bonus features, including the original commercials, a gallery of cat photos, a documentary on missile silo homes, and a vintage Monsanto promo for their all-plastic House Of The Future at Disneyland.

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The Devil & Daniel Webster
Criterion DVD

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William Dieterle’s famously strange 1941 film is record of a unique moment, when American Gothic met German Expressionism in the anxious moments between the Depression and World War Two.

Based on a Stephen Vincent Benet short story that was once required reading in every high school, it tells the tale of a desperate farmer who sells his soul to the devil for seven years of good luck, and who calls on real-life presidential hopeful Daniel Webster to argue his case and keep him out of hell.

James Craig as Jabez Stone is an earnest hayseed too easily corrupted to be sympathetic, so it comes as no surprise that Walter Huston as the Devil gets all the best lines and steals the show. A typically detailed Criterion package that includes audio commentaries by film scholars and composer Bernard Herrmann, as well as an analysis of Herrmann’s audacious score.

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Better Luck Tomorrow
Paramount DVD

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Justin Lin’s story of high school angst among overachievers would have been clever enough even if it didn’t focus on Asian-Americans teens and the peculiar stresses that thrive behind the stereotypes.

Like most contemporary teen-angst stories, it happens in a world almost adult-free, which says a lot about the evolution of teen culture into its own, brief, but well-accessorized universe. The cast, most of whom we’ve seen in minor roles in everything from American Pie and The New Guy to Pearl Harbor, are palpably excited at their shot at feature roles, and Lin’s film goes a long way on their considerable energy. Includes a commentary track with Lin and his screenwriters.

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The Mark of Zorro
20th Century Fox DVD

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Zorro, like Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel, is a well-buffed chestnut of a story that lives and dies by the sword, which is to say its dueling scenes.

Tyrone Power assumes the black mask of the caballero avenger in this 1940 film, and thankfully his background as part of a renowned acting dynasty gave him the swordplay skills to take on Basil Rathbone in the film’s remarkably brief fight scene. The rest of the film is melodramatic formula, but if you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, it’s well-cooked formula at least. Includes a coy A&E Biography on Power that glides over his ambivalent sexuality in the interest of enhancing his tragic early death.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.