#065

Seabiscuit
Universal DVD

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Gary Ross’ film bio of America’s most beloved racehorse is a movie with a profound identity crisis. On the surface, it’s a carefully-filmed recreation of America struggling out from the depths of the Depression, with Jeff Bridges as the good millionaire who buys a broken-down nag, Chris Cooper as the hollowed-out cowboy who trains him, and Tobey Maguire as the hard-luck jockey who rides him into the history books.

It’s the sort of film that shines from the screen through a cloud of sepia, a celebration of hats, pin curls, cars with shoulders made of chrome and men with a deep, sorrowful, faraway stare in their eyes. But just when every scene threatens to dissolve into its own lavish set dressing, Seabiscuit turns into a history lesson straight out of Ken Burns’ burnished PBS documentaries, down to the slow pans over old photos and David McCullough’s amiably authoritative narration.

The film itself makes the short documentary on Seabiscuit included with the DVD superfluous, since the facts and the mood are laid out so thoroughly by McCullough’s voiceover. It’s as if Ross lost his faith in being able to evoke the 30s without the formal scaffolding provided by Burns’ venerable style, which has become the form and frame most people expect when they look at “the past”.

Bridges essays another one of his benign patricians, while Chris Cooper seems to have simmered his performance into sheer presence, manifest through a steely, nasal twang. Tobey Maguire, painfully lean and carrot-topped for the role, is decent enough if you’ve never read the Laura Hillebrand book upon which the film is based, but his Red Pollard doesn’t suggest even a shadow of the damaged, haunted man in Hillebrand’s masterfully-told story.

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South Park: The Complete
Third Season
Paramount DVD box set

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The third season of South Park went into production at the same time that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were completing the South Park movie, Bigger, Longer and Uncut. In the short voiceover commentaries that introduce each episode, Parker and Stone explain that they were overworked and frantic at the time, which is why the episodes range from inspired ranting (“Rainforest Shmainforest”, “The Succubus”) to tossed-off ranting (“Sexual Harassment Panda”, “Jakovasaurs”).

The third season was also when the show found its legs, striking a decent balance between flailing satire and something like actual characterization. Cartman consolidates his dominant role as the show’s Homer, and the querulous, conflicted Butters begins is slowly developed, displacing the far less rewarding Tweek. It’s far from the best South Park season – that would be two years away – but it’s the first season box set that’s actually essential.

Apart from the brief commentary tracks, there’s no special features in the spirit of Parker and Stone’s carefully-maintained image as cheap, lazy goldbricks riding this cartoon thing as far as it will take them.

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Escape From New York
MGM DVD

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John Carpenter’s 1981 apocalyptic action flick has a cult following rabid enough to justify a deluxe, slipcased, two-disc edition of Escape From New York. Carpenter and Ken Russell, who plays the film’s antihero, “Snake” Plissken, sound like they’re having a great time on their commentary track, one of two included for avid fans who’ve seen the film a hundred times.

The “making of” featurette brings back a time when films like Escape From New York were actual b-films, made with tiny casts and smaller budgets, on scrounged sets like St. Louis’ burnt-out waterfront. Today, of course, they’re big-budget a-list deals, thanks in some small part to films like Mad Max and Escape From New York, cult hits that made notable box office, and paved the way for action stars like Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to cut swaths of destruction through cities crowded with throngs of paid extras.

Keep your eyes open for a stunning shot of an airliner flying low towards the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a shot that has remarkable – and probably unanticipated – power.

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The League Of Extraordinary
Gentlemen
20th Century Fox DVD

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The premise of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is fantastic – a Victorian X-Men, where characters from the novels of Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde join together to use their unique powers to defeat a James Bond-inspired villain.

Alan Moore’s comic book, the source for the film, was a darkly inspired piece of work, whose fondness for the literary worlds and historical period it was exploiting is utterly lost in Stephen Norrington’s overbuilt, underwritten and uninspired action flick. It’s a shame that no one involved had an ounce of respect for Moore’s eccentric vision, which might have justified the sequels LXG obviously longs to inspire.

In the “making of” documentary, Sean Connery explains that he took the film because he’d passed on scripts like Lord Of The Rings and The Matrix because he “didn’t understand them”. He signed on to LXG despite not getting it either; it’s a moment that prompts an unintended and deeply ironic laugh from this viewer, at least.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.