THIS WEEK IN DVD’S – JAN 31, 2008
The Naked Prey (Criterion)
Two new Criterions have come Ent Today’s way, and they’re both exceptional in truly astute ways. There’s a grisliness to The Naked Prey (Criterion) that may offend distinctly sensitive viewers – the film does not include a ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture’ tag for a reason – but the film has an amazing sense of you-are-there immediacy to it, nevertheless. This Cornel Wilde vehicle about a man being vigilantly hunted through the wilds of Africa is both wonderfully constructed and wildly ambitious in tone and scope. And in addition to the film looking gorgeous on this new 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, film scholar Stephen Prince’s commentary is one of the best tracks I’ve heard in a while: In short, it makes you want to watch the film again immediately.
This Sporting Life (Criterion)
Then there’s This Sporting Life (Criterion), an esteemed British film that hits like a volcano eruption. To see a young Richard Harris as the disillusioned miner at the center of the film is reason enough to visit this film over and over, but Lindsay Anderson’s gritty, volatile direction allows his film to evoke a true sense of dread and danger. It’s a powderkeg. And this 2-DVD Criterion edition has tons of goodies on it: Included are three documentaries directed by Anderson – all of which are shockingly good – and a few revelatory interviews and featurettes. Truly fantastic.
The Game Plan (Buena Vista)
Mr. Woodcock (Buena Vista)
On the high-def front, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: The transfers and sound mixes on two new Blu-ray titles are really something, proving that this new format (that’s still trying to eke out relevance in the consumer circuit) truly has something to offer in terms of technical prowess. The bad news is that these titles are The Game Plan (Buena Vista) and Mr. Woodcock (Buena Vista), both of which are awful (really awful) films.
Dawn of the Dead (Universal)
Land of the Dead (Universal)
Far better are the catalog HD DVD releases of Dawn of the Dead (Universal) and Land of the Dead (Universal). Our buddies at Universal sent these over to us with some of their newer titles, and they both play exceptionally well. Sarah Polley’s turn in Day of the Dead is a fantastically nuanced genre-film performance, and Land of the Dead is just dumb enough to be exceptionally engaging and enjoyable. And just like Buena Vista’s new Blu-ray titles, the transfers and mixes afforded these HD DVD titles are fantastic.
Rosemary & Thyme: The Complete Series (Acorn Media)
Let’s head across the pond for a moment, shall we? (God, I’m such a Yankee). Rosemary & Thyme: The Complete Series (Acorn Media) contains the entire set of adventures had by Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme (Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris, respectively) as they tend to their gardens by day and solve bloody crimes at night. It sounds contrived, but actually the show is far more engaging than one might initially think: In addition to housing respectable, staccato repartee, the series does a good job of balancing the serious and the goofy with endearing results.
Chancer: Series 2 (Acorn Media)
Just as good, though far darker, is Chancer: Series 2 (Acorn Media), starring Clive Owen. I mention Owen up front because he really is the vortex of the show – as the morally ambiguous protagonist of Chancer, he’s able to be both socially abhorrent (he truly is an asshole much of the time) as well as infinitely likeable (let’s call him a charming asshole). Sure, Chancer’s double-, triple- and quadruple-crosses make the narrative somewhat contrived, but Owen’s innate charm and draw is enough to keep you tied to the screen all the while.
Blue Murder: Set 2 (Acorn Media)
Blue Murder: Set 2 (Acorn Media) also manifests some deep, dark nastiness – when Janine Lewis (Caroline Quentin) has to investigate a nasty, decomposing body for work, the results are not…appeasing – but what gives this series real creepy-crawly terror is that it balances CSI-grade detective work with at-home drama. Blue Murder is about a lady who solves crime at work, but at home takes care of her kids just like any other British mom. While Blue Murder suffers a bit from the ‘you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen ‘em all’ syndrome (as interesting as the show can be, it treads similar ground in every show), this push/pull of Lewis’ personal and professional lives allows the character to come off with more realism than detective in other crime dramas usually broadcast.
Let’s find some TV-on-DVD titles that step momentarily away from the morgue, shall we?
Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection (Acorn Media)
Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection (Acorn Media) is a zany, weird-ass comedy of sorts about a Shakespearean theatre troupe that struggles to keep both artistic truancy and personal lives from deteriorating in a modern world. S&A is definitely a show for theatre-lovers – a lack of exposure to Shakespeare’s works will no doubt leave many of the jokes on this series impenetrable – but even though this writer found many of its exploits a little hoity-toity, there’s charm aplenty in many of its cast members (most notably from Paul Gross as the troupe’s clueless yet defiantly passionate artistic director).
Rob & Big: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (Paramount)
If Slings & Arrows is too smart to be readily enjoyable, though, Rob & Big: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (Paramount) is too dumb and narratively challenged to be believed. Like Jackass without its adorable foolishness, this reality-TV tale of street skater Rob Dyrdek and his bodyguard Christopher “Big” Boykin is annoying from the get-go and then only get worse. Yes, the episode where Rob concocts an R&B crooner alter ego named Bobby Light is so embarrassingly ridiculous it ends up being funny as Hell, but the rest of the time, things here are braindead, uninteresting, and entirely inconsequential.
Rawhide: The Second Season, Vol. 2 (Paramount)
Swamp Thing: The Series (Shout! Factory)
Far more middle-of-the-road is Rawhide: The Second Season, Vol. 2 (Paramount), if only for Clint Eastwood’s youthful turn as Rowdy Yates, the ass-kicking, steel-faced head honcho of Rawhide’s exceptionally enjoyable western universe. Yeah, sometimes the show gets a little silly (like its famous theme song, it’s memorable, if not entirely admirable), but even though this only provides half of the show’s second season (boy, that’s annoying), you’re bound to find a few flecks of shiny stuff in this gold pan. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Swamp Thing: The Series (Shout! Factory). Not only does this cheesy-as-Hell show not contain a performance by the gifted buxom beauty Adrienne Barbeau, but even a pin-up star like Kari Wuhrer can’t make this Wes-Craven-lite material jump off the screen.
Extras: The Complete Series (HBO)
Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Paramount)
Then there’s Extras: The Complete Series (HBO). I feel like this Ricky Gervais hit should be an easily lauded piece of television – it’s won nearly every TV award it’s been eligible for – but where I found Gervais’ presence on the original Office to be endearingly embarrassing, Extras left me wanting more. Sure, to watch Kate Winslet talk dirty while dressed as a nun is a treat (and any excuse to involve David Bowie in your TV cast is a good excuse), but as aesthetically noble as it may be, the novelty of Extras wears off quickly – almost as quickly as the novelty factor of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Paramount). Let me put it to you this way: While attempting to waddle through this third season set, I found myself admitting publicly that a show like Sabrina makes Full House look like The Sopranos in comparison. Yikes. Steer clear.