Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Good news, everyone! The Planet Express crew is back in business and they’re better than ever. With today’s direct-to-DVD release of Futurama: Bender’s Big Score, fans have four completely new episodes that have been combined into one glorious full-length feature presentation. Unlike the common approach of using clumsy bridging sequences to tie episodes together into one narrative, the new DVD episodes really feel like one cohesive project that can best be enjoyed as a feature-length movie. The episodes will eventually be split for airing on TV, but the DVD is clearly the optimal viewing choice, especially considering the wealth of bonus material included.

The new feature starts off with some ruthless jabs at Fox management, similar to the Family Guy rebirth that famously had them rattling off the names of all the dozens of crappy shows Fox had launched and cancelled since their original demise. In Futurama’s case, they’ve been shut down by the idiotic Box Network (with some faulty wiring in their neon “B” sign) shipping conglomerate but get a second chance when a new group of morons take control of the company. On their first new mission, they fall prey to some crafty alien e-mail spammers who take over Planet Express and launch a virus in Bender that places him under their control. When the aliens subsequently discover the secret to time travel from the unwitting Fry, they plot to steal and amass all of the world’s greatest treasures with the assistance of Bender. This sets off some amusing and increasingly mind-bending misadventures in time travel that temporarily send Fry back to the year 2000, a nice nod to the original series premiere episode. Along the way, there are some romantic sparks between Fry and Leela, some thwarted heroics by Nibbler and friends, and a subplot that finds Hermes decapitated and sloppily reassembled while he fights to keep his wife. In short, there’s never a dull moment on this funny ride through the future and past.

The original creators returned for the new DVD, with Matt Groening and David X. Cohen heading the production and all of the original vocal cast back on board. The animation quality is just as good if not better than before, and it’s presented in a widescreen format to further the movie feel. There are cameos a-plenty, most prominently by Al Gore returning to the show yet again. As if there wasn’t already enough entertainment value packed in, the characters even break out into song during a couple of musical numbers. Those unremarkable songs and the limited screen time for Zapp Brannigan are the only minor hiccups in an otherwise wildly entertaining final product.

In addition to the feature commentary track by creators and stars, the DVD is packed with varied bonus features. The most bizarre and memorable is a full episode of “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad”, literally 22 minutes of the completely immobile toad with hypnotizing eyes casting his spell on viewers, presented with only limited fake commercial interruptions. Also included is a math lecture that finds the creative staff in a classroom with a professor discussing the brainy use of math and cryptography in the original series. Comic-Con extras also made the cut, with both a full cast reading of an issue of the Futurama comic book series as well as the five-minute promo reel for this DVD that was screened for attendees this summer. But wait, there’s more: animatics for a few deleted scenes, character design sketches, and even the hand-drawn timeline tracking for the complex time travel round out this comprehensive and robust package.

The bar has been set astronomically high with this first of four new DVD movies. With the wit and charm of the original series firmly back in place as well as its wealth of extras, the new series is off to a rousing start and will be highly anticipated for its upcoming releases.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn takes viewers behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War, focusing on one American POW as he attempts to escape his captors and return to friendly territory. As Dieter Dengler, Christian Bale undergoes another dramatic weight loss similar to his efforts in The Machinist, seemingly inhabiting the character body and soul. This commitment to realism, coupled with director Werner Herzog’s extensive background in gritty documentary pictures, give the film a dramatic heft that elevates it above its straightforward yet heart-wrenching story.

Interestingly, this is Herzog’s second pass at the story, as he previously filmed a documentary about the real Dengler in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. His intimacy with the story as well as his unorthodox and immersive filming methods contribute to a dramatic recreation that ends up seeming more like a documentary than a fictionalized drama. Where other directors might seek to stage some of the more unsavory scenes, it’s clear that Herzog called on his actors to fully inhabit their roles and wallow in the desperation of their surroundings without any creature comforts. He also avoids any kind of patriotic grandstanding except for a brief stumble near the end, almost completely eliminating any dramatic crutches like slo-mo, montages, or swelling soundtrack cues. Viewers are left with an unblinking and unadulterated look at the desperate situation faced by its unusual central character.

Although Dengler flies for the US Navy, he’s far from the boy next door. As a German immigrant, he’s even more out of place in Vietnam than his comrades, never quite fitting in with them but continuing to pursue his love of flying. When he’s shot down and eventually deposited in a gloomy POW camp, he refuses to follow the accepted process of abandoning hope and counting days until the war ends. Instead, he decides to rally his fellow prisoners to attempt a group escape. He’s something like a MacGyver character, always figuring out how to use the limited materials at hand to his advantage, and he never allows the camp to bring his spirits down no matter how depressing and degrading it becomes. It’s a bit distracting at first determining if the normally dependable Bale is just having difficulty grasping his character, but eventually it becomes clear that Dengler is, as one of his prison mates describes him, a “strange bird”, a very quirky loner following the beat of his own drum.

Steve Zahn appears as a fellow POW and puts in a surprisingly accomplished dramatic performance, completely obliterating any preconceived notions about his usual predilection for fluffy comedic roles. Jeremy Davies also impresses in his role as a cracked POW who is just skin and bones, a transformation that makes him virtually unrecognizable. The rest of the cast is rounded out with unfamiliar but believable actors who heighten the realism of the story.

Rescue Dawn is now available on DVD. The DVD release features commentary by director Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill, three deleted scenes, and additional featurettes.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

DuckTales Volume 3

I recently paid a visit to the fictional town of Duckburg thanks to Disney's new DVD box set release of DuckTales Volume 3. Being new in town, I was drawn to the adventures of its richest citizen, Scrooge McDuck, as well as his rambunctious nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. They had starred in many classic comic book stories in decades gone by courtesy of legendary creator Carl Barks, so the news that they would be reenacting some of those stories on DVD made me extremely interested in how they would transfer to the video medium. While it was fun to reminisce with the boys as they retold old stories and spun many completely original tales, ultimately I felt that there just wasn't quite enough quality entertainment presented to hold the attention of modern audiences.

While the series will certainly hold great sentimental value for fans who grew up with it, a fresh viewing in today's HD climate reveals a technically inferior presentation with loose key character models, variable animation quality, so-so vocal performances, and a theme song best left buried in the '80s. With that said, the quality is still far better than most of its contemporaries of that era, and a touch of Disney magic manages to shine through from time to time. A new arrival to Duckburg (like me) may wonder what all of the fuss was about, so a little history helps to put the series into its proper perspective.

DuckTales was Disney's first attempt at creating original animated material for syndication, paving the way for subsequent efforts such as TaleSpin and Darkwing Duck. As previously noted, its premise was to translate the original Scrooge McDuck comic book stories by Carl Barks into full-length episodes, sometimes just using those stories as a basic framework and other times creating entirely new stories from scratch using the characters he created. Stories usually center on Scrooge either trying to increase his fortune or protect it from unscrupulous characters, always with the assistance of his lovable nephews. A few episodes focus on peripheral characters such as Gyro Gearloose or Launchpad, but most DuckTales are Scrooge-related.

The box set is spread over 3 discs in individual slim line cases with 8 episodes per disc, making a relatively compact package but completely omitting any bonus features. Most fans probably just want the unadulterated episodes to have and to hold, but some bonus bones thrown to the casual and uneducated viewers would have been a nice touch. This is a fairly straight-forward episode dump to DVD with no apparent attempts to remaster the source material. While the set is perfect for original fans, it’s not such a remarkable tale for newbies.

DuckTales Volume 3 is now available on DVD.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Funny Face

50 years after its theatrical release, Funny Face retains its charm and offers a few new revelations.

Unlike Audrey Hepburn’s earliest star turns in the black-and-white classics Roman Holiday and Sabrina, Funny Face thrust her into a vivid Technicolor world awash in vibrant hues. The film’s dramatic use of color is evident right from the beginning scenes in the eye-popping offices of the fashion magazine that makes her a star, and continues through to its elegant Paris locations in the final act. If it’s been a long time since you revisited the film, you’re almost certain to be surprised by its stunning color that puts most of today’s films to shame.

A fresh viewing of the film also points out how much the current TV hit Ugly Betty owes to it. Audrey Hepburn plays a mousey, unfashionable young woman who stumbles into the world of high fashion through her accidental involvement with a fashion magazine, then falls in love with an unconventional member of the magazine’s staff. Sound familiar? While it’s still a classic Cinderella/A Star Is Born story, it’s nearly impossible to avoid drawing the comparison to the current TV show.

Hepburn was in her late 20s during production, while her romantic interest played by Fred Astaire was in his late 50s. This odd pairing still bends all manner of credibility, making it difficult for audiences to invest in their relationship. To his credit, Astaire was still astoundingly spry on his feet, turning in some brief fancy dance moves while mustering up a high amount of charm, but their relationship still seems far-fetched even for the movies.

The film boasted a soundtrack by the legendary George and Ira Gershwin, providing some additional firepower to an already formidable array of talent. While the featured songs aren’t exactly their best work, they add a touch of class and sass that greatly benefits the production.

A brief quibble about the DVD artwork: yes, this is the film that contains Hepburn’s beatnik freakout dance that was the basis for a Gap ad campaign a couple of years ago. We really don’t need to be reminded of that by the prominence of the black-clad Hepburn on the front and back cover, especially considering the brevity of that sequence (and ad campaign) compared to the main theme of the story that placed Hepburn into many memorable and classic gowns. Arguably, Hepburn’s far superior wardrobe candidate for the cover is her exquisite flowing red gown worn while descending a huge flight of stairs during her photo shoot marathon with Astaire, a true knockout permanently seared in the memory of most viewers.

The 50th anniversary DVD includes a few brief bonus features, including a look at the close relationship between Hepburn and the film’s uncredited fashion designer, Givenchy, as well as a retrospective of Paramount Pictures in the ‘50s. Aside from those items, the package is a fairly bare-bones affair that doesn’t take any particular steps to make it a memorable release. Still, fans will be satisfied with this competent presentation of a truly classic film.

Funny Face 50th Anniversary Edition is now available on DVD.

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