2009 Holiday Gift Guide
I pride myself on being a pretty good gift-giver, so when the powers that be suggested doing a holiday gift guide, I was on it like white on rice. And I’ll take any excuse I can get to write about great movies and TV shows. If you’re seeking gift ideas for the movie or TV geek in your life, look no further.
The Unit: The Complete Series
This year saw the unfortunate demise of one of my favorite shows on TV, the military action/drama The Unit, which CBS cancelled after four seasons. The show was the brainchild of playwright/filmmaker David Mamet and Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield (of which I’ve only seen the first two or three seasons, but it’s an above-average cop show), and based on special forces veteran Eric L. Haney’s memoir, Inside Delta Force. The show follows the Unit, a squad of U.S. special forces soldiers, led by Jonas Blaine (Dennis Haysbert), one of the most badass TV characters I have ever seen. The Unit, unlike 24, is very much set in the real world, and while it’s a show about the military, it makes a point of not being political. The writing is top notch (Mamet himself wrote several episodes, all of which are among the series best), the acting is excellent (Scott Foley, formerly od Felicity fame, is awesome. Who knew?), and the show is filled with insanely tense moments and cool action. The Unit is great TV, and as much as it sucks that it’s gone, we still got four awesome seasons out of it. If someone on your list is into military stuff, it really doesn not get any better than The Unit.
Gone With the Wind: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray)
I admit I’m not a huge fan of this movie – I find it overlong and boring – but there’s no denying its place in cinema history. So it’s great that Warner Bros. recently issued this gorgeous box set of what many still consider the greatest film of all time. The Blu-ray version has four discs (the standard DVD set is six; both are loaded with extas), and comes with a 52-page hardcover photo and art book, a reproduction of the original 1939 program, and a CD sampler, and all of it comes wrapped in a velvet box. As much as it’s not my thing, I acknowledge that I’m in the minority, and it’s never a bad thing when a movie as important beloved as Gone With the Wind gets a top-quality DVD or Blu-ray package. I almost bought this one in the store a few times, and I don’t even really care for this movie.
The Wizard of Oz: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray)
Another classic film I don’t care for (I actually really, really dislike it, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post), Warners again came through with an absolutely killer package for the debut of The Wizard of Oz in high-definition. As with Gone With the Wind, as much as I’m not into it, it’s one of the most important movies ever made, and it’s beloved by millions, and this box set, which includes a watch(!), a 52-page commemorative book, a replica of the original movie budget(!!) and a Blu-ray-exclusive singalong feature (among tons of other stuff), may be considered overdue by some fans, but it looks like it wa worth the wait.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Limited Edition Collector's Set (Blu-ray)
I’ve mentioned previously how much I enjoy animation in hi-def, and while I haven’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Blu-ray myself, I can only imagine how incredible it looks. When it comes to fancy special-edition DVDs (and now Blu-rays), not too many studios do it better than Disney, and this looks like one of the most impressive home video releases they’ve ever done. Whether it’s for an older fan of this classic film (Disney’s first feature-length animated movie, released in 1937) or for someone too young to remember 2D animation, you really can’t go wrong with this beautiful set.
Transformers: The Complete Series/G.I. Joe: The Complete Series
I recently reviewed both of these stellar box sets of the respective classic ‘80s cartoons (read me relive my childhood here and here), and while neither show has aged all that well – which is actually part of the appeal for the nostalgia geeks these collections are aimed, and I certainly count myself among them – these are excellent sets with some really spectacular extras. If there’s someone on your list who grew up with either of these shows (most likely both), both of these great packages come highly recommended.
Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut
Okay, I admit, this one’s included just because I love this movie (and wouldn’t mind receiving this set myself on Blu-ray, anybody who’s reading this who knows me, hint hint). Normally I hate double-dip DVD collections – this marks the third DVD/Blu-ray version of Watchmen following the simultaneous theatrical and director’s cut discs released earlier this year – but this is about as comprehensive a version of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the groundbreaking Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel as we’re likely to get. Included is a new, even longer cut of the movie that includes footage from the animated pirate story/comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter (previously released as a standalone, direct-to-DVD short), among other changes, and the set also includes the Under the Hood fake documentary (originally included on the Black Freighter DVD) and Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic animated experiment, which is great, I guess, if you hate reading that much (I kid; it’s actually pretty cool). In the final analysis, I’m not sure if I’ll dig this version more than the director’s cut (which I far prefer to the theatrical cut), but as a Watchmen fan, I’m just happy this exists. A perfect gift for the more discerning geek on your list.
DVD Review: G.I. Joe - The Complete Series (or, My Childhood in a Box, Part 2)
For fans of the 1980s version of G.I. Joe, 2009 must have been the greatest year since the original cartoon went off the air decades ago. There was a shockingly decent big-screen adaptation, The Rise of Cobra (which made enough money at the box office that a franchise seems likely), the even more kickass animated web series, G.I. Joe: Resolute was released on DVD, and now the entire run of the original ’80s cartoon is out on DVD in a killer box set.
I always thought it was a bit odd that Transformers got the big-screen treatment first, as it would seem considerably easier to sell mainstream audiences on a movie about an elite paramilitary unit than a film about transforming alien robots, and G.I. Joe has a deeper, richer history in American pop culture. (Clearly though, such distinctions are academic, as both properties seem to be doing just fine as Hollywood blockbusters.) But G.I. Joe’s importance to an entire generation really can’t be overestimated; every self-respecting child of the ‘80s remembers those “…and knowing is half the battle!” PSAs.
Revisiting the G.I. Joe cartoon series for this review was interesting; the show, even its earlier episodes, are actually way cartoonier and out-there than the military style would initially suggest. In retrospect (both with the help of the copious bonus materials and my own geekbrain), I now know that a big chunk of the creative team behind the show were veteran comic writers, and there’s a wacky, “what crazy adventures will the Joes find themselves in today?” sense to the episodes, particularly the latter ones, that’s very reminiscent of superhero comics of the ‘60s through the ‘80s, when creators didn’t tend to plan their stories much beyond the next few pages, let alone future issues. The Joes’ adventures and Cobra’s schemes grow increasingly bizarre as the show goes on (robots, parallel realities, plagues of killer plants, etc.), but as an adult, I can appreciate the loose, goofy vibe to the show, and the fun the creators must have had trying to top themselves. Obviously, this can go a little far into plain old silliness, which happens on more than a few occasions (at one point Destro and the Baroness try to feed Flint and Lady Jaye to a giant octopus Cobra just so happens to keep at its undersea base, the absurdity of which is never acknowledged). As more than one creator says in the extras, creating an animated show that runs five days a week is a huge undertaking – G.I. Joe was only on for two proper seasons, but runs almost 100 episodes – so the progression actually makes sense. Only in the world of G.I. Joe does Cobra’s weather-control machine seem like a quaint, almost realistic scheme to take over the world.
But more so than The Transformers, which shared many writers and producers and actors, G.I. Joe had some episodes that really seemed ahead of their time, with odd touches of irony and meta-humor. For example, in the episode called ‘The Viper is Coming,’ the Joe team keeps getting apparently threatening phone calls from a man with an accent who identifies himself only as “the Viper,” and informs them that he’s coming for them. The episode consists of the Joe team frantically trying to figure out who this Viper is, taking out a bunch of Cobra bases in an attempted pre-emptive strike, but all their work produces no more information about this Viper. At the end, when “the Viper” finally turns up and the Joe team is ready…it’s revealed that he’s actually a window-cleaner with an accent. “I am the viper,” the little old man explains when he arrives. “I’m here to vipe your vindows.” There’s also an episode called ‘Once Upon A Joe’ that is utterly bizarre (which also has a weird cartoon-within-a-cartoon subplot), with something actually called the “MacGuffin Device,” and the writers never miss an opportunity to have one of the characters refer to it by name, the result being so over-the-top and absurd that it seems like something out of a Simpsons episode. And I don’t care what anybody says, G.I. Joe was totally educational: this show taught me what DNA is, regardless of the fact that it was in the context of Dr. Mindbender’s plot to genetically engineer the ultimate Cobra leader, Serpentor (who remains as lame now as he was when I was 8). Knowing really is half the battle.
G.I. Joe’s animation is somewhat crude by today’s standards, and the show’s core premise of selling toys is fairly plain – the second season opens by introducing a slew of new Joe and Cobra characters and vehicles, a.k.a. the new line – but there’s also a clear desire to create an entertaining adventure show for kids, and as someone who spent countless hours being entertained by when I was a kid, I can verify that it remains a fun, silly adventure show. As much as revisiting G.I. Joe was purely a nostalgia thing, I can’t pretend I didn’t have a blast reliving my childhood with this ridiculously fantastic box set.
The G.I. Joe: The Complete Series might be the coolest DVD collection I’ve ever reviewed. The packaging itself is simply brilliant – it’s an ammo box that opens up to reveal a false control panel, which in turn is lifted to reveal the discs, housed in a pair of nine-disc packs, as well as an assortment of other cool extras (an awesome booklet, stickers and temporary tattoos, and, best of all, a USB flashdrive containing a G.I. Joe comic). This package is just amazing. Props to Shout! Factory. They do the little things perfectly, like using the artwork from the original toy line for the disc art, and including the original toy commercials, which gave me even more of a nostalgic rush than the show itself.
G.I. Joe also has some of the most entertaining bonus features I’ve seen. They’re all aimed at people more or less myself – grown-up fans of the show on a nostalgia kick – rather than kids, and just about everyone who’s interviewed is funny and charming and filled with amusing anecdotes about the show’s production. Even the roundtable discussion with a bunch of the show’s voice actors, which I expected to be a bore, was a riot to watch. There’s a great assortment of extras covering various aspects of the G.I. Joe brand, from a look at its evolution from a 12-inch doll in the 1950s to the smaller plastic figures I grew up playing with, to the comics (and a nice tribute to comics writer Larry Hama, who basically single-handedly came up with all the characters and the G.I. Joe vs. Cobra storyline – the entire post-1980 G.I. Joe mythology, essentially – on a lark because nobody else at Marvel was interested in writing a comic based on a line of toys), to the production of the cartoon to its enduring legacy. I know I’m biased because I’m very much the audience this collection is aimed at, but G.I. Joe: The Complete Series is one of the best DVD packages I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of the show, you can’t miss this one.
Labels: animation, DVD review, nostalgia, TV on DVD
DVD Review: Transformers - The Complete Series (or, My Childhood in a Box, Part 1)
I reviewed the Season 1 collection of the original Transformers cartoon a few months ago (read it here), but I recently got an early Christmas gift when a big box arrived here at the office: a box from the fine folks at Universal Music Canada (which distributes Shout! Factory products up here) containing the full-season collections of Transformers as well as G.I. Joe. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest days in the history of this blog.
Intended to commemorate the 25th anniversary The Transformers, this new box set contains all 98 episodes of the original cartoon and a wealth of bonus features. And as much as it’s tempting to dismiss The Transformers as nothing more than an extended advertisement for children’s toys, the fact that the property is as popular today as it was when I originally enjoyed these shows does say something. Make no mistake, this was a show designed to sell toys (the producers and Hasbro execs are pretty upfront about that in the extras), but the way it’s captured the imaginations of millions of people means it’s evolved into something more than a cynical marketing campaign for 25-year-old toys. Watching Transformers again confirmed that the people who created this show clearly devoted a lot of time and energy into crafting a cool and compelling story, and as one of the kids it was meant to entertain back in the day, I can confirm they were successful. Screw the toys; when I was 7, The Transformers was the coolest thing on TV.
The show, by today’s standards (and more crucially, by an adult’s standards), is, predictably, pretty hokey and silly, but in a charming way. There’s an episode where Hollywood makes a movie about the Transformers and cast the robots to play themselves, and it’s hard to take the Autobots vs. Decepticons confict terribly seriously after seeing Autobots sitting in oversized directors chairs while they wait to be called to the set. That being said, this was a show clearly intended for kids, and the episodes – even the sillier ones – have a fun, breezy vibe to them, and everything bops along at an enjoyably brisk pace, and it’s rare that more than a couple of minutes goes by without some robot-on-robot violence.
I was happy to see when I was poring over the episodes that the post-Transformers: The Movie shows were included. (The movie itself isn’t included in the box set, but I already have it on DVD, as I am a huge nerd.) The 1986 animated movie jumped the action ahead a few decades into the future (2005!), and because I always preferred sci-fi, I always dug the “futuristic” episodes a bit more. Even as a kid, the futuristic setting seemed to make more sense to me; transforming alien robots that turn into futuristic cars and planes is a bit more logical than transforming alien robots that turn into handguns and cassette decks.
Overall, by today’s standards, The Transformers is not really that mind-blowing, at least in terms of animation and action. But then again, this is clearly a set designed with the nostalgia audience in mind, and on that level, it’s one of the coolest DVD sets I’ve reviewed yet.
This and the G.I. Joe set (which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow) are easily the slickest collections I’ve yet looked at for this blog. The packaging looks great, and it’s awesomely thematic – it replicates the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, first glimpsed in Transformers: The Movie, and slides open the same way the Matrix is pulled apart – and the 16 discs themselves are housed in classy little sets of four each. Also included is a kickass booklet containing recaps of all 98 episodes and character bios.
Packaging and other stuff aside, the Transformers set also has some of the most fun and entertaining DVD extras I’ve seen in a long time. This is probably mostly due to my interest in the property, but rarely have I seen a collection of featurettes this genuinely fun to watch, whether it’s a reunion of several of the show’s voice actors (all of whom are charming and funny and a treat to listen to), a wonderfully fun retrospective documentary on the genesis of the Transformers and the show itself, as well as featurettes on the toys, the comics and Transformers fandom. And of course, the original toy ads, which are an even more powerful blast of nostalgia than the show itself. I remember all of this stuff, and revisiting it was a treat.
If you’re not already a fan of the original Transformers cartoon, this set, as great as it is, probably won’t sell you on it. But if you’re like me and grew up with this show, this collection is simply awesome.
Labels: animation, nostalgia, TV on DVD
DVD Review: Thirst
Thirst is a pretty cool – and very weird – vampire movie from South Korean director Chan-wook Park, who experienced something of a breakout with North American cult audiences with his 2003 revenge film, Old Boy, easily one of the best movies of the decade (it’s about a normal guy abducted and locked in a motel room for 15 years until he’s released and given only a few days to figure out why, a killer premise if ever there was one). Park is an incredibly stylish director, not in terms of filling his movies with quick edits or weird color filters, but there’s just an audacity to some of his stuff, in terms of both content and technical execution, that you just don’t see very often in movies from any part of the world. So the idea of Park tackling the vampire genre was a pretty tantalizing one.
The result is, as I mentioned, weird. I quite liked Thirst, though not as much as Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” (of which Old Boy is the second part; it’s a trilogy in theme only, sandwiched between the oppressively grim Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the phenomenal Lady Vengeance). The vampire movies I like the most tend to be the ones that do something a bit different with the concept, be it the apparent pre-adolescent bloodsucker in the brilliant Let the Right One In (read my review here), or the grimy outlaws of Near Dark (review here); the more traditionally “sexy and gothic” angle doesn’t really do it for me. And while Thirst includes typical vampire-movie trappings like religious imagery and sex – lust is really one of the driving forces of the entire plot – it’s about the furthest thing from the Twilight series one could imagine.
Thirst follows a South Korean priest named Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) who contracts a deadly disease after volunteering for a medical experiment. Through a quirk of fate, the blood transfusion he receives to save his life ends up transforming him into a vampire. But the disease, which manifests itself in the form of disgusting pustules all over his skin, as well as horrific bleeding, can only be kept at bay as long as Sang-hyun feeds on human blood. He starts off drinking the blood of a comatose patient at the hospital he frequents to perform last rites, but pretty soon things are spiraling out of his control. His miraculous recovery has turned him into a small-town celebrity, with strangers constantly trying to get him to use his miraculous healing powers on their own ailing loved ones, and this is how he reconnects with a childhood friend suffering from cancer. His friend recovers, and Sang-hyun is invited to join his weekly mahjong game, where he meets his friend’s unhappy wife, Tae-ju, who begs Sang-hyun to rescue her from her miserable life. And given that this is a vampire movie, I think we all know what that entails.
One of the things with Thirst that I noticed is that the pacing is very…different. It’s sort of slow – the film clocks in at about two hours and fifteen minutes – and has an almost episodic nature, as if the film can be divided into segments. While Sang-hyun is infected with vampirism fairly early on, Tae-ju doesn’t get turned until almost an hour and a half into the film, and it’s a major turning point, but it feels weird coming so late. But to be fair, it does feel like a natural progression of the story, and the scene where it finally happens is easily one of the film’s most powerful sequences.
Thirst is also, unlike Twilight, very much a film for adults. There’s a considerable amount of sex in the film – so much that I started to get a little bored once or twice waiting for the characters to put their clothes back on and move the story forward already – and the aforementioned pacing means that anyone looking for a dreamy vampire romance will probably spend much of Thirst’s running time bored, uncomfortable, or both.
Park’s movies (the ones I’ve seen at least) have a weird, darkly comic edge to them, and Thirst is no different. There’s quite a bit of comedy in this movie (granted, it’s mostly gallows humor), and a lot of it violent. When Tae-ju finally turns, she becomes a terror, and she and Sang-hyun have a few strange, violent and hilarious fights. Because they’re both immortal and super-strong, they can inflict horrible damage to each other, gruesomely breaking limbs and smashing faces into concrete during a lover’s spat.
One of the things I love about Park’s movies (well, his Vengeance Trilogy at least) is that he populates his movies with characters that are weird, and not altogether likeable. All the characters in Thirst, at some point, are shown to be selfish, and the film noir edge to his movies, Thirst included, comes from characters trying to do the right thing, but making bad decisions along the way. Maybe it’s just my misanthropic tendencies, but I like movies that aren’t necessarily about cut-and-dried good and evil, but rather reflect the reality that much of life is shades of gray. Sang-hyun’s arc in the movie is pretty incredible, but the fact that he’s a man of faith and starts off with an innate goodness that just about every other character in the movie lacks (even his fellow men of the cloth), and it makes his transformation even more impressive to watch as he’s corrupted by his newfound power, which he eventually comes to hate. Song Kang-ho is an excellent actor, and his performance as Sang-hyun is really something to watch.
Chan-wook Park is also a phenomenally talented director, visually, and Thirst is filled with amazing shots and sequences. There aren’t many scenes where Sang-hyun or Tae-ju use their vampire powers, but Park infuses them with a supernatural beauty. The sequence of the two of them leaping across rooftops at night is incredible, and the film’s final shot still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
As much as Thirst is weird and, on the surface, a very different vampire movie, Park includes all of the hallmarks of the genre, albeit in off-kilter ways. It’s got themes of corruption and seduction, but unlike most vampire movies, it’s often unclear who’s seducing who (Sang-hyun, while a vampire – traditionally the one doing the seducing – is also a priest, and was celibate until his affair with Tae-ju, so the dynamic of their relationship is different from any other vampire movie I can think of). It’s still a bit too long and meandering, as if Park was trying too hard to incorporate a few too many twists and turns into the story, but Thirst is filled with solid performances, and has a wonderfully offbeat vibe and sense of humor that makes it utterly unlike any other vampire movie out there.
The Thirst DVD has nothing on it. Which is a shame, as the DVDs for Old Boy and Lady Vengeance are pretty excellent. Ah well.
Labels: DVD review, vampires
DVD Review: Four Christmases
People tend to find this strange (presumably because I usually come across as a fairly unsentimental guy), but I love Christmas. I'm not religious, but the gifts and the "goodwill towards men" and all of that never fails to warm my heart. And while I've found that the last few years' worth of new Christmas movies has been pretty dire – they're usually just broad family comedies with an extra helping of sap – there's a handful of Christmas movies I watch every year, like Scrooged and Die Hard. Four Christmases, I can safely say, will not be entering my personal holiday-movie rotation any time soon. It's not awful, and I'm sure will make decent enough viewing for a great many people during the holiday season, but it takes certain ideas for granted – for example, that everyone hates their family and dreads spending time with them over the holidays – that I just couldn't access, and it kept me from really getting into it. That and the terrible jokes. There's a lot of those too.
The plot of Four Christmases follows Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), an unmarried couple with a holiday tradition of lying to their respective families about having other things to do (like inoculating poor children in South America) while they take a sunny vacation together and enjoy not being around their kin. But when weather shuts down the airport on they day they're set to leave for Fiji – and after their little scheme is inadvertently outed to their families live on local TV – they're forced to actually spend the holidays with each of their divorced parents and their new family units (hence the title). But buried in this cute premise is one of the biggest issues I had with Four Christmases; Brad and Kate don't care about Christmas at all, and are more than happy to spend it on a beach somewhere after having shipped their families big piles of expensive gifts in lieu of their presence, and this translates into Four Christmases being probably the least Christmas-y Christmas movie I've ever seen. The moral of the story doesn't really have anything to do with the holidays – it's about accepting your roots and loving your family no matter who they are – and instead the holidays are more of a backdrop, or, more cynically, a device to move the plot forward. Four Christmases isn't really a Christmas movie, it's just a movie that happens to take place at Christmas, like Batman Returns.
Which is not to say there's nothing to like here. As much as his last several movies haven't really appealed to me (including this one), I still happen to find Vince Vaughn very funny, especially when he's given the freedom to improvise, and he basically tapdances all over this movie. He's also joined by some able supporting performers, including Swingers and Made buddy (and Iron Man director) Jon Favreau as one of Brad's two cage-fighting brothers. (The other is country singer Tim McGraw, and while he's not as over-the-top as Favreau, he's still hilarious.) Vaughn also has a solid chemistry with Witherspoon, who isn't anywhere near as funny and wisely leaves most of the comedic heavy lifting to her co-star.
The humor in Four Christmases veers into slapstick too often and for no good reason, and I found none of it funny. (Except maybe for the part where Witherspoon fights a bunch of kids, but even that's funnier in concept than execution.) The jokes – that is, the stuff not improvised by Vaughn – felt tired and obvious, and Brad's and Kate's families are "characters" in a way that's condescending and vaguely offensive. There are a lot of cultural stereotypes on display, like Brad's father's trailer-trash clan and Kate's proper, Bible-thumping mom, but nothing interesting or funny is done with them; they're just presented as being funny for their own sakes, and they're really not.
I suspect Four Christmases is a movie that a lot of viewers will enjoy more than I did. But I'm a guy with a soft spot for Christmas movies and Vince Vaughn, and it still didn't do much for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, and it's a passably entertaining holiday distraction, but Four Christmases is far from being a new holiday classic.
There is absolutely nothing on the Four Christmases DVD, not even a trailer.
Labels: comedy, DVD review