Shaun Of The Dead (Focus/Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Edgar Wright, w/ Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost. Rating: NNNNN
The recent spate of zombie films altered the mix by introducing fast zombies. Zombies are the walking dead, not the running dead, so extra points to director Edgar Wright and screenwriter Simon Pegg for restoring the good old shambling gait. Shaun Of The Dead's heroes, with their sedentary lives and haphazard combat tactics, couldn't have handled fast zombies. The funniest movie of the year, Shaun Of The Dead blends character comedy, horror gore and social observation. When Shaun walks home from the shop oblivious to the onset of zombie carnage, we start wondering who are the real zombies. Great fun, and a terrific job on the DVD. The commentaries are highly informative (the filmmakers) and pretty entertaining (the cast), and the extras are both.
EXTRAS Writer/director and cast commentaries, outtakes, deleted scenes, casting tapes, Pegg's video diary, TV bits, North American theatrical trailer, 2001 flip-chart pitch (a must-see for evidence that Pegg and Wright knew the final shot of the film before they set foot on the set), zombie trivia text track. English, French, Spanish versions, Spanish and French subtitles.
Battles Without Honor & Humanity: The Yakuza Papers (Home Vision/Morningstar, 1973-74) D: Kinji Fukasaku, w/ Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata. Six discs. Rating: NNNNN
In the mid-70s, Kinji Fukasaku created this monumental gangster epic, five films depicting the gang wars in Hiroshima from the immediate post-war period to the mid-60s. Fukasaku, best known here for his later masterpiece Battle Royal, has a shocking eye for beauty and a chaotic formal sense that hurtles the audience through a brutal and bloody world. There are no heroic characters here; whenever someone develops a sympathetic trait, we can be sure he'll be killed in the next reel, probably with a machete. Beautiful transfers, and the supplements include a booklet devoted to charting the relationships between the various crime families, something the viewer is grateful for.
Another great box set. Had I seen it sooner, I would have shoehorned it into my top 10.
EXTRAS Two booklets, including appreciations of the films and their impact on the yakuza genre, and an historical timeline and organizational chart of the film's gangs and their interrelationships. Featurettes on subtitling, reminiscences of the director, round table discussions, appreciation of Fukasaku by William Friedkin. Japanese with English subtitles.
Garden State (20th Century Fox, 2004) D: Zach Braff, w/ Braff, Natalie Portman. Rating: NNNN
Allowing for the eminent virtues of Garden State, am I the only one who looks at writer-director-star Zach Braff and thinks "Ray Romano, The Early Years"? A heavily medicated actor (Braff) comes home for his mom's funeral, confronts old slacker pals still hanging around Jersey, meets cute "free-spirited" girl played by Natalie Portman as an older version of her character in Beautiful Girls. Garden State works very hard to cultivate its eccentricities, and Braff is believable as someone who's been heavily drugged out since he was 10 or so, but the film's acting honours actually belong to the secondary characters, particularly Peter Sarsgaard as Braff's gravedigger buddy, Jean Smart and Ron Leibman in single-scene cameos and Ian Holm as Braff's remote dad.
EXTRAS Director/production team and director/Portman commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of, outtakes.
King Arthur: Unrated Wide-screen Director's Cut (Disney, 2004) D: Antoine Fuqua, w/ Clive Owen, Keira Knightley. Rating: NNN
Sign of the times: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) set out to make King Arthur as an R-rated fall movie, only to see Disney decide to make it a summer release with a PG-13 rating. He was so unhappy about it that Disney's let him have his version as the principal DVD release. The theatrical release DVD is panned-and-scanned and seems to have no extras. Fuqua's cut of the film is about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical release, most of it restoring a bunch of small, niggling cuts in the early fights, plus a huge restoration to the climactic battle against the invading Saxons. It's still an odd film. It wants to be a "realistic" film about King Arthur. It's also very much in line with Jerry Bruckheimer's fondness for movies about disparate, almost mercenary teams gathered to do something noble - in this case, save Britain. It's Armageddon with Saxons instead of a giant asteroid, only Fuqua's a better director than Michael Bay, who was originally scheduled to direct the film.
EXTRAS Director commentary with extensive discussion of the cuts restored to this version, making-of featurette, text trivia track, alternate ending, self-serving round table commentary with Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Fuqua and Bruckheimer. English and French versions, French and Spanish subtitles.
Having had a novel kicking around inside my head for years and no time to write it, I'm taking a leave of absence during 2005 to commit the profoundly foolish act of writing a book on spec. And doing a bit of travelling and recharging my batteries. Have a good 2005, and I'll see you on the other side.
Coming Tuesday, January 4
Troy (Warner, 2004) Wolfgang Petersen's entry in the 2004 sword-and-sandal sweepstakes, with Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando Bloom as Paris and monumental digital effects. It's Homer's Iliad, only now Patroclus is Achilles' cousin and they've gotten rid of all those pesky gods.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) Seems to have all the extras from the single-disc edition, plus a DTS soundtrack.
Las Vegas: Season One - Uncut And Uncensored (Universal, 2003) NBC's surprise ratings success is the purest sort of fantasy cheese, enjoyable if you forget how casinos are really operated and how people really act there. No indication what the "uncut and uncensored" refers to, though it will be a wide-screen transfer.
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (New Line/Alliance Atlantis, 2004) Basically, two young stoned guys in search of cheap burgers have adventures. What's interesting is the melting-pot tensions created by making them Chinese American and Indian American but still just "doodz." You'll probably want the "extreme unrated" version.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb