xena: warrior princess - season one (Anchor Bay, 1995) Prod: Sam Raimi, w/ Lucy Lawless, Reneé O'Connor. Seven discs. Rating:NNN
It's no surprise that xena: warrior Princess sprang to life from Sam Raimi's other syndicated series, Hercules. Kevin Sorbo's Hercules is a large, amiable and kind of dull hero. Lucy Lawless's Xena is a force of nature, and cut loose in the midst of Raimi's mixmaster version of the mythological and historical past, she cuts a very wide swath.
I have a preference for the last couple of seasons of Xena, when Raimi and company ran out of reasonable stories and began doing remakes of The Producers and modern-dress versions of the characters in reincarnation stories. Late Xena is completely nuts.
But, in its favour, early Xena is fairly nuts, too, with its wonderfully cheesy effects, Stunts R Us approach to action and rampant lesbian subtexts, which became less sub the longer the series stayed on the air.
One of the funny things about Season One is the speed with which the show established the butch-femme dynamic between Xena and her sidekick, Gabrielle (Reneé O'Connor), even before the friendship was established.
Xena fans will want this, but I do have some complaints. Despite the Deluxe Collector's Edition banner, it just ain't that deluxe. The transfers are not very good - I spent about half an hour fiddling with my TV controls trying to sharpen the image on the night and torch-lit scenes and couldn't, which suggests that Anchor Bay is using a secondary source.
People with older and smaller TVs will get a cleaner picture than those with the latest tech. There's also a lack of extras - no commentaries, no featurettes, no booklet. The seventh disc is a DVD-ROM series guide, with character and actor bios, clips and full credits, but it would be nice to have an episode guide that doesn't require you to fire up the computer.
DVD EXTRAS DVD-ROM character and episode guide.
treasure island (Disney, 1950) D: Byron Haskin w/ Bobby Driscoll, Robert Newton. Rating: NNNN
treasure planet (Disney, 2002) D: John Musker, Ron Clements, w/ David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson. Rating: N
The 1950 treasure island, with Robert Newton's immortal incarnation of Long John Silver, was Disney's first live-action feature, and a staple of the Wonderful World Of Disney during my childhood. Looking at it again for the first time in over 30 years, I was startled by how well it holds up, weaving Robert Louis Stevenson's nearly indestructible spell from the moment Black Dog and Blind Pew show up at the Admiral Benbow Inn.
It may not have cool digital effects or kung fu fight scenes, but the action sequences are creditable for 1950 - they actually look like people fighting - and the story has great heart, though Newton's Silver isn't nearly as scary as he is in my childhood memories. (To see Newton at his best, check his bone-chilling Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist.)
The remarkable thing about Disney's 2002 animated update, Treasure Planet, is how thoroughly it sucks, from making young Jim Hawkins a cool hover-boarding teen with issues about his absent dad (Stevenson's Jim didn't have issues - he had adventures) to designing a universe utterly devoid of internal logic. This is painfully awkward filmmaking, and though the animation is up to Disney standards (there are some beautiful shots, and I enjoyed Emma Thompson's voice work as the ship's captain), it's set in a senseless, designed-by-committee place.
Treasure Planet may come with a bunch of extras and Treasure Island may be bare-bones, but there's no question which offers better value for money. If you know kids still interested in pirate stories, try Treasure Island on them. And it's very enjoyable for adults as well.
DVD EXTRAS Planet only: theatrical trailers, visual commentary, alternate ending and prologue, character and production design gallery, DVD games, John Rzeznik music video. French- and Spanish-language tracks.
the white sheik (Criterion/Morningstar, 1952) D: Federico Fellini, w/ Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo. Rating: NNNN
early fellini, before la dolce vita, operates within the tension between Fellini's neo-realist roots as a writer on Rossellini's Open City and Paisan and his own impulses to be a circus ringmaster. The White Sheik, his first solo feature (he co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada), is poised between the real world of Rome, where his young couple arrive for their honeymoon, and the fantastical world of the photo-novellas the young bride (Bovo) seeks, inhabited the heroic title character played by Alberto Sordi.
This is a film where ordinary characters are swept along by events they don't understand. Watch poor Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) in the street, where he can't stand still for a second without having to make way for a group of musicians, or being dragged off to the Coliseum by his relatives. It may not be the greatest Fellini, though Orson Welles thought it was, but it's still entertaining and a key to understanding the director's world.
DVD EXTRAS This is one of the more minimal Criterion releases; we do get spoiled by their two-disc monsters like Contempt and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. In addition to the new transfer and subtitles, there are new video interviews with Trieste and Bovo, a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and a booklet excerpt from I, Fellini.
two weeks notice (Warner Home Video, 2002) D: Marc Lawrence, w/ Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant. Rating: NNN
You can push a tired premise pretty far on charm in a romantic comedy, and Two Weeks Notice demonstrates exactly how far when the performers in question are Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant.
She's a liberal activist lawyer trying to save a community centre, he's a billionaire real estate developer, and they're labouring under the writing skills of director Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality), whose screenplay keeps throwing roadblocks in their path so it takes them a hundred minutes to realize that they're in love. Well, of course they are. They're the most attractive people in the movie. (It's not often remarked what a great beauty Bullock is, a tribute to how relentlessly she plays against her looks. She'd probably just snort at the thought.)
On a historical note, Two Weeks Notice was the first major studio film to shoot in New York after 9/11, and on an aesthetic note, it's a much better film than either Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood or Meg Ryan's most recent romantic comedy, the time-travel mess Kate And Leopold.
There's an occasionally amusing commentary and an annoying outtake feature: you can set the playback so that when a heart appears you can click on it and see an outtake. But the film is in an anamorphic transfer and the outtakes aren't, so they look all stretchy on a wide-screen or wide-screen-capable TV, and when you come out of the outtake and back to the film, it defaults to the film's soundtrack, which means that if you're listening to the commentary you have to switch back to it.
DVD EXTRAS Theatrical trailer, director/star commentary, HBO First Look featurette, two deleted scenes. English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles. Warner has issued separate wide-screen and pan-and-scan editions, so check the banner.
the swimmer (Columbia-Tri-Star, 1968) D: Frank Perry, w/ Burt Lancaster, Janice Rule. Rating: NNNN
Burt Lancaster was one of the more artistically ambitious post-second-world-war movie stars, and this is one of his most interesting choices. He plays Ned Merrill, a Connecticut advertising man who decides to swim home via the pools of his suburb, to the amazement of his neighbours, who regard him with the unease usually inspired by a long-time enemy.
Based on a John Cheever story, The Swimmer is by turns fascinatingly pretentious and thematically silly, but once seen it's almost impossible to forget, particularly the remarkable blend of physical athleticism and inward emotional intensity Lancaster brings to the role. No extras - there's almost no one left to interview, though I believe Janice Rule is still alive.
DVD EXTRAS English, French, Korean and Japanese subtitles.
Also this week
catch me if you can (Universal) Steven Spielberg's other 2002 hit, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a teenage con man and bad cheque artist and Tom Hanks as his Inspector Javert.
winchester 73, the bend of the river, the far country (Universal) Jimmy Stewart: The Dark Side. Stewart made eight films with director Anthony Mann, the core of which are a quartet of revenge-driven road westerns. Here are three of them. The Naked Spur remains in MGM's vaults.
sea of love: collector's edition (Universal) Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin at their best in this murder mystery/romance from novelist Richard Price (Clockers).
god said ha! (Alliance-Atlantis) Julia Sweeney's one-woman show about her battle with cancer. And it's funny. Really.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy