Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season
(Disney, 2004) creator: Marc Cherry, w/ Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman. Rating: NNN
Watching desperate housewives episodes back to back, I can appreciate what a dangerous tightrope Marc Cherry and his cast are walking. They're going for genuine soap opera pathos, which needs audience sympathy to work. At the same time, they're going for the comedy of embarrassment, which requires some audience detachment and cruelty. That they bring it off so well is a tribute to both the acting and the writing. The cast play every scene with a slight level of hysteria that enables the comedy without quite crushing the sympathy.
Teri Hatcher's nude-in-the-bushes scene gives us fake nonchalance as good as any Katharine Hepburn ever did. Marcia Cross is adept at the madness lurking beneath the Martha Stewart surface. But honours go to Felicity Huffman, who's being driven noisily crazy by her kids. Huffman plays it like she means it, and confirms that she does in her commentary.
All four leads and Nicollette Sheridan, who plays the neighbourhood bitch, get favourite-scenes commentaries that are the highlight of the otherwise undistinguished extras package.
The writing is inventive . The suicide of a suburban housewife touches off both a mystery and the crumbling of other apparently placid lives, which brings secrets to the surface and promotes arson, adultery, blackmail and murder. The venom plays very nicely against the Leave It To Beaver surface of suburban Wisteria Lane.
The series was put together fast, so most of the dialogue is no more than serviceable, but Cherry's willingness to include scenes like Huffman's suicide dream and insistence on fast pacing keep the clunkiness from taking over.
Extras Six discs, 16 episodes, creator commentary on selected episodes, actor commentary on selected scenes, making-of docs. Wide-screen. English subtitles.
The Flowers Of St. Francis
(Criterion/Vid Canada, 1950) D: Roberto Rossellini, w/ Brother Nazario Gerardi, Aldo Fabrizi. Rating: NNNN
Ten vignettes from the life of st. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) focus on simplicity, faith and humour rather than piousness, struggle and churchly pomp. This approach is appropriate for the saint known as God's Jester (the movie's original Italian title), and for Roberto Rossellini's resolutely naturalistic, anti-spectacular and anti-dramatic neo-realist aesthetic. To this end, he's cast actual Franciscan monks and made a point of contrasting their very likeable, unaffected screen presence with the actory performance of Aldo Fabrizi as a barbarian tyrant.
The result is a quiet film that invites us to see happiness, simplicity and silliness as a powerful spiritual path.
At the time, critics said Rossellini had betrayed his neo-realist ideals, and Criterion lays this controversy to rest. A solid, though brief, collection of interviews and short essays highlighted by a conversation with Isabella Rossellini, who illuminates her father's work and life with affection and respect, provides good background to Rossellini's moral and cinematic concerns.
Extras Three interviews, English prologue, 32-page booklet of essays. Theatrical frame. Mono Italian soundtrack. English subtitles.
The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl In 3-D
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Robert Rodriguez, w/ Taylor Lautner, Taylor Dooley. Rating: NNN
The same thing that makes this so much foolish fun is what makes it anathema to sober-minded film fans: it was thought up by a six-year-old boy and shot in 3-D. The boy is Racer Max Rodriguez, director Robert Rodriguez's son, who shaped the story and came up with many of the concepts. The director's home movies and commentary take us lovingly through the process of working with his kids. Along the way he has a lot of interesting things to say about his own creativity and creativity in general.
His goal, he says, was to make a story from a child's mind, rather than merely for one. He succeeds with narrative abruptness and silly jokes, but dialogue is not his forte, so we're hammer-smashed now and then with well-meaning grown-up messages that are already perfectly clear from the story: a boy must enter his own dreams to rescue them from darkness and learn to dream with his eyes open.
Visually, Rodriguez is a treat. Planet Drool is a riot of colours, textures and childish fantasies that works equally well in the 3-D version, even in its black-and-white flat version on the second disc. The exaggerated perspective and bizarre unreality of 3-D are perfectly suited to dreamscapes, and Rodriguez makes far better use of it than he did in the tedious Spy Kids 3.
The 3-D is technically perfect and easy on the eyes, but it uses the coloured lens system, which turns the movie to black-and-white with occasional shots of colour. It wasn't shot that way, and Rodriguez promises a polarized version someday.
Extras Director commentary, making-of doc. Wide-screen, 3-D and flat versions. English, French soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Renny Harlin, w/ Christian Slater, LL Cool J. Rating: NN
According to the extras, the cast went to boot camp with the FBI, learning how to run and shoot just like real agents. Too bad they didn't learn to behave like them, too, because, when you're supposed to be playing trained professionals, standard-brand horror movie hysteria just doesn't cut it. Neither do costumes that suggest the wearers are hip young actors. It's not their fault. Director Renny Harlin, in his dry-as-dust commentary, makes sure we know that most of the script meetings were spent trying to find novel ways of killing off the characters. Pity they didn't create some characters first and excise some of the gibberish from the dialogue.
Basically, this is an uncredited rip-off of Agatha Christie's 1939 novel Ten Little Indians, which has already been filmed at least seven times. This time, FBI profiler trainees doing their final exam in a mock town on an island find that someone among them is killing off the others.
Profilers hunt serial killers, and, sure enough, our villain turns out to be the same lazy cliché going around since The Silence Of The Lambs started spawning imitations: all gaudy crimes, gory decor and a twisted line of self-justification. Not that it matters the mystery falls flat without engaging characters.
The island and the cramped interiors are atmospheric, and Harlin (Deep Blue Sea) knows how to film action. There isn't all that much of it, but a couple of sequences stand out, particularly the final, totally over-the-top gunfight.
Extras Director commentary, making-of docs. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, September 27
Evil Dead II: Special Divimax Edition
(Anchor Bay, 1987) All-time great horror comedy, with new digital transfer supervised by director Sam Raimi in a new facsimile Necronomicon edition that screams when you poke it.
(Fox, 2005) Animated fun for kids, with the voices of Ewan McGregor, Mel Brooks and the ubiquitous Robin Williams.
Lords Of Dogtown
(Columbia, 2005) Rated and unrated extended versions of the skateboarding drama.
(Visual Entertainment, 2004) Romance and a rivalry with Picasso. Andy Garcia stars.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb