February 01, 2006

Notes from a DVD Geek

by Jeremy Lassen

DVD’s, as a home video format, are one of the best things since sliced bread.  Not only do they offer incredible sound and picture quality, they can include bonus materials that can greatly enhance your appreciation of your favorite movie,  and/or provide some fascinating background material that puts that odd little movie into a larger cinematic context.  Another thing they offer is alternate cuts of the film.  Sure, the extras are often puff features that were produced to run on E!, and sure the “alternate cut” is sometimes just an extra 15 seconds, so that the marketing people can justify putting “special super secret preferred directors edition” on the cover.  But sometimes. . . sometimes you get the goods.  Sometimes the studios do the DVD’s up right.

Right now one of science fiction’s most recognizable series has one of the best special editions available.  No. . . I’m not talking about that Lucas stuff. . . I’m talking about the Alien(s) series.  The Aliens Quadrilogy Box Set is one that will make your mouth water.  Each movie gets two different cuts. . . the original theatrical, and a “directors/producers/whatever” cut.  In addition to the extra version of the film, each film gets its own disk of extras, including new documentaries and interviews shot exclusively for this DVD set.  You ever wonder why Aliens3 is such a mess?  The documentary included with the film explains why, and is a damn site more entertaining then the movie itself.  And the box set comes with a bonus DVD that has extras for the entire series of films.

Now, you may be saying that’s nice, but you only ever liked one of the series, and have no interest in owning super special editions of all four.  Not a problem.  The studio anticipated this, and broke out each film into its own 2-disk special edition.  Not nearly as cost-effective as the box set, but. . . if all you care about are the first two films, you can pick those up without breaking the bank.  These special editions, or the 4-movie, 9 disk box set come HIGHLY recommended.

On to some other science fiction offerings.  Equilibrium is a nice little “Matrix” clone staring Christian Bale that is definitely worth checking out.  Its take on “gun-fu” is pretty awesome – all in all, a fun movie that mostly got overlooked because of its Matrix-knock-off-marketing.

Speaking of fun, underrated little movies. . . Be sure to check out “Wrong Turn”.  This nasty little 70’s horror homage is wonderfully produced and acted (starring Eliza “Faith” Dushku) without suffering from the usual painful awkwardness of teen slashers, nor the heavy handed drudgery of contemporary grind house homages, such as Saw, or Hostel.  Rather then watching yet another tepid Hollywood remake of a 70's horror property, check out this little gem.

Another underrated gem is Bill Paxton (Aliens, Near Dark), whose directorial debut was a kick-ass little supernatural thriller called Frailty.  Creepy little kids, serial killers and prophesy in the haunted heartland, all with an X-Files sheen.  An incredibly well acted, well directed effort.  Sadly his second directorial effort was about a historic GOLF tournament. . . not quite hitting the sweet spot, IMO.  Just watch Frailty twice, and wait for his third movie.

Another science fiction-al movie that is worth checking out is Donnie Darko, which was recently re-released as an extended director's cut.  This film features human-sized talking bunnies and some interesting temporal juxtapositions.  This movie has a weird suburban nightmare quality, a la David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but does away with the weird for weirdness' sake, and instead presents a nice science-fictional effort that’s definitely worth a watch or two.

In a completely different vein, another overlooked SF movie is David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.  This movie disappointed a lot of hardcore Cronenberg fans because it was his first step on the road back to entertainingly watchable movies, and away from his forays into “Lynchian incomprehensibility” (a la Naked Lunch, and Crash).  But on its own, it’s a fun alternate reality/VR extravaganza that makes most of Star Trek “Holo-deck” storylines look like the second rate crap that they are.

Speaking of Cronenberg. . . If you haven’t ever sampled his filmic ouevre, here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.  There’s eXistenZ, of course.  His first few 70’s horror films (Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood) are great low budget thrillers that hint at the biological obsessions that would eventually come to dominate his work.  Scanners is notable because it presaged a certain paranoia that would come to suffuse Cronenberg's work and featured on-screen exploding heads.

Videodrome was what I consider to be Cronenberg's first true classic, and should be seen by anybody who likes their paranoid conspiracy theory SF and horror done intelligently.  There’s a scene in this movie that is an obvious inspiration to the Ring movies, but I’ll leave it at that, in case you haven’t seen it yet.  Criterion has a spectacular special edition of this movie, and it is well worth the price.

Videodrome was followed up by his two most accessible movies. . . a kick-ass adaptation of Stephen King’s Dead Zone, starring Christopher Walken.  This one is horribly underrated and puts the recent television series of the same name to shame.  After The Dead Zone came The Fly, which ushered in a new level of on-screen cinematic grossness, and at the same time featured a career making performance by Jeff Goldbloom.

Following The Fly, Cronenberg turned in one of his most ambitious and successful movies. . . Dead Ringers.  This twisted little piece of psychological horror followed the exploits of two brothers, (twins,) gynecologists whose descent into madness is lovingly detailed.  Jeremy Irons turned in a career-making performance, playing both twins to marvelous effect.

Naked Lunch, Crash, and M. Butterfly are all interesting, and successful on their own terms, but just not as mind-shatteringly compelling as some of his earlier work.  His latest movie was a twistedly-effective little non-genre piece, staring Viggo Mortensen, called “A History of Violence.”  Oddly enough, in this movie, Cronenberg again ellicits a career topping performance from Viggo.  I think it's safe to say that Cronenberg has a way of bringing out the best in his actors.

And I’d like to end by reminding everyone that Aliens vs. Predator was actually a terrible movie.  It wasn’t even a good “bad” movie.  It failed on every level.  And all I can think to myself is “Damn. . . David Cronenberg could have made a spectacular 'Aliens vs. Predator' movie."  Oh well.  When Twentieth Century Fox puts me in charge, I’ll make sure this happens.

Till next time, watch out for those face huggers.

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