On DVD: Paper Heart

Wednesday, November 18

Today I received Paper Heart in the mail from DVD Talk. I'm looking forward to this one. I don't know anything about star and co-writer Charlyne Yi, but her co-star is Michael Cera, who I like, and the movie seems to have been well-reviewed. The DVD package announces that Paper Heart won the screenwriting award at Sundance this year, which is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that Yi was 23 when she won it. Plus on top of all that, the film's premise is intriguing. There's a documentary aspect to it in which Yi and her crew interrogate strangers about their ideas and experiences with love; and there's a fictional aspect to the movie, too, that revolves around a staged romance between Yi and Cera. This should be, at the very least, different.


On DVD: Downhill Racer (Criterion Collection)

Michael Ritchie's debut feature, Downhill Racer (1969), is a quietly thrilling, beautifully-shot film about a particularly American theme. What does it mean to be a champion? Is it a worthy goal in and of itself? These questions are posed in a far more elegant fashion by the film itself, but what's interesting about them is the fact that they are in a "sports film" at all.

Usually the key question for characters in films about athletics is, "How do I win?" We watch, we wonder, and we wait, hoping that they figure out what it takes to persevere and triumph. In Downhill Racer, Robert Redford plays a character driven to achieve those same heights - but without knowing himself, without knowing why he wants to win. This is the dark side of athletic competition, and the movie poses the unasked and unanswered questions behind each and every sports film that preceded it - along with many that followed.
Read the full review here

On DVD: Justice League: The Complete Series

Bruce Timm's contribution to the larger canon of DC Comics' superheroes has grown from the surprise hit Batman: The Animated Series into a fully-fledged universe that has taken these characters on some fascinating adventures. After Batman: The Animated Series, Timm's most significant creation has been Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited--which are gathered here in this handsome set under the title Justice League - The Complete Series. Other "Timmverse" series and features are well worth watching, re-watching, and remembering (including Superman: The Animated Series, which I will be reviewing here shortly). But Justice League is one of the best superhero television series of all time. It has a very special charm, a sense of fun and adventure that borrows heavily from the established worlds of each of the "big seven" who make up the Justice League during its first two seasons - a set of characters that expands in unusual directions when the show morphed into Justice League: Unlimited in its third season. The original seven are: Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Green Lantern (Jon Stewart), the Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, and Batman. The first six are the focus of the series, with Batman joining in occasionally, or appearing at key moments to provide important information and support. (In the series' own "origin story" of the League, Batman funds the Watchtower, their base that orbits the Earth.)

Read the full review here

On DVD: Xavier: Renegade Angel - Seasons 1 and 2

In a way, this feels like I'm picking up where I left off last week, when I wrote about Adult Swim in a Box. Xavier: Renegade Angel is one of Adult Swim's more recent programs, having begun its run in late 2007. The show was created by the PFFR gang - Vernon Chatman, John Lee, Alyson Levy, and Jim Tozzi - who were also responsible for MTV2's hilarious and memorable Wonder Showzen. This group's bold, intuitive, ramshackle approach to television comedy is on full display again in this nonstop satire of all things spiritual.

Animated using an intentionally-passé CGI visual style (it looks kind of like an MMORPG), the show follows the misadventures of Xavier, a hairy hybrid of a creature with the beak of a bird, one arm that's a green snake, and the voice of a tripped-out self-important California beach bum. With all the obligatory accoutrements of a New Age hero - including a special wooden flute called a "shakashuri" - Xavier wanders the land to seek and spread enlightenment. The form that that enlightenment takes is generally an indiscriminate mish-mash of concepts from many religions and cultures, and this forms the satirical basis of the whole show. Xavier's grasp of these quasi-philosophical concepts is usually grounded in a gross misinterpretation, which leads him to behave violently and immorally, all while maintaining a spacey New Age calm.


On DVD: Four Christmases

The key phrase in the promotional slogan above is "no mercy." Nothing worth describing in any detail happens in Four Christmases. There is not a single laugh - earned or unearned. This movie reeks of having been slapped together for an expedient holiday release - there is no evidence, other than the names on the credits, of this film having anything bearing a reasonable resemblance to a screenplay. Four Christmases comes off like the outcome of a few conversations between executives and producers, with the director and the cast being informed of their responsibilities at the absolute last minute. Sadly, that strategy worked, too - at least from a bottom-line perspective. A strong cast, a holiday theme - these are the only ingredients needed for a Christmastime hit. The film was able to dupe holidaymaking families sufficient to rake in $163 million during its mercifully short theatrical run (that's more than twice its inexplicably large budget).

Read the full review here


On DVD: Adult Swim in a Box

Adult Swim, which takes over late nights from Cartoon Network, has spent the last decade carving out a very particular niche market with an insanely inspired, eclectic approach to programming. Although Adult Swim broadcasts new and classic anime on selected nights, their original programming is what makes the program block stand out. Beginning in 2001, Adult Swim officially launched with programming only a couple of nights a week - new episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Home Movies, and a lot of reruns. After a year or so, the network began to expand original programming with shows featuring the surreal humor and visual styles Adult Swim is now known for. These "early" Adult Swim shows included Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Brak Show. Since then, Adult Swim has matured into its comfortable role as the provider of alternative television programming.

This set, released as Adult Swim in a Box, presents a sampling of the network's distinctive shows, with six previously-released DVD sets and a welcome bonus disc containing a handful of pilot episodes for less-successful (or never picked up) programs. The content itself is absolutely fine - wholly enjoyable, and fairly representative of what Adult Swim is "about." However, the logic behind the assembly of that content is highly suspect. For one thing, if this box is meant to be an "introduction" to Adult Swim, why not include the first DVD releases for each show, instead of second or third seasons? If it is meant to be a sampler, why not arrange the shows chronologically, with revised disc packaging to make structure of the set somehow distinctive? On the box itself - which barely even qualifies as cardboard - the designers have emblazoned the characteristically self-reflexive phrase "Cash grab," which basically answers the questions I just posed. Although they are transparent and self-mocking about their bottom line-oriented thinking, it's not really funny. The MSRP on this box is $69.98. Fans likely already own most of the box's contents; if Adult Swim wants to lure new viewers or those who haven't got around to making a purchase of their favorite Adult Swim shows, the slapdash assemblage of contents is illogical. I suspect that Adult Swim was simply trying to clear warehouse space, designed a box, put together a bonus disc and voila - released this set.
I criticize the choice because it muddies the waters around Adult Swim's otherwise very thorough and thoughtfully-produced individual DVD releases. They routinely feature fine transfers, creative artwork and packaging, and excellent, unusual extra features. For their overall DVD strategy, I have nothing but praise. But this set is sloppy, and only makes sense for existing fans who happen to have holes in their DVD collection. Despite the lack of logical organization here, this is a noteworthy trove of unique television shows.

On DVD: Plastic Man: The Complete Collection

I didn't have a huge amount of choices on Saturday mornings growing up, because I was only limited to 60 minutes of television time. So I had to be choosy about which shows I watched. Ruby-Spears' Plastic Man (formally The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show), which ran from 1979 to 1981, was one of the few programs I really looked forward to each weekend. When I saw Plastic Man, it was in reruns shortly after its original broadcast, and it was one of my earliest encounters with a superhero character. Although Superman (1978) was the very first feature film I ever saw, I did not really connect with superheroes as a kid. So Plastic Man represents a first exposure to a Justice League character, and even though it did not lead to a sustained interest in comic book heroes as a child, it certainly planted the seeds of the fairly deep appreciation for DC characters that I now hold as an adult.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

H.P. Lovecraft, one of the creators of horror literature as we know it, was a tall, skinny, long-faced racist/xenophobic recluse - a man who was demonstrably afraid of the world, and transmogrified that fear into stories of the uncanny that define "weird fiction." He lived in Providence, RI, for most of his life, often in long periods of solitude and seclusion. His stories pit protagonists of learning and science - often Providence-area natives - against unspeakably horrific creatures of godlike power and omnipotence. These creatures - who appear in a loosely connected group of stories known as "The Cthulhu Mythos" - observe humanity with utter dispassion, and Lovecraft's characters are powerless before them. In these stories, Lovecraft envisions a world where the ultimate terror goes hand-in-hand with the ultimate knowledge - the human confrontation with previously unknown powers that totally compromise and moot our Earth-bound concepts of human advancement and values. Is anything more frightening than the idea that individual human lives are insignificant and meaningless? It could be argued that this fear was the engine behind all human activity - and yet all human industry was threatened by the forces Lovecraft imagined. The consecration of this deeply existential neurosis in his short stories comprises a key contribution to literature - a body of work that maintains lasting philosophical immediacy.

Read the full review here