|by Peter Sobczynski
It is a cracking good week on the DVD/Blu-ray front as one of the most endearing duos in animated film history return with a brand-new adventure.
When “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the feature film debut for the beloved characters created by British animator Nick Park that had been featured in a trio of internationally acclaimed stop-motion animation shorts (1989’s “A Grand Day Out,” 1993’s “The Wrong Trousers” and 1995’s “A Close Shave”), was released in 2005, many fans of the sweetly daft inventor and his endlessly resourceful dog were left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the film was as ingenious, charming and flat-out funny as the shorts were without ever feeling as if it was just another short padded out to feature length in ways that made it bigger instead of better. On the other hand, since each of the previous “W&G” entries had expanded on what had come before, both in narrative and technical terms, there didn’t seem to be anyplace that Park could take the series that it hadn’t already been--another feature was unlikely and another short might seem like a step back. As it turns out, Park chose the latter path by returning the duo to their short-subject origins with “A Matter of Loaf and Death” and while it may not prove to be as fresh and innovative as the other installments of the franchise, the resulting film packs so much entertainment and good cheer into its 30-minute run time that it is unlikely that most viewers will notice or care.
This time around, Wallace has used his inventing skills to transform his home into an elaborate mechanized bakery named “Top Bun” from which he and Gromit operate a concern promising “dough-to-door” service. Business is booming and everything appears to be going swimmingly except for the minor little hitch that someone seems to be bumping off all of the town’s bakers--as the story opens, number 12 has just been done in with his own rolling pin. Of course, Gromit is worried about the news and the idea that his friend and owner might be next on the list but Wallace hardly seems to notice because he is once again in love. This time around, the apple fritter of his eye is Piella Bakewell, a jovial woman who was the former Bake O Light bread girl whom he rescues from a near-tragic cycling accident with the help of a couple of well-placed tea cakes.. As Piella insinuates herself further and further in Wallace’s world to the point where they become engaged, Gromit becomes suspicious of this interloper and eventually makes some shocking discoveries about who she is and what she wants. Of course, Wallace is too besotted to notice that anything is amiss and so it is once again up to Gromit, with a little assistance from Piella’s own poodle, Fluffles (who is nursing her own not-so-secret crush as well) to save the day before Wallace is toast.
From a storytelling perspective, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” doesn’t really break any new ground--Park’s screenplay is pretty much a synthesis of elements taken wholesale from the previous films. However, the narratives of the “W&G” films have always tended to be the least interesting elements. What has always made these films special have been the visual spectacles on display, the crazy ingenuity of the humor and, most importantly, the byplay between the two central characters and once again, it is these very elements that make this installment so delightful. Visually, it crams one astonishment after another into its abbreviated run time--the design of sets like the automated bakery and set-pieces like the tangle with the crocodile from the omnipresent local zoo and stuff involving a bomb are so intricate and detailed that the amount of painstaking work that must have gone into pulling them off is simply mind-blowing. From a comedic standpoint, the combination of slapstick, droll wit, silly puns and goofy movie references (none of which I would dream of revealing here) is winning enough to have viewers of all ages and temperaments rolling on the floor with laughter. And once again, it is amazing to see just how much life and humanity that Park has managed to invest in a pair of characters that are, after all, simply hunks of plasticine--Gromit especially shows a greater range of emotion and expression than many flesh-and-blood actors I could name. The only possible complaint that could be raised towards the film is that it is a bit on the violent side at times--after all, it does kick off with a murder and ends with a fight scene in which a character meets a nasty (though unseen) end--but only hard-hearted frumps could take any real offense at any of that and if they were hard-hearted frumps, they probably wouldn’t be watching this in the first place.
“A Matter of Loaf and Death” is available on DVD in two versions, only one of which you really need to bother yourself with. There is a stand-alone version that contains the short and a making-of documentary but from what I understand (having not actually seen this version for myself), this one presents the film in a pan-and-scan version that presumably makes hash of Park’s painstaking visual schemes. A much better value is “Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection,” a set that brings together all four of the shorts (though not the feature) in their proper aspect ratios and gives each one a making-of feature and a commentary track from Nick Park. (This set is also available in Blu-ray, marking the debut of these films in that format). Of course, dedicated fans of W&G presumably already own the earlier installments and so the deal has been sweetened with such additional extras as a demo for the upcoming “Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventure” videogame, 10 of the “Cracking Contraptions” shorts originally produced for the BBC website, an episode of “Shaun the Sheep,” the amusing new TV series produced by Park and his Aardman Studios and the “Wallace & Gromit Scrapbook,” a photo gallery featuring blueprints of their many inventions. In other words, it contains everything you could possible ask for in a W&G set other than a nice piece of cheese.
A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH: A Lionsgate Home Entertainment release. $14.98.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION: A Lionsgate Home Entertainment release. $29.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ADAM RESURRECTED (Image Entertainment. $27.98): Having endured the horrors of a concentration camp under the thumb of an exceptionally cruel commandant (Willem Dafoe), a Holocaust victim (Jeff Goldblum) spends the next 15 years in an experimental asylum entertaining fellow survivors with magic tricks until the arrival of a young boy allows him to finally confront his past and face the future. Like many of the recent efforts from director Paul Schrader (such as “Dominion” and “The Walker”), this drama received barely any theatrical distribution to speak of--a shame, since Goldblum’s performance really deserved more attention than it received. As for the rest of the film, while it might not be the best selection for someone looking to relax on a Saturday night, it is a gripping and effective work that once again demonstrates that Schrader is one of the more intriguing American filmmakers at work today.
THE ANNA NICOLE SMITH STORY (Vivendi. $19.99): Former pop tart Willa Ford gets the title role in this biopic and yeah, why don’t we just skip over this entirely and move on to the next one.
BATTLE FOR TERRA (Lionsgate Home Entertainment.$19.98): The first major flop of the cinematic summer of 2009 was this dull-as-dirt 3-D sci-fi adventure about a peaceful world of granola-eating aliens that is brutally invaded by Earthlings looking for a new world to colonize in the wake of the destruction of their own planet--luckily, a spunky girl alien (Evan Rachel Wood) and the human pilot she rescues and befriends (Luke Wilson) team up to save the day before all is lost. Frankly, the only potentially intriguing thing about this one now is the fact that, based solely on the trailer, it would appear that it has more than a few thematic elements in common with a little upcoming thing called “Avatar.”
GHOST CAT (North American Motion Pictures. $24.95): While waiting to see Ellen Page’s return to the big screen next week in the enormously entertaining “Whip It!,” you can always fill the time by watching this Canadian TV movie that she did in 2003 in which she plays a young girl who moves into an old house with her father and discovers that it is haunted by both the spirit of the elderly woman who used to own it and her beloved pet cat, both of whom now need her help for some mysterious reason. In case you were wondering about the terror level of this particular item, you should know that when it finally made its debut in these parts, it was on the Animal Planet network.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST (Warner Home Video. $28.98): 2009 has seen the release of any number of horrible romantic comedies and this one--featuring Matthew McConaughey as a rougish photographer with a secret fear of commitment, Jennifer Garner as the one true love that he let get away and Michael Douglas as the late, Lothario uncle who returns from the dead (with Robert Evans’ sunglasses, no less) in order to show him the folly of his ways--was one of them. Unless you are professionally obligated to do so or unless your name is Ben Affleck (who was once slated to star in this long-gestating project many moons ago), there is no reason to sit through this but if you do, it should be noted that Douglas does make the most with the third-rate material that he has been given.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Not to be confused with the previous entry at all, this is Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget experimental film set against the backdrop of last fall’s financial meltdown that follows a high-priced call girl (adult film star Sasha Grey in a performance strong enough to suggest that she could quite her day job and pursue straight acting gigs if she wanted to) over the course of a few days as she meets with clients, attempts to expand her business horizons and allowing her emotions to get the best of her with surprising results. Whether you look at it as a stylistic homage to the early works of Jean-Luc Godard, a snapshot of a capitalistic society taken just at the moment that it has begun to crumble for its own excess or as a penetrating character study of a character for whom penetration, either physical or emotional, comes at a steep price, this is one of Soderbergh’s most complex and fascinating works to date and now that I think of it, in the way that it shows someone trying their best to control things that cannot easily be controlled without consequences, it also makes for an interesting companion piece with Soderbergh’s latest effort, “The Informant!” Soderbergh and Grey reunite for a commentary track and there is also a behind-the-scenes featurette as well as an unrated alternate cut of the film.
LOOSE CHANGE (Microcinema. $17.99): For years, this documentary by filmmaker Dylan Avery, in which he contends that 9/11 was indeed an inside job pulled off by the Bush administration, has been a favorite amongst conspiracy theorists because of its widespread availability on the internet and now it is available in a newly re-edited version with narration from “Lost” star Daniel Sunjaya. Without getting into the kind of specifics that could result in a long and fairly annoying flame war, I will merely mention that while the official 9/11 report has plenty of holes in its theories and inspires many questions that it simply refuses to tackle, the exact same thing can be said about this film.
THE MENTALIST: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video. $59.98): I highlight this show about a fake psychic (Simon Baker) who uses his keen powers of observation to help the police solve mysterious crimes not because it is an especially great program (the best thing about it is that it isn’t as aggressively annoying as the strikingly similar series “Psych”) or because the package is that dazzling. No, I highlight it because I have been nursing a crush on co-star Robin Tunney since the days of “Empire Records” and “The Craft” and will cheerfully take any chance I get to mention her. Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include the Emmy-winning “30 Rock--Season Three (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Brotherhood: The Final Season” (Showtime/CBS DVD. $42.99), “Castle: The Complete First Season” (ABC Studios. $39.99), “Friday the 13th--The Series: The Third Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “Ghost Whisperer: The Fourth Season” (CBS DVD. $63.98), “Gigantor: Volume 2” (E1 Entertainment. $39.98), “Jonas, Volume 1: Rockin’ the House” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit--The Tenth Year” (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98), “Taxi: The Complete Fourth Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98). “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles--The Complete Second Season” (Warner Home Video. $59.98), “Ugly Betty: The Complete Third Season” (ABC Studios. $59.99) and “Wizards on Deck with Hannah Montana” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99).
MORTAL TRANSFER (Cinema Libre. $19.95): In this bizarre 2001 comedy-thriller from French cult filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix (his last completed feature to date), a psychiatrist (Beineix regular Jean-Hugues Anglade) dozes off during a session with a kinky kleptomaniac patient and when he wakes up, he discovers that she has been strangled to death. Fearing that he will be accused of the crime, he tries to get rid of her body but finds himself trapped in the middle of a nocturnal nightmare in which he runs into one oddball after another, including the deceased woman’s rich and thuggish husband who is convinced that she stole a lot of money from him. Although it doesn’t quite hit the peaks of such personal masterworks as “Diva” and “The Moon in the Gutter,” this strange mix of humor and tension should appeal to those who loved Martin Scorsese’s thematically similar “After Hours.”
OBSERVE AND REPORT (Warner Home Video. $28.98): In one of the funniest films to emerge so far this year, Seth Rogen stars as a bumbling mall cop who is determined to nail the creep who exposed himself in the parking lot to the perfume spritzer of his dreams (Anna Faris)--the only flaw is that no one seems to realize that he is a deeply delusional nut who is closer on the psychological scale to Travis Bickle than he is to Paul Blart. What transpires is absolutely hilarious, though certainly not for everyone (it has been rated “R” for “pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence” and boy, they aren’t kidding), and while it may be too much to ever become a popular favorite (which would explain its lackluster box-office results when it was released last spring), this has “cult sensation” written all over it.
PAUL NEWMAN:THE TRIBUTE COLLECTION (Fox Home Entertainment. $89.98): The late, great screen icon gets the box-set treatments with this jumbo-sized 17-disc collection that brings together 13 of his films, including such classics as “The Hustler,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Verdict,” along with a coffer-table book chronicling his long and legendary career. Among the films on display are his two oddball collaborations with Robert Altman--“Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” a strange and often amusingly dissection of American mythmaking that had the unfortunate fate of debuting on July 4, 1976 at a time when American patriotism was at a Bicentennial-fueled peak, and “Quintet” (1979), a brooding semi-sci-fi drama set in a frozen post-apocalyptic world in which the few survivors play a bizarre board game that has fatal consequences for the losers--and while they may not top anyone’s list of the key works by either Newman or Altman, they are still fascinating enough to warrant rediscovery.
STAR TREK-THE ORIGINAL SERIES: SEASON 2 (CBS DVD. $129.99): The crew of the USS Enterprise continue to boldly journey into the world of HD programming with this Blu-ray edition of the second season of the landmark original series that includes all 25 episodes (in both their original and digitally enhanced versions) and a slew of extras. For fans, the significant element of this release is the disc dedicated entirely to the famous “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode--not only does it include all sorts of extras related to the furry little beasts, it also marks the HD debuts of episodes of the “Star Trek” animated series and “Deep Space 9” featuring the creatures that would suggest that their official Blu-ray debuts are not that far off.
If that isn’t enough “Trek”-related material for you, this week also sees the release of “Star Trek: The Next Generation Movie Collection” (Paramount Home Video. $69.99) a 4-disc set comprised of the quartet of “Next Generation”-related feature films; “Generations” (1994), “First Contact” (1996), “Insurrection” (1998) and “Nemesis” (2002).
THE COMPLETE MONTERY POP COLLECTION (The Criterion Collection. $69.98)
GOJIRA (Classic Media. $29.99)
HOT FUZZ (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)
PIERROT LE FOU (The Criterion Collection. $39.98)
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)
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originally posted: 09/25/09 14:49:57
last updated: 09/25/09 22:59:31