DVD reviews
August 2009

 

 

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Watchmen

Zack Snyder, the director of 300 and the Dawn of the Dead remake, has an exciting, distinctive visual style and virtually no grasp of narrative pacing or thematic depth. Why he was selected to helm this adaptation of the legendary Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel is a bit of a mystery.

Of course, if the studio suits thought of Watchmen as just another comic book, it makes perfect sense to hire someone whose specialty is bone-crunching, CGI-enhanced action scenes. Snyder perfectly captures the look of the story’s alternate world, a 1980s in which Richard Nixon is still in office and masked crimefighters have been outlawed after a run as popular vigilantes for a number of years. When the sociopathic Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is brutally murdered his former associate Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates. It becomes clear that someone is targeting the retired heroes, and they reluctantly team up to solve the mystery.

That barely touches the surface, but it’s about all a feature-length movie can convey, unless it’s in the hands of a truly great filmmaker. Someone like Peter Jackson or Darren Aronofsky could probably have captured the tone and complexity of the source material without alienating newcomers, but Snyder can’t decide whether he’s pandering to fans or dumbing things down for the explosion addicts. He alternates between both, offering nearly shot-for-shot recreations of the graphic novel’s pages, then throwing in gratuitous, over-the-top fight scenes that just confuse people about the nature of the characters.

About half the cast is terrific, with Morgan, Haley and Billy Crudup (as Dr. Manhattan) easily overcoming the restrictions of minimal screen time, a mask and a completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) computer-generated body, respectively. Patrick Wilson (as Night Owl) and Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre) are basically Ken and Barbie in costume, and Matthew Goode barely registers as Ozymandias. And it’s best not to even discuss Carla Gugino’s role as Ackerman’s mother (and the original Silk Spectre).

As a movie Watchmen is epic, great looking, muddled and occasionally confusing. As an adaptation, it’ll make you want to read the book. That alone makes it a success, in spite of its many flaws.

Extras: The Director’s Cut features almost half an hour of additional footage, mostly small lines and scenes from the graphic novel, and the resolution of one subplot; a production featurette; a series of short features originally made for the movie’s website. (R) Rating: 3 —LL


The Haunting in Connecticut

Supposedly based on a true story, this low-rent horror film offers Virginia Madsen another chance to prove how talented she is. Sadly, the same cannot be said for director Peter Cornwell, a first-timer whose ability to tell a ghost story begins and ends with loud “gotchas.”

The dysfunctional family set-up is pretty standard, as Sara Campbell (Madsen) moves to a new home so her son, Matt (Kyle Gallner), can receive cancer treatment at a nearby clinic. She brings along a younger son and two nieces, while her husband (Martin Donovan) remains in their original house and visits when he s not working.

The place is perfectly normal — except for the embalming room in the basement, a bit of history that explains the cheap rent. Inexplicably, Matt chooses to make the grimy adjoining space his bedroom, even after he starts having terrifying visions and learns that some nasty, deadly occult activity was conducted right where he sleeps.

It’s this reliance on idiot plotting that makes The Haunting in Connecticut so frustrating. It’s OK to have some jump scares, a few haunted house clichés or dumb behavior on the part of your characters. To make a movie that relies entirely on those techniques is just lazy and inept.

The performances, from Madsen, Gallner and Elias Koteas (as a sympathetic priest), are better than the film deserves, and there is an attempt to ground the story in actual historical practices, like spirit photography. None of that detracts from the overwhelming mediocrity, which makes The Haunting in Connecticut far more dull than scary.

Extras: Two commentary tracks - one with Cornwell, editor Tom Elkins and screenwriter Adam Simon, the other with Cornwell, Madsen and Gallner; a making-of feature; three features on the “real” story and parapsychology in general; deleted scenes. (PG-13) Rating: 2 —LL


Coraline

Charlton Heston used to tell fans of his epic movies Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments that if they hadn’t caught the films on the big screen, they hadn’t seen them. The same lament could be applied to the new DVD edition of screenwriter-director Henry Selick’s visually astonishing adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline.

Selick’s meticulously crafted artificial world is best experienced in a theatrical screen with the polarized 3D glasses. The DVD includes an anemic reworking of the visuals with glasses that distort Selick’s delicate color schemes. Some of the effects still work, even on a small analog TV, but the four glasses provided with the DVD are uncomfortable to wear and headache-inducing.

Fortunately, Selick and Gaiman’s tale, while too dark for some tots, is strong enough to work even with only a fraction of the mesmerizing eye candy. The title character (Dakota Fanning) is an 11-year-old who gets frustrated with her workaholic parents (Terry Hatcher and John “I’m a PC” Hodgman), who are so preoccupied with writing their gardening catalog that they don’t even have time to garden, much less pay attention to their daughter.

Through a strange cubbyhole, she discovers that there’s a neighborhood just like her own, but with look-alike parents who gladly indulge her, offering food, fun and attentiveness her biological mom and dad can’t offer. You’d think Coraline might want to stay in this more colorful dimension, but she’s just a little bothered that she’s the only person who doesn’t have buttons for eyes. Perhaps imperfect parents are actually better than seemingly ideal ones.

As he did with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick pushes the limits of stop-motion animation, creating characters with an expansive range of emotions and sets that require repeated viewings to catch all the details.

Extras: A commentary track by Selick and French soundtrack composer Bruno Coulais. The two-disc edition features some interesting outtakes and some making of featurettes. When Selick and his collaborators talk about the difficulty of making their films, it’s easy to believe them. (PG) Rating: 4 —DL


Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II

Because it’s made for the basic cable outlet Adult Swim (the Cartoon Network’s allegedly mature offerings), the stop-motion animation series Robot Chicken doesn’t have the technical finesse of Henry Selick’s movies. But much of the charm of Robot Chicken comes from giving viewers a sense that a band of geeks have been playing with their action figures a little too much and decided to film the experience.

If you’re as funny as Seth Green (Scott Evil from the Austin Powers movies) and former Wizard editor Matthew Senreich, the result are more entertaining than they have a right to be.

With their second parody of the Star Wars saga, the team behind Robot Chicken manages to find inspiration for their scattershot, kitchen sink sketches. The previous special combined previously broadcast skits with new material, the new Robot Chicken tribute features all new material, and the segments actually relate to each other.

The best gags from the new offering let viewers know what happened during the portions of the story you didn’t see during The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. If you’ve even wondered where the Emperor went to pick up his flight bags or what that huge skeleton on Tatooine behind C-3PO once belonged to, the new special has the answers. We also learn why storm troopers don’t usually take part in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” and what bounty hunters do in their spare time.

Throughout Episode II, it’s easy to get a sense that Green, Senreich and their partners in crime are doing this out of love. If you don’t have any idea what the name of Boba Fett’s ship is, you probably won’t get some of the jokes, but at the same time there’s more heart and wit in this interpretation than there was in all of last year’s tedious theatrical cartoon Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Original series actors Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Lea) seem delighted at the prospect of poking fun at the roles that made them famous.

Green, who directed, occasionally includes some lackluster sequences, but the special still works because he and his collaborators bombard the viewer with gags. In addition to the volume approach to humor, they also include background details that may escape a casual viewer. Watch what happens when Lando tosses unwanted objects out of his way or when one bounty hunter doesn’t leave with the others.

Extras: Two versions of the special: the broadcast version and a longer, slightly raunchier edition. In addition, there are six commentary tracks, scene specific recollections from Green, Senreich and actors Breckin Meyer and Donald Faison and video from the special’s premiere at Skywalker Ranch in front of Star Wars creator George Lucas himself. The extras actually run longer than the extended 38-minute special itself. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 —DL


Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.