November 15, 2006

DVDs, 11/15.

DK Holm on what the DVD review sites are saying about a hefty package and a light comedy.

Paul Newman If it's a typical week in DVDs, then there's something old and something new out on those five-inch discs (and in a different part of the video store, something no doubt borrowed and something explicitly blue). This week on Tuesday the old was Paul Newman and the new was Strangers With Candy.

Paul Newman is the now-82-year-old actor with a string of many interesting if few great films. Linked to the Actors Studio and its school of emotional self-dredging machines, and in his early years slightly resembling Marlon Brando but without the on-set turmoil, Newman became a "sexiest man alive" in the 1960s with films such as Hud and Cool Hand Luke. But his screen career soon devolved into showcase pop culture roles, such as Butch Cassidy, while in his private life he balanced a Bud-swilling life on the auto track with forays into liberal capitalism.

After its release of five Brando movies last week, Warner Home Video follows up with seven Newman films. Warner is in an enviable position, since it can draw "product" from numerous studios, including MGM and RKO. Unfortunately, DVD review websites have a hard time processing big sets like these. The DVD Journal managed to cover four of the movies this time around. The acronymal JJB finds that Somebody Up There Likes Me, which is adapted from boxer Rocky Graziano's autobiography, "accepts one of drama's most daunting challenges - it asks us to accept a selfish, violent, misfit head-case as the film's sole protagonist," while DSH finds The Mackintosh Man, a spy film credited to director John Huston, to be "curiously mute in a post-Bond universe. Sequences that could sing with tension and excitement are done in perfunctory fashion." Dawn Taylor discerns that the Billy the Kid biopic The Left Handed Gun is a "bit of a mess," while the Ross MacDonald adaptation Harper proved to be hobbled by "unimaginative-but-serviceable direction by Jack Smight." The other three films in the set are The Drowning Pool, Pocket Money and The Young Philadelphians.

But leave it to the DVD Beaver, a site with seemingly unlimited time for film geekery, to dive in head first. Gary W Tooze offers detailed critical commentary and close technical specs on all seven films, admitting that "I'd remembered how much I had enjoyed Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Young Philadelphians (1959) and The Drowning Pool (1975) - and re-watching has reinforced those entertaining memories," before concluding that the set "is as well done as you might have anticipated - I was anticipating a lot and my wishes were fulfilled."

Strangers With Candy Strangers With Candy was the short-lived cult TV show that aired on Comedy Central from 1999 to 2000. It was apparently popular enough to inspire a feature film version, which gives the backstory behind main character Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) and how, as a 46-year-old adult (according to the Wikipedia), she came to be installed amid the Blank family and attending Flatpoint High School. The brainchild of Stephen Colbert, who plays bitter history teacher Chuck Noblet, and Paul Dinello, who directs, the film also features Dan Hedaya, Matthew Broderick, Ian Holm, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Ed Gonzalez at Slant finds that Strangers with Candy "shows considerable wear after being dumped by Warner Independent Pictures and picked up by THINKFilm earlier this year. The film ran 97 minutes at Sundance; now it clocks in at 87 and the excessive cuts show around many scenes, suggesting limbs hacked off at their joints." But he goes on to say, "Much of the film's fine details have been lifted almost verbatim from the original Comedy Central show, but Colbert, Sedaris, and director Paul Dinello make repetition seem sublime, expanding the jokes by turning them against their audience," concluding: "No matter how long the film runs, it's still a funny addition to the Strangers With Candy universe."

Francis Rizzo III at DVD Talk also wrestled with disappointment, confessing, "Excitement is not the emotion I, a fan of Strangers with Candy, felt when I heard the series was being converted into a feature-length movie. Only when the original source material is reimagined or used purely as inspiration, like the satirical The Brady Bunch Movie, does the transition from TV to movie usually work. The differences between the two mediums are too substantial to overcome easily." He sadly concludes that "there's nothing in this film they couldn't have done in the series, including the guest stars, which they had regularly. To be honest, I can't figure out why this movie exists," reserving praise only for the DVD's audio component: "The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is actually pretty impressive for a film that wouldn't seem to need it. However the sides and rear speakers get a lot of work building atmosphere and enhancing music, while the dialogue comes across crystal clear. It's a surprisingly dynamic mix for a film that's mainly about people talking."

The anonymous critic at Current Film, on the other hand, finds Strangers With Candy to be "bizarrely funny.... The bits are hit (a running of the bulls in gym class)-and-miss, but the film's best comic creation is Blank herself, which sees Sedaris buried under make-up and a bad wig. The character's pricelessly weird appearance and Sedaris's demented facial expressions and off-beat sense of timing result in a character that's such a complete mess that it's difficult to look away."

Betsy Bozdech at the DVD Journal admits that "Jerri Blank isn't everyone's cup of tea (or should that be hit of reefer?). Suspicious, mercurial, horny, and casually racist, the buck-toothed 47-year-old ex-con/former prostitute certainly doesn't scream 'average high school student.'" Bozdech informs us that Strangers with Candy was originally created to "mock that peculiarly over-earnest genre, the after-school special," though that genre never "had a heroine quite like Jerri. With her relentlessly gelled hair, unending stream of turtlenecks, and propensity to react to every perceived threat as if she's still in jail (like when she sticks a fork in her half-brother's hand during a family dinner, for example), Jerri is a character unlike any other. It says a lot about Sedaris's talent that Jerri is in any way appealing, but it really is hard not to sympathize, at least a little bit, with the world's oldest - and strangest - high school freshman." Bozdech concludes that Strangers with Candy will "resonate most with fans of the TV series, but even the uninitiated will enjoy its cracked sense of humor and jabs at teenage life. Those who can't get enough of Jerri will enjoy the close to 20 minutes' worth of deleted scenes on ThinkFilm and Lionsgate's DVD."

Related: This summer, Andy Spletzer spoke with Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello, both before and after their switch to THINKfilm.

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Posted by dwhudson at November 15, 2006 11:54 AM