VideoReport #395

Volume CCCXCV- Star Wars: Episode 7-The Sith Sense

For the Week of 3/12/13

Videoport gives you a free movie every day. If doing that is wrong, we don’t want to be right.

Middle Aisle Monday! Take a free rental from the Science Fiction, Horror, Incredibly Strange, Mystery/Thriller, Animation, or Staff Picks sections with any other paid rental! OR Get any three non-new releases for seven days for seven bucks!

>>> Elsa S. Customer suggests Zardoz (in Sci Fi/Fantasy.) After the staggering success of Deliverance, the lean, harrowing thriller in which a group of friends boat down a soon-to-be-destroyed riverside (and if you haven’t seen it, rent it right now), the studio gave director John Boorman carte blanche to deliver his next project… and he delivered this. Zardoz takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where earth is populated by a vast underclass (The Brutals) ruled by the elite (The Eternals) and policed by a warrior caste (The Exterminators) who worship a massive flying stone head known as the god Zardoz. Um. Sean Connery stars as an Exterminator named Zed who infiltrates the great god’s head, and, um. Did I say “Um”? Yeeeah, um. Zardoz is a magnificent failure, a spectacle of oddities and self-indulgence, but it is fascinating. To explain how it relates to The Wizard of Oz would be spoiling, so you’re gonna have to trust me on this. Um.

Tough and Triassic Tuesday! Give yourself a free rental from the Action or Classics section with any other paid rental! OR Get any three non-new releases for seven days for seven bucks!

>>>You should probably just rent The Wizard of Oz.

Wacky and Worldly Wednesday! You’ve got a free rental coming from the Comedy or Foreign Language sections with any other paid rental! OR Get any three non-new releases for seven days for seven bucks!

>>>Elsa S. Customer suggests Scrubs, “My Way Home.” (in Comedy.)I’m going to take my props: we were only about three minutes into this 100th episode of “Scrubs” before I spotted it as a Wizard of Oz homage. (Your editor calls me “a TV psychic” or, when he’s feeling less charitable, “you freak” and “I’m pretty sure she’s a witch.” I feel certain there’s a way to make money off this skill, but I haven’t found it yet.)

Thrifty Thursday! Rent one, get a free rental from any other section in the store! OR Get any three non-new releases for seven days for seven bucks!

>>>Elsa S. Customer suggests Mulholland Drive (in Mystery/Thriller.) The films of David Lynch reach beyond the mere postmodern pastiche, taking apart the scenes and styles of our shared cinematic history and using the pieces to construct something new. He deploys classic moments and images anew, using them as vocabulary to write a new text that would be unreadable if we weren’t fluent in that language. Mulholland Dr., for example, alludes clearly to Bergman’s Persona, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt, and Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, with a host of smaller film references woven in throughout, and the audience’s assumed familiarity with the (widely diverse) stories of those films is the toolkit that allows us to hammer out some understanding of the film before us. For Mulholland Dr., no film is more instrumental in that understanding than the 1939 extravaganza The Wizard of Oz. There are the random references and signifiers, the hat-tips to The Wizard of Oz scattered throughout the landscape of Mulholland Dr.: an opening jitterbug dance contest inspired by the legendary (and cut) jitterbug scene; the diner named “Winkie’s” after the Wicked Witch’s conscripted army, and accented with the same sea-foam green that characterizes the Emerald City. But the similarities and resonances go well beyond these superficial allusions [SPOILERS from here on out.] Like The Wizard of Oz, Mulholland Dr. splits into two separate narratives, and like WoO, MD bookends the fantasy sequence with glimpses of the grimmer, grittier world to which our heroine will return. Betty and Diane both live on the charity of their little-seen aunts, as Dorothy does. Like Dorothy Gale, bright-eyed Betty Elms (Naomi Watts, who also plays Betty’s less lovable alter ego Diane Selwyn) is greeted with immediate and improbable enthusiasm and warmth upon her arrival in “this dream world,” and like Dorothy, Betty/Diane’s return to reality will be greeted by a host of familiar faces, including the avuncular older couple with whom we first see her. (“And you and you and you — and you! — were there. But… you couldn’t have been, could you?”) In Oz and in the dreamy LA of Betty’s success story, a shadowy man behind a curtain — a man who is not quite what he seems —- pulls the strings that guide Betty’s destiny despite all her efforts. Many of Lynch’s films adapt imagery and characters from MGM’s now-mythologized The Wizard of Oz, bending and twisting them to explore their darker side. (For Lynch’s most explicit re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, watch Wild at Heart, where he barely bothers to disguise the inspiration.) But there’s more here than mere ironic appropriation; the framework of WoO provides a template, a guide for reading Lynch’s body of work. The Wizard of Oz lends structure and significance to the otherwise loose, dreamlike non-narrative of Mulholland Dr., giving us a way to import meaning where little is directly stated. Like so much of Lynch’s work (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks), Mulholland Dr. overturns our culture’s complacent, deceptive reiterations of the lie of household harmony, in our collective daydream about the perfection of family life. Diane, like too many Lynch characters, knows that there truly is no place like home. Diane survived that home, but she’s dragged her demons out into the world with her. Perhaps more potently, by linking Mulholland Dr. to The Wizard of Oz, Lynch frees the audience to interpret Betty’s dream world, as we do with Dorothy’s visit to Oz: we may think it pure fantasy and wish fulfillment in a moment of terrible need, or something more magical and tangible, a land to which our heroine can escape. Lynch’s pervasive, almost obsessive preoccupation with The Wizard of Oz lends the otherwise bleak ending of Mulholland Dr. a glimmer of hope.

Free Kids Friday! One free rental from the Kids section, no other rental necessary!

>>>Elsa S. Customer suggests Return to Oz. I gave Return to Oz short shrift in this space once, reducing it to a punchline about inappropriate subject matter. But “inappropriate subject matter” — that scary stuff that intrudes on everyone’s peace, even kids’ — is at the heart of the greatest children’s literature and, honestly earned and properly handled, scary stuff makes for a strong children’s film. And Dorothy’s troubles are honestly earned and grounded in the film’s first scene. Auntie Em, equal parts concerned and frustrated, asking Dorothy, “Can’t you sleep? It’s past one o’clock in the morning, Dorothy.” And no wonder Em’s vexed. In the six months since the tornado, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, so much smaller and sulkier than Judy Garland’s Dorothy) hasn’t slept through the night. She’s become obsessed with her memories of the imaginary land she “visited” after getting a bonk on the head. And she’s no darned help around the farm, which is no laughing matter when times are tough. Times couldn’t be tougher. Dorothy’s anxieties lie in Oz, but home is scary enough. When Dorothy cries out that he Oz friends are in trouble, Auntie Em reminds her of the hard truth. “We are in trouble, Dorothy. Lost the other house in the tornado. Never before had to have a mortgage, now we may have to have two. Winter’s comin’ on, new house isn’t finished.” (Piper Laurie is outstanding here in the thankless role of Auntie Em. When Dorothy tries to defend Uncle Henry by mentioning the once-broken leg that hampered him, Laurie packs a world of love, anger, fear, and sorrow into her simple, “That leg’s mended, Dorothy. It’s mended.”) This version brings some subtext a little closer to the surface: Dorothy is an orphan living on her aunt and uncle’s goodwill… and now she’s not pulling her weight. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s Miss Gulch, a cruel outsider, who threatens Dorothy’s pet and Auntie Em who stands up for Toto; in Return to Oz, it’s Auntie Em herself who plans to slaughter and stew up Bettina the hen, Dorothy’s favorite pet, if she doesn’t start laying eggs. Though Aunt Em’s remark early in Return to Oz (about another aunt’s generosity: “It’s family, it’s not charity!”) suggests that they’d never abandon their niece, it’s still a very reasonable unconscious anxiety for Dorothy to harbor. And Return to Oz is all about unconscious anxiety and unstated rules. The world of Oz is big complicated place filled with rituals and rules that are rarely explained. Dorothy repeatedly finds herself reprimanded for violating norms she didn’t even know existed, scolded or threatened or punished for transgressions she didn’t even know she was committing until it was too late. It’s a pretty terrifying glimpse into childhood as I remember it: a place full of wonder and beauty, but where you keep bumping up against rules you can’t understand or predict, where you’ll get yelled and and scared for no reason you can understand. The 1939 MGM film, spectacular though it is, is predictable and simple by comparison. Its precepts and premise are laid out for Dorothy: take these slippers, beware the sister who wants them, follow this path, and you’ll find your way home, more or less, with a few song-and-dance numbers along the way. By contrast, when Dorothy and Bettina land in Return to Oz, they’re alone and have to pick their way across the Deadly Desert, pluck sustenance from the lunchpail tree, and discover to Dorothy’s chagrin that the yellow brick road has been torn up and the Emerald City is eerily still. Return to Oz draws its inspiration (and especially its character designs) more from L. Frank Baum’s original novels than from the glitzy Judy Garland musical, and that turn-of-the-century aesthetic dominates throughout the film, from the spare austerity of Kansas of the nineteen-aughts to the now-modish steampunk allure of the Wheelers to the Edwardian overabundance of the Nome King’s hall of ornaments. (Attention, you remake-loving, franchise-hungry Hollywood film producers: maybe it’s time to tell the story of Ozma, the princess of Oz who [spoiler for a 106-year-old book!] was transformed into a boy until the forces of good can conspire to free her from her disguised form and return her to her rightful throne. The movie could be a favorite for transgendered children and adults, for fans of the original books, and for aficionados of steampunk and Victoriana everywhere.)

Having a Wild Weekend! Rent two movies, and get a third one for free from any section!

>>>For Saturday, Elsa S. Customer suggests The Wiz (in Musicals.) In Sidney Lumet’s film version of Broadway smash The Wiz, Diana Ross stars as Dorothy, a young schoolteacher hosting Thanksgiving dinner along with her aunt and uncle in their homey Harlem apartment. She’s the epitome of the bashful schoolmarm, a dowdy would-be-beautiful spinster shying away from life (which mostly means Aunt Em thinks she ought to date that nice neighbor fella and teach high school instead of kindergarten). And… man, I dunno. The songs are catchy and fluid, and some of the performances deserve much more renown than they have in musical-theater circles. Michael Jackson is a knock-out as The Scarecrow: mesmerizing in a way that makes his later universal superstardom seem inevitable. Lena Horne is predictably wonderful as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, and jazz legend Thelma Carpenter gives all her not-inconsiderable oomph to Miss One, the Good Witch of the North. And OH WOW, casting Richard Pryor as The Wiz, that glad-handing teller of tall tales? Genius. The film makes inspired use of the cityscape, both real and imagined. The Tin Man is a rusted-out animatron from an abandoned amusement park rather than a rural woodsman; Dorothy’s arrival liberates the munchkins from their imprisonment as graffitoed figures on a playground wall; the Cowardly Lion (great character actor Ted Ross) is a scaredy-cat who’s hidden himself in one of the Public Library’s famous stone lions; the Emerald City is a fantasy recreation of the newly erected World Trade Plaza. But… like I said, I dunno. So much about this movie just doesn’t land. It’s hard to know what audience this is for. The pace is turgid, the lipsyncing is sloppy in many numbers, the humor is neither childishly fresh nor sophisticatedly adult, and it’s speckled with some pretty weird tropes. (The crows who torment our beloved Scarecrow are lifted straight-up — voices, gestures, costumes, and all — from the mindbogglingly racist crow sequence in Disney’s 1941 Dumbo, but it’s unclear whether that’s wittily re-appropriating a racist trope to turn it on its head or just, y’know, a racist trope revisited.) The phenomenal performers are hampered by a directionless, flaccid script: the mighty Diana Ross’ Dorothy is a frail, whimpering, ever-doubting shrinking violet; Richard Pryor never gets to unleash either his famous wit or his less-glimpse fury; Michael Jackson performs his two musical numbers without any choreography and in one of them he is literally immobilized on a pole in a cornfield. Musicals rely on spectacle and sizzle, and The Wiz just fizzles. Maybe Lumet (known for gritty social realism like Twelve Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) wasn’t a great choice for a fanciful big-budget Broadway-to-movie dazzler, y’think?

>>>For Sunday Elsa S. Customer suggests Futurama, Anthology of Interest II, S4 ep3 (in Animation.) Gather ’round, kids! Professor Farnsworth has brought out the What-If machine again! Time to ask your alternate-reality questions! In the segment entitled “Wizzin’,” Leela (the single-eyed purple-haired captain of the Planet Express ship) wonders what-if she could find her original home. Prof pulls the switch, bonks her on the head, and she dreams a dream of a strange land complete with a Cowardly Lobster, a Tin Man, and a dude with no brain at all. Oh, so, like every day at Planet Express.

New Releases this week at Videoport: Rise of the Guardians (sort of The Avengers but for bedtime stories, this animated film has the Easter Bunny, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and, I dunno, probably Mr. Bubble banding together to save the innocence of children from the fact that they are all just fairy tales, presumably), Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins dons the chub-suit to portray legendary director Alfred Hitchcock as he, and his loving wife Alma [Helen Mirren] get ready to freak everybody out on the set of Psycho), Life of Pi (a young Indian man, a lifeboat, and a tiger means visually-stunning adventure in this Oscar-winning fable from director Ang Lee), This Must Be the Place (That’s Sean Penn looking like The Cure’s Robert Smith as a Robert Smith-like rocker who takes on an improbable mission of vengeance on behalf of his dying father), ‘Mind of a Chef: David Chang’- season 1 (ask Videoport’s Regan about this cooking show, as she’s been devouring it of late; see what I did there?), Smashed (attention Breaking Bad/addiction fans- Aaron Paul [Jesse] stars alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead in this indie drama about a young married couple whose boozy happiness is tested when she decides to get sober), A Previous Engagement (a solid cast [Juliet Stevenson, Daniel Stern, Tcheky Karyo] looks to enliven this tale of a woman bringing her family on vacation to Malta- to fulfill a Before Sunrise-style arrangement she made with her first love some 25 years previous), Curandero (Robert Rodriguez wrote the original script for this horror flick about a couple accidentally delving into the black magic underworld of Mexico City), This Is Not a Film (fascinating documentary follows a day in the life of Iranian director Jafar Panahi [The White Balloon, The Circle] as he waits to hear back from an appeals court which had sentenced him for the supposed anti-government content of his latest film), The Flat (a Jewish documentarian cleans out his WWII survivor grandparents house- and discovers some shocking, but film-worthy secrets), Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away (warning: may contain unitards), Lay the Favorite (with a cast including the likes of Bruce Willis, Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson, Catherine Zeta Jones, and a director like Stephen Frears [High Fidelity], you’d think more people would have heard of this Vegas gambling flick, right? Do you think that’s a good sign?), A Liar’s Autobiography (animated biography of deceased Monty Python Graham Chapman features the voices of Chapman and all the living Pythons over Gilliam-esque animated depictions of his very adventurous life), Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care (documentary asserting that the US health care system is more interested than financially perpetuating itself rather than, you know, healing people and stuff), Now Is Good (Dakota Fanning’s all grown up in this drama about a teenager dying of leukemia trying to cross things off her bucket list; item 1- losing her virginity)

New Arrivals at Videoport this week: Ministry of Fear (all hail to the Criterion Collection for bringing us this classic paranoia thriller from director Fritz Lang about a recently-released mental patient [Ray Milland] who begins to suspect that there’s a nasty, Nazi spy plot all around him)

 New Releases on Blu Ray this week at Videoport: Rise of the Guardians, Hitchcock, This Must Be the Place, The Prophecy, The Intouchables, Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away, Smashed, The Holy Mountain, The Red Riding Trilogy

                                    VideoReport #1,000,000 is coming

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