DVD reviews
November 2009



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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger

The Proposal

As dumb, formulaic romantic comedies go, The Proposal isn’t too bad.  That can be chalked up almost entirely to its cast, headed by Sandra Bullock as a tightly wound book editor who forces her assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her when she’s threatened with deportation back home to Canada. Thanks to some judicious blackmail and bribery, he agrees, and they travel to his family’s home in Alaska to announce their engagement (and put an overzealous immigration agent off their trail).

Bullock is saddled with the insulting role of a woman who can’t be successful without also being a bitchy ice queen, while Reynolds is the exploited lackey with a passive-aggressive streak. They overcome the stereotypes by simply being two of the most likable performers in the industry. Their circumstances and eventual attraction isn’t the least bit believable, but it’s hard not to root for them anyway.

The stars get more than able support from Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson as Reynolds’ parents, and the ever-marvelous Betty White as his grandmother. If that’s not enough, the Alaskan scenery is gorgeous (albeit mostly digital). Whatever it takes to focus attention away from the script and onto what’s actually entertaining.

Extras: Commentary by director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Pete Chiarelli; deleted scenes, including an alternate ending; outtakes. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 –LL

Mad Monster Party

If you had to work last Halloween while others were reveling, this newly restored 1967 stop-motion cartoon might get you in the right mood. Mad Monster Party is from Rankin/Bass, the company that gave the world Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year without a Santa Claus.

The animation isn’t as fluid or expressive as it is in Henry Selick’s movies like Coraline. So it doesn’t take much effort to spot the short cuts the filmmakers have taken. The simulated water remains still, for example. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to recommend in Mad Monster Party. For one thing, the effects surrounding the Invisible Man are actually impressive.

Previous DVD and video versions of this movie were based on battered 16 mm prints. This new special Lions Gate edition is made from a pristine 35mm master. Fans of classic Mad Magazine should check out the film because the characters are imaginatively designed by Jack Davis, and one-time editor Harvey Kurtzman co-wrote the script. Careful listeners will notice his trademark acidic wit in the final frames.

The story features Dr. Frankenstein (appropriately voiced by Boris Karloff) holding a convention of ghouls from his own monster to Dracula to the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It seems the not-so-good doctor is retiring and passing his practice to his bumbling innocent of a nephew.

Phyllis Diller is expectedly fun as the Frankenstein monster’s domineering wife, but the most impressive voice in the cast belongs to Allen Swift. He plays all the male characters except Karloff’s!

Extras: A brand new making of featurette includes producer-screenwriter Arthur Rankin, Jr., storyboard artist Don Duga and Swift. After 42 years, Swift can still do the voices in the film. There’s a testimony from current stop motion animators and a featurette with longtime Rankin/Bass composer Maury Laws. There’s also a sing-along feature but the songs aren’t as catchy as they were in other Rankin/Bass projects. (N/R) Rating: 3 –DL

Drag Me to Hell

Fans of horror icon Sam Raimi were understandably concerned when his return to the genre went for a PG-13 rating. How could the man responsible for glorious gore fests like the Evil Dead series possibly tone down his style? And why on earth would he want to?

Drag Me to Hell proves that PG-13 can still be pretty outrageous, at least in Raimi’s hands. The story is simple: Timid loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman) picks the wrong day to grow a backbone, denying a mortgage extension to a destitute old woman (Lorna Raver) who also happens to be a gypsy. Not the forgiving type, the woman curses her with a one-way trip to Hell in three days’ time. The movie then follows Christine as she goes from disbelief to remorse to terror.

Raimi indulges his love for comedic grotesquerie in almost every scene, combining scary images with slapstick the way only he really can. The story makes almost no sense, with a heavy reliance on the “idiot plot” that gives the characters about half a brain cell to make decisions with. As an exercise in narrative structure — and a lesson in why you shouldn’t upset gypsies — Drag Me to Hell is a classic cautionary tale.  As a fun ride through Raimi’s twisted mind, it’s almost perfect.

Extras: A much-touted “unrated” version containing a little bit of extra gore, but not much else (and actually a few seconds shorter than the original cut); several detailed production featurettes. (PG-13 & Unrated)  Rating:  3 –LL

Death in the Garden

Spanish-born director Luis Buñuel had such a distinctive style and outlook that even his minor films are fascinating to watch. After shocking worldwide audiences with his French-made The Andalusian Dog (1929) and The Golden Age (1930), Buñuel managed to get himself in trouble with both the Catholic Church and the government of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

He settled in the U.S., where he wound up being blacklisted. For a long time, Mexico was the one place where he could both work and prosper as he does in the flawed but engrossing French-Mexican production from 1956. On the new DVD, you can watch this subtitled movie in either French or Spanish.

A tough but cleverly amoral drifter (George Marchal), a prostitute (Simone Signoret, Diabolique), a priest (Michel Piccoli), a prospector (Charles Varnel) and his deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Giardon) all have to flee a South American village for Brazil when they get caught on the wrong end of a diamond miners rebellion. The quintet winds up in the jungle where the atmosphere slowly drives them insane.

While it takes nearly 40 of the film’s 100 minutes to set up the plot, Buñuel manages to keep the film moving with his cynical wit and surrealist touches. At times, the film actually plays more like an adventure story with elaborate battle scenes and lush color photography that has been nicely restored in this edition.

Along the way, the director satirizes Catholicism and totalitarian regimes while continually playing with audience expectations. Thankfully, Buñuel was too skilled and thoughtful a filmmaker to make a simple polemic so Death in the Garden doesn’t play like a political tract. Nonetheless, the film is rather ahead of its time in sexual innuendo and other content. Alert viewers can catch Marchal flipping off a group of tyrannical soldiers.

Extras: A dry, but helpful commentary track from University of Colorado professor Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz. A lively interview with veteran actor Piccoli, who has worked with everybody from Alfred Hitchcock to Jean-Luc Godard, and who was close friends with Buñuel. There’s also an interview with film scholar Victor Fuentes and an informative booklet. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 –DL

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