Rescued from public domain indifference with a new HD edition from Severin
Eugenio Martino's "Horror Express" (Severin) is a one of those odd duck films: a Spanish horror for an international audience with Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and American actor Telly Savalas (something of an international character actor icon of the time thanks to such films as "The Dirty Dozen," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "The Assassination Bureau) in a small but significant supporting role. Set on the Siberian Express, it's a mix of murder mystery, supernatural horror, mummy movie, zombie film and alien attack at the turn of the century.
While it's a minor horror film, it's filled with incident, paced like a speeding train and flavored with hints of late Hammer horrors and Amando de Ossorio's "Tombs of the Blind Dead." The dangerous cargo is the frozen remains found in Northern China by archeologist Christopher Lee, a "missing link" that turns out to be even more unique and tenacious than anyone anticipates. Coming back to life with burning red eyes, it starts sucking the life and the knowledge out of bystanders and then jumping bodies in its instinct for survival. Peter Cushing is a rival gentleman scientist who uses his fortune to grease the wheels of foreign diplomacy, but shifts from enemy to colleague when the "fossil" escapes and the milky-eyed corpses start to stack up, and then come back to life. This train carries plenty of promising vessels, including a beautiful spy, a Rasputin-like monk and a pair of aristocrats in a private car.
I took particular pleasure in the indignant dignity maintained by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in all the ridiculousness of the filmmaking, sparring and sniping and sabotaging one another before finally teaming up as the body count builds. And then there is the blast of personality that Telly Savalas brings as a "Cossack" feudal lord from an rural posting. Just when you wonder when he's going to make his appearance, he rolls out of the sack shared with some nameless woman and leads his troop onto a train by order of a government that's not sure what's going on but knows that something wicked this way comes.
The film has been previously available in numerous DVD editions of dubious quality. Severin gives it the deluxe treatment, beginning with a new HD master for both discs of the Blu-ray+DVD Combo, mastered from Spanish print (with Spanish credits). It has been criticized for overcompression and digital artifacts, but even with these problems it's a major improvement over previous DVD editions. More on the technical side from Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver.
The set also features a new video interview with director Eugenio Martin, a 2005 interview with producer Bernard Gordon (focused not on this film but on his work with Samuel Bronston during the blacklist), a short interview with composer John Cacavas discussing his friendship with Telly Savalas, and an introduction to the film by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander. An archival, audio-only 1973 interview with Peter Cushing is engineered to play over the film like a commentary track.
See the trailer below, after the jump.
Plus Dariush Mehrjui's 'The Cycle,' 'The Invisible Frame' and 'Chillerama'
"Sabu! (Eclipse Series 30)" (Criterion) presents three Alexander Korda productions (all directed by his brother, Zoltan Korda) starring Selar Shaik, renamed Sabu when was elevated from boy elephant driver of a maharaja to star of the film "Elephant Boy" (1937). It was perfect casting -- the 12-year-old Sabu rides and clambers over the full-sized elephant with such ease that you never think of him as an actor -- but it's the boy's exotic beauty, authentic sincerity and unselfconscious screen charisma that brings the character alive.
Robert Flaherty, the great pioneering documentary filmmaker, shares directing credit. He shot the great wildlife photography of the film, especially the majestic herds of elephants marching through the jungles and wading across the rivers, while Korda handled the dramatic scenes in the studio. But it also has its share of Hail Britannia colonialism, as Sabu's Toomai uses his skills with the elephants to deliver the herds to the British, becoming essentially a prized scout for the occupying powers. There's no irony here -- the Hungarian born Alexander Korda embraced his British citizenship with a passion and celebrated its empire and its history in almost all of his films.
Sabu became a star and was immediately cast in "The Drum" (1938), another drama of British colonial power in India with Sabu as a young prince targeted by a power-hungry uncle (Raymond Massey in brownface) and protected by a kindly British officer (Roger Livesey) and his wife (Valerie Hobson). Sabu's energy and enthusiasm dominates the adventure, which was photographed in color by the great Georges Perinal, even as he idolizes the military grandeur of the British army and teams up with them to fight his uncle, a man amassing power to drive the British out of India.
"Jungle Book" (1942), considered by many to be the definitive version of Rudyard Kipling's stories, is the highlight of the set, a glorious Technicolor jungle fantasy with Sabu, now a young man, a confident movie star and an acrobat of actor, as the grown jungle orphan Mowgli. Adopted by a childless couple when he's captured visiting a village at the edge of his jungle home (he's captivated by the fires in the village), he's a wild boy they attempt to tame while the greed and prejudice of a few villagers shows him that society is no more civilized and a great deal more duplicitous than the law of the jungle. Joseph Calleia is the worst of the human villains, driven by avarice to murder for the lost treasure the Mowgli has found in the heart of the jungle.
Framed by a storyteller entertaining his audience the grand adventures of Mowgli and the jungle animals, it has a quality not of storybook but of folk tales come to life. The production uses real animals (and majestic specimens at that) for the most part as the jungle characters while California forests and Hollywood sets to double for Indian jungles and ancient ruins. It's a visual delight with grand imagery and adventure and Sabu swings on vines and talks to the animals (both friend and foe) like Korda's exotic young answer to Tarzan with more articulation. And there's none of that colonial idealization of British values and western occupation. This is just pure storytelling joy.
For the completist, Sabu made "The Thief of Bagdad" for Korda between "The Drum" and "Jungle Book," which is available separately from Criterion. No supplements on this Eclipse set apart from film notes by Criterion's house film historian Michael Koresky. You can read his essays at the Criterion Current here.
Iranian master Dariush Mehrjui made "The Cycle" (Nima Pictures/Facets) in 1973, during the reign of the Shah. His regime banned it for its uncompromising portrait of poverty in the country and it did not screen in Iran until 1977. In 1978, it won the International Critics’ prize in Berlin and was submitted by Iran as the country's entry for the Oscars. In Persian with English subtitles.
In 1988, director Cynthia Beatt and actress Tilda Swinton made the short film "Cycling the Frame," with circumnavigating the Berlin Wall by bicycle. "The Invisible Frame" (Icarus) is their return trip, 20 years later, retracing the journey after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany. The disc features both films, along with notes on the project by director Cynthia Beatt and a still gallery. See trailer below, after the jump.
"Chillerama" (Image), which calls itself "The Ultimate Midnight Movie," is anthology film of four tongue-in-cheek horror shorts: “Wadzilla,” “I Was A Teenage Werebear,” "The Diary of Anne Frankenstein,” and “Zom-B-Movie.” Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Adam Rifkin and Tim Sullivan direct. On DVD and Blu-ray, with director video commentary, deleted scenes, director interviews and "The Making of The Diary of Anne Frankenstein" among the supplements
Plus 'Mission: Impossible - 1988,' '30 Rock: Season 5' and more
"Smallville," the long-running WB youth superhero series about Superman before he donned the cape, ended last season after an impressive ten-season run and "Smallville: The Complete Tenth Season" (Warner) delivers exactly what the show has promised us all along: the making of the hero known as Superman.
As the season begins, Clark Kent (Tom Welling) is still the ultra-efficient and confident reporter by day and the mysterious hero known only as "The Blur" in action, never revealing his face to the public. All that begins to change as he finally reveals his identity to Lois Lane (Erica Durance) and she becomes a part of his growing hero network just as government declares war on the "vigilante" heroes of the city, including buddy Green Arrow and guest heroes Aquaman, Hawkman, Black Canary and Stargirl. Meanwhile he wrestles with the two father figures of his life, both dead yet very much present in his life, as he prepares to become the hero he's meant to be.
It's very much a valedictory season, bringing back heroes, villains and family from the past (including John Glover as Lionel Luther and Michael Rosenbaum as the once and future villain Lex). We measure Clark's evolution with a 200th episode "Homecoming" celebration that brings him back to Smallville High and a "A Christmas Carol" odyssey guided by former villain turned 25th century hero Brainiac 5 (James Marsters) and tangle with the evil Clark of the dark alternate universe (which, cliché aside, provides another piece in his struggle with identity). About the only person missing this season is Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang; her absence (apart from archival footage) is glaring given the roll call of guest shots, but it's a minor issue.
It's a strong finish to a show that actually improved in its final seasons. Lois takes charge of the Clark makeover (enter nerdy, clumsy Clark with glasses) and, as promised, the series ends with the debut of the familiar red, white and blue costume. By the time Superman makes his long awaited debut, it feels earned.
22 episodes (counting the double-length finale as two) on six discs on DVD and four discs on Blu-ray, plus cast and crew commentary on two episodes, deleted scenes and two fairly lengthy featurettes: "Back in the Jacket: A Smallville Homecoming," about the high school reunion episode (19 minutes), and "The Son Becomes the Father," which tosses some psychologists into the discussion of Clark's father figures (and, for contrast, Lex Luthor's father) with Tom Welling, John Schneider, John Glover, Michael Rosenbaum and others (17 minutes).
Along with this final chapter, Warner is also releasing the deluxe "Smallville: The Complete Series" (Warner), on DVD only but an impressive collection of all 218 episodes and supplements, plus exclusive bonus supplements, on 62 discs in a box set of hefty digibook cases. Videodrone's review is here.
Peter Graves returned to duty for "Mission: Impossible – The 1988 TV Season" (Paramount), reviving the role of team leader Jim Phelps for the first of two seasons in the revival of the secret agent caper series. The format is pretty much the same as the old show: he gets his instruction from a recording that self destructs (though this time it's a CD rather than a tape) and then puts his team into the field: Thaao Penghlis (soon to be a soap opera mainstay) as the impersonator, Tony Hamilton as the muscle, Phil Morris as the electronics expert and Terry Markwell as the actress. 19 episodes on five discs, no supplements.
Adam Rifkin turns his video surveillance film into a Showtime series with "Look: Season 1" (Image), a weekly drama that follows its characters solely from the point of view of security cameras, capturing them when they think they're alone in a reality show/documentary-styled fiction. 11 half-hour episodes on two discs.
In "30 Rock: Season 5," (Universal), Liz (Tina Fey) struggles with her new romance (Matt Damon), Jack (Alec Baldwin) adjusts to married life and impending fatherhood while weathering the corporate shift to KableTown and Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) goes AWOL. Just another season producing "TGS" with the most neurotic stars on TV. This season also features the "Live Show," a stunt episode that doesn't quite work, even with the brilliant casting of Julia Louise-Dreyfus as "Flashback Liz." The three-disc digipak set includes features 22 episodes of the hit sitcom (23 if you count the double-length "100" as two episodes), and both the East Coast and West Coast versions of the "Live Show," plus commentary tracks, deleted scenes and other supplements.
"Hot in Cleveland: Season Two" (Paramount), TV Land's first original sitcom, brings the trio of Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick back for more adventures in romance after 40, but arguably it's Betty White and her smiling snark that made the show a hit. 22 episodes on three discs, plus cast interviews and featurettes.
"Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns: Season 3" (Lionsgate) features 20 episodes of the cable sitcom on three discs.
"Vietnam in HD" (A&E/History), a documentary series made for the History Channel with rare film footage shot by the soldiers themselves, arrives on DVD and Blu-ray a few weeks after its cable debut.
"Tavis Smiley Reports: Too Important to Fail" (PBS) is a 60-minute documentary special about the education crisis facing African American teenage boys, who have a high school drop-out rate of 50%.
Yeah, it's a huge week: '30 Minutes,' 'Another Earth,' 'The Future' and many, many more
This is the biggest week for New Releases between now and January. I hope you'll forgive me for rushing through some of the releases. With so much to sort through, I'm leaving the heavy lifting on a lot of the films to my fellow MSN film critics. Read on for highlights in comedy, drama, American indies and more.
Also arriving Friday, December 2 is "Friends with Benefits" (Screen Gems), an R-rated romantic comedy with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake navigating the fine line between sex and love. "[T]here's no denying that Kunis and Timberlake have no small amount of chemistry," observes MSN film critic James Rocchi. ""Friends With Benefits" makes the occasional misstep outside of the bedroom, but it's still more honest -- and more funny -- about the facts of life and lust than a lot of romantic comedies. It's just sad that a movie suggesting an honest and zesty approach to sex and relationships builds to such a conventional ending." Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson co-star.
On DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack, with commentary by director Will Gluck and stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray editions also include two featurettes, a Pop-Up trivia track and a bonus Ultraviolet digital version, which allows you to download the film or stream it on portable video devices.
The rest of the releases arrive on the more tradition Tuesday. "Our Idiot Brother" (Anchor Bay), starring Paul Rudd as a sweetly oblivious guy whose instinctive honesty and generosity tends to get him in trouble (Rudd completely sells a scene where a uniformed police officer talks him into selling him a bag of dope) and complicate the lives of his sisters, is my pick for the day. It's an easy-going comedy with a good cast (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer as the sisters) and a big heart. "The Sundance hit is a genuinely smart, pointed, lively and ultimately benign modern comedy of manners and mores and sex, and all the more successful for having a relatively refreshing viewpoint, as its sweet but very socially awkward title character is seen throughout through the prism of not one but three female perspectives," affirms MSN film critic Glenn Kenny.
On DVD and Blu-ray with commentary by director Jesse Peretz, deleted and extended scenes and a featurette.
MSN film critic Glenn Kenny is upbeat about "30 Minutes or Less" (Sony), a black comedy about a pizza delivery guy (Jesse Eisenberg) sent to rob a bank with dynamite strapped to his body. "It's punchy, nasty, laugh-out-loud-funny stuff that doesn't flag or wear out its welcome," praises Kenny. "Clocking in at a mere 83 minutes (why, that's not even three times 30!), it has so little dead air that one might even legitimately call it the "His Girl Friday" of bomb-strapped-to-the-chest caper comedies." Danny McBride and Nick Swardson are the would-be criminal masterminds who put him through this hell and Aziz Ansari and Fred Ward co-star.
The DVD features deleted scenes, outtakes and a featurette on the cast. The Blu-ray adds picture-in-picture commentary by director Ruben Fleischer and actors Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson and a traditional behind-the-scenes featurette.
My indie pick this week is the horror comedy "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" (Magnet), with Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk as good-natured idiot hicks in the woods attacked by smug college kids convinced the boys are horror movie hillbilly killers. Hilarious mayhem ensures. Videodrone's review is here.
Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess star in the romantic drama "One Day" (Universal), which checks in on the would-be lovers on the same day every year for twenty years. MSN film critic Glenn Kenny writes that he expected "beyond boy-meets-girl this is a story about life, and how precious it is, and how we ought to treasure every moment, even with all the changes we put each other through. And yes, it is about that ... rather tritely about that, I regret having to say." On DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary by director Lone Scherfig, three featurettes and deleted scenes, plus digital download and OnDemand.
Brit Marling co-writes (with director Mike Cahill) and stars in "Another Earth" (Fox), an indie drama of guilt and redemption with a science fiction backdrop that won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Marling delivers a breakthrough performance as the young woman who tries to make amends for an accident that killed tow people and left another (William Mapother) adrift in anger and depression. MSN film critic James Rocchi writes that "there are moments in "Another Earth" where what we see onscreen has the grace and power of life as we know it, and where the sci-fi plot points do not make us think about that fantasy, but, rather, about our reality." On Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack, with featurettes and deleted scenes.
The offbeat comedy "The Future" (Lionsgate), about a hip young couple adrift in stasis and self-doubt and dying cat waiting to be adopted by them (the cat narrates, sort of), is the second feature from acclaimed performance artist Miranda July. "July's not an unaccomplished filmmaker, and she cannily adopts a very straightforward shooting style here, which makes the weird stuff resonate interestingly once it starts kicking in," offers MSN film critic Glenn Kenny. "But by keeping things simple, direct and small-scaled, she gives the impression not of a minimalist sensibility at work, but of an artist who actually hasn't fully fleshed out her ideas." On DVD only, with commentary by July, a behind-the-scenes featurette and a deleted scene.
From Spain comes "Kidnapped" (IFC), a brutal thriller about ruthless kidnappers who take an entire family hostage and starts to torture them to force the father to hand over the family savings. "My eyes never left the screen and my attention never wandered; in a restricted, technical sense of the term, "Kidnapped" is a masterpiece," proclaims Salon.com film critic Andrew O'Hehir, with the disclaimer: "But I make no claims for its moral value or for any cathartic or redemptive qualities." In Spanish with optional English dub soundtrack and English subtitles, plus a making-of featurette.
"The Wave" (IFC), a German drama inspired by the true story of an unorthodox high school teacher who tried to teach his students the attraction and the horror of Fascism through a classroom experiment. The real-life event occurred in a California high school in 1967 and previously inspired an American TV movie of the same name. This German version tries to connect directly with its own Nazi history. In German with English subtitles, plus interviews and a featurette.
Also new this week is "Vampires" (IFC), a horror comedy from Belgium designed as a mock documentary about a family of vampires just trying to get along in human society. In French with English subtitles, with deleted scenes.
Werner Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (MPI), an exploration of the ancient Chauvet Cave and the oldest human artwork known to exist, was originally released in 3D and is available on Blu-ray 3D as well as standard DVD and Blu-ray editions. Videodrone's review is here.
"The Art of Getting By" (Fox) is a coming-of-age film Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts. MSN film critic Glenn Kenny describes it as "a limp, lifeless and rote retread, utterly unconvincing in most of its New York details." On DVD and Blu-ray, with director commentary and featurettes.
Robert Duvall and Lucas Black star in the faith-based golf drama "Seven Days in Utopia" (Arc Entertainment), which received a brief theatrical release. Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea suggests that "Until (it) sucker punches you with a surfeit of faith-based platitudes, its upbeat brand of golf mysticism isn't altogether unappealing." On DVD only, with three featurettes.
"5 Days of War" (Anchor Bay) is Renny Harlan's portrait of the brief but brutal attack on Georgia by Russia in 2008. New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick observes that it "Should appeal more to those who like to watch stuff blow up than understand exactly why the carnage is transpiring." DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary and deleted scenes.
Christopher Lloyd and Ray Liotta provide the adult supervision in the family drama "Snow Men" (Arc Entertainment). "Needle" (Lionsgate) is another horror film featuring death from a supernatural device. Tyler Perry takes Madea to the stage in "A Madea Christmas: The Play" (Lionsgate), recorded like in 2011.
Continue after the jump for select trailers
The making of a Superman in ten seasons and 218 episodes
"Smallville" launched in 2001 as a superhero series by way of a "Dawson's Creek" style young adult melodrama: teen angst with a kryptonite boost and moral lessons in a freak-of-the-week serial. Tom Welling looked more like a Tiger Beat cover model than a small town farm boy, but his gentle blue eyes and aw-shucks smile made his high school freshman Clark Kent all innocence as his powers emerge as he grew up -- not your usual problems with puberty. The producers made a point of never putting Clark into the familiar costume. This was a show about the boy -- and the man -- before he was Superman.
The series had its ups and downs and almost ended after falling ratings in its seventh season but it improved enough to win back audiences and power through ten seasons to end on the long-awaited and highly-anticipated sight of Welling's debut in the familiar red, white and blue costume, streaking off to save the world as Superman. In the process, it became the longest-running superhero series on television.
"Smallville: The Complete Series" (Warner) is one of the most impressive TV box sets of the year, a collection of all 218 episodes and supplements, plus exclusive bonus supplements, on 62 discs in a box set of hefty digibook cases. It's DVD only (seasons 6 – 10 are the only seasons available on Blu-ray) and the two digibook cases feature stiff paperboard sleeves rather than trays (which means fingerprints on the disc and a fears of scuffing when removing and returning them to the case), but it's a solid, substantial set.
The show stands up to the revisit, from the touch-and-go almost romance with Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang and the unlikely friendship with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), the bad-boy millionaire trying to make good before slipping back into bad to long-simmering romance with Lois Lane and the building of the "Smallville" superhero universe. In those early seasons, the strength of the show was in the warm the family relationships with John Schneider and Annette O'Toole as his rock steady, salt of the Earth adoptive parents, who balance moral backbone with just a touch of modern sexiness, and the tension with his Kryptonian father Jor-El (voice of Terence Stamp). It's satisfying to see it come full circle in the final season.
The 218 episodes are on 60 discs. The final two discs features supplements exclusive to this set. Some fans will be most interested in the rare 1961 pilot "The Adventures of Superboy," if only out of curiosity and archival interest, but the presentation is frustrating: the program is shown small in the screen, framed within the picture of an old console-style TV set. The show itself is pretty corny and a little stiff and it never made it to series. This is the first time it's been released on home video.
Also features a 90-minute retrospective with new and archival interviews, a substantially expanded edition of the featurette "Smallville's 100th Episode: Making of a Milestone," footage from the 2010 "Smallville" Comic-Con panel and the 2004 Paley Fest "Smallville" Panel. Previously available supplements include the 2006 "Aquaman" pilot (from the animated "Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths" Blu-ray) and the documentary "Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics" (from the animated "Superman / Shazam: The Return of Black Adam" Blu-ray).
The whole package is set in a big 8" x 11 ½" x 3 ½" box, which also holds an episode guide with pictures and production art and mock tabloid-sized issue of The Daily Planet written by DC Comics (with bylines attributed to Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Cat Grant and others) for this edition.
See below for the set trailer, after the jump
Plus 'Reel Injun,' 'Becoming Chaz' and 'Sons of Perdition'
It didn't make the final cut for the Oscar documentary shortlist but Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (MPI) is a beautiful and breathtaking work of non-fiction, one of the best of the year, and the New York Film Critics Circle made if official today: they named it the Best Non-Fiction Film of 2011. It debuts today on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.
The film is built around an exploration of the ancient Chauvet Cave, home to the oldest human artwork known to exist. Yes, we're talking cave paintings which survived because the cave was sealed off and preserved for centuries upon centuries. It's the cavern that time forgot and only a handful of people are allowed inside to maintain the conditions that have preserved these artifacts, some as old as 32,000 years. Herzog petitioned to be one of the few and bring a camera in to share the visions with the rest of the world.
Restricted to a thin catwalk through a cave deep inside a mountain, a skeleton crew and minimal light, he does just that: capture the space, the texture, the quality of color of these ghost-like paintings, like shadows of the past captured on the cave walls. He communicates a sense of awe and wonder without any contrived dramatics and between visits to the paintings he profiles the scientists, archeologists, historians and technicians who have also been granted access, and as usual finds great stories in these individuals.
The film was originally shot and presented in theaters in 3D (and with this one film justified the technology) and it is available on Blu-ray 3D (which requires 3D compatible players and monitors) as well as standard DVD and Blu-ray editions. All editions feature the 39-minute documentary short "Ode to the Dawn of Man," which profiles the creation of the score. More reviews here. See the trailer below, after the jump.
"Reel Injun" (Kino Lorber) is a survey of how native Americans have been portrayed in the movies and on television, from the silent era through the golden age of westerns to the new Native independent cinema of "Smoke Signals" and "The Fast Runner." The Canadian documentary from Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond (not the singer) is "Absorbing and amusing for as long as it looks back at those Hollywood westerns, recounting their sins against American Indians," writes Mike Hale in The New York Times. Adam Beach, Russell Means, John Trudell and filmmakers Chris Eyre, Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood are among the talking heads interviewed between the clips.
Also new this week are two films from the OWN Documentary Club: the Emmy nominated "Becoming Chaz" (Virgil), a profile of the physical transformation of Chaz Bono through sex reassignment surgery, and "Sons of Perdition" (Virgil), a portrait of the lives of three boys after their escape from the oldest polygamist community in the United States.
Videodrone's indie pick this week is a horror comedy with bloody hilarious mayhem
"Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" (Magnet) is not so much a horror comedy as a comedy where most of the characters are convinced they're in a horror film and act accordingly.
Think of it as a comedy of errors with a body count: a group of frat boys and sorority girls, led by sneering alpha male Chad (Jesse Moss), hits the backwoods (Alberta, unconvincingly subbing for the Appalachians) and sees a potential psycho in every hillbilly cliché they see along the way. Enter the eponymous Dale (Tyler Labine), a sweetly stupid idiot savant, and his best friend Tucker (Alan Tudyk), the proud owner of a new "vacation home," a real fixer upper that appears to have been inherited from a disciple of Ed Gein.
"Officer, do we look like a couple of psycho killers to you," smiles a bloody, bee-stung Dale. Seen through the eyes of superior breeding and conceited presumption, they apparently do, especially after the kids keep killing themselves in ill-advised attacks and hysterical flights of panic. The gore is epic and the self-destruction all the funnier when it appears inevitable (case in point: a wood chipper minding its own business as a college kid sneaks up on it). Labine and Tudyk sell it all with their gob-smacked reactions to the unprovoked attacks, but it's their best-buddy chemistry that makes them so much fun to hang around.
Cartoon slapstick and toilet humor come together in this family film comedy
All right, who smurfed?
Yes, that is actually a line from "The Smurfs" (Sony), the big screen debut of the little blue heroes of comic book and animated TV fame (arriving on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on Friday, December 2). Think of them as miniature playdough versions of the seven dwarfs (multiplied into an entire village) as little blue children: there's Clumsy Smurf, Brainy, Gutsy, Greedy, Grouchy… you get the idea.
There's also Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), the sole female in this vaguely masculine society, and Papa Smurf, the sage voice of reason and advice. His voice is in fact a very paternal Jonathan Winters, who is about the only one here not going for cartoon extremes as the little blue CGI creatures scramble and sing through live action New York City after they get sucked out of their magic mushroom forest home and get adopted (sort of) by human couple Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays.
And if you think these guys are animated, get a load of Hank Azaria, who is even more of a cartoon as the hygiene-challenged troll of a wizard Gargamel, their eternal nemesis. Or for that matter Harris as the earnest young ad executive and Mays as his optimist of a wife, who fishes one of the little blue guys out of the toilet and makes friends. Yeah, I know, it's not the message you really want to send to a little kid, but there you have it.
The feature film, directed by Raja Gosnell (whose experience with CGI characters in live action movies dates back to the "Scooby-Doo" films), is most definitely targeted toward kids, with big, broad gags and zippy action, while a few self-effacing lines acknowledge the adults in the audience but fail to offer much else for anyone over the age of 12. But apparently the nostalgia factor worked wonders in turning "The Smurfs" into a hit and putting a sequel into the works. Call me Grouchy, but I say grown-ups should just say smurf it and avoid the film completely.