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DVD Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Deadtime Stories: Volume 2, The 10th Victim

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DVD Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Deadtime Stories: Volume 2, The 10th Victim

In an admission that will come as a considerable disappointment to a former coworker (who, for the record, is decidedly not Goth), my initial memories of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” were somewhat fuzzy. My first viewing of producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated film, not too long after its original home video release, was marred with, umm, distractions. So I hadn’t the concrete impressions one might have with a more focused viewing — just an impression of the hand-crafted feel, and a lingering sense of disappointment in relation to the movie’s songs, from Danny Elfman. A re-visiting of the somewhat seminal work — which scored a visual effects Oscar nomination, rang up over $50 million in its initial theatrical run, and expanded upon the notions of what was an acceptable Hollywood studio animated release — reveals a spirited but flawed rendering of a deliciously wonky premise, a movie long on cultish personality but lacking in the sort of storytelling vim and vigor that sticks to the imagination outside of a captive viewing.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Hatched from an idea Burton had while originally employed at Disney (hence their ownership of it), the story centers around the spindly and depressed Jack Skellington, a Pumpkin King tired of his reign, who wishes instead to spread the joys of Christmas. Struggling to explain this holiday to his Halloween Town cohorts, he spins his merry mission as a necessary intervention, tasking minions Lock, Shock and Barrel with kidnapping the menacing “Sandy Claws.” Against the advice of Sally, a patchwork girl who pines for him, Jack readies to deliver gifts all over the world. This not only puts Santa Claus in jeopardy, but also sets the scene for plenty of nightmares for good little boys and girls everywhere.

Making its debut in 3-D, obviously, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” arrives in a three-disc set that one imagines will be difficult to ever top for home video customers, despite the previous iterations of the film on DVD. Housed in a Blu-ray case in turn stored in a complementary embossed cardboard slipcover with lenticular imaging, this release ports over all of the special bonus features from the movie’s 2008 two-disc collector’s edition DVD release, while also offering separate Blu-ray discs, in both the conventional format and (for those with enabled players or a PlayStation 3 unit) 3-D viewing. The former comes in 1080p high definition, with an English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track and optional Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby digital tracks. In 3-D the aspect ratio is enhanced to 1.85:1 widescreen, but both the regular Blu-ray and DVD presentations of the movie unfold in 1.66:1, preserving the aspect ratio of the movie’s original theatrical presentation. The 3-D retro-conversion of the material is actually quite striking, given the depth-of-field used in the cinematography, and all of the action and movement the movie features.

The bonus features are anchored by an audio commentary track featuring Selick, Burton and Elfman, who offer insights as to the thematic development of the material and, of course, the nut-and-bolt mechanics of the filmmaking process, which is quite interesting. Shedding even more light on this painstaking process, however, is a 25-minute making-of featurette, replete with behind-the-scenes footage and a look at the creation of the movie’s richly imagined dreamscapes. Two short films from Burton — the half-hour, live-action “Frankenweenie,” with Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall, and the five-minute “Vincent,” an imaginative black-and-white stop-motion piece that shows many signs of the themes and design predilections that Burton would later bring to bear in his feature work — give this set great repeat, archival value. Finally, there are special introductions from Burton to both “Frankenweenie” and the feature presentation, as well as an amusingly macabre poetic recitation by Christopher Lee, deleted scenes, storyboard-to-film comparisons, and a gallery of trailers, TV advertising and poster materials. About the only thing not included is the neato collectible packaging that the aforementioned collector’s edition DVD release offered up. Still, for the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3-D upgrades, that’s a small trade-off, all things considered.

Deadtime Stories Vol. 2

In other things ghoulish, the second volume of horror maestro George Romero’s “Deadtime Stories” recently released. A collection of three 30-minute tales, nothing in it rises to the level of fellow anthology series “Masters of Horror.” Granted, that now defunct series had the advantage of longer-form works, but the budgets there weren’t that much greater, and some of the best offerings honed in on offbeat notions of haunting and personal unnerving, rather than recycle insipid premises and offer up lame gore.

“Deadtime Stories: Volume 2” features faux-scratchy footage of Romero for its wrap-around segments, introducing each tale. The first, “The Gorge,” centers on a trio of friends who see their morning hiking expedition go awry; when a collapse leaves them stuck in an underground cave with no way out, they keep their cool and don’t panic. Two days later, they’re rescued. Oh, sorry… that’s not true at all. Things get all “Alive” and “127 Hours,” instead. The second segment, “On Sabbath Hill,” centers on a philandering professor who’s sleeping with a student; when she gets pregnant and kills herself, her ghost keeps coming to class, because he’s such a hard-ass stickler for attendance. An Edgar Allan Poe-type descent into madness ensues. The third short, “Dust,” is probably the best of the trio; it centers on a security guard at a high-tech space lab who steals a sample of Martian space dust for his terminally ill wife. Needless to say, the study he conducts is not FDA-approved, and while good things happen at first (Cialis would be given a run for its money, let’s just say that), they certainly do not last.

The problems with “Deadtime Stories” are many, and range from conception to execution. While “The Gorge” features some nice cinematography, its concept is pedestrian, and yawningly rendered to boot. “On Sabbath Hill,” meanwhile, features terrible acting and even worse framing choices — the latter seemingly made by a drunken teenager, a small child or perhaps some filmmaking collective comprised solely of both. “Dust” and “On Sabbath Hill” are emblematic of the types of stories that could work quite well in this format, with a slick emphasis on suspense and the unseen that a director like Brad Anderson could impose on the material. Unfortunately for too many of the players involved here, however, the necessary chops (and certainly the less-is-more instincts) just aren’t present, rendering these familiar-feeling “Stories” the type told with declamatory music cues and goopy, thick red fake blood.

Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Deadtime Stories: Volume 2” comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with an English language 5.1 Dolby surround sound audio track. A gallery of previews for other Millennium Entertainment releases is included alongside the disc’s only supplemental extra — a 16-minute making-of featurette. While the potential to be lame for such a cursory look-see of what amounts to three separate productions is quite high, this bonus featurette actually provides quite a shock for those expecting yet another exercise in yawning self-congratulation. By not really attempting to impose an order on the collected behind-the-scenes material, and instead just providing a roaming, snapshot collection of production moments and offhand comments rather than sit-down interviews, it proves enormously entertaining — more so than the feature presentation, honestly. Viewers get to see mortician’s wax fashioned into a special effect, while one of the filmmakers also gives some amusing tips to DIY-inclined colleagues, saying basically for any classroom scenes, just show up at a state university late on a Friday afternoon and act like you’re supposed to be there and you know what you’re doing.

The 10th Victim

A misfire of a more artistically engaging variety, meanwhile, comes by way of the futuristic action romance “The 10th Victim,” starring Marcello Mastroianni and erstwhile Bond babe Ursula Andress. An Italian import from 1965, the film suffers from the string of similar bloodlust fantasies that followed in its wake and addressed the same concept much more interestingly and convincingly, from “The Running Man” all the way to an indie effort like “Series 7.” Basically, the plot revolves around an international game of legalized murder, “The Big Hunt,” in which participants rotate five turns as both assassin and would-be victim. When two top headhunters, Caroline Meredith (Andress) and Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni), nearing the end of their respective runs square off against one another, however, will the world allow for a love story?

Even forgetting the completely silly and incongruous ending — which, in characteristic Italian fashion, implies that marriage is a fate far worse than death — “The 10th Victim” is a messed-up ball of competing impulses and half-baked ideas, and probably most famous among younger cinephiles, in pay-it-forward fashion, for inspiring the machine-gun-bosom lampooned in “Austin Powers.” Andress is gorgeous and Mastroianni displays a rakish charm, but director Elio Petri just frames every possible bit of action in such a terrible and laughable way as to completely undercut any sense of cathartic thrill. The script, meanwhile, makes equally ridiculous leaps in logic (“With ‘The Big Hunt,’ everything can be resolved… if it were around in 1940 then Hitler would have participated, thus preventing World War II!”), and never quite establishes what sort of collapsed-society world we’re living in in which such a globe-trotting kill-fest is not only sanctioned but universally popular. There is no subtext, really, so the pivot to personal paranoia and romance feels weird (Piero Piccioni’s demented game-show-type score doesn’t help), and just off-center from the start. Oh, and the same cheap little pop-gun sound effect is used for every fired gun in the movie. If there’s an area of unqualified praise, however, it’s to be found in the film’s style and fashion, which are impeccable.

Despite the film’s flaws, Blue Underground’s Blu-ray presentation of “The 10th Victim” is superb. Housed on a 50gb dual layer disc, the 1080p high definition 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is admirably free of grain or edge enhancement, and its colors — especially in outdoor sequences — are vibrant and consistent. Only in later interior passages does the contrast seem a little low. Both domestic and international trailers are included, along with a poster gallery and two galleries of still photos — one of which focuses more exclusively on Mastroianni. The other supplemental bonus feature is far and away the disc’s highlight — the feature-length documentary “Marcello: A Sweet Life,” which tracks the actor’s career, and includes interviews with everyone from his daughters and family to collaborators like director Antonella Branca and many more.

On the documentary front, one of the top-grossing and most buzz-worthy nonfiction pictures of the year has been “Bill Cunningham New York” (yes, sans colon), about the famous octogenarian “New York Times” society and fashion photographer of the same name; in fact, directors from David Frankel to Dito Montiel have personally mentioned the movie to me. It’s true that its area of focus prescribes a smaller reach that many of its doc brethren, and “Bill Cunningham” will play most readily and receptively to fans of similarly minded works like “The September Issue,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “L’Amour Fou.” But there’s a cultural/anthropological bent to the proceedings that can also hook an audience for whom fashion trends and charity soirees are of no particular care. As a subject, Cunningham is a fascinating, illuminating, ethical and deeply inspiring figure, and there are myriad lessons here to be learned about how to pursue one’s life’s work, no matter the specific field.

Bill Cunningham New York

Housed in a slimline digipak case that comes with a nice collectible booklet, “Bill Cunningham New York” comes to DVD via a solid high-definition transfer, in 1.85:1 widescreen that preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition. Stereo and Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio tracks handle the title’s straightforward aural demands, and a solid clutch of deleted scenes — around 20 minutes worth — stands alongside the movie’s theatrical trailer and previews for other Zeitgeist titles.

Also on the nonfiction front, but decidedly more schlocky and a bit naughty and raunchy, is “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore,” seeing release on Blu-ray alongside “The Blood Trilogy,” a one-disc DVD compilation of three of the director’s cult classics. After a series of so-called “nudie cuties” in the early 1960s, Lewis paved a bloody road of exploitation cinema, connecting the age of the drive-ins with the later advent of the blaxploitation era. His most infamous work was probably “Blood Feast,” in which an Egyptian cultist is hired to cater a birthday party, and ergo goes about preparing a feast made of body parts of young women. Almost two full decades before the explosion of effects- and gore-driven horror created in large part by the emergence of a viable VHS genre market, Lewis and his producing partner crafted careers out of servicing the more prurient interests of theater owners, who were eager to book cheap fare that could fill seats between Hollywood studio engagements. At 106 minutes, this overview is brisk and engaging, and absolutely without pretense; even its subject concedes that his work was far from art, and that his job was to “grind out movies like so much hamburger.

Herschell Gordon Lewis

“Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” comes to Blu-ray presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital mono audio track. In addition to a trailer reel of his work, there’s a gallery of images, as well as over an hour of deleted scenes. Billed rare, meanwhile, the extra Lewis short feature “Hot Night at the Go-Go Lounge!” amounts to a bunch of wriggling dance footage of topless gals and goofy-looking guys. Proof positive, one supposes, that some things never go entirely out of style, they merely go through a recycling of packaging.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne, “Submarine” was and is a beloved property for adaptation (Ben Stiller and his producing partner Stuart Cornfeld are among the project’s dozen producers, even though there’s no easy-fit on-screen part for the comedian), and it’s fairly easy to see why. While struggling to try to reconcile the faltering marriage of his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor), young daydreamer Oliver (Craig Roberts) plots to lose his virginity with his new girlfriend (Yasmin Paige). Well acted, literate and very, very precious, the movie is perhaps a mash-up of the sort of quirky chattiness and diorama style audiences familiar with Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson will recognize, but it captures the (kind of necessary) self-absorption and heightened stakes of teenagedom with an engaging aplomb.

Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, “Submarine” comes to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover. It’s Dolby digital 5.1 audio track more than adequately handles the movie’s meager aural demands, with a nicely balanced ambient channel in outdoor sequences. The requisite chapter stops are included, along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles, while a small clutch of deleted scenes and a making-of featurette shed light on the behind-the-scenes filmmaking process, and its excised material.

Bette Midler isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse, even forgetting about the age difference. So the new concert film DVD cover image of her in fishnet stockings, clutching a bundle of red feathers — with the queasy implication that there’s nothing underneath — just isn’t going to tip me over into the “excited” camp about a release like this. Nor is Midler decked out in a Las Vegas revue costume on the cover’s back, or the evocation of raciness from its title. That said, “Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On” is a briskly paced cavalcade of the singer/actress’ colorful and classic stage characters, and certainly, as “Variety” notes, the biggest and most glamorous revue of her career. For that reason alone, really, it’s worth a look from even those casually predisposed to have an interest in her canon and performance power.

Backed by a 13-piece band and an entourage of talented dancers, Midler belts out show-stopping renditions of her biggest hits, including “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “From a Distance,” “The Rose,” “Hello In There,” the title tune, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Glory of Love.” The action (choreographed by Tony Basil) is snappy and engaging, the costume changes aplenty, and there’s even a pinch of repartee between numbers. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, the DVD is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio with DTS 5.1 surround and Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio tracks. Alas, the Divine Miss M does not submit to a bonus interview chat, which would push this release toward levels of quivering ecstasy for fans.

In other recent music concert DVD releases, “Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power Live” gives those who might know Iggy Pop only from Jim Rome’s usage of “Lust For Life” as the bumper music on his eponymous radio program a loud, cathartic, two-hour-plus education in punk revivalism. A visual document of the re-formed Stooges’ performance at last September’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, this fierce and gripping offering includes powder-keg performances of cuts like “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Danger,” “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell,” “Shake Appeal,” “I Need Somebody,” “Beyond the Law,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Penetration,” “Night Theme,” “No Fun” and, of course, “Raw Power.”

In an interesting twist, the show was actually filmed by a half dozen fans selected via an online contest, so the footage, as edited together, courses with a free-wheeling immediacy lacking in the staid, singer-drummer-audience-singer cuts of many similarly minded concert docs. In addition to the show, there is also interview material with Iggy Pop, guitarist James Williamson and drummer Scott Asheton, as well as a clutch of contest submission videos. Housed on a region-free disc in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Raw Power Live” includes liner notes by none other than Mike Watt, who writes eloquently of the 63-year-old Pop’s huge influence, on both him a generation of other musicians.

Written by: Brent Simon

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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1 Comment

  1. Timothy Spall

    October 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    HANNAH HAIR DYE BY INDIRA VARMA

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