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Coraline, latest MST3K set among this week's DVD reviews

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CORALINE (2009). Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas, given that it was the latter who actually directed the film. Here, he displays his mastery again, helming an eye-popping animated extravaganza he adapted from Neil Gaiman's best-selling book. Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, a lonely little girl who discovers an alternate world hidden behind a small door in her family's new house. Initially, life seems more pleasant on the other side – her alternate parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are hipper, the food is tastier, the entertainment is more dazzling – but it's not long before things take a dark turn, and, with the help of a sage black cat (Keith David), Coraline soon finds herself fighting for her very soul. The visual scheme – as with Nightmare, stop-motion animation is the order of the day – is remarkable in its complexity, and the movie manages the difficult task of repeatedly moving back and forth between enchanting and chilling. Some set-pieces seem likely to disturb small children (the movie is rated PG, partly for "thematic elements" and "scary images"), but older viewers will revel in the film's freakish fantasy landscape.

The two-disc Collector's Edition includes both the 2-D and 3-D versions of the film (four pairs of 3-D glasses are included). Extras include audio commentary by Selick and composer Bruno Coulais; 9 minutes of deleted scenes; a 36-minute making-of featurette; and an 11-minute look at creating the vocal characterizations.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962). Kirk Douglas has appeared in his fair share of memorable movies, so it's worth noting that the actor has long professed that Lonely Are the Brave contains one of his own favorite performances. Working from Edward Abbey's novel Brave Cowboy, formerly blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who had won uncredited Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One during that disgusting period in Hollywood history) has fashioned a haunting study of what happens when a man from a simpler era finds himself adrift in modern times. Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy who might be living in the middle of the 20th century but acts as if he's a member of the Old West of the 19th century. Journeying over the land atop his feisty horse and choosing to ignore manmade laws that seem absurd to him (indeed, one particular tirade seems to have served as the inspiration for Five Man Electrical Band's 1970 hit "Signs"), Burns thus ends up finding himself on the run from the law, which tries to bring him down through the use of helicopters, radios and other technological advances. Astute viewers might be able to suss out the ironic ending ahead of schedule, but that doesn't make it any less moving. Douglas' likable performance anchors the film, though he's backed by a powerhouse cast: an impossibly young Gena Rowlands as his close friend, Walter Matthau as a sympathetic sheriff, George Kennedy as a nasty deputy, and Carroll O'Connor (nine years before All in the Family) as an overworked trucker.

DVD extras include a 20-minute retrospective featuring interviews with Douglas, Rowlands, Kirk's son Michael Douglas and fan Steven Spielberg; and a 10-minute discussion of the late, great Jerry Goldsmith's score for the film.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XV (1989-1994). MiSTie addicts, rejoice: Five months after releasing their last batch, the folks at Shout! Factory are back with another box set containing four episodes from the classic cable series.

The weakest of the quartet comes first. The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (movie made in 1958; featured on MST3K in 1989), the third film in Mexico's notorious Aztec Mummy series, consists of grade-A spoof material and would have benefited from appearing later in the series. But this was only the second episode of the second season (and the first season to be broadcast nationally), and the problems are the same ones I cited when reviewing The Mad Monster from the previous Shout! set: too much dead air between the quips from Joel Hodgson, Crow and Tom Servo, and the presence of the insufferable J. Elvis Weinstein (both as lab assistant Laurence Erhardt and the voice of Servo). Still, several wisecracks do hit their intended targets, and the movie itself frequently falls into the so-bad-it's-good camp.

The Girl in Lovers Lane (movie made in 1959; featured on MST3K in 1993) clearly has the highest budget of any film in this collection, meaning that it's a (just barely) "B" flick while the other three are strictly grade "Z" all the way. The cast includes several familiar faces, largely from Westerns (most notably character actor Jack Elam); director Charles R. Rondeau moved on to a lengthy career directing TV shows; and scripter Jo Heims would later pen both Play Misty for Me and Breezy for director Clint Eastwood. Still, let's not oversell this forgettable effort in which a cynical drifter (Brett Halsey), with a greenhorn companion (Lowell Brown) in tow, lands in a small town, whereupon he tentatively woos a lonely waitress (Joyce Meadows) while protecting her from the advances of the local creep (Elam). Joel and the 'bots are in top form here, especially when lambasting Brown's annoyingly naive character.

Hosting duties are assumed by Mike Nelson for Zombie Nightmare (movie made in 1986; featured on MST3K in 1994), a spectacularly awful 80s flick in which musclehead (and former Charlottean) Jon Mikl Thor – who, in addition to starring, contributes to the heavy metal soundtrack – gets killed by five cruising teens, whereupon he's resurrected by a local voodoo priestess (Manuska Rigaud, doing enough acting for 400 thespians) in order to seek out vengeance. That's 1990s flash-in-the-pan Tia Carrere (Wayne's World, True Lies) as one of the wayward kids, while Adam West turns up as a grouchy police captain. And yes, Mike and his sidekicks let loose with the Batman jabs.

Racket Girls (movie made in 1951; featured on MST3K in 1994) is arguably the worst movie in the set, which happily translates into this being the best episode in the collection. As Crow wisely states, "When Ed Wood saw this, it was like when Truffaut saw Citizen Kane." Inept on every conceivable level (and then some), this stars Wood regular Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scalli, an unscrupulous wrestling manager who, when he's not busy fending off the mob, has his paws all over his latest female wrestler. Buxom blonde wrestler "Peaches" Page plays this character, and her emoting makes Jayne Mansfield seem as accomplished as Meryl Streep by comparison. There are plenty of cheesecake shots of Page bouncing all over the screen, as well as numerous interminable scenes in which ladies tumble all over the mats (as Crow comments about one such sequence, "This looks like a stag film directed by the League of Women Voters"). As the juicy cherry on top, this marvelous episode also includes 1950's Are You Ready for Marriage? This educational short is so gosh-darn sincere – and so ham-fisted – that Mike and co. have no trouble devouring it alive.

DVD extras include fascinating footage from the first season of MST3K (1988-89) when it was still a local program in Minneapolis; new interviews with Zombie Nightmare stars Jon Mikl Thor and Frank Dietz; and promos for The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy and Racket Girls (under its alternate title Blonde Pickup).

Collection: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

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