DRAG ME TO HELL (2009). The face of horror in modern cinema is, sad to say, torture porn, where sadism is exhibited with alarming regularity and imagination is only employed when the scripter conjures up gruesome new ways for characters to die. Because of this lamentable trend, it's easy to sing the praises of this funhouse freak show that's more interested in delivering old-fashioned chills than in wallowing in misogyny, masochism and mutilation. The story is so thin that the entire screenplay could have been written on a bubble gum wrapper, yet the end result is so delirious in its desire to delight that film fans willing to be jerked around won't mind. Director Sam Raimi regains the playful prankster attitude he exhibited back in his Evil Dead days, crafting (with brother Ivan) this yarn about sweet-natured loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in an ill-advised attempt to show her boss (David Paymer) that she's able to make the "tough decisions," denies the elderly Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) a third extension on a loan, thus leaving her homeless. Angered, the gypsy woman places a curse on Christine, a jinx that will expose her to three days of supernatural hauntings before she's ultimately ... well, check out that title. Drag Me to Hell isn't exactly scary, and the climactic twist, straight out of vintage EC Comics, is telegraphed far too early in the narrative. But Lohman is ideally cast as a decent person who nevertheless must occasionally make some hard calls if she wants to survive, and the brothers Raimi get a lot of mileage out of Mrs. Ganush as a formidable adversary. Forget Jason and Freddy and Jigsaw – it's the thought of this old woman gumming a viewer to death that might make it difficult to turn out the lights.
The DVD includes both the PG-13 theatrical version and an unrated director's cut (which actually runs 10 seconds shorter than the theatrical take). The only extras are a 35-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and theatrical trailers for other titles.
MONSOON WEDDING (2001). Seeing the moldy expression "feel-good" in relation to a motion picture frequently has the ability to generate heartburn, but how else to describe this joyous work from Mira Nair, the director of The Namesake and Mississippi Masala? A picture as full of emotion as the traditional ceremony it celebrates, Monsoon Wedding uses the title event as the backdrop for a work that, among other things, delineates the struggle between "old" and "new" India, examines the compromises that individuals must perform for the sake of family sanctity, and, in the tradition of Father of the Bride, takes a gently comic look at the headaches brought on by pulling the whole thing together. Naseeruddin Shah is cast in the equivalent of the Spencer Tracy role, as the family patriarch who must contend with all sorts of old-fashioned strife in new-fangled Delhi as he coordinates the union of his thoroughly modern daughter (Vasundhara Das) to a handsome man (Parvin Dabas) flying in from Houston to take part in this arranged marriage. Characters come and go, tense situations alternately explode or dissipate, and secrets are uncovered – yet through it all, most of these ingratiating folks invariably manage to do what's best for themselves and for the family unit. Vijay Raaz steals the film as a wedding planner whose obnoxiousness gets vaporized by true love, and there's an infectious soundtrack that may warrant an immediate trip to Amazon.com's music section.
Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by Nair; a 22-minute conversation between Nair and Shah; an 11-minute conversation between director of photography Declan Quinn and production designer Stephanie Carroll; and seven of Nair's shorts (four fiction pieces, three documentaries), ranging in length from 9 minutes to an hour.
WALLACE & GROMIT: A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH (2009). After appearing in three brilliant short films (the first arriving on the scene exactly 20 years ago), the clay-animated pair of Wallace and Gromit went on to big-screen glory in the Oscar-winning feature Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Those hoping to see the English inventor and his far wiser canine companion again headline a theatrical release will be disappointed that not only has their latest picture gone straight to DVD, it also only runs 30 minutes (NOT 87 minutes, as advertised on the DVD box) as compared to Were-Rabbit's 80 minutes. Still, when all is said and done, it's a thrill to see the duo back in action, even if the end product doesn't quite match the level of the earlier shorts (or Were-Rabbit, for that matter). Heavily borrowing plot elements from two of the previous flicks (The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave), this finds Wallace (voiced, as always, by Peter Sallis) and Gromit running a bakery service called Top Bun. While Gromit worries about the string of murders that has left 12 other bakers dead, Wallace unexpectedly finds romance with Piella Bakewell (Sally Lindsay), a former bread-company model. And when it appears that Wallace will be the next victim of the mysterious assassin, it's naturally up to his savvy sidekick to save the day. Series creator-director-cowriter Nick Park retains the veddy British humor that's always been a mark of the series, and the film includes clever homages to such Hollywood properties as Aliens and Ghost.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Park and editor David McCormick; a 20-minute making-of featurette; and the 7-minute Shaun the Sheep short, "Off the Baa!"
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). This family classic long ago left the realm of being mere entertainment to emerge as a cultural touchstone for generations of Americans. The peerless Judy Garland as farm girl Dorothy, proclaiming "there's no place like home"; the Oscar-winning "Over the Rainbow," which topped the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Movie Songs; the irresistible tag team of The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), The Tin Man (Jack Haley) and The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr); the flying monkeys that have scared the bejesus out of countless kids over the decades; the Munchkins pointing the way down the Yellow Brick Road – it's all here, repackaged by Warner Bros. in a spectacular 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition. Back in 2005, I awarded a perfect eight stars (four for the movie, four for the extras) to the three-disc Collector's Edition, wrongly assuming there wasn't any room for improvement. Yet here the studio has upped the ante, bringing back everything from that edition (except, sadly, some of the physical reproductions, such as color stills and the ticket to the 1939 premiere screening) and digging up even more material.
Among the holdovers from the previous set are audio commentary by film historian John Fricke; making-of documentaries; outtakes and deleted scenes; a documentary on Oz creator L. Frank Baum; and earlier screen versions of The Wizard of Oz, including a 1910 production and a 1925 adaptation featuring Oliver Hardy. The new features include the 1990 TV-movie The Dreamer of Oz, starring John Ritter as Baum; a documentary on Victor Fleming, who directed both Oz and Gone with the Wind in the same calendar year; and a featurette on some of the actors who portrayed the Munchkins. Included with this incredible set are a 52-page book featuring photos, studio memos, and more; a campaign book featuring original promo material; and a collectible Wizard of Oz watch created exclusively for this DVD edition.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009). Hardly a lazy sequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine contains a couple of nifty narrative surprises as well as some memorable tensions between its mutant players. Overall, though, it's hard to view this as an integral entry in the X-Men franchise. That's not to say it's as irrelevant as, say, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but part of Wolverine's appeal has always been his aura of mystery, and an origin piece only works to strip him of that secrecy. Besides, the movie's occasional clumsiness in laying out the expository groundwork ends up batting against its own intentions, which makes the picture seem even more trifling. Having said that, it's apparent that this isn't the disaster many speculated it would be, especially on the heels of bad Internet buzz and that infamous download that left FOX executives outfoxed. As expected, the picture's chief selling point is Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine, even if the storyline largely harnesses his considerable talents: He's an excellent brooder, but brooding's about all that the film requires him to do. As Victor Creed (later Sabretooth), Liev Schreiber is believable as both Logan's brother and his tormentor, while Danny Huston, as Stryker, proves to be as fascistic a villain as Brian Cox when he tackled the role in X2. Ryan Reynolds adds some necessary sparkle as the wisecracking Deadpool, and I just wish he had been handed the more sizable role of Gambit instead (as the latter, mediocre Taylor Kitsch lives up to his surname). Other actors express what's required of them – it's often rage or regret, although mostly it's just frozen stares at the blue-screen areas where the special effects were inserted at a later time.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Gavin Hood; separate audio commentary by producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter; an interesting 16-minute conversation between X-Men co-creator Len Wein and the legendary Stan Lee; a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; and 10 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes.
YEAR ONE (2009). Biblical times were milked for raunchy but riotous laughs in Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I and Monty Python's Life of Brian, but the well seems to have run dry when it comes to this disastrous comedy that's the cinematic equivalent of an old-fashioned flogging. Jack Black and Michael Cera, never straying more than a centimeter from their established screen personas (misguided blowhard and sarcastic wimp, respectively), star as Zed and Oh, tribal misfits banished from their village and left to wander the land. Like ancient Forrest Gumps, they run into a few historical figures – Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd), Abraham (Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – although they spend most of their time in the city of Sodom, with Zed laboring under the impression that he's God's Chosen One while Oh tries to keep his distance from a fey priest (Oliver Platt, in a guilty pleasure of a performance) with a penchant for having his hairy chest rubbed with oil. Even with gags involving the eating of feces and the drinking of urine (to say nothing about jokes related to vomit, incest, bestiality, and more), this is far too witless to even be considered distasteful or disturbing – it's more like watching with pity as a dorky fifth-grader tries to shock adults with a string of profanity. As if the material wasn't rancid enough, the picture appears to have been edited with a battle-ax, as continuity is frequently nonexistent (what happened to the snake choking the life out of Oh?). I'd be lying, though, if I didn't admit that a couple of moments made me smile. A couple. As in two. If that's enough merriment to fill your belly, then by all means, knock yourself out.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Black, Cera and director Harold Ramis; an 18-minute making-of piece; two deleted scenes (one simply titled "Splooge"); 10 extended or alternate scenes; and a gag reel.