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The DVDs are Out There

I love movies, and I love watching movies on DVD in the comfort of my own home.  Here are some of the great DVDs I’ve watched recently:

Heist and State and Main — I’m in the midst of a sort of David Mamet retrospective, tearing through a number of his earlier works, many of which I haven’t seen in years!  I’ll be writing a more detailed piece about my journey into Mamet-world in a few weeks, so keep your eyes open for that.  Next up, I’ll be watching Spartan (which I’ve only seen once and am eager to revisit) and The Spanish Prisoner (possibly my favorite Mamet film after the incomparable Glengarry Glenn Ross.  “Will you go to lunch?!!”)

Wonder Boys — What a masterpiece.  Having just completed the summer of Robert Downey Jr. (in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder), it was a lot of fun to re-watch his magnificent turn in this film.  Tobey Maquire is also great, as a talented but rather messed-up youngster.  (Its sort of bizarre to watch Maguire and Downey Jr. in this film, having seen them together in one of the fake trailers that preceded Tropic Thunder.  If you’ve seen it, you know exactly which one I mean!)  The always terrific Frances McDormand is quietly touching as the university chancellor torn between two men.  But this film belongs to Michael Douglas.  He plays college professor Grady Tripp, a man who once wrote an extraordinarily successful first novel and has seen his life slowly crumble as he has struggled, over many many years, to write a follow-up.  Wonder Boys is a coming-of-age story — for Maguire’s character, and also for Douglas’ Grady.  Its a rare movie that can balance deep laughs and powerful poignancy, and Wonder Boys just nails it.  I give director Curtis Hanson a lot of credit for that, as well as Steve Kloves for the sharp screenplay.  This movie sits next to Igby Goes Down on my DVD shelf.  The two films have a lot of similarities, both in terms of tone as well as the themes explored.  If you’ve seen and enjoyed Wonder Boys but have never seen Igby, I encourage you to check it out.

City Slickers — Boy, I haven’t seen this movie in YEARS!  I remember going to see the sequel, The Legend of Curly’s Gold, in theatres when it came out and being so disappointed that I don’t think I ever watched the original again.  The film is a bit dated — its not quite as timeless as When Harry Met Sally — but it was a lot of fun to return to Billy Crystal’s little ode to suburban men looking to find themselves.  Some of the jokes are a bit groan-inducing, and some of the characters are a little flat (I think Helen Slater is adorable, but she really doesn’t have much to do here other than be cute).  But there are still some moments of great comedy, and also some moments of surprising sweetness (even though some scenes are a bit heavy with the schmaltz.)  The late great Bruno Kirby’s monologue about the best and worst day of his life is really powerful.  Just terrific.  And what can I say about Curly himself, played by Jack Palance?  Still gold.

Spaced — A twelve episode British TV series that launched the career of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), its about two twenty-something friends (Tim, played by Pegg, and Daisy, played by Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson) who wind up sharing an apartment.  I’ve been reading about this show for positively YEARS, so when it finally was released on DVD in the states last month I snatched it up.  I’m only a few episodes in, but already I’m really enjoying the balance of silly comedy, obscure pop-culture references, and over-all bizarre goings-on. 

The X-Files: Season One — In between watching episodes of Spaced, as well as our regular dose of The Daily Show (which has been PHENOMENAL these past few weeks, covering the Democratic and Republican conventions and all of the fall-out that’s happened since then), my wife and I have been making our way through the first season of The X-Files.  (Very slowly, since we started LAST September!  But we’ve been picking up steam recently, watching much of the latter half of the season in the past 3 weeks.)  My father introduced me to the X-Files mid-way through the first season, and I quickly became a die-hard fan of the show, following it all the way through to the final episode.  During the peak seasons of the show, I watched and re-watched the re-runs endlessly, trying to sort out all the different storylines and hunt for hidden clues and meanings, and to enjoy each scary, creepy episode.  But by the end of the show’s run, I was pretty down on it.  Since then, with the exception of one or two viewings of the first X-Files movie, I don’t think I’ve watched a single episode.  So it is with great delight that I’ve been re-watching the first season.  There’s a lot of greatness to be found, starting right with the terrific pilot. There’s also the haunting episode “Beyond the Sea” about the death of Scully’s father… the creepy “Squeeze” and “Tooms” episodes about the liver-eating mutant… the intense “Ice,” in which Mulder and Scully are trapped in the arctic while the members of their team slowly are driven mad by parasitic worms… “E.B.E.” in which the show’s famous mythology about a conspiracy to conceal the existence of extra-terrestrials begins to take light… and of course the stunning season finale “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” in which a surprising number of important characters and concepts that the show would later explore in great depth are introduced, most notably the shape-shifting Bounty Hunter.  Interestingly enough, all of those above episodes were shows that I had on tape, and had seen tons of times.  It was great fun to see them again after a number of years away.  But there were also a LOT of stand-alone episodes throughout the season that I don’t think I’ve seen for well over ten years… and THOSE were a LOT of fun to watch as well.  The quality varied as the writers, directors, and actors all worked to figure out the style and tone of the show, and what sorts of stories they wanted to tell.  But getting to watch so many episodes that I really didn’t remember… it was the next best thing to actually having a brand new series of the show to enjoy!  Let me close by mentioning one final item that really pleased me.  For all of the (I think very valid) criticism that the writers never really had an over-arching plan for the show’s “mythology” — that they were making it up as they went along, leading to the show’s finally collapsing under the weight of all the stories and lose ends that ultimately went nowhere or were never explained — it was fun to see a lot of notions introduced very early in the first season that wouldn’t be fully explored until much later in the show.  I’ve already mentioned the appearance of the alien Bounty Hunter in the season finale.  But my favorite example is a scene at the end of the very second episode.  Mulder, desperate for some sort of validation of his work and his beliefs, asks his mysterious informant (nicknamed Deep Throat), “They’re here, aren’t they?”  To which Deep Throat replies “Mr. Mulder, they’ve been here for a long, long time.”  That statement wouldn’t make any sense until years later, when the first X-Files movie (released between the fifth and sixth seasons of the show) revealed that extra-terrestrials had first visited earth during pre-historic times, and much of the alien weirdness that Mulder and Scully had been chasing was related to that first contact, 10,000 years before they were born.  I was surprised and impressed to see those ideas layered into the show at such an early stage.  Now I’m excited to get to Season Two, which has always stood as my favorite season.

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