Puppets rule! The second season of The Muppet Show was released recently on DVD, and now two of Muppet creator Jim Henson's more ambitious projects are out in bells-and-whistles editions with 3-D covers. They are child-friendly only in the sense that the Brothers Grimm and the tailor who snips off children's thumbs in Struwwelpeter are child-friendly, inducing useful shivers and a heightened awareness of what the world can throw at a brave but untried adventurer.
The Dark Crystal: 25th Anniversary Edition, which offers new bonus features but regrettably drops the isolated musical score (by Trevor Jones) from the 1999 DVD, imagines a mythic quest by Jen and Kira of the Gelfling tribe to find a section of the titular crystal. But this contest between good and evil is really just an excuse to trot out scary and creepy puppets designed by author-illustrator Brian Froud, who says in a commentary that he derived many of his design ideas from eating lobster dinners and gluing the shells together. The impressively realized puppet universe (no digital effects) has disoriented a few recent young viewers, he says, who were raised on computer-generated effects and couldn't figure out how it was done.
The reaction to the 1982 theatrical release was disappointing - "We thought we were going to make more of these movies," Froud says, "and we never did" - so Henson decided to mix humans with the puppets in his next, breezier feature, Labyrinth (1986). A teenager (Jennifer Connelly) wishes the goblins would steal her baby brother (Froud's one-year-old son Toby). When they do so, she accepts a challenge from the Goblin King (David Bowie sporting a glam-vampire look and a shock of indescribable hair) to negotiate his maze in time to keep the boy from becoming a goblin. Alice in Wonderland is an obvious influence, as is artist M.C. Escher, and Froud says he drew on every source he could think of in designing Bowie's king: Heathcliff, kabuki theatre, "a leather boy from the Wild Ones" and, no surprise, a pop star. Henson devised the story with Dennis ( Alligator Pie) Lee, and Monty Python's Terry Jones wrote the screenplay.
For Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character in the heist thriller The Lookout (2007), every day is a quest, since he suffered a brain injury in a car crash and has to use self-addressed notes to get through the day. He pines for his old life, which makes him easy pickings for bank robbers seeking a stooge. Scott Frank, screenwriter of Get Shorty and Minority Report, makes his directing debut and begins his commentary with director of photography Alar Kivilo by saying, "Welcome to another episode of how the rookie director screwed up." It's false modesty; the film got good reviews.
Elvis Presley died 30 years ago yesterday, and no one is being allowed to forget it. Paramount presents eight of his films, including King Creole and Fun in Acapulco, in the Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection. Warner Bros. offers two-disc editions of the concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is, Viva Las Vegas and Jailhouse Rock. The four films in Elvis MGM Movie Legends Collection include Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream. Starz Home Entertainment has Elvis: the Miniseries, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Elvis. Watch them all and you'll turn into Elvis.
Also out: David Lynch's latest film Inland Empire (with Laura Dern) and, at long last, Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet (1996), which I will discuss next week; Wild Hogs, with Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy as mid-life-crisis bikers, with an alternative ending and a blooper reel; Back to School: Extra-Curricular Edition, the Rodney Dangerfield dad-goes-back-to-school comedy with bonus segments on Dangerfield and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who made a cameo appearance); The Simpsons: The Complete Tenth Season, with 23 episodes (Homer and Ned wake up in Las Vegas with new wives, Marge gets road rage) and creator Matt Groening's extensive commentary; The Tick Vs. Season Two, 12 more episodes of the entertaining animated cartoon series about the Tick, a self-important superhero; The Bourne Files, tied to the theatrical release of The Bourne Ultimatum, with the first two Bourne films and a bonus disc looking mainly at author Robert Ludlum; and The Ultimate Gift (2006), a family-values film in which the will of a late billionaire (James Garner) sets a series of character-building tests for his annoying grandson before the lad can inherit anything. In an unusual touch, author Jim Stovall, who is blind, arranged for the DVD to have optional narration for the visually impaired.
New Orleans Music in Exile opens with Theresa Anderson singing a soulful version of Neil Young's Like a Hurricane and branching into a solo on her electric violin. It's the perfect metaphor for a reflection on Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and its people - in particular, the musicians who have regrouped uncertainly in Houston, Austin, Tex; Memphis, Tenn.; and Lafayette, La. Interviews are supplemented with performances by artists such as Dr. John, but it's in the bonus features that the most joyous celebration occurs: an eight-minute discussion by Jon Cleary of the musical traditions of New Orleans, which he and expertly illustrates on the piano. The elements are legion - blues, rumba, boogie woogie, funk - "but there's a common denominator," Cleary says, "there's a thread that runs through it, and you can spot New Orleans music a mile off."
Extra! Extra! Extra!
Warner Oland is back in Charlie Chan Volume 3 as the brilliant Hawaiian-based detective with the fortune-cookie aphorisms. Along with The Black Camel (1931, with Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye in the same year they co-starred in Dracula), Charlie Chan's Secret (1936), Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937) and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938), the set includes Behind That Curtain (1931), which is technically Charlie Chan's first sound film but is in fact a shaky melodrama with Warner Baxter. Someone alludes to Chan early on, but he appears only for a few minutes at the end, played (for once) by an actor of Asian ancestry, E. L. Park, who delivers his lines in the same painfully over-articulated manner as almost everyone else in the movie. Boris Karloff has a small role as an Indian servant. Also here is a 2007 aural reconstruction of a lost Oland-as-Chan film, Charlie Chan's Chance, based on the surviving screenplay. It's a great idea, but undermined by grating voices.