Note to producers: either retire words like “phenomenal” and “unbelievable” from your vocabularies or think thrice before allowing yourself to be filmed for DVD special features. Rest assured it will only help your cause. The aforementioned suggestion comes as a result of watching two long overdue DVD offerings back to back. If you watch only the extras, you’d think The Amateurs was the movie to see rather than The Nines. Neither movie will ever usurp the place of, say, the newly hi-deffed Lawrence of Arabia, but they surely prove how influential special features can be.
The Amateurs (known as The Moguls in the U.K. and Australia) is a cute, contrived, long-shelved, high-concept project from the indie upstart First Look Studios, while The Nines is a convoluted, contrived, high-concept project written and directed by the screenwriter of Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and Titan A.E. One big difference between the two is that the former has an amazing cast serving a creaky script, while the latter has a small, solid cast laboring to bring home a script that may not be more than a sum of its well-done parts.
It’s also great to compare the director/producer relationships. On The Amateurs, novice writer/director Michael Traeger is well served by temperate producer Aaron Ryder. On The Nines, writer/director John August is so outrageously lauded by producer Dan Jinks that the overstatements are hard to accept. Nevertheless, The Nines is the better film, which some critics, at the time of release, had a hard time understanding.
The DVD itself showcases Entertainment Weekly’s review: “You’ll go ‘huh?’ but you won’t feel cheated.” Their confusion is fairly odd, since I felt the twee flick, which obviously took to heart Joan Osbourne’s song “What if God Were One of Us,” straddles the genres of Memento and Meet Joe Black (i.e. Death Takes a Holiday) in a fairly obvious way. In other words, I didn’t go “huh,” but I nearly went “so what?”
Nevertheless, the extras on the Special Edition disc are plentiful and mildly fun. There are two audio commentaries, both featuring the writer/director, but trading off with star Ryan Reynolds, co-star Melissa McCarthy, and Editor Douglas Crise. Writer/director August is also on hand to commentate on the valid deleted scenes, and serve talking head duty on the making-of featurette. There’s a script to storyboard to screen comparison, photo gallery, and the clueful inclusion of August’s short film, God, which has a revealing menu instruction to “Play God.” But really, Mr. Jinks, scale back on the fawning a bit. You’ll drive people to watch The Amateurs instead.
Which would be a shame, since this DVD, like Dragon Wars, is one I’d suggest watching the revealing and interesting special features only. The film itself is a heart-sinking misfire after all the hope and happiness of the audio commentary and making-of doc. They reveal that the core of the film’s success – literally and figuratively — comes from star Jeff Bridges, who admits in the doc that he really hated the script until his wife changed his mind. Next time, maybe he should have faith in his first (and, apparently, second) impression. But once they had Bridges, a terrific and extensive supporting cast was willing to come on board for the labored story of small town losers who try to make a porno.
What makes the DVD worthwhile, however, is “The Amateurs Photography Book” – one of the best representations of day-to-day film production I’ve seen. Since Starman, Bridges has been taking photographs on the sets of all his films, then presenting cast and crew with a book of those pics at wrap time. On this DVD, they have created a page-by-page flip-through of the book, with commentary from Bridges, producer Ryder (who, coincidentally produced the aforementioned Memento), and director/scripter Treager. It is better than the movie it chronicles.
Coming as a pleasant surprise after all this hit and miss is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Volume One, which powers its way into all stores this coming Tuesday after getting a seven day head start in Best Buys since last Tuesday. This is the 2002 reboot of the Mattel Toy franchise, which was originally broadcast on Cartoon Network — not the syndicated, limited animation Filmation original from 1983. The three-DVD set contains the first thirteen episodes of the thirty-nine episode series, with two subsequent DVD-set releases scheduled for later this year.
It’s generally agreed that this newer version was superior in nearly every way from the original (except, perhaps, for its powerful core concept). The animation design and direction is certainly anime-tastic, with nifty cutting and impressive sound effects. BCI and Mattel’s packaging is also neat. Although I would have loved a making-of doc or a history of He-Man featurette, I made do with the set’s “World of He-Man” you-can’t-tell-a-player-without-a-scorecard highlight clip show, image galleries, animatics, DVD-Rom scripts, and five audio commentaries with writers, the director and the Executive in Charge of Production.
Best of all, however, were the especially cool “Extended Video Commentaries,” which show the filmmakers talking while the episode runs in the corner, opposite either animatics or storyboards or both. It also shows the guys talking even after the episode ends.
And, happily, there are no producers talking about how unbelievably phenomenal it all is.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.