Sunday, October 24, 2010


Based on the experiences of Laurens van der Post, chronicled in his novels “The Seed and the Sower” (1963) and “The Night of the New Moon” (1970), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) tells the story of British soldiers interned by the Japanese as prisoners of war during World War II and the culture clash which ensues. The film focuses on four men: on the Japanese side of things, we have Captain Yonoi and Sergent Hara. The British gentlemen in question are new prisoner Jack Celliers (known for being a “soldier’s soldier”) and Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence. Yonoi is the camp comandant who develops a peculiar fascination with the rebellious Celliers while friendship develops between the seemingly brutal Hara and Mr. Lawrence, due in large part to Lawrence’s ability to speak fluent Japanese and attempts to understand their culture.

The main focus of the film is on the startling differences between the Japanese and British view of honor, discipline, loyalty and glory. The strict code that the Japanese adhere to has Yonoi and Hara viewing the British soldiers as cowards – honor demands that they kill themselves rather than submit to the enemy. An incident of sexual abuse involving a Dutch prisoner and a Korean guard sets off an ethical debate between Hara and Lawrence which continues throughout the film, just as Lawrence is put at odds with the stubborn British camp captain, who sees Lawrence as a traitor for his attempts to understand and explain the Japanese way of life. Meanwhile, Yonoi’s interest in the rebellious Jack Celliers deepens into an almost erotic obsession. It’s a love/hate relationship between all four men in this very layered and brutally intense tale.

The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, who apparently is a big deal in Japan. I’ve never heard of the guy, but watching the film, along with the hours and hours of extras that are included in this Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, I understand why he is so revered. The man doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter; rather, he shines a rather intense spotlight on it. The film itself is unflinching and raw while leaving enough to the imagination to inspire hours of discussion and debate about its themes. Especially helpful are the previously mentioned extras. “The Oshima Gang” is a 1983 making-of featurette and “Hasten Slowly” is an hour-long documentary about Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novels supplied the basis of the film. Brand new interviews with the screenwriter, producer and stars shed new light on what went on behind the scenes. Basically, it provides exactly what you’d expect a Criterion Blu-Ray to provide – exhaustingly indepth insight. If you’re a fan of Nagisa Oshima… well, you’ve probably already picked it up for its high definition restoration alone. But anyone interested in film, from casual film buff to analytical student, will be delighted by not only the film but the extras as well.

I suppose I can’t write a review without mentioning David Bowie. He’s one of the stars and though I heard a few sour reviews regarding his performance, I didn’t find any problem with it save for the fact that judging by his haircut, he must’ve stepped directly from the set of the “Let’s Dance” video to the film shoot. It was a little out of place. Nevertheless, I felt he was perfectly cast as Jack Celliers, as was his opposite, Japanese mucisian Ryuichi Sakamoto (Yonoi) who also provided the haunting score. Hell, everybody in this movie was perfectly cast, right down to the last POW and their guards. The movie wasn’t exactly a Saturday night popcorn flick, but if you’re looking for something thought-provoking and unsettling, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is your film.

The Blu-Ray also contains the original theatrical trailer and a 120-page booklet packed with essays and interviews on the film. It’s been restored and remastered and is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which means nothing to me as a layman, but ought to be important to film buffs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

C is for COOKIE MONSTER - DVD review

I’m a parent and if you’re reading this review of Sesame Workshop and Warner Home Video’s latest DVD release, “C is for Cookie Monster”, then I’ll assume you are too. So you know how it goes, right? The holidays are on their way and you’ve got a long drive ahead of you in order to make sure grandma and grandpa can spoil your kids with gifts, cookies and holiday cheer. That drive was bad enough before the kids were born but now it’s nearly unbearable. At least, it was. But that was before you bought that portable DVD player. Now everyone is content, for the most part. You might not be able to crank up Black Sabbath as loud as you used to and your throat is hoarse after singing “The Farmer in the Dell” for the 1,000th time… but at least the kids aren’t crying.

Enter the Cookie Monster. A staple of children’s television who has been around since long before your own childhood, the Cookie Monster is one of the most beloved Muppets to grace the small screen and now he has his very own 50-minute DVD which collects a number of new skits and old favorites. Included in this collection are short stories such as “The Cookie Tree” and the tale of Cookie Hood in which another blue monster (this one with a British accent and a mustache) shows up on Sesame Street and begins stealing cookies and our poor lovable Cookie Monster gets the blame. Imagine Cookie Monster with a cultured manner and a mustache… it’s awesome. Remember Monsterpiece Theater? There’s an episode on here, featuring a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”. How about “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco”? Yup, that one’s on here too. This DVD has even got a weird cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” in which Cookie Monster sports an afro. Seriously. Oh yeah, and it’s also got Cookie Monster’s young cousin – you thought he was cute as an adult? Imagine him as a little girl. Freakin’ adorable. For those worried about their children adopting bad eating habits, Cookie Monster explains that cookies are just a “sometimes food” and that even though he’s clearly an addict, he’s got it (relatively) under control and maintains a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and all that stuff. Nevertheless, you can’t have a Cookie Monster DVD if you don’t include the legendary “C is for Cookie” song. It’s kind of a must and you don’t have to fear; there’s a remixed version on this DVD.

So here’s the deal: this is a pretty fun collection. The thing about Cookie Monster is that he’s actually really funny. Even as an adult, I find him to be quite amusing, especially after being forced to endure hours and hours of Elmo. Clearly the inspiration for guys like Bobcat Goldthwait or Sam Kinison, Cookie Monster is totally manic. He’s also a whole lot funnier than either of the comedians I just mentioned, but you didn’t really need me to tell you that. Seriously folks, in a world full of Dora the Explorer and Wonder Pets, isn’t it nice to relax with an old favorite? To rekindle old friendships and see your children experience the same joy as you did and feel safe knowing that they’re actually learning something? Do I actually need to convince you that this DVD is awesome and that you should buy it? It’s the freakin’ Cookie Monster! Of course it’s awesome!

On the other hand, nearly an hour of Cookie Monster strains the limits of how much of the furry blue monster one can handle. I’ll let you be the judge. But I guarantee your preschooler will love it.

Article first published as DVD Review: Sesame Street - C is for Cookie Monster on Blogcritics.