Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Two new DVD releases of note today. First up, Joe Dante's contribution to Showtime's Master Of Horror series, Homecoming. Masters Of Horror was a good idea that mostly didn't really lead anywhere, an opportunity for terrific filmmakers like John Carpenter and John Landis--guys who once created big boxoffice hits but who seem to find themselves out of work these days--a chance to strut their stuff, albeit in abbreviated, one-hour form, and under the restrictions of TV budgets and shooting schedules.

Mostly the results have been disappointing, but Homecoming redeems the whole series, though tagging it as "horror" is a bit misleading. The premise: It's 2004, the presidential election is coming up and the slimy (though unnamed) Republican president will do anything to win. The unpopular war he's waging in an (also unnamed) foreign country may come back to haunt him as all the soldiers in flag-draped coffins suddenly rise up, determined to do their patriotic duty and vote.

Typically for Dante, Homecoming is very funny, but there's a bracing anger here that's new to his work, and very welcome. Though made for TV, it should be considered one of the best films of 2005, and after with George Romero's Land Of The Dead, was the second zombie picture of the year to use the undead to explore life in Bush's America. Sadly, these were among the very few non-documentary films to show any interest in contemporary life.

Also new to DVD is the second season of one of my favorite TV shows, The Rockford Files. Starring James Garner as reluctant private eye Jim Rockford, this is one of the most underappreciated programs ever, regarded by even its fans as nothing more than a vehicle for the smooth charm of Garner.

Well, it is that, of course, but so much more. For one thing, Rockford is a surprisingly complex character, a literal working class hero living in a trailer and hustling for jobs. Despite his easygoing manner, he's capable of real anger as he goes up against the machinations of corrupt businessmen or, in one memorable episode included in this set, the military. He's funny, he's tender, he won't even hold a grudge if you beat him up--just don't piss him off, or you will be sorry.

The other thing about The Rockford Files is that it never slipped into formula. Yeah, most episodes would feature a chase scene--it was actually in Garner's contract that he'd get to drive his Trans-Am as much as possible!--but you could never guess, in the first five minutes, where the story was headed. It might be a light hearted caper, a complex, Ross MacDonald-style mystery involving buried secrets, or a character study. Wherever any episode sought to take you, the trip was almost always worthwhile.

The Rockford Files really started to gel in its second season, and would only get better. Other than an interview with series creator Stephen J. Cannell, the DVD comes with no extras, and Universal Home Video continues to issue their TV library in crappy-looking prints, but at least the shows themselves are uncut, unlike the versions in syndication, so this is the best way to see them. And who needs bells and whistles when the show itself is this good?