Veronica Mars returns; Godzilla everywhere

By Tom Von Malder | May 11, 2014
Photo by: Warner Home Entertainment Jason Dehring and Kristen Bell star in "Veronica Mars."

Owls Head — Veronica Mars (Warner Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 107 min.). I loved the TV series and this is a satisfying return, set 10 years after graduation from Neptune High. All the cast are back and in fine form, and there are numerous references, both verbal and visual, both to the past and to possible scenarios discussed but not taken. All that is lacking is an audio commentary, or at least a trivia track to point out these details.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is now in New York, a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in psychology and interviewing for a job with a topnotch law firm. However, she learns her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dehring)has been charged with murder in the bathtub electrocution death of his ex-girlfriend, pop singer Bonnie DeVille, also a Neptune High graduate. Veronica heads back to Neptune to help Logan interview lawyers, but she ends up falling into old habits, old relationships and other echos of her past, much to the dismay of her father, Keith (the always great Enrico Colantoni). Of course, Veronica believes Logan is innocent, but what really fires up her interest is seeing how corrupt the police are and how shady Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell), the brother of the previous chief, is. It helps too that she develops multiple suspects. It also turns out this is the weekend of her high school 10th anniversary reunion, to which she is dragged by old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino).

As Mentioned, there is literally a stream of in-jokes, series references, name dropping and the like. For example, Deputy Leo D'Amato  (Max Greenfield) thinks Veronica is in the FBI (a reference to a proposed season of the original series that never happened). Among the fun cameos are Justin Long and James Franco. The story itself picks up, the deeper Veronica gets into the investigation. Overall, the film is very satisfying for fans of the series, and co-writer/director Rob Thomas has done an admirable job.

A large part of the film is how it came to be, funded by fans through a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $5 million in 30 days. A making-of bonus feature (55:43) looks extensively at the Kickstarter process. There also are four deleted scenes (4:20); a 4:35 gag reel (including more with Long); and six brief shorts, including Colantoni giving a tour of Keith Mars' office. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Date and Switch (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 91 min.). This is the first of two films with a similar theme, and the better one due to what appears to be a higher budget and a sweeter story. The performances are very good too. Nicholas Braun, as Michael, and Hunter Cope, as Matty, play two high school seniors who have been best friends since the third grade. Both are virgins and hope to change that by prom night. However, everything changes when Matty reveals he prefers guys, and a bit later, Michael starts to fall for Matty's ex-girlfriend (Dakota Johnson as Em).

Michael, of course, is thrown by Matty's reveal, and then seems more intent than Matty to have him fit into the gay lifestyle. One of the strengths of director Chris Nelson's film is that it avoids having its main characters be stereotypes. Matty, in fact, is a little chubby. Both Michael and Matty play in a TV theme instrumental cover band. We see the friends check out two bars: the first of which is deadly dull; the second of which is a fun madhouse, particularly the dance room filled with foam bubbles! They do run into (literally) Greg (Zach Johnson) outside of the first bar and he will become an important character. There also is a fun bit when the two friends go back to an indoor racing car facility from which they were band half a decade ago. The film was written by Alan Young, a longtime writer and occasional actor and director on TV's "Parks and Recreation." Everything ends up at the prom, but not in a way you would ever predict. Supporting roles are played by Gary Cole and Megan Mullally as Matty's parents and Nick Offerman as Michael's father.

Extras include seven deleted scenes (8:28), including an alternate ending; a making-of feature (11:01) that features a much different looking Cope (here he has facial hair; he made his feature film debut in "Date and Switch"); a look at the prom (7:32); and audio commentary by the writer and director. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars

Geography Club (Breaking Glass DVD, PG-13, 81 min.). Russell (Cameron Deane Stewart) is 16 and in the closet. He finally has the courage to meet someone in a nearby park, only to see his school's star quarterback passing by. Russell returns home disappointed, but during a later science trip, he and Kevin (Justin Deeley), the quarterback, become more acquainted, and Russell learns that Kevin indeed was his online contact. As Russell becomes more open about himself, including attending the after-school Geography Club (which is just a front for gay and lesbian students to talk together without being harassed), Kevin stays firmly in the closet (interestingly, his parents are very accepting of another gay person in the family). However, Kevin does get Russell on the football team so they can hang together without arousing questions. (A nice touch has Russell actually be a hero in one football game.)

Min (Ally Maki) runs the Geography Club, while one of the attendees is Ike (played by Alex Newell of TV's "Glee"). Russell is put in a very awkward position when his football teammates make him subject a Geography Club member to homophobic hazing. He also is pressured by his best friend Gunner (Andrew Caldwell) to be his wing-man on several double dates. Stewart is solid as Russell and the film does have a very upbeat ending. The film is based on the first novel in Brent Hartinger's best-selling Russel Middlebrook series (yes Russel is spelled differently in the books). DVD extras were not available on my screener, but they include audio commentary by director Gary Entin, writer Edmund Entin and Frederick Levy and Bryan Leder; a second audio commentary with cast members Stewart, Maki and Caldwell; and an hour-long making-of documentary. Grade: film 3 stars

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR/R, 100/84 min.). Confession time: I have not seen the first three "Paranormal Activity" films, but my understanding is this is the first one to venture out in the streets, so to speak. It also is located in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from high school, where he was the valedictorian. His best friend is Hector (Jorge Diaz) and his sister is Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh).

On graduation day, Jesse becomes enamored of taking home video. Soon, he buys a used video cam and starts filming his life. This review is of the unrated, 16-minute-longer version, and much of the extra time I am sure is devoted to extra everyday scenes. To be frank, their abundance at the beginning slows down the film. Weird Anna, who some believe is a witch, lives downstairs from Jesse's father's apartment (Jesse's grandmother lives with them). One night, Anna is killed and Jesse and friends sneak into her apartment, where they find a spell book. Not long after, Jesse is attacked by two thugs, whom he easily dispatches in an amazing show of strength. Jesse also develops impossible balance control. Anna's killer, a bot named Oscar, shows up and tells Jesse he is possessed, which is why he killed Anna, and now Jesse is possessed too.

There really are not enough scares here, and the ending feels a bit rushed. Extras include seven deleted scenes (10:47), a couple of which are helpful. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla Final Wars (2003/2004, Sony, 2 Blu-ray discs, PG/PG-13, 91/125 min.). With the new American reboot due shortly in theaters, Sony is releasing eight Toho Studios Godzilla features on Blu-ray for the first time. Each release contains two films. Toho has produced 28 Godzilla films during the past 60 years.

"Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S." is the best of the ones I watched. Co-written and directed by Masaaki Tezuka, it is an entertaining film. Two fairies from Birth Island appear and request that Godzilla's bones be returned to the sea. The bones in question have been used to construct Mechagodzilla (aka Mecha G). The fairies promise that Mothra will protect the Japanese if Godzilla returns. (The fairies first appeared to one of the characters 43 years ago, and Mothra has destroyed Tokyo in the past. The hero of this film, a mechanic named Chujo (Nobora Kaneko), is the nephew of the now old man who saw the fairies. Sings are bad, however: a giant sea turtle reaches shore before dying and a U.S. submarine is destroyed. Thirty-five minutes into the film, Godzilla appears offshore. Young Shun summons Mothra to help, and a couple of Mothra larvae enter the fray. The monster battle is impressive, but the human characters, per usual, are underdeveloped. The only extra is a fly-on-the-wall making-of feature (21:48).

"Godzilla Final Wars" is simply too much. As the 50th anniversary feature, and the last before a planned moratorium of nine to 10 years, it is over-stuffed. The opening shows Godzilla being trapped at the South Pole by an earthquake and an assault, with Douglas Gordon (later played by Don Frye) firing the decisive shots. Since then, the Earth Defense Force has been formed, using mutant humans with special powers (cue the boring fight training scenes). There is a nice Godzilla timeline during the opening credits, with scenes from earlier films.

Suddenly, monsters, including Rodan, are attacking the major cities across the Earth. There is much destruction, until the monsters suddenly are removed by what turns out to be visiting aliens, the Xilians, who say a huge planet is heading for the Earth. At this point, the film turns into a cross between "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "To Serve Man" (an excellent story that became a "Twilight Zone" episode). As the film goes more and more out of control, there is a very silly motorcycle duel. Godzilla, pretty much an afterthought, is finally called into action at the start of the second hour. The film picks up as Godzilla fights a succession of monsters. Again, the only extra is a fly-on-the-wall B roll to film feature. Grade: Tokyo S.O.S. 3 stars; Final Wars 2 stars

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (1995/2000, Sony, 2 Blu-ray discs, NR/NR, 102/106 min.). In the beginning, Birth Island sinks into the sea, setting Godzilla's fission process out of control. According to a young college student, who is suddenly telling G Force what to do, this means Godzilla might explode, severely harming the environment. So, we get a Godzilla that is glowing with red energy, rather than the usual white and blue.

There are a couple of black-and-white flashbacks taken from an early film, when micro-oxygen was first introduced. A scientist pulls out a soil sample from a tunnel site that turns out to have living matter, which develops into micro-oxygen creatures that can combine into the huge creature called Destoroyah (it never is explained how they can combine and then come apart, but maybe it is like the twins on MTV's "Teen Wolf"). The smaller versions, at least, are rather crab-like. Mean Destoroyah picks on Junior, the smaller version of Godzilla, before battling Godzilla in the main event. Again, when the monster battle, it is a fun movie.

In "Gozilla vs. Megaguirus," the Japanese have two new weapons: The Gryphon, a high-tech ship, and the Dimension Tide, a device that creates artificial black holes. Megaguirus is a giant dragonfly that wants to feed on Godzilla's energy. Smaller versions fed on the energy of humans. There are no extras for either films, only original trailers.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1991/1992, Sony, 2 Blu-ray discs, NR/NR, 101/102 min.). A mysterious UFO flies over Tokyo. It contains at-first friendly aliens from the 23rd century, who warn of a new attack by Godzilla. However, the three-headed, flying King  Ghidorah also shows up. Once again, the aliens are not as friendly as they first appeared and it is up to Godzilla to save the day.

In "Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth," the miniature fairies are revealed on Infant Island (sometimes called Birth Island) as protectors of Mothra's giant egg. When Godzilla crashes the party, the battle is on. Again, only original trailers make up any bonuses.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II and Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1993/1994, Sony, 2 Blu-ray discs, PG/NR, 108/108 min.). In the first film, Baby Godzilla hatches, and both Rodan and Godzilla show up to claim it as theirs. In the second, the military has implanted a telepathic amplifier in Godzilla's brain to help control in. However, Space Godzilla arrives from a faraway galaxy to do battle. This film has a bit more humor to it. Once again, only original trailers are extras.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963, Universal Blu-ray disc, NR, 90 min.). While often silly, this actually is a historical film. It is the third of the Godzilla films and it is the first time both Godzilla and King Kong appeared in a color film. However, while Godzilla looks his usual good self, the King Kong outfit is very sad looking.

Tomato-sized berries have been discovered on Farou Island, King Kong's home, and a pharmaceutical company wants them for their amazing properties. The expedition to the island is basically a retelling of the original "King Kong" film, albeit, the natives are played by Asians in black-face, and two of the visiting party are prone to an Abbott and Costello style of comedy (with much poorer timing and lamer dialogue). Kong is put to sleep by the tomato juice, after throwing rocks at a giant octopus, and transported to Tokyo by raft. Meanwhile, Godzilla breaks out of an iceberg, due to a warm ocean current. Back in 1955, Godzilla was sealed into a glacier. The two title monsters first battle at the 55-minute mark, but their second battle is much more fun. Grade: film 2.5 stars

King Kong Escapes (1968, Universal Blu-ray disc, G, 96 min.). At least the Kong suit is better five years later. This time, it is a giant robot version of Kong that threatens Tokyo. The robot was built by Dr. Who -- not the British Doctor Who -- in order to retrieve a highly radioactive element for his mysterious benefactor, Madame X. The robot proves unreliable, so they kidnap the real Kong (he now lives on the island of Mondo). An American soldier, a Japanese soldier and Kong's latest female crush have to save the day.

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