UFOs, vampires, acoustic comedy, and these kids today...

CORRESPONDENTAugust 7, 2009 

A friend made an interesting point the other day. When we grew up in the 1970s -- before 24-hour cable news and the Internet -- it was a lot easier to believe in UFOs, Bigfoot and other pop culture fringe material. When we saw a sasquatch or flying saucers on "In Search Of," these were breaking news reports, so far as we knew.

It seemed perfectly reasonable that UFOs were over New Mexico and giant monkey monsters were in the Rocky Mountains -- why not? The grainy footage we were afforded only enhanced the mystery and fired our imaginations. Kids today can Google this stuff in a minute, and of course, they are pretty much swimming in X-Files stuff all the time, with TV, movies and video games. Back before we were all relentlessly infotained, the world was a weirder, much more interesting place.

I thought about this while watching Disney's "Race to Witch Mountain," the recent remake of its classic 1975 "Escape to Witch Mountain." The original loomed large for a certain generation of kids: It was spooky and subtle, suggestive of a larger world where kids had access to psychic powers, telekinesis and spaceships. Both movies are loosely based on Alexander Key's 1968 science-fiction novel, which provides the basic story of psychic orphans who turn out to be extraterrestrials.

Despite "better" effects and production values, the "Race" remake is an empirically inferior movie in every way. Where there should be mystery and wonder, there are car chases and stunt men. Instead of a tantalizing glimpse of the alien ship, we get loud and shiny CGI effects. Everything is spelled out and winked at.

The movie's star, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, still can't act but once again he doesn't really need to. This remake is perfectly adequate children's entertainment from the reliable Disney pipeline. Children will like it just fine; discretion is advised only for parents who remember the good old days.

Lucky for us cranky middle-age folk, there's plenty of engaging entertainment aimed at grown-ups. Weird thing is, these days the really good stuff comes to DVD not from the movies, but from TV.

Two new series sets from HBO effectively make the case that TV-on-DVD is where it's at.

The complete second season set of HBO's comedy series "Flight of the Conchords" hits shelves this week, and if you're not yet hip to New Zealand's fourth-most-popular, guitar-based, rap-funk-comedy folk duo, now's the time to get acquainted.

The entity known as Flight of the Conchords originally found success as an acoustic musical comedy duo in Wellington, New Zealand, fronted by college film students Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. Their very funny live act won them a cult following, as well as several dozen comedy awards and a 2007 Grammy for Best Comedy Album.

The HBO series sets up the pair as struggling musicians in New York, with their musical numbers incorporated into each episode, musical theater style. It shouldn't work, but it does, spectacularly. Much of the series' appeal rides on the goofy boho charisma of leads Bret and Jemaine. Conchords already has its place in the pantheon of great HBO comedy series such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage."

"True Blood" is another HBO series building serious momentum, and Season One hit the DVD market a few weeks back. Created and produced by Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under"), the series concerns, yes, vampires, who seem to become fashionable every few years across all media. Coincidence or nefarious undead agenda?

As with all those other series your friends have insisted you start watching ("Sopranos," "Deadwood," "The Wire"), think carefully before committing to "True Blood." Because it's really, really good and will devour your free time for the next several weeks. Anna Paquin stars as a telepathic waitress in rural Louisiana who finds that vampires, shapeshifters and other mythological predators are integrated everywhere in society and -- well, better you discover it for yourself.

Modern-day vampires is a story we've heard told before, but as always, the proof is in the telling. Think "Twilight" for grown-ups, plus "Twin Peaks" murder mystery with Southern Gothic atmosphere. Very addictive.

Also new to DVD this week, "The Soloist" stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx in the story of a Juilliard musician who tumbles into schizophrenia and homelessness in Los Angeles. Downey plays the newspaper columnist who discovers and befriends the musician, and it's all "based on a true story," for what that's worth.

"The Soloist" is another example of a movie where all the ingredients are there for a compelling drama but something went wrong in the cooking process. Downey and Foxx are terrific, as is Catherine Keener in a supporting turn, and the film follows no predictable formula. But it somehow adds up to less than its parts, with a curious lack of focus. "The Soloist" is worth a rental, though, for the acting and the film's fearlessness in following its characters through the meanest streets.

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