Despicable Me: Blu-ray 3D
Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’hoole: Blu-ray 3D
Anyone old enough to remember such ancient cartoon evil-doers as Snidely Wipelash, Boris Badenov, Dishonest John and Crabby Appleton probably will enjoy Despicable Me as much as their kids and grandkids. For Boomers, especially, it will recall a time when villains didn’t require superpowers to perform their dastardly deeds and the only shield a hero needed was a pure heart. Despicable Me also argues that redemption is possible, no matter how old a Grinch gets.
Here, a truly bad dude named Gru is mortified to learn that his status as “Greatest Villain of All Time” is being threatened by the previously unrecognized “supervillain,” Vector. The upstart gets Gru’s attention by stealing the Pyramid of Giza. It forces the faded plotter and his trusted aide, Dr. Nefario, to get serious about their plans for world domination. Gru fears their mighty Insta-Freeze Gun – used primarily to shorten the wait at Starbucks – won’t allow them to fulfill a contractual agreement to steal the moon, a task already made significantly more difficult by a lack of funding for advanced weaponry and gadgets. If only Gru could only get his hands on the shrink-ray gun, he and his Minions might be able to salvage their potentially catastrophic scheme.
To that end, Gru adopts a trio of orphan girls to do his bidding in his feud with Vector. Instead, the adorable, if occasionally mischievous tots prove to be as difficult to control as liquid mercury, and they quickly turn Gru’s intricately designed stronghold into their personal playground. Even if this unexpected turn of events temporarily complicates Gru’s evil strategy, the girls ultimately prove to be his most valuable asset. Universal struck paydirt at the box office with its first 3D-animated venture and it bodes well for future projects.
Besides an all-star cast of voicing talent – Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Julie Andrews, Russell Brand – credit for the success of Despicable Me should be shared with Sergio Padre, whose dialogue is full of witty zingers, and directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, who never allow the frenetic pace to slacken. The Blu-ray set includes three new cartoons, featuring the Minions; several behind-the-scenes featurettes; video-game previews; commentary; interactive activities; themed apps; cookie recipe; and a gizmo that allows viewers to back up the disc and instantly add subtitles.
Warner Bros.’ entry in the ferociously competitive 3D-animated fray was Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, adapted from the books of Kathryn Lasky. I suspect that the needlessly wordy title limited the movie’s ability to market itself to children, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with the CG animation. The occasionally stomach-churning flying scenes are truly marvelous, as the intricacy of the animal’s appearance. If anything, the owls’ hyper-realistic look may seem too freakish for kids who’ve never seen the real thing outside a zoo.
Legend of the Guardians was directed by Zack Snyder, whose previous successes included the geek-oriented 300 and Watchmen. It tells the story of a young owl, Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), who’s been kidnapped by a flock of militaristic birds known as the Pure Ones. The fiends brainwash their captives and turn them into soldiers, much as children in parts of Africa are snatched and forced to fight and Hitler Youth prepared kids for Nazi domination.
After Soren manages to escape, he and a motley crew of kindred spirits seek the help of the possibly mythic Guardians. (I agree with the MPAA that the sophisticated storyline requires parental guidance for younger viewers.) The Blu-ray package includes Maximum Kid Mode, which allows viewers to join Soren in a tour of the Owl Kingdom and play interactive games; a piece on the owls’ bedtime story, which inspired Soren’s quest; a music video, “To the Sky”; art galleries; a featurette on non-animated owls and their place in the real world; the Looney Tunes cartoon, “Fur of Flying.”
I can’t vouch for the 3D TV presentation for either film. The equipment is still a wee bit pricey and the real bargains have yet to reveal themselves. I have, however, watched children enjoy 3D cartoons in the home-theater department of Best Buy and could see how it would be a welcome gift in the homes of well-heeled families. The visuals are excellent and the glasses are unobtrusive. Most Blu-ray 3D packages come complete with 2D hi-def and standard-format versions, as well as a limited-time digital copy.
The Town: Extended Cut Blu-ray
When did Boston become the crime capital of America? Besides The Town, felonious thrillers staged in and around Beantown in recent years include Knight and Day, The Departed, Edge of Darkness, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Surrogates, 21, Boondock Saints, What Doesn’t Kill You and, by extension, The Social Network, with John Wells’ The Company Men still to come.
The city’s always provided a great backdrop for such pictures – among them, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Verdict – but, in this, I think the Chamber of Commerce owes a special debt of gratitude to the Affleck brothers, Matt Damon, writer Dennis Lehane, Fenway Park and those cesspools of criminality, Harvard and MIT.
In the terrific bank-heist flick, The Town, native Chowd Ben Affleck serves as director, star and co-writer. It’s set primarily in the Charlestown neighborhood, known far and wide as the nation’s leading breeding ground for armed robbers and mumble-mouthed thugs. Their slack accents alone conjure images of clannish insularity and a genetic predisposition for longterm imprisonment.
Affleck plays a member of a gang of bank and armored-car specialists known for their elaborate disguises. They are tipped to pre-arranged jobs by a local gang kingpin/florist (Pete Postelthwaite), who seems to know the bad habits of everyone in ’Town and demands a cut of all action. The boy-o’s probably would still be scaring the piss out of underpaid tellers and guards if Affleck’s Doug MacRay hadn’t felt the need to re-connect with a fetching bank manager (Rebecca Hall) taken hostage in a heist.
Although she knows next to nothing about the perpetrators, dogged FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) suspects that she does, if only because she chose to live in an affordable apartment in Charlestown. MacRay’s hubris aside, most of the tension in The Town comes in the interaction between gang members – notably, a walking time bomb played by Jeremy Renner – and the old-timers who call the shots. The chases through the narrow streets and alleys of historic Boston are truly exciting and the shootouts are, well, loud. What else do you need?
The Blu-ray includes both the theatrical version and an extended cut; Affleck’s commentary; the interesting featurette, “Ben’s Boston”; and a neat piece on setting up a heist inside the bowels of Fenway Park.
This edgy relationship comedy attracted a lot of attention from critics who wondered how Mumblecore auteurs, Jay and Mark Duplass, would handle a larger-than-peanuts budget and a cast of mainstream stars. In fact, the media buzz was so intense that I was shocked to learn it grossed a mere $7.5 million at the box office. There was air of arthouse snobbery in some of the reviews, but the presence of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei, alone, should have pushed the numbers closer to $30 million. (Catherine Keener is a swell actor, but her presence tends to flutter the hearts of indie viewers, mine included, exclusively.)
Reilly plays a lovable sad sack, whose divorce from Keener’s character hasn’t stopped them from remaining close friends. In a moment that qualifies as a small miracle, Riley’s John attracts the attention of Tomei’s Molly at a party. Both are smitten. It isn’t until John is introduced to Molly’s 22-year-old slacker son, Cyrus (Hill), however, that the real fun begins. Depending on Molly’s proximity to the conversation, Cyrus will treat John either with warmth or intense hatred. Molly’s close relationship with Cyrus borders on the incestuous, and, like John, we’re creeped out by it.
Taking sides in Cyrus is easy, even if laying blame isn’t. The hard part comes in knowing that our joy in seeing Cyrus cut down in size ultimately would serve to make John miserable in Molly’s absence. The Duplass brothers’ approach to dialogue and pace isn’t for everyone. The acting alone, though, is enough to recommend Cyrus. The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes.
Nanny McPhee Returns
I didn’t catch the first Nanny McPhee, but having now enjoyed the sequel, I probably will invest in a rental. As author Christianna Brand’s enchanted care-giver, Emma Thompson is a hybrid of Mary Poppins and the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. McPhee’s looks could scare the whiskers off a walrus, but, as we witness here, at least some of her blemishes are temporary.
In Returns, a mysterious force directs McPhee to the farm of Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose husband currently is across the channel fighting the Huns. Her children make the Malcolm in the Middle rascals look like cherubs. Adding to Isabel’s ordeal is the arrival of a niece and nephew, who were shipped to the countryside to avoid enemy bombs. The snotty siblings are stunned to find themselves on a farm literally blanketed with mud and manure – they label it the “British Museum of Poo” — and in the company of cousins who they consider to be way below their station.
The city slickers can dish out the pain as well as the country bumpkins, though. McPhee changes all that in a hurry. Once the mayhem subsides, Nanny is enlisted in a mission to discover the true story behind the disappearance of Molly’s husband. The special effects and CG-generated visuals are nothing short of wondrous, and the story-telling is top-drawer. Parents and teens will have as much fun watching Returns as the young’uns. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes; commentary with director Susanna White; interviews with cast and crew; and several making-of and behind-the-scenes shorts, including a time-lapse look at Nanny’s makeup and dissection of the mud/manure effect.
The A-Team: Blu-ray
Fans of the original A-Team will recognize in Joe Carnahan’s frenetic update all of the most familiar touchstones of NBC’s surprise-hit original: team-leader Hannibal’s cigars, B.A.’s Mohawk, Faceman’s wiseass charm and Howling Mad’s unhinged behavior. They might even recall the basic plot: a team of charismatic vets escape from military prison after being framed and convicted of a big-money heist; then, while on the lam from government bloodhounds, the men attempt to re-establish their reputations by performing acts of heroism only heavily armed and specially trained soldiers could pull off.
The series’ popularity allowed the A-Team five years to accomplish its goal. The movie provided Liam Neesen, Bradley Cooper, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Sharlto Copley a mere 117 minutes – 136 in the extended version — to do the same thing. Something had to give. Unfortunately, it was all resemblance to a coherent plot and logical evolution of character. At some point, early in the movie, viewers who weren’t already conversant with the mythology of the show, which went off the air in 1987, must have wondered what all the fuss was about, anyway.
Here, the lads are framed in a plot involving plates that could be used to print a billion dollars’ worth of counterfeit money. It isn’t as sexy as robbing a Hanoi bank, but “Three Kings” cornered the market on Middle Eastern gold-bullion heists in 1999. The bad guys telegraph their motives pretty early in the proceedings, leaving way too much time for CGI chases, dogfights and pyrotechnics. It’s mayhem for mayhem’s sake. The suitcase loaded with counterfeit plates represents as much a threat to American interests as the Taliban Olympics team.
None of this criticism is meant to imply that A-Team won’t appeal to action junkies, because it will. The scene in which an American tank carrying the A-Team is parachuted from a transport plane is definitely a hoot. Another high point for me, at least, was watching a Defense Department operative, played lusciously by Jessica Biel, attempt to get between the terrorists and A-Team in the streets of a large German city, while wearing six-inch high heels. I’m pretty sure that the producers were counting on a large enough payday to justify several sequels, a video-game franchise or another TV series. It never materialized, however.
The Blu-ray package includes both the theatrical and extended versions; a digital copy; deleted scenes and gag reel; a music video with a “mash-up montage” of images from the movie; character bios; and featurettes, “The Devil’s in the Details: Inside the Action with Joe Carnahan,” “Plan of Attack” and “Visual Effects Before and After,” with commentary by visual-effects supervisor James E. Price.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is filmmaker whose imagination knows no limits. In such fanciful entertainments as Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, A Very Long Engagement and Amelie it’s literally impossible to predict what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. Dreams come alive on the screen and they’re populated with characters who wouldn’t recognize the mainstream if it swept them out to sea. Micmacs is no exception.
In it, video-store employee Bazil (Dany Boon) is struck by a stray bullet while standing in the doorway of his shop. With the shell permanently embedded in his forehead, Bazil declares war on competing French armaments companies that he also blames for the death of his father, a soldier who was killed when he stepped on a landmine. To defeat the industrialists, he enlists a troupe of oddball characters – micmacs — who live in a junkyard and bring different skills and assets to the table.
Jeunet adds his trademark surrealism to the David-Vs.-Goliath mission. The Blu-ray set includes commentary with Jeunet and a Q&A with the director and actress Julie Ferrier, as well as a making-of featurette and animated short, Absurd Deaths. In hi-def, the computer-generated effects look especially vivid.
Also from France comes the exceedingly silly, low-budget sci-fi thriller, Resonnances. As the picture opens, a giant potato-shaped object crash lands in the French countryside, circa the mid-1600s. A curious damsel senses something is dreadfully wrong, moments before a subterranean entity begins rolling up the turf behind her. Flash-forward to the present, when a car carrying a mixed group of friends careens down a cliff, leaving the passengers stranded in a thick forest. Not only is the earth-rolling presence still active, but the young people also are confronted by an armed prison escapee and the bright specter of a ghostly apparition.
Before long, the creature causing the ground to ripple reveals its squid-like ectoplasm. Resonnances may not be the most sophisticated of entertainments, but it provides some cheap thrills. Fans of Tremors might want to compare the underground critters here to those in that landmark picture.
With a title like Fremeny and the prominent visage of Zach Galifianakis on the cover, it would be reasonable to assume the DVD is a barrel of laughs, in the Judd Apatow vein. Although it provides a few good laughs, they arrive in various shades of black. (Is that even possible?) Gregory Dark’s movie began its commercial life as Little Fish, Strange Pond, a title that, while vague, isn’t nearly as misleading as Frenemy. Neither is Galifianakis in the movie long enough to add some color to the inky-black comedy.
Instead, Matthew Modine and Paul Adelstein play a pair of drifters who may have gone insane while reading “Waiting for Godot” to each other. Throughout the film, Mr. Jack and Philly exchange dialogue and nonsequitors — that run the gamut from perverse to psychotic. It takes a while before we begin to suspect that the men might be involved in a series of seemingly unrelated murders, It’s difficult to imagine that Dark, once half of the XXX Dark Brothers production team, wasn’t sipping Tarantino-flavored Kool-Aid during production of Frenemy.
Mr. Jack and Philly interact as if they had watched Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction a few too many times and Dark keeps viewers guessing by flashing backwards and forward with alarming frequency. Meanwhile, the body count keeps mounting. Modine can play creepy as well as any actor in the business and his Mr. Jack knows exactly which of Philly’s buttons to push to achieve his twisted goal. It’s also clear, though, that Dark is perfectly capable of making movies outside the porn and music-video arena. I doubt he had anything to do with the choice of title, cover and poster art.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Robert Klein: Unfair & Unbalanced
Few entertainers would open themselves to the same scrutiny as Joan Rivers does in Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s compelling docu-portrait, A Piece of Work. Cameras followed the 75-year-old comic for a year, during which she hoped to take both Broadway and Donald Trump by storm. Having managed to accomplish only one of those goals, Rivers decides she’ll fight off the boredom that comes with being rich, famous and a grandmother by filling her empty dance card with concert dates.
The thought of spending a night alone, at home, fills her with dread. As much as she complains about having to fly to distant American outposts for shows, it’s clear she wouldn’t want it any other way. Rivers knows there are only so many command performances one can book and, after a while, attempting to make royals laugh gets old. When she isn’t on stage or in Trump’s offices, Rivers invests her time and prestige in a home-shopping show and, lately, a cable talker in which she and C-list panelists trash the clothes worn by celebrities.
I enjoy Rivers’ work as much the next guy and respect her personal work ethic and longevity. After a while, though, her grousing about how she was dissed by Johnny Carson grows old, as do some needlessly caustic remarks about Annie Duke (the other finalist on Celebrity Apprentice) and other celebrities who don’t live up to her standards.
A Piece of Work offers testimonials by heir-apparent Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles, who probably wonders why she keeps trying so hard. Daughter Melissa Rivers adds some candid observations about growing up in a home where she sometimes felt as if her mother’s career was the sister she never had. The DVD includes much archival footage, deleted scenes, commentary and a Q&A session from Sundance.
I don’t know if Robert Klein’s has had any cosmetic work done on his 68-year-old body, as Rivers famously has. He does, however, share several biographical touchstones with her. Native New Yorkers, both became members of Chicago’s Second City troupe and frequent guest hosts on The Tonight Show. They’ve appeared in several movies and have been nominated for Tonys.
Klein carries a harmonica wherever he goes; Rivers carries a dog. Unfair & Unbalanced represents the ninth stand-up special Klein has done for HBO. His 1975 showcase was the first such event staged by the premium-cable network, then in its infancy. Here, he comments on such current events as the debate over medical marijuana, gay marriage, crooked and hypocritical politicians and President Obama’s tenure in office. It was staged before a live audience at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, in Fort Lauderdale.
When Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire for at least the 13th time, in 1969, it ignited an environmental movement that would result in the passage of such landmark legislation as the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Josh Fox’s startling documentary, Gasland, we watch as the tap water in homes across rural America also bursts into flame. So, too, do the bubbles that gurgle up from creek beds in close proximity to facilities collecting natural gas trapped in shale formations thousands of feet below them. The same water polluted by chemicals used to crack the rock and free the gas – a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – subsequently quenches the thirst of tens of millions of people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Further south and west, water poisoned by the same chemicals is used to grow hay that will be ingested by livestock, while toxic vapors are inhaled by the same ranchers who leased parcels of land to companies that are under no legal obligation to compensate them for their ills. And, guess what, the only people who seem to care are those afflicted with ailments associated with the chemicals, whose names are next to impossible to pronounce.
Before the drilling began on their land, none of the people we meet in Gasland displayed signs of illness, neither did the water from their taps and cisterns stink or explode into flames. Soon after the fracking began, however, their lives changed dramatically, for the worse. That’s the sad news delivered by first-time documentarian Josh Fox, whose pristine Pennsylvania home lies downstream from property owned by everyday Americans who entered into the same devil’s bargain as those living above shale formations in Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico and several other states.
Before embarking on Gasland, Fox merely was interested in discovering the chemical makeup of the water that passed by his home. He thought he had found an ally in the Pennsylvania equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, but its funding was decimated by budget cuts. A little bit of research led him to people willing to share their stories on the record. (Others demanded anonymity or were prevented from commenting by confidentiality agreements.)
The energy crisis of the mid-1970s boasted the demand for domestically produced oil and natural gas exponentially. The U.S. is blessed with an abundance of natural gas, but it wasn’t until the introduction of hydraulic fracturing that it drilling became cost-effective. Tens of thousands of sites have since been added. When it became clear that fracking wasn’t as safe as earlier thought, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for exemptions in existing legislation that would safeguard energy companies – including his former employer, Halliburton – from harsh penalties for pollution and disclosure of chemicals used in the process.
Until the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the explosion on a BP oil rig, relatively few Americans concerned themselves with the dangers of drilling. Chevron is still trying to neutralize the bad press associated with the findings in Joe Berlinger’s not dissimilar film, Crude, which grossed slightly more than $170,000, or roughly the same amount spent by the company’s lawyers on their courtroom wardrobes. (By contrast, An Inconvenient Truth brought in nearly $24 million at the domestic box office.)
If the truth didn’t hurt so badly, the companies probably would ignore such a commercially insignificant film. In 2000, Erin Brockovich grossed $125 million in the U.S. If Fox was as attractive as Julia Roberts and as politically connected as Al Gore, the message of Gasland would already have been delivered to President Obama. Making the final cut in Academy Awards’ documentary category would be a start, though.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Like Gasland, Exit Through the Gift Shop has already made the short list of 15 feature-length documentaries that will be considered for Academy Award nominations. Its message isn’t nearly as unsettling.
In fact, Gift Shop is a lot of fun to watch. Directed by the British artist/provocateur Banksy, it chronicles the evolution of street art from the decline of the graffiti craze to the acceptance of highly imaginative stenciling by collectors and curators. Banksy accomplished this by focusing on Thierry Guetta, who, after being given a hand-held camera, began filming everything and everyone with whom he came in contact.
Based in Los Angeles, the French-born purveyor of admittedly overpriced vintage clothing caught the street-art bug while on a trip to Paris, where he followed around his cousin, Space Invader, as he affixed mosaics inspired by video-game icons to walls throughout the city. Once back in SoCal, Guetta was able to hang out with Shepard Fairey, whose glowering images of wrestler André the Giant, over the word “Obey,” could be found on walls and utility poles throughout L.A.
Through Fairey, Guetta met the mysterious Banksy, who’s only been photographed in shadow, shrouded in a brown hoodie. Banksy’s art is fanciful, message-driven, undeniably artistic and increasingly valuable. Unlike the work of muralists in L.A., Banksy’s large-scale stencils are preserved behind clear-plastic shields in some British cities.
It is at this point in the narrative that some viewers will detect the presence of someone pulling their leg. Banksy encourages Guetta to put down his camera and produce art of his own. Later, he convinces Guetta – who now goes by the name, Mr. Brainwash – to mount an exhibition of his work. The show, “Life Is Beautiful,” may have been born in artistic chaos, but it proved to be a huge success in the L.A. hipster community.
In turn, Mr. Brainwash’s pieces began selling for astonishing amounts of money. Upon the release of Gift Shop, many in the art community openly questioned whether Guetta produced the work – which is quite appealing –or it was done by Banksy, Fairey and other street artists, and exhibited as a test of the gullibility of collectors. To my eyes, it doesn’t matter.
The notion that collectors can be conned into buying art that’s cynically conceived or forged is hardly news. Neither is it earth-shaking to learn of the fickleness of critics and herd mentality of audiences. Those who no longer waste time splitting the difference between vandalism and art won’t care if Gift Shop is on the level or an elaborate prank that can stand on its own merits as performance art. The only ones who could be hurt by such tomfoolery are those who bought the hype and will never benefit from their investments. Tough bananas, as Andy Warhol might have noted.
The DVD arrives with deleted scenes, a featurette on an exhibit staged in an abandoned London train tunnel and a version of Guetta’s mash-up movie, Life Is Beautiful, which has been abbreviated for legal reasons.
There are wars of the head and wars of the heart. In Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s highly challenging and distinctly European story, characters come together and separate with the same dramatic impact as nuclear fusion and fission. An academically revered parent’s death brings together a daughter and adoptive step-brother, who, in the man’s lifeless presence, behave more like long-lost lovers than grieving siblings. The siblings agreed to travel together to Israel, where he’s assigned the task of disengaging Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza, and she will reunite with the daughter she gave up as a teenager.
Juliet Binoche plays Ana, the flighty French Jew who appears to be relieved by the death of her father, at least until his lawyer reveals a secret that shakes her to her core. Dashing Liron Levo plays the brother, an Israeli policeman who can’t tolerate the forces tearing apart his country, but does what he’s told, anyway. The orphaned girl (Dana Ivgy) finds peace in her estranged mother’s arms, just as the only world she’s known is torn apart by her own people. If Disengagement isn’t the most forgiving movie you’ll ever see, it benefits from the kind of surprises that separate European movies from those made in Hollywood.
Life in Flight
I know what you’re thinking: when was the last I saw a good movie about the plight of gainfully employed Manhattan yuppies stuck in bad marriages? Life in Flight in no way qualifies as a good movie, but it recalls an era when insufferably self-centered men and women turned to Gordon Gekko for moral guidance and the people in Michelob commercials dictated popular taste. Freshman writer/director Tracey Hecht inserts contemporary characters into the same vapid environment.
Handsome Patrick Wilson plays an up-and-coming architect – the preferred occupation of modern yuppies – known for turning dilapidated warehouses into multi-use properties that combine office and retail space, with residential units.
By all outward appearances, Will is living an ideal life: his wife (Amy Smart) is intelligent and pretty, his son is bright and popular, his business is booming. It isn’t until he meets a gorgeous young designer with flaming-red hair (Lynn Collins) that he begins to question his lifestyle choices. At a telling impasse, Kate asks Will if he ever takes the time to watch the lovely white birds perform aerial balletics above the pier he’s developing in Brooklyn. No, he answers. Henceforth, though, he’ll recall Kate’s sensitivity every time his wife badgers him about finalizing plans for a merger that will seal his financial fate for years to come.
Unfortunately, for Will, the redhead has no intention of playing the home-wrecker role in this urban melodrama and, anyway, she’s headed reluctantly for Los Angeles, where a new job awaits her. You probably can guess the rest. There’s nothing wrong with Hecht’s direction of Life in Flight. It’s her screenplay that’s hopelessly irrelevant in the current economic climate.
Mother and Child: Blue-ray
Any movie that stars Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Cherry Jones, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, David Morse, S. Epatha Merkerson and Amy Brenneman ought not to have had its commercial fate decided in a small handful of theaters.
Said movie was written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose credits include several episodes of HBO’s In Treatment, Six Feet Under and Carnivale, and the films Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives. And, yes, it was accorded good-to-excellent reviews by influential critics in major publications. Despite all that, the frequently heart-breaking Mother and Child disappeared from public view rather quickly. Why?
I have to think Garcia’s decision not to sweeten the many bitter moments in his film with more uplifting anecdotes about the adoption experience complicated things for investors, who too quickly dumped it into the DVD marketplace. With only a couple of exemptions, the characters in Mother and Child aren’t easy to like. The threads of their individual stories are woven into an intricately designed tapestry, which left little room for sunny counterbalance. Instead, the movie focuses on the long-term anxiety felt by some mothers who choose to give up their baby at birth, as well as the natural longing and curiosity of adopted children.
Discovery opens both parties up to the possibility they’ll be greeted with great happiness and relief, or great pain and disappointment. These are the dilemmas faced by the people we meet here.
We watch in dismay, too, as perfectly matched candidates for parenthood are grilled by an officious teen as to their worthiness to raise her child. She goes so far as to demand to name the baby, who she hopes to forget as soon as the umbilical cord binding them is cut.
Clearly, the distributors lost faith in the ability of American audiences to accept such a difficult film on its own merits and simply enjoy the stellar performances of actors they’d loved in other pictures. Neither did they think casual viewers would have the patience to give the characters time to evolve into better people. Indeed, there were plenty of times when I wondered why I should care about characters whose bitterness and anger might not be alleviated until the film’s climax, if then.
There are performances in Mother and Child that deserve awards consideration, but won’t because of its disappearance from Hollywood’s radar screens. If any of the aforementioned qualities sound appealing to you, give Garcia’s movie a chance to win your approval. The DVD adds deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews and the featurette, “Creating the Family Tree.”
The Last International Playboy
A Complete History of My Sexual Failures
As adult-male fairytales go, The Last International Playboy is no less plausible than your average Maxim article or episode of Three and a Half Men. The protagonist is an unusually fortunate novelist (Jason Behr), whose success and good looks have combined to make him one of the most eligible bachelors in New York, equal parts boy-toy and boyfriend. As such, Jack Frost has his pick of fashion models and other beautiful young things, who don’t mind at all that he’s a profligate lover and party animal. They get to play in his penthouse apartment and share his bed when the mood suits. If he were 60 years older, Jack would be Hugh Hefner. Moreover, he seems perfectly happy with the arrangement. That is, until he learns that his childhood girlfriend (and his editor) is getting married to a man considerably more likely to stay home at night and diaper the babies.
The news puts Jack in a deep existential funk. It’s not that the woman, Carolina (Monet Mazur), is infinitely more beautiful and cerebral than the models in his company, because she’s not. It’s just that Caroline reminds him of something good and meaningful in his past … something’s he’s yet to duplicate as an adult, despite his unqualified success. Is that sufficient cause for depression? Tens of thousands of Esquire and Playboy readers would say, no, I’d wager. That’s a pretty deep flaw in a movie that starts out so well as a possible re-shaping of “American Psycho.”
Given what men Jack’s age usually discover over time about icy blond career women in New York and L.A., there’s no reason for them to think Carolina would be any less self-absorbed than, say, Paris Hilton or the average Kardashian. On the other hand, women viewers could hold Jack’s dilemma up to their non-committal boyfriends as a parable for growing up and coming to one’s senses. In another fairytale touch, a charming 11-year-old neighbor, Sophie (India Ennenga), convinces Jack there’s still something in him worth saving. Krysten Ridder also does very well as the odd non-blond character – Ozzy, an unusually buoyant heroin addict and alcoholic – whose neediness becomes another thorn in Jack’s side.
In Chris Waitt’s autobiographical documentary, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, a dyed-in-the-wool British slacker uses the occasion of his latest dating catastrophe to re-examine his history of failed relationships. To this end, Waitt asks a couple dozen former girlfriends to explain his many shortcomings to him and his audience. Once viewers get a glimpse of his apartment, though, all such questions will instantly be answered. He’s a slob, whose mind is as cluttered as his shelves and untidy as the floor and towel racks in his bathroom. It’s likely Waitt isn’t nearly as dim-witted as appears to be in the movie. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have captured the heart of a perfectly charming and obviously intelligent Russian journalist, who he meets not-so-cute one day after overdosing on Viagra.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle
I’ve seen a lot of offbeat independent movies since I began reviewing DVDs seven years ago. Some are quirky merely for the sake of being noticed, while others reflect the filmmakers’ quirky personality, if not outright dementia. The title, Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, doesn’t begin to describe how strange and inventive Seattle artist David Russo’s freshman feature truly is.
After being fired from a high-paying gig, Dory (Marshall Allman) is in desperate need of a job. Ultimately, he takes the only job open to him in this depressed economy: clean the offices, kitchens and bathrooms in a Seattle high-rise. Dory’s crew is comprised of fellow screw-ups, whose primary mission in life apparently is to invent new shortcuts, so they can spend even more time getting high, having sex and rummaging through the drawers of executives.
One night, Dory finds a cookie wrapped in cellophane in the garbage bin of a company’s kitchen. It tastes awful, but what’s worse is that he’s caught doing it by a young woman working late in the office. She dismisses his fear of being busted, but his curiosity has been whetted. Coincidentally, a co-worker finds an invitation to a focus group being staged by the same company. Panelists are asked to sample several cookie tastes, ranging from pleasant to inedible. The janitors find other bags full of cookies in the trash, which, for a pot head, is like striking the mother lode in a mountain full of gold.
Soon, however, the crew members are struck with lingering flu-like conditions, as well as the occasional hallucination. At the same time, spectacularly horrific messes are showing up in toilets scattered throughout the building. Because of the bright blue color of these outrages, one of the janitors, an avant-garde artist, labels them “blue-outs” and uses the camera on his cellphone to document the events. While cleaning up after a blue-out, Dory thinks he sees a blue creature hopping like a frog into a drain. Dory can’t decide if he’s seeing something real or his flu-weakened mind has conjured a bizarre hallucination.
Without giving away the gag, I can say that the creature isn’t a hallucination. It’s the very real manifestation of undigested cookie dough that’s been chemically altered by an unscrupulous corporation. If the janitors’ symptoms resemble those associated with morning sickness … well, you get the picture. Like I said, Little Dizzle is one seriously twisted movie. Unlike other horror films, though, less attention is paid to the creature – once revealed – than the evolution of the characters once they’ve figured out what happened to them.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to make a romantic comedy about a contemporary high school student who believes he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and dedicates his life to matching the Russian revolutionary’s dedication to the proletariat.
Today, Trotsky’s name is more likely to pop up as an “answer” on “Jeopardy!” than in a high school history class. More to the point of Jacob Tierney’s movie, though, young Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) – Trotsky’s real name was Lev Davidovitch Bronstein – is determined to capture the heart of a woman who fits the mold of his hero’s first wife, Aleksandra Sokolovskaya. Leon’s Alexandra is the 27-year-old daughter of Montreal’s most celebrated radical lawyer, who does nothing to encourage the politically precocious lad’s efforts to organize workers at his dad’s factory and fellow students at his public high school.
While Leon’s father (Saul Rubinek) waits for his son’s inherent reliance on bourgeois comforts to kick in, school administrators count on the student body’s apathy to dissuade the young Bolshevik from pursuing his radical goals. For her part, Alexandra (Emily Hampshire) does everything in her power to dissuade the 17-year-old geek from falling in love with her. It’s a clever twist to the familiar story of the outsider, who overcomes formidable social barriers to achieve his twin goals of love and acceptance. Made in Canada, where the histories of non-English-speaking countries are still taught, The Trotsky reminded me of Rushmore, Charlie Bartlett and Pump Up the Volume.
The exclamation point added to the title of this cute and imaginative family comedy may not be enough to distinguish Nativity! from a zillion other Christmas-themed titles in the DVD catalogues, but it’s a start. Martin Freeman plays elementary teacher Paul Maddens, who’s not only agreed to mount the school’s annual nativity pageant, but also accepted a friend’s challenge to compete against students from the local private school for the best review in the local paper.
To inspire his charges, Maddens makes the mistake of promising them something he can’t possibly deliver: an audition with Hollywood producers. The kids take the bait, of course, and perform up to and beyond his wildest expectations. They even agree to go to mat with him when school officials discover his innocent deception and threaten to shut down the production.
Maddens also hopes to lure his ex-girlfriend back to Coventry, from the swell job he thinks she has in Tinsel Town, to see what a good boy he’s become. Nativity! is remarkably free of Christmas-pageant clichés and forced seasonal inspiration. The kids are terrific actors, as well as better-than-average singers and dancers. In fact, what Nativity! resembles most is a primary-school version of Glee. I was taken completely by surprise by it. Freeman and writer/director Debbie Isitt had previously collaborated on Confetti, about a similarly wacky competition among couples hoping to be rewarded for staging the most outrageous wedding. It’s also a hoot.
There are few good reasons for fans of torture-porn to pick up a copy of Darryn Welch’s psycho-thriller: the Costa del Sol setting, a decent techno soundtrack and the extremely hot women being held captive on a floating brothel by a sadistic white-slaver. Otherwise, it’s a rather anemic affair. The exquisite Natassia Malthe plays Georgie, an American beauty engaged to the son of a Spanish criminal, David (the equally exquisite Sam Page).
Within hours of their arrival at dad’s sun-baked villa, Georgie is drugged and kidnapped from a local nightclub. It takes a while for David to hear about filthy rich sociopath known as the White Arab (David Gant), who lives on his yacht and accumulates hot babes at various ports of call. All of the locals either are scared to death of the guy or are on his payroll. Against all odds, David meets the only other man in town with the courage to confront the robed freak. This fellow’s sister also has become the property of the White Sheik, but, unlike Georgie, she’s not in any hurry to be rescued. Naturally, David’s father is somehow involved in the kidnapping, but to what extent isn’t clear. From here on in, everything is a blur.
Dear Mr. Gacy: Blu-ray
America’s fascination with serial killers and other savages is legend. Novels, movies and television shows based on their atrocities have become an industry onto themselves. Indeed, several cable networks run nothing but true-crime shows. Dear Mr. Gacyis a surprisingly compelling film about an 18-year-old college student, Jason Moss, who thought it would be cool to get inside the head of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and extract clues to his personality missed by police investigators.
Moss intends on using the material he gathers for a research project. Ultimately, the student’s hubris leads him to places no one wants to go. Before making contact with Gacy, who already was a prisoner on Death Row, Moss decides he’ll approach the killer as a potential friend and masturbatory fantasy. He even sends beefcake photos to the man who killed at least 33 teenage boys and young men, most tortured and sodomized before being strangled and buried in the crawlspace of his Chicago home. After Moss passes all of Gacy’s tests, they became long-distance confidantes. Before long, the student learns several of the killer’s secrets and is encouraged to replicate his hunt for potential victims.
Canadian actor Jesse Moss (no relation to the writer) plays the student with all the wide-eyed naiveté one would expect from someone who considers his methodology to somehow be sounder than that employed by law-enforcement personnel. Gacy is portrayed by that fine character actor, William Forsythe, who delivers an award-worthy performance as the master manipulator. Moss’ descent into his own personal hell – prompted by Gacy’s tortuous prodding – is a frightening thing to watch. Without Forsythe’s name on the box, I probably would have passed on the opportunity to relive the Gacy story. His and Moss’ powerful performances made the trip palatable, at least.
Schoolgirl Report 7: What The Heart Must Thereby…
Admirers of highly stylized Italian erotica will want to sample “
Scandalous Gilda, a film that recalls the elegant look of Tinto Brass’ soft-core work, if not his cheeky storylines. The physically impressive Monica Guerritore plays the title character, a wealthy socialite who embarks on a journey of sexual discovery after she finds her husband in bed with another woman. Along the way, she teams with an opera-singing cartoonist who encourages his new friend to test the waters of perversion.
If nothing else, it provides an excuse for writer/director/co-star Gabriele Lavia to add a naughty animated sequence to the mix. If only for its lush look and absence of leering pervs, Scandalous Gilda qualifies as “couples-friendly.” Couples unacquainted with S&M and public-humiliation fantasies, though, probably should start out with such soft-core classics as The Story of O” and “The Story of Joanna,” or, from more mainstream channels, Secretary and Belle de Jour.
From the archives of German erotica comes the practically prehistoric sexploitation series, “]Schoolgirl Report. Released throughout the 1970s, in the long wake of the sensation caused by I Am Curious: Yellow, its pseudo-documentary format allowed the producers to claim they merely were dramatizing the results of research into the sexual proclivities of teen- and college-age girls.
As such, these films could be used by educators and psychologists facing the undeniably randy behavior of German youth (and, not so coincidentally, the country’s dirty old men) in their schools, churches and social institutions. Of course, the sheer number of naked young women – along with the dubious settings for these educational trysts – revealed the filmmakers’ true intentions. “What the Heart Must Thereby …” is no different. Here, schoolgirls pad their allowances by servicing older men in a notorious brothel. The nice thing about porn made in the early years of the sexual revolution was that, more often than not, the participants clearly enjoyed what they were doing and hang-ups were in the eye of the beholder. Experimentation was encouraged and romance was optional.
Honeymooners Christmas Special
Happy Anniversary & Goodbye/What Now, Catherine Curtis?
I often marvel at the ability of 50- and 60-year-old television shows to produce belly laughs in contemporary viewers. It’s the rare network sitcom that can raise as much as a chuckle in me, today. Even the reunion retreads from a half-century ago aren’t bad.
Jackie Gleason organized a pair of Christmas specials in the late-1970s, in color, with Jean Kean standing in for Joyce Randolph, in the role of Trixie. The newly released DVD describes what happens when Ralph concocts a scheme to make a million dollars in the National Lottery. A fortune teller tells him the numbers to pick and, by his calculations, he can easily afford to buy a $1,200 worth of tickets … if he invests Norton’s Christmas bonus and his father-in-law’s Social Security check. In Ralph’s mind, it’s a mortal lock. The actors may be closer to retirement here, than their honeymoons, but, in an aside, Alice’s mother (Eileen Heckart) still wonders when Ralph will get around to impregnating his wife. (Good question, that.) The script is filled with then-contemporary references, as if the color images weren’t enough to differentiate the 1978 show (taped in the newly revived Atlantic City) from the originals. The interplay between the characters is nearly as fresh as it was in the mid-‘50s, though. I would have preferred to find both 48-minute specials in the same package, but, even at Christmas, you can’t have everything
Art Carney also appears in both entries of the The Lucille Ball Specials double-feature, Happy Anniversary & Goodbye” (1974) and “What Now, Catherine Curtis?” (1976). Lucy, herself, is in her mid-60s, and the characters she plays here are dealing with such dilemmas as divorce and re-marriage. In “Anniversary,” Ball and Carney play a couple whose 25th anniversary could be their last. On a trip to Las Vegas, Lucy encounters a masseur played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his television debut. It also features Peter Marshall and Nanette Fabray.
The three-part “Catherine Curtis” feels like a more personal production than most of Ball’s other work, in that her character discusses what it’s like to be divorced after 23 years of marriage and back in the dating game. In the second act, she’s about to begin seeing a widowed carpenter, played by Carney. In the third segment, Catherine has fallen in love with a man more than a dozen years her junior. Joseph Bologna plays the new guy in her life. – Gary Dretzka
Home by Christmas
Recipe for a Perfect Christmas
Prayers for Bobby
Army Wives: Complete Fourth Season
Seasonally themed made-for-TV movies have pretty much filled the vacuum left behind, after the broadcast networks stopped investing in variety specials. Actually, there aren’t all that many made-for-TV movies on the air, either. Lifetime has kept the tradition alive with movies featuring recognizable stars and stories adapted from popular books and topical subjects. Christmas is an especially fruitful season for the cable network.
Recently released DVD titles includes Holiday Switch, a modern twist on C, starring Nicole Eggert and Bret Anthony. In “Home by Christmas,” Linda Hamilton plays a woman who is left with nothing after divorcing a husband who cheated on her, then hid assets in the settlement. Carly Pope, Christine Baranski and Bobby Cannavale star in “Recipe for a Perfect Christmas,” in which a busy food critic sets her mom up with a handsome young chef. It’s a decision that comes back to haunt her.
Prayers for Bobby is the heart-wrenching, fact-based story of a conservative Christian woman (Sigourney Weaver) who turns her back on her son, Bobby (Ryan Kelley), when he comes out of the closet. Instead of accepting Bobby’s lifestyle, Mary Griffith attempts to “cure” him. Her intolerance causes Bobby to leave home and face his growing depression alone. After he commits suicide, Mary commits her energy to gay-rights activism.
Four years ago, Lifetime departed from previous form with the dramatic family series, “Army Wives.” It follows the lives of four people – three women and a man – married to soldiers and living in a town whose primary industry is the Army. In the fourth season, the characters were required to deal with traumas associated with unexpected deployments and pregnancies, promotions and transfers, and the desire to find rewarding work away from military. The DVD set includes deleted scenes; bloopers, outtakes and gags; and the featurettes, “Safety First: From Script to Screen” and “Southern Cooking Army Wives Style.” – Gary Dretzka
2010 San Francisco Giants: The Official World Series Film
Sending World Series recaps, such as this new Shout! Factory release, to the Yankee fans on your Christmas list is the American equivalent of bringing coal to Newcastle. Giving 2010 San Francisco Giants: The Official World Series Film to a Bay Area friend could, however, make you the hero of their holiday season. The Giants, one of the Major Leagues’ most venerable franchises, have won a grand total of six World Series championships, compared with the Yankees’ 27 world titles. T
hey beat the favored Texas Rangers four games to one in a series that was dominated by great pitching and exciting plays. The Blu-ray re-creation of the event could be the closest the average Giants fan could come to actually being there. Tickets were scarce, after all, and prohibitively expensive. Besides complete-game coverage of all the World Series games, the hi-def package includes interviews, material shot before and after the games, special features on the team and city, and other background material. Other bonuses are the “This Week in Baseball” chapter on Buster Posey; highlights from the National League Divisional and Championship Series; and victory-parade coverage. – Gary Dretzka