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New on DVD: 'Ponyo,' 'The September Issue' and more …

1 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

The September Issue

Lionsgate, Documentary, B.O. $3.8 million, $29.98 DVD, ‘PG-13’ for brief strong language.
This is the story of how the September 2007 issue of Vogue came to be, which was financially huge even by seasonal standards. Actress Sienna Miller is one of the issue’s major photographic subjects — the cover personality, in fact. Even she’s reduced to someone who is all but punching a time clock in a chronicle that in several ways gives a Devil her due.
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Alice in Wonderland

Street 3/2
Universal, Fantasy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Charlotte Henry, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields.
A strange movie even by “Alice” standards, it would be a stretch to call this version engaging a la Disney’s animated 1951 version. But it is carried to some extent by its innate weirdness and some captivating décor. This is very good print and a nice mastering job, by the way.
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Kitten With a Whip

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Peter Brown, Richard Anderson.
Some movies were just born from the get-go to attain followings – though, of course, this time, the title helps. Ann-Margret’s performance is so extreme that it ventures into camp-ville, yet the twisted star-power she brings to it is the one reason the movie has a trash-lover’s cult appeal.
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Street 3/2
Disney, Animated, B.O. $15.1 million, $29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Voices of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Frankie Jonas.

2009. The latest from revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) doesn’t bludgeon us with its environmental message, yet there’s one there in almost every frame — many jammed with enough artfully cluttered visual detail to drop socks all the way down to your beach clogs. While they’re being entertained — and they will be — kids will get the beneficial message that creeps who use the ocean as their private litter box deserve to be, say, booted into the same pit of wolves who munched out on Ernest Borgnine in The Vikings.

This story, however, has a much gentler tone. Sosuke is a 5-year-old boy who lives with his mom (cute when she’s angry and with the voice of Tina Fey) on a seaside cliff where the water licks the shore in arresting fashion that never fails to engage the imagination. Ponyo is a female goldfish, who, after the lad saves her from death, licks his cut finger in gratitude, tastes human blood for the first time and is thus somehow transformed into something close to a real girl.

This doesn’t set too well with her father (voice of Liam Neeson), a driven if generally agreeable one-man ecological police force who patrols the big drink in what looks like old Peter Max duds. He acts as if he has a lot of abrasive sand you-know-where when it comes to polluting humans, which creates significant tension when Sosuke (voice of kiddie Jonas Brother Frankie) and Ponyo (Mylie Cyrus’s younger sister Noah) start to become as much of an item as children this young can be.

A Cyrus connection here? The Jonas Brothers? Yes: the corporate benefactor of each — Disney — has taken Miyazaki’s original work and given it a borderline Goofy touch that simply adds to the movie’s strangeness (in generally a good way).  For this hand-drawn 2D venture, Mr. Pixar himself  — the great John Lasseter — signed on as executive producer. And the credited producers are Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (the 'A'-list continues), who like Lasseter, give forth with a few words on the disc’s meager extras.

By strangeness — some may rightly prefer to call it surreality — we mean the casting of American voices. Here, for instance, are the pipes of Betty White coming out of a resident’s mouth at the old folk’s home where Sosuke’s mother works — though, truth to tell, it’s probably no more weird than seeing Betty White get tackled on a football field in the now famous Snickers commercial from Super Bowl XLIV. But having Sosuke’s father being a “Koichi” who has Matt Damon’s very recognizable voice — well, you don’t get this everyday.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Street 3/2
Screen Media, Drama, B.O. $0.3 million, $27.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sexual content, brief nudity, some drug material and language.
Stars Robin Wright, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci.
2009. I can’t call this late-year limited release a normal “pick” because it’s the kind of maddening navel-gazer about miserable people that can sometimes give independent films a bad name. But occasionally, a project features enough well-known actors (see Alice in Wonderland above) to qualify as a curiosity. This one certainly goes a long way to consolidate the Screen Actor’s Guild directory: Watching it is like getting one of those annual Christmas letters that friends send out, jamming a year’s experiences onto a page.

Robin Wright, her Pippa character’s story told in flashback, is a wayward teen who married a much older literary figure (Alan Arkin) before even beginning to figure out what made herself tick. As we eventually see in the movie’s one real shocker scene, this necessitated Arkin ridding himself of an inconvenient wife played by Monica Belluci — and if you want to jettison someone with Belluci’s looks, you need to establish that the woman has a shortcoming or two in other departments. Whatever else writer/director Rebecca Miller does or doesn’t do, this one she pulls off.

Wright herself has gone from pure looker (The Princess Bride) to accomplished actress, and even when Miller’s script persists in spelling out every thought on her mind via maddening voiceover narration, you can’t fault her performance. The actress’s later scenes with Arkin — now aged but unable to face it that twilight is here even after he moves to a stagnant retirement home — are credible enough. But only when she crosses paths in a few scenes with another resident’s son (Keanu Reeves, if you can imagine him selling cigarettes in a convenience store) is there anything resembling narrative tension. By the way, if you think you’ve seen chest tattoos, the one Reeves sports here is practically in Imax.

Maria Bello plays Pippa’s speed-freak mother when Pippa is a child — a good idea given that the actress’s physical resemblance to Wright is well within the bounds of credibility, and we all know that Bello can do “harried.” "Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively plays Pippa as a young woman — which is not a good idea because the actresses don’t look enough alike for us to make the leap and because it’s harder to accept that Arkin’s character would have fallen for her as portrayed (not a problem in Wright's parts of the picture).

So who else? Julianne Moore shows up for a blink as a lesbian buddy of Pippa’s aunt; Winona Ryder is a perpetual dinner guest who takes a novel approach to suicide attempts; Steve Binder is one of Arkin’s writers; the recently ubiquitous Zoe Kazan is Pippa’s grown daughter; and Shirley Knight is Reeves’ in all way retro mother, whose character name is “Dot” and at one point actually says, “None of my beeswax.”

Lives has been praised in some circles for its literary qualities, but those who want to travel this road with an emotionally fraught inter-personal story would be better off looking or re-looking at 2006’s Little Children — perhaps the most horribly marketed (in theaters) great movie of the last quarter-century. But Wright is the real deal here, and the movie did get a 68% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which just goes to show how misleading even a must-read Web site can be.

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