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Reviews: April 1

1 Apr, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Natural: Director's Cut
Street 4/3
Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.94 two-DVD set, NR.
Stars Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Don Baker, Michael Madsen.

This 1984 classic is highly regarded more for five or so isolated scenes of inspirational brilliance than for its quality as a whole, though it is still fantastic entertainment and is usually credited with revitalizing the “baseball movie” as a viable genre.

One can't help but take delight in seeing Roy Hobbs (Redford) strike out The Whammer, or smash a clock with a prodigious home run, all while Randy Newman's iconic musical score swells in the background.

The director's cut begins with a nice sequence of the older Hobbs returning home to retrieve his mythic bat, Wonderboy, then thinking back to his childhood before joining the fictional New York Knights.

Director Barry Levinson says this DVD version is closer to the original intent for the film's structure, which he ran out of time to set up. He says he added 20 minutes back, but the new version is only six minutes longer, which means a lot of original footage has been excised.

It's still a film about overcoming temptation to achieve greatness, and presenting the first act more explicitly as Hobbs' memories reinforces the notion of a man trying to reclaim his dreams of youth. The additions are good, but the brisk early pace makes the film feel a little less epic.

It would have been nice for this new DVD to include a gallery of all the footage that was cut from the original. Without that, there's no real incentive for fans to toss out that first DVD.

What fans will like most about this new DVD are the terrific behind-the-scenes documentaries, which detail the making of the movie and examine some real-life inspirations for the story and characters.

The upbeat finale has become so legendary that many people might not realize that in Bernard Malamud's original novel, Hobbs loses the final game and is portrayed as a victim of failing to learn from his suffering.

Only in Hollywood could such a dark fable be transformed into an American fairy tale. John Latchem

The Dead Girl
Prebook 4/10; Street 5/15
First Look, Drama, B.O. $0.02 million, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity.
Stars Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Steenburgen, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Kerry Washington, Nick Searcy, Giovanni Ribisi, Bruce Davison, James Franco.

In death, the very existence of even the most insignificant of us can have a profound impact. That's the premise of The Dead Girl, an engaging character study written and directed by Karen Moncrieff.

The film consists of five vignettes about women struggling to cope with personal adversities, setting the stage for an acting clinic in the vein of Crash or 21 Grams. The stories are linked by the body of a young murder victim, Krista.

Collette plays the shy, repressed woman who discovers the body in a field. Her abusive mother berates her for setting off a media sensation, so she takes solace in the arms of a local stock boy (Ribisi).

In the second story, a morgue worker (Byrne) thinks the body may be her sister, whose disappearance 15 years earlier devastated her family. Byrne gives a solid performance, peeling through layers of strength and depression as she tries to compel her family to move on from their shared tragedy.

The third story focuses on a lonely wife (Hurt) who doesn't know how to cope after finding evidence that links her husband (Searcy) to several murders.

This is followed by the story of Melora (Harden), Krista's mother. To learn more about Krista, Melora befriends Krista's roommate (Washington). The women were turning tricks out of a dive hotel, but it turns out Krista had a daughter of her own, which gives Melora some measure of hope. The revelation here is Washington, who so transforms into the prostitute Rosetta that she is hardly recognizable at first.

Finally, we see Krista's last day, and her attempts to make it to a foster home to celebrate her daughter's birthday. Murphy gets grimey to play Krista, but projects a youthful soul straining to emerge from the dredges of her reality. But, she just can't get past the fact that she's Brittany Murphy, with her raspy voice, frenetic movements and buggy eyes that just don't quit.

The film was nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards and won best screenplay from the San Diego Film Critics Society. With its powerhouse cast, it's surprising it didn't get a wider theatrical release. John Latchem

Street 4/24
ThinkFilm, Action, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for pervasive strong language including graphic sexual references, violence, sexuality and some drug use.
Stars Milla Jovovich, Angus Macfadyen, Stephen Dorff, Aisha Tyler.

Like the ballistic caliber in the title of the film, .45 blasts onto the screen with such brutal power and energy that, like the gaping hole of an exit wound, it refuses to go unnoticed.

Writer-director Gary Lennon was responsible for the Alcoholics Anonymous drama Drunks, and, like that film, .45 is a showcase for great acting, an opportunity for a talented cast to throw themselves headfirst into meaty roles and an intense scenario with wildly successful results.

Less a conventional three-act narrative and more a stream of consciousness drama interrupted by documentary-style segments in which each of the characters addresses the audience, the film engages immediately and speeds along at a rapid clip, drawing the viewer into the gritty, booze-soaked and nicotine-stained world of its characters.

Jovovich, in a tough-girl role not unfamiliar to audiences who know her from the “Resident Evil” films, gets a rare chance to show off her surprisingly remarkable dramatic chops as Kat, a tough-as-nails, street-smart neo-gangster's moll desperate to break away and flee the gritty mean streets of her New York neighborhood. She wants to settle down at the Jersey shore, but is hopelessly devoted to Big Al (Macfayden, of Braveheart and Saw III), the low-rent local crime lord.

When Al's explosive temper turns on Kat and results in a savage beating, she needs to re-assess her domestic arrangement with the encouragement of her lesbian friend Vic (Sarah Strange), Al's right-hand man Riley (Dorff) and her social worker (Tyler), all of whom have their own reasons to get away from Al.

The cast has ample opportunities to shine, and none of them disappoint. The movie is full of cursing, smoking and actors “dressing down” to play their intense, desperate characters. — David Greenberg

A Way of Life
Street 4/10
BFS, Drama, $24.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Brenda Blethyn, Stephanie James.

For all the films that may be readily subsumed under its rubric, there should rightly be a genre known as “The Kids Are Running Amok.” From Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados to Larry Clark's Kids, there are myriad variations on the theme, ranging from strident social critique (as in the case of the former) to lurid, bordering-on-the-perverse fascination/exploitation (as is the case of the latter).

Amma Asante's A Way of Life fits squarely into this canon. Its unvarnished depiction of profligate Welsh teenagers doesn't contribute anything new to the genre per se, but is earnest enough that most viewers likely will not notice or quibble about its relative sameness.

The narrative revolves around Leigh-Anne Williams, a shiftless, unemployed single mother barely scraping by on government assistance. Despite the precariousness of her position, she refuses help from her mother-in-law, and allows her brother and his ne'er-do-well friends free run of her poorly maintained home.

Things take a turn for the worse when Leigh-Anne's baby suffers an accidental burn. Suspicious doctors insist the child remain in their custody.

Distraught and paranoid, Leigh-Anne is convinced her neighbor is to blame, and exacts a bloody reprisal that predictably ends in tragedy.

The tedium of Leigh-Anne's workaday life, the constant uphill battle she wages just to keep her baby fed, her lights on and her food refrigerated is explored in convincing, grimy detail. Leigh-Anne is not, however, anything in the way of a sympathetic protagonist, which in the final analysis makes the picture less of a call to arms than a rote object lesson. Nevertheless, it's still much more Olvidados than Kids.

Winner of numerous BAFTA awards, A Way of Life also features an admirably restrained score by pop musician David Gray. — Eddie Mullins

Jump In!
Street 4/3
BV/Disney, Family, $26.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Corbin Bleu, Keke Palmer, David Reivers, Shanica Knowles, Patrick Johnson Jr.

Score another winner for Disney's hit machine. This Disney Channel Original Movie is fun and hip, building on the successes of The Cheetah Girls and High School Musical. It does for jump-roping what Bring It On did for cheerleading.

Up-and-coming star Bleu brings a trademark smirk to the role of Izzy, who is trying to appease his dad by taking up boxing, but his heart really isn't in it. His sister drags him to a double-dutch competition, and he is fascinated, especially since the cute girl next door, Mary (Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee), is on one of the teams.

Izzy has the style and flair to handle himself in the ropes, but is too much of a guy to admit to liking double-dutch. He's busy fending off rival boxer Rodney (Johnson), who prances around like a young Clubber Lang.

The boxing scenes could use some more oomph, and the film engages in its share of typical high-school hijinx, but it has a lot of heart.

Mary pouts just enough to convince Izzy to bring his moves to her double-dutch team, and he learns the values of honesty and staying true to oneself.

The movie has an urban flair and a broad appeal to almost all demographics: kids and adults, boys and girls. It garnered high ratings when it aired in January, and the DVD looks to do equally well.

The “Freestyle Edition” DVD includes a music video, a making-of featurette and “Learning the Moves,” in which Bleu shows off some of the basics of double-dutch. John Latchem

Illegal Aliens
Prebook 4/3; Street 5/1
MTI, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Anna Nicole Smith, Joanie Laurer, Lenise Sor?n, Gladise Jimenez.

Anna Nicole Smith was really an alien? That would explain a lot. It's just one of a handful of nuggets from Illegal Aliens, a wannabe cult classic ‘B'-movie sci-fi spoof thrown into the media circus surrounding Anna Nicole Smith's recent death.

The plot has something to do with three extraterrestrial agents being sent to protect Earth from galactic threats. The aliens take the form of hot chicks and live normal lives until given a mission by their holographic advisor. Think Charlie's Angels meets Men in Black.

Anna Nicole, in her final film, plays Lucy, one of the three agents, who acts like a 6-year-old with special needs. The running gag is that Lucy is posing as Anna Nicole, complete with reality show. Just so she isn't totally useless, Lucy can transform into any object, such as a car or helicopter.

The agents soon are attacked by an evil alien posing as former-wrestler-turned-bad-actress Laurer (aka Chyna). The big bad wants to build a gravity beam to cause the Moon to collide with the Earth, thus making room for an alien planet to be moved from around its dying star to our sun.

Most of the plot is explained by Chyna as the “Super Villian [sic] Monologue Timer” pops up to record the moment for posterity.

There's more than enough to nitpick here, but that's not the point. Illegal Aliens is one of those movies that knows it's insanely stupid, makes no attempt to rise above that and achieves its goal. The movie isn't even remotely interested in quality … just cheap laughs. But it's all in fun.

After about an hour, Anna Nicole breaks character to complain about how dumb the movie is, forcing the director to negotiate with her. It steamrolls from there. “Well it's obvious this film has gone to hell,” one character remarks. No kidding.

The strange thing is, once the movie quits trying to be straight parody and starts poking fun at itself, it's actually funny. It just might achieve cult status yet. John Latchem

Death of a President
Street 4/3
Lionsgate, Thriller, B.O. $0.5 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for brief violent images.

I'm a political junkie who counts among his proudest possessions first editions of all four installments in Theodore White's “Making of the President” series. I collected presidential campaign buttons as a kid and spent hours exploring the grassy knoll in Dallas.

So perhaps I am colored when I say Death of a President, the controversial faux-documentary about a future assassination of President George W. Bush, is the best movie I have seen all year, and one that I watched twice, back to back, in the same evening.

It's an artful political thriller about an angry mob of protesters storming the presidential motorcade during a Chicago visit in October 2007, a harrowing getaway, then a pleasant speech before a group of civic leaders, and the actual assassination while the president is greeting supporters behind a rope line.

All that happens in the first third of the movie. The rest focuses on the hunt for the assassin, and a rush to judgment to peg Syria by a vengeful President Dick Cheney (a concept that, to me, was the film's single most frightening moment).

What makes the film so realistic is that both Bush and Cheney appear as themselves, courtesy of actual news footage skillfully blended into the film. Even Bush's head appears on the collapsing body moments after the fatal bullet is fired.

That's what really provoked the firestorm of controversy that surrounded the film during its brief theatrical run last fall. But to me, that's what makes this movie so real and gripping. It's almost like watching the Zapruder film all over again.

The method to all this wonderful madness is compellingly explained in commentaries and interviews with writer-director Gabriel Range and some of the other filmmakers, but I wish there would have been a lot more special features.

The assassination of a president is a rare event, and it would have been nice to include featurettes on the four successful presidential assassinations in American history — Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy — as well as the various other attempts on the lives of our chief executives. Thomas K. Arnold

Uncivil Liberties
Street 4/10
Ariztical, Thriller, $29.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Bandar Albuliwi, Yvonne Perry.

While the increase of global terrorism is nothing to applaud or encourage, it might be making a positive mark in the world of filmmaking.

Political thrillers or dramas are often a product of the international events surrounding the filmmakers. While it is easy to get swept up in the soap opera romance of Casablanca, the film was a very up-to-the-minute slice of the geopolitical pie — things happening to some of the characters were actually happening to real people as audiences watched the film.

Perhaps the most fertile period of time for the genre was in the late 1960s and mid-1970s — the Vietnam/Watergate era — when the climate produced such masterpieces as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Alan J. Pakula's double-whammy The Parallax View and All The President's Men.

More recently have been the timely Arlington Road and the even more up-to-date examinations of interconnected global cause and effect Syriana and Babel.

So, what a pleasant surprise it is to find a solid genre entry appear out of the blue with no fanfare, big stars or budget. UnCivil Liberties is so provocative, fascinating and engaging that it should inspire repeat viewing and some degree of word of mouth.

Set in the near future, the film contrasts the stories of a Homeland Security computer programmer and a hacker in an anti-government militia. Both characters remain faceless to each other for the most part as they go about their respective offensive and defensive routines.

Developments in both the government sector and the militia regiment soon cause both characters to question their mission, their philosophies and their futures.

Writer-director Tom Mercer's film is compelling and frightening because it takes no sides. The difference between the good guys and bad guys is blurred beyond recognition for the characters and for the viewers. — David Greenberg

In Debt We Trust
Prebook 4/6; Street 4/24
Disinformation, Documentary, $19.98 DVD, NR.

America is a nation that thrives on debt. We want what we want, and we want it now, regardless of whether we can actually afford it. Lucky for us there's no shortage of credit cards to help us out … for a price, of course.

Consumer credit drives our economy to the tune of trillions of dollars, but the Super Size Me-style documentary In Debt We Trust would argue credit card companies have simply legitimized the art of the loan shark — offering quick cash for high interest. One producer sums it up this way: “Credit cards went from a luxury to a convenience to a necessity to a noose.”

Just 10 banks dominate 92% of the industry, issuing 1.5 billion cards worldwide to 158 million cardholders. These companies often target na?ve college students, locking them into a long-term pattern of revolving debt.

Low-income urban communities also provide a tremendous source of wealth; it seems poor people are the most adamant about trying to pay off their debts. Even soldiers returning from overseas conflicts aren't immune.

Director Danny Schechter is fed up. He guides viewers through the debt landscape, and if just one viewer is shocked into breaking free from the cycle, he'll have done his job. These are ideas and observations people need to know.

Schechter interviews several people with experience in these matters, from former credit card executives to those forced into bankruptcy, including “Sopranos” actress Lorraine Bracco. Schechter intercuts the interviews with lively bits of animation that poke fun at the concept of credit card spending and the windfall of the credit card companies.

The documentary makes a case that creditors have bought and paid for politicians in Congress, so the most likely source of relief is at the state level.

David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, has been called “Dr. Gloom” for suggesting debt-reliant America is similar to ancient Rome just before its decline. This new serfdom, our ever-increasing reliance on debt, could be the next great crisis we face. It's a sobering thought. John Latchem

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