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Reviews: April 22

22 Apr, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Night at the Museum

Night at the Museum
Street 4/24
Fox, Comedy, B.O. $249.3 million, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 two-DVD set, $39.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG' for mild action, language and brief rude humor. Stars Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Kim Raver, Paul Rudd, Mizuo Peck, Steve Coogan, Anne Meara.

The two-disc DVD of Night at the Museum seemingly throws in every possible bit of extra material related to the hit film.

Director Shawn Levy, known for family comedies such as the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes, bemuses the idea that he was chosen to direct such an effects-heavy film. Other than a few CG animals, Night at the Museum really isn't that much different. It's anchored by a story of a father trying to re-connect with his son, and engages its audience with the rich tapestry of history. Even the menus contribute by simulating a virtual museum tour.

The movie itself is a fun piece of fluff, like Jumanji meets Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure meets Mannequin. Each night, an ancient Egyptian tablet brings life to the exhibits at the New York Museum of Natural History, causing no end of problems for the new night watchman, played by Stiller. Van Dyke and Rooney are great as the retiring guards, and the DVD may be worth the price if only to see them beat up Stiller.

Levy says this is the film he is most proud of, primarily because the spirit of collaboration on set elevated the quality of the production in his eyes. Many of the jokes were improvised on the spot, in some cases necessitating the creation of new effects, much to the chagrin of the CG animators. Levy concludes the effects must serve story, character and comedy, and he isn't interested in just another light-show spectacle.

He conveys a lot of his filmmaking theories in an exhaustive commentary, as well as a Q&A about how he broke into the movie industry.

More fun is the commentary by screenwriters Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, who express astonishment that anyone is actually listening to them, then poke fun at the concept of special-edition DVDs. They joke about a wide range of topics, some of which actually relate to what's on screen. John Latchem

Fay Grim
Prebook 4/24; Street 5/22
Magnolia, Thriller, $29.98 DVD, ‘R' for language and some sexuality.
Stars Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Liam Aiken, Chuck Montgomery.

Writer-director Hal Hartley's Fay Grim is an exercise in intrigue that begins as a delightfully quirky story about a single mother and ends as an unsettling thriller.

Parker plays Fay, whose primary source of income with which to support her son are the royalty checks supplied by her poet brother, Simon Grim (Urbaniak), who is in prison for helping her husband, Henry Fool (Ryan), escape criminal prosecution.

Fay Grim is a sequel to Hartley's Henry Fool, a favorite at Cannes in 1998. The earlier film told the story of how the vulgar Henry met Fay and inspired the creativity of the intellectual Simon, who was working as a garbageman. While Simon became famous for his poetry, Henry had hoped to sell a series of journals, his so-called “confessions,” but Simon's publisher deemed them too awful to publish.

In the new installment, the publisher (Montgomery) tells Fay that despite how bad the journals were, their connection to Simon's incarceration has made them a hot commodity. Unfortunately, Henry took them when he escaped.

Also interested in the journals is a CIA agent (Goldblum), who tells Fay that Henry was some sort of spy and that his journals are a hotbed of coded international secrets. Treaty loopholes put her in a unique position to recover them. He sends her to Paris to retrieve two of the books, plunging her into a maze of lies and global espionage. In one twist on classic spy stories, three agents take turns stealing the journals from each other in a single staircase.

Henry's backstory gets more convoluted with each new character, and viewers may find themselves stopping the movie and re-watching certain scenes to sort it all out.

Hartley creates an ambiance of personality with emotionally detached characters who speak with an entrancing cadence. Goldblum has made a career of such roles. Crooked camera angels convey a sense of disorientation as the characters connect the dots, but ultimately the details are not important. We're just along for the ride. Another sequel is probably a given.

Fay Grim has been tapped for superrelease, with a limited theatrical run starting May 18. John Latchem

Old Joy
Street 5/1
Kino, Drama, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Will Oldham, Daniel London.

A languid, elegiac, and at times lyrical pas de deux, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy is so antithetical to other so-called American “indie” films that it single-handedly rescues the very term from its empty, present-tense connotation (“Hollywood on the cheap”) and restores it to its original, now-obsolete meaning (denoting a unique vision, for whatever reason incompatible with contemporary mainstream ideology).

The story is so slight and narratively unspectacular it could have been written on the back of a postage stamp. Two longtime friends, both somewhere in the vicinity of 30, go on a camping trip to a hot springs in Oregon. Mark (London) is a stable, if humdrum, father-to-be with modest expectations from life. Kurt (Oldham) is a frustrated post-hippie whose rootless, vagabondish lifestyle has left him increasingly isolated socially. Their divergent choices have gradually engendered a rift between them.

Over the course of their trip, the two do little more than talk, but it is what goes unsaid that Old Joy is really about. The film is constructed so as to deliberately frustrate the knee-jerk expectation that they will, at length, definitively confront the issue of their diminishing friendship. Almost every scene feels pregnant with the possibility of a resolution that never arrives.

Steeped, as it is, in both figurative and literal silences, the landscape of Old Joy comes to play just as much of a role as its two protagonists. Peter Sillen's camerawork makes much of the lush, cloud-covered mountains to which Mark and Kurt retreat. Beautifully photographed, but not unnecessarily idealized, the Cascades function as a sort of equalizing milieu, an ersatz Eden which, in part, temporarily erases the more superficial dimensions of the pair's differences. Predictably, it is their return to the city that amplifies the same.

All told, Old Joy is something on the order of a cinematic haiku, a lean and lyrical stab at a particular mood that is never fully elaborated, but rather encourages broad and intuitive participation. The fact of its having achieved modest arthouse success offers sustained hope for the future of independent film and its audiences. — Eddie Mullins

Dark Corners
Prebook 4/25; Street 5/22
Starz/Union Station, Thriller, $26.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Thora Birch, Christien Anholt, Toby Stephens.

Reminiscent of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, writer-director Ray Gower's debut Dark Corners is a style-rich, atmospheric nightmare of a psychological puzzle.

The production gets more than its money's worth out of Thora Birch's dual performance as two different women — or does one of them not even exist? With two equally creepy and mysterious storylines gradually intertwining, the film hooks the viewer in quickly and engages effectively, demanding consideration of the questions it presents.

Birch, woefully underused since her one-two punch of American Beauty and Ghost World, really does good work here as Karen Clark and Susan Hamilton, one a happily married suburban housewife undergoing fertilization therapy in a desperate attempt to finally get pregnant, and the other a disturbed mortuary assistant at a disturbing mortuary.

As her therapy progresses, Susan has increasingly vivid and horrifying nightmares, possibly inspired by news reports of a serial killer stalking the area. She seeks help from mysterious hypnotherapist Dr. Woodleigh (Stephens). Not only do her nightmares persist, but people she knows start to fall victim to the killer.

Karen too is suffering from mysterious psychological distress, blacking out frequently and regaining consciousness with no recollection of where she has been or how she wound up with bruises and abrasions on her body. She soon finds herself questioning a relationship to the murderer when people she knows start dying.

The above recap of the plot is merely an attempt to give a sense of what this film is about because, in reality, the answers are far from clear. The questions of who is who, and what is real and imagined persist, pervade and perplex up to and possibly beyond the surprising climax. Gower definitely is a filmmaker to watch. — David Greenberg

Gangs of the Dead
Street 5/1
Universal/Screen Media, Horror, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong violence and gore, pervasive language and brief drug use.
Stars Enrique Almeida, Noel Gugliemi, Reggie Bannister.

It isn't a classic, but Gangs of the Dead delivers with enough creativity and humor to make it a popular horror flick for aficionados of the genre.

Its distinctive flavor and scenes will force some fans to analyze it and watch it again and again. Much of the film's charm can be attributed to the imaginative screenplay co-written by the versatile Duane Stinnett and Krissann Shipley.

Stinnett, a Cal State Long Beach grad who also has worked as a 3-D animator and produced his own indie horror film (The Curio Trunk) with Shipley, is director of the film.

At first glance of the geeky packaging, I didn't put much stock in the DVD having much promise. I anxiously waited for the film to fall apart, but it didn't. It got better, and I suddenly realized Gangs of the Dead has its own quirky little appeal, despite a few occasional lulls. It could become a cult classic.

Angelenos also will appreciate it because of the cinematography and some of the familiar views of Los Angeles.

The plot isn't anything original — zombies invade a city and some of the locals try to prevent it — but that doesn't distract from the movie's allure. In this case, the locals consist of two gangs and a pair of cops holed up in a warehouse to ward off the zombies who stalk them from outside. The locals even occasionally band together — when they aren't trying to kill each other — to fight the enemy.

The cast is a talented bunch of unknown performers, with the exception of Gugliemi (Training Day, Bruce Almighty) and Bannister (Phantasm). — Benny Lopez

Finding the Future: A Science-Fiction Conversation
Prebook 4/24; Street 5/15
Victory Multimedia, Documentary, $19.99 DVD, NR.

Tuning into Finding the Future, I was expecting more of a documentary about the history of science-fiction and its impacts. While there is a great degree of that, the bulk of the movie is devoted to exploring the bizarre sci-fi fan culture.

Here's a news flash: Sci-fi fans can be a little weird. We meet a lot of them, from their strange costumes to stranger personalities, to a bar patron who acts like an alien, to an honest-to-goodness sci-fi folksinger, who provides most of the soundtrack. One writer laments that some conventions have to put out tip sheets to remind attendees to bathe.

Authors of science-fiction are more than happy to celebrate fandom. Many claim fandom is essential to the creative process.

The party line of fandom is that they have the imagination to push the world forward, and those who make fun of them are labeled as “mundanes.” Even I have to admit some of the ideas they present in this film are a little out there, and it seems clear they tend to focus a little more on the “fiction” than on the “science.”

This has led to somewhat of a split in the genre between speculative fiction, which primarily explores social issues and the human condition, and out-of-this-world adventure-fantasy.

Writer David Brin, best known for a recent treatise about why he thinks “Star Trek” is better than “Star Wars,” puts forth the idea that sci-fi has the most impact when it examines the dangers of potential technologies, allowing us to bypass such problems when they come to pass.

The movie kind of contradicts itself on this point. While many cite the book 1984 for curbing government invasions of privacy, another section of interviews concludes that “Big Brother” is indeed here.

The DVD includes a deleted sequence and a glossary of fandom terms. John Latchem

Shiva Rea: Fluid Power — Vinyasa Flow Yoga
Street 4/24
Acorn/Acacia, Special Interest, $19.99 two-DVD set, NR.

Fluid Power — Vinyasa Flow Yoga is the antidote to workout boredom. It is a beautiful, complex program that is equal parts inspiration and perspiration.

Instructor Shiva Rea is a yoga practitioner of the highest and most spiritual order. She brings the ancient spirit of yoga to the modern fitness craze by encouraging viewers to connect deeply with the flow and rhythm of their own bodies via 20 guided sequences they can select from to create a custom yoga workout, or choose one of six rather lengthy pre-set practices, all stunningly filmed in New Mexico's White Sands National Park.

Perhaps the most accessible is the “Creative Flow” pre-set workout, which guides viewers through a variety of standing and mat-based vinyasas, ones that really work the abdominals and glutes (you'll be sore the next day without even sensing it during the workout).

A vinyasa is a set of yoga postures that flow quickly into one another, paired with breathing techniques. It stimulates body heat and energy, great for calorie burning and mental stimulation.

The DVD also includes instruction-and-music or music-only audio options, alignment details for 10 asanas (postures), a 24-page program guide and a mini documentary on yoga with Shiva Rea.

Beginners may find the more esoteric philosophical qualities of this program — the guided meditations and visualizations — a little daunting, and the postures themselves fall definitely in the intermediate skill range.

However, although very little time during the flowing workouts is spent outlining how to modify the more-difficult postures, the whole energy and purpose of the program is so utterly freeing and personal that it would be easy for a relatively polished beginner to pick up and tailor to their own skills.

This program is uniquely suited to the yoga practitioner of any level who has an interest in the spiritual roots of the practice. Jessica Wolf

Fantastically Fit Kids Workout
Street 5/1
Fitness3.com, Special Interest, $17.95 DVD, NR.

With all the talk about childhood obesity and nutrition in schools, not to mention the sensational news stories of parents finding junk-food junkie children removed from their homes, a healthy lifestyle and fitness foundation that starts at the earliest possible level is becoming an ever-present concern for families.

This program goes a long way toward creating that foundation, developing a clear connection for kids to incorporate a results-driven, goal-driven exercise program into their daily lives.

Fantastically Fit lacks a bit in the way of calorie-burning cardio exercise, but it has a great circuit-like resistance-training program that not only can create results but can help teach kids about how their bodies move and work, underscoring the importance of good physical conditioning.

The included yoga segment is fun and perfectly situated for the younger audience and is a great way to introduce the discipline to kids.

The instructors are enthusiastic but not patronizing. The whole family could work out to this program together and leave no one behind. Jessica Wolf

Baby IQ: The World Around Us
Prebook 4/24; Street 5/22
Brainy Baby, Childrens, $16.95 DVD, NR.

There comes a time when you've played your 112th round of peek-a-boo with the little one and you just want to take a load off. Parents can pop in Baby IQ: The World Around Us and listen to classical music performed by the renowned London Symphony Orchestra while junior's brain gets a work out.

The DVD has six sections: colors, animals, counting, seasons, movement, and shapes and patterns. Some of the sections play like Fantasia for babies: inky swirls of colors jetting into water, Rorschach-like blots morphing, skies full of twinkling stars.

Other sections offer more-concrete images: Animals, real and stuffed, prance across the screen; small children tumble in grassy fields, jack-in-the-boxes spring up.

The creators did an excellent job of syncing the action — especially when toys and puppets are involved — to the music, which includes selections from Ravel, Strauss, Bizet and Holst.

The World Around Us was created in conjunction with Britain's National Literacy Trust, which encourages parents to talk to their infants to help develop their brains and verbal skills, and the DVD naturally inspires this action.

This is a picture book brought to life, and parents automatically will identify the objects, colors, numbers and actions to their babies, who will coo their responses. The DVD offers a repeat function, so it can be watched again and again, plus extra information on the National Literacy Trust and the London Symphony Orchestra.

All around, this is an excellent choice for parents. It's extremely soothing for both parties — mom and dad will yearn for the days of “Baby IQ” once their kids move on to loud preschool DVDs — and the interaction and brain-building activities make it an educational first TV experience for infants. — Laura Tiffany

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