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Reviews: April 9

9 Apr, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

The Barbie Diaries

The Barbie Diaries
Prebook 4/12; Street 5/9
Lionsgate, Animated, $19.98 DVD ($24.98 gift set with diary), NR.

The Barbie Diaries is designed to appeal to an older girl and take on the other “B” dolls stealing some of its market share, Bratz, which also have a video line. Barbie turns more hip in this real-world story that doesn't include any of the fantastical princesses, mermaids and fairies in the other series.

The title follows teenage Barbie and her friends as they begin another year of school. With her diary and lucky bracelet in tow, Barbie learns life lessons, how to deal with mean girls and how to be herself.

Extras include animated outtakes and bloopers, a music video of the Skye Sweetnam song on the DVD, and a short segment on singer Sweetnam, which should appeal to little girls who dream of being rock stars. A clever fortune-teller game, designed to mirror the origami-like paper devices girls make in class, rounds out the extras. It really appealed to my 8-year-old.

Selling Points: If Bratz is any indication, little girls love stories about teenagers. This older-appeal Barbie title should widen the video audience for the venerable doll. Stephanie Prange

Is It Real? Da Vinci's Code
Prebook 4/11; Street 5/16
National Geographic, Documentary, $14.97 DVD, NR.

Perfectly positioned amid a maelstrom of controversy and publicity, Is It Real? Da Vinci's Code feeds the whirlpool with a familiar, but powerful, blend of facts, myths and mysteries. Examining Dan Brown's international sensation from various angles, the documentary debunks some of the book's more obscure claims while leaving the larger issues, including Mary Magdalene's relationship to Christ, open to speculation.

Is It Real? dives headlong into the topics of Brown's thriller, underpinning the voiceover narrative with dramatizations, historical documents and photos, and stunning vistas. Interspersed throughout are interviews with experts, authors and other noteworthy personages, each lending as many facts and opinions as they can squeeze into their allotted time.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail author Richard Leigh sounds off on key similarities between his earlier novel and Brown's, while others voice some of the flaws in Leigh's investigations. Although key facts leave gaping holes in the claims made by Holy Blood, especially those regarding the fictitious organization the Priory of Scion, they yield an interesting question regarding the recent lawsuit: If Holy Blood is wrong, how did Brown arrive at the same mistaken conclusions?

However, the main aim of the documentary is to investigate the ideas espoused by The Da Vinci Code, not question their originality, and in this it is extremely successful. Although 2,000 years prevent us from knowing the definitive truth, Is It Real? provides enough information to help audiences decide for themselves.

Selling Points: Brown was just cleared of plagiarism charges. The international bestseller and an upcoming big-budget film should ensure this a big audience. – J.R. Wick

Prebook 4/13; Street 5/9
ThinkFilm, Drama, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.99 DVD, Rating pending.
Stars Marcell Nagy.

Literature and film are filled with heroes willing to sacrifice for their ideals and for others. They dream of a world of justice, peace and mercy, and try to fix other people's failures to live up to those ideals.

But most of us aren't heroes. We're just people trying to survive. When it comes to the Holocaust, that was the lesson in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, and it is the lesson of Fateless.

Young Jewish teen Gyuri Koves in Hungary is mostly stonefaced and fatalistic about the buffeting winds of Nazi occupation, years in concentration camps and an eventual return to a devastated Budapest and people who do not understand what life was like for those taken away. His quiet makes him a unique observer, and the film fades in and out, as if the camera were an eye opening and closing, revealing time passing and events taking place.

In the end, Gyuri tells us the camps were not hell, which he cannot imagine. They were a result of human beings doing preventable things — which no one prevented.

Selling Points: There are many films about the Holocaust, but Fateless' unique perspective will make it a staple of Holocaust drama. It's directed by Oscar nominee Lajos Koltai, written by Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz based on his novel, and scored by Oscar nominee Ennio Morricone. Brendan Howard

Strange Fruit
Prebook 5/23; Street 6/27
Ariztical, Drama, $29.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kent Faulcon, Berlinda Tolbert.

A nice package for such a modest budget, the crime-drama Strange Fruit matches solid performances with good production values. Although the film may still look a bit too stark and play a bit too slow for mainstream audiences, it certainly will satisfy festival-filmgoers and those otherwise accustomed to low-budget fare.

Opening with the murder of a gay black man just outside a gay club in rural Louisiana, and focusing on a gay black lawyer as its central protagonist, Strange Fruit seems aimed slightly outside the mainstream, regardless. Unfortunately, its indie leanings don't keep it free of such certain timeworn characters as the racist sheriff or homophobic populace.

The strength of newcomer Faulcon as lawyer William Boyals elevates the proceedings above the worst of this mess, and a few surprises in the script keep it from floundering, even at its slowest. Most of the action sequences might have benefited from a larger budget, but given the high quality of the acting, they are an acceptable loss. Strange Fruit may not meet everyone's taste, but some will enjoy its unusual flavor.

Selling Points: A festival standout, Strange Fruit also stars former “Jeffersons” cast member Belinda Tolbert. Faulcon might be able to ride the strength of this performance into a mainstream role. – J.R. Wick

These Girls
Prebook 4/11; Street 5/16
Ardustry, Comedy, $24.98 DVD, Rating pending.
Stars David Boreanaz, Caroline Dhavernas, Amanda Walsh.

These Girls opens perfectly, hearkening back to the carefree teen comedies of the 1980s. A virtual unknown pop band rocks a great song over doodlings of the credits. And so the tale of three friends — a girl in love, a girl in need of change, and a girl in need of sin before religious school — converges in one man: Keith Clark (Boreanaz of TV's “Angel” and “Bones” fame).

Glory (“Sons & Daughters’ Walsh) loves Keith, a slightly bad-boy biker who's married with a kid. Her friend, Keira (“Wonderfalls’ Dhavernas), narrates the tale and hooks up with Keith out of boredom. The deceptively innocent Seventh Day Adventist Lisa decides to use the thirtysomething Keith for sexual experimentation before being shipped off to an all-girl college.

Keith becomes trapped by the three women in a sex schedule that takes advantage of his wife's swing-shift absences. Exhausted, he eventually concocts a plan to get free that predictably backfires and leads to comedic and dramatic explosions.

Dhavernas seems to be reprising her cynical know-it-all “Wonderfalls” character, and Boreanaz is never completely believable as a guy with bad intentions without his vampire fangs from “Angel.” The two are ultimately upstaged by the living stereotypes Glory, whose misguided love makes her the most sympathetic of the bunch, and Lisa, whose wide-eyed, open-minded need for sex brings the most comedic agony to the sex-overloaded Keith.

Selling Points: Fans of Boreanaz on “Angel” and “Bones” and Dhavernas on the cult hit “Wonderfalls” will flock to this one. Brendan Howard

BTK Killer
Street 5/2
Lionsgate, Horror, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for aberrant violent and sexual content, gore and language.
Stars Gerard Griesbaum.

There are two kinds of horror movies: creepy creature movies that too often devolve into something so unbelievable the fright factor is lost, and human cruelty films best typified by such classic 1970s films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (I still shudder when I see a Winnebago driving through the desert).

I've always found the latter much more compelling. Something about man's inhumanity to man is more gripping than some demon spitting fire and eating screaming teenagers.

For a low-budget horror movie, BTK Killer represents an admirable effort by veteran director (and writer) Ulli Lommel (of The Boogeyman fame) to tell the story of Wichita serial killer Dennis Rader. It's a brutal, raw film, with slaughterhouse shots of animals getting butchered interspersed with Rader's butchery of his fellow humans.

Some of this stuff is way over the top, such as Rader torturing his victims with rats and bugs, but it's all meant to add depth to the carnage by giving viewers a peek inside Rader's twisted mind.

This is clearly not one of Lommel's best movies, with its predictable plot and graphic savagery, but movies about serial killers are almost in a class by themselves. Like Ann Rule novels, they rarely break new ground and often aren't very well written, but they do keep your attention.

Selling Points: Rader's June confession is still fresh in the minds of customers. Thomas K. Arnold

American Soldiers
Prebook 4/20; Street 5/16
Velocity, Action, $24.98 DVD, Price NA VHS, Rating pending.
Stars Curtis Morgan, Zan Calabretta.

Is the role of the American soldier to follow orders, or to serve as an instrument of our ideals?

There is a moment in American Soldiers when one trooper, upon reflection of all the tragedy he has witnessed in the day, has nothing left to fall back upon but the notion he was following orders, and thus was doing his job.

American Soldiers follows an American platoon on patrol in Iraq one day in April 2004, which, according to the movie, was the month with the most U.S. casualties after the war officially ended.

The platoon is ambushed in a backwater Iraqi territory, cut off from reinforcements and must rely on its training to survive.

The depiction of the next 12 hours is a snapshot of the entire conflict, as the soldiers navigate a landscape of hidden explosives and enemy agents hidden among the population. They find a friend in an Iraqi police captain who can't trust his subordinates and buys black-market guns to fight the insurgents, who seem to strike from nowhere and at the wrong time.

The soldiers eventually capture a few insurgents and take them to an interrogation center, where CIA-friendly locals torture the prisoners. The soldiers decide this goes against their ideals and flee with the prisoners, only to see them killed later.

It hearkens back to the age-old wisdom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the film asks whether the turbulence of U.S. intervention is worse than life under Saddam Hussein, and if U.S. lives are worth the effort.

It's not a complete picture, and no hard answers are provided, but the movie does portray some of the hardships faced by our troops and honors their sacrifice.

Selling Points: American Soldiers makes a good companion to Over There: The Complete Series, Three Kings, Jarhead and Black Hawk Down. — John Latchem

The Mudge Boy
Prebook 4/14; Street 5/9
Strand Releasing, Drama, B.O. $0.06 million, $24.99 DVD, ‘R' for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue, a rape and language.
Stars Emile Hirsch, Tom Guiry, Richard Jenkins.

The Mudge Boy gives audiences an insight into the steely toughness required to cope with the endless routine of farm life through the eyes of a strange, sensitive teenage boy with a pet chicken.

The awkward youth and his father, recently bereft of mother and wife, are suddenly left alone. While the boy secretively holds onto memories of his mother, his father, hardened by decades of backbreaking farm labor, carries on without a day's grieving.

Forcing his son to grow up and be more normal, the father gives him new responsibilities and privileges. Exploring his autonomy, the boy finds new friends, allowing the audience to participate in the excitement and rebelliousness of his self-discovery. The film briefly and tastefully explores homosexuality in a believable, non-romanticized manner, suitable to the bucolic setting and true to the confusion of adolescence. After being rejected by his newly found friends, he destroys the one bond he shared with his late mother in a startling sacrificial act to prove his manhood to himself and his homophobic friends.

As he tests the boundaries of friendship and independence, viewers are treated to a look at the emotional complexity of the apparently cold and callous men of the small, rural community. The soundtrack sets the scene with a fairy tale-like tone, capturing the magical quality of growing up, but remaining conscious of the country surroundings.

Selling Points: Those who liked Hirsch in Lords of Dogtown will enjoy comparing his portrayal here of a social outcast to that of Dogtown's blonde pioneer of skateboarding. Justin-Nicholas Toyama

Side Effects
Prebook 4/21; Street 5/16
Pro-Active, Comedy, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Katherine Heigl, Lucian McAfee.

Newcomer Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau wrote and directed Side Effects using her own experiences as a former drug company sales rep, peddling drugs that, at best, most people didn't need and, at worst, did more harm than good. The best scenes find Slattery-Moschkau's fictional stand-in, Karly Hert (“Grey's Anatomy's” Heigl), facing off with indifferent doctors and heartless bosses. Her workplace troubles of trying to dress the part, clumsily pitching her products and concealing her disdain for her co-workers are funny and real. With a nod to the seriousness of the subject, the introduction, the conclusion and a short documentary also talk about the wealth and dangerous self-regulation of drug companies. That's all interesting.

The problem is the rest of the plot. In the first few minutes, Hert meets love-interest Zach (a painfully dull McAfee), a former sales rep who encourages her to quit and join him for his new life in the country. There are zero sparks and no reason to believe she'd fall for him. Hert has an irresponsible father, but there's no explaining how this affects her. Hert gets a black roommate, Grace, but their relationship is without history.

Production notes tell us Slattery-Moschkau decided to “take a leap of faith and make the film herself” after “the powers that be in L.A. wanted her to dumb down the script into a generic Hollywood story.” But a generic Hollywood story may have ultimately made more sense.

Selling Points: Anybody will have their socks charmed off by the gorgeous, charismatic Heigl, and the subject matter — drug companies being underhanded — is in the news with the Vioxx debacle. Brendan Howard

Little Britain: The Complete Second Series
Prebook 4/18; Street 5/23
BBC, Comedy, $29.98 two-DVD set, NR.
Stars Matt Lucas, David Walliams.

In America, comedy skits involving a grown man suckling at his mother's breast, prim church women throwing up at the thought of eating cookies made by an Indian girl, chubby gay guys in tight clothes, and fake full-frontal nudity of an obese free-loading woman at a spa would all be gross — funny, but gross. In Britain, they're “rude.”

In the interviews on Little Britain: The Complete Second Series, the hilarious creators and chief cross-dressing, prosthetic-wearing principals Lucas and Walliams worry that things might be too rude for mainstream audiences or too rude for the nice BBC exec who brings her kids to a live taping. Of course, the fact that the above skits made it onto British TV means an awful lot is tolerated.

Also included is a series of skits that were judged too rude for TV: A desperate mother whores her daughter out repeatedly to try to get her hitched, and young mother and daughter try to woo truckers and passers-by with free shags in the back.

“Little Britain's” rudeness is part of its humor, of course, but as much as bodily functions are played for laughs, so are characters engaging in “Monty Python”-inspired exchanges, such as the man who repeatedly comes to stores requesting impossibly specific product.

BBC Video execs hope this show will catch on the way “The Office” has, and after watching this set, I think it just might.

Selling Points: Fans will have no complaints about this extras-packed set. Lovers of the hit-and-often-miss sketch comedy shows “Saturday Night Live” and “MADtv” will find big laughs in “Little Britain.” Brendan Howard

What's on DVD?

  • 2005 Comic Relief special and outtakes with Elton John, George Michael and Robbie Williams
  • Two TV interviews
  • Commentaries
  • Documentary
  • Deleted skits

  • QUICK TAKE: Hoodwinked and Doogal
    Following the lead of DreamWorks and Pixar, The Weinstein Company and Genius Products have new big-budget computer-animated films with big voice talent. The better of the two is the $51 million box office Hoodwinked (street May 2; DVD $29.95), with Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close and Jim Belushi in a new take on ”Little Red Riding Hood.” The humor works for kids and adults, and the original music is funny and well used. The $7.4 million box office Doogal (street May 16; DVD $28.95) has Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg in a kid-friendly tale about a dog saving the world. Brendan Howard

    MY NEW FAVORITE TV SHOW: “Battlestar Galactica”
    A fanboy — a player of video games, a reader of science fiction, a watcher of anime — asked me if he should watch the new “Battlestar Galactica.”

    “How is it?” he asked.

    “It's the greatest science-fiction TV show ever made,” I said.

    That's not to take away from the exciting ideas, action and characters of the optimistic “Star Trek” shows, the action-packed movie-turned-show “Stargate” or the sadly canceled “Firefly.” That's just to say “Battlestar” is better, exploring not only fully rounded characters, but also characters in a future world who could really be real.

    The storyline takes the essence of the original 1970s show and reimagines the near end and the narrow escape of the human race under attack by a robotic enemy of their own making: the Cylons. “Battlestar” shows a 21st century audience what would happen if humans as we know them — flawed yet hopeful — were faced with terrible science-fiction villains and the loneliness of space. It looks at love, politics, evil, religion and war. It's a genius “What if?” story that hopefully will continue for years to come.

    “Battlestar Galactica's” first season and the first half of the second season are available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The second half recently finished airing on the Sci Fi Channel. Brendan Howard

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