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Reviews: August 5

5 Aug, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection: Ultimate CollectorÆs Edition

The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection: Ultimate Collector's Edition
Prebook 8/14; Street 9/25
Warner, Musical, $49.92 five-DVD set, NR.

This four-film set actually lives up to its lofty title. Though this legendary duo had their own separate off-camera troubles, which are tame by comparison to those of several current young Hollywood celebs, they made excellent and entertaining movies together, including the four debuting on DVD in this collection: Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy.

Aided by the creative genius of director Busby Berkeley and the original songs of, among others, the Gershwin brothers, the energetic and young duo showed in this excellent set why they were major contributors to one of Hollywood's most popular products: the MGM musical.

With an extremely warm and insightful new introduction by Rooney on every disc, it's easy to get into the spirit and affection in which these movies were made.

While these “backyard musicals,” as Rooney refers to them, were somewhat short on plot, they showcased the considerable vocal and dance talents of their extremely popular stars while temporarily taking filmgoers' minds off the deadly destruction of World War II.

Stocked with many special features, the package also contains a bonus disc that includes a well-researched Robert Osbourne 1966 TV interview with Rooney, and “The Judy Garland Songbook,” presenting 21 complete musical numbers that she performed over 18 years of cinema magic. — Craig Modderno

Street 8/28
Benten, Comedy, $27.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kevin Bewersdorf, C. Mason Wells, Joe Swanberg.

It has been quite a long time since a film has so accurately depicted a culture, a mindset, a way of life — in other words, a generation — with the same energy, authenticity and self-reflexivity as LOL.

Nearly everyone who regularly communicates with others online via e-mail, chat, instant messaging, blogs, etc., is familiar with the phrase LOL, (laugh out loud). It's so common it has lost its meaning and is sometimes used as something to say when there's nothing to say. LOL is part of the para-social gymnastics of the Internet age, and the film so expertly explores this neo-socializing and these faux Internet friendships much in the way that they actually unfold.

The film is a real “let's put on a show” type of affair where much of the young cast and crew of newcomers take on multiple jobs before and behind the camera, handling acting, writing, directing, shooting and composing the music.

The sometimes funny, sometimes poignant story portrays the way this generation tries to form and maintain personal relationships through electronically mediated buffers. The narrative is more a collection of vignettes than a traditionally structured plot, and it is utterly fascinating.

The film achieves such a high level of authenticity because it is not just the story that rings true; it is the entire experience of the production that hits home. On one level, this is a movie about the MySpace/YouTube/Internet porn/Garage Band/iMovie generation. One the other hand, much of it has the feel of a film that was slapped together by a group of young techheads because it was made by the generation it depicts and, in fact, it is the kind of thing that is seen over and over again in cyber cineplexes online. — David Greenberg

Stories of the American Puppet
Prebook 8/21; Street 9/18
Mazzarella, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.

We so seldom see puppets (except on “Sesame Street”) anymore that this documentary is a trip down a memory lane that may be longer than many viewers' memories.

Dan Lauria (Fred Savage's dad on “The Wonder Years”) narrates the journey, tracing the roots of American puppetry back to the colonies.

Puppetry was serious business back in those days. Puppet shows were not only itinerant entertainment in an unwired world, they were a form of editorial cartoon.

Punch and Judy may be one of the nation's earliest entertainment brands; their names are vaguely familiar even to people who have never seen their domestic battles played out between the curtains.

Being a mobile sort of entertainment, puppets went West in the great settlement of the country. As they did, the art form changed from full-length feature productions to amusing short subjects and finally to a childhood diversion.

Good puppetry still has a kind of magic, although it's rare to see in modern entertainment. Clips of some of the great vaudeville and kiddie show puppeteers — Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, Fran Allison, Paul Winchell and Jim Henson among them — remind us how a good puppeteer brings the puppet to life and makes us forget it's just a doll.

It's a rare occasion when the bonus features surpass the main feature, but the real gems of this disc are the clips from old puppet films and TV shows.

This is a lot of fun, even if it's not apparent that the world was clamoring for a history of puppets in America. It should appeal to creative types and fans of obscure historical influences. — Holly J. Wagner

Steel Toes
Prebook 8/7; Street 9/4
Monterey, Drama, $24.95 DVD, ‘R' for a brutal attack and for language.
Stars David Strathairn, Andrew Walker.

In the opening scene of David Gow's play-turned-film, racist skinhead Michael Downey (Walker) severely beats a man because he accidentally spills some kitchen leftovers on him. The man is Pakistani (or Indian, as it turns out), and Michael doesn't like immigrants.

The man dies from injuries sustained in the attack. It's clear that Michael already has confessed to the crime when up-and-coming

Jewish defense attorney Danny Dunkleman (Strathairn) — unnerved by his new client's skinheadedness — shows up in jail to see him. The only question is how long Michael will spend in jail and whether the neo-Nazi is willing to work to help Danny find him a defense, some remorse and a new path for his life.

Clearly sticking to the play's roots, the movie is mostly dialogue between these natural antagonists. The pair moves quickly beyond taunting each other — the expected beginning of every confrontational lawyer flick — to trying to develop their case and help Michael confront what he has done. The lines are a bit stilted in the beginning, but Strathairn and Walker soon warm to their roles.

As expected, a relationship of sorts builds between the Jewish lawyer whose job is his life, and the hate criminal whose fate could be life in prison. Danny tries to take Michael like a lone thread through the needle-eye of suffering, and sensitive viewers will be thrilled to walk the gauntlet with him.

The unexpected ending redeems the film from any clich?s that may have emerged in the age-old tale of lawyer and prisoner who learn from one another about life. — Brendan Howard

I Witness
Prebook 8/7; Street 9/4
Universal/Screen Media, Drama, $24.98 DVD, ‘R.'
Stars Jeff Daniels, James Spader, Portia De Rossi, Clifton Collins Jr.

Twenty-seven men, women and children are found dead in a collapsed tunnel at the edge of a Mexican border town. Two American college boys, in Mexico on holiday, go missing and are later found shot to death and buried in shallow graves.

Meanwhile, an observer from an international human rights organization arrives to monitor a union election taking place at a chemical plant owned by a huge, multinational corporation in that same border town.

Although the three incidents are, at first glance, unrelated, a twisting path paved with greed and corruption eventually leads to a single culprit.

Shot in a semi-cinema-verite style, I Witness is a briskly paced, cleverly plotted political thriller in the style of Traffic, Syriana and A Civil Action. It nimbly sidesteps clich?s about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And its character-driven plot is filled with interesting, subtly drawn characters.

Daniels manages to imbue his human rights activist with the conflicting traits of deep cynicism and cautious idealism, of emotional and psychological fatigue and the almost boundless desire to make things better.

He manages to convey the resignation of a man who wants to change the world but understands how very little difference he can make. Spader also is very good as an oily representative of U.S. law enforcement whose only goal is to keep all of the third-world wheels greased enough to keep them turning.

Consumers who enjoy political thrillers with unexpected twists will find much to like about I Witness. — Anne Sherber

Movin' Too Fast
Street 8/14
MTI, Action, $24.95 DVD, ‘R' for violence and some language.
Stars Marquita Terry, Layla Alexander, Matthew Glave, Jack Kehelr, Eric Michael Cole, Sonya Eddy, Christopher Jones, Jonathan Quint.

Movin' Too Fast is the twisted tale of two young women, Melissa (Terry) and Nina (Alexander), who meet by chance and end up driving across the country to California, unaware of the nightmare that lies before them.

Melissa is the wild one who is always thinking about sex, while Nina is a reserved European with a lot on her mind. Their road trip is going along smoothly until they enter Plainview, which is filled with unfriendly people and long stretches of road that lead to nowhere — not to mention a seemingly homicidal police force.

The terror starts when a tricked-out police car pulls the ladies over. But strangely, the car speeds off without anyone getting out.

The next time they are stopped by a similar car, a cop Melissa has the hots for invites them back to the local police station.

Once there, things get out of control fast as Melissa is forced to beat the sheriff away with his own club when tries to rape her. The two girls are able to escape unharmed, but soon realize that a madman behind the wheel of the sheriff's car is hunting them down.

As they run out of luck and gas, Melissa and Nina are forced into survival mode in order to outlast the bloodthirsty driver who seems to be around every corner.

Movin' Too Fast is an intense, high-speed action film that is on par with Quentin Tarantino's recent grindhouse release, Death Proof.

And with writer-director-producer Eric Chambers' background in stunt work (for such blockbusters as Mission: Impossible III and Spider-Man 2), the film is filled with well-orchestrated chase sequences and awesome crash scenes.

Additionally, the storyline is solid and filled with unexpected plot twists up to the bloody ending. It's films such as Movin' Too Fast that are always engrossing to watch and help keep the “grindhouse” spirit alive. — Matt Miller

God Grew Tired of Us
Street 8/14
Sony Pictures, Documentary, B.O. $0.3 million, $24.96 DVD, ‘PG' for thematic elements and some disturbing images.
Narrated by Nicole Kidman.

It's difficult for most Americans to imagine getting run out of their homeland and having to walk through brutal conditions for five years before finding even a glimmer of hope. Yet that is what 27,000 Sudanese boys did, and only 12,000 survived the 1,000-mile trip to a Kenyan border camp.

Grim as that is, God Grew Tired of Us gives us hope, humor and insight in the vein of Born Into Brothels.

Ten years after the boys arrived, the United States government agreed to resettle some of them. For the first few minutes of the film,

Sudanese refugees describe their plight. Then we follow men who have never seen showers, electricity or an urban landscape as they settle into metropolitan America.

With them, we make the trip from a barren and arid landscape to the land of motion-sensor faucets and Twinkies. Only through the eyes of people such as this can we see the produce section of a supermarket with such wonder.

The most commonplace things for us are learning experiences for Panther and Daniel, who were sent to Pittsburgh, and John, who commented before his trip how tiny New York looked on a map.

After so many years, the responsibility for their brothers weighs heavily on them. Within a year they are hitting the American low-skill wall. Even as they try to go to school and better themselves, John and Panther learn relatives they thought dead are alive and funnel much of their money from multiple jobs to their families.

Yet they manage to study and work. Two graduate and reclaim what's left of their families and work to help their brothers here and in their homeland (Daniel was still working and studying and had not located any family members when the film was completed).

Shot with humor and intimacy, the movie shares the highs and lows of a situation most of us cannot imagine, and makes us cheer these boys and share their pain and accomplishments. — Holly J. Wagner

Blood and Tears
Prebook 8/2; Street 8/28
ThinkFilm, Documentary, B.O. $0.004 million, $27.98 DVD, NR.

As the title suggests, plenty of blood — and some tears — are spilled in this superb documentary, detailing the long history and the ongoing feud between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Directed by Isidore Rosmarin and co-produced by Rosmarin with Jeff Helmreich, Blood and Tears reviews the history of this dispute despite its relatively brief 73-minute run.

Plenty of talking heads emerge here, offering assessments of the conflict, the individuals who shaped it and the ones most responsible for it. Yet despite the finger pointing, no one offers any concrete solutions to solving the clashes.

Don't expect any in the near future, either. Among the principals appearing in the film: former PLO leader Yasser Arafat; former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat; Palestinian political figures Sari Nusseibeh and Saeb Erekat; former Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak; and Middle East experts Bernard Lewis and Rashid Khalidi. Even noted attorney Alan Dershowitz weights in with some opinions.

The documentary also covers U.S. presidents who have figured prominently in this struggle, showcasing efforts by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to solve the crisis, without much success.

This documentary is attractive in many areas. Most prominent is its simple educational approach, identifying and defining the roles of those involved.

There also are some humorous moments, a comical sequence involving some of the principals during a visit with Clinton at Camp David among them.

Viewers also are treated to the voices of the everyday people and how they go about their daily lives peacefully despite all the chaos.

Despite the lack of solutions, this DVD is still a significant one because of the broad historical perspective it covers. Highly educational and recommended, Blood and Tears provides novices and historians alike a quick and insightful story on the conflict. — Benny Lopez

The Postcard Bandit
Street 8/14
BFS, Drama, $24.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Tom Long, Brett Stiller.

Good bank-robbery stories normally generate good theater. This film does so in particularly impressive fashion, showing a master thief successfully working his trade across Australia with a few different partners in crime tagging along.

As with any enterprising bandit, this crafty robber (Long) possesses an air of arrogance, humorously thumbing his nose at law enforcement — and having them unknowingly participate in some of his jokes — by mailing them postcards during his journeys throughout the continent.

In addition to his extensive crime spree — he steals more than $5 million — he also displays a fascination for cricket and a soft spot for pretty women. Though the two subjects are small parts of the bigger picture, they add a nice touch of romance and a soft spot to the robber's rough personality.

So many elements blend well in this journey. The pace of the story, the music, the eclectic mix of characters and the chase to catch an elusive thief perform with a nice synergy. Much of the credit goes to screenwriter Peter Gawler, but the performers are even more significant to the movie's success.

Long is brilliantly cast as Brenden James Abbott, the robber who eludes and baffles authorities. Stiller plays Abbott's brother Glenn, while Matthew Le Nevez, Genevieve Lemon, Simon Burke and Helen Dallimore also are intimately involved with Brenden's character. Veteran actor Anthony Phelan is wonderful, too.

The Postcard Bandit, which is based on a true story, was inspired by the book No Fixed Address, which covers the life and crimes of Abbott. It was written by Australian journalist Derek Pedley and released in 1999. The movie, which premiered on Australian television in 2003, captured praise from the Australian film industry. — Benny Lopez

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