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Reviews: Feb. 3, 2008

3 Feb, 2008 By: Home Media Reviews

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane
Street 2/12
Disney, Drama, B.O. $18.7 million, $29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG' for brief nudity and mild language.
Stars Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters.

My expectations for Becoming Jane were low to begin, and yet I still managed to be thoroughly disappointed by the film.

As a fan of Jane Austen, I could hardly get excited about a Hollywood fictionalization of the life of the beloved literary figure. Despite the film being based on historian Jon Spence's work, I fully expected to see historical inaccuracies and a generally disagreeable storyline. To that end I was not disappointed — it contains both.

However, I was expecting a charming portrayal of Austen by Hathaway and, if it could not be agreeable, at least a convincing telling of the story. Unfortunately, the film does not deliver in either case.

Hathaway's performance of Austen has all the charm and complexity of a stiff board — showing virtually none of the spunk displayed in previous lighter roles. This observation became even more disappointing upon viewing the special features in which it is discovered that Hathaway herself was an Austen scholar in college.

It would be decidedly unfair, however, to place all the blame on Hathaway, who had a bad script with which to work. The plodding, boring story moves at such a snail's pace that not even the blatant lifting of dialogue from Austen's own work can make it seem interesting.

Instead it left me longing to stop the DVD and replace it with one of the many fine film adaptations of Austen's novels.

The film possesses only two saving graces, the first being the beauty of the Irish countryside where it was filmed, and the second being the performance by McAvoy as Austen's supposed love interest, Tom Lefroy. He possesses all the charm Hathaway lacks and provides some real entertainment. Kyra Kudick

Brothers Three
Street 2/5
Vivendi Visual/New Light, Thriller, $24.99 DVD, ‘R' for language and some violent content.
Stars Patrick Wilson, Neal McDonough, Scott Michael Campbell, Melora Walters, John Heard.

Writer-director Paul Kampf looks at family dysfunction backwoods style in his debut film.

Peter (Wilson of Hard Candy and Little Children) receives an urgent letter from his brother Rick (McDonough of Tin Man) asking him to visit the family cabin, located in the middle of nowhere and a model of squalor.

Aside from sharing blood, the college-educated, corporate-minded Peter has little in common with his siblings. Rick is an erudite outdoorsman with an erratic temper, while youngest brother Norman (Campbell of Brokeback Mountain) has a child's intelligence and a misguided hunger for female companionship.

The dynamic between the three men changes when Peter learns about the recent, violent death of their conniving, shifty father (veteran actor Heard of The Pelican Brief). Peter, who has his own crisis, then joins the brothers for several days of heavy drinking and life-changing confessions.

Kampf certainly has enough dark secrets and brooding emotions to create a haunting character study, but his heavy use of out-of-context, inconclusive flashbacks slows the film's pace while doing little to reveal the motivations of the three very troubled main characters and their relationships with their father.

The performances are solid, especially from McDonough, but they can't compensate for a script that gives the characters an emotional outlet, but little basis as to the reasons behind their feelings.

Anyone looking for a film reminiscent of Sling Blade or A Simple Plan may find something to like in Brothers Three, but the pokey, and sometimes confusing, plot are considerable hurdles to overcome. — Pete Croatto

ESL: English as a Second Language
Street 2/12
Allumination, Drama, $29.98 DVD, ‘R' for language, some sexuality, violence and brief drug use.
Stars Kuno Becker, Danielle Camastra, Maria Conchita Alonso, John Michael Higgins, Sal Lopez.

Don't let the opening scenes fool you. ESL is not a typical immigrant story.

Sure, Bolivar (Becker of Goal!) is a Mexican immigrant who comes to Los Angeles in search of work. But he is countered by Lola (Camastra), an intelligent but spoiled young woman more interested in partying than about her future as a lawyer.

Their worlds literally collide when Lola is driving drunk and plows into Bolivar's car. She is charged with a DUI and must do community service as part of her sentence. So she signs up to help teach an ESL class and again meets up with Bolivar, who is one of the students.

Meanwhile, Bolivar is working as a stripper. He doesn't like the work, but feels pressured to make money any way he can to support his expectant wife back home in Mexico. However, the lifestyle takes a toll on Bolivar. And Lola's own reckless lifestyle is taking a toll on her as well, as she tries to live up to her parents' expectations of her becoming a lawyer.

Though they come from different worlds, they both struggle to figure out what they want out of life all the while trying to make their respective families happy too.

Becker gives a moving, sympathetic performance, while not giving in to a lot of Latino and immigrant stereotypes.

This gem of a movie takes a refreshing approach to Latino films that speaks not just to U.S. Latinos but to all audiences. It also includes a hot soundtrack of such Latin artists as the Nortec Collective, The Pinkertones, Fulanito, Go Betty Go and Andrea Echaverri.

Writer-director-producer Youssef Delara may not be Latino, but he certainly gets it. — Angelique Flores

Prebook 2/7; Street 3/11
Anchor Bay, Horror, $26.97 DVD, ‘R' for nudity, disturbing violent content, graphic images and some language.
Stars Rey Misterio, Leyla Milani, Irwin Keyes.

Mexican wrestling has had further exposure in North America thanks to Jack Black's Nacho Libre and World Wrestling Entertainment's Rey Mysterio Jr. That masked wrestler, who is extremely popular with Mexicans and Americans alike, comes from a lineage of lucha libre. His uncle, Rey Misterio, a living legend in the sport, plays the masked killer, El Mascarado, in this low-budget slasher flick.

Wrestlemaniac traps six twenty-somethings on the way to Cabo San Lucas in the middle of a ghost town haunted by a crazed wrestling experiment by the Mexican government. As legend goes, El Mascarado was the result of a Frankenstein-type project that built the ultimate luchador out of the pieces of professional Mexican wrestlers. He went crazy and killed his opponents, ripping their faces off.

Three characters are scantily-clad girls who are part of an amateur porn movie shoot. This premise allows writer-director Jesse Baget to get two of the girls naked pretty quickly before the killing starts.

This low budget movie works. It's quick, running at 71 minutes, and there aren't many victims to last for much longer.

It's not easy to come up with something new in the slasher genre, but we get it with a crazed luchador who rips the flesh off his victims' faces and hangs them on the wall like masks.

The real star of this film is El Mascarado, and he will likely be back for more in a sequel.

Timed to release just weeks before WWE's Wrestlemania 24 in Orlando, Fla., Wrestlemaniac should find a decent audience. The official WWE movies from Lionsgate, especially See No Evil, have done brisk business.

Although not directly tied to the WWE, this flick will certainly capture the attention of WWE fans and lucha libre fans. — John Gaudiosi

Prebook 2/5; Street 3/4
MTI, Thriller, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars John Hopkins, Georgina French, Clive Ashborn.

In the British sci-fi thriller Experiment, two Brits awake in a strange foreign city with their memories completely erased.

Anna (French) is dumped on the street traumatized, fighting off frightening flashbacks and delusions. Whatever happened to Anna has reduced the young woman to a childlike state — leaving her barely able to speak — and has left her suffering from uncontrollable bouts of pain and rage.

Then there's Morgan (Hopkins) who finds himself floating face down in a river. Despite his amnesia and being a little beaten up and confused, he's in much better shape than Anna. He also is left with a woman's photo that has the message “Morgan find Anna” on the back, giving him some hope that this nightmare will be over soon.

What Anna and Morgan don't know, as they wander the streets aimlessly, is that an underground agency has implanted a device in their brains that can monitor and control their every move via an advanced computer system.

This engaging film, which unfolds like a disturbing combination of The Bourne Identity and The Manchurian Candidate, takes viewers on an unsettling psychological journey of trust and self-rediscovery as Anna and Morgan are fed clues that bring them together as they try to gain back their memories and their sanity.

Working against them is a covert group using the couple as subjects in a mind-controlling experiment to see to what extremes they can push the pair.

Experiment is an exceptional first effort from director Dan Turner, who made the film for a reported $250,000, although you could never tell by the way it is shot. He also took a chance by casting fresh faces such as Hopkins (The Path to 9/11) and French (who makes her debut) in the lead roles.

Fortunately, they were able to rise to the occasion and deliver gripping performances.

The film has won several well-deserved film festival awards, and its arrival on DVD is overdue. — Matt Miller

The Jewish Americans
Street 1/5
Paramount/PBS, Documentary, $34.99 two-DVD set, NR.

Twenty-three men, women, and children showed up at a Dutch colony on the East Coast of North America in 1654. The leader of the colony said they weren't welcome, but word came down from Dutch royalty that these people would benefit the colony economically — and they would be staying.

They were Jews, the first Jews to arrive in what would become Manhattan in the United States of America more than 100 years later.

A nearly six-hour journey, The Jewish Americans chronicles the lives of those colonial Jews as well as Revolutionary War Jews, Civil War Jews, trade-unionizing Jews, musical-writing Jews, civil-rights-marching Jews, Hollywood-inventing Jews, persecuted Jews, proud Jews, assimilating Jews, Orthodox religious Jews, and so on.

If any one of those adjectives sounds boring or uninteresting, don't worry. The documentarians do an excellent job of leaping through the chronology from era to era, and theme to theme, never staying too long in any one place.

As with many other exhaustive documentaries, The Jewish Americans weaves intensely personal stories with sweeping pastiches of the times.

Talking-head interviews run the gamut, from rabbis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to comedians Jerry Stiller and Sid Caesar and playwright Tony Kushner.

What holds true, though, for all speakers and all eras of Jewish-Americans, is their simultaneous patriotism and love of this country — which became the largest concentration of Jews in the world after the Holocaust — and their regular but diminishing persecution in this land of American dreams.

This film's unrivalled look at the subject has enough rich detail for Jewish scholars and enough edutainment for those who just want to learn a little more about this influential American religious and cultural minority. — Brendan Howard

Greenaway: The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts
Street 2/12
Zeitgeist, Drama, $29.99 each DVD, NR.

The first two major feature films by British arthouse mainstay Peter Greenaway — The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts — show a director who, looking back, seems to have emerged fully-formed from the beginning.

His deliberate, baroquely detailed style is one of cinema's most idiosyncratic, and it is with some relief that his early works have been given worthy treatment in these DVDs.

Draughtsman's Contract is a kind of Agatha Christie country house murder transplanted into the 17th century. An aristocratic wife commissions a brash young draughtsman for a series of 12 drawings, for which he will receive one sexual favor each. He is at first delighted, but his attitude changes as he gradually finds himself wrapped in a possible murder plot.

A Zed and Two Noughts is the story of a fatal car accident, the twin brothers left bereaved by the deaths of their wives, and the one woman who survives, Alba. Both brothers are zoologists who share a morbid fascination with the details of their wives demise. Their obsession leads them into a bizarre study of evolution and decomposition that eventually leads them back to Alba.

Both DVDs feature running commentary by Greenaway, as well as video introductions, which provide richly detailed and uncommonly revealing explanations of the director's method.

There are also behind-the-scenes featurettes, theatrical trailers, and new essays — by critic Jonathan Marlow and cinematographer Curtis Clark — that prove sufficiently illuminating to be included.

Combined with beautiful anamorphic transfers, these elements create a package that will delight fans of Greenaway's oeuvre. — Eddie Mullins

The Bubble
Street 2/12
Strand, Comedy, B.O. $0.2 million, $27.99 DVD, Unrated.
In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.

The Bubble ditches stereotypes in favor of a refreshingly serious look at both the difficulties of being homosexual, and what happens when those difficulties cross an unbreachable political divide.

Lulu (Daniella Wircer), Noam (Ohad Knoller) and Yelli (Alon Friedman) are three young roommates in Tel Aviv. Lulu says she wants a nice man, but falls for jerks while ignoring the sweet young activist who pines for her. Yelli dates a contradictory man — a very masculine, macho tough guy who is also very happy to be out of the closet. Noam falls for the one person he shouldn't: Ashraf, a Palestinian who is afraid to come out at home, especially since his sister is marrying a powerful militant.

While sometimes feeling a bit like a gay-friendly Israeli episode of “Friends,” The Bubble features a tremendously likeable cast with an easy rapport. The dialogue feels real, as do the character's physical and emotional attractions.

Director/co-writer Eytan Fox's subtle, deft touch saves many moments — such as Yelli's funny coming out and the tragic daily humiliations at a border checkpoint — from being heavy-handed. The subtlety does wear out near the end; the politics encroach and the tone becomes sharper, like a finger poking you in your chest, insisting you take these issues seriously.

However, if the goal is to tell the political impossibilities of Palestine and Israel through the eyes of everyday people who — regardless of gender, sexual orientation or nationality — love, party, work and die just like their enemies, Fox succeeds.

Hopefully, this film also will cross boundaries and become more than just a gay film or an Israeli story, but one that many audiences will seek out and enjoy. — Laura Tiffany

City Unplugged
Street 2/6
IndiePixFilms.com, Thriller, $19.95 DVD, $14.95 Download to Own, NR.

There's a strange appeal to City Unplugged, built partly on its ingenuousness and partly on its open satire of bureaucracies.

In 1991, a much-too-big mob of fellas is planning to rob the Bank of Estonia as it takes possession of $970 million in gold, stored in Paris since the Nazis stormed the state.

There are hints of how they plan to do it, but the central element is getting an electrical engineer, Toivo, to shut off the whole city's power (hence the movie's original title, Darkness in Tallinn).

It borrows from some of the best American gangster and tough-guy films, but there's an underlying wit in almost every encounter that comes from the state of available technology and goods in general.

Even the crime itself, a plan for an unofficial night shift to melt stolen gold bars down at a cigarette factory and pour them into cigarette shapes to package and smuggle, is a bit of a reach. But it's forgivable as a political jab.

The crime story plods along, but that's a creative decision to let the personal backstory unfold. Toivo is doing a job for money, but his employers are killers. Pregnant wife Maria wants the security the money would give their baby, but doesn't realize the danger. A neighborhood tomboy, Terje, is a sort of hero for innocence.

It's not what Americans expect, but this film plays like many Asian gangland films, only without the gore. People do get shot (in fact, shooting in the eye is an obsession) but it's much cleaner than in real life.

Don't adjust your set; most of the film is in black and white and film noir dark. It lends the appropriate air of austerity for the political statement.

American viewers won't recognize the actors in this film, but most of the performances are good. The ending is a bit too pat and sappy, but up to that point the plot holds interest.

Even though the violence is often off-screen or sanitized, that and nudity make it unsuitable for youngsters. — Holly J. Wagner

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