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Reviews: Jan. 27, 2008

<I>The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters</I>

By : Home Media Reviews | Posted: 27 Jan 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Street 1/29
New Line, Documentary, B.O. $0.7 million, $27.95 DVD, ‘PG-13' for a brief sexual reference.

Director Seth Gordon's The King of Kong is a wonderful, funny and bittersweet look at what it means to be a champion, even if the competition isn't fully embraced (or understood) by the public at large.

The King of Kong chronicles the offbeat inhabitants of the highly political world of competitive video gaming, where holding the high score on a classic 1980s arcade game means everything. The scores are tracked by the Twin Galaxies organization, and since 1982 their best-known champion has been Billy Mitchell, who set the high score in Donkey Kong with 874,300, and later completed the first perfect game of Pac-Man.

As Mitchell says, if all the balls are bouncing his way, there must be someone getting screwed by the cosmos.

Enter Steve Wiebe, a nice guy who has never been able to capitalize on his many talents. After he is laid off (on the day he and his wife sign the papers for their house), he sets his sights on breaking Mitchell's high score.

Wiebe sets up a Donkey Kong machine in his garage and attacks with the mathematical precision of John Forbes Nash, eventually earning more than 1 million points and sending a hilarious tape of his efforts to Twin Galaxies. When Mitchell learns this, he sends two cronies to investigate Wiebe's game and, upon learning parts were provided by his chief rival, invalidates the record.

What follows is Wiebe's unrelenting quest to break the record unequivocally, earn the respect of Twin Galaxies and crack the cliquish fraternity of gamers, while Mitchell dodges any attempt to even admit there could be a player as good as he, espousing a higher standard to which he does not hold himself.

As Wiebe closes in, observers trumpet his potential feat with all the fanfare of a Sandy Koufax perfect game, while we wait for a showdown that seems destined not to happen.

Not only is the movie fascinating, but the DVD is a lot of fun, with great video-game-inspired menus, a brief history of Donkey Kong, two good commentaries, interviews with the cast reacting to the documentary and updates of the participants. As a special treat, the cover is reversible, revealing a sprawling mural set in an arcade. Most interesting is a side-by-side comparison of video of Mitchell and Wiebe's records, with commentary from gaming experts.

The Aristocats: Special Edition
Street 2/5
Disney, Animated, $29.99 DVD, ‘G.'
Voices of Eva Gabor, Phil Harris, Sterling Halloway, Maurice Chevalier.

Last released on DVD in 2000, The Aristocats — the 1970 Disney flick that's not quite an uber-classic, but old enough to have earned its place in the mouse-house pantheon — receives an updated DVD treatment with just enough extras to please Disney fans.

A bit slight on plot — upper-crust kitties get ousted by a bad-guy butler and must find their way back to Paris with the help of a smooth alley cat — the real pleasures of The Aristocats are the jazzy tunes and painterly animation, both wonderful choices for the early-20th-century French setting.

The extras made specifically for this DVD focus particularly on the music. Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, the staff songwriters and sibling duo responsible for classic tunes from The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins, are given their due on two featurettes. Richard hosts an intro to a deleted song, “She Never Felt Alone,” and the audience is treated to original recordings accompanied by the film's artwork. The second featurette offers both brothers' memories of their inspiration for the French-inspired Aristocats songs, including how they lured Maurice Chevalier out of retirement to croon the title track.

The kids in the audience can sing along with the film by turning on lyric subtitles, and can play two interactive games.

Additionally, an 18-page scrapbook features the film's artwork and photos of the cast, animators and marketing materials used in the 1970 premiere.

The remaining extras provide a handful of cat-related ephemera from the Disney vaults — not exactly related to The Aristocats, but fun to peruse regardless. Highlights include the 1946 short “Bath Day” with Figaro, an old-school character recently resurrected on the Disney Channel. An excerpt of “The Great Cat Family,” a 1956 television special, shows the Disneyfied history of the domestic cat, from its royal Egyptian heritage to its role as mouse-catcher. (The second half about lions is presumably saved for a Lion King release.)

While not overwhelming like some two-disc Disney collections, The Aristocats provides just enough meat in its extras to make its purchase worthwhile for those who already have the 2000 DVD or for parents who haven't introduced their kids to the film. — Laura Tiffany

Death at a Funeral
Prebook 1/30; Street 2/26
Fox/MGM, Comedy, B.O. $8.6 million, $29.98 DVD, ‘R' for language and drug content.
Stars Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Andy Nyman, Rupert Graves, Alan Tudyk, Peter Dinklage.

The maxim is what can go wrong, will, and Death at a Funeral takes this concept and drops it in the middle of a funeral for a family patriarch in upper-middle-class England.

Directed by Frank Oz, it's an uneven comedy that fortunately gets its gears going more strongly in the second half. The few laugh-out-loud moments are definitely due to the very talented ensemble cast, including Americans Tudyk (Serenity) and Dinklage (The Station Agent).

Daniel (Macfadyen of Pride & Prejudice) is a stuffed-shirt milquetoast presiding over his father's funeral. His brother Robert (Graves) breezes into town, a successful novelist from NYC whom everyone, to Daniel's chagrin, expects to provide the eulogy. Add a hypochondriac, a drug addict, a sleazy lothario looking for love, a cranky incontinent uncle in a wheelchair and a blackmailing guest with unexpected information about the deceased, and that's how Oz and writer Dean Craig wring some laughs from the unfunniest of occasions.

The extras on this DVD release are a bit meager: no featurettes, just a gag reel and two commentaries. The gag reel is about as funny as the worst parts of the film — it's just the actors cracking themselves up, rather than causing the audience to laugh, and many of those moments are repeated in the film's credits.

Oz's commentary track is genial. He shares trivia on the filming process and hands out kudos aplenty to the cast, especially Tudyk, who steals the film with his wide-eyed portrayal of an accidental hallucination.

The second commentary is a round-robin between Craig, Tudyk and Nyman. In the beginning, Tudyk and Nyman have to coax information on the writing process out of Craig, but they loosen up over time.

Only the biggest fans of the film will care about these extras, but most viewers will be newcomers looking for a clever, dark comedy and will probably be pleased by the absurdness of this funereal tale. — Laura Tiffany

Prebook 1/8; Street 2/5
Magnolia, Comedy, B.O. $0.008 million, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for drug content, language including sexual references, and some violence.
Stars Scott Speedman, Taryn Manning, Wes Bentley.

Weirdsville is a blast. It can't be found on any maps, but Weirdsville is a destination that is well worth the trip. Distinctly reminiscent of Danny Boyle's exhilarating, unabashedly druggy epic Trainspotting, which accomplished the novel trick of almost making substance abuse look cool, this film is a pitch black comedy that has cult classic written all over it.

As best buddies and aspiring safecrackers Royce and Dexter, Bentley and Speedman are revelations in their performances, playing dramatically against type as scruffy, clueless junkies who, in order to avoid attention from the police, decide to bury the body of a girlfriend (Manning) after she overdoses.

Unfortunately for them, when they go to do the deed, it just happens to be at the same time and place that an old high-school classmate, now the leader of a band of devil worshippers, is committing a human sacrifice. Wanting to avoid legal action himself, he commands his followers to pursue the witnesses.

Add in a brutal drug dealer to whom the main characters are indebted, as well as a swarm of little-people knights, and the potential for a very long night on the run is established.

That this film might find more of an audience on home video should be little surprise because the director is Allan Moyle, the man responsible for the teen favorites Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records, both of which boasted legions of fans.

While wildly goofy and offbeat similar to his earlier classics and filled with the same angsty nervous energy, Weirdsville is decidedly more mature in subject matter and the lifestyle it depicts, even if the overall tone is lightweight and played for laughs. — David Greenberg

Fierce People
Street 2/5
Lionsgate, Drama, B.O. $0.09 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for language, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some violence.

Stars Diane Lane, Anton Yelchin, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Perkins, Kristen Stewart, Paz de la Huerta, Chris Evans.

In Fierce People, a boy obsessed with an exotic tribe of South American Indians finds himself living among a different kind of tribe, closer to home, but with equally strange habits.

Lane and Yelchin are a mother and son who, through a series of unlikely events, find themselves living on the gated estate of a fantastically wealthy family, headed by an eccentric old coot. Lane is employed as the old man's on-call masseuse and the boy has the run of the place, along with the happy-go-lucky grandson, with whom he bonds, and the pretty granddaughter, with whom he also, umm, bonds.

Life is idyllic, except for the occasional appearance of elaborately made-up tribal warriors, who seem to break through the wall that separates fantasy from reality. But the idyll is shattered by a horrifying act of violence.

There are a number of things to like about Fierce People, chief among them Sutherland, whose performance is always pitch perfect and true, even when the movie sinks into illogic, as it occasionally does. Evans as the grandson is very good as a young man with an overdeveloped sense of noblesse oblige, which obscures his very dark heart. Yelchin is very appealing as a confused young man.

Griffin Dunne, the film's director, provides a commentary track. Dunne, an actor best known for his movies from the 1980s, including After Hours and An American Werewolf in London, tells amusing anecdotes effectively. A short making-of documentary focuses on translating the original novel to film. And a deleted-scenes reel includes only four excised scenes, largely because the director shot on a very tight budget and used virtually all of the footage he shot. — Anne Sherber

The Rage
Prebook 1/29; Street 2/26
Universal/Screen Media, Horror, $24.98 DVD, Available in ‘R' and unrated versions.
Stars Andrew Divoff, Erin Brown, Reggie Bannister.

With The Rage, Robert Kurtzman has concocted the perfect recipe for horror.

Take one mad scientist out to destroy the world with a lethal virus that turns people into ravenous monsters. Add five sex-crazed, drug-addled friends (two guys and three gals) taking a backwoods shortcut home after partying at an all-night concert. Top it off with a splash of blood, a handful of decapitations, a pinch of cannibalism and some grotesque makeup and special effects, and you have Kurtzman's latest highly entertaining 1980s-style splatterfest.

The film begins in the makeshift laboratory of Dr. Viktor Vasilienko (Andrew Divoff), who is working to perfect his “Rage” virus. Before he can release it, one of his test prisoners escapes. It takes only a few hours before the mutated subject succumbs to the virus and lies dying in the woods where vultures feed off his infected corpse, automatically transforming them into bloodthirsty birds.

These vultures attack a family on a fishing trip before finding the group of irresponsible young adults lost in their beat-up RV, which is when the real fun begins.

From start to finish, Kurtzman, the special-effects genius behind such classics as Hostel, Wishmaster and Army of Darkness, has constructed a brilliant horror film. The Rage has received accolades at film festivals worldwide and garnered a nomination for the Most Anticipated Film of 2007 on Spike TV's Scream Awards.

The film delivers nonstop action and slaughter with some wicked special effects and a killer soundtrack featuring industrial metal band Mushroomhead (who has a live performance in the film).

Audiences also will love the casting of ‘B'-movie cult actress Erin Brown (a.k.a. Misty Mundae) in one of the lead roles, while comic book enthusiasts will enjoy seeing the “Beneath the Valley of the Rage” series, which was a prequel to the film, brought to life. — Matt Miller

Barry Manilow: Songs From the Seventies
Street 1/29
Rhino, Music, $19.99 DVD, NR.

This DVD features an hour-long PBS special Manilow filmed as a companion to his Greatest Songs of the Seventies CD.

Taking a page from “VH1 Storytellers,” Manilow's live performance in front of a very enthusiastic crowd also involves him discussing the background for some of his songs. The mini-concert was shot in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, not far from where Manilow grew up.

Manilow sings a wide range of classics from the 1970s, from his own hits, such as “Mandy,” “New York City Rhythm” and “Copacabana,” to other memorable songs such as “The Way We Were” and “It Never Rains in Southern California.” The funniest bit occurs when Manilow sings some of the jingles he has written for commercials, from Band-Aid to State Farm to McDonald's.

It's a terrific little show that sacrifices pomp and circumstance for talent and heart, and Manilow's legions of fans will love it.

A second disc includes 20 minutes of footage cut from the original special.

Street Bangaz
Prebook 1/29; Street 2/26
TLA, Documentary, $14.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Redman, Method Man, Jim Jones.

Street Bangaz' value to viewers rests solely on their interest in hip-hop, increasing exponentially with their knowledge of (and concern for) its current culture.

To outsiders, those who “ain't street,” it is nearly unwatchable, except as a very raw and very fragmented look into the New York hip-hop scene — with insider interviews so specific that they seem like sitting down with a clique of inner-city high-school kids from another state.

Those in the know, however, will appreciate the candid and direct approach. The DVD's creators make little effort to streamline it for the masses, instead getting straight to the nitty-gritty with some of the biggest names in the N.Y. scene.

Well-known artists such as Method Man, Redman, Cuban Link and Ice Cube weigh in on what's bangin' and what's not, sharing gripes, anecdotes and calls to action.

Although largely lacking in performances, the interviewed artists' speech cadences propel the documentary with subtle rhythm, whether they are ranting about the state of hardcore hip-hop or freestyling about themselves. Nonetheless, due to this dearth and the insider nature of the title, only the most devout will find it appealing. — J.R. Wick


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