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Reviews: July 22

22 Jul, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Roving Mars

Roving Mars
Street 7/31
BV/Disney, Documentary, B.O. $7.7 million, $29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, ‘G'.

Finding evidence that Mars could sustain life is important because it would increase the likelihood that we aren't alone in this vast universe. Dozens of missions have been sent to the red planet in hopes of finding traces of running water or fossilized life, but two-thirds of all such missions have ended in failure.

Hoping to increase the chances of success, NASA in January 2004 sent the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity to the surface of Mars. This 40-minute documentary chronicles the construction, testing and mission of these robotic explorers.

The film was originally shot for Imax, which like many documentaries filmed for the giant screen, gives it a unique visual character on the small screen. Some space enthusiasts might find the account a bit dry, but the filmmakers spice things up with exciting computer animation to showcase aspects of the mission it would be impossible to see otherwise. Plus, the behind-the-scenes glimpses are as interesting as the main feature.

The two rovers enjoyed vastly different fortunes upon landing on Mars. Spirit's landing zone didn't have what scientists were looking for, so the rover had to scratch and claw its way up a mountain to look for signs of water. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Opportunity enjoyed a near-perfect mission for six weeks, discovering signs of water at its landing site.

Designed to last for just 90 days, both rovers still are in operation today.

If the film has a message of hope, it's that one day people, not robots, will lead the exploration of the red planet.

The DVD also includes Walt Disney's 1957 television special Mars and Beyond, an animated program about the development of mankind over the years. It's interesting to contrast the differing visions of space exploration 50 years apart. John Latchem

The Situation
Street 7/31
New Video, Drama, B.O. $0.05 million, $26.95 DVD, ‘R' for violence, language and a scene of sexuality.
Stars Connie Nielsen, Damian Lewis, Mido Hamada.

Although there has been a spate of Iraq documentaries over the past few years — enough so that they may almost be considered a genre unto themselves — there have been precious few narrative features that have engaged the same subject.

Philip Haas' remarkable The Situation is one of the first to buck to the trend. What's more is it sets a significant precedent for any that might follow in its wake.

Anna (Nielsen) is an American journalist on the ground in Baghdad. Dan (Lewis) is an American intelligence agent and Anna's de facto friend with benefits.

Zaid (Hamada) is an Iraqi photographer who is in love with Anna, but is struggling with the cultural divide between them. When an Iraqi leader and close contact of Anna's is killed in what appears to be a political assassination, Anna and Zaid resolve to break the story, despite the near impenetrable web of political intrigue obscuring it.

Leads, however, prove elusive. Competing factions (corrupt army officials, a regional mayor, a rival mob boss who hopes to unseat him, and a world-weary diplomat who wants nothing more than to leave Iraq) attempt to manipulate Anna, and by extension the U.S. occupiers, to serve their own diverse ends. When the indefatigable reporter finds herself a prisoner in an insurgent army barracks, a perilous chain of events forces a sloppy military intervention that ends badly for just about everyone.

It's apt that the storyline is almost as dense and frustrating as the Iraq war itself. Shady negotiations, shifting allegiances, inscrutable regional politics and the vagaries of war-time politicos are all in abundant evidence.

Blurring conventional good-guy/bad-guy tropes, Haas intimately appreciates each of his characters' independent motives and does a superb job of delivering balanced, even-handed portrayals on all sides.

There's no rah-rah nationalism here, but rather a cold, penetrating look at a situation that is at times so baroquely complex as to defy comprehension. — Eddie Mullins

A New Wave
Prebook 7/26; Street 8/21
ThinkFilm, Comedy, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for pervasive language, some graphic sexual images and brief violence.
Stars Andrew Keegan, Lacey Chabert, John Krasinski, Dean Edwards.

A New Wave shouldn't be confused with the French film movement that spawned Francois Truffaut and other cinematic masters.

And while the characters within A New Wave do appreciate movies, and discuss them in depth, this isn't exactly a scholarly cinematic dissertation.

But as a dry comedy about a dumb bank robbery scheme and the smart guys who act dumb planning it, this is a reasonably smart film.

Keegan plays a bank employee looking for his calling in life. He's an artist and something of a thinker, but he can't get his life on track. So when his film-obsessed roommate suggests a robbery of his buddy's own bank, based on great movie bank robberies that appeared to work well, our hero is tempted.

The planning stages, however, are fraught with missteps, a lot of dime-store philosophy, caustic cultural comments and wry observations on American life. In short, these characters can't figure out why the have-nots can't do better than the haves, especially considering the have-nots are infinitely smarter.

A droll comedy relying on wit more than action, A New Wave is something of a throwback to the 1990s, honoring slackers in all their glory. Hardly a deep think piece, the film gets by on quiet laughs, oddball characters and low-key spirit.

Extras include a behind-the-scenes documentary and a music video. — Dan Bennett

Prebook 7/23; Street 8/28
MPI/Dark Sky, Thriller, $24.98 two-DVD set, $19.98 single-DVD, NR. In German with English subtitles.
Stars Wotan Wilke Möhring, Andr? Hennicke, Heinz Hoenig, Ulrike Krumbiegel.

Few films are as unsettling as Silence of the Lambs, yet writer-director Christian Alvart (currently working on his first American film, Case 39, with Ren?e Zellweger) comes eerily close with his German thriller Antibodies.

Alvart's film is much more than just a gruesome tale of pedophile serial killer Gabriel Engel (a chilling performance by Hennicke). Antibodies really focuses on Michael Martens (Möhring), a small-town cop and farmer, who is trying to connect the murder of a young local girl named Lucia to Engel.

Once Engel is captured in the opening scene — following a dramatic escape attempt that includes taking out a few cops with a shot gun and jumping through a window naked — the country is relieved that his six-year killing spree, which has left more than a dozen people dead, has come to an end.

Now wheelchair bound and behind bars, the killer spends his days coloring on the prison walls in crayon as detectives try to get him to confess to the murders.

But he's reluctant to talk about his penchant for murdering and raping young boys to anyone but Michael. Engel immediately pounces on Michael's naivet?, getting into his head and making him question his faith, while convincing him that someone close to him actually murdered Lucia.

This leaves Michael battling his own demons while trying to unravel the real events that led to Lucia's death.

Antibodies is full of disturbing plot twists and imagery that lead to an ending of biblical proportions — pulling from the story of Abraham and Isaac. The film's complex characters and compelling storyline, juxtaposed against the comforting German countryside, make for a thrilling ride.

The filmmakers also smartly rely on the strength of the characters to take center stage over gore and pure shock value, which makes it more suspenseful and gives it a wider appeal.

It's no wonder Antibodies has caught the attention of audiences and critics at film festivals worldwide, including the Tribeca Film Festival. — Matt Miller

Night Junkies
Street 7/31
Allumination, Horror, $29.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong sexuality/nudity, violence, language and drug content.
Stars Giles Alderson, Katia Winter.

Like the characters portrayed, the vampire genre might never die. Despite the number of truly atrocious vampire movies over the years, the allure still holds for both filmgoers who never seem to tire of stories about the undead feeding off of the living, and filmmakers who seem to welcome the opportunity to breathe new life into the catalog. Night Junkies is one of the freshest, most original, stylish and intelligent vampire films to appear in years.

This deceptively low-budget British film from writer-director Lawrence Pearce is truly wonderful — a thinking man's vampire story that manages to be consistently entertaining while also being revolutionary and revisionist.

The film will both satisfy and surprise fans of the genre, putting a spin on familiar approaches to and perspectives on the nature of vampirism.

Few filmmakers have explored the obvious parallels between the vampire need for human blood and the behavior of living people addicted to other substances as effectively as Pearce.

Pearce does himself a great favor by focusing the incredibly stylish character-driven film on Vincent (Alderson), a moody, philosophical vampire stalking the streets of London. When he meets, befriends, falls in love with and introduces his “disease” to the sexy stripper Ruby (Winter), he is challenged to defend, explain and then promote his condition to her as he draws her into his world.

Word on the street is there is already a big-budget sequel in the works. — David Greenberg

Street 7/24
Genius/Liberation, Comedy, B.O. $0.06 million, $19.95 DVD, ‘R' for sexual content including dialogue, and some drug material.
Stars Leonor Watling, Luis Tosar, Alex Brendem?hl, Mercedes Sampietro, Juanjo Puigcorb?.

Director Joaquin Oristrell may be mining Pedro Almod?var's catalog in Unconscious, but by throwing in a “Masterpiece Theatre”-style mystery, a little gender bending and a whole lotta Freud (both in theory and in person), he creates a film that's tough to resist.

Alma (Watling, who couldn't possibly be cuter) is an expectant mother in 1913 Barcelona who enlists the help of her brother-in-law to find her husband when he runs off in a huff and advises her not to ask any questions.

She inevitably does, and what ensues is a beguiling investigation into a set of case studies her psychiatrist husband used for his thesis.

Unconscious is essentially a battle of the sexes. Half the fun is just watching the thoroughly modern Alma and her conservative brother-in-law face off as new- vs. old-world mentalities.

But the battle occurs not only between the genders, but also within them. Alma's husband and brother-in-law, best friends and married to sisters, are rivals in work, in the boxing ring, in love and in, well, “size.”

Meanwhile her sister worries men, including their father, favor Alma. And while proto-feminist Alma is familiar with Freud and then-modern classic literature, her sister goes further by asking, why should men have all the stature and prestige?

Since this is a Spanish film, expect random nudity, sexual confusion and family secrets aplenty. You should also expect to become completely drawn into this beautifully shot and hilariously acted film, which was nominated for Cannes' 2005 Grand Jury Prize. Billy Gil

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