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Reviews: March 11

11 Mar, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness
Street 3/27
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $162.6 million, $28.95 DVD/UMD, $38.96 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13' for some language.
Stars Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton.

The Pursuit of Happyness is a sappy film extolling the virtues of hard work, perseverance and never letting go of your dreams. But it's done with class and makes for an excellent DVD.

Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a man who trades life as an unsuccessful medical-equipment salesman for a highly competitive stockbroker internship. Forced with barely making ends meet to support his young son, his slim chance of succeeding in the program sounds like a better option.

You can't help but root for these guys, and knowing how it's going to end doesn't detract from every heart-wrenching, hair-pulling frustration they face.

This is, by far, Smith's most-demanding role to date, and he succeeds admirably, showing almost too much restraint as the resourceful but unlucky Gardner. His real-life son Jaden is remarkably natural playing his film son, Christopher, who follows Gardner to the streets when their money runs out.

The featurette “Father and Son: Onscreen and Off” makes the case that the casting of Jaden occurred only after auditioning more than 200 other children; he proved to be the best choice.

The film's best performance is given by Newton, who takes what could have been a two-dimensional, unsympathetic character and shows us the unhappy woman underneath, exhausted by working double shifts to support Gardner.

Of course, without the immensely likeable Smiths, and Italian director Gabrielle Muccino, who doesn't skimp on the details in shooting San Francisco's neighborhoods, the film could have been rosy hogwash. “Making Pursuit: An Italian Take on the American Dream” delves into how Muccino, little-known to American audiences, came to helm a big-budget film with a huge star.

Among the featurettes, “The Man Behind the Movie: Meet the Real Chris Gardner” is the most rewarding. It includes an in-depth interview with the man who wrote the novel upon which the film was based. Not only is it a rare chance to get a clear view of the real person behind a truth-based film, it allows viewers to see how impressively close Smith was able to portray both Gardner's story and manner. Billy Gil

Harsh Times
Street 3/13
Genius/Weinstein, Drama, B.O. $3.3 million, $28.95 DVD, ‘R' for strong violence, language and drug use.
Stars Christian Bale, Eva Longoria, Freddy Rodriguez, J.K. Simmons, Tammy Trull.

Fans of Bale definitely will want to add this DVD to their collection. Ditto for admirers of Rodriguez and Longoria.

Set in South Central L.A., Harsh Times delivers non-stop energy and suspense. Bale (Batman Begins and American Psycho), who also executive-produced, gives a superb performance as Jim Davis, a psychotic former Army Ranger who returns from a tour of duty with dreams of being a cop.

But the LAPD rejects his bid, leaving Davis to spend his days drinking and cruising around L.A. with his buddy Mike (Rodriguez), who also is unemployed and searching for work. Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”) gives a surprisingly strong supporting performance as Mike's wife.

Other notable performances come from Trull, as Davis' girlfriend, and veteran character actor Simmons (Spider-Man, “Law & Order”).

The film was written and directed by David Ayer, best known for his script for Training Day, which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar. Harsh Times has a similar vibe.

Ayer's commentary is the best of the bonus materials. He offers viewers excellent insight into the techniques he and his crew used, explains some of the inside jokes in the film and offers pointed personal observations of how he developed Harsh Times.

L.A. residents in particular will enjoy the commentary, as Ayers points out several different locations throughout the city where certain sequences were filmed. — Benny Lopez

Life of the Party
Prebook 3/15; Street 4/10
ThinkFilm, Comedy, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for language.
Stars Ellen Pompeo, Eion Bailey, John Ales, Clifton Collins Jr., Larry Miller.

Much like the sad clown at the center of her story, writer-director Barra Grant presents this tale of alcoholism and redemption as a double-edged demon, a drama masquerading as a comedy.

While drunkenness has certainly been played for laughs throughout the history of movies, rarely, if ever, has genuine, profound alcoholism been portrayed in the context of a comedy.

Bailey (“ER,” “Band of Brothers”) delivers an engaging performance as a complicated, deeply troubled and oddly appealing man, Michael, whose risky behavior threatens to interfere with his career, if not his relationships and, in fact, his physical existence.

Two weeks after he forgets their anniversary, his wife (Pompeo of “Grey's Anatomy”) decides it is time for her to move on. She accepts a job offer in another city, and Michael panics.

One totaled vintage Mustang and a stay in the hospital later, Michael's wife, close friends and co-workers decide that it is time to say “when” and intervene. After consulting with a psychiatrist (Miller) about how to stage an intervention by gathering friends and family and confronting Michael, the stage is set for the healing to begin.

When the psychiatrist never shows up, they try to proceed without him, resulting in physical and emotional chaos.

If that scenario sounds more like a drama than a comedy, it is because the literate description of the plot cannot approximate the unusually light but oddly realistic tone of the film. There are clearly important life or death issues at hand here, but such major issues are rarely treated with such a comedic eye as they are here.

Comedy, in general, goes down easier than drama, and this film proves to be an effective model, tackling a difficult topic by making the exploration of it that much more palatable. — David Greenberg

Save the Wonder Pets!
Prebook 3/13; Street 4/24
Paramount/Nickelodeon, Childrens, $16.99 DVD, NR.

“Wonder Pets!” is an unusual blend of photo-collage-style animation and music that offers smaller viewers the idea that anyone can be a superhero when surrounded by a team of friends.

Linny the Guinea Pig, Ming-Ming Duckling and Turtle Tuck live in a school classroom. When animals out in the world require rescuing, the trio of everyday heroes receive a call on their tin-can phone, escape from their cages and head out on a mission in their flying boat.

In their first “full-length” story (full-length being about a half-hour — long enough to test any toddler's attention span), the three Wonder Pets find themselves in need of rescuing after being swallowed by a whale. Luckily, their previous rescuees hear their calls and come to their aid.

This is the type of show that'll reel in preschool fans but could send parents running for the door.

The teamwork and friendship lessons are solid, and viewers will learn facts about animals. But the Broadway-style singing of nearly every line and the unusual animation style are something to get used to.

Admirably, the creators have enlisted some major composing and orchestral talent for the tunes, and it's likely that kids will sing along, especially during the many repeated refrains.

Accompanying this DVD story are six extra episodes in which Linny, Ming-Ming and Tuck rescue a hedgehog, a crocodile, a sea lion and other creatures. These extra episodes make the price of the DVD more worthwhile for parents who will want the most watchability for their cash.

With seven “rescues” to choose from, kids are sure to find a favorite. — Laura Tiffany

Le Petit Lieutenant
Prebook 3/13; Street 4/24
Koch Lorber, Drama, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.98 DVD, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Jalil Lespert, Nathalie Baye.

The difference between French and American films can be quite stark. Le Petit Lieutenant is by turns plodding and engrossing, and for fans of crime-drama, it's a toss-up whether the film will be a turn-off or revelatory.

Appealing newcomer Lespert plays Antoine, a rookie detective who chooses a life of excitement in Paris over being stationed with his wife out in the country. His new job brings him “CSI”-worthy cases involving drugs, autopsies and homeless murderers.

Joining with Antoine at around the same time is Caroline (Baye), who returns as a commander after a three-year absence largely due to alcoholism. They strike up a quick friendship — Antoine says he sometimes doesn't know what to do with himself when work is over, and he reminds Caroline of a son she lost.

Antoine recognizes a body found floating in the Seine River as that of a junkie some of his comrades once pulled in. The investigation that ensues ends up costing everyone involved dearly.

Until a tragic event occurs halfway through the film, Le Petit Lieutenant is slow. The dialogue's great, terrifically dry and natural in a typically French way, but it's all set up.

The second half pulls viewers into the murder case, and further into Caroline's damaged psyche. While there are some poignant moments, the film hints at a range of themes such as loss, redemption, racism and societal obsession with violence, without delving far into either personal or social commentary.

Baye, a celebrated actress, succeeds in creating a sympathetic portrayal without trying too hard. But at times she seems under-directed, as if she's been told to look pained and vacant and leave it at that.

Ultimately, a viewer's appreciation for snappy French dialogue, subtle characters and situational dramas without easy resolutions will determine an appreciation for Le Petit Lieutenant. — Billy Gil

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant
Street 3/27
MTI, Adventure, $24.95 DVD, ‘R' for violence including rape, sexuality and some nudity.
Stars Romola Garai, Jack Davenport, Alex O'Loughlin, Sam Neill.

Given its title, you might think this is about Mary Bryant, one of the first British convicts to be transported to the Botany Bay colony, and the 3,500-mile voyage she took from Australia to Timor when she escaped with her companions.

The journey in this 2005 Australian miniseries, however, is less physical than psychological. More important to the movie, and far more interesting than the prisoners navigating the perilous reefs and open seas, is Mary navigating the path from manipulative petty thief to tough but selfless leader and icon.

English actress Garai vigorously captures Mary's flintiness and vulnerability.

Mary is convicted of theft in England in 1786 and shipped to Australia, bearing a daughter on the way. She's wooed by a convicted smuggler, Will Bryant (O'Loughlin), and obsessed over by the captain of the transport ship, Lt. Clarke (Davenport, in a role very much like his sullen Capt. Norrington in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series).

As the colony grows, Will and Mary wed and add a son to their family. But, within a couple of years, the colony is on the brink of starvation. Mary, now thinking more of her children than herself, plots an escape in a small boat belonging to the colony governor (Neill).

The convicts barely escape, but not all of them live to reach the Dutch colony at Timor. Those who do pass themselves off as castaways while awaiting a ship back to England.

Clarke also is on his way home, obsessed with finding Mary and sending her back to England to hang.

Aside from the transformations the escapees undergo from murderers and thieves to reformed members of society, The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant contains plenty of exotic locales and 18th century finery to attract and please fans of A&E and “Masterpiece Theatre.” — Mark Lowe

The Pleasure Drivers
Street 3/13
Starz/Union Station, Thriller, $26.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Angus MacFadyen, Lauren Holly, Lacy Chabert, Billy Zane, Meat Loaf.

A multi-character oddity vaguely reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and other tough-talking ensemble dramas with loads of dark comedy, The Pleasure Drivers is virtually fearless.

Numerous out-of-sorts characters converge in this Los Angeles-based story, including a caregiver (Holly) who has had it with the cheapskate ways of her employer. That man (Zane) is a charismatic cult leader who refuses to pay for his son's care, and instead keeps his vast earnings to himself. The situation prompts the caregiver to kidnap her patient's odd younger sister as a way to get Dad to pay attention.

In a parallel story, an obsessive-compulsive psychology professor (MacFadyen) is left by his wife for another woman, prompting him to take an unexpected road trip with a sex-crazed student (Chabert).

Also in the mix are a pajama-clad drug dealer (Meat Loaf), a lesbian assassin and a crazy call girl. All of them ultimately meet in the desert, where things shake out in a violently comic way, debts are settled, and old-fashioned justice is dealt.

It's not surprising that The Pleasure Drivers enjoys a Tarantino-style feel to it, as the director is Adrzej Sekula, who was the cinematographer on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

The Pleasure Drivers refuses to classify itself as funny or tragic, but finds the places in between, with plenty of violence, humor, sex, confrontations and occasional poignancy to keep its viewers off balance.

It's a wild road-trip kind of story, if not memorable for the long term, then certainly packing an eye-opening wallop for the short. — Dan Bennett

The Bridesmaid
Street 3/20
First Run, Thriller, B.O. $0.1 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Beno?t Magimel, Laura Smet.

The Bridesmaid is a capable, if disjointed, thriller with a shocking secret. Like a Polanski thriller, unsettling little clues are woven in to build tension and help us put the pieces together. When we finally do, we're left with a disturbing vision of how far some people will go to prove and keep love.

At his younger sister's wedding, Philippe (Magimel) meets bridesmaid Senta (Smet), a cousin of the groom, who first brushes him off then shows up at his hotel room to seduce him. To say she's mysterious understates the fact, and we soon learn she has a lot of skeletons in her closet.

Senta keeps him off balance, but each time he goes home, he is consumed by his odd attachment to a statue of classical beauty.

As their whirlwind courtship progresses, Senta tells Philippe there are four things a person must do to really live: plant a tree, write a poem, make love to someone of one's own sex and kill someone. He's OK with the first two but struggles with the others.

Insecure Senta won't be deterred, so he tells her he's responsible for a murder reported in the newspapers. Instead of putting the topic to rest, it fuels Senta's intrigue. She feels compelled to prove her love for Philippe, with horrifying and sociopathic results.

A dramatic subplot about Philippe's family seems incidental for most of the film, except to set the stage for the romance at its core. It's a typical dysfunctional family, part “Dawson's Creek,” part “Arrested Development,” in French. — Holly J. Wagner

Flannel Pajamas
Prebook 3/13; Street 4/10
Hart Sharp, Drama, B.O. $0.1 million, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language.
Stars Julianne Nicholson, Justin Kirk, Rebecca Schull, Stephanie March.

Flannel Pajamas is an intense and compelling examination of a nearly three-year relationship between two thirtysomething New Yorkers, beginning with their first date and winding through the peaks and valleys of modern love in a raw, almost painful way.

The film, which owes much to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, is told as a series of vignettes meant to illustrate the ways in which the pair moves through the stages of their relationship, how they are with each other and with the other people in their lives and, ultimately, which obstacles to their success as a couple can be overcome and which can't.

The film makes voyeurs of its audience, which witnesses the couple's private, naked (both literally and figuratively) moments as they move forward — meeting each other's families, shopping for a wedding dress and struggling at work.

Nicholson and Kirk both give courageous performances, mining the ebb and flow of the film's central relationship for an entire spectrum of emotion.

Of the satellite characters, Schull stands out especially, as Nicholson's mother, telling Kirk, in one particularly chilling scene, exactly why she believes he is bad for her daughter.

Flannel Pajamas falls squarely into the small, indie, not-for-everybody category. There is very frank talk of sexuality, and full nudity, both female and male. But for customers with a taste for sophisticated films that are off the beaten track, Flannel Pajamas may be a good fit. — Anne Sherber

Cruel World
Street 3/13
Indican, Horror, B.O. $0.02 million, $24.99 DVD, ‘R' for strong sadistic violence and gore, language and some sexuality.
Stars Edward Furlong, Andrew Keegan, Susan Ward, Jaime Pressly, Joel Michaely, Aimee Garcia, Sanoe Lake, Brian Geraghty, Daniel Franzese, Nicole Bilderback, Nate Parker.

Cruel World disguises itself as social commentary about the mind-numbing effects of society's overdose of reality TV, but it's really just another horny teenager movie.

Furlong stars as the Philip, a psychotic reality-TV star who is still reeling about being dumped by Catherine (Pressly) on the nationally televised finale of “Lover's Lane” — some sort of cross between “Joe Millionaire” and “The Bachelorette.”

It seems Catherine and her new hubby still live in the house from the show, and have decided to rent it out to the producers of a new reality series.

Turns out the only producer is Philip, and he's a little anxious to clear out the house before the arrival of his guests, a group of eager college kids whose expectations of reality-show competition cloud their judgment and blind them to what is really going on.

The mansion is isolated in some backwater desert community that seems to have only one road and two cops, so Philip is pretty much free to subject these patsies to whatever punishment he sees fit. His concept of a reality show is a combination of “Big Brother” and “Fear Factor,” although eliminated contestants aren't just sent home … they're killed off.

In this regard, the movie lacks any subtlety whatsoever. We know who the killer is, and the victims basically are interchangeable. The tension is minimal, leaving us waiting for the next grisly death scene. The film is mostly just an exercise in cruelty, like a reality-show version of Saw.

The packaging touts Pressly's involvement as a major role, although in actuality it's little more than a cameo. Just when salivating teenage boys might be disappointed at this development, the film serves up the luscious Ward as consolation — not a bad trade-off. John Latchem

Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave
Street 3/20
Lionsgate, Horror, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong violence/gore, sexuality, nudity, drug use and language.
Stars Peter Coyote, Aimee-Lynn Chadwick, John Keefe, Cory Hardrict.

This fifth installment in the “Return of the Living Dead” franchise dropped the “5” from the title. Let's face it, you didn't need to see the first four films to catch on to the plot of this edition.

For those who did see the fourth film, Necropolis, Coyote makes a brief cameo return in this one, and Chadwick also returns, with a larger role.

The twist in this installment, which has graduated from high school to college, is that you don't have to be dead to eat brains. The chemists at this university seem to be brainiacs when it comes to creating drugs. After finding a few drums of Trioxin in the attic, a group of coeds creates a designer drug out of the undeadly toxin.

Take one pill, and you get a great high. Take a few pills, and you're dead and ready for a brain buffet.

The undead come to life right from the get-go of this film. With a Halloween rave the centerpiece of the movie, there are plenty of zombies making more zombies in the film's 86 minutes.

This being a “Return of the Living Dead” movie, there are also ample topless girls (and zombies) and plenty of campy humor. The acting's bad, as can be expected, and the plot's predictable; but the movie does serve up plenty of blood and gore.

The make-up effects are decent — and it's obvious from the cast of unknown actors that's where most of the budget went, especially given the locations shot in Romania and Ukraine.

“Return of the Living Dead” is a horror franchise that has loyal fans, and this film is a lot better than some other horror-rave DVDs out there, including House of the Dead.

Fans who enjoy the campy zombie antics of this franchise won't be disappointed, but it is getting a little long in the tooth. As much as I enjoy undead movies, this franchise is literally on its last legs. And it doesn't take someone with a brain to see that. — John Gaudiosi

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