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Reviews: March 18

18 Mar, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

EveryoneƆs Hero

Everyone's Hero
Street 3/20
Fox, Animated, B.O. $14.5 million, $29.98 DVD, ‘G.'
Voices of Jake T. Austin, Whoopi Goldberg, William H. Macy, Rob Reiner, Raven-Symone, Forest Whitaker, Brian Dennehy, Mandy Patinkin.

I wanted to like this film. It has a lot of heart and an affection for baseball, a game I love. Unfortunately, with its hackneyed plot and overly simplistic message, Everyone's Hero strikes out both as a baseball movie and an animated comedy. In this day and age, do we really need a movie that praises the Yankees and bashes the Cubs?

The plot centers around the 1932 World Series, I'm guessing, because that's when the Yankees played the Cubs. The movie seems more interested in creating an amalgam of the era than identifying a specific event.

Babe Ruth, baseball's star of stars, is effortlessly leading his Yankees to victory with his lucky bat. The Cubs owner arranges for Ruth's bat to be stolen, and the Yankees start to lose. (In actuality, the Yankees swept the '32 series, which was highlighted by Ruth famously “calling his shot,” but I digress.)

Young Yankee Irving (Austin), with the help of a talking baseball (Reiner), sets out on a mission to recover the stolen bat (which also talks, and sounds like Whoopi Goldberg), and learns the value of never giving up.

The movie is filled with other historical liberties and anachronisms. Not that it matters to the filmmakers, who cavort in their commentary as though there weren't real games in the historical record.

Kids won't care about that. They'll likely be swayed by the cutesy characters and heartwarming message. Adults will tune out quickly. Baseball fans will role their eyes, especially at the suggestion that Ruth's greatness came from a magic bat (everyone knows it was a strict diet of hot dogs and booze). The finale is especially ludicrous.

If the film has a legacy, it will be as the last project from the late Christopher Reeve. Most of the people involved perpetuate the notion that the film's message is really about him, and how he continued his career after being paralyzed.

The DVD also has one of those behind-the-scenes features in which everyone involved talks about this being their first attempt at an animated feature. Despite the film being a little old-fashioned, and the landscape of animation having changed since the heyday of Disney, these producers speak as if they invented the genre. It's especially annoying (and a little sad) when the movie they seem to be describing doesn't match what's on screen. John Latchem

The Nativity Story
Street 3/20
New Line, Drama, B.O. $37.6 million, $28.98 DVD, ‘PG' for some violent content.
Stars Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Distancing itself from the traditional spiritual Hollywood epic, The Nativity Story is a fresh perspective on the most familiar birth in history that remains respectfully grounded in tradition.

The film moves away from the serious, deep-voiced narrator long found in rich, cinematic religious-based films, and becomes something grittier and more accessible.

Though a long way from the visceral style of the booming The Passion of the Christ, detailing the crucifixion, The Nativity Story is not fearful of honesty when describing the rough goings surrounding the birth of Jesus.

It starts with the pairing of Mary — played by Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider fame — and Joseph (Isaac) by her father. The story follows Mary's departure from Nazareth to visit her cousin, then returning pregnant following a visit from an angel informing Mary that she will soon carry the son of God.

Those around her, at first disbelieving, accept Mary's claim, demonstrating their faith. Meanwhile, Herod grows paranoid over premonitions of the coming Messiah, and takes tragic actions. Mary and the ever-supportive Joseph flee for Bethlehem, where she gives birth to Jesus, and is visited by the three Magi.

The film arrives in an era when faith-based films are increasingly commonplace in theaters, and is made more distinctive by the visually arresting style of director Catherine Hardwicke, who infuses The Nativity Story with grace, dignity and honesty. She's an unlikely choice, given that her previous films were the teen dramas Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown.

The Nativity Story offers a DVD-ROM function on PC with access to further educational and faith-based learning opportunities, external links and information. — Dan Bennett

Come Early Morning
Street 3/20
Genius/Weinstein, Drama, B.O. $0.1 million, $28.95 DVD, ‘R' for language and some sexual situations.
Stars Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan, Diane Ladd, Stacy Keach, Laura Prepon.

It's been 14 years since Judd first lit up the big screen, playing a girl looking for acceptance in a small town in Ruby in Paradise.

In Come Early Morning, Judd plays Lucy, who finds herself just slightly ahead of a slow-moving train wreck.

Joey Lauren Adams, who was so disarming in the cult favorite Chasing Amy, has written and directed this carefully observed drama about a young woman who hides both her fear of and hunger for intimacy with a long string of meaningless one-night stands.

Lucy is the enabler for her dotty grandmother and self-involved mother. She longs for some small shred of approval or acknowledgement from her distant, bitter, alcoholic father. And she is a flirtatious drunk, picking up strange men and then fleeing in her beat-up pickup truck as soon as she sobers up.

So when one of her nighttime conquests shows some interest in being more to her than a notch on a bedpost, she doesn't know exactly how to handle his attention.

Judd is just wonderful as the world-weary Lucy, so competent at her job, so reliably available to her dysfunctional family, and so emotionally damaged. In a performance free of fireworks or showy emotional moments, she manages to make the self-destructive young woman almost heroic.

Also very good is Donovan, who sees something in Lucy but ultimately is unable to make her see him clearly, unclouded by her assumptions.

Like life in the sleepy town it depicts, Come Early Morning moves at a leisurely pace and nothing much actually happens. But viewers interested in insightful character studies will enjoy this small but moving film. — Anne Sherber

Maude: The Complete First Season
Street 3/20
Sony Pictures, Comedy, $29.95 DVD, Rating.
Stars Bea Arthur, Andrienne Barbeau, Bill Macy, Conraid Bain, Rue McClanahan, Esther Rolle.

How daring this sitcom must have seemed in 1972, pressing its core characters with real-world issues. Exploring relevant themes was something a lot of shows simply didn't do back then. “All in the Family” and its spinoffs, “Maude” included, were hugely popular because they weren't afraid to take on taboos.

Today, with all the cable channels and a relaxing of standards, it's hard to believe there are any taboos left for television to exploit. Then again, where would TV be today without shows such as “Maude”?

It's still entertaining, exuding an old-fashioned timelessness.

In its day, “Maude” served as a natural counterpoint to “All in the Family.” While that show exposed Archie Bunker's bigotry for all to see, “Maude” has equal fun depicting its main character as a caricature of the so-called bleeding-heart liberal.

Maude (Arthur) is a middle-age feminist living with her fourth husband (Macy), her daughter (Barbeau) and grandson. While Maude's overt liberalism stands front and center, it also sometimes gets her into trouble.

In “Maude Meets Florida,” for example, Maude spends so much effort trying to remind everyone that her new black housekeeper (Rolle) should be seen as an equal that she hardly lets the poor woman do her job (yes, that Florida, from “Good Times”).

Then, of course, comes the famous two-parter in which Maude learns she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion. The situation is handled with maturity, yet still with a pervasive sense of unease. Even today, the controversy remains; this is not a subject that gets a lot of play on TV shows.

Lamentably, there are no bonus features in the boxed set. I would have hoped for at least some retrospective interviews or a reunion special, especially considering the historic value of these episodes. Maybe for season two. John Latchem

Off the Black
Prebook 3/22; Street 4/17
ThinkFilm, Drama, B.O. $0.02 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for a crude sexual remark.
Stars Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan, Timothy Hutton, Sally Kirkland.

The phrase “independent film” has become a major marketing tool to describe movies that do not conform to the rules of mainstream formulaic films clogging multiplexes.

Indie films tend to march to the beat of their own drummer, if they even have a beat. Indies are supposed to be an alternative to conventional run-of-the-mill style movies, but too many follow the same formulas and paradigms the big-budget studio films adhere to, merely spicing things up with “offbeat” characters and settings rather than challenging viewer expectations.

So, it is oddly refreshing to come across the tiny gem Off The Black, which is small in scale, modest in its ambitions, so richly realized, beautifully rendered and deeply affecting.

The film is refreshing because it is not a wildly energetic or animated stand-up-and-cheer type of piece. Rather, the film is low-key and leisurely paced, gently guiding the audience into the world of the film rather than having it shoved down their throats.

As Ray, an aging junkman and umpire at high-school baseball games, Nolte lumbers and rasps into a role that few actors of his stature could embody as convincingly, totally portraying the few ups and many downs of this character's sad and lonely life.

Into this world comes Dave (Morgan) a sensitive and thoughtful teenager abandoned by his mother and left with his emotionally paralyzed father (Hutton) and needy sister.

Plain and simple, Ray needs a son (to accompany him to his 40-year high-school reunion) and Dave needs a father. The relationship and bond that develops between the two guys is a beautiful and rare thing to see in film these days — genuine platonic love between two men. It is the stuff of genuinely independent film. — David Greenberg

Succubus: Hell-Bent
Prebook 3/20; Street 4/17
Universal/Screen Media, Horror, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for sexual content, violence and language.
Stars Kelly Hu, Gary Busey, Lorenzo Lamas, Robert L. Mann, David Keith, Jayson Blair, Natalie Denise Sperl.

Succubus: Hell-Bent is an entertaining ‘B'-movie about a boy who meets a girl, has sex with her and dumps her without realizing she is a demon with a mean revenge streak.

Adam (newcomer Mann) is a spoiled trust-fund baby who lives to party. While vacationing in Cancun with his best friend Jason (Blair), Adam is knocked off his feet by the beautiful Lilith (Sperl).

After sweet-talking his way into Lilith's heart, the two have a wild one-night stand. Lilith tells Adam how much she loves him and asks Adam to say that he loves her back. Completely freaked out by this, Adam leaves Lilith without saying goodbye and heads back to Los Angeles.

Big mistake. Lilith tracks him down and interrupts him while he is having a three-way. She proclaims he can never leave her, and she will do whatever it takes to keep them together, even if that means killing anyone who gets in her way.

As the body count piles up, Adam is the prime suspect. With the police and his own father not believing him, Adam resorts to desperate measures by enlisting a demon hunter (Busey).

It's got violence, over-the-top acting and hot chicks. Plus, it's full of recognizable actors such as Lamas, Keith (currently on TV's “The Class”), Hu (X2) and the always-entertaining Busey, whose scene alone is worth the price of a rental. There also are some very impressive dogfight sequences reminiscent of Top Gun.

The filmmakers are definitely targeting high-school and college-age males. Succubus hits all the right notes for a straight-to-video rental and makes for great late-night viewing. — Jonathan Rosenbloom

El Cortez
Street 3/27
Monarch, Thriller, $26.95 DVD, ‘R' for language, sexuality, some violence and drug content.
Stars Lou Diamond Phillips, Tracy Middendorf, Bruce Wietz, James McDaniel, Peter Onorati.

Welcome to El Cortez, a late-night snack of film noir that is plenty entertaining, even if it isn't as smart as it wants to be.

The film's namesake is a seedy Reno hotel where no good seems to come in or out. Autistic, soft-spoken Manny (Phillips) runs the front desk with a smile and genuine politeness. You'd never guess he's fresh out of a prison for the criminally insane, for murder.

While Manny seems to want nothing more than to forget his past and go about his duties quietly, guests start to take interest in him, perhaps wanting to take advantage of his gentle nature and condition. Among these are Popcorn (Weitz), a crippled prospector who gets Manny to help him convince a wealthy gambler to invest in his gold mine, and Theda (Middendorf), whose interest in Manny aggravates her violent, drug-dealing boyfriend.

When Manny inadvertently becomes involved with these shady dealings, the cop who originally arrested him decides to use Manny to capture Theda's boyfriend. Manny is torn between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to help Theda, to whom he can't deny his attraction.

The premise has elements of silliness (a gold mine?), but it's enough to keep viewers interested throughout. The dialogue lacks much humor, but is delivered well by a fine cast.

The film's glossiness, acting and plot turns have to make up for an ending that's puzzling, and not in a good way. Each of the twists is easy enough to keep track of, but when all the loose ends are tied together, it just doesn't really make sense.

Phillips is great, giving steely glances that undermine his soft tone, showing he still has plenty to offer since his initial run of popularity, which culminated with such 1980s films as Stand and Deliver, La Bamba and Young Guns.

El Cortez is great for those who like sexy, twisty thrillers that don't need much substance. It's also great for Phillips fans, or for anyone who wants to see him naked. Billy Gil

Prebook 3/20; Street 4/17
Victory Multimedia, Childrens, $19.99 DVD, NR.

In the spirit of Animal Planet's annual Puppy Bowl, Pro Quality DVD offers Puppytown.Geared for the preschool and kindergarten set, the DVD features images of puppies, a Puppy Quiz (with reward stickers) and a CD. When you think about it, there are plenty of programs that teach kids about exotic animals they'll never own (how many kids have a whale?), but not many that try to teach responsible pet ownership.

The main program is 35 minutes of kid-friendly songs set to images of puppies doing their favorite things — playing with balls and ropes, in pails, chewing, tugging, napping — with youngsters introducing each song.

After the fun, the DVD addresses puppy-care basics such as feeding, and poop-scooping and “puppy rules.” It smartly offers “play once” or “loop” options to make parents happy, as well as chapter breaks.

The on-screen quiz requires only a standard DVD remote. The eight questions are simple and based on the program content. Successfully answering the quiz unlocks a special song. Other segments are an “interactive puppy” feature reviewing puppy body parts and a parents feature explaining the content.

The CD has all the songs from the DVD. About half are new words to public-domain tunes. The parent feature encourages the take-along aspect, but it's not a stretch to consider using the lullaby at bedtime as well.

Overall, it's a good choice for parents considering getting a puppy, or trying to impress a small child with the responsibilities attendant with getting that pup they've been asking for. It might also be a good idea to get a plush puppy and have the child go through the motions of care taught on the disc for a week or two to determine when he or she is ready to help raise a dog. — Holly J. Wagner

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