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Reviews: March 25

25 Mar, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Children of Men

Children of Men
Street 3/27
Universal, Thriller, B.O. $35.3 million, $29.98 DVD, $39.98 HD DVD, ‘R' for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity.
Stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Director Alfonso Cuar?n's effective and entertaining Children of Men presents a gritty future borne of a hopeless humanity facing imminent extinction.

An unknown epidemic has rendered women infertile, and it has been 18 years since the most recent birth. By 2027, the world has descended into chaos, and the last bastion of civilization, Great Britain, is a fascist state on the verge of civil war.

Theo (Owen) has long since stopped caring about anything, and has resorted to counting down mankind's final days. Things change when he is kidnapped by a former lover (Moore) who is leading the resistance. She tasks Theo with protecting a young girl who by some miracle has gotten pregnant. If they can somehow get the girl to the enigmatic Human Project, humanity can be saved.

In the background, the film deals with such topics as illegal immigration and terrorism, extensions of our modern world rendered infertile by fear. The DVD includes programs that analyze the film's various themes and how they relate to the present.

Hand-held cameras transmit the action, and their frenetic movements add to the lack of security these characters feel. Cuar?n lets many scenes play out in continuous cuts, heightening the sense of reality. In one six-minute street battle, Theo dodges gunfire through encampments, into a building and up the stairs, and the camera does not cut away, even when blood splatters on it. Behind-the-scenes footage informs us as to how they shot certain scenes, and we know there must be wipes to join different takes, but we cannot find them.

One of the most astonishing shots in the film is the realistic-looking birth of the miracle child, if only because actually timing a live childbirth to coincide with a film's storyline would be exceedingly difficult. Fortunately, the filmmakers had the foresight to include a featurette explaining how they faked it. John Latchem

Street 4/3
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $12.7 million, $28.95 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray, ‘R' for some sexual content and language. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Stars Pen?lope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave.

If writer-director Pedro Almod?var has become so reliably brilliant he can make great films in his sleep, Volver is his most dreamlike film to date.

Almod?var is a fan of twisting together multiple storylines and various intertwined pasts, but keeping this film focused on one family makes it his most intimate, and likely most personal. It's definitely his most subdued and mature film; instead of a big payoff ending, the joy in the film comes from watching a cast of talented actresses interact with some of the best, funniest dialogue.

I won't give away secrets, but the film, in typical Almod?var fashion, is loaded with them.

Cruz plays Raimunda, whose parents died in a fire when she was younger. She is raising a teenage daughter while watching over her senile aunt. Raimunda also may be aided by the ghost of her mother, back to rectify what she couldn't while living.

Cruz couldn't be livelier, sexier or better as Raimunda. If you have any doubt, watch the commentary where Almod?var points out the various times Cruz astounded him by adopting tics appropriate to Raimunda's character that he himself did not ask for.

The AFI tribute to Cruz reveals that she didn't mind wearing a false rear end in the film because it was appropriate to the character.

The film's commentary curiously finds Almod?var in a tranquil state, far different from his famously vivacious personality, perhaps because he's completely focused on pointing out subtleties in the film viewers may miss the first time around. Cruz chimes in with mostly personal comments about her own favorite scenes and interactions with the other actors.

Some of the cast interviews aren't shot well and have sketchy audio. Others are more fun on the recently released Viva Pedro boxed set.

The real draw here is the film, a beautiful elegy to family and the solidarity of women. With a cast this fantastic, it's no wonder all of the actresses involved shared the best-actress honor at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Billy Gil

Black Christmas
Street 4/3
Genius/Weinstein, Horror, B.O. $16.2 million, $29.95 DVD, Available in ‘R' and unrated versions.
Stars Michelle Trachtenberg, Lacey Chabert, Katie Cassidy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andrea Martin, Kristen Cloke, Crystal Lowe, Oliver Hudson.

For a movie set in a sorority house, and with its bevy of young starlets, Black Christmas is shockingly lacking in sex and nudity.

Many horror fans will remember Bob Clark's original 1974 Black Christmas for introducing a lot of conventions now taken for granted in the genre. However, where the original was clever, subtle and creepy, the remake is excessive and over the top.

For those needing exposition, a serial killer breaks into a sorority house during Christmas break and begins killing the girls who stuck around, phoning the survivors to leave obscene messages.

The original kept the identity of the killer ambiguous. The new version adds a lengthy backstory about an abused boy named Billy, who once lived in the house now occupied by the sorority, until he snapped, killed his parents and wound up in a mental ward. Also, Billy is given yellow skin, probably because the effect looked so cool in Sin City.

Seeing Billy's story in flashbacks eliminates any surprise in the final sequences, which border on being laughable. There are several alternate endings on the DVD, any of which could have been used with no questions asked.

The remake is not very creative in its death scenes, which mostly involve some variation of being stabbed in the head. The victims' eyes are then plucked out, capping 2006 as the year of the popping eyeball (see “House,” “Deadwood”). One death involving an ice crystal is particularly ridiculous, putting writer-director Glen Morgan back in Final Destination territory.

Morgan's last effort as director was another remake, 2003's Willard, which grossed $8.5 million worldwide on a $22 million budget (according to IMDb.com). In one interview on the DVD, Morgan laments that if Black Christmas didn't make any money, he may never be allowed to direct anything again.

Well, the film grossed $19.7 million worldwide, which isn't great, but it's more than double the reportedly $9 million budget, so he just might be able to keep his day job. John Latchem

Bottom of the Ninth
Street 3/27
Facets, Sports, $19.95 DVD, NR.

“A few players on the New Jersey Somerset Patriots have played in the majors. Most never will.”

This opening line introduces us to the independent minor league baseball team at the center of the film, with characters reminiscent of those in Bull Durham, minus the hotshot bonus baby.

Early on, we meet some of the ballplayers on this team through interviews and personal testimonies. We also meet the crusty manager, former Major League relief ace Sparky Lyle, and team pitching coach John “The Count” Montefusco, also a former big leaguer. Both offer a unique perspective, having been in the major leagues, and they also provide humorous input and anecdotes along the way.

The main story is that of the players themselves. We begin with opening day, and progress quickly through the Patriots' season.

We get to know a little bit more about the ballplayers and their personal baseball journeys, from when they were young to where they are now. You empathize with them, knowing they're not the most talented players and that they truly are playing for the love of the game, and the hope of making it to the big leagues, however slim the chances.

They're a pretty good team and make it to the playoffs, and you find yourself rooting for them all the way to the very last game. Then, the season ends, and it is back to the uncertainty of the players' futures.

This is a heartwarming documentary that will have baseball and non-baseball fans alike cheering. The DVD comes with both an “Original Version,” complete with colorful language, as well as a “Modified Version,” for those who choose not to listen to the locker-room talk. — Derek Rodriguez

The Lost Room
Street 4/3
Lionsgate, Sci-Fi, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Peter Krause, Julianna Marguiles, Kevin Pollak, Elle Fanning, April Grace, Peter Jacobson, Roger Bart, Margaret Cho and Tim Guinee.

No matter how bizarre a fictional world, adhering to a well-conceived set of rules and maintaining continuity can make even the strangest storylines seem natural. Such is the essence of science-fiction and fantasy, from “Star Wars” to “Star Trek” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The latest in a long line of mythology-heavy creations, The Lost Room, adds a dense layer of wacky to an otherwise simple plot of a man searching for his daughter. But the miniseries — part “Twilight Zone” with a dash of “X-Files” — is fueled by such a rich premise that it can't help but be compelling.

Joe (Krause) has found a mysterious key that turns any door into a portal to a motel room hidden in a limbo between alternate realities. From there, he can transport to any other door in the world. The room also houses about 100 mundane items that in our world have strange and alluring powers. Cabals compete with each other to collect the objects and analyze their significance to the bigger picture.

Close the door on an object in the room, and it returns to a pre-set position. Anything not native to the room disappears. Joe's daughter is accidentally reset in this manner, and he sets off to discover how to get her back.

The powers of the various objects are random, and some seem more useful than others. A comb that can stop time seems more handy than a clock that sublimates brass.

Part of the fun is understanding how the objects interact, and guessing how they could be used to solve particular dilemmas.

Krause, of “Sports Night” and “Six Feet Under,” is understated as Joe, hitting the notes of desperation early, then easing back as he too is drawn into the deeper underworld of the objects.

He uncovers great mysteries about an event that shook the fabric of reality, but the miniseries only hints as to what it could be. True answers may come if The Lost Room becomes a full series, and I hope it does. John Latchem

Small Town Conspiracy
Prebook 4/3; Street 4/24
Echo Bridge, Mystery, $19.99 DVD, Rating.
Stars Zen Gesner, William Morgan Sheppard, Jeanetta Arnette.

Opening in a sleepy Florida town before World War II, it becomes apparent early that the seemingly routine murder mystery unfolding could lead to the biggest of wars.

Small Town Conspiracy presents the alleged true story of a Florida-based military conspiracy stumbled upon by a novice sheriff — a conspiracy to hide information concerning the coming attack on Pearl Harbor, so as to awaken the United States from its global complacency.

The story begins with new Florida City sheriff John Haleran (Gesner) compelled by duty to investigate the murder of a beautiful young Japanese woman. With only small clues to work with, Haleran begins his search, leading him to a military base in Florida, where it becomes obvious some kind of cover-up is happening.

As Haleran moves deeper into the investigation, he unwittingly becomes closer to danger, as he slowly uncovers a plot to assassinate an important government official. The official stands in the way of pro-war types working behind the scenes to make certain the Pearl Harbor attack occurs.

Small Town Conspiracy ends with that attack, spending most of its time as a mystery yarn set in the South, a place — at least according to this film — where eccentric characters are around every corner.

The film is rich in period detail and gives several actors the opportunity to turn things up a notch with steal-the-moment scenes. How much of Small Town Conspiracy is true and how much is adjusted for the sake of dramatics is known mostly to the filmmakers and history buffs, but this version is an engrossing mystery that provokes with its implications. — Dan Bennett

The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie
Street 4/3
Paramount/Nickelodeon, Family, $16.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff.

Antoine de Saint-Exup?ry wrote in The Little Prince that “Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

Nat and Alex Wolff, equal parts charming and adorable, are two happy-go-lucky pre-teens who just happen to have a hot band, the Silver Boulders, to support their posh New York lifestyle. But how long can they last?

These kids have talent, there's no denying that. In addition to performing the songs, 9-year-old Nat also wrote most of them.

Trouble is brewing when another band-member writes a song called “Boys Rule, Girls Drool.” It's a natural song for a pre-teen boy-band to come up with. Yet Nat rejects the idea, realizing it would alienate most of their core audience. The band members who aren't brothers resent the direction Nat is taking them, and split off to form their own group, the Gold Boulders.

Nat and Alex take the break-up hard, but soon realize the best way to bounce back is to re-form their old band (from when they were toddlers), The Naked Brothers. The two bands are destined to collide on tour, but is America ready for both?

The overall story finds inspiration from The Beatles, down to Nat's fake British accent that pops up whenever he nervously talks to girls.

Adults will find a few references to smile at, but the targeted kiddie audience will eat it up, especially in light of the popularity of the follow-up series.

Though it moves along at a leisurely pace, The Naked Brothers Band movie takes delight in pushing its young stars through the kiddie equivalents of adult problems.

Alex, for example, tries to ease the burden of the band's breakup through an addiction to lemon-lime soda, then checks into rehab. What is a 6-year-old to do?

A CD sampler is included with the DVD. Given the movie's reliance on music, it's a good extra value. The songs are catchy and infectious, so it's easy to see why kids like them. John Latchem

Following Sean
Street 3/27
Docurama, Documentary, $26.95 DVD, NR.

Most documentary fans are familiar with Michael Apted's “Up” series that revisits a group of Britons every seven years, so far through age 49. Fewer have seen this look at how a hippie child raised in San Francisco in the 1960s, Sean Farrell, turned out.

Following Sean is an extension of filmmaker Ralph Arlyck's 15-minute student short Sean, which tracked the boy at age 4-1/2. The short made waves because the tot talked so frankly about the Haight-Asbury drug culture around him, declaring “I smoke grass” and describing speed-freaks passing through his parents' crash pad.

Here, Arlyck weaves his recollections and commentary together with his old and new footage. We also see Arlyck and his own family growing up on film, a surprising contrast to the time-warped hippie Farrells.

The adult Sean we meet is a 31-year-old electrician who seems remarkably grounded, considering his magic-bus childhood. Maybe it's as his older sister Debbie says, their childhood taught them what didn't work. Or maybe it's their card-carrying communist, union-organizing grandparents, who hung tough and gave their extended family stability. It's their values that Sean and his siblings seem to have absorbed. For all their adventurous beginnings, their lives are much like anyone else's.

The overall picture is a generational pendulum — children end up more like their grandparents because of their struggle to be different from their parents.

Arlyck captures the cycle of life with joy, but a somehow droll commonality as well. It's just real life, but that's the accomplishment: It's touching because the subjects and filmmaker let us into their unvarnished lives.

Bonus features include the original Sean film, outtakes that didn't fit the narrative but fill in the backstory, a public radio interview with Arlyck, the theatrical trailer, a filmmaker statement and his biography. — Holly J. Wagner

Funny Money
Street 3/27
Starz, Comedy, B.O. $0.003 million, $26.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Chevy Chase, Penelope Ann Miller, Armand Assante, Christopher McDonald, Robert Loggia, Alex Meneses, Kevin Sussman.

Funny Money is a comedy of errors in the cinematic tradition of Clue. It's based on a popular British play written by the master of the farce, Ray Cooney. Director Leslie Greif uses a few editing techniques, such as split screens, to inject some life into what otherwise would be a series of static dialogue pieces.

Chase, after an extended absence from leading roles, plays Henry, a manager at a wax-fruit factory who accidentally picks up the wrong briefcase on the subway. The movie is careful to establish that everyone in the city favors the same style of plain brown briefcase, just so we wouldn't think such a mix-up would be too much of a stretch.

Henry discovers his new briefcase contains $5 million. He's pretty sure criminals will come looking for their money, so formerly boring and predictable Henry decides on a whim to grab his wife and head to Europe to start a new life.

However, a local corrupt cop (Assante) thinks Henry is acting suspiciously, and wants a cut. Then Henry's friends and family start arriving for his birthday party. Another cop (Sussman of “Ugly Betty”) claims Henry is dead because his real briefcase was found next to the body of the criminal who was shot for losing the cash.

Henry wants to conceal the money, but things get out of hand quickly, and it's somewhat uncomfortable watching these characters dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes.

The film has some genuine laughs and a solid cast of recognizable character actors, including Miller (Carlito's Way) and McDonald (The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning).

What may surprise many viewers is that while the film takes place in New Jersey, it was shot in Romania. Apparently, it's cheaper to rebuild Hoboken abroad than to simply film there.

The behind-the-scenes stories in the extra features are almost more interesting than the movie. Chase at one point claims he was bitten by a dog and needed rabies shots. I think I'd rather see that movie. John Latchem

Mo'Nique: I Coulda Been Your Cellmate!
Street 4/3
Vivendi Visual, Comedy, $19.99 DVD, NR.

Mo'Nique is at her raunchy best in this sometimes hilarious stand-up performance filmed behind the walls of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.

Tough crowd? Not even close. The actress-comedienne has these female inmates practically eating out of her hand and roaring their approval the moment she hits the stage. Though her performance is frequently funny, this DVD also shows her soft side as she mingles with prisoners during some emotional scenes before the show.

One of Mo'Nique's best attributes is her ability to switch gears during her stand-up shows on a range of topics. She does so frequently in I Coulda Been Your Cellmate, holding court on a number of serious subjects, particularly ones that affect the African-American community, then quickly changing topics with humorous takes, and some particularly salacious sexual escapades. Mo'Nique also exhibits a passion for her work unsurpassed by many comics.

Best known for her portrayal of Nikki Parker on the UPN TV series “The Parkers,” which aired for five years before ending in 2004, Mo'Nique also has an extensive resume in feature films. Her work includes performances in Baby Boy, Two Can Play That Game, Soul Plane, Beerfest and Shadowboxer.

She also has had stints on “Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam,” BET's “Comic View,” and as host of “Showtime at the Apollo” — Benny Lopez

James Cagney: The Signature Collection
Street 4/24
Warner, Drama, $49.92 five-DVD set, Individual titles $19.97 each, NR.
Stars James Cagney, Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien, Doris Day, Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Gordon MacRae, Virginia Mayo, Ann Sheridan.

This package of one of Hollywood's most popular and unique actors is extremely entertaining, especially 1941's light offbeat romance The Bride Came C.O.D, a rare comedy for Cagney and his truly gorgeous co-star, a young fellow Warner contract player named Bette Davis.

Captains of the Clouds (1942), The Fighting 69th (1940), Torrid Zone (1940) and The West Point Story (1950) are solid ‘B' movies, and the charismatic Cagney gives fresh, energetic performances in all. You can't take your eyes off the screen's first “tell it like it is” personality, even in a vintage promo in which Cagney makes a sincere pitch to buy U.S. war bonds.

Torrid Zone has a fun-loving sense of adventure in the tropics that is made believable by Cagney's roguish performance as a soldier of fortune who takes charge of a banana plantation.

When Cagney isn't exchanging mock angry quips and snits with boss Pat O'Brien (who plays a priest in The Fighting 69th), he's trying to find time alone to deal with a sassy Ann Sheridan.

Like the sexy Davis, a high-society party girl in The Bride Came C.O.D., the independent card-shark Sheridan portrays gives Cagney plenty to work off of, and the result is a delightful battle in the war between the sexes.

But, it is the star quality and subtle acting skills of the straight-shooting Cagney that makes even the simplest of these plots plausible. It's as if the phrase “always imitated but never duplicated” was invented for Mr. Cagney alone.

Each of the discs offers a different “Warner Night at the Movies” — a weird and interesting collage of newsreels, cartoons, trailers and other tidbits.

These winning extras give the viewer a rare glimpse of life in small-town America decades ago, when families spent the evening in their local single-screen cinema. — Craig Modderno

Cobham Meets Bellson
Prebook 3/27; Street 4/10
V.I.E.W. Video, Music, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Billy Cobham, Louie Bellson.

Drummer Billy Cobham, although not quite Bellson's equal, still wails on the skins. His double-bass technique, too, puts even the legendary big-band leader to shame — well, at least as far as one can really put the mighty Bellson to shame with a drum set.

However, while those with some experience behind a set might be able to pick up on this, it's unlikely that a novice listener or player will find much to appreciate in the endless trading of solos between the two.

Drumming always will have its own primal appeal, and certainly Cobham and Bellson have enough talent and panache to draw in their share of average listeners.

The age of the drum solo, however, and of big bands centered around drummers, has come and gone, showing the general populace's growing distaste for overuse of percussion (or perhaps a dearth of talent).

Whatever the reason for percussion's diminished importance in modern music, it is still pertinent to the success of this title, which is little more than a showcase — albeit a monumentally impressive one — of two of history's most accomplished drummers.

It doesn't reach the highs of Rich Versus Roach, especially under the barrage of Cobham's constant, all-out attacks on the skins, but it has enough prolonged assaults of genius to appease any big-band fan or drumming enthusiast. — J.R. Wick

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