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Reviews: March 4

4 Mar, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Holiday

The Holiday
Street 3/13
Sony Pictures, Comedy, B.O. $63.2 million, $28.95 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13' for sexual content and some strong language.
Stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Edward Burns.

Nancy Meyers is a writer-director with an uncanny finger on the collective pulse of American women. Baby Boom, Father of the Bride and ,I>What Women Want are all funny explorations of the changing roles of women at home and at work.

The Holiday is another entry in that series. An appealing romantic comedy, The Holiday boasts a powerhouse cast and a charming premise along with Meyers' thoughts about how women strike balances between career and romance.

Two women, one in Los Angeles and one in England, find themselves alone as the holidays approach. When one locates the other on a house-swap Web site, they arrange to try on each other's lives for two weeks.

Once each is settled in the other's home — Winslet in a fabulous L.A. mansion with all the bells and whistles, Diaz in the coziest of cozy Surrey cottages deep in the English countryside — both realize that no matter how far you run, you can't get away from yourself.

Winslet is wonderfully engaging as a writer who's been settling for second best. Even though this role is a familiar one for Diaz, she convincingly creates a character who, although extremely capable in her professional life, is hopeless when it comes to love.

Extras on the disc are a little skimpy. Meyers delivers a really interesting voiceover commentary, and there is a fairly standard making-of featurette in which Meyers and the film's stars all become members of each other's fan clubs. — Anne Sherber

Fast Food Nation
Street 3/6
Fox, Comedy, B.O. $1 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for disturbing images, strong sexuality, language and drug content.
Stars Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Avril Lavigne, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis.

Unfairly criticized for being a fictionalized reinvention of Eric Schlosser's non-fiction bestseller, Fast Food Nation succeeds at establishing a connection between its audience and the evils of our fast-food culture in a way that would be impossible in a documentary.

There is something incredibly subversive about witnessing Kinnear's character, a top executive for Mickey's (the fictional fast-food chain at the center of the story), visit the chain's main research laboratory and give his approval to new chemical food additives as though they were press releases.

Try as a documentary filmmaker might, it would be virtually impossible to capture such a moment in reality — not only do people act differently on camera, but the many repulsive moments portrayed in the film also are not typically the type people reveal under any scrutiny whatsoever.

Fast Food Nation owes the majority of its impact to the strength of its performers; nearly every moment — down to the cameos by Hawke, Kristofferson and Willis — is close to pitch perfect.

However, the film is not without its failings. Writer-director Richard Linklater's script moves with his customary natural flow, but it leaves so many loose ends and wanders down so many avenues that most viewers are bound to experience a variety of frustrations.

Kinnear's character, for example, identified for the lion's share of the film as a main character, virtually disappears after a confrontation with Willis' character. Other such anomalies abound.

In its DVD incarnation, Fast Food Nation supplies the condiments we've come to expect. There's the ever-popular commentary (always enjoyable when Linklater is involved), the familiar behind-the-scenes featurette and, for an original taste, a series of flash-animation shorts.

The film might have been better served by a full-length expos? on certain elements discussed in Schlosser's book, but, likely, market research found that its impact on sales wouldn't be significant enough to merit the cost. — J.R. Wick

The Man Who Sued God
Street 3/13
BFS, Comedy, $24.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Billy Connolly, Judy Davis.

It's common man vs. deity in The Man Who Sued God, and despite the eye-opening premise and some brazen statements, it's mostly a calm and likable story.

Connolly plays Steve, a fisherman in Australia whose boat is struck by lightning and destroyed. Slightly injured but mostly serene and philosophical, Steve approaches his insurance company for reimbursement.

When told his insurance will not cover the loss because the lightning was an “Act of God” — and thus not covered under his policy — Steve loses his cool.

Without recourse and with his family and livelihood at stake, Steve decides to sue God — represented by an official religious consortium of all the world's churches. All Steve wants is the $150,000 it will take to replace his boat.

When the legal case begins earning massive media attention, everything changes, and the case becomes a class-action suit. This development throws everything into further chaos.

The Man Who Sued God, its title sounding like a moral battle, is instead a mostly lighthearted slap at the insurance business, and how its vagaries might possibly alter lives. It's Preston Sturges meet Frank Capra, if not quite as witty and fine-tuned.

With the superb Davis part of the cast as the journalist Steve befriends and relies on, there is plenty of good acting, and some decent comedy.

Despite the litigious title, The Man Who Sued God is mostly a kind-hearted, character-based story, avoiding real depth but floating nicely in its sea of amiable ideas. — Dan Bennett

Kettle of Fish
Street 3/6
Universal/Screen Media, Comedy, B.O. $0.007 million, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for brief sexuality.
Stars Matthew Modine, Gina Gershon.

Boy loves girl, boy likes lots of girls, boy loses girl, boy thinks he finds new girl, new girl is not sure she likes boy. Such is the way of things in Kettle of Fish, an entertaining screwball comedy.

Talented but struggling jazz saxophonist Mel (Modine) is a fortysomething man-boy who has trouble with commitment. Deciding he is too old to play the field any longer, Mel moves in with his sexy but whiny girlfriend and sublets his apartment to Ginger (Gershon), a bespectacled British biologist who specializes in amphibians.

Unfortunately, as Mel is trying to settle down he becomes obsessed with Diana, a beautiful bride at a wedding he is working at. The fact that she is married doesn't stop Mel from pursuing her. This act gets him thrown out by his girlfriend and forces him to move in with Ginger. Of course, with the two sharing the apartment, romantic complications ensue.

Ginger resists Mel, but his charm is a stark contrast to her geeky co-workers. Mel's eventual pursuit of Ginger takes a page from the screwball playbook.

Kettle of Fish is a very sweet date movie. The film is populated by recognizable actors, including Fisher Stevens and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Finch from the “American Pie” movies).

The movie is beautifully shot on location in New York City, and Modine and Gershon make a great couple. — Jonathan Rosenbloom

Street 3/13
Warner, Horror, $24.98 DVD, ‘R' for disturbing violent content, language and sexuality.
Stars Tom Cavanagh, Kathleen “Bird” York, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Katherine Cunningham-Eves.

For those who spend their lives worrying, perhaps the only way their lives will have meaning is to have their fear become real. That's the premise of the ironically named Sublime, the latest in Warner's “Raw Feed” direct-to-video series, and a worthy addition.

Director Tony Krantz describes it as “a thinking man's horror film,” and there's a lot more going on than can be expected from most DTV fare.

On his 40th birthday, George Grieves (Cavanagh) goes to the hospital to undergo a routine colonoscopy. Doctors mistakenly perform a sympathectomy, which sounds made up but Wikipedia assures me it exists (it's the removal of nerve clusters to cure, among other things, sweaty palms).

There are complications, and George contracts a flesh-eating bacteria and needs more dangerous surgeries to correct the problems. It's basically what happens when Dr. House isn't around to save the day.

In flashbacks, we see George's anxieties driven by his friends telling him that more people get sick inside of hospitals than out.

The “horror” is mostly psychological in nature. The film is effectively creepy because it plays on our own fears about health care. With George's mental state in question, large chunks of the film play out in a dreamlike trance.

All his fears start to manifest and are not limited to the medical realm. His wife may be cheating on him. His daughter exhibits lesbian tendencies. In separate scenes, the bedridden George is straddled by a hot, young nurse (Cunningham-Eves) and an angry black man (Jacobs).

Screenwriter Erik Jendresen says the film is an allegory for white middle-class guilt. Krantz takes it a step further and injects metaphor for the global war on terror. For example, George specifically was named as a dig at the current president.

Knowing this underlying subtext does explain a few scenes that seem plodding, extraneous or excessive.

Cavanagh, known for quirky goofball roles such as the TV series “Ed,” disappears in the role. Also notable are Kyle Gallner, who played Kid Flash on “Smallville,” and York, a “West Wing” guest star who earned an Oscar nomination for writing a song for 2005's Crash. She contributes three songs to this film. John Latchem

Street 3/6
Maverick, Horror, $16.98 DVD, Unrated.
Stars Rachel Miner, Taryn Manning, Joel Michaely.

This film begins with some nice drawings depicting a Daoist myth at the heart of the plot. In the legend, a young Chinese girl was killed by her father after getting pregnant out of wedlock, and took a magical jade amulet to her grave. Centuries later, an evil sorcerer has uncovered the amulet and is engaging in ritual sacrifices to attempt to harness its power.

Miner, best known for her work in Bully and for being the former Mrs. Macaulay Culkin, stars as the dour Mindy, who becomes obsessed with the legend while researching it for a college project. From there, Cult is basically a slasher film, as nubile college nymphettes are bumped off one-by-one with barely of hint of interest from the local police.

Leading off the film with the backstory proves to be a miscalculation because it puts the viewers ahead of the characters, which is never a good sign, and we keep waiting for them to catch up. This sets up the inevitable scene in which the characters discover the secret for themselves and end up explaining everything the audience already knew from the opening sequence.

Director Joe Knee and producer Stephen Fromkin offer a commentary in which they try to explain away a few plot holes, such as why a religious-studies class needs a periodic table of the elements in the room. But they mostly act like two guys kicking back to watch a cheesy horror movie, pointing out blatant mistakes in their own picture. They miss a few things, though, such as boom microphones that drift into the frame, or Miner's seeming ability never to blink throughout the movie.

Cult has some nice production values for a mega-low-budget indie, but just can't seem to escape its roots. The film has just enough star power in Manning and Miner to attract some curiosity before disappearing into the realm of late-night cable. John Latchem

Blood Trails
Street 3/13
Lionsgate, Horror, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for bloody
violence, language and some sexuality.
Stars Rebecca Palmer, Ben Price, Tom Frederic.

As far as horror films go, the set-up for Blood Trail is simple, yet original. This is the first mountain-bike horror movie I've ever experienced, and it was a good ride.

After bike-messenger Anne (Palmer) has a one-night stand with a stranger, Chris (Price), in the city, she escapes with her boyfriend Michael (Frederic) to the mountains to go riding. What starts off with beautiful mountain biking in the desolate woods quickly changes gears when Chris appears.

The film starts off slow but manages to keep your attention through quickly edited flashbacks, and picks up speed once the chase begins. Trapped in the middle of nowhere with only their bikes, the cat-and-mouse chase keeps the action flowing, with a number of grisly deaths along the way.

Writer-director Robert Krause, shooting on mini-DV, uses a variety of close-ups and zooms to give the viewer a you-are-there feeling. The film has very little dialogue, but the action and, later, the torture, keeps the tension high.

The bike sequences are original and offer at least one interesting death I'd never seen before. The whole experience seems to coast quickly, just like a ride down a large mountain.

The unknown cast brings a sense of realism. This is not a slasher film with an undead killer. Like Wolf Creek or High Tension, the killer who stalks Anne is a real person who can bleed real blood. That reality creates a heightened sense of dread, as if this were something that could happen to any woman biking in the woods.

Lionsgate is known for horror movies, but when it comes to straight-to-DVD releases, it's hit or miss. Blood Trails is an original horror movie that could have played on the big screen, but is definitely worth seeking out on DVD. — John Gaudiosi

Strange Circus
Street 3/6
TLA Releasing, Horror, $24.99 DVD, Unrated.
Stars Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Sion Sono's Strange Circus is a horror film in the truest sense, full of unspeakable happenings that end up being a bad memory you can't shake.

But Sono, director of the cult film Suicide Club, also has no sense of restraint. His style recalls similarly extreme directors, with the gore of Quentin Tarantino, the mind games of David Lynch and the sexual provocation of Pedro Almod?var, without the sense of humor.

The story follows Mitsuko, a young Japanese girl abused by her parents. Not only does her father abuse her sexually, he also forces her to sit in a cello case to watch him and her mother make love.

She narrates the events dryly, as if they weren't happening to her. Perhaps that's because they're not happening to her, per se, but rather to a character in a novel by mysterious, wheelchair-bound author Taeko. She writes stories full of violence and sexual deviance that readers, particularly young girls, eat up in en masse.

Taeko takes interest in a novice working for her literary agent, and the two form a strange, seemingly innate bond. The quiet young man carries a secret, and we're thrown back and forth between their developing relationship and the hideous stories written by the increasingly mad Taeko.

The film is beautifully shot, jolting between violence and soft images such as Mitsuko's hair falling around her, or a burlesque dancer's sequined dress. The score is aptly puzzling, ranging from accordion to jazzy piano.

For all its extremes, there's a compelling narrative underneath Strange Circus, one that ties together its lose ends in the end and proves shocking even if you see it coming.

But, Sono fails where some of his peers succeed, unfortunately, in having enough faith in his story to grab viewers' attention, instead burying it in a flurry of brutality, sexual deviance and theatrics.

For those who want to delve further into the film, a making-of featurette is included. Billy Gil

National Lampoon's Spring Break
Street 3/13
Vivendi Visual, Comedy, $26.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Nikki Ziering.

At first glance, the words “National Lampoon” and “documentary” might seem destined to never go together. Of course, a cinematic examination detailing the path of National Lampoon's journey from being a “high”-end counter-culture humor magazine in the 1970s to its de-evolution into a producer of increasingly mindless films might be quite interesting.

Always known for frequently tasteless material, the magazine peaked in popularity in 1974. But the brand name is indelibly linked to comedy history because it helped, in part, spawn the careers of “Saturday Night Live's” John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.

The Lampoon's film division grew from the magazine's stage and radio ventures and has a long history of producing low-brow, raunchy material that, unfortunately, peaked very early on with its first major release, the classic National Lampoon's Animal House, followed by the very enjoyable National Lampoon's Vacation, written by alumnus and future major player John Hughes.

The films consistently have dropped in quality and level of taste, but the brand name survives and retains some degree of loyalty among younger audiences who are most likely blissfully unaware of the history of the name.

With National Lampoon's Spring Break, the company both hits bottom and solidly bounces back with a wildly entertaining movie, ostensibly a mockumentary that chronicles the annual debauchery and delirious celebration of hedonism known as Spring Break.

Hosted by pin-up Ziering, the film cuts back and forth between National Lampoon-sponsored “events” in Cabo San Lucas, South Padre Island and, in the only scripted bits, segments in Las Vegas. The film achieves an odd balance, both compelling and repulsive at the same time, a mix of a slightly tamer “Girls Gone Wild” video and a considerably raunchier anthropological study worthy of another “national” magazine, National Geographic. — David Greenberg

Living Well With Montel
Prebook 3/6; Street 4/3
WEA, Special Interest, $49.95 each three-DVD set, NR.
Hosted by Montel Williams.

This new series of self-help DVDs consists of a half-hour pep talk from Williams and six empowerment seminars that raise some questions but don't provide all the answers.

The speakers — “Better Life Coaches” from the “Montel” daytime talk show — offer advice and recommendations, with a few plugs for books, Web sites or speaking engagements they may or may not have anything to do with. Of course, the real driver of change is the viewer.

“Who Owns the Definition of You?” is the core disc, featuring Williams discussing his life experiences as examples of some of the basic lessons he is trying to instill. The fundamental principle is that knowledge is power, thus paving the way for the specific lessons of the remaining programs.

Online buyers had their choice of the “Definition” disc by itself, or a boxed set of all seven discs. At retail, the series consists of three themed boxed sets of three discs each, with “Definition” included in each box.

Dollars & Sense, offering tips about financial and career improvement, includes “Finding Your Savage Number” with Terry Savage, and “The Success Principles” with “Chicken Soup for the Soul” co-creator Jack Canfield.

Building a Healthy Family includes Dr. Lynne Kenney's “Ten Steps to More Confident Parenting” and Prevention magazine's Chris Freytag's “Clean Eating for You and Your Family.”

Better Sex and Deeper Relationships includes Connie Podesta's “Life Would Be So Easy if It Weren't for Other People” and Dr. Hilda Hutcherson's riveting “A Woman's Guide to Better Sex.”

Some of the programs are more interesting than others simply because of the presenters. Podesta offers the best presentation, reducing relationships to the core personalities of those involved and offering simple observations in a humorous and effective way.

That the “Definition” disc is included in all three sets is bound to be annoying to anyone who buys more than one of the sets. Perhaps it would have been better to offer it individually at retail, as it is online, with separate programs offered a la carte, as two-packs or a seven-disc bundle.

A portion of sales benefits the Montel Williams MS Foundation, and each DVD set includes a donation card. John Latchem

Quick Take: Driven to DVD

America's car culture has been a national obsession since the early days of the combustion engine. Shout! Factory celebrates that legacy with Great Cars: The Television Series, a $44.98 six-DVD set.

This collection of episodes from the PBS documentary series dives into the history of some beloved automobile models, including the Corvette, Mustang, Porsche, Mercedes, Ferrari and BMW.

The programs combine archival footage with re-creations, and the discs include new featurettes and exclusive looks at concept cars. There's plenty for any car enthusiast to enjoy. John Latchem

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